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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Book Review: Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly

Scott Kelly is the American astronaut who spent a year on the International Space Station from March 2015 to March 2016. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment, but it’s only one of many in this man’s eventful life. This fascinating book alternates between an account of that year in space and the story of Kelly’s life. For me, it’s a piece of nonfiction that’s a near-perfect read: absorbing, interesting, exciting, educational, and eye-opening.

The sections of the book that describe life on the space station are full of infinitesimal details, but because of where Kelly is and what he’s doing, every detail, even descriptions of mundane tasks, is gripping because of the difficulties, such as weightlessness, with which he has to cope. For instance, there are no laundry facilities, so he has to wear his clothes until they are so rank that he can’t stand them, and then throw them away; he has to swallow his toothpaste because you can’t spit in space or it would congeal into globs and float around until it hit someone; whenever he performs work he has to hook his toes under rails on the floor or walls so he won’t float away; eating and drinking have their own special problems and peculiarities of execution. Kelly describes the unique challenges of performing tasks in zero gravity such as exercising, sleeping, dissecting mice, obtaining blood or urine for analysis, and repairing the toilet or the air filtration system. He also describes thrilling spacewalks that he takes with other astronauts to repair mechanisms on the outside of the station.

Since by that time the space shuttle program in the United States had been discontinued, to get to the ISS for his year-long stint, Kelly had to train with Russian cosmonauts and take a rocket from a Russian base in Kazakhstan. He brings the reader along on this adventure too, from Star City, the Russian training center near Moscow, to survival exercises in frozen wastes.

The segments of the story of Kelly’s life interspersed throughout the space station account make fascinating reading as well. Kelly was a lackluster student, lazy and indifferent, more concerned with partying and studying. In his late teens, though, he came across the book The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, which tells the story of Navy test pilots who are selected by NASA as the first astronauts for the Mercury Program. He abruptly decided that he too wanted to be a Navy test pilot and an astronaut. However, up until then he had received poor grades, so he had a lot to make up. He set his mind to succeed, applied himself, taught himself study skills, and upped his school performance sufficiently to eventually be admitted to Navy flight training as a jet pilot. The account of his turnaround from indifferent laziness to intense focus is extremely inspiring.

He applied to NASA, was accepted for astronaut training, and became a space shuttle pilot and a selectee for multiple missions on the ISS. His identical twin brother also became a Navy pilot and an astronaut, and during Kelly’s year-long sojourn aboard the ISS, doctors and scientists monitored both Kelly’s physique and that of his brother’s so they could compare the results to learn more about the effects of space travel on human physiology.

This book is well-written, and every page has its own fascinations. Although Kelly sometimes describes complex operations and equipment, his explanations are always easy to follow. It’s one of those rare books that I consider a great discovery: there’s so much in it that is joyous and strengthening that I count myself fortunate to have come across it.

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Book Review: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My reaction to this book is similar to my reaction to the other Coates book I have read: We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. I hesitate to review it because, first of all, I don’t want to pass judgment on it, and secondly, I prefer that you read the book and allow the author to speak for himself. Between the World and Me is a beautiful book, a unique book, an important book.

We Were Eight Years in Power, an obvious reference to the Obama presidency, is comprised of essays giving Coates’s take on relevant political, sociological, and historical issues. Between the World and Me is different; it’s mainly a memoir. In this book, Coates directly addresses his young son. He writes about his childhood and youth in Baltimore, the fear and danger on the streets, and his need to be always on his guard. He contrasts this with his time at Howard University, which he refers to as The Mecca because of the way it attracts intelligent and interesting black students in a fear-free atmosphere of intellectual camaraderie. Later he writes of a friend from Howard named Prince Jones who was gunned down by a policeman for no apparent reason.

Underlying Coates’s narrative is an awareness of “The Dream,” a vision of perfection for white people only, and which Coates says can only be achieved upon the broken bodies of black people. Coates describes the emotional pain of African Americans in excruciating detail: the paranoia, the constant vigilance, the realization that “The Dream” is ultimately unreachable for them.

As with We Were Eight Years in Power, the thing that struck me most as I read Between the World and Me is Coates’s honesty and command of language. It changed me; it made me want to be more honest as a writer. It caused me to rethink my recent output and ponder whether I am focused on producing my best work.

Of course I can’t write from Coates’s perspective. I am a white man from a middle class background. I have lived in neighborhoods that are primarily black in Brooklyn and other cities and I have acquaintances who are black, mostly other writers, but I can’t pretend to understand the American black experience. What sets me apart from my contemporaries, though, is the fact that I got fed up with where I was, went out exploring the rest of the world, and stayed gone for thirty-five years. While reading Coates’s narrative, I sometimes found myself recalling times when I traveled in India with Indian friends. Sometimes I wouldn’t see another white person for days, and wouldn’t speak to other white people for weeks. The situation is profoundly different, though, of course. The Indian people cast their white oppressors out of their own country, and they remained. It is theirs, and they own it. On the other hand, the blacks of America were forcibly brought to a new land so that they could provide the labor to create “The Dream” for their white overseers. Now that slavery is abolished, their overseers remain and continue their oppression under different circumstances.

I’m not sure I’m telling this the right way; it’s not coming out how I wanted it to. That’s why I hesitated before I began and almost didn’t make the effort. So I’m going to close with a recommendation that you read this book. As I said above, it’s an important book, a great book. It will change you; it will make you better.

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Book Review: Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

I’ve read several books by Joyce Carol Oates, mainly short story collections. I think I also once read a memoir having to do with her early writing experiences. Oates frequently ventures into the realms of dark fantasy and horror in her fiction. When I heard about Hazards of Time Travel, I thought that it would be interesting to read what she comes up with in the genre of science fiction.

The book has a great premise. After 9/11, in an alternate future, the United States, Canada, and Mexico have consolidated to form the North American States, or NAS. The rich have taken over and have the mass of the populace under tight surveillance and strictly controlled. This government also has technology that makes time travel possible, and one method it uses to punish dissidents is to send them into the past to certain backwards periods of history, where they have to live out a sentence of exile.

The protagonist is a teen girl named Adriane Strohl. Her crime is that she stands out too starkly from the mass of students by getting good grades and becoming class valedictorian; she then has the audacity to write an original valedictorian speech in which she asks questions about recent past history. She is arrested during rehearsal, cruelly interrogated at a facility for young criminals, and then sentenced to be sent for four years to a university in a small town in Wisconsin in 1959.

The arrest, detention, interrogation, and trip to the past all take place very quickly in the first few chapters. This part of the book is suspenseful and fast-moving. I couldn’t wait to get on to the next part set in Middle America in 1959 and 1960. I thought that it was a terrific idea to send this young woman from an Orwellian future world back to a United States obsessed with the Cold War, the McCarthy anti-communist hearings, the struggle for civil rights for minorities and women, and other volatile issues of the time. I could envision all sorts of wild and absorbing plot possibilities.

Unfortunately, Oates does not explore any of these issues and in fact barely mentions them in passing. Instead, once Adriane is transported to the past and moves into the dorm that she shares with a host of white conservative farm girls from Wisconsin, the story slows way down. The description of her period of adjustment from the future to the past and her paranoia about making a wrong move and perhaps being killed by the oppressive government that sent her there is interesting. Apart from this, though, Oates ignores the fascinating era she has chosen as background and focuses on an infatuation that Adriane develops for a teacher who she discovers is also an exile. Chapter after chapter describes Adriane pining for and stalking this teacher; most of this could have been omitted and the book would have been much more powerful for it.

At the end of the novel, which I won’t disclose, the pace picks up again a bit. I can’t help but think, though, that there was so much historical material that Oates ignored, which, if it had been incorporated into the book, would have given it greater intensity and depth. I’m abruptly reminded of another time travel novel that takes its protagonist back to within a few years of this one, 11/22/63 by Stephen King. In contrast to Oates, King takes full advantage of the historical era to enrich his story. Although King’s novel is much longer than Oates’s, it moves faster and is a much more absorbing read.

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A Second Look: Fear or Be Feared: Fantasies

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A teenage girl climbing Mount Olympus with friends becomes possessed by an ancient Greek god who uses her as an instrument of vengeance.

 A young artist pursued by her abusive stepfather is recruited to join a society of people linked together by telepathy which exists completely outside the awareness of the present world system.

 Paranoia overwhelms a young college student as reality and fantasy merge in the midst of a drug trip that he realizes a dark power may be controlling.

 During the British Raj an American reporter discovers a hidden valley in the foothills of the Himalayas ruled by a lovely but sinister woman who may not be human.

 In these fourteen weird, surreal, frightening, and fantastic tales, unwary people discover that the world is very different from what they imagined.

Includes “Fear or Be Feared,” “The Disappearance of Juliana,” “Invisible People,” “The Elephant’s Eyes,” “War Horse,” “The Lady of the Lost Valley,” “The Ghost of Halkidiki Past,” “Wolf in a Cage,” “The Gift,” “Clouds Without Rain,” “Mendocino Mellow,” “Slice-of-Death,” “The Illuminations,” “The Customs Shed,” “Afterword: Deviations.”

Click to buy from these distributors:

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Book Review: LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking

Prefacing the conclusion to this riveting and terrifying book is a famous quote by Stewart Brand: “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.” Brand was the editor of the original Whole Earth Catalog, which a primitive attempt at a social network. We’ve come a long way since then. One of the main messages of LikeWar is that modern online social networks are not only the abodes of gods, but also of warring demons. In fact, the authors make a strong case that the demons are wreaking havoc in a domain that was once thought to be a virtual paradise.

Singer and Brooking don’t even bother to list the advantages of the internet and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others. They simply categorize them as addictive and let it go at that. Instead, they launch right into their overwhelming theme, which is that these media have been co-opted by foreign governments and extremist groups as digital battlegrounds for the hearts, spirits, minds, and opinions of the people of the world. Their detailed descriptions of these entities using multiple accounts, sockpuppets, and botnets to confuse populaces and spread propaganda in the form of fabricated stories brings to mind the horror movies with blob-like monsters that I used to watch on Saturday afternoons as a kid. Some of the specific examples they use include the sophisticated social media recruitment network of ISIS, Russia’s elaborate sockpuppet and botnet army, and China’s immense, enclosed, government-controlled social media system.

This book is a dark read. It makes you wonder if there’s any hope of the internet’s reliability as a source of truth now and in the future. According to the authors, Silicon Valley is much more interested in the bottom line of their corporations and the profits of their stockholders than in the morality of what appears on their global websites. Honesty and integrity seem to hold little sway compared to the overwhelming flood of disinformation that threatens to inundate any semblance of truth and thoughtful commentary.

For a time, shortly after its birth and baby steps, the internet was thought to be an intellectual utopia, a place where democracy and free thought would reign supreme. However, it was only a matter of time before terrorists and saboteurs began using it for their own nefarious purposes. The flood of animosity and disinformation caught online communities unprepared, and now governments and tech giants are playing catch-up to try to cope with the cyber-wars that have erupted in tandem with – or sometimes as prelude to – actual physical wars.

Counterattacks have been partially successful, say the authors, but there is still much ground to make up. Governments are attempting to cope, but much of the responsibility of security lies with the social media networks that the bad guys exploit. Singer and Brooking insist that Silicon Valley can no longer remain neutral when faced with the flood of evil that has overwhelmed their services, but must provide better security for the online communities of billions that daily look to social media for news, edification, entertainment, and personal connection.

This book is absorbing and important. Highly recommended.

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Book Review: Pastoralia: Stories and a Novella by George Saunders

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately, so I wanted to switch over to some fiction – to get back to my usual pattern, if I could, of alternating fiction and nonfiction in my reading material. I had no specific titles in mind, though, so I conducted an online search for the best short story collections of all time. This title, Pastoralia, came up on several lists.

Compared to another George Saunders collection I read not too long ago, Tenth of December, which as I remember was substantial, Pastoralia is sparse; it comes to less than two hundred pages in this paperback edition with fairly large print. That’s okay; we’ll assess it by its content, not its length.

The first thing that struck me when I picked up the book was the cover. It was completely out of place. It had nothing to do with the contents or themes of the stories. It seemed as if whoever designed it saw the title, and then selected the photo of a deer with forested hills in the background without realizing that “Pastoralia,” the title piece, has nothing to do with pastoral landscapes at all. Rather, it is a dark tale of a society with a dysfunctional economy in which the protagonist has to hire himself out as an actor playing a caveman in an amusement park exhibit in order to support his family. I really wondered about that cover: was someone actually paid to design it, or was it slapped on at the last minute by a person in marketing who had no clue to what the book was about?

Concerning the stories, they’re a mixed batch. “Pastoralia,” the first and longest story in the book, is darkly humorous and because of its absurd premise made me consider that it would not be out of place in a science fiction anthology or magazine. It’s very entertaining, but I thought that Saunders could have made his point even more effectively if he’d trimmed some of the excess and cut it by about a quarter or so of its length.

My favorite story is a dark fantasy, a zombie tale actually, called “Sea Oak.” It’s about a poor extended family living in a small apartment in a dangerous part of town. After a sweet spinster aunt who’d been living with them dies and is buried, she reappears as a slowly-disintegrating, gross, loud, potty-mouth, pushy zombie who starts ordering them all around. It’s uproariously funny in parts. Another sweet and well-told story is “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” which is about a lonely middle-aged man who can’t help but harshly judge every woman he sees. At a mandatory class for drivers who have received tickets, he meets and finds attractive a woman with a beautiful face but an unshapely body. The barber has to learn to mentally overcome his aversion to her imperfections before he can interact meaningfully with her.

As I mentioned in my review of Tenth of December, Saunders’s strongest stories seem to be those with science fiction or fantasy elements. His recent Man Booker Prize-winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is also a fantasy. And yet somehow he has managed to escape the stigma of being labeled a genre writer. Other writers such as Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison, even though science fiction and fantasy comprised only a moderate portion of their outputs, never got rid of their genre labels despite their vigorous efforts to do so. I suppose it’s because they started their careers in the pulps, whereas Saunders began in the literary magazines. It’s hard to shake early impressions in the publishing world.

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Book Review: A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison by Nat Segaloff; Part Two: About the Book

And so after a long jaunt down memory lane, we come to the book itself. We almost didn’t. I had a hard time acquiring this book. Why? Two reasons: I couldn’t afford it, and the library wouldn’t stock it. When A Lit Fuse first came out, I hungered to read it for some of the reasons I delineated in part one of this review. However, it is more expensive than most comparably-sized hard-covers, and it was beyond my price range. Way beyond. So I had no recourse but to wait either for Amazon to discount it during a special occasion, as eventually happens with most books in its inventory, or the book came out in soft-cover. Time passed, and neither of these things seemed to be imminent.

So I went to plan B: I suggested that the Seattle Public Library system acquire it. They have a form where readers can nominate books to be purchased. So I filled out the form. Nothing happened. After a few months had passed, I filled out another. And another. And another. After four tries, I came to the conclusion that either the library system didn’t want the book (which would have been odd, as they have numerous Ellison volumes in their catalog) or for some reason the publisher was not making the book available to libraries.

That was it. I was stymied. I had to let it rest. I was out of options. I continued to check occasionally for a paperback edition, but that didn’t happen. Finally, about a year and a half after the book came out, last Christmas I received an Amazon gift credit for a returned piece of clothing that didn’t fit, and I used the credit to purchase A Lit Fuse.

Was the book worth it? Did I attain satisfaction? I would have to say yes. It’s a fascinating exploration of Ellison’s life. But spoiler alert: it’s not a biography.

The sections I appreciated most were the first few chapters and the last chapter. The first hundred pages or so come closest to a standard biography. They deal with Ellison’s childhood, the multiple times he ran away from home and found odd jobs, his adventures as a fan, his early career in New York as a pulp writer, his first marriages, and his move to Los Angeles to get involved in script writing.

After this, the middle sections are arranged topically rather than chronologically and deal with various facets of his career. They are embellished with exclusive interviews, but for the most part they paraphrase the stories of Ellison’s life that he has already shared with his readers in countless essays and introductions to his stories. There was little in these sections of A Lit Fuse that I didn’t already know, although it was convenient to have all the stories sorted out and available in one place.

The last chapter, though, called “The Flight of the Deathbird,” took me by surprise and is emotionally devastating. It deals with Ellison’s decline in health late in life as he struggled with quadruple bypass surgery, a serious stroke, and clinical depression.

Ellison was a controversial figure throughout his life, and he made a lot of enemies. The amazing thing, though, is despite his fabled cantankerous nature, he also had an overwhelming wealth of friends – people who would stand by him and do anything for him. This included writers, actors, filmmakers, editors, publishers, students, and of course his fifth wife Susan, who married him in 1986 and remained with him for thirty-two years until his death.

One of the appendices at the back of the book lists the awards that Ellison won for his writing and editing. It goes on for page after page and includes multiple Nebula Awards, Hugo Awards, World Fantasy Awards, Writers Guild of America Awards, and numerous others. The man truly was a literary phenomenon, and this book is a wonderful introduction to his writing, his life, and his legend.

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Book Review: A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison by Nat Segaloff; Part One: What H.E. Means to Me

On the short list of writers who most influenced my own career, Harlan Ellison has one of the top positions, if not the number one spot. Others on the list would be Jack London, Henry Miller, and Jack Kerouac.

One of Ellison’s stories was directly responsible for my choice of writing as what I had to do with my life. Well, I might have come round to it anyway; I can’t imagine doing anything else. But an Ellison story was the catalyst that I needed to open my eyes and light my own personal fuse. I had been staggering semi-blindly through my courses during my one college year at the University of Santa Clara when I enrolled in a class on science fiction as literature. The textbook was The Mirror of Infinity: A Critic’s Anthology of Science Fiction edited by Robert Silverberg, and ensconced within its covers was the story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison. That story blew me away. I had been an avid reader since I was very young, and I had been profoundly moved by many great books. This experience was different. It was visceral; it was shocking; it was like getting emotionally overwhelmed by some ripping great rock music. By the time I had finished it, I realized: “This is it! This is what I want to do with my life! I want to turn people on with the power of my writing just as this writer turned me on!” From that moment, there was no going back, and I never gave passing glance to any other career.

That doesn’t mean it has been a smooth and easy ride. Ha! Far from it. There was even a time that I stopped writing for about fifteen years, but that’s another story. Back to the college scene. I was badly messed up back then. I was smoking way too much pot and taking way too many psychedelics. My brain was fried and fragmented and it took me time to recover. I found myself back up in Seattle working odd jobs and going to the occasional community college class. And then I read in the paper one day that Harlan Ellison was going to be lecturing and reading from his works at the University of Washington. I went to the auditorium at the appropriate hour and was treated to a wonderful show. Not only that, I learned that he was there as a teacher at the Clarion West science fiction writers’ workshop. It was the first time I had ever heard of it, but I immediately wanted to be a part of it.

That evening Ellison kept the audience captivated with his incomparable speaking skills, sharing anecdote after anecdote. About an hour or an hour and a half in, he had the lights lowered so that the only illumination was the reading lamp on the podium, and he read us a story that had not yet appeared in print but went on to win awards, the dark fantasy thriller “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs.” What an event! I can never forget that experience! He followed with another shorter story, a light violent comedy called “Bleeding Stones.”

Now that I knew about Clarion West, I was determined to enroll. I applied and got accepted for the following summer. Looking back, I think the criteria for admission must have been lower than it is now; there were almost certainly fewer applicants. I say this because although I had been making attempts at writing stories, I knew virtually nothing about it when I went to Clarion West, and during my stay there I learned little, having such a weak foundation upon which to build. My growth as a writer came later. However, Ellison came back and was one of my teachers. It was a thrill to meet him and listen to his instruction, even if he did dismiss with few words the pittance of a tale I offered during his week there.

My next and last personal encounter with Harlan Ellison took place down in Los Angeles. I had finally realized I had to get out on the road and experience life if I wanted to have something worth writing about, and I had started out on my first hitchhiking journey to Mexico and Central America. On the way back, I stopped in at the apartment of short story and teleplay writer Russell Bates. He took me up to Ellison’s house in Sherman Oaks. Bates had lived there for a while, and he walked right in without knocking and started to give me a tour of the awards displays and so on. At some point, Ellison came out in his bathrobe, politely said that he was feeling sick and it wasn’t a good time, and cut short the visit. That was the last time I ever saw him personally.

For a time, I collected every book of his that I could find, and I avidly read them all. I had most if not all of the Harlan Ellison series put out in the seventies by Pyramid Books with beautiful covers by Leo and Dianne Dillon. I also had a copy of the original comprehensive bibliography of Ellison’s works that came out in a large soft paper edition. Alas, when I needed to minimize my belongings and acquire cash to travel as I set off on my first trip to Europe and the Indian Subcontinent, I sold those books to a used book store for a fraction of what they are worth now. There was nothing I could do; for me, it was a time of forsaking.

That’s about it. After that, I had less opportunity to enjoy Ellison’s writings, although I did find and read Deathbird Stories at a library in Thessaloniki, Greece, much later when my wife and I were raising our young family, and I ordered a copy of The Essential Ellison from Amazon UK and read that wonderful compilation of stories and essays. Later, after I had moved back to the States and attended Clarion West events, I would ask people who had been in touch with him how he was doing. That’s how I heard about his stroke and diminished health. He died on June 28th, 2018, about a year after A Lit Fuse was published.

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Book Review: The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present by David Treuer

While at the library one day, I found myself perusing titles on the Peak Picks shelf. The selections are comprised of brand-new bestsellers that people can take out for two weeks at a time with no reservations and no extensions. A woman standing next to me recommended a book, and I told her I’d already read it; then I recommended this book, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, which I was then reading. She was skeptical, pointing out that Native American histories were hard to get through because they were such horror stories. I told her that the author here was trying to do something different. Instead of dredging through the gruesome deep past, as Dee Brown does in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, David Treuer emphasizes the resurgence from near extinction and slow struggle of Native Americans to obtain their human rights and rights as Americans, overcome poverty and lack of education, and revitalize their identities and cultures.

Although the author has a positive vision for this book, he still chronicles a lot of misery. He starts with a brief overview of the various tribes around the United States before and after the coming of the Europeans. This leads up to the horrific Wounded Knee Massacre and other similar events. Afterwards, there is the story of how Native Americans attempted to hang onto their lands and lives despite a multitude of laws, regulations, and illegal encroachments that threatened to deprive them of both. Despite the zeal of so-called reformers who thought they were acting in the best interest of Indians but never bothered to ask the Indians what they thought would be best, Native Americans kept losing their land to white settlers and their children to mission and government schools.

It took decades of effort to right these wrongs – or at least make progress towards righting them. Various laws were passed that gave Indians more autonomy. A high percentage of Native American enlistment in the First and Second World Wars offered young men who had spent their entire lives on reservations a look at the outside world. Later, Indian militancy arose with the Red Power movement. A Supreme Court ruling in 1976 enabled many tribes to set up casinos on their reservations, which continues to offer a lucrative source of income.

This book greatly benefits from the fact that its author was born to an Ojibwe mother and raised on Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota. As a result, instead of the outsider-looking-in perspective of many books on Native Americans, Treuer gives readers an insider’s viewpoint. Interestingly, his father was an Austrian Jew, a Holocaust survivor, who worked with a community action program on the reservation to help the residents obtain needs such as school lunches, elder assistance, community centers, job training, and credit unions. His mother, formerly a nurse, earned a law degree and became a lawyer on the reservation.

I meet Native American writers from time to time here in Seattle through the Clarion West writer’s workshop, but my most intimate contact with a Native American was with my friend Russell Bates, a Kiowa writer about whom I recently composed a blog post. Russ would tell fascinating stories about his youth, and he even took me on a visit once to his hometown of Anadarko, Oklahoma, where I met his parents and others in his family. They were amazingly hospitable people.

Back to the book. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee is well-written, interesting, and informative. It has strength in it, and vision, and hope that Native Americans will be able to continue to thrive despite archaic obstacles that yet hinder their progress.

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