Book Review: Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller by Mary V. Dearborn

Although Henry Miller is notorious for the explicit sex in his novels, I was drawn to his work because of his literary exuberance, the celebration of his life despite his poverty and hard circumstances, and his use of his own life experiences in his writings.  I had started my own literary apprenticeship in science fiction and fantasy, but upon my discovery of Jack Kerouac, Jack London, and Henry Miller I became drawn more towards living raw life as a path to literary art.  I headed out on the road to break the stalemate stifling me as a writer, and as a result found my literary voice somewhere along the way.

My first Miller discovery was “Tropic of Cancer,” although I can’t remember how I came across it.  I remember that the vitality of the writing hit me like a thunderbolt, and over the next several years, I read most of Miller’s other work.  His writings do not bind the story of his life together, though.  They are like isolated snapshots that do not give the overall picture, so I have always been on the lookout for a good Miller biography.  In The Strand bookstore in New York I came across a memoir of Miller by the Hungarian photographer Brassai, who was an acquaintance of Miller’s in Paris in the 1930s, but Brassai’s book is not so much a biography as a series of personal reminiscences.  So when I recently came across “Happiest Man Alive” in a used bookstore in Seattle, I decided to give it a try.

Although this book did manage to give me a coherent picture of the chronological details of Henry Miller’s life, it is not the comprehensive biography I am looking for.

The first problem, before one even opens the book, is the abysmally poor cover.  The title is from the beginning of the book “Tropic of Cancer,” in which Miller exclaims, “I have no money, no resources, no hopes.  I am the happiest man alive.”  It was written in the spirit of literary exaggeration, as Miller was then going through an exceedingly dismal period of his life, but it referred to his awakening as a writer, the finding of his voice, the thrill of creativity.  It’s really a fine title to a book on Miller as a literary artist whose realistic and surrealistic autobiographical works shattered literary conventions of the era.  The drab cover, however, has a black and white picture of an aging Henry Miller in a white tee-shirt, with a slight paunch and a bemused or even sour expression.  It’s a portrait of anything but a happy man.  And the cover copy promises that the book is “studded with juicy tidbits” from Miller’s life.  Not a good sign at all.

I gave it a try anyway, and there are good sections in it, especially near the end, where the author describes Miller’s last years in Big Sur and Pacific Palisades, after he found in old age the recognition he had sought for so long.  Miller’s book on Big Sur does not supply the story of the entire time he was there, and by the time he lived in Pacific Palisades, finally relatively wealthy after the decades-long ban of his most important works in the United States, he had stopped writing significant works.

Before I mention specific problems with this biography, I want to make a general observation.  As I read along, the main problem, as I saw it, was that the writer did not really understand Miller’s writing, what it meant to him and what it did for him.  The writing is what ultimately freed him and gave him resurrection after his “Rosy Crucifixion.”  As for particulars, Miller generally had an unpleasant boyhood in New York, but rather than point out, as Miller himself does in his reminiscences of the era, how his boyhood in the streets shaped his later writings, the author indulges in sexual innuendo and her personal opinion on how his youthful experiences shaped his sexual attitudes.

Another huge gap in the biography is the almost total disregard the author has for the time Miller spent in Greece after he left France and before he returned to the States.  I expected a chapter at least, but the author dispenses with it in two pages.  She states that in her opinion the time in Greece was insignificant, although Miller claimed that it was one of the most important times of his life, that it brought him closure over certain aspects of his past, that it brought him a spiritual awakening and a sense of peace.  The book that came out of his Greek experience, “The Colossus of Maroussi,” is one of Miller’s most important works, and a book that many readers consider their favorite of all Miller’s books.

In the early stages of reading this book I wrote some notes about it.  I almost stopped reading and tossed it in the recycle bag, and in a way the notes kept me going and gave me an excuse and some material to write about later.  Here was a book portraying the so-called happiest man alive, and it was more akin to a dentist’s drill chewing into a raw nerve.  Instead of providing an invigorating experience, which Miller’s work always does, it was like an endless heap of misery.  It misses the point of why someone would want to read a biography of Henry Miller.  There are many memoirs and biographies of those who spent sordid times in this or that desolate city around the world.  The point is that the writing enabled him to rise above that.  A biographer should not just dish out raw facts – and especially not raw facts combined with random personal opinions – but rather seek to give a sense of the soul of the person behind those facts.  A person’s life is not just a string of statistics and occurrences; those are just the shell that masks the spirit, and it is the spirit, the real Henry Miller, the Miller one can discover in the finest passages of his prose – which, by the way, are usually not the overtly sexual ones – that readers of a Miller biography seek.

While reading this biography of Henry Miller I happened to have a chance to see the recent Oscar-winning movie “Birdman,” and the film gave me the perfect metaphor to illustrate what I wanted to say about this book.  In the film, an actor portrayed by Michael Keaton attempts to revive his career and do some serious artistic work by writing, directing, and acting in a Broadway play.  However, he is haunted by the spirit of the Birdman superhero character he portrayed in several films and became famous for.  There are surrealistic sequences in which the Birdman spirit speaks to him, he uses telekinesis to move objects, and he flies like a bird over the streets of New York.  In the end, and I’m sorry for the spoiler for those who haven’t seen the film but it’s imperative to my point, the actor is in a hospital room several floors above the street, he opens a window, the camera moves away to the door as his daughter enters the room.  She looks out the open window and down, as it appears that he has leapt to his death, but then she gazes upward, and smiles.  The implication is that he is really flying.

That’s what the author of this biography of Henry Miller fails to grasp.  Without his writing he was just another street urchin turned vagabond and beggar.  With his writing, he learned to fly.

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What My Blog Means To Me

I started a blog without a clear idea of what I was doing other than establishing a web presence, which I read that I should do as a writer.  Early on I established it as a mix of essays on writing and book reviews, because that’s what I wanted it to be.  I was advised that I should blog at least twice a week to establish an audience, but I soon found out I didn’t have time to write an essay so frequently in addition to all my other writing work, so I trimmed it back to once a week on weekends.  At first I was arbitrary about posting on Saturdays or Sundays, but I got into the habit of posting on Sundays, a habit I have kept for the last couple of years.

I find that my inner schedule-keeper prepares me for having an essay ready by the time Sunday comes.  If I have nothing ready by Saturday I can always come up with something by Sunday morning.

If I finish a book, I try to write the review the same day.  I want to react to what I have read while it is still fresh in my mind, before the reading of the next volume obscures my reaction to the one before.  And there always is a next volume, begun right after finishing the last one.  For me reading a book is as significant and profound an experience as taking a journey.  I would probably write of a journey, and so I find it very unusual not to write about the experience of reading or rereading a book.

It soon became apparent to me that my blog was much more than an advertisement for my novels, memoirs, and short stories, or a place filler so that someone who searched for information about me as a writer could find something.  The blog is another opportunity to speak out as a writer, another venue through which my words can be expressed, as valid a venue as Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Apple or Kobo or any of the other bookstores through which my works can be found.

Material from several of my books first found print on my blog.  “The Lost Poem” is a section from my memoir “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.”  Many, though not all, of the essays in “America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad” were first published on my blog.  My collection of essays on literature “Reviews and Reflections on Books, Literature, and Writing” is a compilation of essays that I first published on my blog.  I see no discrepancy with this.  You can read them here on my blog if you like for free, or you can have them all thematically compiled in my books for easy reading.  The “Reviews and Reflections” book, in fact, took a lot of work to assemble.  Not only did I compile the dozens of essays, sort them, proofread them again in order for clarity, coherence, and balance, but I also created an elaborate table of contents to accompany them so a reader could easily find particular subjects and stories.  In the print version the contents run to several pages, with each essay clearly delineated by subject and page number, and in the electronic version each listing in the contents section is hyperlinked to the matching article.

I can track daily how many people come to the blog and what pages they access.  When I first started my blog, I did not have many readers.  Days would pass when nobody would approach it.  Then, as I wrote more and more essays and posted them, the readership gradually increased.  It is still not what one would consider a popular blog.  In fact, it does not have any significant amount of steady readers.  Still I continue to put out my weekly entries.  Why?

For one thing, my persistence in continuing the blog comes from the same motivation that drives me to keep publishing books and stories when I have as yet not achieved any significant popular success.  Writing is my life’s work, my calling, my talent, that which I was put on this Earth to do.  As I have said before, they’ll have to pry the keyboard out of my cold dead hands.  The blog posts are ends in themselves, but I will also use many of them when I compile future books.  It’s all part of my ongoing legacy as a writer.

There have also been significant special moments, times when recognition of my efforts burst on me unexpectedly.  For instance, a few years ago after I wrote an appreciation of some of the great science fiction master writer Cordwainer Smith’s short stories, his daughter wrote to me saying how much she appreciated the essay.  On another occasion, after I had written reviews of a few of Henry Miller’s lesser-known books, someone who managed the website of the Henry Miller Memorial Library at Big Sur wrote to me and asked me to contribute a few short articles for the website.  I was honored to do so.

I know that some people handle their blogs flippantly and give the content no more consideration than the countless messages they text to their friends, but it has never been so with me.  As I said, I consider the blog a part of my legacy as a writer, and I give the blog posts the same care I give any other piece of work, whether a novel or short story or memoir or whatever.  I think the Internet is a wonderful tool for a writer.  I might post an essay here and nobody might read it.  But it is here, posted, for anyone to discover, on an ongoing basis.  I may not have much of a following now, but in the future when and if I do, whoever is interested in my work can come back and discover an entire library of material.  I wish I had had a blog and had been able to post to it back in my early travel days on the road in the mid-1970s, the days I write about in “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.”  I would have been able to record all the fascinating details of every experience instead of being forced to put it all together in hindsight.

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Book Review: Stranger in a Strange Land: The Original Uncut Version by Robert A. Heinlein

“Stranger in a Strange Land” is among those books that were life-changing and profound literary experiences when I was growing up.  It was a tremendously significant tradition-shattering revelation when I first read it, and coincided smoothly with the loose, iconoclastic hippy culture in which I soon afterwards became enmeshed.

I came upon the book almost by accident.  My maternal grandmother gave me a boxed set of Heinlein novels one Christmas.  I don’t think “Stranger in a Strange Land” was among them, but I was so impressed with Heinlein’s other works that I sought out more.  That’s when I came across this amazing and unique novel.  I remember then thinking that the novel fell more or less into two sections, one a rousing adventure and the other a more contemplative, albeit tongue-in-cheek look at contemporary inhibitions and morality.  I didn’t mind the radical nature of the social, psychological, and theological theories presented therein, because I was looking more and more at countercultural ideals and less at traditional society myself.  “Stranger in a Strange Land” became wildly popular in the sixties, influencing pop culture and even pop crime – most infamously in the case of Charles Manson and his murdering cronies.  It wasn’t the book’s fault, though.

Anyway, I have read the book several times since, but I think this is the first time I have read the uncut version.  I had no idea, in fact, that such a version existed.  I recently got it into my head that I’d like to read the book again – I can’t quite recall what brought it to my mind – and in perusing for a copy I came across this heavy, thick, uncut version at a big discount.  Why not? thought I.  More bang for the buck.  If the shorter version of the novel is great, then more of it must be even greater, right?

Well, not exactly.  As I said, in my early readings, the novel seemed to be divided into a first more adventurous half and a slower second half.  The thing is, the first half had always been my favorite, and I felt the novel bogged down in the late going.  This new version has 60,000 extra words, and it seems to me that most of them are in that first half, and they dilute the adventure, bog it down, take out the leanness of the narrative, give it a middle-aged spread.  Most of the extra wordage is Jubal Harshaw sitting down and expostulating with someone in a one-sided pseudo-conversation.  It just isn’t necessary.  It violates the old writer’s adage of show don’t tell.  Hell, I don’t care much about that rule myself.  I think it’s fine for characters to take off and expostulate and soliloquize and otherwise pontificate, and Jubal Harshaw is a great character, custom-made for delivering classic Heinlein viewpoint.  The problem is, there’s just too much of it.  The monolog goes on and on and the story suffers as a result.  I think, in fact, that the shorter version of “Stranger in a Strange Land” is better.

Don’t get me wrong.  This book is still great in its bloated form – in quality far beyond most other science fiction novels.  It remains a singular, unique, original piece of work even now, fifty-five years after it was first published.  And I would gladly read this version again if it was the only one around.

The book has its comedic aspect, and Heinlein obviously set out to shock.  The free sex and communal living was more radical when the book first saw print than it is now.  The cannibalism that Heinlein exaggerated from Christian ritual is wildly off-the-wall, and the book’s lengthy attempts to justify it are, in my mind at least, parts of the novel that miss the mark.  Still, although Heinlein wrote plenty of other first rate fiction, I think that this novel is probably his masterpiece, and a germinal piece of sixties literature.  Somehow it captured a bursting out, a freeing of the human spirit that would become evident by mid-decade.  I think part of the reason I come back to the novel is that it reminds me of what I sought in the sixties:  an alternative, a creative exuberance, a sense of liberation, an ideal of brotherhood for humankind.  Heinlein falls flat in some places:  his depiction of women as inferiors, the way some of his characters casually insult women, long sections of stilted dialog – but he captures the ambiance of an era, and for this readers are willing to forgive him his faults.

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The Lost Notebooks: The Birth of a Voice

When I set out on the road back in the mid 1970s it was a sprint for freedom but it was also born in the realization, or perhaps I should say the delusion, that until that point of my life I had nothing worthwhile to say as a writer.  That isn’t true, of course.  A writer can write anywhere, anytime, regardless of background or previous experience.  As Thoreau says, and I quote in “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search“:  “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.  Yet do this even till you can do better, and you may perhaps find some ‘Symmes’ Hole’ by which to get to the inside at last.”  That’s what I was searching for, the inside.  I was looking for a way to draw out all that was pent up inside.  I was a surgeon needing to lance a boil so all the pus would come out – except I was confident that when it finally burst, the result would be rainbows and not corpulence.

I traveled light, of course.  In my duffle bag I kept a sleeping bag, a toiletry kit with a few essential implements such as toothbrush, toothpaste, razor and so on, a few alternate items of clothing.  Eventually I stopped wearing underwear under my jeans; one less thing, thought I.  On hot days I packed my leather Navy flight jacket in the bag as well.  Besides these necessary things, I had others I considered no less essential:  a book to read, a notebook, and a pen.

The notebook I took on my first journey to Europe and then to the East was a lined notebook with a black and white patterned cardboard cover.  For week, months even, it remained buried in my bag unopened.  In fact, I can remember initiating entries when I was sitting on a beach in Goa, India.  I clearly remember that occasion.  I was probably sitting on the sand.  The sun was bright.  I wrote no more than a few paragraphs and then put the notebook aside again.  On another occasion I sat on a hillside outside Kathmandu, Nepal, and recounted some of what I had been observing in that singular city.  On yet another instance I wrote while far up in the Himalayas somewhere northwest of Pokhara, Nepal.  I had gone up there all alone, my duffle bag on my shoulder, without a guide, without a map, following unmarked trails upward.

It was not until long afterwards, while back on the road again on the west coast of the United States, that I realized what a treasure I had in that notebook.  Or perhaps notebooks.  There may have been two by then.  I realized, with a flash of revelation, that I had found my voice as a writer back there on that journey to the East, that I had written honest words wrung out of my stark experiences, that, in fact, the words did not get more pure than those I had ready within those pages.

After I realized that, I bought more notebooks – larger ones.  I began to write every chance I got.  I was still on the road, still on the cutting edge of life, so to speak, with experiences leaping out at me one after the other.  In my travels I would stop wherever I had somewhere comfortable enough to sit and start writing.  I would write as fast as I could get the pen to move.  I would pour out whatever I was going through in words, one after the other, and when I was done I would close the notebook and move on.  Jazz prose, I called it.  I was like a musician composing a melody, but I was doing it with words instead of music.  I discovered that the fountain I had been seeking, my own personal fountain of youth, the fountain I had equated with puss from a boil, was not corpulent at all; it was not diseased, not evil, not degenerate, not weak.  In fact, it was pure, vital, strong, and erupted from the essence of the creative force within humankind, the same urge that caused some to draw on walls and others, once there was alphabet to codify speech, to record their experiences.

During this time, as I said, I was on the road, and I experienced periods of intense euphoria, but also periods of intense loneliness.  And my duffle bag grew heavier as I filled one notebook after the other.

During an interlude in Seattle while staying at my mother’s house, I transcribed some of the material from the notebooks.  The writings fit neatly into sections of autobiographical prose poetry, some of which I sent off to literary magazines.  The notebooks and all the manuscript carbon copies I stored in a box in the basement of my mother’s house.

Those notebooks are lost.  I would love to have them again.  I would love to re-transcribe them with prologues and epilogues and bind the material into books.  A writer’s wealth is in words, and I lost a fortune when I lost those notebooks.  They served the purpose, however, of releasing my voice.  I don’t know if a writer could sit down and write, “Blah, blah, blah…” until something meaningful came and truth would suddenly emerge.  As for me, I deliberately flung myself into stark, dangerous, unique experiences to prod the eruption of words, so to speak.  I don’t think the kind of danger I went through is even a prerequisite, though.  Life is fraught with danger, turmoil, conflict, opposition, whether one deliberately seeks it or no.  If a writer is honest with himself or herself and others, the truth will out, as they say.  And even in fiction, whether as writers or readers, that’s what we seek for: truth.  Whether the writer speaks from gut or heart or head, whether the goal is sheer entertainment or the passing on of core, essential reality, we want to feel that sincerity.  We want the writer to take us along on the journey, to see and feel whatever is present in the writer’s inner landscape, to be transported to the alternate universe the writer has envisioned.

For even the journey I recount in “World Without Pain” is not the same journey I recounted in my lost notebooks.  They are distinct alternate universes, born out of different times and places.  The writer I was back in the 1970s writing the notebooks is not the same writer I was much later while living in Greece and writing “World Without Pain” in retrospect.  In one instance I was living through the experience, in the other I was recalling whatever I could of it.

The point?  Both experiences are valid, and I wish I had the words from both.  But whatever a writer writes, it comes from the writer’s current reality and cannot be the same words that would have been written by an alternate self decades in the past.  All a writer has is the present in which to put out whatever words he wishes to present to the world.  Each word that comes forth is an accumulation of all the education and experience a writer has acquired until that moment.  A voice is a voice.  It speaks.

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On Book Addiction, Time Magazine, and The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

I am addicted to books the way some people are addicted to cigarettes.  As soon as I finish one, I start the next – like lighting up a new cigarette off the smoldering butt of the last one.  To be able to accomplish this, I plan ahead.  Generally, I alternate between fiction and nonfiction.  I love both so much I don’t want to neglect one for the other.  So when I near the end of a nonfiction book, I scout around for a fiction book to replace it.

So it was recently when I was reading the final pages of “Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties” by Robert Stone.  I have a pile of unread books on a shelf next to my bed and I targeted a novel to read next.  But then…  I finished the nonfiction and laid it on my desk to review it, picked up the novel, and headed for one of my prime reading locations.

Now here I have to confess a major disagreement with Henry Miller.  I love his writing; he is a joy to read.  But in “The Books in My Life” he goes on page after page in a diatribe about why one should never read while sitting on the toilet.  That’s one of my favorite places to read.  It’s relaxing, which promotes the business at hand, and anyway, what the hell else am I going to do sitting there?  I get a significant amount of my reading done in the throne room.

Anyway, I read the back copy and the inside blurbs as I always do when I start on a fresh book.  I devour a book, every bit, leaving no scraps.  And I realized that this novel, a science fiction novel, had a plot with an element or two that bore some slight resemblance to a plot point or two of the very, very strange novel I am working on right now.  I’m not going to give you any details, because I never discuss details about works in progress, but suffice it to say that for now I decided to put this book aside, as I didn’t want it influencing the course I was taking in my own work.  I have no doubt the two novels are substantially different; I just didn’t want to be at all affected by the themes or ideas of others as I took the journey of discovery of writing my own book.

But then – gasp – this left a void.  I wasn’t sure what to read next.  I had other books, sure, but I always put a lot of thought into what I read; I don’t just grab something off the shelf.

In the meantime, I can’t just sit there doing nothing, so I grabbed the latest copy of Time Magazine.  Several months back the middle school my son attends was having a fund raising magazine subscription sale, so as a show of support I bought a subscription to Time.  I used to read it in Greece once in a while to keep up on certain news events after the fact, and I thought I might enjoy browsing through the issues once in a while.  Several of the cover stories seemed to be on interesting topics.  I read about the early history of Time Magazine recently in the brilliant “The Powers That Be” by David Halberstam, which deals with the era when the magazine was a shaping force in American politics and history.  Not any more, sad to say.  I found the articles boring and the magazine itself stale, redundant, anachronistic.

So I had to cast about quick for other reading material.

And I grabbed “Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia” by John Clute.  It’s a 1995 edition, a huge coffee table book loaded with pictures and text.  I came across it while attending the local Potlatch science fiction convention a few weekends ago.  It was a write-in auction item, and the opening bid was five dollars.  It’s worth a hell of a lot more than that, thought I, and wrote down my auction number.  Lo and behold, no one else bid on the item and it became mine.  A great bargain.  It’s chock full of the history of the field, and it focuses mainly on books and writers, which suits me just fine.  It’s not really the type of book that’s meant to be read cover to cover, but I spent a pleasant few days going through it, reading highlights, re-familiarizing myself with the history of the genre.

In the meantime, I ordered a book I wanted to read from Amazon.  One of my sons has an Amazon Prime membership which he can pass on to several family members, so I received the book posthaste with two-day shipping.  Just as I was finished perusing the encyclopedia, my next reading project arrived.  Crisis averted.

This reading addiction is something I have had for as long as I can remember, and something from which I have no desire to be cured.  Apart from possibly having a hand in my near-sightedness, it has done me well.  I have traveled far and wide in the world of books.  It reminds me of what the wonderful, beneficent father says in the film version of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake” – I can’t remember the quote exactly, but it was something to the effect that books allow you to travel the world without ever going out of your door.  Great movie, by the way.

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Book Review: Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties by Robert Stone

This is a re-read, actually.  I read this book several years ago, possibly around the time I was writing “The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen,” my novel about a hippy girl’s adventures in the sixties in a wilderness commune, Haight/Ashbury, and Woodstock.  The book came into my hands again when I bought a hardcover version of it for a buck or two at the Seattle Friends of the Library book sale.  Otherwise I might not have given it a second try.

I wanted to like this book.  I expected great things from it.  Robert Stone, after all, is a good writer.  I liked his novel “Dog Soldiers,” which won the National Book Award back in the mid-1970s.  I expected him to delve deeply into the hippy/drug era of the 1960s, of which he seemed to be an integral part.  Sadly, he does not.  He skims over the most important parts of the narrative:  his acquaintance with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, his involvement in the hippy scene in the San Francisco Bay area back in the early sixties before the Summer of Love, the writing of his first novel, “A Hall of Mirrors,” and his journey to Vietnam on a tourist visa in the early seventies in the last dark days of American involvement.

He touches on all these events, but they comprise just a small fraction of the narrative.  I have no problem with the time he takes to describe his other travels with his wife and kids and what he and his family were going through while germinal national and international events were transpiring around them, but I wish he would have said much more about the core realities that drew me to the book.  In the end, I felt I had been served a tray of hors d’oeuvres rather than a full meal.  I wanted a feast of sixties insight, and Stone fails to supply it.

What he gives is interesting enough.  He was, after all, right there with Kesey for part of his journey, he did go to Vietnam to see what was what, he did write some good books.  He just didn’t delve deeply enough into things.  He comes across, as a character in the memoir, as a casual observer, without emotion, not really giving a damn what happens one way or the other, casually downing all sorts of drugs without thought of consequence.  Something’s missing – the heart of the matter.

There’s a key of sorts in a quick comment he makes at one point, that the Summer of Love ruined everything.  He and his pals were having a great time until young people from all over the country came to the Bay Area and spoiled all the fun.

That, in fact, is the heart of the matter.  Why were these people drawn there?  What beacon shining out of the darkness caused them to leave the homes and mores and cultural prejudices of their parents and hit the road and head for San Francisco?  And how did this tumultuous cultural upheaval change America and the world forever?  It’s reflected in the music, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, many others.

It fascinated me, way back in the early seventies when I found myself at a university in the Bay Area in California, clueless as to what I was supposed to be doing there.  I was already into drugs – marijuana at least – and I quickly became acquainted with psychedelics – which were my downfall.  But through all the dark days I lived there, often stoned half out of my mind, the detritus of the cultural explosion of the sixties still clung to everything all around, and I looked through the wreckage for some sort of illumination, insight, guidance, strength of soul.

And that’s what all those young people sought back in the 1960s when they hit the road.  They didn’t all make it to San Francisco.  Many transferred the San Francisco experience to other cities.  It established some sort of rainbow-colored contrast to the stark black and red – black for evil and red for blood – reality of so many American young people coming home from Southeast Asia as physically and psychologically crippled wrecks or in boxes.

In the end, what was accomplished of lasting value?  I still don’t know.  That’s why I am drawn to literature and films that depict the era, and that’s why I explore the times in my own works such as the novels “The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen” and “Sunflower” and in a number of short stories.  The hippy era continues to fascinate me, even now, though I’m not really involved in it anymore and I haven’t done drugs for almost forty years.  If I take Stone’s book as a guidepost, the era was ephemeral and unimportant.  I think, rather, that Stone had something else in mind when he wrote this memoir and chose not to delve as deeply as he could have.  Honestly, I don’t know.  If I ever meet him, I’ll have to ask.

In the meantime, I would say that this book could have been one of the germinal works about the 1960s, but it is not.  It’s a shame, as I said, considering Stone’s involvement in the era, but it is what it is, no more and no less.  It’s readable, reasonably entertaining, and well though lightly written.  That’s it.

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Book Review: The Best of the Nebulas Edited by Ben Bova; Part Two: Elegance, Depth, Nastiness, Nostalgia

I left off the first part of this review on a cliffhanger:  in fact, I was right in the middle of reading Samuel Delaney’s excellent novelette “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” when I wrote it.  The Delaney story is superlative, but I have already read it so many times that it held few surprises.

Next up is “A Boy and His Dog” by Harlan Ellison.  A misleading title to be sure, the irony hiding the nastiness of the story itself.  I will never forget the first time I read this story.  Like many of Ellison’s stories, it packs a vicious punch at the end, and though it can be reread for aesthetic pleasure, that punch is never so harsh as when experienced the first time.  Back then, when it first came out, the story was unacceptable in mainstream magazines in the United States.  Ellison instead first published it in the avant-garde new wave British science fiction magazine “New Worlds,” in which Michael Moorcock was putting out lots of daring, cutting edge fiction by the likes of such writers as J.G. Ballard.  Once the story won the Nebula, of course, it achieved both fame and infamy and eventually inspired a full-length feature film of the same name.  The film is all right, but the story is much sharper.

“Slow Sculpture” by Theodore Sturgeon is an elegantly told piece about the relationship between a scientist and a woman whose cancer he cures.  Beautiful.

“Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” by James Tiptree, Jr., is a unique novella in the annals of science fiction.  Even without the gender angle it would be a masterfully told science fiction adventure, but Tiptree manages to weave a tale that convincingly demonstrates the redundancy of the masculine gender in a future world populated only by women.  The key word is convincingly.

“Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand” is a beautiful story of a woman who uses poisonous snakes in a healing ministry in a far desert of a post-apocalyptic world.  Atmospheric, intriguing, involving.

I first read “The Persistence of Vision” in a book I picked up in the Seattle Friends of the Library book sale, and I almost skipped it when I came across it again in this volume because I have read it so recently, but I’m glad I didn’t.  I liked it even more this time around.  It is one of those stories that strikes deep into the heart.  Unusual, thought-provoking.  A man comes across a commune of deaf and blind people in the middle of the New Mexican desert, stays with them, learns to communicate with them, and finds out that their interaction and existence is far more meaningful than the life he has lived until then.  What he thought of at first as handicaps turned out to be assets, and he discovers that his loneliness handicaps him worse than the deafness and blindness of those he has come to love.

One of my amazing discoveries in this volume is “Sandkings” by George R.R. Martin.  He wrote great fiction long before the “Game of Thrones” era.  This is a truly nasty, well-told science fiction horror story guaranteed to creep you out by the end.  I don’t remember ever reading this story before, and it is the type of story that is unforgettable.  I definitely remember getting hold of this volume sometime in the distant past.  Could it be for some reason I skipped over this tale?  I don’t know – but I know one thing:  although Martin is now known by most people exclusively for the “Game of Thrones” series, even if that series had never been written, he had already proved himself a great writer with such award-winning stories as “Sandkings,” “Portraits of His Children,” and others.

Finally, “Jeffty Is Five” by Harlan Ellison is a sweet, nostalgic, heartbreaking story that is obviously more than a little autobiographical if only for its yearning for the innocent sense of wonder that accompanies childhood.  The story reminds me of Ellison’s award-winning Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” in which Kirk and Spock go back in time to America during the Great Depression to rescue Dr. McCoy.  Both pieces obviously have great empathy for eras gone by.

Overall, this book is an awesome anthology.  Story for story, it’s difficult to think of many anthologies that boast such consistently high quality.

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Remembrances of Clarion West 1973

Contemplating the upcoming 2015 Potlatch science fiction convention, which is being held here in Seattle and is closely associated with Clarion West, calls to mind my experience at the 1973 Clarion West writer’s workshop.  The amazing thing to me is that I have so few memories of the six weeks I spent there.  More than forty years have passed now, but it has been like this for many years:  the memories broken, sporadic, disjointed, and there is so much missing.  I think part of the reason I remember so little was that I was so unprepared when I went in.  I was starting from ground zero.  Probably in the state of literary prowess (or lack of it) I was in back then, I would not be admitted to a modern Clarion.  The workshop was in its beginning years and was not as well known as it is now.  I had just recently realized that I wanted to become a writer, but I had no idea how to write.  I have told the story before, but for those who don’t know the background, it happened like this:

I had gone down from Seattle to Santa Clara University in California to attend college, and I had no idea what I was up to.  I ended up taking a lot of drugs and missing a lot of classes.  Let’s face it:  I was a late bloomer, unprepared for either university or Clarion.  Anyway, I attended a science fiction literature course and in the textbook was a story called “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison.  I had never heard of the story or the author, but it just floored me.  By the time I had finished it, there was nothing else in the world I wanted to do than become a writer.  Flash-forward about a year and a half or so I suppose (the entire time is vague to me), and I was back up in Seattle having totally failed at university, taking odd jobs, writing a few stories, and wondering what to do with myself.  I was still taking a fair amount of drugs and drinking a lot besides.  I really was a mess, if truth be told, still recovering from all the psychedelics I had done down south.

And lo and behold, I found out somehow, I can’t remember how, that Harlan Ellison himself was giving a reading and talk at nearby University of Washington.  By that time I had discovered the Nebula Awards volumes at the local library and had read more of his work and was a real fan.  The lecture was great.  Ellison was (and is) a great showman, and kept the audience entertained with in-your-face expostulations and anecdotes.  At the end, he had all the lights in the auditorium turned out except the reading light at the podium and read his new story, “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”, which had not yet appeared in print.  A sublime, thoroughly chilling piece of work, made even more effective by the live reading.  After the event was over, I found out that Ellison was there because he was teaching for a week at a six-week annual writing workshop, and the performance was at the conclusion of the week.

I determined then that no matter what, I would attend the next year’s workshop.  And I did.

It seems strange to me that looking back, I not only remember few of the other participants, but I don’t even remember all the teachers.  I remember Harlan Ellison’s week mainly because of his reaction to the story I submitted.  I admit that it was a totally lame effort I wrote for no other reason than to try to impress him.  His only reaction was to wrinkle his brow and say, “What is this?”  His indifference was well-justified.  I had no idea how to write a story.  It reminds me of a Family Guy episode in which a mob approaches the Griffin house and a scrawny, weak-looking man steps out and throws a rock that doesn’t travel more than a foot or so before falling to the ground in front of him.  In justification he says, “Hey, I never throwed anything before.”  That was my problem.  I had never done it before.  I had no idea what to say or how to say it.  I had no voice as a writer, and I never did have one until I forsook everything I had known and struck out on the road into the unknown, traversing continents and in the process finding out not only who I was as a person but my voice as a writer.

Terry Carr was one of the teachers, and I remember him mainly because of the way he expressed his disappointment that “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World” by Harlan Ellison had won the Hugo award for best short story instead of his own story, “The Dance of the Changer and the Three”.  I remember Peter Beagle because he read from his then-new novel “The Last Unicorn” and explained that when he was writing he seldom had any idea where he was going; sometimes he went forward sentence by sentence without knowing where the story would take him.

A few of us students were drinking buddies, and we would frequently head off to a tavern in the University District that I knew would serve minors (I was only twenty at the time, and others were underage as well) and we’d swill beer and talk shop.  Among them was Paul Bond, who became one of my closest post-Clarion friends, a tall, slim young man with a heart condition.  He had already had open heart surgery at the time of the workshop and later died when he was still quite young.  There was also Russell Bates, a Kiowa Indian who after the workshop wrote the Star Trek animated series episode “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth” with another workshop participant, David Wise – at the time the only Star Trek episode to win an Emmy award.  And there was Bubbles Broxon, whose pen name was Mildred Downey Broxon, whose houseboat on Lake Union Seattle area participants frequented after the workshop to continue monthly writing critiques.

Despite the fact that I received little direct benefit from the workshop in terms of writing finesse or story sales, I count it a germinal event in my life.  It put me in proximity to other writers, which was important.  It helped me realize there were other strange souls in the universe who considered writing the most important of all activities on Earth.  It put me in touch with other writers, some of whom I remained in contact with for years.

More than forty years have passed since then, and I approach Potlatch with both anticipation and trepidation.  I am not the same person, though, who attended that workshop back in 1973.  I lived overseas for thirty-five years, gaining perspective and (I hope) a modicum of wisdom.  I am a father of five sons, and parenting, if nothing else, is a process of maturation, as you learn to give up just about everything to prioritize the well-being of the children.  And I have written and published fifteen books and a lot of short stories.  Tempus fugit, indeed.

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Book Review: The Best of the Nebulas Edited by Ben Bova; Part One: Nostalgia, Excellence, Literature, and Freedom

The Nebulas, of course, are the awards given by the Science Fiction Writers of America for the best science fiction and fantasy stories of the year.  They were initiated in 1966 just after the founding of SFWA with the best stories written in 1965.  I stumbled upon the Nebula volumes around 1971 or 1972, just after I had taken a science fiction literature course at Santa Clara University in California and had come to two conclusions:  first, that I had to become a writer and there was no other calling or occupation on the Earth for me; second, that science fiction truly was a splendid form of literature.

About twenty years after they’d been giving out Nebulas, SFWA members decided it would be a great idea to put out a volume of the best Nebula Award winning stories.  Maybe they needed the money, I don’t know, or maybe they wanted to contribute a singular volume to the literature of the speculative fiction field.  All in all, it did turn out to be a great idea.  After all, how could you go wrong presenting not just the best stories of the year, but the best of those stories for the past few decades?

I read this book long, long ago, and I can’t really remember what brought it to my mind again.  Wait – yes I do.  I had been reading the short story volume of “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” – another brain child of SFWA – a brilliant collection of the best science fiction short stories (as selected by member vote) from the time before the Nebula Awards began.  So I thought of this other book that I had read so long ago, and I searched for it on Amazon, and at first I could find no mention, no inkling of it.  I had to keep adjusting the search criteria, playing with variations of the name because I couldn’t remember it exactly.  The reason it was so difficult is because the book is long out of print.  Why, I don’t know.  It’s packed with some of the greatest science fiction ever.

The members of SFWA chose the stories by ballot from among the Nebula winners in the short story, novelette, and novella categories.  Unlike the Hall of Fame entries, they went only by story consensus and allowed multiple entries by the same author.  So in “The Best of the Nebulas” there are three stories by Harlan Ellison and two by Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, and James Tiptree, Jr.  There’s a feast of great writing here.  You can’t go wrong with this book if you love the speculative fiction genre.  There’s only one story I’ve read so far (slightly over halfway through the book) that I didn’t much care for the first time I read it and I don’t much care for now.  But out of respect for the author and the Nebulas in general I’m not going to tell you which one it is.

What particularly struck my fancy this time around?  I had just read Roger Zelazny’s powerful novelette “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” in another volume I recently acquired, but I read it again because it is so magnificent, and it didn’t disappoint.  It was great fun reading Harlan Ellison’s “Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman” after so long.  “Aye, and Gomorrah…” by Samuel Delany is a jewel of a story, with so much depth in an amazing economy of words.  “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ seems like such a simple vignette, but it was bold and challenging when it was first written and still packs a powerful impact.  “Dragonrider” by Anne McCaffrey, one of the first of the now-famous dragonriders of Pern tales, starts off slowly and causes a bit of confusion early on with a plethora of quickly-introduced characters, but it builds into a deeply touching tale of high adventure involving a far planet, a lethal enemy, dragonriders, and time travel.

Reading this book took me back to my early enthrallment with science fiction.  I was deep into the genre, both reading it and writing it.  Then I drifted away into more so-called “mainstream” literature such as “On the Road” and “Tropic of Cancer” – radical works, they were, and I needed them to burst out of my rut and get out on the road.

Ultimately, I hate genre labels, and I read (and write) widely across various forms of literature now.  I access various interesting writer’s forums and follow discussions (though I seldom participate) and I am struck sometimes by writers who insist that to make the most money you have to stick to one genre, one rut.  There are two major flaws in this logic.  First of all, that writers write only for the money.  Don’t get me wrong – I acknowledge that of course we need money and I need a hell of a lot more of it – but…  Well, let me give you an example.  I am in the midst of reading Samuel Delaney’s brilliant story “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” and in this story he writes of a group of artists called the singers.  They contemplate existence and then they sing about it.  Their singing is a reaction to how the perceived universe touches their souls.  That’s what writing is and that’s what writers should be doing.  They should be making money, yes, but that’s not the main point.  The other flaw in the logic sited above is the notion that as some sort of rule – as if there should be such rules – writers should stick to one genre, one type of writing.  That is, in a word, ludicrous.  Writers should roam far and wide in their art, and many of the best writers do so, turning out novels, short stories, poems, essays, memoirs and so on.  Maybe that’s why I’m not rich yet.  So be it.  I can live with that.  If I can have only wealth or freedom, I’ll take the freedom.  If I can have both, all the better.

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Book Review: 1776 by David McCullough

Too often we associate history with obligatory lessons at school:  boring, petty, meaningless.  We memorize names and dates without affixing humanity to them, without realizing the inexorable bond that links us to those people and events in the past.  Not only were they human, as we are, and their deeds reflect their humanity, from which we can learn to improve our human attributes, but the decisions they made and the deeds they did affected us and made us what we are now.  Nobody was conceived and raised in a vacuum; we are bound to history just as we are bound to our human physical limitations and the elemental conditions of our environment.  We can no more escape our history than we can escape the Earth’s environment without artificial protection.

This is a hell of a book.  It’s well written and fascinating.  Although I like reading history, my main era of interest is the twentieth century, particularly the Vietnam War and the period of upheaval from the 1950s through the 1970s, which is when I grew up in a strange, schizophrenic, evolving America.  But a couple of circumstances caused me to pick up this book.  First of all, a number of articles I researched and wrote about the colonial era and the Revolutionary War piqued my interest.  Second, I found a pristine, almost-free copy of “1776” at the Seattle Friends of the Library book sale and couldn’t pass it up.

I can’t exactly say that this book reads like a novel, because it is too full of excerpts from journals and letters from people who lived through the action, an approach a novel rarely takes.  But it was as exciting and fascinating as a novel.

Every American knows the basic story, of course, from history lessons in high school and grade school.  We’ve all seen the iconic paintings and heard some of the famous quotes.  But this book goes far, far deeper into the heart of what really happened.  It has a three-act structure, just like a model screenplay – and it would make a hell of an epic movie, by the way.  The first part deals with the siege of Boston, the Colonial Army’s capture of the Dorchester Heights, and the abandonment of the city by the British.  The second part talks of the battle of Long Island and New York, a rousing victory for the British and a stunning defeat for the colonists, forcing the American army to retreat south to New Jersey.  The third part addresses the dejected, tattered state of the army as it flees southward and crosses the Delaware into Pennsylvania, only to return to New Jersey on Christmas Day of 1776 for two stunning victories against the British at Trenton and Princeton.

I never really realized what the colonists were up against in the war against the British, but McCullough makes it clear in gut-wrenching detail.  They were farmers.  Kids as young as fourteen, men with wives and children, old folks left their fields and plows to enlist in the Continental Army.  Some had no firearms, no tents, no boots, no uniforms, no winter clothing.  They slept in the rain and mud; they marched through icy fields with bare feet leaving blood trails behind them.  Sometimes provisions were inadequate; many got fed up, deserted, and went home or over to the enemy.  Disease struck down as many as a quarter of the troops at a time.  The fact that any of them kept going at all, that Americans are now singing “The Star Spangled Banner” instead of “God Save the Queen”, is amazing.

And the most amazing character of all is that of General George Washington, who volunteered to leave his comfortable mansion at Mount Vernon to lead the ragtag mob.  The book delves deep into his character.  He was courageous, persistent, resolute, indefatigable, although he was also sometimes depressed and indecisive.  He was the glue that held the army and the fight for independence together.  Although he despaired in the darkest moments, it never crossed his mind to give up.  He inspired loyalty in such talented and courageous men as Nathaniel Greene and Henry Knox, heroic patriots themselves, who followed him the full duration of the Revolutionary War.

Fascinating details abound.  For example, one of the keys to the victory during the siege of Boston was acquiring the heavy artillery from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain.  To get them to Boston, Henry Knox and a team of men had to carry them through rugged wilderness in the depths of winter by boat, sled, and wagon for weeks, a heroic effort that enabled the Americans to surprise the British and cause them to flee.  Another vignette tells of an artillery man shot down and killed in the battle for New York.  His wife stepped up to take his place, one of the few women to see action during the Revolutionary War, and held her ground until she became too wounded to continue.

I recommend this book for both entertainment and edification.  It sheds the light of reality on historical stories that have entered the realm of legend.  When you read what America’s forefathers went through during those dark times, it makes you marvel that they had the grit to endure it and see it through to the end.

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