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Piers Anthony, Jan. 1, 2011 Piers Anthony, Jan. 1, 2011. Photo by Jane McConnell.
OctOgre 2016

The month of SapTimber began with Tropical Storm Hermine, who hung around dropping rain before moving up the east coast We got about four inches of rain, starting off a month that finally came to 11.75 inches, our biggest this year. Also a six to eight hour power failure. And a dead pine tree across our drive, trapped there by the living ones. We live on our tree farm, remember, and the drought of 1998 killed about ten percent of our crop; dead slash pines have lined the drive for 18 years, dropping when high winds come. This one was about 50 feet tall, and far too massive for me to move out of the way even if it weren't trapped. I tried to handsaw through it, but it bound immediately, I think from pine sap. You'd think in 18 years the sap would dry up. So I chopped it out, then used the eight foot long crowbar to wedge the bottom section around and off the drive, a couple inches at a time. The thing was heavy! Then I chopped off another ten feet from the other side and shoved that to the side, clearing the drive. It certainly provided me some exercise. There was also a dead rattlesnake near there, which I covered over by hand as I had forgotten to bring the spade. Another day when I checked, there was no snake there. We conjecture that a hawk must have been carrying it when caught by the storm, dropped it, and returned another day to recover it. Such are our minor adventures on the tree farm. Later I noticed that my black melanoma cancer wrist band was missing. I have worn it for seven years since Daughter Penny died, in memory of her. She had given them to me, my wife, and other daughter Cheryl. I felt naked without it, and guilty for losing it, but couldn't find it anywhere. Then the day I edited this column, OctOgre 1, we found it: in the cup holder of the car. It must have snagged on my working gloves as I removed them after chopping the tree, and fallen in there, just the right size, color and shape to disappear. Glory be! One more casualty of the storm.

I watched The Way, featuring Martin Sheen, one of the few actors I recognize, because of West Wing. He's an American eye doctor, age about 60, whose son gets killed and it throws him for a loop. So he goes to France, where his son died, to learn more. His son was on the historical pilgrimage El Camino de Santiago “The Way of St. James,” caught in a storm, and son's backpack with all its mementos are turned over to him, triggering painful memories. Don't I know how that is! So dad decides to finish that long walk himself, carrying the cremation ashes, in a manner fulfilling his son's desire, though he's not trained for it. It's not a race; no others are with him at the start. It's just a trail though the countryside. The scenery is lovely. He leaves a few ashes at trail markers, his son's presence. A loud pushy Dutchman joins him, uninvited, the first of three. The trail takes him to Spain. Next day he is among others on the pilgrimage, on and off. It's a kind of camaraderie of four of them, though he remains taciturn, making plain he does not encourage company. At one point his huge backpack topples into a river; he gets soaked going after it. One shapely woman, an angry recent divorcee who plans to quit smoking as she completes the pilgrimage, says she prefers to walk alone, but later she walks beside him; he asks her why, and she says walking with him is rather like walking alone. Hmm. She is evidently intrigued by a man who is obviously not on the make for her, surely a contrast to most men, but he doesn't want her company either. He finally tells them all off, maybe having had too much wine, falls on the ground, and the police take him in. Another traveler bails him out. After that he mellows somewhat; it's an interesting characterization. A boy steals his pack, and they all give chase but don't catch him. Until the boy's father brings it back and makes the boy apologize, and treats them all to a nice night as his guests. Children are the best and worst of us, the father says. The four of them, widely divergent, become closer, honoring the pilgrimage, which is something other than religious. Finally he scatters the remaining ashes into the sea at the end of the trail. His son's tour has been completed. There does not seem to be any likely continuation of the relationship of the companions; I had almost hoped he would get together with the woman, whose salient points are not just on her chest.

I watched Neverwhere, a 1996 British TV series based on fiction by Neil Gaiman. It seems there is a medieval London underneath today's London. A royal young woman named Door escapes being murdered and flees to the surface, where Richard, an innocent young man, helps her. She thanks him and gets out of his life. Thereafter none of his acquaintances recognize him any more, not even his fiancee. Perplexed, he goes below looking for her. It's one dangerously weird place with odd rules. He finds her, but she's not much interested in having him around. Yet acknowledging that he wouldn't be here except for her, she allows him to tag along as she goes to find the Angel Islington. Meanwhile she hires a female bodyguard, Hunter. But their quest takes them to London Above, where Hunter can't go. So it's just Richard and Door. They attend a party and pass through a painting to reach the Angel Islington. He will help them if they bring him a certain key. They visit Serpentine, back in London Below, and recover Hunter as bodyguard. To get the Key, Richard must face an Ordeal. He's in a subway station talking to himself, tempted to jump in front of the train. He resists, and gains the key. Now they have to make their way back through the sewers to Islington. One friend gets killed, but anticipating this he took precautions, and got restored to life. And saves Richard from getting his life essence stolen by one Lamia. And saves them from betrayal by Hunter. But it is Islington who organized the betrayal; he's not a nice angel. Hunter redeems herself by fighting the great beast of the underworld and helping Richard slay it. But Islington is still has control, and forces them to help him escape his magic prison. Only Door tricks him and he gets sucked into something like Hell. Richard is now a hero, and Door would like him to stay, but it's not his realm. He goes home, and now his associates remember him, and he has a promotion. But now he discovers that he really doesn't want it, and he returns to London Below. I suspect the pretty Door has something to do with that.

I watched Murdercycle, one of a trio of Murder Machines I bought for five dollars. Something from space lands on a government reservation, and takes over a man on a motorcycle. Suddenly it is a deadly armored duo, out to kill. A team is assigned to investigate, which includes a CIA agent, a tough sergeant and a shapely telepathic young woman who can touch an object and receive impressions it has absorbed. Obviously my kind of junk. The woman picks up something alarming, and the cycle appears, seemingly invulnerable and deadly. The sergeant takes over, in violation of rank, not trusting CIA. Several skirmishes with the cycler. But the CIA man is devious and tough, and knows how to counter mind-reading. They enter a secret underground complex that holds a prior alien mental device. It seems that the aliens are out to recover the devices they lost years ago. Fortunately the girl reads its mind and figures out how they can destroy it. Except for a hint at the end that it isn't quite dead. Fun nonsense.

And Crash and Burn, the second in the package. In 2030 the Ozone layer is depleted and the world is parched. A corporation has taken over the world. Synthroid robots are programmed to kill all who oppose the corporation. A group of dissenters try to fight back. The eldest is murdered. It's 110 degrees before dawn and the generator is out; they need water and cooling to survive. They manage to repair the generator, but realize that one of their number must be a synthroid, looking human but not. So they cut each other to see who doesn't bleed, but they all bleed. But there is another man on the premises, and he's the one. He stalks the others. Has sex with one woman, kills her. This is that sort of movie. But the sixteen year old girl manages to activate a giant robot and literally step on the bad man. Man and girl depart. Not a whole lot of sense here.

I watched Robot Wars, the third in the package. Miras-2 is a giant robot weapons system that looks like a metal six legged scorpion with a laser stinger tail, and can have passengers inside in the manner of an airliner. There's a blond girl scientist with a girl brunette reporter; the handsome bold pilot likes the look of the blonde. Then the robot is hijacked by the enemy, a mean spirited power hungry oriental, and the passengers are hostages. But Pilot and Girl, who happened not to be in the Miras-2 at the time, fetch a buried giant manlike robot that wrestles the scorpion, removing its passenger compartment so the hostages can escape, then destroy it in a kind of grab and fire match. Boy gets Girl and all is well. I can't say it's a quality movie, but it's fun while it lasts.

I watched The Blind Side, the story of a huge black homeless young man, Michael, with an IQ of 80, and a wealthy white lady housewife who sees him on the playground with her little boy. She has a mothering instinct. She takes him in and buys him clothes. He becomes like a family member. The little boy loves it; his pretty teen sister is less certain at first. The boy helps train him for football; the girl helps him study. Mom becomes his legal guardian. But he's a peaceful guy and doesn't want to hurt anyone, which is a problem in football. Until mom gives him the analogy: the quarterback is like your little brother: protect him. Then he does, and becomes a fearsome offensive guard. The movie takes us into some of the brute mechanics of football and make them compelling. Also the struggle to get his grades up to passing, and then to a B average, a harder challenge for him than football. The high school wins the championship and all the top colleges want him. The boy loves helping Michael interview the recruiters, and actually it does help, because the boy is expressive where Michael is quiet. But did the family do it just in order to recruit a good player for their home school Ol' Miss? That question messes things up, as it would be unethical and puts Michael in serious doubt. But he concludes that they did it for him, as surely they did, and he wants to go the the school they support, which is a different matter. I think my favorite line is when mom and dad are arguing about procedures, and she finally says he's right. He acts shocked, as if this has never happened before: “And how do those words taste?” he asks. “Like vinegar,” she admits. After the movie, he moves on to Ol' Miss as a standout, and thence to the pros. It's a heartwarming story, based on a real life example, and Sandra Bullock comes across as a truly savvy, expressive, assertive, feisty, caring mom. I got this one from curiosity, having read about it, not sure whether I'd like it--and loved it.

I read I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb, who evidently provided the English language finesse. This is about the fifteen year old girl who the Taliban shot in the face for advocating education for girls in Pakistan. I read it with continuing outrage. Here was this relatively ordinary teen girl, living in northern Pakistan near Afghanistan, who fought with her brother, vied with her friends for good grades, worried about her hair and her height, but motivated to openly campaign for better treatment for women. For that the Taliban marked her for death. The book's dedication says “To all the girls who have faced injustice and been silenced. Together we will be heard.” How could any sensible person object to that? To my mind, the ones who should be shot are the Taliban, who seek to reduce women to chattel in the name of the Koran. As I understand it, the Koran advocates no such suppression; the Taliban men pasted their bigotry into their interpretation of it, then started killing anyone who objected. I think that their position relates to the true Koran roughly the way the Ku Klux Klan racism relates to the Bible. But today Malala is in exile in England for her safety, while the man who shot her retains a high position in the Taliban in Pakistan, where the authorities somehow can't manage to find him. Just as they couldn't find Osama bin Laden, until the Americans took him out without notifying Pakistan ahead; that was of course the only way to get it done. The book details her youth; she doesn't yet have an adult life. Her father started a school, and it was a constant struggle to pay its costs, quite apart from the targeted bombings of schools by the Taliban. It seemed that whenever women started to get a bit of a break, hostile forces squelched it. A woman can't just go out for a walk alone, there; she must be accompanied by a male relative. She pursues an education at her risk. Women are essentially the possessions of the men. Apart from that, there was a series of disasters, such as an earthquake, repeated wars, and the worst flood in memory. Now the left side Malala's face works imperfectly, because of the nerve damage done by the bullet, but she is fully active in her support of the welfare of girls and women. She won the Nobel Peace Prize. I do recommend this book.

I watched The Lake House. This is curious; I might not have been able to make any sense of it without the summary on the back of the box. It seems that Alex, an architect, and Kate, a doctor, live in the same house, with the same dog, a female named Jack, but don't see each other because he's in 2004 and she's in 2006. They correspond via letters that appear and disappear magically in the mail box. They fall in love. They seem to meet and dance together, but can't be together because of that two year separation. My confusion continues. They make a date to meet at a restaurant, in one day for her, two years for him. She's there, but he doesn't show up. She tells him in a letter, and he says he doesn't understand; he has every intention of being there. But she concludes that it means she has to give him up, and stops corresponding. Then she learns he died in an accident; that's why he didn't show. She rushes to the lake house, leaves a letter, and in two years meets him and they kiss. End of movie. So did her letter warn him, so that he avoided the accident that killed him, and now they really can be together? I think that's the interpretation I have to go with, because I don't like others.

I watched The Lady in the Van. An old lady parks her van in Alan's London drive—and lives there for 15 years. It starts grudging on his part, but he gradually gets to know her, Mary Shepherd. It seems she was once a nun, and once studied music at a university in France, but when she played a piano at the nunnery she was rebuked. The neighborhood is uncertain about her also, but she refuses to move. Then she gets a new van, but stays. Later she gets a three wheel van; she may be homeless, but there's money somewhere. A man keeps bugging her, calling her Margaret. Gradually we learn more about her. In her youth, as Margaret, she was a student of a famous pianist, and a fine pianist herself. It turns out that she thought she had killed a youth with her car, and was on the run. Then she dies, and Alan and his literary alter ego watch her ascend to heaven. Before she ascends, she meets the youth she thought she killed, and he assures her it was his fault, not hers. She's so relieved. Alan will write about her, embellishing as she wanted him to do. It's a curious film, based on a true story, that I think I understand imperfectly, but worth viewing.

I watched RoboCop. I was sure I'd seen it before, but my records don't show that, and it was new to me. In fact it's my kind of junk. Robots are taking over cop duty around the world, but in America folk don't like the idea of emotionless machines making life and death decisions. So when a policeman, Alex Murphy, suffers a body destroying explosion, they build him into a robot, a cyborg, though I don't think they use that term. It works, but sometimes his human emotions interfere with the system. They have to pare down those emotions to enable him to function properly. But that means he's mostly robotic rather than human. He is marvelously efficient—superhuman, actually—but what of his wife and son? They're falling to pieces, emotionally. Prompted by this, he sets out to solve his own murder, and uncovers corruption within the police department. There are political complications. There is betrayal. The bad guys may kill Alex's wife and son to save their own hides. This is one taut thriller. So what was it I remember seeing, with the robot cop turning his machine gun on the audience? It must have a different title. Sigh; I hate it when my senescent memory goes bad.

I watched War Horse, a two and a half hour story of—a horse. It starts with his foaling as a boy, Albert, watches, skims over his growing, until he is auctioned. He is named Joey and is clearly spirited. The boy's father buys him and the boy breaks him in. But it's hard on the family farm, because they need the money spent buying the horse. He has to haul the plow so they can grow turnips, a cash crop. But he's not a plow horse. The neighbors come to watch him fail. But he does it, once he gets the idea. So they grow the crop. But rain washes out the turnips. World War 1 comes and they must sell the horse to keep the farm. It's a grievous parting. Joey goes to France in 1914. his rider is killed, but because he knows how to haul, from his plowing experience, Joey becomes an ambulance puller. That saves his life. Then he and his companion horse are taken by another outfit for hauling cannon. Then it is 1918 in France, and Albert is now a soldier. They must charge from the trench, through a burning nightmare landscape; anybody who turns back will be shot dead. Meanwhile the horses must flee; Joey gets tangled in barbed wire. A British soldier sees him, waves a white flag, goes out between the trenches, to the horse. A German soldier joins him, bringing wire clippers. Together they free the horse. He is brought to Albert's unit, where Albert has been blinded by poison gas. Albert and Joey recognize each other, and are reunited. But regulations require that the horse be auctioned off. So the men contribute money so than Albert can buy him. But they are outbid by the grandfather of a girl, Emilie, who saved Joey along the way, in France, before she died. Who gives Joey back; it's what Emilie would have wanted. So the family is reunited in the end. It's a moving story. I wish Emilie had survived to get together with Albert; Joey would have approved.

I watched Annie Hall, a Woody Allen movie. His character Alvy Singer has bad luck with women, and you can certainly see why. He's halfway crazy, socially, and so are they. It's constant cross-purposes. The continuous dialogue is clever, but it's not really my kind of movie. I prefer plotted stories; this is haphazard slice of life. I find Woody Allen's personal love life more interesting that his fictional love life.

I watched the Discover video Bermuda Triangle. This details the ships and airplanes that have disappeared into this area of the sea east of Florida, including Flight 19 in 1947, five planes in formation. Searchers keep finding hundreds of boats under the sea but not airplanes. Until they finally found a plane—the wrong one. Similar story on ships. It's a busy part of the ocean, so it's not surprising that some boats sink there. But what brings them down? It remains a mystery. So no explanations here, just the mystery. I expected more.

I watched Bonfire of the Vanities. I bought the DVD because I had heard of the book. I wasn't sure I'd like it, but I did. They may be almost as crazy in New York as they are in Los Angeles. Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks) calls his married mistress, but hits the wrong number and calls home instead and calls his wife by his mistress' name, and she catches on. That's mischief. Then, with mistress, he makes a wrong turn and gets into bad neighborhood trouble. Can't go to the police because their affair is illegitimate and they want to keep it secret. Only someone saw the license tag number. A local election is coming, and the district attorney wants to go after a prominent white man to show that he doesn't just go after minorities. So Sherman gets arrested. He wasn't even driving the car, but doesn't want to involve the mistress. She has no scruples about lying to put the blame on him, however. He encounters jaded journalist Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) who soon smells a story that will redeem his fading career. He learns that the apartment was bugged, recording the woman's admission that she was driving the car, but it can't be used as evidence. But he achieves justice regardless in a fine dramatic court sequence. It's a great movie.

I watched Midnight's Children, which relates to the birth of Pakistan as a separate country. It starts with the narrator's grandfather, a doctor with a big nose, who could examine only the specific portion of her anatomy he needed to treat; she stood behind a curtain with a hole in it. He liked what he saw, and married her. One of their daughters married a local soldier. Then it is 1947 and the separation of Pakistan from India. The two were unfriendly from the start. And in the moment of the birth of a country, the narrator was born. But in the next bed, the son of a poor couple was born. A nurse switched their ID wrist bands. Thus the rich baby became poor, and the poor one rich. The poor mother died, leaving the boy motherless. The nurse, regretting her action but unable to confess it, took the boy and became a maid for the wealthy family, and the boys were raised together, albeit to different roles. The narrator—the nominally poor boy—can hear voices in his head: the voices of the other children born in the same moment he was: that key midnight. He can see and talk with them, though others can't. When he is ten he is sent to a cousin, but he still can talk to the other children of midnight, all 1,000 of them. When he is seventeen he returns. The maid finally tells the truth, but it doesn't make everything right. War comes. He is injured and in a coma for six years, and suffers loss of memory. When he wakes he is sent to fight in another war when Pakistan broke into two parts, and Bangladesh was formed. Then he meets one of the other Midnight Children, a woman, remembering her. She had thought it was all a dream. She's an orphan. They have romantic interest, but she likes another. She gets pregnant by the other, but he leaves her, and the narrator marries her and adopts the child. But it's not nearly over. War continues, and he is taken and tortured. They want Midnight's Children, 420 of which appear and disperse into the anonymity of the crowd. The mother dies, and he raises his son. This is where it ends. I can't be sure I understand it well, or of its meaning, or just how real the bond between the Midnight Children is, but it's a powerful story.

I watched Stalingrad. I'm not an expert in the subject, but I did write a 50,000 word chapter in my GEODYSSEY series on the Battle of Stalingrad, so do have a basis. It was arguably the turning point of World War Two. American's are not so much up on it because it was fought between the Germans and the Russians. It has been said that if WWII was the greatest war in human history, the German/Russian front would be the second greatest war. But about Stalingrad: in a nutshell, the Germans invaded Russia and captured most of the city. Then the Russians counterattacked and cut off the city so that the Germans could not supply it. They could have fought their way back to Germany, but Hitler would not allow it. So they slowly starved, and a premier army was unnecessarily lost. After that Germany was generally in retreat. There were many facets and much brutality, and of course the helpless civilians suffered. This movie covers some of them, a tiny fraction. It's not at all pretty. Women are subject to the will of the men. The Russians are supposed to defend a building. That's how it was in that siege; they fought building by building. They leave the women and children mostly alone. One German officer, Petya, takes the young Russian woman of the house, Katya, as his mistress, falls in love with her, and fights to save her from worse. But I may be confusing it with a Russian couple; the narrator is the later son of that woman. She celebrates her 18th birthday during the siege, and the men give her a little party scrounged from what little exists. The city is a burning wasteland. She somehow survives, and tells her son he had five fathers. That is, the men of the group. But I can't be sure I have the details right; I may be confusing one romance for another. Regardless, it does show the horror that is war, in part or in whole. Every little part mirrored the horror of the whole. Even so, I don't think it does justice to the story of Stalingrad.

I read A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay. This was originally published in 1920; it evidently took a while for the electronic version to come out. It was offered free, so we tried it. It is said to be one that profoundly influenced C S Lewis, and I think I can see its influence in his Out of the Silent Planet. But like science fiction before the formal genre existed, it creaks by today's standards. It starts with what was then standard, a scene with contemporary (for 1920) characters, then gets on to a planet in the vicinity of Arcturus and never looks back. The characters are weirdly named, so I won't bother here. The main character doesn't know why he has been summoned to the far planet, and by the time he finds out he's dead. The world is richly described, as if the geography is more important than the characters. He wanders from place to place, accompanied by a series of native folk who lecture him on their philosophies; it's really a traveling series of essays. So why did he go there? I am not clear, as all I see is a series of coincidental acquaintances and deaths. So this may be considered a classic, but like some other books critics like, it is not very readable today and I don't recommend it.

I watched The Girl Next Door. I made a big DVD order from Hamilton, and there turned out to be one line remaining on the order form, the 19th, so I filled in one more title I hadn't expected to order. This one. So, when the package arrived, I watched it first, curious to see whether my chance decision was good or bad. Sometimes movies I think I'll like bomb out, and sometimes ones I'm sure I won't like turn out great. Most are mixed. This one is a sexy comedy about Matthew, a boy about to graduate from high school with good academic prospects when a lovely girl moves in next door to house sit. She fascinates him from first sight. They associate, and he's pretty much in love with her but awkward and inexperienced. Then he learns that she's a porn star. Her world is totally different from his. But she'd sort of like to become just a regular girl next door. Her porn associates realize that Matthew's a threat to them, and want him out of her life. They're rough characters. It gets complicated, but overall this is a wild fun movie. Boy finally manages to win out, and get girl. And yes, I'm glad I got it.

I watched The Reader. An ill teenage boy, Michael, is helped on the street by a woman, Hanna. It was scarlet fever. Later he comes to thank her. One thing leads to another, and they have an affair. It starts when he shovels coal for her and gets all dirty, so she makes him take a bath, cleans his clothes, brings him a towel—and she is naked. She loves the way he reads the classics aloud. But she has issues she doesn't talk about, and one day departs without word. Years later they meet again when he is a law student and she is a defendant in a Nazi war crimes trial: she was one of those who selected women for death. She had a job, and this turned out to be part of it. “What would you have done?” she asks the prosecutors, and they don't answer. The key question is who wrote the report that sent women to their deaths? Hanna confesses to it. But Micheal realizes that she is illiterate, and ashamed of it. She could not have written that report. Yet she is sentenced to prison for life, because of the false testimony of the other women. He does not tell, knowing she doesn't want it. He sends her his recordings of the great books to listen to, and she uses the recordings together with the printed books to teach herself to read and write. After twenty years she is released, and he comes to pick her up, to help her get back into civilian life, but she has fled. She commits suicide, perhaps because she is aware that their relationship has changed now that he knows her background, and he is left to pick up the pieces. This is one good, uncomfortable story. He could have saved her, had he betrayed her confidence, ironically. What was the right thing to do? I have a problem deciding, as I think anyone would. It's a top flight movie.

I watched The Woman in Black. It starts with three little girls having a tea party with their dolls, when they abruptly go into zombie mode and step out a high window to plunge to their deaths. Hmm; something unusual must be happening. Then Arthur in London, a widowed lawyer with a four year old son, is sent to to the sticks to wrap up the estate of an eccentric and sell the house. He rents an attic room—which we recognize as the same one the children leaped from, compete with eerie dolls. The isolated estate is on a low access that floods with the tide to become an island in the the sea, and of course the big old mansion is haunted. No electric power; oil lamps for light. The time is unspecified, but there's a reference to 1889, so we're talking about a century in the past. From a high window he sees a momentary black robed female figure standing in the forest and hears children screaming. But there's no one there. Then from outside he sees a woman's face in a high window. The haunt, of course. Then there's a fire in the village; he tries to rescue a child, but she throws a lighted lamp down an immolates herself. So it's not just the mansion that's haunted. A woman explains: whenever anyone sees the mansion ghost, some child dies dreadfully. They have to reunite the spirit with her lost son so she will be at peace. So Arthur dives down into the black muck by the grave to rope the wagon or whatever where the boy's body is, and haul him out. Then they put the body in the mansion together with the toys, where the ghost can find it. Then they put it in the coffin in the crypt with the body of the mother. Then Arthur's own son, joining him from London, wanders into the path of an oncoming train; he leaps to grab the boy—and they both die. And so they rejoin the boy's mother, and are a family again in death. It seems that the curse has not been abated.

I read Here is Where I...Wield a Really Big Sword, by Brian Clopper, published by Behemoth Books. (I always thought that a behemoth should be a really big night flying insect. Ah, well.) There is a small personal background: I got to 21%, then got an error message that locked up my reader. Dialogue with the author ensued, and with Keith Robinson who had helped translate formats. We continued to have a problem, and finally just bought the novel from Amazon, and that one worked. Then they figured out the problem, a bug in Amazon's translation software. Okay. Every chapter starts “Here is Where I...” then continues with a capsule summary of the chapter. Chapter 1 is “...Mindlessly Snipe a Decent Amount of Orcs While Howie Shares Some Choice Intel.” Presumably if you're not interested in that, you can jump on to the next chapter, which is about the narrator's insignificance. There are 51 such chapters. The narrator is a teen boy who would like to make magic part of his life. Real magic, not stage deceptions. There are some others he suspects have it, so he sort of shadows them, though they cold shoulder him. He winds up getting hold of a magic sword that not only fights, it talks. He's really not much of a swordsman, but blunders on into an increasingly wild fantasy adventure. Along the way he encounters one of the three Fates, Clotho, who looks young and pretty, and she seems to sort of like him. Well, now. He and his gradually accepting friends wind up saving the world after suffering harrowing dangers; the details are too complicated for this review, even if I tried to chapterize it. It's a fun story, and I trust he will get closer to mysterious Clotho in the sequels.

I'm old, but still writing; in fact I think only death will part me from storytelling. My files of notes and contracts were getting tight. My wife, who I have said can smell a sale miles away, took me off to Office Max, where they had a sale of filing cabinets. We bought a deep four drawer one at a generous 25% discount and took it home. I unloaded it from the car to the dolly, wheeled it into the house, then up the stairs one heave at a time—those things are heavy—and down the hall to the study, where it snagged on my accumulated piles of magazines and papers. I tried to stand the box up, but the snag prevented that. I tried to back it off; ditto. The fact is, it's not just my files that are tight; my whole study is tight. My critics may take that as yet more evidence that I have outlived my dubious usefulness to literature. I opened the box to tried to slide out the cabinet, but there wasn't room. I thought to consult with my wife, but the box blocked the way; I was sealed in the study. When I mess up, I don't do it halfway. So I climbed over the piled-high-with-papers couch to get to the far side of the snag, checked with Wife, then opened the other end of the box, slid out the cabinet, lifted the box out of the way, then wheeled the slightly smaller cabinet around to its place. Where I had to pause to move out the two drawer cabinet that holds my Xanth folders. Where to put that? Did I mention the study is tight? I wedged the Xanth cabinet next to my desk, then struggled to move the main computer, the printer, and the DVD player to its top. Only the top was dented; I think we bought it that way, in a damaged furniture sale, so the units tilted awkwardly. Hmm. So I fetched a 24 x 30 inch piece of plywood we'd saved decades ago for just such an emergency, set it atop the dented cabinet, and set computer, printer, and DVD player atop that. It worked! Now things are visible and accessible and usable. Oh, what am I doing with a DVD player by my desk? I have a TV set up next to my computer screen, so that when I'm not writing I can watch TV, Blu-Ray or DVDs from the comfort of my desk chair. No, they don't distract me from writing; they're normally off. I'm a writaholic; life itself is a distraction from my literary passion. But between writing projects I do watch, as you may have noticed from the reviews earlier in this HiPiers column. Now you have had a glimpse into what passes for my mundane reality; it's not nearly as organized as my fiction.

Last time I mentioned the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit volume, which I page through randomly because I like to look at esthetic young women, especially the body painting section where they are nude but don't look it. I am old, not dead. I wondered then why model Tyra Banks isn't credited on the cover. This time there's another mystery: on page 179 there is Melissa Satta, fetchingly shaped and painted, photographed in New York in 2010. But not acknowledged elsewhere? At the end they show pictures of every single model, all 223 of them, alphabetically by first name. But not Melissa Satta. Was she #224 who didn't make the cut? Poor girl. So I tried to Google her, but my dial-up system, increasingly balky, refused to get online at all this time. So my wife used her wi-fi (my wifi wife?) system to bypass dial-up, and got it: Melissa Sata is an Italian model, TV presenter, and sometime Sardinian karate champion with a scandalous personal history. She was born in 1986 in Boston, moved to Sardinia where her parents were from, but graduated from high school in the United States. In June 2016, age 30, she married Kevin Prince Boateng following “excessive sex.” Which still doesn't explain the Swimsuit volume's omission.

Reprint except in the September 30 issue of THE WEEK about a 40 year old father whose 4 year old daughter wanted to learn chess. So he learned chess at the same time, to show her how. Then she started beating him. It seems that if you're going to learn something, it's better to learn it young, because the older mind simply isn't as pliable. There is a clear degradation of the brain, even in healthy people; it atrophies at the rate of half a percent a year. This concerns me, unsurprisingly, because my fortune is in my brain. If I lose my imagination, I'm sunk. I eat healthy and exercise seriously physically in order to preserve my mind, but is that enough? I will surely be returning to this in future columns, if I don't sink into the slough of stupidity first. I have said that if my ability as a writer suffers, I want to be the first, not the last, to know it. But will I know it? I have seen others who go into denial rather than concede what is obvious—to everyone else. I'd rather die.

We watched the first Donald vs. Hillary presidential campaign debate, as as much of it as we could stay awake for. (I'm different from the usual; I get sleepy at night.) They certainly went at it. I see comments by voters who seem to neither know nor care what the facts may be, and I shudder to think that the future of this country could be determined by them.

Item in the Sunday supplement Parade titled “Ask A Silly Question” about stupid questions asked of Marilyn vos Savant, who says yes indeed there are stupid questions. The first example is why does a sweater shrink when washed, since the same wool doesn't shrink on the sheep when it rains? Maybe my age is showing already, because I don't see what's stupid about that question. Why doesn't that wool shrink on the sheep? I conjecture that when removed and woven it can curl more tightly when wet, while it is not woven while still on the sheep. Would it have been too much to explain that in an answer, rather than condemning the questioner? The other sample questions are similarly reasonable by my definition. What is obvious to one person is not necessarily obvious to another. I get questioned often about aspects of writing and publishing; I don't consider myself expert, but I give straight answers as accurate as I can make them. Shouldn't everyone? Or is that a stupid question?

Kira Heston died. You don't know her, so I'll explain, though now in my dotage I can't be sure I have every detail right. She was one of my Ligeia girls. Ligeia was, as I recall, a goddess who committed suicide, so I gave my suicidally depressive correspondents that overall designation. There have been a fair number. One planned to throw herself into the Grand Canyon when her family visited it, but then she lost her nerve and didn't do it, and was disgusted with herself. Another confided to her friend how she had jumped off a building to kill herself, but only broke her arm. Her friend told the authorities, and there was a hassle. “I'm glad I didn't tell her about the other seven attempts,” she told me. I did not tell on her, having learned the hard way about honoring confidences, when my effort to help a Ligeia almost killed her. Okay, Kira used to sit in the classroom beside the curtained windows, with the curtain cord wound about her neck like a hangman's noose, not showing to the class; it was the way she felt comfortable. I introduced her to my collaborator Julie Brady, Dream A Little Dream, another Ligeia, and they became friends; Kira attended Julie's wedding in 2000. Kira visited us; I remember how she met our big dog Obsidian, who was not necessarily friendly with strangers. Kira dropped to her knees and hugged and kissed the dog; Obsidian didn't have a chance to be unfriendly. I think Kira also knew my daughter Penny, and attended her wedding too, in 1995. She had become a kind of family friend, and I remember her with fondness. We corresponded closely all during the 1990s; in the 2000s we lost touch, but I did hear from her once in 2013, as she told me had she had finally managed to conquer her depression. I think she had moved on to social sites like Facebook that I, with my balky dial-up, don't have access to; I'm simply not not part of that scene. But now in 2016 I learned from another friend that she had breast cancer and was going into hospice care. She never told me. Before I could write to her she died, I think being in hospice only hours. Damn. So this is my informal memorial. Kira, rest in peace; we do remember you.

Letter in our local newspaper THE CITRUS COUNTY CHRONICLE, where my daughter works, by Larry Brown, remarking on the frightening political landscape. He had wondered how the people of Germany during the Nazi era could not have known of the ongoing atrocities, when the smoke of the ovens carried the stench of burning flesh across the neighborhood. How could the folk of other nations not know? “They were facilitated by a collective worldwide tolerance for the unspeakable, by world religious leaders abandoning the edicts of moral leadership...of ethical, compassionate behavior. It was human failure on a grand scale.” So of course it can't happen in America. Really? Consider the current political scene and be afraid. A column in the TAMPA BAY TIMES by Lionel Shriver is titled “Will the Left survive the millennials?” says the author is dismayed by the radical left's ever growing list of do's and don'ts, promoting censorship. As a liberal I have noted this tendency too, and am similarly appalled. Just as the conservatives have allowed themselves to be co-opted by the bigoted right, the liberals are drifting into an ignorant conformity. “Protecting freedom of speech involves protecting the voices of people with whom you may violently disagree...” Amen. I hope we see a backlash against intolerance that does not censor it, but refutes it. Otherwise we're in trouble.

Cartoon forwarded by a reader, from UBER HUMOR: “Miss, that's not where you swipe your card...” The young woman is swiping it in her butt cleavage. Reminds me of one long ago, wherein a woman pokes her head out the door, calling “Johnny, that's not where the carrot goes on the snowman!”

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