Book Review: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

It’s interesting that I came across this graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, shortly after reading George Takei’s graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy. The authors of both books are Asian Americans, and both books deal with traumas that their families had to undergo while the writers were children. In Takei’s case, it was the forced imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II, while in Thi Bui’s case it was escape from Vietnam shortly after the end of the war.

The Best We Could Do begins as the author is about to give birth to her first child. From that point she reminisces about the births of her brothers and sisters and her own birth. She traces the stories of her parents as they are brought up in Vietnam under the French. Her father is raised in relative poverty and loneliness, while her mother is born to an elite family. As they grow up, the country changes around them. It divides into northern and southern portions, and ideologies split between communists and non-communists.

Both of Bui’s parents become teachers, and for a time they do well in South Vietnam on their two salaries. However, inflation soars as the United States becomes more involved and the war intensifies. The family lives in penury. They never know when they might be called out by secret police. In desperation, they search for passage on a boat on which they can escape to another country.

The boat that the family eventually ships out on is small, filthy, and overcrowded. Eventually Nam, Bui’s father, is selected as pilot due to his intelligence and education, and with the help of a compass he successfully navigates the boat out into international waters and then safely to Malaysia.

The family spends time in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Soon, though, thanks to the help of Bui’s aunt in Indiana, they are accepted as refugees to the United States. Bui’s mother with her four children flies on ahead while her father is in temporary quarantine because of scars on his lungs from an old case of tuberculosis. He joins them soon afterwards.

Bui’s parents and siblings don’t do well in the intense cold of the winters in the Midwest, so the family relocates to California where the weather is warmer. There they start a new life in their own home.

The book closes where it began, in the hospital where Bui is giving birth. After her baby arrives, she wants to nurse him, but he develops jaundice and has to stay in the hospital after she is released. She and her husband rent a room across the street and wake up every ninety minutes to walk over to the hospital so she can give milk to her son. She contemplates the importance of the relationship between parents and their children and considers the awesome responsibility of parenthood.

This book is very well written and well illustrated. The story is fascinating. I’m sure I would have enjoyed a full-length words-only memoir by Bui. However, the graphic memoir is the art form she has chosen in which to present her tale, and it works well in this instance. The vivid, moody illustrations add depth to this heartfelt, sometimes joyous, and sometimes frightening story of a family from one world relocating and establishing a new life in another.

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Find a Way

I knew that I was destined to be a writer since I was about seventeen or eighteen years old. The realization descended upon me with the force of revelation. It came about after a powerful short story in an anthology for one of my college classes hit me like a thunderbolt. That’s what I wanted to do. I was sure of it.

At first I didn’t know how to go about it. I attempted various short stories that didn’t really amount to anything. I struggled to come up with things to write about. In those days, I thought that writing came out of your head, out of ideas that you somehow came up with. And it does, sort of. However, the most powerful writing initiates from your heart and your guts. You dredge it up out of your experiences, your hopes, your dreams, your frustrations, your victories, your sins, your deep dark secrets that you don’t even tell those closest to you. I had plenty of all that. I just didn’t know how to access it. For me, it took getting out on the road and traveling halfway around the world before I managed to break through the ice or the rock crust or whatever metaphor you want to use into the pure gold beneath. That’s when I found my so-called voice.

Really, though, what is termed a writer’s voice is only the arrangement of whatever he or she chooses to put on the page. It’s not some sort of mysterious algorithm or code that you somehow crack and are thenceforth able to impart pearls of wisdom. It’s just you speaking. I had to figure that out the hard way, to compile the bumps and bruises of experience while all the time the simple reality of it was staring me in the face.

A writer writes. A writer is an artist who observes the world and reacts to it in words. It’s as easy and as difficult as that. Easy because all you have to do is look around you and then describe what you see. Difficult because the lens through which you see the world is often tarnished and muddied by falsehoods, inadequacies, insecurities, deceptions, and distractions put there by you or by others.

One of the most important pieces of advice I would give to someone who realizes they are a writer is to write. Write and don’t ever stop. No matter what life throws at you, find a way to write through it. As I look back on my life, one of my greatest regrets is that I stopped writing for about two decades in the middle of it. Oh, I have my excuses, and they are valid ones. I’m not going to bother delineating them here. However, those two decades are gone and I can never get them back. As I look back now from the perspective of old age and realize that I have limited time left on this Earth, I regret losing that time and those words. My current minimum daily word count of creative words, which I resolve to keep no matter what and manage to meet five or six days a week, is five hundred words. Usually I manage more; I would say my average is about seven hundred words. Let’s keep it at five hundred words, five days a week, for the purposes of this analysis. That’s two thousand five hundred words a week, ten thousand words a month, one hundred twenty thousand words a year, and two million four hundred thousand words in twenty years. That’s how many words I have lost by my midlife hiatus. I can never get that time or those words back. They are lost forever.

Not all of those aforementioned words, perhaps, would have been superb words or publishable words, but they would have been my words, and I might have used them in some way, if only as raw material for further projects. And that brings me to another important piece of advice: keep what you write. Don’t ever get rid of it – not even those old diaries or journals that cause you a twinge of embarrassment whenever you think about them. This prompts the memory of another profound regret in my own life. In an unwise, self-righteous, self-critical moment when I was overseas, I had a relative destroy the box full of manuscripts from my early writing years, thinking that they were inadequate and inferior compared to what I had begun to produce. Perhaps they were, but I have often longed to have them back so that I could go over them again. I might have been able to glean some insight into my thought processes back then, which in turn might have helped me with my current work.

So there you have it: for whatever they are worth, insights gleaned from the perspective of experience. Never stop writing, and keep what you write. I’m not talking about holding onto all those muddled first drafts; rather, retain a record of your past efforts in case for some reason in the future you want to refer to them.

Writers write. And future work is built upon present and past work. That’s the crux of it all.

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Book Review: A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit

People don’t commonly look on disasters as uplifting experiences, but in this book, the author argues that overwhelmingly traumatic shared experiences often bring out the best in the so-called victims. Within minutes or hours of disasters striking, says Solnit, magnanimity and solidarity take hold and many of those involved seek ways that they can help out others around them.

In this study of reactions to disaster, the author focuses on five of the worst catastrophes to strike North America in recent history: the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fires in 1906; the Halifax explosion in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1917; the devastating earthquake that hit Mexico City in 1985; the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City in 2001; and the Hurricane Katrina devastation of New Orleans in 2005. The five sections of the book correspond to these disasters. Some of these events Solnit examines in depth, while others she describes and then uses as springboards to discuss other historical disasters.

Solnit’s point, and the reason that this book on disasters is so strangely uplifting, is that people naturally tend to form communities and help each other when disaster strikes. As examples she highlights food distribution in parks in San Francisco, those on the scene during the 9/11 attacks relinquishing their own safety to help other victims find their way out of buildings and the toxic cloud surrounding the collapsing structures, nearby boat owners risking their own lives to find stranded victims of Hurricane Katrina and carry them to safety, and other instances of people tirelessly and selflessly assisting the weak and helpless in extreme difficulties.

There’s a dark side to disasters too, and Solnit brings it out in gut-wrenching detail. It’s not the deaths caused by the disasters themselves, but rather the reaction of the upper classes that Solnit calls elite panic. Disasters usually hits the poor hardest, who can’t afford strong houses and special safety measures. The wealthy become concerned that the masses of displaced people will commence looting and rioting, and they take measures to protect their goods. These measures often involve making villains out of the victims. Instead of focusing on rescuing, evacuating, feeding, and clothing those traumatized by the event, the authorities attempt to control them and curtail their activities. In some of the disasters, notably the San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, rather than rescue people lost in floods or buried in wreckage, armed police and military personnel roamed the decimated streets shooting supposed looters.

New Orleans after Katrina was an extreme example of elite panic. Many people that were trapped in the floodwaters died while authorities, instead of going in to get them, cordoned off the city and didn’t even allow rescue workers with vitally needed supplies to get in. They invented a myth that the city was dangerous. Armed vigilantes roamed the streets shooting anyone they suspected of looting, especially people of color. Thousands of deaths probably could have been prevented if the authorities at both state and federal levels had stepped in and done what they were supposed to.

This book is important, but it’s not necessarily an easy read. The difficulty was exacerbated by the fact that the local library system only had the paperback available, and it’s printed in miniscule font that made my eyes water and ache. I really wanted to persist and finish it, but I got physically and mentally weary from the effort and did something I almost never do: after finishing the first three sections, I put the book aside to quickly read a short light science fiction novel, and then I got back to it. I’m glad I did. The last two sections, about the 9/11 attack and Hurricane Katrina, are the most eye-opening of the book.

So I recommend this book, but be prepared for some heavy mental lifting. In addition, try to get hold of a copy with larger font if you can.

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Book Review: The Cruise of the Snark by Jack London

The background of the edition of this book and how I came by it is an interesting story. Two of my sons and I went on a road trip from Seattle to the San Francisco Bay Area in late June 2019. One of our stops was the Jack London State Historic Park. In the park’s bookstore ensconced within the museum in the House of Happy Walls, I noticed uniform editions of many of Jack London’s books. The clerk told me that a publisher had suggested creating a new set of London’s books exclusively for sale at the state park. These books are exceedingly attractive, having for the most part the same covers as the original first editions published hot off Jack London’s pen. They are available at the museum, through the state park’s website, and at Amazon.

The museum edition of The Cruise of the Snark was the souvenir I chose to carry away with me from our visit to the park. It’s a nonfiction account of the voyage to Hawaii and then to the South Seas undertaken by London, his wife Charmian, and a small carefully selected crew. The text is accompanied by one hundred twenty illustrations; unfortunately, most of the illustrations are poorly reproduced, and their subjects are barely discernible. Additionally, the text of the book has more than the average share of misprints and errors. Apart from these defects, which do not really diminish from enjoyment of the stories, the book is very entertaining.

When Jack London decided to custom-build a small sailing ship and journey around the world, he contracted with major magazines for articles that he would write along the way. The Cruise of the Snark is a compilation of these articles. Most of the stories I was already familiar with, having read several versions of London’s life story; some of the biographies reproduce his accounts almost verbatim. Still, there were numerous details that became uncovered like hidden gems as I made my way through the book.

When London got the vision to sail around the world, rather than purchase a used vessel, he decided to build his own from scratch. Unfortunately, as he was so busy, he left management of the construction to others, and it was marked by ineptitude, a bloated budget, and endless delays. London wanted the best of everything and spared no expense. In the end, the ship cost several times the initial estimated price, and when London went to claim it, most of the expensive innovations didn’t work. Rather than risk further expense and delay in San Francisco, London accepted the ship in its incomplete state, loaded the crew aboard, and set off for Hawaii to complete its construction. On the way, he had to teach himself to navigate and handle all the petty emergencies that arose due to the shoddy craftsmanship of the original builders.

In Hawaii, while repairs to the Snark were being made, London learned to surf, visited the leper colony on Molokai and wrote one of the first sympathetic accounts of the lives of its residents, and joined an expedition on horseback that forayed deep into the crater of a volcano.

After Hawaii, London, Charmian, and the crew sailed for the Marquesas Islands, the site of Herman Melville’s classic travelogue Typee. Ever since he had read Melville’s account, London had wanted to visit the Marquesas. However, when they arrived, the travelers from the Snark found a wretched population of former cannibals dying out from various tropical diseases. For his account of his visit to Tahiti, London focused on an American he calls “the nature man” who was dying of pneumonia in Oregon, but in Tahiti, eschewing clothing and other trappings of civilized society, he lived a robust, healthy life. In Bora-Bora, London and Charmian were treated, as guests of honor, to endless abundant feasting and revelry. In the Solomon Islands, he and Charmian toured the archipelago with a ship recruiting native labor for plantation work and were in constant danger from cannibalistic headhunters.

Soon after their adventures in the Solomon Islands, London and Charmian, after two years at sea, were forced to abandon their journey. The toll on their health became too great, especially on London’s. He developed an excruciating condition in which his hands grew to twice their normal size and continually pealed multiple layers of skin. He had no choice but to return to California to recover.

I tried to do a quick online search to see what had happened to Jack London’s Snark after he was forced to abandon it. Most accounts say that it was sold in Australia for much less than it cost to build, but after that, its fate remains a mystery.

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Book Review: They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker

Although we have shelves of them in our home, I don’t normally read graphic novels and memoirs. When I found They Called Us Enemy on the new book shelf at the library, though, I realized that I would make an exception. The principle author, George Takei, is famous as the actor who played the helmsman Hikaru Sulu on the original series of Star Trek and later in the first Star Trek films. I didn’t realize until I read this book that he and his family were imprisoned in Japanese internment camps during World War II.

The book opens as Takei, his parents, and his brother and sister are abruptly forced to leave their home in Los Angeles. It then alternates between Takei’s later life and career not only as an actor but as a hard-working proponent of civil rights, the background of his parents, reenactments of government workings that led to the roundup and incarceration of Japanese Americans, and the family’s daily life in the camps.

During the course of the war, Takei and his family were imprisoned in three different locations. After the roundup, they were taken to Santa Anita Racetrack and housed in stables smelling of horse shit. They were then sent in a heavily guarded train to Camp Rohwer in Arkansas. During the train ride, every time they pulled into a station where white people might observe them, they were ordered to pull down the shades on the train. Camp Rohwer was in a compound surrounded by barbed wire. In the summer it was blistering hot, and when the rains came, the entire area became a swamp.

Later, the family was moved to a camp at Tule Lake in northern California. The fences had even thicker layers of barbed wire. In addition, there were battle-ready troops, tanks, and machine guns – all to guard Americans whose only crime was that they had Japanese ancestry.

After the war, the camp was shut down and the family, along with over one hundred thousand other Japanese Americans, was freed. They returned to Los Angeles and had to start from scratch, because when they had been captured and imprisoned, the government had seized all their possessions except what they could carry with them. They had a rough time because there was still a lot of anti-Japanese prejudice among the American populace.

Takei eventually attended acting classes at U.C.L.A. He got a key role in a play and other roles in various TV series episodes, but his big break came when Gene Roddenberry cast him in his iconic role in Star Trek. Besides touching on his acting career, Takei also tells of some of the important highlights of his career as an activist. For instance, he met Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., when the cast of the play Fly Blackbird performed a song before one of King’s talks. He was invited to the former home of Franklin D. Roosevelt to talk about the internment and the value of American democracy. An exhibit in his honor opened at the Japanese-American National Museum. All in all, this book, although about a horrendous crime committed against American citizens, is extremely inspiring and edifying.

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A Spray of Short Stories Part Two

This article was originally written and posted in January of 2019. I have updated it to include my latest short story collection. Relax and enjoy the excitement of some great short stories while you bask in the summer sun. (Or while you listen to the pounding rain outside. I write this during an intense August rainstorm in Seattle.)

I mean the word “spray” in the title both as a powerful expulsion of metaphorical liquid and as an attractive display of flamboyant flowers. I’ve recently written a blog post called “Books Make Great Gifts” about some of my available full-length works, so I thought why not highlight some short stories that are among my personal favorites? So here they are, volume by volume, some of my personal favorites from among my own short stories.

From The Dragon Ticket and Other Stories:

The Dragon Ticket“: Presented with an extraordinary gift by an alien artifact high in the remote Himalayas, a young woman named Michelle must learn how to use her new power as nuclear war plunges the world into chaos.

From Painsharing and Other Stories:

Beyond Purgatory“: On a far planet the ultimate civil punishment is to be genetically deformed into a monstrous beast and forced to live in the forbidden compound called Purgatory as a slave of the State.  When authorities arrest and condemn the woman he loves, Justus determines to find and save her, even if he must search Purgatory itself.

From Dark Mirrors: Dystopian Tales:

Dark Mirrors“: The people of Earth are losing a war with aliens that they themselves provoked.  Every able-bodied person is being called up to fight, even prisoners; those who refuse are threatened with dismemberment to provide spare parts for wounded soldiers.  A battle-hardened general enters a prison to recruit a woman who refuses to fight, but who may have a most unusual special ability that can turn the tide of the war.

From Fear or Be Feared: Fantasies:

Fear or Be Feared“: A teenage Greek girl climbs Mount Olympus with some of her friends.  Lost in a lightning storm, she discovers the spirit of an ancient Greek god which possesses her and uses her against her will as an instrument of vengeance.

The Customs Shed“: Those who wish to cross the river of death must first be purged in the customs shed; but within await the mysterious customs agents.  What will they require as the price of passage?

From Opting Out and Other Departures: Stories:

Opting Out“: It is the near future, and due to easier availability of alternative energy, fossil fuels are becoming outlawed.  Fleeing south along the coastal highway from a state government that threatens to confiscate the gasoline-fueled camper-van he lives in, a homeless man comes across a seemingly-idyllic communal refuge for homeless people set up by a philanthropic dot-com billionaire.

Opting In“: An old man, feeling useless, leaves his daughter’s home to go live in a homeless shelter. Following up on a tip from a fellow vagrant, he finds an alien being preparing to leave Earth who invites him on a journey from which he can never return.

From Heroes and Other Illusions: Stories:

Matchmaker“: From a future bereft of emotion, a time traveler journeys to Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1917 to find a legendary matchmaker and learn the lost secret of true marriage. Although aware that the city is about to become decimated by fire, he becomes betrothed to a local woman and must choose between remaining in the past or returning to the future with the desperately needed knowledge he has acquired.

Katabasis“: After traveling to India to take advantage of cutting-edge psychiatric technology, a jaded ailing old man embarks on a guided journey through his memories to locate and correct errant decisions that shaped his life.

From Invasive Procedures: Stories:

The Beatification of Lady Poverty“: A government operative recruits a young woman with a very special power of self defense for a mission to help end a war in Europe. However, once she unleashes them, her mysterious abilities provoke changes beyond anything her handlers intended or imagined.

Camp College“: In the near future, as societies continue to erode and the gap between rich and poor widens, inexpensive college camps spring up around the country as an alternative form of higher education. At one such camp, a partially dysfunctional veteran and a woman alienated from her family meet and attempt to make sense out of the rapidly changing world.

From Apocalypse Bluff and Other Stories:

Connecting the Dots in Pointillist Paintings“: A recently divorced woman joins a virtual community in search of social acceptance and companionship. After fashioning a new identity for herself, she sets off to explore the meticulously created landscapes of this new world, unaware that the beautiful environments are rife with human predators.

Apocalypse Bluff“: As invading aliens unleash monsters resembling mutated Earth carnivores to devour humankind, an extended family gathers together in a mansion on an isolated bluff for a last stand. To survive, they must fight together against ravenous beasts attacking from land and sea.

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Book Review: Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis by Jared Diamond

One of the most important nonfiction books of the late nineteenth century is Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. In it, the author posits that environmental variables rather than inherent differences in ability were responsible for some nations rather than others becoming dominant in world history. Now, Diamond has come up with another amazing book that is no less important in Upheaval. In this new book, the author draws parallels between factors related to the outcomes of personal and national crises. He draws up a list of twelve of these factors and uses this list to analyze a number of nations that experienced historical or present crises.

Diamond does not use objective criteria to select the nations he chooses as examples. Instead, he uses the nations with which he is most familiar both through study and personal experience. These nations are Finland, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Germany, Australia, and the United States. Finally, he touches on some major problems currently bringing on worldwide crisis.

The crisis in Finland that Diamond expounds upon is the Winter War that Finland fought with the Soviet Union during World War II and Finland’s subsequent diplomatic efforts to maintain itself as an independent country. Diamond writes two separate chapters about crisis in Japan. First is the visit of American Admiral Perry in 1853, which forced Japan out of its isolationism and caused it to embark upon a radical program of diplomacy and westernization. Later, Diamond writes about Japan in the present and its ongoing problems with its national debt, plunging birthrate, overall declining population size, aging population, and the social barriers to equality for women.

Chile’s crisis had to do with Allende’s socialist takeover of the government, Pinochet’s military coup and subsequent murderous rule, and the long road back to democracy. Indonesia, a new and diverse country with many languages and cultures, also suffered from a murderous military dictatorship.

Germany’s crisis was a shattering defeat at the end of World War II and the necessity of rebuilding itself and reunifying as a nation. Australia had to realign its national image after World War II, look less to Britain and more to other countries, and open its doors to immigration, particularly by its Asian neighbors.

As for the United States, Diamond first describes its advantages of geography, self-image, and government. However, it also has the great difficulties of political polarization, an immense disparity of income between the poor and the super-rich, the apathy of its citizens towards the right to vote compared to other countries, and the inability of its underprivileged citizens to advance in economic status.

In Diamond’s view, the most important problems that the world faces now include the ongoing threat of nuclear weaponry, climate change, global resource depletion, and global inequalities between rich and poor.

This is a well-organized, well-researched, well-thought-out, and well-written book. Within its parameters it is rigorous and insightful. It offers an intelligent perspective on the problems facing the United States and the world. It will most likely be widely read, and it should be.

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On Rereading The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

I’ve read several of Annie Dillard’s books. I like her writing style, and I appreciate her philosophical observations mixed with comments on nature. I’ve read The Writing Life before too, but the last time was several years ago in Greece.

The Writing Life is a small book. It’s just over one hundred pages, has wide margins, and a lot of the pages are blank (each chapter has a full title page of its own with nothing on the reverse side). As I have mentioned before in another post, this book would have fit nicely and snugly within one of Dillard’s other more substantial essay collections. Be that as it may, the writing is artful and elegant, and some of her observations are astute. However, I realized as I reread it this time that I disagree with some of her main points.

In this book, Dillard says that she hates to write. She claims that the drudgery, to her, is no different than working in a factory all day, and she takes any excuse to go off and do something else. I couldn’t understand this. I love to write. In this statement I am referring to my fiction and memoirs. The articles I sometimes write to pay bills bore me sometimes, but still I’d rather be writing them than doing anything else I’d have to do purely for the money. The way that Dillard describes the ordeal of writing, I wonder how she kept up with it. She felt compelled to do it, of course; this I can understand. But for me writing is mystical and magical. It’s absorbing and thrilling and I feel honored to be able to partake of the practice.

Dillard also insists that it takes a long time to write a book, and you have to throw out much of what you write in the initial draft. Perhaps that’s true of her, but it’s not true of all authors. I typically write a novel in about three months. I proofread it a few times, sure, and change words that are repeated too often or misspelled, sometimes rearrange sentences or even paragraphs, but all in all, once I’ve written a novel – or a short story for that matter – afterwards it remains pretty much as it came out. I usually write in increments of five hundred to a thousand words, and when I begin the day’s work, I first go over what I did on the previous day. I’ll correct what needs correcting and then go on.

One interesting facet of The Writing Life involves Dillard’s descriptions of where she works. She prefers isolated places, of course: a cubicle in a library, an isolated cabin on a small island in Puget Sound, or another isolated cabin in the woods. That’s all fine if a writer has access to these places. As for me, I work in my bedroom in the apartment that I share with two of my sons. It’s the only possibility. It’s a small bedroom. My desk faces a blank wall, which is fine. In an ideal situation, I might have a separate study, although I would still like it to be adjoining my bedroom. My study would have windows that look out on natural beauty for those moments when I glance up from the page, and it would have a balcony or a porch on which I could step out for some fresh air from time to time.

In conclusion, this book is very well written and very opinionated. I like to read how other writers get their work done, and every writer is different. Just remember that what works for Annie Dillard may not work for you, and formulate your own schedule and work habits.

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Book Review: The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West by David McCullough

The Pioneers tells a compelling story. After the Revolutionary War, Great Britain ceded the vast Northwest Territory to the fledgling country of the United States. This included the area that would comprise the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. This book focuses on the settling of a portion of southeastern Ohio, in particular the town of Marietta.

McCullough keeps the epic tale personal by zooming in on the lives of several of the major players. For instance, Manasseh Cutler, although he didn’t spend much time in the Northwest Territory, was instrumental in approaching the new U.S. government for permission for pioneers to appropriate land, build houses, plant crops, and raise families. His son Ephraim settled in the territory, though, as did Revolutionary War veteran Rufus Putnam, an architect and carpenter named Joseph Barker, and a physician named Samuel Hildreth. Through these men’s lives and the lives of their families, McCullough takes the reader through early settlement and near starvation, devastating floods, wars with Native Americans, early shipbuilding and river commerce, the conspiracy of Aaron Burr, and the politics of statehood.

It’s an intensely readable book. McCullough has a talent for immersing you into the experience so that you feel that you were part of the action – or that you long to be part of the action. Despite the cold winters, scarce nutrition, natural disasters, and ever-present threat of violent attack, it’s easy to long to partake of those days amidst the forests of immense trees and the lovely river highway. The scenery was spectacular, and for the most part neighbors helped one another.

When Manasseh Cutler lobbied for the Northwest Ordinance, which opened the land to settlers, he insisted that three area-wide conditions be embedded in the document: free education for all, freedom of religion, and an absolute prohibition of slavery. Later, as Ohio became a state, his son Ephraim fought for those same principles and saw that they continued to be a part of state legislation.

I wouldn’t say that The Pioneers reads like a novel, because it limits itself to facts gleaned from McCullough’s meticulous research and is interspersed with entries from letters, diaries, and other historical documents. However, I can say that it is more exciting and interesting than most novels. Once I started it, it was hard to put down, and when I had to, I looked forward to getting back to it with great anticipation. Some history books are excruciatingly boring; it takes an extremely talented writer to take the rough boulders of information contained in old records and chip away and shape and smooth until a wonderfully sculpted adventure remains. That’s what McCullough has done here. He has taken bare facts and created a work of art that stands apart from its source material as a unique creation. This is a wonderful book and I recommend it highly to anyone who is interesting in seeing history come to life in the screening rooms of their mind.

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Book Review: The Best of R.A. Lafferty

R.A. Lafferty is an anomaly not only in the world of speculative fiction, but also in literature in general. Although he has won major awards, he is all but unknown outside the genre world. He has an idiosyncratic style that makes his work easy to spot. It’s weird and funny and erudite and often extremely dark.

Sometimes in the past I’ve craved some Lafferty and sought some of his books. However, I was inevitably frustrated because either they were only available in special editions priced for the wealthy, or they were rare older volumes priced for the collector’s market. I was very happy to see British publisher Gollancz put out The Best of R.A. Lafferty as part of its SF Masterworks series. To my shock, though, by the time I sat down to order the book, just a few weeks after it first appeared on Amazon, it was out of print. I kept checking in, and eventually some reasonably-priced new copies appeared for sale on various bookseller sites.

This edition has a good selection of Lafferty’s best stories, and as an added bonus each story is introduced by famous authors such as Neil Gaiman, Connie Willis, Harlan Ellison, Michael Swanwick, Robert Silverberg, and Samuel R. Delany. All of these top-class writers are Lafferty enthusiasts.

For me, some Lafferty stories work and some don’t in this collection. The ones I enjoyed most are stories that have been my favorites of his work for decades. For instance, “Land of the Great Horses,” which originally appeared in the groundbreaking anthology Dangerous Visions, tells of gypsies from around the world who suddenly have the urge to go home; it seems aliens had stolen their country for examination and had just brought it back. And then there is the brilliant “Narrow Valley” about a Native American who hides the valley he inherited from his ancestors by working some magic to make it appear no bigger than a ditch. In “Nine-Hundred Grandmothers,” one of Lafferty’s most famous stories, a space explorer finds a world where everyone lives forever, but as they age they get smaller and smaller until they are the size of animate dolls. In the story “The World as Will and Wallpaper,” a man starts traveling westward around the world only to discover that the world’s neighborhoods almost but not quite repeat themselves after he has gone a certain distance; the ending of this one is as wacky as it is bleak.

There are other exemplary stories in this collection, but some of Lafferty’s work defies description. You just have to give it a try yourself. You’ll probably either love it or hate it. The trick is finding copies of it. I just did a quick search of the usual channels on which I search for books to see how available Lafferty is. The Seattle Public Library has only one Lafferty book, Okla Hannali, a critically-acclaimed historical novel about Chocktaw Native Americans. On Amazon, The Best of R.A. Lafferty is once again available, although they’ve hiked up the price (or maybe the copy I bought was discounted; I can’t remember). Other new editions of his novels and short story collections seem to be available as well. If it’s a new trend of making Lafferty’s work available at prices common folk can afford, then I’m all for it. Check out a book or two by the amazing R.A. Lafferty. Who knows? You might get hooked.

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