Book Review: The View From the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is somewhat of an anomaly in literature in that he has attempted and excelled in so many genres and media with overwhelming success.  He has won numerous awards, including the Nebula Award, Hugo Award, World Fantasy Award, Bram Stoker Award, Newbery Medal, and Carnegie Medal.  His works include the famous Sandman series of comics, the novels American Gods and The Graveyard Book, the children’s horror book Coraline, and numerous screenplays and teleplays.

The View From the Cheap Seats is a collection of nonfiction pieces he has written over the past several decades.  It includes newspaper and magazine articles, speeches, and introductions to books, films, and music albums.  It is divided into sections roughly corresponding to his various interests and fields of endeavor: science fiction, fantasy, films, comics, music, books and reading, famous people he has known, and descriptions of various unusual events from his life.  The title essay is a recounting of his trip to the Oscars ceremony when the film version of Coraline was nominated for best animated feature.

Gaiman has been on my radar for some time.  I think that the first long piece that I read of his was American Gods, which is a dark story of mythical beings who have emigrated from other older parts of the world, taken up residency in the United States, and spawned a reality apart from that which appears on the surface.  I have also read Coraline, a very creepy fantasy about a young girl who discovers a hidden passage in her home that leads to an alternate reality.  In anthologies I have come across several of Gaiman’s award-winning stories, which are distinguished by their atmosphere and sense of wonder.

In The View From the Cheap Seats, Gaiman writes in very informal prose about a very unusual life – because, of course, no matter what else he is writing about, he is always writing about Neil Gaiman.  In some ways I find him hard to relate to, as he achieved early and consistent recognition and award after award, while I struggle for readership and recognition late in life after publishing over twenty books.  It’s easy to grasp that he’s had his share of adversity when reading these essays; still, compared to the norm he comes across as living a charmed life, as if he exists in some other dimension apart from other poor struggling folks.  I do not intend this as criticism.  When I read this collection, I picture Gaiman as a character from one of his fantasies, going about his life in a reality with which I am completely unfamiliar.

It’s an illusion, of course, from a master illusionist.  He bleeds, just as we all do.  He has his secret and open sorrows, some of which he spills out in this book.  He has managed, however, to maintain a long and exceptional career in a field where many attempt but few succeed.

This book is a fascinating overview of an unusual life.  It’s well worth reading by writers, readers, and anyone else interested in glimpsing the thoughts of one of the most enigmatic literary figures of the era.

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Book Review: In Calabria by Peter Beagle

in-calabria-enlarged-for-webAllow me to indulge in a few relevant personal reminiscences, and then I will talk about the book and the story.  This novella has great personal appeal to me, and I want to lead up to it properly.

A young writer named Peter Beagle was one of my teachers at the Clarion West science fiction writing workshop back in 1973.  I don’t remember much of what happened at the workshop – it was over four decades ago and I had just turned twenty – but I remember Beagle’s author’s reading.  Each of the weekly guest instructors held a reading from their works at the end of their session, and during at least part of Peter Beagle’s evening he read a passage from The Last Unicorn, which had been published a few years previously.  It was a description of the unicorn running through a dark forest written in beautiful poetic prose.  I still have a vivid picture of that scene in my mind after all these years.  Afterwards, when Beagle was answering questions, someone asked about his writing technique.  He said that when he sat down to write he generally had no idea where the story was going.  It unfolded as he wrote, one sentence at a time.  That explanation was a source of wonderment to me, as I was having such a difficult time coming up with ideas for stories.  I don’t know if Beagle wrote In Calabria the same way – as I said, it has been a long time; perhaps his method has evolved.  I have tried the technique myself in a number of my novels and short stories, and there’s always the sense of adventure about it.

My next memory concerns mystical and mythical Calabria, one of the poorest and most undeveloped of Italy’s provinces.  It’s the area on the southernmost end of mainland Italy.  I have passed through it numerous times, having lived in Italy with my ex-wife and young sons for several years.  We stayed in Sicily for a year or so, a short ferry ride away from Calabria, where our third son was born in a small town just outside of Palermo.  Back then at least, people from the rest of Italy generally considered Calabria rough, rugged, uncultured, and backward, but in my travels I invariably found Calabrese folk to be kind, generous, and hospitable.

In Calabria is a short novel with few characters and a simple plot about a Calabrese farmer who one day discovers a pregnant unicorn in his orchard.  For some reason that the simple, gruff farmer cannot imagine, the unicorn chooses his land as the birthplace for her colt.  I don’t want to give away more of the plot because I want you to discover the joy and wonder of the story for yourself.  It’s a beautiful tale told in simple yet elegant language.  Although Beagle is almost eighty years old, he has lost none of his gift of writing spellbinding prose that so enthralled me as his young student back in 1973.  He must have spent extensive time in Italy and traveled through Calabria, because he perfectly captures the feel of the place, the character of the people, and the Italian expressions.  This book is a delight to read from start to finish, and I hope that many readers are carried away by its poetic enchantment.

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Book Review: Time Travel: A History by James Gleick

Time Travel: A History is an attempt by a popular science writer to provide an overview of humankind’s concepts of time and literary attempts to fictionalize the phenomenon of travel through time.  The book is interesting, but either my expectations were far higher than the writer’s vision, or the writer failed to organize and present his materials properly.

Like many other young readers, I was introduced to the concept of time travel through H.G. Wells in his enigmatic, ground-breaking short novel The Time Machine.  I recall a special scholastic edition of the book, so it was probably assigned as a literary project for English class.  I vividly remember scenes from that book, though I have not reread it for a number of decades: the peaceful childlike Eloi, the menacing Morlocks, the crab-like creatures on the beaches at the end of the world.  My next encounter with time travel was the short story “By His Bootstraps” by Robert Heinlein, in which a man continues to encounter various versions of himself during his forays into the past.  Since these early efforts, time travel has become a staple of science fiction literature, film, and television. One of the finest and most famous of the Star Trek original series episodes is “The City on the Edge of Forever,” a time travel story.  This book isolates and describes some well-known examples of time travel in literature, although it makes no attempt to be comprehensive.

I have dealt with time travel several times in my own writings.  One of the main characters in the series of interrelated stories that comprise my novel After the Fireflood is an enigmatic genius known as the Time Tiger.  In the far future, the atmosphere of the Earth is destroyed in an apocalyptic conflagration, and humankind attempts to reconstruct the surface through terraforming.  Time travel is forbidden by law due to the possibility of alteration of timelines, and the Time Tiger is a notorious criminal.  In my story “Matchmaker,” a time traveler from a future in which people have become apathetic and unloving journeys back to Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1917, just before a fire destroyed much of the city, to obtain advice on relationships from a woman famous for arranging successful marriages.  In my story “Mendocino Mellow,” hippies use a strain of magical marijuana to travel back in time to 1969 to attend the original Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

In my opinion, the questions of whether time travel is possible or not, or whether stories of time travel should be considered science fiction or fantasy are irrelevant in the consideration of time travel as a literary device.  The concept of time travel allows writers to juxtapose and compare different cultures and eras in ways that would not otherwise be possible.  All’s fair in the perpetration of literature, say I.

This book attempts to follow several threads in its discussion of time travel: a history of human conceptions of time, a history of the philosophical and scientific proof or disproof of the possibility of time travel, and a history of time travel literature.  Unfortunately, it does not present its material in a well-organized and lucid manner.  It is interesting because its subject matter is fascinating, but it could have been so much more if it were better organized and more lucid.  The author obviously has a lot to say, but throws the information out in seemingly random clumps, opting for cleverness rather than comprehension.  This could have been a great book.  Instead, it is an interesting yet sometimes confusing book due to a lack of organization.  Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, it is an overview rather than a thorough presentation of the material.  It could easily have been, and probably should have been, at least two or three times longer.  There is so much to say on this fascinating subject, and yet the author is content to introduce a theme or subject, present one or perhaps two examples, and then move on to the next.  I had the feeling of being swiftly ushered along through the time travel museum rather than being allowed to linger and soak in all the salient details.  I hope that sometime soon another writer takes up this subject again and gives it the comprehensive treatment it deserves.

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Book Review: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Hakuri Murakami

I have had Murakami on my radar for some time.  I was hesitant, however, about tackling his recent book 1Q84 due to its length – almost 1200 pages in paperback.  After reading a fascinating interview with him in The Paris Review Interviews Volume IV, I decided to seek out one of his novels.  As my financial situation precludes book purchases for the time being, I checked the Seattle Public Library for available Murakami novels.  Alas, all of them were reserved with long waiting lists.  Then I checked the large print versions and I found a copy of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, his latest novel.  It had the advantage of being only about 460 pages in large print, which makes about 330 pages of normal print.  Easy on the eyes too, I must say, that large print.

Unlike some of Murakami’s most popular novels, this one is not fantastic or surrealistic, although it gives way to dream sequences on occasion.  It tells the story of the title character, who is colorless because, unlike his friends, his family name does not have a color in it.  Additionally, he leads a fairly bland life as an engineer who helps build railway stations, which are his great obsessions.  The focus of the story is his relationship with four high school friends.  For years they are inseparable, but shortly after Tazaki moves to Tokyo to pursue his work, he is informed by one of them that he is no longer part of the group, that he should not try to contact any of them, and that none of them want to have anything more to do with him.  This at first makes him suicidal, but he gradually rebuilds his life.  On the verge of middle age, he meets a woman he cares deeply about named Sarah, and she encourages him to contact his friends, to visit them and find out why they cut him off so abruptly.  His odyssey in contacting his lost friends one by one and fitting together the broken portions of his life form the balance of the book.

Murakami tells the story not simplistically but in simple, straightforward prose.  Part of the reason for the plain prose may be the translation of course – there is always this risk when reading literature that is not in the original language.  However, Murakami is fluent in English and approved this translation, so I have to conclude that it stays true to the spirit of the original.

One thing I noticed as I read concerns how the characters behave towards one another.  No matter what their relationship is, they are much more polite and speak more formally that American characters would in similar circumstances.  I’m sure this must be due to inherent cultural differences.

The basic emotions the story deals with, however, are universal.  It’s a deep, heartfelt story about the loss of youthful innocence in the face of the indifference and violence of the outside world into which we all are thrust.  The main character Tazaki is easy to empathize with as he undertakes his years of pilgrimage from adolescence to middle age.  I enjoyed reading this book, highly recommend it, and look forward to reading more of Murakami’s work.

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Feeding My Reading Addiction

I am an addict.  Yes, it’s true.  If I don’t have something to read I get tense, anxious, irritable.  I pace the floors; I search the shelves; I wrack my brains for ideas on what I should start next.  The thing is: not just anything can satisfy this hunger.  It has to be the right thing at the right time.  Normally I plan my reading out months in advance to avoid coming up short.  This time, however, I miscalculated.  I have unread books at home that I could begin, but I received a notice that a couple of books I have been eagerly awaiting were in transit to my local library, so I didn’t want to start another big reading project before I tackled these.  I reserved them three months ago; I didn’t want to pass them up.  It’s easy when you’re affluent and can afford to buy books; you just order them and two days later Amazon delivers them to your doorstep.  But for some time now books have been beyond my budget and I have had to rely more than usual on the local library.  So…

I get the notice that the books are on the way and I am all excited and anxiously await them.  But what the hell?  Days pass and more days, and the books remain in transit.  I go to the library and ask the librarian, and he explains that some transit items take a week or so to arrive.  In the meantime, I have finished the previous book and I am in the hell of reading withdrawal.

I usually take reading time when I’m resting in the afternoon and when I’m sitting on the throne in the bathroom.  When I don’t have a book to read I practically develop constipation in frustration.  I don’t want to go into the bathroom and just sit there doing nothing.

I try to grab random items around the house to temporarily alleviate the pain.  It won’t be the same as diving into a whole book, but it’s better than going cold turkey.

First I pick up a recent copy of Rolling Stone magazine, to which one of my sons has a subscription.  It used to be a great periodical, forever immortalized in the song “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone.”  Alas, it has diminished considerably, both in size and importance.  It’s gone the way of all commerce, sad to say.  It takes me no more than about twenty minutes to find and devour all the salient material.

What next?  On the shelf next to my bed I find a copy of Orbit 11 that I picked up at this year’s Norwescon science fiction convention.  The Orbit anthology series was the premier outlet for literary speculative fiction back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  When I was just starting out in the field, it would have been among my highest achievements to be able to sell Damon Knight a story for the series.  Many Hugo and Nebula awards were won by stories therein.  Number 11, unfortunately, is not one of the stronger volumes.  Although there are a number of writers I admire represented, there are none of their stellar performances.  I read a half dozen or so of the shorter stories and discover that most of them have not aged well; though they may have been cutting edge back in the day, they would be considered bland or cliché according to today’s standards.  Why?  Because modern science fiction evolved from these roots and since these stories were published the themes have been gone over many times.

Back to the shelves.  Next I pick up an old Pyramid paperback of Harlan Ellison’s book of television criticism The Other Glass Teat – a sequel, of course, to the groundbreaking first volume appropriately called The Glass Teat.  I get a feeling of nostalgia as I read this vintage Ellison, but I find myself more skimming than reading.  The subject matter is shows that have long vanished from American television sets and memories.  Ellison was one of my germinal influences and first teachers (at Clarion West 1973) when I was starting out as a young writer, and at one time I collected everything I could find of his work.

Anyway, picking up these volumes and nibbling at them is not the same as devouring a full book cover to cover.  That’s what I usually do, and that’s what I have been looking forward to resuming.  I hope those library books arrive by tomorrow or I don’t know what I will do – the library is closing for two days for the Christmas holidays.  I’m a reading addict, and I have to have my fix.

I’ve always enjoyed reading, ever since I learned to read.  Some of the great events of my life were discoveries of books:  The Lord of the Rings, Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, On the Road, Walden, Tropic of Cancer.  Reading feeds my spirit just as food feeds my body.  When I finally get my hands on those books I’m going to pounce on them like a starving wolf in the wilderness.

*     *     *

Update: one of the books arrived and I managed to snag it from the library before it closed for the holidays.  Saved!

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An Assessment of 2016

The freelancer’s life is not for the faint of heart, especially if you happen to be a single parent at the same time.  Ask J.K. Rowling before Harry Potter took off.  You struggle day by day to bring in enough income to pay the bills, and at the same time you are turning out quick-paying hack work ( in my case articles for the websites of others) you are somehow finding time to retain your artistic integrity by composing a daily quota of fiction.  Not easy at all, but for those called to the life, there are few alternatives.

The year 2016 started out fairly normally – normal, at least, in comparison to the last few years of my own life; perhaps not so normal for most people living around me – in that I was writing articles for quick money, and the quantity of available work would vary so that there would be busy times and slack times.  Nonetheless I would stay busy through it all, as I have several work alternatives; if one employer becomes temporarily void of jobs, I turn to the next.

February turned out to be a high-water mark.  I sold a novelette to an anthology at a very good rate of pay.  For the first time in many months, I felt the tight knot of stress due to low finances relax a bit.  I actually had enough money so that I could keep up with my bills, buy my son new clothes, and even buy a few books instead of borrowing them from the library.  Alas, the relaxed feeling was short-lived.  Dental problems arose, and my dental work is the one thing my medical insurance does not cover.  I had to pay cash, and the work was urgent.  It stretched back to my years overseas, during which I seldom saw a dentist.  When I did, a Greek dentist glanced in my mouth and told me my teeth were fine, without so much as an x-ray.  The policy of doctors and dentists in Greece is that they will treat you after the emergency; there is little preventative medicine.  It’s the same attitude the policemen have: they will allow all manner of speeding and traffic law infractions, but after the accident they bear down hard on you.  Suffice it to say that my dental work, once I came back to the United States, was not minor; some of my back teeth were literally crumbling apart.  So early this year and on into the summer, my dental work ate up all my extra income and much more – a devastating blow that left me gasping for economic relief.

Most of the time I kept up the schedule I had adopted in late 2014 and continued through 2015 and 2016.  I would work all day, from early morning until about eight in the evening, on articles that paid poorly but consistently.  After a break for dinner, I would write at least five hundred words of fiction.  If I was in the midst of proofreading or preparing a work of fiction for publication, I would set a quota on how much of that work I would finish before stopping.  So I usually start work at a bit before seven in the morning and work until about one when I stop to prepare lunch, our main meal of the day.  In the midst of the morning work I take breaks three times a week to exercise with yoga and calisthenics, and every day to get outside and walk at least a mile.  After lunch I take a short nap and spend some time reading.  I start work again by five and keep going until eight when I stop for dinner.  Then I resume work – my five hundred words of fiction – from nine until eleven or so.  I work on Saturday and Sunday as well, but often with a slightly relaxed schedule to allow an hour or so of sleep-in.

My accepted, paid for, and presumably published non-fiction articles for 2016 number in the hundreds.  As for fiction, I had, as I said, the sale of a novelette to a major anthology in February.  During the summer, a magazine finally paid for and published a short story it had accepted almost five years previously, when I was still living in Greece.  Towards the end of the year, I sold another story to an anthology.  I still average many more rejections that acceptances in short stories, but I have begun to get many more encouraging personal letters from editors.

During 2016, I decided to write a fourth novella in my One Thousand series and then compile the four novellas together into an omnibus.  I eventually called the fourth novella Deconstructing the Nightmare and published it as a separate book and also as the fourth part of the compilation, which I called Bedlam Battle: An Omnibus of the One Thousand Series.  I also compiled many of my articles on writing together in one volume, added an introduction, and published it with the title Writing as a Metaphysical Experience.

Apart from the above publications, I spent most of the year focused on writing short stories.  I completed about a dozen short stories and novelettes in 2016.  I usually have about fifteen to twenty stories out to market at a time.  Sometimes, especially with literary markets, I send one story to several markets, at least those that clearly state that they accept simultaneous submissions.  So as of now, I have about twenty stories out to twenty-five or so markets.  The frustrating thing about short story submissions is the time it takes for editors to reply.  Some magazines take six months to a year to respond.  It’s a tediously slow process, and the only answer is to send off the stories, forget about them for a time, and get to work on the next ones.

Around late summer or early fall, while I was in the midst of my short story writing surge, several science fiction and fantasy short story markets that pay professional rates temporarily stopped accepting submissions.  My short stories started piling up because I didn’t know where to send them.  Most literary markets open in the fall and I was able to divert some of the appropriate stories off to those; otherwise, my only recourse was to study monthly market reports and fire off ready stories as soon as magazines or anthologies announced that they were reopening their submissions systems.

And that’s how it’s gone until now – mid-December.  My rationale in focusing on short stories and novelettes is to get my work out there and hopefully build up some readership that will seek out my published books.  I’m not averse to beginning another novel if an idea presents itself, but for now I am happy with the shorter lengths.  I’ve always had an affinity for short stories.

What do I see happening on into 2017?  I plan to keep at it, of course, and I hope for a breakthrough of more book sales so that the royalties will allow me to focus more on fiction and less on non-fiction hack work.  My goal is to be able to wake up in the morning and go right to my fiction and memoirs and completely dispense with the need to write the other stuff.  I hope that as I journey into 2017, I find myself closer and closer to this goal.

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Book Review: The Paris Review Interviews Volume IV Edited by Philip Gourevitch

I had so much fun reading the book-length interview with Robert Silverberg, Traveler of Worlds, which Fairview Press published recently, that I thought I might enjoy reading more author interviews.  What I really wanted was more interviews with science fiction and fantasy writers, but in the absence of those, or at least in my ignorance of the existence of those, I opted for the Paris Review.  In short, it ain’t the same, folks.  There is some interesting material in these interviews, but in no way do they contain the lively fascination of the Silverberg one.

Normally I read a book from cover to cover, but early on I had to allow myself to skim pages and skip interviews in which I was not at all interested.  The book contains interviews with poets as well as writers and goes all the way back to the 1950s.  Some of the poets I had never heard of, and these I gave a miss.  The interview with William Styron that opens the book was interesting enough in a slow, genteel sort of way, as Styron compares himself with other famous Southern writers.

The interview that surprised and appalled me, though, was with Jack Kerouac.  I was looking forward to that one.  Although I don’t really read his books anymore, when I was young On the Road had a profound influence on my life.  It was one of the catalysts that set me off on my own journey as a writer. Yet the Kerouac interview was profoundly disappointing.  Kerouac was silly and frivolous, and sometimes some of the things he was saying made no sense at all.  It was as if he had lost it; he couldn’t hold his intellect together.  His time as a shaper of the culture had passed, he was left in the backwater, and this interview was in his waning years when he could not come to grips with the changes happening around him.  Very sad stuff.

The Philip Roth interview was interesting.  There you can see a keen intellect at work, and it is fascinating to hear him discuss his books.  V.S. Naipaul was also acute and intelligent in his discussion of his growth as a writer.

The interview I found most interesting, though, is with Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist who has taken the fantasy and magic realism world by storm.  His books, translated into many languages, continue to be international bestsellers. His accounts of his writing process and what goes through his mind as he composes are fascinating and absorbing – so much so, in fact, that as soon as I finished reading the interview I logged onto the Seattle Public Library website and reserved one of his novels.  It wasn’t easy; most of his books had multiple hold requests.  But I found a large print copy of his latest novel available right here at the local library.  I can live with large print, as long as it’s unabridged.

In summary, compared to the Silverberg interview, this book is a disappointment.  Even on its own terms, it’s a mixed bag, with some really slow, anachronistic material alongside a few interviews that shine.  I would imagine that the other Paris Review interview books would have the same sort of limited appeal.  If you want to check them out, do as I did and allow yourself to skim.  You’ll find gold among the dross.

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Book Review: Traveler of Worlds: Conversations With Robert Silverberg by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Robert Silverberg was one of the most important writers of science fiction in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during the so-called new wave, when a number of innovators attempted to eschew the genre’s pulp origins and create more literary work.  His beginning as an author, though, was as a prolific hack, churning out novels and stories at an astonishing rate.  In this book he says that in one year he wrote in excess of two million words, the equivalent of about forty genre novels.

By the time I became involved in the science fiction scene, Silverberg was producing first-class work and appearing regularly on awards nomination lists.  His sophisticated prose impressed me deeply.  Some of my favorites were the novels Dying Inside and Book of Skulls and novellas and short stories such as “Nightwings,” “Sundance,” “Good News From the Vatican,” and “Passengers.”  In a field where writers generally have their ups and downs, Silverberg, in the early 70s at least, was consistently excellent.  As a young writer struggling to put viable words on paper, I envied his ability to turn out high quality prose at such a prolific rate.

Although I have encountered a number of the field’s luminaries as my teachers at Clarion West and in more casual settings at conventions and local writers’ gatherings, I have never met Robert Silverberg.  This book allows an intimate glimpse into the man’s career, thoughts, and lifestyle.  It is composed of a series of conversations about various topics held at Silverberg’s home in the San Francisco Bay Area.  It covers a vast array of subjects such as Silverberg’s career, reading interests, library, travel, research, education, political beliefs, opinions on other authors, and reflections on aging.

This book may not be for everyone, as Silverberg is known and read mainly in the science fiction field.  I found it fascinating.  I have always appreciated Silverberg mainly as a short story writer, and in my opinion, he is one of the best there is.  He never broke out into the mainstream the same way that Ray Bradbury or Robert Heinlein did, but within the genre he is considered a master of the craft.  These conversations are casual but lucid, and never dull.  Although each chapter has a particular emphasis, Silverberg and his interviewer glide smoothly from one topic to another, obviously enjoying themselves, and the reader is carried along for the ride.

At the time of the interviews, Silverberg was eighty years old and had retired from writing about ten years previously.  He claims he’d done what he’d set out to do and had no inclination to do more.  It’s the literary world’s loss.  He talks of the retirement of writers, although that has always been a concept that I have been unable to grasp.  Why would anyone want to cease performing such a fascinating task as writing?  But then, I have only written and published about twenty books, while he has written uncounted hundreds.  I suppose there is a point where weariness might set in.  He claims that writers do their best work roughly from the ages of thirty-five to fifty.  If so, I am past my prime, but I don’t feel that way.  At sixty-three, I feel I am just getting started.

Be that as it may, for someone with an interest in the science fiction field, this is a terrific book, and I highly recommend it.  There are far too few books like this available.  I would like to see more such books of interviews with other famous authors.  I hope that this is the beginning of a series.

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Book Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I would not have thought that a historical novel could work in first person, but Mantel pulls it off.  This book is beautifully written.  Apart from the compelling story, it is wonderful to discover passage after passage, on nearly every page, written in intricate, poetical, yet accessible prose.

The main character is Thomas Cromwell, and Mantel creates of him a superhero of sorts.  At the same time he is an obviously flawed man with singular gifts who somehow manages to ingratiate himself to King Henry of England.  Henry wants to be rid of his wife Elizabeth, who has not given him a male heir, and marry Anne Boleyn.  To bring this about, Cromwell has to help Henry orchestrate a break from the Pope’s authority and the establishment of the Church of England.

The story is gripping from the very first passage, when young Cromwell is severely beaten by his father and decides to leave home.  He spends several years overseas before returning to England and becoming a lawyer.  He first serves the powerful Cardinal Wolsey, and when Wolsey falls into disfavor Henry, recognizing Cromwell’s talents, takes him into his confidence and gives him more and more responsibility.

Wolf Hall has a large cast of characters, and I admit that I was unable to keep some of the secondary ones clear as I read.  There were just too many.  Some of the characters in Henry’s court are very similar to one another, and I found it easy to follow the main story even as minor characters became blurred caricatures in my awareness.

One character, in fact the main character apart from Cromwell, is not even human.  It is England itself: the countryside, the weather, the flora and fauna.  Mantel’s writing becomes exquisitely beautiful when she describes changes of seasons, glimpses of landscape beyond windows, rooms seen in flickering firelight, muddy roads, meandering rivers, rain and snow.  Her prose has great power to evoke images.

It’s a long novel.  Just as some of the secondary characters become confusing to follow on first reading, so do some of the many scenes, especially in the middle sections of the book.  Sometimes it seems that too many things are happening to keep track of.  Additionally, sometimes it’s hard to keep track of who is saying what in the dialog until you understand that whenever Mantel says “he” instead of naming a character when introducing dialog, by default the speech is Cromwell’s.

Despite the occasional confusion with characters, scenes, and dialog, this book is a worthwhile read.  If you persevere through the first few hundred pages, the plot begins to manifest more clearly.  And even if you miss some of the details, you are swept along in a superbly written account of a fascinating era of history.  I would say that it is useful to have some sort of inkling of the historical story before commencing the novel; it will make much more sense.  However, regardless of your historical expertise, you can enjoy this well-written book on its own merits as a novel.

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Book Review: A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition by Ernest Hemingway

I must have read this book decades ago as a young writer.  Certain parts have the ring of familiarity, especially Hemingway’s descriptions of writing in cafes with a notebook and pencil.

It’s a sparse book: a collection of vignettes about his early writing days in Paris.  Much of the material was found in a steamer trunk discovered at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, and Hemingway worked on it and added chapters just before his death.  It has the disjointed feel of an incomplete posthumous collection edited by others.  Still, some of the disparate pieces provide fascinating insight into this energetic, sad, enigmatic writer.

It deals with the time Hemingway lived in Paris with his first wife, when he was trying to get his start as a writer.  The tone is casual, and most of the prose has the trademark Hemingway succinctness.  He writes of his encounters and friendships with Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ford Maddox Ford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others, and about the joy despite the poverty he and his wife experienced in his struggling early years.

The book brought back a lot of memories of my own struggles as a young writer in Europe and in South Asia – except I was on my own.  Instead of a wife, I had transient affairs from time to time, retaining the freedom of loneliness as I sought my muse.  And although Hemingway writes of supposed poverty, it seems that he and his wife always had funds for fine meals, good wine, and betting at the horseracing track.  My poverty ran along a different, more desperate path, so that I was sometimes literally begging on the streets, as I recount in my own memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.  Mine was more akin to the poverty that Henry Miller describes in his account of his down and out days in Paris, Tropic of Cancer.

The book also called to mind Woody Allen’s brilliant film Midnight in Paris in which a writer goes back in time to the Paris of the 1920s and meets Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Picasso and Stein and Dali and other literary and artistic luminaries.  That era seemed a golden age for writers, but as the movie points out, appreciation for the past is relative, and each period of history has its pros and cons.

One thing that shines through in this slim volume is Hemingway’s dedication to his writing.  He had a work ethic that caused him to put the writing first, no matter what else was going on around.  In contrast, he describes the dissolution of Fitzgerald, who got caught up in parties and alcoholic binges and neglected his work.

There are a lot of gaps in the story, and it would have benefited from some tightening and additions.  Ultimately, Hemingway’s story is a tragic one.  Despite his optimism and determination in the early stages of his career, he succumbed to depression and despair.  He was one hell of a writer, though, and in some passages of this book, that talent shines through.

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