The B Team is in Charge

My passport expired. So did my wife’s. Being a savvy computer-literate American, I dutifully downloaded the requisite Department of State forms, filled them out as pdfs, printed them, and then researched methods to obtain requisite passport photos.

I could upload a photo off my phone into some template and then print out the photos, but I didn’t have any photo paper and didn’t want to buy any. No need. All my photos are in the cloud. 

An internet search disclosed the following stores provided on-demand passport photos: Costco, WalGreens, Wal Mart, UPS, CVS, and the US Postal Service…oops, no, USPS used to provide photos but no longer. They will provide a properly addressed envelope to ensure your properly filled out and assembled documents, along with a check, will go to the proper office. The envelope’s free; you still have to pay the postage. Okay, so, get the photos, go to USPS, get the envelope, drop in documents, mail it, mission complete.

The saga begins.

We went to see Spiderman: No Way Home (epic. Just epic) and figured afterwards stop by the local Costco, get the photos. Walked up to the photo desk, “Hi. Like to get some passport photos.”

The guy running the counter looked at us like we’d ordered morphine. “We don’t do passport photos. Haven’t since last February.” And then glared at me like I had ordered morphine.

“According to your website, you do.”

“You believe everything you read on a website?”

Well, no, but one assumes a service offered on a company’s website is one actually provided by said company owning the website. One assumes.

Walgreens was across the street so off we hied. The 8th grade girls running the place assured us they did offer passport photos so one of them snapped pictures of us on a Kodak Instamatic (that’s what it looked like) and uploaded the results to a nifty looking combination-photo-processor and printer. The 8th graders entered their code and entered their code and entered their code and the nifty printer-processor promptly crashed. With no way to make it uncrash. We laughed.

We went to WalMart.

As you know, the electronics section of WalMart is as far from the front doors as possible so, after a thirty minute hike, we got back there. Mind you, this is now about eight in the evening which, of course, makes no difference to the number of customers but has a deleterious effect on the number of Walmart employees manning counters and cash registers. So you can imagine our relief at seeing not one but two persons behind the electronics/passport photo counter: two bearded millennials, one of whom may not actually be of a sex normally associated with beard growing, wearing matching black shirts and pants like members of a cult. “Passport photos, please!” I beamed. My wife beamed, too.

“Oh!” Beard #1 was sorrowful. “We’re contractors, not employees. So we don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“A manager will be here shortly,” Beard #2 replied and then both Beards hied to another section of the counter where they played grabass for about the next ten minutes. I concluded Walmart had contracted them as employee stand-ins.

About fifteen minutes later, a person dressed in WalMart regalia slipped behind the counter and immediately got into a very loud and somewhat intense argument in Spanish with a patron, the gist of which is the patron did not believe a correct discount had been applied and had a much-slapped receipt in hand to prove it. While this was going on, a line formed behind the patron because Lord knows it is a rare sight to find an actual WalMart employee manning a counter after 8 pm. When patron’s complaints were disposed (not to the patron’s satisfaction), the employee began waiting on the line.

My wife can be assertive at times and spoke up at that point, advising the employee we had been waiting for passport photos for, oh, say, twenty minutes. He looked at us and said, “I don’t do those.” Pause. “No one here tonight does those.” The contractors ceased their grabassing for a moment to give us a big smile, then back to grabassing.

We left. Not in the best of moods.

The next day, we went to UPS. UPS, c’mon, it’s UPS. What could go wrong?

No printer paper, that’s what. And no idea when printer paper would be available. But, they were willing to sell me printer paper so I could print my own. That is, if they had any printer paper. Which they didn’t.

CVS, the last great hope.

The first CVS we attempted also did not have printer paper. I’m guessing all the printer paper destined for the Shenandoah Valley is on a ship container off the California coast. But this CVS did have something no other store had: someone willing to help. The manager called around to the other CVS’s until he found one that not only had printer paper but a photo processor that worked, codes and all. It was clear across town, and we tore through badly timed lights, drunk pedestrians, and drivers who obviously had no idea there were other cars on the road and made it. We made it. Got our photos. Hallelujah.

So, warned by the preceding experience, I called the USPS. Or tried to. Apparently, there are several 800 numbers with a required series of public service announcements beseeching you in English and Spanish to watch out for that COVID before you reach a menu that lets you call your local post office, except as soon as I tapped “6,” the designated menu number to retrieve said local phone number, it hung up on me. So I searched the internet for someone who had thoughtfully posted the local number, found it, dialed it… disconnected. Another search for USPS passport offices and, on the fourth menu page, found a local number. Called it. It rang. Someone answered.

“Hi, do I need an appointment to bring in my passport paperwork?”

“Do you have everything?”

“Forms filled out but not signed, old passports, check not filled out. Even got the photos, which, let me tell you, was no easy task.”

“Then you don’t need an appointment. Just come in anytime between 9-5 to pick up the pre-addressed envelope.”

Hallelujah.

So we went between 9-5, no appointment in hand. Our passport office is located out of sight of the main Post Office lobby in an obscure back room set around several corners as far away as is architecturally possible. I’m guessing this is a dexterity, stamina, and logic test to see if you qualify for a passport or not. The four-ton door is another test. I walk in. “Hi, I’m here for a passport envelope!”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“You said I didn’t need one.”

“That may be so in your case, but your showing up here interrupts others who have an appointment so I cannot serve you until the others with appointments are served first.”

“So I needed an appointment?”

“No. You didn’t. You’ll have to wait until those who have an appointment waiting outside the door and who come in one at a time are done.”

“There’s no one waiting outside.” Which was true when I walked in. Apparently they were having trouble with the door and the logic test.

“Fine. Here’s your envelope. I will write on the inside flap everything that needs to go into it. It is already pre-addressed. The fee changed fifteen minutes ago to $160 each, which is different than what it says on the website so good thing you came in, even though you don’t have an appointment because they would have rejected your application.”

“Are there other reasons they will reject our applications?”

“None that you’re allowed to know.”

Okay.

Out the door past the now long line of waiting passport patrons. “You don’t need an appointment” I said to them, “it’s enough that you found your way here.” 

Out to the lobby where, in full view of numerous persons very interested in our old passports, we checked and triple checked and readied the photos for stapling to our applications with four, no more than, and no less than, staples at precisely marked locations with the stapler I had cleverly brought along… but didn’t check if it had staples in it. Borrowed a stapler from a  suspicious clerk, shooed the patrons interested in our old passports away, and then ready to sign. My wife has a purse that doubles as a sleeping bag, but no pens inside it. Paper clips, a translation of Thucydides, playing cards and a portable life raft (in case of flood), but no pens. Black ink only. I had one in the truck, though, went out, got it, shooed away the patrons who were busily copying down our identifying data, signed, stuffed requisite items into envelope, brought envelope with correct check made out to Department of State and our dates of birth, names of great-grandparents, DNA samples, and all the places we had lived over the last forty years listed in the memo block, sealed it in front of the suspicious clerk, paid for it, and sent it off. 

We should get our new passports sometime in the next two months.

Or, more likely, a rejection. Staples were the wrong size, doncha know.

Posted in Tales of the Tragically Hilarious | Leave a comment

The Authors I Always Read

I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember, which isn’t really all that far back. The earliest memory I have is probably my 4th birthday; I got cupcakes instead of a regular cake and I was not happy about that. I mean, how do you blow out the candles on ten-to-fifteen cupcakes scattered around a kitchen table? It was a rip-off.

But I do remember always having books, from Dr. Seuss to the Happy Hollisters to Doc Savage and beyond. Marvel Comics taught me to read. Or rather, my next-door neighbor did. He was a few years older and a Marvel fanatic and every Saturday back in 1962 we raced up the road to Carl’s Drug store and I’d buy two Marvels and a pack of bubble gum (with the baseball cards inside) for a grand total of 25 cents (my weekly allowance) and then race back home to see what Mr. Fantastic and the Avengers were doing. “What’s that word?” “What’s this word?” and he had me sound it out. By first grade, I was reading at a second grade level. By second, at fifth, and so on. Moms, give your kids comic books.

And yeah, I know, I’ve told this story a thousand times before and do so again to make this point: we lifelong readers develop lifelong attachments to certain authors. I am no exception. These are writers who have proven themselves excellent word slingers. While the list changes every decade or so (or as I find writers I never read before), whenever I stumble across some previously unread book of theirs I reflexively pick it up, even if the plot is somewhat dubious. Based on previous experience, I’m willing to give it a shot.  

In no particular order:

Kate Elliot. I ran across her when I picked up the wrong book, Shadow Gate, the second novel of her Crossroads Trilogy, and it blew me away. I didn’t know what was going on because, second book of a trilogy, but who cared? It was magnificent. So, of course, I grabbed the first book, Spirit Gate, and was not so impressed, which goes to show, you can’t judge a trilogy by its first book. You know why: it’s all character introduction and world building and a lot of that can get tedious. The story usually doesn’t start until the second book and, man, did it. She introduced one of my favorite and memorable characters, Mai, the future princess and queen and badass.

Alastair Reynolds. Probably the best hard-science far-future scifi author out there, although he has tried his hand at a few near-Earth stories, with mixed results. But even his so-called bombs, such as the novel Pushing Ice, are cuts above other authors’ best efforts. Reynolds does not explain his tech or science, but you get enough information from the story and context that you can puzzle out his thinking, even when he writes crazy timelines involving hundreds of thousands of years.

N. K. Jemison. The best fantasy writer working today, bar none, hands down. Her world-building  and plot lines will melt your brains. Often, I don’t get past the first books of most trilogies because they don’t convince me their world is viable. With hers, first sentence of the first book hooks me completely. You have got to read The Broken Earth trilogy. And the Inheritance trilogy. And everything else.

Stephen Hunter. Yeah, yeah, a sparse action writer who can leave you a little frustrated with plot resolutions, but he’s created one of my favorite literary characters: Bob Lee Swagger, aka Bob the Nailer. No, that’s not a sexual reference; Bob earned the nickname for his extraordinary and rather prolific sniping during the Vietnam War. Long after the fall of Saigon, he is still relying on those sniper skills to get him out of trouble.

Scott Lynch. Gentlemen bastards. What more is there to say?

Mary Doria Russell. She has written two of the greatest scifi books ever, The Sparrow, and its sequel, Children of God. Since then, well, she’s had some misses, but I still read everything she does because of those first two. She is definitely all over the place, from Italy in WW2 to the Old West, but that makes me like her even more. She is not typecast. 

Neal Stephenson. Oh, c’mon, the guy is a one-man library, his topics ranging from the Restoration to the cyber future and even alien societies. And he’s going to write everything he knows about the particular topic of the moment so, pack a lunch. He has created one of my other favorite literary characters, Half-cocked Jack and, yes, that is a sexual reference. 

Richard Russo. See? It’s not all scifi and horror. Russo usually writes about places and characters of the Great White North, upstate New York and Vermont and nearbys. I lived up there for a few years and remember it rather fondly, so I’m drawn to his books, like Empire Falls.  I know those people. 

Ann Leckie. Her Imperial Radch is probably the best ongoing scifi series on the market right now and you must scoot yourself over to your nearest book source, be that library or store, and grab the first one. And then the second. And keep going. A starship that is a person. Wow.

These authors are still living and producing, at least, as far as I know. Maybe I’ll do another list of my goto authors no longer with us. We’ll see.

Posted in Merry Marvel Marching Society, Reading itself | Leave a comment

Expanding The Expanse

The Expanse Season 6, the last season, is now available and, in celebration, in anticipation, I started the whole series all over again. Yes, Remember the Cant and Detective Miller, my favorite character of the whole series and I am pledging undying love once more to Shoreh Agdashloo.

This is now my favorite TV series of all time. It just is. And it wins that distinction over some rather stiff competition, ranging from That 70s Show to Episodes. Not that I’m comparing  an intense, scifi special effects show to well written comedies, merely showing where the Expanse fits in my TV Hall of Fame. Hmm. I suppose I should do a TV Hall of Fame post … later, later.

Why do I like it so much? Because it’s right up my scifi alley, a near-Earth epic that depicts the unchanging nature of humanity. It’s what used to be called ‘mundane’ science fiction but I’m not really sure that term is used anymore except derisively. I mean, who wants to be mundane? ‘Near-future’ scifi is probably the better term because it deals with events and possibilities of only a few hundred years out and locales within an au or four of Earth. The Expanse opens in the 2300s out past the asteroid belt and moves on from there. And boy does it move.

Rewatching the series, I’d forgotten how extraordinary it is. One of the advantages of old age, I suppose. It is tight and fast and nerve wracking, even the second time around. I mean, I know what’s going to happen when Holden and survivors of the Cant are taken aboard the Donnager, but it’s still nail biting all the way through the Rocinante’s escape. Right now I’m at the spot where Holden finds out Naomi did not destroy the protomolecule. And I know how that’s going to turn out, too. And I know where this whole train goes from there and I’m not sure I liked it. Where it went, I mean.

Because the entire nature and scope of the show changes radically after the remains of Eros lifts from Venus’ surface and creates the gates (and if I’m giving out spoilers, c’mon, these are old shows). I’m not really sure how I feel about that change. One of my scifi tenets is no extraterrestrial life. We are alone in this Universe and, yes, yes, the protomolecule was introduced rather early in the series, negating that principle, but it remained true to other principles in that the conflict was humans against humans with the proto as a tool. Once the molecule took on its own form and existence and revealed its purpose, however, we are no longer near-Earth but galactic. That is the point the show changed course, expanding its scope and turning into space opera or far future scifi. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with space opera or far future scifi, love them both, but that’s not what we signed up for, sort of like John Snow turning out to be the King or Sidney working for the bad guys. It’s a paradigm shift, and pop psychology tells us we don’t like our paradigms shifted. Which is not entirely true; we can tolerate the shifts as long as they are shifted with skill. We’ll miss the old one, but look forward to the new day.

And that’s my stance on this show. Of course I miss the days of the Rocinante desperately trying to prevent war between Earth and Mars, but look at all those gates out there and the worlds calling us. And, yes, it’s not just the protomolecule but whatever destroyed the protomolecule’s makers that is now a worry. Things escalate, concerns get bigger, and maybe that is as good a point as any to let the show drift into its own gate.

Not that Season 6 ends my Expanse addiction. I still have the remaining books to go, the last I read being Nemesis Games, so I’m not done with the crew of the Rocinante by a long shot.

In the meantime, I’ll strap in, hold on, and enjoy what’s left of the ride.

Posted in lesser mediums, like movies and TV | Comments Off on Expanding The Expanse

Duuune

Dune is one of those books you had to read during my high school, along with the Lord of the Rings, the Foundation series, and anything by Herman Hesse, or you just weren’t cool. I was cool, so I read all of them, the most mind-blowing of the group being, of course, Dune. Thank God for the glossary in the back or I would never have made it through.

And being such an epic and hipster-regarded story, it was inevitable that Hollywood would attempt to screen it, with mixed results. The David Lynch version is first to mind, and, as I’ve previously mentioned, really ain’t that bad, and probably should have been the last attempt. But, you know, a big story attracts big attention and that 1984 Dune is a little too campy for modern sensibilities and since the Avengers are dead and Hollywood can’t come up with any other movies worth watching, let’s cull old material. So here comes Denis Villeneuve’s version.

Lots of critics have been saying this is the epic greatest scifi film ever made and you should really see it on Imax and, since it is one of the stories marking my high school coolness, I had somewhat of an obligation. Not on Imax, just your piddlin’ regular Alamo screen and …

Eh.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s good, it’s the story and the acting is good, the direction is good, the cinematography is good. It’s good. But it ain’t the greatest scifi movie I’ve ever seen. That title still belongs to Blade Runner and Gattaca, sharing first place. This is a ‘me, too’ movie, you know, some director looks back at some other director’s work and wants to join in. Not that I’m so accusing Villeneuve, he shows a genuine respect and love for the source material, but I don’t see what new thing he brought to the table. Usually you expect a different viewpoint or take with a remake or reboot, like, say, the Bene Gessirit being some kind of manipulative, backstabbing bunch of witches (which they are) but you don’t get all those motivations for said backstabbing in this version. Nary a mention of their generations-long genetic and DNA manipulations, which are kinda important here. You don’t get a lot of other context anywhere in this version, either; Villeneuve apparently assumes you know the story. Because I do know the story, I didn’t have a problem. Which means I don’t know if this movie actually fleshes everything out or I’m doing so from prior knowledge.

It’s a dusty film, kind of ironic for something called ‘Dune,’ but a lot of the shots are obscure and distant and gigantic, which is probably why it should be seen on Imax. The CGI is excellent and the scenery is spectacular but, ya know, you expect that these days. The Harkonnens are not Harkonnen enough, IMHO, Lynch’s portrayal being half the fun of his movie. But the Sardaukar are just downright evil, and salute to Villeneuve for the depiction. You really don’t want those guys after you. The Fremen, eh, they’re the Fremen, guys with blue contact lenses pretending to be an oppressed desert race which, why? Guys should get with the program, I mean, my goodness, have you seen what the Imperium offers? Don’t have to live in caves in the desert getting chased by giant worms, ya know.

This, of course, has always been a puzzlement about the story. Yes, yes, need the Fremen to serve as the indigenous natives oppressed-by-civilization trope, but this is the far future, man, and you’d think the Fremen would be happy to secure their own planet in exchange for all the fabulous wealth that the spice provides. Think the Emperor could work out a much better deal with them than with the varying crapheads he has to keep moving in and out of management. But as one who strongly believes that people will remain crapheads forever, no matter how far in the future we go, this aspect of the story fits nicely with my convictions. Still, interested parties should have come to mutual agreements by now.

I’ve heard the usual whiners complaining that this is the Great White Saviour story but that means you didn’t pay attention to the book nor this movie. Clearly stated is that the Bene Gessirit have been sowing tales of the Great White Savior among the Fremen for quite some time now, so it’s not some White Male Patriarchy at work, but Female Witch political intrigue having to do with their manipulation of genetics and their desire to create The One. 

What am I talking about? Read the book. Much will come clear.

And stay tuned for Part 2.

Posted in Those lesser mediums | Comments Off on Duuune

Best 10 Big Books I’ve Read

A guy I know published a book that came in about 650 pages. It did alright. Got good reviews, but didn’t sell. So his agent told him to break it up into two volumes of about 300 pages each and sell it as two books in a series. Why? Because no one today will read a book over 350 pages or so.

Really?

I am quite suspicious of industry experts who make such universal declarations based on polling and focus groups and online forms. Those sources of information are rather suspect because they are limited to the kinds of people who are willing to be polled or participate in focus groups or fill out online forms. You know, people with agendas. Not saying everyone who does this has an agenda, but there are documented things like the Barnum effect and Confirmation Bias and the uncertainty principle. Well, okay, the uncertainty principle doesn’t really apply here, but you get my meaning. So  what does apply? 

Common sense.

I mean, would you rather have the entire story in one volume available for your perusal, or two different volumes published at two different times? At twice the cost. And for those who think a big book is too unwieldy to carry around, I don’t think it adds any weight to your Kindle.

Personally, I love big books, 650-3000 pages and all. If you’re going to read, then read. And here’s some big ‘uns worth reading, in no particular order:

10. Dune, by Frank Herbert. Yeah, yeah, done to death, this one, by TV and movies and hype. Personally I like the Kyle McLaughlin version. Sting wearing a Speedo and wielding a knife while screaming “I will kill him!” is not an image you can easily erase. So a lot of people know the story without reading the book and this is a crime. Yes, the book is hard going, needing a glossary for all of the weird words Herbert invented (Gom jabbar? WTH?) but that’s part of the fun.

9. Shogun, by James Clavell. Another giant novel murdered by mini-series, although a ‘purt good mini with Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune and pillowing, which I will leave for you to discover. The novel is a fictional account, told through the eyes of a shipwrecked English sailor, of the imperial struggles between two dynasties of medieval Japan, the Toranaga and the Ishido clans. It is loosely based on the true story of how the Tokugawa shogunate came to be. Quite loosely. But the court intrigues make Machiavelli look like a choir boy.

8. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. It is rare for me to make a list on which Neal Stephenson doesn’t appear and this is one of his best. A world governed by a monastic community discovers that aliens are orbiting their planet, throwing quite the monkey wrench into their ascetic, technology-adverse, lifestyle. World and universe building by a master of both.

7. Gardens of the Moon, by Steve Erickson. Although this barely qualifies at 650 or so pages, it is an outstanding read, dark and scary and sorcerous and a world you simply don’t want to be a part of. The first of the Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy series, it is, in my opinion, the best of them, which is usually the case for first books of series. Right, Gentlemen Bastards?

6. The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe. Okay, yeah, Tom Wolfe is one of those elite writers you’re supposed to hold a slightly dismissive attitude towards because his books are so wry and on the nose but this one is magnificent, a downright funny examination of politics and celebrity and the fake reality both inhabit. Sherman McCoy, a Master of the Universe, is undone when he accidentally runs over a would-be mugger while tooling around in his luxury vehicle with his mistress. The ensuing hue and cry was satire in the 80s. Today, it’s documentary.


5. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. A deadpan look at an England where matter-of-fact magicians assist in the Napoleonic Wars and attempt to bring back the old powers, triggering a confrontation with the fairy world. Tinker Bell is not your friend.


4. Lucifer’s Hammer, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. One of the best post-apoc novels to date, a comet strikes the earth, triggering worldwide volcanoes and earthquakes and a nuclear strike because, hey, use ‘em or lose ‘em. Best get that compound prepped and ready.

3. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. Oh, c’mon, it’s Gaiman so that’s recommendation enough and you’ve seen the HBO series so you know the story, the twilight of the gods, so to speak. Odin recruits a felon to assist him in an upcoming war with the new gods. What more do you need to know? 

2. Centennial, by James Michener. Yes, I know, you’re not supposed to like Michener because he is so formulaic and his characters are one dimensional and he’s a bit of a propagandist. But this story is epic, covering an area of Colorado that, after 130 million years or so, turns into the Old West town of Centennial. Getting there is half the fun. And it was a pretty good mini series, too.

1. The Parsifal Mosaic, by Robert Ludlum. Before there was Bourne, there was Havelock. This is vintage Ludlum with more assassinations and back stabbing and twists and utter craziness that you can shake a silencer at. Take notes because, hoo boy, there’s a lot of people in this. Michael Havelock, a State department agent, witnesses the murder of his partner and lover, who turns out to be a KGB spy. He quits intel work and is out minding his own business one day when he runs into his not-quite-dead ex-lover and partner. Then the fun begins.  

So, turn off that silly Netflix and settle in for the long haul.

Posted in Reading itself | Comments Off on Best 10 Big Books I’ve Read

Put Two Genres in a Room and See What Happens

Back in the days when we had three channels on TV, we had three reading genres: fiction, non-fiction, science fiction. Yep, that was pretty much it. Fiction covered serious, well-written adult novels that ranged from the classics to contemporaries like Shirley Grau’s The Keepers of the House and even HG Wells War of the Worlds because that was a classic and classic literature was fiction that you read for educational and/or appreciation/snobbishness purposes because we  all knew what a classic was without having to have some professor define it. RoT: if it was published before WW1, it was a classic, regardless of the content.

Science fiction was silly, not for the serious minded; it appealed more to teenage boys than anyone. Just take a look at the offerings back then: Have Space Suit, Will Travel; Marooned on Mars; The Caves of Steel, the kinds of things nerdy, social outcast 13-year-old boys with taped-together horn rims read because they’d never be on the football team or own a jalopy.  That didn’t mean it was kids literature. That was a separate category of mostly fiction designed to teach kids moral and civilized manners of behavior, like The Happy Hollisters or the Nancy Drew series. BEMs, FTL drive, humbug humans struggling against the forces of the universe, that was just too  far out for a real adult to read. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, there were many adult scifi fans and scifi writers back then. I’m just giving you the general zeitgeist, from memory. Sue me.

So, how many reading genres are there today?

A lot. A whole lot.

And I’m not going to list them because I don’t think I have enough characters left but, randomly, there‘s Genetic Engineering Science Fiction, First Contact Science Fiction, Contemporary Christian Romance, Western and Frontier Christian Romance, Dystopian Fiction, Friendship Fiction, Women’s Friendship Fiction, on and on, world without end, amen.

What the deuce?

It looks very much like we want to read very specific things these days. We’ve got a wheelhouse and we are staying in it. If I only want to read Women’s Friendship Dystopian Christan Fiction, then by God, that’s all I’m looking for. And, believe it or not, if you put that category into the Amazon search box, you will get suggestions.

Is this a bad thing? Well, dunno. At least people are reading, which is always an encouragement because, good Lord, have you seen what’s on TV or at the movies these days? But I’m wondering if we are specifying ourselves out of some dang good books.

See, in the days BA (Before Amazon), you went to the library, the bookstore, or the bookmobile to scratch your reading itch. And fiction was all one section, listed alphabetically, and it held everything from Blatty to Michener. If you wanted the new stuff, you went to the McNaughton’s shelf. So how did we know if a book was worth it?

Simple. You pulled it off the shelf, looked at the cover, read the blurb, read a few pages, and if the story appealed to you, checked it out. We selected books based on their content.

Not their category.

Posted in Reading itself | Comments Off on Put Two Genres in a Room and See What Happens

Crowbar

I like Mark Walker games. I have quite a few from the Lock and Load and Flying Pigs labels, and they are always absorbing, often entertaining. There’s a couple that I don’t take off the shelf that often, like All Things Zombie (‘cause I always suffer dice roll homicide halfway through the first scenario) and I usually have to make a rule adjustment or two on others, like the casualties in Flintlock, but these are signs of good game involvement. Have you ever played First Martians strictly by the rules? You have? [Sidles away].

I saw this one on a Kickstarter Email and was intrigued: a game covering the Ranger assault of Pointe du Hoc. Well, that’s specific, quite a bit more focused than the usual D Day games, like Avalon Hill’s D Day (which I own), where you attack the various beaches with the various forces assigned with usually the same results. When you throw that many people and bombs and tanks at a small space, you’re bound to overwhelm it. And, yes, yes, I know how much of a near thing the landings were and how more of  a near thing was the subsequent breakout.

But I never thought the Pointe du Hoc assault was a near thing. My only prior exposure to it was the five or six minute treatment in the movie The Longest Day. Clean and well dressed American Rangers take about a minute or two to scale the cliffs with rocket propelled grappling hooks and shoot Germans who dutifully throw their hands up in the air and die a bloodless/uneviscerated death as required by 1960s war movies (and cowboy movies. And crime movies), with a couple of obligatory Rangers dying in the same heroic manner to make things look even. And then the Rangers discover the guns they just fought so ferociously and bloodlessly to destroy aren’t even there! SNAFU!

Well, no. Like practically all battles in every war, this was a godawful bloodbath that could have gone either way. And, yes, the guns were there, just not where we thought. Still had to be found and destroyed and the Rangers lost more than half their force doing so, and it took a little more than five minutes. Took three days, actually. And what Crowbar does is capture quite accurately and viscerally this somewhat insane mission and what a near thing it was.

Think about it: you’re asked to climb a sheer cliff face while German soldiers, hands down the best in the world at that time (yes, they were, especially at the squad level), are shooting at you from the top of the cliff and dropping grenades and making nuisances of themselves and you can’t even shoot back until you get to the top, and then, after you get those pesky Germans off you, you gotta go find some gigantic German artillery pieces which aren’t where intel said they are and blow them up. Man.

All that comes through in this rather magnificent game. Yes, magnificent. I mean, look at it. Gorgeous. Big counters, big map. Yeah a little obscure here and there, especially with features like barbed wire, but workable, and readable rules and aid cards and just well done.

This is a chit pull dice roll event card game- everything at once and when I first got it and stopped admiring the art I went, “Oh, man.” This is going to be tough to learn. Movement is through movement dice covered with symbols and combat is with normal dice, and event cards also do some movement or combat, especially for the Germans, and there’s different rules for the different sections of the map- sea hexes, beach hexes, interior- and a relief column attempting to reach you and commander rules and supply and, in typical Mark Walker fashion, not all of it is explained with the clarity you need (fr’instance, what’s the deal with supplies?) but you know what? Doesn’t matter. It works.

Because it makes sense. It’s all intuitive and logical, even the varying colored movement dice which become dicier the more you use them. Which is fairly accurate: whenever a squad starts something, it’s usually successful. It’s when you take those next few steps that things tend to go to crap. About halfway through your movement you have to decide whether enough is enough or are you going on, foolishly, in some cases. Combat is usually hand to hand because fortifications rendered distance fire and artillery somewhat moot so you gotta move and you gotta engage. And you’re going to get your butt handed to you. Over and over.

By ‘you’ I mean the Rangers because this is a solitary game and you command only one side. I thought that was going to be a problem. What? No German turn? How in the world can you call this a game? But you don’t have to worry, the Germans show up. And make themselves quite the nuisance. They have a counterattack track which always initiates at just the most inopportune moment and invariably you’re going to pull a German chit that sends grenadiers running your way and, of course, an event card. Man. 

There is a multiplayer variant in the rules but don’t bother. You’re going to make your Rangers’ job that much tougher if you get your pals to take over a company or two. Unity of command, people.

I played this just once so far. How’d I end up? A dismal failure. I don’t think I earned enough victory points to even move the scale. Fox Company did all right, actually reached the road and set up roadblocks; Dog Company had its problems but Easy got decimated. One German with a machine gun can really screw up your plans.

As we discovered back then.

Posted in Game On | Comments Off on Crowbar

Why I Don’t Socialize

More accurately, use social media.

Because you’re supposed to. On every writing/publishing/author website dedicated to us “indie” authors, you know, the ones who can’t catch the interest of a literary agent or legitimate publishing house because our stuff is (a.) dreck and/or (b.) poorly written or (c.) boring or doesn’t meet the stringent politically correct/woke characteristics that the Bryn Mawr interns guarding the slush pile have as criteria, a social media presence is hammered. And hammered. You gotta have a platform. You gotta have a mailing list. A newsletter. You gotta be tweeting and posting and videoing and podding and blogging with a frequency slightly akin to those guys calling about your car warranty. 

Spare me.

I used to be a twitterer and an f’booker and could be found on other with-it sites, believing that frequent postings hither and yon were vital to my success as a writer, but, no more. Yeah, yeah, I still have this blog and the Youtube channel, but, if you check the posting dates, you’ll note they are infrequently updated. And even less frequently visited. Not a lot of people are clinging to my URLs breathlessly awaiting the next pearls of wisdom. No, there’s something else I’ve discovered that is more vital to my success as a writer…

Writing.

Novels. Short stories. Book reviews. Game reviews. You know, the stuff people actually want to read…or, would if they knew who I was so I guess I better tweet and tweet and post and posture and ruminate and pontificate and opine and drop pearls of wisdom in 240 characters or less until somebody decides I’m so cool they’ll take a look at one of my books or stories or something.

Or I could use all that time and energy to write better books. And upload ‘em and one day, somebody goes, “Hmm, this looks interesting” and reads it until the end instead of throwing it across the room and gives it to a friend who gives it to a friend and next thing you know, I’ve got some reviews and a couple of people who don’t think I  suck.

Could happen.

If-I-Write-It-They-Will-Come syndrome, a debilitating condition that drives thousands of mediocrities such as moi to write a 1000 page novel in a weekend, spellcheck it, have your Mom read it and she likes it, slap a generic cover on it and upload to Amazon and then wonder why no one will read much past the first page, much less pay 2.99 for the entire thing. I have, of course, learned those lessons and like to think my quality has improved. I mean, I’m getting at least three phone calls a day from Filipino book publishers desperate to represent me. For a fee, of course.

But I am still one lemming in the herd, indistinguishable from my fellows, the onrush of our indie novels careening over the clifftop and how do I stand out, how do I get noticed? Tweet and blog and Facebook, just like all my herdmates. 

Or just don’t worry about it. Que sera sera. 

Besides, I’m fairly boring. Just read through some of these posts.

Please?

Posted in Writing itself | Comments Off on Why I Don’t Socialize

The Ten Best Novels I Ever Read

At least, so far. Not the top ten horror or fantasy or scifi novels, although all three categories are  represented herein, but books that I still remember, still think about, still reference days or even decades after reading them. Without further ado:

10. The Forgotten Door, by Alexander Key. Jon, a child from another world, falls through a portal and ends up on Earth, where he endures the fear and suspicion of a prejudiced town.

I read this when I was 13 or 14, when a lot of very bad things were happening in my life, and the last scene of this book still haunts me. I wanted to step through that hidden door and live in Jon’s world. It was so much better than this one. Still is. I have not read it since then and, no doubt, if I did so, would find it quaint and simplistic and…juvenile. But it gave me hope and a longing that I still indulge.

9. Knee Deep in Thunder, by Sheila Moon. Maris and a motley gang of bugs- yes, bugs- go on a quest to save a magical land from an evil force.

Another book I read at 13 or 14 in the midst of all those bad things happening and the last scene of this book- where Jetsam disappears down the beach- has also stayed with me but not out of hope or longing, no. Out of loss. That everything you love will be lost, eventually. Which, of course, is not Moon’s intent or message but is the one I derived. The beauty of books: you can find your own meaning.

8. The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk. A sweeping family saga of WW2. 

Yes, I know, not one book but two, the second one being War and Remembrance, and a pretty good TV miniseries to boot, and I have yet to find another WW2 story that so well captures  the massive shock and upheaval of that conflict. Everything and everyone in this book changes, and not always for the best. The scene at the Auschwitz gas chambers is one of the most chilling and revolting ever written.

7. Vanishing Point, by Michaela Roessner. One night, 90% of the world’s population simply vanishes. Forty years later, the surviving 10% are still trying to cope.

This is a scifi novel that leans post-apocalyptic, so I differentiate it from the next book on the list which is pure scifi and leaves me enough wiggle room to declare this one and the next one as the two best scifi books I ever read. Roessner never explains what happened, and I freakin’ love that. Deal with it and move on.

6. The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. A Jesuit priest makes first contact with a race of aliens located near Alpha Centauri.

This is a mind blowing story about faith and cultures and what happens when two completely incompatible groups meet, without realizing they are incompatible until it is too late. One of the most successful depictions of a completely alien species that I’ve read. And the sequel, Children of God, ain’t no slouch, neither.

5. The Baroque Cycle: Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World, by Neal Stephenson. An epic sweeping gargantuan and overwhelming world striding mess of a story that covers Europe from the time of the English Civil War through the Glorious Revolution.

As told by a boatload of characters, from Sir Isaac Newton to Half-Cocked Jack (who gained the appellation through a rather unfortunate accident), this is history made palatable. And gripping. And, yes, I know, trilogy, not novel. But once you start with Quicksilver, you’ll become so immersed in this crazy story that you’ll swear it was just one novel. One really big novel, so pack a lunch.

4. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry. A couple of aging cattlemen decide to move their ranch from Texas to Montana.

Yes, the miniseries was epic, but doesn’t hold a candle to the novel, which belongs to the Dying West genre: increasingly irrelevant cowboys take a stand for a rapidly fading way of life. This one, though, gilds no lilies, and the casual brutality of the frontier will make you glad you live in modern times.

3. Sometimes a Great Notion. In post-Korean War America, an estranged son returns to his home at the request of his half brother to help the family break a logging strike.

This, and the next entry, are the two Great American novels, at least so far. While everyone knows Ken Kesey from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, this one is far superior, a mesmerizing tale of a completely dysfunctional family who is forced to pull together in the face of a town’s hostility. The Stampers are defying a lumber strike by delivering wood to the local mill, earning the enmity of neighbors and union organizers, and each other. Not an easy read because Kesey took the James Joyce approach here and there and you’ll get viewpoint changes sometimes within the same sentence, but worth your time and effort. 

2. East of Eden. A retelling of Cain and Abel, with two sets of brothers a generation apart reprising the roles.

This is post-Civil War America in its broad, mad rush to become itself. A generational saga that begins with probably the most awful father you’ll find outside of a Faulkner novel, the first set of brothers, Charles and Adam, fight that father and each other in an effort to break free and establish themselves. Adam ends up in the Salinas Valley and marries probably the most evil character you’ll find outside of a Stoker novel, leading to the next set of brothers, Caleb and Aron, and their subsequent tragedy. Talk about the three generational curse… 

1. Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut. An engineer leads a revolt against a dystopian society.

You know Vonnegut was going to creep into one of my lists somewhere sometime because the guy is just unique, in a category by himself, like Jack Vance. Everyone thinks Slaughterhouse-5 is his opus but, no, it’s this one, which is more of a straight up story than his later, delightfully absurd,  novels, such as Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You Mr. Rosewater. There is still a lot of delightfully absurd writing in this novel, especially when Vonnegut is describing the noises that machines make. In a dystopia run by corporations, where corporate life is all, the individual can only exist within prescribed corporate rules and approval. Break the rules, you are dismissed, or worse, never promoted, but at least that’s better than being in the Army or the Reclamation and Recovery corps, the only two options for anyone not an engineer or manager. This was written in 1952. Yikes.

Note that I left out The Martian Chronicles and The Crystal Cave and Alas Babylon. Ten is ten. I guess I need to start another list, say, the Best Ten Books I Ever Read Besides the Other Ten. We’ll see.

Posted in Reading itself | Comments Off on The Ten Best Novels I Ever Read

Meet Frank. Go South. Then Look for Don

July 1st, get Frank Vaughn Killed by his Mom and Southern Gothic for free on Smashwords. Go here: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/dkrauss

And, while you’re at it, pre-order Looking for Don, which is the last of the Frank Vaughn trilogy, and which comes out July 7.

From the 60s through the 90s, America.

Posted in Reading itself | Comments Off on Meet Frank. Go South. Then Look for Don