Book Review: Mr. Magic Realism by Bruce Taylor

I met Bruce Taylor at a Clarion West writer’s gathering in Seattle.  Up until then, I hadn’t met anyone in the year and half since I’d begun attending such events that had attended Clarion West anywhere near as far back as I had, which was 1973.  Bruce, however, informed me that he attended Clarion West in 1972.  Got me.

Bruce said that he wrote magic realism, so I brought up Jorge Luis Borges, one of the few writers I have read extensively whose works, at least some of them, are said to fall into the genre of magic realism.  Bruce countered that magic realism encompassed much more than the works of Borges.  He mentioned Kafka as his main influence and the defining founder of the genre of magic realism.  He himself, he said, had been writing and publishing it for decades and is known as Mr. Magic Realism.

Wikipedia defines the genre as including literature with magical, unreal, or fantastic elements in real world settings. The author often presents the material as if there is nothing extraordinary about it, and uses it to criticize society or politics.  Fair enough, although in literature genres are often fluid and not fixed, and specific works may have elements of several critically-defined genres such as magic realism, fantasy, surrealism, and science fiction.  Bruce Taylor’s stories certainly are a blend of many of these.

For an introduction to Bruce Taylor’s work, I decided to read his collection called Mr. Magic Realism.  It’s a well-packaged book, with a cover painting of all sorts of objects popping out of a magician’s hat, and a back cover photo of white-bearded Bruce himself in a white suit, white shoes, and a white top hat, smiling and pointing to the back-cover blurbs.

As I said, the stories in the book include aspects of fantasy, science fiction, and surrealism.  They all deal with the absurd or horrific intruding into the lives of everyday people, and the typical reaction is for the characters to deal with their weird circumstances as if they were normal.  The stories are light and entertaining.  One thing I enjoy about them is that for the most part they remain gentle and humorous even when the subject matter is grim.  Another aspect I find entertaining is that Taylor often breaks the fourth wall by putting himself into the story as a minor character, somewhat similar to the way you see Stan Lee somewhere in most Marvel movies.  Although the intrusions are blatant, they are deftly handled, and add to the overall surrealistic air of the tales, teasingly suggesting, or at least hinting, that all these strange and fascinating things happen, at least somewhere and sometime, and the author merely looks in and reports them as a journalist would.  That’s the enchantment of these stories.  You know they are absurd; you know that reality doesn’t work like that; but you are willing to sit down with the author, suspend your disbelief, and enjoy a tall tale well told.

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Book Review: Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle by Murray Morgan

I was born and raised in Seattle, but back in the 1950s and 60s when I grew up, Seattle was very different than it is now.  It was a backwater, in fact, compared with many of the rest of the big cities in the States.  There were no tech giants here to raise the cost of living through the roof; the only local company of any fame or economic consequence was Boeing, and although it was powerful, it was somewhat removed in its own sphere of influence.

Seattle was a cheap place to live back then.  Nowadays a one or two bedroom apartment in a fairly decent area – or even in some areas that are not so decent – runs a minimum of $1500 to $2000.  Back in the 70s, I once rented the two-bedroom top floor of a duplex in Wallingford for $100 a month, and on another occasion rented a three bedroom independent house in the University District for $200 a month.  Those were the days.  Sometimes I wax nostalgic for those times before Seattle got caught in the spotlight of the elite.  Ah, well, what’s done is done.

This book goes back much further.  It roughly covers the 100 years from about 1850 to 1950 when Seattle grew from being a settlement of a few hardy pioneers on Puget Sound to a major metropolis.  It’s broken into chapters to correspond to the various stages of its growth, including its selection as a site for a deepwater port, its dealings with Native Americans and its local Indian war, the rise of the gambling houses and brothels, the struggle its citizens waged to make it the western transcontinental railroad head, the devastating fire that wiped out the entire burgeoning downtown area in one fell swoop, its importance as a hub of supplies and banking for the Alaskan gold rush, the evolution of its politicians and newspapers, its notoriety as the first city in the nation to call a successful general strike, and its role in the consolidation of organized labor.  The author tells all these tales with a deft pen, focusing on the larger-than-life characters that played crucial parts in all these historical events.

In the midst of reading this fascinating look back into the local past, I thought it might complement the book to see some photos and artifacts from these eras.  Fortuitously enough, when I got the idea it was the Wednesday before the first Thursday of the month, when most Seattle museums allow free entry for the day.  So along with my fourteen-year-old son, I traipsed off to the Museum of History and Industry on the south shore of Lake Union.  The main feature of the museum, which wraps around the second floor balcony and fills numerous rooms, is the Seattle history display.  The various exhibits, starting with the Native American presence before Seattle was even an idea, follow the chapters of the book quite closely and greatly aided me in bringing the stories to life in my imagination.

This is an older book, first published in 1971.  I found it at a Seattle Friends of the Library book sale; it’s a paperback edition, and I picked it up for 50 cents.  It’s well worth the four bits, that’s for sure.  It stoked my imagination and made me think of what the Northwest was like before Seattle grew immense and powerful.  The area I live in today was once wild evergreen forest.  In a way, as few cities I’ve lived in, Seattle retains remnants of its wilderness, as interspersed among the rows of houses in the suburbs is an abundance of towering evergreen trees.  As you’re walking along the sidewalks, if you keep your eyes focused above the rooftops, you can almost imagine you’re hiking through a forest, or at least just a few steps away from one.  And this book gives a good overview of the background that made the city what it is.  It’s a good read even if you’ve never visited Seattle, let alone lived here.

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Book Reviews: Bleed Into Me: A Book of Stories and After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones was one of the guest instructors at the 2016 Clarion West Science Fiction Writers Workshop.  I first met him at a Tuesday night reading at the University of Washington Bookstore.  Since he’s a Blackfeet Native American, I asked him what I could read of his work that reflected Native American themes.  He suggested Bleed Into Me, his first short story collection.

It turned out to be the only book of his that wasn’t available to order on Amazon.  A search turned up a copy in the Seattle Public Library system, so I reserved it and waited for it to arrive at my branch.

Bleed Into Me is a collection of literary fiction on the Native American experience.  Some of the stories are short almost stream-of-consciousness vignettes, while others read more like traditional stories.  Jones has a lean, honest style that tells the bare bones of a tale but leaves much for the reader to fill in.  Some of his stories reminded me of the work of Sherman Alexie, only Jones’s stories are less comedic; they are darker, bleaker, and in some instances full of despair.  The Native American experience, yes.

However, I felt my foray into the works of Stephen Graham Jones was incomplete.  After all, during his reading and during a conversation we shared during a writer’s gathering, it was obvious that the fantasy/horror side of his writing was very important, perhaps even of paramount importance, to him.  He loves the horror genre, particularly the subgenre of werewolf stories.  That’s why he was a teacher at the workshop, and I have a feeling that writing horror is one thing that helps him cope with the unresolved bleakness and despair I found in his first collection.

So I decided to try out some of his more recent work, and I got hold of his fantasy/horror collection After the People Lights Have Gone Off.  And yes, this is where it all came together.  Not to minimize his earlier work, but the combination of his Native American background and his interest in horror and the macabre makes for some good reading.  When he spoke and answered questions after the reading, he made it clear how much horror means to him.  He’s one of those writers (like me) who can’t not write, who feels compelled to write as a calling, and in his case, horror is the means to let out whatever is screaming to burst free from his heart and mind.

As I mentioned, he is particularly enamored of werewolves, and his latest novel, Mongrels, from which he read, exudes his fascination with them.  In fact, After the People Lights Have Gone Off has the werewolf story that turned out to become the first chapter of that novel, and it’s one of the strongest stories in the book.  The other stories vary in intensity but are all entertaining.

So in attending the reading, I experienced a thrill every reader looks for: a great new author to read.  Horror is not really my preferred genre for reading or writing, but once in a while an author comes along and compels me to make an exception.  Stephen Graham Jones is one such writer.

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Book Review: Telling Tales: The Clarion West 30th Anniversary Anthology Edited by Ellen Datlow

While I was at the Norwescon science fiction convention last spring, I attended a panel on the value of workshops for writers.  There are all sorts of different types of such workshops, from local meet-ups of aspiring writers who informally read each other’s works to workshops led by professional writers or editors that may last from a day to several weeks.  All the panelists agreed, however, that at the topmost tier were the Clarion workshops.

I attended Clarion West way back in 1973 when I was an immature but enthusiastic writer who had just turned twenty years old.  I raised my hand and explained to the panel and audience that I had been unready back then to profit much from the specific writing advice proffered by the professional guest instructors and my peers.  What did stick with me is the sense of community.  Before I went to Clarion West, I didn’t realize that there were others such as myself, people who were obsessed with writing and thought that nothing on Earth compared to the thrill of making a career of putting words together into stories.

None of the stories I wrote back in the seventies survive.  What survives is the community.  Four decades later, when I finally found myself back in Seattle after wandering far, including thirty-five years of living overseas, the fellowship of Clarion West graduates and instructors welcomed me with open arms.  It’s a tight-knit and yet wonderfully open and accepting group of intelligent, sympathetic, and encouraging individuals devoted to the reading, writing, and promotion of speculative fiction literature.

At the core of Clarion West is the workshop.  It’s an intensive six-week immersion into writing and critiquing science fiction and fantasy short stories that takes place every summer in Seattle, Washington.  Each week a different instructor teaches the students, who are expected to turn in a story for critiquing every week.

Telling Tales is an anthology of short stories from students of the workshop who have made a successful go of professional writing. The stories are reprints from as far back as the 1990s, and they have been donated by the authors to help raise funds for the workshop.  They have all seen previous publication in renowned science fiction magazines and anthologies.

It’s a good collection.  Some of the stories are not exactly my cup of tea, but all of them are nevertheless good stories.  One of the best is “Beluthahatchie” by Andy Duncan, which is my second-favorite deal with the devil fantasy of all time.  (First, for the curious, is “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet.)  Another story that stood out to me is “Bitter Dreams” by Ian McHugh.  I’m not a fan of zombie movies or zombie stories, but McHugh brings a fresh take to the idea by injecting local Australian color into it with the background of the Outback, the local slang, and the concept of dreaming as a source of dark power.  “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change” by Kij Johnson starts out slow, I think, but grows in intensity as it goes along and arrives at an immensely satisfying conclusion.

Other stories in the anthology are very entertaining as well.  Overall it’s an anthology of strong stories that’s well worth reading, and it has the added advantage that purchasing it helps the Clarion West writers workshop, which relies heavily on donations to keep helping new writers in the science fiction and fantasy genres find their unique voices year after year.

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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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