Book Review: “Not So Much” Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick

Not So muchMultiple Hugo and Nebula winner Michael Swanwick writes both novels and shorter works, but it is in short stories that he truly shines.  He’s one of those writers that is at home in the shorter length; others that I can think of right off include Harlan Ellison, James Tiptree, Jr., Jorge Luis Borges, and R.A. Lafferty.  Some of the stories in this collection, in fact, remind me of Lafferty’s stories: spare, precise, poetic, and with just a few subtle tweaks of reality to spin the reader off into an alternate dimension or situation.  Like Lafferty’s too, not all of these stories make any sense or have any internal logic, but they are not meant to have these qualities.  Instead, the author puts you into a situation that may be only slightly different from so-called reality, gives you a shove, and propels you farther and farther into an abyss or a labyrinth or a rabbit hole until you end up at some surreal, strange, and absurdly other sort of location and wonder how you got there.

As Swanwick states in the introduction, many writers give up short stories for pecuniary reasons – there just isn’t enough money in it.  However, he has persevered out of a deep love for the form, and the results show. Sure, I like some stories in this collection more than others, but they are all entertaining.  Few if any aspire to deep meaning or relevance to current situations, but they are all damned fine tales that can keep you company on a quiet evening or a long journey.

Among my personal favorites are “Passage of Earth,” about a grotesquely alien life form that possesses a coroner during an autopsy, “The Woman Who Shook the World Tree,” about a homely-looking scientist who follows her true love into another dimension, and “Tawny Petticoats,” about a fascinating scheme in an alternate New Orleans by the recurrent con artist characters Darger and Surplus.  I also enjoyed the deep appreciation for the Irish countryside and culture manifested in the moody romantic tale “For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I’ll Not Be Back Again.”

My only criticism of the collection has nothing to do with the stories.  In my opinion, the fascinating introduction was too short.  Swanwick briefly summarizes his genesis and early years as a writer, and I hungered for more details.  I would have appreciated not only a much longer introduction, but also introductions or afterwards about each of the stories detailing what he was going through in his mind and his life when he wrote the tales.  I understand that some writers like the stories to stand on their own and are reluctant to say more about them, but the sparse introduction is so good it makes you long for more.

All in all, this is a solid, entertaining collection by one of the masters of the short story form.  Swanwick is someone you can count on to deliver quality goods, and these stories do not disappoint.

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Book Review: Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert

As I mentioned in my recent essay on movies, Roger Ebert is the only film critic whose opinions I seek out about films I am interested in, at least those films made before 2013, when he died.  Although I don’t always agree with his analyses of films, he brought intelligence and insight to the reviews he wrote for over four decades.  He died of cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands, and for the last few years of his life, after three unsuccessful surgeries, he was unable to speak, eat, or drink normally.  It was during this time, in a profoundly contemplative state of mind, that he wrote this touching memoir.

Although I read the entire book, including the beginning chapters, out of respect for the conditions under which the writer was working, you can easily skip over the early part if you want.  The book gets interesting on page seventy-five of my hardcover edition, with the chapter titled “Newspaper Days.”  The chapters before talk of Ebert’s parents and grandparents and other relatives, but it’s sort of like paging through someone else’s family photo album – it doesn’t really mean anything except to the family involved.

With that eleventh chapter on his beginnings in journalism, though, Ebert gets into the shaping of his career as one of the most famous film critics ever.  He started out with small papers, eventually made it to the Chicago Sun-Times, and was handed the film critic job because it became available, without ever seeking it.  In 1975, he became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Sometimes Ebert moves through his life chronologically, but when he discusses famous actors such as Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, and John Wayne, and directors such as Russ Meyer, Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Woody Allen, he devotes a chapter to each.  He drank with these people, spent time on their sets, and interviewed them multiple times.  He has all sorts of interesting stories to tell about their off-camera behavior and their impressions of the cinematic process and their own work.

Ebert also traveled extensively, mostly connected with his role as film critic, and he describes his favorite places in London, Venice, and other locales with a nostalgic glow.  He also goes into his past romantic laisons and how his marriage to his wife Chaz gave him stability and companionship.

Ebert wrote this book knowing that he was probably living the last few years of his life.  He mentions this several times.  It gives a profundity and honesty to the writer/reader relationship.  You can tell that Ebert has pulled out the stops and is writing from his heart.  He has nothing to lose by telling the truth.  And the truth is that he had a huge influence on American culture.  His reviews shaped American understanding of cinema as an art form.  I recommend this book not only to those who love films, but also those who enjoy reading a good memoir.  I also recommend his website, rogerebert.com, where his reviews are archived.  There’s a search engine that can quickly put you in touch with what he has to say about almost all important past films.  His reviews are well worth reading.

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What Movies Mean to Me

I am writing this essay because I am in the midst of reading Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself, a review of which will appear soon.  Ebert loved films, and he is one of the few film critics (perhaps the only one) whose opinions I respect so much that I seek out his review on his blog after I have seen a film.  I’m talking about older films, of course, as Ebert died in 2013.  Others have carried on his website, and they do all right, but they don’t have the zing that Ebert’s intelligence, discernment, and movie knowledge gave to his personal analyses of films.

I can’t remember a time when movies didn’t fascinate me.  There was no internet back then, nor video recorders.  We relied on first-run showings in theaters and reruns on TV.  Of course, movie tickets were much cheaper, and so were the snacks such as popcorn, Jujyfruits, and soft drinks I avidly consumed as I watched.

I never just watched, though.  I got deeply into them.  I absorbed the experience.  Even when I was very young, I saw films in terms of script and cinematography.  When movies particularly impressed me, I would later recreate them while I was playing, with my blocks as the sets and hard plastic action figures as the characters.

Many memorable movie experiences come to mind as I think back.  These are just a sampling.

One evening my father got up from the dinner table and spontaneously said, “Let’s go to a movie!”  The kids all erupted in overwhelming approval, while my mother objected on the grounds that it had not been planned.  That night we went to see Walt Disney’s Toby Tyler, and I still remember scenes of Toby the circus waif, played by Kevin Corcoran, finally getting his chance under the big top as an acrobat on horses.  When we were very young, Disney films were the only movies my parents let my brothers and sisters and I go to theaters to watch, but there were so many of them in those days that they met the need for wonderment.  Once we were allowed to expand our range, a movie that impressed me greatly when it first came out, although I was only twelve years old, was David Lean’s adaptation of Doctor Zhivago.  I saw it multiple times during its first run in the theaters, and thrilled to its depth of emotion and masterful cinematography.

I’m skipping over many memorable movie experiences, just touching on what first comes to mind.  During high school I had a buddy who used to go to movies with me from time to time.  One of the best double features we ever attended was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Casablanca – a four-hour Bogie fest.  Later while I shared accommodation with my old drinking and drug buddy Rolf, when we were broke we would sneak into movies by standing outside the back door and going inside when someone else was exiting.  We would then make our way to the front, buy something at the concession stand, and sit down and enjoy the show.  That’s how I saw one of my favorites back then, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for the ninth time, also how we got to see a double feature of the original Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

At some point I took off traveling and started living in Europe and Asia, and I watched movies from time to time but not as often.  On one of my visits home, my mother took me to see the first Star Wars film.  Now it’s known as A New Hope, but back then it was just Star Wars to most people.  I had never heard of the film, believe it or not (I had been really out of touch in remote parts of the world), and I also had no idea that my mother was a science fiction aficionado.  The film blew me away – totally.  It was terrific; it was superlative; it was so much fun.  On my next visit, she took me to see The Empire Strikes Back, which had just come out.  She was a sweet precious woman.

While I was in southwest India staying in a small hill station up in the mountains, a friend teaching at a private high school asked me to help him chaperone a group of students on a field trip to Bangalore, and while we were there, we went to movies every night.  I had another of my unexpected and profound experiences when I went to Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the first time in an Indian theater.  Again, completely blown away.  In India, Bangladesh, and later Italy and Greece we began to acquire the new-fangled gadgets known as video tape recorders on which to watch our films, which we rented in video shops.  Videos gradually gave way to DVDs, of course.

We rarely went to movies in theaters while I lived overseas.  Although the tickets were not unduly expensive, they were nevertheless usually difficult for us to afford.  One exception, I remember, was when the first English language showing of a film in years came to Dhaka, Bangladesh.  It was Towering Inferno, with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, and every English native speaker I knew went out to see it.  Another memorable experience was when, on a visa trip, I saw the James Bond film Moonraker at a theater in Calcutta.  The place was so crowded that my friends and I had to sit in the very front row.  We really got that film shoved into our faces.

Before I close this picaresque journey through my various film experiences, I must mention the first time I saw The Fellowship of the Rings at a theater in Thessaloniki, Greece.  From the moment the movie began, and Galadriel whispers the opening lines in Elvish, I was enchanted and mesmerized.  I saw it four times in its first theater run; I couldn’t help it.

My sons and I continue to be enthralled by films.  We usually grab some snacks and drinks and watch movies every Friday and Saturday evening – and sometimes more often during the summer.  Our tastes are eclectic, although we often argue about what we are in the mood to watch on any given night.  The more people watching, the longer the arguments go on.  Eventually, though, we all settle down amicably and get lost in another world.

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Book Review: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Don’t be fooled by the fact that this book is marketed as a so-called juvenile novel.  It reads great for adults too.  It is a frightening and important book about what happens when people lose their freedom in the name of security.  It was published in 2008, which means that Doctorow wrote it back in the George W. Bush era, when the government was indeed attempting to take liberties from citizens under the smokescreen of national security.  As this book brings out, you can’t run roughshod over people without compromising the very values you are attempting to protect.

The title comes from the autocratic Big Brother of George Orwell’s novel 1984.  As I remember, Orwell insisted that he was not writing science fiction but only casting light on things as they then were, and this novel does somewhat the same.  Although it posits a situation that hasn’t happened yet, the terrorist bombing of the Oakland Bay bridge by extremists, the scary police state that San Francisco becomes in the aftermath of the bombings is not that much different from the way things are now – or were, at least, back in 2008.  Perhaps things have somewhat improved; I’m not sure.

I don’t want to get too much into contemporary politics here; I want to talk about the merits of the book.  You can read it for yourself and form your own opinions.  What happens in the story is, after the bombings personnel from the Department of Homeland Security go nuts and start arresting everyone nearby, including a bunch of high school kids who are out following a role-playing game.  They throw them in prison, torture them physically and mentally, and finally release them.  These kids, especially the first person narrator, are hackers, though, and vow to take down the security forces gone rampant who have become more dangerous to the freedom of citizens than the terrorists.  So they establish a secret bug-free internet network where they can plan and hatch plots of civil disobedience.

The rudiments of the technology the hackers use are all well explained, and the characters are clearly delineated.  There is plenty of derring-do and dangerous situations before…  Well, no need to give away the ending.  This book is worth reading for yourself, and what’s more, it’s an important book to read.  It held my interest throughout, though I found that it dragged a bit in the middle.  I feel that some trimming in the midsection would have served it well; a shorter, tighter book would have made all the points and been better-paced.  Overall, though, I would say that if you find yourself slowing down a bit in the middle, persevere, because the ultimate payoff is worth it.

As I mentioned before, categorizing this book as a juvenile just because it has teenage characters is a mistake, as it may prevent some adults from reading it who could definitely benefit from what it has to say.  Thus it often is with arbitrary designations in the book world – they often limit rather than expand a book’s distribution.  I suppose categories are useful when you’re looking for a book in a particular genre, but pigeonholing a book solely because of the age of the main characters doesn’t make sense to me.

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Book Review: Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America by Jesse Jarnow

I find it difficult to criticize this book because I can appreciate the good intentions of the author, but criticize it I must.  It could have been so much more than it is.  It purports to be a history of the psychedelic movement in America and abroad, but it really is a history of Grateful Dead fandom.  And that’s not even the main problem.

Why should I care? you might ask.  Well, I’ve made no secret in my books and essays that when I left Seattle for Santa Clara University in the San Francisco Bay area in the early 1970s, I plunged headlong into the hippy drug culture.  I went to Grateful Dead concerts in the city.  I smoked a lot of weed. I dropped acid and mescaline and psilocybin.  The drugs messed me up – messed me up bad.  I kept taking them, though, hoping that the temporary pseudo-enlightenment you get on some trips would somehow translate into a deeper understanding of the universe, life, existence – something.  Later, after a long gap during which I somewhat recovered, I had some more positive experiences with hallucinogens while traveling in the East.

The point is, I am always on the lookout for books that offer insight into the confusing era I lived through, and so when I read about this book online I ordered it immediately.  Unfortunately, it does not deliver as advertised.  It’s interesting; the author did his research homework.  But it does not offer any sort of comprehensive look at the psychedelic scene as it evolved in the United States.  It’s not thorough; it skips around too quickly from one snippet of information to the next.  It hardly gives a perfunctory glance at Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters; it mentions them only a few times in passing.  It scarcely deals with Timothy Leary and his influence either.  As I mentioned, it almost exclusively highlights the Grateful Dead and their influence on the psychedelic scene – which was not inconsiderable.  Many other sixties bands that were also of inestimable importance are not mentioned at all.

Even in the narrow confines within which the author has consigned it, the book is brim-full of fascinating information, but there is another problem.  It is told in present tense in an idiosyncratic hip style that obscures the clarity of the writer’s voice.  History does not work well in present tense, and this book is supposedly a history.  Additionally, complex material works best when it is presented in a simple, straightforward manner, and yet the convoluted, self-conscious voice in this narrative does nothing but obscure the content.  I really wanted to understand everything that the author was trying to present, but sometimes it was so hard to make sense of it, as if a lens I was trying to look through was all fogged up.  I almost gave up several times, but I persevered because I really wanted to read the story.

There’s one other problem: the flippant style gives the reader the impression that psychedelics are harmless fun, like snacks at a never ending party – but they aren’t.  They seriously messed up a lot of people.  Many Dead-heads ended up in prison as a result of dealing them.  Jerry Garcia, the lead guitarist of the Dead, ended up as a heroin addict and died young.  A lot of fans took heroin regularly too, to help them come down off the acid, and got addicted.  I can’t discount the possibility that psychedelics helped open up young people to the counterculture back in the 60s and 70s, but eventually the psychedelics themselves became the delusion, not the answer.

It’s a complex subject, and I am oversimplifying. Behind the flippant banter of the book’s narrative voice, however, it is clear that the head scene in America was not the idyllic wonderland that is ostensibly presented in this and other books and films.  It was a time of soul-searching and hope and aspirations and dreams, but it was also a time of delusion and confusion and violence and betrayal.  As the author brings out, most of those involved in the psychedelic scene were young white males.  Women and blacks and Hispanics and other racial groups and minorities had their own problems to deal with.

So, would I recommend this book?  For those into the Grateful Dead and the psychedelic scene, perhaps.  For those interested in the history of the psychedelic movement in America, though, I can’t help thinking that there must be clearer, more comprehensive books out there.

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Book Review: The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places From Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley by Eric Weiner

This is a much better book than its predecessor, The Geography of Bliss.  For one thing, the author deals with fewer locations than in the previous book, which allows him to explore them in more depth.  For another, he does enough research and invests enough thought to come to deeper conclusions.  The first book was obviously a lark; the author flitted from place to place, wrote a few surface level observances, and never really tried to explore the subject that was the supposed theme of his journey.  This time, he takes the subject of genius seriously.

I still object to his methods, which are very conventional, and consist mostly of calling up a few supposed experts and interviewing them over coffee, tea, alcoholic beverages, or meals.  Sometimes he visits a museum or some other historic location to see what he can see.  It’s still surface level.  Nevertheless, as I said, because he focuses his attention better in this book, it is sharper, more reasoned, and occasionally even dabbles in profundity.

He begins his quest for the secrets of genius in Athens, where in ancient times a brief but powerful explosion of creativity changed the western world. He explores the dynamics of the city that produced Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other thinkers who helped shape modern thought. Although ancient Athens was filthy and there was little difference between the abodes of the rich and the poor, the cultural dynamic led to its citizenry devoting extreme amounts of intellectual energy in its honor.  During a brief period of peace between wars, people flocked to Athens as a hub of learning.  It offered freedom of speech, open debate, and the wealth to realize grand projects such as the Parthenon.

From Athens, the author moves on to Hangzhou, China, where during the Song Dynasty another intellectual revolution occurred. During this era, the Chinese greatly valued artistic achievements.  Even the emperors valued their skills as poets as greatly as their skills as statesmen.

From China, Weiner moves on to Florence and explores the erstwhile hangouts of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and other esteemed artists of the Renaissance, pointing out that the city’s unique placement in history, its political structure, and its patronage system made it a fertile hotbed for genius.  Sometimes I wonder, however, if Weiner exaggerates situation for the sake of a laugh, for he describes Florence as a city festering in the midst of putrid swampland, whereas I remember it from my travels as placed in a gorgeous setting surrounded by hills in the midst of Tuscan countryside.  Perhaps it’s simply a matter of perspective.

Next the author moves up north to Scotland and investigates the cultural renaissance that the likes of David Hume, Adam Smith, and others instigated in the eighteenth century.

I was particularly pleased to see that Weiner made a journey to Calcutta and included its eruption of genius during the British Raj.  This was epitomized by Rabindranath Tagore, who the author calls the renaissance man of Calcutta.  I’ve lived in West Bengal, both in Calcutta and in the university township that Tagore created to the north at Santiniketan, and his influence on Bengali culture is inestimable.  He won the Nobel Prize for literature for his poetic work Gitanjali, but my favorites among his works are his short stories.  He was a pioneer of the short story in Bengali, and his stories are still readable today as brilliant examples of the form.

Vienna is the only location that gets two chapters, as Weiner first explores the musical renaissance epitomized by Mozart and Beethoven, and then describes the later intellectual bloom exemplified by Sigmund Freud.

The author’s last visit is to Silicon Valley, which seems to befuddle him.  Maybe because it’s so new and still ongoing, he can’t really come up with a rational explanation for its success as a hotbed of geniuses.

All in all, the book is entertaining, and as I mentioned before, the author manages to come up with more insightful hypotheses than he did in the previous one.  However, the problem remains that he simply tosses possibilities out to see which ones stick and makes no attempt, or at least little attempt, to consolidate what he has discovered.  I would have appreciated one final chapter in which he draws conclusions based upon his observations.  As it is, he leaves it to the reader, for the most part, to figure out how the experiences he has and the research he summarizes all fit together.

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Book Review: The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction: Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology Edited by Gordon Van Gelder

Normally as a prelude to or in the midst of a review of a short story anthology, I make it clear that in any collection of stories there are always a few superlative ones, some good ones, some mediocre ones, and some bad ones.  It’s a matter of taste, after all.  Editors have their subjective opinions just like anyone else.  But I have to admit that this is the first anthology I have read in a long, long time in which there are no bad or even mediocre stories.  There are a few that I wouldn’t have included in a best of the best collection, as well as a few glaring oversights.  Didn’t Robert Silverberg’s story “Sundance” first appear in an issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction?  I think so.  If it did, it certainly deserves a place here.  Or at least something by Silverberg does.  Perhaps “Born With the Dead,” which first appeared in a special F&SF Robert Silverberg issue.

But these are quibbles.  F&SF has published so many great stories over the years that it would have been impossible to honor them all in one volume.  What we have here, though, is a great collection of fiction, each story well worth reading.  It starts with Alfred Bester’s story “Of Time and Third Avenue,” first published in 1951, and ends with Ted Chiang’s story “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” which was first published in 2007.  In between, it includes classics, as well as personal favorites of mine, such as “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, “This Moment of the Storm” by Roger Zelazny, and “The Women Men Don’t See” by James Tiptree, Jr.  This is a good story collection to dive into and get a good representative look at some of the best writing done in the genre of science fiction and fantasy.

A number of the stories I had read before, but a good number were new to me as well.  Two of the stories deeply touched me, perhaps because they resonate with what I am going through at this time.  One is “Buffalo” by John Kessel.  It’s a story about an imaginary meeting between the author’s father and the famous science fiction writer H.G. Wells, and it touched me because of the way that Kessel describes how the meeting affected them both.  Each in his own way is living in disappointment and self-doubt, but Kessel, through both examples, brings home the point of the value of art and of a life that may not have been a fulfillment of every dream but is still worthwhile.  I needed to hear that, and I read the last few paragraphs of this story over and over.

The other story that touched me personally is “Solitude” by Ursula K. Le Guin.  It’s a very deeply nuanced story about a mother and her two children who settle on a planet for several years to study a human culture that has evolved to be very different from the one to which they are accustomed.  The mother and the older brother cannot adapt to the change, but for the young daughter, the ways of the new world become irrevocably her own.  Adults on this world live lives in which they spend much of their time alone, but their solitude is enmeshed in a complex web of tradition, culture, and religion.  The story is told in the first person, and the narrator’s explanation near the end of the story of the value of solitude resonated with me.  I have my bouts with loneliness.  Once I wrote an essay on the difference between solitude and loneliness.  When you’re going through it the differences can be hard to discern sometimes.

All in all, this is an excellent collection and well worthy of a read both for those who are new to the field and those familiar with it who want to reread some of their old favorites.

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Book Review: The Best American Essays 2015 Edited by Ariel Levy

I haven’t read a book-length collection of essays by disparate authors before, at least not that I can remember.  I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy the experience.  I was out of reading material and I went to the library to browse.  This book caught my eye, but I put it back on the shelf at first and went home.  Then, realizing I still didn’t have anything to read, I went back to the library the next morning to check it out.  Before I did, though, I promised myself that I could skip ahead past any essays that bored me.  I usually devour books like scavengers devour a carcass: flesh, blood, bones, organs, everything.  I had to give myself an out if wasn’t enjoying the experience.

In the end, I only skipped past three essays that were so boring I couldn’t bear them.  There were a few more that I read through but in aftermath I wished I hadn’t.  Most of the essays were good, and a few were very good.  The best ones dealt with subjects of universal concern: family tragedy, sickness, race relations, old age.  The best styles were conversational; the ones that turned me off were those that affected pomposity, ostentation, self-conscious complications of language not for the sake of communication but as a means of showing off.  Most of the essays are short, which is as it should be: they make one point or address one theme, and then they end.  The ones that didn’t say anything or get anywhere are the ones I abandoned.

It came to me as I read that the essays were entertaining and competent enough, but really weren’t much different than well-written blog posts.  The only difference was that somehow the authors managed to get them into elite venues that paid a lot of money for them.  Some of the authors are staff writers of the magazines in which their essays appeared, which makes it easier to achieve publication and payment, of course.  I suppose that for writers without some sort of special “in” it’s probably about as difficult to get essays accepted in these elite venues as it is short stories, and that is very difficult indeed.  Literary magazines typically hold on to short stories under consideration for a year or more, and then if they don’t want them, they send form rejection notices.

And it got me thinking about personal blogs and, inevitably, about self-publishing.  Personal blogs are a freely offered form of self-expression.  Without a doubt some are more popular than others, but just about anyone can put a blog out there to be read by anyone who is interested.  I have read many blog posts that are every bit as erudite, well-written, and interesting as the best of the essays in this book.  The only differences are the form in which they are published and the compensation or lack of it the author receives.  I like the freedom of expression that the web allows, but it’s too bad that bloggers can’t somehow be compensated when they write worthwhile essays.  Some have found ways to make them pay through advertisements on their websites.  Others use the material on their blogs as loss leaders to point prospective readers to their books.  All well and good.  In conclusion, there’s really nothing in this book of essays that beats material you can find online for free, but it’s an okay read if you have nothing else at hand.

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My Passports: A History

Recently I was checking that one of my son’s passports was up to date, as he’s soon to take a trip.  I came across mine, opened it, and realized with a shock that it expired last year.  Such a revelation may be of no consequence to most of you, but having recently spent thirty-five years abroad, for me it was absolutely unacceptable.  My passport is my freedom to travel.  I have been living in the States for the past three years, true, for the sake of my sons, but I always entertain the notion of traveling again.  This makes it imperative for me to renew it as soon as possible, even if I cannot make use of it immediately, because its presence reassures me that I have the ability to resume my journey at any time.

The present crisis reminded me of how important my various passports have been to me over the years.  And yes, there have been several.  Just before I sat down to write this I undertook a search through my scant belongings and came up with three other expired passports besides the present one that I need to renew.  One is a passport I obtained in Athens, Greece, before this present one, and another I obtained in Rome, Italy, before that.  Neither of these has many stamps, because our family lived for long periods of time without moving within these two countries.

The third old passport I have is another story.  It’s from the late seventies and early eighties, and it is packed with entry and exit stamps from various countries.  There is even an addition of extra pages that pulls out like an accordion, and this too is loaded with stamps.  These stamps are plastered all over the pages, some sideways and upside-down, in black, blue, green, and red ink.  Though some have faded and smeared with time, I can still make out others.  There are stamps from the United States, Pakistan, Iran, India, Nepal, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.  Yes, that passport is a treasure trove of memories, all right.

But it’s not even the passport from my past that had the most stamps in it.  That honor goes to the one preceding it, the one that was stolen in Iran, forcing me to beg on the streets in Tehran for two weeks before I had enough money to replace it.  I had always thought that U.S. embassies would extend helping hands to travelers in distress, but when I showed up broke and without passport, although I had a police report proving the theft, I was summarily told “No money, no passport,” and shown the door.  My only other option would have been repatriation, for which they would have sent me a bill upon returning to the States; and the hell with that after I had already traveled so hard through difficult and dangerous circumstances to get where I was.  Anyway, that passport, if I remember correctly, had two accordion extensions, and represented my journey through Mexico and Guatemala, my hitchhiking circuit of Europe, my first trip across the Middle East to the Indian Subcontinent and back, and my second crossing of Europe and the Middle East.  Then it was in Kerman, a small town in southeastern Iran, where a Pakistani fellow traveler made off with that passport.

From the very beginning of my globetrotting I was aware of the value of my passport and the need to guard it carefully.  When I realized I was going to be doing some serious traveling overseas, before I left I had a passport pouch of thin, strong, stiff leather made.  It had a leather strap that fit over my neck so that my passport nestled under my armpit.  The passport, along with my international immunization certificate, fit into it so well that it took effort to push it in or pull it out.  Once I was jammed onto a commuter train in Bombay so tightly I couldn’t move, and when I got off the train I realized that my shirt and the passport pouch had been cut open with a razor by pickpockets, but the passport was still there.  Evidently it fit in too snugly to be extricated clandestinely.

All this to say that my passports and I have been through a lot together, and without a valid passport I feel naked and constrained.  In a sense I have become a citizen of the world, and I feel as at home in Greece, for instance, as I do in the United States.  To not have a valid passport is an intolerable situation.  Passport renewals take weeks to process, and I need to know I can take off on my next adventure whenever I have the urge and the opportunity.

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On Borges

My thoughts have recently turned to Jorge Luis Borges, one of the greatest fantasy short story writers that ever lived. I have read Collected Fictions, a comprehensive collection of his short stories, several times cover to cover. His story “The Aleph” is on my list of the greatest short stories of all time.  Two things brought Borges back to my attention.

First of all, I saw a notice online that interested persons can cast votes for Seattle’s EMP science fiction museum hall of fame, and one of the names on the list of nominees was Borges.  I was surprised and pleased to see his name among more ostensibly popular modern writers, as he is truly worthy of the honor.  In fact, I took the trouble to cast my vote just so I could vote for Borges.

Also, while browsing the books at the Friends of the Library book sale last weekend, I came across a volume called Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography by Emir Rodriguez Monegal.  The author evidently had known Borges for decades and was a personal friend.

I had great hopes for this book.  As soon as I finished my previous reading project, I jumped on it.

Alas, it did not live up to expectations.  To put it bluntly, it’s boring.  The author spends too much time psychoanalyzing Borges’ intentions in writing and too little time simply telling the story of his life and how he came to write his books.  Every little detail about his past is punctuated with analyses of how, consciously or unconsciously, it eventually erupted in his prose.  The author goes way overboard with it.  Writers themselves generally don’t take things to such extremes.  It’s true for every writer I’ve ever read about or spoken to: we write what we write.  We want to tell a story, or evoke mystery, or create mood, or whatever.  But to nitpick it apart like this biographer does takes all the fun out of it – plus his explanations do not ring true.  For the most part, they smack of wild speculation.

Especially for a writer like Borges, to pick apart what he has written in such a manner does him a great disservice.  Although the writer was supposedly his friend, Borges did not approve the biography; it is not “official.”

The book got so boring, in fact, that I stopped reading it all and started skimming through for the good parts.  It is intermittently interesting, but you have to dredge through a lot to get to the gold.  The chapter discussing the period when he got a job at the public library to help provide for his household resonates with me.  Until he was forty, although he had published several books of poetry and essays, he lived with his parents and relied on his father’s pension for subsistence.  Here he was, writing brilliant, innovative prose, but he couldn’t make enough money at it to support himself.  So he was forced to seek employment, and ended up at a position in which he was profoundly dissatisfied.  That’s the way it is with me right now.  I’m forced to use most of my time writing Internet articles to keep myself and my household going so that I can also, in whatever snatches of time I can manage, write my stories and memoirs.

In the end, of course, Borges became renowned as a short story writer, won all kinds of honors, and got invited all over the world.  But he was already elderly and blind by the time that happened.

What a shame that this biography could not have been what it should have been.  This shining light of world literature who probably should have won the Nobel Prize deserves a definitive biography.  In the meantime, read Collected Fictions.  You won’t be disappointed.

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