Book Review: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders

This is a fun book to read. Award-winning writer George Saunders has spent decades teaching Russian short stories in his writing classes, and in this volume he chooses several of his favorite stories and expounds upon them at length. In several instances, Saunders’s commentaries are significantly longer than the stories. The four Russian authors represented with stories are Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol. Turgenev and Gogol have one each, Tolstoy has two, and Chekhov has three (but his are also the shortest).

I approached this book with eagerness to venture into realms of literature that were (and are) relatively unfamiliar to me. I’ve read a collection of Chekhov’s stories before, but it was a long time ago. I’ve read some of Tolstoy’s short works too, but not the ones that Saunders has selected for this volume.

Overall I like his selections, although I enjoyed some much more than others. One of my favorites is “Gooseberries” by Chekhov, a subtle discourse on the purpose and possibility of happiness in life. From “Gooseberries” Saunders gets the title of the book; at a certain point one of the characters takes a swim in a pond and relishes the experience intensely.

My other favorite is “Master and Man” by Tolstoy, which is also the longest story in the book. A landowner takes one of his servants with him on a trip to another town to conduct some urgent business; however, a snowstorm is raging and they keep getting lost. The landowner’s selfishness and disdain for his servant is brought out again and again as he refuses to hunker down and wait out the storm but continues to try to get to his destination. Finally they become trapped in the snow. The landowner selfishly takes the carriage horse and rides off to save himself, but in the storm he gets turned around and ends up back at the carriage where his servant has almost died of the cold. In the end, the landowner has a change of heart and throws himself on top of his servant to keep him warm. The landowner freezes to death, but the servant survives.

Chekhov’s stories are always well-crafted at least and masterful at best. The Turgenev story, “The Singers,” I felt was overlong and told in somewhat of a dated style, the Gogol story, “The Nose,” I thought was merely silly, and the other Tolstoy story, “Alyosha the Pot,” I thought was slight. For another example of brilliant Tolstoy I would have chosen “God Sees the Truth, but Waits” instead. However, here we come to one of the great pleasures of the book, which is Saunders justifying and explaining his choices. He takes the obvious objections that modern readers would have to these stories and delves into why the writers made the choices that they did. Some of his explanations are historical, while others have to do with plotting and character development and theme and even peculiarities of various translators. Most of the time, though, on whatever topic, they are witty, intelligent, and erudite. Saunders’s love of writing shines through it all.

Saunders closes the book with a short epilogue called “We End.” In it he sums up his ultimate message to his students: “The closest thing to a method I have to offer is this: go forth and do what you please.” In this book, Saunders explains how he approaches story writing and how these Russian master writers went about it, but when it come down to it, each writer is different, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Whether you pick up any practical tips for your own reading and writing or not, this book is worth reading for its entertainment value. Odds are, you’ll learn more than a thing or two as well.

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On Rereading The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction Edited by Gordon Van Gelder

Sometimes at odd moments I enjoy looking over the books on my shelves. I don’t have a large collection; there’s probably not more than two or three hundred books in it, but those books hold many precious reading memories. I was pulling short story anthologies off the shelves and perusing the tables of contents. I came across The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction and as I read the titles I thought: what a wonderful group of stories! I considered that a nostalgic trip to the past in the form of some speculative fiction classics might be just what I need in these trying times.

Let me begin by saying that for me at least the quality level in this anthology is consistently higher than I’ve found in any recent best-of-the-year collections. Naming the “best” is subjective, of course, as evidenced by the fact that though there are several anthologies each year that purport to have the “best” there is generally very little overlap.

Never mind all that. This anthology came out in 2009; the oldest story in it goes all the way back to 1951, and the newest is from 2007. Van Gelder had decades of stories to choose from. All of the selections are worth reading, but I’ll mention just some of them that particularly impressed me this time around.

“A Touch of Strange” is a wondrously subtle love story by Theodore Sturgeon. Two humans, a woman and a man, meet on a rock out in the ocean. It turns out that they are both waiting for their lovers, a merman and a mermaid. The sea dwellers never show up, though, and the man and woman fall in love. The amazing thing is how Sturgeon tells a story about mermen and mermaids without ever introducing them directly into the story – their reality is only implied in the dialog of the humans.

“Eastward Ho” by William Tenn is set in a far future in which Native Americans have taken over North America and white people are treated as inferiors and slowly and inexorably driven off the land. When I finished it, I wondered how it would be received in this modern era, since the story was first published in 1958. I wasn’t sure. Then I thought of my old friend and Clarion West classmate, the late Russell Bates, a full-blooded Kiowa Indian. We met each other now and then after the workshop, corresponded for awhile, and even roomed together for a few months in Los Angeles. During that time, we would discuss literature and Russ would give me his views on good novels and stories about Native Americans. I think he would have liked this one; at least he would have had a good laugh over it. Enough said.

“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes is one of the most famous stories in this collection. It is a near-perfect gem of a tale, so well-crafted that Keyes is known almost exclusively for this one story and its expansion into a novel.

“This Moment of the Storm” is by the late great Roger Zelazny, whose literary style is unique and dazzling. It is certainly worthy of inclusion here, though if I were to choose an F&SF Zelazny story for this anthology, I probably would have gone with “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” or “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth,” both of which Van Gelder refers to in the story’s introduction.

“The Deathbird” is a classic novelette by my old Clarion West teacher, the late Harlan Ellison. I don’t think it is one of his best stories, but in that assessment I am only comparing him with himself. It shines far brighter than most stories of any type or genre. It’s an experimental piece, a collage of different bits that manages to weave various love stories together into an ode and a dirge for the planet Earth.

“The Women Men Don’t See” by James Tiptree, Jr. (a pseudonym for the late Alice Sheldon) is one of my favorite science fiction stories and what I consider one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time. The amazing thing about this novelette-length tale is that it mostly consists of a fascinating buildup and the aliens only show up in the last few pages.

“The Gunslinger” by Stephen King is a novella, the longest story in the collection. This absorbing tale is the very first entry in the lengthy Dark Tower series of stories and novels.

“Solitude” by another of my Clarion West teachers, the late Ursula K. Le Guin, is a fascinating first person account of absorption into a very different alien culture. An excellent character study.

“Two Hearts” is by yet another of my Clarion West teachers, Peter Beagle. It is a beautifully-written fantasy about an elderly king who goes forth to slay a deadly Griffin, a sequel to Beagle’s classic fantasy novel The Last Unicorn. As I read this story, I recalled a magical evening over four decades ago when Beagle read a section from The Last Unicorn to his students and other visitors. A wonderful experience!

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang is written in precise and elegant prose, as is all of his work, and the main characters are the ideas and concepts that Chiang presents.

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Adriana’s Family: A Novel by John Walters

My 28th book and 9th novel, Adriana’s Family, is now available to order in paperback or digital form at multiple online booksellers.

Aliens attack Earth, or so world governments believe. In the aftermath of global warfare brought on by the crash of an alien spacecraft, Adriana wakes up in a hospital-like facility with no memory of who she is or how she got there. The administrator tells her she has family on the outside that she needs to find. When she leaves, she begins to hear whispers in her mind that draw her to a disparate group of strangers that she instinctively feels are her brothers and sisters. After discovering that they all share an astonishing connection to the alien arrivals, Adriana resolves to protect her family members from a sinister organization intent on tracking down and annihilating them.

To obtain a copy, just click on the links:

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The Value of Awards

This is a complex subject, but it has been occupying my mind a lot in the last couple of days, so I want to take a stab at it. Every year I read the finalists for a certain literary award before voting; yesterday I read a few finalists in short fiction categories, and the experience left me deeply discouraged. It’s not that they were bad stories. One was nice, one was clever, and one was sweet, but none came anywhere near what I thought of as award-worthy. I wondered how they had got on the ballot. There have been scandals in recent years involving the major science fiction literary awards concerning blocks of voters putting support behind mediocre stories, and I wondered if this was what was happening again. My faith was restored somewhat today when I read another nominee and its brilliance blew me away. Okay, thought I, probably every ballot has less-than-deserving entries – that doesn’t mean they’re going to win. That one terrific story somewhat restored my confidence in the system.

The mediocre nominees I had read previously, though, caused me to call into question (again) our culture’s fascination with awards. It’s partially the fault of the media. Winners are touted far and wide, and even finalists get a sort of partial credit for their resume. The real value of an award is commercial. It makes an author more visible, and as a result causes their work to be disseminated to a wider audience, which in turn makes them more money. Okay, it may also provide an ego-boost, but a writer who has anything worthwhile to say is going to go ahead and say it whether they win any awards or not.

The problem with awards is that often they do not honor the best work. There are all sorts of ways awards are chosen and all sorts of reasons why people select one work and not another. Some awards are chosen by a single individual, some by committee, some by peers or members of a professional organization, and some by popular vote. However, even in the most democratic of circumstances such as popular vote or voting by fellow professionals, situations arise such as the block voting mentioned above.

Motivations for voting for particular works vary as well. I’m sure that many voters, when contemplating works of what they perceive as similar quality, would opt to vote for the efforts of their friends. Sometimes works are favored that address current movements or hot topics, even if the works are lacking in technical quality. These works often do not stand the test of time.

Controversies about awards extend across all artistic disciplines. Consider the heated debates that always accompany the announcement of Academy Award nominees, not to mention the opening of the envelopes and revealing of the winners. Because these awards are so high-profile, there are always endless articles afterwards explaining why some films and performers should or shouldn’t have won. The debate carries on for decades in trivia articles listing the least worthy winners.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered writing about this if it has not been so important to the career goals I set long ago for myself as a writer. I have reached several of those goals concerning professional sales, but one that I have not come close to is the winning of a certain award that I have craved for almost five decades. Yesterday when I was reading those mediocre awards nominees I realized (or rather re-realized) that setting the winning of awards as a personal goal was completely wrong, the reason being that I have no control whatsoever about its accomplishment. What I can do is strive to improve the quality of my writing every day. What I can’t do is cause other people to nominate my stories for awards and then vote for them. That situation is completely outside my hands – and as I have explained above, those outcomes often have nothing to do with the excellence of the work. Goals should be things that I can reach through my own efforts. Therefore I should erase the winning of that certain award from my career goals list. (I still want one, though, but that is a hope or dream rather than a professional goal.)

In closing, let me emphasize that I do not go to the extreme of saying that awards are useless. They often bring worthy artistic works to the public’s attention. I have sometimes perused lists of award winners while looking for what to read next. The point, though, is to not give overmuch attention to the giving and receiving of awards. Some works of literature that were commercial failures and virtually unknown during the authors’ lifetimes went on to be considered classics. Among these are Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience by William Blake, Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, the lovely poetry of Emily Dickenson, and the haunting tales of Franz Kafka. A singular story concerns John Kennedy Toole and his novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole committed suicide at the age of thirty-three after unsuccessfully trying to sell his novel to publishers. His mother persisted in marketing the work, and it was published in 1980, eleven years after his death. The following year, 1981, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

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Book Review: River-Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America by William Least Heat-Moon

I last met William Least Heat-Moon in the memoir Blue Highways, an account of his journey around the continental United States alone in a small camper van. In River-Horse, he undertakes a boat journey along America’s rivers and lakes from New York all the way to the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific coast, with only a few brief portages along the way. It’s an ambitious trip that takes many months of planning and four months of execution.

River-Horse has some evocative descriptions and some exciting moments, but it did not grip me as strongly or affect me as deeply as Blue Highways. Thinking about it, I came up with three major reasons why this is so.

First of all, I could not identify with Heat-Moon’s adventures in River-Horse the same way I could with those in Blue Highways. Traveling by camper van is something I have done extensively in the past, although only in Europe, never in the States. At one time, my wife and I and our first three kids lived full time for months in a camper converted from a Mercedes cargo van as we moved from Italy back to Greece and roamed Greece before we set up in Athens. I also still have aspirations of traveling by camper again in the future, if I somehow could come up with the vehicle and the finances to support a nomadic life.

River travel, though, except for brief forays, I have no interest in. The closest I came to taking a long trip by river was decades ago when I was making my way from the Khyber Pass near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border across Pakistan to Lahore. I met a Norwegian traveler about the same age as I was, and together we concocted a crazy plan to explore the Indus River by boat. We decided to head for Multan in central Pakistan, obtain a small boat, and head leisurely downstream. We got as far as Multan, which seemed to us a dirty, sullen, unfriendly place, before we realized the absurdity of our idea. We decided to abandon the water plan and head for Mumbai (which was called Bombay at the time), but it would have been too time-consuming to go all the way back to Lahore overland and enter India there. Instead, we took an overfull train to Karachi, where we had to sit on our packs in the aisle near a stinking toilet for about twenty hours, and then take a cheap flight to Bombay. Those were the days.

Another reason that River-Horse was hard to identify with is because a trip like this is only within the reach of the relatively wealthy. I can imagine buying a van and making my way around on the road on a shoestring budget, but to take a trip along the waterways like Heat-Moon describes, you have to purchase a motorboat, a canoe with motor, and a vehicle and trailer to haul the boats. You also have to have the financial reserves to be able to not work for many months and pay for fuel for the boat and vehicles, hotel rooms, meals, and other expenses along the way. As a best-selling author, I suppose Heat-Moon could afford it, but as someone who barely manages to come up with the rent and bills each month, I can’t see it.

Finally, the strength of Blue Highways is the fascinating interviews that Heat-Moon has with the various eccentric people he meets along the way. However, River-Horse takes place in much more isolated locales. Most of the time, Heat-Moon has only his copilot and a few tag-along friends to converse with, so much of that local color is missing from this book.

Having said all that, I need to add that this book does grow on you. The author makes up for the lack of meetings with locals by supplying interesting tidbits of history of the places that they pass on the way. There are some genuinely exciting moments, and it is a real thrill when Heat-Moon motors out into the Pacific Ocean to culminate his long journey. It’s a well-written travel book telling of a unique and interesting experience. All in all, despite its not being as personally significant as Blue Highways to me, I still recommend it as a compelling read.

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Book Review: The Year’s Best Science Fiction Volume 1 Edited by Jonathan Strahan

Even though a lot of the fiction I write, particularly short fiction, is science fiction or fantasy (or sometimes a blend of the two), I don’t read a lot of genre fiction. My reading goes all over the place – fiction and nonfiction, contemporary, historical, biographical, and so on – and I like it that way. I am interested in so many things that I don’t want to lock myself into a box of my own making. However, I get a good dose of short speculative fiction a few times a year. Once is when the Nebula Award nominations come out. As a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America, I am eligible to vote on the awards, and so I try to read what’s nominated so I can cast a knowledgeable vote.

I also get another healthy dose of short fiction when the best of the year anthologies finally make it to the local library. (Sorry, writers and editors, but I can’t afford to buy books right now.) This one took longer than usual. It’s already 2021, but these are the best stories, as judged by Strahan, from 2019. COVID-19 had something to do with the delay – the library has just recently worked out a system that allows readers to safely pick up books they’ve reserved from outside the building.

In The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Strahan is picking up the torch of the late great editor Gardner Dozois, who died in 2018. Like Dozois, he presents a comprehensive overview of the science fiction field in a long introduction and then presents over five hundred pages of stories.

I’ve written before about the mixed feelings I have when reading best of the year anthologies. There is no such thing as a definitive best of the year collection because it is in fact a selection of stories chosen by one person. It is interesting too that few selections in the various best-of anthologies that come out each year overlap – another example of individual proclivities. Very few of the stories nominated for awards in 2020 made Strahan’s final cut. I also inevitably found several stories I thought were less than excellent, and replacing them with some of the award-nominated stories that Strahan left out would certainly have improved the book.

Having said that, though, I have to admit that overall this anthology has a better-than-average selection of first class speculative fiction. I have had a lot of fun reading some stories that I otherwise would have missed out on.

One of my favorites is “Kali_Na” by Indrapramit Das. It is a tale of a near-future virtual goddess awakening and transforming into the fearsome goddess Kali. Das’s dark descriptive prose reminded me of the incisive stories of my former mentor at Clarion West, Harlan Ellison. It also reminded me of my own street wanderings in Kolkata, where I would sometimes come across foreboding likenesses of the dread goddess Kali.

Another wickedly dark tale of the future is “Contagion’s Eve at the House Noctambulous” by Rich Larson. The title alone is worth the price of admission. It concerns an evil future in which the privileged few have killed off most of the Earth’s population and kept the rest as cowed servants. Although the “surprise” ending can be seen a long way off, the story is still vastly entertaining for its unique take on a grim future.

There are several stories with unique perspectives or ideas. For instance, in “The Way of Wolves” by Tegan Moore, the narrator is an enhanced dog that assists humans in rescue work. In “Emergency Skin” by N. K. Jemisin, the privileged few left a polluted Earth to form a “better” world on a far planet; when a representative returns for some needed supplies, he discovers that the Earth has recovered and is getting along much better without the so-called elite. “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee is narrated by a deep ocean drone that is abandoned and has to make its way through thousands of miles of open ocean to its home base. “Reunion” by Vandana Singh, also set in India, gives me deep joy not only because of its description of a futuristic Mumbai, where I used to live, but also because of the sheer elegance of its prose.

Yes, there are some good stories in this book. It is well worth the read.

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Book Review: The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete Uncensored History of the Beat Generation by Bill Morgan

I have to confess to limited exposure to the group of writers that Bill Morgan refers to in this book as the Beat Generation. Whenever I heard the term, I always supposed that it depicted a national or international movement similar to the social upheaval that took place during the sixties and early seventies. In fact, according to Morgan, the Beat Generation was not a revolutionary artistic and social upheaval, but rather a small group of loose-living friends who promoted each other’s literary endeavors, primarily poetry.

The only beat writer I have read extensively is Jack Kerouac. I came across his novel On the Road in my late teens and it, along with Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and the biography Jack London: Sailor on Horseback by Irving Stone, changed my life. These books all in their own ways helped me break loose from social and literary strictures and develop my own voice.

The Typewriter Is Holy starts off slowly as it builds up the backgrounds of the characters. It is also soon obvious that the writers Morgan highlights in this book are not exemplary people. With the exception of one seldom-mentioned African American poet and one seldom-mentioned female poet, the entire group of friends that constituted the Beat Generation consisted of white males, most of whom were misogynistic, dismissive, and even cruel towards women. They were drug addicts, alcoholics, self-centered, self-destructive, and irresponsible. The binding force that held them together, according to Morgan, was Allen Ginsberg, but the King of the Beats according to the media was Kerouac.

The most interesting parts of the book, for me at least, are when Morgan describes the efforts these writers made to write their works and get published. They had a lot to overcome, most of it self-inflicted or brought on by the bad examples and betrayals of their fellows. Kerouac achieved the greatest popular success, but some of the others also gained a wide readership, particularly Ginsberg and William Burroughs.

As mentioned above, Kerouac had a great influence on me at a germinal stage of my writing career. His spontaneous prose technique combined with autobiographical material was not new – Henry Miller, for instance, had done similar work decades before, but at the time of the Beats his works were still banned in the United States – but it liberated him to devise a style that fit his road adventures. Reading Kerouac and Miller in turn got me out on the road, not only in the United States but also in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia, and it also ignited my own experiments with spontaneous prose, or as I preferred to call it, jazz prose. You can read all about that in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.

Near the end of the book, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and other proponents of psychedelics enter the picture as the Beat era winds down and the hippie era picks up steam. Some of the Beat writers begin to experiment with hallucinogens, and the rest, as they say, is history.

This book is interesting from the point of view of literary history, but watch out. There are no heroes in it. For the most part, the Beat Generation was lost, confused, drug-addled, liquor-soaked men who somehow in spite of it all managed to turn out some good literary work. I want to emphasize, though, that in my opinion whatever decent literature they wrote was in spite of the drugs and alcohol, not because of it. I wonder what literary marvels they might have produced if they had managed to keep their wits about them.

Despite my hesitations about recommending the book, one of my main complains is that it is too short. Morgan moves at breakneck speed through his narrative, sometimes dismissing in a paragraph sections that deserve chapters. With a slower pace, a biographer would not only be able to put the stories of the various characters into better historical context, but also explore more of the important peripheral characters that the fast-paced white men seem to continually leave by the wayside.

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Book Review: Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck by William Sounder

Before I start this review, I have to get something off my chest, because it rankles every time I see it. I can’t understand why the author of this biography titled it “A” life of John Steinbeck instead of “The” life of John Steinbeck. How many lives did Steinbeck live? After all, he wasn’t a cat; he didn’t have nine of them – just the one as far as I know. And I doubt that Sounder was considering a theory of alternate universes (fairly common in science fiction) in which there are an endless variety of John Steinbecks, each one of them a little bit different. I suppose that he or the publishers thought that since there were several biographies of Steinbeck already published, they would acknowledge that fact by their odd choice of title. Or maybe they figured that each biography about a person is a different interpretation of the life. If they thought that, they’re wrong. A biography is supposed to be nonfiction, not fiction based on fact. It is supposed to be accurate, at least as much as it is in the writer’s power.

All right, enough of the rant; let’s get to Steinbeck. John Steinbeck was one of the first writers that I deeply enjoyed, way back in high school. I was assigned to read his short novel The Pearl, and I liked it and sought out other books of his. I read the massive tomes The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, of course, but I liked even more his shorter works such as Cannery Row. Travels with Charley was a great read, and it made me want to get out on the road, which I eventually did. My favorite of Steinbeck’s books, though, which oddly enough is the one that Sounder is most dismissive of, was and is Sweet Thursday, the sequel to Cannery Row. I loved that Steinbeck combined the gritty realistic and comedic feel of Cannery Row with a sweet love story.

The summer before last, two of my sons and I went on a literary road trip to northern California, and one of our stops was at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. It’s a great little museum with exhibits and displays arranged around his books. Later we drove to Monterrey and walked around Cannery Row and the rest of the waterfront. I haven’t read much Steinbeck in recent years, but on this trip I picked up a copy of Travels with Charley and reread it. It made me want to take off in a camper again. Go figure.

Anyway, despite my respect for Steinbeck as a writer, I had never read a biography about him, so I decided to check out this new one. It is well written and an interesting read. If anything, I would say that it is too short. It skims over portions of Steinbeck’s life, numerous portions in fact, about which I would have liked to have known more.

Steinbeck had the usual insecurities as a writer. He seldom thought that his work was good and usually read reviews, either good or bad, with apprehension and chagrin. He drank too much and smoked too much and often treated the people around him badly. Having five sons myself, I was especially disturbed by the descriptions of his frequent ill-treatment of his sons. Another thing that disturbed me was his lack of gratitude for his fame and fortune. He was an extremely popular writer, made a lot of money, and traveled extensively in his later years, and yet even these luxuries did not make him content. He was frequently moody, irritable, and abusive. As a struggling writer who works hard and hopes someday to break out into a measure of fame and financial security, I have little sympathy for someone who takes these things for granted and insists on clinging to a melancholy attitude regardless.

I have found, though, through studying the lives of famous people, that this is frequently the case. Steve Jobs, for example, was much more rich and famous but was also morose, frequently depressed, and abusive. It really is a truism that money can’t buy happiness.

Of course, we don’t read books about famous people because we expect to find solutions to our problems. In fact, most of the people I read about have (or had) far more problems than I do.

Before I close, I want to mention one of Steinbeck’s very good habits that he carried on throughout his entire life, and that is his schedule of writing every morning no matter what. There were gaps when he was ill or between projects, but for the most part he kept up his writing regimen. He had to write. His life revolved around it, and he did not feel fulfilled or satisfied unless he was working on something. That, at least, he and I have in common.

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Book Review: Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges; Part 2: Later Writings

Now we come to the heart of Jorge Luis Borges’s work. As he matured as a writer, certain themes and subjects began to emerge. One of these is the concept of the double. Numerous stories deal with two seemingly separate characters who in the end turn out to be the same character. More than once, the characters turn out to be Borges himself. He frequently insets himself by name as a fictional character in his stories, which is an intriguing method of juxtaposing reality and fantasy.

One of the best of the stories about doubles, “Borges and I,” is less than a page long. It is actually not so much a conventional story as an explanation of the difference between the literary Borges and the Borges who lives his day to day ordinary life. The literary Borges, he writes, is the one that people recognize and the one who receives all the acclaim, while the other Borges is the scholar who reads and writes in solitude; in the end, the narrator is unsure about which Borges is writing the current story. In another story about doubles, “The Other,” a younger Borges and an older Borges meet on the bank of a river and have a discussion about their mutual life. The younger Borges is in Europe and the older Borges is in New England, and their timelines are decades apart, and yet they somehow link their realities together and share a conversation that they will afterwards forget.

Borges is best known for his fantasies, of course, most of which are elaborate thought experiments. Some of the best deal with fantastic objects or entities people come across that have a profound influence on them. For instance, one of Borges’s most famous stories is “The Aleph,” which is “one of the points in space that contains all points.” Someone who looks into it can see everywhere on Earth at the same time. The discoverer of this wonder is a poet who has been using it to create a grand descriptive work of poetry. The Aleph resides under a stairway in the poet’s house in Argentina, and he invites the narrator, Borges, to view the Aleph before the house is demolished. Borges’s description of the Aleph is one of the sublime masterpieces of literature.

Another story dealing with a fantastic object is “The Zahir.” The Zahir can take various shapes; in the time of the story it is a coin, while in another era it is a tiger. Whatever it is, when someone looks upon it, they cannot ever afterward get it out of their minds, and it eventually drives them mad. The theme of fantastic things leading to madness also lies in the last story in the book, “Shakespeare’s Memory.” In this one, the memory of Shakespeare can be passed from one person to another with their assent. A scholar of Shakespeare thinks that attaining the memory of Shakespeare is a wonderful thing, until it begins to overwhelm his own memory. Eventually he has to get rid of it before he is lost to reality.

One of the most compelling of the stories about fantastic things is “The Immortal.” A man hears of a city of immortal people living in a remote desert area of North Africa; they attain their immortality from the waters of a river. He goes in search of this place and finds the river, but the city is deserted. Near the river in caves live a group of sedentary people who at first seem to be subhuman. It turns out that these are the immortals, but immortality has caused them to become less active and live only in their thoughts. The narrator meets Homer, who has been alive for over a thousand years but now can barely remember how to speak Greek. The narrator realizes that immortality is more of a curse than a gift; he reasons that if there is a river that bestows immortality, then there must be another river that gives back mortality, and he goes in search of it.

Many of the stories are not fantasies, but instead are based on Argentinean historical characters or legends. These often deal with gangsters, gauchos, ranch life, and knife fights as indicators of manhood. In one particularly horrifying story called “The Gospel of St. Mark,” a student becomes isolated at a remote ranch with a family of ignorant laborers. To pass the time, he reads the gospel story from the Bible to the laborers. They react by constructing a cross and nailing the student to it.

All in all, reading Borges is a rewarding experience, but it is not always an easy one. Borges was a scholar of languages and mythologies, and he frequently inserted obscure references into the text. Fortunately, the translator, Andrew Hurley, has included a voluminous section of translator’s notes at the end, which you can refer to if you want to uncover the meaning of some of Borges’s more esoteric allusions.

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Book Review: Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Andrew Hurley; Part One: The Early Works

I recently gave a copy of Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges to a young writer as a Christmas present. This is not the same as presenting someone with a more or less standard or normal science fiction or fantasy novel. The short stories of Borges are much more challenging than the works of most other writers. You can’t approach him lightly or flippantly or you’re going to be blown away by the intricacy and intelligence. After he had read several of the stories, this writer and I had a long phone conversation about Borges, his significance, how to approach him, and what other writers can learn from his work.

In selecting this volume to give to this other writer, I perused my copy of it first, going over the table of contents, reading random paragraphs, remembering my reactions to the stories when I had read it in the past. I have read the book cover to cover twice, and have read some of my favorite stories many more times than that. Inevitably I got sucked in again. I had just finished my previous reading project and was waiting for another book to arrive, so I started to reread Borges. I couldn’t help it. By this time I had already ordered a copy to be sent to this other writer, and as I started at the beginning of my copy and read through, I realized the difficulties of encountering Borges, especially through this book, for the first time.

For one thing, the book is a compilation of all of Borges’s fiction, and the various books of stories that he wrote throughout his career are presented in chronological order. The problem with this is that there is a clear development from his early fictional experiments to the much more sophisticated works that he wrote later. This became starkly evident to me as I read the first two sections of Collected Fictions. It would be far easier for readers who have never before encountered Borges to begin with a Best of collection in which his best and easiest to understand stories are highlighted.

The first section of Collected Fictions is A Universal History of Iniquity, which was published in 1935. This is a collection of stories of infamous villains from all over the world, including the outlaw Billie the Kid from America, a female pirate from China, a courtier from Japan, a pseudo-prophet from Turkey, and a gangster from Argentina. Borges lists a variety of sources for the background of these stories, but it is evident that he has taken great artistic license in the telling of them, so that it is impossible to discern which parts are facts and which are Borges’s embellishments. These stories are characterized by the author’s attention to detail, or maybe it would be more correct to say pseudo-detail. They read like historical accounts but ultimately have to be classified as fabrications.

Part Two of Collected Fictions is The Garden of Forking Paths, originally published in 1941, which is Borges’s first real short story collection. Here we can see the progression of Borges’s art and storytelling skill, and the beginning of the evolution of themes that he would continue to refine in future works, including elaborate thought experiments, mirrors, labyrinths, libraries, and descriptions of made-up books and authors. Some of the stories take the form of pseudo-reviews of imaginary books. Some, such as “The Circular Ruins,” “The Lottery of Babylon,” and “The Library of Babel,” are thought experiments in which the elaborate ideas are the real protagonists and the human narrators do little more than introduce and describe them. The writer I gave the book to and I agreed that these idea-focused stories remind us of some of the stories of Ted Chiang, another extremely cerebral writer.

The last story in this section is the titular one, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” and in this story, for the first time, it is possible to see how the evolution of Borges’s various paths of thought and technique have come together into a rich, dense, fully-formed short story. “The Garden of Forking Paths” is intricate, has a brilliant idea meticulously formulated, but also has fully-fleshed characters, historical background, and an elaborate plot that is a type of murder mystery. Here we see the fulfillment of Borges’s growth as a writer in a superlative, well-told, complete story. There will be many more to come.

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