Book Review: Best of Times, Worst of Times: Contemporary American Short Stories From the New Gilded Age Edited by Wendy Martin and Cecelia Tichi

I was in the mood to read short stories, and I found this collection during a random search through the Seattle Public Library database.  It had a lot of well-regarded authors in it, so why not give it a try?  When I picked it up, it struck me as the kind of volume an English teacher would assign to young people in a college literature course.

It turns out, though, that this book has a good selection of short stories in it – a better selection than in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, which I also read fairly recently.  100 Years purports to be a selection of the best of the best, but it obviously leans towards name recognition regardless of the quality of the individual stories in its selections, while this volume goes by sociological and cultural relevance over the past few decades.

I have to confess I didn’t really get what the editors were going on about in comparing contemporary America with the era of history known as the Gilded Age, but no matter.  It’s not really important as far as a reader’s appreciation of the individual pieces or even the collection as a whole is concerned.  The stories touch on family life, gender, race relations, jobs, immigration, the prison system, relationships between old and young, and all sorts of other pertinent topics.  Most of them are extremely well written, and all of them qualify as stories in that they have clearly defined characters and recognizable plots.  I mention this point because I was a bit put off by a best-of-the-year collection I read recently in which about half the stories weren’t really stories at all but rather literary exercises that didn’t lead anywhere.

One of my favorites in this collection is “Gogol” by Jhumpa Lahiri.  It’s a segment of her novel The Namesake, but it stands well on its own as a short story.  I enjoy everything that Lahiri writes, but I think that The Namesake is her weakest work.  It’s too long; it goes off on too many tangents that don’t directly affect the story.  In my opinion, the movie manages to focus the main points of the narrative better than the book.  But this section is superb.

Another stand-out story is “Near Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera” by Ben Fountain.  A young American student who’s into ornithology is kidnapped by radicals in Columbia, and during his long captivity he begins to appreciate his unique opportunity to study the local rare wildlife.  In the end, he doesn’t want to leave.  I have found that the stories of George Saunders almost always please, and “COMMCOMM” in this volume is a near-future science fiction tale that turns into a wild supernatural tragic comedy.  “View From a Headlock” by Jonathan Lethem, an obviously autobiographical piece, tells the tale of a lonely frightened young boy who grows up in Brooklyn as one of few whites in a mixed-racial neighborhood.

These are just a few examples.  As I said, the overall quality of the stories in this collection is higher than that in many best-of-the-year volumes.  The original dates of publication range from 1982 to 2006, so they’re fairly contemporary, and the themes they deal with without exception certainly remain relevant.

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Snapping Out of It

We’re going to conduct a literary experiment, you and I.  Well, in fact you’re going to play the role of observer and I’m going to conduct it.  We’re going to see if I can snap myself out of the post-surgery doldrums by writing about it.

Yes, about a month ago I had to go into the hospital for surgery and stay there overnight.  Most of the hospital stay was very relaxing, in fact: a sort of vacation in which I could kick back and let go of all the day to day responsibilities and stresses I usually face.  There’s not much I can do about them anyway, is there, if I am on a hospital bed unable to move, a catheter shoved up inside me?  On the day of my discharge, though, the catheter was removed, which was exceedingly painful, and I was told that I had to establish a normal flow before I went home.  It was a suspenseful time, touch and go for a while, as I gulped down bottle after bottle of water and blood gradually gave way to something approximating urine.

Anyway, I don’t want to gross you out too much, so we won’t go into any more details of that at the moment.

Once home, I was unable to exercise, unable to lift heavy loads, unable to increase my speed to anything faster than a slow walk.  The first day after I got back, I couldn’t sit at my desk at all.  I had to move my computer and whatever other odds and ends I needed to my bed and work there propped up with pillows. Afterwards for a long time I couldn’t sit at my desk for very long without discomfort.  I tried putting cushions on the chair, sitting sideways on one leg and then the other, but the only thing that helped was to get up frequently and walk around.  So I did.  I did whatever it took to get myself back to at least a semblance of normalcy.  I couldn’t afford to take time off.

And I progressed, slowly and steadily.  The first week or so I had strong pain medication to help me.  I could understand why people got addicted to that stuff.  After I’d take one, a fuzzy warm feeling would cluster like a cushion around reality.  I kept to the schedule and didn’t take more than I was supposed to, but I did begin to look forward more and more to medication time.

Within a few days of my return I could walk a mile a day again through the neighborhood, as I used to do, although it took longer than before.  Within a few weeks I felt my strength returning, and two and a half weeks after surgery I resumed most of my three day a week yoga and calisthenics routine, although I had to leave off a few of the most strenuous exercises.

The thing that saved me along the way was the writing.  Since the beginning of the year, I have got into the habit of writing at least five hundred words of creative prose first thing in the morning before I do anything else.  I have kept it up seven days a week except for the day of and the day after surgery, when it was impossible.

It’s now been almost a month since my discharge from the hospital, and I feel much stronger.  I can walk faster; I can lift heavier loads, I can exercise without discomfort.  But some sort of psychic funk, some sort of mental unease, has remained.  The experiment I referred to at the beginning of this essay has to do with that lingering shadow.

I always thought, when I was young and in the midst of my adventures on the road in a multitude of countries and circumstances, that my experiences then would be enough to satisfy me when I was older.  I could look back at what I had been through, what I had accomplished, and masticate the memories the way an herbivore coughs up and re-chews partially digested plant matter while out to pasture.

It doesn’t work like that.  Sure, I have had these experiences, and I have written about them.  It’s good to have had them – much better than never to have attempted them and to have lived in a state of regret for deeds undone.  But I find myself longing for the open road sometimes, to stand at the edge of oceans, to hike through forests, to climb mountains – like Bilbo says to Gandalf at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring before he takes off again: “I want to see mountains, Gandalf…”

And yet my responsibilities, and my finances, and my health – they all keep me here instead.

And the experiment?  Hypothesis:  Can writing about it snap me out of my discouragement?

Yes.  Yes, it can.  And it has, for now.  I sure as hell better keep it up every day – to keep the system properly cleaned out.

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Book Review: The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers: Third Edition by Christopher Vogler

You may have heard of a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.  You may have even heard that George Lucas drew heavily on Campbell’s theories when he was creating the story lines for Star Wars.  I’m sure you must have also heard of the psychologist Carl G. Jung and his dream theories.  Adapting these concepts to the writing and story editing of screenplays forms the basis of this book.  The writer has been working on Hollywood productions, particularly for Disney and 20th Century Fox, for decades, and has a lot of insight into the process of creating workable screenplays.  The first edition of this book was published in 1992, the second in 1998, and the third in 2007.  Each time Vogler added material that he considered pertinent to his main theme.

The two sections that contain the core of the book focus on the archetypes of character and the stages of a hero’s journey.  These are the parts that are invaluable not only for screenwriters, but also for novelists, short story writers, playwrights, and anyone else who deals with fictional stories.  The appendices that were added on in the last third or so of the book do not carry the same weight, and you can take or leave them.

Vogler begins with an examination of the archetypes of character.  This section was so fascinating for me that I started taking page after page of notes.  I couldn’t help it.  I felt like a kid in college.  There was so much to read and absorb and I didn’t want to miss anything.  Near the end of the section I stopped, realizing that it would be much easier to simply buy a copy of the book for myself (I had borrowed it from the library) than to write a whole booklet of notes.

According to Vogler (and Campbell) the eight archetypes of story character include hero, mentor, threshold guardian, herald, shapeshifter, shadow, ally, and trickster.  It’s fairly obvious how these various types work in science fiction, fantasy, and adventure films, but Vogler also gives examples of how these principles apply in dramas, romances, and comedies.  He clarifies that in various stages of a story characters may switch from archetype to archetype or display characteristics of more than one archetype at a time.  These outlines are not strict rules that writers must abide by, but rather ideas that illustrate how stories draw from common elements in the mythic wells of world culture.

In the next section on the hero’s journey, Vogler again emphasizes that these stages can be mixed, eliminated, or used out of order.  These guidelines serve the writer, not vice-versa.  The stages of a hero’s journey include the ordinary world, the call to adventure, refusal of the call, meeting with the mentor, crossing the first threshold, tests and allies and enemies, approach to the inmost cave, ordeal, reward, the road back, resurrection, and return with the elixir.  Obviously I cannot go into a description of every detail.  If you’re a writer, read the book.  And if you’re not a writer but simply someone who loves story, read the book.

I want to emphasize that Vogler clarifies that these outlines are not meant to constitute a formula for story, but rather as guidelines to help you along the writer’s journey, which is a form of the hero’s journey.

As for the rest of the book, some of it is interesting, and some of it not so much.  There is one fascinating section in which Vogler uses the archetypes and stages of the journey to explain several popular movies such as Titanic, The Lion King, Pulp Fiction, The Full Monty, and Star Wars.  Of particular interest is how he explains the mythic structure and characters in Pulp Fiction.  Other parts of the appendixes such as the analyses of polarities and catharsis read more like college lectures: slow going compared to the rest of the book.

But never mind all that.  Writers, read this book for the presentation of the archetypes and the stages of the hero’s journey.  Take out of it what seems valuable to you, and then proceed to break any of the rules or guidelines that you see fit.  It’s still good to be aware of the patterns before you lay waste to them.

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A Ray of Hope

When I am unable to write, I begin to become discouraged and then to despair.  I have to write.  It’s my talent, my calling.  If I do not write regularly, I feel I am not fulfilling my life’s function.  And when I speak of my writing, I do not include the articles that I write solely for money.  I am talking about my creative work, whether it is novels, short stories, memoirs, book reviews, or essays.

My goal, my desire, my dream for years now has been to do my creative work full time.  For that to happen it has to be able to support me and those who depend on me.  Alas, although I receive income from the sale of short stories and from book royalties, this income is far from sufficient to meet our needs.  The article work must continue, at least for the time being.

The problem is, the article work saps my creative strength.  It is still writing, even though I am not writing what I choose.  Over the past several years, I have tried a number of things to be able to get in enough article writing to survive, but also to not neglect my creative work.

In Yakima about three years ago, I decided to try to get up an hour earlier and write a thousand words before beginning the mercenary work of the day.  That lasted a week or two before I collapsed in exhaustion.  Then I tried getting up normal time, which was already very early, and writing a thousand words before I began the day’s work of article writing, but I found that the creative work took up too much time, and I was not able to write enough articles to pay the bills.

For a time, perhaps several weeks, I stopped the creative work completely, but as I mentioned above, this got me down.  I eventually settled on the solution of writing at least five hundred words in the late evening after I had finished everything else.  That’s the schedule I have been keeping for the past few years, and out of it I have got at least three novels, several novellas, and numerous short stories and essays.

However, it was never my ideal.  Sometimes I have been just too tired, and I have had to forego writing the five hundred words.  Sometimes I had to proofread, or do layout, or market stories, and these activities had to take up that time at the end of the day.

I was out walking just a few days before the close of 2016, wondering what I could do to improve my situation, to get closer to my goals, when it hit me.  Why not try writing the five hundred words first thing in the morning instead of in the evening?  There is a vast difference between writing five hundred and a thousand words.  Five hundred words I can manage in the first great mental rush of the day, while when I write a thousand I have to take breaks, rest, and begin again several times.  My ideal life schedule is to put my creative writing first.  Perhaps I cannot write a thousand or fifteen hundred words a day, which I would probably do if the creative work supported us better, but I can at least do five hundred words.

And so I have been doing since the beginning of the year, since January 2nd.  I have missed a day or two, primarily when I had to stay at the hospital overnight for surgery, but for the most part I have been keeping up with this new schedule seven days a week.  Although usually I manage just over five hundred words, at times I have written over eight or nine hundred.  It’s thrilling for me to write my stories when my mind is at its freshest and sharpest.  I get in my minimum word count, and then no matter what else happens in the day, that at least is done.  In the evenings, I can still do the proofreading, marketing, and other extra work that goes into the creative process, and if I am tired, I can leave that work aside, knowing that my basic word count is already finished, and spend a little extra time with my sons.  I still have the ultimate goal of doing nothing but my creative work, but this has turned into a great victory, a great forward step.  I hope I can keep it up.

In conclusion, I say to other writers:  Be fluid, be flexible.  If something doesn’t work, try something else.  The main thing is to never give up.  Never.

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Book Review: The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 Edited by Karen Joy Fowler and John Joseph Adams

In contemplating the merits of this new volume of the best speculative fiction of the year 2016, I am inevitably drawn to a comparison to Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Third Annual Collection, which I read a few months ago.  Dozois emphasizes only science fiction and does not consider fantasy.  His collection is also three or four times larger than the volume in question.  However, these are not the most important differences.  The main thing that sets the Dozois anthology apart from this one is that almost all of the short stories, novelettes, and novellas he selects are heavy on story, while less than half of the choices in the Fowler and Adams collection are story-oriented.  In fact, most of the selections are not stories at all, or at least qualify as stories only on the slimmest of pretexts.  Instead, they are dazzling literary exercises, flamboyant language dances, plot synopses, intricate lists and descriptions – but not stories.

I have no problem with literary exercises in the guise of story – I’m a great fan of Borges – and certainly the short form is the place to experiment.  What I object to in this volume is the preponderance of such prose.  Less than half of the selections are actually stories in the traditional sense, with well-developed characters and beginnings, middles, and endings.  I think for this reason that this anthology is imbalanced.  I don’t mind that an anthology has a few less coherent or experimental stories mixed in with the more traditional fare – even the Dozois collection has a few such pieces.  However, on my part, I prefer stories that are stories – that evoke a sense of wonder as I follow the journey of the main character or characters.  The best of the New Wave writers back in the late sixties and early seventies, the era when I became enamored of speculative fiction, such as Roger Zelazny and Samuel Delaney and Robert Silverberg, experimented heavily with prose styles, but they almost always took care to tell a recognizable story as well.  I wouldn’t like the field to get too far away from that.

As I said, I have no objection to most of the stories in question in this volume that lean towards experimentation instead of substance – it’s just that there are too many of them.

Having said that, I have to add that there are several great stories in this book.  A few are duplicates from Dozois’s anthology, notably Nick Wolven’s “No Placeholder for You, My Love,” about virtual personalities attempting to escape an endless cycle of parties, and Kelly Link’s “The Game of Smash and Recovery,” about a crashed sentient spaceship who finally remembers her mission.  “Ambiguity Machines: An Examination” by Vandana Singh is an extremely strong story set in the exotic locales of Mongolia, Italy, and West Africa about people who discover strange devices that alter time and how their lives are changed as a result.  “Three Bodies at Mitanni” by Seth Dickinson is a fascinating hard science fiction tale about a team of analysts that follow a human colonial effort into deep space to determine if the resulting civilizations deserve to continue evolving or perish. “Rat Catcher’s Yellows” by Charlie Jane Anders offers an absorbing look at the effect of gaming on dementia.

Yes, no doubt there are some first-rate stories in this book.  And my favorites may not be yours; that’s the beauty of diversity in literature.  If all best of the year editors thought the same and had the same predilections, the volumes would be identical and there would be no need for so many of them.  So if your tastes run towards stories that are light on plot and heavy on experimentation, this volume may be your cup of tea.  If you prefer stories with more coherent plots and characters, you’ll find many more of those in Dozois’s anthology.

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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.

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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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