Tag Archives: review

496. Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate

There is something about blogging that I didn’t expect when I started. Since these posts are opinionated, but not totally opinion, I find myself doing research from time to time to keep my facts straight. That means I occasionally learn things I would never otherwise have known.

It’s a major bonus.

I was aware of Bob Dylan’s selection by the Nobel committee, and his reticence regarding the event, but I didn’t know the full outcome. I wanted to make an off-hand comment about it in another post, but didn’t want to make a fool of myself, so I checked out the facts.

The Nobel committee awarded Dylan the prize for literature last October “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Can a song be true literature? I would say yes, although rarely; about as often as a poem is or a novel is. Does Dylan’s work rise to that level of gravitas. Again, my answer is yes; the only other songwriter who comes to mind who worked at that level was Leonard Cohen. Paul Simon just misses the cut.

Dylan took a very long time replying to the committee, fueling speculation that he would refuse the honor, but he finally complied, and eventually provided his Nobel lecture, which is the only requirement attached to the prize.

His lecture was also my prize for checking out the facts. It is superb. I’ve provided a link below.

The lecture, actually more of a biographical essay, is written in the same intelligent but not over-educated voice that we hear in his songs. This is entirely appropriate; it is pure Dylan. He tells of the early impact of Buddy Holly, and then of American folk, then shifts to a personal analysis of three classic books, Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the Odyssey. He presents their complexity, their unflinching view of the rough truths of life, and the manner in which each makes statements which require the readers engagement. Much in these books is not spelled out and nailed down, just as much in his songs is not. These three books are offered for their influence on Dylan’s work.

I found the essay intelligent and moving, and instead of providing a blow by blow, I recommend that you use the link below to read it for yourselves.

I will only quote one short passage, from near the end:

Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard.

I hope you will take the time to read the whole essay. Meanwhile, I think I’ll go dig up some of those old LPs I bought while I was in college during the sixties. He has a rough voice and I don’t like his harmonica playing, but oh, those words!

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493. Lost Classics

I have been cleaning out a house where I used to live. It’s a little like archaeology. This was the house where I wrote some of my early novels, and it is the place I have been keeping the older and less often accessed half of my books. Every place I go in the house, a good memory looks back, and every box of books I open brings a forgotten smile.

I found an old A Common Reader catalog. I wish I had kept all the ones I received in those days, but who knew that A Common Reader would go out of business and make them irreplaceable. I’ll tell you about it in a future post.

One of the odd books I ordered from that odd catalog also turned up, Lost Classics by Michael Ondaatje, Michael Redhill, Esta Spalding, and Linda Spalding. You only need the first name to find it on Amazon, but fair is fair. I quote from the introduction:

A book that we love haunts us forever . . . it is in the act of reading, for many of us, that forged out first link to the world. And so, lost books . . . gnaw at us.

I know the feeling. Although, to be honest, I try not to lose my favorites, which is why it takes two houses to hold my library.

Lost Classics comes from Brick: a literary journal. In 1998, the editors ran a Lost Classics issue, and thereafter they were inundated with additional material from their readers. This was collated into the volume on the desk in front of me. You can still get it from Amazon, even though it came out in 2000.

Seventy-four writers provide short essays on somewhat more than that many lost books. They range from slightly forgotten to seriously obscure, but they all fascinate. Searching the index, I find that when I first read Lost Classics nearly two decades ago, I had already read two, The Highwayman by Phillip Noyes (one of only two which really weren’t lost) and N by E by Rockwell Kent. A couple were on my to-read list, and I made a point of finding and purchasing Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright. On full disclosure, it was too dense to penetrate.

That leaves nearly eighty unaccounted for, and that is the point. These are books you will probably never see, but the joy here is reading what they meant to those who did read them.

These are strange people, but I think they will be familiar to you. I will give you just one example:

I cannot find the book and the two or three people to whom I might have lent it have no memory of it, have never heard of it. But I have a clear memory of a Saturday in the summer of 1990, during the year when I tried to live one month in Dublin followed by one month in Barcelona and managed not to live much at all . . . the book hit me hard. I started reading . . . and I am still recovering, in certain ways, from what I learned.

Which reader was that? Which book? I won’t tell you. You will have to find a copy and seek it out for yourself. If you like old things, or odd things, or obscure things, you owe it to yourself.

485. Uhura With a Dagger

Imagine Lieutenant Uhura in a different outfit, with a dagger at her belt, looking even sexier than usual. Actually, you don’t have to imagine, just check out Mirror, Mirror, which is simultaneously a pretty good piece of original Star Trek and one of the worst Star Treks ever.

How’s that? From the viewpoint of drama Mirror, Mirror is good television. From the viewpoint of logic, it stinks. Even though the alternate universe version of the Federation is completely changed and utterly barbaric, every member of the Enterprise crew is still at the same post, and the Enterprise is still in orbit of the same planet, going about the same business on the same day. Really?

Usually I don’t worry too much about accuracy in Star Trek. It is best viewed as  allegory, or as an attempt to make a decent SF program with minimal cost. I forgive a lot, but this one keeps me groaning more loudly than most.

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As Mirror, Mirror shows us, building an alternative universe is no occupation for the lazy. But it sure can be fun. And if that universe has a steampunk attitude, all the better.

I spent the last half of last year writing a steampunk novel called The Cost of Empire, set in an alternate world in “the Year of Our Lord 18—, and of the Reign of Queen Victoria, year forty-seven”. It could be called an alternate history, but I made sure that most of the alternatives taste like steampunk, even though it doesn’t have werewolves or zombies or Jack the Ripper. Or automatons, although the sequels will. In fact, the whole intent was to provide a steampunk world that doesn’t depend on magic or unsupportable science.

Here’s the setup. After the Austro-Prussian War (real, 1866), a ruthless English businessman named McFarland (imaginary) stole an obscure type of engine (real, but forgotten today) which allowed him to produce useful dirigibles long before the Germans. He also started an organization of spying, disinformation, and assassination (imaginary, we hope) which allowed him to provoke and win a war with newly unified Germany, bringing England to universal power. In the process of suppressing German inventors, McFarland has skewed the course of science, prolonging the age of steam and clockwork.

To make this work, I had to shift a few dates, but not many and not by much. That is the reason, besides mimicking Victorian style, for the vague 18— date in the quotation. The challenge I gave to myself was to make big changes through the introduction of a single character.

So our story begins with England as the world’s most powerful nation (even more and sooner than in our reality) but hated by everyone, and with a fatal hidden flaw at its heart. England’s fleet covers the oceans, with dirigibles as eyes-in-the-sky above.

Our hero is about to fall afoul of the secret organization of assassins, escape, and spend the rest of this and hopefully several other novels fighting to free his nation from their grip.

The next two weeks will be devoted to the opening pages of that novel here in A Writing Life. As has happened a few times before, Serial will be tied up with other things.

481. Asimov’s Good Life

I couldn’t sleep last night so I lay awake thinking of an article to write and I’d think and think and cry at the sad parts. I had a wonderful night.
                         Asimov, from It’s Been a Good Life, p. 157

When I was new to reading science fiction in the early sixties, Clarke, Heinlein, and Asimov were everybody’s big three. Bradbury was in the next rank, but not for me. I found him unreadable. Andre Norton was still out in the cold for most people, but she, Clarke, and Heinlein were my personal big three. Asimov didn’t make the cut. I read a few of his novels, didn’t like them, and moved on.

Recently I ran across his summary autobiography, It’s Been a Good Life, edited by Janet Jeppson Asimov. It reminded me that I knew very little about the man, so I took it home.

Asimov has three full autobiographies, and a list of publications that goes on for eighteen closely packed pages. After his death, Janet Asimov published autobigaphical excerpts under the title It’s Been a Good Life. At 238 sprightly pages, 98 percent by Asimov himself, it was just right for someone who wanted to be fair to an author who is an acknowledged master.

Searching my memory and his bibliography, I found that I had read four of his novels: Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter, The Stars Like Dust, and a couple of his early robot novels, each only a few years after they were published. I thought the first two were just adequate and the robot novels were dull. By the time I got to Foundation, I decided to skip it, along with anything else he might write. My local county library was full of science fiction I enjoyed, so why bother with Asimov.

It occurs to me now that might have been an error.

Asimov says (p. 143) The 1950’s [were] the decade of my greatest science-fiction triumphs, [but as] the 1950’s ended, I [ended] most of my involvement with the field. (see below)

From 1960 onward, Asimov wrote everything on every subject. It seemed to me that he had written every third book in the library. I dived into one or another from time to time doing research for my own writing. They were accurate, easy to read, and cursory, which is exactly what they were supposed to be.

When the novel The Gods Themselves came out in 1972 it was his first SF novel in fourteen years. (Not counting one novelization of a movie.) He had gone from SF novels, to non-fiction, then back to SF novels as a more mature writer. That was a biographical arc I couldn’t appreciate when I was first reading him as a teenager, for the simple reason that it had not happened yet. When it did, I had already lost interest. Not trying his new works, given his reputation, was certainly my mistake

By the eighties he was writing SF novels and winning awards once again. In 1989, he wrote Nemesis. He said this about it, “My protagonist was a teenaged girl and I also had two strong adult women characters. I placed considerably more emotion in the novel than was customary for me.” That sounds more my style, since lack of emotion was my complaint about his early work. I think I’ll check it out.

One last note for writers and would-be writers: This book is a treasure trove. I agree with pretty much everything he says about writing, but go read it from a man with far more credentials than I have.

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The brackets in the quotation are from Janet Asimov. She uses them to give context and continuity to excerpts which would otherwise be unintelligible. It is competently and smoothly done.

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Full disclosure time: After completing this post, I obtained a copy and read the first few pages of Nemesis. Sorry, I still don’t like Asimov’s writing style, but that’s all right. Not everybody likes Shakespeare, either.

471. Sunshine Blogger Award (2)

JM Williams nominated AWL for the Sunshine Blogger Award, which he and I both consider a chance to give a shout out to bloggers we follow. I started on Monday, and ran long, so here is the rest of the story.

There are four rules to the SBA. I took care of two of them on Monday. The remaining are:

Answer the 11 questions sent by the person who nominated you.
Nominate 11 new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.

I only nominated four blogs, and only wrote three questions. Michael, Thomas, Joaquin and James, the questions are at the bottom, should you chose to accept. (There is no penalty if you don’t. This post will not self destruct.)

 JM Williams’ questions to me were:

1. When did you start writing?   In the early seventies I started by writing a few articles for magazines. I started writing fiction in 1975. not counting the answer to question five.

2. Which genre do you prefer to write? To read?  Fantasy for both.

3. Which genre do you actually write most often? It is about equal between fantasy and science fiction, with a few contemporary novels as well, but only SF seems to sell.

4. What is your favorite piece of work and why? By other writers, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. From my own work, a short story The Prince of Exile. Of everything I’ve written, that was the only story in which I had no idea where it came from, nor where it was going while I was writing it. On the inspiration-perspiration continuum, it was way to the left.

5. Where is the most interesting place you came up with a story idea? This is not so much a where as a how.

A couple of years before I started writing fiction, I was with my wife in the stacks of a library. I had finished for the night and she was still working, so I took down something to read. The only tolerable book in the area was Beowulf. I flipped it open to a random page and read, “All that lonely winter . . .”

A vision exploded in my head, of a young boy, at an open wind hole in a castle, looking out over a snowy scene. He was living with relatives who had taken him in after his father was killed. They expected him to grow up and avenge his father’s death, but he had no interest in revenge. He just wanted to be left alone.

I saw him and his situation with instant and absolute clarity.

The next day I wrote the first chapter of the novel the incident called out, then put it away. Four years later, it became my third novel, but it remained unfinished for decades. Now it has grown into a three book series, and if I ever find a publisher, I’ll announce it here.

6. If you could win any writing award, which would it be? The Nebula, of course. A Hugo wouldn’t be bad either. I can’t hope for a Nobel Prize since I can’t sing, play guitar, and blow harmonica at the same time.

7. Do you associate with other writers? Are they at the same level as you? My level  is totally weird. I have been published since 1978, but I went unpublished (and unknown) for a long time after, and now am published again. I work strictly alone. I loved meeting writers at Westercon this year, and I love meeting them on the internet, but there is a huge generational gap.

8. What’s one of your writing goals for 2018? I have two actually. I want to see my recently finished steampunk novel find a publisher, and finish the second steampunk novel I am working on now.

9. Are you a plodder or a plotter? 100% plod. I outline very little. When I was a teacher, I was always in trouble because I refused to write lesson plans. I carried everything in my head, and that scared the principal half to death.

10. Where do you currently live, where are you originally from, and have you ever lived in a foreign country? I live in the foothills of central California, on three acres with wild turkeys and bobcats. I grew up on a farm in Oklahoma. In between, I lived in cities and hated it. When I became a teacher, and finally had a dollar in my pocket and summers off, my wife and I spent six summers living in a tent and subsisting on bread and apples, four in Europe and two in Australia. You can go far on little, if you want to badly enough.

11. If you could travel anywhere in the Universe, where would it be and why?   If?  What do you mean if?  I travel everywhere in the Universe I want to. Why else would I be a writer?

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Now the questions for my nominees. Three instead of eleven, and loosely organized at that.

1. List your favorite authors. Length of list is your choice. A reason for the choices would be nice as well.
2. List your favorite books (That’s not the same question, since it it quite possible to have a favorite book by someone with only one great book.) Again, reasons would be nice.
3. List your favorite genres (or sub-genres, if you that works better for you) and tell what you look for as a sign of quality in that particular genre.

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I had a great time doing this exercise, but my nominees may not feel the same way. If they don’t respond, no problem. The reviewers in particular have a tightly formatted product that might not work well with the Sunshine Blogger Award.

The main idea is to send them some new customers.

470. Sunshine Blogger Award (1)

The logo above is for the Sunshine Blogger Award, for which JM Williams just nominated A Writing Life. It’s not a HUGO, but a way for bloggers to give a shout out to other bloggers. Thanks JM. I appreciate it.

The rules of the contest (if that’s the right word for it) are:

1.) Thank the person who nominated you in a blog post and link back to their blog.
2.) Answer the 11 questions sent by the person who nominated you.
3.) Nominate 11 new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.
4.) List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award logo in your post and/or on your blog.

Okay, I’ve done 4 and I’ll do 2 and part of 3 on Thursday. Here come 1 and the rest of 3, all mangled together.

JM Williams who nominated AWL, is a writer with a long list of stories, mostly published electronically, and one anthology of flash fiction, The Adventures of Iric. I mentioned Iric recently in a post about author’s names, and reviewed it positively on Amazon. JW Williams has a new website, and an old one that you might still fall into if you are using a search engine, along with an author page on Amazon.

Our connection came when he liked one of my posts, some time ago. I don’t formally follow any blogs, since my time is limited, but every time someone likes one of my posts, I drop in to their site and look them over. I get a lot of newbies, and a lot of people who are working out problems in the semi-public sphere of the internet.  I like that. I hope this doesn’t sound smart-ass, but it seems to me that baring your soul to the universe, without telling anyone your home address, is a safe way to both vent and find support. I also get likes from a lot of new and would-be authors, and every time I post a poem, I snare a lot of poets.

I end up reading a lot of poetry and fiction and occasionally something really grabs my attention. JM Williams and Iric did that. I have also found a lot of useful information on the world of e-publishing on his site. I’ve been in this game a long time, but the “e” side of publishing is something I’m just learning about. So thanks for shared interests and information. I’m glad we’ve met. I liked Iric and I’m anxious to read your novel when it comes out.

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I’m only going to nominate four new blogs, one by an author and three by reviewers.

Michael Tierney was another whom I discovered when he liked one of my posts and I backtracked him. His blog, Airship Flamel, is largely devoted to steampunk and victoriana, and to publicizing his writing. That makes him a man after my own heart. I enjoy his blog, but this is primarily a shout out for his novel. I bought, read, and reviewed To Rule the Skies. I recommend it as a very British romp.

The remaining nominees are reviewers of novels that they consider really old — but which I read when they first came out.

Thomas Anderson is the voice of Schlock Value, which is the only blog I read without fail every week. His subtitle, Reading cheap literature so you don’t have to, is probably all you need to know in order to understand his perspective.

I found him in an odd way. About the time I was starting my blog, I googled myself. Strictly business, you understand, and I found a review of Jandrax, my first novel. It had been out of print for forty years, and here was a review dated 2014. Did I read it? Does Donald comb his hair funny?

Thomas didn’t love Jandrax, but his review was fair. More important, compared to the reviews it got when it came out, he had obviously read it closely.  I went to the contact me section and sent him a letter, saying something like, “Since you review books that came out forty years ago, you probably never expected one of the authors to respond, but here I am.” We’ve been going back and forth ever since.

Thomas likes to review schlocky books, and he has a talent for finding them, skewering them, and still finding something worthwhile in most of them. It’s an odd approach, but I really like it.

I discovered Joachim Boaz (actual name unknown to me) and his site Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations via Schlock Value. He reviews book of the same era, but takes them all on, the good, the bad, and the weird, and with a more serious demeanor. If you check out one of his many indexes you will be amazed at the breadth of his coverage. If you are curious about an old SF book, this should be your go-to site.

James Nicholl  of James Nicholl Reviews also came to my attention when he reviewed one of my old novels. His site covers publications over a wider time scale, and anybody who has review categories like 50 Nortons in 50 Weeks and The Great Heinlein Juveniles (Plus The Other Two) has something worthwhile going on. I have read a dozen or so reviews so far, which means I have just scratched the surface. This is going to be fun.

Okay, I’m up to a thousand words and I haven’t started answering questions yet. It looks like this post is going to roll over into Thursday.

464. Miscegenation at Work

This post is a rewrite and mashup of 90. N Word, M Word and 89. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

A cousin of mine told me recently that interracial marriage is still a big no-no in Oklahoma. Bear in mind she is my age, so she may not speak for the present generation. Here in California where I live now you see black-white couples everywhere, and that pleases me, but then I never did fit in back home.

Abhorrence of mixed-race marriage has two parts. It is a fear that a (perceived) bad thing has been made legal, and it is a refusal to admit that the (perceived) bad thing has been going on for a very long time.

Did you ever hear of a nigger in the woodpile? (Yes, there’s that damned word again. In looking at race honestly, there are some things that can’t be avoided) The phrase has been a Southern staple forever. You can Google it, but it won’t tell you much. You will find it was used in an anti-Lincoln cartoon during his election bid, and you will find various definitions to the effect that it refers to something not being what it seems.

Fine, but why this particular phrase? Why is that legendary black man hiding in that woodpile near the back door of the big house? What are his intentions?

The answer lies in when the phrase is used. It is rarely used to cover general sneakiness, but it is always used when a child doesn’t look like his father. Hmmm. So that’s why that black guy was sneaking around the back door.

The great fear is that black men will do to white women what white men have been doing to black women for four hundred years.

That black feller in the woodpile helps whites laugh at the hidden realization that white purity is not just endangered; it hasn’t existed for a really long time.

You can see it in the classic movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but you have to look sharp. If you don’t remember the story, in 1967, a very handsome, very black man (Sidney Poitier) wants to marry a very pretty, very blonde white girl (Katherine Houghton). They spring this on her liberal parents and complications ensue.

I like the movie despite its obvious problems. I even forgive that it ends with a fifteen minute monolog by the grumpy, old white guy (Spencer Tracy), as he puts everybody else in their places.

The movie is dated and excessively sweet. It is unrealistic that the black guy in question is such a moral superman and so terminally handsome. Never mind; the movie’s heart was in the right place and it probably did some good. And it was 1967, after all.

However, if you look closely there’s something else to be learned from this movie beyond what the producer intended. The next time you see it, take a look at Dorothy (no last name, played by Barbara Randolph), a minor character, assistant housekeeper and a drop-dead gorgeous black girl.

Or is she black? Stand her up in your imagination half way between Poitier and Houghton. She is half as black as he is, and half as white as she is. How could this happen in America! And why do we accept her as black? Why not white? She’s exactly half-and-half, compared Houghton and Poitier.

The whole movie is based on the shock that everyone feels when Poitier and Houghton decide to marry, but no one even takes notice of the obvious product of four hundred years of interracial sex, married or otherwise, strutting her stuff in the background.

Imagine that, people not noticing what is right under their noses.