I'm sad to see my 16-year run as a weekly columnist in The Rhino Times come to an end. I haven't missed a week -- though mostly because our fearless editors have been remarkably patient with my absolutely last-minute delivery in many weeks over the past sixteen years.
John Hammer, you created one of the best papers in America -- as a free weekly, no less! -- with a powerful and generally positive attitude and high-quality reporting. How did I get so lucky as to be part of it?
For the past 16 years of writing a column for the Rhino Times, John and Elaine Hammer have been very open about length.
I originally tried to keep my columns to standard newspaper length -- 800 words, about three double-spaced pages.
But since each column can cover more than one topic, the space I used up began to grow. Usually, the Rhino had room for 3,000 words, 4,000 words, and sometimes even longer.
I fear that this time I may be over 7,000 words.
Sometimes when I wrote more than 5,000 words, John or Elaine would say, "Election coverage needs the space this time," or "the local school board thing needs the space," and we'd bump part of my column back to the next week.
This time there is no next week -- not in the printed version of the Rhino -- so I can't bump part of my column. I have to fit everything in this week.
Every review and commentary this time must perforce be brief, to make sure there's room for it!
As usual, I'll begin with the timeliest items -- recently released movies and television shows, during the season when they're most appropriate.
This past Monday night, my wife and I had time enough to go see a movie together. Since this is an unusually weak movie season, in our opinion, one of the few movies that really appealed to us was Can You Ever Forgive Me? starring Melissa McCarthy.
I'm on record as saying that Melissa McCarthy is the funniest human alive. I think her secret goes beyond brilliant comic timing and a perfect ear for the nuances of language. She is also a superb actress, so unlike Jim Carrey or Robin Williams, who chased down the joke and strangled the life out of it, often without regard to the honesty of the character, McCarthy always commits fully to the character, not to the joke.
In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a sometime celebrity biographer fallen on hard times. We begin the movie with Israel getting fired from a copy-editing job because she used foul language to try to silence a co-worker. (And believe me, that is only the beginning of the F-fest in this film.)
Unable to pay the arrears on her rent or, actually, anything else, she stumbles upon the idea of writing the kinds of celebrity letters that collectors are hungry for. The ones that contain personal attitudes and witticisms.
So when she writes as Katharine Hepburn or Dorothy Parker or Noel Coward, she makes up letters -- and forges or traces the signature -- that are better than the letters the celebs actually wrote during their lifetime.
When dealers start to become suspicious of her, she enlists ne'er-do-well Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), an aging and borderline homeless gay man who still clings to his sense of style, to sell the letters she forges. (This performance shows that Grant should be asked to create a pirate character to replace Jack Sparrow in future episodes of Pirates of the Caribbean.)
Of course she's caught -- we expect it all along -- but this is not really what the movie is about. We see a woman who thinks she doesn't want human company, so all her love is focused on her cat. But in fact she's desperately lonely and searching constantly for love. When it doesn't come, she lashes out -- or drinks her way through her problems, making all of them worse.
McCarthy's performance is superb. She is always real, and always trying to conceal her character's pain while still letting us experience it. In this, she's aided by an amazingly insightful script by writers Nicole Holfcener and Jeff Whitty, while director Marielle Heller knows how to make the scenes work on the screen.
Jane Curtin plays McCarthy's fed-up agent, Marjorie. This role is so far from anything she's done before that I didn't recognize her until my wife pointed out, after the movie, that she had played the agent. It may be her career best.
I don't expect the Academy to recognize the same movies that I admire each year. Usually, none of my favorites are even nominated. But I can tell you that whether McCarthy is nominated for or wins the Oscar this year, she's definitely nominated for an Orson. I've never been brought to care so much about an unlikeable yet tragic figure. Her non-apology before being sentenced is written and delivered perfectly.
It's the same Melissa McCarthy who has been so screamingly funny so often before. She does pain and loss with the same reality she brings to comedy.
And a lot of this film is funny, too. If you can bear the language and the sadness, I believe you'll find that there's real greatness in this film.
I remember when LeAnn Rimes first became a country music star. I had to switch the radio to another station whenever she came on, because the only thing she knew how to do was yodel her way through every song. Ach!
Now she shows up in a Hallmark movie called It's Christmas, Eve. She plays Eve Morgan, and her career is as a roving school superintendent who is brought in to do the tough hatchet work to bring school district budgets into line.
This time, just before Christmas, she is hired by her hometown school district. She gets to spend time with her mother and her best friend (Darcy James). Meanwhile, she has one of the best meet-cutes with her mother's next-door neighbor, divorced dad Liam Bailey (Tyler Hynes), who is raising a most excellent daughter, Abby (Eden Summer Gilmore, an outstanding teen actress).
Of course we know that somehow Eve will fall in love with Liam. But first, they have to deal with the fact that her easiest route to a balanced budget is to axe all the music and art programs throughout the school system. This would put music teacher Liam out of work -- and also break the hearts of the kids he has been devotedly teaching to sing and play instruments in his high school.
He's a frustrated composer, as was Eve's late father. In fact, during her visit Eve runs across an unfinished song that her father had been writing for her, entitled "It's Christmas, Eve." It happens that Liam has a chance to finish her father's song, and because he does a good job, Eve is glad of it instead of resenting it.
There are several subplots -- the mayor's son, for instance (Josh Bogert) who is forced on Liam as a performer in the Christmas extravaganza they're putting on. And then Eve's mother's new husband is so eager to please, and so kind to Eve's mother, that Eve is won over, and accepts him.
Here's the bottom line: It's Christmas, Eve, totally works, because LeAnne Rimes has matured into a good singer (not a yodeler now!) and a good actress.
A good actress. Not an adequate one, not a pretty good one. She's very good, above the average for Hallmark movies, and way above the average for singers who try their hand at acting. She brings off convincing tears; we feel what she feels. She's a natural, and I want to see her in more movies, and not just on the Hallmark Channel.
I know, I shouldn't have been surprised by her acting chops. LeAnn Rimes has been in many films and TV shows -- but usually she's there as a singer, not an actress. She's now ready to be trusted with leading roles that require serious acting ability.
Meanwhile, besides looking for It's Christmas, Eve on the Hallmark Channel, you can get a nice jolt of Christmas spirit by streaming LeAnn Rimes in the soundtrack album: https://www.countryliving.com/life/entertainment/a23712168/hallmark-its-christmas-eve-movie-soundtrack-leann-rimes/
Our local ABC channel is the purveyor of the syndicated shows Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! Unfortunately, that channel also insists on broadcasting football games, even when they directly conflict with Jeopardy! and Wheel.
Sometimes these preempted game shows are broadcast at another time. But even this is faulty, since we have several times failed to find the shows at the promised time.
Worse yet, even though ABC's local station has plenty of advance notice, they do nothing to notify DVR and TiVo systems of the schedule change, so we often don't know that the game shows won't be on until we've fast-forwarded through the entire wasteland of empty commentary on the football game.
For some of us, at least, watching Jeopardy! is a family ritual. We don't care about NFL games, we just want the station to keep their promise to broadcast the game shows at the scheduled time.
If ABC loves football so much, then let some other channel broadcast Wheel and Jeopardy! Think of the viewers, please, and let go of the game shows that you clearly don't care a whit about.
I'm betting some other channel would snatch them up, because the demographics on these shows might skew as old as the hosts, but we have money to spend and advertisers will be glad to run "My Pillow" and GEICO ads on whatever station carries the shows.
Speaking of Jeopardy!, though, I must express my weariness at the way that, after several contestants give a wrong answer, Alex Trebek very slowly gives the right answer with an intonation suggesting that all intelligent people surely knew the answer.
Well, sometimes I feel the same way, too. But I also know that gloating is a rude, offensive way to act, especially when you have the answer sitting right there in front of you.
And Trebek's worse offense is that slow, gloating delivery of the answer slows down the game. I'm weary of question boards with two or three questions left unasked.
When we're scoring at home, it hurts our scores, because we're not competing against each other or the contestants, we're competing with ourselves to get the highest possible percentage of the sixty questions on the boards.
So keep the game moving, Mr. Trebek. Stop the long commentaries and lame jokes, stop the slow-paced, smug delivery of answers to questions the contestants missed, and get on with the game.
Do I care too much about Jeopardy!? Darn right I do.
Years ago, when our youngest was in seventh grade, her school guidance counselor insisted that the children needed to decide what their major field of study would be in college, so they could register for the middle and high school courses that would support that career.
Our daughter was quite distressed by this. "I don't know what I want to do."
"Exactly right," we said to her. "Why, at the age of 12, would you want to lock yourself into a career choice when the whole point of the university is that you can change majors at any point, even if it means spending an extra year or two in school?"
Furthermore, just because you major in a subject in college doesn't even imply that your career will reflect that choice.
I, for instance, started school as an archaeology major, having obsessed over archaeology from grade school on up. By the end of my first semester, I switched to theatre as a major, which meant I had no intention of having a career of any kind.
When I did get a paying job, it was as a proofreader and copy editor, using skills I learned quite young, from proofreading doctoral dissertations my mother typed to earn extra money.
In other words, college played no role in my career, period. (I also tested out of freshman composition and had no undergraduate literature courses, so I wasn't following any traditional course toward teaching English lit or professional writing.)
My wife majored in Humanities, which means if there was anything artistic, she covered it. She has worked as a museum docent and has curated the art collections of several buildings (one of them being our home), but has never been paid for it. It helped make her a superb teacher of our own children and, I must add, of me, since she is my only art history teacher ever.
Our older son went from one university to another, pursuing a film program, putting a cap on all the movie-making he and his friends did in high school -- only to toss aside the whole college-degree thing the moment he was offered a job as a videogame designer, "because that's what I always wanted to do."
And our elder daughter dropped out of a voice program at a university because she had progressed far enough they were going to require her to sing opera and art music all the time instead of the musical comedy and pop that she loved.
Now she's a first-rank audiobook narrator -- using a skill she largely taught herself by carrying a cassette recorder around with her throughout her childhood, making up and performing audioplays and "interviews" that were often quite funny.
There were early signs of interest and ability in these fields in every case -- but there was no idea of making them a career choice; nor was there any college major available which would have prepared any of us for what we actually ended up doing to make a living.
Our youngest, that seventh-grader who refused to choose a major, jumped from an acting major in college to majoring in sociology, and then, after a couple of years with AmeriCorps to figure out what she wanted to do with her statistical and analytical skills, she is in a graduate program to become a school counselor.
Who knew? Certainly not us, and certainly not her.
Will that be her longtime career for sure? I don't know, and neither does she.
If you're going to become a doctor or an engineer, yes, you had better study hard in your chosen field because if you screw up on the job, people might die. But most careers don't need you to focus your entire lives on preparing for them.
Every major in college is pre-law, for instance. You just have to pass the LSAT and hope some decent law school accepts you.
My personal belief is that it's crazy to stay with the same career your entire life. In fact, I reject the whole concept of "career."
What we have are jobs. We get hired to do a job, and then we do it and get paid. Until we stop doing it.
Careers are what you discover looking back on your life. It's not an accident that the word means both your job history and the path of a car driven by a drunk, careering down the road.
I know several people with law degrees, who passed the bar and got their Juris Doctor -- a terminal degree that entitles you to be hired for a tenure-track job at a university -- and yet never practiced law because if there's one thing law school taught them, it was that they would never be happy practicing law.
If you lock yourself into a career and shut out all other possibilities, then what happens when your company is acquired by a big corporation when you're 54 years old, and you get squeezed out of your "career" with no chance of getting another job in that field.
If you have completely identified yourself with that career -- if, when people ask, "What do you do?" you answer with that career title instead of a truer answer, like, "I try to be a decent spouse and a pretty good parent," then when you are cut off from that career, who are you now?
You get fired or laid off, and if that career is who you are, they've kind of killed you, haven't they?
Or if you lose interest or burn out in your chosen career, but you can't conceive of "starting over" in something new, how trapped is that?
The purpose of getting an education is partly to try on all kinds of life roles and possible jobs, to see which ones fit. But then, when you get out into the work force, you still remember all the other jobs you tried on, and if you get weary of doing this first job -- after, say, ten years, in which you accomplished everything that mattered to you -- you can migrate to another.
I know so many IT guys at various companies who never trained for that "career." They just happened to be the only one in their company who understood computers well enough to learn how to manipulate the software and install things on computers, and voila! That became their job.
I'm currently in a career trap like that myself -- I really love teaching, way more than writing, but I can't afford to switch careers because teaching wouldn't allow me to keep funding various employees and projects that I value. So I keep plugging away at this scribbling gig, taking time when I can afford to in order to teach a semester at Southern Virginia or some other school.
Eventually, every job stops being fun. Unless you can radically change your job every ten years or so. It can be changes like switching from teaching fifth grade to first grade for a while, or like taking your management skills from manufacturing to county administration, or like going back to the old home place and farming like your parents did, leaving the big city behind you. There are more options than you think.
When your current job stops being fun, remember: You're not locked into a career. As long as you've lived prudently enough that you can survive the temporary drop in income, you can change jobs and job types whenever opportunities present themselves.
One of the happiest people I know is my dear friend who switched from typesetting to optometry. It required going back to school for a good long while, but he came out with a completely new kind of job that he is practicing on through retirement age.
If the perks of seniority matter to you, great, stick with your current job. Just remember that when a new company acquires your current employer, you, with your higher salary, are the person they want to get rid of so they can hire two fresh-from-college kids for half your salary. Are you mentally locked in, identifying so completely with your job that you can't think of any other?
It's one of the things that career military people know all along. They're going to run into the end of their career -- the day when they know they'll never make lieutenant colonel or colonel or general -- and then they expect to begin another in the private sector.
Very few of them realistically expect to remain in the military their entire working life. But the pension they'll get after serving long enough will give them the freedom to reeducate themselves and live through that passage of life where they're establishing themselves in a new line of work.
We should all be ready to do that.
All my life, since my teens, I remembered the advice I once heard: No matter what your profession is, you should always know a trade that people will pay you for. I learned that carpentry and stitchery aren't for me -- though I've built stud walls and wallboarded and spackled them, and I've designed and made theatrical costumes that looked OK.
The trade I've counted on as my fallback job is typing, word processing, editing, and proofreading. Following my mother's example, I learned how to touch-type very fast and with reasonable accuracy; I taught myself to use word processors effectively; and I can edit and proofread.
In fact, one job I'd love to do is proofread every menu at every restaurant in town before they're sent to the printer (or printed out in the back office). The quality of spelling and grammar and word choice on menus throughout America is execrable. I could help with that.
But that was my backup plan. It kind of still is. If this writing thing doesn't work out, I still know how to spell. I still know the Chicago Manual of Style backward and forward. When I make grammatical errors in my fiction, it's on purpose. Even as an old man, I might still be able to support myself at the scrivening trade.
Because, unlike many writers and would-be writers, it was never my dream to "be a writer." It was my dream to make a good living so I could afford to raise kids in relative safety and see them through a state-supported university and then provide for my wife's and my old age, if we get to live so long. That was my ambition.
Writing was simply the thing that I got paid most to do, and since I apparently peaked in 1984 when I novelized my 1977 short story "Ender's Game," and all my writing since then is virtually invisible, I can't help but think I should have stopped this writer thing back in the 1990s and gone on to another trade.
My real ambition was to direct plays, and write plays; I've done a lot of that, but never for money. Still, if you ask me who I am, after I've listed "husband and father," the only career-like label I'd put on myself is, "I direct plays sometimes."
I treat fiction writing as if I were directing a troupe of improvisational actors coming up with a story together. Only I have to speak for all the actors.
That school counselor was wrong, when she told my seventh-grade daughter that she had to choose her college major and eventual career early on. You never have to lock yourself into any job on a permanent basis.
Your life will be happier if you always have another option lurking in the back of your mind, to replace your current job with another, even if it pays less, or with less certainty.
Then, when you're my age, you can look back on your life and figure out what your "career" has been.
The other night we had a play-reading party at my house. I got the idea from a friend in the writing biz in Hollywood who has frequent Shakespeare parties, to which they invite friends to come and read a role in a Shakespeare play.
The party attenders are therefore both the performers and the audience, playing roles they might never be cast in otherwise.
My wife and I decided Shakespeare used language that is so archaic that it isn't fun for most of the people we know to cold-read for an audience.
So we bought copies of Robert Bolt's brilliant script to A Man for All Seasons, then sent out scripts to those who accepted our invitation. Some people got small parts; some got big ones, but only for one act, while someone else played that role in the second act.
We had only a couple of rules:
1. Act. Say the lines like a real person, as best you can, boldly and without apology.
2. Don't break character. If you say the words wrong, just keep going. We all have a script so we know what the line was supposed to be. Continue to be the person you're playing, not an actor who says, "Sorry, can I try that again?"
Everybody obeyed those rules. The readers included some good and practiced actors, and some who had never played a role before. But everybody did well and, I believe, had fun.
I had thought maybe we'd move on to A Comedy of Errors, but now we think we might try some more contemporary comedies. Maybe Barefoot in the Park. Maybe The Importance of Being Earnest. Because Oscar Wilde and Neil Simon are the two funniest writers ever to create plays in the English language.
Or maybe Mr. Roberts or The Crucible or The Glass Menagerie or A Long Day's Journey into Night or A Raisin in the Sun or I Remember Mama or Cyrano de Bergerac.
There are so many wonderful scripts, and we can happily cast women in men's roles, young people in much older parts (and vice versa), so that people can play parts that they wouldn't even be given in school.
If you have a theatrical bent, and if you have friends who have been bitten by the acting bug but get few opportunities to play a good role, it's a great party to throw. Cheese and crackers get us through intermission. (You don't want wine; nobody's performance actually improves with wine.)
My friends probably won't be in the mood for James Kirkwood's P.S. Your Cat Is Dead! or Edward Albee's staggeringly brilliant Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But maybe we can bring off James Goldman's The Lion in Winter or Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun.
Because author Mark Hastings is British, he is able to bring a British slant to his excellent history of the Korean War, entitled (to everyone's surprise): The Korean War.
It was a war of carelessness and miscalculations; America felt like a winner because of World War II, but we did what we always did between wars -- we got lazy and found ourselves with a largely untrained army that we expected to perform like veterans.
What matters most is that the Korean people themselves were badly served by both sides. People living in South Korea largely hated their dictator, Syngman Rhee, and many were true believers in socialism. But the savagery of the North Koreans who invaded the South under Kim Il Sung turned the people of the South into deadly opponents of Kim's regime.
It's worth reading a history of that most-forgotten war of the 20th century, especially one as well-written and compelling as Max Hastings's work.
In fact, since this week's Veteran's Day marked the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended The Great War (WWI) on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, you might also try Max Hastings's history of the months leading up to the war and the first months of combat: Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War. No book has ever made the roots of World War I seem so clear, without hiding all the confusion and conflicting motives of the time.
It's especially painful to see how petty feuds and rivalries made it nearly impossible for commanders to communicate with each other, and how some commanders did not know how to remain in communication with their troops, so that all their orders were meaningless or absurd to the soldiers who were supposed to obey them.
If we don't understand our history, we can't easily guess how to avoid making the same dumb mistakes every time.
Though, human nature being what it is, yeah, we're pretty much going to make them over and over again.
Thinking about The Great War reminded me of the three most popular poems to emerge from that cataclysm. One is a poem urging soldiers to keep fighting the war, because of the debt we owe the dead; another is a savage depiction of the horror of a gas attack, and how it gives the lie to exactly the kind of gung-ho war fever exemplified by the other poem.
The third is a pastoral poem of dubious quality that became, in America, the most quoted and most memorized poem to emerge from the war. It counts as a World War I poem because its writer died in combat after writing it.
Joyce Kilmer was already a noted poet when he volunteered to fight, even though as a family man he would have been exempt; and he also volunteered for the infantry. Trees is his only enduring work, and though poetry professors generally detest it, the common people loved it, to the degree that when I was growing up, you only had to say, "I think that I shall never see ..." to find many people around you quite ready to finish, not only the couplet, but the whole poem.
The first poem, by John McCrae, is In Flanders Fields.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
(Another version of the poem has "grow" in the first line, rather than "blow." That's the version I memorized as a kid.)
McCrae was a Canadian doctor who tended to the wounded and sick in the Great War; he died of pneumonia while overseeing a hospital in the war zone in 1918.
The second poem is by Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
("Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori" means "It is sweet and proper to die for your country.")
Wilfred Owen wrote almost all his poems about the war while serving in the trenches between August 1917 and September 1918. One week before the Armistice ended the war, he was killed in action at the age of 24. Almost all his poems were published posthumously.
The third poet, Joyce Kilmer, wrote the ever-memorable Trees.
I THINK that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
To show how completely Trees penetrated American culture, my father loved to quote the poem thus:
I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I'll never see a tree at all.
This only makes sense of you remember, as I do, when American highways were lined with huge advertising billboards that really did blank out a lot of scenery. Now all we get are those little blue signs with the logos of a half-dozen eating places or gas stations.
The above parody was written by Ogden Nash, my favorite poet of light verse.
If there wasn't room to print these poems in this last printed issue of the Rhino, be assured that you can find the full text of the poems by Googling the names of the poets.
Speaking of history books, I'm sad to say that Antonia Fraser's The King and the Catholics: England, Ireland, and the Fight for Religious Freedom, 1780-1829 is quite incoherent.
Fraser seems to start from the premise that she's writing to an audience who already know about the Protestant Reformation, particularly as it happened in England; about the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, and all kinds of other events that impinge directly on the history of discrimination against Catholics in England.
Because I am quite familiar with all of that history, and I was often lost in her atemporal storytelling, I can only imagine that those who know even less about English history will be even more lost.
Too bad, because Fraser can write clearly and well. Why she chose not to in this book is beyond my power to guess.
1. Lee Child has just come out with a new Jack Reacher novel, Past Tense, in which Reacher is in search of information about his father's life in a small New Hampshire town before he left home and joined the Marines.
We also watch a young Canadian couple who seem to be imprisoned by people who intend to use them as targets in a vicious game of tag -- and one of their captors is a distant cousin of Reacher's.
2. Michael Connelly's new book, Dark Sacred Night, goes back and forth between Harry Bosch and Late Show detective Renee Ballard, as they pursue a cold case, the murder of a young woman years ago, whose death has destroyed the life of her mother, as well.
It's a beautiful and moving book. Both Bosch and Ballard are fascinating characters that we care about, and Connelly weaves a sad but satisfying story that points out that knowing the truth doesn't necessarily save your life or set you free from the consequences of deep, abiding loss.
3. Nicholas Sansbury Smith has brought forth Hell Divers IV: Wolves. If you've been reading this series, whose earlier installments I reviewed this past summer, you're already heading for Amazon to order it.
In this novel, X and other divers join forces to try to find the "metal islands," where the human race might be restored to the surface of the earth. I hope Smith is planning to release number 5 Real Soon Now, because even though this volume reaches a powerful conclusion, it also leaves us on the borders of despair.
It'll be interesting to see how Smith delivers our beloved characters -- some of them deeply and permanently damaged by combat -- from the teeth of the dilemma they are trapped in at the end of this book.
4. Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, by Kim Brooks, sounded like it would be an interesting book about how parents can run afoul of authorities by rearing their children with the same freedom I had as a child in the 1950s.
Unfortunately, Kim Brooks is deeply in love with her own role as writer, and her book is so writerly that her self-conscious ruminations -- which mostly consist of reaffirming her feminist credentials -- go on and on, so that when I stopped listening and set the audiobook aside, she still hadn't told us the story that triggered her own involvement in this modern parental dilemma. Tedious. And sad.
Because this is exactly how university creative writing programs teach their students to write -- so that it's always about the writer's feelings, and not actually about anything else at all.
I just made my first visit to Mexico City, where Kevin Anderson and I were given awards by the Mexican Publisher Association and the Mexican federal government.
Receiving the Federal National Literature Award took me completely by surprise, because my Spanish-language publisher is located in Spain, and I never had any indication of how well my books might (or might not) be distributed in Spanish America.
I received the award for my fantasy fiction, while Kevin Anderson received it for his science fiction. In both cases, we were quite honored; and happy also that the same awards ceremony included trophies for young writers in the Escritores de Mañana program.
It made me wish that my ability to read Spanish were a little better, so I could read their prize-winning work -- though I can make my way through almost any Spanish writing, if I have enough patience and a dictionary nearby.
But I have to say that one of the most exciting aspects of that visit last week was a book signing in a brand-new Borders Bookstore that opened in a mall in Mexico City.
A pair of local Mexican entrepreneurs acquired the rights to the Borders name, logo, and business plan from the current owners, who operate out of the United Arab Emirates and license bookstores throughout the Muslim world.
In fact, a Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) Borders manager was arrested a few years ago for selling a book by a Canadian author that criticized Sharia Law -- which can get you a couple of years in prison in Malaysia.
That bookseller, Nik Raina, won a court case in which she proved that the raid was illegal; also, the ban on the book was lifted in 2013, which should have made the case moot, but didn't.
So Borders is part of a struggle for freedom of the press in a place where it's a lot more serious than whether you're free to be rude to a U.S. President in a press conference.
Meanwhile, there's now a small Borders store in a popular store in Mexico City, with more slated to open in the near future.
If only we could reopen that wonderful Borders Store that used to exist in Greensboro.
The book signing that Kevin Anderson and I shared was very well attended, and I was thrilled to find such careful and dedicated readers of my fiction in the largest city in North America (and 23rd largest in the world; ahead of New York [28th] but well behind São Paulo , the largest city in the western hemisphere).
In fact, while I had little chance for tourism, I fell in love with this bustling, friendly city. I was treated with unfailing kindness and I felt that I made several real and, I hope, lasting friendships there.
I was also impressed with the enormous diversity on the city streets. We norteamericanos may think we know what "Mexicans" look like, but most of us are thinking of Mexicans who look like Native Americans. In fact, Mexico is as diverse as any city in the United States -- and more diverse than most.
Every race is represented, and many languages. Best of all, people are patient with strangers like me, who speak some Spanish and are trying to learn more.
However, the only way I could understand Spanish was if they spoke slowly, so that when a conversation didn't concern me, they would speak Spanish at their normal pace -- which means "with machine-gun rapidity" -- which left me completely devoid of information about what they were saying.
I had a superb meal at La Mansion, a high-class chain of restaurants, and a good plate of room service enchiladas from the Hotel Sevilla. I'm looking forward to going back with a little more time to explore.
Meanwhile, to my Mexican readers I must say how grateful I am for the close attention you've given to my fiction, and how proud I am that they have taken my stories into their memory.
Are you looking for a friendly gift to give to a few friends this year? I'd suggest going to CarolinaCookie.com, where they have a whole slew of very good cookies, in holiday packaging that is a delight.
For instance, you can order cookies in a mailbox for "Letters To Santa," or in Reindeer Boxes, with stuffed reindeer heads and antlers on top.
There are also holiday tins, buaskets, and faux leather cookie chests. Not to mention a Gingerbread Men Gift Tote -- with superb gingerbread men that actually taste like they contain ginger!
My favorite packaging was a house, whose roof comes off to give access to the cookies.
All the cookies are individually packaged, so they don't get old waiting to be eaten. They also come in a dozen different flavors. We bought some of each, just to sample and test them on our friends. The consensus was that the chocolate chip cookies were best, though I also liked the regular sugar cookie.
These are expensive enough that you probably won't want to give them out to all your friends. But as an option, you might prefer to give consumable gifts, so they don't clutter up the recipient's house. In which case, Carolina Cookie Co. may be just what you're looking for.
Along with the books I'm signing for Barnes & Noble customers every weeks until near Christmas, I'm going to be having an actual in-store signing on Tuesday, 27 November, at 7:00 p.m., to help launch my Christmas book A Town Divided by Christmas.
It's a short book, but I'm very proud of it. Superficially, it is meant to resemble a Hallmark Christmas movie, but I'd like to think it's much more than that.
The time to give a Christmas-themed book as a gift is well before Christmas, so if you want to have time to read it yourself before giving it as a gift, that signing on 27 November might be your best shot!
And now we'll re-run the notice about the books I sign for our local Barnes & Noble customers throughout the weeks leading up to Christmas:
The Christmas season approaches, and we're continuing the tradition of offering some of my books, signed and personalized to your gift recipient, through our local Greensboro Barnes & Noble at Friendly Center.
This spares you and me the need to attend a single book signing on a certain day, and you don't have to wait in any lines longer than the checkout line at the bookstore.
Barnes & Noble will take orders by email at CRM2795@bn.com. They will not be taking orders over the phone. They will ship anywhere in the U.S. Remote buyers will pay the actual shipping costs, but there's no charge beyond the ordinary price of the books to local customers who pick them up in the store.
The last day to place out-of-town orders is 10 December, but local orders can be placed as late as 17 December, for pickup before Christmas.
We don't offer this with every title -- just a few that Barnes & Noble orders especially for this purpose and keeps on hand until the end of the Christmas buying season.
Here is the list of books available in this program -- until the store runs out of a particular title:
Leading the group is my newest book, A Town Divided by Christmas, which came out just this past Tuesday. It's the story of two scientists who come to conduct a genetic study in a North Carolina town, and find that, in the best Hallmark Christmas movie tradition, there is love waiting for them -- if they're willing to change their lives enough to accommodate it.
With any luck, you'll enjoy it as romance and as comedy. But of course, a book with a Christmas setting needs to be read before Christmas, so that's one title you may want to look at first -- perhaps to see if you enjoy it, and then to send copies as gifts to people you think would also like reading it.
A Town Divided by Christmas has scientists in it, but it is not science fiction by any rational definition. No space ships. No aliens. Not in the future. Just people of today doing their best to lead happy lives constrained by the needs of others and the requirements of making a living.
Here are the titles that we're offering to those who would like autographed and personalized copies to give as gifts this Christmas, starting now:
A Town Divided by Christmas
Ender's Game - gift edition hardback
Ender's Game - Young Adult trade edition (exactly the same text as in the edition for adults)
Ender's Shadow - Young Adult trade edition
Children of the Fleet - hardcover and mass market
The Lost Gate
A War of Gifts (an Ender novel from his time in Battle School)
If you don't care whether the book is autographed and personalized, then you can buy it in the store and take it home. But if you want the personalization and autograph, you will buy it but leave it with the store, and on Mondays I will come in and sign whatever books are waiting for me.
This offer is from our local Barnes & Noble only. The national chain and the Barnes & Noble website have nothing to do with this, so they won't know what you're talking about if you try to participate through them.
In addition, signed (but not personalized) copies of many of my books can be ordered directly from my own online bookstore at Hatrack.com -- including my earlier Christmas book Zanna's Gift, which I think may be the best story I ever wrote. Give us a look at http://www.hatrack.com/store/store.cgi
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