Book Review:  Never Say You Can’t Survive by Charlie Jane Anders

This is a slim volume consisting of a series of essays that first appeared on the Tor.com website. Its premise is that writing fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy, can help you survive in the midst of the shit storm of the global pandemic. To remain sane despite the chaos, polarization, isolation, and death that COVID has brought to the world, you can create new worlds in your imagination. It’s a valid point, and Anders makes it well. Once this point is established, the rest of the book is a mix of writing advice and memoir.

Anders is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer, and she dispenses her advice in a light-hearted and fun style. She goes into the nuts-and-bolts of plot, theme, structure, word choice, and so on, and suggests various writing exercises for beginners, but for me the most interesting parts of the book deal with the more motivational aspects of writing. For instance, she emphasizes that there is not some sort of special initiation or rite of passage that makes you a writer. You are a writer if you write; that’s all there is to it. And she writes about the dread imposter syndrome, a malady that afflicts almost all writers; this is the feeling that you are unworthy of being a writer and nobody will ever care about what you have written. Even famous writers become oppressed by imposter syndrome; according to Anders, one thing that helps you get past it is finding a community of like-minded people so that you can reinforce each other.

Another extremely important point that Anders touches on is that there are no rules in writing. None. And nobody should ever try to restrict you by saying that there are. You should write whatever you like however you like, and to hell with the nay-sayers. It reminds me of a time a couple of decades ago when I got fed up with rejections and decided to forget what I thought editors might like and write whatever I wanted. I composed a story that alternated between second person present tense and third person past tense and near the end shifted from fixed sentences and paragraphs into pictures and patterns comprised of words. I sold that story almost as soon as I sent it out, and for more money than I had ever received for a story at that time.

Anders goes into her method of writing a novel, and this is what I meant when I mentioned that part of the book is memoir rather than practical advice, because I don’t think that I could ever finish a book using her techniques. (Remember what I wrote above about there being no rules. Use whatever works for you.) Anders likes to quickly write rough drafts, jigsaw puzzle them together, and then add and subtract scenes and nuances in revision after revision after revision. That’s not how I work. I would make a mess of such a method and lose interest long before I was done. Instead, I go through all these permutations, but in my mind and in rough notes before I begin to compose the first and often final draft. I write a certain number of words a day, and the following day I go over the previous day’s work, revising and re-familiarizing myself with what I have done. By the time I am finished, I may make a few changes as I go through a final revision, but the story is usually fully formed. In other words, write however you want to write. That’s part of the fun.

Another section of this book that I found absorbing and helpful deals with writing about the cultures and experiences of others. This has become quite a hot topic nowadays, and Anders points out that as with other controversial issues, there is a balance. It may not be appropriate for you to write about another culture as if you were part of it, but it is certainly desirable to be inclusive when you select characters that appear in your story. Anders suggests using sensitivity readers to be sure you are getting things right. In my own situation, not long ago I felt the need for a sensitivity reader for a story I had set in the Deep South in the 1950s. Through Science Fiction Writers of America, I managed to find a well-known African American writer who assured me that the story was inoffensive.

All in all, this is a light, fun book full of interesting anecdotes and advice. The premise that writing or some other form of creative endeavor can help you get through hard times is certainly valid. One of the most important points, though, is that there are no rules. As far as the practical advice is concerned, take what you need and ignore the rest.

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Book Review:  Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

In a phone conversation one of my sisters and I were discussing which of our brothers, sisters, and progeny were extroverts and which were introverts when she brought up this book, Quiet, and recommended it. I had never heard of it, but upon conducting a bit of initial research I found out that it was quite famous and possibly would be an interesting read. I don’t go much for books of popular psychology offering self-help remedies that will supposedly cure personal and societal ills; however, this one is well researched and offers insight into the vital role of introverts in a world that applauds and sometimes worships extroversion.

I definitely fall onto the introverted side of the ledger. I love reading, writing, and other contemplative activities and have a difficult time, COVID aside, getting out to socialize, especially if I am going to be plunged into a roomful of people I don’t know. This hindered my maturation through elementary school, high school, and my one year of college. I found it all but impossible to be gregarious and outgoing; as a result, my friends were few. At my high school in particular, a large emphasis was put on the cult of the macho sportsman. To be popular, you had to be a football or basketball player, strut around in your letterman’s jacket, and talk boisterously in the hallways. Quiet guys like me never had a chance.

It wasn’t just at my high school, though; it remains a national phenomenon. Cain calls it the extrovert ideal, and more than other countries, the United States is obsessed with it. The most successful individuals are supposed to be assertive, dominant, forceful, brash, and outgoing. Although they are often reprehensible individuals, these are the leaders we supposedly should look up to. The quiet ones, although they may be more intelligent and have brilliant ideas, are relegated to second class citizenship, to the roles of followers, sycophants, and acolytes.

The first part of Quiet, in fact, is taken up with an analysis of the extrovert ideal. Cain then explores studies concerning the relationship of biology to introversion and extroversion. There is also a section on the role of introversion and extroversion in various cultures; in particular Cain compares the blatant extroversion inherent in U.S. culture with the quieter, more thoughtful, and more respectful cultures of Asia. And finally, Cain goes into suggestions on how introverts can not only survive but thrive in societies that favor extroversion.

As I was reading this book, I wondered how I, as an introvert, ever managed to break free of my torpor, leave my hometown and my native country, travel the world, and meet new friends and acquaintances from many diverse countries and cultures. Cain provides an answer to this seeming paradox in the so-called Free Trait Theory. According to this theory, we are born with certain personality traits such as introversion, but we can overcome these and act out of character, as extroverts in other words, in the pursuit of core personal projects. These are things that you consider so important that you are able, at least temporarily, to overcome your introversion. They may include loved ones, important work, or anything else you place great value upon. In my case, I wanted to be a writer more than anything else in the world, but I felt stifled and inexperienced at home; I felt that I had to go out and live life and have adventures so that I could have something worth writing about. This gave me the impetus to overcome my introversion and get out there. I was willing to overcome my timidity and leap into the void of the unknown in pursuit of my dream.

In closing, let me emphasize that this book is not only for introverts. Extroverts can benefit from the insights Cain offers as well. It will help them realize that it is delusional to think that extroverts form some sort of hierarchy. The important thing is to bridge the gap and create an understanding that will allow families, societies, and cultures to benefit from both personality types.

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Reviews and Reflections on Books, Literature, and Writing: Volume Two – Now Available!

The second volume of Reviews and Reflections on Books, Literature, and Writing is now available at numerous retailers. Pick up a copy by clicking on one of the links below.

From the author’s introduction:

Preparing the second volume of Reviews and Reflections on Books, Literature, and Writing has caused me to think about the role not only of reading books but also of writing book reviews in my life. To write about the thoughts and impressions brought about by a book is as valid as writing about a physical journey that I take to another location. The author of the book serves as my traveling companion.

Because of the inevitably profound effect that books have on me, I have to be careful about what books I read. If you are what you eat, physically, then you are what you read, mentally. I try to select books that entertain me and also nourish and strengthen me mentally and emotionally.

Among the multitudes of books I have read in my lifetime, some of my particular favorites have been books about books. Why? Because they make the task of finding new reading material easier. I read them eagerly, pen and paper nearby, and make new lists of books I have not yet discovered, realms of thought I have not yet explored. That’s one of the delights of this present volume, part two of Reviews and Reflections. Consider it a guidebook to point the way on your own journeys of discovery.

Trade paperback

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Book Review:  The Adventurer’s Son by Roman Dial

This memoir tells of a father’s search for his missing son, and I can acutely identify with it in a number of ways. First of all, I am also a father. The author of this book has one son; I have five, and it rends my heart whenever anything adverse happens to any of them. Additionally, just as the author of this book and his son, I have traveled to remote places of the world in search of adventure, exotic experiences, and personal fulfillment.

The term “adventurer” in the title is a bit garish; it was probably tacked on by the publisher. It means that the author engages in and enjoys outdoor activities such as mountain climbing, whitewater rafting, hiking, and exploring wilderness areas. He imparted this love of adventure and exploration to his son Cody Roman Dial, who disappeared while on a solo jungle trek in Costa Rica. After two years of searching, Dial found his son’s remains and belongings beside a remote stream; he had apparently died of snakebite or from a fallen tree. I’m not giving anything away by telling you this; it is clear from the blurbs and reviewer’s comments on the book’s cover.

The story is told in three parts. In the first part, Dial writes of meeting his wife Peggy while attending university in Alaska, getting married, having children, and taking his son and daughter on excursions and scientific expeditions to mountains, glacial fields, the Aleutian Islands, Borneo, and other locations. This instilled in his son Cody a love of travel and outdoor activities.

The second section, which Dial culled from Cody’s diaries and journals, tells of Cody’s journey through Central America. He reveals Cody’s penchant for traveling alone, without guides, relying only on his compass, maps, and instincts. I could empathize with the desire to travel alone and without a specific itinerary, letting the locations and circumstances influence decision-making. I did the same when I took off on the road back in the 1970s, hitchhiking and taking local transport across the United States, around Europe, across the Middle East, and around the Indian Subcontinent. When I hiked into the Himalayas in Nepal, I had no map, no guide, and no clear idea where I was going other than upward into the mountains. However, other side-trips I contemplated but abandoned as too dangerous. In Afghanistan I wanted to hike alone through the Hindu Kush mountains, but that would have been suicidal. In Pakistan, another traveler and I conceived the idea of taking a boat down the Indus River to see the sights; fortunately, when we arrived in Multan, the town where we planned to commence our river journey, the unfriendliness of the locals caused us to reconsider our plans. In a way, though, Cody seemed to have all but invited tragedy by his clear disregard for danger, going alone into areas where drug smuggling was common and deadly poisonous snakes were rampant. Eventually he vanished after he emailed his intention to head into dense jungle in a Costa Rican national park which strictly forbad entry without a qualified guide. He had to circumvent authorities and sneak into the park; this, I felt, was taking the urge for independent adventuring too far.

The third part of the memoir recounts Dial’s search for his son. As soon as he realized his son was overdue, he flew to Costa Rica with the intention of following him into the jungle and finding him. However, he encountered a lot of resistance from authorities. The area was, after all, restricted, and the Costa Ricans wanted to conduct the search on their own terms. Over a two-year span, Dial and his wife involved friends, scientists, explorers, mercenaries, state and federal politicians, the FBI, the State Department, and even a reality TV show that came down and concocted a sensational mini-series that attempted to prove that Cody was a victim of foul play.

Overall, this is an absorbing and compelling story, although sometimes in the long third section it gets into descriptions of going to one place and nothing happens, and then going to another place and nothing happens, and so on. It effectively emphasizes the frustration of the search but sometimes becomes a bit repetitive. All in all, though, this is an absorbing, heartfelt story with which any parent can identify.

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Book Review:  The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead turned the phenomenon of oppressed and traumatized African American slaves fleeing the South before the Civil War into compelling alternative history. The fantasy elements include a literal physical railroad system hidden beneath the ground in tunnels. However, this speculative departure from reality does not cause readers to become removed from the horrors of slavery that Whitehead depicts. The actions of his characters are based upon the accounts of real escaped slaves, and the descriptions of torture, flight, pursuit, and redemption are immediate and visceral.

In The Nickel Boys, except for creating fictional characters, Whitehead eschews fantastical elements and sticks close to the realities that inspired his novel. It is based on the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, also known as the Florida School for Boys, which was a reform school that existed from early 1900 until 2011, when the state of Florida closed it down after an investigation that uncovered an unbelievable number of unmarked graves of former residents on its grounds.

Whitehead’s novel alternates between modern times and the 1960s. A literate, idealistic young African American high school student named Elwood Curtis is arrested when he inadvertently hitchhikes a ride with a man who has stolen a car. He is sent to Nickel Academy, a reform school with a segregated campus where whites and blacks alike are tortured and even murdered to keep them in line. It is run by a sadistic man named Spencer who enjoys nothing better than to haul misbehaving students off to a special site known as the White Room and beat them bloody with a special leather strap. After these sessions, some students wind up dead, while others are relegated to the facility’s hospital, where the resident doctor’s cure for everything is a couple of aspirin. The weaker students are raped by predatory staff members, and the administration routinely confiscates the best food and supplies designated for the school by the state to sell off to local merchants.

The present-day parts of the novel take place as the school’s abuses are finally being uncovered and exposed by investigators. We see how the horrific trauma that one of the former residents underwent has followed him in haunting memories and nightmares. He is faced with the decision of whether to keep silent and remain hidden or tell his stories for his own sake and the sake of others who never made it out alive. There is a heartbreakingly poignant twist at the end that I will not reveal; I will only say that it is set up superbly and slams home the author’s message with overwhelming emotional intensity.

When I first heard of this book I did not read it because I thought I might not be able to handle the descriptions of atrocities. There are atrocities throughout, yes, and Whitehead does not shy away from shining a spotlight on them, but the story is so well told and the characters inspire so much empathy that as a reader I was able to get past these gruesome details. That is the power of art: it is able to take a terrible chapter of human history such as this and somehow convert it into a thing of beauty. Whitehead accomplishes that in this novel.

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Book Review:  This Is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan

A few years ago, Michael Pollan published a fascinating major work called How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. In it, the author takes a close look at research being done in the use of psychedelics for therapeutic purposes, traces the history of psychedelic use and study, and shares stories about his own experimentations with consuming LSD and other hallucinogens. This Is Your Mind on Plants is a sort of appendix, addition, or addendum to that larger, more comprehensive book. It consists of separate and unconnected sections about Pollan’s research and experiences with three mind-altering substances: opium, caffeine, and mescaline. It is a much slimmer volume. It is well-written and entertaining; however, if you have read How to Change Your Mind, do not expect another major treatise of that caliber.

The first section mainly consists of a reprint of an article for Harper’s Magazine that Pollan wrote in the 1990s called “Opium, Made Easy,” as well as a prologue and afterword to the article. The original article was commissioned by the editor of Harper’s, Paul Tough, after Tough had come across an obscure book from a small press called Opium for the Masses. The book explains how opium can easily be obtained even in the United States by growing poppies whose seeds are available in general plant catalogs and then making tea from the resultant seed pods. Pollan decides to grow some opium poppies in his own backyard garden. He contacts the author of the book and other experts on opium, orders his seeds, and scatters them in the soil. However, this takes place during the height of the DEA’s War on Drugs, and as Pollan proceeds, he becomes more and more aware of the possible legal consequences of what he is doing. It is legal to purchase and grow the poppies, yes, but only if he has no awareness of what they are and has no intention of harvesting them for recreational use. Any misstep on his part can result in his imprisonment and the confiscation of his house and other property. This section reads like a thriller, and it is also an expose of the slapstick insanity of how the War on Drugs was handled. It was one bungling misstep after another as the enforcers focused on all the wrong priorities.

After the intense excitement of the section on opium, Pollan’s study of caffeine slows down considerably. He goes into the history of coffee and tea production and distribution, and he makes a compelling argument of the importance of the stimulant caffeine to the advancement of civilization. His personal experiment concerning caffeine is to go off coffee for several weeks. He has intense withdrawal symptoms, suffers from mental torpor, but finds he sleeps better at night. The first cup of coffee after his experiment is like an elixir of the gods. This testimony made me recall how I once stopped drinking coffee too for a few months. The first few days I suffered from exhaustion and an intense headache, but afterwards I managed to function more or less normally. I ultimately decided that I liked coffee too much to stop on a permanent basis. I was living in Greece at the time, so my first coffee when I jumped off the wagon was a frappe, a cold coffee with a head of whipped foam. I cannot do justice to the sublimity of the feeling as I downed that drink.

In the section of the book on mescaline, Pollan recounts how he was planning to participate in a Native American mescaline ceremony but then COVID hit and all such plans were cancelled. He shares his research into the history of the Native American Church and its ceremonial use of mescaline, and also of his efforts to somehow experiment with it. A friend sends him a couple of capsules of synthetic mescaline, and Pollan describes his experience downing those. Later, he manages to take part in a version of a ceremony with mescaline extracted from Peruvian cactus.

Pollan is a good writer, and This Is Your Mind on Plants, as I said, is entertaining. However, it does not have the depth and scope of How to Change Your Mind. I would recommend reading the earlier book first, and then reading this book as a sort of sequel or supplement.

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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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