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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On Rereading “This Immortal” by Roger Zelazny

I first read this book a few years ago when I was still living in Greece.  I had found an old paperback copy in an obscure used book store on one of my infrequent visits to the States.  At that time, I had been unable to find it through regular sales channels.  It had been out of print for a long time.  Now I think a new edition has been released.  I hope so.  Tempus fugit

I returned to the book so soon again because I have recently reread some of Zelazny’s shorter works and got a renewed taste for his style.  This is my favorite of the few novels of his that I have read.  That old copy with yellowed pages found its way back into my hands.

If I seem flippant in this review, it is because I am very ill, and dizzy, and lightheaded.  Though I had the annual flu shot a couple of months ago, it seems a non-vaccinating variety has caught up with me.  I haven’t been sick in years, not even a cold, so this is a singular occurrence.  I suppose, as such, I should make the most of it, and yet it is very uncomfortable.  Still, while reclining in bed unable to work, I polished off this Zelazny classic.  There’s a review of it in my essay collection “Reviews and Reflections on Books, Literature, and Writing” – but a few more things need to be said.  If I repeat myself, forgive me.  I have not refreshed my memory of the first review before writing this.

One thing I note about “This Immortal”, also known as “And Call Me Conrad”, is its brevity.  It is a very short novel, at least by modern standards.  Back then, in the 1960s, many novels were published at this shorter length.  It allowed the writers the opportunity to say so much and no more, to display an economy of expression that lent itself to elegance.  Strangely enough, it tied for the Hugo award with “Dune”, the first great sprawling volume of an endless series of great sprawling volumes of an endless Dune universe.  “This Immortal” stands alone.  It remains singularly unique, even today.  Writers need that freedom, a freedom that has been wrenched from them by traditional publishing, which says that readers demand a bloated, overflowing abundance of words.  A novel of this short length would have a hard time finding a publisher nowadays.  There would be the demand to stuff it full of fluff, to expand it, to make it a series.  Some concepts cannot be made into a series.  Some entities stand alone, and this novel is one of them.

Thank God for self-publishing.  Writers can write at any length they see fit, the right length to tell the story, without fear of approbation or censure.  I have read articles by indie authors proclaiming the need to write at such-and-such a length, or to wind out series, one volume after another, in order to achieve success.  This goes against everything of value in self-publishing.  Not to say that stories cannot carry on into series length if the subject matter demands it, but a self-limiting, self-created mold of a certain length only is ultimately nothing less than a coffin. The great gift indie authors have been given is freedom – freedom to write at short or long length, with the story dictating its pace, its style, its length, and not some suits in fancy offices who make their decisions based upon dictates by the number crunchers.

Anyway, that’s one nice thing about “This Immortal” – it’s just the right length, and Zelazny did not demean it by trying to write an ill-begotten sequel.

Another thing that I enjoyed this time around is that it is largely about Greece, and Greek mythology.  After all, I lived in Greece for over fifteen years, and I miss its blue skies and blue seas, the ancient flavor of its landscapes, and the joyful exuberance of its people.  I would gladly go back for an extended visit someday…

It was great fun rereading “This Immortal”, and if you have never read it, give it a try – you are in for a singular treat.

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Book Review: The Powers That Be by David Halberstam; Part Three: The Watergate Investigation

Young adults today may not even understand Watergate or its significance, but it was an amazing example of the media toppling an errant presidential administration. The arrest of burglars at the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C. in 1972 prompted an investigation that ultimately implicated many members of the White House staff and President Richard Nixon himself.  It was made famous by the book “All the President’s Men” by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and later by the Oscar-nominated movie of the same name starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.  I have not seen the movie or read the book, though I plan to do both after reading this fascinating account of the Watergate drama told through the perspective of the journalists who covered it. The Washington Post team of Woodward and Bernstein were the heroes and stars of Watergate, of course, but other papers such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times also got important scoops, and CBS news with Walter Cronkite brought the Washington Post’s continuing Watergate stories to widespread national exposure.  At first it was very much a singular effort by the Post, but as events unfolded and more and more corruption and cover-up became known, the media from all over the country became involved.  It was valiant media David meeting the goliath Nixon White House in an arena that encompassed the entire country.  What began as a simple burglary, buried under crusts of carefully crafted delusion, was chipped away little by little by media exposure until the entire sickly visage of the beast became apparent.

It would not be like this today, I realized as I read.  The media is much faster; exposés swiftly circumnavigate the globe in the era of the Internet.  What took many months of painstaking research in the face of governmental animosity would have blown up instantly nowadays.  This is the age of the common person as reporter, of quick upload and quick censure.  I have mixed feelings about whether or not such rapid exposure and approbation is a good thing, as sometimes one ugly but sensational detail can obscure balancing information.  But it is what it is, and public figures, reporters, writers, and anyone with a smart phone who uploads data and photos to the Internet have to deal with the present reality.  It often puts responsibility in the hands of those who are not capable of dealing with it, but it also provides freedom to those who need to expose genuine corruption.

Be that as it may, Halberstam, as usual, delves deep into the characters of the players in the Watergate game:  the reporters struggling for credibility while making reputation-shattering accusations against the government, the publishers faced with difficult decisions of on the one hand being accountable to the truth their employees have dug up and on the other hand serious threats of persecution and shutdown by a vengeful administration, the politicians and their staffs threatened with prosecutions and punishments for their criminal activity or complicity.  It went all the way to the president himself, who finally had to resign in disgrace.

This is an amazing story of investigation and eventual denouement as exciting as any contrived fictional thriller.  Halberstam is a master historian and journalist and got most of his information through years of interviews with people intimately involved in the Watergate conspiracy.  It is a fitting close to a superlative book on the rise of modern pre-Internet media.  Although media techniques and technology have changed to embrace personal computers and the Internet, there are many relevant lessons herein on how media evolved and how it continues to be used by those in power.

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What’s Gone Down and What’s Coming Up

I am starting to realize the uniqueness of every writer’s, indeed every person’s, walk in life.  No two literary careers are the same, thank God.  Otherwise you might as well simply be programmed virtually at birth and remain alive artificially while you go through the motions – like watching a film in which you are a participant but have no control over the plot.  Each life is unique, and there are endless choices daily, large and small, that determine our destinies.

This year has been a long, strange trip.  Two years ago I was in San Diego, having made the leap from Greece after spending thirty-five years abroad.  At the beginning of the summer of 2013 we had moved to Yakima, Washington for two primary reasons:  the rent and cost of living was cheaper and we were closer to relatives.  Little did we know that though on a map the distance was short, in reality a mountain range separated us from relatives in Seattle, and we hardly ever saw them.  We were iced and snowed in with bone-chilling winter weather.  But before that, right after we had arrived, I got word that my son living and teaching in New York had had a dreadful accident and torn three ligaments in his knee.  So my younger son and myself got plane tickets and went to him as fast as we could – he was still in the hospital awaiting emergency surgery – and spent most of the summer in his apartment in Brooklyn taking care of him and helping him convalesce.  From thence, it was back to Yakima, school for my youngest, writing work for me, other labors for the other two sons who were living with me.  And that winter – that god-awful cold, cold winter.  The isolation, too.  That was hard to take.  But we made it.  We survived.

Which brings us to 2014.  The year began in the midst of the deep snow of Yakima, icicles hanging from the eaves.  I was never warm there – never, for months on end.  But even worse was the sense of loneliness.  Several weeks ago I saw the movie “Interstellar” and I found myself sympathizing with the astronauts who had gone through a wormhole and were off in a far galaxy, hopelessly distant from loved ones.  There was nothing to do there – no writers’ organizations, no organized science fiction fans.  Don’t get me wrong – the people were friendly, at least in our experience, but there was no support whatsoever for my literary endeavors – no sympathetic souls.  Not that I wander around seeking sympathetic company.  A writer is, through the vicissitudes of his profession, alone most of the time.  But even a writer occasionally needs some sort of reinforcement.  There was nothing to keep us there.  Nothing.

So when I came into a couple of thousand dollars at the start of the year, I determined to hang onto it and make the move to Seattle, one way or the other, even if it was tough, even if rents were higher, which they inevitably were, even if we had to continue to struggle in our present situation.

Compounding the difficulty was the fact that I could not afford to make the trip to Seattle to house-hunt.  I couldn’t afford to stop working long enough, and I couldn’t afford the transportation costs.  So I had to do all the house hunting online and by phone from a distance.  I searched rental sites, e-mailed managers, made phone calls.  Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, I did have relatives there.  One of my sisters mentioned an apartment complex she had passed that appeared nice.  I looked it up.  It was right in the city, in a nice neighborhood, and the rent was reasonable by Seattle standards.  I e-mailed the manager; she was congenial and explained that she got hundreds of queries a month for apartments in the complex, and that if I wanted one I had to be persistent.  She encouraged me to keep in touch and gave me her private e-mail address.  I wrote her every day – note that: every day – and called her at least once a week.  This went on for months.  Every day she wrote back and apologized that nothing had come up.  And then one day she told me a two-bedroom apartment had become available; it seemed that some of the previous tenants had lit out and the remaining one couldn’t cover the rent.  I accepted it sight unseen, paid a deposit and money for background security checks.

In the middle of summer we made the move from Yakima to Seattle.  We rented a truck and loaded up all the furniture that had been donated to us by relatives and friends of relatives.  One of my brothers came to help us make the move.

It was a shot in the dark, but it turned out that the Seattle apartment, though rudimentary and in an old building, was adequate for our needs.

It was a relief to arrive in Seattle.  Although the rent, utilities, food, and miscellaneous expenses are all higher here, I have more peace that we can get by.  There are relatives around.  There is a literary community.  There are science fiction conventions, something I have never regularly attended but always wanted to and longed for from afar while in Greece.

So we spent the rest of the summer in Seattle and in the fall my twelve-year-old son enrolled in middle school.  And things have generally been going well.  I have been writing Internet articles to pay the bills.  It’s not the freelancing I want to do; I want to support myself and my family with my novels and stories and memoirs.  But it’s freelancing of a sort and that’s better than nothing.

In the midst of all this turmoil I have managed to stay productive.  Recently rather than forsake my own writing completely, in lieu of lying in bed with the insomnia with which I am frequently afflicted, I have stayed up and produced fiction with a minimum nightly word count.  This way in the last few months I have produced a novel, a novella, and a novelette.  My published works for 2014 are as follows:  one short story in an international anthology, four independently published short stories, one collection of dark fantasy short-shorts, two short collections of memoirs and essays, a novel, a full-length short story collection, and a collection of literary essays.  Somehow, in spite of everything, work got done.

And for the coming year of 2015?  I’ll keep working, keep producing.  As far as I know, we will continue to abide in Seattle.  A few interesting science fiction conventions are coming up that I plan to attend.  I am rethinking some of my sales strategies as far as my novels and short stories are concerned.  I am confident it will be a growth year.  As Dean Wesley Smith wisely points out on his blog, it is important to set goals that are within your power, not dependent on the decisions of others.  I can determine to produce work regularly at a certain number of words per day – unless something radically wrong like writer’s block or a family crisis ensues; but I cannot determine to sell a certain number of stories, because that is up to the decisions of others.  So I will persevere.  I will keep working.  I am hoping for a turnaround, a surge of sales that will give me more independence and allow me to focus more on the writing I want and need to do.  I have been too long in the game to expect overnight miracles, but I hope for progress.  At least that.  There’s no discharge in this war, as they say.  There’s only one ultimate culmination to the struggle.  May my hands be near a keyboard when I perish.

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