Tag: Book Review

Brave New World Cover

I try not to think about theme when I am writing. Falling in that pit is the quickest way to lose a story. In a literature class you were told that theme is what the author is trying to convey, a central idea or meaning to the story. In rare exceptions, that might be true. In truth, authors have no idea what themes will manifest when they start a work. A few will pretend they had a grand design to start, but I never believed it.

I view my writing as an argument I am having with myself. I am not writing to satisfy a theme, but to find one. When I am satisfied with the argument, I know I have finished and I start editing and re-writing to strengthen the salient points.

The coronavirus pandemic makes writing without a theme difficult. Every word you write screams “you have missed the point. What about…” And that list is long, but familiar. The use of technology to control society, consumerism, the dangers of big government, individualism, and daily challenges our worldview are in every headline.

If you run a business in the service or entertainment industry, the facts on how coronavirus spreads are nightmarish. You must ignore them. And you must convince your guests to ignore them if you are going to remain open.

If your income depends on someone spending money on your disposable, but unnecessary, item the pending economic collapse is more than you can bear.

If the idea of a government tracing your movements is antithetical to your political ideals, then tracking you so we trace an outbreak is a violation.

Regardless of where you fall on any of these themes, Happiness and Truth have never been more at odds in your lifetime. These are all themes explored in the great science fiction of the past. 1984? No wrong century. Animal Farm? No, way too political. Brave New World. Hell yea! My guidepost for a coherent, tightly written work that carefully weaves its themes into the lives of its characters is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And no single chapter in the history of science fiction does it better than chapter three.

Chapter three of Brave New World is an example of world building at its finest. The first time I read the book my fascination with this chapter prevented me from reading the rest of the novel. Chapter Three introduces us to his fordship, Mustapha Mond, who relates the arc of history to a group of students. Interspersed with Mond’s exposition are the activities of some children in the park, Bernard Marx, Henry Foster, and Lenina Crowne. Mond’s broad strokes about the morality of community, identity, and stability play out as routine activities for our characters. Each character is confronted with situations that develop as themes in the story. The flow between Mond’s exposition and the character interaction is seamless. One paragraph is his fordship retelling the fourth world war, the next is Henry Foster bragging about Lenina Crowne’s sexual appetite. “She is very pneumatic,” Henry says after Mond has promised the students an emotionally easy life. Lenina informs Fanny she is spending another night with Bernard. Fanny is shocked. The students write in their notebooks, and Mond continues with a history on the short-sightedness of his ancestors.

“I once had to wait nearly four weeks before a girl I wanted would let me have her.”

“And you felt a strong emotion in consequence?”

“Horrible!”

“Horrible; precisely,” said the Controller. “Our ancestors were so stupid and short-sighted that when the first reformers came along and offered to deliver them from those horrible emotions, they woudn’t have anything to do with them.”

“Talking about her as though she were a bit of meat.” Bernard ground his teeth. “Have her here, have her there.” Like mutton. Degrading her to so much mutton. She said she’d think it over, she said she’d give me an answer this week. Oh, Ford, Ford, Ford.” He would have liked to go up to them and hit them in the face-hard, again and again.

“Yes, I really do advise you to try her,” Henry Foster was saying.

“Take Ectogenesis. Pfitzner and Kawaguchi had got the whole technique worked out. But would the Governments look at it? No. There was something called Christianity. Women were forced to go on being viviparous.”

“He’s so ugly!” said Fanny.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

As you can see, it is not a chapter you take in casually while drifting off to sleep, or quietly pondering the day’s events. No, this work requires some concentration if you are to keep the pace. This is a tightly written novel that expertly weaves broad themes into the lives of its characters.

To this point in the novel we had not met the key characters of the story. In chapter one and two we followed the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning touring a student group through the human embryo production process. Modeled after Henry Ford’s moving assembly line, embryo production is a pivotal aspect of the story.

In this brave new world the Hindu caste system is perfected before birth. Embryos are denied or given vitamins at key markers in their production cycle. Need more Epsilon sanitation workers? Deny a thousand or so embryos some element at a certain meter along the assembly line, and in two or three years you will have all the sanitation workers society requires. Need more Alpha’s to consume production. Add a vitamin here, some extra care there, and you will have thousands of consumers.

“For in nature it takes thirty years for two hundred eggs to reach maturity. But our business is to stabilize the population at this moment, here and now. Dribbling out twins over a quarter of a century-what would be the use of that?”

Obviously, no use at all. But Podsnap’s Technique had immensely accelerated the process of ripening. They could make sure of at least a hundred and fifty mature eggs within two years. Fertilize and bokanovskify-in other words, multiply by seventy-two-and you get an average of nearly eleven thousand brothers and sisters in a hundred and fifty batches of identical twins, all within two years of the same age.

“And in exceptional cases we can make one ovary yield us over fifteen thousand adult individuals.”

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Henry Ford’s Model T moving assembly line started rolling on October 7, 1913. It produced a new car every ninety-three minutes, faster than the paint could dry on the vehicles. Published in 1932, twenty years into the manufacturing revolution and three years into the great depression, Brave New Word was a satirical stab at H.G. Wells’s utopian novels of the time. As a negative utopia his satire manages to capture a fast-paced future where commercial cheeriness and sexual promiscuity consume personal identity. To prevent anyone from causing trouble sleep conditioning, Hypnopaedia, is applied to each caste so they don’t question their purpose or resent another’s position.

“Alpha children wear grey They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfuly glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able.”

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Throw away the embryonic production process and concentrate on the lives of our characters and you are hard pressed to find a distinction between AF 632 (2540 CE) and today. Consumerism is the foundation for stability. For consumerism to survive you need some things to be true. You need production, you need consumption, and you need disposal goods and consumers.

“Ending is better than mending. The more stitches, the less riches; the more stitches.”

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Soma is the final ingredient. For the Alpha’s, who can think and create, soma is “Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant.” Oxycontin without the side-effect (not really) soma allows our Alphas to endure their limited place in society. At the top of the caste system, they are all miserable in their own way. Before the end of the novel, even his fordship confesses a desire for a more savage life.

“A gramme is better than a damn,” said Lenina mechanically from behind her hands. “I wish I had my soma!”

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

The story turns on its central themes after Lenina and Bernard take a holiday on the Savage Reservation in New Mexico. On the Savage Reservation people are natural-born. Sex for reproduction is a profanity in his fordship’s world. On the reservation Lenina and Bernard meet John and Linda who do not have last names. In the World State of two-billion people there are precisely ten-thousand last names given to individuals without family ties, but on the Savage Reservation, where people are natural-born, family names are absent. One point for what is to come.

Lenina and Bernard learn that John is the son of the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning. When Linda requests she return with them to London, they cannot refuse.

“Well, here,” the other went on, “nobody’s supposed to belong to more than one person. And if you have people in the ordinary way, the others think you’re wicked and anti-social. They hate and despise you. Once a lot of women came and made a scene because their men came to see me. Well, why not? And then they rushed at me. No, it was too awful. I can’t tell you about it.” Linda covered her face with her hands and shuddered. “They’re so hateful, the women here. Mad, mad and cruel. …”

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Lenina and Bernard’s experiences at the Savage Reservation is one side of the theme coin, the other side is when they return to London, at Linda’s death. Death is nothing in the brave new world. Part of a child’s conditioning is to become unconditioned to death. When John learns that his mother is dying, he rushes to her side where such a conditioning is happening. The group of identical twins’s inability to feel or recognize the importance of the moment is too much for him and he strikes one before berating a nurse. The nurse ushers the children out of the room and orders a dose of soma for them. After Linda passes, John decides to free this brave new world of its soma induced haze and destroys the doses before the khaki dressed twins can consume them. Bernard and Henry attempt to stop John, but not before the incident incites a riot that requires police intervention.

Taken to his fordship for judgment and punishment—no trials in a stable society—the great Mustapha Mond relates, in no uncertain terms, the themes of this novel. Chapter Sixteen if you would rather skip ahead. In the process, Mond reveals his private desires, and how he has subsumed them to serve stability. Everyone belongs to everyone else, and stability is paramount for society. Of course, there are islands and reservations where the rules of this civilization do not apply. Without them, there would be no place to send the reprobate. How awful it must be in those places.

Certain the punishment will fit the crime, Mond executes his sentence, and here Huxley’s genius is at play again. One of our characters accepts his fate, even requests the most dank and dreary place to serve his sentence. Another begs for forgiveness, and, after throwing the others under the bus, Mond gives a reprieve. John begs to return to the Savage Reservation, but Mond denies him because the worst possible place for him is here, in this brave new world. As an ascetic, a prophet, a tragedy.

“O brave new world,” he repeated. “O brave new world that has such people in it. Let’s start at once.”

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Book Review

Dreams and the White Gold Wielder

The White Gold Wielder Cover

As children all we have dreams. As infants we lack income, property, and choice and we are fragile and slow to grow compared to the rest of the natural world. As soon as we achieve enough independence to think and wander on our own, society dictates we get an education, attend church or temple, or at least recognize a higher power. Unable to chart our own course, dreams are all that remain.

When I was a child, daydreaming was a sin. A protestant farming community expects the children to contribute. I suppose it is better than the alternative, running and hiding from predators. Never mind that the daydreamers created the civilization and society that now shunned them.

I was a rebel. I daydreamed at every opportunity. A simple garden stake became a great overland vehicle that brought technology and hope to a post-apocalyptic world. A broken frisbee became an orbital platform where the wise retreated from a barbaric horde. A left-over sheet of parchment paper became a map to a world where men transformed themselves into dragons and forbid you to love.

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This Day All Gods Die

This Day All Gods Die

What life is valuable? More precisely, whose life is valuable? Is your life more valuable than mine? Does your position, title, salary, or family relationship make your contribution to this small planet more valuable than mine?

This is not a small question. We ask it in fiction yet ignore it in reality. On this globe, everyday decisions have determined that some lives are more valuable than others.

Last month the powerful cyclone Idai took aim at Mozambique. It promised to be one of the deadliest storms in history, yet I heard nothing about it. Trump being a spoiled brat had plenty of news. The 2020 Presidential field saw nightly coverage. A self-centered egoist faking his attack in downtown Chicago got wall-to-wall coverage.

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Stephen R. Donaldson's The One Tree

Have you been locked in despair for weeks while ignoring events around you? Have you looked up to find that it is a fresh spring day, the birds are chirping, and the air is crisp against your skin, then wonder how you missed it? That is what reading The One Tree is like. It is a deep dive into the character of Linden Avery, a character who never sees the spring day, or understands the events around her because the bitterness of her past consumes her.

The One Tree—more so than the books that went before it—shows the flaw in Stephen R. Donaldson’s writing. Here, at last, I can agree with those that say there is never anything good about Donaldson’s characters. Seen primarily through the eyes of Linden Avery, her miserable past, her inability to experience joy, weighs down this epic tale.

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Chaos and Order and Theme and Madness

Chaos and Order and Theme

Those “real-people” reviews on Amazon and Goodreads have difficulty finding themes in The Gap Cycle; imagining a more clueless lot is difficult for me. At the end of The Real Story Stephen R. Donaldson summarized his intent, his themes and—in broad strokes—outlined the story he prepared. The Gap Cycle is not an attempt to mimic the Wagnerian epic of Der Ring des Nibelungen, but it is about the moral conflict between humanity’s desire to survive as an individual or as a group. From The Real Story:

My original intentions were explicitly archetypal. What I had in mind was an aesthetically perfect variation on the basic three-sided story: the story in which a Victim (Morn), a Villain (Angus), and a Rescuer (Nick) all change roles. (This, incidentally, is the essential difference between melodrama and drama. Melodrama presents a Victim, a Villain, and a Rescuer.)

The Real Story by Stephen R. Donaldson

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The Collected Works of Arthur C. Clarke

The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke Book Review Featured Image

2001: A Space Odyssey was boring. There I said it. I know you were thinking it. After the chimpanzees smash bones to Thus Spoke Zarathustra there is about a hundred minutes of nothing until we get to, “Open the pod bay doors,” followed by a light show that requires the high of psychedelics to be appreciated.

That 2001 was boring did not stop it from becoming the most influential film made in my lifetime. The accurate (1968 accurate) depiction of space flight with ships matching rotation and a Pan Am stewardesses clomping along in gravity boots were a needed reality check to Star Trek’s Enterprise and Lost in Space’s Styrofoam sets.

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The Nature of Evil, or The Wounded Land

The Wounded Land Featured Book Review

What is Evil? Does it exist? When you speak about the world, do you define an act, a person, or a group as evil? I have called Donald Trump Lord Foul since the 2016 Republican National Convention, by association, am I calling him evil? If evil does not exist, then what is that quality we identify as evil? Is evil a treatable sickness, disease, or mental condition? The question of evil is a foundation for good fiction. Science fiction and fantasy fiction settings provide a rich playground to study the question. Is a race of mammals that eats other mammals evil? Orc eats human, human eats pig; evil depends on your perspective.

The Wounded Land, the first book in The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, introduces Linden Avery. She is the most tortured of Stephen R. Donaldson’s characters. As a doctor, she has a certain self-assurance that no matter what situation, what disease, or injury she encounters, she has the training and the equipment to treat her patient. Short of those things, she relies on the institutions she belongs to for support. Then she meets a beggar in the driveway to Haven Farm.

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A Dark and Hungry God Arises The Gap Into Power

How much can humanity consume? Earth is a solitary realm. She has a long past, most of it devoid of humanity. Thanks to plate tectonics and the unique chemical ability of sediment and stone to record images of Earth’s past, we know that other creatures once roamed the plains and forests, or swam the deep oceans of our world. The Kansas prairie is full of fossils from the Permian geologic period. The diversification of amniotes into mammals, turtles, lepidosaurs, and archosaurs was a key to our evolution. But 250 million years ago a runaway greenhouse effect caused by an explosion of methane in the atmosphere that caused nearly all life on Earth to vanish. It took 30 million years for Earth’s ecosystems to recover.

In A Dark and Hungry God Arises the third book in Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Gap Cycle humanity stands at the door of an extinction event that comes from the deep dark of space. In this book we get closer to the real story promised us in the first book of The Gap Cycle. Morn Hyland’s crisis aboard Captain’s Fancy becomes an existential fear of genetic mutilation by the Amnion. A personal horror that all of humanity faces if the UMCP cannot prevent it.

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The Power that Preserves

A few dramatic scenes are etched onto the consciousness of the collected public. From cinema there is Indiana Jones running from a boulder only to land at the feet of his rival, or Lawrence crossing a desert on a camel. From television there is the intro to MASH, or Kramer entering Seinfeld’s apartment. “Neuman!” From literature there is the white whale sinking the Pequod, or Gandalf standing on the Bridge of Khazad-dum declaring that the Balrog “shall not pass!”

When I took a date to The Lord of the Rings movie, I discovered the last one was not yet etched into everyone’s consciousness. For my generation, Gandalf, Frodo, and Samwise were reserved for the nerds. So, when I said, “you shall not pass,” to someone who cut me off at the snack line, she didn’t get it. When I whispered, “Balrog” at the beginning of the most dramatic scene in The Lord of the Rings, she was clueless. But when we left the movie, and I was opening her car door, she raised her hands as if holding a staff and exclaimed, “You shall not pass!”

Another dramatic scene etched into the collective nerd brain of my generation is the most dramatic, most heroic, chapter of my childhood: Lord Mhoram’s Victory.

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First-Person Fail: The Extraditionist

Featured cover image of The Extraditionist

I grabbed The Extraditionist as a Prime Early Access Deal. I was looking for something outside my diet of science-fiction and fantasy. I figured a good crime novel was the way to go. I might have been right, this was just the wrong novel.

This is supposed to be a novel about a drug lawyer—they call them Extraditionist south of the equator—that is all slime but is looking for a way out. He needs one more score, and he will stop with his murdering, drug dealing, clients to live on a beach somewhere. A standard criminal wants out storyline.

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Reviews, Rape, and Forbidden Knowledge

Forbidden Knowledge The Gap Into Vision

Before the Internet, I did not read book reviews. Professional reviewers—those paid to churn out a weekly summary of the latest media—tend toward promotional hype—when the product is from their corporate overloads—to sanctimony—when the product is from a competitor. For science fiction, professional reviewers are especially complicit. The dullest, drawn out, un-stories get five-stars while the exciting, mind-bending stuff is never reviewed. The Internet has magnified the disease to a condition as accepted as pimples.

I used to choose books by their dust jacket summary and scanning the first, middle, and last chapters. A “New York Times Bestseller” sticker never swayed me to read a book. Most of the “sold” copies required to get such a sticker are sitting at the bottom of bargain-bins, unread.

My reason for scanning the middle and last chapters of a book is to identify the writer’s style, and to determine whether an actual story lies between the covers. Given a six-foot shelf of books, most are aimless blather. Those are easy to identify when you can scan the middle and last chapters. If you can’t spot a plot progression from ten or so paragraphs in the middle and end of a book, it is not worth reading.

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Hile Troy! The Illearth War

Stephen R. Donaldson The Illearth War fantasy book cover.

Hile Troy! Just kidding. Hile Troy, the character introduced in Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Illearth War is one of my favorite fantasy fiction characters. Sure, the name helps, but it’s his story arc that fascinates me.

Hile Troy, like Covenant, is summoned to the Land through the same magic that started the story. But his arrival was a mistake. Atiaran, (the woman that led Covenant to Revelstone in Lord Foul’s Bane) in an act of despair, attempted to call Covenenat to the Land. Whether to get revenge for the rape of her daughter, or to save the Land is unclear because she is consumed by the power of the summoning.

The Lords of Revelstone, being Lords, do not share these facts with Hile Troy, a blind man. Like Covenant, Troy was damaged before his arrival to the Land. He was born blind. When hurtloam, the magic healing mud of the Land, cures Troy of his blindness, he follows a different path than Covenant. He chooses to save the Land from Lord Foul.

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The Real Story

The Real Story Science Fiction Book Cover

The first time I finished The Real Story I was tired from a stressful day at work. I had curled myself against a stack of pillows with my dog sleeping in the crook behind my legs. The plan was to read a couple of chapters, then turn in early. The thirteenth chapter spoiled my plans.

Nick bowed gracefully but didn’t move. “On the contrary, Captain Thermo-pile.” Except for his scars, his expression was bland. “I’m in no hurry at all. Please”–he gestured expansively–“after you.”

His gaze and his bow and his gesture were all aimed at Morn.

“There-mop-a-lee,” Angus retorted. “Ther-mop-a-lee. Get it right Succorso.”

The Real Story by Stephen R. Donaldson

Suddenly, the story had changed, again. From those nine sentences, I realized that the real story was yet to be told. I plunged into finishing the book like it was the deep-end of a pool. I finished that night, itching for the next book in the series.

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The Crisis of Lord Foul’s Bane

Lord Foul's Bane book review

I come to this review in a crisis. While chasing my dream of writing science fiction, I forgot my age. Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant lit my desire to write. I found Lord Foul’s Bane in the school library, a paperback fantasy on a shelf full of dusty, hard-covered tombs. Lord Foul’s Bane entered my world at another crisis point; high school. The story of a man rejected by his world was the life of every thin high school nerd in the early 1980s

I devoured The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Donaldson’s writing was a revelation. He ignored that tired advice of the simple word is better. Lord Foul’s Bane forced me to read with a dictionary nearby. I loved it. With every beat of a sentence, I thought to myself; I want to write like this.

I tried, but divorce and households emptied of joy marred my transition from childhood to independence. A journey made more difficult by parents that were unable or unwilling to help. American culture is fertile ground for such stories. My story spans thirty years before I sat down to finish my fist science fiction novel.

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Children (Spiders) of Time

Children of Time is about the spiders.

Spiders and ants and human beings, Oh My! Adrian Tchaikovsky massive work of science fiction won the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke award for Best Novel. An award it deserved. This book is an important work for science fiction fans missing the fanciful, yet probable, speculation Arthur C. Clarke made famous. Children of Time both accepts the hard science of space travel and challenges your understanding of intelligence and awareness.

Reviews of Children of Time put it in the hard SF genre. I am not a fan of hard SF. I find it boring. The endless speculation of characters turns into pages of exposition to support the fanciful ideas of the author. Clouded story arcs vanish beneath the weight.

When a good story breaks through the speculative science, I find that physics and time preoccupy the genre at the expense of biology. Stories span thousands of years, but through magic hibernation chambers or trippy time dilation, characters do not age, or age in a manner somehow unimportant to their psyche or the story arc. Folding space might be impossible, but I used it in The Fundamentals because preserving a body in a hibernation chamber for thousands of years is impossible. Now consider Children of Time.

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First Person and The Good Girl

The Good Girl book cover and template

Here is another book I would have skimmed over or missed because the story is told with first-person narration. Lucky for me, Audible was giving it away as part of their Twentieth Anniversary Celebration.

By lucky, I mean lucky-ish. By the end of the fourth or fifth chapter I knew how the story would end. It might have gone differently, I might have been kept in suspense, but once again a good author hoisted her story on its petard with the first-person narrative style.

I know, I bitch about this all the time. I promise, when I write a review about The Handmaid’s Tale, or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I will praise their expert use of the first-person, until then we have tropes, cliché’s, and The Good Girl.

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The story of The Trans-Antarctic Expedition

(See my Covid-19 update of this post. Endurance and The Coronavirus.)

Do you know the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition? It is an epic tale that challenges biblical fables. So much so, that the crew of the Endurance survives is the least amazing fact of the story.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage is an example of storytelling at its finest. It could have been just another retelling of Shackleton’s ill-fated Trans-Antarctic Expedition, instead it becomes a story about the crew of the Endurance, and how they managed as a team on the ice of the world’s most isolated continent. Alfred Lansing’s writing is simple and unadorned. He recounts the tale of the ill-fated expedition using the diary entries of the ship’s crew. Lansing weaves these individual diary entries into a complete narration of the events between December 22, 1914 and August 30, 1916. We get a picture of not only the man who lead the expedition, but the incredible crew that accompanied him.

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Personal Study of Yang Tai Chi

After discovering Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming’s original, yellow Taijiquan book, practicing Taijiquan became everything to me. I moved outside, eating, drinking, and practicing under a Pin Oak tree. At heart, however, I am a skeptic, and seeing Taijiquan through the works of a single author did not satisfy my need to study more broadly. I later learned that the most ardent practitioners of Taijiquan suffer through the same phase.

My early passion with Taijiquan coincided with the earliest days of the Internet. At the time, there was little material online. The big box bookstores had a few titles, but for more detailed instruction you had to search the pages of Tai Chi magazine or other martial art magazines for VHS videos.

Book Review, Martial Arts, Mindfulness

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Time Enough for Love: Heinlein’s Work

Time Enough For Love by Heinlein

I have started this task of reviewing every book I have read since childhood. It is a ridiculous notion. I can’t remember every book I have read. Just now, I thought of one; a bear, and I am pretty sure an otter, have an adventure or two (no it’s not what you’re thinking). I think it was a series. I loved the books, but they were paperback, and I trashed them in a fit of organization. Still, I am an author now. The Fundamentals is moving to publication, and as for sharing my love of the written word I have been mum.

Reviewing my list, I decided that grouping the historical works by author would save time. Another problem with dredging up memories of old books is the desire to read them again before putting a finger to the keyboard. No problem, I have decided to cheat. I will piece together recollections from what others have said and make up the rest.

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On Writing Well

William Zinser's On Writing Well.

This book has become mantras I recite as I edit my work. I first turned to it when I worked for Cargill. After ten years in retail, I was rusty on the basics of a good paragraph. When you are heads down on a project, struggling with how to say it, the advice in this book grounds you to what is important: pulling weeds.

“Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well.”

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

To revive my neglected blog and market of The Fundamentals, I found that my online presence was missing a recording of the books I have read in my lifetime.

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