What a Wonderful World

I woke up this morning with the song “What a Wonderful World” playing in my mind. It was no bland cover version either; the version in my head was the original recording sung by Louis Armstrong and made popular in the United States after Robin Williams’ DJ character played it in the film Good Morning, Vietnam. This is one of my all-time favorite songs, and it was such a relief to wake up to it rather than one of the present-time stark realities of existence staring me in the face.

Life has been a struggle lately for several reasons. We’ll put aside the personal problems concerning careers, health, family, and love life that each one of us deal with, and instead focus only on shared difficulties. There is the global pandemic, of course, which has upended all of our lives, caused many to lose their jobs and their homes, forced people to isolate from others, and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Here in Seattle there is the wildfire smoke that has made our city air the most toxic in the world. I am forced to stay in our apartment with the doors and windows closed and forgo my daily long walks lest I breathe in tiny particulates that would invade my lungs and bloodstream. The air in our apartment has become humid and stale. There was also the recent water crisis in our entire apartment complex of more than a dozen buildings. Without warning the water went off due to a broken pipe, and it stayed off for about twenty hours before they managed to fix it. In the meantime, all the management could suggest was to go to the supermarket and buy water to drink and to flush our toilet with. Of course we couldn’t suspend our bodily functions, but the flushes during those twenty hours were inordinately expensive.

What are we to make of this series of disasters one after the other? How can I possibly wake up in the morning with “What a Wonderful World” running through my head? The answer came to me as I was preparing and drinking my morning coffee. That wonderful world is still there right under the surface. The pandemic will pass; we’ll find a vaccine and conquer it, as we have other decimating diseases in the past. The wildfire smoke will dissipate and go away and we’ll see blue skies and the colors of things again. The water crisis is already resolved, and we can once again flush our toilets properly and take showers. It is a wonderful world, truly. Remember that when you feel oppressed by circumstances. The wonderful world is still here, and if for whatever reason you are unable to enjoy it now, you will be able to enjoy it again soon.

But I have more to say about under-the-surface wonders. Sometimes in recent years I have felt somewhat frustrated and stifled by my limiting circumstances, and it helps me during those times to recall what a long, rich, and exciting life I have had. Last night I watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first of the Star Trek feature films. It’s probably the worst film in the Star Trek franchise, not because the special effects are laughable by today’s standards, but because there’s nothing much to the story. A lot of it consists of crewmembers staring at extended shots of colorful abstractions. There is very little action.

Despite the shortcomings of the movie, I had a great time watching it. Why? Because it reminded me of old friends who shared my enthusiasm for Star Trek and other science fiction when I was much younger. I had just turned twenty when I attended the 1973 Clarion West writing workshop. Besides the professional teachers (Harlan Ellison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Peter Beagle, Terry Carr, and James Sallis), I had the opportunity to meet my fellow students, other fledgling writers with whom I could converse enthusiastically about writing and science fiction and similar subjects.

Two of the students I became closest to were Russell Bates and Paul Bond. Russell was a full-blooded Kiowa Native American. He had already been taken on as an understudy on the Star Trek team, and he would go on to win the Star Trek animated series an Emmy for his script “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth.” He was at Clarion West to hone his short story writing skills. He and I would later collaborate on a script outline for a then-popular TV show, although it never saw production.

Paul Bond was a tall, frail, soft-spoken young man. He had already had major heart surgery and had a huge scar running down the middle of his chest. Like me, he had no writing credits when he attended Clarion West, but soon afterwards he was able to make his first story sale to a new slick magazine called Vertex. When I moved to Los Angeles to try to become a scriptwriter, Paul was my closest friend there.

Russell died a few years ago. He is mainly known for that Star Trek episode, but when I ran a search for his name, I found out that the Miami International Science Fiction Film Festival has created the Russell Bates Indigenous Peoples Screenwriters Award.

Paul died a few decades ago. His health was never very good. When I ran a search for him online, I could find a few references to the story he sold to Vertex (it had been reprinted in a collection edited by Isaac Asimov) but otherwise he had disappeared from the internet.

While I was watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture, I kept thinking of these two friends and the interests and fun we had shared, and I realized that underneath our present experiences there is a vast storehouse of memories, incomparable riches of times gone by that we can call on when we need reassurance or a rekindling of hope.

So keep this in mind as you navigate these difficult times: beyond the circumstances through which you now struggle there are blue skies and beautiful landscapes, and beneath your present situation, trying as it may be, there are memories of good friends and marvelous days gone by. And if you get a chance, watch a video of Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World.” That’s sure to pick you up.

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Book Review: Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose

I bought this book because I wanted to read about exploration and adventure, and there is plenty of that in it. Lewis and Clark and their small team headed off into territory unknown to the citizens of the United States, the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, which almost doubled the size of the country. Almost the entire area was a blank spot on maps. As they moved from St. Louis up the Missouri River, across the Bitterroot Mountains, and down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean and back, the expedition wrote journals, drew maps, encountered several Native American tribes, and cataloged and described new flora and fauna. They endured amazing hardships on their journey of almost two and a half years.

It all makes for exciting, compelling reading. However, after I had finished the book and had a chance to think about it, I realized that despite the thrilling story, the journey itself occurred under very strange circumstances. First of all, in the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson arranged for the purchase of all this land from France for the United States, entirely discounting the fact that the land was already occupied by indigenous peoples. Although the term Manifest Destiny had not yet been coined, Jefferson certainly believed in the concept; it was the old story of the “inevitable white man” overrunning everything and everyone in his path.

The book focuses on Meriwether Lewis from his early life as a southern slave-owning planter to his last years as the alcoholic governor of the Louisiana Territory. Lewis was a captain in the army during the journey, which was known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, and the men who accompanied him were army recruits as well, including William Clark, to whom Lewis insisted that the army also give the rank of captain. According to Ambrose, Lewis was a good leader, although he was a firm believer in white privilege.

There is a black man in the painting on the cover of my edition of the book. I wondered about that until I found out that Clark’s slave, an African American named York, accompanied the expedition. After they returned safely against all odds to civilization, York requested his freedom as a reward for his diligence and hard work, but Clark refused to grant it. Another person who was badly slighted and left bereft of reward at the expedition’s end was Sacagawea, a Native American Shoshone woman who was married to a French Canadian. She was invaluable as an interpreter and as a reassurance to the Native American tribes that the expedition encountered, but though her husband received a salary for his services, she received nothing. An interesting side-note: when Lewis and Clark called for a vote in November 1805 as to whether the group should winter on the north or south side of the Columbia River, both York and Sacagawea were allowed an equal vote. According to Ambrose, it was the first time in American history that an African American or a woman had ever voted.

Despite the dubious political motivations for the journey, Lewis and Clark returned with a treasure trove of knowledge about previously unknown lands. Unfortunately, Lewis fell into depression and excessive drinking and eventually he took his own life at the age of thirty-five. The incomparably valuable journals of the expedition were not published until years later. For a time the Lewis and Clark expedition was almost forgotten, but interest in their journey was revived in the early twentieth century with the publication of a new multi-volume edition of the journals.

All in all, despite the different perspective from which we view Lewis and Clark’s exploits in the twenty-first century, this is a fascinating and well-written account of persistence and courage against overwhelming odds.

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Short Story “The Blood Test” Now Available

My most recently published story, “The Blood Test,” is now available online. You can read it for free on the website of the new international literary magazine The Quiet Reader.

In the story, an enigmatic stranger appears at a book signing of a newly-popular writer and reveals an important secret from his past.

You can find the story in The Quiet Reader, Edition 1, September 2020, at this link: http://thequietreader.com/magazine/the-blood-test-john-walters/

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Classic Science Fiction Novels to Read During the Pandemic: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Until recently I hadn’t read The Stars My Destination in years, or perhaps even decades. It was first published in 1956 when I was three years old. One of the amazing things about this novel is that it hasn’t aged since then. It can still stand up to the best of contemporary work. The ideas and concepts in it are still outrageously but effectively outlandish – in a good way. It definitely deserves to be on a shortlist of the best science fiction novels ever written.

I’m not going to be able to give you a proper synopsis of the story; it is too intricate and convoluted. By saying that, I don’t mean that it is confusing. Bester throws one thing after another at readers, but it all fits in like infinitesimal pieces of an enormous jigsaw puzzle.

The protagonist is a man named Gulliver Foyle, or Gully for short, who is barely surviving a death-like existence in spaceship wreckage in a remote part of the solar system. Another spaceship passes him by despite his array of distress signals, and Gully becomes consumed with rage and a desire for vengeance. He manages to get his ruined spaceship, the Nomad, running well enough to make it to an asteroid, where the resident cult pulls him in and tattoos his face with the grotesque visage of a savage tiger. Later a surgeon manages to remove the tattoos, but whenever Gully gets angry or otherwise deeply emotional, the tiger image shows up again on his face. (The original British title of this novel was Tiger! Tiger! in homage to the William Blake poem “The Tiger.”)

This is just the barest glimpse of the beginning of the story. There are incredibly rich industrialists, duplicitous lawyers, clever intelligence operators, female criminal masterminds, and other fascinating characters. Gully has to escape from a prison built in deep underground caverns that are in perpetual darkness, steal a fortune in the Nomad‘s safe, and pose as an ultra-rich buffoon. The plot hinges, though, on a practice known as jaunting, or teleportation, which most people are able to learn to do.

As I said, I’m not going to give too much of the story away, not because it would take too long, but because I want to give you the opportunity to discover it for yourself. Bester is a master craftsman when it comes to writing. He knows what to put in and what to leave out. He’ll end a chapter and begin the next from a completely different perspective or point of view. There’s nothing extraneous in it at all. Every word is effective. At one point, words don’t do the subject justice, and so Bester turns the words into images, having them float or bounce or increase and decrease in size on the page. A wild ride, to be sure, but an excellent one.

There is nothing to which The Stars My Destination can be compared. It is a one-of-a-kind work of genius, so effective and provocative and radical and insightful and original and fun and entertaining and elevating that it stands out as an absolutely unique achievement. Give it a read and you’ll see what I mean.

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Avoiding Discouragement During the Pandemic

I am deep into writing a story that is sprouting into a novel, and so I hesitate before devoting my writing time to this instead of that. However, I rationalize the side trip by contemplating that if I help only one other person cope with the current emergency, it will be worth it. If I help several, it’s a cause for celebration. If I help many, well, all the better.

I had better preface this, though, by admitting that I have not always been able to cope successfully with the present circumstances. In fact, I got so low last night I had to call one of my adult sons into my room and unload my bullshit on him. I just couldn’t handle it alone. I had sat down for my evening session of creative work (I spend the day ghostwriting articles to pay the bills) but I was so numbed with discouragement that all I could do was stare at the page. I don’t often get to that state; I’ve got a lot of perseverance and stoicism despite whatever is going on around me. Suddenly, however, it overwhelmed me and I needed help. Once I blurted it all out, I was better and could get back to my writing.

This morning I got to thinking about coping mechanisms and jotted down some notes. Here are some things that help me (usually) stay upbeat and persistent regardless of the situation around me. Take it for granted that my writing is number one on the list. That’s such a basic truth that I didn’t even bother writing it down. My minimum daily creative word count is presently five hundred words, and I manage that six days a week.

One of my principal sources of inspiration and entertainment is reading. I read for an hour to an hour and a half every day and go through a book every week to ten days – depending upon its length, of course. I used to go to the library and browse the new book shelves at least weekly, but now that the library has been closed for months and shows no sign of reopening, I have to look elsewhere for reading material. Basically I have three sources: books on my shelves that I have bought but never got around to reading (I am rapidly running out of these), books I own and have read but want to reread (I still have plenty of these), and books that I order online. Sometimes I spend long periods of time online looking for books to order, and I am always thrilled when I find new titles with potential.

Exercise is crucial to my mental and physical well-being. Three days a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) I follow a home exercise regimen that I have kept for years. It consists of about an hour of power yoga and calisthenics such as pull-ups and pushups. Additionally, I walk for one and a half to two miles seven days a week regardless of the weather. Lately I have had to walk a bit slower due to my own negligent behavior. Weeks ago I took a five mile walk to a shop, up and down hills, because I didn’t want to risk going on public transport. My poor 67-year-old legs wore out and I am still recovering. So I go slower, but I still make sure that I walk the walk.

One of the best ways to forestall your own discouragement is to spend your time caring for others. Right now I have three of my sons (ages 18 to 28) living with me, and I stay busy (when I’m not writing) shopping and cooking and cleaning our small two-bedroom apartment. There’s not much spare space around here, believe me. One of them is moving out at the end of the month, but that’s not the point. The point is that it is a joy and an honor to help take care of some of the greatest human beings on the planet. (The other great ones are my two absent sons.) I hope you feel the same way about your loved ones and you get a thrill out of offering them service and considering their well-being as important as your own.

Pursuing career goals is critical to me. In my case, I can do it from home because all of my long-term goals are related to my writing. Getting those words done each day contributes greatly to my peace of mind. You may not be as committed to writing as I am, but perhaps there is something else that catches and holds your interest.

Above all else, despite the way that life seems to be throwing shit-storms in our path these days, we have to have patience. We have to remember that historically disasters always eventually come to an end. This too shall pass. Really.

That’s what I wanted to say, but before I close, I’m going to indulge in a moment of shameless self-promotion. Remember above when I mentioned my avid search for new reading material? Perhaps you are looking for good things to read too. I’ve written more than twenty-five books, including novels, short story collections, and memoirs. You can find a list of them and links on my Available Books page. Give some of them a try. You won’t be disappointed.

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Book Review: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

This is another book that has been on my shelf for years after being purchased at a library book sale. The need for reading material during the pandemic drove it into my hands. It’s a good book. It has a strong story, it’s meticulously researched, and it has high-quality writing. In it, Hillenbrand tells the life story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who was a bombardier during World War II until his plane was shot down by the Japanese and he became a prisoner of war.

The story starts out in Torrance, California, where Zamperini was a rowdy teen involved in petty theft and other troublemaking activities. He finds direction, however, when he realizes that he can run fast. At his high school and then at USC he sets long distance running records. He gets so good that he becomes a part of the U.S. Olympic team of 1936 that goes to Berlin, Germany during the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich.

War breaks out, and Zamperini joins the U.S. Army Air Corps as a bombardier. During a mission his plane goes down. The only survivors are Zamperini and two other men, who spend 47 days slowly starving at sea surrounded by large deadly sharks before being captured by the Japanese.

The next section of the book details Zamperini’s arduous experiences in Japanese prisoner of war camps. The conditions are horrendous. Besides the inadequate food and filthy living conditions, the men are beaten and otherwise humiliated regularly. Most of them, despite their feeble conditions, have to work long hours at grueling manual labor. For Zamperini, most of his time as a POW is spent in camps overseen by a Japanese overseer nicknamed The Bird, who takes a personal dislike to Zamperini and does him best to make Zamperini’s life a constant hell on Earth.

As the war approaches its end, the prisoners are tormented by rumors that the Japanese are soon to issue kill orders; in other words, they plan to exterminate all the POWs under their care. This does not happen, at least for Zamperini and his fellow prisoners, and the war comes to a conclusion after atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

When Zamperini goes home, he has serious post-traumatic stress disorder. He is beset by nightmares and flashbacks in which he is tormented by his nemesis The Bird. He gets married, but his mental instability and alcoholism nearly cause a divorce. However, his wife persuades him to attend a revival meeting by Billy Graham in Los Angeles, and at the second meeting Zamperini goes to he gives his life to Christ. Abruptly he experiences a profound change and his nightmares and flashbacks stop. He devotes his life to telling his story and helping disadvantaged children.

As you can see, Hillenbrand tells several stories here: Zamperini’s conversion from rowdy teen to Olympic-class runner, his dangerous missions in the Pacific Theater during the war, his survival with his crewmates on the life raft in the middle of the ocean, his long stretch in a Japanese POW camp, his deterioration once he got home, and his ultimate redemption and renewal as a Christian. Each segment stands on its own as a riveting adventure, and all together they comprise an epic and fascinating life story.

My only qualification was with the Japanese prisoner of war camp section. It was horrific and exciting, but I felt it went on a bit too long describing similar tortures over and over again. That’s the only point at which my attention lagged for a short period of time.

Otherwise, this is a first-rate historical adventure told in clean prose with plenty of thrills and lots of emotional impact.

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Book Review: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

I want to preface this review by saying that I tend to avoid books that are touted far and wide as must-read bestsellers because they so often disappoint. That’s why in the past I never seriously considered reading Wild. All that “now a major motion picture” hype. However, I got into the mood to read some travel memoirs and did some research into possibilities, and Wild showed up again and again on the lists I consulted. I read about it and – what the hell – decided to give it a try. I found a used copy of the hardcover on Amazon and here I am.

Having said that, the next thing is to say that reading Wild for me was wonderful and profoundly satisfying. I can’t remember the last time I had such a fully absorbing reading experience. Even more than usual I looked forward to my daily reading session. (I usually read for an hour or so in the afternoon after a short nap before plunging into another bout of work.) When I read it, I would become so absorbed that I completely lost track of everything else.

In short, after Strayed’s mother died her family fell apart, she had casual sex with a multitude of men, she started using heroin, and she divorced her husband. To put her life back together, she got the crazy idea of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Southern California to the Oregon border all alone. Later, when she found that she had to bypass part of the snowbound Sierra Nevada mountain range, she revised her route and hiked all the way to the Oregon-Washington border.

If this was a simple account of a hiking trip it would not have impressed me so much, but what it is really is a journey of self-discovery. And the reason that I empathize so profoundly with Strayed’s story is that our journeys of self-discovery are similar in so many ways. When I had to burst out of the physical, psychological, and spiritual rut I was in back in the mid-1970s, I didn’t take a long hike; what I did was get rid of anything that wouldn’t fit into a small duffle bag and start hitchhiking: first across the United States, and then around Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent. My initial travels lasted a couple of years, but I eventually lived overseas for thirty-five years.

In my comparisons here, though, I am referring to my time on the road when I was desperate to discover who I was and find my voice as a writer. So here we go. As I was reading Wild, I started listing similarities between Strayed’s journey and mine, and they got so extensive that they filled the piece of paper I was writing on; I had to write smaller and smaller until the paper is a mass of tiny squiggles. I’ll try to sort them out for you.

First of all, Strayed and I were about the same age, in our mid-twenties, when we made our journeys of self-discovery. Both of us were attempting something extraordinary to try to fix our lives. We were both determined to forge ahead and not go back no matter how much adversity we faced. Strayed would say the litany of “I am not afraid” to herself over and over when she’d hear strange sounds on the trail; I would often deliberately go into questionable or dangerous situations because I didn’t want my fears to overcome me.

We both had packs that held all the belongings we had. She had a backpack that she called “The Monster.” I had a long olive-green duffle bag that held my sleeping bag, jacket, toiletry kit, a few extra clothes, notebook and pen, and a book. Strayed would burn the single book she carried when she’d finish it; I would exchange mine with a traveler for another one. Strayed stopped wearing underwear as a hassle to wash and an unnecessary encumbrance on the trail; I did the same when I was on the road.

Body washing was always an issue. Strayed writes of getting extremely smelly and dirty and what a luxury showers were. That was the case for me too on the road, especially in places like the Middle East where I’d have to go to a bathhouse and pay to use a shower.

Then there is the matter of food. Strayed describes the ravenous hunger that she experienced as a result of hiking all day long day after day. I hiked for a week in the Olympic Mountains when I was young and remember how that hiking hunger was, but as an even more extreme example, I ran out of money in New Delhi once and went hungry. I was sleeping on the floor of a cheap hostel with a dozen other hippies waiting for some money to come through; in the meantime, I would walk the streets, look at food, and long for it, and at night I would dream of tables laden with feasts and then wake up and have nothing to eat.

Strayed kept running out of money on the trail, and that happened with me on the road too. I always had to budget carefully and I was often near broke. Once I was broke and had my passport stolen in Iran, and I had to beg on the streets for two weeks before I could get a new passport and move on. Another time I was in Madras, India, and when I counted my money I figured I could just barely make it back to Europe overland, but then I would miss going to Nepal. I decided to go to Nepal anyway. When I finally left Nepal, that’s when I almost starved in Delhi.

Strayed describes the close relationships she developed with fellow travelers on the trail, and that happened with me too, especially as I went farther east. We would form bonds and travel together for a few days. Sometimes I’d meet women and we’d enjoy casual sex and then go our separate ways. The road would bring us together, and eventually the road would break us apart again.

As with Strayed, I would often meet strangers other than travelers on the road who were kind to me and helped me in various ways.

As for family and friends from the past, Strayed would receive packages at infrequent stops along the way. On my journeys, in the days before cell phones when long-distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive, the only contact I would have with my parents and others were aerograms, which I would pick up every couple of weeks or so at the post offices in major cities. These were blue pieces of paper that would fold up and stick together so you could put a stamp on them.

And finally I would like to mention the solitude. Strayed met people along the way but for the most part she made her journey all alone, and so did I. There were long stretches when I was completely by myself. Once I walked up into the Himalayan Mountains alone, just following trails with no map or guidebook. I would go hours without seeing another person. There would only be the immense mountains and the wonderful silence and stillness.

In conclusion, sharing Strayed’s journey was a wonderful experience for me. If you are interested in an account of my time on the road, check out my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.

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Book Review: A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinkster

The novel A Song for a New Day, which recently won the 2019 Nebula Award for best novel, has received significant attention for its uncannily accurate prediction of radical social distancing following a series of plagues and terrorist attacks. What’s surprising is that the novel was written and published before any glimpse of the current pandemic. In Pinkster’s near-future dystopia, legally mandated distancing and isolation has continued long after the epidemics and social disturbances that brought it about have ceased due to ongoing paranoia and the efforts of massive companies that have sprung up in disaster’s wake to continue to reap profits from customers trapped in their homes.

Pinkster’s prophetic insight is interesting, but it is not the novel’s most important theme. The main character, Luce, is a rock guitarist and singer. Enforced isolation has caused all legitimate music venues to close. To find audiences, she is forced to go underground, first by setting up her own venue with illegal live music, and later, when that gets busted, by going on the road and finding places to play wherever she can.

A parallel story concerns a woman named Rosemary who is a talent recruiter for the top online virtual music site. For much of the book, Rosemary comes across as a blend of blundering/naive and deceitful/manipulative, until at the end she somewhat redeems herself by making a few wise decisions.

The main story, however, belongs to Luce and her motivation to write her songs and play her music no matter what, even if it means defying massive music conglomerates and unjust laws. Her determination to persevere as a musician, even if her audiences consist of only a few appreciative people, brings to mind the contemporary state of artistic endeavors, pandemic or no pandemic.

I can’t really speak about the musical field; I haven’t picked up a guitar or written a song in decades. However, I am familiar with the current state of publishing, and I know that there are also parallels in the musical business.

In short, the mainstream publishing world is run by massive conglomerates whose primary purpose is, of course, to increase profits. The artistic value of what is published holds far less importance. I’m not saying that good work doesn’t get published by the big outfits, but rather that a lot of excellent writing is ignored in favor of whatever faddish books will become popular and turn a profit.

In the past, writers (and musicians) had no recourse other than to keep pounding on the doors of the publishing houses until they were let in – or not. Now, though, there are alternatives. Numerous platforms are available for self-publishing, and many self-published authors find audiences and make good livings. Other writers find fulfillment in blogging. Like Luce throughout most of the book, the main point is to share the music, or in the case of writers, to share the words. Making money is a secondary consideration. Traditional publishers have sometimes picked up the work of self-published writers and distributed it through mainstream channels, but that’s not the point either. The point is to play music or to write stories or do whatever else you do as a means of artistic expression, and then to put it out there so that people can find it.

My favorite part of A Song for a New Day is part three, when Luce buys a secondhand van and takes off on the road. I can empathize with that; I’m a road person myself. I often daydream about getting back on the road, and my series about The Senescent Nomad is a sort of wish fulfillment because I can’t under the present circumstances do it for real. I could be wrong, but often while I was reading I felt that Pinkster was drawing on personal experiences concerning circumstances and especially emotions. If not verity, the book at least has verisimilitude. Not often has the publishing of a novel been so timely.

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On Rereading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

I first read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test back in the early 1970s when I was dabbling in the psychedelic culture from the perspective of a university in the San Francisco Bay Area. Taking psychedelics and smoking pot was almost all I did in those days, and my mind got really messed up. When I read about the exploits of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and how flippantly they dropped acid, played tricks on one another, palled around with the Hell’s Angels, stood up to cops, and went back and forth across the United States in a bright Day-Glo bus bursting with all the colors of the rainbow, I felt as if I was reading a Marvel comic for all the reality it afforded. I could barely pull my mind together after taking acid in that fairly conservative California university; I couldn’t imagine doing it under the circumstances that Wolfe describes in his book. Kesey famously asserted back then that you were either on the bus or off the bus. I would have been off the bus for sure.

Acid (and other hallucinogens like mescaline and psilocybin) messed me up; they didn’t center me or elevate me to a higher plane of existence. My first trips were confusing; subsequent trips were far worse: dark and paranoia-inducing and debilitating. Group scenes in close, confining spaces never did it for me as far as acid trips were concerned. The best trip I ever had, a trip that was purely positive and no negative at all that I can recall, was when I dropped acid with another traveler and we hiked up into the Himalayan foothills surrounding Katmandu. We had a wondrous, enchanting time; never mind that we got caught high up in the middle of nowhere with darkness coming on and had to spend the night in a cabin with a Nepali patrol that was guarding restricted areas in the mountains. You can read about that adventure in my memoir of my road days World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.

I enjoyed reading Michael Pollan’s new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, but I don’t know if I would want to take psychedelics again even under the controlled circumstances he describes. The approach is too formal, too contrived. I think that if I experimented with hallucinogens again I would either want to be alone or with a soul-mate.

Anyway, back to Tom Wolfe’s book. It is written in a stream of consciousness style that Wolfe is obviously using to try to get into the spirit of the whole Merry Pranksters movement. The problem is that the style hasn’t aged well. When I first read the book I thought it was ostentatious; this time I found it annoying. There is page after page of run-on sentences that don’t really go anywhere. This becomes particularly acute during Kesey’s time as a fugitive down in Mexico while he was attempting to escape various charges of possession of marijuana. In one chapter, for instance, Wolfe goes on and on about a stinky red tide along the Mexican coast but doesn’t advance the story at all. I understand why he adopted this style, but I wish he hadn’t done it. He could have said so much more if he were only more straightforward. After all, he had access to Prankster archives and was able to interview many of the key players. He could have written an in-depth historical study that would be relevant even now. As it was, I feel that he went for the cheap thrill.

Okay, I know that there are many critics who would disagree with me; however, as I was reading this I searched for a biography of Kesey or a more traditional history of the Pranksters and came up short. This is all there is.

The book goes into Kesey’s early experiences with LSD as a paid experimental subject in a Stanford lab. This is when he was writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. From a suburb near Stanford Kesey and friends move to some property he buys near La Honda, and there they start getting into the wild behavior that eventually leads to the cross-country bus ride and the staged Acid Tests. One thing is obvious from Wolfe’s account: Kesey and the Pranksters were an anomaly. Kesey was only able to finance all of their escapades because of his first two successful novel sales. In the beginning, all of the Pranksters were white, and almost all came from elite or middle-class backgrounds. The Prankster culture was very male-dominant and macho. Wolfe takes pains to describe the ripped physiques of the male prankster leaders, especially Kesey the ex-wrestler and his friend Babs the ex-military man, and also Kesey’s fascination with the violent Hell’s Angels motorcycle club.

No, I wouldn’t have made a good Prankster. Their motto was “Never trust a Prankster,” but for me, the hippy culture was built on love, understanding, and trust. Without trust, what’s left? What’s the point?

Still, it was an interesting journey to read this book again. It certainly stirred up a lot of memories. It made me ponder my past in the light of my present and appreciate how far I have traveled, how much I have learned, and how much I wish I could have taught that young insecure acid head that I used to be.

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Book Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

This novel reminded me why I love good science fiction. I haven’t felt that tingling thrill lately, and by lately I mean in the last several years, when a novel of science fiction or fantasy moves me so much that I find it hard to put it down. I used to get that feeling often in my youth when I discovered the field and I began to explore its great works. That was back in the late sixties and early seventies during the so-called New Wave of speculative fiction when writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Harland Ellison, Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delaney, and others were successfully bringing literary values into the field.

This novel, though, The Calculating Stars, has it; and by it I mean that indefinable power that propels readers through pages. I suppose I have become jaded; I didn’t expect it to be quite that good.

It’s an alternate history novel. It starts out in the early 1950s in America. A meteorite hits the east coast of the United States, decimating much of the eastern seaboard. It soon becomes evident that it is an extinction-level event; in a short span of years the Earth’s temperature will rise so much that the planet will become uninhabitable to humans. The only solution to save humanity is a global effort to start up a space program.

All of this might sound like standard science fiction fare, except Kowal tells it with a profound twist. It is written in first person by a woman who has a doctorate in physics, a genius who can do complex equations in her head. Her husband is the chief engineer in the space program, and she is one of its human calculators. These are exclusively women mathematicians who in lieu of sufficiently reliable computing machines do the calculations to put astronauts into space on paper using slide rules.

But Dr. Elma York, the protagonist, is a pilot as well as a computer, and she wants to become an astronaut. In misogynistic fifties-thought, it is inconceivable to submit women to the dangers of space, despite even the obvious argument that self-sustained colonies are impossible without procreation.

Thus much of the novel details how York and other determined women fight the biased male mindset to prove that women, and also African Americans, have the talents to become assets in space exploration. The amazing thing is that although this story is set in the 1950s, it is relevant today. We are still struggling with equality for women and for minorities. We may have made some progress since the fifties, but we still have a long, long way to go.

One thing that I appreciated and that works extremely well in this book is the voice of the main character. She is intelligent, determined, courageous, and sexy, but she is also flawed and vulnerable, aware of her weaknesses and constantly fighting to overcome them.

So yes, this is a good book, a real page-turner. It’s one of those novels that doesn’t come along often, but when it does, it should be read as widely as possible.

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