Book Review: The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman

When the original series of Star Trek first appeared on network television in 1966, I was thirteen years old. I had already been exposed to science fiction on television in the form of Lost in Space a year earlier. I loved that show. It fed my burgeoning appetite for fantasy when I was a child, but it had nothing like the effect that Star Trek had during my teen years. In the beginning, I watched Star Trek – and everything else – in black and white. We didn’t have a color TV. My family didn’t get one, in fact, until after I had moved out for good. Be that as it may, I rarely missed an episode of Star Trek, and when it came out in syndication, I watched those episodes over and over and over again. There was something singular, something special about it. When I determined to become a writer and attended Clarion West science fiction writing workshop in 1973, Star Trek loomed even greater in importance. For the first time, in my classmates, I met people who appreciated it as much as I did. Additionally, the man who had written my favorite episode of all time, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Harlan Ellison, was one of my teachers.

Before someone gave me this new book on the beginnings of Star Trek, I had read a few books about the show. First was The Making of Star Trek, which its creator and producer, Gene Roddenberry, helped to write. Later I read a less complementary biography of Roddenberry.

And now this book.

It’s in an unusual format. It consists of numerous interviews with almost everyone who has ever had anything to do with the show that are edited together to form a coherent story. I can think of all sorts of reasons why this sort of style might not work – and even in this book it causes a lot of repetition – but for the most part it succeeds.

The book starts with the very first genesis of the series in the mind of its creator and follows it through the first three seasons of the original series and the six movies that came after. A sequel, which I haven’t read yet, continues the story from the inception of The Next Generation all the way up to J.J. Abrams’s films. Oddly enough, I was talking with my oldest son on Skype about this book and recommending he read it, and he said he was already reading it. There was a bit of confusion until we both realized that he was reading the sequel and I was reading the first book. Yes, we’re both Star Trek fans.

What can I say about the book? It’s not fair to attempt to summarize it, as the story is too convoluted; it has too many twists and turns and fascinating asides. If you like Star Trek – or if you’re interested in the complications of television production – read the book. Otherwise, you might not find it to your liking. As for myself, I already knew about a lot of the squabbles that accompanied the making of the series, but I had not heard many of the details. I find it an interesting and absorbing book, and I am sure that in time I will seek out and read the sequel. It offers fascinating insight not only into the Star Trek series, but also into how writers and producers and directors and actors work together – or perhaps more often at least attempt to work together. It gives you a crazy close-up look at network decision making, which no doubt continues to this day, even though the means of television production and viewing have changed so radically.

Interestingly enough, I had just finished re-watching the entire three seasons of the original series on Netflix from first show to last shortly before beginning this book. One thing that it helped me see is why there is such a difference in quality between the first season and a half and the rest of its run. It’s a miracle that the show survived as long as it did, and an even greater miracle that it ever became the unprecedented cultural phenomenon that it is now.

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Heroes and Other Illusions: Stories

My new book is now available in print and electronic editions from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo, and other distributors.

Heroes Web

Heroes aren’t always as they seem; often they are ordinary people reacting to circumstances beyond their control or pursuing the only option open to them.  In this eclectic collection, reclusive old folks take on powerful cyborg bodies to combat ferocious invading aliens; a man near death uses cutting-edge psychiatric technology to journey into his memories and come to grips with crucial decisions from his past; a dead woman travels halfway around a bizarrely mutating world to keep a promise to an old friend; a young woman in the frozen northlands rescues a centuries-old creature with an amazing tale of survival.  These and other stories upend traditional concepts of courage, honor, love, death, enchantment, and terror and present mind-boggling alternatives.

Click to buy from these distributors:

Trade Paperback

Amazon Kindle

Barnes and Noble

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Apple iBooks

 

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Book Review: A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg

I don’t know how I missed reading this novel back in the early 1970s. I read several of Silverberg’s other novels of that era, the best of which were Dying Inside and The Book of Skulls.  Silverberg was on a roll back then; he was not only amazingly prolific, turning out not only novels but also short stories, novelettes, and novellas, but also practically everything he wrote was of exceptionally high quality. He would often experiment with tense, point of view, and other stylistic flourishes, but he would integrate these innovations so soundly into the text that it seemed there was no other alternative than to write it that way.

A Time of Changes, oddly enough considering its subject matter, is rather conventional in style. A man on a far planet long ago colonized by Earth people reminisces in a journal after undergoing changes in his life brought on by his meeting an Earthman and taking a drug with him that dissolves personality barriers. The catch is that on this world, the sharing of self is despised, so that it is heretical and illegal to commit the sin/crime of self-baring, or exposing your own ego to others. This is manifest even in speech, in which words such as “I” and “me” are among the crassest forms of obscenity.

This is a good book; Silverberg had very clean, meticulous prose in those days – not a word is misplaced. The society and the world in which the narrator lives are presented in precisely the right amount of detail to give the reader a sense of immersion but at the same time keep the story moving forward. And yet… I would not say that this is the best Silverberg novel from that era. For me, that honor still goes to Dying Inside, which profoundly touched and shook me when I first read it.

One difficulty with A Time of Changes is that there is no suspense in it. The narrator makes clear what is ultimately going to happen from the beginning, and in the end, it happens. Okay, fair enough – not all stories need to have heart-pounding suspense. The mood in this one is more thoughtful, and the pacing is slow.

Another difficulty is that in 1971, when it was published, the subject matter of the novel was original, courageous, and cutting-edge, while now it strikes me as somewhat anachronistic. I in no way intend this point as criticism. It’s just that – well, times have changed, and the beginning of the twenty-first century has its own brand of craziness that is not necessarily addressed in this book.

As far as using a hallucinogenic drug for enlightenment or other reasons, it’s a valid theme and one that I have dealt with myself in several stories and novels. It’s hard to tell from Silverberg’s introduction to this new edition whether he actually took psychedelics himself. When I first read the introduction, I thought maybe yes; but then I reread it to double check and now I’m not so sure. The descriptions of experiences with the drug in the novel are nicely written but somewhat generic in the sense that they could apply to several sorts of strange experiences that strain the limits of the psyche.

All of this is neither here nor there as far as appreciation of the novel is concerned.  I don’t think it’s necessary to take psychedelics to write about them any more than I think it’s necessary to visit a country to set it as a background in a story. You just have to do your research. And since Silverberg is dealing with a made-up drug, although modeled on the hallucinogens that were so prevalent when he was writing the book, he can make it do anything he wants.

In conclusion, this is a good novel and well worth reading, although perhaps not the psychic dynamite that it was when it was first published. And even if it’s not Silverberg’s best, it’s better than the best of most other writers.

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Three Out of Five

It took me a while to bring myself to write this one because it’s so personal. It exposes me; it leaves me vulnerable. It concerns motivations that keep me going, but they aren’t really my primary motivations at all. My real motivations erupt out of the core that constitutes my spirit, soul, or whatever you want to call it, and to give a good idea of what those are I have to go into much more detail. If you are interested, I suggest you read my memoir Writing as a Metaphysical Experience and you’ll get at least a rough outline.

When I first decided I had to be a writer, I didn’t really have any specific goals other than to discover my voice, write for the rest of my life, throw my words at the markets, see what stuck, and somehow become wealthy in the process.  I thought, in the passion and strength of my youth, that this general direction would be enough; and it did, in fact, get me out of my rut and traveling around the world, and it helped me find my voice and write down a lot of sincere and well-expressed words that are all, alas, long lost. Then there was a break for a couple of decades during which I got married, had five sons, and struggled to survive in various countries. In the mid-1990s I came back to writing and resolved never to stop until they pried the keyboard out of my cold dead fingers. It’s around that time that I formulated my five goals.

Now, before I tell you of these goals, I have to emphasize that I am well aware that they are not really goals because none of them are within my power alone to achieve. A viable goal for a writer is to, say, write five hundred or a thousand words a day. That’s something a writer can do on his or her own. I can’t really set a personal goal of selling a story, because that’s not in my power. The decision is not mine, but an editor’s. So selling a story is more in the nature of a hope or a desire rather than a goal. The same goes for winning an award. It’s up to the voters, not me. I can resolve to write the best stories of which I am capable, and that’s about all I can do. Are we clear? Nevertheless, I will continue to call these hopes or desires goals because that’s how I thought of them when I first made them.

So: The goals that I formulated shortly after I began writing again a little over three decades ago were these:

First, to sell a story to a magazine or an anthology. Self-publishing was not an option at that time, and to count the story had to be sold and not given away for free.

Second, to get at least one professional sale so I could join Science Fiction Writers of America as an associate member. I understand that some writers value membership in writers’ organizations more than others, but to me this held great significance ever since I attended Clarion West Science Fiction Writing Workshop when I had just turned twenty in 1973.

Third, to get at least three professional sales so I could upgrade my membership in SFWA to active, which is the highest class of membership.

Fourth, to sell enough fiction and other writing professionally so I could make my full time living as a writer.

The fifth goal, I admit, is the most arbitrary and the one I have the least control over. I’m not going to tell you that one right now; it stays under my proverbial hat.

I sold my first story in 1999: “Clear Shining After Rain” to the Australian SF magazine Altair. I don’t count my first publication, which was “The Ghost of Halkidiki Past” to an English-language Greek magazine, because they never paid me for it – I had to wait to get paid for that story until it was reprinted in the US literary magazine Lynx Eye in 2001.

It turns out that my first sale was also my first professional sale, as Altair paid pro rates, but SFWA didn’t list it as a qualifying market for membership until 2007, which is when I joined as an associate member. So that was that.

In the next ten years, I sold quite a few stories and self-published many more, but I didn’t get the credentials to upgrade my SFWA membership to active until recently.

So there it is: three out of five. It’s taken a long time and a lot of work.

As far as goal four, I am in fact a full time writer, but many of the pieces I get paid to write are articles about which I have no personal interest. While I am researching and writing these articles, I often wonder how much more productive my fiction writing would be if I could pour all that energy and effort into that instead of those articles for which I get a one-time payment and then they are afterwards relegated to oblivion. So I won’t feel I have reached goal four until I am supported by my fiction and memoir work, not by that work for hire crap.

As for goal five, that one goes on the back burner. It’s not in my hands. Anyway, it’s not good to reach all your goals, is it? What then would you strive for? Just kidding. As soon as I reach these five, I’m sure I’ll come up with a new set.

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Book Review: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

One of my sons has the opinion that Malcolm Gladwell oversimplifies sociological issues, and he has a point.  My son would rather read the complex tomes on which Gladwell’s research is based, and that’s fine.  Gladwell does tend to generalize a lot; in fact, that’s what his books are all about: drawing general theories from a plethora of seemingly unrelated circumstances.  On the other hand, I read Gladwell in part because I don’t want to take the time to read those long complicated books.  I’m satisfied with generalizations, at least on some subjects.  I don’t agree with everything or even most of what Gladwell says, but sometimes an inner bell rings; and even when I don’t agree, he often makes me think.

I hadn’t really intended to read another Gladwell book so soon again, but this one sort of fell into my hands, so I went ahead and read it.

David and Goliath has some great sections and some so-so sections.  In some parts, though, he seems to go out of his way to make his arguments unnecessarily complicated by switching back and forth between various stories he uses as examples.  A book like this should be more straightforward, and not shifting all over the place among different points of view.

Gladwell uses the Bible story of David and Goliath as a metaphor to illustrate that power and ability are not always what they seem.  Sometimes those who at first appear more talented, strong, and able do not win, and those who appear deficient in some way can turn their seeming inadequacies into advantages.  Theorists posit that Goliath, though huge and muscular, was slow, ponderous, and almost blind due to genetic abnormalities, while David, though much smaller, was light of foot and without the encumbrance of armor.  Furthermore, David’s prowess with a sling gave him a profound tactical advantage over his sluggish opponent.

According to Gladwell, seeming weakness and a disadvantaged background can give you a tenacity that those with more privileges and an easier path do not possess.  He uses as example a coach who knew nothing about basketball leading a team of small, short girls to a state championship and Lawrence of Arabia leading the Arabs to victory over the Turks during World War I.  As I read this I thought of my own sons, all of whom are athletic, brilliant, and successful in the endeavors to which they have committed themselves.  They began, one would think, with a number of disadvantages.  We were never well off financially in their early years; we had to struggle to pay the bills.  Additionally, they were the subjects of discrimination in the Greek-language public schools they attended in Thessaloniki, and often got into fights just through the mere fact of being half-American.  However, these circumstances made them incredibly self-reliant.  One who was academically inclined won a full four-year scholarship to an Ivy League university.  Another, also mentally brilliant, honed himself into an amazingly versatile athlete.  Another chose the company he wanted to work for and got a position seemingly without effort.  If they want something they go after it with all their intellect, sinew, and spirit, no holds barred, no questions asked.

Another section of the book relates the story of a woman who is intensely interested in science.  She receives top grades in high school and has her choice of several universities.  She chooses an elite eastern university, does not do well, drops out of the science curriculum, and gets a degree in liberal arts.  Her mistake was her choice of university, says Gladwell.  In the Ivy League school she was a very small fish in a very big pond, while in her second or third choice of university she would have had less competition and more opportunity to excel.  As a comparison, I thought of when I send my stories out to magazines and anthologies.  When I send to the best ones, I am in competition with many more writers than if I send them to less-known magazines that pay less.  But here is where Gladwell and I diverge.  Just because I get rejected more often at the larger markets does not make me try them less often.  The possible rewards are worth the rejections.  Writers have to have thick skins; rejections are part of the game.  I’ll suffer hundreds – nay, thousands – of rejections to meet my goals.  Once I sent a story to a small press magazine and it snapped it up right away.  Ever after I wondered if the big magazines might have liked it just as much.  These issues are often complicated and differ with each individual circumstance.

The chapter of the book on the impressionist painters of France in the 1800s and their bypassing of the hallowed Salon where all famous artists displayed their work in favor of opening their own gallery reminded me of the current trend of self-publishing.  These painters – including some of the greatest artists of the era – could not get past the gatekeepers of their time, and so their solution was to display their paintings on their own.  So simple, so elegant, and yet so audacious.  Writers are faced with the same decision today between going through the heavily guarded and conservative traditional route or launching their own imprint on self-publishing channels.

Another section goes into near-miss situations.  People who approach death and survive often develop a debonair attitude that makes them thrill to risks.  This happened to me when I took off on the road in the 1970s across the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent.  After I survived a few close calls it seemed I no longer tried to avoid dangerous circumstances.  I often walked right into them, in fact, oblivious to the peril, because of the inner rush when I survived.

Lastly, Gladwell goes into the effectiveness of power wielded by forces such as the police and the military.  It has its limits, of course, but this long section is the one that became convoluted due to the complex mixing of examples.

All in all, it was an interesting if imbalanced book, but I still consider Outliers Gladwell’s best work.

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Book Review: The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction Volume Two – Edited by Gordon Van Gelder

I have been reading a lot of short stories lately. The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century was about eight hundred pages of short stories, and The Best American Noir of the Century was about seven hundred fifty pages of stories.  There were more short story volumes before that.  The reason is simple: I’ve been writing a lot of short stories lately, and that’s given me the desire to read them too.  The two things that Stephen King says that writers need to do in his great book On Writing: read a lot and write a lot.  I am trying to do both.  I think I have more short stories out to market than I have ever had before: roughly twenty-five stories to around thirty markets.  My stories still get rejected far more often than they get accepted.  So it goes.  That’s just part of the game.  At least if I have more stories out, it increases my odds.  I also, though, have a great new collection ready that should be published soon.

Anyway, in my hunger to read more short stories, I have my eyes open for worthy volumes, and when I heard that a new collection of The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction was published not long ago, I sought it out.

To be honest, not all the stories appeal to me.  But that’s okay.  I have long since learned that even in best of the year collections there will be some I like and some I don’t like.  After all, the editor makes selections according to his or her taste and not mine.  That’s fine with me.

As usual, I don’t like to dwell on the stories that don’t work for me, but rather on stories that I consider the very best of the very best.

We’ll start with “Narrow Valley” by R.A. Lafferty.  I’ve read this story several times in various anthologies – I think it must be one of the most often reprinted of his stories.  Lafferty is a genius of humor, and this is definitely one of his best.  He combines wild ridiculously improbable fantasy with crazy characters to create an effect unique in science fiction or short story literature in general.  He’s an underrated writer, and it’s a shame that his works are not more widely available.  Most of his stories are only in print in absurdly expensive collector’s editions, so people like me who cannot afford to spend fifty or sixty bucks for a short story collection cannot read them at all except, as in this book, by means of the occasional anthology entry.

Next we have “Sundance” by Robert Silverberg.  I have it on my list of my favorite short stories of all time, and every time I read it, it loses none of its impact.  It’s not easy to mix tenses and points of view in a short story and have it remain cohesive, but Silverberg definitely pulls it off here.

Each time I read “Jeffty Is Five” by Harlan Ellison, it gets better for me.  It’s a seemingly simple fantasy about nostalgia for a lost era, but it’s really not that simple at all.  What gives it nuance, though, is the fact that the author obviously draws from deep wells of childhood memories and then weaves those threads into a disturbing tale of lost innocence.

An excellent story that I’ve never read before is “The People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi.  In the far future, altered humans, violent beings who regenerate when they become mutilated and can eat sand and clay and chemical waste as easily as we eat a burger or a salad, find an emaciated dog wandering in the wild.  They take it home and care for it for a time.  The strength of the story is in their observations about this creature of flesh and blood that is so alien to them.

Another superlative story that I read in this collection for the first time is “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu.  It’s a sweet, heartbreaking tale about a young boy and his Chinese immigrant mother who can create small origami animals and then breathe life into them.  This menagerie of living paper creatures eventually helps the boy to learn some valuable life lessons about love and family.

All in all, this collection is worth reading for the sake of the timeless classics I’ve just mentioned and others that are entertaining but not great.

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Longing for Europe

I’ve been longing for Europe lately.  The thing is, the Europe I long for is not the Europe that exists now, but the Europe of the 1970s.  And when I envision myself in it, I don’t think of myself as I am now, but as I was back then when I used to roam Europe footloose and fancy free, as the saying goes.  When I felt that I was getting nowhere in my pursuit to be a writer and I got fed up with my situation in the United States – as I recount in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search – I sold or gave away almost everything I owned, hitchhiked across the country, and bought a round-trip ticket from New York to Luxembourg for one hundred dollars.  That’s right – $100.  And it cost me next to nothing to wander from country to country seeing the sights and having brief affairs with tourist and indigenous women.  Those were simpler days.

Of course everything has changed now.  It would be irresponsible for me to forsake everything and take off for numerous reasons.  For one, I am a single parent and solely responsible for my fifteen-year-old son.  I’m not going anywhere as long as he needs me, and it’s best for him to have a stable situation and remain in the good high school where he is now.  For another, it would be bad for my career as a writer.  It’s taken me years to make the slow, painstaking progress that has gotten me to this point, and I have no desire to let go and slide back down the mountain.

I know I can’t go anywhere, and I don’t want to go anywhere, not really.  But still, I have these longings.  Part of the reason is the way that the United States is so ripped up and polarized right now.  I recall the simpler, deeper cultures of Europe.  They have their troubles over there too, of course, but there’s something in Europe that gives me peace of mind and surcease from all the conflict and uncertainty that is so deeply rooted in the American psyche.

So – I know I can’t take off right now, but at the same time I would like to escape the present turbulence, and it makes me wonder if somehow my memories could help out.  That’s what I thought would happen when I was younger.  I figured that I’d do all that death-defying stuff when I had the freedom and stamina, and later when I was no longer able to do it for some reason or another, I’d be able to look back and feed on what I had already experienced.  Well, that works up to a point, I suppose.  If I had never done those things I’ve done, I would feel a much deeper and more unrequited longing – either that or I would have become so anesthetized by my torpor and lassitude that I would have long ago given up any desire to live out my dreams.

But memories are funny things.  They can somewhat console you, but they can’t make up for what you don’t have now.  Remembering yesterday’s meal won’t feed me today.  Let’s face it – the environment I am living in now is vastly different in ambiance from the one I lived in on the road in Europe.  Remembering that I have already seen those places and done those things doesn’t take away the urge to do it again.  The mountains, the beaches, the cities, the restaurants, the cafes, the friends, the lovers…  There is comfort in the memories, but I still wish I could do it all over again.

In the end, what helps?  For one thing, writing about it.  That I have done and will do again.  For another, talking about it.  I realize how much of that adventurous twenty-something-year-old there still is in me, and the deterioration of my flesh as I age is a source of astonishment.  Growing old is not what I thought it would be.  I don’t feel old inside, but my body belies the fact.  It refuses to cooperate when I want it to do things I used to consider so easy.

Still, one can always daydream.  And these days, I daydream of Europe.

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Book Review: When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning

This is a fascinating book.  It deals with a chapter in the history of publishing of which I was not aware: the push by the military along with civilian organizations and individuals to supply combat troops during the Second World War with over one hundred million paperback books known as Armed Services Editions.  These books became an integral part of Allied strategy, offering the troops not only much-needed entertainment and relief from battlefield stress, but also the motivation to fight for the democratic free expression of ideas.

The book starts with the infamous night of May 10, 1933, when Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels incited thousands of students to perform a massive book burning in a public plaza in Berlin.  It was the beginning of the Nazi war against ideas. Eventually, as their armies spread across Europe, they would destroy over one hundred million books in Germany and in the countries they conquered.  Even before the United States became officially involved in the war effort, Americans realized the importance of countering this suppression with the dissemination of books and ideas.  Once war was declared and men departed their homes en masse for training camps, the free availability of libraries full of books was considered crucial for the morale of the trainees.  Books gave them relief from the rigors and hardships of their new situations, and also helped counter the propaganda of the enemy.

At first, a massive national drive to solicit donations of hardcover books led by civilian librarians helped the training camps build up libraries that the men could use.  Donors brought books to drop sites at libraries, post offices, supermarkets, and other locations for sorting and shipment to army and navy facilities.  However, when troops began deploying to battle zones, hardcover books were too bulky and heavy to carry along.  To supply the soldiers and sailors with vital books, the Council on Books in Wartime began to produce cheap paperback editions of popular novels and works of nonfiction to ship to overseas troops.  These lightweight volumes were printed on cheap paper and small enough to fit into a back pocket.  GIs could carry and read them anywhere, even in foxholes during lulls in battle or in airplanes on bombing runs.  For most soldiers, they constituted the only entertainment available.  They became much prized and were traded and re-traded until they fell apart.  Even soldiers who had never bothered to read at home became enamored of these stories that offered opportunities to escape, however briefly, from their deadly circumstances.

Some books, such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, became enormously popular with the men because it reminded them of home.  Others, such as The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which had foundered on first publication, achieved renewed popularity through their Armed Forces Editions.

Ultimately, the books that the troops took to war ignited a hunger and love for the written word, and when the war was over and the troops came home, the habit of reading that they had picked up helped them thrive through the educational opportunities that the newly passed GI Bill afforded them.

This book is written in clear, descriptive prose.  It’s fairly short, which is good; it says what it has to say and no more.  It’s lean; it’s not weighed down by extraneous academic clutter.  It’s exciting and vivid and well-organized.  In short, it’s a great read about a little-known aspect of World War II history. I recommend it highly.

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Book Review: The Best American Noir of the Century – Edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler

I checked this hefty volume of short stories out of the library because I had been so impressed by the collection The Best Mystery Stories of the Century.  What is noir and what makes it different from mystery?  Well, it’s a subgenre of mystery that’s particularly gruesome.  It’s often told from the perspective of the criminals and involves foul deeds such as murder.  Several of the stories in this volume, in fact, also appeared in the Best Mystery Stories anthology, which I thought was redundant because one of the editors is the same and it comes across as a sort of companion volume.

This anthology has a lot of fine stories, but it is not as uniformly excellent as the other.  For one thing, it’s depressing reading when all of the stories are dark.  For another, several of the stories, especially the early ones (they are arranged in chronological order of first publication) come across as dated – little more than pulp fiction whose whole purpose is the lead up to the twist ending.  Some of these older stories are more silly than scary.  In fact, I almost stopped reading the book because of the lack of quality of the early stories, but I’m glad I persevered, because the quality dramatically improves about a quarter of the way in.

Among the outstanding stories in this volume is “Texas City, 1947” by James Lee Burke.  It’s a bleak tale about three children in the hands of an abusive stepmother, but its poetic descriptions and vivid characterizations make it leap out of the pages and draw the reader in.  Similar excellence is found in “Faithless” by Joyce Carol Oates.  It’s another story, curiously, of the reactions of children to tragedy.  As I mentioned, there are a number of other fine stories as well.

One story that particularly caught my interest is “Midnight Emissions” by F.X. Toole.  The story is about the world of professional boxing, and Toole was the pseudonym for a boxing trainer.  The book of short stories that “Midnight Emissions” appears in was the basis for Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award-winning movie Million Dollar Baby.  The most fascinating fact, though, appears in the editor’s introduction of the author.  Toole received nothing but rejections for forty years before he managed to get a short story published in a literary magazine at the age of 69.  Talk about persistence!  Then his collection was published, and he died soon after when he was 72.  His only novel was published posthumously to great critical acclaim.  This anecdote reminded me that fame is illusory, and desire alone is not enough for writers.  Imagine forty years of rejections.  You sure got to have a thick skin.

Anyway, as I said, this book is readable, and some stories leap out at you and grab you like great stories should, but it is not as consistently excellent as The Best Mystery Stories of the Century.  So if you have time to read just one thick book of mystery stories, read that one.

*     *     *

I came back to this collection to finish it off after a trip to New York and back.  I couldn’t take the book with me because it’s too heavy.  Something else bothers me about it.  It’s full of dark, bleak, twisted characters who allow themselves to perform ghastly deeds with sometimes very little motivation.  Some of the stories have decent character development, although not all; but even the ones that do leave you with the feeling that life is impure, gross, and illicit – not something that can bring you joy, but rather something like a minefield that can easily explode and destroy you.  Going through over seven hundred pages of stories like this left me disquieted and uneasy.  I really don’t have such a cynical, negative view of life.  To be honest, I have written some very dark stories too, but then I turn around and write something else to restore balance.  There is no balance in this collection – only darkness.  So beware.  I’m going to have to change my focus for awhile and concentrate on more positive things.  Too much negative drags down the soul.

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Life Is Entertaining

This essay came about because of a terrible commercial I’ve been seeing lately on various TV and internet sites.  In it, a certain A-list Hollywood actor walks around a city, and as he does, scenes such as those that appear in various types of films erupt around him.  He explains that if you get so-and-so brand of subscription television service, you will never have to be without something to watch because you can access it on your TV, computer, smart phone, or whatever else you have that picks up an internet signal.  And whenever I watch this ridiculous commercial, I’m thinking: What the hell?  Is this what modern life has come to – that the goal of our endeavors is to anesthetize ourselves against reality 24/7?  Is that really what we want?

Hell no.

I’m not a purist; I watch films and television too.  But I watch them in a balanced way.  I usually watch an episode of an old TV show off Netflix or Amazon Prime while I’m eating lunch and again when I’m eating dinner.  That’s it with the TV watching during the week.  On the weekends, I usually watch movies with my teen son on Friday and Saturday evenings.  Sometimes on Sundays as well.  That’s it.  I can’t imagine a constant barrage of so-called entertainment hitting me all the time wherever I go.  It would be a nightmare, not a benediction.  It would leave me no time to think.

I’m a writer.  I write for a living.  Sometimes it’s a struggle financially, but that’s the way it goes.  The point is: I work at my desk at home, and so every day, seven days a week, I force myself, whether I feel like it or not, to get outside and take a walk of at least a mile and a half or two miles.  That’s besides the thrice-weekly exercise routine that I do in the house.  Sometimes I’m tired or I think I don’t have time for that walk but I do it anyway.  As I walk, I don’t listen to music with headphones or watch things on my smart phone (actually, I don’t own a smart phone – just a rudimentary one that receives and sends calls and text).  I walk through the neighborhood alert to the sights and sounds around me.  Fortunately we live in a fairly quiet residential area, and so the input is positive: soft rain falling or warm sun shining, birds chirping, the wind rustling in the bushes and trees, green lawns, flamboyant sprays of flowers, towering evergreens.  As I walk, I drink in these stimuli with my senses.  These walks feed my spirit.  I can’t imagine voluntarily cutting myself off from experiencing what’s happening around me.

For a more extreme example, I think back to the time I spent on the road traveling through Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent back in the 1970s.  There was no internet, let alone smart phones.  The only way I had to keep in touch with friends and relatives back in the States was those little folding pieces of paper called aerograms.  They only had room for a short note – no photos, no videos.  For entertainment, I carried a book.  Can you imagine if I had had a smart phone and kept my nose in it instead of paying attention to the exotic landscapes and cultures around me?  What would have been the point of going?

People need time to think, to observe, to contemplate, to absorb.  They shouldn’t be sucking in canned entertainment all the time or they’re going to grow warped and distorted, some sort of parody of the phony image that all these programs attempt to imbue.

That’s why I object to this commercial.  It summarizes one of the worst aspects of American culture.  When people eat too much food, they have all sorts of health problems.  Similarly, when they consume too much popular entertainment, they have problems of the mind and spirit.  They are less able to think for themselves and make important life decisions.

You don’t have to have so-called entertainment with you wherever you go, just as you don’t always have to carry snacks when you go out.  Sometimes, yes.  Not always.  It reminds me of the passage from Ecclesiastes that Pete Seeger adapted as a song in the late 1950s and the rock group the Byrds made into a hit in the mid-60s: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…

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