Book Review: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

I’ve come across Nisi Shawl’s short stories from time to time, including one set in the Everfair universe. This is her first novel. In it, she posits an alternate history in which Europeans and Americans purchase a tract of land in the midst of the Congo from King Leopold II of Belgium, intending to set up a new country, a safe haven for African Americans seeking freedom, disenchanted Europeans, Africans of various tribes fleeing King Leopold’s oppressive rule, and other wandering people in search of a homeland. To this, Shawl adds steampunk technology that enables creation of dirigibles that the locals call aircanoes and mechanical prosthetics to replace limbs severed by King Leopold’s mercenaries. The citizens of Everfair also benefit from the supernatural influence of local herbs, enchantments, and spirits. All of this makes for a very compelling and exciting story.

Shawl peoples her imaginary world with a diversity of characters such as African American missionaries, idealistic Europeans, nationalistic Africans, tech-minded East Asians, cunning assassins, and oppressive slaveholders. Rather than stick to the viewpoint of one character, she skips from character to character, at the same time moving forward from a month to a year at a time with each chapter scene. The technique works excellently to propel the story relentlessly onward through this alternate history; at the same time, it allows in-depth exploration of the main characters as they react to ever-changing events.

The novel is told in two parts. Part one deals with the founding of Everfair and increasing antagonism that builds up to a war with Belgium. This first half is by far more action-packed and faster-paced. Part two deals with the aftermath of the war and what happens to the various characters; although absorbing and fascinating, it almost comes across as a sort of extended epilog. However, because Shawl has created characters with so much depth, reader interest in their various fates is strong enough to accommodate the slower pace.

Overall, I find Everfair a great read: wonderfully original in its concept and very well executed. The rapidly evolving chronology of the style suits the material perfectly, allowing extensive character development while simultaneously giving the novel epic proportions by allowing it to cover two decades of history. Shawl takes full advantage of the situation of all these people of various nations and races put together by social and political circumstances to explore the complex relationships that would ensue. Additionally, although Everfair is presented as a utopia of sorts, Shawl acknowledges the cultural and political difficulties of creating and maintaining a utopia when confronted with the realities of pride, nationalism, religious intolerance, narrow-mindedness, greed, and selfishness.

All in all, this is a great novel that works on several levels: as an adventure story, character study, social commentary, and imaginative alternative to the much sadder reality that took place on the African continent. In a way, it’s too bad that we have to pin labels on things such as “science fiction,” “alternate history,” and “steampunk,” and just let a story be a story. All labels aside, this is an excellent story.

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A Second Look: Dark Mirrors: Dystopian Tales

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When it malfunctions, a teacher discovers a microchip implanted within her forehead which was designed to eradicate her free will.  She determines to rescue the orphaned children in her care from a similar fate.

In the aftermath of a conflict in which all adults were killed or driven away by their progeny, children and teens roam the streets of a ruined city.  When they near the age of 21 they must play the ultimate game, snuff sport, to prevent themselves from becoming hated adults.  A lone grown-up who re-enters the city on a mission of reconciliation is captured and put on trial for his life.

The people of Earth are losing a war with aliens that they themselves provoked.  Every able-bodied person is being called up to serve in combat, even prisoners.  A battle-hardened general enters a prison to recruit a woman who refuses to fight, but who may have a most unusual special ability that can turn the tide of the war.

These and other tales offer terrifying glimpses of Earth’s future gone wrong.

From the author’s afterword:  “When I postulate dark futures it is not to get you to despair.  When I hold up dark mirrors before your eyes it is not so that you will see the worst in yourself and do yourself in.  Far from it.  Some of our greatest illuminations come from deep dark prose.  Dark literature is not meant to overwhelm us.  It is meant to purge us, to provide catharsis.  It is a cleansing and purifying process.  We must be aware of the evil within before we can clean it out.”

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Book Review: I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai

This is a wonderful, exciting, amazing, and important book. It’s one of those world-changing special books that rarely comes along. It celebrates freedom, education for all, and women’s rights while at the same time telling a horrendous story of oppression, fear, and violent savagery.

Malala is a Muslim girl from the Swat Valley in Pakistan who became an activist for education for girls and was therefore targeted by the Taliban. When she was fifteen years old, she was riding a school vehicle home with some other students when she was shot in the head. After surgery and intensive care in Peshawar, Rawalpindi, and England, Malala recovered, and at seventeen won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to promote education for all the world’s children.

The book describes her early life in Swat Valley. Although it was a simple life, Swat was a beautiful place, and she was happy with her family, school, and schoolmates. Her father became a school owner and a strong advocate for education.

Swat Valley truly is, or was, a paradise. I traveled through Pakistan several times in the seventies, from Kabul, Afghanistan, over the Khyber Pass to Peshawar, then to Rawalpindi, Lahore, and on to India. On another journey I passed from Iran to southern Pakistan, across the desert to Quetta, and on up to Islamabad and Lahore. I came close to Swat Valley, and heard from others how idyllic it was, but never had a chance to visit. Hearing Malala’s description of it, I regret the lost opportunity.

In the early years, when Malala was a young child, her family struggled financially but they were happy. Then the Taliban invaded the valley, and things changed. The Pakistan army made sporadic attempts to drive them out but were unsuccessful. Among the Taliban’s strict rules was a ban on education or any other type of freedom for girls and women. They began to bomb schools and murder people who spoke out against them. Malala and her father feared for their lives, but at the same time didn’t want to leave Swat Valley, which was their beloved homeland. As the situation worsened, Malala became more outspoken and won numerous local and national awards for her stand on education. At the same time, the Taliban became more and more threatening.

The book opens with a prologue that describes the shooting, and then backtracks to Malala’s early life in the valley. As you read, you know with dread inevitability what’s coming. It’s heartrending to learn of the great love that the family has for their homeland and then read about how that land is turned into a fear-ridden wasteland by terrorists. The last part of the book describes Malala’s treatment after she is shot. The bullet had entered her face near her left eye and lodged in her shoulder. She was in a coma for a week, and when she awakened she had been transported to England. She had to undergo numerous surgeries to remove pressure from her brain, restore the facial nerves on the left side of her face, and restore hearing in her left ear. Through it all she continued to thank God for the miracle of life and maintained her resolve to fight for education for all.

Sometimes you don’t appreciate what comes easily to you until you hear about someone else who has had to fight for it. Reading this book makes you appreciate what a precious gift education is, and how vital it is that everyone has access to it. As I said: it’s a wonderful book, and I hope that many more people around the world have the opportunity to read it.

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Book Review: No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin was one of my instructors at Clarion West 1973. It’s a shame I don’t remember very much about my Clarion experience; but after all, that was about 45 years ago and I had just turned twenty. I was very naive, and the only thing I knew about writing was that I wanted to do it. No, I had to do it. Clarion West back then benefited me more by the fellowship of other writers than for the specific instruction on how to put together a story. It would be over twenty-five years before I managed to sell any of my fiction.

Back then I read a lot of fiction of what was termed the New Wave: stories that pushed the borders of what was generally accepted during the pulp era. Le Guin was a major voice in the science fiction field. I recall reading her novel The Dispossessed, her novella “The World for World is Forest,” which appeared in the groundbreaking anthology Dangerous Visions, and numerous short stories. Sometimes I didn’t always completely understand her fiction; it was too sophisticated and I wasn’t ready for it. Recently I’ve read several of her novelettes and short stories and have been quite impressed.

Le Guin died recently, which makes No Time to Spare her last book, unless more are released posthumously. It’s a very entertaining collection of essays, originally blog posts, gentle in tone and varying greatly in subject matter. I think the section that I enjoyed the most is the first, in which she talks about what it’s like to grow old. She was in her eighties when she wrote it, and I’m just about to turn 65, but I could identify with her words because in some ways, especially physically, I am beginning to feel my age. I am much more tired than when I was younger, and infirmities take longer to heal. My biggest problem, though, is the feeling that I haven’t really accomplished what I want to with my writing. I’ve done some good work, and editors are starting to buy my short stories more regularly, but though I have published over twenty books, I have few readers. In that, Le Guin and I differ, and I was acutely aware of the difference as I read her essays. She writes from the perspective of great success, multiple awards, and financial ease, while I am still struggling to break out and barely scrape up enough for the rent and bills at the end of each month. I bring all this up because it was going through my mind as I read this book.

The other section of No Time to Spare that was particularly relevant to me was the one on the literary business. In the other parts of the book Le Guin writes about odds and ends of her family and professional life and her relationship with her current cat. In all of it I felt a profoundly informal atmosphere, as if I were sitting with her and chatting about these various subjects over a cup of tea. I don’t know why a cup of tea comes to mind; I usually prefer coffee, but tea seems to fit the ambiance better. That’s the thing about writers: they age and die physically just like anyone else, but we have the ongoing legacy of their words, and when we read them, we can once again awaken the mind and spirit that was stilled. I enjoyed reading this book. It was relaxing, comforting, informative, pleasant, and satisfying.

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A Second Look: After the Rosy-Fingered Dawn: A Memoir of Greece

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Greece has always been regarded as the birthplace of western civilization and a Mediterranean paradise.  In The Iliad and The Odyssey Homer uses the magical epithet rosy-fingered dawn to describe the sunrise over a land of myth, fascination, and mystery.  But when preconceptions and illusions are swept aside, what is Greece really like?

 John Walters has lived in Greece for over fifteen years.  He has hitchhiked over many of its roads; traveled by camper; journeyed by plane, boat, bus, car, taxi, motorcycle, and on foot.  He has lived and worked and raised a family among Greeks.  He offers insight from an intimate perspective on aspects of Greek society and culture of which tourists are unaware.

 Many have visited Greece and afterwards acknowledged that the country has profoundly changed them.  This memoir is for those who feel something special when they think of Greece and Greeks, those for whom Greece holds a special thrall, those who have visited and have their own memories of the place, and those who would like to visit someday and know that when they do they will obtain new insight, new clarity, and will never be the same again.

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Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

It was a real one-two punch to read this novel right after reading the powerful collection of essays We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The novel brings to vivid life much of what Coates discussed. It’s a devastating social commentary. Much of its strength, though, comes from not seeming to be so, for at the same time it’s a finely wrought story with a clear simple style, nuanced language, believable characters, and a thrilling plot.

The main character, Cora, is an African-American slave in Georgia in the Deep South, and her life is hell, as is the life of every slave on the plantation on which she lives. Atrocities are commonplace, and Whitehead describes them in gruesome detail, although he does not dwell on them. What makes Cora different is the fact that when she was ten years old, her mother ran and was never caught, while most slave who try to escape are captured, brought back, and tortured to death.

Another slave, Caesar, persuades Cora to run away with him, and they embark on a journey on the famed Underground Railroad. Only the railroad in this novel is not metaphorical; it’s a real system of tunnels with real trains carrying runaways to supposedly safer places in the north. This deviation from historical fact turns the novel into alternate history, a subgenre of science fiction, and it has even won a major science fiction award along with the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and other honors. However, this venture into the realm of fantasy does not rob the story of any of its realism. Cora advances from state to state, and each place she goes has a different way of dealing with free blacks, runaways, and white sympathizers. It’s an excruciatingly difficult journey and a long road to freedom. Reading it, especially, as I said, on the coattails of Coates’s book, makes me question the history on which I was raised and my own moral attitudes about the people with whom I share this country and this world.

But one of the great strengths of this book is that it doesn’t lapse into preaching or self-righteousness. It doesn’t have to. The story speaks for itself. As Cora flees and those who attempt to help her are captured or murdered one after the other, the reader is right there with her in profound empathy. The horrifying thing is that this is not fantasy, not really. Whitehead based his background in research on the accounts of real slaves. It’s almost unbelievable to comprehend that people really endured these things and that other people felt justified in inflicting such horrors upon them.

All in all, it’s one of the best novels I’ve read in recent times. It’s well written, exciting, and also important. It throws you into another world, a world in which you would be tempted to drown without hope. Even a modicum of hope is hard to come by, but Cora keeps going in spite of her travails, learning and growing as she journeys from one bizarre situation to another. She turns into a hero due to her perseverance and grit. That’s the human spirit. We need books like this.

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Book Review: We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I acquired this book, knowing nothing about it at the time, because I saw the title on a list of finalists for a major literary award. Now, having read it, I recognize it as an important work from an important writer. I find myself in the position of not wanting to review it in the traditional sense, that is, giving a summary of it and saying whether I think it’s a good or bad book. Why not? Well, I don’t want to summarize it because I don’t want to present the author’s ideas in a manner different from and inferior to that which he has adopted in this book. And I don’t want to say whether it’s good or bad because that’s not the point. This is a book of reportage – facts and hypotheses that need to be assimilated on their own terms. It is told from a singular viewpoint that I appreciate but can’t, from experience, emulate.

The author is an African American who writes for The Atlantic, and this is a collection of essays previously published in The Atlantic with additional short introductory essays that explain their backgrounds. They deal with Obama’s presidency in the context of the overall history of blacks in America and attempt to deal with why, in the author’s opinion, Obama’s presidency failed and brought on such a bizarre backlash in the 2016 election. Coates discusses white privilege, the breakup of black families, the powerful positive example of Obama’s wife, the real meaning of the Civil War from a black perspective, Malcolm X as a black role model, right-wing backlash to the Obama presidency, the case for reparations to African Americans, and the incarceration of black Americans as a method of control. There is also a fascinating summary of a long interview Coates had with Obama late in his second term.

Coates is an excellent researcher and writer and presents his arguments well. His voice has the ring of honesty backed up by hard facts. It’s a voice I need to hear, because, as I said, I cannot experience what he experiences first hand because I’m not black. Although I have lived much of my life in countries where I have been a minority of one, surrounded by people of other nationalities, most of those people were white. Even when I was traveling in India and my traveling companions were black Asian Indians and I would sometimes go days without seeing another white person, the situation is not the same, because I never in all that time, either from my friends or from strangers, received any intimation of a stigma of inferiority. No, I can’t really relate to being belittled, ostracized, and oppressed because of my race or skin color. That’s why I need people like Coates to set me straight. And that’s why I won’t attempt to summarize what he has to say. You need to hear it from him, not from me.

One point in his biography, though, I could relate to and empathize with, and that is his account of himself as a struggling writer. I’ve been there; I’m still there. Coates broke out into mainstream publishing due to a blog he started in which he poured out what he wanted to say and acquired a following of people who appreciated his words. The Atlantic took notice of the blog and hired him. In fact, then, he got his start as a self-published writer. In this I caught a ray of hope. Self-publishing, either through blogs or self-publishing book platforms, allows writers to express themselves without having to be screened by traditional gatekeepers. This gives an opportunity to anyone, regardless of race, gender, or other considerations, to speak freely without censure in the hope of acquiring a sympathetic audience. If, as in the case of Coates, you have something important to say and you can say it well, you have the possibility of readership through word-of-mouth. As I have said before, I see self-publishing as an important tool for writers from all backgrounds.

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A Second Look: Painsharing and Other Stories

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After nuclear war, a survivor of the monster-populated ruins of Oakland California joins the crew of a clipper ship sailing the waters of the Pacific.  A typhoon shipwrecks him on a tropical island whose inhabitants share a bizarre secret.

 Visitors from Earth on a far planet discover that a group of white tigers with enhanced intelligence are terrorizing the locals.  As one of the visitors escorts a young crippled girl back to her village the tigers begin to hunt them.

 At the edge of the solar system an interstellar spacecraft is ordered by an unknown power to change course and fly to Pluto; when it refuses to comply the entire crew is mysteriously killed.  An unlikely team goes to investigate and are confronted with a life-or-death conundrum stranger than anything they could have imagined.

 On a distant planet the ultimate civil punishment is to be genetically deformed into a monstrous beast and forced to live in the forbidden compound called Purgatory as slaves of the State.  When authorities arrest and condemn the woman he loves, a man determines to find and save her, even if he must descend into Purgatory itself. 

 In these and other gripping science fiction tales John Walters explores possible futures on Earth and other worlds.

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Book Review: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

I can’t remember the recent thought processes that caused me to desire to read Doctor Zhivago now, after all this time. The David Lean film was very important to me as a young teen. I saw it multiple times in the theater and more times on TV. I was utterly enthralled by the cinematography, the music, the story, the historical background, and the performances. It meant something different back then during the Cold War era than it does now. It had relevance; it was a hot topic. The novel was rejected in Russia and was first published in 1957 in Italy. In 1958, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, but Soviet backlash forced him to refuse the honor. In an article published in the Paris Review in December 2017, shortly before her death, Ursula K. Le Guin writes with admiration that a prize for refusing major awards should have been named the Boris Pasternak Prize in honor of this deed.

I had had a copy of the novel Doctor Zhivago when I was young, but the length and style daunted me and I never got around to reading it. I had been thinking about watching the film again, as certain scenes accompanied by the music had been playing in my mind, but decided to wait until my son arrives from the east coast in a month or so to join me. Reading the novel, I suppose, was a prelude to this event.

Once the decision was made, I had to choose which translation to go for. There are two major translations, both of which are applauded and criticized. From my research I found out that the early original translation flowed better but did not follow every nuance of the original Russian so closely. The newer translation was more meticulous but as a result much harder to follow. I decided to go for the older easier translation; I didn’t want to hamstring myself with a text that might not make sense in the literal rendering. Unfortunately, our local library system had many copies of the newer translation but only one 800-page large print edition of the older one. This version turned out to be rife with typographical errors; it was almost as if whoever was responsible didn’t bother to check the text at all. Nevertheless, I was able to ignore these as I read.

To be honest, the book starts slowly. I was about 300 pages or so in before it began to get interesting. The story begins with Zhivago as a boy witnessing his mother’s funeral. It follows his life as a young man as well as the background of Lara, his eventual lover, a corrupt lawyer named Komarovsky who torments and abuses Lara, and Pasha, a revolutionary who becomes Lara’s husband. The plot also unfolds around a number of secondary characters whose stories were trimmed from the film version. Zhivago and Lara meet at the front during World War I but remain chaste with each other. During the course of the war the Marxist revolution grows and spreads. The story really becomes interesting and absorbing as Zhivago and his family are forced to flee Moscow and take a long train ride across Russia to Varykino in the Ural Mountains. Zhivago’s father in law has an estate there where they all hope to find peace, but the peace is short-lived. Zhivago reunites with Lara and has an affair with her, but soon afterwards he is abducted by a faction of armies fighting in the countryside and forced to serve as a medical officer. Eventually he escapes, but only after his family has already fled back to Moscow and then to Paris. He and Lara have a brief, heartfelt affair and then are once again separated.

My summary of the plot is hopelessly brief and inadequate. As I mentioned, there are many nuances and subplots. Parts of the novel, for me, were slow and ponderous; others seemed unnecessary; there were moments, though, when Pasternak’s gift of poetry shines through in all its glory. This happens frequently when he describes the colors and landscapes of the cities, towns, and countryside in all seasons.

The glorious highlight of the book is when Zhivago, Lara, and Lara’s daughter go and live for a short time in an abandoned house in Varykino in the dead of winter. The town is deserted. They are all alone and isolated. They know that they have but a short time, as they are in danger of arrest or execution. In the midst of it all, Zhivago finds a pen, ink, and paper, sits down during the late night hours at a desk, and writes poetry. Pasternak’s description of the creative process, of sheer uninhibited abandonment to the writer’s art, is unparalleled, and I found the joy of discovering and reading these few pages worth the time it took to read the entire 800 pages of the book. He writes of Zhivago first putting to paper and revising poems he had already written, and then, as he starts on a new poem, inspiration takes over. As it does, language becomes the receptacle of beauty and meaning and assumes the power of a piece of music or the flow of a mighty river. When this happens, the writer is but a tool of universal thought and the poetry of the present and future. Ah, I don’t do it justice. I’m sure the translation doesn’t do it justice either. This is probably one of those sublime passages that can never be properly read except in the original language.

In short, I enjoyed reading this novel, but some parts were far more evocative than others. And I also highly recommend the film by David Lean, which remains one of my all-time favorite cinematic experiences.

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Book Review: A Fiction of the Past: The Sixties in American History by Dominick Cavallo

I came into the sixties indirectly – that is, in the backwash of the early seventies. Gone were the Diggers, the SDS, Woodstock, the Summer of Love, the whole Flower Power scene, and other manifestations that made the era so unique. When I moved to the Bay Area to attend university in 1970, a hopelessly naive and clueless seventeen-year-old, what I got full force were the drugs, the rock music, the cynicism, the growing violence of spirit, and the confusion that followed the dissolution of a short-lived dream. I took psychedelics, smoked grass and hashish, and listened to the Grateful Dead, Santana, and whatever else the people around me were playing at the time, including Black Sabbath, which always sent me into a negative funk and spiral of despair. I kept searching for a ray of hope in all the vague kaleidoscopic mélange of impressions, but found that whatever glimpses I received of stability, strength, and growth were mirages.

Still, the youth counterculture of the sixties and early seventies impressed me profoundly and became my formative influence as I returned to my hometown and eventually hit the road to find my voice as a writer. Since then, the era has fascinated me, and I have sought out history books and memoirs on the hippy phenomenon, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the politics of the time, and so on, that can help me make sense of what happened. I even wrote two mainstream novels that take place back then: The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen, set in a wilderness commune, Haight/Ashbury, and the Woodstock music festival in the late sixties; and Sunflower, which begins at the Altamont music festival during which a fan was murdered and then goes into the disillusionment of the cultural landscape in the early seventies.

All that to explain my interest in this book. At the end, the author reveals that the title is based on a quote from the essay “Walking” by Henry David Thoreau. It says: “Perchance, when, in the course of ages, American liberty has become a fiction of the past – as it is to some extent a fiction of the present – the poets of the world will be inspired by American mythology.” The author’s conclusion, basically, is that the various forms of rebellion put forth by white radicals from middle class backgrounds in the sixties failed. This is not intended to be a comprehensive history of the sixties – something I still haven’t found that would have to be much longer than this rather slim volume. Instead, it focuses on that one demographic: white people, mainly men, from fairly affluent families; and on three groups: the Diggers, who appeared as a form of countercultural street entertainment in San Francisco in the mid-sixties, rock groups from the Bay Area such as the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane; and the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS.

The first third of the book does not touch on the sixties at all; rather, the author describes child-rearing behavior in the fifties to attempt to explain why the sixties rebels behaved as they did. He posits that many middle class parents inculcated their offspring with a sense of independence that was further reinforced by the predominance of westerns in the popular media. The idea is that the pioneering spirit that spurred the move west in the United States crashed on the shores of the Pacific where there were no more worlds to conquer, and these young people, brought up to be individualists and free thinkers, translated that spirit into the sixties counterculture. Each of the three groups the author describes attempted to embody this spirit in its own way. The Diggers, which began as a Bay Area mime troupe, took their act to the streets, where they performed dramas intended to bring about changes in the minds of their audience. The popular musicians of the era expressed their rebellion in the deals they made with record companies, eventually achieving an unprecedented degree of autonomy that allowed them to pursue their own artistic visions. The members of SDS argued for a better sense of community and more involvement in local politics, but their movement fell apart for lack of a strong central vision to guide it.

This is an interesting book, but disjointed and far from complete. It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to take a slice of history out of context and attempt to explain it on its own terms. This is especially true of the sixties, during which such shattering events as the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam were of such overwhelming importance. No, this is not the sixties book I am looking for. I would like to see something comprehensive that at least attempts to tie all the pieces together. Perhaps such a book already exists, but if so, I haven’t found it. Maybe the subject is too big to be encapsulated in one volume. A Fiction of the Past also has the problem of being unbalanced. Far too much space is given to the childrearing methods of the fifties and the abortive SDS movement, and not enough on the ongoing effects of the hippie counterculture and rock music.

One point, though, that I found particularly interesting: The author explains the importance of rock musicians insisting on breaking with the convention of the big recording companies calling the shots and receiving unheard-of autonomy in the recording of their music. This reminds me of the self-publishing trend in modern literature today. It has given many literary artists the opportunity to pursue their individual visions without being thwarted or limited by overpowering publishing companies.

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