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Piers the handyman 2007
JeJune 2013

We had a siege of malware in Apull that effectively continued into Mayhem, because while we got rid of it promptly it kept returning, and in any event Google kept warning visitors away regardless whether the site was infected at the time. One visitor told me how he received the warning, so investigated on his own, and the site was clean. I think it's fine that Google warns visitors of potential infection, but it might do better to eliminate the false positives as assiduously as it issues warnings. Again I wonder: where was Google when the malware came to our site? We got no warning. Why wait until after infection to issue a warning? This smells a bit like blaming the victim, rather than the perpetrator. At any rate, we want to thank those who helped us deal with the problem when our host Earthlink seemed not to care: Shadow and Mark Jones. It has been an education in more than one venue.

I completed Xanth #39 Five Portraits, concerning the rescue and adoption of five children from Xanth's doomed future, then pigged out of backlogged DVD movies. So this long HiPiers Column consists of mostly movie reviews. Skim over them if you prefer.

My anthology One and Wonder, edited by Evan Filipek, is now in print at FANTASTIC PLANET BOOKS, an imprint of ERASERHEAD PRESS, www.bizarrocentral.com that also published my shocker The Sopaths. Way back when I was thirteen I picked up an old magazine lying around the office where my mother worked and started reading to pass the time until she finished her shift. It changed my life, because it instantly addicted me to Science Fiction as a diversion from my unworthwhile life, and I wound up writing the stuff. Later I got into the sister genre Fantasy, and had some success there, as readers of this column may already suspect. But it all started with that issue of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION. The One in the title is me, and the Wonder is my feeling about the genre, which remains today. These are the stories that defined my early interest before I got corrupted by the fun and money of Fantasy. I don't claim they are the best ever published; they are merely the ones that most impressed the teen and twenties me. Such as “The Equalizer” by Jack Williamson, wherein a space-faring crew returns to Earth to find its technology largely discarded, the people returned pretty much to nature. What happened? A breakthrough that allowed a mere twisting of wires to evoke unlimited power, so the huge burden of generating pollutive energy was no longer needed. What a lovely dream! “Breaking Point” by James Gunn, wherein a ship lands on a far planet and suffers mind-testing challenges without ever leaving the ship. It's a psychological tour de force. “Vengeance for Nikolai” by Walter M Miller Jr., where in a lovely young Russian mother seeks to avenge the loss of her newborn baby, a casualty of the brutal American military campaign, and succeeds via an amazing ploy. “The Girl Had Guts” by Theodore Sturgeon; take that figuratively and literally. And on with stories by Isaac Asimov, William Tenn, and others, concluding with the brief “Myrrha” by Gary Jennings, a shocking fantasy. So if you're curious what turned me on, way back when, fifty to sixty five years ago, this answers that. Otherwise it's still a good anthology by some of the top names in the field, foreshadowing notions later developed in movies, with my fond commentary throughout. I did it at my own expense, as a kind of monument to the origin of my discovery of wonder.

And I have a short story in the June 2013 children's magazine JACK AND JILL, “Adele Adair and the Misty Monster.” It has been denatured from my original but the essence remains. Their teen heroine Adele finds herself in Xanth, where she helps fix the hurting foot of the monster of Lake Wails.

I watched half a slew of DVD videos, ranging from quality to junk. One was Madame Bovary, that interested me because decades ago I heard a college professor praise Gustave Flaubert's novel as the finest ever published. That made me curious, so I bought a copy in 1964, but didn't get around to reading it. So finally I got the movie, so as to get a notion: young, lovely Emma Bovary, the wife of a dull doctor, craves the illustrious life, and in her search for it she has numerous affairs and piles up great debt. She finally kills herself when those debts come due and can't be paid. The author was put on trial for corrupting public morals, but said he was merely being realistic and was acquitted. Indeed, the movie frames the story with that trial, with Flaubert eloquently defending himself on the grounds of realism. I understand that all the characters were based on real people. Good for him; the censors are ever with us and need to be fought off, lest they succeed in stultifying literature and human expression. So how is the movie? It dates from 1949 and is in black and white, and the narrative is tame by today's standards, but it does give the flavor of nineteenth century France. I did not find it phenomenally compelling, but it did satisfy my curiosity. I liked the fancy mannered dancing at the grand ball, with the women in their enormously spreading skirts. We don't see much of that today. Another in that four-pack is Anna Karenina, vintage 1935, black/white, another tragedy. Anna, played by Greta Garbo, is ten years married, with a son she loves, but she loves another man. Forced to choose between them, she leaves her husband and is cut off from her son. Then the other man decides to join in the Crimean War, just for the adventure of it, and won't heed her plea to stay with her; he's really like her husband in his unbending imperatives, and she is less important than they. It's not even a matter of honor, just boys will be boys. Perfect love? Only in her dream. Balked of everything she loves, she finally throws herself under the wheels of a train and dies. There are lovely dances and royal splendor, as well as funny stupid drinking contests. Being rich and beautiful and envied does not necessarily bring happiness: that is perhaps the message.

Modesty Blaise, a two hour 1966 parody of the international intrigue type of movie which I understand was developed from a comic strip. Modesty is a top female operator who constantly changes outfits even in the midst of action in the field, showing nice hints of her nice body, and invokes clever obscure bits of technology. Men find her alluring, including the bad guys. The story line jumps about bewilderingly, but concerns a diamond heist. It's fun but shallow. I Am Omega, one of the dollar movies. Not bad, actually, as a survivor of the zombie conquest is contacted by a pretty girl whose blood has something that can eliminate the zombies. But bad men intervene; they want the zombies to continue, because they feel this makes for a survival of the fittest world and naturally they see themselves as the fittest. Apart from that it's smash-zombie action. It's not explained why the zombies keep attacking live people. If I were a zombie I'd stay away from murderous live folk. Wishful Thinking, a romantic comedy that is perfectly well done, with some good thoughts about the nature of people and of relationships, that didn't turn me on. I finally realized it is because I simply don't much like strained romances; maybe I'm just not familiar with them. This one's about a couple living together, considering marriage, but with doubts; then third parties get involved with some lies, and the resultant stress may finish the romance. Comedy? Not my kind. Monster, one of the amateur hard-held camera types, with jumpy transitions as they turn off the camera and start it again later. I remember The Blair Witch Project done that way, only in the forest. Two pretty American young women are interviewing in the Tokyo Japan area about global warming when something strikes the city. Officially its an earthquake in 2003, but background shots show huge waving tentacles as if a giant squid is grabbing the buildings. Chaos, and finally the last picture is taken and the screen is dark, with the report that the film was discovered four years later but the girls were never found. So it's a horror destruction movie. About Adam, another romantic comedy, and an odd one, as handsome Adam gets engaged to one sister, then has a torrid affair with another, then with the third, but in the end does marry the first. He just likes to give folk what they really want. I'm not sure how I feel about that; maybe there's such a thing as giving too much. AVH Alien vs Hunter—There's the flash of something landing in a forest, and it turns out to be an alien monster, sort of like a giant crab with a bug-like forepart, messily chomping people. Who is being hunted by a human-like hunter. Much of it consists of groups of frightened people wandering through the forest or through tunnels; really not a lot of story to it, but there is gore, pretty girls, and tension.

Down To You—a romance that proceeds normally until second thoughts come in; they have an argument, bad words are said, and they break up, to mutual grief. Some time later they meet again, feel the pull, and decide to start over. I got bored in the middle, but the end compelled my attention; I did want them to make up. I think the key sequence for me was when, drunk, she declared “I hate you!” It wasn't warranted, and next morning she was totally ashamed. She tried to apologize, but he stonewalled her. It was heartbreaking, because they clearly still loved each other, but he just couldn't get around it. If only he'd had the sense to understand and forgive! So they had to go the long route, taking months or years to heal. What gets me is that it's the way I would have been in that situation. It also brings back a memory: when my teen daughter Penny wanted something I felt it inexpedient to provide she said “I hate you!” and stormed off. At the end of the day, when I normally read to her—yes, of course she could read; it was a togetherness thing carrying on from childhood—she asked, and I said “I don't feel inclined to read to someone who says she hates me.” She was silent, knowing she had brought it on herself. It was a necessary response to out-of-bounds behavior, and yes it hurt me to do it, but I had to make the point. Any parent will understand. The following night we resumed the reading, and the matter was never mentioned again. But she never spoke that way again either. These interactions were not necessarily negative; once she wanted to stay up late on a weekend night to watch a scary movie on TV. I told her she could do it, but I recommended against it, because it might mess her up emotionally. She did stay up to watch it. Next day she said “Daddy, next time I want to do that, don't let me.” That too was painful, but it seemed it was a lesson she had to learn for herself. We can protect our children only so far.

Sherrybaby—This is billed as a powerhouse movie, and it is. Sherry spent three years in prison, being a drug addict. Now she's released on parole, and seeks to reconnect with her five-year-old daughter who is being raised by her brother and his wife. Naturally she can't just come in and take the little girl; this movie makes clear how difficult it is, despite her complete effort. She has spent a year studying children, and means to get a job teaching preschoolers, all to help her relate. She's good at it too. But to the child it's like having a stranger take her away. A key scene is when she sees it's not working, and cries in her father's arms, and he starts feeling her up. That drives her to start using again, putting everything in peril. In the end she accepts that her child will have to stay with her brother's family, not with her. Not that this is a dull character study; when she needs the help of a man, Sherry doesn't hesitate to use her sex appeal to get her way, and there are some startlingly graphic scenes. Other members of the cast are not cardboard either; they are realistically doing their things. It's a persuasive and hard-hitting story. And this one too reminds me of something personal. When I was four my parents, essentially strangers, picked me up and took me away to another country, and I never again saw the woman I had related to as a mother figure, who was actually the nanny in England. I never really got over that loss; 74 years later it still hurts. I call it root pruning; it doesn't show, but something vital is gone. It may be that that emotional vacuum is what powers my writing. So I'm glad that Sherry let her daughter stay with her brother's family; it saved the child one hell of a wrenching.

The Third Secret—This is a 1964 movie, billed as color on the package, but it's shades of gray. Nevertheless, a good movie. A leading psychoanalyst is discovered dead, shot with his own gun; it looks like suicide. But his 14 year old daughter is sure it's murder, and prevails on a TV commentator who was a patient of the deceased to investigate. They think it must be one of the other patients, and they do have suspicious secrets. There's some sharp commentary on the nature of mental illness. A neurotic relates well enough to reality to get along, but a psychotic may not, yet can be deviously clever. At one point the TV man even suspects himself. But it turns out to be—the daughter. Her father was trying to treat her so she wouldn't be put away in an institution, but it didn't quite work out. It's well done. Oh, the three secrets? What you don't tell anyone else, what you don't tell yourself, and the truth.

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing—This is a 1955 movie of love between an American reporter and a Eurasian doctor, familiar because of its lead song, so I was curious. It takes place at the time of the Korean War. We see prejudice in operation, as she loses her position not because of incompetence—she's highly competent—but because she is an Asian-Occidental crossbreed. Maddening bigotry, but that's the way it was in those days. He finally wins her over, then gets killed in Korea. That depresses me, as it is supposed to. An irony at the end is that she learns of his death, but knows that his frequent letters in the pipeline will keep coming, that way bringing him back to life in a manner. That's painful. So I can't say I enjoyed the movie, but it was worth watching.

Logan's War: Bound By Honor, the first of a five-pack action movies for $3. It's a standard martial arts, crime and revenge story, well done. A crime syndicate murders the whole family of the prosecutor, except for the ten-year-old boy who escapes because he has an innate sense of danger. His uncle then trains him in martial arts, and he takes a stint as a ranger in war, then returns to take on the syndicate, finally wiping it out. Best of the Best: Without Warning, the second of the five. It starts peacefully, for maybe two minutes. Then without warning, sure enough, the mayhem begins. Russian mobsters are into counterfeiting, and brutally erasing anyone who gets in the way, until Tommy Lee gets involved. This has every kind of action galore, including a phenomenal explosion in a tunnel. Again, well enough done for what it is; it held my attention. Once A Thief—third of the five, and another good one. Partners in a Hong Kong crime syndicate both love the same girl. One seeks to escape with her, but gets caught by the police. Later he is recruited to join the other side and fight crime, and encounters the girl again—only she's now engaged to an ex-cop. The two of them and the girl have to work together to fight the mob. Nice humor and rivalry. They finally win through, girl remains undecided, and they are required to work together again. Obviously sequels coming up. There's even a beautiful bitch of a boss. Family of Cops—Set in Milwaukee, the chief has a birthday party for Family. Then his daughter sleeps with a millionaire, and wakes to find him dead, and she is implicated. In the end they find who ordered the hit—his wife—and daughter is exonerated. Well enough done, the emphasis more on family feeling than on violence. Men With Guns—Last movie on the disc is finally a loser, for my taste. Two or three small-time hustlers run afoul of a major drug dealer, and in the end just about everyone is messily dead. It may be the way things are in the underworld, but there seem to be no good guys here, and nothing good to be accomplished.

Three Kings—This takes place in the near east, but it's not biblical. It starts when the Iraq Gulf War is over, by maybe a day, and chaos still pretty much reigns. Four American soldiers decide to locate and take the Kuwaiti gold ingots the Iraqis stole, but in the course of their search they get involved in helping rebel Iraqis get across the border to Iran. The rebels were encouraged by America to revolt against Saddam, but then the Americans betrayed them, not supporting them, allowing them to be mowed down by Saddam's forces. It was a significant blot on America. So these Iraqis were to be slaughtered if they didn't escape; one young mother even had her brains blown out onstage. The crisis at the end is when the are at the border and American troops are preventing them from crossing. But a reporter and news camera are there, so that the world will know if the others are sacrificed. Funny thing how that changed the picture. This is one great movie.

The Squid and the Whale—This is highly regarded by critics, which is a kind of warning; sure enough, it is a depressing narrative of the slow dissolution of a marriage. The parents, both writers, argue, the two boys take sides, everyone is fouled up. The boys emulate their parents and get into trouble, the one with literary pretensions that can't stand up, the other with sexual mischief. It doesn't help that the mother is having an affair and the father is making out with a twenty year old girl, the sons knowing about these. I never did get quite clear the relevance of the title; whales feed on squids, and there can be epic battles, but is that it? There is a painting in a gallery that they saw when the family was more together, of a squid and whale, and that evidently means something, such as maybe the way the parents get along. Obviously it's not on my wavelength.

Ghost Storm—Lightning strikes a graveyard and frees malignant spirits who then attack living folk, turning them to gunk. It's not credible, even as a supernatural effort, but does have the kind of suspense a zombie movie has, with this eerie vapor infiltrating houses and destroying living folk with its touch. It might have been better had they left it at that, but this vapor forms into zooming spears that actively chase after people. Where do ghosts get the power to do that? They are finally destroyed by a special radio frequency.

Life of Pi—This is a powerhouse movie, technically a fantasy, fascinating. A vegetarian boy of India named Pi is familiar with his father's zoo. Then when the family moves to Canada with the zoo animals there is a storm in the Pacific and the ship sinks. The boy survives in a lifeboat, accompanied by a zebra, laughing hyena, orangutan, and a Bengal tiger. Before long only Pi and the tiger survive, alone on the sea, and they do not get along well. But Pi is able to catch enough fish to feed the tiger and himself—he remarks that hunger does things to one's perspective, so the vegetarianism fades--and they more or less come to terms with each other. They land on a floating island, but it turns out to be a cannibal isle, proffering food and fresh water by day, but deadly by night. So they have to move on, and finally make it to Mexico, both near starvation. The tiger disappears into the jungle while Pi is helped by humans who don't believe his story. So he tells them another story, of himself, his mother, a sailor, and a vicious cook on the lifeboat, perishing similarly, and no carnivorous island. That may be closer to the truth, but uglier. The sailor had broken his leg, the cook killed him and used him for bait to bring fish, mother protested and the cook killed her. Then Pi killed the cook and became the only survivor. The sailor was the zebra, the cook was the hyena, the orangutan was the mother, and Pi was the tiger. So there was no long siege with Pi and tiger, unless it was him warring with himself. Which story is preferable? That is the question. I prefer the fantasy.

Gods and Monsters—A retired Hollywood director, James Whale, lives largely in the past in 1957, when being gay is not fashionable. The gods and monsters populate the movies he is famous for. His dour housekeeper hires a gardener for the estate, and Whale is intrigued. He cultivates the young man, but when it is clear that the man is not gay and will repel advances, Whale commits suicide. It's a well-told story, seeming realistic, but not my kind of thing. To gain perspective, in my mind I reverse it, and imagine being a heterosexual in a gay world where my interest in sightly young women would be met with violent disgust, especially by the women. Ouch!

Female Teacher: In Front of the Students—This was billed as an erotic film and I was curious, so bought it. It's Japanese, with English subtitles, many of which are simply “No!” It certainly is erotic, with frequent sex showing everything but the genitals. The theme is rape, with the suggestion that if a woman is raped enough she comes to accept it and even like it, her own sexual urges being awakened. So the implication is that women should be raped for their own good. Okay, I'll abridge the diatribe and just say there may be a case but I disagree. Reiko is a phenomenally beautiful young woman who has taken a teaching job at an old high school. Um, maybe in Japan that carries the students over the age of 18. All the students are hot for her. She is also a tennis coach, and summarily drops a bully from the team. Then as she showers alone in the faculty facility a man sneaks in and violently rapes her, spraying shower water in her face so she can't see to recognize him. She doesn't report the rape; instead she tries to identify the perpetrator, having only a dropped jigsaw puzzle piece as a clue. She suspects the tennis bully, but when she asks him about it, he and his girlfriend openly rape her, together: while he's having at her breasts, she's eating her vulva. Then they switch positions, keeping her manacled by one wrist and one ankle. She doesn't report that either. Instead she asks a fellow teacher—and he then rapes her. Then when she helps a bullied student, taking him to his room, she sees the puzzle with the missing piece. He's the rapist! But she has sympathy for him, and decides to give him sex voluntarily, only to discover that he can't do it that way. So she poses as the victim, saying “No! No!” and making him potent. And next day despite her humiliations, some of which were before a number of students, she is back running her class as if nothing has happened. The students seem to respect that as a class act. Some class!

Goya's Ghosts—This is a brutal semi-historical story of the Spanish painter Francisco Goya, whose lovely model Ines is taken by the Spanish Inquisition and tortured to make her confess to heresy. Her father is not one to tolerate this without acting, so he does two things: proffers gold to the Inquisition, which accepts the money but does not release his daughter, and puts a ranking monk to a similar torture to make him confess to being the child of a monkey and a orangutan. Thus he proves his point: a victim will confess to any nonsense to stop the pain. He's right; torture, aside from being morally abominable, is useless, because it gets only what the torturers want, not the truth. We saw that when America tortured prisoners to make them implicate Saddam Hussain with weapons of mass destruction, then invaded on false premises. The Inquisition was a blot on Catholicism and indeed mankind, as was America's similar shame. The story goes on from there, as Napoleon invades Spain and incidentally abolishes the Inquisition and frees its prisoners, then England invades, and it winds up somewhat muddled with loose ends. Ines had perhaps involuntary sex with the monk who was supposed to help her, and when she is freed wants to reunite with her daughter, but somehow they don't get together; there's not a satisfactory emotional conclusion. But the larger message remains, showing man's inhumanity to man.

Les Miserables—I mentioned loose ends, just above. It's almost as if this one picks up there and carries the story forward as Jean, pursued for decades by the ruthless policeman Javert, promises the dying mother that he will take care of her lost daughter, and he does, seeing her grow up to marry the man she loves. The background is similar too, the early 1800s when France is in turmoil. I saw the non-opera version decades ago, and remembered some scenes; this is a different treatment, but the same larger story. Jean flees, is pursued. escapes, becomes mayor of a town, is discovered, flees with the child, becoming her father, and finally tries to help rebels, though their effort fails. He does manage to save her beloved, whom he views as a kind of son. I had trouble understanding the sung words, so learned how to turn on the subtitles (I'm from another century; these things don't come naturally to me) and then followed the words perfectly. It's one grand story.

The Illustrated Man—When I went to college the rage was Ray Bradbury. I hadn't read him, so read The Martian Chronicles and was not unduly impressed. Then I read The Illustrated Man, and liked it better. The idea was that a man had pictures all over his body, and each represented a story, and the volume was the collection of those stories. It seemed to me that there might have been a better way to unify the volume, and I don't remember the stories, except for “The Children's Room,” which I believe is represented in this movie as “The Veldt.” It's some story! In a future society the children's room has walls that animate to form any scene they desire, so they can seem to be there. The one they prefer is the veldt, with lions prowling. When the parents conclude that this fixation is unhealthy and get ready to turn it off, the children lure them into the room and the parents disappear. It concludes with the children happily playing in the foreground, while the lions feed on something in the background. So just how real has that room become? Okay, the movie seems to be an improvement on the book (a rare occurrence), with a young traveler encountering a gruff hobo who is the illustrated man, who says he want SPAN STYLE="font-style: normal">s to find the woman who put those illustrations on him, and kill her. A flashback shows how the man first encountered the personable young woman, Felicia, who may have drugged him and put the illustrations on. In “The Veldt” they are man and wife, with the two children, and the traveler is the doctor who persuades the parents that the children's fixation is unhealthy and the animation room should be destroyed. In another story “The Long Rain” hobo and traveler are caught in an endless rain on a far planet; when they reach a dome hoping for salvation, the same woman is there. Now much of a story. In “The Last Night of the World” the hobo kills his children and Felicia is appalled. Then back to the present, where the traveler sees an illustration of his own future, screaming in pain, and flees. End of movie. I found it fascinating at the beginning, but it petered out as it went, becoming pointless. So while I applaud the effort, it disappointed me in the end. Much as Bradbury's stories did, long ago.

I concluded my viewing month with The Hobbit, the first of a trilogy based on my favorite fantasy novel. I read it as a child of about ten, but the volume is not in my library now, getting lost along the way. There's evidently a whole lot I have forgotten, or they have embellished it greatly. Maybe a combination. At any rate, this is one phenomenal fantasy adventure, with deadly bad enemies and courageous friends, and of course Bilbo Baggins, the unassuming hobbit who seems like a child among men. But he's the one who discovers the magic ring that is the key not only to their present quest to rescue the dwarf's kingdom from the nasty dragon Smaug, but to the larger adventure of the Middle Earth. There's great scenery along the way, too. I read once that Middle Earth is a map of Europe turned sideways; I'm not sure that's true, but there are awesome scenes there.

And one theater movie, Star Trek: Into Darkness. This reminded us why we don't see many theater movies these days: almost deafeningly loud, cost about $7.50 per person even with senior discounts; watching at home is significantly cheaper and more convenient, if less current, and we can re-watch or trade videos, after. The story was jumpy so that it was at times hard to know just what was happening. New actors fill the roles of Captain Kirk, Spock, Scottie and so on; at first they seemed like clumsy impostors, as my memory is of the first Star Trek TV series, half of which I saw—that is, I got to watch the second halves while my wife took her turn putting down a child; such is family life—and they sort of are my archetypes. But as the movie wore on I acclimatized, and they seemed more ship in peril , as well as revealing its existence to primitive natives, a no-no. So he is relieved of command. Then there is an attack, and he gets deviously reinstalled, to capture the escaped convict Khan. That turns out to be difficult and dangerous, and there's a whole lot of violence and double dealing before finally, as much by grit and luck as by skill, he accomplishes the mission. Worth seeing, but not phenomenal.

I had accumulated four Discover nature videos, and caught up on them now. “Evolve: Skin” is about skin, and it's not dull at all. It shows how skin became so much more than just a way to contain the body. Sharks developed cuttingly sharp skin to protect them, while squid developed the ability to imitate their surrounds and in effect disappear from predators. When creatures moved onto land they had to get skin that held their water in. They formed scales, feathers and hair. Then humans lost most of their hair and became naked. Why? The thesis is that they became runners for hunting. Running generates heat, which had to be dissipated. So came sweat, the most efficient cooling mechanism in the animal kingdom. Now a pack of humans could chase down hoofed creatures (and hooves are from the skin) and stay cool until the creatures dropped from overheating. So we survived as hunters because of our unique skin. Of course it's more complicated than that, and I could comment for a long time on the adaptations that made us human, but this is a telling aspect. “How the Earth Was Made: The Alps.” You might think that would be boring, but none of these are boring, as least not to me. It mentions ho Leonardo da Vinci was not just a painter but also a scientist, and he spied sea shells high in the Alps and conjectured that they must have formed under the sea, then been raised. He was right. In fact there are three layers of rock there, and the oldest is as the top. How can that be? It's because the continent of Africa charged north and crashed into Europe, part of it overriding southern Europe, forming 22,000 foot high mountains. But then weather and glaciers eroded them to half that height, and it continues today with global warming; before long, geologically, the Alps may be more like molehills. It showed how glaciers are slow-moving rivers of ice, constantly cutting away at the mountains. “How the Earth Was Made: Asteroids.” This starts with Meteor Crater in Arizona, showing how it must have been formed by the collision of an iron meteor, which vaporized on impact, gouging out a huge section. Other strikes around the globe have made rich deposits of nickel, gold and other metals. One tip-off is iridium (you know, heavy metal like gold or platinum): that metal is extremely rare on Earth, but common in space, so when its shows up it suggests a space collision. A meteor collision wiped out the dinosaurs and cleared the way for the mammals to take over the Earth. Meteors have indeed shaped much of the history of life on Earth. One scary thing is that they are still striking our planet, and a big one could wipe us out in a fraction of a second. Ouch! “Broken Tail: A Tiger's Last Journey.” This is the story of a photographer who spent a couple of years spending all day in a tiger preserve in India photographing tigers. They became almost tame, seeing him constantly around. He saw a female mate, so her two male cubs, one of which had a distinguishing kink in his tale. Later Broken Tail left the preserve, a dangerous thing to do, then was killed by a train hundreds of miles away. He knew of trains, just hadn't learned to stay clear of them. A sad story, as is the background situation of the approaching extinction of tigers in India as poachers kill them. It wish there could be a poacher tracker that would kill the poacher just before he killed the tiger. And a fifth arrived, “Poisoned Waters,” a two hour expose of how pollution is yes, poisoning our waters, and creatures such as the orcas, that is, killer whales, are dying and will be gone form Puget Sound in another twenty years, with similar mischief all over the country. Meanwhile the polluting industries, agriculture and manufacturing, keep stalling any action so they can make more money; the don't care what dies tomorrow as long as they make a buck today. It's an outrage. Environmentalists are fighting back, but encounter objections from the public: people want to do with their land what they want to do, and don't want anyone limiting them, not even to save the world. This is a frightening report, and it does look as if we're likely doomed because of the selfishness and idiocy of people. Storm water drainage washes things like PCB contamination into the sea, where it moves destructively up the food chain, and efforts to outlaw it seem to be too little too late. Sickening.

I read Burning by Eve Paludan, published by the JR Rain Press. J.R. Rain is my collaborator on the Aladdin trilogy and Dragon Assassin, but he's also a bestseller in his own right with his Vampire For Hire series. Now he's branching out into publishing. It was offered free for the first five days, so I got my wife to download it on her Kindle. I don't have a kindle, but she lent me hers, and I got to know it via this reading. It's pretty good, actually, both the Kindle and the book. This is actually more like a sampler, with beginnings of several novels or series; you have to buy them separately to finish them. As it happens, I am about to write my own fantasy detective novel, WereWoman, on Rain's advice, so this serves as a nice review of this genre. It contains a long segment of Burning, and shorter segments of Witchy Business and Finding Jessie. Burning features Samantha Moon, yes the vampire for hire, as a significant character. The protagonist, Rand, is a vampire hunter who attacks Samantha, but she captures him and flies him to a cruise ship where he connects with other vampire hunters. It seems that Samantha is working with them; she doesn't like regular vampires. The vampires win the fight on the ship, and when Rand gets home he discovers that his wife has been killed and his daughter abducted. He teams with another hunter, Ambra, who lost her husband to vampires. About the time he realizes that he is falling in love with her, the narrative ends, to be continued in the sequel Afterglow. This is one fast moving, hard-hitting and often surprising story. Witchy Business is by Eve Paludan and Stuart Sharp. The protagonist, Ellie, is a witch who specializes in influencing emotions. She has just helped a werewolf in trouble. Then she gets a new case: to locate a stolen rare painting. Which you can learn about by buying the book. Then Finding Jessie, a mystery romance, also by Eve Paludan. Sam, a 56 year old book collector encounters a beautiful woman, Jessie, twenty years his junior, who seems quite interested in him, but he is wary, as obviously she can attract any man she wants. She even invites him to kiss her, but he holds off, evidently hurting her feelings. They have a common interest in rare books. This description may seem staid, but actually this is a compelling narrative, leaving me quite curious about the real nature of Jessie. Is she a witch or vampire? I could find out by buying the book. Which is the point of offering samples; they can indeed arouse your interest.

I read Chamber of Ghosts by Keith Robinson, the sixth novel in his Island of Fog series, www.UnearthlyTales.com. Remember, eight or nine twelve-year-old children had been confined to an island constantly shrouded by thick fog. Which turned out to be to protect them from a global virus that would otherwise wipe out their developing magical shape-shifting abilities. The main character is Hal Franklin, who can change to a fire-breathing dragon. This time he is trying to help eradicate the last of the virus, and to unite the two worlds (Earth and the magical one) so that everyone can have the best of both. Naturally others don't agree, so he has to go it largely alone. At one point he gets caught in a deep tunnel as boiling hot water surges toward him; he is saved only by a friendly gorgon who catches his eye and turns him to stone so that the water won't boil him. While in that state he finds himself in the Chamber of Ghosts, as a visitor who isn't actually dead. Later he is revived, but no one believes his story about the ghosts. This gives a hint about what's in this hard-hitting novel. Like the others before it, this is well worth reading, and not just by children. There's even a hint of romance, as Hal finally gets up the nerve to kiss his girlfriend Abigail.

I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I was tempted to phrase it as a joke: what did Cheryl do when she tired of the conventional life? Cheryl Strayed. But it turns out that that's pretty much why she named herself that, whet she got to choose her name after her divorce. She's some writer, a year younger than my elder daughter was, who decided to walk the Pacific Crest Trail. That turned out to be a hellish experience, and it pretty much changed her life. She started with a supply pack she dubbed Monster that weighed more than half as much as she did, until fellow travelers helped her lighten it somewhat. She read books along the way, ripping them apart and burning the pages as she finished them, so as not to carry any more weight than she had to. I appreciate the reasoning, but that's painful. Along the way she ponders her life with devastating yet beguiling candor, putting her inner demons to rest. Some examples: as an attractive young woman she likes men and sex, and though married to a good man, she had affairs with others. Finally she made a clean, uh, breast of it to her closest friends, explaining why the marriage was breaking up. How did they respond? One tore up her framed picture of Cheryl and mailed her the pieces. Another made out with Cheryl's husband. When Cheryl was hurt by this, a third friend told her that it served her right, being a taste of her own medicine. Before that when her husband accepted a job in another state and had to be away, “I stayed behind in Oregon and fucked the ex-boyfriend of the woman who owned the exotic hens [they were farm-sitting for the summer]. I fucked the cook at the restaurant where I'd picked up a job waiting tables. I fucked a massage therapist who gave me a piece of banana cream pie and a free massage. All three of them over the span of five days.” When on the trail she goes out to eat with five male hikers, being one of the boys, she feels awkward. “I'd been a girl forever, after all, familiar with and reliant upon the power my very girlness granted me. Suppressing those powers gave me a gloomy twinge in the gut.” She normally did exploit that power. “I remembered walking with him one night a year before with a miniskirt on and nothing underneath and having sex with him against a wall in a private cove of a public park.” But I mentioned the hell of the trail itself. It was alternately hot—a hundred degrees—and cold, below freezing with snow. Going for weeks without being able to wash made her stink, literally. Parts of her chafed flesh came to resemble tree bark. When she brought out Band-Aids the wind blew them away. She was chronically short of money and supplies; at one point she had just sixty five cents, but then the nickel dropped in the snow and was lost. She even lost her boots on one ridge, and had to make do with taped-up sandals until she got replacements. Her feet got sore in the boots, to the point where her toenails started coming off; she lost half of them by the time she finished. But she was toughening up, generally. “My feet? Well, they were still entirely, unspeakably fucked.” It was agony to walk, but she had to plow on. In the end she walked over eleven hundred miles, finishing at Portland, Oregon, where she started a new life. This is a phenomenal story, and I recommend it to anyone.

Stray memory: when I was going for my Florida teaching certificate, taking courses at the University of South Florida in 1963-64, I added one on speed reading, as I have always been a slow reader and could use more speed. I was not impressed. I was on an accelerated teacher-certification program, which I explained to the speed reading folk, so needed to move along. They brushed that off, then were amazed when I had to quit half through, because my program was done and I had to move on. But I was already in doubt about the validity of the course. First they gave me a vocabulary test, telling me to take my time, so I did, making no mistakes. Then, half through, the woman returned to say time's up. What? It was a timed test? Every word I had answered was correct, but I was only halfway through. So they decided my problem was lack of vocabulary. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I believe I was in the 99th percentile on vocabulary; I use some words even the largest dictionaries lack. “Parsec” was an example. “Geis” was another. I finally put my foot down: “Ask me any words from the second half of the test,” I challenged. They did, and of course I knew them all. They had assumed that getting all the first half right and not answering the second half meant that I knew only half the words. These were teachers? Then there were the speed exercises: read a little piece as fast as possible, then use the coded answer key to grade yourself. I did, but something was wrong; it said I was missing ones I know were right. I took it to the teacher and demonstrated that the key code was wrong. She was surprised, and removed that one from the collection. So how many years had they been running that course with that same key code—and I was the first to notice it was wrong? So I never did learn to speed read. I suspect it is an illusion; it's actually skimming. It's like flying over terrain and thinking you know the flowers beside the path. If life were like that, you might as well commit suicide to get to the end more rapidly. My life is not like that; I'm slow, not dull.

Stray notes: Item in the newspaper on napalm, jellied gasoline, liquid fire. That reminded me of when my martial arts collaborator Roberto Fuentes told me about white phosphorus, which got on the skin and wouldn't stop burning, though it burn holes through the body. He thought it was the worst of weapons. I'm not sure; napalm is certainly a candidate, as it burns the skin right off the living body. This article says it may have killed more people in Japan than the two atomic bombs did. How would you rather die: by nuclear blast, or napalm? War is truly a horror. Article reprinted in THE WEEK on how we get defined by our labels. Children were randomly labeled “academic bloomers” though they were no different from others. The bloomers outperformed their unlabled peers by ten to fifteen IQ points. All because their teachers thought they were superior. Reminds me of how my daughter was put in a year-behind category in reading, because one teacher had said she was slow, until I sent her to school with the book she was reading for pleasure, which was a year or two ahead of her class level, and told her to read a sample to the teacher. She was dyslexic, but she could read. That settled that; she got unlabled. I was a teacher myself, but I retain contempt for some of what passes for teaching. Remember, I was the one who spent three years in first grade; I was labeled stupid. I was determined that the school system not do to my daughter what it had done to me. As I like to put it, today only a literary critic thinks I am stupid...

Newspaper advice column “Tell Me About it” by Carolyn Hax had a letter from a married woman appalled because her husband shared pictures of naked women with his friends. I don't share the feminist outrage; I have even exchanged pornographic movies such as “One Night in Paris” with friends. The fact is, most men appreciate the female human body, and this is normal and natural. Pictures, movies, or physically at home, it's all part of the sexual urge. The problem is when some folk decide that the human body, as God made it, is obscene, or that sex is sinful. I think those are the ones who need reeducation. My wife does not share my taste for viewing bare women, but she understands that this is part of my nature and that I appreciate her body similarly.

Newspaper article says that multitasking is an illusion; people who do it are worse at getting anything done than those who don't. As a multitasker I disagree. My mother used to knit while reading a book. I used to walk miles on a road through the forest while reading a book. That's multitasking. I walked on autopilot, not needing to pay full attention to that. I remember once I realized I had stopped walking. Why? I looked up from my book. It was because a tree had fallen across the road, blocking me. So I climbed over it want went on. But when it comes to texting while driving, I would never do it, because it's dangerous in a way that knitting or walking through a forest is not. Common sense is required.

Newspaper cryptoquote: “Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you'd most like not to lose.” Neil Gaiman. I suspect he is correct. Reminds me of abusive editing: one passage in a novel may not be as effective as another, but that doesn't mean I want the lesser one chopped out, any more than I want my left hand cut off because it is less versatile than my right hand. I left my best publisher when the editor did not understand that. Related discussion in a newspaper article by Cass R Sunstein “How to make wing nuts think more.” When opinionated folk are asked to explain their reasoning, they moderate their views. He says there are two defining characteristics of wing nuts: a readiness to attack people's good faith rather than their actual case, and an eagerness to make the worst rather than the best of opposing notions. So when folk called G.W. Bush a fascist or Barack Obama a socialist, asking them to explain exactly why they think so tends to moderate them. I guess actually thinking about something is hard on the arrogance of ignorance.

The mayor of the town of Brooksville, not far from from Inverness where I live, Lara Bradburn, opposes fluoridating the water supply despite health experts arguing for it. Is she a wing not? Not as I see it. I understand that fluoride was a waste product, until the big money interests decided to market it as a health product. You know how congress won't pass sensible gun legislation because the NRA pays them not to? How it took decades to get some action on cigarettes, because the Big Tobacco interests greased the right palms? How politicians serve the special interests instead of their constituents? Well, I think the right folk were paid to promote fluoridation, and I commend the mayor for taking a stand. She cites more than fifty studies that indicate fluoride is a known cause of disease, birth defects and other maladies. “This is not a myth,” she said. “The (dental) industry will not admit that this is a dangerous chemical we're giving our citizens.” Amen.

Other notes: It's not vegetarianism, but it may do: a UN report urges folk to increase their insect intake, as bugs are highly nutritious and far more efficient at converting grains and other nutrients to meat than cows are. NEW SCIENTIST says that human beings have a surprising talent that helps define us: the analogy. Analogies pervade our discourse and reveal how we think about many situations. “His attacks targeted her religious beliefs.” That bristles with analogous references to combat. It says that analogy is the motor driving the build-up of concepts throughout our lives. There's a fair amount of analogy in that statement, too. I suppose symbolism is a form of analogy. “Is analogy the core of cognition?” it asks, and answers Yes. Can analogy be subjective and irrational? Yes, but it is also the underpinning of rationality, objectivity and abstraction. “Analogy is the machinery that allows us to use our past fluidly to orient ourselves in the present.” I am a believer in rationality, but this is making sense to me. Newspaper says that when it comes to tornadoes, Texas is #1, followed by Kansas, Florida and Oklahoma. But I know Florida doesn't get the big ones; ours are cute compared to the monsters in Tornado Alley. I understand that most Oklahoma congressmen voted against the Hurricane Sandy relief bill; now that the winds are flaying Oklahoma, how do they feel? Mars One is a Dutch organization aiming to send humans to Mars—on a one way trip. So if you really like to travel and don't want to come back, this is for you. I can see the rationale; they won't want quitters for the colonization of Mars, and those who live there any length of time will lose their ability to handle Earth gravity. Follow-up letter by David Hobday in NEW SCIENTIST commenting on the difference between self and the illusion of self: Alice has no beliefs. Bob believes that a spiritual copy of his brain contents exist, and believes that only the spiritual copy is conscious and his real self. Alice calls her body and brain her “self.” She calls the spiritual copy of Bob's brain his “illusion of self.” I'm with Alice. And an interesting newspaper item: restriction of calories seems to prolong life in mice, and might in humans. Now they have found that it is hunger that brings the benefit, rather than the reduction in food. The hormone that causes hunger is ghrelin, and when it's added to the diet of mice eating normally it makes them hungry, and they live longer. Cutting down what you eat brings hunger, and that's what benefits you. Or you can take synthetic ghrelin for the same effect. Too bad you can't hope to live longer without suffering hunger pangs.

The Reverend Andrew Greeley died. He was six years my senior and a novelist; I blurbed one of his genre books, which was how I came to be aware of him. He was a good enough writer, surprisingly sexual for a priest, and of course he got in trouble with the Catholic hierarchy because of it. He considered sex a sacrament rather than a sin, an expression of God's love. I also remember a reviewer commenting in PUBLISHERS WEEKLY after he had an article there commenting on flawed reviewing that until Greeley changed his attitude he would not got a good review from her. In response I wrote that if she actually read one of his novels she might improve both her grammar and her ethics. I mean, we already have way too many reviewers with agendas that are other than the merit of the books they review. But PW did not run my letter, and later I dropped my subscription, disgusted with evident corruption in their reviewing policy. Not that they noticed. Greeley was a good man and a good writer despite his religion, and I'm sorry to see him go. If there's a Heaven, he is surely there, to the discomfort of many.

I pretty much finished the month with more dental surgery. I take care of my teeth, but they dissolve anyway. I have to ponder how much more money I want to put into my mouth, considering my age, to get a fair return on my investment. I concluded that I'm probably good for another decade, so might as well chew well. This is a six thousand dollar installment on what will surely be a larger expense. I've had four implants before, and they have served me well; they don't decay like regular teeth. So now I'm getting two more implants, plus a bone graft; they take the bone from farther back in my jaw and put it in the front, to make a platform for the seventh implant. The dentist set me up with an IV, and four hours later I woke with the work done. My wife got me home, where I took one pain pill, lay down and slept for three hours. That was the only pain pill I took, not even aspirin; I'm tiding through well enough on the soft diet, though I do lose weight on it. Understand, I keep my weight at a level, neither gaining nor losing, and this is putting me outside my preferred range. I'll get it back in due course. My memory is spotty from the lingering effects of the anesthetic, and I hate having to abridge my normal exercise program, but I did my Survey update and most of this column before the surgery, anticipating that problem.

Next month I'll start writing WereWoman, my detective fantasy novel wherein he's a were who changes not into a wolf but a woman, investigating the serial killing of other supernaturals. Will he solve the case before he gets killed himself? Meanwhile until JeJune 10th my highly sexy Eroma (a condensation of Erotic Romance, which exactly what it is) is on promotion as a Hot Summer Read, so if you're into really sexy romance, check it out. That's where the reality-type game is entirely sexual, with each stage eliminating half the contestants. The main device is that if he gets deep enough into her to push the buried trigger, both of them have intense orgasms and gain powers. But it makes a difference who does what when.

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