Book Review: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Thirteen Edited by Jonathan Strahan

And so we come to that time of year again, when anthologists bring out their “best of the year” volumes. I follow as many of them as I can, mainly because so much good fiction gets published in a calendar year that I can’t keep up with it. As I mentioned in a recent blog post on David Epstein’s new book Range, I read as much nonfiction as I do fiction, and even when I read fiction, I don’t stick only to one genre. I’m sure I miss a lot of great short stories in this way. After all, what I’m doing when I rely on “best of the year” volumes to get a sampling of the field is counting on the opinions of only a very few readers to recommend to me the finest works being published. When you see how little overlap there is in the selections of science fiction and fantasy “best of the year” books, you realize that what you’re reading is not the ultimate best by any means, because that in fact doesn’t exist. What you’re getting is a selection of the favorites of that particular editor, whose choices you may or may not agree with.

The science fiction and fantasy field has several yearly “best” volumes put out by various editors. For decades the far-and-away frontrunner has been editor Gardner Dozois and his immense yearly anthology of science fiction and news about the science fiction field. However, Dozois died recently, and last year’s volume was his final one. Jonathan Strahan, an editor based in Australia, has been putting out his “best” anthologies for thirteen years, and as he points out in the introduction, this is to be his last, at least with the current publisher. Evidently he’ll continue editing “best of the year” volumes, but with a new publishing house next year.

This anthology has Strahan’s favorites from 2018. There seems to be a fairly even mix of science fiction and fantasy, but in my opinion, for the most part at least, the science fiction stories tend to be stronger. Maybe that’s partially due to my general tendency to favor science fiction over fantasy, but I don’t think so. Some of my all-time favorite stories are fantasy, and I love writing fantasy stories as well, when the mood strikes. Anyway, one reason that I appreciate a mix of genres like this is that it gives me an opportunity to read stories outside my usual purview.

As usual with this type of anthology, there were some stories I thought were spot-on, while others were merely good, others okay, and others mediocre. There was only one story I couldn’t finish reading. I just didn’t get it; it wasn’t my cup of tea, so to speak. (And I wonder why I, a confirmed coffee-drinker, would use such a cliché!)

Often at this point I give you a listing of summaries of stories that in my opinion were the best in the book, but I think I’ll refrain from that this time. Why don’t you just pick up a copy of the book and choose your favorites for yourself. It’s very possible that your top choices would be very different from mine. It’s a small-scale example of the larger truth that I mentioned earlier: these stories are the favorites of one person who reads widely in the field specifically to be able to produce this anthology. Several editors do this, and each one highlights different stories.

In conclusion, though, there’s a lot of good writing here, and the book is well worth a read.

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Book Review: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

Those who follow my blog don’t know what to expect. I write a lot of book reviews, but I don’t limit my blog entries to only book reviews. I don’t only read in one genre either. In fact, I try to diversify my reading as much as possible. I have a rough plan of alternating between fiction and nonfiction when I read, but I don’t always stick to that pattern. I’ll read anything that looks interesting to me.

The same goes with my writing. I’m always writing something. Often I write science fiction and fantasy, but I also write thrillers, mysteries, literary fiction, memoirs, and essays. I’ve read advice from other writers that it’s important to specialize and singlemindedly stick to a narrow genre focus in writing. If you deviate from that path, they say, your readers will become confused and perhaps stop following your work.

Personally, I give readers a little more credit than that. I admire writers who are versatile.

These thoughts came to me while reading Range, a well-written and well-researched book that goes against most trends in modern thought. Nowadays the advice that most pundits give is to specialize. Do one thing over and over and over until you have developed genius-level expertise.

In Epstein’s view, this can make you knowledgeable in one area but deficient in comprehension of the overall picture. Generalization, or the pursuit of a modicum of knowledge in a wide range of fields, better prepares people for decision making at high levels. Often people who take up and abandon careers one after the other achieve great success later in life because of their broad experience. And even when those career changes were involuntary, it’s possible for someone to take adverse circumstances and turn them around into significant gains.

This message made a lot of sense to me. I’ve certainly bounced around from one undertaking and/or career to another in my life: various odd jobs as a young man, itinerant traveler on several continents and in dozens of countries, husband, parent of five sons, teacher of English as a second language… And then, late in life, I went through one of the most traumatic changes of my life when I moved back to the States with some of my sons. I tried to find a conventional job but couldn’t. Desperate, I looked for freelance writing work and found one gig, then another, and another, and here I am several years later eking out a living as a full-time writer.

After I read about a chapter and a half of this book, I called up one of my sons who has recently gone through some major career changes. “I think you’re going to love this book,” I told him. It’s the type of book that people recommend one to another precisely because it flies opposite of conventional thinking. When only one standard line of reasoning is emphasized, a lot of folks to whom the conventional take on things doesn’t work are going to fall through the cracks.

This book celebrates the broad thinkers, the scholars who study in many fields, the artists who experiment with various forms and mediums, the people who think outside the box. It helped me feel okay with myself and what I was accomplishing artistically. It reinforced the gut-level feeling I already had that I didn’t have to do things like everyone else; I could go my own way and clear my own path. If I complete a string of science fiction short stories and then want to switch and write a memoir or literary novel or series of essays, that’s okay. I keep working; I have persistence; I never give up. However, I revel in the diversity of my efforts. I like attempting new and different things.

This book is a valuable counterpoint to current mindsets. It shakes things up and allows you to see things from a fresh and invigorating intellectual perspective. And that’s always a plus.

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Book Review: Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence by Karen Armstrong

This is a lengthy tome; I’ve just spent the last few weeks reading it. It’s not easy reading either. I almost gave up in the early going. I questioned myself: Do I really want to spend my time doing this? And yet, in the end, I saw it through. One fascinating period of history after another caught my attention; I would think this one’s too interesting to miss – and then one more, one more, until it was too late to stop. It starts with Gilgamesh, the city of Uruk, and the Samarian Empire, and it finishes with the aftermath of 9/11. On the way, it touches on just about every empire and religious upheaval you can think of.

After I had completed the reading of this voluminous book, I supposed that I would review it just as I do almost every book that I read, and yet I hesitated. I’m not exactly sure why. One reason is that there’s so much in it that I can’t possibly remember everything. Another is the complexity and volatility of the subject matter. Another is that I was dissatisfied with the way that the author approached some of the material and the conclusions she came to.

Obviously with a book this size on such a controversial topic no reader is going to agree with everything in it. One thing that bothers me is the way Armstrong mixes religious and secular sources. She integrates scriptural tales into the history and doesn’t always differentiate where one ends and the other begins. The stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and other characters out of the Old Testament, for instance, are presented as they occur in the Bible alongside other details culled from secular sources.

Despite the mixing of secular history and scripture, Armstrong maintains a purely objective if not skeptical approach throughout the book. I can’t blame her for that. The problem is, she tilts the balance way over to the side of seeing religion as a political tool of rulers and governments, and she sees little good in religion or spirituality as a means of making humankind and its societies better. What I mean by this is that I get the impression that she considers religion only from the viewpoint of those who exploit it for their own ends and not at all from the perspective of common people who might derive some genuine comfort from it. It’s true that pseudo-religious beliefs or the appropriation of religion for propaganda purposes have led to violent warfare and terrorism; however, it’s also true that for billions of people throughout history and in the present age, religion provides strength, resolve, ethics, morals, unselfishness, good deeds, and the binding together of families and communities.

It annoys me when Armstrong insists that the only way to hold an agrarian society together is through the systemic violence of an elite minority forcibly suppressing masses of laborers. I don’t know history well enough to refute those claims, but I’m sure there have been exceptions in the past. I’m not willing to give up on humankind so easily and to accept the depressing theory that people will always revert to their worst instincts. It’s just a hunch, I suppose, but I think we can do better.

Despite its flaws, though, I have to admit that this book is impressive. It took a lot of research, a lot of heavy thinking, and a lot of organization of materials to pull off. It’s thought provoking, to say the least. Its strength is in its overview of history in the light of religion and its association with violence. It’s worth taking this tour of empires and nation states with this perspective in mind. As you journey with Armstrong from ancient to modern times, just keep in mind that you don’t have to agree with everything she says to grasp the larger picture she is presenting. Once you’ve finished the book, keep what seems beneficial to you, and let the rest go. That last comment reminds me of how to approach religion, come to think. It’s too important a facet of humanity to ignore. So study it, if it interests you; keep what you find valuable, and leave the rest alone.

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Book Review: The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-First Annual Collection Edited by Gardner Dozois

I found this book, a hardcover in excellent condition, in a boxful of books that one of my sons was planning to donate to Goodwill. When I pointed it out, he told me he was going to offer it to me before he gave it away. I definitely wanted to keep it. Gardner Dozois died recently after an amazing career as a writer and editor. He edited best-of-the-year collections of science fiction for over thirty years.

Currently three or four best-of-the-year collections come out every year covering science fiction or a mix of science fiction and fantasy. Others cover fantasy only, horror, and other more specialized subgenres. What made Dozois’ anthologies different was their comprehensiveness. Besides hundreds of thousands of words of fiction, he also included introductions that summarized major publishing events during the year (the introduction to this book runs almost thirty pages of small print) and a long list of stories that in his opinion merited honorable mention. These books stand as important literary milestones of science fiction’s achievements year by year. They are not only valuable collector’s items, but they also contain hours of entertainment in their many stories.

As with any editor’s best-of-the-year collections, I don’t agree with all of Dozois’ selections in any of the anthologies of his I have read. Especially because of the sheer volume of stories in these anthologies, there are bound to be some that readers favor over others. However, as usual, in this particular collection there are enough gems to make a great reading experience. This anthology has Dozois’ selection of the best stories from 2003. Here’s a brief summary of some of my favorites:

“The Ice” by Steven Popkes is an intriguing story about a man who is a clone of a famous hockey player. For a time he plays hockey and is a star, but after he becomes too obsessed with the sport he realizes he has to forge a unique, individual life for himself.

In “The Bear’s Baby” by Judith Moffett, aliens have invaded Earth and restricted access to certain areas of wilderness to all but a few naturalists. One of these naturalists discovers a sinister reason why the aliens have marked off the wilds for themselves. This story starts off a bit slowly, but gets more and more intriguing as it progresses.

In “The Fluted Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi, the world is ruled by an aristocratic elite who can use the rest of humankind however they want. The fluted girl of the title has been altered so that her body itself is a musical instrument. This leaves her intensely vulnerable to injury. How the fluted girl gets revenge upon her mistress is the subject of the story.

I think my favorite story in the volume is “Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst” by Kage Baker, which concerns the visit of a team of time-traveling immortals to William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon, at his palatial complex on the hillside near the town of San Simeon in California. Hearst’s gluttony for power and the trappings of power was the inspiration for Orson Wells’ cinema classic Citizen Kane. In this story, Baker presents Hearst as a dynamic and complex character who receives a most unusual offer from the time travelers.

The closing novella, “Dear Abbey” by Terry Bisson, is another time traveling story. This time a team of academics ride a time machine all the way to the end of time, stopping at all sorts of interesting locations on the way. The most fascinating aspect of this story, though, is how Bisson presents God as an AI unit created by man that infiltrates the Earth.

Whenever you come across one of Gardner Dozois’ best-of-the-year anthologies, you can be assured of plenty of thought-provoking entertainment.

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A Second Look: After the Rosy-Fingered Dawn: A Memoir of Greece

Greece has always been regarded as the birthplace of western civilization and a Mediterranean paradise.  In The Iliad and The Odyssey Homer uses the magical epithet rosy-fingered dawn to describe the sunrise over a land of myth, fascination, and mystery.  But when preconceptions and illusions are swept aside, what is Greece really like?

 John Walters has lived in Greece for over fifteen years.  He has hitchhiked over many of its roads; traveled by camper; journeyed by plane, boat, bus, car, taxi, motorcycle, and on foot.  He has lived and worked and raised a family among Greeks.  He offers insight from an intimate perspective on aspects of Greek society and culture of which tourists are unaware.

 Many have visited Greece and afterwards acknowledged that the country has profoundly changed them.  This memoir is for those who feel something special when they think of Greece and Greeks, those for whom Greece holds a special thrall, those who have visited and have their own memories of the place, and those who would like to visit someday and know that when they do they will obtain new insight, new clarity, and will never be the same again.

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Book Review: Travels With Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life by Daniel Klein

Lately I have come to realize that I am getting old. I should have known it already for some time now because numbers don’t lie, but I have been able to ignore my age so far because of my excellent genes and the exercise regimen that I have kept up for decades. I’m well into my sixties and I hardly have any gray hair yet. However, I’m tired almost all the time now, my muscles and joints ache more that they used to, and I simply don’t have the endurance I once had. There was a time I could best my sons not only at running, but at any other sport we attempted together. Alas, those days are long gone. Every one of them except the youngest is bigger and stronger than me. The youngest is stronger too; he just doesn’t tower over me quite yet.

These are the realities of life. People age. It’s inevitable. In the viewpoint of the young, it’ll never happen. It’s only when the deterioration begins that one realizes that yes, it will happen to me too, and the vicissitudes of time have already begun to reap their toll.

This brings me to the book Travels With Epicurus, which is a meditation on old age. The writer, an American, took off for a period of time to a remote Greek island without roads or motor vehicles to contemplate old age and what one’s attitude should be towards it. In a nutshell, he is of the opinion that old people should adopt the philosophy of Epicurus, who believed that life was meant to be lived as simply and pleasurably as possible. Epicurus’s recipe for happiness was doing as little work as possible, growing your own food in a garden, and spending most of your time in conversation with friends.

Ah, if only…

It’s a nice idea, but for many people it falls apart under analysis. If I had a plot of land on which I could live and grow food and an abundance of compatriots with which to share leisure time, I would probably be content enough. However, that’s not how it usually works. The weakness of this book is its presumption that all old people own their own homes and have enough free time to be able to relax and enjoy life. The author was able to take off alone on an extended trip to an idyllic Greek island, get by during this time without working, and then return to a wife, house, and enough income to continue living comfortably.

Okay, that’s the downside to the book. However, I don’t want to give you the impression that this is a negative review. In fact, I loved this book. It’s just that despite its wonderful thoughts on old age and what aging means in a metaphysical context, it’s not really a practical guide to how anyone might actually live except for the small percentage of affluent people who can afford to relax, contemplate their existence, and do nothing else but write their life story.

I have to admit that I daydream frequently about circumstances such as the author suggests in this book: a modest quiet place in which to write, free time in which to leisurely compose my thoughts, and enough income to meet my needs. Instead, due to circumstances about which I have written much in the past, I struggle daily for survival, work long hours seven days a week, and breathe a deep sigh of relief when I once again manage to pay the rent and bills at the end of the month.

Still, I appreciate this book, impractical though it is. It’s like comfort food for old folks. I sincerely enjoy reading the predigested philosophy and hearing about Klein’s simple existence on the Greek island of Hydra. I have lived in Greece and I have visited several of the islands, and I would love to put in some writing time in a situation similar to what Klein describes in this book. Just thinking about it brings back the quietness, the simplicity, the warm breeze bearing the aroma of the ocean, the hot sand underfoot, and the feel of the cool clear waters.

If only… If only… Maybe someday.

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Book Review: Ten Years a Nomad: A Traveler’s Journey Home by Matthew Kepnes

I’m about three-quarters of the way through this book, and I have mixed feelings about it. In its favor, it’s an easy read, and it brings up nostalgic feelings of my own road experiences. I can relate to a lot of what he is saying. I too have traveled for years with no set itinerary, stayed at hostels with diverse types of roommates, seen some of the world’s fabulous and remote places, and had passing friends and lovers. And yet…

I suppose I have to take this author’s experiences for what they are. Although he writes mainly in generalities, in fact every traveler has a different story and a different motivation that propels them out on the road for the first time. This is one person’s story. That he attempts to compartmentalize the realities of budget travel – well, I suppose it works for some people.

It calls to mind the title of his other book, evidently a best seller when it came out: How to Travel the World on $50 a Day. When I first read that title I thought, Wow! If I had had fifty dollars a day to spend when I was traveling, I would have been living in luxury. Kepnes always seems to have had enough money to bale himself out of tight situations. He could grab a flight to somewhere else whenever he wanted. I don’t intend this as criticism. In fact, I don’t recommend that most people attempt to travel the way I did back in the day. That way they won’t go hungry in Delhi, India, or be forced to beg on the streets in Tehran.

Kepnes is concerned with traveling for entertainment and adventure, as are most people. As for me, my motivations were more artistic and metaphysical. I wanted to find my voice as a writer, and also I sought answers to profound questions about life that I couldn’t find wallowing in my misery back at home.

Before I get too far in my criticisms, though, let me reiterate that I enjoyed this book, even though I expected something different. I was hoping for a memoir of Kepnes’s time on the road. Instead, the chapters are broken down, as I said, into general subjects concerning road life. Fair enough. My expectations were errant. Each of the chapters brought back its own memories, especially those concerning finding friends on the road, taking jobs in other countries as an expatriate, and having and then abandoning precious love affairs.

I’m presently at a time in my life during which travel is difficult. I did manage to take a couple of road trips with my sons this past summer, and those were a lot of fun. I’m speaking, though, of extended travel when you don’t know how long you’ll be gone or where you’ll end up. Reading this book brought back those wonderful aimless and carefree feelings and made me realize how much I missed them. It’s true that it’s a lot easier to make friends and leave your cares behind on the road. However, taking off on the road is not always possible. Right now I’m seeing a son through school. Afterwards, who can say? I recently converted my longing for the road into a new novel that will hopefully be available soon. That’s one outlet.

In conclusion, this is an interesting and entertaining book, even though it over-generalizes and is content to skim the surface of the travel experience. It offers insight into a subculture that seems to have survived since my own travel days.

*     *     *

As I mentioned above, I hadn’t quite finished reading the book when I wrote the first part of this review. Now that I’m done, I have a few more things to say.

The rest of the book focuses on Matt’s decision to come in off the road. After spending close to two hundred pages extolling the wonders of the road experience, he finally realizes that he is burned out and wants to quit and settle down. He fantasizes about a house with a garden that he can tend. Part of the reason for this change of heart is a deep love affair with a woman he meets. It turns out, though, that she doesn’t want to stop moving, whereas Matt feels he has to. And so they split up.

The chapter in which he describes his road burn out is among the most poignant in the book. I know how he felt. I came in off the road several times before I settled for decades while my ex-wife and I raised our family. The difference is that in a sense I was still on the road because we set up our home in Greece. Still, there is a profound difference between constantly moving as a road nomad and settling in one spot, however exotic it might be.

So Matt came in off the road, moved to Austin, published books, and now runs his Nomadic Matt blog as a business. The website has a lot of interesting articles about all sorts of subjects related to travel. As for Ten Years a Nomad, the closing chapters in which Matt settles give a fitting conclusion to his road adventures.

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Book Review: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

It’s interesting that I came across this graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, shortly after reading George Takei’s graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy. The authors of both books are Asian Americans, and both books deal with traumas that their families had to undergo while the writers were children. In Takei’s case, it was the forced imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II, while in Thi Bui’s case it was escape from Vietnam shortly after the end of the war.

The Best We Could Do begins as the author is about to give birth to her first child. From that point she reminisces about the births of her brothers and sisters and her own birth. She traces the stories of her parents as they are brought up in Vietnam under the French. Her father is raised in relative poverty and loneliness, while her mother is born to an elite family. As they grow up, the country changes around them. It divides into northern and southern portions, and ideologies split between communists and non-communists.

Both of Bui’s parents become teachers, and for a time they do well in South Vietnam on their two salaries. However, inflation soars as the United States becomes more involved and the war intensifies. The family lives in penury. They never know when they might be called out by secret police. In desperation, they search for passage on a boat on which they can escape to another country.

The boat that the family eventually ships out on is small, filthy, and overcrowded. Eventually Nam, Bui’s father, is selected as pilot due to his intelligence and education, and with the help of a compass he successfully navigates the boat out into international waters and then safely to Malaysia.

The family spends time in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Soon, though, thanks to the help of Bui’s aunt in Indiana, they are accepted as refugees to the United States. Bui’s mother with her four children flies on ahead while her father is in temporary quarantine because of scars on his lungs from an old case of tuberculosis. He joins them soon afterwards.

Bui’s parents and siblings don’t do well in the intense cold of the winters in the Midwest, so the family relocates to California where the weather is warmer. There they start a new life in their own home.

The book closes where it began, in the hospital where Bui is giving birth. After her baby arrives, she wants to nurse him, but he develops jaundice and has to stay in the hospital after she is released. She and her husband rent a room across the street and wake up every ninety minutes to walk over to the hospital so she can give milk to her son. She contemplates the importance of the relationship between parents and their children and considers the awesome responsibility of parenthood.

This book is very well written and well illustrated. The story is fascinating. I’m sure I would have enjoyed a full-length words-only memoir by Bui. However, the graphic memoir is the art form she has chosen in which to present her tale, and it works well in this instance. The vivid, moody illustrations add depth to this heartfelt, sometimes joyous, and sometimes frightening story of a family from one world relocating and establishing a new life in another.

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Find a Way

I knew that I was destined to be a writer since I was about seventeen or eighteen years old. The realization descended upon me with the force of revelation. It came about after a powerful short story in an anthology for one of my college classes hit me like a thunderbolt. That’s what I wanted to do. I was sure of it.

At first I didn’t know how to go about it. I attempted various short stories that didn’t really amount to anything. I struggled to come up with things to write about. In those days, I thought that writing came out of your head, out of ideas that you somehow came up with. And it does, sort of. However, the most powerful writing initiates from your heart and your guts. You dredge it up out of your experiences, your hopes, your dreams, your frustrations, your victories, your sins, your deep dark secrets that you don’t even tell those closest to you. I had plenty of all that. I just didn’t know how to access it. For me, it took getting out on the road and traveling halfway around the world before I managed to break through the ice or the rock crust or whatever metaphor you want to use into the pure gold beneath. That’s when I found my so-called voice.

Really, though, what is termed a writer’s voice is only the arrangement of whatever he or she chooses to put on the page. It’s not some sort of mysterious algorithm or code that you somehow crack and are thenceforth able to impart pearls of wisdom. It’s just you speaking. I had to figure that out the hard way, to compile the bumps and bruises of experience while all the time the simple reality of it was staring me in the face.

A writer writes. A writer is an artist who observes the world and reacts to it in words. It’s as easy and as difficult as that. Easy because all you have to do is look around you and then describe what you see. Difficult because the lens through which you see the world is often tarnished and muddied by falsehoods, inadequacies, insecurities, deceptions, and distractions put there by you or by others.

One of the most important pieces of advice I would give to someone who realizes they are a writer is to write. Write and don’t ever stop. No matter what life throws at you, find a way to write through it. As I look back on my life, one of my greatest regrets is that I stopped writing for about two decades in the middle of it. Oh, I have my excuses, and they are valid ones. I’m not going to bother delineating them here. However, those two decades are gone and I can never get them back. As I look back now from the perspective of old age and realize that I have limited time left on this Earth, I regret losing that time and those words. My current minimum daily word count of creative words, which I resolve to keep no matter what and manage to meet five or six days a week, is five hundred words. Usually I manage more; I would say my average is about seven hundred words. Let’s keep it at five hundred words, five days a week, for the purposes of this analysis. That’s two thousand five hundred words a week, ten thousand words a month, one hundred twenty thousand words a year, and two million four hundred thousand words in twenty years. That’s how many words I have lost by my midlife hiatus. I can never get that time or those words back. They are lost forever.

Not all of those aforementioned words, perhaps, would have been superb words or publishable words, but they would have been my words, and I might have used them in some way, if only as raw material for further projects. And that brings me to another important piece of advice: keep what you write. Don’t ever get rid of it – not even those old diaries or journals that cause you a twinge of embarrassment whenever you think about them. This prompts the memory of another profound regret in my own life. In an unwise, self-righteous, self-critical moment when I was overseas, I had a relative destroy the box full of manuscripts from my early writing years, thinking that they were inadequate and inferior compared to what I had begun to produce. Perhaps they were, but I have often longed to have them back so that I could go over them again. I might have been able to glean some insight into my thought processes back then, which in turn might have helped me with my current work.

So there you have it: for whatever they are worth, insights gleaned from the perspective of experience. Never stop writing, and keep what you write. I’m not talking about holding onto all those muddled first drafts; rather, retain a record of your past efforts in case for some reason in the future you want to refer to them.

Writers write. And future work is built upon present and past work. That’s the crux of it all.

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Book Review: A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit

People don’t commonly look on disasters as uplifting experiences, but in this book, the author argues that overwhelmingly traumatic shared experiences often bring out the best in the so-called victims. Within minutes or hours of disasters striking, says Solnit, magnanimity and solidarity take hold and many of those involved seek ways that they can help out others around them.

In this study of reactions to disaster, the author focuses on five of the worst catastrophes to strike North America in recent history: the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fires in 1906; the Halifax explosion in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1917; the devastating earthquake that hit Mexico City in 1985; the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City in 2001; and the Hurricane Katrina devastation of New Orleans in 2005. The five sections of the book correspond to these disasters. Some of these events Solnit examines in depth, while others she describes and then uses as springboards to discuss other historical disasters.

Solnit’s point, and the reason that this book on disasters is so strangely uplifting, is that people naturally tend to form communities and help each other when disaster strikes. As examples she highlights food distribution in parks in San Francisco, those on the scene during the 9/11 attacks relinquishing their own safety to help other victims find their way out of buildings and the toxic cloud surrounding the collapsing structures, nearby boat owners risking their own lives to find stranded victims of Hurricane Katrina and carry them to safety, and other instances of people tirelessly and selflessly assisting the weak and helpless in extreme difficulties.

There’s a dark side to disasters too, and Solnit brings it out in gut-wrenching detail. It’s not the deaths caused by the disasters themselves, but rather the reaction of the upper classes that Solnit calls elite panic. Disasters usually hits the poor hardest, who can’t afford strong houses and special safety measures. The wealthy become concerned that the masses of displaced people will commence looting and rioting, and they take measures to protect their goods. These measures often involve making villains out of the victims. Instead of focusing on rescuing, evacuating, feeding, and clothing those traumatized by the event, the authorities attempt to control them and curtail their activities. In some of the disasters, notably the San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, rather than rescue people lost in floods or buried in wreckage, armed police and military personnel roamed the decimated streets shooting supposed looters.

New Orleans after Katrina was an extreme example of elite panic. Many people that were trapped in the floodwaters died while authorities, instead of going in to get them, cordoned off the city and didn’t even allow rescue workers with vitally needed supplies to get in. They invented a myth that the city was dangerous. Armed vigilantes roamed the streets shooting anyone they suspected of looting, especially people of color. Thousands of deaths probably could have been prevented if the authorities at both state and federal levels had stepped in and done what they were supposed to.

This book is important, but it’s not necessarily an easy read. The difficulty was exacerbated by the fact that the local library system only had the paperback available, and it’s printed in miniscule font that made my eyes water and ache. I really wanted to persist and finish it, but I got physically and mentally weary from the effort and did something I almost never do: after finishing the first three sections, I put the book aside to quickly read a short light science fiction novel, and then I got back to it. I’m glad I did. The last two sections, about the 9/11 attack and Hurricane Katrina, are the most eye-opening of the book.

So I recommend this book, but be prepared for some heavy mental lifting. In addition, try to get hold of a copy with larger font if you can.

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