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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 24, 2018

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Earth Abides, Life of the Party, Blue Wing Frog, Poland

A friend recently mentioned the book Earth Abides as something important in her life, and how she meant to reread it soon.

I realized that while I've heard about the novel, which won the first International Fantasy Award in 1951 and keeps getting included in lists of all-time best sci-fi novels, I had no idea what it was about or what was so good about it.

I was leaving for Europe and had my normal dread of running out of good things to read while traveling, so I bought it from Amazon and downloaded it to my Kindle before I left.

Then I started reading. The promotional material sounded kind of like Stephen King's The Stand, which, before his ill-advised revised edition, was one of his two or three best novels.

Here's the premise: Ish (short for Isherwood) is an American grad student in geography who finds himself one of the few survivors (maybe five or six per million) of a worldwide plague. Gradually he and a few other survivors create a viable community in the San Francisco Bay Area that Ish hopes will be able to restore civilization.

Standard sci-fi, by this description. But from the moment I started reading, I knew that this book was something special.

Part of it comes from the fact that the book was published in 1949, so that the culture that was perfectly contemporary then is now historical.

And I was born in that era, culturally speaking -- World War II was only a few years before, food was mostly sold in cans because frozen food was not yet widespread, gas was cheap and plentiful, radio was the primary mass medium, and a lot of people left their keys in the car and their houses unlocked.

Culturally speaking, the story also doesn't have computers, cellphones, television or video, terrorism, or political correctness.

The novel is written with perfect clarity in a spare and somewhat distant style, partly because Ish himself remains curiously detached from his own life: He's an active participant, but also an observer even of himself, watching and evaluating.

As far as I know it hasn't been filmed, which is good, because it shouldn't be. The main value of the story comes from being inside Ish's head almost all the time, valuing what he values, judging as he judges.

He doesn't know why he picked up a hammer to take with him, but as the story goes on that hammer takes on a lot of power -- in Ish's life and also in the lives of the little tribe he helps to found. He sees the attitude toward the hammer in himself and in others, and he fears and deplores it, but when he has a chance to throw it into the San Francisco Bay, he decides not to.

Because, in the end, Ish is, or becomes, rather fatalistic. Things happen as they happen. Spilt milk is remembered, but not much wept over. Things he once treasured become casualties of the collapse of civilization, but Ish takes it with calm acceptance that surprises even himself.

What I can't tell you is anything about the story because any synopsis is going to (a) weaken the power of the events as they come about in the story without (b) enticing you in any way to read it, because it sounds predictable and ordinary.

It's in the utterly clear and plausible manner of telling the story that its power emerges. Author George R. Stewart, a professor of English at UC-Berkeley, wrote more history and literary criticism than fiction, and certainly is not classified as a sci-fi writer.

His 1941 novel Storm is about a Pacific storm called "Maria." This was a trigger for the National Weather Service to start giving major storms women's names instead of labeling them only by their current latitude and longitude.

And this was also the inspiration for the name of the wind in Lerner & Loewe's musical Paint Your Wagon: "They Call the Wind Maria."

I don't know if anybody is still reading Storm. But I do know they're reading Earth Abides, because despite its relative brevity, this is truly an epic novel.

Earth Abides belongs in the sci-fi genre, not because of any science in it, but because it took place in the near future at the time it was written.

It's still readable as futuristic in the way 1984, also not written as sci-fi, is still readable as such, even though it has also ceased to be "future" to us.

The book, which isn't very long, presents a whole life and the creation and development of a whole community. Like Lord of the Flies it suggests what form barbarianism might take when civilization disappears. But it doesn't suppose that people are monsters when the restraints of civilization are taken away. Mostly it suggests that people try to be decent, even when all their hopes and dreams are dashed.

So it's optimistic. And yet it's tragic. We love and understand pretty much every character. We suffer when Ish suffers over moral decisions that he has to make and yet still can't bear. We love the people that he loves and grieve or rejoice in turn as their lives turn out this way or that way.

Ish outlives everybody else in the original community. Since the children have taken to calling the long-dead people who once made marvelous machines "Americans," it becomes true that, by the end of the book, Ish himself is the "last American."

The book's epigraph shows that this story has earned the novel's title: Earth Abides. It's a quiet read -- there's action, but nobody would confuse it with anything we've labeled sci-fi or epic on the movie screen.

It's a book that is at its best as a book, and while there are a few young readers who might enjoy it, this novel is best appreciated by readers who have lived long enough to understand how terribly truthful -- and truthfully terrible -- the story it tells really is.

*

While Earth Abides is the Kindle book I read during a recent visit to Poland, the audiobook I listened to (and finished) was the third Jack Reacher novel, Tripwire. I've now read all three of the first Jack Reacher novels, and watched author Lee Child come to terms with the implications of the character he is creating.

The first book, Killing Floor, depends on a nearly complete coincidence. Jack Reacher, six months out of the Army, is deliberately living a rootless life, carrying neither i.d. nor any kind of debt as he wanders a U.S. that he's given his whole life to without every knowing -- his father was in the military and Reacher grew up everywhere but here.

So now he's coming to know America. He gets off the bus when he sees a sign for Margrave, a Georgia town that his brother once mentioned to him as the home of a legendary jazz player.

During the night he walks a long distance from the freeway interchange where he got off the bus to Margrave's small but ridiculously tidy downtown. And before he can really dig into his breakfast, he gets arrested on a murder charge that is obviously false.

As an experienced homicide investigator from his days in the Military Police, he explains the evidence exonerating him to a local detective, who seems to understand. But unfortunately there is an eyewitness who absolutely puts him at the scene, and even though Reacher knows it isn't true, that eyewitness is the chief of police, a man who doesn't like his underlings to contradict him.

Reacher is swept off to prison -- not just a holding cell in the police station -- along with another hapless fellow who also didn't kill anybody, but does seem to know something about the crime. And when it becomes obvious that his going to prison was part of a setup to have somebody kill him or, perhaps, his cellmate, Reacher knows that the fix is in and something is very rotten in this town.

It's a good start to the series, but when you look at reader reviews on Goodreads, you get the impression that either you love Lee Child's writing or you don't.

I do. Child is the master of low-key clarity. He does not juice anything up with "exciting" writing; Dick Hill, the audiobook narrator, reads the book perfectly, with great calm even as -- no, especially as -- Reacher describes how he fights against thugs and killers who sometimes injure him but never really match his ability to outthink them.

Because, violent as the action is, Jack Reacher is primarily a man who notices things and figures out what they mean.

Another strength in Child's writing is that he has the hard-boiled-detective skill of bringing plausible love interests into Reacher's life, who sometimes tempt him to leave his wandering life and settle down.

Nowhere is that choice more clearly presented than in Tripwire, the third Jack Reacher novel, this time narrated very well by Johnathan McClain. At the outset, Reacher is hunted down by a very good private detective -- who is murdered by somebody shortly after he finds Reacher.

Almost on a whim, Reacher tries to track down the client who hired the detective to find him, because, while he only knows her name, she might be in danger from the people who killed the detective.

She is, of course, and the novel is spent with Reacher trying to make her safe by killing everybody who's after her.

We spend a good portion of time inside the mind of the one-armed Vietnam veteran who is out to kill, not just her, but anybody else who might threaten his plans for the future.

But the kicker in this novel is that the client is a woman that Reacher fell in love with when he got to know her as the daughter of an MP commander whom he loves and respects.

When he locates her, she's presiding over her father's wake; Reacher didn't recognize her name because she's still using her married name, though that husband is long gone.

If anyone can be called the love of Reacher's life, it's surely her. But come on -- when you've decided to live the life of wandering Heracles or the Lone Ranger (choose your era) it's hard to return to a settled life. He loves her -- he just doesn't love the idea of having an address.

The second novel, Die Trying, begins very differently. Reacher isn't looking for anything or anybody. He just happens to be there to help when a woman is struggling to get her clean laundry through a door, and just as he is about to return the laundry to her, she and he are both accosted by armed men and forced into the back of a car.

I know, I know, that happens all the time, but let's say that kidnapping Jack Reacher isn't ever a good idea. The only thing keeping his captors alive is Reacher's determination not to escape without bringing the other kidnap victim to safety with him.

These are all very good novels, very well written; I shudder to think what the reviewers on Goodreads who call it bad writing believe that good writing might look like. The first book is in first person; it can't have any better writing than Reacher himself might be capable of, or it would be false to his character.

Do the Jack Reacher novels sometimes strain credulity? Oh yes. Reacher has a personal connection to the murders in Killing Floor that makes his arrival in that town on that day such an astonishing coincidence that if I had wanted to, I could have let it spoil the whole story for me.

But Reacher himself sees that it's a bitter coincidence, and coincidences sometimes happen. So I give him that one, and hope he doesn't do it again.

The other Jack Reacher novels I've read don't have such incredible events in them, and where other characters might be eccentric to the point of unbelievability, Lee Child gets inside them so effectively that we are given solid grounds for believing in them after all.

Since Jack Reacher is a really big guy -- all the books make a huge point of it -- I can see why some diehard fans of the books were upset when an actor as slight of build as Tom Cruise was cast in the part.

But let's get real -- regardless of his physical stature, Tom Cruise is bigger than life, and all the actors I can think of who are physically large enough to play Reacher are nowhere near Cruise's level as an actor.

It's Reacher's brain, his training, and his courage that make him a great fictional hero. And if you've got Tom Cruise playing him in fight scenes, we're going to believe he can do whatever Jack Reacher does. Except get stuck in tight tunnels.

I'm not saying the Jack Reacher books are the best mystery/action/thriller books being written today, or that Lee Child is the best writer of such tales. Not while Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, and Jonathan Kellerman are alive. And David Baldacci gives him a run for his money.

But Child's Jack Reacher novels are good. Right from the start these were powerful stories and Jack Reacher was a fascinating, compelling character. If you try the first book and don't like it, or don't like Jack Reacher, then you're just not in the audience for these books.

Nothing wrong with you; nothing wrong with the books. It just happens that beloved, admired books are not always loved or admired by everybody.

But for whatever reason, I definitely am in the audience for the five Jack Reacher novels I've read so far. And I'm going to keep reading them, the new and the old.

And I'm not alone. On Ranker.com, the voters have Lee Child at number 17 among writers of crime novels. That may not sound all that high, but only a few of the writers ahead of him are still alive, and even fewer are still writing and publishing new books. Notably Michael Connelly, the only one from my personal list who ranks higher than Child. So somebody besides me likes Lee Child's mystery writing.

*

I didn't know Ranker.com existed until I was looking up stuff about Lee Child. But of course I had to look at the list of my own books and how they were ranked by around five hundred readers.

Well, can I be sure they're actually readers? Because a book that hasn't been written, Rasputin, which Kathy Kidd and I never finished before her death a few years ago, is ranked higher than several books that actually exist.

One book doesn't list the co-author (Invasive Procedures, co-author Aaron Johnston); another book shows a co-author that I've never heard of (Eye for Eye was a book that also contained the story "Tunesmith" by Lloyd Biggle, Jr., but he isn't mentioned, while some other guy's name is listed).

On several of the titles, I'm only the editor, not the writer, of the anthology or publisher of the magazine. So I'm not sure what the criteria for voting actually are.

But let's face it. Lists are fun, and rankings are fun, and if I'm way down the list of best science fiction authors, I'm just glad to be on the list at all, especially considering how many of the authors ahead of me are dead. Maybe when I'm dead, my name will also climb the list.

Or disappear -- the more likely outcome for any and all authors. It takes new titles to keep us in the public consciousness at all, and I don't have any novels in my trunk to be discovered and published after my death. For good or ill, every book I've written so far has been published.

*

Not long ago I reviewed the Hell Divers books, by Nicholas Sansbury Smith. You may recall that I raved about them both.

Well, the third book just came out. Hell Divers III: Deliverance is a fitting conclusion to the series, with a lot of powerful action and a new set of bad guys on Earth to balance the monsters -- and the bad guys in space. The character of X, who was left for dead but refused to die, and other favorites like Tin and Milo are back and most of the major storylines are resolved.

Hell Divers III reads like a wrapup volume; if there were never another Hell Divers book, nobody would have any reason to feel cheated.

But there are enough plot threads left dangling that if Nicholas Sansbury Smith and his publishers wanted more stories in that world, Smith could certainly pick up sometime in the near future and carry on.

We really do care whether the Hive or Deliverance ever get to return to the surface of Earth. And we want to know how and where the Cazadores managed to survive. Is there some patch of habitable land?

The audiobook is read by R.C. Bray, who does a splendid job.

And it might be interesting to note that the publisher of the audiobook, prestigious Blackstone Audio, has branched out to publish printed books as well, so that Hell Divers is published in print and audio by Blackstone.

Blackstone has published many of my own audiobooks over the years, but when I offered them my strange little Christmas book, A Town Divided by Christmas, which is definitely not science fiction, I thought of it as a possible audiobook original.

Instead, they took it as an audio and print book, so I'm glad to know that my book is joining the ranks of their print-and-audio novels, along with the good work of Nicholas Sansbury Smith.

*

My wife and I were headed for Poland to take part in a major science fiction convention, PyrKon, in the city of Poznan. I've been to Poland twice before, and this was my wife's second trip. I love not only the country of Poland and the people who dwell therein, but also the kind of science fiction convention they put on.

To wit: Even though I am sometimes helped by superb interpreters, the fact is that most of the panels I was on were conducted entirely in English, and audiences of several hundred Polish people understood -- and contributed -- just fine.

Not many Americans audiences could do so well attending literary discussions held in another language. And even when those discussions are in English, I haven't had many experiences with American convention audiences who were so well-informed and eager to participate in discussions of the written word as were the Poles at this convention.

Not that Poles don't love the movies and TV shows, not to mention comics, manga, and anime. It's just that, unlike most American sci-fi conventions, the movie fans haven't driven out the readers. People actually lined up for panels featuring people who are noteworthy only for their writing.

And this time I was going to have a chance to engage in public conversation with Robin Hobb, one of the very best fantasy writers ever. Under the pen name Megan Lindholm she wrote the seminal urban fantasy Wizard of the Pigeons, and as Robin Hobbs she wrote the Assassin and Liveship Traders series -- and many other books in and out of that fantasy universe.

In other words, I was starstruck before I got on the plane.

But there's the rub ... getting on the plane.

In order to get flights to and from Poznan without changing carriers, on the theory that when you change airlines you vastly increase the chances of losing checked luggage, we found that our best option was the German airline Lufthansa, and our connection was the city of Munich.

Lufthansa flies out of Dulles, and to avoid using a different airline to get to Dulles, we decided to drive to northern Virginia.

It was an excellent plan. We arrived in plenty of time (for a 10:30 p.m. flight), checked our bags, and settled down to wait in the Lufthansa lounge until boarding.

Except for the rainstorm. All that thunder and lightning forced the arriving plane to reroute to Charlotte, where the passengers were offloaded; and the plane did not fly on to Dulles that night.

Our flight was canceled.

That wasn't really worrisome. We were used to the way Delta now automatically rebooks such weather-stranded passengers on the next available plane. And since we have often visited in the Reston area, we already had several favorite hotels.

Except that ours wasn't the only flight canceled that night, and the closest hotel we could find was in Front Royal, Virginia, a name that I knew because of the Civil War battle fought there, and because of road signs when I drive on I-81 and I-66 from Lexington to DC.

My wife booked the Hampton Inn at Front Royal by using the Hilton reservations app on her phone. When we got there after midnight, the front desk was aware of our reservation and honored it. We were probably the last reservation they booked that night -- Dulles refugees were filling hotels all over Virginia and Maryland.

As we drove there (in the rain), my wife also called Lufthansa to see what new itinerary they had booked for us.

They hadn't.

But, because they were Germans, we were politely informed that it was entirely our fault for not going to their desk at Dulles and rescheduling there. Never mind that it was closed when we passed near it; never mind that we assumed Lufthansa would behave as Delta does and rebook us without our having to ask.

The earliest new booking we could get was two days later -- Thursday night instead of Tuesday night. Gone was the day-and-a-half we had allowed ourselves in Poland to get over jet lag before the convention. I'd be lucky if I could make it in time to take part in my first event on Friday.

But we informed the convention organizers by email of the delay and arranged to keep our room in Front Royal for two nights.

That meant that we had a whole day in Front Royal. After sleeping in, we made our way to downtown Front Royal, a place that is trying not to die even though both Walmart and Target are installed a couple of miles away.

The downtown was a lovely walk, with charming old buildings and a few shops we enjoyed. The signs of downtown death -- pawnshops and nail salons -- were (so far) absent, and a few developers were remodeling and refurbishing in hopes of reviving the place.

One antique store owner on the main street was appalled that an arcade was opening next door -- we overheard her telling a friend that if those teenagers blocked the entry to her store she'd call the cops on them.

Apparently she was unaware that antique stores are also harbingers of downtown death -- they don't bring in a lot of traffic. So part of the strategy for reviving downtown Front Royal might include encouraging the antique stores to relocate to buildings off of Main Street.

Meanwhile, though, we enjoyed our walk and then had dinner at a well-reviewed restaurant near downtown called Blue Wing Frog.

There is no other restaurant anywhere with that name -- google it, you'll see -- and while their menu is plain and simple, the ingredients are first-rate and the cooking is good.

They buy all the ingredients they can locally -- right down to making their own ketchup and mustard -- and when we showed up, the owner herself, with a headscarf and a friendly but no-nonsense attitude, took our order at the counter.

But not our money. This isn't fast food -- you pay after you eat. And the wait staff brings the food to the table.

I had the cod -- obviously not locally sourced -- and it was cooked perfectly, with a meatiness that is unusual in these days of undercooked fish. In fact, everything we were served was delicious, and the bill was surprisingly low.

I hope the locals dine there often enough to keep them thriving year-round, and that the hikers and tourists on the nearby mountains will treat themselves to a meal at the Blue Wing Frog every time they come to town, because this is a restaurant that deserves to be part of bringing Front Royal to prominence as a tourist destination.

The next day we checked out at noon and drove back to the Dulles area. Our flight still wasn't until 10:30 that night, so we decided to spend the afternoon watching a movie at the Bow Tie Cinema in Reston Town Center.

*

We settled on Life of the Party, which, from the reviews and promos, seemed to be Melissa McCarthy's answer to Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School, my favorite all-time college comedy -- yes, even more than Animal House, American Pie, Pitch Perfect, Revenge of the Nerds, or The Paper Chase.

The movie starts as Deanna (McCarthy) and her husband drop off their daughter, Jennifer (Debby Ryan), at her college dorm, where she's going to begin her senior year.

Back in the car, Deanna starts talking about how, as empty-nesters, they can now take their Hawaiian vacation. Hubby drops the bombshell. He already knows who he's taking to Hawaii, and it isn't Deanna. He wants a divorce.

Deanna gets out of the car and summons an Uber driver to take her to her parents' house. On the way, the Uber driver, played by McCarthy's real-life husband, Ben Falcone -- who also co-wrote and co-produced the movie with her, and then directed it -- offers her some words of encouragement, which soon translate into Deanna's decision to go back and finish the last year of her archeology major.

Naturally, Jennifer is not thrilled that Mom is going to intrude on her last year of college -- and she's not wrong, because Deanna is astonishingly blind to how she lands among Deanna's friends like a ton of bricks.

A very cheerful and warm ton of bricks, however, and the friends quickly become her buddies, inviting her to things that Jennifer would rather not have her mother attend.

Deanna tries to be one of the girls -- though she still needs way more sleep than the younger students -- and at her first party, she hooks up with Jack (Luke Benward), the best-looking male human at the party.

All right, I'm not going to tell you the rest of the story. I can reassure you that the middle-aged adult vs. youthful students story doesn't get as sickening and embarrassing as in, say, Blockers. But Deanna does hop into bed with Jack and opens his eyes to the ecstasy of sex with a middle-aged woman. But it's not just sex; Jack is besotted with her.

No, I didn't believe it for a second, either, but hey, we're along for the ride, right? And when edible marijuana gets her high as a kite and Deanna and "the girls" trash her ex-husband's wedding to The Other Woman, it's over the top but still kind of funny.

Look, this is not Melissa McCarthy's best comedy, but her sheer exuberance carries the movie along. The relationships never compare to Back to School, but they're still pretty good, and everything moves along briskly. We laughed aloud many times and were never tempted to leave.

Life of the Party gets a little raunchy at times, but nothing like raunchfests Bridesmaids or Hangover. McCarthy was so brilliant as a supporting player in Bridesmaids -- she stole every scene she was in -- that I worried she might be like Marty Feldman, brilliant in supporting roles but weaker as a lead.

Not at all. McCarthy carries Life of the Party and keeps it alive even in its dull spots. For sheer exuberance she rivals Chris Farley. But she also knows how to be real, when honest acting is required.

The result? We didn't regret spending a couple of hours watching Life of the Party. But I can't call it a great comedy because it isn't as funny as great comedies are supposed to be.

Even though Rodney Dangerfield was nowhere near as good an actor as McCarthy, Sally Kellerman's scenes with Dangerfield were better in establishing a relationship than anything in Life of the Party. Just a fact, can't be helped.

And with Sam Kinison, Robert Downey Jr., Burt Young, and many other long-established character actors giving great performances, the ensemble of Back to School gave the movie far more layers than Life of the Party even tried for.

In the coming weeks, the big films of summer are coming out and Life of the Party is likely to get swallowed up. But when it comes around on cable and DVD, it'll be worth a couple of hours of your time on a pleasant evening at home.

*

After the movie we had dinner at McCormick and Schmick's at Reston Town Center, which meant we were splendidly served and fed; then we headed to Dulles for a second try.

It was raining that night, too, but there was no thunder or lightning, and our plane took off right on time. I swallowed my Unisom half-tablet but I still didn't sleep a wink on the overnight flight, so I arrived in Poznan as the kind of walking dead that nobody has to fear.

We didn't even go to our hotel -- I was dropped off at the convention, where my interpreter-guide, Anna, led me to my first panel discussion while our driver-guide, Aleksander, took my wife and our luggage to the hotel to check us in.

I came in seven minutes late, and the panel discussion was already under way. I have no idea if I said anything intelligent but hey, I was there. And then I went straight on to do an autograph session in which I had a hard time forming the letters in people's names -- though I quickly caught on to the pronunciation and spelling of the Polish names.

Most Poles have variations on the same set of common names. Nicknames are also pretty easy to figure out -- Mariusz becomes Marek, Dariusz becomes Darek, etc. -- and when someone had an unusual name, they had already written it down for me.

The only annoyance was that, proud of their English (even the ones who didn't speak English "at all" had better English than my Polish!), they often told me the English equivalent of their names. Someone named Marcin (pronounced MAR-tseen) would tell me his name was "Martin," as if I couldn't learn the very easy Polish version of the name.

As on my previous visits, I quickly learned to pronounce Polish names and words, because the spellings and pronunciations all make sense. And people bore with my American accent. I had lots of good conversations with a lot of different people -- almost always on serious and intelligent topics, where I'm not sure my comments ever measured up to the quality of theirs.

Poznan was important in Polish history, not least because when Poland suffered under being divided among Prussia, Austria, and Russia for many years, Poznan was the capital of German Poland. Kaiser Wilhelm II even had a palace built there in 1912, though he never visited it, what with World War I in 1914 and then his abdication in 1918.

Our wonderful guide (and friend), Aleksander, and his lovely wife took us on a walk through the old city of Poznan, which my wife had never seen before. (I had visited it nearly twenty years ago, and wrote the story "The Elephants of Poznan" with the old town as its setting.)

We were led to several very nice restaurants during our visit, though the Polish sense of what combines well with other things is quite different from, say, the Italian or French. Polish bread is far more robust and flavorful than most American bread, and the rolls at our hotel's restaurant were much better than the overly glutinous soft dinner rolls usually offered in America.

One night, though, when we hadn't had any time to get dinner, we were told by the hotel desk clerk that there was a little market down the block. When we got there, we found a line of college students waiting to be admitted to the shop, with an intransigent shopkeeper barring the way.

He made some kind of announcement soon after we joined the line, and some of the young would-be customers went away. But since we spoke not a word of Polish, and this situation of letting in only a couple of customers at a time was alien to us, we had no idea what was going on.

Fortunately, a convention attender from the north of Poland happened to be there, and he went right up to the shopkeeper and explained that my wife and I were idiots Americans and could he please admit us also? He did such a good job that when he came and explained to us what was going on, the shopkeeper had already relented, and in due course we -- and no one else beyond the original cutoff point -- were allowed to enter.

We found good Polish rolls and some excellent Gouda cheese, which we took back to our hotel room and ate, thus preventing starvation.

It was a good hotel room -- by European standards. No, it didn't compare at all to the excellent room we had at the Front Royal Hampton Inn, because European hotel rooms are generally quite small.

But our room at Hotel Gaja (pronounced exactly like Gaea or Gaia) was much better than some of the European hotel rooms we've had. The twin beds were reasonably comfortable and we were able to sleep on them, and the room had a desk, some electric outlets, and decently reliable wi-fi.

The bathroom did not meet American standards, but it was clean and functional. The shower was a tiny cubicle with a slippery floor that kept forcing our feet against the outside edge, but it had a handheld showerhead so we could rinse all over.

The temperature control was instantly responsive, but that wasn't actually a good thing, because the control lever intruded into the very narrow space so that we were constantly bumping into it and changing the temperature. Icy cold sometimes; scalding hot at others.

But it was better than any shower we've had in England. In one memorable London hotel bathroom, the retrofitted space was so cramped that when you sat on the commode, your feet had to rest on the shower floor. By contrast, our bedroom and bathroom in Hotel Gaja were positively roomy.

From some Americans at the convention we learned that the nearby Sheraton was closer to what Americans expect of a hotel room, but our time at the Gaja was still quite enjoyable and we wouldn't mind at all staying there again.

Still, the slippery shower floor made us all the more grateful for the almost obsessively safe shower-tub combo in the Front Royal Hampton Inn. Not only was the tub designed with friction strips right in the tub floor, but also they had a rubber bath mat rolled up in a cubby under the sink, ready to make the bathtub even more slip-proof.

At our age, slippery shower floors are more dangerous than they used to be, because if we fall, we're much more likely to be injured than in the days when our reflexes were quicker and our bones sturdier.

Our last morning there, my wife woke up so early that she was able to take a pre-dawn walk back to the old town and watch the city come to life. I'm not a sunrise guy, so I took her at her word: It was beautiful.

The convention was held in one of the best-designed convention centers I've seen -- Poznan takes its role as a cultural and business center quite seriously.

Every time I visit Poland, I regret that I didn't have a chance or a reason to learn Polish when I was still young enough to make headway in acquiring another tongue. I'm glad of my small Portuguese and less Spanish, and I'm happy to splash around in other Romance languages, but Polish is also Indo-European and if I had applied myself, I might well have achieved some level of fluency.

I remember, on my last visit to Brazil, how shocked television interviewers and convention attendees were to discover that I spoke Portuguese fluently enough to need no interpreters at all. How I wish I could have done the same in Poland!

But instead, I found I could rely on the English of others, and they came through brilliantly. I was especially impressed with the Polish writers who took part on the panels, because they were all very educated and were able (and willing) to discuss many subjects at a very high level -- in English.

That is extraordinarily generous, to have so much of the programming at an important national convention take place in a foreign language as a courtesy to their anglophone guests. And, unlike American literary conclaves, nothing political (or politically correct) was discussed except when a few foreign visitors overstepped the bounds of courtesy.

Our return trip happened smoothly. Airport security and passport control went like clockwork, and Lufthansa offers pretty very good food, so that my wife didn't even want another meal when we landed, right on schedule, in Virginia.

*

My Fitbit Ionic, alas, did not adapt to the time zone change. My older Fitbit trackers had easily taken the correct time from the app on my smartphone; one would think that Fitbit's smartwatch would do as well.

The mobile app offered no way for me to change the time zone of the watch myself. I learned, just as I returned to the Eastern Time Zone of the U.S., that the app on my Windows computer would have allowed me to change it directly -- but come on, Fitbit! Why isn't that capability in the Android app?

After all, when I'm most likely to need to change timezones on the watch is when I'm traveling, and am likely to have only my smartphone at hand. Having to rely on my laptop to put the correct time on my Ionic is absurd.

Yet I kept wearing my Ionic, not as a watch, but to track my steps and my sleep. And I could always figure out the time from my watch by adding six hours to the (Eastern daylight) time displayed.

Until they fix that huge glitch, the Fitbit Ionic is only a watch when you're in your home timezone. Otherwise, it's just a really expensive tracker. Too bad.

A Town Divided by Christmas
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booksense.com


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Orson Scott Card is once again partnering with Barnes & Noble in Greensboro NC to provide signed and personalized books for Christmas.


Check out other great books for Christmas at the Hatrack Store

Eight Master Classes

on the art and business of science fiction writing.

Over five hours of insight and advice.

Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.

Available exclusively at OSCStorycraft.com

Thank you to the Israeli Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy for awarding a retro Geffen award to the Shadow Saga.

Every now and then it's fun to talk about the nuts and bolts of writing!
Edward Willett talks with Orson Scott Card, Part 1
Edward Willett talks with Orson Scott Card, Part 2
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