Book Review: Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Books Make Great Gifts

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

Science Fiction:

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

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

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

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

Fantasy:

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

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

Thriller:

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

Novels of the Counterculture:

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

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

Memoirs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018 Edited by N.K. Jemisin and John Joseph Adams

This is the third best of the year volume of speculative fiction short stories I’ve read containing stories published in 2017. The first two massive doorstoppers, edited by Neil Clarke and Gardner Dozois, I have already reviewed. This latest anthology is about a third of the size of either of the other two volumes. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it not only includes science fiction, but also fantasy. Adams explains in the introduction that from eighty stories he sent Jemisin, she selected exactly ten science fiction and ten fantasy tales.

The science fiction stories are fairly lightweight compared to the epic galaxy-spanning and star-faring adventures in the Clarke and Dozois volumes. The main strength of this book is in its dark fantasy and horror stories. For instance, “You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych” by Kathleen Kayembe is a frightening tale of witches and zombies that emigrate from Africa to the United States and terrorize a family. “Loneliness is in Your Blood” by Cadwell Turnbull posits frightening vampires that literally shed their human skin before going forth to hunt. “Church of Birds” by Micah Dean Hicks is a dark fairy tale, a retelling or extension of the Brothers Grimm story of “The Six Swans” in which a young man partially healed from a curse that transforms him into a swan must cope with one dysfunctional swan wing still attached to his shoulder. Maria Dahvana Headley has two remarkable dark fantasy stories in this volume: “The Orange Tree” is a bizarre but fascinating story of a lonely poet creating a female golem as a housekeeper and lover in eleventh century Spain; “Black Powder” tells of an antique rifle with djinns trapped within its bullets.

Standouts among the science fiction entries in this book include “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue” by Charlie Jane Anders, which is a dark, violent dystopian tale about a transgender woman who is captured by a government agency and subjected to tortuous and invasive procedures intended to transform her into a man. A light and unusual story, “Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim, tells of a microcosm of windup toys empowered every morning with a certain amount of energizing “turns” by a Maker; it becomes an absorbing and heart-touching parable when the protagonist creates a child, but the toy is defective and cannot move or speak much. As a result, the mother sacrifices the bulk of her own turns, wearing herself out carrying her child around on her back. “The Wretched and the Beautiful” by E. Lily Yu has a sharp political edge to it as a group of odd-looking alien immigrants crash-lands on Earth looking for asylum. However, when lovely and shapely aliens, evidently their oppressors, arrive in elegantly crafted spacecraft and want to take them away, Earth authorities do not object.

As I mentioned before, the strength of this volume is in the uniqueness of its selections, and especially the inclusion of horror and dark fantasy, which is absent from the science-fiction-only anthologies. In one long story I couldn’t find any hint of science fiction or fantasy content, but it was nevertheless a good atmospheric tale, so no harm done. All in all, this is an anthology well worth reading.

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Book Review: Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas

The key to understanding the motivation for this book is found in the acknowledgement section at the end. The author explains that he himself has been part of the charity networks on which he reports, but he began to develop nagging suspicions that something was wrong. He delivered a speech expressing his doubts during a high-profile event full of rich philanthropists and “thought leaders,” although it was all but unheard-of to dwell so much on the negative, and was derided by some and praised by others. The text of the speech went viral, and the book in a sense is an expansion of it. Giridharadas says, “It is a letter, written with love and concern, to people whom I see yielding to a new New Faith, many of whom I know to be decent. It is also a letter to the public, urging them to reclaim world-changing from those who have co-opted it.”

This book identifies those who have co-opted world-changing, who have yielded to a New Faith, as people and corporations who espouse and participate in charitable giving on a massive scale. However, these mega-entities make no attempt to repair the underlying problems that have caused such a disparity between rich and poor, between those with abundance and those who are deprived, between the healthy and long-lived and unhealthy and short-lived. Instead, they seek to ignore, minimize, and even cover up the fact that their own egregious and harmful business practices caused the problems in the first place that they are now magnanimously attempting to solve. If their organizations are not directly responsible for the problems, they capitalize on the problems to primarily make money and only secondarily address the difficulties upon which they are supposed to be focusing.

I have to admit that even before I came across this book, I have wondered about these matters. Here are these immense corporations that due to their practices of charging high prices, paying starvation wages, ignoring environmental concerns, and negatively impacting entire communities have accumulated vast fortunes. Now they turn around and construct multi-million dollar offices for their charitable organizations, hire expensive speakers who are purportedly “thought leaders” to entertain them while they dine, and offer to preempt the government in caring for the multitudes – as long as their corporate iniquities are ignored and they have full say over how their donations are to be spent.

Giridharadas writes of a peculiar culture of giving in which the givers pat themselves on the back, absolve themselves of all wrongdoing, say nothing of root causes such as gender and racial inequality in the workplace, and instead focus only on solutions that favor the corporations involved and the overall marketplace. It leads up to an explanation of the reactions that provoked the surprise results of the 2016 election but the book is not mainly political in intent. The author primarily seeks to buck the trend and criticize this takeover of major charitable institutions by the super-rich in the hope that readers will look for and implement alternate solutions.

All in all, this is a thought-provoking, important book. It illuminates the hypocritical compromise of so-called charities that are motivated more by self-interest than a genuine desire to serve.

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Book Review: Best American Short Stories 2017 Edited by Meg Wolitzer and Heidi Pitlor

I look forward to reading best short stories of the year collections because I don’t have time to seek out and read all these stories otherwise. I always read them hoping that as a short story writer, apart from the entertainment value, I can glean some helpful tips on style and language use. I also tend to wonder how these stories manage to pass the gatekeepers and get published while numerous others, also probably excellent, do not.

The stories in this collection are all at least readable. In the past, stories in some collections were so boring that, despite my reluctance to do so, I had to skip over them. None of these, though. I read them all through and through and had no major problems with any of them. With the collection as a whole, yes. But not any of the individual stories.

The best in the bunch, interestingly enough, are genre stories. One, called “Are We Not Men?” by T.C. Boyle, is a science fiction tale on the effects of extreme genetic enhancements on suburban America. Since the same publishers have another volume devoted to the best science fiction of the year, I kind of wonder why this story didn’t qualify for that anthology. Another, called “Telemachus” by Jim Shepard, is a historical adventure set during World War II. Other interesting stories are set in Cuba and in India, but many of the rest have a sort of blandness to them. In saying this, I don’t mean to demean the authors or even the editors. The stories are fine, well-written tales on interesting topics. When I speak of blandness, I am referring to the social milieus of the characters. Most of them are from the middle or upper class, have plenty of money and good jobs, and face no real life and death crises. Their difficulties are personal and internal or deal with material things or their jobs. Again, nothing wrong with this, and I don’t fault the authors or even the editors. I think the problem runs deeper.

I have written about this before, in fact, in my essay “The Egregious Practice of Charging Reading Fees.” More and more literary magazines are adopting the practice of charging writers fees to submit their stories. In effect, they’re constructing a pay wall to keep out disadvantaged writers. There’s a list of magazines in the back of the book that the editors culled their selections from, and from my own research I figure that well over fifty percent demand money from writers before they’ll read their work. The figure might even be more like eighty or ninety percent by now. They’re probably not doing this intentionally. They’re probably struggling to support their magazines and figure that culling money from writers is a good financing ploy. What they don’t realize is that they’re slamming their doors on writers that can’t afford to pay them. This is most likely to be, of course, those from the lower class, those who struggle to make ends meet, those on welfare, those who live in slum-like conditions, minorities, the desperate, the homeless, and single parents like me. I can’t afford to pay three to five dollars or more for every story I send out. I just can’t. I have a child to support. I barely make the rent and bills each month. And so you cut all these people out, and what are you left with? A certain blandness of content because you’re leaving out most of the population of the world. This is wrong – so wrong. If there are gatekeepers at the doorways of artistic expression, they should not require money payments as the price of admission. It would take me too long to give you a list of writers who began in poverty who never would have been able to pay such fees. As I remember, I give some examples in the essay I mention above.

So that’s the main problem with this collection. Many of the most desperate artistic voices in America are excluded because they can’t afford the entry fees. I hope these magazine editors wake up and start getting their money from readers instead of writers again. That’s one reason why genres like science fiction and fantasy are so vibrant and lively. The magazines and anthologies with open submission calls are free, all-inclusive and do not discriminate against the disadvantaged. If this dreadful practice of charging reading fees is abolished, it’s probable we’ll get much more diversity and life in contemporary short stories.

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Book Review: Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

This book is similar to another I read recently: The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels by Jon Meacham. Both books deal with presidential leadership in troubled times, and both books have as their main examples Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Meacham’s book is wider-ranged and offers more examples, but Goodwin focuses solely on these four men. It must be a sign of the times that some of the nation’s finest historians point us to stories of mature, intelligent, sacrificial leadership, of which there is such a paucity at present.

Goodwin’s book is divided into three sections. The first deals with the rise to power of these four politicians; the second tells of the deepest times of darkness and despair that they each had to live through and overcome to mature into great leaders; the third points to outstanding achievements in their presidencies that reveal great leadership.

As a young man, Lincoln aspired to become a politician and improve the quality of life of those who lived in the rural towns and farmlands of Illinois in which he grew up. Depression and despair followed political setbacks that caused him to feel that he had failed his constituency. After a brief stint in Congress, he withdrew from politics and practiced law. During this time he began his profound lifelong struggle against the institution of slavery and took part in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. After a failed run at a Senate seat, he somehow secured his party’s nomination for the presidency. The great struggle of his presidency that Goodwin presents is his determination to declare the Emancipation Proclamation in the midst of the Civil War.

In contrast to Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt grew up in a wealthy home surrounded by all life’s luxuries. He had a strong spirit hampered by an asthmatic constitution. After early success in politics, his great trauma came when his first wife, the love of his life, and his mother, with whom he was very close, died on the same day. Roosevelt withdrew to mourn and renew himself to a ranch in the Badlands of the Dakotas. When he emerged, he became a national hero as a New York police commissioner, assistant secretary of the Navy, Roughrider during the war in Cuba, and governor of New York. While serving as vice president under McKinley, Roosevelt was thrust into the presidency when McKinley was assassinated. In the book’s final section, Goodwin highlights his leadership skills during the devastating coal strike of 1902.

Franklin Roosevelt was also born into privilege and was a natural politician. His crisis came when he was stricken with polio and was forced to endure years of agonizing convalescence and a painful yet gratifying reemergence into politics. As an example of leadership in the midst of overwhelming crisis, Goodwin recounts Roosevelt’s zeal and tenacity in creating and shaping social programs during the Hundred Days in the midst of the Great Depression.

Lyndon Johnson grew up in Texas as the son of a renowned politician and never had a doubt about his calling. He recovered from political setbacks and a massive heart attack to become a master of the Senate. When he assumed the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, his overriding concern was the passing of a civil rights act. He used the power of his office to secure equal rights, including the right to vote, for all Americans.

Each of these men had weaknesses, disappointments, and setbacks, but in spite of these, they managed to manifest great leadership and accomplish great deeds. This is a very well-written and inspiring book, and I highly recommend it.

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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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