Monthly Archives: June 2014

Wanda’s Readers

Wanda’s Readers is a book club in Riverside, California. A close friend belongs to the club and, having read and liked Zendoscopy, she decided to recommend it as the book of choice for the club’s June project. Then, she contacted me to ask whether I’d be willing to attend their June meeting for a “meet and greet” with the author.

Zendoscopy is, as has been noted in its Kirkus review, a “memoirlike” (sic) novel consisting of a series of loosely linked episodes in the life of a young boy and his coming of age as a young man. The book’s primary target audience is male, and although I accepted my friend’s invitation to attend the meeting, it was with some apprehension, Wanda’s Readers being a women’s book club.

On the appointed day, with my wife accompanying me, I presented at the knitting store where the group meets. There were about a dozen women in attendance, along with my friend’s fiancé (and longtime friend of ours). He was the only other male in the room.

The evening began with a nice dinner, during which conversation was casual and friendly. Eventually, however, it came time to discuss my book. I was invited to make a few opening remarks, and I described in some detail my concept for the book, trying to place its themes at a level above the specifics of the plot. This turned out, I think, to be a useful way of approaching the discussion, since it opened up the book to a discussion going beyond viewing the book as simply a collection of perhaps entertaining stories and, instead, provided an overarching view of what I, as the author, was trying to accomplish.

In response to my opening remarks, I got back some predictable questions: How much of the book relates real events? Am I Sherman, the book’s narrator? How long did it take me to write the book? And so on. But what also came out was something much more interesting, namely, the feeling by some of the readers that the book gave them a glimpse into the male psyche not often offered or shared with them. Several of the readers implied that they’d not before been exposed to such frank expression of male concerns, anxieties, desires, and, dare one say it, feelings. It occurred to me that, in fact, Zendoscopy was to them in some ways a male version of “chick lit”, a book dealing with male motivations, emotions, and trials. If, for these women, it was a sort of revelation, it was for me totally unexpected and even enlightening, something I never would have guessed.

Two of the women told me that their husbands had read the book. One of these men apparently made little comment after reading it, but the other identified closely with the stories and themes, reacting as I would hope a primary targeted reader would.

In the end, it appears that both the readers and I learned something from the evening. From my perspective, it was a wonderful experience. I received insightful feedback – not all positive, I would add – from a group of thoughtful, intelligent readers who expressed their reactions articulately, constructively, and with humor and respect.

As a self-published writer, I know first hand how difficult it can be to secure honest feedback from independent sources. Opening myself to such input at the book club was therefore a valuable experience, and the perspective I gained will, I hope, make me aware as I undertake future writing projects of the ways in which my work may be perceived by other than those who I might assume to be my primary audience. So, my thanks to Wanda’s Readers, and my strong recommendation that if you’re a self-published writer, you should seek out and actively engage with any group that might wish to do a “meet and greet” with you. Oh, and bring a few copies of your book and a good pen with you when you go. I did, and I sold and signed a few books, especially for those who had bought the Kindle edition of Zendoscopy.

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Book Review: The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt and Co., 2014)

Planet Earth is four and a half billion years old. It is not, as creationists would have us believe, only 6000 years old, and humans did not coexist with dinosaurs. Evolution is a scientific fact, not what those same Bible literalists and other religions fundamentalists, all of whom fail to understand the scientific (as opposed to the popular) meaning of the word, theory, would have us believe. And while Earth continues to grow older, evolution continues to occur. But there is a problem, and it is that evolution is happening at an ever increasing rate. And therein lies the core concern of Elizabeth Kolbert’s as developed in her extraordinary book, The Sixth Extinction.

In a meticulously researched, scientifically sound, and yet eminently readable work, Ms. Kolbert tells a story of evolution and five previous large scale extinctions of species on the planet. Through a series of personal adventures with a variety of scientists expert in differing disciplines, she provides both an informative view of what has gone before the age of humankind and then, having set the stage, she looks in depth at what is happening now, in an epoch increasingly being recognized as the “anthropocene”.

Her well supported thesis is that humans have had and continue to have major impact upon evolution. Through the often inadvertent and sometimes intentional redistribution of species in such diverse ways as spreading them in the ballast tanks of ships to befouling our atmosphere and oceans and poaching endangered game in ways that change local ecologies to favor or disfavor species, we are hastening the process of evolution on Earth. And no small part of what we are doing is accelerating the rate at which myriad species are becoming extinct: the sixth extinction.

It is remarkable that her grim tale of planetary transformation is told with wit and in lay terms, making the book both entertaining and frightening while always enlightening. The take-away from all this? Ms. Kolbert doesn’t preach but, rather, she simply lays out the facts, leaving us to decide. For this reviewer, the lesson is clear. Unless steps are taken to alter major aspects of human activity, we may be creating a dismal fate for our own species as well as others, many already severely affected.

There are those who believe that we need not do anything about all this, that their God will intervene either to remedy the situation or effect the “Rapture” for the deserving. But even these folks must admit that they don’t have a timetable for their hoped for salvation, and this ought to motivate them to join forces with the rest of us to safeguard Earth for succeeding generations. Unfortunately, however, human behavior to date does not bode well for positive change.

Ms. Kolbert has accomplished an extraordinary feat with her book. Rarely have the prospects for a fatal future been related in such a witty and engaging manner.

*Highly Recommended*

Flash News and Thoughts on Independent Bookstores

FLASH!!! Zendoscopy selected as one of 20 indie books to have its review published in the 1 June 2014 issue of Kirkus Reviews!!

And now, this week’s entry:  The Independent Bookstore: An Endangered Species

Books have been a critical part of my life almost from earliest memory. From the Golden Books read to me as a young child by my mother all the way to Christopher Hitchens, I have found delight and stimulation through reading.

I began my independent searching out of reading material while still in elementary school, when once every two weeks the L.A. Public Library’s “Bookmobile” would park on the school’s playground and open its door those of us hungry for words on a page. From Heinlein’s “The Red Planet” to Brooks’ “Freddy the Pig” stories, I devoured the Bookmobile’s offerings.

One day, my mother took me to a new treasure trove of literature. A claustrophobic cluster of little rooms packed with books called Lewis’ Book Store and owned, of course, by Mr. Lewis. I never knew his first name, but I remember him to this day. He was just what you’d expect of such a store’s owner: an older gentleman, short of physical stature, kind and willing to help a young boy find just the right book to take home for his collection. And take home books I did: The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift Jr., Rick Brant, the Winston Science Fiction Series, the Triple Title Series (Space, Space, Space; Ghosts, Ghosts, Ghosts…), Max Shulman’s Guided Tour of Campus Humor, and on and on and on.

I remember those days of poring over Mr. Lewis’ shelves and going home with new treasures with aching nostalgia. I had feelings then that simply aren’t duplicated when I conjure up Amazon.com on my PC or walk into the local Barnes and Noble.

But there are places where the feeling comes back.

There are still wonderful independent bookstores ripe for exploration: City Lights in San Francisco, Book Soup in West Hollywood, and others, but they are an endangered species. It’s so easy to download the latest e-book from Amazon Kindle or Barnes and Noble Nook, or to order hard copy from myriad online sellers. I know – I do it, too. But I feel sad and even a bit guilty about it, because we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves if we allow independent bookstores to become extinct.

Why do I raise this issue now? Because a local two store operation, Mysterious Galaxy, is closing its store in Redondo Beach. For those who follow my blog, the name will be familiar. Mysterious Galaxy is the store that hosted twenty authors at a recent “meet and greet”, giving us (yes, I was one of the twenty) the opportunity to court potential readers and sign copies of our books for those readers interested enough to buy. For those of us committed to the welfare of the independent bookstore, this closure is a major blow, and a sign that places with knowledgeable, helpful staff and offering real, material books that one can pick up, examine, and take home just as I used to do when I went to visit Mr. Lewis, could easily become a thing of the past.

Online booksellers and cavernous Barnes and Noble four-walled stores aren’t going to go away, but we must not let them completely bury wonderful independent and even some limited chain stores, like the dying Mysterious Galaxy or the fortunately still apparently healthy Vroman’s/Book Soup. Mr. Lewis would not approve their demise, and neither should the rest of us.

Reminder: Zendoscopy is available from the following booksellers: Book Soup (8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood – a great independent bookstore) and the UCLA BookZone (Ackerman Student Union, UCLA campus). Please support them. Of course, it’s always available from the usual online booksellers and Kindle, but wouldn’t you like to browse in a real bookstore? And any independent bookstore that doesn’t have my books, Zendoscopy and Spacebraid and Other Tales of a Dystopian Universe, on its shelves can order them for you.

Zendoscopy Featured at Book Soup!

For those in the L.A. area, my collection of funny, sad, and outrageous stories, Zendoscopy, is now a featured “local authors” selection at Book Soup in West Hollywood, at 8818 Sunset Blvd. Here’s a link to the store and my book:

http://www.booksoup.com/Local-Authors

If you’re in West L.A., you can also find it in the UCLA BookZone in the Ackerman Student Union on campus.

And, of course, it’s available from many online booksellers, including Amazon.com, Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and others.

Gun Nutty

When I was a kid and going to summer camp, I used to love shooting guns, and I was pretty damn good at it, too. Could pick off cans and hit targets dead center like nobody’s business. Then on November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated. I was 17 years old and, upon hearing the news, I cried. The very same day, I resolved never to shoot live ammunition again. Over 50 years later, I’ve kept the promise I made to myself, and I’ve never felt any desire to revisit that decision.

We live in a violent society. Gun violence is a major part of it, but the troubled kid who recently became a mass murderer in Isla Vista adjacent to the University of California at Santa Barbara also used a knife and his BMW to injure and kill, demonstrating that guns aren’t the only problem we face when it comes to violence. Still, gun violence is so prevalent and so lethal that it commands the largest of concerns when it comes to how people are being knocked off.

The nut cases of the NRA and the cowardice of elected officials in facing them down in order to enact reasonable controls on gun and ammunition availability present the largest obstructions to progress in reducing the slaughter. Let me state my position clearly: Wayne LaPierre and his ilk are people who believe that the only solution to the killing is more killing, that there should be no restrictions on any type of firearm including the most deadly automatic, assault-type weapons with large ammunition clips. These people generally adhere to the most extreme right wing agendas and seem to savor violence as the answer to violence. Nowhere in their agendas do we find any intent or desire to address underlying issues and factors leading to violence; nor do we find anything but the desire for revenge in the punishment of violent offenders: rehabilitation be hanged, along with the perpetrators.

From where in the darkness of the human soul does this frontier mentality with its predisposition to vigilantism and vengeance arise? Some of it is a harkening back to the myth of the Wild West, what one might call John Wayne-ism and the image of the justifiably self-righteous, entitled to take the law into one’s own hands. The other problem – the elephant in the room – is that damned second amendment.

Arguments over the meaning of the second amendment’s wording are never ending. Did the nation’s founders truly intend that the right to bear arms truly apply only to a “well regulated militia”, or did they intend that everyone should be entitled to his or her own private arsenal? If they had been able to foresee the types of weapons available today, would they have created the second amendment at all? Does the present National Guard constitute a well regulated militia and, if so, obviate the need for private ownership of guns?

These questions are constantly debated in the U.S., the most violent of any of the industrialized western nations, but progress toward reasonable controls is continually and effectively opposed by the fanatics of the NRA and the organization’s extortion and bribery of both national and state politicians. So, no matter how many lunatics shoot up kids at school, commit slaughter in shopping malls, movie theatres, and the streets of our cities, nothing will be done until the impossible happens.

And what is the impossible? The repeal of the second amendment. It isn’t going to happen, and because it isn’t, the problem will not be resolved. But, let’s imagine for just a moment what repeal would mean. It would mean that there would no longer be any constitutional basis for preventing states and local jurisdictions from regulating the sale and use of firearms and ammunition. It would facilitate confiscation of automatic, assault-type weapons from gangs and right wing fanatics. It would enable extensive restrictions to be placed upon who might be entitled to own guns. It would make life safer for law enforcement officials. And, finally, it would kick an important prop for the NRA’s lobbying and propagandizing activity

Note here that I am not suggesting a total ban on the ownership of firearms but, specifically, I’m advocating for strict controls on the sale, ownership, and use of them. The current carnage and inability to do anything about it are infuriating and should be intolerable in a civilized society. The U.S. is far behind much of the rest of the world in recognizing and acting upon what should be self-evident, namely, that we are long overdue in stopping the killing. Until people rise above apathy and vote out the obstructionists, things aren’t going to get any better. In the meantime, I’ll keep dreaming of a country without the second amendment.