Book review: Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes

I approached this book with high expectations. A writer traveling through fascinating locales in Europe in the footsteps of literary legends: what could go wrong? Well, a number of things, in fact. Ultimately, I found this book difficult to finish. Often I abstain from writing reviews about books that don’t appeal to me; after all, I’m a writer too, and I don’t appreciate the negative comments of reviewers. This book has impressive blurbs, though, on its cover, so those comments can balance out whatever I have to say.

Holmes is a scholarly writer. He doesn’t write prose that is easily accessible. That’s one problem I had with the book. He doesn’t aim at average readers who would be interested in the subject matter; he aims at the academic elite who have a background in esoteric subjects. For instance, in several sections he writes extensive passages in French without bothering to translate, not even in a footnote, assuming, I suppose, that all of his readers are fluent in French. I could probably understand a bit of it if it had been written in Bengali, or Greek, or Italian. But French? Sorry, never studied it, and although I hitchhiked through France, I didn’t stay long enough to pick up the language; and though I had a French girlfriend for a time, we communicated in English. It’s not just the French language, though; in the course of his narrative, Holmes also assumes that his readers have studied obscure literary figures of the Romantic era and know all the streets in Paris as well as locales in other parts of France and Italy. There are a few maps in my edition, yes, but they are sparse line sketches with no details whatsoever.

The book is a memoir of the on-location research that Holmes carried out while investigating the lives of four famous people. The first section is the most interesting, partially because it is the simplest and most accessible, but also because the author Holmes writes about appeals to me. It tells of a hike that Holmes took in 1964, when he was just starting out in his career, to follow the path that Robert Louis Stevenson took through mountains in south-central France as recounted in the book Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. This section most resembles a traditional travel memoir, and even though Holmes sidetracks into the love story of Stevenson with Fanny Osborne, who was married when he met her but later became Stevenson’s wife, it accomplishes this in a straightforward and easily understandable way.

The next section tells of Holmes’s visit to France in 1968 to research the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Shelley, who wrote the novel Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft went to Paris and stayed there, despite significant personal danger, during the dark bloody days of the French Revolution. At the beginning of this section, Holmes indicates that it is his intention to compare the French Revolution with the youth revolutions of the late 1960s, but then he never really goes into it. Instead, he writes an account of traveling here and there within and outside Paris in an attempt to track down the movements of Wollstonecraft and the evolution of her political perceptions. This section gets bogged down in details, which cause the excitement of readers (at least this reader) to wane.

In the third section, Holmes tracks the movements of the poet Percy Shelley, his wife Mary, and their intimate friend Claire Clairmont through Tuscany in Italy. This could have been beautiful if presented straightforwardly, but again Holmes indulges in confusing interludes in which he recounts his research into unnecessary minutia.

The fourth section is the least accessible, however. Holmes attempts to research the descent into madness of a writer of the Romantic era named Gerard de Nerval. I have to admit that sometimes I simply didn’t understand what Holmes was getting at in his explanations of his obsessive search into what drove Nerval to suicide.

In this book, Footsteps, I see the potential for greatness that ultimately falls short in the delivery. It’s like the old saying, “It’s not deep; it’s just not clear.” This could have been a terrific memoir if it had been written in a simpler, more accessible style. As it is, it is readable – but barely.

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Classic Science Fiction Novels to Read During the Pandemic: Nova by Samuel R. Delany

I can’t remember for sure, but I think that I only read Nova once several decades ago before rereading it recently. It attests to the power and vividness of the prose that so many parts were burned into my memory by that first reading so that I could anticipate and picture what was coming as I read. Some of the technological speculation and scenes may seem somewhat familiar to modern readers, but that’s only because Delaney introduced them and they were picked up later by the cyber-punk movement and by contemporary action science fiction films.

The basic story line of Nova is very simple in the same way that the basic plot of, for example, Moby-Dick is simple. In Moby-Dick, a sea captain named Ahab seeks and confronts a white whale. In Nova, a space captain named Lorq Von Ray seeks a rare element called Illyrion, which he hopes to scoop out of the heart of an exploding star. They are both stories of quests, and of course to relegate them to simplistic one-sentence summaries does them an injustice. They are complex novels; nevertheless, at their cores are the single-minded journeys of the main characters.

The key to the complexity of Nova is in the characters, subplots, and intellectual ramblings involved in getting from Von Ray’s desire to its fulfillment. One character, for instance, is a gypsy from Earth who carries with him an instrument called a syrynx, with which he can simulate visual images, smells, and sounds to create holographic projections. Another of Von Ray’s crewmembers is planning to write a novel, an archaic art form that he hopes to revive. Delaney includes several lengthy passages based on his notes for the novel. A third crewmember reads Tarot cards, and it seems to be an accepted mindset in the era to believe in the efficacy of the guidance the cards offer. Delaney also has his characters have lengthy conversations on socket implantations in humans that allow them to plug into any machinery, and how this innovation has universally changed the concept of employment.

All of these side-subjects are dealt with in detail at various points along the path of Von Ray’s quest. He also goes up against Prince and Ruby Red, an incestuous brother and sister team that comprises the main opposition to Von Ray’s mission. In fact, the conflict between Von Ray and the Reds is so crucial that shortly after the novel gets underway, Delaney cuts to an extended flashback about its roots that is a quarter of the length of the book.

I find that for me personally all of these intellectual side-trips that Delaney undertakes in the course of the narrative are the main reason that I find rereading the book so entertaining. The plot may have been innovative in the late 1960s when the book was first published, but with the deluge of space opera since then in print and in film, it is no longer unique. Delaney is a first-rate writer, though, who can get away with discourses on novel writing and Tarot card reading and other subjects while at the same time he propels his heroes relentlessly towards their objective. This is a good book and is well worth picking up for a read or a reread while you isolate safely at home.

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Book Review: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey

As Desert Solitaire opens, Edward Abbey has just arrived at Arches National Monument in Utah for an isolated six month stint as a park ranger. He worked as a seasonal ranger in the 1950s, although the book was not published until 1968.

In the first couple of chapters, Abbey arrives at his outpost, which is at the end of a long drive on a rough dirt road far from any towns or habitations, and sets up camp in a trailer under primitive conditions. It is springtime, and the park has few visitors. For the most part, Abbey completes his few duties easily and has plenty of time to enjoy the primeval landscape, flora, and fauna around him. He is obviously in love with his surroundings and laments the inevitable modernizing and paving of the roads that will bring many more visitors to this lovely land.

These first two chapters are contemplative, and we glimpse a hint of the type of spiritual and philosophical depth found in the nature writings of, say, Henry David Thoreau or Annie Dillard. Unfortunately, however, the promise of such depth is not subsequently realized. Don’t get me wrong: Abbey is a good writer and this is an absorbing book. But it is not a masterpiece in the class of Walden or Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Having said that, it’s important for me to emphasize that you have to take this book on its own terms. Unlike other nature writers, Abbey approaches his subject with a cynical, acerbic, and condemnatory tone. He rightly points out that to properly experience the desert, one has to climb out of a vehicle and engage the senses firsthand. However, the impression I get as a reader is that he’s fine with everyone else going to hell as long as he can appreciate the land he loves without distraction.

If you can get past Abbey’s sometimes obnoxious distain for anyone that doesn’t share his specific point of view, he offers absorbing descriptions of his explorations of the primeval desert. He writes of the panorama of the landscape, the value of water, the volatility of the elements, and the fascinating array of plants and animals that manage to survive in this harsh environment. He recounts some of his desert adventures, such as assisting a rancher in rounding up stray cattle, joining a search party attempting to locate a missing tourist, climbing a mountain peak, rafting down the Colorado River in the Glen Canyon area before it became permanently flooded by a dam, and exploring a complex labyrinth of canyons known as “The Maze.” On these various excursions he comes across as very macho, competent, and self-sufficient, either traveling alone or with one other male like-minded companion.

Is Desert Solitaire a classic, as some of the internet hype I read proclaims it? I would say no. Certainly not when weighed against certain other books (as those mentioned above) with which it has been compared. Still, as a memoir of Abbey’s journey in a desert landscape that is no longer as isolated and empty as it once was, it is an interesting, even a fascinating read.

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Classic Science Fiction Novels to Read During the Pandemic: This Immortal by Roger Zelazny

One of the advantages of reading some of my favorite novels is that I already have them here in my home. I don’t go to bookstores and libraries are closed. Yes, I order books online but I try to keep this to a minimum; my budget is not used to buying a lot of books.

I can’t go wrong with This Immortal by Roger Zelazny. It’s my favorite of the late author’s novels, right up there in my esteem with some of his wonderful short stories and novellas such as “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth,” “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” and “He Who Shapes.”

There are several reasons why you can’t go wrong by picking up a copy of This Immortal in the midst of this damned discouraging pandemic. First of all, there is Zelazny’s uniquely readable style. With Zelazny, not one word is wasted. He doesn’t meander; he propels you rapidly along a plot line. Another writer might have padded this material into a thousand-page doorstop of a book. Zelazny, though, is succinct, poetic, and marvelously lucid and detailed with a minimum of verbiage. This is a fairly short novel, the kind you don’t see much of nowadays in which the author says what he has to say and then stops. And no one can say it like Zelazny.

Zelazny is an expert at characterization. The narrator is the sort of godlike superhero that Zelazny specializes in: centuries old, powerful, courageous, resolute, but at the same time incredibly witty and likeable. The cast of supporting characters is also fleshed-out well, and each is idiosyncratic in their own way.

The main character is Greek, and Greek mythology forms an integral aspect of the story. That’s another thing that I like about the book. I lived in Greece for over fifteen years. I raised my family there. Zelazny manifests a love for Greece, the Greek people, and the language, customs, landscape, and legends of the land.

The plot is fairly simple. A superior alien race has usurped Earth’s prominence. Most Earth people have immigrated to other worlds. Earth itself is a shattered wreck that its surviving inhabitants are attempting to resuscitate. The narrator, a man named Conrad, although he has had numerous other names in the past, takes an important alien on a tour of Haiti, Egypt, and Greece with an entourage of Earthlings, some of whom are attempting to assassinate the alien. On the way they encounter all sorts of perils such as mutated monsters, tribes of half-humans, and creatures out of Greek myths. That’s another great thing about this book: it is full of adventure and excitement. There’s never a dull moment.

The best thing about This Immortal is that it is fun through and through. I couldn’t help but think that Zelazny must have had a great time writing it. Sometimes the joy it conveys is so intense that it almost brings tears to my eyes. It’s not often that you can take a wild ride like this in the company of a master word-craftsman like Zelazny. He was a one-of-a-kind writer who burst onto the field in the sixties as part of the speculative fiction “new wave,” and he was one of its finest and clearest voices. He died too soon, but at least we can celebrate his life by continuing to enjoy his marvelous fiction.

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What a Wonderful World

I woke up this morning with the song “What a Wonderful World” playing in my mind. It was no bland cover version either; the version in my head was the original recording sung by Louis Armstrong and made popular in the United States after Robin Williams’ DJ character played it in the film Good Morning, Vietnam. This is one of my all-time favorite songs, and it was such a relief to wake up to it rather than one of the present-time stark realities of existence staring me in the face.

Life has been a struggle lately for several reasons. We’ll put aside the personal problems concerning careers, health, family, and love life that each one of us deal with, and instead focus only on shared difficulties. There is the global pandemic, of course, which has upended all of our lives, caused many to lose their jobs and their homes, forced people to isolate from others, and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Here in Seattle there is the wildfire smoke that has made our city air the most toxic in the world. I am forced to stay in our apartment with the doors and windows closed and forgo my daily long walks lest I breathe in tiny particulates that would invade my lungs and bloodstream. The air in our apartment has become humid and stale. There was also the recent water crisis in our entire apartment complex of more than a dozen buildings. Without warning the water went off due to a broken pipe, and it stayed off for about twenty hours before they managed to fix it. In the meantime, all the management could suggest was to go to the supermarket and buy water to drink and to flush our toilet with. Of course we couldn’t suspend our bodily functions, but the flushes during those twenty hours were inordinately expensive.

What are we to make of this series of disasters one after the other? How can I possibly wake up in the morning with “What a Wonderful World” running through my head? The answer came to me as I was preparing and drinking my morning coffee. That wonderful world is still there right under the surface. The pandemic will pass; we’ll find a vaccine and conquer it, as we have other decimating diseases in the past. The wildfire smoke will dissipate and go away and we’ll see blue skies and the colors of things again. The water crisis is already resolved, and we can once again flush our toilets properly and take showers. It is a wonderful world, truly. Remember that when you feel oppressed by circumstances. The wonderful world is still here, and if for whatever reason you are unable to enjoy it now, you will be able to enjoy it again soon.

But I have more to say about under-the-surface wonders. Sometimes in recent years I have felt somewhat frustrated and stifled by my limiting circumstances, and it helps me during those times to recall what a long, rich, and exciting life I have had. Last night I watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first of the Star Trek feature films. It’s probably the worst film in the Star Trek franchise, not because the special effects are laughable by today’s standards, but because there’s nothing much to the story. A lot of it consists of crewmembers staring at extended shots of colorful abstractions. There is very little action.

Despite the shortcomings of the movie, I had a great time watching it. Why? Because it reminded me of old friends who shared my enthusiasm for Star Trek and other science fiction when I was much younger. I had just turned twenty when I attended the 1973 Clarion West writing workshop. Besides the professional teachers (Harlan Ellison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Peter Beagle, Terry Carr, and James Sallis), I had the opportunity to meet my fellow students, other fledgling writers with whom I could converse enthusiastically about writing and science fiction and similar subjects.

Two of the students I became closest to were Russell Bates and Paul Bond. Russell was a full-blooded Kiowa Native American. He had already been taken on as an understudy on the Star Trek team, and he would go on to win the Star Trek animated series an Emmy for his script “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth.” He was at Clarion West to hone his short story writing skills. He and I would later collaborate on a script outline for a then-popular TV show, although it never saw production.

Paul Bond was a tall, frail, soft-spoken young man. He had already had major heart surgery and had a huge scar running down the middle of his chest. Like me, he had no writing credits when he attended Clarion West, but soon afterwards he was able to make his first story sale to a new slick magazine called Vertex. When I moved to Los Angeles to try to become a scriptwriter, Paul was my closest friend there.

Russell died a few years ago. He is mainly known for that Star Trek episode, but when I ran a search for his name, I found out that the Miami International Science Fiction Film Festival has created the Russell Bates Indigenous Peoples Screenwriters Award.

Paul died a few decades ago. His health was never very good. When I ran a search for him online, I could find a few references to the story he sold to Vertex (it had been reprinted in a collection edited by Isaac Asimov) but otherwise he had disappeared from the internet.

While I was watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture, I kept thinking of these two friends and the interests and fun we had shared, and I realized that underneath our present experiences there is a vast storehouse of memories, incomparable riches of times gone by that we can call on when we need reassurance or a rekindling of hope.

So keep this in mind as you navigate these difficult times: beyond the circumstances through which you now struggle there are blue skies and beautiful landscapes, and beneath your present situation, trying as it may be, there are memories of good friends and marvelous days gone by. And if you get a chance, watch a video of Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World.” That’s sure to pick you up.

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Book Review: Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose

I bought this book because I wanted to read about exploration and adventure, and there is plenty of that in it. Lewis and Clark and their small team headed off into territory unknown to the citizens of the United States, the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, which almost doubled the size of the country. Almost the entire area was a blank spot on maps. As they moved from St. Louis up the Missouri River, across the Bitterroot Mountains, and down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean and back, the expedition wrote journals, drew maps, encountered several Native American tribes, and cataloged and described new flora and fauna. They endured amazing hardships on their journey of almost two and a half years.

It all makes for exciting, compelling reading. However, after I had finished the book and had a chance to think about it, I realized that despite the thrilling story, the journey itself occurred under very strange circumstances. First of all, in the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson arranged for the purchase of all this land from France for the United States, entirely discounting the fact that the land was already occupied by indigenous peoples. Although the term Manifest Destiny had not yet been coined, Jefferson certainly believed in the concept; it was the old story of the “inevitable white man” overrunning everything and everyone in his path.

The book focuses on Meriwether Lewis from his early life as a southern slave-owning planter to his last years as the alcoholic governor of the Louisiana Territory. Lewis was a captain in the army during the journey, which was known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, and the men who accompanied him were army recruits as well, including William Clark, to whom Lewis insisted that the army also give the rank of captain. According to Ambrose, Lewis was a good leader, although he was a firm believer in white privilege.

There is a black man in the painting on the cover of my edition of the book. I wondered about that until I found out that Clark’s slave, an African American named York, accompanied the expedition. After they returned safely against all odds to civilization, York requested his freedom as a reward for his diligence and hard work, but Clark refused to grant it. Another person who was badly slighted and left bereft of reward at the expedition’s end was Sacagawea, a Native American Shoshone woman who was married to a French Canadian. She was invaluable as an interpreter and as a reassurance to the Native American tribes that the expedition encountered, but though her husband received a salary for his services, she received nothing. An interesting side-note: when Lewis and Clark called for a vote in November 1805 as to whether the group should winter on the north or south side of the Columbia River, both York and Sacagawea were allowed an equal vote. According to Ambrose, it was the first time in American history that an African American or a woman had ever voted.

Despite the dubious political motivations for the journey, Lewis and Clark returned with a treasure trove of knowledge about previously unknown lands. Unfortunately, Lewis fell into depression and excessive drinking and eventually he took his own life at the age of thirty-five. The incomparably valuable journals of the expedition were not published until years later. For a time the Lewis and Clark expedition was almost forgotten, but interest in their journey was revived in the early twentieth century with the publication of a new multi-volume edition of the journals.

All in all, despite the different perspective from which we view Lewis and Clark’s exploits in the twenty-first century, this is a fascinating and well-written account of persistence and courage against overwhelming odds.

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Short Story “The Blood Test” Now Available

My most recently published story, “The Blood Test,” is now available online. You can read it for free on the website of the new international literary magazine The Quiet Reader.

In the story, an enigmatic stranger appears at a book signing of a newly-popular writer and reveals an important secret from his past.

You can find the story in The Quiet Reader, Edition 1, September 2020, at this link: http://thequietreader.com/magazine/the-blood-test-john-walters/

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Classic Science Fiction Novels to Read During the Pandemic: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Until recently I hadn’t read The Stars My Destination in years, or perhaps even decades. It was first published in 1956 when I was three years old. One of the amazing things about this novel is that it hasn’t aged since then. It can still stand up to the best of contemporary work. The ideas and concepts in it are still outrageously but effectively outlandish – in a good way. It definitely deserves to be on a shortlist of the best science fiction novels ever written.

I’m not going to be able to give you a proper synopsis of the story; it is too intricate and convoluted. By saying that, I don’t mean that it is confusing. Bester throws one thing after another at readers, but it all fits in like infinitesimal pieces of an enormous jigsaw puzzle.

The protagonist is a man named Gulliver Foyle, or Gully for short, who is barely surviving a death-like existence in spaceship wreckage in a remote part of the solar system. Another spaceship passes him by despite his array of distress signals, and Gully becomes consumed with rage and a desire for vengeance. He manages to get his ruined spaceship, the Nomad, running well enough to make it to an asteroid, where the resident cult pulls him in and tattoos his face with the grotesque visage of a savage tiger. Later a surgeon manages to remove the tattoos, but whenever Gully gets angry or otherwise deeply emotional, the tiger image shows up again on his face. (The original British title of this novel was Tiger! Tiger! in homage to the William Blake poem “The Tiger.”)

This is just the barest glimpse of the beginning of the story. There are incredibly rich industrialists, duplicitous lawyers, clever intelligence operators, female criminal masterminds, and other fascinating characters. Gully has to escape from a prison built in deep underground caverns that are in perpetual darkness, steal a fortune in the Nomad‘s safe, and pose as an ultra-rich buffoon. The plot hinges, though, on a practice known as jaunting, or teleportation, which most people are able to learn to do.

As I said, I’m not going to give too much of the story away, not because it would take too long, but because I want to give you the opportunity to discover it for yourself. Bester is a master craftsman when it comes to writing. He knows what to put in and what to leave out. He’ll end a chapter and begin the next from a completely different perspective or point of view. There’s nothing extraneous in it at all. Every word is effective. At one point, words don’t do the subject justice, and so Bester turns the words into images, having them float or bounce or increase and decrease in size on the page. A wild ride, to be sure, but an excellent one.

There is nothing to which The Stars My Destination can be compared. It is a one-of-a-kind work of genius, so effective and provocative and radical and insightful and original and fun and entertaining and elevating that it stands out as an absolutely unique achievement. Give it a read and you’ll see what I mean.

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Avoiding Discouragement During the Pandemic

I am deep into writing a story that is sprouting into a novel, and so I hesitate before devoting my writing time to this instead of that. However, I rationalize the side trip by contemplating that if I help only one other person cope with the current emergency, it will be worth it. If I help several, it’s a cause for celebration. If I help many, well, all the better.

I had better preface this, though, by admitting that I have not always been able to cope successfully with the present circumstances. In fact, I got so low last night I had to call one of my adult sons into my room and unload my bullshit on him. I just couldn’t handle it alone. I had sat down for my evening session of creative work (I spend the day ghostwriting articles to pay the bills) but I was so numbed with discouragement that all I could do was stare at the page. I don’t often get to that state; I’ve got a lot of perseverance and stoicism despite whatever is going on around me. Suddenly, however, it overwhelmed me and I needed help. Once I blurted it all out, I was better and could get back to my writing.

This morning I got to thinking about coping mechanisms and jotted down some notes. Here are some things that help me (usually) stay upbeat and persistent regardless of the situation around me. Take it for granted that my writing is number one on the list. That’s such a basic truth that I didn’t even bother writing it down. My minimum daily creative word count is presently five hundred words, and I manage that six days a week.

One of my principal sources of inspiration and entertainment is reading. I read for an hour to an hour and a half every day and go through a book every week to ten days – depending upon its length, of course. I used to go to the library and browse the new book shelves at least weekly, but now that the library has been closed for months and shows no sign of reopening, I have to look elsewhere for reading material. Basically I have three sources: books on my shelves that I have bought but never got around to reading (I am rapidly running out of these), books I own and have read but want to reread (I still have plenty of these), and books that I order online. Sometimes I spend long periods of time online looking for books to order, and I am always thrilled when I find new titles with potential.

Exercise is crucial to my mental and physical well-being. Three days a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) I follow a home exercise regimen that I have kept for years. It consists of about an hour of power yoga and calisthenics such as pull-ups and pushups. Additionally, I walk for one and a half to two miles seven days a week regardless of the weather. Lately I have had to walk a bit slower due to my own negligent behavior. Weeks ago I took a five mile walk to a shop, up and down hills, because I didn’t want to risk going on public transport. My poor 67-year-old legs wore out and I am still recovering. So I go slower, but I still make sure that I walk the walk.

One of the best ways to forestall your own discouragement is to spend your time caring for others. Right now I have three of my sons (ages 18 to 28) living with me, and I stay busy (when I’m not writing) shopping and cooking and cleaning our small two-bedroom apartment. There’s not much spare space around here, believe me. One of them is moving out at the end of the month, but that’s not the point. The point is that it is a joy and an honor to help take care of some of the greatest human beings on the planet. (The other great ones are my two absent sons.) I hope you feel the same way about your loved ones and you get a thrill out of offering them service and considering their well-being as important as your own.

Pursuing career goals is critical to me. In my case, I can do it from home because all of my long-term goals are related to my writing. Getting those words done each day contributes greatly to my peace of mind. You may not be as committed to writing as I am, but perhaps there is something else that catches and holds your interest.

Above all else, despite the way that life seems to be throwing shit-storms in our path these days, we have to have patience. We have to remember that historically disasters always eventually come to an end. This too shall pass. Really.

That’s what I wanted to say, but before I close, I’m going to indulge in a moment of shameless self-promotion. Remember above when I mentioned my avid search for new reading material? Perhaps you are looking for good things to read too. I’ve written more than twenty-five books, including novels, short story collections, and memoirs. You can find a list of them and links on my Available Books page. Give some of them a try. You won’t be disappointed.

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Book Review: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

This is another book that has been on my shelf for years after being purchased at a library book sale. The need for reading material during the pandemic drove it into my hands. It’s a good book. It has a strong story, it’s meticulously researched, and it has high-quality writing. In it, Hillenbrand tells the life story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who was a bombardier during World War II until his plane was shot down by the Japanese and he became a prisoner of war.

The story starts out in Torrance, California, where Zamperini was a rowdy teen involved in petty theft and other troublemaking activities. He finds direction, however, when he realizes that he can run fast. At his high school and then at USC he sets long distance running records. He gets so good that he becomes a part of the U.S. Olympic team of 1936 that goes to Berlin, Germany during the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich.

War breaks out, and Zamperini joins the U.S. Army Air Corps as a bombardier. During a mission his plane goes down. The only survivors are Zamperini and two other men, who spend 47 days slowly starving at sea surrounded by large deadly sharks before being captured by the Japanese.

The next section of the book details Zamperini’s arduous experiences in Japanese prisoner of war camps. The conditions are horrendous. Besides the inadequate food and filthy living conditions, the men are beaten and otherwise humiliated regularly. Most of them, despite their feeble conditions, have to work long hours at grueling manual labor. For Zamperini, most of his time as a POW is spent in camps overseen by a Japanese overseer nicknamed The Bird, who takes a personal dislike to Zamperini and does him best to make Zamperini’s life a constant hell on Earth.

As the war approaches its end, the prisoners are tormented by rumors that the Japanese are soon to issue kill orders; in other words, they plan to exterminate all the POWs under their care. This does not happen, at least for Zamperini and his fellow prisoners, and the war comes to a conclusion after atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

When Zamperini goes home, he has serious post-traumatic stress disorder. He is beset by nightmares and flashbacks in which he is tormented by his nemesis The Bird. He gets married, but his mental instability and alcoholism nearly cause a divorce. However, his wife persuades him to attend a revival meeting by Billy Graham in Los Angeles, and at the second meeting Zamperini goes to he gives his life to Christ. Abruptly he experiences a profound change and his nightmares and flashbacks stop. He devotes his life to telling his story and helping disadvantaged children.

As you can see, Hillenbrand tells several stories here: Zamperini’s conversion from rowdy teen to Olympic-class runner, his dangerous missions in the Pacific Theater during the war, his survival with his crewmates on the life raft in the middle of the ocean, his long stretch in a Japanese POW camp, his deterioration once he got home, and his ultimate redemption and renewal as a Christian. Each segment stands on its own as a riveting adventure, and all together they comprise an epic and fascinating life story.

My only qualification was with the Japanese prisoner of war camp section. It was horrific and exciting, but I felt it went on a bit too long describing similar tortures over and over again. That’s the only point at which my attention lagged for a short period of time.

Otherwise, this is a first-rate historical adventure told in clean prose with plenty of thrills and lots of emotional impact.

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