The Los Angeles Times has a longish story/interview with Cheech Marin today,

Cheech — who will, ever and always, in spite of his many accomplishments, be known to Baby Boomers as stoner Cheech of Cheech and Chong — has written a memoir. So the article is about that, about his life, his eclectic passions, and more. Here’s a link to his book on Amazon, Cheech is Not my Real Name … But Don’t Call Me Chong.

And below is my favorite photo from the many printed in the Times.  Because I’m a Baby Boomer, and all Baby Boomers have a pony picture!

Back in the bad on’ days that we all miss, guys with camera and a Shetland pony roamed residential neighborhoods, stopping at houses and offering to take pictures of the kiddies on a pony for cheap. They had Western gear to dress up the kids: cowboy hats, kerchiefs, fringed vests, chaps. Everyone got a black and white photo, and everyone loved it … except, probably, the pony. But we never thought of that back then.

Here’s Cheech. I’m going to go look for my pony photo so I can scan it and post it here.

Here is a post from my History Los Angeles blog,  Links to stories about artist Janet Bennett, who says she designed the mosaic walls at Los Angeles International Airport in 1960, and I believe her; about the past and future of a Hollywood restaurant; about one of Hollywood’s first female executive producers; and some Really Cool Vintage Photos, like this from the 1880s (it’s Santa Monica, and that is a roller coaster).

Santa_Monica_roller_coaster, 2/13/14, 9:46 AM, 8C, 6778×7364 (147+1610), 100%, bent 6 stops, 1/25 s, R95.5, G76.3, B90.8

Patient Zero is such a dynamic, catchy term. Patient Zero is the cause, the source of our ills, the one who started the epidemic, right?

51s3m9rdkmlHe’s the French Canadian flight attendant who spread the AIDS virus so efficiently in the 1980s. I remember reading about him in And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts. Great book.

According to Wikipedia, Patient Zero is “the index case or initial patient in the population of an epidemiological investigation.” So any dramatic epidemic or pandemic must have a Patient Zero. It makes for great plots in fiction: the guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, the selfish bozo who slips out of the quarantine to infect the nearby town, the astronaut returning from space with an undetected biohazard …

Real life is much messier.

As it turns out, the flight attendant was not the sole cause of AIDS. According to a New York Times article that outlines recent medical detective work, AIDS had been present in New York for a few years before the flight attendant jumped into the playground.

Here’s the article: “H.I.V. Arrived in the U.S. Long Before Patient Zero.”

How odd that the NYT capitalizes most words, even “Before,” and other newspapers do not. But I digress.

The term Patient Zero, which seems so cutting edge and thrillerish, is actually a mistake in this case. The flight attendant was designated Patient O (the letter), shorthand for “outside of California,” because the study in which the man was interviewed began in California, and all the other patients were designated by area (city, county).

aids03And since this is the case and this is the book that introduced the term Patient Zero into the lexicon, it’s ironic that the resulting cultural theme or trope, whatever you want to call it, is based on a misreading.

If you’ve read Shilts’ book, you’ll recognize some of the facts, or supposed facts, in this article, as well as some names. Doctors in the 1980s were just learning about AIDS and didn’t know that the disease was actually widespread in Africa or had been present in NYC for a while. They assumed, since gay men were dying in large numbers so very quickly, that all victims died within a year of infection. Not true at all.

330px-randy_shilts_1987Randy Shilts pulled together a gripping story when he wrote And The Band Played On, driven by what was happening to his friends and community, and eventually to himself. So little was known that it’s no surprise and not to his detriment that he put some of the pieces together wrong. At least he managed to put them together into a coherent narrative, which was needed.

Remember that back then, there were activists who thought all AIDS patients (before and after the term AIDS came into use) should be herded off into concentration camps, children included. People who believed the lives of their own kids would be endangered by contact with kids with AIDS became heartless — or, as they saw it, protective. No one knew how to track it, stop it, or treat it.

Do you recall that the Surgeon General sent a mass mailing to every home in America to try and quell the panic? Every home address in the US. I don’t think anyone has tried that before or since. And I knew a few families who threw it out, convinced that the government was lying to them for some reason, and that nothing that pamphlet said could be believed. There was a right-wing religious component to it all, and more than one preacher made headlines by stating that AIDS was divine punishment for homosexuality, or for tolerating homosexuality (they had to amend the crime as it became clear that heterosexuals were also contracting the disease.)

Glad we’re over that. We are, aren’t we?

 

What makes Game of Thrones, and all really compelling stories, so great?

Everyone in that book and show, every single solitary person, named or unnamed, ongoing players or incidental  walk-ons, is passionately advancing their own self-interest.  They know what they want and they bite and scream, kill, plot, manipulate, and die for it.

96748a784dfb2c9e87dd7d1f39b4f09fOne character through the first few books, and only one, was known for her passivity. She was a young girl in a dream world, thinking the sadistic Joffrey was her true-love prince, then that a handsome knight would rescue her, etc. That was Sansa, and until recently (when her attitude changed) she was the most unpopular person in the books. She did nothing really wrong but she didn’t fight for what she wanted. Not fighting seemed to be what she wanted–the Cinderella complex in Westeros.

Readers despised her. Proves my point, huh?

Good detective stories start with someone who wants something very badly. Badly enough to kill for it? would be the cliché comeback. The inheritance. The beautiful woman. To not be exposed. Unless they’re willing to kill for it, there’s not much of a story. And the detective wants something too, which drives their pursuit of the evildoer.

Think about the classic detective stories. There’s the nobleman who wants the compromising picture of himself with an adventuress. The drug kingpin who wants more money and influence, the flunkies who will maim to rise up in the organization, and the detectives with heartbreaking backstories which slowly emerge. A good plot brings out all these passions.

Thrillers: Secret societies with devotees who give their lives, over centuries, to protect their treasure. Bad guys want riches and both sides throw an endless stream of operatives into the fray, all willing to kill or be killed. Ivy League professors with physical stamina want to save the world, kiss the girl, and get back to the classroom.

rexfeatures-1998559dWar stories revolve around that kill or be killed mentality. Romances revolve around passion and sexual tension. Westerns throw misogynists and misfits into a setting with no rules and lots of guns. Fantasy? The topic is broad, but does anyone doubt what Katniss wants? As well as any character in the Hunger Games? That’s another series in which even the incidental folks are clearly driven by specific needs.

Every story worth reading makes you root for the hero,  and you can’t really do that if he or she has no deep desires, no wish to fulfill, no purpose.  That is the problem of one book I’m reading now: it started out with a bang, a woman leaves her husband for a disastrous affair. But once that ends, about a fifth of the way into the book, readers become mired in everyday angst and unimportant encounters. I don’t care about the hero or her dates and emails anymore.  I don’t see where this story is going.

In contrast, Gone Girl started with a missing wife and a narrator who flat out told us he was lying to the police. Who could put the book down? We had to find out what he had to find out: who took her? Or did he know? He wanted passionately to clear himself. Gone Girl presents a small cast but each person was willing to destroy the others to get what they wanted.

Ramp up the stakes and desires, and you’ve got Game of Thrones.

If you’ve read any advice on writing fiction, you’ve probably come across the excellent idea that every book or scene start with our hero wanting something, even something mundane. A glass of water that gets them up in the middle of the night. To forget their awful mess of a life, so they spin fantasies about the people they pass while riding a train to nowhere.  A new job for a little extra money that leads them into adventure.

Yes! I can put two and two together!

moby_dick_by_alexiussHerman Melville in Moby Dick used a brilliant twist to hone and sharpen everyone’s desires: he put them all on a ship in the Atlantic, where all anyone could truly desire was a successful voyage. That meant they all wanted to slaughter whales and make bucks. Then, led by their obsessed captain, they all wanted the white whale.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the slaves dream of freedom, while the varied cast of white characters enjoy the lives that they’ve chosen – either with slaves facilitating their lifestyles, or by venting their cruelty on said slaves, making commerce of slaves, etc.

The title character in The Great Gatsby was driven to spend years building himself into someone Daisy would love, but his world was populated by shallow, lesser souls who wanted desperately to stay drunk and convince themselves they were having fun. Tom wanted to hold onto what was his. Daisy wanted it all, but like Sansa, she wanted the men to make up her mind for her. Their passions drove them all, and Nick, bless him, wanted none of it in the end.

250px-masha_heddle_hboI want to find the man who killed my father and duel with him. I want true love and will break hearts and marriages to get it.

The best books manage to imbue desires and motivations into every character. I don’t need to know each innkeeper’s backstory, though occasionally it’s given. And later, when one’s dead body is hung up by vengeful brigands, her story becomes complete, even though, in the vast scheme of George R.R. Martin’s world, she didn’t matter at all, wasn’t even a plot point. I’m not sure she even had a name, but I remember her.

In a previous post I wrote about Roots, the book by Alex Haley. I said that his book and the miniseries based on it changed how America thought about slavery:

mammy-and-scarlettBefore Roots, we had Gone With the Wind. You’ve seen the movie, right? Slavery was practiced by genteel, handsome people who had lots of money and beautiful clothes, and all their slaves loved them.

In school int he 1960s and 1970s, we were barely taught about slavery. The Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery (though no one could name any other states’ right, besides the right to own slaves, that ruffled anyone’s feathers). Slavery was regrettable, but hey, slaves were well cared for, mostly. And it was a long time ago. And very far away. That was the narrative.

After Roots was broadcast in 1977, everything changed. Textbooks displayed pictures of men with horribly scarred backs, and drawings of how captives were chained to planks on slave ships. Those awful pictures had existed before, but no one wanted to see or talk about them.
150929_hist_slaverymyths-jpg-crop-promo-xlarge2I’ve learned that around 200 autobiographical books were written by former slaves, maybe more. Half were written before the Civil War, and half after.

(That’s not including the Writers Projects of the 1930s, when the federal government paid unemployed writers to go around and . . . write. In some areas, those writers sought out former slaves and recorded their stories. Those recordings still exist! )

There are first-hand accounts of slavery in America that went forgotten or ignored for decades. Just like the pictures of men with scars from whippings. Before the Civil War, the books got lots of attention — many were bestsellers. But for most of the 20th century they were forgotten. I think we just wanted to forget slavery.

I am serious. It’s ugly. It’s shameful. It is a huge blemish on our history: the systematic imprisonment and enslavement of an entire race for economic gain. We want to be proud of country. We don’t want to believe that our Founding Fathers could be so cruel, or that their moral character  which we praise so highly – could be tainted by self-serving hypocrisy. Criminy, we’re talking George Washington here!

(Washington was a slave owner. True, he ordered his slaves freed in his will (didn’t happen, by the way). Is that supposed to make it better? He wouldn’t free them while he lived, and left it to be done when he died? That’s good? No, that’s appalling.)

A wonderful history teacher told her class once that there were two really important things to remember when trying to understand the past.

First, people in any era were a lot like us. They fell in love, they took care of their children, they cried, they laughed ….

Second, people were not like us, not at all. They lived in a different world. We cannot ever truly understand how they thought.

If you want to try and get your mind around slavery, about how people thought about it, centuries ago, here are some contemporary books that can help:

  • 11Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This book roused anti-slavery forces way back when and may have brought on the Civil War. It was a huge bestseller in the 1850s and you probably heard about it in history class – but have you read it?
    It’s actually an extraordinary book, and very readable. Stowe looks at slavery through many lenses. There are scummy sadists and rapists as well as noble-but-weak Southern aristocrats. You’ve no doubt heard of Topsy the slave, a character in the book: to me she is a complex child of passive-aggressive tendencies, and I’m sure there were many little girls just like her, trapped by slavery. Doing one thing, saying another; trying to make sense of life. Stowe pairs Topsy with a Northern woman who must overcome her own hypocrisy: she opposes slavery, but has never had to deal with black people, let alone a black child. In so many ways, this book is a true revelation. Here’s what people thought 150 years ago, here’s what they wanted to believe, here’s how they lied to themselves.
  • 9780393969665_p0_v3_s192x300Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself. Google the guy. Douglass was born a slave, separated and sold away from his mother as a child. He taught himself to read, was whipped and beaten for his attempts to escape, but finally got away through the Underground Railroad and became a charismatic, passionate spokesperson for the Anti-Slavery movement up north. He is fierce and compelling; no wonder even Abraham Lincoln rethought his policies after meeting the man.
  • Celia, A Slave, by Melton A. McLaurin. I’ll be honest with you: this book’s a bit dry and academic. But the bare bones of the true story it tells are horrifying. In 1855, a 19-year-old slave named Celia killed the owner who had been raping her for five years, and she tried to cover up the deed by burning his body. She was put on trial and quickly condemned to death. McLaurin looks at the sparse records of the trial and every scrap of information known about Celia to tell her gruesome story.
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Linda Brent (Harriet Ann Jacobs). This one’s a bit harder to find. It was published in 1861, and between it and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I think we can dispense with the idea that nice people in the 19th century didn’t know that slave women were routinely raped by white men.
  • 12 Years a Slave, by Solomon Northrup. The Oscar-winning movie was based on a real book – a book that vied with Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the bestseller lists of the 1850s. It’s a true story about a free black man who was enslaved after being tricked into traveling a bit too far south in the 1830s. Once the War Between the States ended, the book was forgotten for over a century .Fame is as fleeting as freedom.
  • 9780252070204Elizabeth Keckley bought freedom for herself and her son and moved to Washington DC, becoming dressmaker and confidant to Mary Lincoln, the president’s wife, during the Civil War. She was illiterate but sophisticated, so her biography was written with help. In Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, incidents from her past are just as grim as can be, but she finds the humor in them: like the time she was tasked with rocking a white baby when she was just a small child. Elizabeth rocked too hard; the baby fell out of the cradle, and in a panic – knowing she did not dare touch the infant – she got a shovel and tried to scoop the baby up. Sure, she got beaten, but it was still a funny story, right?

OK, I lied. There’s really not too much that’s funny about slavery. But a century or two is way too close for us to ignore it, especially when the after-effects – the racism, anger, and fear – crop on the news so often to remind us that the line describing America as “the land of the free” was once a lie, and the concept remains something to strive for, rather than an accomplishment.

 

 

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I finally read Roots ! I’ve been meaning to for … oh, 37, 38 years. I do get to things, eventually.

Loved the book. Since the TV show – the 1970s, original TV show – paid short shrift to Kunta Kinte’s life in Africa, I was surprised by and entirely sucked into the long chronology of how Kinte grew up, year by year or rain by rain. As he matured into such a fine young man, I kept hoping, ridiculously, that the story would change; that he would not be chained and captured. It was so unfair! Like watching La Boheme and praying that this time, the lovers don’t part. Not in spring, not ever.

Also really interesting to me, since I had my hands on the Official 30th Anniversary Edition of the Pulitzer Prize-winner, was the extra material. A talk by Haley to other Readers Digest authors about how he wrote. I loved it.

haleyHaley had joined the Coast Guard as a young man and spent 20 years on ships. After switching to the life of a freelancer, he still loved to be on ships, and he used to book himself onto the kind of freighters that take only a dozen passengers, along with freight (shipping containers, I suppose), on long journeys. Passengers that would be no trouble, and who kept to themselves. Haley wrote all of Kinte’s life while on one of those ships, with his notes spread out around his bunk. He wrote at night and no one disturbed him. No one cared what the crazy American was doing.

The reason I have intended to read Roots for so long? It changed the way everyone thought: not just about race, but about ancestors and taking pride in the past. The airing of the TV miniseries Roots pretty much created the whole genealogical industry, if it can be called that. Before Roots, most families neither thought of nor cared about “their roots.” Suddenly, and I remember this clearly, everyone wanted to trace their family tree. Magazines and clubs and eventually whole companies (not to mention the Mormon Church) coalesced to service them.

In some instances, Roots forced people to take a hard and honest look at their past. Teachers in all sorts of schools began addressing the truth about slavery and a lot of myths were debunked publicly. Before Roots, we had Gone With the Wind. That was the narrative. After Roots, textbooks carried pictures of men with horribly scarred backs, and drawings of how captives were chained to planks on slave ships. Those pictures had existed but no one wanted to display or talk about them before.

I guess it was the cruelty of slavery that was brought into the light because of Roots. Anyone over 60 remembers being taught in school that the Civil War was fought over “states’ rights,” not slavery, and that owners usually treated their slaves well, if only because those slaves were an economic investment. They ate decently and doctors were called in when they were sick. How nice. That’s all we learned.

No one was taught about the sugar plantations were men and women were simply worked to death in a few short years, or the horrors of the Atlantic crossing that killed so many before they got to North America. No one talked about the very obvious fact that by the time photography came along, most American slaves looked a lot lighter than Africans. No one talked about those horrible scarred backs.

And how about African culture? Haley spent a good chunk of Roots bringing Kunta Kinte to manhood in Juffure, a Moslem town with strict social rules about how people behaved. As you read, you think well of him and his family, even while bristling at the sexism engrained in the society. These were people who strove to instill values, learning, and pride in their children.( And honestly, in 1750, were there any societies anywhere that weren’t sexist?)

Before that book, any idea of civilization in Africa was dominated by National Geographic pictures, the kind that featured naked tribal folks dancing and displaying ropes of beads. Old cartoons (meaning, cartoons produced through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s) taught everyone that Africans were silly savages or headhunters, and no one bothered to change that impression.

By the way, those old cartoons portrayed not just Africans, but American blacks as minstrel show characters and other stereotypes. The most racially offensive cartoons disappeared in 1968 (here’s an article about that), but again, those of us over 60 can remember some pretty vile and derogatory images.

The m9780385037877-usiniseries based on Alex Haley’s Roots got the whole country talking about race. White people suddenly saw black people as having a cultural past and present, and black people saw the reality of slavery in a way that personalized their own history. The evils of slavery and racism were unavoidable; and the public discussion pushed everyone into the arena. You could keep your mouth shut, but you could not avoid hearing about it.

This was huge! Roots dominated conversations at work, school, and home – for months. And when the discussions tapered off, we had changed. We thought about things differently.

How many books have that sort of influence?

I am aware that the historical truth of the novel  has been questioned, most ungraciously. And that there were accusations of plagiarism over part of it, and a large settlement paid. But to me, that does not take away from its impact or Haley’s accomplishment. Roots caught fire in this country. It changed American thought. Dang, what writer could wish for more?

My copy of Travels with Charley in Search of America is declared to be, by some effusive back-cover writer, “a moving elegy for more innocent times.”

No, it’s not.

It’s not, because the book is not an elegy. An elegy is a lament for the dead. This book is quite the opposite.

It’s also not a moving elegy for more innocent times because the year 1960, when John Steinbeck took off in search of American, was not more innocent. No way no how.

America in 1960 was about to see the rise of Martin Luther King and other leaders, demanding to be included in America. The fact that much of the country was treated differently than white males testifies that innocent — which I believe means “not guilty of a crime or offense” — is not an accurate adjective to be applied here.

I am impatient to the point of offensiveness with lavender-scented pablum being smeared over the past so that we can all pretend it was better than now. Not true! And if you are ever tempted to buy into such a distorted picture, please step back. Take a good look at all the horrors you are excluding from your nostalgic remembrances of olden times. You may have been an innocent child, but the times were not innocent. There were predators. There was cruelty. Men abused their authority. People stole and called others names. Racism and sexism were the status quo. Our sins had not piled up to the point that they could no longer be ignored, but they were there. Maybe you were sheltered, but that doesn’t make the epoch innocent.

I’m glad I got that off my chest. I’ll go read more of my book now.

I do not like book series.

I avoid them, though I’ve been fooled a few times. The Eyre Affair by Joshua Fforde fooled me. I enjoyed it but I did not ever read the second novel in the series. Figuring out about 3/4 of the way through the book that this was an SF detective story with sequels already published took the momentum away. Spoiler Alert: Thursday Next is gonna be fine because she’ll be in the next book; her sidekick and pet dodo will also survive.

Of course there are serial exceptions to my antipathy: Harry Potter, LotR, Sherlock Holmes, and more. These are well-written, excellent books!

Most series, though, fall far short of the standards set by these wildly successful and worthy tomes. Allow me to list the reasons why.

1. Too often, a series’ only purpose to sell more of the author’s books

bookseries1A good book will prompt me to look for more by the same author. It doesn’t have to be a retread of the same book.

Sadly, my patronage doesn’t seem to be enough to keep most writers in business (possibly because I use the library more often than I buy). This could be a trend. So authors and booksellers find new, innovative ways to get readers to buy.

Among both Indie publishers and the big NY houses, a book series is the new black. Authors are taught that this is the path to success, just as they were taught 10 or 20 years ago that they must open their book with a bang to hook the reader, or 80 years ago that they should never end a sentence with a preposition.

Every author who’s ever read a bit of advice on a writers’ site or gone to a seminar knows that the current modus operandi for making money (by which I mean, of course, simply being self-supporting, not necessarily rich) is this:

  1. Write a novel, then a second novel with the same characters and setting, then a third and fourth -— as quickly as you can.
  2. Publish first novel.
  3. After 30 days (at which time it no longer qualifies for Amazon’s Hot New Release list), publish the second book. Make first novel free and advertise the hell out of it.
  4. After another 30 days, release third novel.
  5. Another 30 days, release 4th. By this time you’ve probably bundled novels one and two and are giving the set away.

That’s the way to do it, I’m told.

Never mind quality, editing, proof-reading, or any of those time-sucking dinosaurs. But DO pay for a sexy cover. That sells the book, after all.

These books often make money. They’re sold to people who just want a quick escape with familiar characters who will come out on top in the end. They’re not great literature. Pulp fiction has rarely achieved that status, but who cares?

2. Series volumes are predictable

Unless you are reading George R.R. Martin, you can be fairly certain that the hero of a series will keep escaping the bad guys. The heroine will not get her pretty self killed, the detective will solve the case, and the adventurous youth will grow in wisdom.

And if you are reading George R.R. Martin, you have nothing to do but brush up on your sigils and make bets with fellow readers about whether the book will follow the TV show plots, at least until the next book emerges in, well, whenever. May I suggest you pick up a classic by Robert Heinlein to pass the time?

I digress. The point is that little varies in the formulas of most series books, because the author doesn’t want to change a pattern that works. Most especially in mystery series. Readers supposedly like it that way. No upsets, no surprises . . . .

But a story is not real life! This is the world of imagination and drama! Books should keep you guessing and turning the pages. They should startle you. The last thing a book should ever be is predictable. That’s dull.

I admit, others disagree. My mother read and reread Earle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books till she died. She loved that they were all so alike, she was never quite sure if she was reading the same one over and over. I think the real reason she kept reading them was that she had a crush on Raymond Burr.

For myself: I DON’T have to know what’s going to happen in the end. In fact, I prefer to be surprised.

lr-short-33. You cannot recreate the wonder, charm, and surprise of the first book

The first time one reads about sandworms and bene gesserits, or Highland mists and romps in the standing stones, or even of societies that rank and order their citizens by whatever part of the color spectrum they can see (Joshua Fforde again), it’s mind-expanding. Magical. Exciting. Like falling in love. Ah, me.

Reading the second book is kind of like going back to the romantic glen that’s become a bit more damp and smelly over the years. The setting is just not as exotic as it was that first time. You’ve seen it, or at least you’ve imagined it all before. Whether it’s intergalactic smugglers, shape-shifting teachers, or romantic, sexual tension, by the second book we’ve been there already.

4. Lately, the first book in a series simply ends half way through (which brings us back to reason #1)

I paid for and downloaded one of the many books my Kindle advertises, even though I knew it was part of a science fiction series. It looked intriguing. What I got was half a book.

The story was fast-paced, the characters, for the most part, believable. I had minor complaints, like blank lines in the middle of scenes (clearly, I was meant to pause here) and hyphens where they didn’t belong, but nothing so awful that I was tempted to stop reading. One of the many characters was in great danger, and shocked by what he saw. Others, in different parts of the world, had barely started their dramatic journeys. Nothing was pointing towards an ending of any kind, but the book stopped. Just like that.

With a big ad for the second book.

That’s sleazy. I can’t think of a better word for it.

I will not buy the second or third book, out of sheer spite for the author. How dare he or she treat a reader that way!

Lord of the Rings, written 70-odd years ago, did stop each book in the middle of the story, though not at a cliffhanger. Resolution did not come till the very end. It was an epic tale told by a master, and really should be viewed as ONE book, too big to be bound. (One book to grab them all, one cover to bind them?)

But unless your last name is Tolkien, do not try this with your own work. It’s manipulative.

Summing Up:

Not all series are lacking in interest, but I don’t read most of them. Ever hear the phrase “So many books, so little time?” That’s the way I feel. There are millions of books out there, but I only have a couple of hours a day to read. I don’t want to waste my time with the second-rate ones.

I want my escapism combined with a story that enriches me. I want to read books by authors that took time with them. Years. If an author hammers out a novel a month, I will avoid him or her like the proverbial boil-producing plague.

I want to thrill over brilliant prose, not obsess over the constant typos, misused words and commas. I want  to feel a character’s angst, not marvel at its libido or derring-do. I want to learn something from each book. Maybe it’s about human nature and resilience, or maybe the author will take me to a world so different and spectacular that I’ll gasp, right there in Starbucks. Maybe I’ll cry.

Do me like that, baby, and I’ll tell all my friends to buy your books. Isn’t that what writers want?

 

My Life on the Road and
Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles

Lookee! I read what Emma Watson read & You Can Too!

Lookee! I read what Emma Watson read & You Can Too!

Gloria Steinem’s new memoir, A Life on the Road, surprised me. All I knew about Steinem was her role as an early and eloquent, no-nonsense spokesperson for feminism, and the founder of Ms Magazine. I had no idea how she’d become one of the major faces of the women’s lib movement in the 60s and 70s. Now I do.

This book is not about feminism, though. It’s about growing up with a loving father who spent 3/4 of the year on the road – with his family, towing a travel trailer. It tells how Steinem became a touring public speaker, how her experiences shaped her and what she’s learned from them. She was present at Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and was involved in political campaigns for the Kennedys as a journalist and a volunteer. Mostly, though, she writes about brief encounters with college students and cab drivers—the small incidents that make up her life.

Steinem doesn’t drive. She says: “… being isolated in a car was not always or even usually the most rewarding way to travel. I would miss talking to my fellow travelers or looking out the window. How could I enjoy getting there when I couldn’t pay attention?”

And paying attention — listening — is important. I have a notebook page full of quotes from the book, but this one shows up in other reviews: “One of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen, and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak.”

David Ulin reads his book at Vermin on the Mount.(gosrskypress.bandcamp.com)

David Ulin reads his book at Vermin on the Mount.(gosrskypress.bandcamp.com)

David L. Ulin is the former book critic of the Los Angeles Times and writes for many magazines. Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles is a collection of his own essays about walking in L.A. It is not about our city, but about the concept of our city; not about the streets and local history but about how we view those things. I felt as if I weren’t the target audience, in spite of my love for Los Angeles history. I suspect the book was written more for academics. For example, he sketches, very quickly, a few facts about  Angel’s Flight or the St. Francis Dam disaster, just a sentence or two to support his point about  L.A.’s changing self-concept. If you know the history already, that may be enough. If you don’t know it, though, the book is frustrating.

Ulin’s thesis is interesting: that streets in L.A. are private spaces masquerading as public spaces. We make them private because we travel them enclosed in our cars, never making contact with street life itself.

While he convinced me and I agree, it’s odd, isn’t it, that his presentation lacks personal contact, and keeps readers at a distance.

Steinem’s thesis seems to be that the road one travels keeps one human, no matter the vehicle.

Ulin’s book is about ideas: how do we define and experience our cities and roads? Steinem’s is about personal encounters that make up a life on the road.

Very different books, but with this message in common: You can’t know a neighborhood, a city, or a country by driving through it. You must get out of your car.

(This review — or most of it — was first published in the monthly newsletter LA Mentary)

Around three weeks ago, I put up my list of the classics of Science Fiction that all fans of the genre should read. I promised a Part II.

Was I nuts? It’s easy to look back a century or more, because time has winnowed the list of novels to something manageable. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells; anyone would have come up with those guys! Then there’s Heinlein the Great,Neuromancer and Dune. Simple.

Gazillions of other SF books have been published. How on earth do I build a Part II?

WIth great trepidation and a bucket full of caveats. I haven’t read everything. I wasn’t always paying attention when I read. And what makes classic or great SF is hardly a settled definition; everyone’s got their own opinions.

This is not a list of my favorites, but rather the books that I think had the biggest impact on the world. These novels expanded our minds and pushed our self-imposed boundaries of what might be a little further.

  • 11984coversega8984 by George Orwell introduced us to Big Brother and the idea of mind control by a less-than-benevolent government. Orwell wrote it in 1949 when the title year seemed far away. As 1984 approached, post Viet Nam and post Watergate cover-up, the novel’s warnings began to look less crazy and more plausible. 1984  gave us concepts like newspeak, Big Brother, and thought police, and showed us how our horizons can be controlled, our history rewritten by media, and our lives shrunken to fit the boundaries set out for us.
  • 41ALV5fomnL._AA160_Atlas Shrugged is science fiction, a fact that many of Ayn Rand’s fans forget. Published in 1957 (though it took years to write) it’s set in a dystopian world, with this twist: instead of beginning her story after a cataclysmic, world-destroying event as most novels do, we are plunged into a the middle of the world’s destruction, following heroes that are trying to save it, one way or another. Rand’s world does not seem futuristic to us; Atlas Shrugged was written when trains, rather than planes, were the preferred method of travel, when smoking was fun, and when most women aspired to hook themselves to a strong, protective male, rather than strike out on their own. So it’s a period piece as well as an expression of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy — and a rollicking, imaginative story.
  • found1asIsaac Asimov’s Foundation, the first novel of a series, stands like a glimmering gateway into mounds of mid-century SF, where men are men and women are perky. Can the future be foretold based on the mathematical reading of trends? What can upset those readings? I was debating whether to include the Foundation Series in this book, wondering how to measure its influence, and then I read this 2012 quote by Nobel-prize-winner Paul Krugman:  “I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behaviour to save civilisation.” The fictional Seldon, of course, is the founding father of psychohistory, the science which guides the worlds in the Foundation Trilogy to survive the collapse of their empire and the ensuing Dark Ages.
  • left-hand-of-darknessUrsula LeGuin’s gender-bending The Left Hand of Darkness implied that physical sexuality might be expressed differently on other planets and that male and female were not the only categories. Released in 1969, when men and women were beginning to question what gender actually had to do with their choices and lives, and books were beginning to switch from using masculine pronouns for everyone (remember that?) The only explosions in LeGuin’s books were our stereotypes going “boom!” This book won the Nebula and Hugo and has always been highly praised.
  • 1125325The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy showed us that SF could be more than fun, it could be downright hilarious. It could be irreverent and satirical. We could laugh over the earth’s demolition for an intergalactic superhighway and the ridiculousness of life. Would we have been ready for the Disc World books by Terry Pratchett without the Hitchhiker series? Or any of Jasper Fforde’s wild tales? Dunno, and don’t want to find out. SF that makes me laugh out loud in a restaurant and not care how crazy I look is to be treasured as a giant step forward for all.

Shall I continue? I’m debating the inclusion of alternate history, but is that really science fiction? Probably not. How could I leave out Ray Bradbury? Andre Norton? Anne McAffrey? and on and on — but this list is for the books with the biggest impact, not the bodies of work by incredible authors.

If you want more (and why shouldn’t you?) just google “most influential science fiction.” I did, several times, and ended up with a huge to-read list. So maybe next year there will be a Part III.