Book Review: The New Voices of Fantasy Edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman

As I read this anthology, I thought of the Clarion West students I have been meeting each summer since I moved back to Seattle. Quite a few of the writers in this book recently attended Clarion or Clarion West, and this showcases some of their work. I look back at my own time at Clarion West wistfully, with regret, wishing I had been more mature at the time (I’d barely turned twenty) and had made better use of the privilege. These writers, in contrast, have matured quickly and have turned out some first-class work.

Another thing that struck me as I read the stories herein is an awareness of the many facets of fantasy. Not many deal with themes that would be called traditional. Sure, there’s the odd vampire, but most of the stories are exceedingly inventive. Some are told from a mainstream perspective, with only a slight bit of fantasy at the end. These I found refreshing; the realism only added to the sense of wonder. A few had no fantasy elements at all that I could find, but I don’t mind that either.

As usual, some stories impressed me more than others. The strongest stories are at the very beginning and the very end. I think it was Harlan Ellison (one of my teachers at Clarion West) who I first heard give these tips on anthology editing: you put your best stories at the beginning to draw them in and at the end to leave them with a good taste in their mouth.

The anthology starts off with an excruciatingly dark story called “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” that won both the Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award. This tale by Alyssa Wong is about a creature in a human woman’s body who’s actually a type of vampire that feeds off emotions. It’s bleak and heartbreaking and very well told. Another story that impressed me is “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado. This has very little of fantasy in it until the last few paragraphs, but it is nonetheless intense and absorbing, and when the finale comes, it is easy to see the setup. Comedy is hard to do well, especially comedy in the genre of fantasy, but Adam Ehrlich Sachs pulls it off in the trilogy of humorous short-shorts called “The Philosophers.”

The best story in the book, though, is the last novella, which takes up almost a quarter of the anthology’s length. It’s a beautiful tale of a Pakistani grandson searching for the truth about his grandfather’s past called “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman T. Malik. It takes place in a juxtaposition of the cultures of the United States and Pakistan, and weaves its fantasy flawlessly into a touching story of family, love, loss, and redemption. When I finished it, I felt that I had been privileged to encounter something truly special in literature, a feeling I have all too rarely nowadays.

The rest of the stories in the anthology are competent, and some are very good. As in most story collections, not all of them appealed to me, but that’s a near-universal situation with anthologies and collections – at least the ones that I have not put together myself. It’s a matter of taste, after all. I might have tweaked it a bit and subtracted or added this or that story. All in all, though, it’s a good collection with some real classics in it, and it’s well worth the read.

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Book Review: Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

This is an excellent memoir. If I have a complaint, it is that it is too short. I would have loved to have heard many more details and to have Martin not stop at the end of his stand-up comic days but continue the story onward into the next stages of his career. I hope he writes a sequel someday.

I appreciate the fact that Steve Martin, unlike many celebrities who choose to write their life stories, does not need a ghost writer. He is a writer, and he got his first big break as a writer for the splendid and infamous Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

As I mentioned, the book does not tell the story of his whole life. He does recount briefly a portion of his childhood, but it mainly starts when he gets his first real job working in the magician’s shop at Disneyland and ends when he decides to give up stand-up comedy altogether.

I took away two main insights as I read this book, and I can recount the main content as I share them.

First of all, this book reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. The main premise in Outliers, and what Gladwell emphasizes through example after example, is that people with true talent who have achieved extraordinary measures of success did it not because they were born with it and it was handed to them on a silver platter but because they worked on it. He illustrates this with high profile examples such as Bill Gates and the Beatles. Before Bill Gates founded Microsoft, he spent untold hours in his high school computer lab working on programs, so that when faced with the opportunity to excel in this new field, he had the background to be able to take advantage of it. The Beatles did not erupt fully developed into stardom. They paid their dues in shoddy nightclubs and other dives, working many hours a day seven days a week in Hamburg, Germany, and in England. By the time they had sufficiently developed their talent to be recognized, they had paid enough dues to be able to survive on their arduous concert tours.

Steve Martin worked incredibly hard for years in humiliating circumstances before reaching any measure of success. He started, as I mentioned, at the magic shop in the original Disneyland in Anaheim, which happened to be just a few miles from his house. His first shows were demonstrating magic tricks for the customers, and with his earnings he would buy some of the tricks for himself and spend countless hours at home practicing with them. At a certain point he decided he needed to move on, so he got a job irregularly performing magic and doing skits at Knott’s Berry Farm. From there he branched out to coffee houses and other places, blending more and more comedy into his magic act. He would take just about any show he could find, no matter how little it paid and sometimes for no pay. Even after getting his first big break writing for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and afterwards for other comedy and variety shows, he continued to take stand-up gigs all over the country. This gave him practice; he was able to hone his act in front of all sorts of live audiences. As a rising young comedian, he began to get interviews on daytime talk shows and eventually on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, but his big break came when he was asked to appear on the new cutting-edge comedy show Saturday Night Live. He became a true celebrity, so that instead of performing for fifty or a hundred people a gig, he was performing for thirty to forty-five thousand. It was, ironically, this incredible success that caused him to decide to stop doing stand-up comedy, as he became isolated and burned out in the midst of the fireball of fame.

The point, though, is that he kept working hard during those lean years when he was living broke and sometimes in debt and rushing from place to place to accept any gig he was offered. Once in a while he’d get a good paycheck, but much of the time he was just barely getting by. And he could never anticipate audience reaction. There were good nights and bad nights.

The second insight I had concerned the work he accepted during these years. He would take almost anything just to stay busy as an entertainer. It reminded me of myself and how I have often been forced to submit my stories to semi-professional markets that pay much less than professional markets just so they can get published somewhere so someone can read them. I could, of course, self-publish them right away after they make the rounds of the professional markets, but instead I am patient and keep sending them out, as I want them in those other venues first before I publish them through my own company. And the truth is, sometimes I desperately need those smaller paychecks when they come in. Martin’s story encouraged me to keep going, keep striving with the understanding that you do what you can, even if it’s not in the ideal situation, instead of sitting back and waiting for success to somehow bump into you by accident.

In conclusion, this is an excellent book, and well worth reading for anyone who is attempting to succeed at any endeavor. It’s a fairly short and easy read, so take the time to absorb it.

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Book Review: The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman

When the original series of Star Trek first appeared on network television in 1966, I was thirteen years old. I had already been exposed to science fiction on television in the form of Lost in Space a year earlier. I loved that show. It fed my burgeoning appetite for fantasy when I was a child, but it had nothing like the effect that Star Trek had during my teen years. In the beginning, I watched Star Trek – and everything else – in black and white. We didn’t have a color TV. My family didn’t get one, in fact, until after I had moved out for good. Be that as it may, I rarely missed an episode of Star Trek, and when it came out in syndication, I watched those episodes over and over and over again. There was something singular, something special about it. When I determined to become a writer and attended Clarion West science fiction writing workshop in 1973, Star Trek loomed even greater in importance. For the first time, in my classmates, I met people who appreciated it as much as I did. Additionally, the man who had written my favorite episode of all time, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Harlan Ellison, was one of my teachers.

Before someone gave me this new book on the beginnings of Star Trek, I had read a few books about the show. First was The Making of Star Trek, which its creator and producer, Gene Roddenberry, helped to write. Later I read a less complementary biography of Roddenberry.

And now this book.

It’s in an unusual format. It consists of numerous interviews with almost everyone who has ever had anything to do with the show that are edited together to form a coherent story. I can think of all sorts of reasons why this sort of style might not work – and even in this book it causes a lot of repetition – but for the most part it succeeds.

The book starts with the very first genesis of the series in the mind of its creator and follows it through the first three seasons of the original series and the six movies that came after. A sequel, which I haven’t read yet, continues the story from the inception of The Next Generation all the way up to J.J. Abrams’s films. Oddly enough, I was talking with my oldest son on Skype about this book and recommending he read it, and he said he was already reading it. There was a bit of confusion until we both realized that he was reading the sequel and I was reading the first book. Yes, we’re both Star Trek fans.

What can I say about the book? It’s not fair to attempt to summarize it, as the story is too convoluted; it has too many twists and turns and fascinating asides. If you like Star Trek – or if you’re interested in the complications of television production – read the book. Otherwise, you might not find it to your liking. As for myself, I already knew about a lot of the squabbles that accompanied the making of the series, but I had not heard many of the details. I find it an interesting and absorbing book, and I am sure that in time I will seek out and read the sequel. It offers fascinating insight not only into the Star Trek series, but also into how writers and producers and directors and actors work together – or perhaps more often at least attempt to work together. It gives you a crazy close-up look at network decision making, which no doubt continues to this day, even though the means of television production and viewing have changed so radically.

Interestingly enough, I had just finished re-watching the entire three seasons of the original series on Netflix from first show to last shortly before beginning this book. One thing that it helped me see is why there is such a difference in quality between the first season and a half and the rest of its run. It’s a miracle that the show survived as long as it did, and an even greater miracle that it ever became the unprecedented cultural phenomenon that it is now.

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Heroes and Other Illusions: Stories

My new book is now available in print and electronic editions from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo, and other distributors.

Heroes Web

Heroes aren’t always as they seem; often they are ordinary people reacting to circumstances beyond their control or pursuing the only option open to them.  In this eclectic collection, reclusive old folks take on powerful cyborg bodies to combat ferocious invading aliens; a man near death uses cutting-edge psychiatric technology to journey into his memories and come to grips with crucial decisions from his past; a dead woman travels halfway around a bizarrely mutating world to keep a promise to an old friend; a young woman in the frozen northlands rescues a centuries-old creature with an amazing tale of survival.  These and other stories upend traditional concepts of courage, honor, love, death, enchantment, and terror and present mind-boggling alternatives.

Click to buy from these distributors:

Trade Paperback

Amazon Kindle

Barnes and Noble

Kobo

Apple iBooks

 

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Book Review: A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg

I don’t know how I missed reading this novel back in the early 1970s. I read several of Silverberg’s other novels of that era, the best of which were Dying Inside and The Book of Skulls.  Silverberg was on a roll back then; he was not only amazingly prolific, turning out not only novels but also short stories, novelettes, and novellas, but also practically everything he wrote was of exceptionally high quality. He would often experiment with tense, point of view, and other stylistic flourishes, but he would integrate these innovations so soundly into the text that it seemed there was no other alternative than to write it that way.

A Time of Changes, oddly enough considering its subject matter, is rather conventional in style. A man on a far planet long ago colonized by Earth people reminisces in a journal after undergoing changes in his life brought on by his meeting an Earthman and taking a drug with him that dissolves personality barriers. The catch is that on this world, the sharing of self is despised, so that it is heretical and illegal to commit the sin/crime of self-baring, or exposing your own ego to others. This is manifest even in speech, in which words such as “I” and “me” are among the crassest forms of obscenity.

This is a good book; Silverberg had very clean, meticulous prose in those days – not a word is misplaced. The society and the world in which the narrator lives are presented in precisely the right amount of detail to give the reader a sense of immersion but at the same time keep the story moving forward. And yet… I would not say that this is the best Silverberg novel from that era. For me, that honor still goes to Dying Inside, which profoundly touched and shook me when I first read it.

One difficulty with A Time of Changes is that there is no suspense in it. The narrator makes clear what is ultimately going to happen from the beginning, and in the end, it happens. Okay, fair enough – not all stories need to have heart-pounding suspense. The mood in this one is more thoughtful, and the pacing is slow.

Another difficulty is that in 1971, when it was published, the subject matter of the novel was original, courageous, and cutting-edge, while now it strikes me as somewhat anachronistic. I in no way intend this point as criticism. It’s just that – well, times have changed, and the beginning of the twenty-first century has its own brand of craziness that is not necessarily addressed in this book.

As far as using a hallucinogenic drug for enlightenment or other reasons, it’s a valid theme and one that I have dealt with myself in several stories and novels. It’s hard to tell from Silverberg’s introduction to this new edition whether he actually took psychedelics himself. When I first read the introduction, I thought maybe yes; but then I reread it to double check and now I’m not so sure. The descriptions of experiences with the drug in the novel are nicely written but somewhat generic in the sense that they could apply to several sorts of strange experiences that strain the limits of the psyche.

All of this is neither here nor there as far as appreciation of the novel is concerned.  I don’t think it’s necessary to take psychedelics to write about them any more than I think it’s necessary to visit a country to set it as a background in a story. You just have to do your research. And since Silverberg is dealing with a made-up drug, although modeled on the hallucinogens that were so prevalent when he was writing the book, he can make it do anything he wants.

In conclusion, this is a good novel and well worth reading, although perhaps not the psychic dynamite that it was when it was first published. And even if it’s not Silverberg’s best, it’s better than the best of most other writers.

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Three Out of Five

It took me a while to bring myself to write this one because it’s so personal. It exposes me; it leaves me vulnerable. It concerns motivations that keep me going, but they aren’t really my primary motivations at all. My real motivations erupt out of the core that constitutes my spirit, soul, or whatever you want to call it, and to give a good idea of what those are I have to go into much more detail. If you are interested, I suggest you read my memoir Writing as a Metaphysical Experience and you’ll get at least a rough outline.

When I first decided I had to be a writer, I didn’t really have any specific goals other than to discover my voice, write for the rest of my life, throw my words at the markets, see what stuck, and somehow become wealthy in the process.  I thought, in the passion and strength of my youth, that this general direction would be enough; and it did, in fact, get me out of my rut and traveling around the world, and it helped me find my voice and write down a lot of sincere and well-expressed words that are all, alas, long lost. Then there was a break for a couple of decades during which I got married, had five sons, and struggled to survive in various countries. In the mid-1990s I came back to writing and resolved never to stop until they pried the keyboard out of my cold dead fingers. It’s around that time that I formulated my five goals.

Now, before I tell you of these goals, I have to emphasize that I am well aware that they are not really goals because none of them are within my power alone to achieve. A viable goal for a writer is to, say, write five hundred or a thousand words a day. That’s something a writer can do on his or her own. I can’t really set a personal goal of selling a story, because that’s not in my power. The decision is not mine, but an editor’s. So selling a story is more in the nature of a hope or a desire rather than a goal. The same goes for winning an award. It’s up to the voters, not me. I can resolve to write the best stories of which I am capable, and that’s about all I can do. Are we clear? Nevertheless, I will continue to call these hopes or desires goals because that’s how I thought of them when I first made them.

So: The goals that I formulated shortly after I began writing again a little over three decades ago were these:

First, to sell a story to a magazine or an anthology. Self-publishing was not an option at that time, and to count the story had to be sold and not given away for free.

Second, to get at least one professional sale so I could join Science Fiction Writers of America as an associate member. I understand that some writers value membership in writers’ organizations more than others, but to me this held great significance ever since I attended Clarion West Science Fiction Writing Workshop when I had just turned twenty in 1973.

Third, to get at least three professional sales so I could upgrade my membership in SFWA to active, which is the highest class of membership.

Fourth, to sell enough fiction and other writing professionally so I could make my full time living as a writer.

The fifth goal, I admit, is the most arbitrary and the one I have the least control over. I’m not going to tell you that one right now; it stays under my proverbial hat.

I sold my first story in 1999: “Clear Shining After Rain” to the Australian SF magazine Altair. I don’t count my first publication, which was “The Ghost of Halkidiki Past” to an English-language Greek magazine, because they never paid me for it – I had to wait to get paid for that story until it was reprinted in the US literary magazine Lynx Eye in 2001.

It turns out that my first sale was also my first professional sale, as Altair paid pro rates, but SFWA didn’t list it as a qualifying market for membership until 2007, which is when I joined as an associate member. So that was that.

In the next ten years, I sold quite a few stories and self-published many more, but I didn’t get the credentials to upgrade my SFWA membership to active until recently.

So there it is: three out of five. It’s taken a long time and a lot of work.

As far as goal four, I am in fact a full time writer, but many of the pieces I get paid to write are articles about which I have no personal interest. While I am researching and writing these articles, I often wonder how much more productive my fiction writing would be if I could pour all that energy and effort into that instead of those articles for which I get a one-time payment and then they are afterwards relegated to oblivion. So I won’t feel I have reached goal four until I am supported by my fiction and memoir work, not by that work for hire crap.

As for goal five, that one goes on the back burner. It’s not in my hands. Anyway, it’s not good to reach all your goals, is it? What then would you strive for? Just kidding. As soon as I reach these five, I’m sure I’ll come up with a new set.

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Book Review: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

One of my sons has the opinion that Malcolm Gladwell oversimplifies sociological issues, and he has a point.  My son would rather read the complex tomes on which Gladwell’s research is based, and that’s fine.  Gladwell does tend to generalize a lot; in fact, that’s what his books are all about: drawing general theories from a plethora of seemingly unrelated circumstances.  On the other hand, I read Gladwell in part because I don’t want to take the time to read those long complicated books.  I’m satisfied with generalizations, at least on some subjects.  I don’t agree with everything or even most of what Gladwell says, but sometimes an inner bell rings; and even when I don’t agree, he often makes me think.

I hadn’t really intended to read another Gladwell book so soon again, but this one sort of fell into my hands, so I went ahead and read it.

David and Goliath has some great sections and some so-so sections.  In some parts, though, he seems to go out of his way to make his arguments unnecessarily complicated by switching back and forth between various stories he uses as examples.  A book like this should be more straightforward, and not shifting all over the place among different points of view.

Gladwell uses the Bible story of David and Goliath as a metaphor to illustrate that power and ability are not always what they seem.  Sometimes those who at first appear more talented, strong, and able do not win, and those who appear deficient in some way can turn their seeming inadequacies into advantages.  Theorists posit that Goliath, though huge and muscular, was slow, ponderous, and almost blind due to genetic abnormalities, while David, though much smaller, was light of foot and without the encumbrance of armor.  Furthermore, David’s prowess with a sling gave him a profound tactical advantage over his sluggish opponent.

According to Gladwell, seeming weakness and a disadvantaged background can give you a tenacity that those with more privileges and an easier path do not possess.  He uses as example a coach who knew nothing about basketball leading a team of small, short girls to a state championship and Lawrence of Arabia leading the Arabs to victory over the Turks during World War I.  As I read this I thought of my own sons, all of whom are athletic, brilliant, and successful in the endeavors to which they have committed themselves.  They began, one would think, with a number of disadvantages.  We were never well off financially in their early years; we had to struggle to pay the bills.  Additionally, they were the subjects of discrimination in the Greek-language public schools they attended in Thessaloniki, and often got into fights just through the mere fact of being half-American.  However, these circumstances made them incredibly self-reliant.  One who was academically inclined won a full four-year scholarship to an Ivy League university.  Another, also mentally brilliant, honed himself into an amazingly versatile athlete.  Another chose the company he wanted to work for and got a position seemingly without effort.  If they want something they go after it with all their intellect, sinew, and spirit, no holds barred, no questions asked.

Another section of the book relates the story of a woman who is intensely interested in science.  She receives top grades in high school and has her choice of several universities.  She chooses an elite eastern university, does not do well, drops out of the science curriculum, and gets a degree in liberal arts.  Her mistake was her choice of university, says Gladwell.  In the Ivy League school she was a very small fish in a very big pond, while in her second or third choice of university she would have had less competition and more opportunity to excel.  As a comparison, I thought of when I send my stories out to magazines and anthologies.  When I send to the best ones, I am in competition with many more writers than if I send them to less-known magazines that pay less.  But here is where Gladwell and I diverge.  Just because I get rejected more often at the larger markets does not make me try them less often.  The possible rewards are worth the rejections.  Writers have to have thick skins; rejections are part of the game.  I’ll suffer hundreds – nay, thousands – of rejections to meet my goals.  Once I sent a story to a small press magazine and it snapped it up right away.  Ever after I wondered if the big magazines might have liked it just as much.  These issues are often complicated and differ with each individual circumstance.

The chapter of the book on the impressionist painters of France in the 1800s and their bypassing of the hallowed Salon where all famous artists displayed their work in favor of opening their own gallery reminded me of the current trend of self-publishing.  These painters – including some of the greatest artists of the era – could not get past the gatekeepers of their time, and so their solution was to display their paintings on their own.  So simple, so elegant, and yet so audacious.  Writers are faced with the same decision today between going through the heavily guarded and conservative traditional route or launching their own imprint on self-publishing channels.

Another section goes into near-miss situations.  People who approach death and survive often develop a debonair attitude that makes them thrill to risks.  This happened to me when I took off on the road in the 1970s across the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent.  After I survived a few close calls it seemed I no longer tried to avoid dangerous circumstances.  I often walked right into them, in fact, oblivious to the peril, because of the inner rush when I survived.

Lastly, Gladwell goes into the effectiveness of power wielded by forces such as the police and the military.  It has its limits, of course, but this long section is the one that became convoluted due to the complex mixing of examples.

All in all, it was an interesting if imbalanced book, but I still consider Outliers Gladwell’s best work.

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Book Review: The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction Volume Two – Edited by Gordon Van Gelder

I have been reading a lot of short stories lately. The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century was about eight hundred pages of short stories, and The Best American Noir of the Century was about seven hundred fifty pages of stories.  There were more short story volumes before that.  The reason is simple: I’ve been writing a lot of short stories lately, and that’s given me the desire to read them too.  The two things that Stephen King says that writers need to do in his great book On Writing: read a lot and write a lot.  I am trying to do both.  I think I have more short stories out to market than I have ever had before: roughly twenty-five stories to around thirty markets.  My stories still get rejected far more often than they get accepted.  So it goes.  That’s just part of the game.  At least if I have more stories out, it increases my odds.  I also, though, have a great new collection ready that should be published soon.

Anyway, in my hunger to read more short stories, I have my eyes open for worthy volumes, and when I heard that a new collection of The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction was published not long ago, I sought it out.

To be honest, not all the stories appeal to me.  But that’s okay.  I have long since learned that even in best of the year collections there will be some I like and some I don’t like.  After all, the editor makes selections according to his or her taste and not mine.  That’s fine with me.

As usual, I don’t like to dwell on the stories that don’t work for me, but rather on stories that I consider the very best of the very best.

We’ll start with “Narrow Valley” by R.A. Lafferty.  I’ve read this story several times in various anthologies – I think it must be one of the most often reprinted of his stories.  Lafferty is a genius of humor, and this is definitely one of his best.  He combines wild ridiculously improbable fantasy with crazy characters to create an effect unique in science fiction or short story literature in general.  He’s an underrated writer, and it’s a shame that his works are not more widely available.  Most of his stories are only in print in absurdly expensive collector’s editions, so people like me who cannot afford to spend fifty or sixty bucks for a short story collection cannot read them at all except, as in this book, by means of the occasional anthology entry.

Next we have “Sundance” by Robert Silverberg.  I have it on my list of my favorite short stories of all time, and every time I read it, it loses none of its impact.  It’s not easy to mix tenses and points of view in a short story and have it remain cohesive, but Silverberg definitely pulls it off here.

Each time I read “Jeffty Is Five” by Harlan Ellison, it gets better for me.  It’s a seemingly simple fantasy about nostalgia for a lost era, but it’s really not that simple at all.  What gives it nuance, though, is the fact that the author obviously draws from deep wells of childhood memories and then weaves those threads into a disturbing tale of lost innocence.

An excellent story that I’ve never read before is “The People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi.  In the far future, altered humans, violent beings who regenerate when they become mutilated and can eat sand and clay and chemical waste as easily as we eat a burger or a salad, find an emaciated dog wandering in the wild.  They take it home and care for it for a time.  The strength of the story is in their observations about this creature of flesh and blood that is so alien to them.

Another superlative story that I read in this collection for the first time is “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu.  It’s a sweet, heartbreaking tale about a young boy and his Chinese immigrant mother who can create small origami animals and then breathe life into them.  This menagerie of living paper creatures eventually helps the boy to learn some valuable life lessons about love and family.

All in all, this collection is worth reading for the sake of the timeless classics I’ve just mentioned and others that are entertaining but not great.

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Longing for Europe

I’ve been longing for Europe lately.  The thing is, the Europe I long for is not the Europe that exists now, but the Europe of the 1970s.  And when I envision myself in it, I don’t think of myself as I am now, but as I was back then when I used to roam Europe footloose and fancy free, as the saying goes.  When I felt that I was getting nowhere in my pursuit to be a writer and I got fed up with my situation in the United States – as I recount in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search – I sold or gave away almost everything I owned, hitchhiked across the country, and bought a round-trip ticket from New York to Luxembourg for one hundred dollars.  That’s right – $100.  And it cost me next to nothing to wander from country to country seeing the sights and having brief affairs with tourist and indigenous women.  Those were simpler days.

Of course everything has changed now.  It would be irresponsible for me to forsake everything and take off for numerous reasons.  For one, I am a single parent and solely responsible for my fifteen-year-old son.  I’m not going anywhere as long as he needs me, and it’s best for him to have a stable situation and remain in the good high school where he is now.  For another, it would be bad for my career as a writer.  It’s taken me years to make the slow, painstaking progress that has gotten me to this point, and I have no desire to let go and slide back down the mountain.

I know I can’t go anywhere, and I don’t want to go anywhere, not really.  But still, I have these longings.  Part of the reason is the way that the United States is so ripped up and polarized right now.  I recall the simpler, deeper cultures of Europe.  They have their troubles over there too, of course, but there’s something in Europe that gives me peace of mind and surcease from all the conflict and uncertainty that is so deeply rooted in the American psyche.

So – I know I can’t take off right now, but at the same time I would like to escape the present turbulence, and it makes me wonder if somehow my memories could help out.  That’s what I thought would happen when I was younger.  I figured that I’d do all that death-defying stuff when I had the freedom and stamina, and later when I was no longer able to do it for some reason or another, I’d be able to look back and feed on what I had already experienced.  Well, that works up to a point, I suppose.  If I had never done those things I’ve done, I would feel a much deeper and more unrequited longing – either that or I would have become so anesthetized by my torpor and lassitude that I would have long ago given up any desire to live out my dreams.

But memories are funny things.  They can somewhat console you, but they can’t make up for what you don’t have now.  Remembering yesterday’s meal won’t feed me today.  Let’s face it – the environment I am living in now is vastly different in ambiance from the one I lived in on the road in Europe.  Remembering that I have already seen those places and done those things doesn’t take away the urge to do it again.  The mountains, the beaches, the cities, the restaurants, the cafes, the friends, the lovers…  There is comfort in the memories, but I still wish I could do it all over again.

In the end, what helps?  For one thing, writing about it.  That I have done and will do again.  For another, talking about it.  I realize how much of that adventurous twenty-something-year-old there still is in me, and the deterioration of my flesh as I age is a source of astonishment.  Growing old is not what I thought it would be.  I don’t feel old inside, but my body belies the fact.  It refuses to cooperate when I want it to do things I used to consider so easy.

Still, one can always daydream.  And these days, I daydream of Europe.

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Book Review: When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning

This is a fascinating book.  It deals with a chapter in the history of publishing of which I was not aware: the push by the military along with civilian organizations and individuals to supply combat troops during the Second World War with over one hundred million paperback books known as Armed Services Editions.  These books became an integral part of Allied strategy, offering the troops not only much-needed entertainment and relief from battlefield stress, but also the motivation to fight for the democratic free expression of ideas.

The book starts with the infamous night of May 10, 1933, when Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels incited thousands of students to perform a massive book burning in a public plaza in Berlin.  It was the beginning of the Nazi war against ideas. Eventually, as their armies spread across Europe, they would destroy over one hundred million books in Germany and in the countries they conquered.  Even before the United States became officially involved in the war effort, Americans realized the importance of countering this suppression with the dissemination of books and ideas.  Once war was declared and men departed their homes en masse for training camps, the free availability of libraries full of books was considered crucial for the morale of the trainees.  Books gave them relief from the rigors and hardships of their new situations, and also helped counter the propaganda of the enemy.

At first, a massive national drive to solicit donations of hardcover books led by civilian librarians helped the training camps build up libraries that the men could use.  Donors brought books to drop sites at libraries, post offices, supermarkets, and other locations for sorting and shipment to army and navy facilities.  However, when troops began deploying to battle zones, hardcover books were too bulky and heavy to carry along.  To supply the soldiers and sailors with vital books, the Council on Books in Wartime began to produce cheap paperback editions of popular novels and works of nonfiction to ship to overseas troops.  These lightweight volumes were printed on cheap paper and small enough to fit into a back pocket.  GIs could carry and read them anywhere, even in foxholes during lulls in battle or in airplanes on bombing runs.  For most soldiers, they constituted the only entertainment available.  They became much prized and were traded and re-traded until they fell apart.  Even soldiers who had never bothered to read at home became enamored of these stories that offered opportunities to escape, however briefly, from their deadly circumstances.

Some books, such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, became enormously popular with the men because it reminded them of home.  Others, such as The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which had foundered on first publication, achieved renewed popularity through their Armed Forces Editions.

Ultimately, the books that the troops took to war ignited a hunger and love for the written word, and when the war was over and the troops came home, the habit of reading that they had picked up helped them thrive through the educational opportunities that the newly passed GI Bill afforded them.

This book is written in clear, descriptive prose.  It’s fairly short, which is good; it says what it has to say and no more.  It’s lean; it’s not weighed down by extraneous academic clutter.  It’s exciting and vivid and well-organized.  In short, it’s a great read about a little-known aspect of World War II history. I recommend it highly.

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