Book Review: The Armageddon Rag by George R.R. Martin

Although set in the 1980s, this book is actually about the 1960s. I lived the sixties in the early seventies, but I recognized all the cultural buttons Martin pushes, the references obscure and famous, and the sense of loss of something profound that may have been nothing but an illusion in the first place. Martin wrote The Armageddon Rag back in the pre-Game of Thrones days, when he was writing wonderful, succinct, cutting-edge science fiction and fantasy stories. Two of my favorites from that era are the award-winning novelettes “Sandkings” and “Portraits of His Children.”

The Armageddon Rag is told from the viewpoint of Sandy Blair, a journalist of the rock scene turned novelist. He gets an assignment from the editor of a magazine he used to work for to investigate the murder of a promoter of a disbanded rock group called the Nazgul. The Nazgul were at the height of their fame until an unknown assassin shot the lead singer in the head during an outdoor concert in New Mexico. After checking out the murder site, Blair gets inklings of something sinister going on. He embarks on a journey across the United States to interview the remaining three members of the Nazgul. On the way, he visits his old cronies from the sixties, all of whom have adapted in various ways to the compromising of the ideals that they once held.

Blair’s journey eventually takes him to an anonymous sponsor who is going to great lengths to bring about a reunion and resurrection of the Nazgul. His tactics include not only murder, but also the summoning of dark nightmarish spirits.

But I don’t want to give away too much, because this novel is not only a nostalgic look back at the sixties, but also a tense, violent who-done-it. I don’t know whether Martin based the characters of Blair’s friends on people he personally knew back in the sixties, but the book reads like that might be a possibility. I couldn’t help thinking as I read this that Martin had a lot of fun writing it, that it brought up nostalgia for a unique era that flashed briefly and was forever extinguished except in the memories of those who lived through it. As I read it, I kept thinking, “Respect, George. I understand where this is coming from.” I’ve done it myself in novels such as The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen and Sunflower. It’s almost like resurrecting the soul of an era instead of a person. Doing it is the closest a writer can come to time traveling into the past.

This novel was well-reviewed when it first came out, and it was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. However, it bombed commercially. Martin became so discouraged by the book’s evident failure that he stopped writing fiction for years and focused on screenplays and teleplays. The book is still in print, though, and continues to impress readers, myself included. To be honest, I thought in a few parts here and there the pace slowed, but overall it’s a great dark fantasy, rock murder mystery, and nostalgic look back at the sixties.

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Book Review: Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell

Years ago I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and found it fascinating. It’s a study on how people achieve extraordinary success, and the main conclusion, as I remember, is that the key is not superlative intelligence or talent, but rather special circumstances that allow successful people to have exceptional amounts of practice in the fields in which they ultimately excel.

After Outliers I have read a few others of Gladwell’s books, but none of them satisfied in the same profound way. Still, Gladwell’s work is always entertaining, if not extraordinary, and so I picked up a copy of his new book. I found Talking to Strangers interesting, well written, and frustrating. It’s in the nature of an all-smoke-and-no-fire situation. I kept expecting Gladwell to come to some sort of profound conclusion that the book was leading up to, but it never did. The various sections are intrinsically fascinating and somewhat related, leading readers to believe that, like a police procedural, it is putting together puzzle pieces that all lead up to a climactic denouement. However, the denouement never comes.

The book opens by relating the case of Sandra Bland, an African American woman who was stopped for a very minor driving infraction by a police officer in a town in East Texas in 2015. As the police officer suspiciously questioned the woman he had pulled over, the situation quickly escalated until he physically dragged Bland out of her car, handcuffed her, and arrested her. Three days later, she committed suicide in her jail cell. Gladwell says that Talking to Strangers is an attempt to uncover why the Sandra Bland incident occurred and ended in such a tragic way.

To answer this question, Gladwell examines various theories of interacting with strangers. First he looks at the case of a comprehensive Cuban spy ring that infiltrated the CIA, and the case of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who visited Hitler on several occasions before World War II erupted and pronounced him an honest man. He questions why highly trained spies and diplomats were unable to uncover the truth about these deceivers.

Gladwell moves on to the tendency of people to default to truth when confronted with possible lies or misdeeds. In other words, when you question someone, your first tendency is to believe them, and when you witness a possible misdeed, your first tendency is to somehow rationalize it and give the perpetrator the benefit of the doubt. For examples here, Gladwell uses a Cuban spy known as the Queen of Cuba who infiltrated into the highest levels of the Defense Intelligence Administration, a swindler named Bernard Madoff who illegally robbed New York financial markets of billions while maintaining an innocuous profile, and a football coach at Penn State University named Jerry Sandusky who was convicted of being a sex offender after a career of supposedly helping and nurturing young men.

He then looks at transparency, that is, the ability of people to read the characters of others through face-to-face interactions. Transparency, claims Gladwell, is a deeply flawed method of obtaining the truth about strangers. To prove this, he explains why the facial expressions that the stars of the popular TV show Friends don’t translate well into real life, why Amanda Knox was convicted of a murder in Italy even though she was innocent, and how difficult it is to verify sexual assault when accused perpetrators and victims are black-out drunk.

From the discussion of transparency, Gladwell goes on to even more difficult situations. For instance, is the torture of a high-level Al Qaeda terrorist justified, considering that extreme physical mistreatment impairs judgment and memory? In the end, tortured individuals may say almost anything and even believe it, and then later forget that they have even said it. A discussion about a phenomenon known as coupling touches on how potential suicides fixate on a particular method of self-execution, and how in large cities high levels of crime seem to be fixed to certain small areas.

Gladwell eventually comes back to the arrest and suicide of Sandra Bland. He doesn’t really resolve the issue. Nor does he resolve the dilemma of the difficulty in relating to strangers. The point of the book seems to be that there are no simplistic answers to the difficulties that face us when we interact with strangers. We have to approach each situation without preconceptions and with an open mind.

In conclusion, even though Gladwell appears to be reaching for a conclusion throughout the book and yet never arrives at one, I can still recommend Talking to Strangers. The individual essays don’t quite mesh, but taken separately they are fascinating.

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Writing, Travel, and Literature: 2019 in Review

In many respects the way I conducted my professional life in 2018 and 2019 was similar. I usually worked seven days a week. First I would write articles, blog posts, and other quick-paying copy for eight or more hours a day, and then late in the evenings, roughly between nine and eleven, I would focus on my personal creative work: novels, short stories, memoirs, and so on. When the weekends came round, I adjusted my schedule slightly so I could do my personal work in prime time, so to speak: first thing in the afternoon on Saturdays and first thing in the morning on Sundays. I broke my work schedule for the road trips I went on and conventions I attended during the year. While these events were going on, for the most part I did not keep up with my regular minimum daily word count, being content to take notes for later. A notable exception was the Nebula conference. During the conference I found myself waking early because there were no late parties. Because panels and other scheduled events didn’t begin until late morning, I would spend the early morning hours working on my new novel.

Throughout 2019 my personally-imposed minimum daily word count remained at 500 words. This was for my personal creative work and did not include the ghostwritten articles and blog posts I wrote strictly to pay the bills. I usually managed to keep up with or surpass this minimum at least five or six days a week. There was the occasional lapse when I was too exhausted or had just finished a project and had not yet got going on a new one. Sometimes too I would use my writing time to proofread finished works before submission or publication.

While keeping up with this schedule of personal creative work, I managed to write 144,608 words of new material in 2019. That’s a slight improvement on the 141,903 words I wrote in 2018. My best month was July, in the middle of summer between road trips, when I managed to write 21,127 words; at the time, I was deep into the writing of my new novel The Senescent Nomad. I had been fine-tuning the structure and gathering new material during my first road trip, and the writing of it was intensely satisfying and lots of fun. Besides my personal creative work, I also wrote well over 300,000 words, accepted and paid for, of articles and blogs on which my name does not appear.

I published two books in 2019. One was a collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories, Apocalypse Bluff and Other Stories. The other was my mainstream literary novel The Senescent Nomad. I spent many hours in 2019 proofreading and preparing these books for publication. I also completely proofread and edited another of my past books, Reviews and Reflections on Books, Literature, and Writing, having realized that the layout and punctuation reflected European rather than American standards. This took me many more hours.

I attended two conventions in 2019. The first was Norwescon, a science fiction convention held each spring around Easter in the Pacific Northwest. As usual, I went with my youngest son, and we stayed at the hotel where the convention was being held for its duration. I attend Norwescon not so much for professional reasons, but rather to get away from the usual grind, relax, meet friends, and attend the evening parties. Later I attended the Nebula conference of the Science Fiction Writers of America in Los Angeles. I’m an active member of SFWA, and I attended this one as a professional in the field and as a panelist. This convention, being attended solely by writers, editors, and publishers, is much more subdued and formal than Norwescon. Its value is in the professional-level information imparted in the panels and in the opportunity to interact with colleagues in the publishing field.

I mentioned that I made two road trips. On the first, my two youngest sons and I drove down the West Coast, enjoyed the scenery, and visited various famous literary landmarks. We also had a chance to visit another of my sons who is attending Stanford. I wrote a blog post about this trip called “The Literary Pilgrimage.” The second road trip occurred in August. My son had been attending summer classes at Stanford, and shortly before classes ended, he called me to ask if I could accompany him on a road trip to drive a friend’s car up to Seattle. So I flew into San Francisco, where he met me, and we spent a few days driving up the small winding roads that hug the coast and enjoying the incomparably magnificent scenery.

Another significant event that happened in 2019 was the death of my father. He was a creative person too. He wrote extensively, especially in his later retired years, although not many of his pieces were published. To commemorate his influence on my life, I wrote the blog post “Eulogy for My Father.”

What’s ahead for the new year? I’ll most likely publish a new short story collection sometime in the spring. I’ve sold several more stories to anthologies and magazines that should finally appear in 2020. My novel The Senescent Nomad was so much fun to write that I have begun working on a sequel. My youngest son and I already have our memberships for the upcoming Norwescon. As for the rest, who knows? That’s part of the thrill of the future: you never know what you are going to get.

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Book Review: The Consequential Frontier: Challenging the Privatization of Space by Peter Ward

In September of 2018 I posted a review of a book called The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos by Christian Davenport. It’s a thrilling and dynamic look at the efforts of private companies to fill the void left by glacially slow and inefficient government programs to explore and colonize the solar system. In that detailed and fairly comprehensive study of the origins and goals of SpaceX, Blue Origins, Virgin Galactic, and other entrepreneurial efforts to utilize the vast universe beyond our atmospheric backyard, it seems clear that without these private upstarts taking bold technological strides to realize dreams humanity envisioned many decades ago, space programs would be hopelessly bogged down in ineptitude, indecision, and immense costs for little gain.

Peter Ward intends The Consequential Frontier as a cautionary note. His advice is to slow down and consider the ramifications of corporations taking over what was previously an industry affordable only by governments. Private companies are planning space stations, mining trips to the Moon, and the establishment of colonies on Mars. Ward wonders if the consequences of leaving these pioneering initiatives in private hands might be catastrophic in terms of the first companies there establishing monopolistic control of access to space and its resources. He cautions that before this happens, international accords such as the Outer Space Treaty that currently governs international space law need to be updated, and national governments need to pass legislation regulating corporations that manage to efficiently exploit space.

He has a good point. Regulations are, of course, necessary, just as laws and regulations tempered the monopolistic tendencies of digital giants in the wake of the tech explosion. Space, and particularly the planets and environs of our solar system, needs to be for all, and not hoarded and doled out for immense amounts of money by companies that manage to obtain a vise-like grip on it by virtue of being the first ones there.

A need for balance exists in this situation, though; if it were not for private companies stepping in and boldly going where governments were unwilling to go before, research into space exploration long ago would have stalled. As it is, private space companies are in the forefront of innovative technologies propelling efforts to reach nearby planets. Yes, the legislation needs to be in place to keep them from running amok, but no, they should not be hindered or slowed down in their initiative and enthusiasm to reach out into the cosmos.

Ward presents his point with a historical overview, a look at the present state of space programs, and a glimpse into future possibilities. One difficulty with the book is that it is far too short. It’s less than two hundred pages; it reads more like an extended essay than a fully realized work of nonfiction. Because of the brevity of the material, none of Ward’s arguments are presented in detail. The summation of past and present programs is brief, and the look at visions that various players are attempting to implement for the future only scratches the surface of what is being done. In fact, this book would have been much more effective and absorbing if it were five times the length that it is now – at least. Ward dismisses information in a few paragraphs that should have taken chapters to explain. Space is currently a hot topic, though, so I am sure that other writers will come along soon and fill in the gaps.

In conclusion, the book is interesting and worth reading, but it left me hungry for more details. I wish that Ward would have taken the time to fill out his material, and then I would have felt that I had gotten a good full meal instead of a hunger-teasing snack.

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The Senescent Nomad

12-2 Nomad Cover

My latest novel The Senescent Nomad is now available!

 After his grown children move out, a divorced writer faces the prospect of living alone in a small apartment in Seattle. Instead, he buys a camper van, dubs it Good Fortune, and sets out on the road full time. As he journeys down the U.S. West Coast, he experiences ostracism, acceptance, harassment, and unexpected romantic encounters. In his youth, he spent years wandering around the world, and he begins to reconnect with his road roots, regaining the rhythms and metaphysical realities of the free nomadic lifestyle. His first destination? A science fiction convention in San Diego.

If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can read it for free anytime via the Kindle Unlimited program. The electronic version is also available to all in a special promotion from December 18 to December 22, 2019. For those who prefer to read print books, you can order a trade paperback. Just click on the links:

Trade paperback

Kindle Edition

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Books Make Great Gifts

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

Science Fiction:

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

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

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

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

Fantasy:

Caliban’s Children – Content is being siphoned from libraries and replaced with half-truths and lies.  Weather, time, and distances are distorting like images in a funhouse mirror.  People are discovering the ability to morph into animals.  At first it all seems idyllic and magical until a dark power begins to manifest itself, assert control, and demand obedience.

Ethan is a university student caught in the midst of a kaleidoscopic confusion he cannot understand.  After journeying into the wilderness seeking answers, he realizes he has to ally himself with the beasts of the Earth and venture into a bizarre, mutating, peril-filled city to rescue his lover and attack the source of the evil.

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

Thriller:

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

Novels of the Counterculture:

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

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

Memoirs:

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

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

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

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

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Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Mediocrity, or, Write What You Feel, Not What You See Others Write

I generally read several best of the year short story anthologies each year to keep up with literary and genre trends in publishing. It’s a futile effort, as so much continually gets published, and these anthologies include only a smattering of the great work that is being done. Additionally, these anthologies are not objective examples of the best in their fields, but rather one person’s or two people’s selections of their personal favorites. Still, I don’t have time to read many of the short stories that appear in any given year, and this is one way I can get at least a sampling.

Normally after I read such an anthology, I review it on my blog, pointing out the stories that I feel are the best of the best. However, after reading a recent best of the year anthology, I have decided to forego a review. I thought about it on numerous occasions while I was reading it: should I review it or not? The problem is that I didn’t like most of the stories. Many of them were competently written and technically sound, but they didn’t appeal to me and my personal tastes. And so I thought to myself: am I wrong? Is there any sort of objective right or wrong in matters such as these? If it was forty-five years ago and I was just starting out as a writer, the answer might be maybe. As it is, though, as a result of the many decades I have put in as a writer and a reader, I have to say: no; I’m not wrong. These stories appeal to others but not to me, and that’s all right.

Although I have had published stories reprinted in anthologies, I have never appeared in a best-of-the-year collection, so you might ask: who am I to speak? I’m a writer, that’s who, just as the people who wrote the stories in this anthology I didn’t care for are writers. I’m sure that the anthology will be popular with some readers, while others might react as I did; and that is as it should be.

The point I want to make to myself as well as any other writers out there who may be listening is that regardless of whether your stories may be popular or trendy or win awards or appear in best-of-the-year anthologies, you have to be true to yourself and your own vision and write whatever the hell you want to write. It may be completely different from what that writer you admire so much writes. It may bear no similarity to what critics proclaim as the next new thing. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that you listen to your voice and write down what it tells you. And if you can’t hear your own literary voice, go somewhere quiet and listen. Before it will become clear to you, you’ve got to block out all those other voices from your relatives and friends and teachers and critics and editors and other writers, all of whom have their own opinions about what constitutes good writing. The only thing that you need to know when you confront the blank page or blank screen is not what they think is good writing but what you think is good writing.

My own search for authentic voice in my writing dislodged me from my complacency in my comfortable home town and took me halfway around the world into a starkly unfamiliar setting. Only then did the old voices die and my own voice arise. Don’t misunderstand me; not everyone has to do that. Although that’s what it took for me, the quest will take different shape for others. But one way or another, you’ve got to tap that fountain within and be ready to catch it once it starts pouring out.

In conclusion, if you want to be a writer, I would suggest that you read widely, nonfiction and fiction, genre and non-genre. However, when you sit down to compose, put that all aside and write from your heart.

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Book Review: Citizen Hearst: A Biography of William Randolph Hearst by W.A. Swanberg; Part 3: Legacy

I had originally intended to complete the third and final part of this review of Citizen Hearst after I had watched the movie Citizen Kane. I have even reserved a DVD copy of the film from the Seattle Public Library system, but it hasn’t arrived yet. A couple of pages in the book are devoted to Citizen Kane and Hearst’s reaction to it. In short, he hated it. He even offered to pay RKO studios the entire cost of production if they would destroy it. When it came out in spite of his threats, Hearst refused to allow any of his newspapers or magazines to review it. I decided to go on with this review because Citizen Kane isn’t the main point. It’s just one example of a notable reaction to the Hearst enigma. Another is the novel After Many a Summer Dies the Swan by Aldous Huxley, which also used Hearst and his relationship with actress Marion Davies as inspiration.

In the last review, I wrote about Hearst’s wild spending. He bought castles, real estate in New York and other places, and warehouses full of artwork; he fully financed extended European vacations on the spur of the moment for whoever happened to be visiting his home at the time; he sunk untold millions into political campaigns for candidates that turned out to be perennial losers. He was, in fact, the epitome of a super-rich and powerful man with little political acumen who pushes into politics on the strength of his wealth and his ability to destroy his enemies through propaganda.

In the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression, Hearst’s reckless spending and utter inability to balance his finances caught up with him. He found himself so deep in debt that he had to stop buying artwork and was forced to start selling. In many cases, he got far less than he had originally paid for the antiques and other expensive clutter he had accumulated, often because buyers had assessed him as a sucker and far overcharged him in the first place. He even had to sell some of his newspapers and magazines. It was a dark, depressing time for him, although it’s difficult to work up too much sympathy considering how much money he’d squandered when so many other people in the States and around the world were in such want. In the end, he still had plenty of houses, artwork, and money left over during that era when so many millions were unemployed and homeless.

What saved Hearst’s finances, as it saved many other American industries and snapped the United States out of the depression, was World War II. His newspapers increased in circulation and he managed to pull out of the deep ditch in which he had fallen. He continued managing the media empire he had created from his aerie at San Simeon for as long as he could. He died at the age of eighty-eight, and his funeral was an elaborate event attended by former presidents, senators, governors, movie stars, and other celebrities.

Why do I consider it a worthwhile activity to read such a lengthy biography of a newspaper mogul long dead? For one thing, he was an amazing man: intelligent, cunning, and extraordinarily savvy in the media business. Reading about his life also makes me ponder the current great gap that exists in the United States between the infinitesimal amount of super-rich people who hold such a large percentage of the wealth and the vast majority of the population who struggle to maintain a home and put food on the table. It makes me realize that now as well as back in Hearst’s time, the people with the most money may have certain gifts that allowed them to gather such wealth to themselves, but they are not examples on which anyone should model their lives. They have great deficiencies to go along with their great material possessions, and most of them are to be pitied rather than emulated.

In closing, I would say that I recommend this book. It’s a fascinating story about a one-of-a-kind historical character. It offers a unique if unstable vantage point from which to explore the history of the era: the perspective of a ruthless, tyrannical media mogul with an insatiable hunger for wealth and power.

*     *     *

As a postscript, I would like to say a few words about the movie Citizen Kane, which I have finally had the opportunity to watch. Just having read Citizen Hearst gave me an advantage, I think, because I was able to match up events in the film with events in Hearst’s life. Some details are blatant; for instance, Orson Wells as Kane quotes almost verbatim Hearst’s declaration to his newsman in Cuba: “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Hearst had his palace complex in San Simeon in California, while Kane builds an immense mansion that he calls Xanadu, after the pleasure palace of Kubla Khan in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, in Florida. Kane, like Hearst, collects endless amounts of artwork, antiques, and junk and stores it all away without any possibility of ever using it.

Orson Wells, who along with Herman J. Mankiewicz won an Oscar for best original screenplay for Citizen Kane, asserted that the character of Charles Foster Kane was a composite derived from various famous personalities in journalism, which included Joseph Pulitzer and others, but the principal source was obviously Hearst. Other characters in the film are also based upon real people, but the character of Kane’s lover Susan Alexander has little similarity to Hearst’s longtime mistress Marion Davies. Alexander becomes Kane’s second wife and then leaves and divorces him, whereas Davies stood by Hearst until he died but the couple was never able to legally marry because the first Mrs. Hearst would not grant a divorce. Additionally, Citizen Kane shows Kane financing a career in the opera for Alexander in which she flops horribly, but Marion Davies’s film career, financed as it was by Hearst, actually earned her a modicum of respect.

It’s not necessary to nitpick too much about the similarities and differences in the life of Hearst and the main character in the film. Citizen Kane is a masterpiece and can be appreciated on its own terms. The award-winning screenplay was extremely innovative for its time with its documentary-style opening and then the rest of the story told in flashbacks as a reporter tries to uncover the significance of the last word that Kane utters before he dies: “Rosebud.” The meaning of Rosebud is not revealed until the final image of the film. When the camera cuts to it, it’s impossible not to experience a pang of sympathy for this otherwise pathetic and unlikeable media mogul.

Another amazing aspect of the film is its cinematography. Shot after shot is set up masterfully, and the black and white tones contribute an ominous foreboding that carries throughout the film. When Ted Turner’s Entertainment Company bought the rights to RKO and acquired Citizen Kane, an attempt was made to colorize the movie. Well’s estate managed to have the project stopped due to stipulations in his original 1939 contract with RKO. It’s good that this attempt to dumb down the film was stopped, because the cinematography is perfect just the way it is in black and white.

In closing again, I would say that I also recommend the movie Citizen Kane. However, if you are planning to read Citizen Hearst, do that first. Afterwards, when you see Citizen Kane, you will be able to appreciate nuances in it due to your familiarity with Hearst’s life story.

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Book Review: Citizen Hearst: A Biography of William Randolph Hearst by W.A. Swanberg; Part 2: Publisher, Politician, and Spendthrift

In part one of this review, I wrote about how I came to reread the book and my surprise that it was not more easily available. As I plunged into this lengthy tome, I became impressed by how relevant it is to our modern era. There is the same disparity between rich and poor, although now it has become worse. In Hearst’s day, the super rich owned oil companies, railroads, and, as in Hearst’s case, media outlets. Nowadays we have dot-com billionaires. In Hearst’s day, the super rich somehow felt a sense of entitlement, just as they do now. Many became involved in politics, either directly or indirectly, to protect their own interests, just as they do now.

Hearst was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father, George Hearst, had made a fortune in mining. Hearst’s mother spoiled him and was overprotective. In short, Hearst never had to worry about money and was never in fear that his needs would not be supplied. This left him with a defect in character that made him feel not only that he was a superior being, but that his every whim should be catered to. He demanded subservience in his friends and later in his employees. He had to be the boss and he had to be right, and anything that did not support that scenario he would tear down.

He became fascinated by journalism when he was still in college. His parents at first opposed this career course, but later they acquiesced when they realized that he would not deviate from his chosen path. His first newspaper was in San Francisco. His father had obtained it in lieu of a debt payment. It was a big loser, and Hearst took it over, poured money into it, and managed to turn it around. Hearst then moved to New York and became involved in the publications of newspapers there, and later bought up newspapers around the country.

For Hearst, reporting of real news was far less important than circulation. He wanted to keep his readers entertained and enthralled, and the truth be damned. “Fake news” was a concept that did not necessarily originate with Hearst, but that Hearst took to new depths. For instance, he sent reporters to cover the rebellion of Cuban nationalists against Spain. When one of his reporters sent him a telegram that he wanted to return to the States because nothing was happening, Hearst famously telegrammed back: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” And he did. It was largely Hearst’s pressure on government officials that caused the United States to declare war on Spain and invade Cuba. When war broke out, Hearst filled his yacht with reporters and sailed south to cover it. This is just one example among many of the way that Hearst would manipulate circumstances to suit himself.

When Hearst got into politics, he proclaimed himself a champion of the common man, but at the same time he ruthlessly manipulated voters with untruths. He was not a common man, and he ultimately didn’t give a damn about the common man except as a source of his own aggrandizement. For decades Hearst sought political offices, especially the presidency, not because he genuinely wanted to serve others or better the country, but solely as another feather in his cap. Politics was another area he could manipulate to suit himself, just as he manipulated world events through his publishing empire. However, although Hearst for a time became powerful and influential in politics, the offices that he really wanted, namely the governorship of New York and the presidency, eluded him. He pursued political offices and influence in the same way that he pursued success in publishing: ruthlessly and with utter disregard for truth and the well-being of others.

Around the end of his heavy involvement in politics, when he had become disappointed and jaded, Hearst got into the motion picture business. He built a studio and began to make movies. He began an affair with a much younger woman named Marion Davies and decided to make her a film star, investing untold millions into elaborate productions for her benefit. His wife, with whom he had five sons, refused to give him a divorce, though, so he could officially hook up with Miss Davies, and so they reached a mutual agreement to keep up a pretense of marriage while he carried on his flamboyant affair.

Hearst was always an incredible spendthrift. He had no concept of the value of money. Though he raked in multi-millions of dollars yearly, he spent far more. Not only did he build his splendiferous castle complex in San Simeon, California, but he also had a palatial complex in Santa Monica, an actual castle in England, and elaborate homes in other places. He also bought endless amounts of antiques, paintings, furniture, and entire rooms from historic buildings. He bought so much, in fact, that even his multiple homes could not hold it all, and he had many warehouses bursting at the seams with acquisitions, many of which he had never even laid eyes on.

In short, Hearst was not a mentally well-balanced man. Defects in character along with far too much money and power than was good for him combined to create a megalomaniacal character unprecedented in American history.

(To be continued.)

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Book Review: Citizen Hearst: A Biography of William Randolph Hearst by W.A. Swanberg; Introduction

This is one of those books that is going to compel me to write a review in multiple sections. The inspiration to read Citizen Hearst came to me as I was reading the science fiction novelette “Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst” by Kage Baker, in which Hearst receives a visit from a pair of time travelers from the future who have a very unusual business proposition for him.

The story brought this book to mind. It used to sit on a glassed-in bookcase in our living room when I was a kid. Bookworm that I was even back then, I would take down the volumes, most of which had been obtained by a brief membership of my parents in the Book-of-the-Month Club, peruse them, imagine reading them, and put them back. Most of them were formidable histories and biographies like this one. I can’t remember if I read it back then, but I certainly remember going through the pictures.

Another association my family had with Hearst when I was young was a visit to his castle and vast estate at San Simeon on one of our summer road trips. We toured a portion of the grounds and houses of Hearst’s palatial complex and brought away a souvenir book with bright brilliant pictures of the main castle, the pools, the artwork, and other highlights.

So reading the science fiction story about Hearst and San Simeon stirred up the memories, and it gave me the inspiration that Citizen Hearst might be a fun and edifying read. However, obtaining a copy proved to be difficult. The King County library system, which is renowned as one of the best in the nation, didn’t have a single copy. I called up my sister, who had been handling a large portion of my recently-deceased father’s belongings, and asked if the Citizen Hearst book from our old house was still around somewhere. She looked and couldn’t find it. As a last resort, I conducted a search on Amazon. The book is out of print, but I found a used copy in good condition.

Somehow I remembered something about Citizen Hearst winning a Pulitzer Prize, but I wasn’t sure, so I did a bit of research and came across an interesting story. It turns out that the advisory board for the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography recommended that the award should go to Citizen Hearst. This did not sit well with the trustees of Columbia University who administered the prize. It was their opinion that the notorious Hearst was not a worthy subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. As a result, although Citizen Hearst ostensibly won, the listing in the category of Biography or Autobiography for 1962 reads “No Award.” Swanberg later made up for the snub by winning the 1973 Pulitzer for a biography about another notorious publisher: Luce and His Empire. This book highlights the career of Henry Luce, whose stable of popular magazines included Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated. As for Citizen Hearst, once the news about the award debacle got out, the book’s sales significantly increased.

(To be continued.)

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