Book Review: A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinkster

The novel A Song for a New Day, which recently won the 2019 Nebula Award for best novel, has received significant attention for its uncannily accurate prediction of radical social distancing following a series of plagues and terrorist attacks. What’s surprising is that the novel was written and published before any glimpse of the current pandemic. In Pinkster’s near-future dystopia, legally mandated distancing and isolation has continued long after the epidemics and social disturbances that brought it about have ceased due to ongoing paranoia and the efforts of massive companies that have sprung up in disaster’s wake to continue to reap profits from customers trapped in their homes.

Pinkster’s prophetic insight is interesting, but it is not the novel’s most important theme. The main character, Luce, is a rock guitarist and singer. Enforced isolation has caused all legitimate music venues to close. To find audiences, she is forced to go underground, first by setting up her own venue with illegal live music, and later, when that gets busted, by going on the road and finding places to play wherever she can.

A parallel story concerns a woman named Rosemary who is a talent recruiter for the top online virtual music site. For much of the book, Rosemary comes across as a blend of blundering/naive and deceitful/manipulative, until at the end she somewhat redeems herself by making a few wise decisions.

The main story, however, belongs to Luce and her motivation to write her songs and play her music no matter what, even if it means defying massive music conglomerates and unjust laws. Her determination to persevere as a musician, even if her audiences consist of only a few appreciative people, brings to mind the contemporary state of artistic endeavors, pandemic or no pandemic.

I can’t really speak about the musical field; I haven’t picked up a guitar or written a song in decades. However, I am familiar with the current state of publishing, and I know that there are also parallels in the musical business.

In short, the mainstream publishing world is run by massive conglomerates whose primary purpose is, of course, to increase profits. The artistic value of what is published holds far less importance. I’m not saying that good work doesn’t get published by the big outfits, but rather that a lot of excellent writing is ignored in favor of whatever faddish books will become popular and turn a profit.

In the past, writers (and musicians) had no recourse other than to keep pounding on the doors of the publishing houses until they were let in – or not. Now, though, there are alternatives. Numerous platforms are available for self-publishing, and many self-published authors find audiences and make good livings. Other writers find fulfillment in blogging. Like Luce throughout most of the book, the main point is to share the music, or in the case of writers, to share the words. Making money is a secondary consideration. Traditional publishers have sometimes picked up the work of self-published writers and distributed it through mainstream channels, but that’s not the point either. The point is to play music or to write stories or do whatever else you do as a means of artistic expression, and then to put it out there so that people can find it.

My favorite part of A Song for a New Day is part three, when Luce buys a secondhand van and takes off on the road. I can empathize with that; I’m a road person myself. I often daydream about getting back on the road, and my series about The Senescent Nomad is a sort of wish fulfillment because I can’t under the present circumstances do it for real. I could be wrong, but often while I was reading I felt that Pinkster was drawing on personal experiences concerning circumstances and especially emotions. If not verity, the book at least has verisimilitude. Not often has the publishing of a novel been so timely.

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On Rereading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

I first read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test back in the early 1970s when I was dabbling in the psychedelic culture from the perspective of a university in the San Francisco Bay Area. Taking psychedelics and smoking pot was almost all I did in those days, and my mind got really messed up. When I read about the exploits of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and how flippantly they dropped acid, played tricks on one another, palled around with the Hell’s Angels, stood up to cops, and went back and forth across the United States in a bright Day-Glo bus bursting with all the colors of the rainbow, I felt as if I was reading a Marvel comic for all the reality it afforded. I could barely pull my mind together after taking acid in that fairly conservative California university; I couldn’t imagine doing it under the circumstances that Wolfe describes in his book. Kesey famously asserted back then that you were either on the bus or off the bus. I would have been off the bus for sure.

Acid (and other hallucinogens like mescaline and psilocybin) messed me up; they didn’t center me or elevate me to a higher plane of existence. My first trips were confusing; subsequent trips were far worse: dark and paranoia-inducing and debilitating. Group scenes in close, confining spaces never did it for me as far as acid trips were concerned. The best trip I ever had, a trip that was purely positive and no negative at all that I can recall, was when I dropped acid with another traveler and we hiked up into the Himalayan foothills surrounding Katmandu. We had a wondrous, enchanting time; never mind that we got caught high up in the middle of nowhere with darkness coming on and had to spend the night in a cabin with a Nepali patrol that was guarding restricted areas in the mountains. You can read about that adventure in my memoir of my road days World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.

I enjoyed reading Michael Pollan’s new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, but I don’t know if I would want to take psychedelics again even under the controlled circumstances he describes. The approach is too formal, too contrived. I think that if I experimented with hallucinogens again I would either want to be alone or with a soul-mate.

Anyway, back to Tom Wolfe’s book. It is written in a stream of consciousness style that Wolfe is obviously using to try to get into the spirit of the whole Merry Pranksters movement. The problem is that the style hasn’t aged well. When I first read the book I thought it was ostentatious; this time I found it annoying. There is page after page of run-on sentences that don’t really go anywhere. This becomes particularly acute during Kesey’s time as a fugitive down in Mexico while he was attempting to escape various charges of possession of marijuana. In one chapter, for instance, Wolfe goes on and on about a stinky red tide along the Mexican coast but doesn’t advance the story at all. I understand why he adopted this style, but I wish he hadn’t done it. He could have said so much more if he were only more straightforward. After all, he had access to Prankster archives and was able to interview many of the key players. He could have written an in-depth historical study that would be relevant even now. As it was, I feel that he went for the cheap thrill.

Okay, I know that there are many critics who would disagree with me; however, as I was reading this I searched for a biography of Kesey or a more traditional history of the Pranksters and came up short. This is all there is.

The book goes into Kesey’s early experiences with LSD as a paid experimental subject in a Stanford lab. This is when he was writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. From a suburb near Stanford Kesey and friends move to some property he buys near La Honda, and there they start getting into the wild behavior that eventually leads to the cross-country bus ride and the staged Acid Tests. One thing is obvious from Wolfe’s account: Kesey and the Pranksters were an anomaly. Kesey was only able to finance all of their escapades because of his first two successful novel sales. In the beginning, all of the Pranksters were white, and almost all came from elite or middle-class backgrounds. The Prankster culture was very male-dominant and macho. Wolfe takes pains to describe the ripped physiques of the male prankster leaders, especially Kesey the ex-wrestler and his friend Babs the ex-military man, and also Kesey’s fascination with the violent Hell’s Angels motorcycle club.

No, I wouldn’t have made a good Prankster. Their motto was “Never trust a Prankster,” but for me, the hippy culture was built on love, understanding, and trust. Without trust, what’s left? What’s the point?

Still, it was an interesting journey to read this book again. It certainly stirred up a lot of memories. It made me ponder my past in the light of my present and appreciate how far I have traveled, how much I have learned, and how much I wish I could have taught that young insecure acid head that I used to be.

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Book Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

This novel reminded me why I love good science fiction. I haven’t felt that tingling thrill lately, and by lately I mean in the last several years, when a novel of science fiction or fantasy moves me so much that I find it hard to put it down. I used to get that feeling often in my youth when I discovered the field and I began to explore its great works. That was back in the late sixties and early seventies during the so-called New Wave of speculative fiction when writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Harland Ellison, Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delaney, and others were successfully bringing literary values into the field.

This novel, though, The Calculating Stars, has it; and by it I mean that indefinable power that propels readers through pages. I suppose I have become jaded; I didn’t expect it to be quite that good.

It’s an alternate history novel. It starts out in the early 1950s in America. A meteorite hits the east coast of the United States, decimating much of the eastern seaboard. It soon becomes evident that it is an extinction-level event; in a short span of years the Earth’s temperature will rise so much that the planet will become uninhabitable to humans. The only solution to save humanity is a global effort to start up a space program.

All of this might sound like standard science fiction fare, except Kowal tells it with a profound twist. It is written in first person by a woman who has a doctorate in physics, a genius who can do complex equations in her head. Her husband is the chief engineer in the space program, and she is one of its human calculators. These are exclusively women mathematicians who in lieu of sufficiently reliable computing machines do the calculations to put astronauts into space on paper using slide rules.

But Dr. Elma York, the protagonist, is a pilot as well as a computer, and she wants to become an astronaut. In misogynistic fifties-thought, it is inconceivable to submit women to the dangers of space, despite even the obvious argument that self-sustained colonies are impossible without procreation.

Thus much of the novel details how York and other determined women fight the biased male mindset to prove that women, and also African Americans, have the talents to become assets in space exploration. The amazing thing is that although this story is set in the 1950s, it is relevant today. We are still struggling with equality for women and for minorities. We may have made some progress since the fifties, but we still have a long, long way to go.

One thing that I appreciated and that works extremely well in this book is the voice of the main character. She is intelligent, determined, courageous, and sexy, but she is also flawed and vulnerable, aware of her weaknesses and constantly fighting to overcome them.

So yes, this is a good book, a real page-turner. It’s one of those novels that doesn’t come along often, but when it does, it should be read as widely as possible.

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Book Review: The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes

I came across a description of this book while I was cruising lists on the internet looking for interesting reading material. At this particular time I was searching for nonfiction, and this appeared on a few lists of worthwhile history books. The descriptions sounded intriguing, and check out that subtitle. What could go wrong, right?

The impression I got was that it was a blend of biographical accounts of scientists, explorers, and writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, although Coleridge, Wordsworth, and other literary luminaries are touched on in passing, the book mainly covers the careers of a few major scientists, with a few sensational accounts of explorers and adventurers to spice it up.

It starts off with a bang with a long, detailed account of Joseph Banks and his voyage to Tahiti with Captain Cook. Banks was the ship’s botanist, but he also had an affinity with the Tahitians that allowed him to interact with the locals in a way that most of the ship’s crew members were unable to do. This was the one major expedition that Banks went on; afterwards he settled into leadership of the British Royal Society and acted as a mentor and cheerleader to other up-and-coming scientists and explorers.

Next Holmes tells the story of William Herschel and his sister Catherine, extraordinary immigrants from Germany who revolutionized the study of astronomy. This story too is fast-paced and fascinating.

Holmes then goes into an interlude in which he traces the development of hot air balloons in England and mainland Europe. It’s fun, if light compared with the in-depth biographies that have preceded it. After this, he is back to the story of the Herschels as William discovers the planet Uranus and maps the heavens while Catherine becomes an acclaimed comet hunter.

Another interlude follows in which Holmes traces the two expeditions of Mungo Park as he explores the reaches of the Niger River in West Africa. Park was not so much a scientist as a pure explorer with a desire to go to places where no Europeans had ever been before. He disappeared somewhere along the Niger River during his second expedition to Africa, and his body was never found. Tragically, his son Thomas went into Africa to search for Mungo, but he died shortly after beginning his quest.

The next major player in the book is Humphry Davy, who rises from humble origins on the Cornish Coast to become a celebrated chemist. The first chapter on Davy focuses on his experiments with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. For a time Davy became addicted to the gas, and offered it in a party-like atmosphere to many celebrities such as Coleridge.

The next interlude focuses on medical experiments during this era and culminates with an account of the writing of the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. After that comes another chapter on Davy in which he invents a safe lamp for coal miners to use; this revolutionizes the industry and saves scores of miners from violent deaths caused by underground explosions.

Everything that I have described so far makes for terrific reading and comprises most of the book. However, in the last few chapters the book kind of winds down and loses its momentum. In wrapping up the story of these great men Holmes goes into too much detail about trivia, at least in my opinion. He goes on for page after page describing scientific papers they write, and he even includes one mediocre poem after another. Davy may have been a brilliant scientist, but he was not an exceptional poet, and some of the poems that Holmes elects to reprint would have been better off forgotten. This applying of the brakes after so much adventure, both intellectual and physical, earlier in the book changes the tone and pace and made it difficult for me to finish it. Too bad. Apart from the last two hundred pages or so, it’s a great read and I recommend it.

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Book Review: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

This book made me nostalgic, not because Ursula Le Guin was one of my teachers at Clarion West in 1973 (although she was) but rather because it carries an ambiance of the seventies. It fits right in with the so-called New Wave of speculative fiction that appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s by such writers as Le Guin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr., Samuel Delaney, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, and others. During that time, writers attempted to break out of the genre tradition of mere entertainment and write literature that was relevant to contemporary issues. There was also a considerable upturn in prose quality and stylistic experimentation.

The Lathe of Heaven is a fairly short and simple story with just three main characters. It deals with the nature of reality. George Orr is a man who discovers that when he enters a state of effective dreaming, his dreams change the reality around him. His psychologist, a man named Haber, creates a device to manipulate the dream state, and he sets about to hypnotize Orr and control his dreams. His aim is ostensibly to make the world a better place for humanity, but every change he causes Orr to bring about makes things worse. He eventually refines his machine with the intention of bypassing Orr and taking over the dreaming himself.

Every time Orr dreams and the world changes it gets more and more bizarre. What makes this novel somewhat anachronistic is that it was first published in 1971 and the supposedly future dates that it postulates have long since passed. It doesn’t really diminish the fun, but it’s part of the background that readers have to keep in mind. The best thing is to enjoy the ride and consider it a trip into an alternate universe that keeps evolving as Orr dreams and as Haber fails miserably in his attempts to control the messy results.

In the hands of a lesser writer this all might not work, but Le Guin was an excellent writer throughout her career, and the quality of her prose eases the journey into one skewed reality after another. What begins as a fairly straightforward tale on the nature of dreams and attempts to manipulate them turns into a profound speculation on what is real, what is imagined, and how dreams fit into the metaphysical mix. Le Guin alludes to this when she touches on aboriginal beliefs concerning the relationship between dreams and reality. As Orr’s dreams progress and the changes get wilder, Le Guin also introduces a race of aliens that seems to understand his cosmos-altering dreams and treat them as, if not commonplace, at least recognizable and acceptable phenomena.

It makes you wonder about this reality that we wake up to every morning. We take for granted that the universe around us has remained unchanged as we sleep, but we have no way of knowing if that is really the case. The universe might change drastically from day to day, but we would never realize it because our memories adjust to compensate for the changes. There is no way to prove such a far-out worldview, but no way to refute it either. We don’t really know what is going on for sure, do we? It brings to mind the movie The Matrix, in which almost everyone in the world is living in a computer-induced delusion, but they wouldn’t believe you if you told them about it. One thing that The Lathe of Heaven does well is cause readers to question the reality that they take for granted. Are you sure it is what you think it is?

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On Rereading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

I have just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the third time. I first discovered it back in the 1970s just before I set out on the road to find my voice as a writer. I traveled differently than Pirsig. He headed west on a motorcycle, his eleven-year-old son on the back, traveling with friends and staying most of the time in motels. I headed east alone with a duffle bag, using my thumb to request rides.

The second time I read this book was in Greece while I was raising my young family. This third time, I picked up a newer edition at a library book sale and waited for an opportune time to read it. Pandemic-imposed isolation and scouring my shelves for reading material provided the impetus.

As I mentioned, the book concerns a father-son cross-country motorcycle odyssey. Part of the time they are alone, and part of the time they travel with friends. Pirsig alternates between descriptions of the journey and of his search for quality (or excellence), mainly expressed through a study of classic philosophers. However, there is a twist. When he was a college teacher, he became so involved with his quest for meaning that it became an obsession and he lost touch with reality. He was committed to a mental institution and subjected to electric shock treatment until his past personality was effectively wiped out. He remained locked up until he formed a new personality, and this personality is the one writing the book. He calls his former self Phaedrus and writes of him in third person. The story is about Pirsig describing Phaedrus’s search and at the same time coming to grips with the fact that he is not the same person that he used to be. He is also attempting to deal with his relationship with his son, who has known him both as Phaedrus and as Pirsig.

There are wonderful passages where Pirsig describes the differences between classic and romantic thought, the relationship of repairing and maintaining a motorcycle to the practice of Zen, and Phaedrus’s studies and reactions to Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Kant, and other philosophers. I have to admit that at one point about two-thirds of the way through the book my interest in some of the more involved and convoluted philosophical inquiries lagged a bit, but overall Pirsig has a clear, simple, and effective writing style that makes even the more esoteric passages easy to understand.

Interestingly, this book was rejected more than one hundred twenty times before it was finally accepted for publication. Most likely that’s because it didn’t (and doesn’t) fit into any neat marketable categories. The editor who took a chance on it accepted it because it was an important book and deserved publication, but it was never expected to see a profit. It quickly became a bestseller and has remained in print ever since, selling over five million copies. Somehow it has resonated through the decades with people on their own quest for values.

You don’t have to agree with all of Pirsig’s thought processes to enjoy and benefit from the book. In fact, it doesn’t really matter if you do or not. The important thing is that you consider these things on your own quest for quality. Getting back to my trip east in search of truth, as I read about Phaedrus’s pursuit of excellence I recalled my mindset when I set out on the road those many years ago. I was fully focused on what I was doing. I had fun, sure, but I wasn’t there on holiday. I was on a serious mission, and as far as I was concerned, I was prepared to head full speed into the void to find what I had come for. Books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance remind us that we are not here just for the bullshit bells and whistles; there is significant profundity in life, and it is up to each one of us to search for it diligently until we find it.

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The Difference Between an Author and a Writer

Before I embarked upon my detailed explanation I wanted to be sure that I had my terms right, so I looked them up in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. According to the primary definitions in this source, an author is “the writer of a literary work (such as a book),” whereas a writer is “one that writes.” Note that an author is someone who has written something in the past. A person can call themselves an author if they write and publish one thing and never write again. A writer, on the other hand, is someone who writes in the present; in a broad sense, a writer is someone whose occupation, career, calling, or pursuit is writing, and this is not an activity that was only performed in the past, but it is ongoing.

Many people are satisfied to be authors, and sometimes their stories or books are very successful. They might write one important work that attracts attention, wins awards, and makes them famous, and then they are content to rest on their laurels and allow themselves to be referred to using the “A” word. A famous example of this is Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird and then for the rest of her life never published another work. In contrast, my old Clarion West teacher, the famous speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison often pointed out that he was a writer and not an author. He made it clear that authors are people who have written something, but writers write because that is their occupation, their function, their reason for existence.

I fall definitively into the camp of the writers. I can’t not write. I have to write. I don’t mean that I do it all day to the exclusion of everything else, but I schedule time for it every day, seven days a week, and I set myself a goal during that time of writing at least five hundred original words. If I am in the midst of proofreading a story or book I excuse myself from the work count, but otherwise I do my best to accomplish it. Most of the time I manage easily, especially if I am working on a long project. It is more difficult if I’m writing short stories, because then I have to have a fresh idea and start again from scratch every week or so. I’m not overly hard on myself; I allow myself the grace of a day or two if I have to gather my wits and launch them again in a new direction.

However, I finished the first draft of my latest novelette on Wednesday, and it is now Saturday. I have been mulling a new story over in my mind, but it has not germinated sufficiently for me to begin writing it. I don’t have to know the whole thing in advance; even the first scene is enough to get started, but I don’t even have that. I have an idea, and I have some characters. I have written extensive notes on the ideas and characters. I have taken walks during which I turn over the ideas that I have in my mind and explore alternatives of viewpoints, settings, and so on. I look at what I have from various angles attempting to get some sort of tenuous grip on the material. So far, nothing.

And this brings me to the point of this essay. It is painful to be not writing. It hurts. It depresses me. I can’t stand it. For me, it is the most excruciating pain I can experience in the pursuit of my art. That includes rejections. Those are painful too. I should know; I have received thousands of them, and every one of them hurts. It pains me that I put my heart and soul into composing the best stories I can, the stories I feel that no one else out there is writing, and then have them be summarily dismissed by editor after editor, or to write and publish twenty-six books and over one hundred stories and yet still not have them earn enough to support me financially. This pain, though, severe as it is, is not nearly as acute as the pain of not being able to write.

After all, you can’t make people like your work. Different people have different tastes and that’s just the way it is. When it comes to selling stories to magazines and anthologies and selling books through marketplaces such as Amazon, the creative act is over. We are talking about selling, and selling is business, and business has nothing to do with the creation of artistic works. Writing, on the other hand, if done purely, is an act of creation. You are all alone with your thoughts and your inspiration and you use words to sculpt these into expressions that others can understand.

To me, sometimes writing seems like bricklaying; I build one word upon another because I know that’s how they are supposed to go. Other times, I am scarcely conscious of what I am doing; I am in a state of emotional ecstasy. This often happens when I get near the end of a story. The sensation of bricklaying often takes place in the midpoint of a work when I inevitably question my own abilities. It can simply be a matter of getting too caught up in the details and losing sight of the larger perspective. It’s good to keep in mind under these circumstances the viewpoints expressed by Medieval bricklayers: they were not laying bricks; they were building cathedrals.

In conclusion, I realize that there is no cure for the malady I have just described. At least for me, it is terminal. Right now, I work eight or ten hours a day researching and writing essays that I ghostwrite for other people. This pays my rent and bills, but none of it counts towards my daily word count. That’s what I accomplish late at night when I am done with the rest. When I think of retirement, I never consider it in terms of cessation of effort. Instead, I think in terms of being able to do my stint of creative writing first thing every day instead of having to put it off until last. Even if I had sufficient income to comfortably provide for my physical needs, I would still write seven days a week. Because I’m a writer, and that’s what writers do.

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Book Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

In short, this is one of the best biographies I have read in years. I didn’t expect it to be so because I was somewhat disappointed by Isaacson’s more recent biography of Leonardo da Vinci. My main objection with that one was that it didn’t read like a biography, which is usually the more or less sequential story of a person’s life. Instead, it focused on descriptions of Leonardo’s notebooks. This Steve Jobs biography is a more traditional chronological account of the man’s life.

I’ve actually had this book around for years but never read it. I had read a section on Jobs in one of Isaacson’s other books, The Innovators, and it was clear from that account that Jobs was not a very nice man. However, I decided to read this book after watching the movie based on it written by Aaron Sorkin. The brilliant, incisive script hit high points but left enough out to make me curious about the rest of Jobs’s life.

Well, it’s true, in fact, that Jobs was not a nice man. He was emotional, volatile, egocentric, domineering, demanding, caustic, sharp-tongued, sometimes cruel, sometimes brutal, and sometimes ruthless. However, he was also a genius when it came to creating and marketing quality high-tech products for consumers. He cared deeply about the products he created and considered that they could only be truly great if they were a blend of technology and artistry.

One thing that makes this book so impressive is that it reads like a three-act play or film. If you count Jobs’s early life, travels, and quest for enlightenment through drugs and eastern philosophies as prologue, the first act concerns the founding of Apple with Steve Wozniak and Jobs’s early years there, and the development of the Apple II and the Mac computer.

Jobs was eventually ousted from Apple, whereupon he formed a new company to make NeXT computers. This is the second act. The most significant thing that happened, though, during his exile from Apple was when he bought Pixar from George Lucas. He invested about 50 million dollars of his own money into the company, and then when it went public a few weeks after the premier of Toy Story, he made about 1.3 billion dollars overnight.

In the meantime, most of the innovators who had originally made Apple a dynamic tech company had exited. Apple was sinking fast and seemed almost beyond redemption. That’s when Steve Jobs was invited back to attempt to resuscitate the company. This is the third act. At first he only accepted the role of an advisor, but eventually he took over as full CEO and was running the show. That’s when the world started to see the iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad, and so on. One unique product after another came out of Apple and became cultural icons.

While he was at the pinnacle of tech innovation at Apple, Jobs was diagnosed with cancer, which progressively worsened over a period of a few years. He stayed on as Apple CEO as long as he could and remained feisty and abrasive until the end. He finally had to step down and let others take over.

All in all, this is a fascinating biography that offers a look at the dynamic history of Silicon Valley and the development of digital products that changed the world. What made Steve Jobs unique in all this was his vision that blended the viewpoint of an artist with cutting-edge technology.

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Book Review: Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life by Tom Robbins

This is going to be an unusual review, but then, we are dealing with an unusual writer. I first encountered the prose of Tom Robbins when I somehow got hold of and read his first novel Another Roadside Attraction. I can’t remember how I came across it and whether I read it here in the States before I set out on the road or somewhere in Europe or India on my early travels. What I do know for certain, though, is that I read it many decades ago but some of the characters and scenes are clear in my head even now. It deals with the hippy counterculture of the 1960s, but a major plot point is the theft of the mummified corpse of Jesus that had been hidden in the Vatican. I thought that it was a near-perfect little gem of a book. I liked it so much that I was concerned that anything else Robbins wrote would be anticlimactic; as a result, I never made any effort to read any of Robbins’s other novels, some of which were more popular and better received by critics than Another Roadside Attraction.

Be that as it may, fast-forward thirty or forty years. After thirty-five years living abroad I moved back to the States and eventually found myself once again in my hometown of Seattle, where I picked up Tibetan Peach Pie at a Friends of the Seattle Public Library book sale. Alas, it sat for years on my shelf before I pulled it down to read it. One reason I never got round to it was the introduction, which states that the book is not an autobiography or even a memoir, although it clearly is. My suspicions about what it could possibly be if it wasn’t one of those two things, as well as my reluctance to tarnish the Robbins shine from my remembrance of Another Roadside Attraction caused it to remain on the shelf – an unusual situation, at least for long, for a book in my possession.

Here we are, though, in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, and the Seattle Public Library has been closed for weeks, and I am searching my bookcases for reading material. With some trepidation, therefore, I picked up and started reading Tibetan Peach Pie. It is, in fact, both an autobiography and a memoir, told in Robbins’s humorous and sometimes convoluted style.

In short, Robbins seems unable to tell the story of his life with a straight face. That’s well and good, but the book reads like the interminable act of a stand-up comedian; however, instead of selecting highlights from his life, he starts at the beginning and works his way through. The humor, which seems forced at times, gets to be too much, at least for me, especially when the actual events he is writing about aren’t funny. In contrast, Steve Martin, an extremely funny guy, wrote his memoir Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life very straightforwardly; that one was almost impossible to put down.

At this point, I have to make a confession. Robbins seems to bring out unusual behavior in me. First of all, Another Roadside Attraction was so good that I didn’t want to spoil it and read more of his work. And then as I was reading Tibetan Peach Pie, although I was interested in what was happening, I couldn’t handle the style so I skipped ahead one hundred fifty pages or so to get to the part where he writes and publishes Another Roadside Attraction. I know: horror of horrors. It’s almost unforgivable, but there it is: my confession.

After that, I read it through to the end, although even then it was touch and go. For one thing, it was hard for me not to be envious of how easily Robbins got his first publishing deal. An editor approached him and asked for a book. No endless rounds of submissions and no rejections. It was clear sailing to fame and fortune all the way. Several of the closing chapters are full of Robbins hobnobbing with celebrities and taking expensive adventure vacations to the far corners of the Earth. This reminded me of the book Travels by Michael Crichton, who began jaunting about the world after achieving uncommon success with his novels.

In closing, in my opinion parts of Tibetan Peach Pie are entertaining but, as I said, I didn’t read it all. This in no way detracts from the fact that Robbins is a great novelist, and Another Roadside Attraction remains a near-perfect gem.

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Book Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

As I have mentioned before, with the libraries closed, I am searching my shelves for overlooked books that I may have bought sometime in the past but never read. The Windup Girl is one of these. I found it in a Value Village a few years ago and meant to read it – after all, it’s a Hugo and Nebula award winner – but never got around to it. Until now, that is.

This dystopian novel is set in Thailand a few centuries into the future. Global warming has raised the level of the ocean, and Bangkok is kept from flooding by seawalls. Genetic plagues ravage the globe, and huge corporations use bioterrorism and monopolies on seed stocks to subjugate most of the world. Thailand stands out, though, as a bastion of independence, although even there life is a debilitating struggle for survival.

Bacigalupi tells his story through the viewpoints of several major characters. These include an American who works for one of the major agricultural corporations, his Chinese refugee factory manager, two Thai members of an elite force that is loyal to the country’s Environment Ministry, and the windup girl of the title, an artificially created being whose owner uses her as a prostitute. Everyone regards the windup people as machines that have no souls and can be used and discarded at whim, but the author soon makes it clear that the windup girl is as human as anyone else.

To be honest, I got off to a slow start with this book. I found the setting up of the story by switching from one character’s perspective to another to be somewhat confusing. It was interesting enough to persevere, though, and I’m glad I did. As the various threads of the characters progress, the situation clarifies, and I found that I became more and more invested in what was happening.

One thing that works well in this novel is the setting. It is evident that the author has done his research, as he presents a future Thailand that is believable, albeit depressingly dark. For the most part, he focuses the story within the city, and so he is able to provide a dense, detailed microcosm of a closed-off realm from which the outside world is perceived as the habitat of malevolent political and economic forces. This creates an almost claustrophobic atmosphere of paranoia, deception, and subterfuge.

The novel is particularly relevant in light of the pandemic that is changing all of our lives. It swept in on all of us suddenly, caused us to close ourselves off to each other, and made us realize that things will never be the same again. In a sense, our complacency has become our undoing. We were seemingly on a roll, going along with business as usual, and all of a sudden the lives of everyone on Earth were upended. The world has changed, and it continues to change daily. Each news report carries frightening new realities. I didn’t realize that worldwide plagues comprise one of the focuses of this book; if I had, I might not have picked it up. Now that I have read it, though, I am thankful for the experience, and thankful for this vision and the visions of other science fiction writers who often have premonitions of things to come decades or even centuries before they arrive.

I’m not saying that science fiction novels are prophetic. However, they offer thought-provoking possibilities that cause us to ponder the consequences of our actions, now and in times to come. That’s what this novel does.

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