Time Travel Tuesday: Robert Silverberg’s “Sailing to Byzantium”

Robert Silverberg (2014 Photo)

This week’s Time Travel Tuesday story is a relatively long one of 59 pages from Robert Silverberg called “Sailing to Byzantium.” Silverberg, who sold his first story in 1954, went on to become one of the most respected writers in all of science fiction. He is a particular favorite of mine because of his special talent for creating fully developed, believable characters to inhabit the pages of his science fiction and fantasy stories. No matter how outlandish or speculative the plots of his stories, it always feels like they are happening to real people just like the reader.

“Sailing to Byzantium” is set in a 50th century world in which only five cities exist. These are not, by any stretch of the imagination, ordinary cities; they are replicas of major cities from the past that have been reconstructed here as they were in their prime solely for the pleasure of this world’s citizens to explore and experience them. From time-to-time, one of the cities is “retired” and replaced by a new one so that people will always have a new experience to look forward to. Since no one in this world seems to have a job anymore, rotating the cities on a regular basis plays a major role in keeping boredom to a minimum.

The five cities are all staffed by “temporaries,” a group of people there to play the roles of those who lived in the actual cities in the past. As the story begins, the current cities are: Chang-an, Asgard, New Chicago, Timbuctoo, and Alexandria. The story’s central character is a “visitor” to the 50the century, a tall man who has vivid memories of the “Old Chicago.” The man knows almost nothing about himself except that he is different from everyone he has met so far. He remembers that his name is Charles Phillips and that he has somehow been transported here from his 1984 life…whatever that may have been like.

Phillips wonders about the true nature of the “temporaries” he encounters as he explores different cities with his 50th century girlfriend. Are they real or are they something less than human? But wonder as he might, definitive answers are hard to come by until he meets another “visitor” from the past for the first time ever. Phillips is astounded to learn that this Viking warrior from a period in time much older than his own has figured out a few things for himself that never occurred to Phillips’ more “modern” self.

“Sailing to Byzantium” is first class science fiction, but it really hits its stride when it shifts into a story of true love between the twentieth century Phillips and his doomed fiftieth century girlfriend. This story is too easy to spoil by saying much more, so I’m going to stop right here. Silverberg fans are probably already familiar with this one and how it turns out, but if you are not one of those hardcore Silverberg fans, I recommend that you find “Sailing to Byzantium” and enjoy it as a standalone read. It’s a good one.


My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues

It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a great while a book comes along that seems to have been written just for you. It may be a book about some obscure hobby of yours that you figured no one else in the world cared about, or about some equally obscure figure from the past you imagined no one remembered (much less actually cared about) but you. And in the unlikeliest of all cases, it might be a book – imagine it now, a whole book – about some weird habit of yours that you seldom speak of in public. It is exactly that last possibility that happened to me with Pamela Paul’s My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues. Who knew there was another person in the world maintaining a decades-old list of every book they ever read?

Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, began keeping her Book of Books (the “Bob” referenced in this memoir’s title) in 1988 when she was just a high school junior. (As a point of reference, I began my own “Bob” in 1970, a few months before I turned twenty-one.) Paul describes Bob as “factory-made, gray and plain, with a charcoal binding and white unlined paper, an inelegant relic from the days before bookstores stocked Moleskine notebooks,” exactly the kind of non-descript little book, I suspect, guaranteed to remain forever safe from the prying eyes of outsiders.

In twenty-two chapters, each chapter carrying the title of one of the books listed in Bob, Paul exhibits just how precisely she is able to reconstruct segments of her past by studying Bob’s pages. Each of the books chosen for chapters of their own remind the author of where she was both “psychologically and geographically” when she first read them. By studying the list to see which books she read before and after the highlighted title, Paul can easily see whether the earlier books put her in the mood for more of the same or pushed her toward reading something very different. Too, if her reading choices moved in a new direction, she can quickly determine how long that new interest or trend lasted. And she confirmed something concerning one’s memory about which most avid readers will readily agree: Keeping a list of fiction read does very little to solidify the recall of characters or plot details – what it does do is provide a better understanding of changes in one’s own “character.”

NYTCREDIT: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

My Life with Bob is an intimate look into the life of a woman who has made books and reading the central core of her life. She has had many roles during her life: student, daughter, wife, mother, etc., but I suspect that she takes equal joy in knowing that reader is an essential term others would use to describe who she is – and always has been.

Readers are a curious lot, and one of the things we are most curious about is what others are reading. We cannot resist browsing the bookshelves of those whose homes we visit, often altering our opinions (either upwardly or downwardly) about those being visited according to what we see on their shelves. We find ourselves straining to read the titles of books on shelves sitting behind pictures of celebrities and politicians because we know that people are more likely to reveal their true nature and level of curiosity by what they choose to display on their private bookshelves than by what comes out of their mouths. We can’t help ourselves; that’s the way we are.

If you are one of those people, you are going to love My Life with Bob because Pamela Paul is a kindred spirit who gets it.

Barnes & Noble Makes Another Bonehead Move (You Can’t Fix Stupid)

Consider this to be your FAIR WARNING: I’m a grump when I’m tired or when I’m frustrated by something stupid that’s out of my control but affects me negatively…and today I’m both.

I’ve been sitting at the hospital for the last four days with my father (who is close to turning 95) as he undergoes another series of tests to find out why he is suddenly feeling so weak and generally awful. He was carried to the ER by ambulance at four a.m. on Thursday morning and we still don’t have any answers although I’ve told doctors and nurses at least three times that he probably has bronchitis again. I’m starting to believe that the doctors want to do all the other tests first because they are just now starting to “confirm” that he probably has bronchitis, after all. Strange how that worked out…and it only took four days in which his condition slowly worsened.

So that takes care of the tired part (and a good bit of the frustration part). Now for the rest of the frustration part:

I took a break this morning to grab a quick sandwich outside the hospital and to make a run over to the Barnes & Noble store nearby because I needed a new book to help keep my mind occupied. I walked around the store for about ten minutes before it struck me that something about the store layout was very different from what I’ve grown used to over a number of years shopping there. And then, I figured it out. All of the shelves in each of the different sections of the store that had been dedicated to “New Books” in each of the various genres were just gone. I was so disoriented that I actually walked the entire store to see if this plague of stupidity had struck the whole place – it had.

I wandered back up to the front of the store where I cornered one of the booksellers and asked what in the world the store manager was thinking because now readers like me had no easy way to distinguish new books from each section’s back-catalogue. She said, “Oh, we are just trying to keep our customers happy. Corporate required us to do this because customers kept requesting it.” So now I’m thinking (but not saying out loud), “Are you really that stupid? What idiot in the corporate office came up with this crap…and if you can identify him, his butt needs to be fired today, Sunday or not.”

So now, according to this clerk, if you go inside a Barnes & Noble store (sadly, pretty much the lone surviving big box book store in this country nowadays) and want to know what’s new in fiction, or mysteries, or science fiction, or biography…too damn bad. Just look at every book in the alphabetically-filed section and you might figure it out…or maybe you want. THEY DON’T CARE.

So Barnes & Noble, in another example of how incompetent its management is, has turned its brick and mortar stores into the same mess that online book shopping is: if you don’t already know now that a particular title exists, you are not very likely to stumble upon it in the store or on the store website.

I’m done ranting now. See, I told you I was grumpy. I always get that way when someone reminds me that you just “can’t fix stupid” people. They will forever remain stupid, something that Barnes and Noble management reminds me of over and over again. How long this chain survives is anyone’s guess, but I’ve just shortened my own guess by a few years.

Short Story Saturday: “Cold Little Bird” by Ben Marcus

Ben Marcus

This weeks Short Story Saturday contribution is a rather sad tale about one couple’s ten-year-old son who very suddenly changes personalities on them. The Ben Marcus story is aptly titled “Cold Little Bird” because it perfectly describes the persona their little boy dons when relating to the adults he encounters in his world, particularly his parents. The story first appeared in a 2016 issue of The New Yorker and was later chosen for inclusion in the short story collection titled The Best American Short Stories (2016).

Marcus foreshadows what is to come in the story’s first two sentences: “It started with bedtime. A coldness.” Martin and Rachel notice the change one night when they are putting their two sons to bed. Rather than accepting and responding to their hugs and kisses as he has for his entire life up to now, on this night Jonah pushes both parents away before announcing that he is done with that kind of affection – now and forever. And even though his parents joke with him and try to laugh off his behavior as just a symptom of another long day of life in the city, the little boy refuses to back down

Surely, the young couple thinks, their little boy will wake up in the morning barely able to remember his strange behavior of the night before. But he does remember – and when after a few weeks Jonah is still barely speaking to them (and even then, only in his new polite and formal manner), without acknowledging it to each other, Rachel and Martin begin to wonder about their son’s sanity. Next the boy will have them they wondering about their own

“Cold Little Bird” is a story about parental love and the unique relationship that parents have with their children. It is a cautionary tale about how easily all that love and bonding can be destroyed when one of the people in the relationship decides they no longer want any part of what the others are offering. Admittedly, young Jonah’s reaction to being physically touched by his parents is an extreme one, but the way his parents begin to pull apart from each other slowly as each tries in their own way to cope with this new challenge rings very true. It is as if water has found its way into a crack in the foundation of their marriage and is slowly but steadily eating away at everything that makes that relationship work.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this one could have very easily turned into an unbelievable mess along the lines of a Stephen King-like horror story. But Ben Marcus, to his credit, makes it all seem so credible that “Cold Little Bird” is in its own way even more horrifying than the typical King horror story.

Movies for Readers: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

Almost from the moment in early 2010 that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was first published, it was difficult for readers to avoid seeing it everywhere they looked. Go into a bookstore; read a handful of book blogs; turn on NPR, C-Span, or one or two SiriusXM stations that talk about books; read one of the periodicals that have “Book Review” in their name; or tune in to an internet book podcast, and you were very likely to encounter something about Rebecca Skloot’s book about the woman who saved so many thousands of lives after her death.

Not all of Henrietta Lacks, you see, died, because unbeknownst to Henrietta or her family, some of her cells were taken from her in 1951 and used in medical research for decades to come – research that led to advances in numerous areas of scientific research, including that of the polio vaccine.

A new film (of the same title) that debuts on HBO on April 22 is perfect for those of us who may have picked up the book half-a-dozen times without ever bringing it home or who didn’t read it even if we did bring it home. Despite my curiosity exactly as to how all this was allowed to happen as it did, and whether the woman’s family ever succeeded in calling those responsible into account, I find myself in that second group. And that means I’ll very likely be watching the film at some point in its life cycle.

Official HBO Movie Trailer:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks stars Oprah Winfrey (who also produced the film), Rosa Byrne, Leslie Uggams, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Reg E. Cathey, Courtney B. Vance, and Renée Elise Goldsberry. The movie was filmed in Atlanta and Baltimore.

Rosa Byrne and Oprah Winfrey

Turning Clickbait into Litbait (“When It’s OK to Slut-Shame Single Mothers”)

I’m willing to bet that everyone of you guys hate “clickbait” as much as I hate it.  You know…those wild headlines that you try so hard to ignore because you are 99% certain that they are either completely baseless or have not one thing to do with the site that you will be forwarded to if you foolishly click the provided link.  Those site are almost always overrun by pop-up ads (and worse) that make it so impossible to read the supposed explanation for the headline that you soon find yourself busily zapping all those tiny little “x” characters in their corners that you hope will make the ads disappear.  Soon enough it feels as if you are playing some kind of old fashioned arcade game from the eighties and you forget why you are on the site in the first place.  Facebook and Twitter have thousands and thousands of those headlines, so it is impossible to avoid them.

Well…here’s a bit of good news.  One indie bookstore has decided to create a few click-bate headlines with a definite literary twist to them.  Take a look at this You-Tube video explaining exactly what The Wild Detectives Bookstore has done.

I think you’ll like it:

And despite that rather British accent of the video narrator, I’m pretty sure that this is produced by the Wild Detectives bookstore located in Dallas, so here’s a link to their Facebook Page.  This is definitely a place I’ll be visiting next time I’m up in Dallas.

Time Travel Tuesday: Connie Willis’ “Fire Watch”

Connie Willis

This week’s Time Travel Tuesday story comes from Connie Willis, a woman who has been a rather prolific contributor to the science fiction and fantasy genres since the 1980s, so prolific in fact, that I’m a little embarrassed to admit that “Fire Watch” may be the very first piece of her work that I’ve ever read. She has won several Nebula and Hugo awards in the process, and is the author Remake, a novel whose premise intrigues me so much that I know it’s in my reading future. (Remake considers retroactive censorship – political correctness brought to its sadly logical conclusion if technology ever makes it possible.)

“Fire Watch” tells the story of one history student of the future who is ready to complete his graduate degree by traveling back into the time period assigned him so that he can report on what that period was really like. The young man has been preparing for four years to travel with St. Paul on his journeys, but he suddenly learns that a transcription error has been made in his orders and he is now scheduled to time-travel to St. Paul’s Cathedral during the blitz of 1940 instead – and that he will be leaving in just two days.

Argue as he might, the man gets sympathy from no one he whines to, including his girlfriend who herself had her practicum suddenly changed from fifteenth-to-fourteenth-century England. On a level of 1-10, he felt that neither century rated more than a five in difficulty, so he believes that she still got off lightly – while he is faced with trying to keep St. Paul’s from being destroyed by bomb, a task that has to rate at least an eight on the same scale of difficulty. And come to think of it, now he’s not even certain that he’s expected to intervene in St. Paul’s past because no one can tell him what’s expected of him in 1940 London.

If nothing else, the young man is clever enough to get himself assigned to the nightly fire watch team that scrambles around the roof of the cathedral stamping out fires started by German bombs before they can spread enough to consume the ancient church building. Much of what he sees is what he expected, but his reaction to the little things around him (including his first sighting of a cat – a species extinct in the student’s time) sometimes arouses the suspicions of the fire watch captain, aka the Verger of the Pillow. The ultimate irony, as it turns out, is that the captain’s scrutiny arouses the student’s own suspicions and the two men spend as much time watching either other for false moves as they do putting out fires.

As the German bomb blitz intensifies, the student begins to worry that he will not survive this final academic test, that he will either be arrested as a spy or that a stray explosion will be the end of him – but in the end, both he and St. Paul survive the best the Germans can throw at them. And only when he returns to the present does he figure out why he was sent back to a time he was so unprepared to handle, a lesson that can be boiled down to two basic ideas: (1) The only way to keep the past alive is in memory, and (2) All the millions of anonymous people of the past were valuable, every single one of them.

“Fire Watch,” coming in at thirty-eight pages, gives Willis the room to develop her characters and plot to such a depth that the story could easily be expanded into novel length. That said, I think that it is exactly long enough as published, and I recommend it to fans of time travel fiction. Now I’m off to find (I hope) a copy of Remake.

Herbert Mason Photo

Foy: On the Road to Lost

  Genre: Literary Fiction
Date of Publication: March 1, 2017
Number of Pages: 194


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Gordon Atkinson, of the popular blog RealLivePreacher, brings us Foy, a recently- divorced, recently-resigned pastor in the midst of redefining personal meaning. As Foy travels to New Orleans, hoping to find a new identity separate from the church, he keenly observes the everyday, rendering ordinary moments unexpectedly significant. Atkinson’s own background as a preacher and blogger inspires Foy’s confessional voice, the voice which characterizes this story about how our own experiences impact the universal search for meaning. 



“If the magnitude of difference between the stars and humankind is the purest of religions, reminding us of our insignificance (so thinks Foy), then that magnitude is collapsed in the hands of Atkinson, whose words elevate the most insignificant of objects, acts, and characters to startling heights. A key shifted on a desk, a communion cup offered to an old woman despite a philosophical mismatch, a baby’s bottle first ignored and then retrieved for a frazzled stranger on a bus. Each commands, each arrests, each persists. And we suddenly remember that what we create with mere words can be as lasting as the luminaries.”
— L.L. Barkat, author of Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing, twice named a best book of 2011

“Few writers can match Gordon Atkinson’s ability to tell stories about the sacred in our everyday lives. Foy is a work of power, beauty, and clarity–I saw myself and the world more clearly after reading it. I think you will too.”

— Greg Garrett, author of The Prodigal and Entertaining Judgment

“I really, really like Gordon Atkinson’s Foy. I like the character Foy himself. He’s Everyman and he’s me and he’s Gordon, all at the same time. Nice trick. I like Gordon’s writing — straightforward, but with a simple elegance. But what I really like is the no-holds-barred honesty. This feels real because it is real. Foy at his worst, Foy at his best, Foy at his most wonderful/awful. It’s an on-going series, just like life. I look forward to the next chapter.”
— Robert F. Darden, author of Nothing but Love in God’s Water, Volume II: Black Sacred Music from Sit-Ins to Resurrection City

Foy Davis, son of a Baptist minister, was born into a world that left little room for nonbelievers, doubters, or dissenters, and as Foy would learn to his surprise a few decades later, he had a little of each of these characteristics in him. But a minister does not just walk away from the responsibilities of a church and a congregation. Life is never that simple.

Gordon Atkinson has been writing short stories about the fictional Foy Davis since 2004 when he published the first one of them online. According to Atkinson, there are now forty-one Foy Davis stories, including even the one about Foy’s eventual death. Atkinson has chosen twenty-five of those stories and arranged them here in chronological order for what he calls “the composite novel” Foy: On the Road to Lost. Keeping in mind that each of the novel’s chapters were originally meant to be read as standalones over a period of years, I cannot imagine how reading them that way could possibly match the emotional punch that comes from reading them here as one, longer story of a man’s entire life. Transforming the stories into a novel this way is a brilliant idea that gives them new life – and Atkinson plans to bring out the second volume of Foy’s story sometime in 2017.

Foy Davis was born in Fort Davis, the small West Texas town at the foot of the Davis mountains where is father five years earlier had moved the family to accept a job as associate pastor of a Baptist church. As a PK (preacher’s kid), Foy recognized early on that he had a defined roll to play in Fort Davis social life and he fully embraced his responsibilities – even once trying to save the soul of a fellow third-grader by helping him recite the “sinner’s prayer” behind a shed they passed on their way to school.

Foy continued to do what was expected of him (and, more importantly what he expected of himself) as he followed his father’s footsteps into the ministry and a church of his own in San Antonio. But Foy’s approach to life and the ministry was, even then, a little bit outside the norm because Foy at times struggled with religious doubts of his own, and was even known to admit his personal struggle to those whom he counseled in his office.

For Foy Davis, life is about living as a Christian should live, showing kindness and understanding to everyone he encounters regardless of faith, sexual orientation, or personal failings. He believes in respecting everyone until they prove they do not deserve his respect. Most importantly, he feels that a belief in God is not necessary in order for one to live a good life – and he more admires those who live such a life out of personal choice than out of fear of the wrath of a vengeful God.

The twenty-five stories (covering the years 1961-2011) used in Foy: On the Road to Lost take Foy Davis on quite a journey, one in which he is still trying to figure out exactly who he is. My only (for lack of a better word) complaint about the book is that it was over all too quickly. I found myself liking Foy more and more, and then he was gone. I miss him and I want to hear more from him, so I’m looking forward to Atkinson’s “volume two” of the Foy Davis story. Stay tuned.

Atkinson is the author of the books RealLivePreacher.com (Wm. B. Eerdmans), Turtles All the Way Down, and A Christmas Story You’ve Never Heard.  He was a contributor for the magazine Christian Century and founding editor for the High Calling website, which brought together hundreds of independent writers and featured their work. 
His writing career started on Salon where he was among the most read bloggers on the site.  One of his essays was chosen to be included in The Best Christian Writing 2004 (Jossey-Bass) and his book RealLivePreacher.com won the Independent Publisher Book Award in the creative non-fiction category.


Grand Prize: Signed Copies of Foy: On the Road to Lost, Turtles All the Way Down, and A Christmas Story You Never Heard
2nd Prize: Signed Copy of Foy: On the Road to Lost

3rd Prize: Signed Copy of RealLivePreacher.com
March 1 – 15, 2017

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Review Writing: By Hand vs. By Keyboard

I avoid television commercials whenever possible by watching as much programming as possible on some kind of time-delay, either via DVR or by purposely starting a program 15 minutes late so that I can still zip through all the obnoxious commercials that interrupt it. But one of them somehow made it into my subconscious and influenced my behavior – although I still can’t tell you what company is advertising what product in the ad.

Some of you may have seen this one. It opens with a guy who standing (maybe sitting, I can’t even remember that) below floor-level and speaking to a woman who is standing beside him, but on floor level. She says something to him like, “You really are in a rut, aren’t you?” The man looks up at her and responds with something like, “Huh, and all this time I thought I was in a groove.” Well anyway, that’s the gist of their conversation, and it got me to thinking about how difficult it might be to tell the difference between a rut and a groove if you are the person experiencing it.

So I decided to try something a little different today.

I write at least 95% of my reviews and other Book Chase stuff on the same computer, sitting in the same desk chair, surrounded by the same old distractions that are always there to tempt me. Am I in a groove, or am I in a rut? Only one way to find out, so this morning I carried a notebook, a pen, and the last book I finished over to a local Panera Bread outlet to shake things up a bit…well, more than a bit because I have never before written an entire review by-hand and that’s what I intended to do. I know, of course, that many authors still write entire books by-hand but that’s always seemed to me to be a little bit of an anachronism in today’s high-tech world. But maybe, I figured, just maybe these guys know something I don’t know about writing…well, among a whole lot of other things about writing they know that I don’t.

After a quick breakfast sandwich consumed while reading the next-to-last chapter of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, it was time to find out what would happen next (by this point I was feeling as reluctant about what I was about to do as the fundamentalist in Hamid’s title felt about his own decision). Just over an hour later, including the time it took for me to verify a couple of dates I wanted to use, I had a review of almost-four handwritten pages in front of me. As usual, I did my first edit while writing the draft, so even that phase of the process is over. And, because I always do at least two edits before posting anything, a second edit will be done as I transcribe the written review in Word. The only thing I’m unsure about now is the word count of the written review, but I’m hoping the final version fits somewhere in the usual range of the 450-600 words I always shoot for.

All in all, it appears that this process will even shave a few minutes off of the two hours I usually spend on writing and final prep-work on my reviews, something I did not at all expect to happen – and it was a whole lot more fun.

So it does look like I was in a rut, and not a groove, after all, but before confirming that theory, I’m going to have to try this again a few times. You never know, do you? Maybe that weird commercial did me some good.

(If you’ve never considered writing by hand instead of using a keyboard, here’s something interesting from the Mental Floss website you might want to consider.)

Saturday Short Story: Tahmima Anam’s “Garments”

Tahmima Anam

This week’s Saturday Short Story is one by Tahmima Anam, a Bangladesh-born writer and anthropologist who was educated in the United States and now splits her time between London and Tamworth, New Hampshire. “Garments” was originally published in Freeman’s and is the third story presented in The Best American Short Stories (2016). The story, according to Anam started out as one based upon a 2013 building collapse in Dhaka that claimed 1,130 lives – making it the deadliest “accidental structural failure in modern history.” That’s not what the story turned out to be about, however.

The story’s central character is Jesmin, one of thousands of young women trying to survive on the minimal wages they earn working in Bangladesh’s garment factories. As the story opens, Mala is telling Jesmin that her boyfriend wants to marry Jesmin – but, as it turns out, there is one slight catch. At the bell, when they can finally speak without worrying about who is watching, Mala says that her boyfriend, in fact, wants three wives, and because he wants to marry all three on the same day, she needs Jesmin’s help in recruiting a suitable third wife.

Just two days later, Jesmin has agreed both to marrying Dulal and to helping Mala find a third wife for him, a task that would prove easier than most readers of the story might expect. That three women would be so willing to share a husband that two of them have probably not even seen before, speaks volumes about the desperation of these women. Mala is willing to share her “boyfriend” if he insists upon her finding him two more wives as a condition of marrying her. The other two are primarily concerned with finding a husband because of the safety and security they believe it will bring to their lives – Dulal’s appearance and character are, at best, a secondary consideration.

View from Floor of One Bangladesh Garment Factory

All three of the women are most impressed by the idea that Dulal works in an air-conditioned shop, giving him a job that is the envy of everyone, male or female, as they work their way through each sweltering day of their own. Surely such a job must mean that Dulal is a man with a future. Right? Unfortunately, Dulal is not everything the three young women dreamed he would be – and now at least two of them are likely to be left wondering what they have done to themselves?

“Garments” is a reminder of what life is like even today for so many millions of women and children in third-world countries all around the world, the very people who are forced to sell their labor tremendously cheaply in order to make our own lifestyles and standards of living possible. This is very definitely a story with a message, but on a more personal level, it puts faces on three women who are doing everything humanly possible to survive the hand that life has dealt them. “Garments” is a memorable story.

Movies for Readers: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

This week’s Movie for Readers is 2013’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist starring Kate Hudson, Riz Ahmed, Liev Shreiber, Kiefer Sutherland, and Om Puri.  The movie is based upon the 2008 novel of the same name by Mohsin Hamid and tells the story of a young Pakistani who was working in New York when the murders of 9-11 happened in that city.  The man had an American girlfriend and a very successful career going for him at the time, but the way he was treated after 9-11 left him, he felt, no choice but to return home to his people and their problems.

I watched the movie the other night, but although I have had a copy of it for quite a while, still have not read the novel.  The movie left me a little cold in the sense that I did not find any of the characters to be particularly sympathetic ones despite the situations they found themselves in.  What I remember most about the movie is some of the absolutely haunting music it includes, especially the opening sequence featuring a song called “Kangana” that is performed by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad.

I’m including both the movie trailer and the five-minute sequence featuring “Kangna.” Turn the sound up loud for the song, close your eyes, and imagine yourself in a Pakistani coffeehouse…

The Movie Trailer:


“Kangana” as featured in the film’s opening five minute sequence:

I think I need to find my copy of the book now…more later.

The Baseball Whisperer

Merle Eberly, a gifted athlete from little Clarinda, Iowa, developed a deep love for the game of baseball when he was just a kid – and that love and respect for the game burned in the man’s heart right up until the moment he died. So have a lot of us, you say? Well, consider this: Merle spent as much time playing and coaching the game of baseball for the Clarinda A’s (four decades) as he did working the job that put food on the table (small-town newspaperman) for him, his wife, and their six children. And there is little doubt that coaching baseball was the position Merle considered to be his real life’s work.

For good reason, Merle was a man who believed in second chances. If not for the coaches who saw enough in him to challenge him to use sports to turn his own lazy approach to life around, Merle’s life would have turned out much differently than it did. Sports saved Merle from himself and showed him what he was capable of achieving, even in a small town whose five thousand citizens sometimes feel as if they live two hours from just about everything. What the town did have was a baseball team, a team that everyone in town was proud to call its own.

Merle, a natural catcher because of his size, was an essential part of that team, as player and coach, for over forty years, and he used the team countless times to pay forward the favor done to him by those high school coaches so many years earlier. Before it was over, Merle and the Clarinda A’s were synonymous – and today a bronze bust of Merle Eberly is prominently displayed at the team’s ballpark, a ballpark that sits snugly between corn fields, auction barns, and hog yards just as it always has.

An immediate goal of Merle’s when he became a player/manager for the A’s was to bring his team to national prominence by successfully playing against such a high level of competition that the A’s could not be ignored. He succeeded in that goal to such a degree that college coaches from around the country soon felt comfortable sending Merle “projects” of their own during the summer months that the college programs shut down for the season. These “projects” were players either on the verge of breakthrough to a higher level or those who needed to be tested against better competition once and for all to determine what could be expected of them by their coaches.

Merle ran a tight ship. He expected a lot from his players, a complete dedication to the game while he coached them in Clarinda, and players unable or unwilling to live up to Merle’s standards were sent packing. The second chance they got from Merle to turn their careers around was usually the only second chance he gave his players – misbehavior in a town as small as Clarinda is impossible to hide, especially since every player on the team lives with a host family for the summer. Drugs, drinking, and all-night partying were firing offenses.

So how good was Merle’s program? Without the Clarinda A’s, baseball may have given up on Hall-of-Famer Ozzie Smith before he had a chance to show what he could do despite his small size. And Ozzie was not Merle’s only major league success story. Other major leaguers who played for Merle include: Buddy Black, Von Hayes, Jose Alvarez, Scott Brosius, Andy Benes, Cal Edred, Chuck Knoblauch, Brady Clark, and Andrew Cashner.

Many of Merle’s players became lifelong friends to Merle and his wife Pat. Over the years they helped support the program with financial help and the kind of moral support that money can’t buy, and when Merle died in 2011 many of them were among the 600 people who attended his funeral.

The Baseball Whisperer is much more than just another baseball book; it is a book about life – an example of how to make the most of life while at the same time giving back to the community that made it all possible. Merle Eberly was a remarkable man, and baseball was lucky to have him for as long as it did. We all were.

Time Travel Tuesday: Larry Niven’s “Leviathan”

Larry Niven

This week’s Time Travel Tuesday story comes from the pen of Larry Niven, Nebula Award-winning author of the much-loved Ringworld novel and its sequels. “Leviathan” first appeared in the August 1970 edition of Playboy (see, some people really did buy Playboy for the articles and interviews).

Niven set his story in a dystopian world in which the United Nations Secretary General is the most powerful man in the world. The man’s behavior is a little reminiscent of what we have seen in more recent decades from North Korea’s Kim Il-sung and his even crazier son Kim Jong-Il. The Secretary is a collector of extinct species who has the power, money, and means to make sure that he has a one-of-a-kind collection. Not content with collecting living, breathing creatures from the past that exist no place else, the man is now on a quest to capture the largest creature that has lived on the face of the earth within the last four hundred years – the time limitation in either direction of current time travel technology.

Svetz (on-the-ground hunter) and Ra Chen (time machine coordinator), the two men tasked with the job of keeping the Secretary happy about his collection’s progress, know that they are walking a fine line when it comes to staying alive. If the animal they go after doesn’t kill Svetz as he attempts to capture it, the Secretary is liable to order both their deaths at any time if Svetz fails to bring back what he has ordered them to capture.

The Secretary, it seems, is a reader of children’s books, but not a very discerning one, and because he often cannot tell fiction from fact, he has been known to send Svetz out to capture creatures that he reads about in novels like those of Jules Verne. To the surprise of Svetz and Ra Chen, those fictional creatures sometimes do turn up in the real world – and that makes it ever more likely that the men cannot possibly survive their mission for much longer. It is only a matter of time before the odds catch up with them and something goes terribly wrong.

And when Svetz goes back four hundred years to capture a Verne-like “leviathan,” it seems as if that time has come – until Svetz turns the mission on its head only seconds before he runs out of time by capturing an extraordinarily huge example of another extinct animal: the sperm whale. Svetz and Ra Chen are a little disappointed to see that they have captured an albino example, and a rather grizzled one, at that, with one eye and numerous harpoons still stuck in its hide. But after a little bit of whale-cleanup, they will try to make do with what they have.

Now all they have to do is convince the Secretary that this is the largest animal ever to live on earth – and keep him from reading more children’s books.

What a Fish Knows

0374288216-01-_sx450_sy635_sclzzzzzzz_It is difficult to look into the eyes of another living creature without wondering what that creature thinks of what he sees in your own eyes. Does that animal wonder what we are and what our intentions might be? Is it perhaps seeing us as an equal that deserves the benefit of the doubt? Or is anything really going on in the brain behind those eyes at all other than the hope that we will provide the animal with something to eat or drink? Humans find it easy to relate to pets, especially dogs and cats, because those animals readily exhibit affection via their actions and variable facial expressions.   But other animals, especially those incapable of changing facial expressions, find it more difficult to claim the respect of human beings. And Jonathon Balcombe contends that fish, of all the members of this too easily written off group of static-faced animals, is probably the most underestimated of the lot.

Balcombe offers What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins in hope that the book will change the way that we think about the more than thirty thousand species of fish that exist today before it is too late to save many of them from extinction. Balcombe strives to make us see fish as individuals that can think, feel emotions and pain, make choices, enjoy play, hunt in cooperative groups, learn to use tools, and live complicated social lives. The author rightfully believes that the world’s commercial fishing industry is still so unregulated and out of control that it is in the process of relentlessly destroying the very fish species that make it a viable proposition for today’s fishermen. I submit that anyone who reads What a Fish Knows with an open mind will find it difficult, it not impossible, to argue otherwise.

Balcombe builds his case by using both the latest scientific breakthrough discoveries and anecdotal evidence from fish owners, recreational and professional divers, and others whose lifework is caring for and studying fish. The book is split into seven sections: “The Misunderstood Fish,” “What a Fish Perceives,” “What a Fish Feels,” “What a Fish Thinks,” “Who a Fish Knows,” “How a Fish Breeds,” and “Fish Out of Water.” For the most part, the content of each section is as clear as the title, but two of the sections demand a bit of an explanation.

“The Misunderstood Fish” section focuses on the point that fish are not the “lowly” creatures that most of us believe them to be. As Balcombe puts it:

“Lacking detectable facial expressions and appearing mute, fishes are more easily dismissed than our fellow air breathers. Their place in human culture falls almost universally into two entwined contexts: (1) something to be caught, and (2) something to be eaten.”

The “Fish Out of Water” section is the one in which the author stresses “it isn’t easy being a fish in an age of humans.” This is where he exposes the commercial fishing practices that do so much collateral damage to the populations of non-targeted fish, practices that see the wasted-by-catch tonnage rivaling the targeted tonnage taken by some commercial shrimpers and fishermen. According to Balcombe, right at one-third “of the world’s fish catch…is not eaten by humans.”

Two paragraphs from What a Fish Knows beautifully summarize what Jonathon Balcombe hopes his readers will take away from his book. The first paragraph appears on page 177 in the “Who a Fish Knows” section, and I quote a portion of it below:

“The main conclusion we may draw from these aspects of what a fish knows is that fishes are individuals with minds and memories, able to plan, capable of recognizing others, equipped with instincts and able to learn from experience. In some cases, fishes have culture. As we’ve seen, fishes also show virtue through cooperative relationships both within and between species.”

The second paragraph I want to quote from appears on page 207 in the “How a Fish Breeds” section of the book:

Fishes are not merely alive – they have lives. They are not just things, but beings. A fish is an individual with a personality and relationships. He or she can plan and learn, perceive and innovate, soothe and scheme, experience moments of pleasure, fear, playfulness, pain, and – I suspect – joy. A fish feels and knows.”

Bottom Line: What a Fish Knows is guaranteed to make the reader rethink his relationship with everything from his pet goldfish to the largest whale in the ocean. It is an eye-opener with a message, but it is also an entertaining book about a cousin of ours we all too often take for granted.


Jonathan Balcombe

Saturday Short Story: Mohammed Naseehu Ali’s “Ravalushan”


Mohammed Naseehu Ali

This week’s Saturday Short Story, “Ravalushan,” comes from Mohammed Naseehu Ali, a Ghanaian writer who now lives in Brooklyn and teaches fiction to NYU undergraduates. In the summer of 1979 when Ali was just a young boy, he witnessed a level of brutality and carnage in Ghana that he describes as “the most impactful (events) on my life.” The story’s title refers to the coup of June 4, 1979 that put a new regime into power, one that came to be called the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council.

The story is narrated by a young boy (such as the author) who is hanging around the local barber shop when the radio suddenly starts playing the kind of martial music that always announces a new government coup. When the music stops, the new leader announces that he and his comrades have taken over the government so that, for a change, the nation’s wealth can be shared with everyone and not with just a few wealthy families. The leader also announces an immediate new curfew requiring everyone to be off the streets by six p.m.

Military coups are nothing new to the people of Ghana, and this one is more or less welcomed as an opportunity to take a day off from work and school. A spontaneous street march becomes such an event when it reaches a city park that food vendors and other hustlers soon set up to service the large crowd – a crowd that in its jubilation forgets all about the new six o’clock curfew. Unfortunately for the crowd, the army did not forget about that curfew, and just as the clock strikes six, trucks filled with armed soldiers seem to be everywhere. Those living nearest the park are able to make their way to shelter, but those from distant neighborhoods, unless they are taken into a local home, are at the mercy of the army.


Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, the military head-of-state shot by firing squad after the 1979 coup

When the smoke clears, as many as fifty people are dead. And this is just the Leader of the Revolution’s first day. Rather predictably, this coup goes as so many before it have gone: the wealthy and the educated are targeted and everything stolen from them stays firmly in the hands of the new rulers. Men are arrested and never seen again, people are beaten in the streets and in their homes, and no one dares do anything about it.

What makes “Ravalushan” such a powerful story is that it is a coming-of-age story of sorts, one in which a child’s eyes are firmly opened to the atrocities of the adult world in a way that will scar him forever. As the story progresses, it’s tone evolves from one of childish playfulness and excitement to one of grim terror, and it’s as if the narrator is aging before the reader’s eyes. The author says this about his story: “The fear and the confusion of the adults in my life, and their helplessness in the face of such brutality, are what I try to capture in “Ravalushan.” He nails it.

(Author quote and coup history are taken from his comments in the 2016 edition of The Best American Short Stories, Junot Díaz, editor, where the story appears.)

Movies for Readers: Septembers for Shiraz

51povl3t9pl-_sy346_This week’s Movie for Readers, Septembers for Shiraz, is one I stumbled upon on Netflix only three or four days ago.  Prior to that lucky occurrence I was unaware of the movie or the 2009 novel by Dalia Sofer upon which the film is based.  The novel is a semi-autobiographical one based on what the author experienced as a ten-year-old in Iran in 1982  when her father was jailed and tortured there before escaping prison.

Two years have passed since the Shah’s fall in 1979, and the Revolutionary Guards is actively “cleansing” the country of anyone suspected of spying for, or having ties with, the West.  Wealthy Jewish  gem dealer Isaac Amin, a man who used to do business with the Shah and his family, is a natural target for the brutal regime that succeeded the Shah – and when one of his employees denounces him to the Revolutionary Guards he is arrested without warning.  Taken to prison for interrogation, Amin witnesses the torture and deaths of many of his fellow prisoners before he finds a way temporarily to bribe his way out of prison.  Now Amin, his wife, and their daughter have to manage their way across the border before he is re-arrested and hauled back to prison.

Septembers for Shiraz is beautifully filmed and acted, and it’s a film I highly recommend.

Septembers for Shiraz Trailer

The 2015 film stars Adrien Brody as Isaac Amin, Salma Hayek as his wife, Ariana Molkara as their daughter, Shohreh Aghdashloo as their housekeeper, and Alon Abutbul as Isaac’s interrogator.  Don’t let this one get by you – it’s that good.


Author Dalia Sofer

Jolie Is Somewhere

511cq37r2dlOnly after I finished reading the book, did I discover that Alana Cash’s Jolie Is Somewhere is described on the Amazon website as “Madame Budska Book 2,” proving, I suppose, that the book works equally well as a standalone novel. I cannot be certain that there are no references to the first Madame Budska book, Saints in the Shadows, but if so they are subtle enough not to be distracting to first-time readers of the series.

Madame Budska, better known to her young friends as Lina Sandor, the psychic who comes into the coffee shop to do free readings for staff and customer, is a rather mysterious woman. As it turns out, Lina also works her “magic” on a number of wealthy, prestigious clients (as Madame Budska) who have come to depend upon her input when time to make key decisions in their lives. Even these clients, though, do not pay Lina in the normal sense of the word, instead tipping her enough in cash and gifts to have made her a wealthy woman many times over. Best of all, Lina Sandor is a kind woman, someone always willing to help those struggling to survive in a world that is proving to be a little too much for them to handle on their own

Jolie is one of those people. She is an Oklahoma girl who came to New York on her own to start what she hopes is going to be an exciting new life. She knows no one in the city, and she is struggling to make enough money to do much more than survive from month to month. But her troubles really begin on the night that she is sexually assaulted in a dark alley by the New York policeman she met just that evening. Jolie has no idea the man is a cop; what she does know is that if she does not defend herself, something terrible is about to happen to her. Instinctively, she uses her spike heels to fight back, only to learn later that she is being charged with assaulting a city policeman.


Alana Cash

Remanded to Rikers Island jail to await trial, Jolie somehow gets lost in the system. By the time she is released, there are four people she wants to get even with: the roommate who failed to speak out in her defense, the cop who made up the story that got her arrested, the inmate who destroyed her nose by smashing it into a concrete wall, and the well-paid lawyer who never showed up to defend her. Now released back onto the streets of the city with no place to go, Jolie does not consider herself a lucky person. But that all changes on the night she sleeps in a coffee shop dumpster.

Jolie Is Somewhere is a story about moving on and letting go of the past so that something good can be made of the future. But that is easier said than done, especially for someone like Jolie who so strongly feels betrayed not only by those who aggressively wronged her, but also by those who failed to protect her. This small-town girl is ready to take care of herself now, but first she has some unfinished business to attend to – unless someone can save her from herself.

Jolie Is Somewhere has a message that we would all be wise to consider, one that would ease the burdens we all insist on carrying around for way too long. Madame Budska is my hero.

Time Travel Tuesday: Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early”


This week’s Time Travel Tuesday story is one called “The Man Who Came Early” by Poul Anderson that was first published in the June 1956 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Anderson, who died in 2001, is well known in the genre as one of its more prolific and talented members. He, in fact, won multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards for his work during his long career.

When you get down to it, there are basically just two types of time travel: planned and prepared for time travel trips and time travel that happens to the traveler accidentally without warning. Oftentimes, too, the time traveler of the second sort does manage to figure out what triggered his accidental trip (most often into the past), and becomes a time-traveler of the first type – one who explores the time continuum by choice rather than by chance.

“The Man Who Came Early” is a story about one of those accidental time-travelers; this time it is a U.S. Army soldier who, during a freak thunderstorm in which he is struck by lightning, is somehow thrust almost one thousand years backward in time.  Sergeant Gerald Robbins is in Iceland as part of the contingent stationed at the United States army base in Reykjavik. After being struck by lightning, he remembers suddenly becoming aware that he was standing on the beach before panic set in and he began his frantic search for other people.


Poul Anderson

The author uses an old man, who in his youth fought off Viking invaders and himself traveled the known world, as the story’s narrator. In conversation with a Christian priest who has come to the island in search of converts, the old man tells a tale of the stranger he and his family encountered five years earlier – a young man, he is now convinced was able accurately to forecast the future. That man’s name was Sardjant Gerald Robinson. Thus begins a tale during which the stranger and the old man’s only daughter fall in love to the dismay of another young man who planned to claim her for his own. As you can imagine, jealousy rears its ugly head and it is inevitable that the two men will come to blows – or worse. But it is only when the young woman explains to Gerald that he will have to kill the other suitor in hand-to-hand combat involving axe and sword – or die trying – that he finally realizes what he has gotten himself into. Now what?

“The Man Who Came Early” is a time travel story with a definite moral: All the sophistication and knowledge of the modern world will not be enough to earn a man respect in a world in which men are judged strictly by their physical prowess, skill with weapons, and ability to earn an honest living for their family with their hands. When he figured out where he was, Gerald was at first supremely confident that his skills and book-knowledge would make it easy for him to dominate the people he suddenly found himself among. But one humiliation after another finally convinced him that he was in so far over his head that he had best run for his life.

As the old man told Gerald, “You haven’t the tools to make the tools” needed to bring any of his modern ideas to fruition, a lesson learned just a tad too late to do Gerald much good, I’m afraid.

The Third Squad

51zph1dufbl-_sx316_bo1204203200_ I very much enjoy reading crime fiction, particularly the type that is so dark and surreal that it has been tagged with the words “noir fiction” as the best way to describe it. That means that most of my favorite fictional detectives tend to live rather bleak lives on their own, usually estranged from an ex-wife or two and, often enough, even from their children. They drink too much, don’t sleep nearly enough, chain-smoke as the rest of the world scowls at them, and wouldn’t recognize a proper meal if someone accidentally brought it to their table. They are good detectives, but losers at the game of life – a characteristic shared by most of the characters in this kind of fiction. Seldom are there clean winners in these books; when the smoke finally clears life just goes on much as it always has for most everyone concerned.

All of this is what drew me to V. Sanjay Kumar’s The Third Squad, a new novel whose publisher has labeled it a “ripped-from-the-headlines noir novel” about the Indian Police Service’s decision to assassinate hundreds of suspected criminals without ever bringing formal charges against them. Apparently the Mumbai police see this as the best chance police have of stemming the growth of criminal activity in that city. So much so, in fact, that numerous hit squads have been assembled to carry out the deadly work required of them. All of this (even though it is based upon fact) has that surreal feel to it that I expect from noir fiction and would be “dark” simply by definition. But throw in the book’s setting, a city teeming with people, potential crime, and a rogue police force, and what could be more perfect for fans of noir writing. Right? Well, not so fast.

The best thing about The Third Squad is the nature of the particular hit squad of which its chief character is a member. It seems that one of the Mumbai police higher-ups has come up with the theory that the best assassins all fall somewhere along the scale that measures autism – and he begins to recruit those types for further training. None of these men, despite being aware that they are a little different when it comes to social skills and the like, has any idea that autism is what makes them feel so different. All of this works very well for the man who put the squad together until Karan (who has a relatively mild case of Asperger’s syndrome) begins to grow a conscious – and refuses to kill anyone he does not “know.”


V. Sanjay Kumar

Kumar’s portrayal of the various degrees of autism and those who have it is interesting and gives the impression that the illness has been well researched by the author. This aspect of the novel, alone, guarantees that The Third Squad will be one to stick in the minds of its readers. Too, Kumar does a masterful job building the story’s tension level as Karan draws closer and closer to his final confrontation with his superiors in the Indian Police Service.

So why did it not work for me as well as I hoped it would? Simply put, I found it difficult to distinguish between some of the characters and to keep the long Indian surnames clear in my mind. The plot is a very complicated one involving much in-fighting and backstabbing, flash backs, stream-of-consciousness thinking, dreams, and subplots, and I found it all a bit confusing. I blame some of my confusion on myself – perhaps my mind drifted at the wrong moments, etc. – but I have to believe that a more straightforward telling of this one would have delivered a more striking tale than the one ultimately delivered by the author.

Bottom Line: There is a lot to like about The Third Squad, a whole lot, in fact – and a little to dislike about it. It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s one I’m going to remember for a while because of its unique plot.