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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Book Review: Future Crimes by Marc Goodman

This is a scary book.  It’s not light reading and it’s not entertaining.  It’s an important book, but I don’t think I would recommend it to everyone.  For some, it will be too damn depressing.  For chapter after chapter and hundreds of pages it goes on and on about how Internet companies, social media networks, cyber-criminals and hackers from rogue governments can screw you, and it offers very little hope of practical remedies to the catastrophic possibilities it delineates.

The author is very thorough in enumerating every possible way that you can get attacked on the Internet; it would be impossible for me to list every aspect of cybercrime and scamming that he goes into.  Briefly, though, he first details the methods that social media, search engines, and other Internet companies that offer supposedly free services use to troll for consumer data to sell to advertisers.  He makes a valid point, one that I had never realized before:  People who accept the terms of service that these companies proffer – usually without reading them – and make use of their services are not really customers but product; the real customers are advertisers who buy the data that the companies siphon from those who use their services.  The terms of service are meant to be long, complicated, and in small print so that consumers do not really understand that they are signing away their right to privacy when they agree to them.

But that’s just the beginning, folks.  There follows in great detail an explanation of how criminals have evolved their methods of operation in the cyber age, and how easy it is to hack into just about any computer in existence and steal identities, credit card numbers, and endless amounts of other data.  The author gives so much information on criminal activities on the Internet, including web addresses of online services that criminals use for their nefarious deeds, that the book is like a how-to primer for aspiring criminals on how to go about implementing a career in cyber crime.

In the book’s defense, most people really do have no idea what they are getting into when they surf the net and how easy it is to get cyber-mugged.  Read the book and you’ll sure as hell be on your guard.  In fact, when you finish the book you’ll probably be so terrified by the multitudinous threats that you’ll want to head off to a cabin in the woods and cut yourself off from any trace of cyber communication.  Alas, that is not the answer to the problem, says the author.  The Internet, along with other forms of rapidly advancing technology such as artificial intelligence, robots, biological engineering, nanotechnology and other new fields are ubiquitous and inevitable, or soon will be.

Unfortunately, the author, after screaming like an Old Testament prophet of doom for 450 pages, spends only a few pages at the end sketching out the most rudimentary of solutions to the many problems.  Most of his solutions involve spending billions on national and multinational task forces to combat cyber crime.  Getting government officials to realize the threat and cooperate together to efficiently avert it seems all but impossible.

Like I said, the author makes it all seem hopeless, helpless, and deeply depressing.  That’s why I said that this book may not be for everyone.  It makes you want to run screaming into the woods.  Instead, many people would benefit from a shorter, lighter, more instructional book on how to defend themselves the best they can from cyber-threats.

The threats are real, of course, there’s no doubt about it.  Landfills with heaping piles of garbage are real too, but most folks don’t need a meticulous detailing of every particle of rubbish in them to know that they pose a threat to the environment.  Parts of this book are tough to slog through, although they hold a sort of grim fascination, when the author goes on for page after page of nitty-gritty detail about various ways that evil people are trying to get you.  It’s often repetitive as well; tighter editing would have improved the coherency and flow.  Nevertheless, it is a chilling, effective warning for all those who use the Internet of the very real dangers that lie in wait out there in cyberspace for the unwary.

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Reading and Quality of Life, or, Why I Took Time Out of My Busy Professional Schedule to Go Look for a Book

It all started this afternoon when I realized about thirty pages in that the book I had taken out of the new books section of the library on a whim was insipid, vacuous, and a total waste of time.  The subject was the impact of the Internet on our lives, specifically from the viewpoint of those old enough to have experienced a time in their adult lives before the Internet existed – an interesting topic, thought I, and yet its arguments were not well presented.  It rehashed old ideas in a rather boring manner.  I decided to put it aside unread, which is rather rare for me.  Once I start a book I usually see it through, as I tend to invest enough time in perusing possibilities so that when I actually start to read I know what I am getting myself into.

Be that as it may, the decision to abandon reading this book initiated a crisis.  I read every day.  I cannot imagine a day without a period of time devoted to reading.  Additionally, I prefer physical books rather than digital books, so I cannot simply download something new.  The usual places I look for books are the library, used book stores, and the Amazon online and physical bookstores.  Of these options, I have been cutting down on used book purchases, not only because used books tend to have yellowed pages and poor binding, but also because Amazon discounts new books so steeply that I can often buy new books on Amazon for almost the same price I can buy used books from various local bookstores.

As for my options today, I was already too late for the library, which is only about eight blocks away.  This would have been my first choice, but this is Sunday, a day of shorter hours, and it would have been closed by the time I got there.  Then I thought that perhaps I could make it to the Amazon physical book store in the University Village here in Seattle and find a book there.  The prices are linked to Amazon’s online discounts, so I could get a book right away for the same price as if I ordered it instead of having to wait a few days for delivery.  Unfortunately, the Amazon store closes early on Sunday too.  I would have to make it to the bus stop within a few minutes to give myself about a half hour of browsing time.  So I made a run for it.

I missed the bus.

I do not, however, regret the effort.  I could have told myself that I have a lot of work to do and that in my financial situation it made more sense to chain myself to the keyboard and get it done.  But that would have been the wrong approach.  My financial struggles are ongoing and they’re not going to disappear overnight.  As it is, I work on all seven days, altogether about fifty or sixty hours a week.  In the midst of such a hectic schedule, my daily reading is one of the few times of relaxation I allow myself.  If I keep the pedal to the floor constantly I am going to quickly run out of gas.  I need to pace myself.  Life is not lived in some future dream world in which I have plenty of time to get things done and abundant money to satisfy all my whims.  It is lived here and now under the present circumstances.  And under these conditions, it made sense to me to cut loose and run for the bus to try to make it to the bookstore.  After I missed the bus, I took a walk in the bright warm sunshine and did another necessary errand before coming back to the keyboard.  Now I feel relaxed enough to get back to work, and later this evening I will put my mind to solving the nothing to read problem.

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Book Review: Nebula Awards 32 Edited by Jack Dann

This book highlights winners and runner-ups of the 1996 Nebula Awards.  I came across it while perusing used books in the dealer’s room of Norwescon 2016. I missed a lot of first-rate science fiction and fantasy while I was living overseas for thirty-five years from the late 1970s to 2012, so when I have an opportunity, I like to catch up.

I’ve always been a fan of the Nebula Awards volumes ever since I came across them at the Henry Branch of the Seattle Public Library on Capitol Hill.  I had just returned from my year at Santa Clara University, the greatest boon of which in my personal life was my discovery that I wanted to be a writer, and I was searching the shelves to feed my new-found hunger for science fiction.  What better than collections of the best in the genre as voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America?

Not all the Nebula volumes have been top-quality.  Inevitably some years have stronger stories than others.  This volume falls somewhere in the middle.  There are a few excellent stories, a few other good ones, and one or two that made me wonder why they were included.  The book also suffers from a preponderance of redundant non-story content.  There are multiple essays on the state of science fiction in 1995 and a long treatise on science fiction films of 1995.  All this material is dated and uninteresting, and it would have been much better if the editor had followed the current practice of including all the nominated short stories and novelettes and less opinion pieces.

The only story that I had read previously in this volume was the winning novella, Jack Dann’s alternate history of Leonardo da Vinci called “Da Vinci Rising.”  I must have come across it in a different best of the year anthology of bygone days, because I remembered it vividly.  It’s a strong, well-told piece of historical fiction with only slight science fiction overtones excerpted from a long novel about Da Vinci called The Memory Cathedral.  Otherwise, the best stories in the book, in my estimation, were not award winners but additionally included material.  For instance, Dann wisely decided that instead of including an excerpt of Nicola Griffith’s Nebula-winning novel Slow River, he would instead include a complete novella of hers, “Yaguara,” which was a previous finalist for the Nebula.  It’s a frightening horror story with strong characterization about the secrets of Mayan ruins hidden deep in a rain forest.  The other story that particularly moved me was a finalist in the novelette category, “The Chronology Protection Case” by Paul Levinson.  Somehow the author convinces the reader that the universe could turn into a murderer to protect itself from anomalies associated with time travel.

The other winning stories were also fine tales.  “A Birthday” by Esther M. Friesner tells of a chilling future punishment for women who have abortions – yet amazingly without taking a pro-life or pro-choice propaganda stand.  “Lifeboat on a Burning Sea” by Bruce Holland Rogers posits the creation of a form of artificial intelligence that mirrors its creator.

All in all, this volume has enough worthwhile stories to warrant reading, but the numerous accompanying essays are outdated and can be skipped.

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Mistakes

We all make them as we stumble through life.  Sometimes we think we do more wrong than right in our pursuit of excellence.  Many people, though, think that books are an exception, that they should be mistake-free.

As a reader, I have never yet read a mistake-free book.  I always find misspellings, misprints, errors in grammar.

As a writer, I am no exception.  The first story I sold, “Clear Shining After Rain,” was to an Australian magazine, Altair.  The second story I sold and the first that was published, “War Horse,” was to a different Australian magazine.  Yes, I got my traditional publishing start in the Land Down Under.  “War Horse” was a late addition to the magazine and perhaps was inserted hastily; it was full of mistakes that had not appeared in the original draft.  Disappointing, yes, but these things happen.  I’ve read various articles about the publishing history of The Lord of the Rings, and it seems that because of its complexity, its unique vocabulary, and its invented languages, each edition was rife with mistakes that Tolkien had to continuously correct.

Big publishing houses have various types of editors that go over manuscripts and supposedly catch mistakes; this helps, I’m sure, but as I said, I’ve never read a book without obvious bloopers.

Some self-published writers hire editors, while others have first readers who go over their work and offer suggestions.  I’ve never been able to afford to pay an editor, and as for first readers, I have tried to have others read my work but nothing has worked out on a regular basis.  Fortunately, I have edited professionally, and so what I generally do is put a manuscript aside for awhile, go on to something else, and then come back to it with my editor’s cap on.  I generally find most of what needs correcting, but I’m sure I don’t find it all.

These ruminations came about because I have been preparing a compilation of novellas for publication.  The first two were published in 2012, the third last year in 2015, and the fourth I have just finished and will release just ahead of the omnibus edition of the four individual yet connected works.  Besides formatting the omnibus, I decided to go back over the series and reread everything consecutively, both to catch any line-by-line mistakes and to ensure the continuity of the details of the story, which I wrote, amidst many other projects, over four years.  Needless to say, I found a number of small mistakes in the first novella, which I have just finished proofing.  I’m not surprised I found them; I expected to find some.  I was nonetheless disappointed for the sake of the readers of the single first edition who came across the errors, and I hoped that they were not too disconcerting or caused the readers to lose the flow.

For the sake of full disclosure, I’m referring to the series I call The One Thousand, which are science fiction thrillers set in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Soon the first four novellas will be available separately and also as a combined omnibus edition both digitally and in print.  As I mentioned, I am taking the time to correct as many errors I can in the omnibus edition, but apart from line editing, the content is the same.

I am tempted to castigate myself when I come across mistakes I have made in my self-published books – but then I have to remind myself that mistakes are ubiquitous in all of literature, correct them when I can, and then excuse myself for making them with the same generosity of spirit that I excuse the mistakes I find in the works of others.  It is far better to publish the books and make the mistakes than not to publish them at all.  So it is with many facets of life.  We can’t let timidity frighten us from fulfilling our destinies.  The romantic cliché states that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.  Recently jilted lovers might argue the point, and I don’t blame them; I’ve been there.  But as far as I’m concerned, it’s better to attempt great things and fall short of greatness than never to have made the effort.

And so my books venture forth on their publishing journeys, one after another, mistakes and all.  Look kindly upon a fellow traveler along the roads of this vast universe, forgive the errors you will inevitably find, and go straight for the gold of whatever insights and entertainment I am attempting to impart.

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Book Review: Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers by Simon Winchester

This fascinating book with the unwieldy title goes into the modern history of some of the countries surrounding and within the Pacific Ocean area and various aspects of the geology, natural history, and meteorology of the ocean itself.  Although it touches on history in the deeper past, it officially begins with the first thermonuclear weapon testing on a Pacific atoll and moves forward from there.  Winchester isolates what he considers some of the key historic events since 1950 and builds his picture of the Pacific Ocean around them.  He admits that he made no attempt at comprehensiveness and aims rather for a pointillist approach, a scattering of stories that suggests a larger whole.

As I mentioned, he begins with the story of nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean, a horror story of neglect of the peoples inhabiting the islands that various superpowers, notably the United States, decided to use to test their weapons, and the environmental degradation caused by radioactive residue.  Winchester next goes into the story of the Sony Corporation and its introduction of transistor radios and other technological innovations that are now ubiquitous.  The third section is a history of surfing, a peculiar and unique sport that got its start among the indigenous Polynesian peoples, particularly in Hawaii.

Each of these sections are carefully researched and written, but Winchester generally makes no effort to thematically link one topic with another, except that they all combine to form a collage of modern history geographically around the Pacific Ocean.

The next troubling section details the dividing of North and South Korea and the forming of the North Korean dictatorship, what Winchester calls a dangerous irritation in the far northwest corner of the Pacific Rim.  This is followed by a piece on the western colonialization of many nations in the Pacific and how the various colonies achieved independence. There is a chapter on Australia, on violent Pacific Ocean weather, on deep ocean thermal vents, and on pollution of the Pacific waters.  Winchester wraps it up with an analysis of American and Chinese naval power in the Pacific and a description of how each nation is vying for territorial supremacy.  An epilog relates how a modern Polynesian sailing crew is taking a traditional ship around the world without the benefit of modern navigational instruments, relying only on ancient skills in reading the stars, water, wind, and wildlife.

I have no complaints about this book.  It is light and entertaining.  It never claims to be more than it is.  It is not the book to read if you want a comprehensive picture of the region.  It rather gives you, as Winchester says it will in the introduction, a bird’s eye view of various aspects of the Pacific situation, aspects which do not really blend into an overall whole but are nevertheless interesting in their own right.  It’s not a scholarly volume.  It’s written as entertainment that incidentally provides interesting facts.  Because it is a relaxing and entertaining read, though, I may seek out more of Winchester’s books.

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What Norwescon Means to Me

Norwescon is a fairly large regional science fiction convention that takes place each spring near Seattle.  I attended my first Norwescon in 2015 with my youngest son.  The event took place from Thursday to Sunday in early April, and we rented a room at the hotel near SeaTac Airport where the con took place on Saturday night so we wouldn’t have to make the long journey to our apartment in north Seattle and back on public transportation.  I skipped Thursday’s activities, and went out and back on Friday while my son was in school to attend some writer’s panels on my own.

This year the con took place in late March – it traditionally coincides with Easter weekend – and I rented a room at the hotel for both Friday and Saturday night so we could spend more time there and better immerse ourselves in the experience.  I attended some of Thursday’s activities by myself.  My youngest son came again from Friday on, and by happy coincidence another son was flying in from the east coast for a visit, and he happened to arrive Friday evening, so he came straight to the hotel, bought a membership to the con, and attended with us.

Science fiction and fantasy conventions vary greatly in emphasis.  Some highlight games, some comics, some film and TV.  This one, as I mentioned, devotes itself mainly to books and literature, although there are also games, masquerades, an art show, a film workshop, and other activities.  Throughout each of the days there are a variety of panels from morning until fairly late in the evening.  Many of them are on writing themes: advice on how to write stories and novels, how to commence a writing career, how to market, how to self-publish, how to promote, how to create alien worlds and credible aliens.  These usually have panel members who are professional science fiction and fantasy writers.  Generally the panel members discuss the panel topic together and then receive questions from the audience.  I’ve found attending such panels to be edifying and informative, and I spend much of my time at the con sitting in on them.  Other panels are aimed more at fans than aspiring professionals.  These might discuss what influences writers and artists draw from, favorite books and films, upcoming projects, what it’s like to be a fan, how to behave at a convention, and many other subjects.  Panel members for these topics may include some professionals, but also may include members of the fan community who may or may not be knowledgeable about the particular topics under discussion.  I’m just giving you a glimpse here, a bird’s eye view.  In truth, there are so many events transpiring simultaneously at Norwescon that it’s seldom hard to find something to do but often difficult to choose from a number of desirable alternatives.

For me, Norwescon 2016 was a far different experience from Norwescon 2015.  In 2015, I had just recently moved back to Seattle after being gone for thirty-five years and I knew almost nobody.  In 2016, I had met many of the area’s professional and aspiring writers at gatherings of Clarion West writer’s workshop students and alumni as well as at other meet-ups, and I kept running into people that I knew.  That added an extra dimension to the experience.

My youngest son had called the 2015 Norwescon the best weekend of his life.  One of the reasons was that he got a chance to meet and get an autograph from George R.R. Martin, who was the writer guest of honor that year.  He enjoyed 2016 just as much.  Because he was a little older and more familiar with the locale and the situation, I was able to let him attend panels he chose on his own, which allowed us to split up at times to pursue our individual interests.  For my other son who flew in from the east, it was a new and unique experience.  He appreciated being surrounded by people who were loose and open and relaxed and devoted to having fun and being themselves.  He’s also an aspiring writer, and he attended panels on a variety of subjects that he said opened his eyes and gave him an abundance of ideas.

Many of the writers I talk to are rather jaded on science fiction conventions.  After all, they have been attending them for decades.  They go more to promote their books than for relaxation and enjoyment.  For me, however, cons are still fresh new experiences.  For many years, while I was living overseas, I longed to attend conventions, and now that I finally have a chance, I revel in the opportunities.  There may come a time when I too become jaded, and I attend more for marketing and promotion than for entertainment and edification, but I don’t think that time will come soon.  I had great fun in 2016, and already look forward to Norwescon 2017.

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Book Review: The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner

I’m winding up the reading of this book; I’ve got about a chapter and a half to go.  It’s time to set down a few words about it, mainly because I have a block of time to spare.  It’s Sunday afternoon, and by Monday morning I’ll be busy with other projects.

I’ll start by saying that I enjoyed – or am enjoying – this book.  It is just what I needed.  I was reading a thick volume of short stories, many of which were ponderously and pretentiously literary, and I needed to break it up with some lighter fare.

This is a travel book.  Ostensibly the author is journeying the globe searching for the key to what makes people happy.  In reality, it’s more like a stand-up comic doing a routine about a global search for happiness.  You can tell all along that the author isn’t really serious about it.  He uses the happiness motif as a theme, an excuse of sorts, for some fairly random traveling and enjoying a diversity of cultures.  One thing that made me skeptical about his true intentions is the writer’s obvious wealth.  He can afford to travel all over the world, stay in fine hotels in places like the Netherlands and Switzerland, sample the cuisine, hire private transport to take him from place to place.  The book is a surface-level perusal of some of the places the author equates with happiness, a sort of smorgasbord where he samples a bit from here and a bit from there and ends up drawing few conclusions about the reason for his search.

Now remember that I said I like the book.  It’s a fun read.  But don’t read it if you are interested in finding real happiness, or even if you are looking for where to initiate your own search.  The author is insincere, and he makes it clear at the outset that sincerity was never his intention.  He constantly pokes fun at himself for being the type of person he is, while at the same time manifesting no inclination for genuine change.  In each chapter he posits theories as to what might constitute happiness, but it is obvious that he is bluffing.  For one thing, as I said, he gives up nothing of himself.  He maintains the position of impartial journalist throughout; he allows nothing of what he experiences to faze him.  He gives no hint about any personal unhappiness that might have initiated his search.  Now that would have been a first-class read – if he had had a crisis in his life and had genuinely, desperately needed to find a modicum of happiness to salve his pain.  Alas, there is not the tiniest inkling of sincere personal unease.  He goes about his supposed quest on a higher plane, above it all, untouched by individuals he encounters.  His interview subjects are presented as caricatures – fodder that the stand-up performer can use to sharpen his wit – not real people with real problems.

The author journeys to ten countries in search of the elusive fountain of happiness, and devotes a chapter to each.  He goes to the Netherlands, Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Thailand, Great Britain, India, and the United States on his happiness quest, and for contrast makes a visit to Moldova as supposedly the unhappiest place on the planet.  Of course the reader realizes that it is impossible to delve into the culture and current circumstances in any one of these countries in just one chapter and that the excuses he makes for choosing to visit these countries rather than others are just that – excuses rather than valid justifications.

I have visited a number of the countries presented as examples in this book, although under starkly different circumstances.  I was generally broke and struggling to survive, and as a result became enmeshed in the culture and lives of the people around me in ways that this author does not even pretend to pursue.  I was genuinely searching for happiness, which in my mind was linked with finding my voice as a writer, and I tell the story of the early part of my journey in my memoir “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.”  If the author were truly interested and in need of discovering sources of happiness, he would have had to initiate his task in emptiness.  When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose, right?  A true search involves a desperate need to reach the goal or find the answer.

I would have to write another book to sift through my own experiences to find even a semblance of an answer to the questions flippantly proposed in this book, but one observation I had as I read it was based on the many years I lived in Greece – which, by the way, the author should have included in his itinerary.  I got to see an example of deep-seated happiness in the reactions I saw around me when the Greek economy collapsed and many Greeks were plunged into economic chaos and despair.  Sure, they grumbled and complained and held demonstrations.  But the people I saw around me in their day to day lives generally reacted in a mature, nuanced, and joyful manner.  They continued to live their lives, take care of their children, take whatever work they could find, celebrate their feast days and holidays, visit their relatives and neighbors, drink their coffee and smoke their cigarettes.  In short, life went on.  I think that the contentment, the resiliency, the affection for each other, the joy in tradition and family is such an integral part of Greek culture, and has been for so long, that they have the emotional reserves to see themselves through a crisis.  Crises have happened before and they will happen again, but life goes on.

For a final time I will emphasize that despite all my comments above, I enjoyed this book and you probably will too.  Just don’t expect what isn’t there.  Don’t look to it for any answers – or even clues – in your search for happiness, and don’t expect any sort of comprehensive look at the countries that the author visits.  Still, it’s a light, fun read.

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Book Review: 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories Edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor; Part Three

I continue to read this thick volume of short stories for entertainment and analysis.  We’re coming to the best part.  First, though, I have to share a couple of disappointments with you.  There were some stories in this volume that I felt were just plain wrong, and not only shouldn’t have been in this volume – they shouldn’t have been accepted for publication at all, as far as I’m concerned.  Well, qualifying the last statement, in this era of self-publishing writers can always upload whatever they want for reader perusal.  What I am saying here is that editors should not have given space to these stories in traditional publications when there must have been far superior submissions available.

Let me share with you a particular problem I have with criticizing other writers’ work: I don’t like to do it.  Having been discouraged so many times in the past, I dislike discouraging others.  I realize that a lot of criticism is a matter of taste, and I don’t like to call out writers by name and deride them and their works.  This puts me at odds with most other reviewers, I realize, but so be it.  So I am going to mention what I dislike about these two stories without giving their names.  You can figure it out if you read the book.  You’re also more than welcome to disagree with me.  Here goes.

One story I read tempted me to throw the book across the room.  I couldn’t believe that any prestigious literary magazine would touch it.  The story tells of a kind, self-sacrificial man.  It gives many examples of his generous nature.  This man dies and goes to the gates of heaven.  He sees all the wonderful things that heaven has to offer and is grateful that he is there.  He approaches Saint Peter at the gate, and Peter instead sends him to hell because the man committed some minor infractions of church doctrine.  Hell is vividly described as a horrific place full of torment where the inhabitants habitually rape each other.  The man lives there for a time and finally leads the denizens of hell in a sincere prayer of repentance and a plea for mercy.  In response, God makes hell even worse.  End of story.  Ugh.  I couldn’t believe I had read the whole thing.  What a bitter, cynical, pointless story!  If you want to read a well-written, brilliant story about a world in which God, heaven, hell, angels and so on are literal realities, read the award-winning novelette “Hell is the Absence of God” by Ted Chiang instead of the piece presented here.

The other story in this volume to which I took objection concerned a musician who was talented but not top quality.  He meets a singer whose performance is also flawed, and they begin a romance.  The story is actually very well told up to a certain point where out of left field the musician insults and derides his lover and they separate back into their lonely lives.  End of story.  Bullshit.  Okay, I realize that romances don’t always work out, but the story didn’t lead the reader, consciously or unconsciously, into readiness for this tragedy.  Instead, it appears as if everything is going to work out for the two lonely people and they are going to fill voids in each others’ lives.  The sudden turnaround simply didn’t make sense in the context the writer had set up.  It’s like he built up this beautiful, elegant structure just for the cynical, bitter anti-joy of knocking it down.

Okay, that’s enough about the negative.  Now we’re going to delve into the beating heart of the book, the best part.  It’s near the end, in the last few decades the book covers.  In short, the book is rescued by people of color, by ethnic writers.  One of the best is Bengali-American Jhumpa Lahiri, one of my favorite writers.  She’s one of the few authors whose works I order in hardcover as soon as they come out because I can’t stand to wait for less expensive editions.  She has a wonderful story, “The Third and Final Continent,” about a Bengali man from Calcutta who emigrates first to England and then to the United States.  It tells of his adjustment to the different cultures and also to his arranged marriage and his new wife, who joins him in Boston.

Another great story is “Xuela” by Caribbean writer Jamaica Kincaid.  It’s a dark, deeply atmospheric story about an adolescent girl who is abandoned by her father, raised by their family laundress, and then later reunited with her father.  Despite her displacement and loneliness, the girl lives a rich inner life.

“If You Sing Like That for Me” by Akhil Sharma, an Indian writer from New Delhi who moved to the United States when he was young, tells the story of an Indian bride in an arranged marriage who at first despairs of the hopes and dreams of her youth but then unexpectedly falls in love with her husband.  Sharma evokes the ambiance of Indian daily life and culture very well, so that the reader feels immersed in the story.

Sherman Alexie is a Native American writer who is always entertaining and amusing even when he deals with heartbreaking subject matter.  In “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” he tells of the misadventures of a homeless alcoholic Native American who wanders the Seattle waterfront.  He finds his grandmother’s traditional regalia in a pawnshop and for the next twenty-four hours or so tries to raise money to redeem it, all the while falling prey to temptation and squandering any money he comes across on booze or food which he promptly throws up.  Alexie’s wise and witty voice is what raises this story from tragedy to transcendency and elevates the main character from shiftless bum to unlikely hero.

This book holds too many stories to comment on them all.  So I’ll just mention two more standouts and then I’ll let it go.  “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” begins as a light exercise in Jewish humor.  Two aging couples who used to know each other get together in Florida, reminisce, drink, smoke pot, and carry on.  Initially the narrator distrusts the couple visiting from Israel that follow strict Hassidic customs, but gradually they all loosen up and have fun.  Most of the story describes their partying antics and is very well-written.  However, at the end the author throws in a wicked twist, seemingly from left field but actually subtly prepared for.  I don’t want to tell you what it is if you have not yet read the story, but it’s one of the most adroitly devastating endings I’ve recently read.

Which brings me to “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” by George Saunders, the second-to-last story in the book and the only selection of science fiction.  It’s a great story, by the way, but the reason I mention it is its uniqueness in being the only genre entry in this vast collection.  In the introduction to the section of stories from 2010 to 2015, the editor supposedly welcomes the trend of genre-mixing and diversity in recent fiction, and yet with the exception of this one story, science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, mysteries, and horror are completely excluded.  I know that such stories have been included in “Best American Short Stories” of past years, but the editors chose to leave them out of this presumed best of the best volume.  This in large part accounts for the book’s weakness, for its failure to live up to what it could have been.  I know that there is terrific literary genre fiction, some of which far surpasses many of the stories that the editors chose to include here.  It’s a shame that they decided to marginalize such great work in favor of inferior work that meets some critics’ definitions of “literary” but in fact is just plain ponderous.  Be that as it may, there are some great stories, good stories, mediocre stories, and poor stories in this anthology, just as there are in most anthologies.  As I said earlier, my disappointment stems from my heightened expectations.  One expects the best of the best to be the epitome of effort.  Instead, it’s a selection of stories just like any other.

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Book Review: 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories Edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor; Part Two

As I wrote in the first essay about this book, the early entries disappointed me.  There are some great writers, but the selected stories are not among their best.  They read like the stories that you have to read in school because they are assigned, not because you want to read them, and afterwards, as you are older and begin to appreciate good writing, you wonder what the educators were thinking in assigning these stories instead of some of the many truly exciting ones you discovered on your own since then.

In the midst of the decade 1950 to 1960, though, this book begins to blossom, starting with the elegant “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin.  It’s a character study, but it’s about music, and there’s music in the prose.  The story builds from a fairly standard, although grittier than usual, beginning to its stunning climax describing a jazz session in a night club, described in beautiful, melodic prose.  It reminded me of the end of the movie “Whiplash.”  The music is the message; there is nothing more to be said.  This is what I had been looking for and expected from the beginning when I started reading this book.  From a volume that proclaims it includes the best stories from the past one hundred years, you don’t expect any mediocrity, let alone poor entries.  Yet this story was the first that exploded with greatness.

Next is “The Conversion of the Jews” by Philip Roth.  This is a slight, comedic entry, but it uses its humor to touch on some very sensitive subject matter.  Roth is a master of prose, and this is a good story.  My favorite of his works, though, is still his excellent novel “American Pastoral.”

“Everything That Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor is a well-written story, but it’s not one of her best.  One of the problems with it for me is a problem that I have with a lot of her stories:  they are unpleasant.  Granted, the unpleasantness of human experience is a core ingredient of short story material, but the way O’Connor often presents it is in the context of ordinary people that you expect something good to happen to, and then bam!  Something devastates them and that’s the end of the story.  But at least it’s a nicely told, comprehensible story, unlike some in the early parts of this book.

“Pigeon Feathers” by John Updike, is a brilliant and brilliantly written story.  I remember having to read it – it must have been in one of my high school classes – and not understanding it at all.  Although it is about a child, or rather a young teen, it is not for children and should not be taught in schools.  It’s ostensibly about a boy who has a crisis of faith and begins to question his religious upbringing, yet his parents, his teachers, and his religious instructors can offer him no consolation or reasonable explanation that helps him with what he is going through.  There’s no way I would have been able to relate to the themes in this story when I was young.  Only now, when I am over sixty years old, can I appreciate it for what it is:  a short story masterpiece.

When I first started reading “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” by Raymond Carver, I wondered when he would get to the point and how an editor kept reading long enough to get to the strength of the story.  It is a strong story, but it starts slowly, with an important but lengthy info-dump of background.  It is a story of infidelity, guilt, and the need for absolution and forgiveness, but it doesn’t offer simple solutions.  Instead, it addresses the ambiguity and shock that follows revelations of betrayal between couples, and how hard it is to regain stability after an emotional upheaval that shatters a complacent, unrealistic seemingly idyllic marriage.  Once it gets going, it’s an excellent story.

“By the River” by Joyce Carol Oates is a very well written character study, and it held me absorbed right up to its violent climax. The violence, however, I couldn’t help but consider gratuitous.  I didn’t see the story going in that direction, and I don’t think there was sufficient buildup for the plot to go that way.  Ultimately, it’s Oates’s call, but had I been writing the story I would have ended it differently.  Or perhaps not.  Who knows?  Sometimes when I am writing, the story takes over, and unplanned things happen to the characters.  It happened to me when I was writing the story “Opting Out.”  I loved and identified with the main character, and when I wrote the tragic climax, I wept for him.  I didn’t want it to end like that.  I had emotionally invested so much in him.  I wanted him to find his way out, to find his way home.

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