Book Review: Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living – Edited by Manjula Martin

Let’s get one thing clear from the outset: this book is not about what the title says it’s about, what the back blurb says it’s about, or what I thought it was going to be about.  Finally, I thought: A book about how to make a living as a writer.  Only it’s not.

The essays in it are about writing – at least most of them, but they are not about how to survive financially as a writer.  To the opposite.  Most of them are about how impossible it is to make it as a writer.  They are stories of traumas and failures, not triumphs, with few exceptions. The book is filled with horror stories of despair and inexplicable behavior.  The prize, in my opinion, goes to the author who went $50,000 in credit card debt while writing her first book, and $85,000 in credit card debt writing her second book.  That’s inspirational?  That’s supposed to provide guidance to struggling writers?  That’s any sort of example for anyone to follow?

The book is readable and even entertaining, for the most part, although there was one essay I just couldn’t get through and had to skip over.  However, its vision is very narrow.  Its premise is that if you want to create, whether it be through writing or any other form of art, unless you are one of a few notable exceptions, you can’t make a living at it.  This is not what I need to hear, and also it’s not true.  I personally know a number of people who make a living at it, and I have read about many, many more in books, magazines, and online forums.  It can be done.  This book was like almost three dozen voices whispering or sometimes screaming in my head how hard it is and why I shouldn’t even try.  And it’s fine if the editor meant to collect essays on the angst and disappointment and discouragement inherent in the writing experience – if that was the intent then it succeeded admirably.  In that case, though, the problem is with the title, cover copy, and marketing.  It just doesn’t deliver what it implies that it will.

There are some good essays in this book, and the best ones are those in which the writers do not attempt to be ostentatious and literary, but instead simply and honestly tell their stories.  Even if a story is grim, I appreciate it if it is written from the heart without accompanying bells and whistles and other adornment.

One major problem, and perhaps the reason the book is full of gloom and doom instead of hope, is that it focuses almost entirely on the traditional publishing scene and ignores the modern phenomenon of self-publishing.  Many of the full-time writers I know or have heard of make comfortable livings through self-publishing, not through major New York publishing houses.  Some of the writers in this book decry the lack of diversity in publishing – and that is true of traditional publishing.  But self-publishing is a whole new game, and anyone can play it.  The field is open for writers to upload their books into online literary marketplaces where they are on display along with those of traditional publishing houses.

Yes, this book has numerous flaws and gaps, and I’m not sure I can recommend it as a result.  I don’t mind so much that it deals mostly with traditional publishing.  My biggest objection is the overall negative tone and the lack of hope it offers idealistic would-be writers.

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Evolving Experiences at Norwescon

Less than a week ago I returned from Norwescon 40, which is the third Norwescon in a row that I have attended.  Norwescon is one of the largest science fiction conventions in the Northwest United States.  It focuses mainly on science fiction and fantasy literature, as opposed to other conventions that highlight comics or movies or TV shows.

Norwescon is not the first convention, or con for short, that I have ever attended.  That was ConDor in San Diego.  Then, after I moved to Seattle, I attended Potlatch, a small con primarily connected with the Clarion workshops.  Norwescon, though, has seemed ideal for me and my teen son, as it’s not far from where we live and has just the right balance of activities to keep us busy and happy.

I’m somewhat of an anomaly in the science fiction universe.  Most writers and fans I meet have attended cons almost all their lives.  Cons are a natural part of their existence.  However, I lived overseas for thirty-five years and had no access to such events.  By the time I moved back to the States I was eager to see what they were like.  Many of my writer colleagues don’t come for recreation at all.  They come to meet up with friends, sure, but they also come to “work” the con.  They see a con like Norwescon as an opportunity for marketing – which is a valid perspective, of course.  For me, though, the experience is too new to see it merely from a business perspective.  Perhaps in a few years, I will approach it differently.

Each of my three years at Norwescon have been markedly different.  At the first one I had been living in Seattle for less than a year.  I had met a few local writers at Potlatch, but otherwise I went in not knowing anyone.  I attended panels, perused items in the dealer’s room, and marveled at the flamboyant costumes of many of the guests.  The con was very heavily attended, as George R.R. Martin was the guest.  My son was flipped out to meet him and get his autograph.  We even stayed at the hotel for Saturday night.

The next year we expanded our stay to Friday and Saturday nights.  I attended a Clarion West party on Thursday, but I had to return to the city on public transport late at night, as my son had school and I had to pick him up to bring him on Friday.  I had gone to local writer’s gatherings throughout the year and so I met several people I knew in the hallways; it was very different from the year before when I had gone in relatively incognito.

This past year I ran into a lot of people I knew. I was also a panelist for the first time, on a special panel about Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.  We stayed two nights again, and the weather was good so my son went swimming every day in the hotel pool.  This was sort of a pivotal point; I was coming in both as a fan and as a professional.

Next year, who knows?  I am ambivalent about whether I want to apply to participate in more panels, thus making that the main focus of the experience, or remain laid back and spend most of the time with my son.  I will decide over the coming weeks.  For now, I am basking in the pleasant memories of the con that has just passed.  I don’t want the business of marketing to spoil the fun.  On the other hand, participating in the panel was fun.  We’ll see.  There’s time to decide on the next step.  For those of you writers and readers who enjoy science fiction and fantasy, I recommend Norwescon as a bright interlude and escape from the usual day to day grind.

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Book Review: The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck

I’ve wanted to read this book for months – actually for over a year now.  I first spotted the hardcover at the physical Amazon bookstore in the University Village here in Seattle, but it was too pricey for my budget, so I reserved it at the library.  It was taking so long to work its way through the reserve list that I gave up on it.  Then I found and bought a used copy at the annual Friends of the Library book sale.

When I first started reading it, several things reminded me of the travel memoir A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.  First of all, both books deal with long journeys along historic trails. Bryson attempts to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, and Buck decides to retrace the Oregon Trail that the pioneers used to settle the west from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Baker City, Oregon, using a team of three mules and a covered wagon.  Secondly, both authors have sidekicks that add comic relief to their adventures.  Bryson has his friend Stephen Katz, an overweight recovering alcoholic who “looks like Orson Wells on a bad day.” Buck has his brother Nick, a boisterous, foul-mouthed recovering alcoholic who is nevertheless congenial and endearing.  Both books intersperse the modern exploits of their characters with extended researched sections describing the places they are going through and their history.  Finally, both books chronicle multiple misadventures as the authors find out that their travels don’t exactly work out how they thought they would in the planning stages.

Admittedly, Buck’s journey is much more ambitious than Bryson’s.  Bryson merely had to pick up some camping equipment and food and set out hiking.  He was out of shape and had to adapt to the rigors of the trail, sure, but it’s a fairly simple process to continue to put one foot in front of the other.  Bryson, in fact, eventually is forced to compromise; he does not walk the entire trail, but at a certain point abandons his vision and merely drives in and walks the trail at various spots.  Buck, on the other hand, puts together an elaborate setup of three mules, a covered wagon, and a pup-wagon he has custom-made to follow behind and carry extra supplies.  He has to constantly study multiple maps and adjust his course, as the modern Oregon Trail is beset with obstacles such as fences across private land and interstate highways.  Despite all of the difficulties and problems they encounter, Buck and his brother persevere and make it all the way to Oregon – an extraordinary feat.

The book is very entertaining; it kept my interest throughout.  It’s full of fascinating information and anecdotes.  The descriptions of the arguments and reconciliations between Buck and his brother Nick, as well as Buck’s reminiscences about his wagon travels as a child with his father, add depth to the narrative.

As I read, I found myself recalling my own travels around the world that I recount in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.  I also took off on the road to fulfill a personal vision.  However, the comparison breaks down early.  I left almost broke, hitchhiking and taking odd jobs along the way for pocket money. Buck, on the other hand, invested a great deal of money in his rig and the mules before he ever started, and had an endless supply of finances to make repairs and buy supplies as they went along.  That’s one thing that occurred to me: the original pioneers may have been poor struggling farmers seeking opportunities in the west, but following the Oregon Trail in modern times is a rich man’s game.  You have to have a lot of disposable income to make it work.

Still, I’m thankful that Rinker and Nick Buck made the trip so that I can follow along vicariously.  It’s not the sort of trip that I would make, at least not by covered wagon.  I can imagine myself following the route in a camper, perhaps, but that’s a completely different sort of journey.  Back in my hippy traveling days, I was young and strong and I could endure almost anything.  Now, I move more slowly and have to pace myself.  Books like this allow me to accompany others on exciting adventures that I would otherwise be unable to undertake.

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“He/She/They” in Enter the Apocalypse

Enter_the_Apocalypse-FrontCoverThe anthology Enter the Apocalypse, edited by Thomas Gondolfi and published by TANSTAAFL Press, has just been released, and it includes my story “He/She/They.”  All the stories in the anthology concern catastrophic events that threaten the human race, including zombies, deadly viruses, and nuclear holocaust. My own story is about invisible alien tourists benignly observing our society; when humans become aware of them and react negatively, the aliens push back. You can find the collection in print or electronic editions at Amazon and other online bookstores.

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Book Review: The City on the Edge of Forever by Harlan Ellison

Some readers may wonder: What’s he talking about?  The City on the Edge of Forever isn’t a book; it’s a Star Trek episode.  It’s both, in fact.  The City on the Edge of Forever was the twenty-eighth episode of the original series of Star Trek; it first aired on August 6, 1967.  It is widely regarded as the best episode of the original series and even one of the all-time best episodes of all the various Star Trek television incarnations.

This book contains an eighty-five page introduction by Harlan Ellison, the award-winning author of the original teleplay, detailing the battles he had with the studio, and Gene Roddenberry the producer in particular, as he tried to keep the integrity of his original teleplay intact in the face of an incredible amount of studio-mandated changes, and the further problems he had in the ensuing decades with Roddenberry recounting a distorted version of the events during his numerous public speaking events.  Ellison then presents the original teleplay as he first wrote it, before any of the studio changes, in its entirety.  Then follows an example of a partial rewrite of the prologue and first act, and a series of essays about the episode by some of the actors and writers involved in the original Star Trek series.

I was fourteen years old when The City on the Edge of Forever first aired.  I was already hooked on the series; I had never seen anything like it on network television.  I watched it in black and white; my family never acquired a color set until I was grown and gone.  It didn’t matter: the heart of any teleplay is the script.  I remember being deeply touched, even at that young age, by the love story in The City on the Edge of Forever and its heartbreaking conclusion.  Even way back then, on first viewing, that episode became one of my favorites.

Later, I came across one of Harlan Ellison’s short stories, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” while taking a university science fiction literature course, and I came to the realization that I had to be a writer – that being a writer was my calling in life.  And when I had just turned twenty, in the summer of 1973, I attended the Clarion West science fiction writing workshop, and Harlan Ellison was one of my teachers.

But back to Star Trek and the teleplay – at least in a roundabout way.  In the evenings around eight or eight-thirty or so I usually watch a TV episode from Netflix or Hulu or Amazon while I’m eating dinner.  (We follow the Greek habit of the larger meal at midday and something lighter like a sandwich later on.)  In this manner I’ve watched several seasons of Star Trek Voyager, the full seven seasons of Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and numerous other series.  (One of my favorite series was The West Wing, especially the first four seasons when Aaron Sorkin was still writing for it.)

Recently I decided to revisit the original series of Star Trek.  I hadn’t watched most of the episodes for several decades.  I opted to go through all three seasons in order, without skipping any of the shows no matter how bad I knew they were.  And some of them are bad – no, terrible.  There’s a fairly decent amount of good scripts throughout the first season and partway through the second season.  That’s when Roddenberry hired accomplished science fiction writers to pen the teleplays.  However, by the third season, the writing is very bad, and so is the production design.  The sets are almost non-existent – painted cardboard cutouts here and there and not much more.  Shows like Voyager and Deep Space Nine went far beyond the original series in terms of special effects, makeup, and the sophistication of their long, multiple-episode story arcs.  However, there are a few original series episodes that shine brightly despite the ravages of time, and one of them is The City on the Edge of Forever.

I don’t really want to get involved in the controversy surrounding the original teleplay and the final script that actually got shot.  In fact, both incarnations received honors.  The episode that appeared on television won the Hugo Award, and the unedited original teleplay won the Writer’s Guild of America Award.  To me, watching the old Star Trek episode and reading Ellison’s excellent teleplay in book form are completely different experiences.  Since this is a book review, that’s what I’ll focus on: the book.  The teleplay that never got produced, that was judged too radical and not Star Trek enough, is absolutely brilliant.  Ellison writes it with as much intensity and as careful word selection as is manifest in his short stories.  I would love to have seen it produced, but even in this form, as a work of literature, it is well worth reading.  As for the introduction, I recommend it to anyone who wants to work in film or television as a counter to any fantasyland delusions they may have that all is sweetness and light in the city of stars.

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On Rereading Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

While reading the encyclopedic collection of descriptions of worlds created by science fiction and fantasy authors called Literary Wonderlands I encountered a synopsis of a book I’d never read but I thought might be interesting.  It was famous and popular and critically well regarded, at least within a certain genre, so I thought I might give it a try.  When I acquired a library copy of the thick tome, I plunged in: ten pages, then twenty pages, and then more…  The problem was, so little happened that I began to get frustrated.  The descriptions were ornate and dripping with accomplished prose, sure, but there was no story.  I thought: Am I going to be able to keep this up for so many hundreds of pages?  The answer was no.  Life is too short.

I can’t be without something to read, though.  Casting about for a substitute to help get the bad taste of the last volume out of my literary mouth, I settled on rereading a novel by Zelazny.  His prose is as amazingly descriptive and ornate as the best of them, but he also knew how to keep a story moving at a decent clip.  At first I thought I might reread This Immortal, his first novel, but I had read it fairly recently, at least within the past few years.  Instead, I remembered I had a copy of Lord of Light, which I hadn’t read for at least a decade.

Lord of Light is Zelazny’s longest and most ambitious single novel.  Well, I can’t say that for a fact because I haven’t read all of his books, but I have heard it said.  I think I prefer This Immortal, which is about half the length and is much tighter and reads almost like an extended novella.  Zelazny excelled at shorter lengths.  His masterpieces are novelettes that he wrote early in his career such as “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” and “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth.”  That’s not to say his novels aren’t great – they are.  It’s just that his shorter works go beyond great into sheer brilliance.

Lord of Light posits a world in which the original colonists from Earth have set themselves up as gods from the Hindu pantheon so that they might exploit and oppress later generations of the planet’s inhabitants.  The god’s powers and attributes and other relevant concepts such as reincarnation are all explained scientifically, elaborate deceptions to foster and continue the first generation’s claims of godhood.  Accelerationism, which is the granting of scientific knowledge to the mass of humanity that lives in subjugation to the gods, is ruthlessly crushed, as are any teachings that promote the theory that the gods are anything less than what they claim to be.  The novel is about a rebellion by one of the first colonists, who wants to expose the gods, throw down their celestial city and its oppression, and teach scientific knowledge to humankind.  He has various names such as Siddhartha, Buddha, Tathagatha, the Binder, Lord of Light, and Mahasamatman.  However, he prefers to call himself Sam.

Many of Zelazny’s primary heroes have similar attributes: they are physically strong; they are knowledgeable and clever; they are skilled in martial arts; and they smoke cigarettes and drink significant amounts of alcohol.  Sam is no exception.  Zelazny’s heroes are also typically tall, but because Sam has multiple bodies throughout the story, he escapes this attribute, at least in some of his incarnations.  I mean this in no way to detract from Zelazny’s abilities as a writer.  He was one of the greatest of the so-called New Wave writers of the late 1960s through early 1970s.  Tragically, he died of cancer in 1995 when he was only 58.

As I said, Lord of Light does not have as consistently strong narrative voice as some of Zelazny’s best shorter works.  It starts fast, slows down a bit in the middle, and then zooms to a smashing finish.  Overall, though, it is one of the best novels of the 1960s, a great read, and well deserving of the designation of classic.

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Book Review: Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created, Edited by Laura Miller

This is a beautiful book.  I came across it while perusing new releases at Amazon’s physical bookstore in Seattle.  A relative caught me admiring it and bought it for me for Christmas.  It’s a heavy tome, more like an encyclopedia than a standard volume, and the text is interspersed with drawings, paintings, maps, and photographs to illustrate the fabulous imaginary realms it highlights.

The selections are arranged chronologically, with two to six pages for each book or series and the world it depicts.  It starts with ancient myth and legend, which includes classics such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, Beowulf, and The Divine Comedy.  The next section covers 1701 to 1900, which the editor refers to as the era of science and romanticism.  Among the diverse books described here are Gulliver’s Travels, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Treasure Island, and The Time Machine.  Next is the golden age of fantasy from 1901 to 1945, with titles like The Lost World, At the Earth’s Core, The Castle, Brave New World, and Conan the Barbarian.  The time periods get shorter and the contents more extensive as it moves along to the present.  The new world order section from 1946 to 1980 has twenty-five entries, including Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, A Clockwork Orange, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Included in the section on the computer age from 1981 to the present are The Discworld series, Neuromancer, The Sandman comic series, A Game of Thrones, the Harry Potter series, and 1Q84.  The book culminates with Salmon Rushdie’s fantasy Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.

These are all wondrous worlds to get lost in – but of course, what you’re really doing is skimming the surfaces.  The brief descriptions are teases that induce you to look further, to pick up the books themselves and dive into the details.  Through this tome you can get an overview of some of the important works of fantasy in literature, and it’s fun to visit these imaginary lands, albeit briefly.  Let’s say it’s more like going through a directory of alternate universes, but to really get to know any one of them, you have to visit it for yourself.

The selection is fairly well done, although some of the choices are obscure works and there are some notable omissions of groundbreaking science fiction and fantasy that should have been included.  I suppose the publisher and editor didn’t want to make the book too big; it’s already quite physically heavy.  However, considering some of the entries I’ve never heard of even after over five decades of reading in the field, there’s no excuse for not including Frank Herbert’s planet Arrakis from his seminal first volume of Dune.  Another strange land that should have been included is the fantasy realm that the title character finds himself in while searching for his lost wife in James Branch Cabell’s classic Jurgen.  I would also like to have seen Cordwainer Smith’s elaborate universe represented, among others.  There’s no mention of Robert Heinlein, Robert Silverberg, and Roger Zelazny and the amazing worlds they created.  Be that as it may, there are doubtlessly many other worthy fantasy worlds that readers would like to include, but it inevitably comes down to editor’s choice.

Like an encyclopedia, this book is not written by one person but by a large number of contributors.  This leads to a lack of continuity in the contents.  Some writers focus on a description of the fantasy worlds, while others all but ignore the books and talk about the authors, their personal struggles, and the era in which they lived and worked.  Overall, though, this book is quite entertaining, and can also give you a lot of ideas for what to read in the future.

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Meditations on Late-Blooming Literary Success

While on the bus on the way to a gathering of local writers, I was somewhat ruefully contemplating the fact that many of my colleagues, although decades younger than me, have reached a level of popular and commercial success that I am still striving for.  And as I mentally perused literary history, I was reminded that many of the top literary figures of the past achieved recognition when they were young and maintained it throughout their lifetimes.  I don’t crave personal publicity, but I’d like my works to be widely read, and I’d like to have a much more comfortable amount of income.

There are a number of reasons for this discrepancy between my income and popularity and that of others currently producing literature, but I would say, admittedly biased, that the main one does not concern talent but circumstance.  I started out full of gusto and energy as a young writer in my early twenties.  I even cut loose from my home town and set out on the road for experiences that would make me a better writer, as I relate in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.  Many things happened while out there on the road, though, and in my late twenties I stopped writing completely for a decade and a half.  I only began again when I was in my early forties.  During much of that time my ex-wife and I began our family, which eventually grew to five wonderful sons.  However, those years of the late twenties to early forties are when most writers with sufficient talent break out into the literary mainstream and often write some of their best work.

I missed those years.  There is that huge gap in my growth as a writer.  Sure, in a sense writing is like bicycle riding.  I didn’t have to start from scratch but could pick up where I left off in terms of what I had learned.  Nevertheless, I have had to undergo a crucial formative stage of growth fifteen years later than those who plowed straight through without a break.

Additionally, the publishing world has changed.  If I had continued to write instead of stopping in the late 1970s, I would have had to overcome a different set of obstacles on the road to success, a set of obstacles I might have been better prepared to face.  Who knows?  Hindsight is an illusion – one might even say a delusion.  Once decisions are made, consequences follow: that’s the way it works.

Anyway, while ruminating on the bus, it occurred to me that for many famous writers, early success did not lead to an easy later life.  On the contrary, many writers who created early masterpieces faced difficult struggles later on.  For instance, Ernest Hemingway wrote his three greatest novels: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls in his late twenties to early forties – although admittedly he revived himself enough to produce the novella The Old Man and the Sea in his early fifties; afterwards, his work and his personal life deteriorated until he committed suicide just short of his sixty-second birthday.  He killed himself at a younger age than I am now.  Jack London burst into fame with the publication of The Call of the Wild when he was in his late twenties.  He continued with a prolific surge of well-received novels, short stories, and memoirs, but weariness and various illnesses took their toll and he died at the age of forty.  Philip K. Dick began to publish science fiction stories in his early twenties.  He became famous, at least in the science fiction world, with the publication of his novel The Man in the High Castle in his early thirties.  However, his mental and physical health deteriorated and he died of a stroke when he was only fifty-three years old.

Every writer is different, and there are so many diverse writers throughout history that it’s possible to come up with examples to illustrate almost any generality; nevertheless, contemplating these examples improved my outlook, so why not?  I’m a late bloomer.  I’m only now, in my fifties and sixties, producing the novels, short stories, and memoirs on which my reputation, whatever it ends up to be, will be based.  There’s no way I can mend the past and get back those fifteen or more missing years.  All I can do is make the best of whatever time I have left.  And I intend to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Snapping Out of It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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