literature

AFTER THE END COMES RENEWAL: EARTH ABIDES

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

I first read this book 40 years ago. It wasn’t new then having been written in 1949, yet it has stuck with me, despite having read thousands of books since.

Earth Abides is sometimes referred to as “the original disaster” story, but it isn’t a disaster story at all. It is, as the title suggests, a book of renewal and hope.

Although events are set in motion by a disaster — a plague that starts somewhere, no one is sure where — and kills off most of the population, that’s only the beginning of the story. A few people are naturally immune to the disease. Also, anyone who was ever bitten by a poisonous snake and survived is immune.

The remnants of humanity find each other and form groups, then tribes.  They repopulate the earth, creating a new society that has bits and pieces of what had gone before, without much of the baggage of the past.

The book was re-released in a 60th anniversary edition a few years ago, including a newly recorded audio version that has an introduction by Connie Willis.

Cover of the 1949 Random House hardcover editi...

Cover of the 1949 Random House hardcover edition of Earth Abides. Cover illustration by H. Lawrence Hoffman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I cannot count the number of copies of this book I’ve owned. I buy copies of it and lend it to people. It’s theoretically on loan, but the books are never returned, so i buy another copy.

The book is a bit preachy, but George Stewart is a lot less preachy than Anne Rice and I agree with him.

And, what seems ordinary today was revolutionary 63 years ago.

The book holds up well. Technology has moved on, but because technology is insupportable on a depopulated earth, it makes no difference what had or had not been invented. It is all useless without supporting infrastructure.

You can’t drive cars without gasoline, use phones without service. Our satellites might continue to circle the earth, but who would send or receive their signals? After our batteries go flat, it’s over for technology.

The world ends, the world begins. Earth abides.

Ish and Emma are the “mother” and “father” of the new tribe. Ish, in Hebrew, means “man” and “Eema” means “mother” which I am sure is not coincidental. It’s a wonderful story that suggests the human race has the ability to not only survive, but reinvent the world and be better than we are.

If you haven’t read this book, read it. It’s available on paper, for Kindle, and from Audible – an excellent recording with a fine narrator. I recommend it.

I love this book. I read a lot of science fiction, or used to … but I’m finding most of the new offerings in the genre bleak, to say the least. Hope is as scarce in recent science fiction as the visions of the future are barren and grim. Everything seems set in some version of an ugly, dystopian future emphasizing the worst traits of human nature. Granted we are flawed and there is much evil amongst us, but I don’t necessarily want to dwell in that wasteland.

Earth Abides is exactly the opposite. It is timeless — and rich with hope.

YOU ARE OLD, FATHER WILLIAM – LEWIS CARROLL

Lewis Carroll is my favorite poet. In this, one of his less well-known but nonetheless wonderful poems, he offers commentary on both parenthood and aging. I find myself relating. Really. No kidding.

Just for fun, I’ve included John Tenniel‘s original illustrations which accompanied the poem on publication.

From Wikipedia:

The poem appears in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and is recited by Alice (Chapter 5, “Advice from a Caterpillar” which was Chapter 3 in the original manuscript, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground). Alice informs the caterpillar she has tried to repeat “How Doth the Little Busy Bee” and it came out all wrong as “How Doth the Little Crocodile”. The caterpillar asks her to repeat “You are old, Father William.” 

Following is the poem she recites.

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

FatherWilliam-1

“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “As I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door—
Pray, what is the reason of that?”

FatherWilliam-2

“In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
“I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment—one shilling the box—
Allow me to sell you a couple?”

“You are old,” said the youth, “And your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak—
Pray, how did you manage to do it?”

FatherWilliam-3

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “one would hardly suppose
That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose—
What made you so awfully clever?”

FatherWilliam-4

“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”
Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs!”

ON NOT BEING A CULTURE SNOB

I read a post about how dreadful (yet gripping) romance novels can be. It’s true. They are the potato chips of the literary world. Bet you can’t consume just one! Even if you don’t like them (and mostly, I don’t, much), they grab you and won’t let you go, even though you know in advance exactly what is going to happen, pretty much from the opening page.

That’s not the point of these books. If as a girl, you read the back of cereal boxes, romance novels are the next step up. I’m not sure what the literary equivalent is for guys, but I’m sure there is one.

netflix for books

As the former editor of the Doubleday Romance Library, I can tell you our research showed readers of romance novels to be far better educated than average readers. Many have advanced degrees in the sciences. They read romance novels exactly because they are mindless pulp. They aren’t looking to be informed or improved, to have their world expanded, reading-level or awareness raised. They want a book they can pick up, read, put down. If life gets in the way, they can just forget them without regret.

I read each 3-book volume, one per month. It contained three romances: 2 modern with a Gothic sandwiched between. Every novel had the same plot, the same outcome. They sold gangbusters.

Regardless of what we, as writers, would like, people don’t necessarily read books because they are good. Me? I often avoid “good” books. I don’t want to go where the book would take me. I’m not stupid or lacking in culture. I just don’t want to read it.

Why? Too depressing, too intense, too serious, too ugly, too educational. Too real. I read for the same reasons I watch TV and movies. To be entertained. I am not seeking enlightenment. Perhaps I should rephrase that. I am no longer seeking enlightenment. If I ain’t enlightened by now, I’m pretty sure it won’t happen in this lifetime.

The wondrous thing about the world of books is there are so many books. Enough genres, themes, and styles for anyone. Everyone. An infinity of literature so no matter what your taste –low-brow, high-brow, middle-brow, no-brow — there are thousands of books waiting for you. That’s good. I’d rather see someone reading a bad book than no book.

I’m not a culture snob. I think reading crappy novels is fine if you like them. Watching bad TV is fine too. Snobs take the fun out of reading. While I’m not a fan of romance novels, if you are, that’s fine. Since I love reading about vampires and witches, I’d be a hypocrite to act like your taste is somehow inferior to mine.

These days, I’m rarely in the mood for serious literature. Tastes change with the years. Mine has changed more than most. Life has been a very serious business for me. When I read, watch TV, or see a movie, I am happy to escape from reality.

Finally, my favorite professor at university — a man I believe was profound and wise in every way that counted — was a big fan of Mickey Spillane. He said there was a much truth in his books. I believe for him, there was.

SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION

A friend asked me why I do this, why I blog. So I asked her why she plays golf.

We do what we do because we love it, need it. Or both. Because, despite the fact the many bloggers pretend they “write for themselves,” it’s untrue. We blog because we want other people to read our words, to connect with our ideas. If we wanted to write “for ourselves,” we’d keep a diary.Garry - Writer Christmas Day

Why are bloggers so coy about wanting an audience? Is it because they aren’t getting a good response, so instead of trying to figure how to bring in more readers and followers, they say they don’t care whether or not anyone reads them?

And then when one of us is moderately successful and popular, they get all squinchy-eyed and moralistic, as if  we’ve ruined the purity of the blogging experience.

Really? Seriously? When did we achieve that lofty spiritual level where we are above worldly concerns … like popularity and success? The hypocrisy of it takes my breath away. If that is how you really feel, you shouldn’t be blogging.

We all care. Anyone who says otherwise is lying — probably to themselves and definitely to us. We all want to be read, to be seen, to have an audience. If we take pictures, we want people to look at our images and say “Wow, that’s amazing.” Because we want to be amazing.

Writing is like breathing. If I don’t write, I suffocate. My friend?  She needs to compete. To play golf. Or she will suffocate.

TELL ME HOW TO WRITE

I can’t begin to count the number of people who tell me they want to be writers, but don’t know how to start.

That they ask the question suggests they will never be writers. Writers write. No one has to tell you how or when. You write and will keep doing it because it’s not what you do, it’s what you are. You may not write brilliantly, but you will write. You’ll get it right eventually. Doing is learning.

I started writing as soon as I could read. Putting words on paper was the same as speaking, but took longer. I didn’t mind the extra time because I could go back and fix written words. Being able to change the words and keep changing them until they said precisely what I wanted them to say was the prize.

I was socially awkward and my youthful verbal skills not well-suited to my age and stage in life. I wasn’t good at sports. No one wanted me on the team. In retrospect, I can understand it, but when I was a kid, it hurt.

Games and other social activities let you become popular, make friends, and do those other things which matter to kids. I couldn’t do that stuff, but I could write. And read. I might be a klutz, but words let me build worlds.

75-BookStory HP-2

If you are going to be a writer, you know it. Practice will make you better, help you understand how to build plots,  produce books publishers will buy. But writing itself is a gift. If you have it, you know it.

Writers have words waiting to be written, lining up for the opportunity to be set on paper or in the computer. It may take a while for you to find what you want to write about. But you will write.

Talent comes in an endless number of flavors. If you are a musician, you’ll find a way to make music. The same with painting, photography, drawing, running, hitting a baseball or throwing one so that it just skims that outer corner of the plate at 96 miles per hour. Mathematics, engineering, architecture … creativity and talent are as varied as the people who use it.

Ghost Photographer

ADVICE FOR THE BEWILDERED 

My advice to hopeful writers is simple. Write.

Don’t talk about it. Do it. Write a lot, as often as you can, even if most of it is crap and you won’t show it to anyone. Sooner or later, you’ll find your way. If you don’t write, it’s your loss, but it may also be the world’s loss. You never know how good you can be if you don’t try.

This blog is my outlet for the millions of words stuffed in my head. Yes, I really want you to read it. It matters to me and I see no reason to pretend it doesn’t.

On the other hand, I hate golf. Can’t figure out why anyone would want to walk around an enormous lawn hitting a little white ball. I can’t think of anything more boring, but I know a lot of golfers. They live for it. The rest of the week is just a pause between tee times.

So, if you don’t get why I write, that’s okay. You don’t have to get it. That I get it and can do it and other people read it … that’s fine.

You do your thing, I’ll do mine. And we will all find happiness doing stuff we love.

NO GREAT DIVIDE

The Great Divide – The Daily Prompt for Monday, September 29, 2014

When reading for fun, do you usually choose fiction or non-fiction? Do you have an idea why you prefer one over the other?


There is no great divide. You must have made that up. Or maybe you don’t read much because if you did, you would know that literature is a continuity, a world without walls.

All my friends read. Friends and acquaintances, we read everything. Anything. Non-fiction and fiction, fantasy, mystery, and science fiction. The back of cereal boxes and magazines. Newspapers. Science and biography. Auto-biography and historical fiction.

I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of difference between historical fiction and regular old history anyhow. There’s a lot of fiction, made-up nonsense, wishful thinking and mythology in traditional history … and a lot of truth in fiction. Sometimes, the freedom an author gets under the cloak of fiction gives him or her the opportunity to write truer and reach more people than he or she could accomplish in an academic setting.

books and the duke

Those who love books don’t worry much about such distinctions. We pick books based on whether or not they will engage us. Teach us something we want to know. Make us laugh, cry, grow, change.

Most importantly, books take us out of ourselves. They transport us into a bigger world and give us food for thought and tools for understanding.

May a day never come when I confine my reading to a single genre, rejecting all others.

May the world never force such an awful choice upon me or anyone.

WAITING FOR A GOOD BOOK

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdRecently, I listened to To Kill a Mockingbird. It was re-released in July 2014 by Audible, with a new narration by Cissy Spacek. After I settled into it, I remembered why I love it. It’s a rare story in which all the pieces fit. Some call it the perfect book. It may be.

It never hits a false note. Takes its time, tells the story at a leisurely pace. It talks about justice, injustice, racism, and the legal system. It’s about family, love, relationships and coming of age. Discovering the world is both better and worse than you imagined.

My granddaughter was assigned to read To Kill a Mockingbird for school and found it boring. I don’t agree, but I understand her problem. She lives in a world so changed from the one in which “Mockingbird” takes place, she can’t relate to it.

Harper Lee wrote about a world without cell phones or email. People walked more than they drove. Food grew in gardens. The world was segregated, separated by class, religion, and ethnicity. My granddaughter can’t even imagine such a world. In her world, the President is Black and her white grandma is married to a brown man.

Everything is instant. You don’t go to a library to do research. You Google it. There’s no time for slow-moving books that depict a less frantic world.

It’s no wonder the fastest growing segments of fiction are fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, and so on. These books are fun. Exciting. So much of “literary fiction” is dreary. Authors seem to have forgotten that literature is also supposed to be entertaining.

I need stories that are more than a dark mirror of reality. That’s not enough. I want a good plot. I need action, stuff to happen. I don’t want to just hear what characters are thinking. I want to see them moving through their lives. I need characters who develop, grow, are changed by events. And, I need heroes. Un-ambivalent good guys for whom I can root. I welcome enlightenment and education, but I require entertainment. Lately it seems the reality-based books I’ve read have forgotten how to entertain. The people they portray are sad, depressed, trapped, miserable. Living lives so hopeless they lack even the energy of desperation.

Are our lives truly so pathetic? So grey and drab? I don’t believe so. I think it’s easier — and fashionable in current literary circles — to write that way. Easier to capture a single note than a whole range of feelings. There are plenty of sad and hopeless characters, but there are also plenty of glad and joyous ones. Winners, not just losers. Heroes and success stories.

I don’t understand current criteria for publication. I don’t get it. A high percentage of the new books I read (I read a lot of just-published books for review) are dull. Many are also poorly written. I find myself wondering why this book, whatever it is, was chosen. To me, I has no merit. I don’t even review these books. I don’t like trashing books and authors, so if it’s that bad, I just skip it.

Boring to me, is the worst sin in literature. I don’t believe Faulkner, Wolfe, Hemingway … or for that matter, Harper Lee — would be published today. I doubt they’d get a reading.

I miss books based in reality. I bet there are great manuscripts waiting, their authors yearning to be published. I hope they get to it soon. Because kids like my granddaughter need to discover how much fun books about real people can be.

WAYFARING STRANGER, BY JAMES LEE BURKE

James Lee Burke’s sprawling novel connects an encounter with Bonnie and Clyde to the Battle of the Bulge and the oil boom.


Here in the Lone Star State, we have a subgenre of the Great American Novel we like to call the Novel as Big as Texas. A representative N.A.B.A.T. features lots of pages crowded with multiple generations of characters fighting Comanches, driving cattle, bringing in oil wells, eating Mexican food, settling ancestral grudges and brooding about the pitiless immensity of the Land. The category arguably began with Edna Ferber’s “Giant” and has proven elastic enough to encompass not just earnest cycloramic texts like James Michener’s “Texas” but also literary benchmarks as varied as Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove,” Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and Philipp Meyer’s recent epic, “The Son.”

James Lee Burke’s enormous reputation centers mostly on the 20 novels in his Dave Robicheaux mystery series, which is set in Louisiana. But Burke was born in Houston and has long conducted a brisk side business west of the Sabine River with novels that chronicle the lives of the Hollands, an archetypically Texan clan. Son Holland, the patriarch, appeared in “Two for Texas,” which took place during the time of the Alamo and the Texas Revolution, and his descendants Hackberry Holland and Hack’s cousin Billy Bob Holland each anchor their own series of mystery novels.

Read the rest of the review at: www.nytimes.com


This is James Lee Burke in top form. If you like his writing, this will be a treat for you. It’s part of the Holland family of mysteries and a very good one.

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