Russell Bates, Kiowa Writer

I have been reading a dynamic new book called The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present, and I thought about my Native American friend Russell Bates and wondered what he might think of the book. I hadn’t been in touch with him since I moved back to the States from Greece, so I ran a search to see if I might find a recent email address or Facebook page where I could re-contact him.

That’s when I came across his obituary. It said that he died on April 19, 2018, after a brief illness. He was seventy-six years old.

I met Russ at the 1973 Clarion West science fiction writing workshop. I had just turned twenty years old and he would have been in his early thirties. As he explained, he had got into a serious accident while serving a stint in the Air Force, and while he was in the hospital, he turned to writing. I was a total neophyte, but he had credentials. He had worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter, and Harlan Ellison had bought one of his stories for his legendary anthology The Last Dangerous Visions. Nobody knew that the book would never see print, and at the time everyone at Clarion wanted to be in it. (Ellison later bought a second story from Bates that should have also appeared in the anthology.)

If truth be told, as I’ve said elsewhere, I was too young, too immature, too inexperienced to benefit much from the Clarion experience. I did my best but didn’t make much progress with my writing. The main benefit for me was the opportunity to meet other writers and forge friendships. Russ, Paul Bond, a few others, and I would head out to the University District near the University of Washington campus where we were staying and drink beer together. Most of us, apart from Russ, were underage, but I led the way because I was familiar with the area and knew the bars that didn’t ask for ID.

After Clarion West, I languished in nowhere land for awhile, and then decided to hit the road and find my voice as a writer. On my first hitchhiking journey, to Mexico and Central America, I stopped in Los Angeles and slept on the floor of Russ’s apartment. That may have been the time that Russ took me on my first and only visit to Harlan Ellison’s house in Sherman Oaks. At the time, Russ and another 1973 Clarion West graduate, David Wise, had also recently collaborated on a script for the Star Trek animated TV series, “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth.” The episode went on to win an Emmy, and that’s probably the piece of writing for which Russ is best known.

After that first trip, I decided to head down to Los Angeles and attempt to become a screenwriter. Russ had moved back to Oklahoma by then, but he eventually returned, and he stayed at my apartment for awhile until he found his own place. While he was there, we collaborated on a treatment for a then-popular TV show, which Russ attempted to sell but was unsuccessful.

When Russ eventually decided to go back to Oklahoma, our fellow Clarion graduate Paul Bond and I decided to drive him. So in Paul’s car we crossed California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, finally to arrive at Russ’s hometown of Anadarko, Oklahoma. There Paul and I met Russ’s parents, John and Agatha Bates, and his brother David. His mom cooked up some beans and fry bread that to this day is one of the finest meals I have ever eaten. Russ’s family was wonderfully hospitable.

One evening Russ, David, Paul, and I decided to go out to a rowdy bar that featured half-naked dancers on stage. We had a few, or possibly more than a few, pitchers of beer. Somehow when it was time to leave I ended up out in the parking lot before the rest of them, and I was surrounded by a crowd of red-neck Oklahoma young people who were obviously pissed off that I was consorting with Native Americans. Before I realized what was happening, one of them punched me in the face and opened a deep cut above my left eye; I retained the scar for decades afterwards. I was figuring the odds weren’t too good for me when all of a sudden Russ’s brother David charged out of the bar. He wasn’t too tall, but he was a big man. He looked very mean and angry. There were at least half a dozen of the red-neck yokels, but David must have had a reputation, or maybe it was his appearance of a bull about to charge… Whatever the reason, all those hicks scattered and ran. David saved my ass from a severe beating, and I was grateful.

After Paul and I left Oklahoma, I never saw Russ again, but the story isn’t over. While I was raising my family in Greece, I got back in touch with him via email. We started to correspond. He’d tell me about his latest writing projects, and I’d tell him about mine. He wrote me that as he recalled, he owed me some rent money from when he stayed at my place in Los Angeles. I told him that when we met again, he could buy me a steak and we’d call it even. I asked him for his recommendations of good Native American fiction and nonfiction, and he sent me a list; through it I found some great reading material. We lost touch again when I moved back to the United States and went through the long-term trauma of severe culture shock. I’ve always hoped that eventually I’ll be able to snap out of my financial struggles and get a little breathing room, and if I do, I’d like to travel again. I had an idea that on one of my hypothetical road trips I’d stop in at Russ’s house, the Bates Motel as he called it, and we’d share some beers and we could get that steak he’d promised me.

Too late now. It’s a sad thing that we’ll never be able to see each other again, and that the literary public will never be able to enjoy some of the projects he had been working on.

Rest in peace, my friend.

Advertisements
Posted in Memoir, On Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Wilderness at Dawn: The Settling of the North American Continent by Ted Morgan

I found this book at a Friends of the Library book sale in Seattle; it was a like-new hardcover copy for two dollars. Not bad. You might think that a volume chronicling early North American history might be a bit dry and even boring, but such is not the case for two reasons. First, the writer has a lively, easy to read style. Second, instead of writing the history in the admittedly tedious listing of bare facts one after the other, the author tells the story mainly through individual vignettes compiled from logs, diaries, and journals of some of the fascinating characters who lived through the events.

The author’s own story is as absorbing as any of the other people he introduces in his text. Ted Morgan was born in Geneva, Switzerland as Comte Sanche Charles Armand Gabriel de Gramont, the son of a French World War II pilot and part of a family with roots in French nobility. After attending Yale University, he was drafted into the French army and served from 1955 to 1957 in the Algerian War, including the brutal Battle of Algiers. After his service, he returned to the United States and became a journalist, at one time winning the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. During this time, he was still a citizen of France and used the byline Sanche de Gramont. In 1977, he renounced his nobility, assumed American citizenship, and took the name Ted Morgan, which is an anagram of de Gramont. Besides Wilderness at Dawn, he has written histories and biographies of famous historical characters, some of which have been Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalists.

Wilderness at Dawn begins with an account of the first forays from Asia across the Bering land bridge onto the wild North American continent. At that time the land was teeming with animal life but completely free of humans. Slowly, over the course of thousands of years, the first Native American pioneers made their way overland through North America and Central America to the southernmost tip of South America.

Then came the Europeans, of course, looking for a western route to the Far East. Instead, they discovered a vast new continent. Morgan devotes sections to the Spanish, French, and English conquests of the northern New World and the brutality and privation that accompanied these incursions on lands that were already occupied by indigenous peoples. The English advanced on multiple frontiers up and down what is now the eastern coastline of the United States. Many of the new colonists were prisoners, refugees from religious intolerance, and indentured servants. Eventually, of course, black slaves from Africa began to arrive too, to labor in the tobacco, indigo, and rice plantations of the South.

Morgan goes on to tell of the exploration and settling of the western frontier lands, the expulsion of the French, the Revolutionary War, and the aftermath in which the young government sought to pass legal measures capable of helping to govern the newborn country.

As I mentioned above, what makes this book unique and more fascinating than most other books that cover this subject is the author’s reliance on personal stories from journals and other writings to highlight the overarching history. This makes the reader intensely aware of how these massive historical events touched individual lives. I found this book deeply absorbing and highly readable, and I recommend it.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Spray of Short Stories

I mean the word “spray” in the title both as a powerful expulsion of metaphorical liquid and as an attractive display of flamboyant flowers. I’ve recently written a blog post called “Books Make Great Gifts” about some of my available full-length works, so I thought why not highlight some short stories that are among my personal favorites? So here they are, volume by volume, some of my personal favorites from among my own short stories.

From The Dragon Ticket and Other Stories:

The Dragon Ticket“: Presented with an extraordinary gift by an alien artifact high in the remote Himalayas, a young woman named Michelle must learn how to use her new power as nuclear war plunges the world into chaos.

From Painsharing and Other Stories:

Beyond Purgatory“: On a far planet the ultimate civil punishment is to be genetically deformed into a monstrous beast and forced to live in the forbidden compound called Purgatory as a slave of the State.  When authorities arrest and condemn the woman he loves, Justus determines to find and save her, even if he must search Purgatory itself.

From Dark Mirrors: Dystopian Tales:

Dark Mirrors“: The people of Earth are losing a war with aliens that they themselves provoked.  Every able-bodied person is being called up to fight, even prisoners; those who refuse are threatened with dismemberment to provide spare parts for wounded soldiers.  A battle-hardened general enters a prison to recruit a woman who refuses to fight, but who may have a most unusual special ability that can turn the tide of the war.

From Fear or Be Feared: Fantasies:

Fear or Be Feared“: A teenage Greek girl climbs Mount Olympus with some of her friends.  Lost in a lightning storm, she discovers the spirit of an ancient Greek god which possesses her and uses her against her will as an instrument of vengeance.

The Customs Shed“: Those who wish to cross the river of death must first be purged in the customs shed; but within await the mysterious customs agents.  What will they require as the price of passage?

From Opting Out and Other Departures: Stories:

Opting Out“: It is the near future, and due to easier availability of alternative energy, fossil fuels are becoming outlawed.  Fleeing south along the coastal highway from a state government that threatens to confiscate the gasoline-fueled camper-van he lives in, a homeless man comes across a seemingly-idyllic communal refuge for homeless people set up by a philanthropic dot-com billionaire.

Opting In“: An old man, feeling useless, leaves his daughter’s home to go live in a homeless shelter. Following up on a tip from a fellow vagrant, he finds an alien being preparing to leave Earth who invites him on a journey from which he can never return.

From Heroes and Other Illusions: Stories:

Matchmaker“: From a future bereft of emotion, a time traveler journeys to Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1917 to find a legendary matchmaker and learn the lost secret of true marriage. Although aware that the city is about to become decimated by fire, he becomes betrothed to a local woman and must choose between remaining in the past or returning to the future with the desperately needed knowledge he has acquired.

Katabasis“: After traveling to India to take advantage of cutting-edge psychiatric technology, a jaded ailing old man embarks on a guided journey through his memories to locate and correct errant decisions that shaped his life.

From Invasive Procedures: Stories:

The Beatification of Lady Poverty“: A government operative recruits a young woman with a very special power of self defense for a mission to help end a war in Europe. However, once she unleashes them, her mysterious abilities provoke changes beyond anything her handlers intended or imagined.

Camp College“: In the near future, as societies continue to erode and the gap between rich and poor widens, inexpensive college camps spring up around the country as an alternative form of higher education. At one such camp, a partially dysfunctional veteran and a woman alienated from her family meet and attempt to make sense out of the rapidly changing world.

Posted in On Writing, Reading | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Tor.com Short Fiction Edited by Irene Gallo

I acquired this excellent new anthology in a Christmas gift exchange at a gathering of local writers. Most folks received fun flamboyant socks but somehow I got the book. I don’t regret the lack of colorful images on my feet, because instead, I have spectacular images floating around in my mind.

After I read several of the stories in Worlds Seen in Passing, I realized that the level of overall quality was higher than in some recent best of the year collections I’ve read, and I wondered why. One reason is probably that Tor.com pays double or more what any other professional speculative fiction venue offers, and so it attracts the top talent.

The other reason that I came up with was the superlative team of editors that Tor.com employs. Most best-of anthologies have just one editor who makes all the choices, and naturally the final selections are going to skew in favor of that editor’s personal preferences. However, at least five or six top-class editors oversee the fiction at Tor.com, several of whom specialize in specific sub-genres. You’re bound to get a broader range of opinions that way. Usually when I read a best-of anthology, I love some stories, like others, and am not so keen on a fair amount. When I started reading Worlds Seen in Passing, I found the stories were all of top quality, highly entertaining, and very well written, one after the other. Even in the latter third of the book, where most of the stories are horror and fairy tales, which are not my favorite categories, every one of them is competently told and enjoyable to read. In fact, there was only one story in the entire book of over five hundred fifty pages that I lost interest in and didn’t finish reading; it was the only story in the volume that was all style and no plot.

As I said, most of the stories were excellent, but let’s see if I can highlight a few of my favorites. “Waiting on a Bright Moon” by J.Y. Yang is a novelette by a writer from Singapore who weaves together oriental mythology and interstellar adventure. The Chinese characters scattered throughout the text add to its sense of wonder. “About Fairies” by Pat Murphy is a subtle story about possible fairy hideaways in the midst of San Francisco. It’s unclear whether there is really a speculative element in it at all, but it’s still a wondrous tale. “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal is a touching story about an aging spacefarer who gets a last chance for interstellar adventure. “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly is a stylistically clever fantasy about a baker that imbues memories into his wares and uses this power to overthrow a maniacal tyrant. “The End of the End of Everything” by Dale Bailey is an apocalyptic story about revelers becoming more and more decadent and depraved as the world falls into ruin. It has some truly gruesome scenes, and yet it is so well-written that it causes me to overcome my revulsion of explicit horror tales.

All in all, I recommend this book as a great selection of science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Summary of 2018

For a few years now I’ve written the daily word count for my creative writing in the planner where I record thoughts, ideas, and schedule reminders. By creative writing I refer to novels, novellas, novelettes, short stories, essays, and afterwords to my short story collections. I do not include articles and blog posts I write as work-for-hire solely to make money to pay bills. If I did, that would add 200,000 to 300,000 more words to the yearly count. In the statistics I am sharing with you now, though, I am speaking only of the writing that comes from my heart and will and calling and career as an artist.

I work every day, seven days a week. I usually start around seven o’clock in the morning, taking breaks to see my son off to school, exercise, take a daily walk, and go shopping. Around one I cook lunch, eat while watching something on Netflix such as an old Star Trek episode, and clean up. After a short nap and some relaxing reading time, I resume work around five and continue until about eight, when I stop to prepare and eat dinner with my son. By nine I’m back at work, and I usually finish around eleven.

In the morning and afternoon I do the hack work that helps pay the bills, and from nine to eleven I do the work I love: my fiction and creative non-fiction. I set myself a quota of a minimum of 500 words a day, and I generally hit or exceed the quota five days out of seven. Often on Sundays I allow myself the wonderful luxury of working on my creative writing first thing in the morning before I do anything else. I have set up a Patreon page to try to generate more steady income so that I can switch over to doing my creative work first thing every day. I haven’t reached that goal yet, but I’m hopeful. If my creative writing completely supported me, I’d probably also up my daily word count to at least 1,000 words. I find that committing myself to a regular word count keeps me working and helps me avoid writer’s block. Jack London famously said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” This sentiment may be crudely expressed, but it’s true.

This is the first year I have thought to compile my statistics into monthly and average yearly totals, and I was quite pleased with the results. It’s amazing what a person can accomplish by persevering and meeting goals day after day, month after month. So here they are: my monthly totals of creative word counts for 2018.

January: 16,176 words. (A great way to start the new year!)

February: 14,567 words.

March: 13,093 words. (During this month I took three days off, from the 29th to the 31st, to attend the Norwescon science fiction convention.)

April: 8,127 words. (The word count is lower because I spent time proofreading my latest novel and preparing my latest short story collection for publication.)

May: 13,064 words.

June: 13,280 words. (During this month I received the first draft of a contract from someone who wants to option film rights to one of my short stories, so I took some time off to study contract law basics, meet with some entertainment lawyers, and write up notes about suggested contract changes.)

July: 11,286 words. (There’s a big gap of several days with no creative words written in the middle of this month. Maybe I just had a tough time coming up with a new idea after finishing the previous story. That happens sometimes.)

August: 10,873 words. (I took some time off here studying the basics of the Patreon website and setting up my new Patreon account.)

September: 6,433 words. (This is the month when I devoted a lot of time to doing a final proofreading of my new novel. It took over a week. Details forthcoming.)

October: 11,539 words. (There’s a week-long gap in this month too. I think it’s just the effort of coming up with a new idea.)

November: 9,998 words. (Gaps of several days in this month too. Regrouping thoughts.)

December: 13,467 words.

To sum up, my total creative word count for the year is 141,903 words, which breaks down to an average of 11,825 words per month.

During 2018, I published a book-length short story collection, Invasive Procedures: Stories. It’s my twenty-second book. Most of the stories were also published individually in digital editions. My short story “Dark Mirrors” appeared in the embossed hardcover collection Alien Invasion: Short Stories sandwiched in between selections by Voltaire and H.G. Wells. A mainstream literary story of mine appeared in the anthology Aftermath: Explorations of Loss and Grief, and a life-after-death story called “Sharon” was selected for the anthology Fantasy for the Throne. I also have four more stories sold to magazine and anthologies but not yet published.

All in all, 2018 was a very productive year. I can’t wait to see what 2019 brings!

Posted in On Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee

Books on the history of science fiction are scarce, so I figured that this new volume on the “golden age of science fiction” was worth checking out. I put that in parentheses because though I realize that a lot of important writing appeared in that era, I think that the most significant work that transformed the field into the respected literary genre that it is today occurred during the so-called “new wave” in the sixties and early seventies. Be that as it may, I started out in science fiction on Heinlein’s books, and Astounding magazine certainly was formative and dominant for many years.

This book doesn’t even pretend to offer a comprehensive look at the entirety of the Golden Age. Instead, it focuses on the four major players mentioned in the subtitle and alternates between their stories. Fascinating stories they are too. At the heart of it all is John W. Campbell, the abrasive, opinionated, bombastic editor of Astounding who helped these writers and others develop in the genre as he published their work. Campbell was a good writer as well as a formative editor. He wrote the story “Who Goes There?” upon which John Carpenter’s famous thriller The Thing is based. His literary contributions are all but forgotten, though, and he is much better known as the editor who helped shape science fiction.

The first half of the book is highly absorbing as it recounts the backgrounds of Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard and their beginnings in the field, their early sales, and triumphs and tragedies in their personal lives. An interesting bit of trivia is that Campbell published a story about an atomic bomb during the closing months of World War II while it was still under development by the U.S. government, and he was investigated by various agencies as a result.

However, just over halfway through, the book takes an unexpected nosedive as it goes into far, far too much detail about Hubbard and Campbell’s experiments with dianetics that eventually led to Hubbard forming the religion of Scientology. It was interesting enough to read how Hubbard stated several times to various groups of people that if you want to make big money, start a religion. It was also interesting to read about Hubbard teaming up with a disciple of Alistair Crowley to study and experiment with spells and enchantment. But when the author Nevala-Lee goes into the development of every nuance of thought that caused Hubbard to refine his theory of dianetics, it’s a little too much. It gets very boring for a few chapters, so much so that I almost put the book down. I had picked it up because I wanted to read about the history of science fiction, not the history of Scientology. It turns out that Astounding played an integral role in the publicizing and popularization of dianetics, and you can’t really get away from it in a history of the magazine and of Campbell.

Fortunately, the book picks up again later and gets back into telling the absorbing history of the science fiction field. As Astounding got sidetracked by supposed fact articles on Campbell’s esoteric interests, new magazines such as Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction entered the arena and published great fiction. Heinlein and Asimov achieved overwhelming success in helping science fiction become a part of the mainstream. And Nevala-Lee also makes the arguable claim that Gene Roddenberry took over Campbell’s torch in further shaping the field for the masses through Star Trek.

All in all, this book is absorbing and interesting, but a good part of it deals with dianetics and Scientology rather than science fiction, so be prepared for that. I kept wishing as I read that the author would write more about many of the famous writers that he only mentions in passing, but that isn’t this book’s intent or focus. It made me hope that someone someday would write that fascinating comprehensive history of science fiction. It would be quite a read.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Book Review: Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen

This brilliant book was slow going for me at first until I understood what the author was up to. I expected it to be a memoir, but it takes more of a journalistic approach. The author received a fellowship to conduct research in Istanbul in 2007, fell in love with Turkey, and has been living there ever since. She writes about American intrusions and interference in Turkey, Greece, Iran, and Afghanistan. In fact, however, the foreign country in the title of the book is the United States.

I don’t know if you have to have lived abroad in some of these countries for awhile to get the point of some of Hansen’s dissertations, but it helps. I could fully empathize with her insistence that only by leaving the United States could she really begin to understand it and its relation to other countries. I lived overseas for thirty-five years. I get it.

My first incursions in the countries that Hansen writes about were as a hippy traveler back in the 1970s. I hitchhiked around Greece, and then struck out across the Mideast, passing through Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan on the strength of my thumb before switching over to public transportation in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Afghanistan was not a war zone back then as it is now. In Kandahar there was a street lined with hippy hotels, and in Kabul was an entire neighborhood known as Freak Street full of cheap hotels and restaurants serving pseudo-western food.

Iran was a bit higher class, as the Shah was in power at the time and a lot of foreign money, much of it from the United States, was pouring in. There was a thriving middle class, and I had no trouble at all getting rides from drivers who would also invite me for meals.

Turkey, on the other hand, I mainly passed through as fast as I could. If truth be told, I found Turkey, especially eastern Turkey, intimidating and inhospitable. On one occasion, I was riding shotgun in the cab of a huge German truck when a gang of villagers burst out of the night shadows and pelted the windshield of the truck with rocks. The glass erupted into starry patterns. The furious driver stopped the truck, cursing loudly, grabbed a tire iron, and ran off into the night after them. And he had just been telling me stories about Turkish villagers lynching truck drivers. I could do nothing but follow, albeit much less enthusiastically. You can read about these and other road adventures in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.

Suzy Hansen writes about these countries more than three decades later. There are few similarities with the lands that I traversed. Wars have been fought in some of them. You definitely can’t hitchhike through Iran and Afghanistan anymore.

Even Greece, from when I first visited, has changed profoundly. I lived in Greece for over fifteen years. In a sense, it’s my equivalent of Hansen’s Istanbul. I might have still been there if it hadn’t been for the economic crash that decimated the country. I had to get my sons out of there or they would have had no future.

Hansen writes of military coups in Turkey, of wars in Iran and Afghanistan, of economic destitution. We are aware of some of the surface information about some of these events. However, Hansen goes far beneath the surface. Her unique perspective as an American abroad and her talent for investigative journalism allow her to analyze the involvement and responsibility of the United States and its past and present foreign policies for these tragedies. Her conclusions carry a ring of truth, but it’s a somber bell tolling for irreparable losses and missed opportunities.

As I said, it is Hansen’s unique perspective that gives this book its authenticity. Not many writers would have been able to pull off this treatise on the ineffectiveness and decay of American foreign policy. It’s a valuable study of American empire-building gone wrong, and I highly recommend it to anyone thirsting for a bracing shot of truth in the midst of this poor sad deluded world.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

I approach the novels of Thomas Pynchon with trepidation, knowing that I’m only going to comprehend and appreciate a portion of their mysteries and treasures. I think the most accessible for me was Inherent Vice. I was drawn to Vineland, which was first published back in 1990, because I had read that it deals with the continuing experiences in the eighties of those that had been caught up in the hippy counterculture. I would say after reading Vineland that it portrays hippies and ex-hippies about as realistically as Marvel Comics present an accurate portrait of angst-ridden teens in the fifties and sixties. Don’t go to this novel looking for any sort of realism. The word exaggeration doesn’t do the book justice either. The book’s plot is sort of thrown out there in a wild chaotic mess of many different things and kind of comes together at the end, although that it doesn’t ever account for most of its flamboyant digressions. While I was reading it, I found myself wondering how I could describe it, and I came up with several comparisons that fit various sections.

Parts of it, for instance, are ridiculously absurd and remind me of an extended Cheech and Chong skit. If you’re familiar at all with the drug culture of the sixties, you’ll remember that Cheech and Chong were a comedic team that took various facets of the hippy experience and exaggerated them for laughs.

Parts of the book come across as similar to a Quentin Tarantino screenplay. You’ll have a whole lot of dialog and explanation, and all of a sudden you’ll be introduced to a team of woman ninjas, or a secret government organization will invade the ninjas’ hidden mountain hideaway, or there will be a bloody act of seemingly random violence.

Some of the wackier parts of the book bring to mind sketches by Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Saturday Night Live. At time you wonder whether Pynchon takes his material seriously and whether he is concerned with developing his characters as complex human beings rather than personages more at home in Zap Comix.

Sometimes the style of the novel reminded me of Doc Brown in Back to the Future refueling his time machine. He opens the engine and throws in any refuse he can grab, it doesn’t matter what it is. That’s how it seems to me that Pynchon handles a lot of the details in Vineland: throw it all in and see what sticks.

In a way, the style of writing also reminds me of the works of Henry Miller. Especially in Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, Miller takes a description or a topic and makes an art form of adding details, one after the other, phrase after phrase, on and on, long after other writers would have given up and gone on to the next plot point. That’s what Pynchon often does in Vineland: he’ll tell you what’s happening, and then add a detail, and then another, and that thought gives way to another, all in a very stream-of-consciousness sort of way. He does this with individual sentences, in paragraphs leading one into another, and sometimes with entire passages. A description of one character leads to their entire life story, and then the life story of another casually mentioned side character, and on and on it goes.

My point? I guess it’s that I can’t really do this novel justice in description. It’s too strange, too offbeat, too different. You’ll just have to find out for yourself.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Books Make Great Gifts

fantasy-1578656_1920

For some traditional reason, after Thanksgiving has come and gone, people commence a search for holiday gifts for family members, relatives, friends, acquaintances, in-laws, outlaws, colleagues, and sometimes total strangers. If you’re looking for fun, sophisticated, lively, intense, flamboyant, and otherwise variegated literary fare, I’ve thus far published twenty-two volumes in a range of genres through Astaria Books. Here are some examples of choice gifts you can bestow upon your loved ones. If you click on the titles, the links are to Amazon, but for lists of links to other marketplaces, head for my Available Books page.

Science Fiction:

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

Bedlam Battle: An Omnibus of the One Thousand Series – In the late 1960s, humans and sympathetic aliens based out of Haight/Ashbury struggle to stop alien-possessed psychopaths intent on a murderous rampage. Four science fiction thrillers in one volume.

Love Children: A Novel – It is the mid-1970s.  The Summer of Love and the Woodstock Music Festival have come and gone.  Into the atmosphere of cynicism and doubt following the wild optimism of the youth revolution the Love Children, raised from birth by benevolent aliens, come home to Earth.  Sexually free, telepathic and honest to the extreme, they are appalled to find that the world they left behind is full of darkness and deceit. As they set about using their extraordinary powers to bring light and unity back to their world, they run up against a sinister alien force intending to keep it in darkness.

Dark Mirrors: Dystopian Tales – These tales offer terrifying glimpses of Earth’s future gone wrong. From the author’s afterword:  “When I postulate dark futures it is not to get you to despair.  When I hold up dark mirrors before your eyes it is not so that you will see the worst in yourself and do yourself in.  Far from it.  Some of our greatest illuminations come from deep dark prose.  Dark literature is not meant to overwhelm us.  It is meant to purge us, to provide catharsis.  It is a cleansing and purifying process.  We must be aware of the evil within before we can clean it out.”

Fantasy:

Caliban’s Children – Content is being siphoned from libraries and replaced with half-truths and lies.  Weather, time, and distances are distorting like images in a funhouse mirror.  People are discovering the ability to morph into animals.  At first it all seems idyllic and magical until a dark power begins to manifest itself, assert control, and demand obedience. Ethan is a university student caught in the midst of a kaleidoscopic confusion he cannot understand.  After journeying into the wilderness seeking answers, he realizes he has to ally himself with the beasts of the Earth and venture into a bizarre, mutating, peril-filled city to rescue his lover and attack the source of the evil.

Fear or Be Feared: Fantasies – In these fourteen weird, surreal, frightening, and fantastic tales, unwary people discover that the world is very different from what they imagined.

Thriller:

The Fantasy Book Murders – After a famous fantasy writer is murdered in his castle-like mansion, two unlikely investigators discover a pattern of similar murders suggesting a serial killer. They begin to research the killings, starting with the most recent and working backwards into the past. Danger mounts as they uncover the backgrounds of the victims and the truth begins to resemble the fantasy writer’s most bizarre and horrific fiction.

Novels of the Counterculture:

The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen – Sarah Tabitha Jones, a twenty-year-old fascinated by the youth culture of the late 1960s, leaves her middle-class home and wanders to a wilderness commune and then to the Haight/Ashbury in search of truth. On the way she encounters many strange characters: bikers, draft dodgers, Vietnam War veterans, peyote worshippers, heroin dealers, Jesus people, feminists, violent anarchists, Black Panthers, and science fiction fans. She experiments with drugs and sex, but at the same time helps out those she can; though often disillusioned, she believes that hippies should unite to create a better world. In the midst of all this she finds herself pregnant. Eight and a half months later, undaunted, belly bulging, she travels to Woodstock for one last attempt at finding the love and unity she seeks. The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen will appeal not only to those who lived through the disconcerting era of the 60s and 70s but to those younger who are curious about what took place back then. It will also resonate with anyone who is idealistic and in search of personal fulfillment, as well as those who simply enjoy a wild tale: sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, sometimes violent, sometimes sexy, always extreme.

Sunflower: A Novel – In early 1970 a new era, the Age of Aquarius, is dawning. Penny, who adopted the name of Sunflower on the way to the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, attends another rock concert touted as Woodstock West, at Altamont Speedway near San Francisco. Seeking to enhance the transcendent experience, she instead comes away covered in the blood of a man brutally stabbed to death in front of the stage. Has the new youth experience descended from idealism to anarchy? Confused and disillusioned, Sunflower embarks upon an odyssey across an America torn by violent anti-Vietnam War protests, racial tension, and gangs of hard drug dealers. From a search for a shared social experience it becomes a personal quest for fulfillment that leads her on a journey across continents.

Memoirs:

World Without Pain: The Story of a Search – In the 1970s, after the Altamont Rock Festival, the Manson Family cult murders, and the fiasco of the Vietnam War many young people, disillusioned by the hippy movement, began to leave their homelands and travel to the far places of the world.  Hoping to find drugs, sex, freedom, and excitement, they more often were confronted with destitution, despair, disease, loneliness, and culture shock. As a young writer wishing to break out of the familiar rut in which he was stagnating, Walters hit the road during this time, first to Europe, then onward to the Indian Subcontinent.  He sampled Buddhism and radical Christianity; he wandered alone in the Himalayas; he listened to strange gurus spouting stranger doctrines; he watched the people around him deteriorating and dying in the lands of the East.  As he traveled onward he became fascinated with the road itself, and determined to discover its secrets. He wondered what it was that gave the road its alluring power, and he forsook everything else to find out. His story will appeal to those who lived through the turmoil of the 60s and 70s, to those who are hungering after spiritual fulfillment, to writers and other artists in search of their voice and their inspiration, and to anyone who loves a true story of adventure and excitement in strange lands.

After the Rosy-Fingered Dawn: A Memoir of Greece – Greece has always been regarded as the birthplace of western civilization and a Mediterranean paradise.  In The Iliad and The Odyssey Homer uses the magical epithet rosy-fingered dawn to describe the sunrise over a land of myth, fascination, and mystery.  But when preconceptions and illusions are swept aside, what is Greece really like? John Walters has lived in Greece for over fifteen years.  He has hitchhiked over many of its roads; traveled by camper; journeyed by plane, boat, bus, car, taxi, motorcycle, and on foot.  He has lived and worked and raised a family among Greeks.  He offers insight from an intimate perspective on aspects of Greek society and culture of which tourists are unaware. Many have visited Greece and afterwards acknowledged that the country has profoundly changed them.  This memoir is for those who feel something special when they think of Greece and Greeks, those for whom Greece holds a special thrall, those who have visited and have their own memories of the place, and those who would like to visit someday and know that when they do they will obtain new insight, new clarity, and will never be the same again.

America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad – In 1976 John Walters left the United States in search of adventure and literary inspiration.  He lived for many years in India, Bangladesh, Italy, and Greece.  He married and had five sons.  Finally, faced with the economic catastrophe in Greece and the lack of opportunities for his sons, he returned to the land of his birth.  Without home, without job, without resources, he confronted his own country as if for the first time. This is a memoir of someone who, late in life, was forced to leave everything behind and start fresh in what for him had become a new land.  It will appeal to those who are confronted with major life changes in these troubled economic times; to those who, though they may desire rest and retirement, must continue toiling to make ends meet; for those who desire insight into the vast, multifaceted culture of the United States from a fresh perspective, unencumbered by familiarity.

Writing as a Metaphysical Experience – From the author’s introduction: “For me, writing is metaphysical because it is inseparable from who I am and my conception of the universe and my place in it.  My interpretation of writing goes far beyond the definitions of hobby, job, or career – it is rather in the nature of a calling.  It is something that blossomed from within me and, though invisible to instrumentation, has been as integrally a part of me as my flesh, bones, and internal organs.  How this transpired and how it manifests itself is the subject of this book. This is not a how-to book on writing, although in its course I offer many practical tips and suggestions.  It’s more like a travelogue, a story of the life’s journey on which my writing has led me.” This journey has led Walters on a decades-long quest from the United States to Europe to the Indian Subcontinent and back in the pursuit of voice, inspiration, and literary excellence.  On the way, he has written and published novels, short story collections, essay collections, memoirs, and numerous individual novellas, novelettes, short stories, and essays.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Book Review: India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking by Anand Giridharadas

There are several points I want to make about this book. Let’s start by saying that I probably know India more intimately than most western readers. I spent ten years living on the Indian Subcontinent. As I read this book, I would often reminisce about certain instances that I haven’t thought about in years. I found myself attempting to recall the places I had been: six years in Bangladesh, mostly in Dhaka but also in Chittagong; six months in Bombay, now known as Mumbai; six months in Madras; six months in Kodaikanal, a lovely lakeside town in the mountains of southwestern India; six months in Goa, a former Portuguese Catholic enclave on India’s western coast; six months in Katmandu, Nepal, in the midst of a bitterly cold winter; and other long stays in Calcutta, Shantiniketan, Sri Lanka, and other places. I hitchhiked the Indian highways; sometimes my only friends or acquaintances were Indian and I would go days without speaking with another foreigner.

Recently I read a dynamic book called Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Giridharadas, and when I realized that he had also written a book on the new India, I was eager to read it. This book was not what I expected. I supposed that it would be more comprehensive and objective, a thorough look at the political and social evolution of the entire country, but it’s a memoir about the author’s impressions of India when he came to work there as a correspondent. He had been raised in the United States and was a U.S. citizen, and until he moved there for work, his only exposure to the culture consisted of weeks-long forays with his parents and sister to visit relatives. The book is part memoir, as I said, but it’s also in the form of a sort of extended magazine article. Giridharadas draws his picture of the country through comprehensive portraits of about half a dozen people he encountered mainly in western and northwestern India. Interesting, yes, but it doesn’t really give a well-rounded picture of the overall country.

Giridharadas constantly contrasts India as it was and India as it is now, but honestly, his descriptions of present-day India seem little different from the way that I remember it from my travels. True, now the country allows Coca Cola, MacDonald’s, and other foreign companies to set up shop, whereas when I traveled in India only local brands were allowed. Campa Cola – “the great Indian taste” – was all you could find to slake your thirst. But the society was restrictive then as it is now, and families were tight as they are now. I’m sure that Giridharadas is right in all the subtle and not so subtle changes that he delineates – after all, I haven’t visited India since the eighties. But a lot of what I read brought back memory after memory.

Another thought that occurred to me as I read about Indian family life – the big interfering families and so on – was its similarity to rural Greek life. Many Greeks outside of the big cities live in multigenerational units with the grandparents, the parents, and the children all together under one raucous roof. I remember visiting my Greek wife’s uncle’s home in the mountains southwest of Thessaloniki, where the grandparents lived on the original ground floor of the house, the parents lived in the newly-constructed upstairs, and another floor was being built above that for the eldest daughter and her husband when she got married. If I recall correctly, she wasn’t even engaged yet.

Anyway, this book is interesting in its depiction of a fascinating culture that is very different and at the same time very relatable. Drawbacks of the culture include a lack of personal freedoms and privacy, although Giridharadas assures the reader that the situation is rapidly evolving. Advantages include a wealth of loving support. All in all, India Calling is well worth reading for its depiction of one of the world’s oldest cultures in a state of flux and growth.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment