Book Review: The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction Volume Two – Edited by Gordon Van Gelder

I have been reading a lot of short stories lately. The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century was about eight hundred pages of short stories, and The Best American Noir of the Century was about seven hundred fifty pages of stories.  There were more short story volumes before that.  The reason is simple: I’ve been writing a lot of short stories lately, and that’s given me the desire to read them too.  The two things that Stephen King says that writers need to do in his great book On Writing: read a lot and write a lot.  I am trying to do both.  I think I have more short stories out to market than I have ever had before: roughly twenty-five stories to around thirty markets.  My stories still get rejected far more often than they get accepted.  So it goes.  That’s just part of the game.  At least if I have more stories out, it increases my odds.  I also, though, have a great new collection ready that should be published soon.

Anyway, in my hunger to read more short stories, I have my eyes open for worthy volumes, and when I heard that a new collection of The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction was published not long ago, I sought it out.

To be honest, not all the stories appeal to me.  But that’s okay.  I have long since learned that even in best of the year collections there will be some I like and some I don’t like.  After all, the editor makes selections according to his or her taste and not mine.  That’s fine with me.

As usual, I don’t like to dwell on the stories that don’t work for me, but rather on stories that I consider the very best of the very best.

We’ll start with “Narrow Valley” by R.A. Lafferty.  I’ve read this story several times in various anthologies – I think it must be one of the most often reprinted of his stories.  Lafferty is a genius of humor, and this is definitely one of his best.  He combines wild ridiculously improbable fantasy with crazy characters to create an effect unique in science fiction or short story literature in general.  He’s an underrated writer, and it’s a shame that his works are not more widely available.  Most of his stories are only in print in absurdly expensive collector’s editions, so people like me who cannot afford to spend fifty or sixty bucks for a short story collection cannot read them at all except, as in this book, by means of the occasional anthology entry.

Next we have “Sundance” by Robert Silverberg.  I have it on my list of my favorite short stories of all time, and every time I read it, it loses none of its impact.  It’s not easy to mix tenses and points of view in a short story and have it remain cohesive, but Silverberg definitely pulls it off here.

Each time I read “Jeffty Is Five” by Harlan Ellison, it gets better for me.  It’s a seemingly simple fantasy about nostalgia for a lost era, but it’s really not that simple at all.  What gives it nuance, though, is the fact that the author obviously draws from deep wells of childhood memories and then weaves those threads into a disturbing tale of lost innocence.

An excellent story that I’ve never read before is “The People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi.  In the far future, altered humans, violent beings who regenerate when they become mutilated and can eat sand and clay and chemical waste as easily as we eat a burger or a salad, find an emaciated dog wandering in the wild.  They take it home and care for it for a time.  The strength of the story is in their observations about this creature of flesh and blood that is so alien to them.

Another superlative story that I read in this collection for the first time is “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu.  It’s a sweet, heartbreaking tale about a young boy and his Chinese immigrant mother who can create small origami animals and then breathe life into them.  This menagerie of living paper creatures eventually helps the boy to learn some valuable life lessons about love and family.

All in all, this collection is worth reading for the sake of the timeless classics I’ve just mentioned and others that are entertaining but not great.

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Longing for Europe

I’ve been longing for Europe lately.  The thing is, the Europe I long for is not the Europe that exists now, but the Europe of the 1970s.  And when I envision myself in it, I don’t think of myself as I am now, but as I was back then when I used to roam Europe footloose and fancy free, as the saying goes.  When I felt that I was getting nowhere in my pursuit to be a writer and I got fed up with my situation in the United States – as I recount in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search – I sold or gave away almost everything I owned, hitchhiked across the country, and bought a round-trip ticket from New York to Luxembourg for one hundred dollars.  That’s right – $100.  And it cost me next to nothing to wander from country to country seeing the sights and having brief affairs with tourist and indigenous women.  Those were simpler days.

Of course everything has changed now.  It would be irresponsible for me to forsake everything and take off for numerous reasons.  For one, I am a single parent and solely responsible for my fifteen-year-old son.  I’m not going anywhere as long as he needs me, and it’s best for him to have a stable situation and remain in the good high school where he is now.  For another, it would be bad for my career as a writer.  It’s taken me years to make the slow, painstaking progress that has gotten me to this point, and I have no desire to let go and slide back down the mountain.

I know I can’t go anywhere, and I don’t want to go anywhere, not really.  But still, I have these longings.  Part of the reason is the way that the United States is so ripped up and polarized right now.  I recall the simpler, deeper cultures of Europe.  They have their troubles over there too, of course, but there’s something in Europe that gives me peace of mind and surcease from all the conflict and uncertainty that is so deeply rooted in the American psyche.

So – I know I can’t take off right now, but at the same time I would like to escape the present turbulence, and it makes me wonder if somehow my memories could help out.  That’s what I thought would happen when I was younger.  I figured that I’d do all that death-defying stuff when I had the freedom and stamina, and later when I was no longer able to do it for some reason or another, I’d be able to look back and feed on what I had already experienced.  Well, that works up to a point, I suppose.  If I had never done those things I’ve done, I would feel a much deeper and more unrequited longing – either that or I would have become so anesthetized by my torpor and lassitude that I would have long ago given up any desire to live out my dreams.

But memories are funny things.  They can somewhat console you, but they can’t make up for what you don’t have now.  Remembering yesterday’s meal won’t feed me today.  Let’s face it – the environment I am living in now is vastly different in ambiance from the one I lived in on the road in Europe.  Remembering that I have already seen those places and done those things doesn’t take away the urge to do it again.  The mountains, the beaches, the cities, the restaurants, the cafes, the friends, the lovers…  There is comfort in the memories, but I still wish I could do it all over again.

In the end, what helps?  For one thing, writing about it.  That I have done and will do again.  For another, talking about it.  I realize how much of that adventurous twenty-something-year-old there still is in me, and the deterioration of my flesh as I age is a source of astonishment.  Growing old is not what I thought it would be.  I don’t feel old inside, but my body belies the fact.  It refuses to cooperate when I want it to do things I used to consider so easy.

Still, one can always daydream.  And these days, I daydream of Europe.

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Book Review: When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning

This is a fascinating book.  It deals with a chapter in the history of publishing of which I was not aware: the push by the military along with civilian organizations and individuals to supply combat troops during the Second World War with over one hundred million paperback books known as Armed Services Editions.  These books became an integral part of Allied strategy, offering the troops not only much-needed entertainment and relief from battlefield stress, but also the motivation to fight for the democratic free expression of ideas.

The book starts with the infamous night of May 10, 1933, when Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels incited thousands of students to perform a massive book burning in a public plaza in Berlin.  It was the beginning of the Nazi war against ideas. Eventually, as their armies spread across Europe, they would destroy over one hundred million books in Germany and in the countries they conquered.  Even before the United States became officially involved in the war effort, Americans realized the importance of countering this suppression with the dissemination of books and ideas.  Once war was declared and men departed their homes en masse for training camps, the free availability of libraries full of books was considered crucial for the morale of the trainees.  Books gave them relief from the rigors and hardships of their new situations, and also helped counter the propaganda of the enemy.

At first, a massive national drive to solicit donations of hardcover books led by civilian librarians helped the training camps build up libraries that the men could use.  Donors brought books to drop sites at libraries, post offices, supermarkets, and other locations for sorting and shipment to army and navy facilities.  However, when troops began deploying to battle zones, hardcover books were too bulky and heavy to carry along.  To supply the soldiers and sailors with vital books, the Council on Books in Wartime began to produce cheap paperback editions of popular novels and works of nonfiction to ship to overseas troops.  These lightweight volumes were printed on cheap paper and small enough to fit into a back pocket.  GIs could carry and read them anywhere, even in foxholes during lulls in battle or in airplanes on bombing runs.  For most soldiers, they constituted the only entertainment available.  They became much prized and were traded and re-traded until they fell apart.  Even soldiers who had never bothered to read at home became enamored of these stories that offered opportunities to escape, however briefly, from their deadly circumstances.

Some books, such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, became enormously popular with the men because it reminded them of home.  Others, such as The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which had foundered on first publication, achieved renewed popularity through their Armed Forces Editions.

Ultimately, the books that the troops took to war ignited a hunger and love for the written word, and when the war was over and the troops came home, the habit of reading that they had picked up helped them thrive through the educational opportunities that the newly passed GI Bill afforded them.

This book is written in clear, descriptive prose.  It’s fairly short, which is good; it says what it has to say and no more.  It’s lean; it’s not weighed down by extraneous academic clutter.  It’s exciting and vivid and well-organized.  In short, it’s a great read about a little-known aspect of World War II history. I recommend it highly.

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Book Review: The Best American Noir of the Century – Edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler

I checked this hefty volume of short stories out of the library because I had been so impressed by the collection The Best Mystery Stories of the Century.  What is noir and what makes it different from mystery?  Well, it’s a subgenre of mystery that’s particularly gruesome.  It’s often told from the perspective of the criminals and involves foul deeds such as murder.  Several of the stories in this volume, in fact, also appeared in the Best Mystery Stories anthology, which I thought was redundant because one of the editors is the same and it comes across as a sort of companion volume.

This anthology has a lot of fine stories, but it is not as uniformly excellent as the other.  For one thing, it’s depressing reading when all of the stories are dark.  For another, several of the stories, especially the early ones (they are arranged in chronological order of first publication) come across as dated – little more than pulp fiction whose whole purpose is the lead up to the twist ending.  Some of these older stories are more silly than scary.  In fact, I almost stopped reading the book because of the lack of quality of the early stories, but I’m glad I persevered, because the quality dramatically improves about a quarter of the way in.

Among the outstanding stories in this volume is “Texas City, 1947” by James Lee Burke.  It’s a bleak tale about three children in the hands of an abusive stepmother, but its poetic descriptions and vivid characterizations make it leap out of the pages and draw the reader in.  Similar excellence is found in “Faithless” by Joyce Carol Oates.  It’s another story, curiously, of the reactions of children to tragedy.  As I mentioned, there are a number of other fine stories as well.

One story that particularly caught my interest is “Midnight Emissions” by F.X. Toole.  The story is about the world of professional boxing, and Toole was the pseudonym for a boxing trainer.  The book of short stories that “Midnight Emissions” appears in was the basis for Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award-winning movie Million Dollar Baby.  The most fascinating fact, though, appears in the editor’s introduction of the author.  Toole received nothing but rejections for forty years before he managed to get a short story published in a literary magazine at the age of 69.  Talk about persistence!  Then his collection was published, and he died soon after when he was 72.  His only novel was published posthumously to great critical acclaim.  This anecdote reminded me that fame is illusory, and desire alone is not enough for writers.  Imagine forty years of rejections.  You sure got to have a thick skin.

Anyway, as I said, this book is readable, and some stories leap out at you and grab you like great stories should, but it is not as consistently excellent as The Best Mystery Stories of the Century.  So if you have time to read just one thick book of mystery stories, read that one.

*     *     *

I came back to this collection to finish it off after a trip to New York and back.  I couldn’t take the book with me because it’s too heavy.  Something else bothers me about it.  It’s full of dark, bleak, twisted characters who allow themselves to perform ghastly deeds with sometimes very little motivation.  Some of the stories have decent character development, although not all; but even the ones that do leave you with the feeling that life is impure, gross, and illicit – not something that can bring you joy, but rather something like a minefield that can easily explode and destroy you.  Going through over seven hundred pages of stories like this left me disquieted and uneasy.  I really don’t have such a cynical, negative view of life.  To be honest, I have written some very dark stories too, but then I turn around and write something else to restore balance.  There is no balance in this collection – only darkness.  So beware.  I’m going to have to change my focus for awhile and concentrate on more positive things.  Too much negative drags down the soul.

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Life Is Entertaining

This essay came about because of a terrible commercial I’ve been seeing lately on various TV and internet sites.  In it, a certain A-list Hollywood actor walks around a city, and as he does, scenes such as those that appear in various types of films erupt around him.  He explains that if you get so-and-so brand of subscription television service, you will never have to be without something to watch because you can access it on your TV, computer, smart phone, or whatever else you have that picks up an internet signal.  And whenever I watch this ridiculous commercial, I’m thinking: What the hell?  Is this what modern life has come to – that the goal of our endeavors is to anesthetize ourselves against reality 24/7?  Is that really what we want?

Hell no.

I’m not a purist; I watch films and television too.  But I watch them in a balanced way.  I usually watch an episode of an old TV show off Netflix or Amazon Prime while I’m eating lunch and again when I’m eating dinner.  That’s it with the TV watching during the week.  On the weekends, I usually watch movies with my teen son on Friday and Saturday evenings.  Sometimes on Sundays as well.  That’s it.  I can’t imagine a constant barrage of so-called entertainment hitting me all the time wherever I go.  It would be a nightmare, not a benediction.  It would leave me no time to think.

I’m a writer.  I write for a living.  Sometimes it’s a struggle financially, but that’s the way it goes.  The point is: I work at my desk at home, and so every day, seven days a week, I force myself, whether I feel like it or not, to get outside and take a walk of at least a mile and a half or two miles.  That’s besides the thrice-weekly exercise routine that I do in the house.  Sometimes I’m tired or I think I don’t have time for that walk but I do it anyway.  As I walk, I don’t listen to music with headphones or watch things on my smart phone (actually, I don’t own a smart phone – just a rudimentary one that receives and sends calls and text).  I walk through the neighborhood alert to the sights and sounds around me.  Fortunately we live in a fairly quiet residential area, and so the input is positive: soft rain falling or warm sun shining, birds chirping, the wind rustling in the bushes and trees, green lawns, flamboyant sprays of flowers, towering evergreens.  As I walk, I drink in these stimuli with my senses.  These walks feed my spirit.  I can’t imagine voluntarily cutting myself off from experiencing what’s happening around me.

For a more extreme example, I think back to the time I spent on the road traveling through Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent back in the 1970s.  There was no internet, let alone smart phones.  The only way I had to keep in touch with friends and relatives back in the States was those little folding pieces of paper called aerograms.  They only had room for a short note – no photos, no videos.  For entertainment, I carried a book.  Can you imagine if I had had a smart phone and kept my nose in it instead of paying attention to the exotic landscapes and cultures around me?  What would have been the point of going?

People need time to think, to observe, to contemplate, to absorb.  They shouldn’t be sucking in canned entertainment all the time or they’re going to grow warped and distorted, some sort of parody of the phony image that all these programs attempt to imbue.

That’s why I object to this commercial.  It summarizes one of the worst aspects of American culture.  When people eat too much food, they have all sorts of health problems.  Similarly, when they consume too much popular entertainment, they have problems of the mind and spirit.  They are less able to think for themselves and make important life decisions.

You don’t have to have so-called entertainment with you wherever you go, just as you don’t always have to carry snacks when you go out.  Sometimes, yes.  Not always.  It reminds me of the passage from Ecclesiastes that Pete Seeger adapted as a song in the late 1950s and the rock group the Byrds made into a hit in the mid-60s: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…

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Book Review: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

The first book by Malcolm Gladwell that I read was Outliers, and I thought it was terrific.  Its premise, in brief, is that genius comes through practice, and Gladwell gives examples such as Bill Gates and the Beatles to prove his point.  The book was intensely inspirational because it left you with the feeling that if they could do it, so could you.  Although circumstance and luck are integral components in the equation, if you try hard enough and long enough and keep at it, you will continue to get better and better.

Gladwell specializes in giving interesting examples to broad generalities.  He doesn’t really deal with the nuances and exceptions.  That’s true of Outliers and even truer of The Tipping Point, which was actually published before Outliers.  In The Tipping Point, Gladwell goes into a theory of what makes epidemics, and he defines epidemics very broadly to include hit television shows, bestselling novels, rampant smoking, excessive suicide statistics, overwhelming outbreaks of violent crime, and other phenomena that fulfill certain conditions that cause them to reach a certain point and then grow exponentially.

According to Gladwell, the three rules that create tipping points that lead to epidemics are The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.  By the Few, Gladwell means highly influential people he calls connectors and mavens who know a lot of other people and therefore spread ideas and products. Stickiness refers to how contagious something is and what makes it irresistible.  Context is, of course, situations and circumstances that must be present to allow the epidemic to spread.

All of this is fascinating, and yet despite the unique and sometimes bizarre examples Gladwell describes to illustrate his theories, it all remains highly abstract.  Strange truths, yes, but nothing you can really use.  The problem is, all of the examples are anomalies that happen through very specific combinations of all these factors.  I have to admit that I was hoping for something a bit more practical: perhaps some thoughts on how one could create tipping points to inspire advertising campaigns, dissemination of ideas, and sales of books.  Alas, this appears to have been far from Gladwell’s intent.  Don’t come to this book looking for any sort of practical pointers.  You won’t find them.  The examples are too specific, too isolated in circumstance.  It’s like a tour of volcano sites in which you marvel at the natural wonders, and the guide explains in general terms what causes such phenomena but wouldn’t have a clue as to how you would artificially initiate or stop one.

Just as in so many instances in the past, the problem may lie with my expectations for the book, and not in the book itself.  Obviously The Tipping Point is not meant to provide any guidelines or practical tips on how to bring about or control epidemics; it’s an explanation, a guide describing what they are and some of their key attributes.  On the plus side, Gladwell writes in clear uncomplicated prose, and the examples he gives are always interesting.  If you’re approaching Gladwell for the first time, go with Outliers first, as it’s better organized and more practical and coherent.  But The Tipping Point is also well worth reading.

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Book Review: The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century – Edited by Tony Hillerman and Otto Penzler

This is a monster of a book: eight hundred pages of stories.  It’s also an excellent book, and probably the best value for the money of any book I’ve ever bought.  I came across it at the annual Seattle Friends of the Library book sale.  It was a like-new hardcover, jacket intact, and it cost me two bucks.  I wish money could always be that well spent.

When I grabbed it off the piles of books for sale, I had the vague idea that it might be a good idea to tackle a few mystery stories.  Sometimes I have a tough time coming up with story ideas, and I supposed that working in a new genre might stir up the creative juices, so to speak.  It has worked, by the way.  I recently finished a dark mystery story that I started around the same time I started this book.

I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading this heavy tome.  Usually when I read an anthology, I like some stories, feel so-so about others, and dislike yet others.  This anthology, though, rose well above the norm.  I found myself enjoying story after story.  The level of excellence remained high throughout.  Sure, I liked some more than others, but I didn’t dislike any, and there are very few that I would classify as mediocre.

The editors have the stories arranged chronologically, with the oldest stories first.  The older stories, though, did not feel dated.  I suppose the mystery genre is not time-specific.  Many of its situations can happen anywhere, to anyone.  I thought that “mystery” involved some sort of sleuthing or detective work, and that was true for some of the stories, but not all – not even a majority of them.  It seems that in the estimation of the editors, any story that involves a crime, particularly a murder, can be called a mystery.  Fair enough.

There are too many stories to appraise them all, but one that I was especially pleased to see here is “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” by Harlan Ellison.  This story has a history with me.  When I was nineteen and had recently realized that I wanted to be a writer, I heard that Ellison was giving a reading on the University of Washington campus in Seattle.  He was a great showman – telling anecdotes and answering questions – but when it got down to the reading, he had all the lights in the auditorium turned off except for a single small lamp at the podium, and he read this creepy, terrifying story about the new murderous god of New York and the people that worshipped it.  The experience was awesome.  I learned that he was in Seattle teaching at a science fiction workshop called Clarion West, and I enrolled for the following year – 1973 – and Harlan Ellison himself became one of my early writing teachers.

Many great writers have dabbled in mysteries from time to time, and the table of contents in this volume is full of literary luminaries.  There are names you would expect such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen, John D. MacDonald, Stephen King, Lawrence Block, and Donald E. Westlake.  But there are also stories by so-called literary authors such as John Steinbeck, Pearl S. Buck, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Joyce Carol Oates.

All in all, it’s an excellent book, and a great choice for writers who want to learn by example how to put together gripping, well told tales.

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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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