Book Review:  The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds by Caroline Van Hemert

The Sun Is a Compass is a wonderful book. I enjoyed it through and through. In it, a young couple travel by rowboat from Bellingham, Washington up the Inside Passage to a town called Haines, hike and canoe through the Yukon all the way to the Arctic Sea, follow the seacoast on foot, plunge inland and travel southwest through the Brooks Range, and finally take the Noatak River to a town called Kotzebue on the Alaskan west coast. They leave Bellingham in early spring and reach their destination in early fall just as the icy grip of winter is beginning to spread over the Arctic.

On the way, Caroline and her husband Pat encounter many difficulties: storm winds on the Inside Passage, a frigid swollen river they have to swim across with all their gear, a capsized raft in the Arctic Ocean, and swarms of ravaging mosquitoes. They are charged by a grizzly bear and stalked by a black bear. To top it all off, their last food drop, which is supposed to be flown to them by a bush pilot, is delayed by inclement weather, and they have to fast for four days before the pilot finally shows up.

Despite these difficulties, though, for Caroline and Pat the trip is a glorious adventure. Caroline is an ornithologist and delights in identifying and describing the many wild birds they encounter, but her descriptions never lapse into dry scientific commentary; they are more in the nature of poetry as she marvels about the migratory journeys the birds are able to make from Canada or Alaska to the far corners of the globe. At the end of their journey is another natural high point as they witness a herd of thousands of caribous making their way south across the Noatak River.

Caroline and Pat are alone for most of their journey, but they occasionally meet benevolent people in some of the most remote areas of the Arctic who are happy to share what they have. I also found this to be true on my travels through the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent: often when I was in need, strangers helped me out and asked nothing in return.

One thing I liked about this travel book in contrast to other famous travel books I have read recently such as Riverman, Into the Wild, and The Adventurer’s Son, is that in this book, the protagonists survive until the end. It seems to be a trend with popular travel books in recent years that they deal with journeys ending in tragedy and disaster. It is refreshing to read about some adventurers who set an ambitious goal and achieve it. They had numerous difficulties along the way, yes, but they ultimately overcame them and triumphed. I can relate to that in my own adventures too; as I look back and consider some of the dangers I encountered, I marvel not only that I went to some of those places and did some of those things, but that I lived to tell the tale.

In its culmination, the book parallels my story as well. Caroline and Pat have a child, and when he is only ten weeks old they are off on another hiking adventure, babe in arms. My five sons were born in five different cities and three different countries as my wife and I continued our far-flung travels.

All in all, The Sun Is a Compass is fun, exciting, heart-touching, and very well-written. Highly recommended.

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Another Look:   Sunflower: A Novel

A sequel of sorts to The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen:

In early 1970 a new era, the Age of Aquarius, seems to be dawning. Penny, who adopted the name of Sunflower on the way to the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, attends another rock concert touted as Woodstock West, at Altamont Speedway near San Francisco. Seeking to enhance the transcendent Woodstock experience, she instead comes away covered in the blood of a man brutally stabbed to death in front of the stage.

Has the new youth experience descended from idealism to anarchy? To find out Sunflower, confused and disillusioned, embarks upon an odyssey across an America torn by violent Vietnam War protests, racial tension, and gangs of hard drug dealers. From a search for a shared social experience it becomes a personal quest for fulfillment that leads her on a journey across continents.

Click to buy from these distributors:

Trade paperback

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Book Review:  The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

Although John Scalzi is a best-selling author in the science fiction field, I have never read any of his novels until now. I remember reading and enjoying the occasional short story or novelette I encountered in an anthology, but that’s about it. I came across The Kaiju Preservation Society, though, on a new arrivals book shelf of the library, read the cover blurbs, and thought: why not?

This is a short, light, fun novel with an outrageous premise that never promises to be anything more than it is: an homage to Japanese monster flicks such as Godzilla liberally sprinkled with pop culture references from science fiction and fantasy books and films. The story commences with the outbreak of COVID in early 2020; a tech worker is fired from his office job and demoted to delivery boy. When he is about to be sacked from his delivery position too, he meets an old acquaintance who offers him a position with the KPS (the Kaiju Preservation Society).

It turns out that the KPS operates in a parallel world to our own that is populated by monsters of Godzilla stature (complete with internal biological nuclear reactors) called kaiju and a host of other nasty creatures intent on devouring anything that moves, especially humans. The KPS outposts on this world have existed for decades, and their purpose is scientific research and yes – protecting and keeping healthy the enormous Kaiju creatures. The narrator fits right in with the rest of the eclectic team, which is composed mainly of scientists and administrators.

Scalzi does some fun world-building here in creating a deadly ecosystem as well as the technology to keep humans alive while they observe and protect its inhabitants. However, one frustrating thing about this novel is that Scalzi makes this wild world so intensely fascinating but never really directly describes it. Most of the book is advanced through dialog, as characters discuss the world and their knowledge and impressions of it, so readers are only allowed to develop a picture of it that is slightly out of focus and filtered through various points of view. There are no real descriptions of the kaiju, other than that they are really huge monsters kind of like Godzilla, or of the other predators in the ubiquitous jungles, other than that they are frighteningly dangerous. I would like to have learned more about exactly what these beasts and their environment look like. Instead, the story moves rapidly along and we learn of situations and events, as I said, mainly through dialog.

I’m not saying that it’s not a lot of fun, because it is, in the same way that comics or some of the modern fast-paced action films are fun. I’m just saying that I would have loved some lush, complex descriptions of the world and its denizens. We don’t really learn much about the various characters either, except for what they do; it would have been nice to know something of their backgrounds, motivations, what resonates with them emotionally, and so on. For instance, I kept wondering where the supporting characters are from on our Earth, but this information is not provided, except for the narrator and one or two others.

Still, it is the outlandish premise that drives the novel. It reminded me of The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, another loosely plotted story in which the unique and fascinating strange world that the protagonists encounter is the real main character. Another example is Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, in which the characters are secondary to the immense internal world of the alien spacecraft.

Despite the lack of focused description and character details, though, The Kaiju Preservation Society works because it is similar to old-school science fiction in which the ideas are preeminent. As I advanced through the story, I found myself looking forward to each reading session. Escapism is what it is, and as escapism it is very well executed.

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The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen is now on sale!

I have discovered that for some reason (unbeknownst to me) Amazon has drastically marked down the price of the paperback edition of my novel The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen. Pick up a copy quick while it’s on sale! In my opinion it’s one of my best books, deeply resonating with my background in the counterculture of the late 60s and early 70s. Here’s a brief synopsis:

Sarah Tabitha Jones, a twenty-year-old fascinated by the youth culture of the late 1960s, leaves her middle-class home and wanders to a wilderness commune and then to the Haight/Ashbury in search of truth. On the way she encounters many strange characters: bikers, draft dodgers, Vietnam War veterans, peyote worshippers, heroin dealers, Jesus people, feminists, violent anarchists, Black Panthers, and science fiction fans. She experiments with drugs and sex, but at the same time helps out those she can; though often disillusioned, she believes that hippies should unite to create a better world. In the midst of all this she finds herself pregnant. Eight and a half months later, undaunted, belly bulging, she travels to Woodstock for one last attempt at finding the love and unity she seeks.

The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen will appeal not only to those who lived through the disconcerting era of the 60s and 70s but to those younger who are curious about what took place back then. It will also resonate with anyone who is idealistic and in search of personal fulfillment, as well as those who simply enjoy a wild tale: sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, sometimes violent, sometimes sexy, always extreme.

Click to buy from Amazon:

Trade paperback

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Book Review:  Riverman: An American Odyssey by Ben McGrath

Riverman tells the story of Dick Conant, an itinerant canoeing enthusiast. Self-describing as homeless, he might have been like many other wandering vagabonds, albeit with a preference for waterways rather than dry land, had he not bumped into McGrath, a writer for the New Yorker, beside the Hudson River in New York. McGrath found Conant enigmatic and his travel stories interesting and wrote an article about him for the New Yorker. Months later, he received a call from a law officer in North Carolina saying that Conant’s canoe and some of his belongings were found in the water along the shore of Albemarle Sound, but there was no trace of Conant.

I like tales of travel adventure, but one reason I put off reading Riverman was that I already knew that it culminates with the tragic disappearance of Conant. This book is similar in a way to another travel tragedy I read not long ago called The Adventurer’s Son, about a young man who disappears in a forest in Costa Rica and his father’s search for him. Both involve a complex search for threads of information about the missing person, and both end in the discovery of the protagonist’s death.

The phone calls sets McGrath off on the trail of Conant’s past, and Riverman is a compilation of his research. Part of it is told in first person as McGrath travels the country interviewing people from Conant’s past as well as those who encountered him on his wanderings, and part of it is told in story form based on manuscripts Conant left behind. If truth be told, parts of the book are a bit confusing when McGrath focuses on the complex stories of people that Conant met along the way.

Often when I read of the journeys of other travelers, I envy them and feel a longing to be back on the road myself, but not in the case of Riverman. McGrath makes it clear that Conant’s homeless wanderings were not easy. His canoe, for instance, was loaded with garbage bags full of his belongings, making it look like the aquatic equivalent of the shopping carts that you see homeless people pushing around in cities. It was often arduous and dangerous on some of the rivers and coastlines that Conant traversed, and he had to continually be on the lookout for safe and clandestine places to camp.

I sympathize with Conant’s hunger for the freedom he felt during his river journeys because I had that same hunger during the years I spent on the road, hitchhiking and taking cheap local transport from the United States to Central America to Europe to the Middle East to the Indian Subcontinent, as I relate in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.

As I read Riverman, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of regret that Conant was never able to turn the thousands of manuscript pages he’d written about his journeys into a first person memoir. McGrath describes him as quite a raconteur, and his personal account probably would have been fascinating. I mentioned above that Conant’s story never would have been told if he had not had the chance encounter with McGrath, and that made me wonder how many other wanderers there are out there on our highways and byways and waterways whose stories have not been told. I have no doubt that most if not all of society’s outcasts, those you see out of the corner of your eye in homeless camps or along the roadside or along the shores of rivers, have gripping stories to tell. In fact, their lives may be far more interesting than those who remain in one place and work most of their lives so that during their down times they can live in sedentary comfort and gratify the cravings of their flesh.

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Invisible People now available for preorder!

The Kindle edition of my tenth novel and thirty-second book, Invisible People, is now available for preorder on Amazon. Its release date is September 15th, and at that time it will also be available on Amazon in trade paperback. Shortly afterwards it will appear in digital form at other online sales outlets. Here’s a brief synopsis:

In the near future, a member of an elite rescue unit stumbles upon a conspiracy that involves time travel, sightings of alien vessels, portals to distant worlds, and the disappearance of refugees, the homeless, and other disenfranchised people. As he and his team investigate further, he uncovers truths that cause him to question his worldview, loyalties, and the code by which he lives.

To find out more, click on this link.

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Book Review:  The Best Short Stories 2021: The O. Henry Prize Winners Edited by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jenny Minton Quigley

I was in the mood for reading some short fiction, and so I searched for the newest literary collection the library had. I knew it was likely to be a mixed bag, and that’s exactly what it was. Appreciation for short stories is subjective, of course, but for me these selections ranged from knock-it-out-of-the-park brilliant to barely readable.

It got off to a slow start, in my estimation. Not that the stories were all bad, but in the first half of the book they are almost all depressing tragedies, so much so that I almost set the collection aside. There’s enough tragedy in the real world; in literature I expect to read about the negative things, sure, but I also look for transcendence, for creative moments that help me rise above the vast darkness around us.

“Malliga Homes” by Sindya Bhanoo tells of a retirement home for the upper middle class in India, and how the elderly are abandoned there by their offspring. “From Far Around They Saw Us Burn,” based on a true story, tells of a fire in an Irish orphanage that costs the lives of many children. “Scissors” by Karina Sainz Borgo tells of starving women at a border crossing who have to sell their hair so they and their children can eat. These stories are all beautifully told, but they all leave readers in a dark pit of despair.

As I said, it wasn’t until I was about halfway through the book that I came across a story that supercharged me, imbued me with its energy, and reminded me why I read short stories. “The Master’s Castle” by Anthony Doerr concerns a somewhat mediocre man who becomes an optometrist and bounces from Bakersfield to Hawaii to Eugene to Pocatello. He eventually marries an alcoholic woman, and they have a son together. This all sounds like it has the makings of another tragedy, but Doerr rises above this by unexpectedly forging a strong relationship between father and son that helps them endure their hardships and make sense of their world.

Another unlikely story that turned out to be strangely absorbing is “White Noise” by Emma Cline. It is a character study of Harvey Weinstein just before his sexual harassment sentence was announced. While staying at a friend’s house in Connecticut, he finds out that Don DeLillo, author of the novel White Noise, lives next door, and as his days of freedom are about to come to an end, he imagines how he could adapt White Noise into a film.

Although many literary sources are listed in the back of the book, the twenty stories in this volume only come from ten different publications, especially The New Yorker and Granta.

And now I feel compelled to say a few words about some of those other magazines. I was dismayed to see that among the publications read each year for the O. Henry awards are many that have begun charging writers for submissions. Unable to draw enough readers, they have begun to rely on aspiring writers for their income. I wrote about this in length in the essay “The Egregious Practice of Charging Reading Fees,” which first appeared on the website of the Science Fiction Writers of America (now known as the Science Fiction Writers Association) and then on my website. In the essay I explain that the best magazines do not charge reading fees, only those who are faced with declining readership and financial difficulties. A side effect of the practice is that these publications will attract only privileged writers who can afford to pay to see their work in print and not struggling writers who can’t afford to pay magazines to look at their work. It seems this oppressive habit has only hit literary magazines; genre magazines have not succumbed to it. In fact, the Science Fiction Writers Association will not acknowledge or support any publication that charges reading fees. Prestigious awards such as the O. Henry prizes should certainly do the same. Let’s hope they get the message and see the damage being done to writers through this practice.

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Another Look: The Dragon Ticket and Other Stories

High in the Himalayas a young woman receives an extraordinary gift.  Beneath the streets of Calcutta a man discovers a terrifying presence.  In a palace full of sybaritic pleasures a demigod incurs terrible retribution.  On a far desert planet teeming with venomous creatures a woman searches for ultimate truth. 

In these and other strange and wondrous tales John Walters explores the ramifications of human/alien encounter. 

This is my first short story collection and first book. Since I had been publishing novelettes and short stories in magazines and anthologies for several years before it came out, all but one of the stories are previously published reprints. Notice the beautiful cover crafted by one of my brothers-in-law, an accomplished and imaginative illustrator. As the image implies, most of the stories are set in India.

Click to buy from these distributors:

Trade Paperback

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Book Review:  Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari

I came across Stolen Focus in the library and was instantly fascinated by its premise. I already had enough books in arms, though, and so I saved it for later. Then I made the mistake of reading the article on Hari in Wikipedia, which accuses him of various journalistic misdeeds in an extremely virulent way. He has probably made errors in his citations and stretched the truth now and then, as most nonfiction writers do, but the virulence of some of the Wikipedia comments made me wonder whether someone was deliberately attempting to smear him.

Anyway, I’m glad I came back to this book, because it is a compelling and fascinating read. Hari circled the globe to interview experts on why we collectively seem to have lost much of our ability to focus attention for prolonged periods of time, and at least some of the reasons he came up with have a clear ring of truth. Take it with a grain of salt if you want, but his ideas are at least worth considering.

The first reason he gives for lost focus is the addiction of people to their mobile phones. You can see this as you observe crowds in almost any public place; many have their eyes glued on screens, oblivious of the real wonders around them. Later he emphasizes this phone fascination with a deep look at what social media companies are really trying to accomplish. In the guise of connecting people, they are really trying to make us watch our screens for as much time as possible, because the more we stare at our screens, the more money they make from advertisers. Additionally, while we like, dislike, and comment on things seemingly for fun, the tech companies are compiling information about us, which they then sell to companies so that they can hit us with product advertisements specifically selected for us. Hari refers to this as “surveillance capitalism,” and his description of it is truly terrifying.

Other factors that cause stolen focus are multitasking, rapid switching from post to post, and related behaviors. These include the diminishment of our “flow states,” by which Hari means the ability to focus on things that fascinate us such as artistic pursuits for long periods of time, the lack of patience for sustained reading, the disruption of mind wandering, which Hari insists is essential for our well-being, and sheer physical and mental exhaustion in the modern era.

Hari also discusses “cruel optimism,” which refers to surface level wellness cures that do not address deeper problems, the increase in stress, diets that rely heavily on chemicals and additives instead of natural foods, and the ubiquitous pollution that negatively impacts our health and concentration. In the final few chapters, he delves into the paranoia that causes parents to keep their kids at home instead of letting them play, and the rigid school requirements that curtail creativity, experimentation, and flexibility necessary for children to have space to grow.

Hari’s solution is a social movement with the aim of banning surveillance capitalism, living more healthily, and getting our focus back. Whether you agree with everything he concludes and proposes in the book or not, Stolen Focus is well-written and thought-provoking and I recommend it.

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Check Out My YouTube Channel!

I have recently been posting videos and slideshows based on my books on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. When I tried to post some of them here on my blog, I discovered that hosting videos is an advanced function of which my website is incapable (at least in its present iteration). No matter. If you proceed to my YouTube channel, aptly named johnwalterswriter, you can watch them all. Note that the sound on the early ones is not the best because I recorded them used the microphone on my computer. Now I have obtained a better mic, and you can hear the difference on my latest video, “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search – The Lure of the Road.” Subscribe to my channel and enjoy!

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