Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Mediocrity, or, Write What You Feel, Not What You See Others Write

I generally read several best of the year short story anthologies each year to keep up with literary and genre trends in publishing. It’s a futile effort, as so much continually gets published, and these anthologies include only a smattering of the great work that is being done. Additionally, these anthologies are not objective examples of the best in their fields, but rather one person’s or two people’s selections of their personal favorites. Still, I don’t have time to read many of the short stories that appear in any given year, and this is one way I can get at least a sampling.

Normally after I read such an anthology, I review it on my blog, pointing out the stories that I feel are the best of the best. However, after reading a recent best of the year anthology, I have decided to forego a review. I thought about it on numerous occasions while I was reading it: should I review it or not? The problem is that I didn’t like most of the stories. Many of them were competently written and technically sound, but they didn’t appeal to me and my personal tastes. And so I thought to myself: am I wrong? Is there any sort of objective right or wrong in matters such as these? If it was forty-five years ago and I was just starting out as a writer, the answer might be maybe. As it is, though, as a result of the many decades I have put in as a writer and a reader, I have to say: no; I’m not wrong. These stories appeal to others but not to me, and that’s all right.

Although I have had published stories reprinted in anthologies, I have never appeared in a best-of-the-year collection, so you might ask: who am I to speak? I’m a writer, that’s who, just as the people who wrote the stories in this anthology I didn’t care for are writers. I’m sure that the anthology will be popular with some readers, while others might react as I did; and that is as it should be.

The point I want to make to myself as well as any other writers out there who may be listening is that regardless of whether your stories may be popular or trendy or win awards or appear in best-of-the-year anthologies, you have to be true to yourself and your own vision and write whatever the hell you want to write. It may be completely different from what that writer you admire so much writes. It may bear no similarity to what critics proclaim as the next new thing. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that you listen to your voice and write down what it tells you. And if you can’t hear your own literary voice, go somewhere quiet and listen. Before it will become clear to you, you’ve got to block out all those other voices from your relatives and friends and teachers and critics and editors and other writers, all of whom have their own opinions about what constitutes good writing. The only thing that you need to know when you confront the blank page or blank screen is not what they think is good writing but what you think is good writing.

My own search for authentic voice in my writing dislodged me from my complacency in my comfortable home town and took me halfway around the world into a starkly unfamiliar setting. Only then did the old voices die and my own voice arise. Don’t misunderstand me; not everyone has to do that. Although that’s what it took for me, the quest will take different shape for others. But one way or another, you’ve got to tap that fountain within and be ready to catch it once it starts pouring out.

In conclusion, if you want to be a writer, I would suggest that you read widely, nonfiction and fiction, genre and non-genre. However, when you sit down to compose, put that all aside and write from your heart.

Posted in Book Reviews, On Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Citizen Hearst: A Biography of William Randolph Hearst by W.A. Swanberg; Part 3: Legacy

I had originally intended to complete the third and final part of this review of Citizen Hearst after I had watched the movie Citizen Kane. I have even reserved a DVD copy of the film from the Seattle Public Library system, but it hasn’t arrived yet. A couple of pages in the book are devoted to Citizen Kane and Hearst’s reaction to it. In short, he hated it. He even offered to pay RKO studios the entire cost of production if they would destroy it. When it came out in spite of his threats, Hearst refused to allow any of his newspapers or magazines to review it. I decided to go on with this review because Citizen Kane isn’t the main point. It’s just one example of a notable reaction to the Hearst enigma. Another is the novel After Many a Summer Dies the Swan by Aldous Huxley, which also used Hearst and his relationship with actress Marion Davies as inspiration.

In the last review, I wrote about Hearst’s wild spending. He bought castles, real estate in New York and other places, and warehouses full of artwork; he fully financed extended European vacations on the spur of the moment for whoever happened to be visiting his home at the time; he sunk untold millions into political campaigns for candidates that turned out to be perennial losers. He was, in fact, the epitome of a super-rich and powerful man with little political acumen who pushes into politics on the strength of his wealth and his ability to destroy his enemies through propaganda.

In the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression, Hearst’s reckless spending and utter inability to balance his finances caught up with him. He found himself so deep in debt that he had to stop buying artwork and was forced to start selling. In many cases, he got far less than he had originally paid for the antiques and other expensive clutter he had accumulated, often because buyers had assessed him as a sucker and far overcharged him in the first place. He even had to sell some of his newspapers and magazines. It was a dark, depressing time for him, although it’s difficult to work up too much sympathy considering how much money he’d squandered when so many other people in the States and around the world were in such want. In the end, he still had plenty of houses, artwork, and money left over during that era when so many millions were unemployed and homeless.

What saved Hearst’s finances, as it saved many other American industries and snapped the United States out of the depression, was World War II. His newspapers increased in circulation and he managed to pull out of the deep ditch in which he had fallen. He continued managing the media empire he had created from his aerie at San Simeon for as long as he could. He died at the age of eighty-eight, and his funeral was an elaborate event attended by former presidents, senators, governors, movie stars, and other celebrities.

Why do I consider it a worthwhile activity to read such a lengthy biography of a newspaper mogul long dead? For one thing, he was an amazing man: intelligent, cunning, and extraordinarily savvy in the media business. Reading about his life also makes me ponder the current great gap that exists in the United States between the infinitesimal amount of super-rich people who hold such a large percentage of the wealth and the vast majority of the population who struggle to maintain a home and put food on the table. It makes me realize that now as well as back in Hearst’s time, the people with the most money may have certain gifts that allowed them to gather such wealth to themselves, but they are not examples on which anyone should model their lives. They have great deficiencies to go along with their great material possessions, and most of them are to be pitied rather than emulated.

In closing, I would say that I recommend this book. It’s a fascinating story about a one-of-a-kind historical character. It offers a unique if unstable vantage point from which to explore the history of the era: the perspective of a ruthless, tyrannical media mogul with an insatiable hunger for wealth and power.

*     *     *

As a postscript, I would like to say a few words about the movie Citizen Kane, which I have finally had the opportunity to watch. Just having read Citizen Hearst gave me an advantage, I think, because I was able to match up events in the film with events in Hearst’s life. Some details are blatant; for instance, Orson Wells as Kane quotes almost verbatim Hearst’s declaration to his newsman in Cuba: “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Hearst had his palace complex in San Simeon in California, while Kane builds an immense mansion that he calls Xanadu, after the pleasure palace of Kubla Khan in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, in Florida. Kane, like Hearst, collects endless amounts of artwork, antiques, and junk and stores it all away without any possibility of ever using it.

Orson Wells, who along with Herman J. Mankiewicz won an Oscar for best original screenplay for Citizen Kane, asserted that the character of Charles Foster Kane was a composite derived from various famous personalities in journalism, which included Joseph Pulitzer and others, but the principal source was obviously Hearst. Other characters in the film are also based upon real people, but the character of Kane’s lover Susan Alexander has little similarity to Hearst’s longtime mistress Marion Davies. Alexander becomes Kane’s second wife and then leaves and divorces him, whereas Davies stood by Hearst until he died but the couple was never able to legally marry because the first Mrs. Hearst would not grant a divorce. Additionally, Citizen Kane shows Kane financing a career in the opera for Alexander in which she flops horribly, but Marion Davies’s film career, financed as it was by Hearst, actually earned her a modicum of respect.

It’s not necessary to nitpick too much about the similarities and differences in the life of Hearst and the main character in the film. Citizen Kane is a masterpiece and can be appreciated on its own terms. The award-winning screenplay was extremely innovative for its time with its documentary-style opening and then the rest of the story told in flashbacks as a reporter tries to uncover the significance of the last word that Kane utters before he dies: “Rosebud.” The meaning of Rosebud is not revealed until the final image of the film. When the camera cuts to it, it’s impossible not to experience a pang of sympathy for this otherwise pathetic and unlikeable media mogul.

Another amazing aspect of the film is its cinematography. Shot after shot is set up masterfully, and the black and white tones contribute an ominous foreboding that carries throughout the film. When Ted Turner’s Entertainment Company bought the rights to RKO and acquired Citizen Kane, an attempt was made to colorize the movie. Well’s estate managed to have the project stopped due to stipulations in his original 1939 contract with RKO. It’s good that this attempt to dumb down the film was stopped, because the cinematography is perfect just the way it is in black and white.

In closing again, I would say that I also recommend the movie Citizen Kane. However, if you are planning to read Citizen Hearst, do that first. Afterwards, when you see Citizen Kane, you will be able to appreciate nuances in it due to your familiarity with Hearst’s life story.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Citizen Hearst: A Biography of William Randolph Hearst by W.A. Swanberg; Part 2: Publisher, Politician, and Spendthrift

In part one of this review, I wrote about how I came to reread the book and my surprise that it was not more easily available. As I plunged into this lengthy tome, I became impressed by how relevant it is to our modern era. There is the same disparity between rich and poor, although now it has become worse. In Hearst’s day, the super rich owned oil companies, railroads, and, as in Hearst’s case, media outlets. Nowadays we have dot-com billionaires. In Hearst’s day, the super rich somehow felt a sense of entitlement, just as they do now. Many became involved in politics, either directly or indirectly, to protect their own interests, just as they do now.

Hearst was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father, George Hearst, had made a fortune in mining. Hearst’s mother spoiled him and was overprotective. In short, Hearst never had to worry about money and was never in fear that his needs would not be supplied. This left him with a defect in character that made him feel not only that he was a superior being, but that his every whim should be catered to. He demanded subservience in his friends and later in his employees. He had to be the boss and he had to be right, and anything that did not support that scenario he would tear down.

He became fascinated by journalism when he was still in college. His parents at first opposed this career course, but later they acquiesced when they realized that he would not deviate from his chosen path. His first newspaper was in San Francisco. His father had obtained it in lieu of a debt payment. It was a big loser, and Hearst took it over, poured money into it, and managed to turn it around. Hearst then moved to New York and became involved in the publications of newspapers there, and later bought up newspapers around the country.

For Hearst, reporting of real news was far less important than circulation. He wanted to keep his readers entertained and enthralled, and the truth be damned. “Fake news” was a concept that did not necessarily originate with Hearst, but that Hearst took to new depths. For instance, he sent reporters to cover the rebellion of Cuban nationalists against Spain. When one of his reporters sent him a telegram that he wanted to return to the States because nothing was happening, Hearst famously telegrammed back: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” And he did. It was largely Hearst’s pressure on government officials that caused the United States to declare war on Spain and invade Cuba. When war broke out, Hearst filled his yacht with reporters and sailed south to cover it. This is just one example among many of the way that Hearst would manipulate circumstances to suit himself.

When Hearst got into politics, he proclaimed himself a champion of the common man, but at the same time he ruthlessly manipulated voters with untruths. He was not a common man, and he ultimately didn’t give a damn about the common man except as a source of his own aggrandizement. For decades Hearst sought political offices, especially the presidency, not because he genuinely wanted to serve others or better the country, but solely as another feather in his cap. Politics was another area he could manipulate to suit himself, just as he manipulated world events through his publishing empire. However, although Hearst for a time became powerful and influential in politics, the offices that he really wanted, namely the governorship of New York and the presidency, eluded him. He pursued political offices and influence in the same way that he pursued success in publishing: ruthlessly and with utter disregard for truth and the well-being of others.

Around the end of his heavy involvement in politics, when he had become disappointed and jaded, Hearst got into the motion picture business. He built a studio and began to make movies. He began an affair with a much younger woman named Marion Davies and decided to make her a film star, investing untold millions into elaborate productions for her benefit. His wife, with whom he had five sons, refused to give him a divorce, though, so he could officially hook up with Miss Davies, and so they reached a mutual agreement to keep up a pretense of marriage while he carried on his flamboyant affair.

Hearst was always an incredible spendthrift. He had no concept of the value of money. Though he raked in multi-millions of dollars yearly, he spent far more. Not only did he build his splendiferous castle complex in San Simeon, California, but he also had a palatial complex in Santa Monica, an actual castle in England, and elaborate homes in other places. He also bought endless amounts of antiques, paintings, furniture, and entire rooms from historic buildings. He bought so much, in fact, that even his multiple homes could not hold it all, and he had many warehouses bursting at the seams with acquisitions, many of which he had never even laid eyes on.

In short, Hearst was not a mentally well-balanced man. Defects in character along with far too much money and power than was good for him combined to create a megalomaniacal character unprecedented in American history.

(To be continued.)

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Book Review: Citizen Hearst: A Biography of William Randolph Hearst by W.A. Swanberg; Introduction

This is one of those books that is going to compel me to write a review in multiple sections. The inspiration to read Citizen Hearst came to me as I was reading the science fiction novelette “Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst” by Kage Baker, in which Hearst receives a visit from a pair of time travelers from the future who have a very unusual business proposition for him.

The story brought this book to mind. It used to sit on a glassed-in bookcase in our living room when I was a kid. Bookworm that I was even back then, I would take down the volumes, most of which had been obtained by a brief membership of my parents in the Book-of-the-Month Club, peruse them, imagine reading them, and put them back. Most of them were formidable histories and biographies like this one. I can’t remember if I read it back then, but I certainly remember going through the pictures.

Another association my family had with Hearst when I was young was a visit to his castle and vast estate at San Simeon on one of our summer road trips. We toured a portion of the grounds and houses of Hearst’s palatial complex and brought away a souvenir book with bright brilliant pictures of the main castle, the pools, the artwork, and other highlights.

So reading the science fiction story about Hearst and San Simeon stirred up the memories, and it gave me the inspiration that Citizen Hearst might be a fun and edifying read. However, obtaining a copy proved to be difficult. The King County library system, which is renowned as one of the best in the nation, didn’t have a single copy. I called up my sister, who had been handling a large portion of my recently-deceased father’s belongings, and asked if the Citizen Hearst book from our old house was still around somewhere. She looked and couldn’t find it. As a last resort, I conducted a search on Amazon. The book is out of print, but I found a used copy in good condition.

Somehow I remembered something about Citizen Hearst winning a Pulitzer Prize, but I wasn’t sure, so I did a bit of research and came across an interesting story. It turns out that the advisory board for the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography recommended that the award should go to Citizen Hearst. This did not sit well with the trustees of Columbia University who administered the prize. It was their opinion that the notorious Hearst was not a worthy subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. As a result, although Citizen Hearst ostensibly won, the listing in the category of Biography or Autobiography for 1962 reads “No Award.” Swanberg later made up for the snub by winning the 1973 Pulitzer for a biography about another notorious publisher: Luce and His Empire. This book highlights the career of Henry Luce, whose stable of popular magazines included Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated. As for Citizen Hearst, once the news about the award debacle got out, the book’s sales significantly increased.

(To be continued.)

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Click to buy from these distributors:

Trade Paperback

Amazon Kindle

Barnes and Noble



Posted in Greece: A Memoir, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Book Reviews, Travel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment