Book Review: Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Tor.com Short Fiction Edited by Irene Gallo

I acquired this excellent new anthology in a Christmas gift exchange at a gathering of local writers. Most folks received fun flamboyant socks but somehow I got the book. I don’t regret the lack of colorful images on my feet, because instead, I have spectacular images floating around in my mind.

After I read several of the stories in Worlds Seen in Passing, I realized that the level of overall quality was higher than in some recent best of the year collections I’ve read, and I wondered why. One reason is probably that Tor.com pays double or more what any other professional speculative fiction venue offers, and so it attracts the top talent.

The other reason that I came up with was the superlative team of editors that Tor.com employs. Most best-of anthologies have just one editor who makes all the choices, and naturally the final selections are going to skew in favor of that editor’s personal preferences. However, at least five or six top-class editors oversee the fiction at Tor.com, several of whom specialize in specific sub-genres. You’re bound to get a broader range of opinions that way. Usually when I read a best-of anthology, I love some stories, like others, and am not so keen on a fair amount. When I started reading Worlds Seen in Passing, I found the stories were all of top quality, highly entertaining, and very well written, one after the other. Even in the latter third of the book, where most of the stories are horror and fairy tales, which are not my favorite categories, every one of them is competently told and enjoyable to read. In fact, there was only one story in the entire book of over five hundred fifty pages that I lost interest in and didn’t finish reading; it was the only story in the volume that was all style and no plot.

As I said, most of the stories were excellent, but let’s see if I can highlight a few of my favorites. “Waiting on a Bright Moon” by J.Y. Yang is a novelette by a writer from Singapore who weaves together oriental mythology and interstellar adventure. The Chinese characters scattered throughout the text add to its sense of wonder. “About Fairies” by Pat Murphy is a subtle story about possible fairy hideaways in the midst of San Francisco. It’s unclear whether there is really a speculative element in it at all, but it’s still a wondrous tale. “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal is a touching story about an aging spacefarer who gets a last chance for interstellar adventure. “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly is a stylistically clever fantasy about a baker that imbues memories into his wares and uses this power to overthrow a maniacal tyrant. “The End of the End of Everything” by Dale Bailey is an apocalyptic story about revelers becoming more and more decadent and depraved as the world falls into ruin. It has some truly gruesome scenes, and yet it is so well-written that it causes me to overcome my revulsion of explicit horror tales.

All in all, I recommend this book as a great selection of science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories.

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A Summary of 2018

For a few years now I’ve written the daily word count for my creative writing in the planner where I record thoughts, ideas, and schedule reminders. By creative writing I refer to novels, novellas, novelettes, short stories, essays, and afterwords to my short story collections. I do not include articles and blog posts I write as work-for-hire solely to make money to pay bills. If I did, that would add 200,000 to 300,000 more words to the yearly count. In the statistics I am sharing with you now, though, I am speaking only of the writing that comes from my heart and will and calling and career as an artist.

I work every day, seven days a week. I usually start around seven o’clock in the morning, taking breaks to see my son off to school, exercise, take a daily walk, and go shopping. Around one I cook lunch, eat while watching something on Netflix such as an old Star Trek episode, and clean up. After a short nap and some relaxing reading time, I resume work around five and continue until about eight, when I stop to prepare and eat dinner with my son. By nine I’m back at work, and I usually finish around eleven.

In the morning and afternoon I do the hack work that helps pay the bills, and from nine to eleven I do the work I love: my fiction and creative non-fiction. I set myself a quota of a minimum of 500 words a day, and I generally hit or exceed the quota five days out of seven. Often on Sundays I allow myself the wonderful luxury of working on my creative writing first thing in the morning before I do anything else. I have set up a Patreon page to try to generate more steady income so that I can switch over to doing my creative work first thing every day. I haven’t reached that goal yet, but I’m hopeful. If my creative writing completely supported me, I’d probably also up my daily word count to at least 1,000 words. I find that committing myself to a regular word count keeps me working and helps me avoid writer’s block. Jack London famously said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” This sentiment may be crudely expressed, but it’s true.

This is the first year I have thought to compile my statistics into monthly and average yearly totals, and I was quite pleased with the results. It’s amazing what a person can accomplish by persevering and meeting goals day after day, month after month. So here they are: my monthly totals of creative word counts for 2018.

January: 16,176 words. (A great way to start the new year!)

February: 14,567 words.

March: 13,093 words. (During this month I took three days off, from the 29th to the 31st, to attend the Norwescon science fiction convention.)

April: 8,127 words. (The word count is lower because I spent time proofreading my latest novel and preparing my latest short story collection for publication.)

May: 13,064 words.

June: 13,280 words. (During this month I received the first draft of a contract from someone who wants to option film rights to one of my short stories, so I took some time off to study contract law basics, meet with some entertainment lawyers, and write up notes about suggested contract changes.)

July: 11,286 words. (There’s a big gap of several days with no creative words written in the middle of this month. Maybe I just had a tough time coming up with a new idea after finishing the previous story. That happens sometimes.)

August: 10,873 words. (I took some time off here studying the basics of the Patreon website and setting up my new Patreon account.)

September: 6,433 words. (This is the month when I devoted a lot of time to doing a final proofreading of my new novel. It took over a week. Details forthcoming.)

October: 11,539 words. (There’s a week-long gap in this month too. I think it’s just the effort of coming up with a new idea.)

November: 9,998 words. (Gaps of several days in this month too. Regrouping thoughts.)

December: 13,467 words.

To sum up, my total creative word count for the year is 141,903 words, which breaks down to an average of 11,825 words per month.

During 2018, I published a book-length short story collection, Invasive Procedures: Stories. It’s my twenty-second book. Most of the stories were also published individually in digital editions. My short story “Dark Mirrors” appeared in the embossed hardcover collection Alien Invasion: Short Stories sandwiched in between selections by Voltaire and H.G. Wells. A mainstream literary story of mine appeared in the anthology Aftermath: Explorations of Loss and Grief, and a life-after-death story called “Sharon” was selected for the anthology Fantasy for the Throne. I also have four more stories sold to magazine and anthologies but not yet published.

All in all, 2018 was a very productive year. I can’t wait to see what 2019 brings!

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Book Review: Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee

Books on the history of science fiction are scarce, so I figured that this new volume on the “golden age of science fiction” was worth checking out. I put that in parentheses because though I realize that a lot of important writing appeared in that era, I think that the most significant work that transformed the field into the respected literary genre that it is today occurred during the so-called “new wave” in the sixties and early seventies. Be that as it may, I started out in science fiction on Heinlein’s books, and Astounding magazine certainly was formative and dominant for many years.

This book doesn’t even pretend to offer a comprehensive look at the entirety of the Golden Age. Instead, it focuses on the four major players mentioned in the subtitle and alternates between their stories. Fascinating stories they are too. At the heart of it all is John W. Campbell, the abrasive, opinionated, bombastic editor of Astounding who helped these writers and others develop in the genre as he published their work. Campbell was a good writer as well as a formative editor. He wrote the story “Who Goes There?” upon which John Carpenter’s famous thriller The Thing is based. His literary contributions are all but forgotten, though, and he is much better known as the editor who helped shape science fiction.

The first half of the book is highly absorbing as it recounts the backgrounds of Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard and their beginnings in the field, their early sales, and triumphs and tragedies in their personal lives. An interesting bit of trivia is that Campbell published a story about an atomic bomb during the closing months of World War II while it was still under development by the U.S. government, and he was investigated by various agencies as a result.

However, just over halfway through, the book takes an unexpected nosedive as it goes into far, far too much detail about Hubbard and Campbell’s experiments with dianetics that eventually led to Hubbard forming the religion of Scientology. It was interesting enough to read how Hubbard stated several times to various groups of people that if you want to make big money, start a religion. It was also interesting to read about Hubbard teaming up with a disciple of Alistair Crowley to study and experiment with spells and enchantment. But when the author Nevala-Lee goes into the development of every nuance of thought that caused Hubbard to refine his theory of dianetics, it’s a little too much. It gets very boring for a few chapters, so much so that I almost put the book down. I had picked it up because I wanted to read about the history of science fiction, not the history of Scientology. It turns out that Astounding played an integral role in the publicizing and popularization of dianetics, and you can’t really get away from it in a history of the magazine and of Campbell.

Fortunately, the book picks up again later and gets back into telling the absorbing history of the science fiction field. As Astounding got sidetracked by supposed fact articles on Campbell’s esoteric interests, new magazines such as Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction entered the arena and published great fiction. Heinlein and Asimov achieved overwhelming success in helping science fiction become a part of the mainstream. And Nevala-Lee also makes the arguable claim that Gene Roddenberry took over Campbell’s torch in further shaping the field for the masses through Star Trek.

All in all, this book is absorbing and interesting, but a good part of it deals with dianetics and Scientology rather than science fiction, so be prepared for that. I kept wishing as I read that the author would write more about many of the famous writers that he only mentions in passing, but that isn’t this book’s intent or focus. It made me hope that someone someday would write that fascinating comprehensive history of science fiction. It would be quite a read.

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Book Review: Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen

This brilliant book was slow going for me at first until I understood what the author was up to. I expected it to be a memoir, but it takes more of a journalistic approach. The author received a fellowship to conduct research in Istanbul in 2007, fell in love with Turkey, and has been living there ever since. She writes about American intrusions and interference in Turkey, Greece, Iran, and Afghanistan. In fact, however, the foreign country in the title of the book is the United States.

I don’t know if you have to have lived abroad in some of these countries for awhile to get the point of some of Hansen’s dissertations, but it helps. I could fully empathize with her insistence that only by leaving the United States could she really begin to understand it and its relation to other countries. I lived overseas for thirty-five years. I get it.

My first incursions in the countries that Hansen writes about were as a hippy traveler back in the 1970s. I hitchhiked around Greece, and then struck out across the Mideast, passing through Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan on the strength of my thumb before switching over to public transportation in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Afghanistan was not a war zone back then as it is now. In Kandahar there was a street lined with hippy hotels, and in Kabul was an entire neighborhood known as Freak Street full of cheap hotels and restaurants serving pseudo-western food.

Iran was a bit higher class, as the Shah was in power at the time and a lot of foreign money, much of it from the United States, was pouring in. There was a thriving middle class, and I had no trouble at all getting rides from drivers who would also invite me for meals.

Turkey, on the other hand, I mainly passed through as fast as I could. If truth be told, I found Turkey, especially eastern Turkey, intimidating and inhospitable. On one occasion, I was riding shotgun in the cab of a huge German truck when a gang of villagers burst out of the night shadows and pelted the windshield of the truck with rocks. The glass erupted into starry patterns. The furious driver stopped the truck, cursing loudly, grabbed a tire iron, and ran off into the night after them. And he had just been telling me stories about Turkish villagers lynching truck drivers. I could do nothing but follow, albeit much less enthusiastically. You can read about these and other road adventures in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.

Suzy Hansen writes about these countries more than three decades later. There are few similarities with the lands that I traversed. Wars have been fought in some of them. You definitely can’t hitchhike through Iran and Afghanistan anymore.

Even Greece, from when I first visited, has changed profoundly. I lived in Greece for over fifteen years. In a sense, it’s my equivalent of Hansen’s Istanbul. I might have still been there if it hadn’t been for the economic crash that decimated the country. I had to get my sons out of there or they would have had no future.

Hansen writes of military coups in Turkey, of wars in Iran and Afghanistan, of economic destitution. We are aware of some of the surface information about some of these events. However, Hansen goes far beneath the surface. Her unique perspective as an American abroad and her talent for investigative journalism allow her to analyze the involvement and responsibility of the United States and its past and present foreign policies for these tragedies. Her conclusions carry a ring of truth, but it’s a somber bell tolling for irreparable losses and missed opportunities.

As I said, it is Hansen’s unique perspective that gives this book its authenticity. Not many writers would have been able to pull off this treatise on the ineffectiveness and decay of American foreign policy. It’s a valuable study of American empire-building gone wrong, and I highly recommend it to anyone thirsting for a bracing shot of truth in the midst of this poor sad deluded world.

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Book Review: Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

I approach the novels of Thomas Pynchon with trepidation, knowing that I’m only going to comprehend and appreciate a portion of their mysteries and treasures. I think the most accessible for me was Inherent Vice. I was drawn to Vineland, which was first published back in 1990, because I had read that it deals with the continuing experiences in the eighties of those that had been caught up in the hippy counterculture. I would say after reading Vineland that it portrays hippies and ex-hippies about as realistically as Marvel Comics present an accurate portrait of angst-ridden teens in the fifties and sixties. Don’t go to this novel looking for any sort of realism. The word exaggeration doesn’t do the book justice either. The book’s plot is sort of thrown out there in a wild chaotic mess of many different things and kind of comes together at the end, although that it doesn’t ever account for most of its flamboyant digressions. While I was reading it, I found myself wondering how I could describe it, and I came up with several comparisons that fit various sections.

Parts of it, for instance, are ridiculously absurd and remind me of an extended Cheech and Chong skit. If you’re familiar at all with the drug culture of the sixties, you’ll remember that Cheech and Chong were a comedic team that took various facets of the hippy experience and exaggerated them for laughs.

Parts of the book come across as similar to a Quentin Tarantino screenplay. You’ll have a whole lot of dialog and explanation, and all of a sudden you’ll be introduced to a team of woman ninjas, or a secret government organization will invade the ninjas’ hidden mountain hideaway, or there will be a bloody act of seemingly random violence.

Some of the wackier parts of the book bring to mind sketches by Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Saturday Night Live. At time you wonder whether Pynchon takes his material seriously and whether he is concerned with developing his characters as complex human beings rather than personages more at home in Zap Comix.

Sometimes the style of the novel reminded me of Doc Brown in Back to the Future refueling his time machine. He opens the engine and throws in any refuse he can grab, it doesn’t matter what it is. That’s how it seems to me that Pynchon handles a lot of the details in Vineland: throw it all in and see what sticks.

In a way, the style of writing also reminds me of the works of Henry Miller. Especially in Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, Miller takes a description or a topic and makes an art form of adding details, one after the other, phrase after phrase, on and on, long after other writers would have given up and gone on to the next plot point. That’s what Pynchon often does in Vineland: he’ll tell you what’s happening, and then add a detail, and then another, and that thought gives way to another, all in a very stream-of-consciousness sort of way. He does this with individual sentences, in paragraphs leading one into another, and sometimes with entire passages. A description of one character leads to their entire life story, and then the life story of another casually mentioned side character, and on and on it goes.

My point? I guess it’s that I can’t really do this novel justice in description. It’s too strange, too offbeat, too different. You’ll just have to find out for yourself.

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Books Make Great Gifts

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For some traditional reason, 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-two 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 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.”

Fantasy:

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.

Thriller:

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.

Memoirs:

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: India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking by Anand Giridharadas

There are several points I want to make about this book. Let’s start by saying that I probably know India more intimately than most western readers. I spent ten years living on the Indian Subcontinent. As I read this book, I would often reminisce about certain instances that I haven’t thought about in years. I found myself attempting to recall the places I had been: six years in Bangladesh, mostly in Dhaka but also in Chittagong; six months in Bombay, now known as Mumbai; six months in Madras; six months in Kodaikanal, a lovely lakeside town in the mountains of southwestern India; six months in Goa, a former Portuguese Catholic enclave on India’s western coast; six months in Katmandu, Nepal, in the midst of a bitterly cold winter; and other long stays in Calcutta, Shantiniketan, Sri Lanka, and other places. I hitchhiked the Indian highways; sometimes my only friends or acquaintances were Indian and I would go days without speaking with another foreigner.

Recently I read a dynamic book called Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Giridharadas, and when I realized that he had also written a book on the new India, I was eager to read it. This book was not what I expected. I supposed that it would be more comprehensive and objective, a thorough look at the political and social evolution of the entire country, but it’s a memoir about the author’s impressions of India when he came to work there as a correspondent. He had been raised in the United States and was a U.S. citizen, and until he moved there for work, his only exposure to the culture consisted of weeks-long forays with his parents and sister to visit relatives. The book is part memoir, as I said, but it’s also in the form of a sort of extended magazine article. Giridharadas draws his picture of the country through comprehensive portraits of about half a dozen people he encountered mainly in western and northwestern India. Interesting, yes, but it doesn’t really give a well-rounded picture of the overall country.

Giridharadas constantly contrasts India as it was and India as it is now, but honestly, his descriptions of present-day India seem little different from the way that I remember it from my travels. True, now the country allows Coca Cola, MacDonald’s, and other foreign companies to set up shop, whereas when I traveled in India only local brands were allowed. Campa Cola – “the great Indian taste” – was all you could find to slake your thirst. But the society was restrictive then as it is now, and families were tight as they are now. I’m sure that Giridharadas is right in all the subtle and not so subtle changes that he delineates – after all, I haven’t visited India since the eighties. But a lot of what I read brought back memory after memory.

Another thought that occurred to me as I read about Indian family life – the big interfering families and so on – was its similarity to rural Greek life. Many Greeks outside of the big cities live in multigenerational units with the grandparents, the parents, and the children all together under one raucous roof. I remember visiting my Greek wife’s uncle’s home in the mountains southwest of Thessaloniki, where the grandparents lived on the original ground floor of the house, the parents lived in the newly-constructed upstairs, and another floor was being built above that for the eldest daughter and her husband when she got married. If I recall correctly, she wasn’t even engaged yet.

Anyway, this book is interesting in its depiction of a fascinating culture that is very different and at the same time very relatable. Drawbacks of the culture include a lack of personal freedoms and privacy, although Giridharadas assures the reader that the situation is rapidly evolving. Advantages include a wealth of loving support. All in all, India Calling is well worth reading for its depiction of one of the world’s oldest cultures in a state of flux and growth.

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Book Review: The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018 Edited by N.K. Jemisin and John Joseph Adams

This is the third best of the year volume of speculative fiction short stories I’ve read containing stories published in 2017. The first two massive doorstoppers, edited by Neil Clarke and Gardner Dozois, I have already reviewed. This latest anthology is about a third of the size of either of the other two volumes. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it not only includes science fiction, but also fantasy. Adams explains in the introduction that from eighty stories he sent Jemisin, she selected exactly ten science fiction and ten fantasy tales.

The science fiction stories are fairly lightweight compared to the epic galaxy-spanning and star-faring adventures in the Clarke and Dozois volumes. The main strength of this book is in its dark fantasy and horror stories. For instance, “You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych” by Kathleen Kayembe is a frightening tale of witches and zombies that emigrate from Africa to the United States and terrorize a family. “Loneliness is in Your Blood” by Cadwell Turnbull posits frightening vampires that literally shed their human skin before going forth to hunt. “Church of Birds” by Micah Dean Hicks is a dark fairy tale, a retelling or extension of the Brothers Grimm story of “The Six Swans” in which a young man partially healed from a curse that transforms him into a swan must cope with one dysfunctional swan wing still attached to his shoulder. Maria Dahvana Headley has two remarkable dark fantasy stories in this volume: “The Orange Tree” is a bizarre but fascinating story of a lonely poet creating a female golem as a housekeeper and lover in eleventh century Spain; “Black Powder” tells of an antique rifle with djinns trapped within its bullets.

Standouts among the science fiction entries in this book include “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue” by Charlie Jane Anders, which is a dark, violent dystopian tale about a transgender woman who is captured by a government agency and subjected to tortuous and invasive procedures intended to transform her into a man. A light and unusual story, “Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim, tells of a microcosm of windup toys empowered every morning with a certain amount of energizing “turns” by a Maker; it becomes an absorbing and heart-touching parable when the protagonist creates a child, but the toy is defective and cannot move or speak much. As a result, the mother sacrifices the bulk of her own turns, wearing herself out carrying her child around on her back. “The Wretched and the Beautiful” by E. Lily Yu has a sharp political edge to it as a group of odd-looking alien immigrants crash-lands on Earth looking for asylum. However, when lovely and shapely aliens, evidently their oppressors, arrive in elegantly crafted spacecraft and want to take them away, Earth authorities do not object.

As I mentioned before, the strength of this volume is in the uniqueness of its selections, and especially the inclusion of horror and dark fantasy, which is absent from the science-fiction-only anthologies. In one long story I couldn’t find any hint of science fiction or fantasy content, but it was nevertheless a good atmospheric tale, so no harm done. All in all, this is an anthology well worth reading.

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Book Review: Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas

The key to understanding the motivation for this book is found in the acknowledgement section at the end. The author explains that he himself has been part of the charity networks on which he reports, but he began to develop nagging suspicions that something was wrong. He delivered a speech expressing his doubts during a high-profile event full of rich philanthropists and “thought leaders,” although it was all but unheard-of to dwell so much on the negative, and was derided by some and praised by others. The text of the speech went viral, and the book in a sense is an expansion of it. Giridharadas says, “It is a letter, written with love and concern, to people whom I see yielding to a new New Faith, many of whom I know to be decent. It is also a letter to the public, urging them to reclaim world-changing from those who have co-opted it.”

This book identifies those who have co-opted world-changing, who have yielded to a New Faith, as people and corporations who espouse and participate in charitable giving on a massive scale. However, these mega-entities make no attempt to repair the underlying problems that have caused such a disparity between rich and poor, between those with abundance and those who are deprived, between the healthy and long-lived and unhealthy and short-lived. Instead, they seek to ignore, minimize, and even cover up the fact that their own egregious and harmful business practices caused the problems in the first place that they are now magnanimously attempting to solve. If their organizations are not directly responsible for the problems, they capitalize on the problems to primarily make money and only secondarily address the difficulties upon which they are supposed to be focusing.

I have to admit that even before I came across this book, I have wondered about these matters. Here are these immense corporations that due to their practices of charging high prices, paying starvation wages, ignoring environmental concerns, and negatively impacting entire communities have accumulated vast fortunes. Now they turn around and construct multi-million dollar offices for their charitable organizations, hire expensive speakers who are purportedly “thought leaders” to entertain them while they dine, and offer to preempt the government in caring for the multitudes – as long as their corporate iniquities are ignored and they have full say over how their donations are to be spent.

Giridharadas writes of a peculiar culture of giving in which the givers pat themselves on the back, absolve themselves of all wrongdoing, say nothing of root causes such as gender and racial inequality in the workplace, and instead focus only on solutions that favor the corporations involved and the overall marketplace. It leads up to an explanation of the reactions that provoked the surprise results of the 2016 election but the book is not mainly political in intent. The author primarily seeks to buck the trend and criticize this takeover of major charitable institutions by the super-rich in the hope that readers will look for and implement alternate solutions.

All in all, this is a thought-provoking, important book. It illuminates the hypocritical compromise of so-called charities that are motivated more by self-interest than a genuine desire to serve.

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Book Review: Best American Short Stories 2017 Edited by Meg Wolitzer and Heidi Pitlor

I look forward to reading best short stories of the year collections because I don’t have time to seek out and read all these stories otherwise. I always read them hoping that as a short story writer, apart from the entertainment value, I can glean some helpful tips on style and language use. I also tend to wonder how these stories manage to pass the gatekeepers and get published while numerous others, also probably excellent, do not.

The stories in this collection are all at least readable. In the past, stories in some collections were so boring that, despite my reluctance to do so, I had to skip over them. None of these, though. I read them all through and through and had no major problems with any of them. With the collection as a whole, yes. But not any of the individual stories.

The best in the bunch, interestingly enough, are genre stories. One, called “Are We Not Men?” by T.C. Boyle, is a science fiction tale on the effects of extreme genetic enhancements on suburban America. Since the same publishers have another volume devoted to the best science fiction of the year, I kind of wonder why this story didn’t qualify for that anthology. Another, called “Telemachus” by Jim Shepard, is a historical adventure set during World War II. Other interesting stories are set in Cuba and in India, but many of the rest have a sort of blandness to them. In saying this, I don’t mean to demean the authors or even the editors. The stories are fine, well-written tales on interesting topics. When I speak of blandness, I am referring to the social milieus of the characters. Most of them are from the middle or upper class, have plenty of money and good jobs, and face no real life and death crises. Their difficulties are personal and internal or deal with material things or their jobs. Again, nothing wrong with this, and I don’t fault the authors or even the editors. I think the problem runs deeper.

I have written about this before, in fact, in my essay “The Egregious Practice of Charging Reading Fees.” More and more literary magazines are adopting the practice of charging writers fees to submit their stories. In effect, they’re constructing a pay wall to keep out disadvantaged writers. There’s a list of magazines in the back of the book that the editors culled their selections from, and from my own research I figure that well over fifty percent demand money from writers before they’ll read their work. The figure might even be more like eighty or ninety percent by now. They’re probably not doing this intentionally. They’re probably struggling to support their magazines and figure that culling money from writers is a good financing ploy. What they don’t realize is that they’re slamming their doors on writers that can’t afford to pay them. This is most likely to be, of course, those from the lower class, those who struggle to make ends meet, those on welfare, those who live in slum-like conditions, minorities, the desperate, the homeless, and single parents like me. I can’t afford to pay three to five dollars or more for every story I send out. I just can’t. I have a child to support. I barely make the rent and bills each month. And so you cut all these people out, and what are you left with? A certain blandness of content because you’re leaving out most of the population of the world. This is wrong – so wrong. If there are gatekeepers at the doorways of artistic expression, they should not require money payments as the price of admission. It would take me too long to give you a list of writers who began in poverty who never would have been able to pay such fees. As I remember, I give some examples in the essay I mention above.

So that’s the main problem with this collection. Many of the most desperate artistic voices in America are excluded because they can’t afford the entry fees. I hope these magazine editors wake up and start getting their money from readers instead of writers again. That’s one reason why genres like science fiction and fantasy are so vibrant and lively. The magazines and anthologies with open submission calls are free, all-inclusive and do not discriminate against the disadvantaged. If this dreadful practice of charging reading fees is abolished, it’s probable we’ll get much more diversity and life in contemporary short stories.

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