Book Review: The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Third Annual Collection Edited by Gardner Dozois

This is a huge doorstopper of a book: almost 700 pages, more than 300,000 words of the editor’s selections of the best short science fiction published in 2015.  Unlike other best of the year editors, Dozois sticks strictly to science fiction.  No fantasy, magic realism, or any of those related genres in this anthology.  Still, with every volume Dozois manages to come up with plenty of good stories, although not all are to my personal taste.

As he does every year, Dozois starts the book with a fascinating and comprehensive look at the year’s accomplishments in science fiction.  This introduction is a monumental achievement and bespeaks a great deal of research.  He doesn’t just cobble his facts together.  The depth of his commentary makes it clear that he has invested a good part of the year in a thorough analysis of the field.  He discusses science fiction book lines, professional magazine markets, semi-pro markets, anthology markets, short story collections, books of interest to the science fiction field, and includes the addresses of the publishers of most of these.  He writes about science fiction films, TV series, conventions, and awards.  He lists and eulogizes science fiction notables and peripheral figures who died in 2015.  Besides all this material, he introduces each individual story with a brief biography of its author.

But it is the stories we come to the book for, and most of them do not disappoint.  Some touched me deeply.  Chief among these was a pair of novellas. “Gypsy” by Carter Scholz is the heartbreaking story of a starship on a desperate mission to escape a decimated Earth and start a new human colony elsewhere, as told by various passengers who wake up from cryogenic sleep at different points in their journey.  “Inhuman Garbage” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a murder mystery set on the moon that calls into question the ethics of regarding clones as property.  Many of the shorter stories are exemplary as well.

The thirty-six stories in this book offer plenty of variety, although they lean heavily towards hard science fiction, in which the technology predominates.  In general, the strongest stories are those with coherent plots and characters, and the weaker stories come across as literary exercises rather than plotted stories.  One story that consists of a series of loosely connected vignettes detailing alien oddities I was unable to finish, and one other I slogged through but was glad when it was over.  That’s not bad: only two out of thirty-six that held nothing appealing for me at all.  Much better odds than a mainstream collection I read earlier this year that was supposed to contain some of the best short stories of the last one hundred years.

Although his selections may not always appeal to me, I think that Dozois does the science fiction field a great service in offering this collection year after year.  Every year hundreds if not thousands of science fiction stories are published, and somehow they have to be sorted for readers so that the better ones live on past their initial ephemeral appearances.  The abundance of best of the year volumes ensures that stories appealing to diverse tastes are selected and will live on in private collections and on library shelves, there to be discovered by future readers in search of wonder.

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Book Review: How to Write Like Tolstoy: A Journey Into the Minds of Our Greatest Writers by Richard Cohen

The title of this book, although catchy, is misleading.  Personally, I wouldn’t want to write like Tolstoy anyway.  I am perfectly content to write like John Walters.  Anyway, the author makes no attempt to teach writing or techniques of writing.  Instead, he catalogs how various famous writers dealt with various aspects of writing.  The entire book is taken up with examples of writers’ attitudes towards beginnings and endings of novels, characters, plagiarism, points of view, dialogue, irony, story, prose rhythm, writing about sex, and rewriting.  Again I emphasize: not to teach writing, but rather to entertain.  And the book is entertaining; I’ll give it that, though some sections work far better than others.

The section on storytelling works well, because the author gets down into detail about what constitutes story and the basic plots in fiction.  Other interesting sections include the looks at story beginnings, plagiarism, and writing about sex – although the author spends much more time decrying bad examples than applauding good examples.  It is also fascinating to read what various writers think about revising.  As Cohen emphasizes, there are as many opinions about these various aspects of the writer’s craft as there are writers.  The short chapter on dialogue didn’t do much for me, probably because I recently read Robert McKee’s comprehensive book on dialogue.  Some of the other more esoteric sections, such as those on rhythm and irony in novels, didn’t really have much to say, probably because the subjects are difficult to pin down.

My biggest objection to the material in this book is how the author limits the examples he uses.  He leans heavily on classic writers such as Tolstoy, Austin, Lawrence, Joyce, Hemingway, and a few others.  Some contemporary writers are mentioned in passing, but not many.  Of popular genre writers, Cohen cites only Stephen King and Ray Bradbury.  In the section on sex, he dismisses the contribution of Henry Miller to sexuality in novel writing with a footnote, which to me is an injustice.  If the author had been more open to the wonderful diversity found in fiction, the book would have been much more comprehensive and enjoyable.

Still, it is what it is, and as I said, it is readable and enjoyable.  Too bad about that title though.  Some would-be writers might pick up this book thinking they are getting a how-to volume on the making of epic novels, whereas nothing could be further from the truth.  If this book is instructional to writers at all, it is to show that there is no one way to write, and no definitive rules on what constitutes correctness, let alone excellence, in the various mechanisms that make up a piece of writing.  Perhaps that was the author’s objective all along: to demonstrate the idiosyncrasies of writers, to highlight their individuality and unique ways of approaching their work.  That’s what it did for me, anyway, besides offering a good laugh here and there.  It reinforced the conviction I already hold that once you learn the basic tools of the trade, there is no correct or incorrect way to write.  Writers are individuals, each with his or her unique method of creation.  Writing is a voyage of discovery, as Henry Miller said in his excellent essay “Reflections on Writing.”  It is akin to taking to the open road that Whitman wrote about.  Every writer’s journey is a singular one.  That is the glory of it.

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Writing as a Metaphysical Experience

Metaphysical Final (1)WebCover

My new book, Writing as a Metaphysical Experience, is now available as an e-book at multiple outlets, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple iBooks, and others.  It’s also available as a print edition here.

It’s part memoir, part journal, and part instruction.  Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

“For me, writing is metaphysical because it is inseparable from who I am and my conception of the universe and my place in it.  My interpretation of writing goes far beyond the definitions of hobby, job, or career – it is rather in the nature of a calling.  It is something that blossoms from within me and, though invisible to instrumentation, is as integrally a part of me as my flesh, bones, and internal organs.  How this transpired and how it manifests itself is the subject of this book.

 This is not a how-to book on writing, although in its course I offer many practical tips and suggestions.  It’s more like a travelogue, a story of the life’s journey on which my writing has led me.”

This writing journey has led me on a decades-long quest from the United States to Europe to the Indian Subcontinent and back in the pursuit of voice, inspiration, and literary excellence.  On the way, I have written and published novels, short story collections, essay collections, memoirs, and numerous individual novellas, novelettes, short stories, and essays.

If the “pursuit of voice, inspiration, and literary excellence” fascinates you, pick up a copy of the book, and you may find that you’re not alone in your creative struggles.  Writing, if pursued with sincerity, is an all-consuming passion.  Although it is not always an easy road to walk, for those who are called to the journey, it is an inevitability.

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The One Thousand Series

theonethousand_omnibus-v2-2coverbigBedlam Battle: An Omnibus of the One Thousand Series

Four science fiction thrillers in one volume

The four novellas of the One Thousand series are now available in  one all-inclusive volume.  See below for links to distributors.

This omnibus includes:

OneThousandBkOnlineCoverThe One Thousand:  Book 1

It is the late 1960s…

What better place than prison to recruit psychopathic killers?  So thinks Benny, possessed by a thousand alien entities which he intends to share around with the other inmates before unleashing hell on Earth in the form of a murderous rampage.  Only William Stafford, a Vietnam War veteran unjustly convicted of killing a girlfriend, can stop him.  But to do so he has to break back into the prison he has just escaped from…


theonethousand_Book2_FinalBiggerThe One Thousand:  Book 2:  Team of Seven

A team composed of counterculture humans and benevolent aliens based out of Haight/Ashbury hunt for murderous, alien-possessed convicts with enhanced powers who have escaped from prison.  They discover that this fellowship of psychopaths is preparing an elaborate party for hippies and other street people in a remote mansion built to simulate a Medieval castle, and that they are planning to slaughter everyone who attends.  Now the seven are faced with the task of locating the mansion and stopping the killers…


theonethousand_Book3_WebBigThe One Thousand:  Book 3:  Black Magic Bus

To escape pursuit, the fellowship of psychopaths has fled to Europe.  In the mountains of Italy they customize a psychedelically-colored tour bus, intending not only to pick up and murder unwary young travelers, but deliver a cargo of lethal pathogens to a major city in the East.  Only the Team of Seven composed of enhanced humans and benevolent aliens can find and stop them…



theonethousand_Book4_WEBCoverBigThe One Thousand: Book 4: Deconstructing the Nightmare

Their hunt for a group of alien-possessed psychopaths intent on igniting a rampage of mass murder leads the Team of Seven to a prison in Turkey, war-ravaged Vietnam, a luxurious nuclear fallout shelter, and finally to direct confrontation with their enemies.




Click to buy from these distributors:

Amazon Trade Paperback

Amazon Kindle

Barnes & Noble

Apple iBooks


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Book Review: Zero K by Don DeLillo

The aftermath of reading this novel is a residual impression of the plot, characters, and imagery as a totality.  However, it is a weak impression.

As soon as I heard about Zero K I decided to give it a read.  After all, it’s seldom that a mainstream literary author ventures into the realm of science fiction, and I was curious how DeLillo would handle the material.  Unfortunately, I am at present financially challenged, and I couldn’t afford the new hardcover price, not even with Amazon discounts.  Additionally, the multiple copies in the Seattle Public Library system had long wait lines for holds.  I thought I’d have to wait for the paperback, but then a copy of the book turned up at one of the cute local neighborhood outdoor lending libraries.

I have not read any of DeLillo’s other books, so I have no basis for comparison when discussing Zero K.  I can only take it on its own merits and compare it to what I suppose that a science fiction writer would do with the material.

The story is narrated in first person by the son of a billionaire who has become fascinated by and is heavily donating to an independent organization called Convergence.  It specializes in cryogenic preservation of people who are near death with a view to reviving them and extending their lifetimes in the future.  The narrator’s stepmother is being frozen, and his father wants to do himself in too but ultimately decides to put it off for a time.  Much of the first part of the book describes the cryogenic facility set in a Central Asian wasteland.  The story then takes the narrator and his father back to New York, and finally they return to the cryogenic facility when his father decides to join the narrator’s stepmother in her frozen sleep/death.

The story moves glacially slow.  I couldn’t help contemplating, as I read, what Roger Zelazny or Samuel Delaney, both great science fiction literary stylists, would make of the material.  For one thing, I think they would write it much shorter, in novelette or novella form.  There simply isn’t enough substance to justify the length.  There are too many words, a lot of empty space within the text, and too little is said.  Some of it makes sense within the context of the novel but much of it doesn’t.  The characters, too, are like shadows: vapid, shallow.  They do things that appear random and unmotivated.  They are privileged people, and not people with whom one can empathize.  DeLillo does not make much effort to give them the touches of humanity that would draw a reader into the story.  Even when the narrator describes his past life and the events that precede his present actions, it is all laid out as an abstraction, like the description of the monotonous hallways in the underground complex.

I almost gave up on this book, it was so slow, but I persevered because I was curious how the author would resolve things.  It all came out as I expected, no real surprises, and in the end I had the feeling that the story was okay but it would have been much stronger if at least half the extraneous material had been edited out.  DeLillo is obviously a more than competent craftsman of the English language; he simply took the material that would have been concise and dynamic as short fiction and extended it too long.

As a foot note to this review, after I finished the book, I returned it to the neighborhood library where I had found it.  These libraries are common around the area I live in, and are a relaxed and magnanimous way to share books with other bibliophiles.  I have read comments in online forums by the paranoid that people might take some of the books and sell them on Amazon and other outlets.  I don’t think that happens too often, as I often monitor the contents of the little library boxes around our area while I’m out for walks, and turnover is slow.  But my response to this is: So what?  If someone is so poor that they have to rob neighborhood libraries to earn a couple of bucks by selling books, I say that they’re welcome to them.  There are plenty of books in the world, thank God.

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“Heroes” in Space and Time


Most of my short story sales in recent years have been to anthologies, or book-length collections, so it’s fun to have a story appear in a magazine.  The Fall 2016 issue of Space and Time: The Magazine of Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction just came out, and it includes my story “Heroes.”  Although the magazine has not retained the same editor/publishers, Space and Time has been in continuous publication since 1966, so 2016 is its fiftieth anniversary.  You can order single issues of the current magazine directly from the Space and Time website and electronic issues from Weightless Books.

Space and Time is one of the longest-running of the small press magazines devoted to the genre of speculative fiction.  Such magazines contribute regularly to best-of-the-year anthologies and awards lists and are a viable alternative for authors who find it difficult to break into the few top-tier science fiction and fantasy magazines.  They offer exposure to an established network of readers and a paycheck as well.  It’s a win-win situation.

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Book Review: Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee

When I read books on writing, I don’t expect to agree with everything the author says.  There are as many theories on writing as there are writers, and that’s as it should be.  Still, the opinions and advice of others can help me sharpen my own tools of the trade.  Robert McKee is renowned as a writing teacher, especially of screenwriting.  I read his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting years ago, and though I have never attempted to write a script, I found it valuable in planning the structure of some of my novels.  This new book, Dialogue, takes a wider approach than Story, and encompasses not only writing dialogue for the screen, but also for plays and novels.

As I was reading the book, I came across a discussion of it on a blog focusing on indie writing that I frequently peruse.  Those who contribute to the discussion boards have a tendency to be very opinionated, and this thread was no exception.  There was a lot of criticism of McKee’s ideas, which is fine, but I think that some of the commentators missed the point.  They are under no obligation, when they read a work like this, to take or leave the entire work as a whole.  Some parts of it may be relevant or useful to them, while other parts may not.  For me, McKee’s credentials and opinions are solid enough for me to at least listen to what he has to say.

The book starts slowly, with explanations of the basics of what constitutes dialog and what its functions are.  Because I am so familiar with the concepts McKee presents in these chapters, I almost lost interest.  I persisted, however, and was rewarded in later chapters when McKee analyzes specific scripts, plays, and novels to illustrate the principles he propounds.

There’s no harm in having a keener appreciation and understanding of the tools that a writer uses to bring about desired effects in his work.  The danger comes in over-analysis of technique to the detriment of creativity.  Dean Wesley Smith differentiates the creative side of a writer with the critical side, and stresses that if you overemphasize the critical, you can stifle the creative.  He has a good point, of course, but there is a difference between over-analyzing your work so that it becomes a mass of disparate parts rather than a coherent whole, and being familiar with the tools of the trade with which you work.

In my opinion, McKee does fall into the trap of over-analyzing.  He acknowledges that there is a difference between the creation of a work and analyzing it in aftermath.  For writers, the best way to approach a book like this is to consider it a sharpening and fine-tuning of some of the tools that they use, and if there is any advice with which they disagree, they should feel free to completely ignore it.  This book considers many nuances of dialogue, and it may be that after you have read it, you may be able to use some of its principles to bring the dialogue that you give the characters in your own works into sharper focus.

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Book Review: I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick by Emmanuel Carrere

This is a very disturbing book.  It was first published in French in 1993, and the English translation was published in the United States in 2004.  Philip K. Dick died in 1982, and Carrere had several already-published biographies of Dick to draw on to fact-check Dick’s life; nevertheless, some critics consider I Am Alive and You Are Dead to be a sort of nonfictional novel that draws from the science fiction writer’s life.  Perhaps this is because it takes liberties in interpreting Dick’s state of mind as Carrere journeys through the often sordid events that constituted his life, or because Carrere blends lengthy descriptions of the plots of Dick’s books into the narrative. The biographer gets inexplicably and annoyingly self-indulgent near the end when he devotes several chapters to a sort of stream of consciousness narrative of Dick’s deteriorating state of mind just before his second attempt at suicide and subsequent stay in a mental hospital.  However, whether every detail is true or not, most of it rings true.

The fact is, Philip K. Dick wrote some popular well-received science fiction novels but lived an extremely troubled personal life.  Early on, as a young adult, he became addicted to pharmaceutical drugs, and maintained and increased this addiction throughout most of his life.  He married and divorced five times, being unable to sustain a mature relationship.  He had a number of phobias, including agoraphobia, the fear of the outside and open spaces, which caused him to sequester himself within the confines of his various homes.

He began writing and selling science fiction in 1951, when he was 22 years old, and remained a professional writer his entire life.  However, due to his only being able to sell his work to low-paying pulp markets, he was poor most of the time, adding to his stress, which he alleviated by taking downers, and then amphetamines while he was writing to stimulate his creativity.  He won the Hugo award in 1962 for his brilliant novel The Man in the High Castle, but though it brought him a measure of respect within the genre, it did not alleviate his financial woes.

Dick drew on his own fears and psychoses for inspiration for much of his work, which is characterized by confused identities, parallel universes, evil doppelgangers, and drug trips gone wrong.  Personally, I have not read many of his books, as I am partial to more stylistically elegant writers of the era such as Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delaney, Robert Silverberg, and James Tiptree, Jr.  Dick’s writing style is rudimentary, and is characterized by flamboyant ideas rather than flamboyant prose.  I read The Man in the High Castle and felt that it was an understated masterpiece.  I also read a collection of his more popular stories, and they were entertaining, but my impression was that they seemed very similar one to another.

An extraordinary amount of Philip K. Dick’s novels and short stories have been adapted for film or television, the most popular being Blade Runner, from his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Total Recall, from the short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.”  Most of the adaptations, however, were posthumous productions, so Dick was never able to benefit from the financial bounties that might have been his had he lived longer.

The main lesson that I carry away from this book, which I knew already but which bears repeating, is that literary success does not at all guarantee a happy life.  I should know better, but I fall into the trap frequently of thinking that if only I could achieve success as a writer, my life would be more fulfilling and satisfying than it is now.  It’s a myth.  There’s nothing of truth in it.  Yes, I receive a thrill when an editor accepts a story for publication or a reviewer raves about the merits of one of my stories.  But these rushes of excitement are short-lived.  Afterwards it’s back to the struggle for survival.  What would really help me out in the long term is the financial stability that literary recognition would bring, to a degree at least.  At the beginning of this year, in mid-February, I made a big story sale and for a week or so I relaxed from the stress of our financial situation.  I had been living with that stress for so long that a non-stressed-out state felt like being high.  Alas, it was short-lived.  Soon after, emergency dental bills wiped out all the money that had just come in and much more besides.  C’est la vie.

But I digress.  In the multitudes of biographies of troubled artists, Philip K. Dick stands out as more troubled than most.  The story of his life is a sad, sad story.  At the same time, this book is fascinating as the author traces Dick’s descent deeper and deeper into drugs and confusion.  In a way, his art was the only thing that granted Dick surcease, for limited periods of time at least, from his inner demons.  At the least, his fictional chronicles of his journey through his own interior landscapes have given entertainment and inspiration to many.

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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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