Book Review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

I have a confession to make. I haven’t read a lot of the classics of science fiction. Maybe I should have, but I haven’t yet. There are too many other things that catch my attention. I generally alternate between fiction and nonfiction books, and when I’m reading fiction, I probably read almost as many so-called mainstream as genre works. The Forever War, for instance, won the Nebula, Hugo, and other awards when it came out in the mid-1970s, but I had already started traveling by that time and read very little science fiction for years. Lo and behold, though, things come round, and this novel was on display at the library and I picked it up on a whim. I’m glad I did.

The Forever War tells of a future conflict between humans and an alien race called the Taurans. The conflict begins almost by mistake and escalates until, as the title implies, it seems to never end. Authorities draft the best and the brightest, such as the protagonist William Mandella, and send them out on tour after tour; when they come back in pieces, they patch them up and return them to the fray.

Haldeman has said that he based the book on his experiences in Vietnam. The cover of the edition I have shows what appears to be a U.S. army soldier walking through a tropical jungle. This has nothing to do with the plot of the book, as most of the action takes place on stark alien landscapes, and the Earth soldiers wear body armor that certainly wouldn’t look like what I see on the cover. Ah, well.

Instead of being a parallel to Vietnam, though, the book is more like a parable for any war, anywhere, that seems to go on forever and ever with no signs of stopping, with governments drafting and throwing cannon fodder into the fray, and soldiers obeying orders without really understanding what they are fighting about.

At one point, Mandella returns to Earth for a furlough between battles and is shocked at the changes it has undergone in his absence. Haldeman pays strict attention to relativity in space travel, so that though only months of subjective time pass on the soldiers’ tours of duty, decades and later centuries pass back on Earth. The world that they leave behind is gone forever and is replaced by a new world to which they cannot relate or adjust. This reminded me of when I returned to the United States after living overseas for thirty-five years. My country had changed, and I experienced intense culture shock and found it very difficult to fit in. In fact, I still have twinges of culture shock from time to time, and I wonder if I can ever feel comfortable in the land where I was born.

And so the soldiers carry on, through century after century and battle after battle, until obeying orders and fighting is all they know. It all builds up to a crescendo, and the ending is extremely satisfying. I’ll hold that back, though; instead, find a copy of the book and read it. You won’t be sorry.

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

The Writing Is Its Own Reward

Harlan Ellison’s recent demise and an upcoming eulogy in his honor at a science fiction convention have caused me to remember the time when I first knew that I had to be a writer and nothing else. I’ve written about it on numerous occasions because it is such an integral piece of my past. I was moping through my year at the University of Santa Clara, majoring in drugs and degradation, when I happened to take a class on science fiction as literature. In the textbook was Ellison’s story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” By the end of reading that story I knew that I wanted to become a writer and thrill readers as I had just been thrilled.

It was the writing that fate had gifted me at that moment. Not money, not fame, not even publication. The writing itself. The knowledge that I was a writer thrilled me through and through. If I had been in it for the money, I would have chosen an occupation that had more certain possibilities of fiscal rewards.  Instead, I wanted the words, the pure words. To find them, I took off on the road, near broke but full of vision. I ended up staying gone for thirty-five years and living in all sorts of far corners of the Earth. I found my voice, though; that was the whole point of the trip.

And it continues to be. Lately – or perhaps I should say for several years now – I have been longing for a strong flow of finances so that I can focus purely on the writing that comes from the gut and the heart and the soul. The way it works now, with my present schedule, from seven in the morning until eight in the evening I write articles and suchlike things to pay the bills. Then from about nine-thirty or ten at night, I work on my creative endeavors until about eleven or eleven-fifteen. My vision is to put a stop to that  pointless for-money-only work and spend all those hours on the writing I love.

But let’s get back to the core of this essay, the concept of the writing as the gift. When I received that burst of insight that caused me to realize I was a writer, I didn’t think about the money and I didn’t think about the fame; I thought about the words and the effects of the words. That’s all there was for me at that moment. All the rest are bells and whistles. Not to say I don’t need those things: more and more, as time goes on, I realize the urgency of increasing my income. However, what I have to keep in mind is that whether I am wealthy or not, I still have the words. It doesn’t cost anything to write the words. And thanks to self-publishing outlets like Kindle and other sites, it doesn’t cost anything to publish them either. Those sites have got cover creators and layout assistance and instructions to guide you every step of the way.

Don’t get me wrong. We all want that fame and fortune. Well, to be honest, I don’t give a damn about the fame. I want people to read my words, but I’m more than content to stay off the talk shows and podcasts. The money, though: that I need. I’m getting tired and I need to be able to slow down the pace.

In the meantime, I have the words. They’ve been with me for over forty-five years now and show no sign of abating. They’re like a perpetual fountain, always ready to arrange themselves through my direction and focus. Remember this, writers young and old: through all of life’s vagaries you may lose a lot; you may be frequently disoriented and unsure and downright lost; you may even despair from time to time. Remember that despite all your difficulties, you still have the words. The writing is the gift; the writing is the reward.

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

Book Review: Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen by Mary Norris

I picked this book up at the library because I thought that it was a memoir on traveling in Greece. And it is, sort of; at least part of it is. I’d say about a third of the book or less tells of her travels. Mainly though, it is a memoir of the author’s love affair with the Greek language, both ancient and modern. Why Norris is dubbed the Comma Queen is not explained in the book, but I assume that it’s because for many years she has been a copy editor for the New Yorker.

The style of the book is very light and entertaining. Her descriptions of attempting to learn to read and write Greek sometimes resemble a soliloquy in a stand-up comedy act, if the comedian’s main subject was the Greek language. Norris revels in details such as origins of words and relates them with gusto. To do so, she often uses Greek alphabet and spelling, sometimes offering English transliterations and sometimes not. I have an advantage there because I can read Greek, and I remember enough Greek to understand most of what Norris expresses in Greek. In fact, it made me nostalgic.

I was married to a Greek woman and spent over fifteen years in Greece. We lived for a time in Athens, but then moved to Thessaloniki where my wife was from. We raised our five sons there when they were young. They became bilingual, having school in Greek but speaking English at home. I taught English as a second language for years to teenage and adult Greek students. During the summers we would head for the nearby beaches: beautiful sandy stretches where the sea was warm as bathwater and soothing to the skin.

I agree with Norris that Greece is a wonderful place; however, I always had trouble with the Greek language. I found it one of the most difficult languages I have ever attempted to learn. Compared to Greek, Italian, Bengali, and Indonesian were all a breeze. I remember during my early visits to my wife’s relatives I would exchange basic greetings, and then their conversation would gradually become unintelligible to me. I would sit there and sip my coffee or eat my food or whatever and be off in my own world while my wife and her family chatted. Even years later when I could navigate street markets, transportation hubs, and government offices with ease, I would quickly become lost when two Greeks would begin exchanging chit-chat.

I also found it a bit difficult to relate to Norris’s method of travel. She was a tourist, taking ships from island to island, renting cars to traverse the mainland, taking her meals at restaurants. I’ve visited over fifty countries but I’ve seldom been able to travel with much money in my pocket. As I was reading Norris’s accounts of her travels, I was thinking: Wow it would be great to be able to travel like that. My wife and I took an occasional trip with our kids, sure, but most of the time we were struggling to survive financially. We had fun, yes, but we had to portion out our fun at intervals between lengthy months of hard work.

I know it may not be fair to compare Norris’s experiences with ours, but that’s what I found myself doing. There’s a difference between traveling as an affluent visitor and being deeply immersed in a place day after day and year after year.

All in all, Greek to Me is a light, fun, uplifting read.

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

Book Review: Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck

It is with pleasure and nostalgia, and quite by accident I came back to this modest travel book after so many years. One of my sons had checked it out of his college library, and I picked it up and gave it a read.

The last time I read Travels With Charley was during my John Steinbeck phase, which was about fifty years ago. Steinbeck was the first author I followed passionately, first stumbling upon The Pearl as a school requirement, and then going on to Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, and several other volumes. I read Travels With Charley along with all the others, but it didn’t make much impression on me at the time. My lust to travel phase was yet to come, and I was mainly into Steinbeck’s fiction.

Steinbeck wrote this book late in his career, when he was 58 years old. He got the wanderlust, he says, and decided to take off on his own in a pickup with a camper back, his only company being a large poodle named Charley. The camper he dubbed Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse. He was living in New York at the time. He headed up north into Maine, cut across the country through Wisconsin, North Dakota, Montana, and other states. I mention these because he writes about them; others he crosses through without much of a description except to decry the busy freeway systems. In Seattle he turned south and headed down through the redwood forests to the Monterey Peninsula and Salinas where he grew up. From there he forayed across the desert to Texas, where he partied with his wife’s relatives. His final stop was in the deep South, where in Louisiana he witnessed an incident of horrific racism.

As far as travel books go, this one is fairly lightweight. He writes particularly about Maine, North Dakota, Montana, Seattle, the Monterey area, Texas, and the South, but he skims through other parts almost without noticing. The value of this book is not so much in the travel descriptions but in the portrait of Steinbeck himself: a writer in late middle age pondering past and present in the isolation of a lonely journey.

I have to admit that it reawakened the travel lust in me. Well, let me clarify that: the travel lust has never been asleep. Let’s say instead that it caused the smoldering coals of the urge to travel to burst forth into open flame. Almost daily I dream of taking off in a camper again, either here in the States or in Europe, and wandering around with no set itinerary. If I had the funds and no pressing responsibilities, you can bet that’s what I would be doing. Alas, at this time neither precondition is met. And so I dream. It’s not like in the past, when I was a young writer struggling to find my own voice. After deciding that I needed life experiences about which to write, I packed a bag, walked to a freeway entrance, and stuck out my thumb. Eventually I went overseas and stayed gone for thirty-five years. I’ve circled the globe twice, set foot in over fifty countries, and lived in about half a dozen for extended periods of time. You would think that my thirst for the road would have been satiated by now, but that’s not how it works. I always long for the road. Always.

As I read this, I was also reminded of one of my sons who recently got out of a four-year stint in the Army. He caught the travel bug too. During leaves he didn’t head off to party like so many of his compatriots; instead, he took off on the road in his battered old car and started visiting all the eastern states. He made it his goal to visit all fifty states. So when he got out and headed west from where he was stationed in North Carolina, he traced a convoluted path that took him in a zigzag course through the states he had missed. And he made sure not to skip Hawaii and Alaska. He’s got me there; I haven’t seen all the states yet.

In conclusion, Travels With Charley is a fun read, if somewhat anachronistic as I mentioned. It’s not just that there are no cell phones or GPS trackers to help the way – it’s also in some of Steinbeck’s impressions, expressions, and attitudes. Still, it’s worth reading if you like a well-written memoir.

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

Book Review: Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly

Scott Kelly is the American astronaut who spent a year on the International Space Station from March 2015 to March 2016. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment, but it’s only one of many in this man’s eventful life. This fascinating book alternates between an account of that year in space and the story of Kelly’s life. For me, it’s a piece of nonfiction that’s a near-perfect read: absorbing, interesting, exciting, educational, and eye-opening.

The sections of the book that describe life on the space station are full of infinitesimal details, but because of where Kelly is and what he’s doing, every detail, even descriptions of mundane tasks, is gripping because of the difficulties, such as weightlessness, with which he has to cope. For instance, there are no laundry facilities, so he has to wear his clothes until they are so rank that he can’t stand them, and then throw them away; he has to swallow his toothpaste because you can’t spit in space or it would congeal into globs and float around until it hit someone; whenever he performs work he has to hook his toes under rails on the floor or walls so he won’t float away; eating and drinking have their own special problems and peculiarities of execution. Kelly describes the unique challenges of performing tasks in zero gravity such as exercising, sleeping, dissecting mice, obtaining blood or urine for analysis, and repairing the toilet or the air filtration system. He also describes thrilling spacewalks that he takes with other astronauts to repair mechanisms on the outside of the station.

Since by that time the space shuttle program in the United States had been discontinued, to get to the ISS for his year-long stint, Kelly had to train with Russian cosmonauts and take a rocket from a Russian base in Kazakhstan. He brings the reader along on this adventure too, from Star City, the Russian training center near Moscow, to survival exercises in frozen wastes.

The segments of the story of Kelly’s life interspersed throughout the space station account make fascinating reading as well. Kelly was a lackluster student, lazy and indifferent, more concerned with partying and studying. In his late teens, though, he came across the book The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, which tells the story of Navy test pilots who are selected by NASA as the first astronauts for the Mercury Program. He abruptly decided that he too wanted to be a Navy test pilot and an astronaut. However, up until then he had received poor grades, so he had a lot to make up. He set his mind to succeed, applied himself, taught himself study skills, and upped his school performance sufficiently to eventually be admitted to Navy flight training as a jet pilot. The account of his turnaround from indifferent laziness to intense focus is extremely inspiring.

He applied to NASA, was accepted for astronaut training, and became a space shuttle pilot and a selectee for multiple missions on the ISS. His identical twin brother also became a Navy pilot and an astronaut, and during Kelly’s year-long sojourn aboard the ISS, doctors and scientists monitored both Kelly’s physique and that of his brother’s so they could compare the results to learn more about the effects of space travel on human physiology.

This book is well-written, and every page has its own fascinations. Although Kelly sometimes describes complex operations and equipment, his explanations are always easy to follow. It’s one of those rare books that I consider a great discovery: there’s so much in it that is joyous and strengthening that I count myself fortunate to have come across it.

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

Book Review: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My reaction to this book is similar to my reaction to the other Coates book I have read: We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. I hesitate to review it because, first of all, I don’t want to pass judgment on it, and secondly, I prefer that you read the book and allow the author to speak for himself. Between the World and Me is a beautiful book, a unique book, an important book.

We Were Eight Years in Power, an obvious reference to the Obama presidency, is comprised of essays giving Coates’s take on relevant political, sociological, and historical issues. Between the World and Me is different; it’s mainly a memoir. In this book, Coates directly addresses his young son. He writes about his childhood and youth in Baltimore, the fear and danger on the streets, and his need to be always on his guard. He contrasts this with his time at Howard University, which he refers to as The Mecca because of the way it attracts intelligent and interesting black students in a fear-free atmosphere of intellectual camaraderie. Later he writes of a friend from Howard named Prince Jones who was gunned down by a policeman for no apparent reason.

Underlying Coates’s narrative is an awareness of “The Dream,” a vision of perfection for white people only, and which Coates says can only be achieved upon the broken bodies of black people. Coates describes the emotional pain of African Americans in excruciating detail: the paranoia, the constant vigilance, the realization that “The Dream” is ultimately unreachable for them.

As with We Were Eight Years in Power, the thing that struck me most as I read Between the World and Me is Coates’s honesty and command of language. It changed me; it made me want to be more honest as a writer. It caused me to rethink my recent output and ponder whether I am focused on producing my best work.

Of course I can’t write from Coates’s perspective. I am a white man from a middle class background. I have lived in neighborhoods that are primarily black in Brooklyn and other cities and I have acquaintances who are black, mostly other writers, but I can’t pretend to understand the American black experience. What sets me apart from my contemporaries, though, is the fact that I got fed up with where I was, went out exploring the rest of the world, and stayed gone for thirty-five years. While reading Coates’s narrative, I sometimes found myself recalling times when I traveled in India with Indian friends. Sometimes I wouldn’t see another white person for days, and wouldn’t speak to other white people for weeks. The situation is profoundly different, though, of course. The Indian people cast their white oppressors out of their own country, and they remained. It is theirs, and they own it. On the other hand, the blacks of America were forcibly brought to a new land so that they could provide the labor to create “The Dream” for their white overseers. Now that slavery is abolished, their overseers remain and continue their oppression under different circumstances.

I’m not sure I’m telling this the right way; it’s not coming out how I wanted it to. That’s why I hesitated before I began and almost didn’t make the effort. So I’m going to close with a recommendation that you read this book. As I said above, it’s an important book, a great book. It will change you; it will make you better.

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

Book Review: Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

I’ve read several books by Joyce Carol Oates, mainly short story collections. I think I also once read a memoir having to do with her early writing experiences. Oates frequently ventures into the realms of dark fantasy and horror in her fiction. When I heard about Hazards of Time Travel, I thought that it would be interesting to read what she comes up with in the genre of science fiction.

The book has a great premise. After 9/11, in an alternate future, the United States, Canada, and Mexico have consolidated to form the North American States, or NAS. The rich have taken over and have the mass of the populace under tight surveillance and strictly controlled. This government also has technology that makes time travel possible, and one method it uses to punish dissidents is to send them into the past to certain backwards periods of history, where they have to live out a sentence of exile.

The protagonist is a teen girl named Adriane Strohl. Her crime is that she stands out too starkly from the mass of students by getting good grades and becoming class valedictorian; she then has the audacity to write an original valedictorian speech in which she asks questions about recent past history. She is arrested during rehearsal, cruelly interrogated at a facility for young criminals, and then sentenced to be sent for four years to a university in a small town in Wisconsin in 1959.

The arrest, detention, interrogation, and trip to the past all take place very quickly in the first few chapters. This part of the book is suspenseful and fast-moving. I couldn’t wait to get on to the next part set in Middle America in 1959 and 1960. I thought that it was a terrific idea to send this young woman from an Orwellian future world back to a United States obsessed with the Cold War, the McCarthy anti-communist hearings, the struggle for civil rights for minorities and women, and other volatile issues of the time. I could envision all sorts of wild and absorbing plot possibilities.

Unfortunately, Oates does not explore any of these issues and in fact barely mentions them in passing. Instead, once Adriane is transported to the past and moves into the dorm that she shares with a host of white conservative farm girls from Wisconsin, the story slows way down. The description of her period of adjustment from the future to the past and her paranoia about making a wrong move and perhaps being killed by the oppressive government that sent her there is interesting. Apart from this, though, Oates ignores the fascinating era she has chosen as background and focuses on an infatuation that Adriane develops for a teacher who she discovers is also an exile. Chapter after chapter describes Adriane pining for and stalking this teacher; most of this could have been omitted and the book would have been much more powerful for it.

At the end of the novel, which I won’t disclose, the pace picks up again a bit. I can’t help but think, though, that there was so much historical material that Oates ignored, which, if it had been incorporated into the book, would have given it greater intensity and depth. I’m abruptly reminded of another time travel novel that takes its protagonist back to within a few years of this one, 11/22/63 by Stephen King. In contrast to Oates, King takes full advantage of the historical era to enrich his story. Although King’s novel is much longer than Oates’s, it moves faster and is a much more absorbing read.

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

A Second Look: Fear or Be Feared: Fantasies

FearWebCover_FinalBig

A teenage girl climbing Mount Olympus with friends becomes possessed by an ancient Greek god who uses her as an instrument of vengeance.

 A young artist pursued by her abusive stepfather is recruited to join a society of people linked together by telepathy which exists completely outside the awareness of the present world system.

 Paranoia overwhelms a young college student as reality and fantasy merge in the midst of a drug trip that he realizes a dark power may be controlling.

 During the British Raj an American reporter discovers a hidden valley in the foothills of the Himalayas ruled by a lovely but sinister woman who may not be human.

 In these fourteen weird, surreal, frightening, and fantastic tales, unwary people discover that the world is very different from what they imagined.

Includes “Fear or Be Feared,” “The Disappearance of Juliana,” “Invisible People,” “The Elephant’s Eyes,” “War Horse,” “The Lady of the Lost Valley,” “The Ghost of Halkidiki Past,” “Wolf in a Cage,” “The Gift,” “Clouds Without Rain,” “Mendocino Mellow,” “Slice-of-Death,” “The Illuminations,” “The Customs Shed,” “Afterword: Deviations.”

Click to buy from these distributors:

Trade paperback

Amazon Kindle

Barnes and Noble

Kobo

Apple iBooks

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking

Prefacing the conclusion to this riveting and terrifying book is a famous quote by Stewart Brand: “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.” Brand was the editor of the original Whole Earth Catalog, which a primitive attempt at a social network. We’ve come a long way since then. One of the main messages of LikeWar is that modern online social networks are not only the abodes of gods, but also of warring demons. In fact, the authors make a strong case that the demons are wreaking havoc in a domain that was once thought to be a virtual paradise.

Singer and Brooking don’t even bother to list the advantages of the internet and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others. They simply categorize them as addictive and let it go at that. Instead, they launch right into their overwhelming theme, which is that these media have been co-opted by foreign governments and extremist groups as digital battlegrounds for the hearts, spirits, minds, and opinions of the people of the world. Their detailed descriptions of these entities using multiple accounts, sockpuppets, and botnets to confuse populaces and spread propaganda in the form of fabricated stories brings to mind the horror movies with blob-like monsters that I used to watch on Saturday afternoons as a kid. Some of the specific examples they use include the sophisticated social media recruitment network of ISIS, Russia’s elaborate sockpuppet and botnet army, and China’s immense, enclosed, government-controlled social media system.

This book is a dark read. It makes you wonder if there’s any hope of the internet’s reliability as a source of truth now and in the future. According to the authors, Silicon Valley is much more interested in the bottom line of their corporations and the profits of their stockholders than in the morality of what appears on their global websites. Honesty and integrity seem to hold little sway compared to the overwhelming flood of disinformation that threatens to inundate any semblance of truth and thoughtful commentary.

For a time, shortly after its birth and baby steps, the internet was thought to be an intellectual utopia, a place where democracy and free thought would reign supreme. However, it was only a matter of time before terrorists and saboteurs began using it for their own nefarious purposes. The flood of animosity and disinformation caught online communities unprepared, and now governments and tech giants are playing catch-up to try to cope with the cyber-wars that have erupted in tandem with – or sometimes as prelude to – actual physical wars.

Counterattacks have been partially successful, say the authors, but there is still much ground to make up. Governments are attempting to cope, but much of the responsibility of security lies with the social media networks that the bad guys exploit. Singer and Brooking insist that Silicon Valley can no longer remain neutral when faced with the flood of evil that has overwhelmed their services, but must provide better security for the online communities of billions that daily look to social media for news, edification, entertainment, and personal connection.

This book is absorbing and important. Highly recommended.

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

Book Review: Pastoralia: Stories and a Novella by George Saunders

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately, so I wanted to switch over to some fiction – to get back to my usual pattern, if I could, of alternating fiction and nonfiction in my reading material. I had no specific titles in mind, though, so I conducted an online search for the best short story collections of all time. This title, Pastoralia, came up on several lists.

Compared to another George Saunders collection I read not too long ago, Tenth of December, which as I remember was substantial, Pastoralia is sparse; it comes to less than two hundred pages in this paperback edition with fairly large print. That’s okay; we’ll assess it by its content, not its length.

The first thing that struck me when I picked up the book was the cover. It was completely out of place. It had nothing to do with the contents or themes of the stories. It seemed as if whoever designed it saw the title, and then selected the photo of a deer with forested hills in the background without realizing that “Pastoralia,” the title piece, has nothing to do with pastoral landscapes at all. Rather, it is a dark tale of a society with a dysfunctional economy in which the protagonist has to hire himself out as an actor playing a caveman in an amusement park exhibit in order to support his family. I really wondered about that cover: was someone actually paid to design it, or was it slapped on at the last minute by a person in marketing who had no clue to what the book was about?

Concerning the stories, they’re a mixed batch. “Pastoralia,” the first and longest story in the book, is darkly humorous and because of its absurd premise made me consider that it would not be out of place in a science fiction anthology or magazine. It’s very entertaining, but I thought that Saunders could have made his point even more effectively if he’d trimmed some of the excess and cut it by about a quarter or so of its length.

My favorite story is a dark fantasy, a zombie tale actually, called “Sea Oak.” It’s about a poor extended family living in a small apartment in a dangerous part of town. After a sweet spinster aunt who’d been living with them dies and is buried, she reappears as a slowly-disintegrating, gross, loud, potty-mouth, pushy zombie who starts ordering them all around. It’s uproariously funny in parts. Another sweet and well-told story is “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” which is about a lonely middle-aged man who can’t help but harshly judge every woman he sees. At a mandatory class for drivers who have received tickets, he meets and finds attractive a woman with a beautiful face but an unshapely body. The barber has to learn to mentally overcome his aversion to her imperfections before he can interact meaningfully with her.

As I mentioned in my review of Tenth of December, Saunders’s strongest stories seem to be those with science fiction or fantasy elements. His recent Man Booker Prize-winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is also a fantasy. And yet somehow he has managed to escape the stigma of being labeled a genre writer. Other writers such as Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison, even though science fiction and fantasy comprised only a moderate portion of their outputs, never got rid of their genre labels despite their vigorous efforts to do so. I suppose it’s because they started their careers in the pulps, whereas Saunders began in the literary magazines. It’s hard to shake early impressions in the publishing world.

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