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Piers Anthony, Jan. 1, 2011 Piers Anthony, Jan. 1, 2011. Photo by Jane McConnell.
Dismember 2015

I watched The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a sequel to the first. I think the hotel is in India, catering to British permanent tourists. They are trying to expand to a second hotel, catering mostly to older folk, like a retirement community. That's the setting for several embedded stories, some being romances. Love is not only for the young. The, yes, exotic, background city is interesting. So are those older romances, which have their twists and turns, with misunderstandings and revelations. It does feature a young wedding, however, culminating in a fabulous mass dance. And the neat statement “There's no present like the time.”

I watched Arch of Triumph, starring Anthony Hopkins. This is set in France, 1939, as the Nazi threat looms. He befriends a suicidal woman, a lovely singer and actress. But there's also a Nazi official who had tortured him, who shows up in Paris. He loves the woman, but has a passion to kill the torturer. It seems that he must choose between love and vengeance. He chooses vengeance. Then it seems she gets shot, maybe self inflicted, and also dies. He might have saved her had he not been obsessed with the torturer, and any event his vengeance was unsatisfying. If I understand it correctly.

I watched The Cold Room, a psychological horror story wherein a man tries to reconcile with his troubled teen daughter, Carla, whom he hasn't seen since she was a child, by taking her for a vacation in cold war Germany. She has issues and is generally hostile to his effort and to him. She hates the mediocre hotel they stay in. Then she discovers a man hiding in a secret room of the hotel, a fugitive dissident, Erich, and helps him. She also suffers traumatic memories of a woman, Christa, who died before she was born. In fact, her adventures are really those memories. She experiences a rape, but the doctor says she remains intact. She becomes the dissident's lover. She relives Christa's nightmarish life, which I think means rape by her father and being used to get a fugitive Jew killed. She stabs her father—and reverts to the present, stabbing her real father, maybe. But this does reveal the awful past. They discover that the room does exist, with an indication that her story is true. Erich was a Jew, hunted by the Nazis. So she's not crazy, just possessed by weird memories. Maybe. A type of ghost story, and now that the truth has been revealed, maybe that ghost can rest.

I read Unidentified Funny Objects 4, the fourth anthology of humorous fantasy, because my story “Hello Hotel” is in it. The tone of most of the pieces is darker this time; in fact my story, wherein an atheist signs a deal with the devil in order to win the love of a beautiful woman is actually one of the lighter pieces. The volume leads off with the shocker “We Can Get Them For You Wholesale” by Neil Gaiman. It starts lightly, with a man deciding to eliminate his romantic rival by getting him killed, then discovers that killings are cheaper when you buy them in bulk. Only he overreaches. Then in “The Time-Traveling Ghost Machine Of Professor Jaime Peligrosa” they need a ghost to make the time machine work, so the professor has a young student killed. Her ghost is most annoyed, but what can she do? She is sent back to the dinosaur age. Then what do you know, a dinosaur appears and kills the professor just before the girl is killed, so she recovers her life. . Remarkable coincidence, that, if you believe in coincidence. The stories continue, morbidly clever; I can't cover them all here, other than to mention some high (or maybe low) points. Such as this situation in “Bob's No-Kill Monster Shelter” by Jan Creasy. A monster escapes and they have to recapture it before too much damage is done. They use mixed pheromones of all his component parts to turn him on sexually, then shoot him with tranquilizer darts when he shows up. Unfortunately Suzanna spills some of the pheromone elixir on herself, and the darts don't work right away. She gets pinned to the ground by the lusty monster. “I waited for something unspeakable to happen.” Talk of a fate worse than death! Then the darts finally take effect, so she escapes intact. In “Armed For You” by Anaea Lay a man's girlfriend gets hungry and eats his arms while he sleeps. But he's philosophic about it; she had warned him. In “The Unfortunate Problem Of Grandmother's Head” by Karen Haber the head alone survives cremation, and talks constantly, usually critically; can't shut it up. “Support Your Local Alien” by Gini Koch is a compelling science fantasy adventure as folk try to save a space station from marauding monsters. And “The Monkey Treatment” by George R R Martin is a horror about a fat man with a monkey on his back, literally. There are other stories, interesting enough. If you like genre fiction that doesn't take itself too seriously, this volume is a good one.

I read On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner. The author turned out to be a year my senior, but he died at age 49 in a motorcycle accident in 1982. So this book is thirty years out of date and takes no note of the computer or internet revolutions in writing and publishing. It begins on a sour note for me, saying “I assume that anyone looking at this preface to see whether or not it would perhaps be worthwhile to buy this book...” This borders on pleonasm, that is, needless repetition; it is cleaner writing to say simply “whether.” Someone who presumes to instruct on writing should express himself more precisely. He also tends to get up on his platform and lecture. What he says is accurate, but perhaps not of pertinent use to the beginning writer struggling to fill his pages. He does however discuss writer's block, which he describes as a failure of will. “Writer's block comes from the feeling that one is doing the wrong thing or doing the right thing badly.” Maybe sometimes. But I remember how Theodore Sturgeon, perhaps the SF genre's finest stylist and one of the best writers overall, simply hated to write. He could do it very well; he just didn't like doing it. So he was in chronic block. In contrast, lesser writers like me simply don't block. Regardless, this discussion of block might indeed help a blocked writer fight his way out of it. The author also has some scathing commentary on editors, whom I suspect he considers to be a different and inferior breed, and I wouldn't argue with him there. So I recommend this book more for background awareness than for direct personal writing.

I read Caleb's World by Keith Robinson. This is the third in a series, the prior two being Sleep Writer and Robot Blood, which I reviewed earlier this year. The background situation is that twelve year old Liam gets together with his rich friend Ant and his new pretty neighbor girl Madison, two or three years his senior, who does sleep writing: she writes notes to herself in her sleep, which call out times and places, leading to fantastic adventures. Liam knows that in due course he will marry Maddy, and they will have about sixty years together before he dies. It is her experienced old self who dictates the messages her innocent young self receives. This gives Liam assurance that no matter how dangerous the adventures get—and some are terrors—both of them will survive. You might think that would rob the stories of tension. Not so; there's a huge amount of doubt in the manner the adventures play out. In this case a sleep message warns them of danger to his house, and lo, it drops about a mile down into the ground, leaving a hollow shaft. They find their way to the hidden world created by eight year old Caleb, who has seemingly magical powers: a hollow sphere with a sun in the center and gravity oriented away from the center no matter which side you're on, so you don't fall. But it is haunted by zombie-like creatures, the leftovers of people-like creatures who are wearing out. Meanwhile Ant has found a tunnel leading down and is trying to rescue them. But suppose the all-powerful child doesn't want them to go? This is another compelling story throughout. I've said it before: this is a writer worth reading. You don't have to start at the beginning of the series, though you may want to.

Public service note: I keep getting queries from readers about when the next Xanth novel, #40 Isis Orb, is being published. I regret that though I have long since written it and the following #41 Ghost Writer in the Sky, and am making notes for the next, #42 Fire Sail, none have yet been scheduled. In a nutshell, this is because we ran into a roadblock. The publisher insists on taking life-of-copyright rights, which means I could not recover them until 70 years after I die. My response, after we delete the expletives, is not even over my dead body. So our patience has been exhausted, and we are working toward other publication, with the attendant delay. I regret that this costs my readers and me this season's sales, and I mean to see that this does not happen again.

On to less controversial subjects, such as guns. The mayhem in America from the misuse of guns is an ongoing disaster, but there are ways to ameliorate it. Such as the smart gun, that can be fired only by its owner; if someone else takes it or steals it, it won't fire. That eliminates a whole lot of mischief, such as children shooting children. So why isn't it available? Because the gun nut hierarchy opposes it, and bullies stores into not carrying it. Imagine that: a gun they are against selling. Because it is safe? I have trouble fathoming the minds of these folk. So the carnage continues, and each disaster sells even more guns. That may be the reason: unsafe guns lead to bigger sales. Statistically, those who carry guns are more likely to die by homicide than those who don't. Gun keepers are also three times as likely to kill themselves as non firearm owners. That's the one statistic I support, in my fashion, because I feel that folk should have the right to off themselves if they want to, and guns are certainly effective. But the smart gun would allow that.

Education: I was once a teacher, and part of what distressed me was that I could not teach what I felt would benefit my students, in a way they could understand. I had to hue to the cookie-cutter agenda, much of which was useless, such as going over verbs and nouns repeatedly instead of teaching students to love reading and to write effectively. As I remarked at the time, you don't need to know the names of the parts of speech to write well, any more than a runner needs to know the names of the muscles and ligaments of the legs to run well. Yes, that stirred up some fierce arguments from teachers, not from runners. I have certainly been happier as a free lance writer, despite the trouble I have had with Parnassus, the publishing establishment. Now a Florida grade school teacher, Wendy Bradshaw, with a PhD in curriculum and instruction, has resigned her position. What makes this unusual is that she posted her resignation letter on Facebook, where it went viral. “The gap between what I knew was right and what I was told I had to do in a classroom or face discipline in my evaluations, was getting further and further apart...I just couldn't keep doing things I knew weren't right for the children.” Yes indeed. I think some healthy discipline should be applied to the powers that be in education, for the sake of those children. Teachers should be freed to teach effectively.

Meat: as my readers know, I am a life long vegetarian, because I don't like killing animals for meat. Claims that I have to be unhealthy and won't live long to the contrary notwithstanding, I am outliving most of the meat eaters, and my mind is as it is presented here in these columns, make of that what you care to. Yes, I would like to see the world turn vegetarian. Well, that day is getting closer. Mosa Meat is producing synthetic flesh, so folk can eat real beef without it passing through a cow. It is grown in a laboratory from stem cells, and is far less pollutive than the real thing. It does use some slaughterhouse products, so is far from perfect for my taste, but is a step in the right direction.

Outrage Dept: here in Citrus County, Florida, there's a letter in the newspaper by Lorelei Nussbaum relating to bullying. She tells how a friend of her daughter was kissed without her permission by a boy. She didn't like it, but she didn't make a scene. But in the next 24 hours the boy called her several times, pressing his interest. She asked him to stop, and keep it on a friend-only basis, but he continued to harass her on the phone. In fact he was stalking her. The last call was intercepted by the letter writer's daughter, who asked him to leave her friend alone. He told the daughter to “kill herself.” Next day he approached the daughter to yell at her, but she walked away. He followed, bringing his face to her face in a threatening manner, trying to intimidate her. She slapped him. So she was suspended for three days. Get this: it was not the thuggish bully, who clearly refused to take no for an answer and was out to intimidate anyone who got in his way, but the one who defended the victim who was punished. So mother sent word to the resource officer at the school, as the definition of assault normally applies to the aggressor, not the defender. He told her to “forget the whole thing,” and that if she pursued any charges, her daughter could be arrested for battery. After all, boys would be boys and all the kid did was steal a kiss(!) Now the mother notes that if self defense is a crime, it's small wonder that bullying and crime in the schools is out of control. Bullying is supposed to be a crime in Florida, but it seems that at this school there is no penalty for pushing people around; it's the ones who try to resist who get punished. What does it take to get some fair play here? I don't know, but when bullies went after my girls decades ago, I went after the bullies and made sure they got the message. Once I called the police on them. Once I hauled one back to his home and told his mother why. Once I stood outside a house and yelled loud enough for the neighborhood to hear “Keep your boy away from my girls!” The father had the wit not to challenge me; I was more than ready to do to him what the bully did to my girl. I was one angry man. Am I proud of these memories? No, I don't like being like that. But my girls were not bullied thereafter. Should there be a better way? You bet. But what's a parent or friend to do when girls are victimized and the system prefers to punish the victims instead of the perpetrators? A woman would not be in a position to do what I did. Or a black man. Justice is a sometime thing, in Florida. So what would I do in a case like this? Assuming that the mother's story is correct, and that the bully was not punished, I think I would pay a friendly call on the school principle and explain that I'm sure he/she will see that that bully is properly dealt with so that girls are safe hereafter, and the girl's suspension is revoked with apology. With maybe just a hint that I'd really hate to have to get the civil rights folk involved in such a minor case, but the rights of young folk need to be protected too. If the principal did not see the light, then I would consult a lawyer; I don't bluff, as those who have crossed me have discovered. Yes, I have done this sort of thing in the past too, with salutary effect. But again, I have resources that regular parents don't, such as the financial ability to go to law if necessary. Wouldn't it be a better world if justice applied equally to rich and poor alike, without having to make a public case! But in my experience there are those who do the right thing only when competently prodded.

Very interesting letter in the local newspaper by Philip Ryan on the origins of ISIS, the so called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. (I don't like the name, because I have the Goddess Isis in forthcoming novels and don't want readers to be confused. The Goddess predates the State by some four thousand years, and represents love, not hate.) He points out that the leaders of ISIS are the generals who were members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party before they were outlawed and disbanded. Now we know another consequence of President Bush's illicit invasion of Iraq. Republicans try to blame President Obama for ISIS, but our withdrawal from Iraq that allowed ISIS to move in was set up by the Bush administration.

Interesting newspaper and magazine articles on assorted subjects. Transgender women are being murdered at an increasing rate. It seems that those who don't want to associate with them are not satisfied simply to leave them alone; they are killing them. I doubt I would want to date a transgender woman, but I stand by her right to be what she chooses to be and wish her well in her life. I think something more must be operating for the killers, and it smells of murderous bigotry. Health: A study indicates that working seniors are healthier seniors. Those who don't continue working are more than two and a half times as likely to suffer poorer health. Right; that's one reason I'll never retire. Torture: I read a review of the book Why Torture Doesn't Work: the neuroscience of interrogation, by Shane O'Mara. Torture is an abomination, but the question is, does it work? If you have to learn the location of the bomb in the Pentagon before it detonates and takes out the whole block, and you have the jerk who planted it in custody, is it feasible to torture the information out of him? The answer turns out to be no. The victim will say whatever the torturer wants him to, true or false, to stop the pain. Remember, we invaded Iraq because of false information extracted by torture. Ecology: Another book review, Killing the Koala and Poisoning the Prairie: Australia, America, and the environment, by Corey A Bradshaw and Paul R. Ehrlich. It seems that education is designed to turn out good societal cogs and rarely includes dangerous subjects like ecology in any depth. So folk grow up ignorant, and think that technology will save us from the problems of population growth and climate change. It seems we need to arrive at a global population of one billion people (I think it's around 8 billion now) living in an equitable non-growth economy. The review concludes: “Do read this book, but be prepared to be depressed, amused, enlightened and enraged by turns.” Happiness: it seems that while America may be the richest nation, but for happiness it is #15. Why? We work too hard, we're too fat, we don't get enough sleep, we take fewer vacations. Our wealth is not evenly distributed, with high rates of childhood poverty, and a murder rate second only to that of Mexico. What countries are happiest? Mainly Scandinavia: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland. Yes, they have high taxes, but also universal social welfare. The “golden triangle” of happiness consists of financial security, a sense of purpose in life, and strong personal relationships and social connections. Politics: an increasing number of Americans are going independent. Today in Florida there are 4.1 million registered Republicans, 4.6 million Democrats, and 3.2 million third party or no party affiliation. So the state is catching up with me. I registered in Florida as no party in 1959 and they didn't know what to make of me. At that time neither the racist Southern Democrats nor the Republicans stood for what I did. Half a century has seen changes, with the Southern Democrats turning Republican without changing their views, and the more liberal Democrats coming to the fore. But independents are rising fastest. More power to them. Biology: the three categories of life are the eukaryotes, which make up plants, animals, fungi and algae; bacteria, which are small cells without nuclei; and archaea, which live in extreme environments and produce methane. Now they have discovered a nameless fourth domain consisting of microbes with highly unusual DNA. Where does it live? In our gut. So maybe biologists with guts will learn more about this.

I finally have a column here that is about the length I prefer, 3,600 words. How did it happen? Because I was distracted by writing on two projects, the collaborative, with J R Rain, The Worm Returns; and my individual novella The Soul of the Cell. Both are worthy projects to finish out my year, but writing over 40,000 words in a month does take time. I am a writer, as I think most readers of this HiPiers column have caught on. More about those next month when I have finished them.

Concluding notes: My little horror story “Aorta's Art” is in the current, December 2015 issue of THE HORROR ZINE. Aorta is a very pretty young woman, a real heartthrob, who is serious about her art; why is he uncertain abut marrying her? Well... I'm sure there are other things in the issue you will like. And reader Ryt Sannys has a breakdown of my name: PIERS = Panties Inevitably Eradicate Reason & Sanity.

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