Book Review: I, Asimov: A Memoir by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov was an amazingly prolific writer. Although he is probably best known for his science fiction novels and stories – the Foundation series, for instance – he wrote and edited over five hundred books on a wide range of topics. When I skimmed the Wikipedia article on him, I discovered that his books cover nine out of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System, the exception being philosophy and psychology. Besides his fiction, in which he specialized in science fiction and mysteries, he wrote books on general science, astronomy, geology, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, etymology, history, humor, the Bible, and annotations on other classic works of literature.

In this memoir, Asimov makes it clear that his prolificacy is due to the fact that he loved to write. Nothing made him happier than to hole up in his apartment with his typewriter all day long. He disliked traveling, especially traveling by plane, and also disliked any interruptions of his work routine at all except occasional get-togethers with congenial friends for meals. Reading about Asimov’s attitude towards writing, in fact, clarified my own. I don’t need to be writing all day long as he did, and I love to travel, but writing is both a necessity and a pleasure to me, and I loved reading Asimov’s unashamed take on the subject.

The entire book is a celebration of sorts, not just of writing but of the people, events, and subjects of importance that made up Asimov’s life. He writes in a very simple and unaffected style, almost as if in a letter to a friend. His tone, even when he is relating tragic circumstances, is always upbeat. I got the impression that Asimov would have been a fun person to know. Sadly, he died in 1992, when I was living overseas, long before I started to have occasion to meet other writers from the world of science fiction and fantasy.

This is the third volume of memoir that Asimov wrote. The first two are composed in a chronological manner, one following the other. This third volume came out long afterwards, and rather than continue chronologically, Asimov decided to write a retrospective that would be organized by topics instead of sequence of time. There are 166 chapters in total, and each of them are about the size of a typical blog post. This makes them easy to read and easy to follow. I got the impression, as I made my way through this book, that had blogging been a thing back in Asimov’s day, he would have been a formidable blogger. As it was, he contributed regular columns and articles to a range of magazines, many of which were later compiled into collections.

This is an extremely entertaining book. Even when Asimov writes about seemingly mundane subjects, he does it with verve and enthusiasm and makes them extraordinary. That’s why he was so much in demand to put out volume after volume on so many different topics. To him, his writing work was also intensely pleasurable, and this feeling of enjoyment is passed on to the reader. As a result, this book, in which he has a chance to expostulate over and over on the act of writing itself, must surely be one of his greatest achievements.

Asimov finished I, Asimov just two years before he died. Since its publication was delayed, he never saw the final book. It’s a fitting close, though, to the career of a man who loved the act of writing even more than the accompanying fame and finances.

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The Literary Pilgrimage

Most people, when they take off on holiday, look for warm beaches with clear waters for swimming, or cool forests for picnics and hiking, or foreign cities with unique sights. Alternatively, they crave raucous amusement parks or luxury cruises or extreme sports. Not us. When my two youngest sons (ages seventeen and twenty-three) and I ventured forth for a break from our usual routines, we sought out sites significant for literature and writing. After all, we’re all writers. We also, of course, planned to have a lot of fun along the way.

Adventure on a shoestring, that’s what it was. We set out in my son’s two-door stick shift, an ancient Honda. Originally we had planned to spend at least a couple of nights sleeping in the car, but in the end, we sprang for inexpensive motel rooms. The car, though a great trooper, steady and reliable, was just a bit too small to accommodate all of us. Not to mention that the cacophony of snoring at such close range would have driven us all insane. The rest of the nights, while during the days we explored the San Francisco Bay area, we spent happily on the floor of the dorm room of another of my sons who is enrolled for a summer session at Stanford.

We set out one gloomy overcast morning from Seattle and headed straight down Interstate 5 as far as Grants Pass in southern Oregon. There we stopped over at the northernmost incursion of our favorite burger chain, In-and-Out Burgers, for a meal before veering southwest towards the northern California coast. Arriving in Crescent City late at night, we crashed out at a motel. The next morning we followed Highway 101 along the coast and then inland, marveling as we slowly drove along the shadowed Avenue of the Giants, with towering redwoods overhead, and marveling more as we climbed to a lookout point at which we could view the entrance to San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

All of this so far is mundane tourism, you might say, and you’d be right. So far there was no hint of a connection with literary tendencies, except that we were all scribbling notes on current and future projects as we drove. All that was about to change.

We took a drive down Highway 1 along the edge of Big Sur: one of the most spectacularly beautiful coastlines in the world. Our ultimate destination was the Henry Miller Memorial Library. It’s actually more of a glorified bookstore, but it’s set in a pocket of pristine forest, and the walls are adorned with historic photos, posters, and paintings. There’s a great selection of books to choose from: not only most of Miller’s published works, but also books from writers he read and admired. Miller spent years living and writing in Big Sur. Unfortunately, as the facility curator explained to me, the house where he lived, which is about seven miles from the bookstore, being currently occupied, is unavailable for touring. I would have liked to have seen it.

On the following day, we went to the John Steinbeck Center in Salinas. Although it has a bookstore, the Steinbeck site is more in the nature of a proper museum, and it is very well planned and laid out. The various rooms have exhibits based upon Steinbeck’s books, and the climax at the end of the meandering self-tour is the camper dubbed Rocinante that Steinbeck took on his journey around America that he commemorated in the memoir Travels With Charley. Being on a road trip ourselves, we could appreciate the comfortable-looking vehicular home the writer had chosen for himself.

Once we bid farewell to my son at Stanford, we headed north to the Jack London Memorial State Park. It’s set in beautiful rolling hills adjoining the town of Glen Ellen in the wine country near Sonoma. London had called it his Beauty Ranch, and you can still see the cottage in which he and his wife Charmain lived, the House of Happy Walls that Charmain built after London’s death, and the impressive ruins of Wolf House, a massive mansion London had constructed on the property that burned down shortly before he and his wife were to move in.

After Glen Ellen, it was time for my sons and I to head back home, but we decided to return by way of Crescent City and then take Highway 101 north along the Oregon Coast. This not only allowed us to glimpse the breathtaking coastal scenery, but also to briefly stop at Lincoln City, the erstwhile home of writers Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, whose blog posts in their series The Freelancer’s Survival Guide and Think Like a Publisher helped me get started in self-publishing. Dean and Kristine have moved to another part of the country, but a shop that Dean started, Pop Culture Collectibles, is still in Lincoln City, and I was able to have a great chat with the new owner of the shop while my boys browsed for cool souvenirs.

So there you have it: a succinct summary of our literary odyssey. The trip was fun, invigorating, unusual, and intellectually stimulating. It is certain that insights gleaned from it will appear in some of my future work, and possibly that of my sons as well.

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Book Review: Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer

As soon as I first picked up this volume of modern history, I knew it was going to be important to me. I put my name on the reserve list at the library (still poverty-stricken here, folks) and patiently waited until it became available. It was worth the wait.

The year 1974 was around the time that I left for overseas and then stayed gone for thirty-five years. During those decades, I followed the news as best I could, but it wasn’t always easy. Some countries I lived in had TV news only in the local languages, and English-language magazines and newspapers weren’t always available either. I picked up bits and pieces here and there; I always knew who the current president was and whether the United States was involved in “police action” in some global hot spot. I read books on current events, but because of publishing realities, books are always after-the-fact accounts. I really didn’t have a clear picture of the continuity of modern U.S. history. So Fault Lines was an eye-opener. It’s well written, comprehensive, and the authors have a knack for seeing the main points and patterns in historical events.

The fault lines that the title alludes to are rifts in American unity that have been widening, in the opinion of the authors, since the mid-seventies. These include the widening gap between rich and poor and dissolution of the middle class, ongoing racial divisions, gender inequalities, and the polarization between political parties. Additionally, the media has become fractured and divided along cultural lines so that news stories are for the most part heavily tainted with bias.

The authors begin with the Watergate scandal as the time when Americans began to deeply distrust the government. They move on through the eras of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. As I read, I experienced one revelation after another as to why things are the way they are now. I’ve been of the opinion lately that the inmates have taken over the madhouse, but reading this account of the decades leading up to the present, I can see the logical, if tragic, progression of it all. I hadn’t realized how long this crazy conservative versus liberal thing had been going on. It’s uncanny, for instance, to see how closely Trump’s attitudes and policies mimic those of Reagan’s, and how the Congressional infighting from one administration to the next is so similar that the accounts all but blur into one another. It’s appalling, actually, that the three branches of the U.S. government keep making the same mistakes of partisan warfare over and over again, administration after administration, decade after decade, instead of somehow learning from past errors to better serve the people for whom it’s all supposed to be set up.

An overview like this is frightening, all right, because when you see it all in context, you realize that very little progress has been made. No sooner does one party and administration manage to accomplish something that is actually for the benefit of the people of the United States, than the balance goes the other way and the new party in power tries to tear it down and start again from scratch. There seems to be no end to it. To make matters worse, it’s hard to get an objective grasp on reality because of the way the media slants news this way or that. It’s difficult for common people to find their way through it all – if there are such things as common people anymore. Along with the politicians shaping government policies, individuals are becoming polarized as well, choosing to believe one version of reality rather than another.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe that there is such a thing as reality and honesty out there, and we can find it if we diligently search for it. I’m simply expressing my reaction to the all-but-overwhelming insights available in this book. The fault lines that the authors delineate are ripping the country apart culturally and politically, and it is imperative to somehow close the gaps before the rifts are beyond repair. How this can be accomplished I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like fleeing back to Europe where life is in some ways simpler, where people have learned over centuries of travail to reach some compromises with each other. Then again, life wasn’t and isn’t perfect there either. Sometimes the other side of the river or ocean or whatever separates you from somewhere else looks better until you live there awhile, and then you realize that certain problems are common to all humankind.

We struggle on year after year, generation after generation. I hope that someday, somehow, we learn from our mistakes.

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Eulogy for My Father

I’m writing this as my father John Walters, Sr., now ninety years old, lies bedridden and uncommunicative. I will not publish it until after he has died. If you’re reading it, therefore, it means that he is no longer alive on this mortal plane of existence. (He died on June 11, 2019, a few days after I wrote this piece.) His spirit has departed to wherever spirits go, and his body has gone to medical researchers. There is no sorrow in this, unless we all want to mourn the fact that we don’t live forever. Ninety years is a pretty good run. He had nine children and multiple grandchildren; he traveled and had numerous interesting experiences.

I’m not going to go through a biographical account of his life; there’s no need for that. What I’d like to do instead is focus on three instances in which he helped me personally when I was in dire need. Parents are expected to assist their children when they are still dependent upon them, but these things happened when I was already off on my own and was in the midst of profound predicaments from which I could see no way out. I might have eventually come up with something, but before I had to find another way, my father stepped up and came through.

The first incident happened on my first trip to India. I had been hitchhiking around Europe all summer – the summer of 1975, I think it would have been, or perhaps 1976. As autumn approached and the weather cooled down, I wondered what I should do next. I heard stories from budget travelers who had journeyed as far as India and beyond, and the exoticism of the experience appealed to me. I went back to the Netherlands and worked a couple of weeks in factories to earn a few hundred dollars, and then began to hitchhike eastward. I managed to hitch as far as Kandahar in Afghanistan, and then I switched to local transport such as buses and trains. I traveled through Pakistan and India, spent some time in Goa, and then wandered on down south to Sri Lanka and back up to Madras. (For more fascinating and adventurous details, see my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.)

In Madras I was faced with a dilemma. I had only enough funds remaining to make it back to Europe overland if I left right away without further detours or delays. However, I had not yet been to Nepal, which had been a very important part of my itinerary. In the heedless disregard for danger inherent in youth, I headed north to Katmandu instead of west to Europe. I visited Katmandu and Pokhara and walked alone for days in the Himalayan Mountains. And yes, in Pokhara, which is west of Katmandu, I realized that I had almost run out of money. I managed to hitchhike a bus ride to the Indian border, take a train third class to Delhi, pay for a couple of nights in a hostel for derelicts in which I shared the floor with about two dozen other hippy travelers, and then… I was broke in a city with streets full of hundreds of thousands of destitute beggars.

That’s when my dad rescued me. I called him from the American Embassy, and he wired me enough money to make my way back to Europe and use my return ticket to the States just before it expired.

The second time something like this happened I was traveling east, not west. I had come to the conclusion that my destiny was elsewhere, and I was heading back to India. I hitchhiked across the United States in the dead of winter, but while standing in a deep snowdrift beside a road in New Jersey, I realized I couldn’t take the cold anymore and headed down south to Florida. I figured I’d get a job in a warmer climate and when I’d saved enough money, I’d move on. I stayed in a cheap hotel in Miami that was otherwise occupied solely by hookers and their pimps, or at least so it seemed to me. The problem was, I couldn’t find work. I was reduced to eating the foul fare at soup kitchens.

In desperation again, I called my dad to help extricate me from that situation, and he sent me enough money to fly to New York and then to London, from where I was able to make my way onward.

The third time my father helped me I was not in physical duress. It had to do with my career as a writer. By this time I had got married, we had started a family, and we were living in Thessaloniki, Greece. I had stopped writing for years but had begun again to compose short stories. The problem, in those pre-electronic submission days, was that I didn’t know how to submit the stories to markets in the United States. Once again, my father came to the rescue. I arranged to send my manuscripts to him along with a list of possible markets, and he sent them to the markets one by one until they sold or he finished the list. We kept this up for a year or so until I finally found a few post offices in Thessaloniki that had international reply coupons, and then I began to send them out myself.

I’m sure I could come up with other stories, such as how my dad brought me, my wife, and our three kids from Greece back to the States as a surprise wedding gift for one of my brothers, or how my dad and I used to go out in our small powerboat and fish for salmon on the open ocean, but these three are the ones that came first to mind, and they’ll do for the moment. They recall a man who was family-oriented but individualistic, a man who loved his cabin on the shore of Hood Canal but also enjoyed taking off on road trips aboard his motorcycle, a man who had a thriving dental practice in a Seattle suburb but also did volunteer dental work amidst the jungles and hills of Central America. He enjoyed restoring old furniture and the hard labor of collecting firewood in forest areas that had been cleared by logging companies. He was a writer and a musician and a driftwood sculptor. Rest in peace, Dad.

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Apocalypse Bluff and Other Stories

Apocalypse Bluff cover big

Apocalypse Bluff and Other Stories, my eighth short story collection, was recently published. Pick up a copy at one of the links below.

As invading aliens unleash monsters resembling mutated carnivores to devour all of human life on Earth, an extended family gathers together in a mansion on an isolated bluff for a last stand. To survive, they must fight together against ravenous beasts attacking from land and sea.

A recently divorced woman joins a virtual community in search of social acceptance and companionship. After fashioning a new identity for herself, she sets off to explore the meticulously created landscapes of this new world, unaware that the beautiful environments are rife with human predators.

While searching for a lost love, an unemployed mercenary comes across a wealthy world in which there are no weapons, no poverty, no permanent social attachments, and everyone is free to pursue their own interests. There’s only one catch: these people have no means to defend themselves against a rapidly approaching alien army.

In these and other fascinating tales you’ll find apocalyptic landscapes, virtual worlds, far planets, alien invaders, monsters, heroes, villains, lovers, life, death, tragedy, and triumph.

Trade paperback

Amazon Kindle

Barnes and Noble


Apple iBooks

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Book Review: A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams by Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan burst into my awareness with his brilliant recent book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. In reading about the author of this amazing study, I discovered that he had written an earlier book about the process of building a writer’s study in the backyard of his house in Connecticut. Although not as ambitious or important as How to Change Your Mind, this volume appealed to me as an example of a recurrent daydream of my own.

For the last six or seven years, since I moved back to the United States from Greece with some of my sons, I have been renting places to live and filling them with inexpensive furniture, mainly gifts from relatives or whatever we could pick up from Craigslist. We’ve been living in our current apartment in Seattle for about four years. I have no complains with it; it’s in a nice quiet neighborhood conducive to walks to clear the mind between bouts of writing, and there’s a good high school nearby for my son. But lately I find myself daydreaming from time to time about a place of my own. As I go through my daily paces, stretching my legs and gulping in fresh air, I envision what sort of house I would purchase if I had the money, what type of land it would sit on, and where geographically it would be located. Would I want a single-story spread-out layout or a multi-story edifice? How many bedrooms would it have? What sort of view? How would I furnish it?

Sometimes, though, I see my dream home in no fixed location. That’s because I sometimes also envision having a comfortable camper van to live in, a mobile dwelling in which I would be free to travel. Usually I come up with an ideal solution that is a blend of the two visions: a modest house with enough extra rooms so that my sons can feel free to visit, some property with plenty of greenery surrounding it, and a place to park the camper van so I can rest up between road adventures.

Yes, so I can get behind Pollan’s vision of the architecture of daydreams; that is, using construction materials to give fixed shape to the thoughts in my head. In Pollan’s case, he decided to construct a one-room shack up in the woods behind his house where he could work on his writing. A Place of My Own is a memoir of how he brought his idea from architect’s drawing to finished building. The construction of a tiny room such as Pollan had in mind is not much material with which to fill a three hundred page book; as you can expect, he deviates a lot into the history, theories, and philosophies of architecture. He also meticulously chronicles every detail of his building’s construction from the choosing of the right site to the selection of wood. To be honest, I think he goes a little overboard with the long detailed descriptions of obscure architectural ideas; my eyes glazed over sometimes and I wanted certain sections of the book to end. But it’s like if you are taking a long walk: some parts of the scenery are going to interest you more than others.

Pollan and the architect that he hired planned his building meticulously, but as a writer, as I read the description I questioned whether I would be happy working in a place similar to what Pollan had in mind. I have one strong objection. He did not plan a bathroom in his structure. I would find that intolerable. I try to hydrate as I write, and as a result I have to take pee breaks often. It would be terribly inconvenient to run down to the house every time I had to go. And the weather in winter is extreme in Connecticut, where Pollan built his humble edifice. In good weather, sure, I could take a short walk into the surrounding woods and water a tree – but what if there’s a foot of snow on the ground or it’s pouring rain? Or what if nature calls in a different way? No, if I were to go to all the trouble to build myself a writer’s studio apart from my living space, I would definitely include a toilet.

Other than that, Pollan’s place sounds cozy and inspiring and conducive to getting work done. I would love a space like that to write in – although I have to admit, for myself personally, I would be just as happy to have a writing room right in my house – I don’t really have the need to divorce it completely from my living quarters.

In closing, I would say that this book is absorbing and interesting, apart from those few sections of obscure detail that I mentioned earlier, and I would recommend it if, like me, you enjoy envisioning the possibilities of your dreams.

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Book Review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

I have a confession to make. I haven’t read a lot of the classics of science fiction. Maybe I should have, but I haven’t yet. There are too many other things that catch my attention. I generally alternate between fiction and nonfiction books, and when I’m reading fiction, I probably read almost as many so-called mainstream as genre works. The Forever War, for instance, won the Nebula, Hugo, and other awards when it came out in the mid-1970s, but I had already started traveling by that time and read very little science fiction for years. Lo and behold, though, things come round, and this novel was on display at the library and I picked it up on a whim. I’m glad I did.

The Forever War tells of a future conflict between humans and an alien race called the Taurans. The conflict begins almost by mistake and escalates until, as the title implies, it seems to never end. Authorities draft the best and the brightest, such as the protagonist William Mandella, and send them out on tour after tour; when they come back in pieces, they patch them up and return them to the fray.

Haldeman has said that he based the book on his experiences in Vietnam. The cover of the edition I have shows what appears to be a U.S. army soldier walking through a tropical jungle. This has nothing to do with the plot of the book, as most of the action takes place on stark alien landscapes, and the Earth soldiers wear body armor that certainly wouldn’t look like what I see on the cover. Ah, well.

Instead of being a parallel to Vietnam, though, the book is more like a parable for any war, anywhere, that seems to go on forever and ever with no signs of stopping, with governments drafting and throwing cannon fodder into the fray, and soldiers obeying orders without really understanding what they are fighting about.

At one point, Mandella returns to Earth for a furlough between battles and is shocked at the changes it has undergone in his absence. Haldeman pays strict attention to relativity in space travel, so that though only months of subjective time pass on the soldiers’ tours of duty, decades and later centuries pass back on Earth. The world that they leave behind is gone forever and is replaced by a new world to which they cannot relate or adjust. This reminded me of when I returned to the United States after living overseas for thirty-five years. My country had changed, and I experienced intense culture shock and found it very difficult to fit in. In fact, I still have twinges of culture shock from time to time, and I wonder if I can ever feel comfortable in the land where I was born.

And so the soldiers carry on, through century after century and battle after battle, until obeying orders and fighting is all they know. It all builds up to a crescendo, and the ending is extremely satisfying. I’ll hold that back, though; instead, find a copy of the book and read it. You won’t be sorry.

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The Writing Is Its Own Reward

Harlan Ellison’s recent demise and an upcoming eulogy in his honor at a science fiction convention have caused me to remember the time when I first knew that I had to be a writer and nothing else. I’ve written about it on numerous occasions because it is such an integral piece of my past. I was moping through my year at the University of Santa Clara, majoring in drugs and degradation, when I happened to take a class on science fiction as literature. In the textbook was Ellison’s story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” By the end of reading that story I knew that I wanted to become a writer and thrill readers as I had just been thrilled.

It was the writing that fate had gifted me at that moment. Not money, not fame, not even publication. The writing itself. The knowledge that I was a writer thrilled me through and through. If I had been in it for the money, I would have chosen an occupation that had more certain possibilities of fiscal rewards.  Instead, I wanted the words, the pure words. To find them, I took off on the road, near broke but full of vision. I ended up staying gone for thirty-five years and living in all sorts of far corners of the Earth. I found my voice, though; that was the whole point of the trip.

And it continues to be. Lately – or perhaps I should say for several years now – I have been longing for a strong flow of finances so that I can focus purely on the writing that comes from the gut and the heart and the soul. The way it works now, with my present schedule, from seven in the morning until eight in the evening I write articles and suchlike things to pay the bills. Then from about nine-thirty or ten at night, I work on my creative endeavors until about eleven or eleven-fifteen. My vision is to put a stop to that  pointless for-money-only work and spend all those hours on the writing I love.

But let’s get back to the core of this essay, the concept of the writing as the gift. When I received that burst of insight that caused me to realize I was a writer, I didn’t think about the money and I didn’t think about the fame; I thought about the words and the effects of the words. That’s all there was for me at that moment. All the rest are bells and whistles. Not to say I don’t need those things: more and more, as time goes on, I realize the urgency of increasing my income. However, what I have to keep in mind is that whether I am wealthy or not, I still have the words. It doesn’t cost anything to write the words. And thanks to self-publishing outlets like Kindle and other sites, it doesn’t cost anything to publish them either. Those sites have got cover creators and layout assistance and instructions to guide you every step of the way.

Don’t get me wrong. We all want that fame and fortune. Well, to be honest, I don’t give a damn about the fame. I want people to read my words, but I’m more than content to stay off the talk shows and podcasts. The money, though: that I need. I’m getting tired and I need to be able to slow down the pace.

In the meantime, I have the words. They’ve been with me for over forty-five years now and show no sign of abating. They’re like a perpetual fountain, always ready to arrange themselves through my direction and focus. Remember this, writers young and old: through all of life’s vagaries you may lose a lot; you may be frequently disoriented and unsure and downright lost; you may even despair from time to time. Remember that despite all your difficulties, you still have the words. The writing is the gift; the writing is the reward.

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Book Review: Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen by Mary Norris

I picked this book up at the library because I thought that it was a memoir on traveling in Greece. And it is, sort of; at least part of it is. I’d say about a third of the book or less tells of her travels. Mainly though, it is a memoir of the author’s love affair with the Greek language, both ancient and modern. Why Norris is dubbed the Comma Queen is not explained in the book, but I assume that it’s because for many years she has been a copy editor for the New Yorker.

The style of the book is very light and entertaining. Her descriptions of attempting to learn to read and write Greek sometimes resemble a soliloquy in a stand-up comedy act, if the comedian’s main subject was the Greek language. Norris revels in details such as origins of words and relates them with gusto. To do so, she often uses Greek alphabet and spelling, sometimes offering English transliterations and sometimes not. I have an advantage there because I can read Greek, and I remember enough Greek to understand most of what Norris expresses in Greek. In fact, it made me nostalgic.

I was married to a Greek woman and spent over fifteen years in Greece. We lived for a time in Athens, but then moved to Thessaloniki where my wife was from. We raised our five sons there when they were young. They became bilingual, having school in Greek but speaking English at home. I taught English as a second language for years to teenage and adult Greek students. During the summers we would head for the nearby beaches: beautiful sandy stretches where the sea was warm as bathwater and soothing to the skin.

I agree with Norris that Greece is a wonderful place; however, I always had trouble with the Greek language. I found it one of the most difficult languages I have ever attempted to learn. Compared to Greek, Italian, Bengali, and Indonesian were all a breeze. I remember during my early visits to my wife’s relatives I would exchange basic greetings, and then their conversation would gradually become unintelligible to me. I would sit there and sip my coffee or eat my food or whatever and be off in my own world while my wife and her family chatted. Even years later when I could navigate street markets, transportation hubs, and government offices with ease, I would quickly become lost when two Greeks would begin exchanging chit-chat.

I also found it a bit difficult to relate to Norris’s method of travel. She was a tourist, taking ships from island to island, renting cars to traverse the mainland, taking her meals at restaurants. I’ve visited over fifty countries but I’ve seldom been able to travel with much money in my pocket. As I was reading Norris’s accounts of her travels, I was thinking: Wow it would be great to be able to travel like that. My wife and I took an occasional trip with our kids, sure, but most of the time we were struggling to survive financially. We had fun, yes, but we had to portion out our fun at intervals between lengthy months of hard work.

I know it may not be fair to compare Norris’s experiences with ours, but that’s what I found myself doing. There’s a difference between traveling as an affluent visitor and being deeply immersed in a place day after day and year after year.

All in all, Greek to Me is a light, fun, uplifting read.

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Book Review: Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck

It is with pleasure and nostalgia, and quite by accident I came back to this modest travel book after so many years. One of my sons had checked it out of his college library, and I picked it up and gave it a read.

The last time I read Travels With Charley was during my John Steinbeck phase, which was about fifty years ago. Steinbeck was the first author I followed passionately, first stumbling upon The Pearl as a school requirement, and then going on to Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, and several other volumes. I read Travels With Charley along with all the others, but it didn’t make much impression on me at the time. My lust to travel phase was yet to come, and I was mainly into Steinbeck’s fiction.

Steinbeck wrote this book late in his career, when he was 58 years old. He got the wanderlust, he says, and decided to take off on his own in a pickup with a camper back, his only company being a large poodle named Charley. The camper he dubbed Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse. He was living in New York at the time. He headed up north into Maine, cut across the country through Wisconsin, North Dakota, Montana, and other states. I mention these because he writes about them; others he crosses through without much of a description except to decry the busy freeway systems. In Seattle he turned south and headed down through the redwood forests to the Monterey Peninsula and Salinas where he grew up. From there he forayed across the desert to Texas, where he partied with his wife’s relatives. His final stop was in the deep South, where in Louisiana he witnessed an incident of horrific racism.

As far as travel books go, this one is fairly lightweight. He writes particularly about Maine, North Dakota, Montana, Seattle, the Monterey area, Texas, and the South, but he skims through other parts almost without noticing. The value of this book is not so much in the travel descriptions but in the portrait of Steinbeck himself: a writer in late middle age pondering past and present in the isolation of a lonely journey.

I have to admit that it reawakened the travel lust in me. Well, let me clarify that: the travel lust has never been asleep. Let’s say instead that it caused the smoldering coals of the urge to travel to burst forth into open flame. Almost daily I dream of taking off in a camper again, either here in the States or in Europe, and wandering around with no set itinerary. If I had the funds and no pressing responsibilities, you can bet that’s what I would be doing. Alas, at this time neither precondition is met. And so I dream. It’s not like in the past, when I was a young writer struggling to find my own voice. After deciding that I needed life experiences about which to write, I packed a bag, walked to a freeway entrance, and stuck out my thumb. Eventually I went overseas and stayed gone for thirty-five years. I’ve circled the globe twice, set foot in over fifty countries, and lived in about half a dozen for extended periods of time. You would think that my thirst for the road would have been satiated by now, but that’s not how it works. I always long for the road. Always.

As I read this, I was also reminded of one of my sons who recently got out of a four-year stint in the Army. He caught the travel bug too. During leaves he didn’t head off to party like so many of his compatriots; instead, he took off on the road in his battered old car and started visiting all the eastern states. He made it his goal to visit all fifty states. So when he got out and headed west from where he was stationed in North Carolina, he traced a convoluted path that took him in a zigzag course through the states he had missed. And he made sure not to skip Hawaii and Alaska. He’s got me there; I haven’t seen all the states yet.

In conclusion, Travels With Charley is a fun read, if somewhat anachronistic as I mentioned. It’s not just that there are no cell phones or GPS trackers to help the way – it’s also in some of Steinbeck’s impressions, expressions, and attitudes. Still, it’s worth reading if you like a well-written memoir.

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