Book Review: Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur by Arthur Hoyle

I have to make something clear from the outset: I don’t read Henry Miller’s works very often anymore. However, when I was young, his writings were influential in propelling me out onto the road to find my own voice as a writer, along with the writings of Jack Kerouac, Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, and others. And with me, it was never about the bawdy and explicit sexual descriptions that got Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn banned for decades in the United States, England, and many other countries. For me it was all about the freedom, and of course Miller’s incomparably poetic flowing and intricately descriptive language. It was about his willingness to abandon everything else in pursuit of his dream of becoming a writer, his joyful poverty, and his literary fecundity despite extremely abject living conditions. If you are a writer, you write, despite the outward circumstances of your existence. And if your works are despised and rejected, you continue to write as best you can.

I’m not saying that Miller led an exemplary life in all respects; in fact, his personal life was often a disaster. He frequently made very bad choices regarding his finances and his relationships with women. The thing that drew me to this new biography was the fact that it focuses on the particular portion of his life when he returned from Europe and sought to reestablish himself in the United States, in his case in Big Sur, a remote, beautiful section of the California coast south of the San Francisco Bay area. The Tropics books had already been published in France and banned in the United States. He felt misunderstood and ignored as an author, yet he persevered in working on the three-volume autobiographical novel that was eventually published as the Rosy Crucifixion. I can relate to this; in fact, I’ve written my own memoir about my reactions in returning to the United States in America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad.

As I started reading Hoyle’s book, I was unsure about whether I really wanted to get into it or not. As I said, I don’t read Miller much anymore, and raising a family has caused my viewpoint to shift, or let’s say expand from the mindset I had when I first set out on the road to follow in the footsteps of my literary mentors. What drew me in was the portrait of a writer who was ignored despite his talent, who had to continually choose to keep working although he had strong societal and political forces arrayed against the books he was producing. I think that if Henry Miller were alive and writing today, he would have bypassed the traditional publishers that gave him so much grief and self-published his own work. He might have had a blog too as another means of putting his work out into the world. As it was, he felt very frustrated at the official thwarting of his literary endeavors for much of his life, and he only attained celebrity in his old age.

I emphasize again that much of Henry Miller’s personal life and literary output was far less than exemplary, and yet he made an important contribution to world literature in the liberating clarity of his idiosyncratic personal voice. I’m glad that I discovered him back when I did. He definitely was instrumental in setting free my own distinctive voice as a writer. And this book is an absorbing and interesting study of the struggles of a flawed but fascinating anomaly on the world literary scene.

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Book Review: Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar

This novel has a terrifically compelling premise. In an alternate world, instead of settling in Israel, disenfranchised Jews are given a homeland by the British government in East Africa. I have to admit that I brought some expectations and hopes into the reading of Unholy Land because I had recently finished reading the superb novel Everfair by Nisi Shawl, which posits the establishment of a homeland for native-born whites and freed slaves in central Africa. Shawl’s book goes deep into the lives of the characters, their backgrounds, their motivations, and their dreams, so that the reader becomes profoundly invested in the story as it sweeps forward through decades and generations. I was expecting something similar from Tidhar: a comprehensive look at a unique and fascinating society.

Tidhar, however, takes the different approach of action and adventure. Thus the pace of the novel is rapid, but the characters are not explored in depth. In fact, they remain little-understood enigmas rushing pell-mell through one crisis after another, diving and sliding through multiple universes whose significance and histories they do not comprehend. It makes for an entertaining chase through an East African backdrop reminiscent of present day Israel and Palestine, but leaves little time to become invested in the characters or the society to which they may or may not belong.

One of the strengths of the novel is its attention to background details such as the flora, fauna, sights, and smells of the African towns and countryside. Tidhar has lived in Africa and in Israel, and he gives these elements impressive verisimilitude. It’s also always refreshing to read speculative fiction stories set in countries and cultures that are not the United States. Yet as I mentioned, Tidhar only skims the surface of the fascinating society he has created in the frantic rush of his characters to avoid doom and destruction. There is also no mention of why or how these strange parallel universes exist – which I suppose is fine, as enigmas and mysteries have always existed and will probably continue to turn up as we further explore the universe.

One aspect of the book that didn’t work for me and in fact I found annoying is the way that Tidhar switches between first, second, and third person when he focuses on the three main characters. Rather than serving any particular purpose for plot, style, or characterization, it’s just there. I think the story would have been easier to follow without this contrivance. Instead of immersing me further, it jarred me out of the continuity so that sometimes I struggled to follow what was going on. I’m not saying it’s wrong generally to mix these points of view; I’ve used the device myself in short stories. I’m just saying that it doesn’t work here in this novel. I recall the great master of stylistic flourishes such as multiple tenses and points of view, Robert Silverberg. There was a time during the New Wave in science fiction in the late 60s and early 70s when it seemed that most of the stories he published were complex stylistically, and yet there was always a reason for the embellishments and they always made the stories easier to grasp, not more difficult.

All in all, Unholy Land is a flawed yet very entertaining book, still well worth reading in spite of its defects.

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Book Review: The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos by Christian Davenport

I came across this book by chance in the library, and it’s one of those fortuitous accidents that don’t come along often. It’s a terrific book: exciting, relevant, eye-opening, and mind-blowing. It’s about the takeover of the space race by private industry in the last couple of decades after a long apathetic period of inertia by NASA, whose crowning achievement was all the way back in 1969 when the first Apollo astronauts landed on the moon.

The main players in this epic drama are all billionaires with lifelong dreams of going to space. They include Elon Musk, who started up SpaceX; Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who quietly created a space-bound company known as Blue Origins; Richard Branson, whose space faring company is called Virgin Galactic; and Paul Allen, whose Stratolaunch airplane, the largest aircraft ever built, is designed to launch rockets and satellites into space. These dynamic men have used their substantial fortunes in part to realize the dream of space tourism and the colonization of the solar system. When they began they encountered derision, but in time they earned respect as they started to make good on their promises. SpaceX already contracts with NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station and soon will likely be carrying astronauts as well; it’s also planning a trip around the moon with tourists aboard. Blue Origins and Virgin Galactic are also very near the point at which they will take on tourists for thrilling suborbital space flights.

The ultimate goals of these young upstart companies are to commercialize the solar system: ferry supplies and establish colonies on the moon and Mars, mine the asteroids for raw materials, and set up legions of satellites in orbit with a vision of interconnecting every corner of the globe. Bezos, for instance, says that ultimately the Earth should be as lovely and refreshing as a park, and heavy industry will all move off-planet. Perhaps not in his lifetime, but if there’s anything that’s evident as you read this book, it’s that these men have a much larger vision than immediate returns.

Interspersed throughout this fascinating account are snippets of the history of the original space race, but really this story is about the billionaires themselves and how their backgrounds and circumstances made it possible for them to take these bold steps to the stars. Each of them has a back story of absorption in news accounts of the early space programs and an abiding interest in the classics of science fiction. Once they were in financial positions to be able to do so, their minds naturally and irrevocably turned to what they could do to reach out beyond our planet.

To make space flight common, viable, and affordable, the men who founded these companies realized that they’d have to radically cut costs. To this end, they designed rocket stages that, instead of being tossed into the ocean after use, could be landed safely and reused. Their bootstrap method of operation not only saved money, but also saved time, by bringing the innovation that had helped the companies that made their fortunes succeed into the pioneering of this new frontier.

Read this book. It’s envisioning, heartening, and offers a wonderful look into the baby stages of the adventure of exploring our solar system, galaxy, and the universe beyond.

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Check Out My Patreon Page!

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My Patreon page went live in early September 2018, so come on over and have a look. Here’s a link to it: John Walters Creates Fiction and Memoirs. You can also find it by clicking on the icon labeled “Become a Patron” at the top of the right column on this website. Here’s the text of the introduction:

I’m John Walters, and I need more time to reflect and write. I want to write my stories and memoirs full-time for the rest of my life, and I need your help.

I’m a full-time freelance writer, but because income from book royalties and short story sales is erratic, most of my time is taken up in researching and writing articles for which I get paid more promptly than for fiction. My fiction and memoir writing is then relegated to the late night hours when I’ve already put in about ten hours of writing other people’s blog posts. I often wonder how much more I could accomplish if I put my full energy during those peak hours into writing my own work.

Despite the strictures on my time and energy, I’ve managed to produce seven novels, the last of which is in the final prepublication stages. My published science fiction and fantasy novels include Love Children, After the Fireflood, and Caliban’s Children. Additionally, The One Thousand Omnibus is a collection of four science fiction novellas featuring aliens teaming up with hippies to save the world. I’ve also written two mainstream novels about the hippy era of the late sixties and early seventies, The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen and Sunflower, as well as a noir thriller called The Fantasy Book Murders.

Short stories are perhaps my first literary love. I love reading them and I love writing them. I’ve published over seventy short stories, and my seventh collection, Invasive Procedures, was recently released.

When I was in my early twenties back in the mid-1970s, I set out on the road to find my voice as a writer. I ended up staying overseas and didn’t return to the States for thirty-five years. These adventures gave rise to my memoirs. World Without Pain: The Story of a Search tells of my experiences on the road as a hippy traveler. I write about my many years traveling and raising a family in southern Europe in After the Rosy-Fingered Dawn: A Memoir of Greece. When I finally returned to the country of my birth in 2012, I experienced great culture shock, the subject of my memoir America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad. I’ve also written about my struggles as a writer in Writing as a Metaphysical Experience.

My initial goal of $1,000 per month will by no means cover all my expenses. Rents are expensive here in Seattle, and I’m also a single parent. What it will do, however, is free me from some of the hackwork article writing drudgery so that I can follow a schedule that allows me to devote some of my best hours to writing my prime work: the fiction and memoirs. If I meet this first goal, I may set another that will set me completely free from the hack writing. Ultimately, I’d like to be able to hit the road again, at least part time, and thrill you with reports of wonders in exotic and mysterious lands.

Month by month, as we take this journey together, I plan to post short stories, excerpts from my memoirs, project updates, and other literary treasures to edify, entertain, and delight you.

Once again, here’s the link: John Walters Creates Fiction and Memoirs. If you want to help support me in my fiction and memoir writing, it’s very easy to set up an account and become a patron of the arts.

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Book Review: The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels by Jon Meacham

This is a very topical book. As I write this in mid-2018, it is exceedingly relevant. However, it is also universal and timeless. Although it’s obviously a reaction to the present state of chaos in the United States – and the writer makes it clear that it is – it manages to make its point while hardly mentioning the current political players. Ultimately, it’s reassuring; at least that’s the effect it has on me. It let me know that this sort of thing has happened before and it has been overcome and defeated by the noble aspirations that have shaped this nation.

The “better angels” in the title is a reference to the first inaugural speech by Abraham Lincoln in 1861 in which he says, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

To reassure his readers that the nobler ideals of America will ultimately prevail, Meacham takes us through a history of the presidency, pointing out some of the unworthy and ineffective examples but focusing on key moments when honorable, courageous, albeit imperfect and deeply flawed men, stood up and used the burden and power of the presidential office to effect change for the better. He speaks of Lincoln, of course, who despite the trauma of the Civil War and much opposition stood firm for the emancipation of the slaves. He writes of Ulysses S. Grant and his struggles with the post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan, about the exuberant Teddy Roosevelt and the vision of the United States as a great melting pot of immigrants, of Woodrow Wilson and the struggle for women’s suffrage, of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the reforms of the New Deal during the Great Depression. Meacham doesn’t try to sugar-coat the issues, though, or present these men as shining saints. He brings out their defects as well. Teddy Roosevelt, for instance, was a tremendous egoist and believed in white superiority. F.D.R. has the deep stain of the internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II to his shameful record. Meacham emphasizes that despite their flaws and mistakes, these men rose to the occasion during crucial historical times and stood up for the American democratic ideal.

There is a long section on one of the sordid periods of American history: the time of Joseph McCarthy and the Communist paranoia that gripped the nation at his instigation. The parallels to the present illogical paranoia about immigrants are uncanny. McCarthy seldom bothered with facts in his analyses of social situations; instead, he used exaggerations, distortions, and outright lies. Eventually his hyperbole caught up with him and he died in alcoholic disgrace.

The final major presidential story in the book concerns Lyndon Johnson and his struggles to attain equal rights under the law for African Americans. He ascended to the office unexpectedly upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy. At the time, Kennedy had left a civil rights bill in Congress. Johnson decided that regardless of personal political ramifications he would see that bill become law. He further fought for and had passed a voting rights act. In seeing these measures through to completion, he worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who at the same time was crusading for civil rights. Meacham outlines the situation in the South at that time and King’s crusade in relation to the controversial decisions that Johnson, a southerner, made in the White House.

All in all, though this book deals with some of the most sordid episodes of American history, it is ultimately comforting. It brings out that the ideals for which the country was founded have always prevailed despite the machinations of petty men, and ultimately hints that they will continue to prevail.

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Book Reviews: The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection Edited by Gardner Dozois and Best Science Fiction of the Year Volume 3 Edited by Neil Clarke

Although I read the Clarke anthology and wrote its review first, I’m going to start here with the Dozois book. Gardner Dozois died recently, so this is the last time he’ll compile the best science fiction of the year for our edification. I have read several of his collections and, like most anthologies, I have usually found them a mixed bag of stories I think are great, stories I like, stories that are so-so, and a few stories I don’t care for at all. This last effort, though, is excellent, possibly the finest best of the year he produced – or at least the finest of the ones I have read. A fitting epitaph to a great career in the science fiction field. Every story is good to excellent, and the selection is wide-ranged and touches on many of the numerous facets of the science fiction universe. The Clarke collection, by contrast, as I explain below, is good but imbalanced, leaning heavily towards one type of story to the exclusion of others.

Both books have one immense flaw, which is more pronounced in the Dozois collection – so that I almost returned it to the library without reading it. (Glad I didn’t.) Although the book is an enormous doorstopper, the print is miniscule and the fonts are printed lightly instead of well-defined. It’s very hard on the eyes. My glasses couldn’t cope. I had to take them off and hold the book an inch from my face to be able to make out the words. I would have been much happier if the books had had half the number of stories in a larger and darker font.

Both books had several stories in common, including most of the stories I mention below in my appraisal of the Clarke volume. This is to be expected. The main difference, as I said, is that the Dozois book is much more open and encompassing in range of theme and subject matter. Clarke is just starting out as a best of the year editor, so hopefully he’ll improve as he goes along. Dozois, of course, has been long acknowledged as one of the greatest editors the science fiction field ever produced.

And now on to the review of the Clarke anthology:

Each “best of” editor brings their own particular tastes to their selections. Overall I would say that the proportion of stories I loved, stories I kind of liked, stories I tolerated, and stories I didn’t care for was about the same as most “best of” anthologies I’ve read. Early on I felt there is an unwieldy preponderance of interstellar stories, especially about multigenerational starships, which focus too much on the science and info-dumps of explanation and not enough on story. Most of the book, in fact, deals with space drama, space warfare, space politics, and, as I mentioned, intergenerational spaceships. Not to say that’s a bad thing; one of the best stories in the book, “The Tale of the Alcubierre Horse” by Kathleen Ann Goonan, concerns a multigenerational starship that invokes the mythology of Polynesian wayfaring. Deep space stories are not my personal favorite science fictional fare, however, and I found myself longing for an atmospheric dystopia, time travel conundrum, or far out idea set on Earth for variety.

Eventually I journeyed far enough into the selections to find the type of stories that set my sense of wonder into overdrive. One is “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata, in which a scientist and master sculptor remotely building a monument on Mars must choose between her art and the lives of people in peril. Another favorite is “The Last Boat-Builder in Ballyvoloon” by Finbarr O’Reilly, a dark, truly original tale set in an Irish seaside village that posits a future in which the oceans have been taken over by a race of mechanical squid developed to consume the human refuse dumped into the seas. Other noteworthy stories include “Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby, “An Evening With Severyn Grimes” by Rich Larson, and “The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer.

Neil Clarke is an award-winning, insightful editor, and I welcome this new series of “best of the year” anthologies as a further opportunity to broaden my reading in the field.

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Ride or Pi

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Check out this amazing but true story:

Samuel Nestor Walters (my son), born in Bangladesh to an American father and Greek mother, educated in Greek-language schools, at age 19 decided to embrace his American heritage and join the U.S. Navy. His ambition was to become a Navy SEAL. However, he first trained as a corpsman, or medic, was attached to a Marine Corps unit, and deployed to southern Afghanistan in what was at the time an intense battle zone. When he returned to the States, he received an opportunity for SEAL training, in which he persevered despite broken bones and other injuries.

After five years as a SEAL and ten years overall in the Navy, at the age of thirty he decided that it was time to move on to another chapter in his life. His first step was to gain the advantage of higher education. To this end, in his free time while still serving as a Navy SEAL, with the help of the free online educational organization Khan Academy he taught himself calculus and SAT preparation. The result? He applied and was accepted to Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. He opted for Stanford.

But that’s not all. To express his appreciation for the assistance of Khan Academy in realizing his educational dreams and to help finance world-class free education for all, he decided to turn his journey to Stanford in the early fall into a fundraising odyssey. Thus was born Ride or Pi.

The concept is simple, albeit epic. He proposes to ride a bicycle roughly 1,000 miles from Seattle to Stanford in 6.3 days, or approximately 2 x Pi. That’s about 160 miles a day, which means he’ll not be sleeping more than four hours or so a night for the duration of the journey. Totally worth it, says he, for the cause of worldwide education.

To prepare for the trip, during a brief respite in Greece, Sam trained on steep, winding roads in the hills east of Thessaloniki by cycling 50 to 100 miles a day. Additionally, he recently climbed Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in the country, carrying his bicycle. That’s an amazing feat; when I attempted Olympus, making it two-thirds of the way to the top without a bike on my back completely exhausted me. He made it all the way to the summit burdened with the weight of his hefty metal steed. The climb took him from 7 in the morning until 11:30 at night. That’s perseverance.

In summary, join Sam in spirit for his 1,000 mile trek, and support the tremendous educational institution of Khan Academy while you’re at it. Find out more at https://www.instagram.com/rideorpi/ and donate at www.facebook.com/donate/336706436872195/.

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Book Review: Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

Let’s start this out the right way: It’s not hyperbole to say that this book hit me more profoundly, personally, and viscerally than any other book I’ve read in the past few years. One other possible contender about which I’ve written recently is How to Change Your Mind, but that’s about it. I stumbled across Nomadland by chance at the library when I was browsing through the large-print nonfiction section. I look to large-print books sometimes not only because they’re easier on the eyes, but also because others don’t think to look there, and I can often find popular recent books that have long reserve lists in the regular section. Damn, now the secret’s out.

Bruder’s book deals with a cast-aside segment of American society: itinerant workers who wander in RVs, campers, vans, and cars from temp job to temp job, trying to survive the best they can in the cracks through which they have fallen in the system. Most of them are elderly, and many were part of the middle or upper middle class with comfortable homes and well-paying jobs until fiscal disaster struck: for some, the recession of 2007 to 2009 wiped out their retirement savings; or their Social Security payments were grossly inadequate to deal with skyrocketing rental costs; or they were laid off from their jobs; or they suffered a medical emergency such as an accident or illness; or they went through a nasty divorce and lost their home. Regardless of their circumstances, they ultimately found themselves living in their vehicles and roaming from place to place trying to survive.

Although Bruder sketches a picture of people drawn together by circumstance building a joyful community on the road, the book is suffused with tragedy. These are not vacationers or comfortable retirees; they are old folks who have been forced out on to the road to eke out an existence roaming from one backbreaking minimum-wage job to the next. They face filth, hunger, loneliness, hoodlums, and laws that increasingly target homeless people as criminals just because they have no fixed address. The author points out that they do not consider themselves homeless but houseless. They feel at home in their vehicles surrounded by others who are in similar predicaments. However, at the end of the book, an elderly woman named Linda who has been one of the main focal characters is weary of life on the road and can think of nothing better than buying a cheap plot of land in a remote corner of the Arizona desert, building a small home, and settling down.

Why did this book hit me so hard? Apart from the fact that it’s fascinating and well-written, I identify with these disenfranchised people. I’m in my sixties and poor. I dump all the money I make and more that I manage to scrounge up into rent, bills, food, and household needs. I’ve daydreamed of getting back out on the road, but it’s not a choice for me now, as I am a single parent and want to see my youngest son at least through high school before I change situations. Still, as I said, I have envisioned myself roaming American in a camper van, although in my imagination I have enough money to get by comfortably so that I can write full-time and not take on outside jobs.

I have a lot of experience camping out in vehicles – but in Europe, not here in the States. I traveled all over Italy in various types of campers and vans in all sorts of weather and terrain. Eventually, when our family moved from Italy back to Greece, we bought a Mercedes camper van and drove there. My wife, our three young sons, and I lived in the van for months on the road in southern Greece until we finally found an apartment in Athens. I used to love living in campers: the adventure, the constant changes of scenery, meeting new people. And my particular thrill: being snug and warm in the van while heavy rain drums on the roof.

I was younger then, though, and southern Europe is a far cry from the United States. I always felt safe on the road in Europe, and it was easy to find places to park. People were respectful and hospitable; there was none of the stigma of homelessness that is so prevalent here. I don’t know if I would feel so joyous and free roaming the roads in America. As I mentioned earlier, people have an irrational distrust of those with no fixed dwelling. They fear what they don’t understand. And often they lash out at what they fear, either legally or with vigilante actions.

I don’t know what my personal future holds, but this book gave me great sympathy for the many elderly homeless who are forced out onto the road by circumstance. It illuminates a segment of society of which many are unaware. Someday we’re all going to age, folks, and many of us may be exposed to difficulties such as those described in this book. Those who want to remain nomads should be treated with respect, not approbation, and there should be places to go for those who want to come in off the road.

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Book Review: The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and Their Guild by Miranda J. Banks

After my six-week stint at Clarion West science fiction writing workshop in 1973, my epic hitchhiking journey down the West Coast, through Mexico and into Guatemala, my return to Seattle, and my abortive attempt to get normal jobs, I got it into my head to move down to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter. I packed up my typewriter and transferred it to an apartment in the San Fernando Valley where I hoped to be able to write gripping drama and win fame and fortune. Alas, life does not always follow the same scenarios as our dreams. I wasn’t ready to write yet. I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I had a few friends down there, but most of the time I was so damned lonely it almost paralyzed me. I smoked dope, took acid once or twice, and wrote one teleplay synopsis in collaboration with a Clarion buddy that got shopped around a bit and then cast aside. Seeing the futility of my endeavors, I followed the urgings prompted by Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, Jack London, and others, and hit the road in search of adventures and my literary voice. That is a summary of my brief attempt to knock at Hollywood’s golden doors.

There are, of course, people who make careers out of writing for film and television. This book is not about how they write their stories or how they get started. Instead, it tells about their attempts to unionize and wrest appreciation and suitable payment from the producers and studios. Without writers, everyone else in Tinsel Town would be sitting around twiddling their thumbs. (I was going to use another expression but decided to keep this family-friendly.) Writers fuel the machine. Writers provide the stories that the rest of the apparatus molds and shapes and puts into pictures and sound. But writers, traditionally, have been given short shrift in favor of directors, producers, and anyone else with the money and clout to take center stage.

The stories of the birth and growing pains of Writers Guild of America West and East is fascinating, although it may not appeal to film lovers as much as biographies of their favorite celebrities. As I mentioned, writers are unsung and unappreciated heroes. The value of this book is in its insight into the industry from a different perspective, from those who work in it behind the scenes. Anyone who contemplates a career as a writer of film or television should read this book. It reminds us that not all the streets are paved with gold and that most of the players who make visual entertainment media what it is have to work hard to achieve any measure of success, much less recognition.

I enjoyed this book immensely, but then, I already knew a lot of the background from other books, articles, and essays I’ve read over the years. It introduces a lot of writers, a lot of history, and a lot of struggles and strikes that the guild membership endured on the road to what it has become now, which is still a work in progress. If you have any ambitions at all to become a writer of stories for the silver screen, read this book.

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Book Review: Lara: The Untold Love Story and the Inspiration for Doctor Zhivago by Anna Pasternak

At the beginning, I need to make two things clear: this is an excellent book, and I almost couldn’t bring myself to read it because of the packaging. I realized by the time I had read a dozen pages that the title, the cover illustrations, and the blurbs were exceedingly deceptive. They make it appear as if the book is some sort of ethereal and light-hearted romantic adventure, while in fact it is a profoundly dark tragedy. They also lead prospective readers to believe that Boris Pasternak’s lover Olga is the book’s main character, and that she was the main impetus for the writing of the novel Doctor Zhivago. In fact, as this book admits, Pasternak had conceived the idea of writing the epic novel that became Doctor Zhivago long before he met Olga, and although the relationship between Pasternak and Olga was inspiration for numerous facets of the relationship between Yuri Zhivago and Lara, the book also explains that Pasternak took aspects of the backgrounds of his two wives to deepen the character of Lara. She is a composite. As for the cover, instead of mirroring the stark reality of the actual contents, it is strewn with brightly colored flowers as if it is illustrating a fairy tale. After you read the actual text, this phony gaiety is very off-putting.

The main storyline of this book, at least what makes it outstanding for me, is the process of the writing of the novel Doctor Zhivago. It is Pasternak’s only major piece of prose apart from his translations. He was already a famous poet when he undertook to begin his epic novel. The book explains that poets in Russia were lionized like rock stars are today. Pasternak was considered one of Russia’s finest poets after the publication of his first volume of poetry in 1921. He worked on Doctor Zhivago, which eventually covered a sweep of time from the Russian Revolution of 1905 to World War II, for decades until completing it in 1956.

The Russian government’s rejection of the novel and refusal to publish it is one of the great scandals in literature. Publishing houses led Pasternak on, promising to publish it but never having any intention of doing so. Eventually, an Italian smuggled a copy out of the country and presented it to an Italian publishing company, which brought forth an Italian translation that became an immediate bestseller. Shortly afterwards, the book came out in multitudes of other languages. The CIA was responsible for putting out the first Russian edition, which it distributed clandestinely to Russian visitors to Europe.

In 1958, Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. The rest of the world rejoiced, but in Russia this was an outrageous scandal. The KGB, the Writer’s Union, and the Russian government made life hell for Pasternak. They harassed him relentlessly until he was forced to decline the prize. During the era of the great purge in Russia, Stalin, for superstitious reasons, had given orders that Pasternak was not to be touched. Instead, to punish him for his unorthodox writings, the police had arrested his lover Olga and sent her to a labor camp. After Pasternak’s death, they arrested her again along with her daughter, and they both did time in prison and work camps.

I don’t want to diminish the importance of Olga to Pasternak. I only want to emphasize that that is one thread in a complex story concerning the life of the writer and the creation of his novel. Lara also has extensive sections about Pasternak’s two marriages, his fight to get the book published, and his deterioration in the aftermath of the fracas about the Nobel Prize.

One thing that hit me hard while I was reading the tragic closing chapters of this book was how uncertain fame and fortune are even to writers of exceptional quality. Pasternak’s is not an isolated case. Many internationally acclaimed writers led tragic lives and came to tragic conclusions. Pasternak devoted his life to the completion of his novel; it was his overwhelming priority for decades. He managed to get it published and it achieved astounding success. However, although his publishers made millions off the book, Pasternak was unable to personally profit, as he couldn’t get his royalties into the country. The rest of the world lauded him as a novelist of genius, while in Russia he was shunned, isolated, and thrown out of the Writer’s Union. When he died, the location and time was not officially publicized, but word got round underground, and despite the risk, his funeral was attended by thousands. Doctor Zhivago was not published in Russia until 1988, and it was not until 1989 that one of Pasternak’s sons was able to go to Stockholm to receive his posthumous Nobel Prize.

Not too long ago I read the novel Doctor Zhivago for the first time; I have been a fan of David Lean’s film since I was a young teen. Pasternak’s life illustrates for me the profound responsibilities of a writer. He wrote Doctor Zhivago because he felt he had to, in the face of intense pressure and approbation. He remained true to his artistic vision despite almost insurmountable obstacles. Being a real writer is not about becoming famous or making lots of money; it’s about writing the words you have inside you that need to be written, no matter what it costs you personally. It cost Pasternak everything. I recently read a Paris Review article by the late Ursula Le Guin in which she said that the Sartre Prize for Prize Refusal should have been called the Boris Pasternak Prize. She emphasized that Pasternak was one of her true heroes. I think that he has been a true hero to a lot of people, and to writers in particular he epitomizes the need to place art above other petty and selfish considerations.

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