Book Review:  The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

This book is a fantasy that includes a ghost haunting a bookstore and a book that seems to bring death to those who read it. However, these elements are peripheral for much of the story, although they prove to be important as the main character achieves emotional resolution near the end. Despite its fantastical trappings, though, The Sentence is extremely relevant. At its heart are current events such as the COVID pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, and the riots that occurred in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.

The title of the book has multiple meanings. Its narrator, a Native American woman nicknamed Tookie, goes through a long prison sentence at the beginning of the book. A journal that she discovers has a sentence in it that seemed to have caused the death of Flora, the woman who haunts the bookshop. Additionally, Erdrich places a quote from Sun Yung Shin at the beginning of the book that says, “From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence.”

After he arrests Tookie, the tribal policeman who arrested her, a man named Pollax, quits his job. When she is released after several years in prison, he asks her to marry him and she accepts. Their devotion to each other no matter what is happening in the world around them is one of the poignant highlights of the novel.

Tookie loves books and works at a small independent bookstore that has a large selection of Native American literature. These aspects of Tookie’s character reflect the author’s own background. Erdrich owns an independent bookstore called Birchbark Books in Minnesota, where the story is set. We all went through the physical and social changes brought about by COVID, but Erdrich also saw firsthand the aftermath of the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder, as it happened in Minneapolis, where she lives and her bookstore is situated.

A great strength of this novel is Tookie’s complex character and strong narrative voice. She is flawed, vulnerable, but deeply heroic in her own way. When her husband Pollax gets COVID and has to spend a long time in the hospital, she is unable to visit or even directly communicate with him. In frustration, she sleeps in her car in a parking lot next to the hospital even though the weather is sub-freezing, just so that she can be near him. She and her family want to get involved in the protests that occur in the wake of Floyd’s murder, but they have to reckon with not only often-violent police suppression, but also the rapidly spreading pandemic. While all this is going on, Flora’s haunting of the bookstore begins to affect Tookie more personally and traumatically.

Erdrich is a writer of elegant simplicity. Her word choices, the cadence of her sentences, and her style are always spot-on. The story never drags, even when it focuses on Tookie’s reactions to the weather, the landscape, or the feeling of holding and observing her stepdaughter’s baby. This is a wonderful novel: a fantasy that also focuses intensely on the reality of our times. Highly recommended.

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Book Review:  Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border by Porter Fox

I love a good travel book, and I am grateful for the serendipitous discovery of this one on the library shelves. In it, the author writes of his journeys from east to west along the northern border of the United States. He does not do it on a single trip but in five separate sections over the course of three years. He describes the landscapes and people he encounters and also delves into the history of each region.

In the first section, called “The Dawnland,” he journeys mainly by canoe along rivers and lakes in northern Maine, following the U.S.-Canadian border as closely as he can. He tells of the situation of commercial fishermen in Maine and of Champlain and other early French explorers and their attempts to explore, claim, colonize, and exploit the northland, especially in relation to the fur trade.

The second section is called “The Sweet-Water Seas.” It concerns the Great Lakes, which straddle the U.S.-Canadian border. For this leg of the journey, Fox books a cruise on a freighter traversing the Great Lakes. He boards in Montreal; the freighter travels up the St. Lawrence River and crosses Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior. The author finally disembarks at Thunder Bay on the northwest shore of Lake Superior. As he journeys, Fox regales readers with stories about the exploration of the lakes and early shipping history.

Next, in the section called “Boundary Waters,” Fox writes about the trackless wilderness of forests and a thousand lakes in northern Minnesota. To explore this wild country, he hires a professional guide and goes on a three-day canoeing and camping expedition. He writes of the Indians who first arrived in the area and explorers and trappers called voyageurs who traversed this wilderness in search of furs as early as the seventeenth century.

The section called “Seven Fires” takes place in North Dakota. Here the author mainly travels by car, and his focus is on Native American protests of oil pipelines fouling the waters that their reservations depend on. He follows the history of the tribes of the northlands, particularly the Sioux.

Section five is called “The Medicine Line.” This is in reference to a phrase Indians used when they were being pursued by troops. When they reached the U.S.-Canadian border, the U.S. troops would stop chasing them and the Indians would be safe, at least for a time. The western stretch of U.S.-Canadian border that runs along the forty-ninth parallel is the longest straight stretch of border in the world. Although it runs through rugged wilderness, much of it is delineated by a physical line in which the trees and other foliage have been clear-cut and markers have been laid. Here Fox writes about the politics of establishing the border and the rigors expeditions went through while surveying and marking it.

The combination of history and travelogue balances very well in Northlands, making it an entertaining read. The author is highly observant and has a simple but intensely descriptive style. If you like travel, history, and adventure, you are sure to enjoy this book.

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“The Dead Shall Rise” in Spirit Machine

My short story “The Dead Shall Rise” has just been published in Spirit Machine: Tales of Séance Fiction. It is a limited edition anthology with a gorgeous cover. According to the publisher, the anthology “merges science fiction with spiritualism and a dash of steampunk.” There are twenty-eight stories in all, half steampunk and half science fiction. My story falls into the science fiction category. It involves an investigation into the inexplicable sightings of fully intelligent and coherent ghosts, first in a specific location in Seattle and then throughout the world.

Copies of the anthology are available on the publisher’s website here.

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Book Review:  We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinkster

In We Are Satellites, the sole science fictional element is a device called a Pilot, which has a blue glowing light and is implanted in a person’s head to supposedly optimize their awareness and productivity. The story is told in the alternating viewpoints of a four-member family: two mothers, a son, and a daughter. One of the mothers gets a Pilot and one doesn’t. The son gets one and then joins the military and later becomes a poster boy for the Pilot manufacturer. The daughter, due to her epilepsy, is unable to get one and joins an anti-Pilot movement. What we as readers learn about the public’s reactions to the Pilot program is all through the thoughts and activities of these four people.

At first I thought that Pinkster was going to get into the generic evil corporation trying to take over the world story, but her focus is more subdued – which strengthens the narrative. The corporation is doing evil things to make a profit, yes, but not much more than many corporations nowadays that create a pseudo-need and then convince consumers that they have got to have the new device. When I first started reading I supposed that it would turn out that the Pilots were only a prelude to government mind control. I had recently been reading the Book of Revelation in the Bible as research for a novelette I was writing. In chapter thirteen it talks about the mark of the beast on the forehead that the Antichrist would force on everyone. I thought that’s the direction that Pinkster’s story was going to take. When it didn’t, I was relieved; there are too many stories like that out there already.

The power of this novel is in the fragility and vulnerability of its characters. Sometimes the blatant mistakes they make are annoying: for instance, one of the mothers starts shouting at a military recruiter during a school event and as a result loses her teaching job; the daughter steals something important from her brother; the other mother lies to her family to cover up some mistakes. But then, even the best of families are sometimes dysfunctional; it is not perfection that unites them but acknowledgment of mistakes, repentance, and forgiveness.

This novel is a welcome relief from louder, brasher science fictional fare by writers who feel there have to be battles and explosions every few pages or readers might lose interest. Despite the technological gimmick at its core, it is a story about humans and their relationships with one another. Something like the Pilots posited in this tale could be introduced anytime in our real world, and even now there is technology we have to cope with that is every bit as intrusive. We are confronted with innovation every day, and we are continually forced to make decisions as to how we will react to it all. This novel reminds us that our relationships with those we love are what give us strength and meaning, not the profusion of gadgets by which we are surrounded.

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Book Review:  The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Libraries have been some of my favorite places on Earth ever since I was a child. When our family lived on lower Capital Hill in Seattle, my mother would drive me and my siblings to the Henry Branch Library on top of Capital Hill so we could explore the shelves and check out books. I would usually come home with a significant heap of literary treasures. Later, in my teen years, after I had come to the realization that I was a writer, I discovered the science fiction shelves at the Henry Branch and in particular the Nebula Awards volumes.

While raising our young family in Greece, it was sometimes difficult to find enough English language books to fuel the fires of my reading addiction, as I recount in my essay called “Treasure Hunt: Searching for Books in Thessaloniki,” although we had access to some of the best libraries in the city.

Nowadays, I mainly go to the Northeast Branch of the Seattle Public Library. I am more dependent on it than ever because my tight budget does not permit me to buy many books. It still thrills me to explore the shelves. Last year I received a devastating shock when the entire Seattle Public Library system shut down due to the COVID pandemic. I had to compensate by purchasing a few books but mainly rereading books I had on hand.

In The Library Book, author Susan Orleans uses her lifelong love of libraries to tell a fascinating tale based on the devastating fire that destroyed much of the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986. She uses that incident to weave multiple story threads about the fire itself, the investigation of the fire, the man who was suspected of starting it, how the building was repaired and the books salvaged, the history of the Los Angeles Library system, profiles of some of its main librarians, the history of book burning, the writing of Fahrenheit 451, the treatment of the homeless and other questionable library patrons, and other equally intriguing topics.

How could a book about libraries be such a page-turner? And yet it is. One reason is its focus on the library fire and the investigation of how it started and whether the crime of arson was involved. However, another reason is Orlean’s obvious love of libraries, which was instilled in her by her mother, who brought her to libraries and encouraged her to freely explore all the treasures within. That love comes through loud and clear. It is a love that I share and many other people do as well. Libraries are special civic institutions that welcome all visitors, poor or rich, simple or highly educated. They are available to everyone for education, enlightenment, research, entertainment – and yes, sometimes just because people need a quiet place to use the bathroom and escape from the turmoil outside.

This book was a wonderful discovery for me. Although it was published fairly recently, I had never heard of it until I found it by chance while – you guessed it – perusing the shelves at my local library. It’s a lively and fun read, and it effectively conveys the inestimable value of public libraries. Highly recommended.

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Book Review: The Best American Short Stories 2021 Edited by Jesmyn Ward and Heidi Pitlor

This collection is comprised of what is considered by the two editors to be the best “literary” short stories of the year, as opposed to the best genre short stories, which appear in different collections. As usual, though, two of the most interesting stories are, in fact, science fiction and fantasy respectively, showing that there is considerable overlap and subjective assessments when it comes to which stories are selected for the various volumes.

The science fiction story is “Love Letter” by George Saunders, which takes the form of a deceptively sweet missive from a grandfather to his grandson in a United States that has become authoritarian in the manner of George Orwell’s 1984. It is even more frightening because of its subtle references to current political realities. The fantasy story is “Portrait of Two Young Ladies in White and Green Robes (Unidentified Artist, circa Sixteenth Century)” by Jane Pek, which concerns two immortal women who wander the world, one of whom decides to forsake her immortality for a chance to get married and have children.

One of the strengths of this collection is the diversity of cultures and backgrounds in the stories. There are tales set in China, Japan, Nigeria, and other locales, and these settings are not just backdrops but are integral aspects of the plots and themes of the various stories. One of the weaknesses of the collection is that so many of the selections are more like descriptions or character studies instead of actual stories. This causes readers to sort of view them objectively from a distance for the artistic construction of their components rather than become immersed and involved in what is taking place with the characters. I read for quite a while before finding a story that felt like an actual story, that drew me in and made me care deeply about what was happening. This was “Paradise” by Yxta Maya Murray. This story features as first-person protagonist a black woman whose white husband has died. She and her daughter live with the blatantly conservative and intolerant father of her late husband in a town called Paradise in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. When a wildfire threatens the town, the protagonist wants to evacuate to save her daughter, while the father-in-law/grandfather wants to try and stay and protect his home and possessions. This story is based on the historical wildfire that swept through and all but destroyed Paradise in 2018. Another story that is intensely absorbing in terms of plot, character, and setting is “You Are My Dear Friend” by Madhuri Vijay, about an Indian woman who cannot have children and decides to adopt a child from a poor background who turns out to be disrespectful, disobedient, and almost feral. “Palaver” by Bryan Washington and “Biology” by Kevin Wilson, two of the shorter entries in the book that appear near the end, also work well in terms of highlighting mother-son and teacher-student relationships.

Another aspect of this collection I see as a weakness is that the editors have chosen to present the stories alphabetically by the names of the authors rather than arranging them balanced according to themes, characters, setting, length, and so on. A different arrangement would have made for an easier read. That aside, as usual, I would sum up by saying that there are stories I enjoyed, stories about which I was indifferent, and stories I had a hard time getting through – which is usual for this type of collection.

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Book Review:  The Greeks: A Global History by Roderick Beaton

This book is relatively new, having been published in 2021. It was recommended to me by one of my sons; soon afterwards I found out that another of my sons was also reading it. In short, it is a superb book, well-written and fascinating through and through. It begins in 1500 BC and follows the story of Greek-speaking peoples all the way through to the present, concluding with the effect of the COVID pandemic in Greece.

There’s a lot to tell. Greece only began to become an independent nation in 1821, and it didn’t assimilate all of its present geographical territory until 1947. However, when Beaton refers to the Greeks, he is not speaking merely of those who have inhabited the land mass of present-day Greece, but rather the people who preserved the Greek language and culture wherever they lived. For centuries Constantinople was the center of the Greek world, first under the Roman Empire, then under the Byzantine Empire, and then under the Ottoman Empire. Throughout most of Greek history, the Greeks were subjugated by one foreign state or another. Yet despite their troubled past, they managed to introduce the alphabet, the epic poetry of the Iliad and the Odyssey, drama, written history, and the concepts of the independent city state, politics, and democracy. Christianity was spread throughout the western world through Greek speakers and the New Testament, which was originally written in Greek. To attempt to summarize all the intriguing bits of information on Greek history and achievements that this book imparts in this brief review would be an overwhelming task. There’s no option but to read it for yourself; you won’t be disappointed.

This book was particularly enjoyable for me because so much of my past life is caught up with Greece and Greek people. I hitchhiked around Greece and visited some of the islands as a hippie traveler in the mid-1970s. Later, I married a Greek woman and we raised our five sons in Greece as bilingual Greek-Americans. I lived in Greece for almost twenty years. We spent a few years in Athens, but most of the time we were in Thessaloniki. For fifteen years I taught English as a second language in private language schools. I learned to read Greek, and I could speak it if I needed to shop or ask for directions, but it’s a tough language to learn. My wife and kids always had a good laugh if I would try to say something complex. My sons, though, spoke English at home but went to Greek-language elementary schools and high schools. They all live in the States now, but as dual nationals they have the elite privilege of getting the best of both cultures.

As for my own adventures in Greece, you can read all about them in my book After the Rosy-Fingered Dawn: A Memoir of Greece.

But back to Beaton’s book. If you are American or from any country in Europe or the Middle East, a lot of what you have been taught about philosophy, history, politics, logic, drama, art, and other subjects can be traced back to the ideas of Greek thinkers. There are large Greek communities in many parts of the world, including the United States, Australia, Great Britain, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, and many parts of the former Soviet Union. And even if you are one of the few people in the world who have never been touched by Greek influence, you will find this a stirring, intriguing, entertaining, and illuminating read.

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Book Review:  The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Fated Sky is a sequel to The Calculating Stars, and they are both part of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series. The Calculating Stars is a superb novel; it blew me away when I read it a year and a half or so ago. The Fated Sky is interesting and entertaining, but it suffers a bit from sequel syndrome. In the first novel, Kowal introduces the background of her alternate history: in the 1950s, a massive meteor strikes the east coast of the United States. It turns out to be an extinction-level event, propelling the nations of the world into an accelerated push towards a space program so that the solar system can be colonized. Kowal presents her story in the context of the fifties bias against women and minorities in favor of strong-seeming white men. The story is narrated by the Lady Astronaut, pilot Elma York, who is strong, determined, and brilliant.

This second novel carries on the story in the first-person narrative voice of Elma York. The moon has already been colonized, and an expedition for Mars is setting out. York is added as a crewmember almost at the last minute, mainly for the publicity when funding for the journey is at risk. Two ships with seven passengers each, as well as a supply ship, set out on the three-year return voyage. Most of the book takes place on York’s vessel, the Nina, as all sorts of things minor and major arise to challenge the wits and capabilities of the crews. For instance, at one point the toilet becomes clogged with a used condom, and York is tasked with attempting to clean up globs of urine floating in zero gravity. At another point, the crew of the other ship eats some bad food and everyone gets acute diarrhea; the cleanup this time is even more difficult. There are EVAs to be performed to repair a damaged cooling system and a broken radio antenna. Besides these physical problems, there is tension among the crew concerning the jobs that women and African Americans are given on the duty roster.

All of this sounds somewhat mundane, but in fact these details are what make this book fascinating. Kowal has obviously done her research, and these are the problems that astronauts would likely encounter on long journeys to far planets. This scenario is much more realistic than attacks from alien bug-eyed monsters.

For me this novel started sort of slow but I became more and more absorbed as I went along. One problem in the early stages is that Kowal assumes that you probably read The Calculating Stars first, and so you must be intimately familiar with the recurring characters and situation. For me, though, this was an errant assumption. After all, I had read the first book about eighteen months previously, and the only characters I could remember were Elma York and her husband. I vaguely remembered the alternative history background, but what the novel could have greatly benefited from would be a synopsis of the first book. (Sort of like what is done in volumes two and three of The Lord of the Rings.) A brush-up on the main characters and the situation would have enabled me to plunge right in at the beginning.

Still, despite my confusion at the beginning and the fact that it didn’t quite rise to the level of the previous book, I enjoyed this novel and recommend it. Just be sure to read the first one first.

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Book Review:  Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

I saw this book on the library shelves for several weeks before I decided to give it a read. That’s because I was so disappointed by Weir’s second novel, Artemis. Weir’s first novel, the one that catapulted him to international literary fame, was, of course, The Martian, which was turned into a major movie that received numerous awards and accolades. I never read The Martian, but I watched the film several times. On the strength of that story, I read Artemis, which is entertaining but ultimately a disappointment. The main character is unsympathetic; she is a petty smuggler who is willing to sabotage expensive industrial equipment just so she can improve her living conditions.

In Project Hail Mary, Weir returns to the perspective and focus that made The Martian such a hit: an emphasis on science, or at least pseudo-science, as the hero that saves the day. In The Martian, stranded astronaut Mark Watney must use his scientific knowhow to learn how to survive on Mars until he is rescued. In Project Hail Mary, the stakes are far greater. The fate of the entire planet is at stake. A single-celled space creature has begun to feed on the sun’s energy, and first-person protagonist Ryland Grace must figure out a way to stop the invading pests before the Earth and the rest of the solar system freezes. To accomplish this, he is sent on an interstellar mission to the Tau Ceti system; Tau Ceti is the only nearby star that has not been infested by the space plague, and he and his crewmates need to find out why. However, to complicate matters, when Grace arrives at his destination, he wakes up from a four-year coma with amnesia, and his crewmates are dead. Lo and behold, though, an alien ship has arrived in the system with a sole survivor and the same mission. Grace slowly recovers his memory in flashbacks that provide back-story. He also learns to communicate with the alien, a spider-like creature without eyes but with a heightened sense of hearing, and together they set about working together to save their respective worlds.

This all sounds wild and complex, and it is, but Weir makes it exciting, poignant, and credible with his emphasis on hard science supplying the answers to the innumerable crises that pop up one after the other. Grace is a scientific and mathematical genius, and his alien ally, whom Grace nicknames Rocky, is an engineering whiz. Their skills complement each other as they unravel the mystery of what the space plague is and how it can be defeated.

This all makes for a lot of fun and adventure. In fact, Project Hail Mary is the most entertaining hard science fiction novel I have read in a long time. I don’t know enough science or math to know whether Weir’s explanations make any sense, but they have verisimilitude, and that’s the important thing in a story like this. Of course he is making it all up, but as far as I can tell, he is using as much real science as he can in the process. It’s a lively read, and one of the great things about it is its escapism; it takes us off this planet to a faraway place where a lone human and his lovable alien sidekick attempt to rescue worlds from oblivion. If I have one qualification to my praise, it is that for me Weir throws in a few too many crises at the end. Everything that can possibly go wrong does go wrong, one thing after the other, and the hero Grace must use his ingenuity over and over to figure out the problems and come up with solutions. I kept thinking that finally they’ve done it; they’ve saved the day; and then something else comes up. But even these seemingly tacked-on crises are well-presented, exciting, and fun.

Weir is not a stylist. His prose is simple and direct, but that’s the approach that is needed in a novel in which the characterizations are subservient to the ideas. If you take it on its own terms, this is a terrifically entertaining novel. Highly recommended.

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The Relocation Blues Is Now Available!

The Relocation Blues: An Inquiry into Transitions, my latest memoir and thirty-first book, is now available in digital and print form. Pick up a copy by clicking on one of the links below. Here’s what it is about:

Life is full of transitional experiences: relocations from one place to another and one job to another, setbacks due to accidents and injuries, the loss of family and friends, and the metamorphosis from youth to old age. This lively memoir takes you on a journey through transitions the author has experienced while traveling abroad for thirty-five years, seeking a place to call home in his native United States, raising five sons, and pursuing excellence in the art of writing. Besides telling his fascinating tales of multitudinous changes, the author shares tips on how to adopt a lifestyle that makes transitions more manageable. As uncertainty and confusion threaten to overwhelm us all, this memoir is not only entertaining and exciting, but also relevant, timely, comforting, and helpful.

Trade paperback

Amazon Kindle

Barnes and Noble


Apple iBooks

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