Book Review: Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson; Part 1: The Early Years

One of my favorite films of all time is Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin starring Robert Downey, Jr. Another is Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin. We’ll get to Modern Times in another review, because I haven’t got to the part of the book that discusses it yet, but first I’ll talk about the biographical film Chaplin. The credits cite two sources of material on Chaplin’s life: My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin, which I have already read and reviewed, and Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson. Chaplin’s biography is a light, entertaining book told with wit and intelligence. Robinson’s book is longer and much more comprehensive. Although it is out of print, through periodic online searches I managed to find a used copy in good condition.

The sheer physical weight of the book is intimidating. I often read for awhile in bed after my nap, and if I am still feeling drowsy, the book is so heavy that it is hard to hold upright. It is worth the effort, however; it provides a comprehensive look at the life of one of the greatest of cinematic geniuses. In his Autobiography, Chaplin reminisces as if he is conversing with you face to face. Robinson takes a much more scholarly approach. He goes into detail about just about every facet of Chaplin’s life for which there is documentation.

The first part of the book concerns Chaplin’s childhood in London. He was raised primarily by his mother and ignored by his indifferent father. He and his brother Sidney often had to go it alone as their mother became more and more overcome by mental instability and spent a lot of time in institutions and asylums. Sidney and Charley got into show business early. Charlie, in fact, first made an appearance on stage as a young boy. By the time they were in their early twenties, they were touring England in comedic theater groups. Charlie eventually embarked on tours of America, which is where he was discovered and offered employment in the infant motion picture industry.

At first the studios offered Chaplin mundane contracts, and he performed to the dictates of other directors. However, as his talent and popularity became more apparent, he was able to demand exponentially higher salaries and more control over his creative material. By the time he was in his mid-twenties, he was an international celebrity and the best-paid entertainer in the world.

From the beginning, Chaplin was no mere clown. He cared deeply about his art. He was a perfectionist, and as a director he would shoot scenes over and over until he was satisfied with the results. His work increased in sophistication until he was able to put together complex masterpieces of comedy, drama, and pathos.

The first of his undeniable masterpieces was the feature-length film The Kid. One of my sons subscribes to a streaming service that has several of Chaplin’s films, so I was able to re-watch The Kid just before reading about Chaplin’s process in creating it. Watch it for yourself and see if you can avoid both laughing out loud and shedding heartfelt tears. The tramp character that Chaplin made famous finds an abandoned baby in an alley. In a blanket is a note that implores the finder to take care of the baby. The tramp takes the child to his decrepit attic room and invents ingenious devices to help him feed and care for the baby. Cut to five years later. The baby is now a young boy (played by the child actor Jackie Coogan). They live together in poverty and great joy until authorities from an orphanage try to take the boy away from the tramp. There is an amazing scene in which Chaplin climbs over the rooftops to intercept the vehicle that has apprehended his child. In the happy ending, the boy is finally reunited with his mother, and she welcomes the tramp into her home as well.

The Kid marked a turning point in Chaplin’s career. After this breakthrough effort, he would write, produce, direct, and star in one amazing film after another. However, here we will end this review, in the midway point of the book. There are more great things to come.

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Books Make Great Gifts

After Thanksgiving has come and gone, people commence a search for holiday gifts for family members, relatives, friends, acquaintances, in-laws, outlaws, colleagues, and sometimes total strangers. If you’re looking for fun, sophisticated, lively, intense, flamboyant, and otherwise variegated literary fare, I’ve thus far published twenty-six volumes in a range of genres through Astaria Books. Here are some examples of choice gifts you can bestow upon your loved ones. If you click on the titles, the links are to Amazon, but for lists of links to other marketplaces, head for my website’s Available Books page.

Science Fiction:

After the Fireflood: A Novel – During the Fourth World War, the entire Earth is engulfed in a torrent of fire, transforming the landscape and obliterating all life.  Using terraforming, time travel, and other expediencies, human survivors from Moonbase and the outer colonies attempt to cope with their devastating loss, reconstruct the Earth’s surface, and reorganize Earth sociologically to ensure lasting peace, while others plot to claim the pristine reconstituted planet for their own purposes.

Bedlam Battle: An Omnibus of the One Thousand Series – In the late 1960s, humans and sympathetic aliens based out of Haight/Ashbury struggle to stop alien-possessed psychopaths intent on a murderous rampage. Four science fiction thrillers in one volume.

Love Children: A Novel – It is the mid-1970s.  The Summer of Love and the Woodstock Music Festival have come and gone.  Into the atmosphere of cynicism and doubt following the wild optimism of the youth revolution the Love Children, raised from birth by benevolent aliens, come home to Earth.  Sexually free, telepathic and honest to the extreme, they are appalled to find that the world they left behind is full of darkness and deceit. As they set about using their extraordinary powers to bring light and unity back to their world, they run up against a sinister alien force intending to keep it in darkness.

Dark Mirrors: Dystopian Tales – These tales offer terrifying glimpses of Earth’s future gone wrong. From the author’s afterword:  “When I postulate dark futures it is not to get you to despair.  When I hold up dark mirrors before your eyes it is not so that you will see the worst in yourself and do yourself in.  Far from it.  Some of our greatest illuminations come from deep dark prose.  Dark literature is not meant to overwhelm us.  It is meant to purge us, to provide catharsis.  It is a cleansing and purifying process.  We must be aware of the evil within before we can clean it out.”


Caliban’s Children – Content is being siphoned from libraries and replaced with half-truths and lies.  Weather, time, and distances are distorting like images in a funhouse mirror.  People are discovering the ability to morph into animals.  At first it all seems idyllic and magical until a dark power begins to manifest itself, assert control, and demand obedience.

Ethan is a university student caught in the midst of a kaleidoscopic confusion he cannot understand.  After journeying into the wilderness seeking answers, he realizes he has to ally himself with the beasts of the Earth and venture into a bizarre, mutating, peril-filled city to rescue his lover and attack the source of the evil.

Fear or Be Feared: Fantasies – In these fourteen weird, surreal, frightening, and fantastic tales, unwary people discover that the world is very different from what they imagined.


The Fantasy Book Murders – After a famous fantasy writer is murdered in his castle-like mansion, two unlikely investigators discover a pattern of similar murders suggesting a serial killer. They begin to research the killings, starting with the most recent and working backwards into the past. Danger mounts as they uncover the backgrounds of the victims and the truth begins to resemble the fantasy writer’s most bizarre and horrific fiction.

Novels of the Counterculture:

The Misadventures of Mama Kitchen – 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.

Sunflower: A Novel – In early 1970 a new era, the Age of Aquarius, is 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 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? Confused and disillusioned, Sunflower embarks upon an odyssey across an America torn by violent anti-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.


World Without Pain: The Story of a Search – In the 1970s, after the Altamont Rock Festival, the Manson Family cult murders, and the fiasco of the Vietnam War many young people, disillusioned by the hippy movement, began to leave their homelands and travel to the far places of the world.  Hoping to find drugs, sex, freedom, and excitement, they more often were confronted with destitution, despair, disease, loneliness, and culture shock. As a young writer wishing to break out of the familiar rut in which he was stagnating, Walters hit the road during this time, first to Europe, then onward to the Indian Subcontinent.  He sampled Buddhism and radical Christianity; he wandered alone in the Himalayas; he listened to strange gurus spouting stranger doctrines; he watched the people around him deteriorating and dying in the lands of the East.  As he traveled onward he became fascinated with the road itself, and determined to discover its secrets. He wondered what it was that gave the road its alluring power, and he forsook everything else to find out. His story will appeal to those who lived through the turmoil of the 60s and 70s, to those who are hungering after spiritual fulfillment, to writers and other artists in search of their voice and their inspiration, and to anyone who loves a true story of adventure and excitement in strange lands.

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.

America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad – In 1976 John Walters left the United States in search of adventure and literary inspiration.  He lived for many years in India, Bangladesh, Italy, and Greece.  He married and had five sons.  Finally, faced with the economic catastrophe in Greece and the lack of opportunities for his sons, he returned to the land of his birth.  Without home, without job, without resources, he confronted his own country as if for the first time. This is a memoir of someone who, late in life, was forced to leave everything behind and start fresh in what for him had become a new land.  It will appeal to those who are confronted with major life changes in these troubled economic times; to those who, though they may desire rest and retirement, must continue toiling to make ends meet; for those who desire insight into the vast, multifaceted culture of the United States from a fresh perspective, unencumbered by familiarity.

Writing as a Metaphysical Experience – From the author’s introduction: “For me, writing is metaphysical because it is inseparable from who I am and my conception of the universe and my place in it.  My interpretation of writing goes far beyond the definitions of hobby, job, or career – it is rather in the nature of a calling.  It is something that blossomed from within me and, though invisible to instrumentation, has been as integrally a part of me as my flesh, bones, and internal organs.  How this transpired and how it manifests itself is the subject of this book. This is not a how-to book on writing, although in its course I offer many practical tips and suggestions.  It’s more like a travelogue, a story of the life’s journey on which my writing has led me.” This journey has led Walters on a decades-long quest from the United States to Europe to the Indian Subcontinent and back in the pursuit of voice, inspiration, and literary excellence.  On the way, he has written and published novels, short story collections, essay collections, memoirs, and numerous individual novellas, novelettes, short stories, and essays.

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Book Review: Moving Mars by Greg Bear

This is another classic science fiction novel that I didn’t get around to reading until the pandemic. Spoiler alert: It’s a good one. Often I synopsize the books I am reviewing, but I don’t know if I will be able to do it in this case. Moving Mars is long and complex, and I have to admit that I do not understand all the intricacies of concepts and hardware that Bear postulates. Thankfully, though, it is not necessary to grasp all of the details to be able to greatly enjoy this book.

Moving Mars starts out somewhat deceptively; my first impression was that it might be a young adult space opera. The first person viewpoint character is a woman named Casseia Majumdar. As the story begins, she is a teenager involved in civil resistance when authorities try to shut down her school. That crisis is averted, but Casseia develops the urge to participate in politics and is chosen to join a delegation from Mars to the Earth. Bear goes into fascinating details concerning the months-long flight from Mars to Earth and Casseia’s impressions of Earth, which is intent on subjugating and exploiting Mars.

As Mars begins to form a republic, Casseia becomes vice president. She finds out that an old schoolmate has been experimenting with momentous innovations in physics that would allow humans working with AIs to physically move moons and entire planets. Earth’s aggression increases when it becomes aware of this breakthrough. It attacks Mars and…

You don’t really want to tell you the ending, do you? For me this book started a bit slowly during Casseia’s teen years, but my interest picked up as I realized that Bear, in each section, adds complexity and depth until it becomes epic in its speculations on politics and science. He creates a vast futuristic solar system full of drama and intrigue, focusing mainly on the planet Mars, its inhabitants, its landscape, and its biological and political history.

This is one of the goals of good science fiction: to take readers into new worlds and maintain verisimilitude while doing it. Some science fiction writers are great with ideas and some are great wordsmiths, but Bear is both. His ideas are compelling, absorbing, deep, and meticulously thought out, and his prose is clean, clear, and sometimes poetic. Throughout the narrative, Casseia’s voice is consistent, compelling, and intelligent. The book is presented as the memoir of an elder statesperson written after the amazing events at the story’s climax. An afterward emphasizes the value of her memoir as a history of how Mars comes to be what it is.

All in all, this book is a well-told science fiction novel. It takes you on a journey to an imaginary world and gives you a tour in fascinating detail. It’s one of those books that grips you more and more tightly until by the end you wish it didn’t have to stop. Pick up a copy and find out for yourself.

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Book Review: Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon

This book is considered a classic in travel writing, particularly in the sub-genre of road memoirs. I’m surprised that I never read it before. It takes place in 1978, although it was not published until 1982. After a heartbreaking separation from his wife, the author takes off alone to tour the United States in a small camper van he names Ghost Dancing. The title of the book comes from his intention to avoid the interstates and stick to secondary roads, those that appear in blue on old paper maps.

Heat-Moon starts out from Missouri and heads east to North Carolina. From there he swings southwest through the Deep South to Louisiana. He then heads across Texas and Arizona, turns north through Nevada to Oregon, follows the north side of the Columbia River in Washington, turns north in Idaho and follows the Canadian border closely through Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, and so on. From New England he turns west again and goes back to Missouri.

The author writes of life on the road and the unutterable loneliness that would sometimes overtake him. The most fascinating aspects of the book, however, are the long interviews he has with people he meets on the road. In the small towns he passes through, he goes out of his way to find the most idiosyncratic residents. He lets them talk freely and copiously about their lives and philosophies without interruptions or judgments.

Apart from a few days here and there when he stays with friends or people he has met and the occasional hitchhiker he picks up, Heat-Moon remains alone and goes his own way. He confesses he feels lonely sometimes, yes, but at the same time the loneliness is glorious. I know this feeling, having hitchhiked in numerous countries around the world. Almost always I was by myself, and sometimes I left congenial travel companions, including lovely and intelligent women, so that I might continue on my solitary journey. Heat-Moon quotes Walt Whitman extensively throughout the book. Here’s a Whitman quote of my own that illustrates what I am talking about (Part 11 of “Song of the Open Road”:

Listen! I will be honest with you,

I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,

These are the days that must happen to you:

You shall not heap up what is call’d riches

You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,

You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,

You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you,

What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,

You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands towards you.

As usual, I have to stop before I end up reproducing the entire poem.

As I read, I could not help envying the author and the freedom he enjoyed on the open road. I have felt that freedom, and I realize its value. Longing for it has recently caused me to write a novel as a sort of wish-fulfillment called The Senescent Nomad. I figured that if I can’t be on the road right now, I can at least imagine what it would be like. Still, I would love to do it for real.

The world of the late 1970s that Heat-Moon writes about does not exist anymore. I know, because I was on the road during that time too, and I know what it was like. People and experiences would be profoundly different now. Still, the road is the road, and there would be adventure and excitement as well as periods of boredom and loneliness, and it would all be wonderful.

Someday… Someday…

In the meantime, read Blue Highways. It’s a well-written memoir about a singular journey.

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Book Review: More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

I find it surprising that I have never read this novel until now. It was first published in 1953, the year I was born, and in the following year it won the International Fantasy Award for best novel. I’ve had it on my shelf for years and… Well, now seemed to be the right time to pick it up and read it.

The story concerns the creation of homo gestalt, or the next evolutionary step in humanity, consisting of a group mind of several disparate characters: a wandering idiot, who functions as the group’s head (when he is killed he is replaced by an orphan boy), a baby with Down’s syndrome who is referred to in the language of the era as mongoloid (the group’s brain), a girl with the power of telekinesis, and twin girls with the power of teleportation. Each has specific functions within the larger gestalt.

The book consists of three novellas, each told in a different style. The first part, “The Fabulous Idiot,” related in third person omniscient, cuts from character to character as it gives the back stories of Lone, the idiot, Jane, the girl with telekinetic abilities, Bonnie and Beanie, the African American girls with the ability to teleport, and Baby, the brilliant calculating mind.

The second part, “Baby Is Three,” is told in first person by Gerard, the orphan boy who takes over as the gestalt head when a tree falls on the idiot. He has gone to a psychiatrist to find out what he has suppressed from his past, and much of the story takes place in the office where he receives therapy. He eventually has a revelation or awakening and uses his powers to make the psychiatrist forget that he ever met him. This novella was originally published in a science fiction magazine as a stand-alone piece, and Sturgeon later wrote the other two to expand the story to novel length.

The third part, “Morality,” tells how Jane helps a man named Hip recover from devastating memory loss brought on by Gerard, who has become selfish and destructive. It deals with Hip’s attempt to introduce morality and ethos into the gestalt.

The three parts are dissimilar in style and in their approaches to the story, but I appreciate how Sturgeon layered the novel in this manner. There is a considerable gap of time between the various sections, and the focus on different viewpoints lends an atmosphere of suspense and mystery as the characters uncover what has gone on before.

This story was written almost seventy years ago, and there is, of course, an absence of modern technology. The novel itself, however, has aged little. It is remarkably relevant and readable. In fact, it is a refreshing change from all the superhero nonsense commonly associated with extraordinary powers. Instead of taking a wild comic book approach to the subject, Sturgeon imbues the tale with subtlety and emotional impact. It’s a short novel, at least in comparison to bloated contemporary novels, but it is of sufficient length to succinctly tell its story and then come to a conclusion. All in all, it is an excellent, well-written novel.

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On Rereading Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

I read this book just over two years ago; you can read the review on this website. What got me thinking about the book again was finding out that it had been made into a film starring Frances McDormand. My initial thought was: how can you make a film out of a book like this? And then I thought: why not? If done properly, it can be a compelling, heart-gripping story of people in distress, and evidently the filmmakers have done it well judging by the awards it has already picked up at film festivals.

As I explain in my previous review, the book touched me profoundly. I had already been wondering about life on the road as opposed to holing up in one place in my old age. I had been daydreaming about, when the kids were grown and gone, getting a van and taking off for who knew where. My musings became so intense and detailed that I have turned them into novels. The first, The Senescent Nomad, which was published in 2019, tells of a writer who, finally on his own, buys and outfits a van, abandons his apartment in Seattle and most of his possessions, and takes off on the road. His initial destination is a science fiction convention in San Diego to which he has been invited as a panelist. On the way he learns what it is like to live on the road full time and meets numerous fascinating characters, including a few lovers. In the second novel, The Senescent Nomad Seeks a Home, he has second thoughts about van life and looks for more stationary accommodations as he travels back up the coast from San Diego to the Puget Sound area. This novel will hopefully be published in late 2020. A third volume is in the planning stages.

Reading Nomadland a second time left me still double-minded about living on the road full time. Of course many of the people that Bruder describes in the book have no choice. They live in vehicles because they have nowhere else to go; they can’t afford to pay rent for an apartment or house. If I had a choice, though, what I would like is the best of both worlds: a humble cottage somewhere outside the city and a camper van in which I could take extended trips around the North American continent. If circumstances forced me into a van, I think I could get by okay; I have done extensive camper travel in the past, although entirely in southern Europe.

Reading this book again was every bit as marvelous as the first read. The only disappointment I felt was coming close to the end of it and the dread anticipation that the wonderful experience would soon be over. However, as I read of the fascinating though difficult lives of these nomadic people in the pre-pandemic days, I wondered how difficult it must be for them now amidst coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions. Where would they go and what would they do? Many of the places where they usually obtain seasonal work would be shuttered. Additionally, they would be joined on the road by countless others who lost their jobs and then their housing. I can’t imagine that it would be a good time to be nomadic.

I browsed some of the websites I had researched while writing The Senescent Nomad to try to find out what’s happening. Some of them seem to be on hiatus or ignoring the pandemic, but on others I found out that full-time nomads are isolating the best they can in solitude or in small enclaves. Some have gone into isolation in the homes of relatives or friends. Bob Wells, a renowned van dweller and longtime road nomad, is heading up a nonprofit called Homes on Wheels Alliance, which tries to help neophyte nomads get set up with tents or vans and acclimatize them to life outside the grid. Still, the situation is grim for the nomadic community.

In closing, I want to emphasize the importance of this book, which documents a large community of travelers, many of them elderly, that lives outside the so-called normal systems of society. More and more of us may be forced into such lifestyles in the coming months and years. My hope is that people in fixed homes become more tolerant and helpful towards these nomads and that some sort of infrastructure builds up to make their lives easier.

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Book Review: The Best of Michael Swanwick

I’m going to begin with a bit of name-dropping here; it’s unintentional but inevitable if I want to explain to you how I came to hear about this book. I was chatting with Michael Swanwick (there it is) at a Clarion West gathering a few years ago, and he mentioned that a best-of collection of his short stories had come out years before. Maybe one reason I hadn’t heard of it was that it appeared in a high-priced limited edition hardcover and never made the transition to paperback. Shortly after that meeting, I managed to find a fairly inexpensive copy of the book online and bought it. I just checked now, and on Amazon, at least, used copies are selling for fifty to one hundred fifty dollars. However, you can get a low-priced Kindle edition.

It may not be name-dropping to all of you, though; Swanwick is mostly known in the science fiction and fantasy field, where he has won numerous awards, including for several of the stories in this book. I started reading his stories when I was still living in Greece in the mid-nineties, when he was winning one award after another. In one year he dominated the short story category for the Hugo Award with three of his stories out of the five nominees. (All of those are in this book.)

It’s an impressive book, strong and heavy, printed on thick paper. But the most important part, of course, is what’s inside. The stories are presented in chronological order with publication dates from 1980 to 2007. This allowed me, as I read, to notice a steady progression in Swanwick’s short story writing expertise.

The early stories are full of interesting ideas, but they are long, and their plots veer all over the place. However, there is a dramatic and noticeable change about halfway through the book, starting with the stories published in 1995. They get shorter, more succinct, and very much more focused. This begins with “North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy,” an amusing tale about a hell-bound train, “Radio Waves,” a frightening story about life after death, and “The Dead,” a chilling tale about commercialized zombies.

In these stories, though, Swanwick is just warming up. He goes on to near-perfect stories such as “Radiant Doors,” “The Very Pulse of the Machine,” “Wild Minds,” and “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur.” These stories are lean, incisive, fascinating, and for the most part dark; they are among the finest science fiction stories ever written.

My favorite story in the book, “Wild Minds,” is also the shortest. It’s a prime example of the principle that verbosity often does not equate with excellence. The plot is simple. A man meets a woman at a businessperson’s orgy. He is a “wild mind,” meaning someone who has chosen not to modify their brain for super intelligence while discarding their emotions in the process. The woman is modified, but she has to go in for some sort of servicing, and in the meantime her emotions are poking through. She is also a salesperson, and she allows the protagonist a brief glimpse of what it means to be enhanced. It is a wonderful sensation, but it makes him more determined than ever not to do it when he realizes how much of his humanity will be compromised. This story perfectly captures one of science fiction’s most important themes: how technology impacts the lives of humans, although it inevitably offers no easy answers.

So this collection has some of the best science fiction stories ever written, but they are all in the second half of the book. I think if I had been the editor, I might have shuffled the contents around a bit differently. Be that as it may, it is what it is, and it is definitely worth persevering to come to the prime works of a master short story writer.

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Book review: Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes

I approached this book with high expectations. A writer traveling through fascinating locales in Europe in the footsteps of literary legends: what could go wrong? Well, a number of things, in fact. Ultimately, I found this book difficult to finish. Often I abstain from writing reviews about books that don’t appeal to me; after all, I’m a writer too, and I don’t appreciate the negative comments of reviewers. This book has impressive blurbs, though, on its cover, so those comments can balance out whatever I have to say.

Holmes is a scholarly writer. He doesn’t write prose that is easily accessible. That’s one problem I had with the book. He doesn’t aim at average readers who would be interested in the subject matter; he aims at the academic elite who have a background in esoteric subjects. For instance, in several sections he writes extensive passages in French without bothering to translate, not even in a footnote, assuming, I suppose, that all of his readers are fluent in French. I could probably understand a bit of it if it had been written in Bengali, or Greek, or Italian. But French? Sorry, never studied it, and although I hitchhiked through France, I didn’t stay long enough to pick up the language; and though I had a French girlfriend for a time, we communicated in English. It’s not just the French language, though; in the course of his narrative, Holmes also assumes that his readers have studied obscure literary figures of the Romantic era and know all the streets in Paris as well as locales in other parts of France and Italy. There are a few maps in my edition, yes, but they are sparse line sketches with no details whatsoever.

The book is a memoir of the on-location research that Holmes carried out while investigating the lives of four famous people. The first section is the most interesting, partially because it is the simplest and most accessible, but also because the author Holmes writes about appeals to me. It tells of a hike that Holmes took in 1964, when he was just starting out in his career, to follow the path that Robert Louis Stevenson took through mountains in south-central France as recounted in the book Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. This section most resembles a traditional travel memoir, and even though Holmes sidetracks into the love story of Stevenson with Fanny Osborne, who was married when he met her but later became Stevenson’s wife, it accomplishes this in a straightforward and easily understandable way.

The next section tells of Holmes’s visit to France in 1968 to research the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Shelley, who wrote the novel Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft went to Paris and stayed there, despite significant personal danger, during the dark bloody days of the French Revolution. At the beginning of this section, Holmes indicates that it is his intention to compare the French Revolution with the youth revolutions of the late 1960s, but then he never really goes into it. Instead, he writes an account of traveling here and there within and outside Paris in an attempt to track down the movements of Wollstonecraft and the evolution of her political perceptions. This section gets bogged down in details, which cause the excitement of readers (at least this reader) to wane.

In the third section, Holmes tracks the movements of the poet Percy Shelley, his wife Mary, and their intimate friend Claire Clairmont through Tuscany in Italy. This could have been beautiful if presented straightforwardly, but again Holmes indulges in confusing interludes in which he recounts his research into unnecessary minutia.

The fourth section is the least accessible, however. Holmes attempts to research the descent into madness of a writer of the Romantic era named Gerard de Nerval. I have to admit that sometimes I simply didn’t understand what Holmes was getting at in his explanations of his obsessive search into what drove Nerval to suicide.

In this book, Footsteps, I see the potential for greatness that ultimately falls short in the delivery. It’s like the old saying, “It’s not deep; it’s just not clear.” This could have been a terrific memoir if it had been written in a simpler, more accessible style. As it is, it is readable – but barely.

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Classic Science Fiction Novels to Read During the Pandemic: Nova by Samuel R. Delany

I can’t remember for sure, but I think that I only read Nova once several decades ago before rereading it recently. It attests to the power and vividness of the prose that so many parts were burned into my memory by that first reading so that I could anticipate and picture what was coming as I read. Some of the technological speculation and scenes may seem somewhat familiar to modern readers, but that’s only because Delaney introduced them and they were picked up later by the cyber-punk movement and by contemporary action science fiction films.

The basic story line of Nova is very simple in the same way that the basic plot of, for example, Moby-Dick is simple. In Moby-Dick, a sea captain named Ahab seeks and confronts a white whale. In Nova, a space captain named Lorq Von Ray seeks a rare element called Illyrion, which he hopes to scoop out of the heart of an exploding star. They are both stories of quests, and of course to relegate them to simplistic one-sentence summaries does them an injustice. They are complex novels; nevertheless, at their cores are the single-minded journeys of the main characters.

The key to the complexity of Nova is in the characters, subplots, and intellectual ramblings involved in getting from Von Ray’s desire to its fulfillment. One character, for instance, is a gypsy from Earth who carries with him an instrument called a syrynx, with which he can simulate visual images, smells, and sounds to create holographic projections. Another of Von Ray’s crewmembers is planning to write a novel, an archaic art form that he hopes to revive. Delaney includes several lengthy passages based on his notes for the novel. A third crewmember reads Tarot cards, and it seems to be an accepted mindset in the era to believe in the efficacy of the guidance the cards offer. Delaney also has his characters have lengthy conversations on socket implantations in humans that allow them to plug into any machinery, and how this innovation has universally changed the concept of employment.

All of these side-subjects are dealt with in detail at various points along the path of Von Ray’s quest. He also goes up against Prince and Ruby Red, an incestuous brother and sister team that comprises the main opposition to Von Ray’s mission. In fact, the conflict between Von Ray and the Reds is so crucial that shortly after the novel gets underway, Delaney cuts to an extended flashback about its roots that is a quarter of the length of the book.

I find that for me personally all of these intellectual side-trips that Delaney undertakes in the course of the narrative are the main reason that I find rereading the book so entertaining. The plot may have been innovative in the late 1960s when the book was first published, but with the deluge of space opera since then in print and in film, it is no longer unique. Delaney is a first-rate writer, though, who can get away with discourses on novel writing and Tarot card reading and other subjects while at the same time he propels his heroes relentlessly towards their objective. This is a good book and is well worth picking up for a read or a reread while you isolate safely at home.

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Book Review: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey

As Desert Solitaire opens, Edward Abbey has just arrived at Arches National Monument in Utah for an isolated six month stint as a park ranger. He worked as a seasonal ranger in the 1950s, although the book was not published until 1968.

In the first couple of chapters, Abbey arrives at his outpost, which is at the end of a long drive on a rough dirt road far from any towns or habitations, and sets up camp in a trailer under primitive conditions. It is springtime, and the park has few visitors. For the most part, Abbey completes his few duties easily and has plenty of time to enjoy the primeval landscape, flora, and fauna around him. He is obviously in love with his surroundings and laments the inevitable modernizing and paving of the roads that will bring many more visitors to this lovely land.

These first two chapters are contemplative, and we glimpse a hint of the type of spiritual and philosophical depth found in the nature writings of, say, Henry David Thoreau or Annie Dillard. Unfortunately, however, the promise of such depth is not subsequently realized. Don’t get me wrong: Abbey is a good writer and this is an absorbing book. But it is not a masterpiece in the class of Walden or Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Having said that, it’s important for me to emphasize that you have to take this book on its own terms. Unlike other nature writers, Abbey approaches his subject with a cynical, acerbic, and condemnatory tone. He rightly points out that to properly experience the desert, one has to climb out of a vehicle and engage the senses firsthand. However, the impression I get as a reader is that he’s fine with everyone else going to hell as long as he can appreciate the land he loves without distraction.

If you can get past Abbey’s sometimes obnoxious distain for anyone that doesn’t share his specific point of view, he offers absorbing descriptions of his explorations of the primeval desert. He writes of the panorama of the landscape, the value of water, the volatility of the elements, and the fascinating array of plants and animals that manage to survive in this harsh environment. He recounts some of his desert adventures, such as assisting a rancher in rounding up stray cattle, joining a search party attempting to locate a missing tourist, climbing a mountain peak, rafting down the Colorado River in the Glen Canyon area before it became permanently flooded by a dam, and exploring a complex labyrinth of canyons known as “The Maze.” On these various excursions he comes across as very macho, competent, and self-sufficient, either traveling alone or with one other male like-minded companion.

Is Desert Solitaire a classic, as some of the internet hype I read proclaims it? I would say no. Certainly not when weighed against certain other books (as those mentioned above) with which it has been compared. Still, as a memoir of Abbey’s journey in a desert landscape that is no longer as isolated and empty as it once was, it is an interesting, even a fascinating read.

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