Must We Remain A Nation of Small Ideas?

Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

Ursula Le Guin died on January 23, at the age of 88. I first encountered her writing in the seventies. After multiple readings of The Lord of the Rings, I was hungry for more heroic-quest fantasy novels. There were plenty of them, but the only one I remember is Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (1968-1972).

At a time when science fiction and fantasy were viewed as escapist genres, decades before YA become a lucrative fad, and before we knew about Jedi, Ursula Le Guin gave us the coming of age tale of Ged, who becomes a powerful wizard only after learning that his most powerful enemy is himself.

Many of this week’s online tributes and memorials have included excerpts from her acceptance speech at the 2014 National Book Awards Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It is worth emphasizing this passage from her six minute address:

URSULA LE GUIN: I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. …

Le Guin’s call for creative artists, and by extension, all of us, to imagine more life affirming ways to live on this planet underlines the poverty of our current public discourse, which confines our national imagination to ever more narrow ruts. We suffer not from fake news but from trivial news.

The last three administrations have spent $5.6 trillion on warfare since 9/11. We’ve killed more than 200,000 civilians (as of 2015) and lost more than 5,000 of our own troops (as of 2016), but none of us feel any safer. Where is our national debate on what we hope to accomplish and the nature of our exit strategy? It is non-existent. Instead, we argue on Twitter about whether football players taking a knee is disrespectful to troops…

The day Ursula Le Guin died, Amazon opened the prototype of an automated grocery store that doesn’t require cashiers. Two days later I saw the picture of Norway’s prototype, zero emissions, automated container ship, that will be entirely crewless by 2020. Panera and McDonalds are trying out order kiosks that could eliminate cashiers and – the list goes on and on. Where is the national debate on strategies for the near term, when automation eliminates millions of jobs before new technologies open up ways to replace them? That, conversation too, is non-existent. It’s more politically expedient to blame foreign nations and foreign nationals for “stealing” our jobs…

We can think of many more essential debates that are not taking place because of the cowardice of our leaders. Le Guin, of course, would shake her head at the notion that today’s politicians or CEO’s are remotely capable of being “the realists of a larger reality.”

Her legacy is a lifetime of visioning other worlds and other ways of living in this one. It’s up to people who care to move that vision forward. Sadly, it seems increasingly certain that the world we would wish to live in is one more thing that will not be “Made in America…”

California Writer’s Week, Oct. 15-21 – Local Seminars

California Writer’s Week begins tomorrow. Created by Legislative Resolution Number 2170, it’s purpose is “teaching, encouraging and showcasing writing during…the third week in October.”

To honor this opportunity, the California Writer’s Club, Sacramento Branch, will host six writing seminars, led by members of the club, at different locations. All are encouraged to attend!

The Day of the Locust at Walmart

Nathanael West (1903-1940), author of “The Day of the Locust.”

USA Today reported that Friday, in a Detroit area Walmart, a woman with a concealed carry permit pulled a gun after two other women started pulling her 20 year old daughter’s hair in scuffle over the last available notebook in a back-to-school-sale.

The gun brought this to national attention, but after I got the snide comment about “well ordered militias” out of my system, I sat with the underlying question, far more mundane and depressing at the same time: why does violence over a notebook come as no surprise in our nation today?

I thought of Nathanael West , a little known author during his lifetime, who worked as a screenwriter on hack movies in Hollywood, and wrote four novels, filled with biting social satire. His friend, the poet, W.H. Auden coined the phrase, “West’s Disease,” for the angst that comes from realizing the spiritual and economic poverty of much of what passes for “the American Dream.” Continue reading

Her Poison Pen

Dame Agatha Christie, 1890-1976

Dame Agatha Christie, 1890-1976

The Guinness Book of World Records lists Agatha Christie as the best selling novelist of all time. Over the years, I’ve done my part in helping to make her so.

Christie’s preferred fictional murder weapon was poison. Of the more than 300 people who died in her stories, at least 100 ate or drank something they did not live to regret. In a fun segment on last week’s Science Friday, Ira Plato interviewed Kathryn Harkup, chemist and author of A is for Arsenic: the Poisons of Agatha Christie.

From 1914 to 1918, Agatha Christie volunteered as a nurse at a local hospital, and worked in the dispensary when it opened. Back then, all pharmaceuticals were mixed on site, and none of our modern restrictions on drugs were in place, so of necessity, Christie acquired a detailed knowledge of theoretical and applied chemistry in order to pass her apothecary’s assistant exam in 1917. She learned what to do, and more importantly for her future literary career, what not to do with medicines. She was tutored by a local pharmacist who carried a lump of curare in his pocket, “because it made him feel powerful.”

Christie started writing in her twenties and did not meet with instant success. Kathryn Harkup gives an example of the plot complexity of her first published novel, A Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1920.

Spoiler Alert

The elderly victim is killed by with a lethal dose of strychnine, which at that time, was given, in measured doses, to the elderly as a tonic.  The killer, however, added bromide, a popular sleeping powder, to the solution, which caused the strychnine to precipitate out as crystals at the bottom of the bottle. The final teaspoon would be lethal, and the killer could arrange an airtight alibi.

Harkup’s research revealed that Agatha Christie had studied the effect of combining these two drugs as a lesson in what not to do, in the course of her apothecary training.

If you have ever watched a Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple movie, or purchased one of the two billion copies of Agatha Christie books that have been sold, you’ll want to check out the Science Friday interview!

Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta: a book review

those who wish me dead

If you could find that and hold it there within yourself, a candle of self-confidence against the darkness, you could accomplish great things. He knew this. He’d been through it.

Fourteen year old Jace Wilson witnesses a murder-for-hire near his home in Indiana. Witness protection will not help, for the system has been compromised. U.S. Marshals appear to be involved. At the suggestion of an executive bodyguard, Jace’s parents send him to the Wyoming-Montana border, to the wilderness survival school for troubled youth that Ethan Serbin, a retired military survival expert teaches. Once he is in the wilderness, away from computers and cell phones, Jace will be safe, right?

Of course not. Even as Jace, who has been fearful all his life, begins to learn about trusting himself, about building confidence as he learns to build a fire with flint and steel, the killers, Jack and Patrick Blackwell, relentless sociopathic brothers, are  close behind. To hide the murder of a local sherif, the Blackwells set a hillside on fire that burns out of control and into the mountains where Ethan and his young charges are camped.

Realizing they’ve found him, Jace slips away by himself. Killers and searchers, Ethan and his injured wife, Jace and Hannah, a guilt-ridden fire lookout whose lover died in a wildfire saving her, struggle to survive mountain thunder storms, each other, and a fire that grows to monster size as it races into the high country.

I’ve reviewed three of Koryta’s books, including So Cold the River (2010), perhaps my all time favorite thriller. This one is just as good; I devoured it in less than two days. In Those Who Wish Me Dead, the author serves up a near perfect blend of sympathetic protagonists, villains who are fascinating in their complexity, and tension that is finely tuned, neither too loose nor too tight. There really aren’t that many books that I literally cannot put down, but Those Who Wish Me Dead was one.

Michael Koryta

Michael Koryta

10 of the Greatest Essays on Writing Ever Written

I was delighted to find this post on WordPress’s “Freshly Pressed” page where it deserves to be. Here’s a collection of essays on writing, more than half by writers whose names are household words (in literary households) – Robert Frost, Henry Miller, Susan Sontag, T.S. Eliot, Kurt Vonnegut, and Joan Didion among them. They all look compelling. I’m looking forward to starting a piece on structure in fairy tales by the editor of “The Fairy Tale Review.” Enjoy!

Flavorwire

If there’s one topic that writers can be counted on to tackle at least once in their working lives, it’s writing itself. A good thing too, especially for all those aspiring writers out there looking for a little bit of guidance. For some winter inspiration and honing of your craft, here you’ll find ten great essays on writing, from the classic to the contemporary, from the specific to the all-encompassing. Note: there are many, many, many great essays on writing. Bias has been extended here to personal favorites and those available to read online. Also of note but not included: full books on the subject like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes a Story, or, in a somewhat different sense, David Shields’ Reality Hunger, for those looking for a longer commitment. Read on, and add your own…

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Neil Gaiman on libraries, reading, and daydreaming

Neil Gaiman, 2007, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Neil Gaiman, 2007, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Neil Gaiman visited China in 2007 for the first ever, party-approved, Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention.  He asked a top official what had changed; in the past, these genres had been disparaged.  The official said his government had realized they were good at making other people’s inventions, but they didn’t invent or imagine new things themselves.

“So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google,” Gaiman explained, “and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.”

Gaiman told this story while giving the 2013 Reading Agency annual lecture on the future of reading and libraries.  The Reading Agency is a British charity that supports libraries and literacy programs, with the mission of giving everyone “an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers.”  Another story Gaiman told underscores the importance of the Agency’s efforts.  In New York, he once attended a talk on private prisons – one of America’s growth industries.  In trying to predict the need for future facilities, prison industry officials have developed a simple algorithm based on one key factor – the percentage of 10 and 11 year olds who can’t read.

Gaiman spoke at length of fostering not just the ability to read, but the love of reading.  There are no bad authors or bad books for children, he said.  Adults can destroy a child’s love for reading by giving them “worthy-but-dull books…the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.”  Everyone is different and will find their way to the stories they like and need.

Because written fiction, as opposed to television or movies, requires our imagination to turn the authors words into a vivid world, we return to our own world as a slightly different person, with an awareness of other points of view.  Reading fosters empathy, Gaiman said, and:

“Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals…You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: the world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

In his inspiring lecture, Gaiman talked at length of his love for libraries and how critical it was for his own development to have supportive librarians at the small library near his home while growing up – librarians who simply wanted books to be read and showed him how to use inter-library loan when he finished all the local books on vampires, ghosts, and witches.  When government officials close libraries as cost saving measures, “they are stealing from the future to pay for today.”

Gaiman expressed what he believes to be our responsibilities to children and to our future.  Reminding the audience that everything made by humans begins with imagination, we have a responsibility to use and foster our imagination of a better world than the one we found.

Gaiman ended with a quote from Albert Einstein.  When asked how to foster intelligence in children, the great scientist said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

Thanks to the ever-beguiling Vickie, who blogs at Beguiling Hollywood, for the best online laugh in quite a while! She turned her readers on to Dr. Sparky, who offers 21st century literary summaries and analysis at Thug Notes. Watch his take on Jane Eyre and see why it leaves Cliff Notes in the dust!

BEGUILING HOLLYWOOD

still-of-mia-wasikowska-in-jane-eyreMy favorite screen adaptation was directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga in 2011, starring Mia Waikowska and Michael Fassbender, screenplay by Moira Buffini.

Now, Thug Notes is a new fascination – I especially liked their recap and analysis of Moby Dick, but we covered that a couple of weeks ago.

Thug Notes – Classical Literature. Original Gangster..

Napkin Note Productions | Thug Notes.

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