What I Would Do in a Perfect World

I’m talking here about a subjectively perfect world, not a world in which there is no more war, crime, poverty, and so on. I’m talking about what I would do if I could do whatever I wanted, unencumbered by the need to spend most of my time in survival mode, struggling to earn enough money to pay for rent and utilities and transportation and food and clothing and all the other things we need to stay alive and comfortable.

I would be a writer, just as I am now. I would wake up early, just as I do now. Every morning, before anything else, my first task would be to compose my words. The ideas for these words would not be dictated by anyone else. They would be my words. I would set a word count of five hundred to a thousand words a day, just as I do now, and when I reached that word count, unless I was in a flurry of inspiration and had to finish a thought, I would stop, even if the words took only a short period of time to write and most of the day was still before me. I would stop because I had accomplished that particular task for the day, knowing that tomorrow I would sit down and open the tap and continue the flow. In the meantime, the essence of whatever I was working on would continually be refining itself in my subconscious.

If I had just finished a project and was ready to start something new, I would go through my idea files until something ignited a flicker of inspiration; I would take this flicker, fan the flame, and feed it fuel by writing five hundred words to get it started. If it began to go somewhere, I would continue it the following day. If it seemed to hit a dead end, I would set it aside along with other unfinished work. From time to time I would revisit it to see if it had begun to sprout new life.

Often my daily word count would not take long to accomplish. Since I have got up early, I still have much of the day before me. I would spend this time on mundane tasks such as exercise, shopping, cooking, and cleaning, but there would also be plenty of time for activities that stoke the creative fires such as travel, research, reading, and socializing. In mentioning travel in particular, I mean to imply that I would be able to carry on a schedule like this anywhere, so I would take off and roam the world for weeks or months at a time.

In the afternoons, after my nap (for decades I have taken a short nap after lunch), I would spend some time refining first drafts I had set aside for at least a few weeks so I could view them from a fresh perspective while proofreading. I would also conduct business associated with my writing such as corresponding with editors, formatting stories and books for self-publishing, and managing my website and other social media outlets. In the evenings I would relax and read, stream movies, and socialize.

It all sounds idyllic, at least to me. Most of these things I do already, with the exception of socializing (because of the pandemic) and traveling for weeks or months at a time. I have even begun to compose my five hundred words first thing in the morning, and for the most part it has gone well. I love those early morning hours when my mind has not yet become encumbered with the cares of the day. I have found that since I have made a habit of composing my words in the morning before I do anything else, my subconscious and conscious mind has picked up on it and most of the time when I sit down at the keyboard the words are all but bursting to be let loose onto the page.

The only problem is the survival thing. Since I don’t yet make enough money from my creative work, I currently have to spend much of the rest of the day looking for freelance jobs and writing essays and articles that will appear on other people’s blogs under their names, not mine. Still, I have a goal, and I’m working towards it the best I can. Who ever really achieves perfection anyway?

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Book Review:  War on Peace by Ronan Farrow

This book explores the efforts of the United States to deal with troubled parts of the world in light of the author’s premise, which is that more and more in recent decades, presidents are sidelining diplomacy in favor of military solutions. Farrow is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has also worked in the State Department, and so he is able to add firsthand accounts to his extensive research. He conducted interviews with all the living Secretaries of State and many of the other key players involved. Most of the book is taken up with the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the decades following the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001, but he also gives examples of how the U.S. military approach overwhelmed diplomacy in dealing with situations in Somalia, Egypt, Columbia, Iran, and North Korea.

War on Peace is not an easy read. Part of the reason is that it attempts to be so many things at once: a history, a memoir, and a critique of the way that military solutions are being chosen above diplomacy in the modern era. Part of the problem also has to do with its organization. It often initiates one argument or story thread, leaves it hanging, and then gets back to it chapters later, a technique that works well in novels but is confusing in nonfictional works that introduce multitudes of characters and situations. It would have been much easier to grasp if Farrow had told it chronologically as history or memoir instead of skipping around so much. It tries to do so many things that sometimes the facts seem to get all jumbled together. As a result, at one point a couple hundred pages in, I almost gave up. Having said that, however, I must emphasize that it is an important book that will reward a thorough, persistent read.

If nothing else, the comprehensive study of diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the last few decades highlights the complexity of the region’s political and social realities, the impossibility of providing a solution from outside even by a nation as powerful as the United States, and the failure of the military approaches that have been taken thus far. Basically these approaches have been based on the premise that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It began with the arming of Islamic extremists to evict the Russians from Afghanistan and continued with the arming of oppressive military regimes in Pakistan to combat Islamic extremists. These regimes, bankrolled by the U.S., tended to give lip-service to fighting terrorists by day while arming and supporting them by night.

As I write this, Afghanistan is once again the focal point of international attention. President Biden has ordered a withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban has swept in and taken over, and much violence has ensued. This book makes it clear that the present situation is only the tiniest tip of a very large iceberg. It also clarifies why all of our decades-long efforts have come to naught so quickly. From the very start, our presence there has always been based on confusion, lies, subterfuge, cover-ups, and cross-purposes.

As I read this book, I found it hard to imagine that this was the same region I hitchhiked and took local transportation through back in the mid-1970s. On one trip, I hitchhiked from Europe as far as Kandahar, Afghanistan, and then took buses to Kabul and over the Khyber Pass to Peshawar in Pakistan. On another trip I hitchhiked through southeastern Iran and southwestern Pakistan, bypassing Afghanistan because I didn’t have seven dollars to spare for an Afghani visa. In those days, both Kandahar and Kabul in Afghanistan had “freak streets,” which were roads lined with cheap hostels and restaurants catering to budget western travelers. It was dangerous to travel in these countries, sure, especially if you got caught with illicit drugs and tossed into one of the black holes they called jails or if you wandered off the roads and pathways that tourists usually stuck to, but these areas were not yet the permanent war zones that they would soon become.

In conclusion, in this book Farrow tells a fascinating history of diplomatic efforts in very troubled regions. I don’t know if he succeeds in making his point that diplomatic efforts might have provided solutions where military efforts failed. However, it is clear that whether or not diplomacy succeeds, it is a far better approach than shooting first and then attempting to sort out the resultant chaos.

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Book Review: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is an internationally known best-selling author known for his works of magic realism, fantasy, and science fiction. The two previous books I have read by him, though, Men Without Women: Stories and the novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage have been mainstream efforts. Since this novel is of moderate length compared to some of his other doorstoppers such as the massive novel IQ84, I decided to give it a try.

Kafka on the Shore follows two story lines that converge at the end in a surreal manner, although the protagonists of the two arcs never meet. One line follows a fifteen-year-old boy who has given himself the first name of Kafka. His account is narrated in first person present tense. He runs away from home, fleeing an abusive father. His mother and sister left when he was young, and he has no way to contact them. With only a backpack holding a few belongings he journeys to a distant city, where a young woman named Sakura helps him orient himself. He then finds a private library in an isolated area, befriends Oshima, the librarian, and has an affair with Miss Saiki, the administrator.

The parallel story tells of an old man named Nakata whose intelligence and memory was all but wiped out by a mystical experience when he was a child. Nakata is simple-minded, but he is more or less content with his life; plus he has the ability to talk to cats. After committing a murder that appears to take place in a dream, Nakata also embarks upon a quest. Along the way, he meets a congenial truck driver named Hoshino, and the two men travel together. Nakata is concerned with finding an entrance stone, a portal into a strange alternate reality. It soon becomes apparent that this relates to the odyssey that Kafka has undertaken.

It also becomes apparent as the novel progresses that Murakami is undertaking a modern retelling of the story of Oedipus. According to Greek mythology, Oedipus fulfills a tragic prophecy by killing his father and marrying his mother. Kafka believes that he is cursed to murder his father and have sex with both his mother and his sister. Murakami is intricately evasive about how all this plays out in a scenario rife with dreams whose activities have consequences in real life and an alternate world that the entrance stone opens where time works differently.

I don’t want to give too much away, because that would deprive you of the pleasure of discovering it for yourself. Despite the tragic, sometimes puzzling, sometimes gruesome, and sometimes erotic narrative, Murakami holds the story together with consummate skill. Sometimes when other writers attempt stylistic flourishes such as switching back and forth from first person present tense to third person past tense to accounts taken from reportage, the efforts come across as contrived. However, Murakami makes the complex narrative seem effortless and easy to follow. He is a very talented writer who brings considerable skill and imagination to his tale. Get hold of a copy and find out for yourself.

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Once More unto the Breach: My Latest Move

Sometimes when I take my daily walks in this quiet, tree-lined neighborhood in north Seattle I find myself envying the owners of the houses I pass with their commodious interiors, spacious yards, and landscaped gardens bursting with flamboyant foliage. They possess their own property and can shape it to their will; they have a space that they can call their own. So it has not been for me, at least since I left Greece with my sons in 2012 and moved back to the United States. It has been one rented house or apartment after another, and every time I have managed to establish a routine, extenuating circumstances of one sort or another have forced another move.

And thus it has happened again. Until now, one or more of my sons has always been living with me, and so we have had to have appropriately-sized accommodations. Now, though, my youngest son is about to head off to college and I can downsize. If I could count on the rent staying the same in the place where we have been living I might have not bothered with the move and stayed there, but the landlord has assured me that as soon as COVID restrictions are lifted, the rent will be raised significantly. By shifting into a one-bedroom unit in the same compound, at least for a year I can lock in a slightly lower rent than I am paying now.

What’s the fuss? you might say. You’re only shifting from one unit to another in the same apartment complex. That should be easy. Not so. The unit I am moving into is at least a city block away from the one I have been living in, and in between is an obstacle course of other buildings, slopes, and steps. There is the matter of purging enough furniture and other items so that my belongings fit into the new place. And there is the packing, the lifting, and the carrying. The purging took weeks and is still ongoing even in the aftermath of the event, and the move itself took several full days. A move like this is traumatic. It involves uprooting and replanting, ripping out one phase of a life and patiently allowing a new phase to begin to grow. When I was in the midst of it I had to press forward resolutely even during periods of exhaustion and despair. A quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V came to me. I used it at the beginning of America Redux, my memoir about returning to the States after thirty-five years abroad, and it seems equally appropriate in this situation.

Once more unto the breach, my friends, once more…

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility

But when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger;

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood…

Now set the teeth and set the nostril wide,

Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit

To his full height…

For there is none of you so mean and base,

That hath not noble luster in your eyes.

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,

Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot…

You might say: But Shakespeare was writing about war; you’re only talking about moving from one location to another. If you look at the activities literally, perhaps. But moving, uprooting your life and transplanting it somewhere else, is in fact a metaphorical battle, especially if you do it over and over with no end in sight. Once, in the days of my youth, drifting from place to place was fun, but I am weary of such moves. I truly have to summon up strength and resolve to go through it yet one more time.

As I mentioned above, for weeks before the move I sought to lighten the load by getting rid of things I didn’t need. That meant taking a trip to Goodwill in a borrowed car to get rid of household items I never used, and dropping books and DVDs off at little free libraries in the neighborhood while on my daily walks. Whenever I contemplated how many things I still had left in terms of having to move them from one place to another, I still felt burdened and stifled. As I began to pack everything into boxes and bags, the process seemed endless. The new apartment was in the process of being cleaned; the assistant manager had shown me a similar unit so I could get an idea of the size and layout, but as yet I had not even seen the apartment I had committed to. He said it was not policy to show units before they were ready. The reality was that this complex was inexpensive compared to normal rental prices in this part of the city, and units were generally claimed almost immediately after they became available and long before they were ready to show. That didn’t bother me so much; I had moved into my previous unit sight unseen; my sister had arranged it for me while I was still living in Yakima.

What caused me stress was the short window I had to accomplish the actual move. It was ironic that now, when I needed their physical assistance the most, all five of my sons were out of town. This was the first time in years that at least one or two of them wasn’t around. Desperately I sent out an email to relatives requesting assistance.

Meanwhile, I negotiated with the management office for a window in which to accomplish the move without having to pay overlapping rents. In the end, all they could offer me was one weekend. I would receive the keys late Friday morning, and the move had to be completely accomplished by late Monday morning.

I packed things into suitcases, boxes, and shopping bags. It was not only my stuff but that of my sons. One or another would stay for awhile, take off for somewhere else, but leave things for me to store for them. There seemed to be no end to it all. It was like the many-headed Hydra that Hercules battled: as soon as I filled up one container, more stuff sprouted up all around me.

And still I had no confirmed offers of assistance. If I only had more time! I daydreamed of the new unit being already empty and cleaned; I could carry over a few things a day at my leisure, and eventually I would have most of it shifted from one place to the other. Instead, as the scheduled weekend approached, I was attacked with intermittent paroxysms of uncertainty. Would someone come? How could I possibly do this?

Just a few days before the deadline, I received affirmations of rescue. One of my big strong younger brothers called and said he’d come on Sunday with his pickup to help me move the heavy furniture. A sister, her husband, and another brother showed up on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to help me with the multitudinous lighter items. It was a frantic three days, no doubt, but it all got done. I was left, by Sunday night, with a mountainous heap of belongings crammed in disarray into the new place. I had to get my food from outside, but I managed in the midst of the jumble to carve out enough space to set up a bed frame and mattress so I could sleep.

In the film series Lethal Weapon, as maniacal bad guys shoot at them and his younger partner Mel Gibson cackles with glee, the aging police officer played by Danny Glover often exclaims in dismay, “I’m getting too old for this shit.” That quote occurred to me numerous times during this move. And yet… Life is all about transitions. The only time you really stop moving is when you die. By then, your spirit will be long gone, going through more changes, exploring new worlds. Until then, we get through the difficult parts as best we can. The good news? Despite all the heavy lifting over a period of days, my back and muscles suffered no ill effects, not even unusual aching. The often tedious-seeming routine of calisthenics and yoga that I have been doing for decades paid off after all.

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Book Review: Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

I made the mistake of watching the movie before reading this book. That was not a good idea. As a general principle, always read the book first. I find the movie a lightly entertaining romantic comedy set in a lovely location, but all the romantic comedy elements have been added and are not part of the original book.

In the film, Frances Mayes, the author, becomes part of a group tour of Tuscany after a nasty divorce, comes across an old dilapidated villa with overgrown grounds near an ancient village called Cortona and decides to buy and restore it. She has all kinds of mishaps, misadventures, and romances, as do the minor characters such as the villagers and the workers who assist her, and in the end she meets an American writer and there is promise of a romance to follow.

All of this is made up specifically for the film except the part where Mayes buys a house near Cortona in Tuscany. The book has none of the romantic plot points. It is a straightforward and beautifully written account of Keyes and her partner (they are not married but they have a solid relationship) searching for years for a house and property to buy in Italy, settling on the villa near Cortona, going through the red tape of purchasing it, and then restoring the house and its extensive grounds. There are no emotional crises at all, and the only difficulties and tension are in the amount of work involved and the unreliability in the scheduling of the Italian and Polish workers who assist them.

It’s okay, though, that the movie and the book are so dissimilar. Personally, I much prefer the book, but that’s because I would much rather read a well-written travel book than watch a light romantic comedy. And this book is very well-written. In its best passages, when Mayes evokes the beauty of the landscape, the history, the culture, the people, and the cuisine of Tuscany, it renews in me an appreciation for the simple joys of life: travel in stunning landscapes, delicious local cuisine, and profound friendships. I too have journeyed in foreign lands and savored these pleasures.

This brings me to one of the irritants of the book, at least for me personally. The story is told from the viewpoint of the wealthy, and in telling its tale of dreams come true, it takes endless supplies of money for granted. Keyes and her partner Ed are both university professors based in the Bay Area with no dependent children. They have a commodious apartment in San Francisco and can still afford to purchase a large expensive property in Italy and pour seemingly limitless amounts of funds into their restoration project. They have their entire summers off, during which they fly every year to Italy, work on their house, take tours around Tuscany, purchase antiques and fine wines, and eat elaborate multi-course meals in restaurants whenever they want. This is not a reality that many people can relate to. It is more like a fairy tale or pipe dream, an unattainable fantasy. When I traveled the world, it was on a shoestring budget, or usually, in fact, on no budget at all. When I visited Tuscany it was in someone else’s camper, and I never would have been able to afford a multi-course meal in a restaurant, not even once. When I hitchhiked through Europe back in my hippy travel days, my compatriots and I would seek out the least expensive hole-in-the-wall restaurants and order the cheapest things on the menu.

I probably came closest to doing what Mayes and her partner did, albeit on a much humbler scale, when my Greek wife and I raised our family in Thessaloniki. Our first house (actually one section in a triplex) was in a beautiful village in the hills east of the city. When we bought it, it was unfinished, and the contractor gave us the pleasure of choosing paint colors and tiles for the floors, kitchen, and bathrooms. After we moved in, I would buy fresh fruit and vegetables at weekly street markets and our meat from local butchers, and my wife would cook delicious Greek dishes. Of course, our circumstances were vastly different; my wife and I both worked fulltime, we had five kids to raise, and so we were on an extremely tight budget. We saved up our money so that we could afford to go to a nice restaurant maybe once or twice a year.

It’s okay, though, that most people would be unable to do what Mayes and her partner did. When people read fairy tales, they don’t expect to really become kings, queens, princes, or princesses. You can enjoy armchair traveling even if you might never be able to visit these places yourself.

There’s only one place in which the book takes a resounding pratfall. Near the end, Mayes devotes a chapter to comparing the Catholic religion, customs, and shrines she sees all around her with the voodoo and superstitions she remembers from her childhood in Louisiana. This doesn’t really make much sense. Up until this point, she has professed her agnosticism but at the same time shown respect, appreciation, and even veneration for the churches and icons that are all around her in Cortona and the rest of Tuscany, while in this chapter she seems to deride them. Apart from this one deviance from her general tone, though, this book is a pleasant, sensual tour through a truly lovely part of the world.

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Book Review: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

For a long time I had avoided reading this book because of the tragic ending to the story of Chris McCandless. In brief, after he graduated from college, McCandless took off on the road and disappeared. He never contacted his parents again. His car was found abandoned in a desert wash. He roamed the U.S. West and Midwest, sometimes taking odd jobs and sometimes camping alone in the wilderness. In the spring of 1992 he left for Alaska on what he considered the ultimate adventure. He hitchhiked to the beginning of a rough path known as the Stampede Trail, which is just north of Denali National Park, hiked into the wilderness, forded a river, and came to an abandoned school bus, where he set up camp. The bus had been hauled there decades before by a construction company working on the trail to be used as accommodation for its crew; as a result, it was partially fitted out as a refuge. Month later, McCandless’s remains were found in the bus by hunters. He had become ill, had been unable to hike out, and had starved to death.

A popular movie was made of Into the Wild, but this movie was one of the reasons I never tackled the book. I didn’t like it. It depressed me. I couldn’t bring myself to revisit a story that begins so optimistically and ends in such disaster. Maybe I’ll try the movie again now that I have read the book. We’ll see. The point I want to make here, though, is that the book is completely unlike the movie. The movie necessarily dwells on the character of McCandless and recounts his odyssey more or less in chronological order. The book takes a different approach that allows Krakauer to delve much deeper into the situation. At the beginning, it presents McCandless’s death as a given, and then it focuses on Krakauer’s investigation into what exactly happened and why it happened. Half the book or less is taken up directly by McCandless’s story; the rest is comprised of the results of interviews with his family, friends, and people who met him and briefly knew him as he traveled around from place to place.

Ultimately, the book is as much about Krakauer as it is about McCandless. In fact, it devotes two entire chapters to describing a solitary journey that the author made into the Alaskan wilderness to climb a mountain when he was about the same age as McCandless. He also gives examples of other people with ideals similar to McCandless’s who went off to live in the wilderness. And herein is the strength of the book and why it made such a profound impression on me. The main question becomes not so much what exactly happened to McCandless but why he did what he did. Many people, Alaskans especially, derided McCandless, after his body was discovered, as a neophyte who had no business out there in the wild by himself. In telling his own story and that of other adventurers, Krakauer points out that the difference between McCandless and the others was that McCandless had the misfortune not to survive. If he had lived, walked out, and gone on about his life, he might have written about his experience in first person and been acclaimed as a hero. As it was, his tragic death ignited great controversy.

What Krakauer’s investigation into McCandless’s motives does is put the spotlight on what makes free spirits want to cut loose from society and seek alternative lifestyles. This makes McCandless’s journey triumphant instead of tragic. It also explains why I was able to get into the book so deeply and empathize so intensely with McCandless. I too forsook most of my possessions, threw a sleeping bag and a few other items into a duffle bag, and took off on the road with no certain destination in mind, as I recount in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search. My journey took me across the United States, through Europe, and across the Middle East to India. At various places along the way, I was tempted to go off into the wild on dangerous adventures. While hitchhiking through Afghanistan, I imagined walking alone through the Hindu Kush Mountains. While traveling by train through Pakistan, a Norwegian wanderer and I discussed obtaining a boat and taking it down the Indus River. Both of these ideas were impractical and intensely dangerous.

My McCandless-type adventure occurred when I journeyed to Nepal. While in Sri Lanka, I realized that I didn’t have enough money left to go all the way to Nepal and then travel overland back to Europe, as had been my original plan. I decided I had to go to Nepal anyway, even if I ran out of money; I had come too far to miss it. I took trains and buses to Katmandu, Nepal, stayed there for awhile, and then took a bus westward to Pokhara, a smaller city in a gorgeous setting surrounded by Himalayan peaks. After spending the night in my sleeping bag by the lakeside (because I couldn’t afford a room) I took a walk to the edge of the city. I hadn’t planned to go trekking, but as I gazed at those lovely mountains I realized I just had to explore them, so I threw my duffle bag over my shoulder and set out on the first path I found. The path had no signposts, and I was all alone with no map. I simply started walking upward, on and on through meadows and forests, across rope bridges, always upward, until just before dark I came to a small village, where I was able to get an all-I-could-eat meal of rice and yellow lentils and a bed in a dormitory for next to nothing. The next day, I continued on my trek up into the mountains.

At some point, though, I climbed a hillock near the trail, sat down, and meditated. I had almost reached the snowline. I understood that if I continued on into the snowy wastelands, I would die. There was nothing up there to keep me alive. I had reached this point because I had got fed up with civilization and all its foibles and confusion. Up here everything was so serene and peaceful, while down there… However, I realized that I had to go back down and learn to find serenity even when surrounded by others, and so I did.

Like Krakauer, I was one of the lucky ones who survived. I met other poor travelers, though, who seemed to have been overcome by the immensity of their quest. There was the Australian I met in Katmandu who imagined he had received a revelation that humans were supposed to eat only fruit and psychedelic mushrooms and was slowly starving to death. There was the emaciated German with long tangled hair and beard, also in Katmandu, who wore only a loincloth and who squatted down and intensely studied a wriggling worm on the path before carefully  picking it up and tying it onto his walking stick with a piece of thread.

Krakauer’s point is that there is risk involved when we venture forth to follow our dreams. You may survive, like he did, and I did, or you may die in the attempt, like McCandless did. Either way, if you have honesty, integrity, and courage, when the call comes, you cannot ignore it.

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Book Review: Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound by David B. Williams

I was born in a hospital in Seattle and raised in the Puget Sound area of the state of Washington. In my childhood and young manhood I have fished for salmon and rockfish, dug for clams and geoducks, and confronted a black bear in a forest on the Olympic Peninsula. Then I took off on the road to find my voice as a writer and returned to this enigmatic area after living overseas for thirty-five years. Much has changed. The hospital in which I drew my first breath no longer exists, and gone are the days when it was possible to go salmon fishing and come back, as my family did, with the back end of the station wagon weighed down with a heaping pile of fish. One expedition like that a year would supply us with many months’ worth of salmon for freezing, canning, and smoking.

Having visited dozens of countries and observed a number of places renowned for their visual splendor, I can tell you with certainty that the Puget Sound region is one of the most beautiful spots on the planet. Homewaters takes a close look at the area, its first human inhabitants, and its non-human denizens with appreciation and even reverence. As I read this history, I became nostalgic as scene after scene of decades-old memories played on my inner cinema screen, but even readers who were not raised here can enjoy a close look at a fascinating and enigmatic region of the world.

The book begins with an interesting analysis of how various places in the sound were named by indigenous peoples and by European explorers. This is followed by a geographical description of Puget Sound past and present and then an overview of the history of the first human inhabitants, the various tribes that inhabited (and still inhabit) the sound, and the invasion of the area by Europeans. There follows an analysis of warfare between various indigenous tribes and military efforts to fortify the area against foreign intrusion. Another interesting section tells of the evolution of transportation on the waterways of the sound, starting with the well-crafted canoes of Native Americans, then the locally owned “mosquito fleet” of small ships, and finally the elaborate network of the state ferry system.

Up until this point, the main emphasis of the book has been the human history of Puget Sound. Williams then devotes several chapters to the unique denizens of the waters of the sound, including the vast underwater kelp forests, the swarms of herring, the deep-dwelling rockfish, the shellfish (primarily clams, geoducks, and oysters), the salmon, and the massive awe-inspiring orcas. Each of these chapters on natural history provides a before and after look, comparing past abundance with current depletion. The author makes a strong case for strict regulations to curb pollution and limit consumption of the sound’s edible inhabitants so that the ecosystem can recover from the ignorant greed and decimation of the past.

This is an entertaining book about a singular and beautiful part of the world. If you’re from the Puget Sound area, you’ll enjoy reading about your home turf. If you’re from anywhere else, you’ll thrill to a vicarious journey to a land of towering evergreens, fecund waters, and fascinating wildlife.

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Dealing with Imposter Syndrome

An interesting thing happened this morning while I was conducting a bit of research before beginning this essay. If you search online for articles on imposter syndrome, you will find no end of them, including from prestigious publications such as Scientific American, Healthline, and Psychology Today. It’s a real thing, and according to these articles a large percentage of high achievers have it. Here is what threw me, though. According to these articles, imposter syndrome afflicts high achievers, not ordinary folks. And all of a sudden I was stricken with the horrible realization that I’m not good enough to have imposter syndrome – I must simply be a genuine loser. That’s not true, of course, but you can see how insidious this psychological malady is.

So what is imposter syndrome? Basically it is a feeling that you are a professional fraud, that despite your accomplishments you don’t believe that you deserve the respect, attention, honors, or position that you have earned. The articles on this condition list various ways in which it manifests, but basically it comes down to a feeling of unworthiness and a fear that others around you will uncover you for the fake you are. Imposter syndrome can be debilitating; it can prevent you from continuing to take chances and take steps to further your career.

And I must have it really bad. Here I am telling myself: You can’t have imposter syndrome – you’re not good enough! I’d have a good laugh if it wasn’t so tragic. Let’s look at this objectively. Am I worthy of this affliction? I’ve published almost thirty books. I have enough professional credits to have been able to become a full member of Science Fiction Writers of America, which was a goal of mine ever since I decided that there was nothing in life for me but to become a writer almost fifty years ago. As a young writer, determined to find my own unique voice, I took off on the road, enduring countless hardships in my single-minded pursuit of writing excellence. Now, I write every day, seven days a week, no matter what else is going on in my life. There’s no doubt; if I look at my career objectively, I deserve to have imposter syndrome, damn it! My failures and shortcomings have nothing to do with the quality or quantity of the writing itself, but rather from what I perceive as low levels of success and wealth when I compare myself with my peers.

And there’s the danger inherent in imposter syndrome: comparing yourself with others. Recognizing this danger, though, also offers a solution. The key is to focus on your own goals and the path you take to achieving them. As a writer, the words, thoughts, emotions, and ideas that you want to communicate erupt from within. The only way you can really be an imposter is if you imitate or copy other writers, or even worse, hire ghost writers to compose the words for you and then claim them as your own. The way you become a real writer is by writing. All the rest are bells and whistles, including fame, money, awards, and so on. Remember: making a lot of money or winning an award does not make you a writer. You are a writer if you write. You are an imposter if you take credit for writing that you didn’t write. It’s as simple as that.

As for accomplishments, if you write a piece and keep it on the market until it eventually sells, you have earned that credit. If you sell enough words to qualify for membership in an organization for writers, you have earned the ability to associate with your peers. Look to your own art and your own career. It is yours and no one else’s. The comparisons are what kill you. Looking around and comparing yourself with others when you are striving to reach your goals is like losing concentration while walking a tightrope or climbing a mountain cliff. Instead, walk your walk until you get where you’re going. It is pointless to compare your location with that of others. Every person has their own path. As Whitman says in “Song of Myself” when he hooks his arm around the waist of his fellow traveler and points to the open road, “Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you, you must travel it for yourself.” How can you possibly be an imposter on a path that is yours alone?

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Book Review: The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020 Edited by John Joseph Adams and Diana Gabaldon

The Best American series, which in recent years has come to include separate volumes of science fiction and fantasy stories, has a distinctive method of selecting its stories. The series editor, who stays the same year after year, reads as many stories published in the genre as he can manage and selects his favorites (in this case a total of eighty – forty science fiction stories and forty fantasy stories) for perusal by a yearly guest editor. The guest editor then selects ten each of science fiction and fantasy for inclusion in the book. Unfortunately the editor of this series has decided not to allow any self-published material to be included, even though self-published stories are beginning to appear on more and more genre awards lists. I suppose it is to cut down on what is already an onerous amount of reading material. Still…

Because of the way the stories are chosen, the Best in the title is a bit of a misnomer; Favorite would be more accurate, because, of course, even if numerous guest editors read the same batch of eighty stories, the table of contents would be different from one editor to the next. People simply don’t have the same tastes. That’s why there is seldom much overlap in the various best of the year volumes that come out in any given year – because the editors are choosing their personal favorites, and their tastes do not match. Be that as it may, bringing in different guest editors each year for this series gives each entry a distinct flavor. Unlike the series editor, most of the guest editors do not edit professionally, so we receive a unique look at the idiosyncratic reading preferences of a range of writers.

A few of the stories in this volume are repeats from Jonathan Strahan’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction, which I reviewed back in March, but not many. (If you want to find out more of the stories that were my personal favorites from 2020, read that review.) Most of the stories I read for the first time here. As almost always with story anthologies, there were some I liked a lot, some that to me seemed mediocre, and some that I found tedious and difficult to get through. Thus it almost always is with personal tastes.

One of my favorites is “Between the Dark and the Dark” by Deji Bryce Olukotun. Two hundred starships have been sent out from a dying Earth to colonize new worlds; the twist, however, is that the behavior of the crews is being monitored by designated stewards. These watchdogs of propriety have the power to send out a signal and obliterate all the would-be colonists if they detect inappropriate activities. A steward observes a video that appears to indicate cannibalism among the crew, and then a debate ensues about whether to terminate everyone onboard the ship. Another great story, less somber but more delightful, is “Thirty-Three Wicked Daughters” by Kelly Barnhill. It is a humorous fantasy romp with a lot of unexpected twists.

I also enjoyed “Sacrid’s Pod” by Adam-Troy Castro. This story begins with a locked box premise. A free-thinking young woman is imprisoned for life by straight-laced fundamentalist parents in a prison deep in space run by autonomous AI entities. Her dilemma is how to escape and get back to terrorize her parents and help them see the errors of their ways.

A story that is thematically relevant to the present day is “Thoughts and Prayers” by Ken Liu. A young woman is killed in a mass shooting, and her mother posts a sweet memorial online. However, the memorial and the young woman are attacked by trolls, who have become ubiquitous and unstoppable. The story calls into question the concepts of truth and of free speech in an era in which almost anything goes online.

In closing, we’ll recall a quote from the movie Forest Gump: “Life is a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.” So it is with short story anthologies. It is inevitable that readers will enjoy some stories more than others. We read them for those delicious goodies hidden among the mix.

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Book Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I might never have attempted to read War and Peace if it had not been for the enthusiasm of one of my nephews. I know him to be intelligent and discerning, and he told me that War and Peace was his favorite novel. The subject came up now and then over the following few years until recently he sent me a copy of the novel for my birthday. This, of course, stifled all excuses.

There are several translations and numerous editions of this novel. The one I have is the Penguin Classics edition translated by Rosemary Edmonds. Although it is a paperback, it is the size and weight of a brick. The text of the novel comes out to 1,444 pages of small, barely readable print. It is so hefty it was often uncomfortable to read. I often read lying down with pillows propped up behind me, and I had to find a position in which I could support the weight of the book with my forearm.

With a book like this, you have to sort of draw a deep breath and plunge in, and that’s what I did. It took me several weeks to read the whole thing. In the beginning, it’s sort of discouraging when you see where your bookmark rests and realize how slow your progress and how much there is still to go, but that feeling soon goes away. In fact, once you start, it is no chore to keep going. Despite its length, most of the book is a real page turner.

Basically the novel covers the lives of the members of several aristocratic Russian families from the years 1805 to 1820. This was during the time that Napoleon invaded Austria and then moved on Russia; he made it all the way to Moscow, occupied it for a short time, left it in flames, and then retreated in ignominious defeat, losing massive amounts of personnel along the way.

I have watched a few filmed versions of War and Peace, specifically the movie with Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda, and also the recent BBC miniseries. However, these did not prepare me for the grandeur of the novel. Tolstoy, using third person omniscient point of view, plunges deeply into the minds of his characters. You get to know them intimately and really care what happens to them.

The story begins in Saint Petersburg at an aristocratic gathering, where it introduces some of the main characters, and then moves on to Moscow, where more characters are introduced. It first, at least to me, comes across as some sort of elaborate sophisticated soap opera similar to Downton Abbey, except that instead of following both the aristocrats and the servants, it focuses solely on the aristocrats. It does not really come into its own as a complex, nuanced work until the scene shifts to the war in Europe and the Battle of Austerlitz. After that point, Tolstoy alternates extended scenes in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, various country estates, and various battlefields as Napoleon advances.

Throughout the book, the story unfolds through the lives of certain main characters, specifically members of the Bezuhov, Bolkonsky, and Kuragin families and their friends, acquaintances, and enemies. Napoleon is a character, as is Alexander I, the tsar of Russia. Each of these people has a whole flock of attendants supporting them. One of my objections to Tolstoy’s approach in this novel is that the serfs, servants, and other lower-class personages are all treated like furniture in the background. They are always there, but very little attention is paid to them or their needs. They are taken for granted and are always loyal, as if they were appliances there for the convenience of their masters and mistresses. Like Downton Abbey, which I watched a few seasons of, you have to relegate this aspect of society to the historical background, so to speak; it grates modern sensibilities, but it’s an inevitable part of the story during that era. In the beginning (which in this novel means the first several hundred pages) almost all of the characters, even those who turn out to be sympathetic viewpoint characters, are so vain, self-centered, and oblivious to their selfishness, and commit so many devastating blunders, that it’s impossible not to feel that they deserve the horrendous travails and societal upheavals to come, and surely Tolstoy intended this.

Tolstoy’s story is magnificently epic, and when he sticks to what’s happening to his viewpoint characters, it is well told. He moves from Saint Petersburg to Moscow to battlegrounds and back, advancing the lives of the characters and at the same time building momentum for Napoleon’s advance into Russia, its impact on everyone Tolstoy has introduced, and the inevitable collapse and flight of Napoleon and his army. My biggest objection to the book is the ponderous treatises on history that Tolstoy throws into the mix. These pontifications really gum up the works. There are short essays on history and philosophy throughout the book, especially in the sections that have to do with battles, but part two of the epilogue, about forty pages in my version, is a pedantic lecture on Tolstoy’s opinions concerning the theories of how history occurs, and this last part can easily be skipped. In fact, the novel would be much stronger if these essays on history were eliminated. This would also make the book at least two hundred pages shorter.

I didn’t want to miss anything, though, so I plowed through the whole thing, boring pedantic essays and all. It is worth it for the gems you encounter when Tolstoy is telling of the lives of his main characters. There are some scenes that are so perfect that they bring tears to the eyes. One is when Prince Andrei is dying and turns his attention away from the concerns of life and onto eternal verities. Another is when Pierre is captured and forced to march out of Moscow with the retreating French army; he meets another prisoner, a simple soldier, whose philosophy of positivity and gratitude changes his life. Some characters suffer, some characters die, but Tolstoy eventually brings his story to a satisfying conclusion. I would recommend this book; however, if you are a slow reader like I am, get into it when you have several weeks of reading time to spare.

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