Book Review: The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss

This book is not only fascinating, exciting, surprising, adventurous, eye-opening, invigorating, and educating but it’s well-written too.  You’ve heard of Alexander Dumas, of course, the author who wrote “The Three Musketeers,” “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and other tales of adventure; well, this book is the true story of his father Alex Dumas’s adventures upon which so many of the younger Dumas’s stories are based.  Reiss dove into an incredible amount of research to dig up this tale, and it was worth the effort.

The novelist Dumas’s grandfather was an aristocratic Frenchman who moved to the French colony in the Caribbean that encompasses what is now called Haiti and took a black mistress.  Alex Dumas was their son, a dark-skinned mulatto, half white French and half black Haitian slave woman.  Although he was born free, he spent a brief time as a slave before his father brought him to France and gave him an aristocratic upbringing and education.  It was a narrow window through which Alex Dumas leapt, as in the European countries all around blacks were kept as slaves, but in revolutionary France, for a brief period of time, they were freed and given the equal rights of all French people.

As a young man, Alex Dumas received a generous allowance from his father as he pursued his education and enjoyed the frivolities of Paris.  There came a time, though, when he enlisted in the French army as a dragoon, a common foot soldier, though with his aristocratic background he could have had an officer’s commission.  He was tall, broad-shouldered, and strong, and had been trained as a swordsman at one of the finest academies in Paris, and he quickly excelled and received promotion after promotion.  During one of his tours of duty he met the white Frenchwoman who became his wife and the mother of Dumas the novelist.

The book discusses the political background of France at the time in some depth to explain the extraordinary opportunity Alex Dumas had to excel and rise in rank.  With his battle prowess and intelligence he was a natural leader and hero.  France wanted to export its revolution to other European lands and set its armies out on conquests.  Dumas led his troops to victory after victory and found himself eventually promoted to general at the head of an entire army.  During the Italian campaign he began to run afoul of a young ambitious Corsican upstart named Napoleon, but he conducted himself so brilliantly that even Napoleon was forced into begrudging praise.

The next expedition was Napoleon’s disastrous journey to Egypt.  Dumas again excelled and proved himself a worthy leader, but Napoleon’s fleet was destroyed and the Egyptian campaign turned into an expensive fiasco.  Dumas left Egypt with a few other officers, only to encounter a Mediterranean storm aboard a leaking vessel.  They were forced to make port in southern Italy, which was held by enemies, and Dumas was arrested and imprisoned for two years.  It was this experience that inspired his son to write about the fictional Count of Monte Cristo and his terrible ordeal in a forgotten dungeon.

When Dumas was finally freed, his vigorous health was broken and France had changed.  The revolution was over.  Napoleon had taken over as dictator and had begun to create all sorts of new laws curtailing the freedoms of blacks and mulattos.  Dumas and his wife and children found themselves poverty-stricken, unable to claim the pension that Dumas was due.  It was discovered that he was very ill, with cancer as the author of the book relates, and he died forgotten and penniless at the age of forty.  Although his widow petitioned his old military friends and colleagues, Napoleon himself had given instructions that nothing was to be done for his family.  The novelist Alexander Dumas, along with his mother and sibling, grew up in poverty, and he was unable to afford a secondary education, but his talent as a writer brought him wealth and international fame.

This is a true story as exciting as any historical novel you might possibly find.  A great read.  Highly recommended.

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An Encounter With the Amazon Book Store

There are advantages to living in Seattle.  The first ever brick-and-mortar physical Amazon bookstore opened here recently in the University Village shopping mall near the University of Washington, and late on a rainy Saturday morning I had a chance to go check it out.

It’s not large as bookstores go.  I’ve been in some Barnes & Noble stores, especially in New York, that dwarf it.  But the beautiful thing about it is, apart from some displays of e-reading devices, it has books – only books.  And the books are all displayed with the covers facing outward, making the book browsing experience wonderfully simple and relaxing.  The selection of several thousand titles is culled by Amazon from the millions that it sells online by sales and reviewers’ ratings, meaning that you’re getting some very good, tried and true selections indeed.

As you enter the store, the nonfiction is on the right and the fiction on the left.  These are broken down into subcategories such as biography, history, society, cookbooks, art, and so on for nonfiction and all the various genres in fiction.  Straight ahead in the back is a special children’s section with books arranged on shelves according to age categories.  Just outside of the children’s section to the left is a young adults section.  In the center of the store are the displays of Kindle and Kindle Fire devices of various sizes and grades, all turned on so that customers can try them out.  There are also an abundance of stools, benches, and chairs where customers can relax and peruse their finds, and the restrooms are spotlessly clean, practically gleaming.

The books don’t have prices, but there’s a good reason for this.  The prices are linked to the online Amazon store, so that you pay the exact same price for the book that you would if you bought it online.  There are scanning terminals located throughout the shop so you can scan the barcodes of the books you are interested in to find out how much you would pay for it.  The pricing system is brilliant and compelling.  Were I to go into any other physical bookstore, I would pay almost twice as much for the books I selected, or go out with half as many books, because I would pay full retail price.  This way I get the best of both worlds:  Amazon savings and the fun of browsing at a physical bookstore.  As I looked over the covers, I continually recognized well-known titles that I have meant to read but haven’t gotten around to yet.  Amazon’s method of selection ensures that the most desirable books are right there in your face.

Why would Amazon go to such trouble and expense?  After all, they already run the biggest bookstore in the world online without the trouble of maintaining a physical location.  Personally, I don’t think it’s some sort of all-encompassing leap from virtual to physical.  It’s an experiment, like much of what Amazon does.  If today’s crowd is any indication, it’s a great success.  The place was full of book browsers, and it’s likely to get even more popular as the holiday season approaches.  But that’s not the point.  As I said, Amazon doesn’t need to go physical to make money.

This is a science fictional idea, as if the virtual Amazon book world stretched forth and conceptualized itself in physical form.  It’s like an amusement park for book lovers, everything you always wanted in a bookstore:  easy browsing, great selection, and unbeatable prices.  I might also add:  clean environment, efficient organization, and friendly and abundant salespeople.

Whether Amazon has the intention of expanding the idea into other cities I don’t know.  If it does, and it selects the cities and locations wisely, the additional shops will probably also become immensely popular.  If it doesn’t, this singular store will become a magnet for book lovers whenever they are in the Pacific Northwest.

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After the Fireflood


My new novel “After the Fireflood” is available in print and electronic form here.

It’s a series of interrelated stories set in the future. Here’s what it’s about:

During the Fourth World War, the entire Earth is engulfed in a torrent of fire, transforming the landscape and obliterating all life.  Using terraforming, time travel, and other expediencies, human survivors from Moonbase and the outer colonies attempt to cope with their devastating loss, reconstruct the Earth’s surface, and reorganize Earth sociologically to ensure lasting peace, while others plot to claim the pristine reconstituted planet for their own purposes.

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Book Review: 21st Century Science Fiction Edited by David G. Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden

This is a good anthology.  It’s an effort to showcase the work of science fiction and fantasy writers who have made their mark on the field since the beginning of the 21st century, and for the most part it succeeds.

That’s not to say that all the stories are good.  Some are excellent, some are fairly good, some are merely passable, some are not really stories at all but merely info-dumps of ideas, and a few – one in particular – was so boring that though I was loathe to skip ahead (I almost never skip parts of books) I was crying out inside as I read, “Make it stop!  Oh, please, make it stop!”

The overall impression I get from the collection, though, is that it’s a solid, well-thought-out presentation of representative stories.  I not only had some great reading experiences with some of the tales, but I was able to catch overall trends of what has interested speculative writers in the last decade or so.

The first story, “Infinities,” by Vandana Singh, is superlative.  First published in India, it tells the story of a mathematician obsessed with number theories who uses them to achieve entry into an alternate universe.  “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi, which I had read before in another anthology, deals with the media obsession with non-news and contrived news, but it works because of the depth of the main characters.  “Erosion” by Ian Creasey tells of a crisis an augmented human goes through on Earth before his trip to a far interstellar colony. “Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear is the story of an unlikely relationship between a damaged war machine and a scavenging boy along a beach in a post apocalyptic world.  “Finisterra” by David Moles has unique, mind-boggling, and very cool alien life forms large enough for towns of humans and aliens to live on them flying high in the atmosphere on a giant planet.  These are just samples of some of the many absorbing stories in this extensive anthology.

The editors do a good job of introducing the authors and hinting at the themes of the stories without giving too much away in the introductions.

I think this type of collection is valuable, especially for libraries, to preserve stories that might otherwise lapse into obscurity after electronic or paper magazine distribution and to provide readers with a glimpse into the diversity of the wonderful world of science fiction.  I have libraries to thank for much of my early introduction to the science fiction field – and I was especially drawn to anthologies of shorter works.

I don’t think I’ve ever read an anthology of which all of the stories pleased me.  There were always some I liked more than others, some I was drawn to and would read over and over, and others that just didn’t connect with me.  Overall, though, I would say that this anthology as a whole works as an introduction to a number of important authors and a diverting piece of entertainment.  It hits more than it misses.  It was particularly valuable for me, as it was my first introduction to the work of many of these authors.  I admit that I tend to favor science fiction from back in the late sixties and early seventies – the so-called new wave era – as that is when I cut my teeth in the field both as a writer and as a reader.  It’s not just nostalgia, though.  I think there was a vibrancy back then that is missing in much of today’s work, a trend towards experimentation and expanding the limits of the genre.  I saw some daring work in this anthology, but not much.  It sticks mainly to classic themes.  That’s not a criticism, just an observation.  The field could stand some shaking up.  This anthology provides some tremors.  I’m waiting for the earthquake.

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Who’s My Enemy?

The tendency of human nature is to place blame when things go wrong, or even if things don’t go as right as you would like them to.  I’m not as successful as I’d like to be as a writer.  I produce good novels, stories, memoirs.  Therefore it must be someone else’s fault, right?  I fall into this pit more often than I’d like to admit, but recently I pondered the situation and came to some conclusions that helped me relax and gain better overall perspective.

First of all, are magazine and anthology editors my enemies?  After all, they reject my stories more often than I would sometimes care to admit.  Sometimes they don’t give any explanation either.  Sometimes one editor rejects a piece and then the next editor accepts it with glowing complements; so the first editor must be crazy, unintelligent, or sadistic, right?  Wrong.  Editors have many reasons for rejecting stories, and some of them have nothing to do with story quality.  They may reject them because the stories do not fit the theme or ambiance of the magazine or anthology, or because they received too many similarly-themed stories lately, or the story is good but it’s just not their particular cup of coffee or tea.  Editors are individuals with singular tastes and inclinations.  Just because an editor rejects your work doesn’t mean the work lacks merit.  That’s why it’s so important to keep stories on the market until they sell.  Perusing my submissions log, I see that it’s common for my stories to hit ten to twenty markets before selling.  I’ve also sold stories the first time out.  You just never know.  But editors are not my enemies; they are my allies.  When my stories fit their editorial guidelines, strike their fancies, and they have slots for them, they publish them, granting me both a paycheck and publicity.  Editors need writers just as writers need editors.  It’s a symbiotic relationship.

All right, I’ll let editors off the hook.  Maybe it’s the readers’ faults.  Are readers my enemies?  No, not at all.  I need readers and they need me too.  They crave good stories, and I need someone to read my stories.  Even those who post mediocre or poor reviews are not my enemies.  I’m a reader too, and I don’t appreciate everything I read; I have to admit that I usually avoid posting bad reviews unless as a warning or there’s something for others to learn from the situation, because as a writer I understand how discouraging bad reviews can be, but I’m not going to get all bent out of shape if someone says they don’t appreciate my work.  Writers and readers are in a human relationship, and not all relationships work if they are randomly matched.  They usually work best if people have something in common.  Readers are not always turned on by every writer’s work, even if it’s good work.  People make choices, have preferences.  One problem here is obscurity.  Many readers might appreciate my work if they could find it.  That’s not their fault.  Readers are not my enemies.  I need readers; they are who it’s all for.

Perhaps other writers are my enemies.  After all, how dare they become more successful than I am, often with much less effort.  They must be cheating in some way, right?  No.  In fact, I have found the writing community overwhelmingly supportive.  I have never heard of any other occupation where there is such a sense of camaraderie and willingness to assist newcomers in learning the ropes.  Almost all writers realize what a tough game it is and are willing to extend a helping hand.  They are not in competition with each other.  Especially with the advent of the self-publishing platform, there is room and opportunity enough for all.  Other writers are my friends and colleagues.

Then the enemy must be…  Myself.  It’s the logical conclusion to come to.  If it’s no one else’s fault, it must be mine.  I must be doing something wrong, or perhaps I have no talent or am not cut out for this.  Well, admittedly this one is the hardest to shake.  I know myself so well it’s easy for me to come up with all sorts of excuses, shortcomings, laziness, procrastinations, weaknesses, and deep dark sins that can justify my lack of success as a writer.  I think these ogres are what keep writers up at night and cause them to despair more than any others.  But honestly, I’m trying as hard as I can.  I began decades ago.  The reason I set out on the road in the 1970s was to find my voice as a writer.  I have continued learning and growing and producing through a lot of traumatic and trying experiences.  Sometimes I despair, yes, but I have never quit – at least since I took up the torch again about two decades ago after abandoning it for a while due to unavoidable life circumstances.  I do my best.  The scene in “Good Will Hunting” comes to mind when Robin Williams tells Matt Damon over and over again, “It’s not your fault.”  Writers, it’s not your fault that you’re not as successful as you planned or hoped – at least if you’ve been giving it your best shot.  You just have to continue to persevere in spite of outward circumstances, in spite of the odds.  As long as you keep writing, as long as you continue to strive for your goals until you attain them or die trying, you are a success.  After all, there’s no ultimate goal except to express ourselves.  We write because we must.  We can’t not write.  All the rest, the rejections, the acceptances, the fame, the money, whatever, are the fluff and filling, the stops along the way, the bright lights, the dark tunnels, the road signs; they are not the road itself.  As writers, we are not on journeys that have ultimate destinations; we are on the road forever.

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Book Review: Grumbles From the Grave by Robert A. Heinlein, Edited by Virginia Heinlein

I had never heard about this book before I came across it while browsing at the Seattle Friends of the Library book sale, but I had certainly heard of the author.  Even before I took a science fiction literature class during my year at Santa Clara University, decided I wanted to be a writer, and began avidly reading science fiction, I had heard of Heinlein.

My first encounter was through a boxed set of Heinlein novels that my maternal grandmother gave me one year for Christmas.  I don’t remember all the titles, but the terrific adventure of a community of people with a genetic predisposition towards longevity escaping into space “Methuselah’s Children” was one of them.  I don’t know if I’ve ever read it since then, but some of the exciting sequences are imprinted in my mind as freshly as when I read it as a young teen.  There was also the creepy horror alien invasion novel “The Puppet Masters,” which was scary enough to be memorable.  Yes, Heinlein had quite an impact on me at an early age.

But it was nothing compared to what happened when, as an older teen, I read “Stranger in a Strange Land.”  What an experience!  It was adventurous and awesome and mind-expanding and risqué and flamboyant and wonderful.  I have read it several times since, but I still have a vivid memory of how it felt to read parts of it for the first time.  It became one of my germinal coming-of-age books, fitting in as it did with the hippy counterculture in which I was becoming enmeshed.  It’s still one of my favorite novels of all time, although I prefer the shorter version which was the only one available for decades to the longer “uncut” version that was recently released.  I’ve already written about that elsewhere, so onward.

Heinlein died in 1988, and his wife Virginia published this book in 1989.  He had planned a book of his letters with this title while he was still alive, but never got around to creating it.

The letters are not chronological, but rather divided into sections according to subjects, such as his beginnings as a writer in the early pulps, his sales to slick magazines, his juvenile novels, his adult novels, writing, house building, traveling, and more.  The last two sections are devoted to the writing of “Stranger in a Strange Land” and the literary world’s reaction to it.

Although Heinlein refused to rewrite his work unless guided by an editor who had already bought it, he did a great deal of cutting and polishing before releasing his novels.  These letters though, are rough-edged, but that is not to say they are not erudite.  They are a fascinating behind the scenes look at his interactions with his agent, his editors, and others with whom he communicated professionally.  It never lags; it never bores.  Even the bits about his household and cats and intricacies of constructing his homes from scratch are interesting.

Every writer is different, of course.  To attempt to search for patterns in the lives of such an idiosyncratic group as writers is an exercise in crazy-making.  Some writers, like Jack London for example, struggle in poverty before achieving success, but with Heinlein it was different.  He sold a story in his first shot to John W. Campbell at Astounding Science Fiction back when it was the most prestigious science fiction market.  He subsequently sold almost everything he wrote, and so had little tolerance for self-failure, often threatening to quit writing if his terms were not met.  In that way I couldn’t much relate to him, as I have had to scrape and struggle every inch of the way for my own meager successes as a writer.  He made a lot of money off his work, and attracted swarms of devoted fans without trying to cultivate them.  In fact, he often got fed up with all the uninvited guests, obscure and famous, that continually appeared at his door, especially after the publication of “Stranger in a Strange Land.”  In his later years, burdened by one illness after another, he was forced to slow down, so that most of the correspondence in the book is from the 1960s and earlier.

Like I said, it’s a collection of letters so the prose is not great art, but I still recommend the book as a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes in the life of a great writer.

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On Rereading Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr.

James Tiptree Jr. has been one of my favorite short story writers for over forty years.  Lest anyone get confused when I refer to the author as “she” or “her,” James Tiptree Jr. was a pseudonym for Alice Sheldon, a reclusive ex-employee of the CIA, who managed to protect her privacy while making a huge multi-award-winning splash in the science fiction field back in the 1960s through 1980s until investigating fans found her out.

Some of her stories are among the best the field has ever produced, and I have read and reread them over the years, usually mingled in award anthologies with the works of other writers.  Placed in settings such as those, they shine as the most brilliant of jewels.  In a collection like this, one after the other, it’s almost an overdose.  That’s not to diminish the power, technical virtuosity, or emotional impact of the tales.  Let me explain.

Taken one by one, Tiptree’s stories are clearly magnificent.  All together, they seemed, to me at least, in the mood and situation in life I find myself at this moment, too much of the same thing.  Don’t get me wrong; the stories are not imitative of each other.  Each is wildly original.  What they share in common is their darkness and their theme, which after pondering it I summarize as the inevitability of failure.  Every one of the stories is dark; there are no happy endings.  Many are exercises in futility and despair.  Although many also share a feminist theme that was intensely controversial four decades ago, the desperation, angst, depression, and pain of the characters and situations go far beyond that single emphasis.  Tiptree posits, rather, the ultimate futility of all humankind, men and women, in story after story.  Her gift is that she had great grasp of story and so did it beautifully every time.

Perhaps it’s partly me and what I am going through right now.  I bought the book in Greece years ago and read it then, and I don’t remember the negativity of the stories affecting me so profoundly.  But now I feel sometimes I am hanging on the edge of a cliff myself, and I can’t constantly be reminded of my frailty and insignificance or I might lose my grip and fall.

Tiptree/Sheldon did.  Despite the success and acclaim and the awards, one night in 1987 she killed her husband and then herself with a shotgun.

One of the things that struck me as I read the book this time was that the recognition and the awards – all the things I confess I crave when I ponder my own lack of success as a writer – didn’t bring her happiness.  I know that sounds like a cliche, but it has a ring of validity.  Sometimes as I go through my struggles day by day and week by week and so on, I think about how everything would fall into place if I achieved recognition, awards, money, fame.  My life would be easier, for one thing.  I could allow myself to relax more.  I could ease off the nonfiction hack work and concentrate on the stories I really want to tell.  I could get a more comfortable place, buy a car, travel more.  I’d have more friends, or at least more acquaintances.  I’d go out more, do things, maybe even go on dates.  As it is now, I spend all my time struggling to survive.

But no.  There’s no guarantee such things would buy me happiness anymore than they did for poor Tiptree/Sheldon.  True, she put her pain on the page and her brilliant prose continues to bring happiness to many readers.  But for herself?

That’s why when it gets down to it, as I have learned through painful experience throughout my travels, the raising of my family, riding the rollercoaster of ups and downs that life inevitably brings, that one cannot count on any future event to procure some sort of mythical happiness.  Contentment, serenity, and joy can be found in the circumstances one is in at present, or they cannot be found at all ever.  The acceptance of a story by an editor, the winning of an award, the cashing of a big check may bring a momentary thrill, but if the life in between such peak moments is not full of significance as well, then there’s nothing but a huge crash after those high points.  The thing to do is to imbue life itself with relevance, make the living of life an art form of which the writing of stories is only a part.  Anything else leaves too many empty spaces.

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How the Film “All Is Lost” Reminds Me of My Writing Career

When I first began this website/blog I wrote a few essays on my favorite films, but early on I decided to steer clear of film reviews and focus on book reviews, memoirs, and thoughts on writing.  In writing about “All Is Lost” my intention is not to focus on the movie itself – which is amazing, by the way – but on how it made me reflect on my journey as a writer.

Coincidentally, Joe Konrath, who is a continuing proponent of luck as a significant factor in a writing career, just wrote a new blog post in which he sarcastically supposes what the alternative would be – that is, if luck played no role at all in writing success.  He proclaims that the only conclusion to come to for unsuccessful writers is that their writing sucks – an errant theory which history and current publishing trends do not support.  Many bestselling works are terrible, drawing readers not because of their quality but because of the celebrity status of the authors or the sensationalist appeal of the subject matter.  And many writers producing a significant volume of excellent work wait years before they find their readership.  Some novels now acclaimed as classics were failures during the lifetimes of the authors.  Sometimes people get lost at sea through no fault of their own.

“All Is Lost” has Robert Redford as an unnamed old man alone in a sailboat somewhere in the Indian Ocean.  His boat strikes a floating shipping container and springs a leak.  He attempts to repair it, but it breaks open again and takes on water when he is caught in a storm.  The sailboat eventually sinks and he is forced into a small life raft.  One strong impression in the film is his sense of isolation.  That’s how I felt when I got back into writing after a gap of almost two decades.  I had no one around who understood how I felt and no one I could go to for advice.  There were countless obstacles I had to overcome due to my location in Greece.  At first, I sent copies of my stories to my father in the States along with a list of magazines to submit them to.  When I heard about postal international reply coupons, I sent my stories to magazines and anthologies myself, but it was always a struggle to find coupons in Thessaloniki.  Some post offices didn’t even know what they were.  Only a few spots in the city had them.  Eventually they ran out, didn’t resupply, and I had to go downtown to the central office.  You can imagine my joy when editors began to accept electronic submissions.

There is almost no dialog in the film.  The character’s reactions to his predicament are all in expressions.  He never gives up and accepts his fate.  He keeps trying one thing after the other, using whatever is at hand to keep himself alive long enough to be rescued.  Besides repairing the gaping hole in the side of the boat, he pumps out the water the boat has taken on, hoists himself to the top of the mast to fix some wiring, rigs up a contraption to distill fresh water out of seawater, and uses a manual to learn how to plot his location with a sextant.  When he was trying all these various things I kept thinking of all the different things I have attempted to gain recognition, from writing in a wide range of genres at all different lengths, selling stories to magazines and anthologies, learning how to format and create covers for self-publishing, trying to publicize my work.

He finally drifts into the shipping lanes.  Huge cargo ships stacked with containers pass him but they don’t notice his flares.  That reminded me of so many instances of sending what I feel is some of my best work to editors only to be ignored.

In the end, the old man sees a light far off in the blackness of the ocean, but he has no remaining flares.  Desperately he lights a fire in a plastic container to try to attract the attention of whoever is out there.  It’s a last ditch effort, as he realizes that he is dying of thirst and starvation.  The fire spreads to the raft and engulfs it in flames; the old man is forced to leap overboard.  He finally despairs and drifts downward into the dark ocean, but at the last moment before he gulps in water, he looks up and glimpses the light he had seen approaching the burning raft.  With his last bit of strength he swims for the surface and clasps a hand that reaches out to him from the boat with the light.

I’ve written before how being a parent, a single parent at this point in my life, has stabilized me.  I think that if I were not responsible for others, I might be off somewhere, possibly homeless like my protagonist in my short story “Opting In,” or living in a van like my protagonist in “Opting Out” – two short stories that are related in theme but approach the situation in radically different ways.  As I watched the movie, I realized that if I were on my own I might set fire to my life raft, so to speak, by dropping everything else and writing until I made it or starved, in a last ditch effort to obtain recognition.  Not as a death wish, you understand, but as a sincere all-in attempt to succeed.

Writing good work is one thing, but a writer writes to be read by readers.  Sometimes I feel that despite my best efforts I am adrift in a dark ocean without a flare, with no way to signal to readers to give my works a try.  I have been trying for many years to stay afloat – and will continue to do so, of course; but it gets frustrating to say the least to shoot off flare after flare and have the ships sail on by without a glance.  It’s like one of the few bits of dialog in the film.  The old man opens his container of drinking water, takes a sip, and is forced to spit it out.  The entire jug has been contaminated with seawater.   All he can do is lean back in the raft and scream an expletive.

Somehow I thought becoming a writer would be easier.  I didn’t realize it would be such a struggle.  I thought that my talent gave me some sort of entitlement to recognition.  It didn’t turn out that way, at least not with me.  I’ve had to fight for every victory, and they’ve been few and far between.  At least I’m still alive, and still trying.  It often feels like I’m climbing straight up a cliff face when I’d prefer to be hiking up a gentle slope; I don’t have control over those circumstances.  Whatever the terrain, I must persevere.  It’s an ongoing process.  There’s no quick fix.  As the quote says that I’ve shared before:  Never despair, but if you do, fight on in spite of despair.

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Book Review: Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris

The five mentioned in the title are the five top directors working in Hollywood at the start of World War II:  Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler.  When the war started, each of them cut loose from their careers, joined the military, and used their talents to create documentaries for the soldiers going off to war and for the general public.  The book goes into what they were all doing before the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into the conflict, their various paths during the war years, and how their years in the military affected their lives and work in the postwar era.  It’s a fascinating history not only of the war itself but of how the substance of creative endeavors gave way to the exigencies of the time and trauma changed and shaped the artists.

Frank Capra, the creator of such feel-good comedy dramas such as “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and “Meet John Doe,” was the only one of the five who did not go into combat zones.  His main duty after he joined the Army was the creation of a series of documentaries called “Why We Fight.”  They were aimed at soldiers, meant to educate them about the history of the conflict they had joined and the enemies they faced.  Capra worked tirelessly on the films despite endless bureaucratic blockage.  The ones he managed to make were acclaimed, but he never finished the entire series before the war was over.

John Ford joined the Navy.  Some of the high points of his military career were the filming the Battle of Midway, during which he was wounded, and overseeing the filming of the D-Day invasion while stationed aboard ships off the coast and later on the beach.  After he went off on an alcoholic binge shortly after the invasion and was found dead drunk in a French village, he was sent back to the States.

John Huston was sent to the Aleutian Islands shortly after the Japanese occupied one of the tiny outermost islets to film the battle to retake the remote piece of American soil.  Later, he was sent to North Africa and to Europe.

William Wyler was attached to the Air Force and flew dangerous missions with bomber crews, eventually putting together one of the most famous documentaries of the war, the story of the twenty-fifth mission of the crew of the Memphis Belle.  Later while filming another documentary about fighter planes in Italy, the noise of the wind and the plane’s engine deafened him.  He was discharged as disabled and remained partially deaf for the rest of his life.

George Stevens remained with the allied troops in Europe longer than the others.  He filmed the liberation of Paris and the surrender of its Nazi overseer.  He continued on and crossed the border with the early troops into Germany and filmed the meet-up of the Americans and British with the Russian army.  Instead of going on to Berlin, though, he was ordered to accompany troops liberating the concentration camp at Dachau.  He filmed the crematoriums, the piles of bones, the ashes, the starved corpse-like living among the endless dead.  He put together two documentaries of the atrocities that were used as evidence during the Nazi trials at Nuremburg.

It’s not my intention to go into all the details of what each of the men went through; you can read the book to find that out – and I do recommend that you read it.  This is just a glimpse, a bird’s eye view.

Some of the most heart-wrenching passages deal with the directors after they went home, trying to deal with what they saw and went through and return to some semblance of a normal life.  Frank Capra, working independently, tried to revive his career with the comedy/drama/fantasy “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  Although it has since become a Christmas classic, at the time it failed to connect with audiences and he retired soon afterwards.  Ford built a men’s club for veterans and made mostly westerns after the war.  John Huston managed to re-launch his career and became a prolific, award-winning director.  William Wyler turned his personal trauma into art, expertly capturing the mood of returning veterans after the war with his Academy Award-winning film “The Best Years of Our Lives.”  Despite his hearing difficulties, he went on to make a number of other acclaimed films.  George Stevens took years to shake off the horrors he had witnessed at Dachau and get back to work.  When he did, he was no longer able to create the light-hearted comedies that had made his reputation before the war.  Instead, he turned to more somber themes such as that of “A Place in the Sun,” which won him a best director Oscar.

At first when I picked up this book and began to read, I thought it was a fairly light read about erstwhile Hollywood, but it soon became apparent that there was much more to it.  The writer skillfully and empathetically goes deep into the minds and lives of the directors and how the Second World War changed them and the rest of the world and reshaped their art forever.  Hollywood had been experiencing a boom of productivity and popularity before the war started, and these directors were at the top of their game.  The realities of the global conflict served as a pin that popped the Hollywood bubble, exposing all the dark nasty realities of the human spirit.  How the makers of movies responded influenced the popular media for decades to come.

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Book Review: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

I had forgotten the joys of perusing books in libraries, but my present inability to afford to buy books has brought it back.  I’ve found a number of quality books I would have never thought of reading, among them this classic short story collection.  The cover touts it as a twentieth anniversary edition, although the book was first published in 1990, which would make it twenty-five years old now.  I picked up a crisp, clean hardcover copy, newly acquired by the library and possibly never read before.  Nice.

Anyway, Tim O’Brien is an award-winning author known for his books on Vietnam, and I haven’t read too many of his works before.  I know that I read the short story “The Things They Carried” in some anthology years ago, but that’s about it.

This is a very good short story collection.  Some of the stories are superb and rank among the best short stories I have ever read.  I’ll get to those in a moment.  Generally, O’Brien writes in an autobiographical tone, even using his own name when he refers to himself as a first-person character.  It’s hard to know what’s fiction and what’s fact in the collection, and O’Brien alludes to that, intimating that it doesn’t matter.  He alternates between referring to himself as a middle-aged writer in the States looking back on the war, and himself as a foot soldier in the war along with his platoon buddies who supply the material for the stories.

Evidently O’Brien went to the war begrudgingly, having been drafted, and the fear and proximity to death and hellish things he saw and experienced changed him, of course, and writing about it got it out of his system.  Sort of.  It came to me that Vietnam was to O’Brien what the Klondike was to Jack London – a treasure trove of story – but the analogy is flawed.  London went to Klondike seeking adventure and story material.  O’Brien was dragged to Vietnam by the U.S. government.

The book brings out the insanity of the war, all right, from the perspective of those on the ground.  It’s a series of grotesque images and descriptions of how the GIs coped with their terror.  They were just young kids, after all, some of them still teens, when they were pulled away from their families and schools and girl friends and so on and thrust into combat.  Most of them were clueless as to why they were there.  The situation wasn’t as clear-cut as it was, say, during World War Two, when people were fighting for world freedom.  This was a civil war that sprang from a colonial war of liberation of the Vietnamese from the French, and the kids on the front lines had only the vaguest idea of the politics involved.

The stories themselves are dark, every one of them.  Considering their subject matter, there is really no alternative.  The Vietnam War was a dark period in the American consciousness.  Even in the movie “Good Morning Vietnam,” which has its moments of comedy, the darkness bleeds through.

“The Things They Carry” is the most celebrated and famous story in the collection.  It’s perhaps the most accomplished from a literary point of view, but I would not say it’s the best.  Two stories absolutely floored me with their brilliance, and another came close.  One was a first-person emotional piece called “On the Rainy River” in which a young man, purportedly O’Brien himself, about to be drafted, snaps, gets in his car, and drives for the Canadian border.  His conscience cannot allow him to participate in the war, so he has decided to flee.  Along the river that separates Canada from the United States he pulls into a fishing camp.  It’s off-season and the place is empty except for the owner, an old man over eighty years old.  The fleeing youth spends several days with the old man, who never attempts to confide in or argue with him, but his reassuring presence stabilizes the youth, who finally decides to go back and accept being drafted and sent off to war.  O’Brien makes it clear that he considers it the less honorable and more cowardly solution, but the protagonist does it mainly out of embarrassment.  He could never face his family and all those he knew if he didn’t go through with it.

The strongest story in the book for me, though, and what I consider an example of a perfectly executed short story, if there is such a thing, is “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.”  It’s dark as hell itself.  It gave me the shivers.  I couldn’t put it down.  A platoon is stationed on a remote outpost on a hill surrounded by jungle along with a few other troops and a group of Green Berets, who the other military personnel call “Greenies.”  The platoon members are talking about the women they left behind, and one of them says he’ll invite his girlfriend for a visit.  Lo and behold, weeks later, the seventeen-year-old girl shows up on a supply helicopter, young and cute and innocent.  At first it all seems idyllic, and the soldier and his sweetheart share a bunker, renew their relationship, and even get engaged.  The girl enjoys herself by swimming in the nearby river, taking short walks, and learning to shoot.  Gradually, though, the spirit of the war grips her and she begins to change.  She loses her innocence.  She goes out on patrol with the Greenies for days and weeks at a time.  She leaves her boyfriend and stays with the Greenies in their compound, where she takes to burning incense, chanting strange songs, and wearing a copper necklace laced with human tongues around her neck.  When her boyfriend tries to take her back, claiming that she doesn’t belong there, she tells him that he’s the one who doesn’t belong, that she has grown enamored of the land and loves the ecstasy and terror of patrolling through the Vietnamese countryside.  In the end, she disappears into the jungle and never returns, although those remaining at the outpost claim that they can sense her presence in the darkness when they go on patrol.  This story is amazingly effective in its descent into darkness.  It reminds me of Jack London stories such as “In a Far Country” and “The Red One,” both of which describe intruders succumbing to dark, haunting alien lands.  It also reminds me of the Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Run Through the Jungle,” which has a similar dark tone.

All in all, this is an excellent collection and O’Brien is a great writer.  It’s short, but it works at this length.  And O’Brien is spare with his words; for the most part, the prose is straightforward and free of embellishment, which is as it should be.  Recommended.

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