≡ Menu

Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2019 should be Dallas woman Reality Winner.

Reality Winner (yes, that’s her real name which was given at birth) served in the Air Force and was a multilingual American intelligence specialist who did her job well. Her Wikipedia page states that she learned Arabic, Dari and Pashtun to provide humanitarian aid to women and children in Afganistan. She frequently made donations to the Syrian human rights group White Helmets and Toys for Tots charity.

Reality Winner’s “Crime” (aka, Truth)

In 2017 she printed a copy of a document detailing the extent of Russian attempts to hack into US voting machines and spearphish emails to election officials before the November 2016 election. She shared it with the Intercept; it was important because it provided evidence to the public that Russian interference in the election was real and far more widespread than we could have suspected. Also, it occurred much later in the election than previously revealed. At the time it sent shockwaves throughout the media. Maybe this would eventually come out anyway in its own time (thanks to journalists). But at the time, this was fresh information.

As it happens, Reality was caught and immediately jailed. She was charged with “removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet.” She was arrested without receiving her Miranda rights and then denied bail. Because the case involved national security, it was hard to offer a defense without being able to refer to secret methods and information. One article describes the difficulty:

Additionally, the government claimed they had subject matter experts who concluded Winner’s “unauthorized disclosure caused exceptionally grave harm” to “national security.”

“If you look at the brief of the transcript in the detention hearings, that was explicitly used by the government to justify her being detained,” Nichols contended. “Because their argument is, well, because this caused grave and exceptional damage. If you let her out, she could do it again and thus cause more grave and exceptional damage. Again, that’s the buzzwords the government used.”

“You don’t have to prove the grave exceptional damage. You just have to put someone on the stand who will say, yes, it did cause grave and exceptional damage. And then the issue is, can you give us more detail?”

Prosecutors answer, “That’s classified. That’s highly classified,” Nichols said. “So it’s this circuitous argument that unfortunately that’s the way the Espionage Act is setup.”

At no point in the course of the case did the government have to publicly outline what constituted “exceptionally grave damage.” They even insisted they did not have to prove damage occurred, as they used the allegation to inflict further punishment upon Winner in detention hearings.

Prosecutors found some absurd and off-handed remarks Winner made about Osama bin Laden to deny her bail. As the defense attorney says in the same article, “There’s a reason why you can’t say certain things in front of the jury. Because if you say, hey, this person kicks puppies and burns down orphanages and then you come back and say, my mistake. That was somebody else. You can’t unring that bell.”

Another problem is that the Espionage Act is outdated and doesn’t have provisions to allow whistleblowers to explain why they performed the act they did. As the Standwithreality website explains:

The vague language of the Espionage Act makes it ripe for abuse, making it a potential weapon against both whistleblowers as well as news outlets that publish leaked documents. 

Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

Eventually a plea bargain of 5 years and 3 months was agreed to, and now Reality Winner sits in a Fort Worth federal prison.

But wait, that seems steep for this kind of crime. Reality didn’t really harm anybody except in a hypothetical sense. Her actions helped Americans to understand the extent of Russian involvement and was done purely for selfless motives. Reality Winner did not expect to become famous or make a lot of money. She just wanted the truth to come out.

I really can’t speculate about the extent of the damage to sources and methods. Perhaps I am not privy to certain details. But if you read Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s book, Secrecy, you will see how throughout US history, falsehoods were often hidden under the veil of secrecy.  “Secrecy is for losers,” the book said. “[It’s] for people who do not know how important the information really is.” Publicly available information and news reports can be vetted and challenged and confirmed, while classified intelligence briefs rarely undergo the same skeptical rigor. This sort of history convinces me that secrecy is much more harmful to US interests than disclosures.

I can’t speculate on Winner’s intent, but the disclosure was only one 5 page document which referred to a past series of events. In a way, the Obama had released a summary with the same conclusions in December 2016, and while this document shares more detail, these technical details don’t really hurt national security (other to say that the federal government hires security contractors who can do competent forensic analyses).

Winner agreed to the plea bargaining mainly because the Espionage Act left her with a crappy hand. But this sentence was unduly punitive and more geared to setting an example (than matching the punishment with the crime).

Therefore Reality Winner would be a perfect case for clemency. She served her time already; the government made their point clearly. Now it’s time to set her free. Really, that decision is up to Donald Trump.

Why is Donald Trump doing nothing about this?

A simple executive order could correct this injustice.

Believe me, I get it that Trump has little reason to intervene. He doesn’t really care about cases unless they improve his standing with his base — and frankly, Trump’s base could care less about Winner. Releasing Winner won’t really help Trump politically or financially, and so Trump will ignore her.

Trump bears considerable animus towards the press. But wait — this case doesn’t really hurt Trump except insofar as it implicates the Russians even more.

But Trump has intervened in many cases where the person was less deserving:

  • Trump pardoned Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, despite his long record of targeting immigrants and disobeying lots of local and federal court orders.
  • Trump pardoned Michael Behanna for killing an Iraqi man who he had taken in custody. A military court found him guilty of “unpremeditated murder in a combat zone” and sentenced him for 25 years.
  • Trump pardoned Derrick Miller who was sentenced to life (with a chance of parole) for the premeditated murder of an Afghan civilian during a battlefield interrogation.
  • Trump pardoned Clint Lorance who was court-martialed and sentenced to 19 years for murdering two civilians in Afghanistan.
  • Trump reversed a demotion of Eddie Gallagher who was involved in the killing of an Iraqi and (according to various news sources cited on Wikipedia), allegedly took “random shots” into buildings, shooting and killing an unarmed old man in a white robe as well as a young girl walking with other girls. After Gallagher mortally wounded the prisoner, he was eventually exonerated simply because the medic decided to expedite the prisoner’s death simply as an act of mercy. (Gallagher was later convicted of posing with the corpse ).

I would not want to be in the same room as any of the people Trump picked as worthy of clemency. Perhaps it is belaboring the point to add that many of Trump’s inner circle (Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, Rick Gates and Roger Stone) committed serious federal crimes of moral turpitude. Suffice to say that Trump is perfectly comfortable working with people who have bent the rules to suit the occasion. You can’t set one standard for Reality Winner and another standard for people who in some cases have actually compromised security interests.

What would you do?

For a while, let’s leave aside the question of whether Reality Winner is being scapegoated here. Let’s remember that Chelsea Manning released a lot of (embarrassing but not secret) diplomatic cables to Wikipedia and Edward Snowden released a tremendous amount of top secret NSA docs revealing aspects to the US surveillance apparatus. There are others. Manning was sentenced to 7 years, but it was reduced to 3 years. Snowden lives in Russia and never has returned.

What are some common threads here? All 3 were very young when they took action. All thought it was the public interest for Americans to know what they learned at their job. All knew that disclosing was a risk and they would potentially face legal consequences. Snowden and Reality Winner were government contractors and put in a situation where they couldn’t really use a protected whistleblower status to complain. Manning saw video footage of US troops killing indiscriminately; Snowden saw tools which allowed all kinds of surveillance which seemed at odd with American values. Reality Winner saw shocking information indicating that Russian spying had not declined after Obama’s warning but was in fact continuing. She decided that Americans needed to know.

Part of the problem is that an underling lacks the power to determine what should be secret and public. It would be crazy to allow people on the bottom rungs of sensitive positions to disclose whatever they want. Protocol needs to be followed.

On the other hand, a bureaucracy which depends on workers staying quiet about everything is doomed to leak eventually. Workers at such organizations need to believe in the mission, and all three people were disillusioned in some way. A lot of this disillusionment stemmed from the contrast between professed and actual American political values. Possibly they were just young and naive.

Manning and Winner paid a price for their actions. But of course they knew these risks although maybe they didn’t appreciate the full consequences.

Perhaps you could make the argument that Snowden revealed too much about existing programs, and these revelations threatened the ability of the NSA to do work. But this is not true of Winner because the only thing she revealed was past actions made by a foreign country.

I want there to be more Reality Winners in our country. And that is why I want her freed. Yes, it’s kind of hilarious that a woman who was actually given this name at birth was imprisoned for being too in touch with the ugly reality of the global threat.

But Reality Winner has been punished enough. It is time to let her go. Keeping Winner is prison is essentially saying that Americans should never have to confront the ugly realities locked away behind closed doors. Reality’s heroism is recognizing that sometimes you have to break the rules when it’s the only way Americans can learn certain vital facts.

On this Winner has already succeeded.


Will Bunch has a long juicy column about this:

Winner’s leak had immediate, tangible results. On the day after the story was published in The Intercept, a federal agency — the U.S. Election Assistance Commission — sent out a bulletin to state officials warning about the security issues that had been disclosed. A number of state and local officials said they hadn’t been warned about this specific Russian threat and that in fact the Winner disclosure was the first they’d heard of it. Perhaps more importantly, her blown whistle put new pressure on Washington to investigate a problem that Team Trump and its allies on Capitol Hill wanted to disappear.

The result was last week’s stunning report on Russian election interference from the Senate Intelligence Committee, a GOP-led panel. It revealed for the first time that the Russian 2016 operation targeted election systems in all 50 states, that hackers had the ability to change key data in Illinois and that, in the words of the New York Times, this was “an effort more far-reaching than previously acknowledged and one largely undetected by the states and federal officials at the time.”

That lack of either acknowledgment or detection is precisely the reason that Reality Winner risked everything to blow the whistle.

As blogger Marcy Wheeler pointed out last week, it took both the Winner leak and subsequent prodding from Democratic members of Congress for either VR Systems or the FBI to take Russia’s apparent 2016 computer break-in of that vendor’s software seriously. Investigative efforts by Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, revealed that despite some back-and-forth between VR Systems and the FBI before the 2016 general election, the vendor didn’t hire a contractor — FireEye — to investigate until after Winner’s disclosure (and, thus, long after the election).

{ 1 comment }

Climate Change Forum — CCL Katy (Mon Jan 6)

This page contains information about the nonpartisan CCL Climate Change Candidate Forum which is sponsored by the Katy chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby on Monday January 6. This event is free & open to the public, and all congressional candidates from TX7, TX10 and TX22 are invited to attend or send a campaign representative. Because the event (and the CCL organization itself) is nonpartisan, candidates from both parties are welcome to participate. This page will be updated with more information over time.

Climate Forum Topic: What new federal measures would best help communities transition to a low carbon future more quickly?

[continue reading…]

Dear Houston Chronicle:

I need to quibble with some of the wording in the otherwise excellent report on the emerging solar industry by L.M. Sixel on Monday Dec 2.

According to the article, “Solar, however, may pose an even greater threat because unlike wind, it produces the most power when demand is highest — hot, sunny summer afternoons.”

“Threat”? I find nothing threatening about using solar power. But when air pollution from fossil fuels annually causes 4-7 million premature deaths globally (WHO Report, 2014 & Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, 2017) and 75,000-100,000 domestically, I certainly feel threatened by the continued use of fossil fuels in Texas. Far from being a threat, solar is an encouraging sign, a reason to hope for the future. According to one economic analysis (U. of Mass, 2009– PDF), “clean energy investments create 16.7 jobs for every $1 million in spending. Spending on fossil fuels, by contrast, generates 5.3 jobs per $1 million in spending.”

Sometimes the overly effusive coverage by the Chronicle about the fossil fuel industry can be offputting. If an industry’s business model is dedicated to PERMANENTLY degrading the livable world for EVERY SINGLE baby born today, tomorrow, next year, next decade — even the next century, then it’s a no-brainer that we ought to act sooner rather than later to stop it, especially because we ALREADY HAVE the technology to solve the problem and already have a good idea about how to do it right.

Additional sources:

Mark Jacobson 30 minute video about transitioning to Wind/Water/Solar. (Here are the slides) . Highly recommended.

2 bills to fight climate change: Energy Innovation Act (aka, Citizen’s Climate Lobby ) and Carbon Dividends Plan (aka, Climate Leadership Council)

Riskybusiness.org report on climate change impacts on Southeastern US and Texas.


Although this blog mostly describes my life and writing, I also use it to store various things I find online. Sometimes if it’s short I’ll mention it on Facebook posts or something similar, there are enough nuggets of wisdom, I usually will save them for reference. This is especially true for Reddit and elsewhere; yesterday in fact I saw an interesting open-ended question on Twitter , Please quote this tweet with a thing that everyone in your field knows and nobody in your industry talks about because it would lead to general chaos. Here are my favorite replies; some might veer into sloppy generalization or glib observations, Also, twitter tends to skew towards geeks, artists and generally disgrunted people. So watch out!

ORIGINAL POSTER: literally everything you have ever done on the internet was logged somewhere and can be associated with you if someone is persistent enough. Hell, private investigators can buy your browsing history from your ISP now.

[continue reading…]

Notes on Climate Change

Here are some notes for a presentation I prepared about climate change and Texas in November, 2019.

Link to the Slides (On Google Docs) — Here’s the PDF.

Climatebrief.org — climate change news, comparing policies, etc.

Climate change impacts on Texas.

My Climate Change Worksheet — I prepared this in 2014 (and updated in 2016) , but most of the data is still basically correct — or worse!

Interactive Comparing impacts of 1.5 degrees, 2 degrees, 4 degrees

Article: Do we really have only 12 years to fight climate change?

Atrisk.org report about Texas risk and preparation; (PDF of full report)

Texas Climate News. A local news site about climate change and Texas.

CNN Climate Change Quiz

Amazing Video Talk (30 Minutes): Environmental Engineer by Mark Jacobson. 2018 Keynote Presentation. View the slides! View the peer-reviewed paper his research appears in!

2 Bills to Solve Climate Change:

Here’s a list of my favorite books of climate change.

Link Shortcut: http://bit.ly/36Z4UVF

Here’s a comparison of the two leading plans. HR 763 is the CCL plan (leaning Dem). Climate Leadership Plan has a lot of support from GOP).


In Praise of Canned Fish (Some Kinds)

Changing gears for a moment, I want to recommend a food source.

This cheap product sells for $1.60 at Walmart

Before I talk about that, I want to refer you to my long essay about breakfast.

When I embarked on a plan to lose weight in 2008, I rethought my approach to food. I’ve since adopted the philosophy of eating breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.

Breakfast posed an unusual challenge. I don’t want to spend a lot of time cooking or preparing anything, either because I’m headed off to work or doing some early writing. I’ve tried to avoid processed meats, but I need protein in the morning.

Therefore, I settled upon canned fish for breakfast. It’s cheap, nutritious and convenient. I don’t eat it every day, but usually every other day. Originally I used to eat Crown Prince kippers. Really, I have probably bought over a thousand cans of this product over the last decade. By some bad luck, my supermarket (HEB) stopped carrying this product, and so I had to do some searching to find another place to buy it from. Eventually I found it at certain Walmarts, so everything was fine. Then I learned about the Seasonproducts of sardines which is even better than the Crown Prince kippers in every sense.

Introduction to Canned Fish

Most people have eaten canned fish at some point in their lives. Canned tuna was popular when I grew up (and frankly I didn’t care for it). Sardines have always been always available, but had a bad (and stinky) reputation. In the 1990s I read a book about fish nutrition. It covered absolutely everything you needed to know about fish (fresh and canned).

Here are some things I learned from this great book.

  1. The amount of Omega 3s in fish varied wildly across fish. Whitefish like flounder had practically none. Salmon had lots, but so did sardines, kippers (herring) and mackerel.
  2. Whether you eat fish fresh, frozen or out of a can, the nutritional content is basically the same (except noted below).
  3. Canned fish packed in water offered more nutrients than fish packed in oil. The oil absorbs the omega 3s, and when you drain the oil, you are also losing the nutrients. (Also, oil adds calories).
  4. Some types of canned fish add sodium/salt for flavor. (This is often true for water-packed products). Also, smoked fish (which involves curing or pickling) keep the omega 3s and other nutrients, but also have high sodium levels.
  5. For both fresh and canned fish, mercury contamination is a concern — for woman of child-bearing age, but if you are not in that demographic, it’s not really something to worry about. According to the National Defense Resource Council, you should avoid a few key species: King mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish, ahi tuna, and bigeye tuna all contain high levels of mercury. Women who are pregnant or nursing or who plan to become pregnant within a year should avoid eating these fish. So should children younger than six. (Read more).

Since that time, I have learned about sustainable fishing and carbon impact of various fishing methods:

  • Generally the smaller the fish, the less of a carbon impact it has when eaten. (Smaller fish can have more Omega 3s — horray! and be less in demand — and therefore cheaper).
  • Terminology: A Herring, also known as an older and bigger Sardine, is eaten either pickled and fermented or raw. A Kipper, is whole herring that is lightly smoked and split into a butterfly cut. Finally, a Sprat is a Sardine that is smoked for about 3 hours.
  • There are varying certifying bodies for seafood. Many types of fish are subject to overfishing. Aquaculture or aquafarming are seen as viable/sustainable alternatives, but standards vary (even though US aquafarming is supposed to be good).

Sardines: A Primer

It’s possible to buy sardines fresh (and actually it’s delicious), but people mostly eat it canned. Here’s a great article I found about sardines (here’s a two part article, the wikipedia page and the Monterey Bay Aquarium watch page for it. Let me summarize.

First, there are different kinds. Their name and taste characteristics may differ slightly according to where they are from. Brisling sardines are from the Norway region, do not have any mercury contamination. Generally they are at the bottom of the aquatic food chain, so they generally don’t accumulate mercury anyway. In Europe, sardines are called pilchards. Two other types are Brazilian Sardinella and Pacific sardines.

The bones are small enough that you can eat them easily. You should also eat the skin! (According to this NY chef — see video!)

Overfishing and sustainability. Generally, the Monterey Bay Aquarium recommends eating only Pacific sardines and urges consumers to avoid Atlantic sardines and Pilchard species because they are overfished:

European pilchard (aka Atlantic sardines) caught in the Mediterranean region are on the “Avoid” list. The status of many populations is unknown, and others are depleted with overfishing still occurring. Also, there are serious concerns about other species that are caught with sardines, and management is highly ineffective. Sardines are an important forage fish (prey for larger predators), and there are concerns about how these fisheries are impacting the food web and ecosystem.

At the same time, Monterey Bay Aquarium might have a kind of bias towards North American fisheries which have applied for its certification. The Season brand has received a Friend of the Sea designation, which is a certification of the World Sustainability Organization (and seems more geared towards Europe and other continents). (Here’s more detail). The FAQ on Season brand says, “With their seal of approval, target stock cannot be overexploited, fishing method cannot impact the seabed and waste management must be in place. All-in-all, it should give you peace of mind in our role as we try to make a difference in the world we live in.”

Generally I have seen very cheap Pilchard sardine cans from Morocco and Mediterranean, and the fish quality is variable — even bad sometimes. Season brand has pretty consistent quality levels. The Pacific sardines are about 50% more expensive, have a firmer consistency and have a so-so flavor. According to Tiana Matson (who loves the Wild Planet Pacific sardines over Crown Prince, King Oscar, Brunswick and Season),

The (Wild Planet brand of sardines) is sourced in California coast which is famous for being a house of sea creatures. The other thing that makes the sardines adorable is that since they are whole, they hold together in the can. This feature is best for those who love seeing what they are eating.

I should note that Wild Planet sardines is also sold at Walmart (hurray Walmart!)

Other Considerations

Here are some other things to think about when consuming canned fish.

  1. The Smell. Some kinds smell worse than others and are hard to dispose of inconspicuously. I have gotten used to that fishy smell, so it doesn’t bother me, but a lot of people react negatively, especially at work or in a shared kitchen. When possible, I have even tried to go outside and drain the can over some bushes or the grass so as to minimize the smell in the garbage or sink.
  2. Packaging. The old-fashioned tins used to be hard to open by hand. Sometimes they would even break. That was my biggest complaint about the Crown Prince kippers. About 10-20% of the cans would have defective lids, making it a chore to open. I’d use a can opener or a knife, and inevitably it would cause a mess and sometimes even cut my fingers.
  3. Taste. Some brands try to add flavoring (usually curry, mustard or tomato flavoring). I used to avoid flavored fish, but occasionally I will buy one of these products, just to try it out. (They’re really not bad — though the cheaper products are not as good). The main problem with these flavored brands is that they often increase the odor for others to complain about. Also, one gets the sense that these flavors are intended to mask the overall fishiness of the product.
  4. Price. On my budget I wanted something cheap, cheap, cheap while also being reasonably nutritious and convenient. The Crown Price kipper product costs $1.30 at most stores, but the price can vary wildly. If I were to throw out numbers, the high-end products (tuna, sardines, salmon) cost 2-3$ (although salmon and tuna can get even more expensive). Sardine products can go under $1 — although the quality is not good. Often these products will have oil or flavoring to compensate. Be careful!
  5. The basic nutrients. Probably the two things you care most about are the Omega-3s and the amount of protein. The Crown Prince kippers was 92g, 160 calories, 16g of protein, 350mg of sodium and 1.9g of Omega-3s. That’s a really good amount of protein and Omega-3s.

Walmart Alternative: Seasonproducts Sardines

I don’t normally shop at Walmart, but I have started going there specify to buy my Crown Prince kippers. Then I saw a variety of canned fish, some I had never seen before. Then I spotted the generically named Seasonproducts. One can is 85g, 22g of fat, 1.7 g of Omega-3s, No added salt or oil, 170mg of Sodium. Wait, there’s more! The product has a lid which is very easy to peel off and dispose of. It costs $1.55, and had good understandable nutritional information. It even mentions the species and country of origin (Morocco).

I went to its website and found an abundance of products and nutritional information. They had about a dozen products with oil and some packed in water (which is what I wanted).

Look at the stats for this product!

Now for the review!

(Here is the product I reviewed). I have now eaten about 50 cans of this product — and I’ve even tried the oil-based version for comparison.

Generally the can is easy to open and contains about 8 small sardines which have been evenly cut. So you get smaller pieces of fish, but almost all of them are from the entire (miniature-sized) fish. The consistency of the pieces are high, and they are relatively easy to scoop out of the pan. (You can even shake them out if you wish).

There is a higher than average amount of liquid to drain off, but it is easy to do so. The fish has a bland but distinctively fish flavor, and doesn’t smell particularly bad. Although I’m happy eating the product alone, it would be relatively easy to combine this into a recipe without it overwhelming the recipe.

Sometimes the fish has been been a little too moist and soft for my liking, but there will always be variation from can to can. At 22g of protein, it provides just enough protein to make me feel full.

Compare to a MacDonalds Quarter Pounder with cheese which has 30g of protein, 26 g of (saturated)fat, 1080mg sodium and 520 calories and 199g serving size. I know, I know, we’re not comparing apples to apples here, but the point remains you get comparable amount of protein for 1/3 of the calories and 1/4 of the sodium. Even if you look at a plain McDonalds hamburger, you’re talking about 12g of protein, 8g of fat, 240 calories and 510mg of sodium.

I’m not trying to rag on a MacDonalds hamburger here — I love the Big Mac on occasion. I’m merely suggesting that you can get a good protein source from canned sardines –without the risks associated with a “fast food diet.”

Difficulty of no-effort meals

One problem with US life is that often we are preparing food for ourselves under time constraints. As much as we would like to eat healthy, it takes time to prepare meals and sometimes a lot of time.

Probably the best invention against that is the microwave. Suddenly, you can bake a potato or reheat vegetables (or frozen vegetables) with little effort. Frozen dinners have come into being. Perhaps they are not that filling, but they serve a need.

The problem with these kinds of meals is that they involved processed meats or extra sodium.

Extra — How Chefs use Sardines

A Michelin chef offers some ideas to use canned sardines with peppers and paprika for a nice salad. Mark Bittman has a recipe for using canned sardines with pasta.


(Last Update on October 31, 2019) A few years ago I put together a list of books about climate change. For over a decade I’ve been reading a lot of things on the subject. For this edition, I’m going to divide into different categories. Tip: A lot of these books are expensive as ebooks, but if you create price alerts using ereaderiq, you can usually be notified whenever it goes on sale. Also, because Verso books carries a lot of environment & economics books, I recommend subscribing to their newsletter. They have regular sales on their ebooks; once or twice a year they discount a huge swathe of ebooks to 99 cents. Fivebooks.com has several listicles about climate change (much better than this list!) Also, Lithub has a long listicle called Every Day is Earth Day: 365 Books to Start Your Climate Change Library. Here is Part 1 (The Classics), Part 2 (The Science), Part 3 (Fiction and Poetry) and Part 4 (The Ideas).

Fiction and Poetry (Cli-Fi)

Strangely despite my background in writing and publishing fiction, I have not read all that much. But I keep tabs on everything. I briefly communicated with Dan Bloom (who coined the term cli-fi). Bloom’s listicle of best cli-fi is excellent.

Top of Bloom’s list of recommendations is Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior which he called a “poetic fable, with a strong cast of memorable characters… The vision of the monarch butterflies at the beginning of the story is almost mystical, religious, spiritual. It’s pure storytelling with no false moves.”

Bloom also recommends: Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, James Bradley’s Clade, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, Ling Ma’s Severance and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide.

Anthologies: I’m With the Bears Short Stories from a Damaged Planet Edited by Mark Martin and Loosed upon the World: The Saga Anthology of Climate Fiction. by Robert Sassor (Author), Mary Woodbury (Editor), Michael Rothenberg (Foreword)

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Lamentations of Zeno: A Novel by Ilija Trojanow

Solar by Ian McEwan. (2009) (A novel). I don’t consider this to a masterpiece, but it is the first attempt to describe global warming as a cultural influence. Solar is a social satire of environmentalists, professional deniers and how academia cossets both types. By the way, I am writing a sort of comic novel about climate change as well. I didn’t think the novel worked overall, but several of its set pieces were effective and provocative.

Treasures that Prevail by Jen Karetnick. A fine collection about climate change and its effects on Miami. The narrators are two unnamed women, married with a teenage daughter and a teenage son, who live in a part of Miami that will be underwater unless action is taken.

Economics, Policy and Climate Change.

Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy by Hal Harvey. A very recent detailed policy discussion. (An excerpt, with long interview is here).

Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era (2011) by Amory Lovins is an excellent in-depth analysis about energy needs, business innovation and policy. It has the depth and research about the subject and covers a wide variety of topics. It has a good holistic view of the subject. The Best Book on the Subject

Drawdown: Most Comprehensive Plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. Edited by Paul Hawken

Climate Change Politics and Denialism

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. Oreskes and Conways are science historians who found direct connections between the propaganda effort to sell smoking and the effort to sell fossil fuels. Although the book doesn’t try to do media criticism, Oreskes is famous for her study which found no disagreement from the science consensus in journals while significant controversy in articles written for news publications. I’ve seen several of Oreskes’ public lectures on youtube.

This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein. Provocative/polemical/political book by Klein. Glad to see Klein tackling climate change.

General Introductions

Earth: The Operator’s Manual by Richard Alley (2011). In preparation for the PBS Science series, Alley wrote a science book for the general audience.  This was a very thoughtful and generally nonpolitical book which nonetheless lays out the evidence for climate change in a seemingly incontrovertible way.

Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air by David JC MacKay.  (2009)When I started reading this book, I immediately grasped its usefulness.  It defines terms about how to measure the effectiveness of various policy measures and how scientists calculate things like energy efficiency. It also explains the scientific principles and formulas for gathering data.  It doesn’t necessarily make policy recommendations, but clarifies how to have an honest debate without getting lost in quantitative analysis and semantics.  The full book is available for online reading and also downloadable as a PDF… for free!

Power Shift: From Fossil Energy to Dynamic Solar Power by Robert Staynton.  This is a great introduction to the science of power generation and an almost anthropological analysis of human’s precarious relationship to the power they generate. Recommended!

Losing Earth: A recent History by Nathaniel Rich was originally a NYT cover story about how scientists studied climate change in the 1970s and reached the conclusions we have today. Mostly a very well written magazinish account, it’s important to note that Rich is a novelist who also wrote the distinguished novel, Odds Against Tomorrow.

Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change edited by Grady Klein and Yoram Bauman

Special Scientific Topics in Climate Change

Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert and Ends of the World by Peter Brannen are two wonderful books about how the earth is marked by

The Two Mile Time Machine (2001) by Richard Alley gives a first person account of how scientists use ice core samples from glaciers to estimate the carbon levels and temperature levels of previous millenia. This book is over a decade old, but well-beloved by people in the climate change field.

Philosophy and Ethics of Climate Change

Falter by Bill McKibben. 2019. McKibben has been writing deep thoughtful essays and books about climate change and the philosophical/political consequences. He’s been at the center of climate change protests. Falter is gloomy prognastication but essential reading. Important to note that McKibben has written several (three?) other climate change titles.

Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future by Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright

Shock of the Anthropocene by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptist Fressoz

Fossil Fuel Industry (History, etc)

Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming by Andreas Malm. A good historical discussion of fossil fuel power.


Health care in Houston (2018)

A month ago the HHS-commissioned Health of Houston Survey issued its 2018 report. Unfortunately the key information is locked up in a PDF. So I made screenshots of the most interesting charts:

[continue reading…]

Ok, being lazy

Ok, haven’t posted in a while. Have been lazy. But I have been thinking a lot about blogposts, so eventually something will squirt out of me. Be patient.

For the moment I’ve been working on a blog post where I praise canned sardines (seriously).

Ok, for the truly desperate, you can check out my August 9 update on my post about presidential predictions. (It’s at the bottom of the post).

Further thoughts: I have been editing old fiction, catching up on correspondence, filling out job applications, that sort of thing. Also, posting random things on FB.


View Robert’s Roundups || View the Mike’s Likes Series ||View the Raves & Reviews series

View Previous Roundup and Next Roundup

Ok, I caught wind of the $1 Verso Ebooks sale way too late. It’s going to expire 11:59 EST tonight. But a year ago today I bought a nice collection of ebooks and thought I’d list some purchases of these excellent books as reference for future sales. Just listing now, will annotate later.

Verso Books sells lots of books on social, culture and economic criticism (including neo-Marxist criticism). Also, surprisingly lots of books on climate change, avante-garde, fiction and futurist speculations.

More coming. If you haven’t looked at it, check out my recommendations for the Smashwords July ebook sale (expires at the end of July).

Personville Press Giveaways and Deals

I run Personville Press, a small literary book press where all the ebooks cost less than $4. All the titles are discounted on Smashwords for less that price — and usually under $1.50. Pay attention to any 100% coupon codes which I occasionally list below — they can be redeemed only a small number of times, so first come, first serve. Smashwords only sells epub versions of these titles, but you can easily convert them to Amazon’s mobi format by using Kindle Previewer or Calibre.


Robert’s Roundup of Ebook Deals #11 (July)

View the Roundup series || View Raves & Reviews ||  Read how I compile this list. || How to Submit Smashword deals || How to Submit your own Ebook Deals in the Comment Section || Commercial Disclosures

View Previous Roundup and Next Roundup


This column will cover deals on Smashwords (SW) and Kindle, with special emphasis given to SW because many titles are discounted in July. For the sake of speed, I am not including Amazon links — just Smashword links – but I will do my best to link to an author’s website. The KU acronym will be by any book offered under Kindle Unlimited.

NEW FEATURE: Indie Author Spotlight: One goal of this ebook deal column is to highlight overlooked authors — of which there are many. The truth is that every month I discover many remarkable authors, and I rarely have a chance to cover any of them in depth. But it’s helpful for me to single out my most interesting discovery of the month. I’ll do my best to cover and promote this offer, perhaps do a follow up.

July 25 Update. Verso Books has discounted all its left-leaning tomes of philosophy/politics/history/current events/culture to $1.00 or $1.50. This is a great sale — and will open your mind (I bought a ton of ebooks last year when they did a similar sale — Ends on 11:59 PM Sunday July 28). Here’s a Robert’s Roundup of Verso Books purchases — lightly annotated.

Indie Author Spotlight for July — Harvey Havel

This month’s spotlight is Pakistani-American novelist Harvey Havel (FB page) currently living in Albany, New York. Havel has published 16 books which are free this month on Smashwords. Havel writes gritty realistic novels about Muslim-Americans, or African-Americans, mostly set in urban areas like New Jersey. I have only sampled a few titles, but some persistent subjects in these books are gender politics and dating (Wild Gypsy of Arbor Hill ), working class values vs. leading an intellectual’s life (The Adjunct Down) and the struggle of young poets to reconcile the “real world” with the elitism of poetry (Freedom of Association). His latest, Wild Gypsy of Arbor Hill is a tale of a tenacious male college student who falls for the wrong kind of woman. One review described it as “a fine coming-of-age saga featuring a candid, determined young man whose possibilities include coming full circle and returning to what he’s rejected.”

In addition to two essay collections (here and here) and two story collections (here and here), there is also Mother: A Memoir — about the author’s turbulent relationship with his schizophrenic mother. There is also a trilogy, Orphan of Mecca, about the life of a Bengali orphan. Kavel has written books on African-American struggles, the Muslim experience, murder, corruption, that sort of thing. The prose is accessible yet sophisticated; both the dialogue and presentation of ideas through dialogue seem natural and easy to follow. Truthfully I have only read the first 30 pages of several books, so I don’t know how plot and character develop. But I leave with a clear sense that the story is headed somewhere … and I’m curious enough to tag along. (Havel reads a 6 minute excerpt from one of his stories on a youtube video).

Smashwords Deals

Most importantly, several of the ebook titles on Smashwords I’ve been pimping on my sidebar are heavily discounted during the SW July sale. It’s too much trouble for me to manually change every time the price changes, but on July 6, Filiad, Don Q. Public, Woodland Poems are now free. Squeeze, What Confucius Really said are 99 cents, and Eye of a Needle is $1.75. All great stuff!

Smashwords Tip: Below the price point of 2.99, authors earn only 30% of the purchase price at Amazon, but 50-70% on Smashwords. If you buy several ebooks at once on SW (by putting multiple things in a shopping cart and then buying), that splits the transaction costs paid for each ebook and ultimately increases what an author earns. For a $1 ebook bought on SW, the transaction cost deducted from author earnings is 34 cents. If however you buy 10 ebooks priced at $1 in one bulk order, then the transaction cost deducted per ebook would be approximately 4 cents. In other words, buying 10 ebooks in bulk could potentially earn the author as much as 30 extra cents.

The month of July offers more sales on Smashwords (SW). I have already described many SW gems in previous columns (see here, here and here). Let me point out some new discoveries — both free and low cost.

Bharti’s Cat by Braj Kishor Varma (nicknamed “Manipadma“) is a science fiction novel for kids about an intelligent cat who develops human consciousness and speaks like humans. It costs 99 cents. It was written in the 1970s by a prolific Maithili author who (according to this article) wrote tales for children as a way to assert a national consciousness. As far as I know, no other English translations exist of the author’s works.

By the way, 2 titles in my Personville Press are free this month: Minor Sketches and Reveries by Alberto Balengo and Soldier Boys by Jack Matthews.

Dimitris Apergis, is a Greek author of three fiction works — all free! They have received some literary awards in Greece. (Visit author website).

David Bruce is a retired English prof from Ohio who has produced a lot of special interest works which cost 99 cents or less. (Author Site). First, he does prose retellings of classical literature (Shakespeare, Marlowe, etc). Also, he produces lots of study guides for teachers about classic books and children’s books. He also wrote light-hearted anecdotes for the Athens News which he compiled into certain books by themes (Kindest People, Funniest People in Families, etc). (Each has about 25,000 words and costs 99 cents each).

Bruce also wrote a FREE! erotic version of Candide (Erotic Adventures of Candide. ) Of course Terry Southern had already written the ultimate parody of this novel with the pornographic Candy in modern times, but Bruce took the idea one step further and used the original characters to do it! (I read the first two chapters, and so far, he seems to be pulling it off).

David R. Grigg (website) is a retired Australian software developer who has been writing science fiction for decades. This month he has a variety of free and low-priced stuff. Riddling and other stories contains a story about the invasion of “holes” all over Great Britain. In terms of extracurricular activities, Grigg publishes some of his flash stories on the Narratorium website and cohosts a laid back sci fi podcast called Two Chairs Talking.

Mel C. Thompson is a California poet/performance artist/nonconformist/free spirit who has put a lot of his creative output on Smashwords for free. He wrote his amazing life story in one gigantic blogpost. I checked out When Publishers Stalked the Earth and found a miscellaneous compilation of prose poems/beat verse that would make Allen Ginsberg proud. Thompson apparently was a regular at San Francisco poetry readings during the 1990s and published in a lot of indie zines. He also recorded a few rap songs — even though he seems to hate the genre! The few poems I glanced at are informal, light-hearted, often with a political message. His other books tackle Buddhist themes (Tales of Zen Buddhist Scoundrels) capitalism and joblessness (American Wage Slave, Can’t Hold a Real Job), parodies (The Waste Basket — after TS Eliot) and the life of a poet (Living the Zine Life). Probably the most unusual work is Kruschev’s Second Chance, an alternate history tale imagining that the gods gave Kruschev another chance to visit USA to do he wanted to do during his first visit (hmm, I smell social satire!)

Unsolicited Press has again discounted most of their titles. (I wrote about some titles here). Generally all their titles are interesting, though I had a strange problem with the formatting on an otherwise excellent poetry title.

Shorter of Breath by Ken Eckert (author website). (99 cents on SW and Amazon) Eckert is an English professor living in Korea who has written academic criticism about obscure Middle English romances (alas, not in ebook form). This book is about a man who meets an alien graduate student who lets him time travel to different time periods (like swingin’ 1967 England). Sounds whimsical and witty, with some social commentary thrown in.

Clive Gilson (author website) is a consummate anthologizer who has been releasing lots of (always!) free story anthologies around certain themes ( or geographical areas in Europe (Germany, France, Balkans, etc). The series is called Tales from the World’s Firesides. I have just thumbed through two anthologies, and I will let you decide which type of story you’d enjoy reading. Two extra things are worth noting. First, Gilson has released two original novels and two story collections: Insomniac Booth, Mechanic’s Curse, Songs of Bliss and Solitude of Stars. The themes of his books range from magic realism to crime thrillers to sci fi — and are undoubtedly influenced by the stories from his anthologies.

Second, Gilson’s books are only available as epubs. I understand what is going on here. Publishers who choose to upload epubs directly to Smashwords rather than use Smashwords ebook creation tool cannot also upload a mobi file. I hope that at some point Smashwords will allow publishers to upload separate mobi files — publishers are in a better position to make sure mobi files render well on Kindle systems.

Lily Markova is an author of YA/fantasy fiction who, ” resides in a city where an appearance of the sun in the sky is such a rare event that it’s considered an alien threat. Having been raised among I. Bunin and A. Grin books instead of normal children’s toys, she’s guilty of loving the passive voice, adverbs, and weird long sentences.” I am happy to report that Markova’s fiction is all FREE! on SW. Her best received novel so far is Immortown about a girl who visits her brother’s grave and is sucked into a crazy town where nobody can leave. Perhaps the most intriguing title (to me at least) is Joy Cancer which is a “carefree story about depression, and a wistful story about the love of life. ” (The title is the name of the suicidal protagonist). By the way A. Grin (aka Alexander Grin) was a Russian author of romantic novels and short stories — here’s the only translation I can find of him.

Philosophical works by Oluwole Komolafe. Nigerian-born Komolafe writes philosophical works (everything costs $1.50) that touch upon issues of spirituality and even Christianity. Colloquies: African Poet, African Philospher and the African Physicist and Thoughts on Granite are primarily works of philosophy, while Adventures of a County Boy in the City is a memoir.

No time to panic (Short Stories) by Sallie Cochran (author website) is a collection of 4 stories involving aliens/monsters/fantastic elements. Cochran has one other discounted title on SW and several on Amazon. Cochran has taught at middle schools, and many of her stories feel like YA-stories.

Margareth Stewart is a Brazil-born social psychiatrist with two works discounted to 99 cents: Mademoiselle-sur-Seine and When War is never over.

Smashwords Erotica

Wow, there is so much erotica fiction on SW of variable quality (often with suggestive covers). I covered a few interesting erotica authors in a previous RR. Here are some others that look both interesting and free/cheap. Note that some of these links are NSFW, so take caution. Also, SW sometimes hides explicit titles, so you will need to turn off the filtering (menu-bar on top right).

  • Marilyn Jaye Lewis (author website) is a prolific author of literary erotica and short stories. EVERYTHING FREE FOR JULY! The Muse Revisited series is a 3 volume collection of erotic stories written over her career. (Here’s the list of stories — some were published in the widely respected Mammoth Anthologies. Also, an award-winning novel, Freak Parade is (according to one reviewer) the “slow and sometimes painful resurrection of a previously-famous recording artist.” One blurb on the author’s book page calls it a no-holds barred erotic novel with a social conscience. ” On Youtube there are 3 short videos reading of the author reading passages from Freak Parade. (She also has a historical novel Twilight of the Immortal
  • Erotica bestselling author Selena Kitt (website — definitely NSFW!) edits several gigantic erotica anthologies called Excessica Box Set Anthologies. (These anthologies and Kitt’s ebooks are on SW). Each is named after a season and contains about 300,000 words each (About 25-30 stories). A quick look at the story/author list reveals that each box set includes different stories by the same stable of authors. The Excessica Anthology Box Set Summer is FREE! for this month (wow!) but the other box sets (Spring, Fall, Winter) sell at a discounted reasonable price on SW of 2.50 each. Kitt has a lot of other erotica stories and novellas (some of which were banned from Amazon). Kitt’s fiction is generally discounted for July.
  • T.C Mill and Alex Freeman have two volumes on SW for the New Smut Project, each costing $2 and consisting of about 150,000 words. The more character-driven Heart, Body, Soul seeks stories that cater to readers’ “craving for emotionally and intellectually satisfying erotica.” Between the Shores is a “volume of literary erotica exploring the possibilities of sexual negotiation” (which means BDSM, Submission, etc).
  • For sci fi erotica, the strangely named (and free!)4 volume Orgasm Incorporated by Karl Five explores a futuristic society where sex is commercialized and the titular company caters to the needs of the wealthiest.
  • Readerotica is a series of free erotica anthologies sponsored (really!) by a vibrator ecommerce website. There are several volumes, but all you really need is Readerotica 50: Compilation of 50 Erotic Stories for your eReader.

Under the Radar

George Mackay Brown is a prolific Scottish poet and author who died in 1996. As I write this, about 2/3 of his books of poetry and fiction are free on Amazon (at the least the ones published by the Hatchette group). He writes about life in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, and indeed many themes are about living far away from urban life. One quote made about his style: “the absence of frills and decoration; the lean simplicity of description, colour shape and action reduced to essentials, which heightens the reality of the thing observed.” I read the title story for his last collection Island of the Woman and Other Stories. It’s a mythical tale of fantasy taking place during the Crusades — about a woman who marries a foreigner only to have him leave to fight in the Crusades.

Karl Larew is a retired history prof from Maryland who has written maybe a dozen low-priced or free novels in various genres (Vampire Satire, War, College Life, etc). Most go free occasionally on KU, but all are 99 cents. Redheaded Book Lover has reviewed several of Larew’s titles here and here. I was able to snag a free version of Candles in the Window, a nostalgic look at the sex lives of college students during the 1950s.

Gregory Miller (author website) is a prolific short story author from Pittsburgh with the great fortune to have good blurbs by Ray Bradbury and Piers Anthony. His ebooks are on KU — which means that some of them are occasionally available for FREE. Reviewers have described his books as a kind of bizarre Lake Woebegone (Uncanny Valley) or “Can a single book be whimsical, thought provoking and macabre all at once?” (These descriptions really do recall the fantasy stories of Bradbury!) Two additional things. His ebooks have beautiful illustrations by John York

How to Kill Hitler: A guide for Time Travelers by Andrew Stanek. 99 cents. (KU) This young prolific author writes a variety of genre works — often with a clever or quirky angel. The first 2 chapters were hilarious.QUOTE: “Even supposing that time travel is possible,(asked my publisher), “why wouldn’t the time travelers just wait until time travel is discovered to buy the book?” “Ah, that’s the clever part. I would only make the book available for a limited time, thereby forcing time travelers to come back in time and pay for it right now.”

Charlie Carillo has been writing fiction for 5 decades, starting with the novel Shepherd Avenue — which is about an Italian family living in 1960s Brooklyn and was chosen by the ALA as a Notable Book of the Year. (Visit author blog). Carillo worked in TV and print journalism while also producing a series of novels on various topics. PW once wrote that “Carillo has an easy way with breezy prose and likeable characters.” By the way, on his Amazon author page, there is a fun 9 minute video of Carillo cooking an Italian meal and telling the story of his literary career (with wisecracks). Fiction Subjects include: a one hit singer, fatherhood, mafia, All the ebooks are KU. BTW, from his blog I learned about entertaining essays Carillo published on Huffington Post — including a time he and his father went on a college tour and reflections of the book cover of his first novel.

Melanie Rose Huff (KU) is a YA indie author who writes about historical themes like WW2 (Ashford, Violet Shadows) . By Water and Blood is a fantasy/mystery about a girl who is drawn to an island for an unknown reason. (Visit author website).

Edward Drobinski is a prolific KU author who writes across genres — sci fi, humor, historical fiction, literary humor. hard to define. One title, Hideous Flatulent Incompetence I: Short Stories and One Not So Short raises eyebrows … and that’s just volume 1! No author website (but the Goodreads page seems fairly traveler — and we find this caustic quote from Interview with a Troll):

In this book industry we have different kinds of birds; excepting one; all having in common that they are ONLY watchers and squawkers at the pond. We have readers, editors, reviewers, interviewers, publishers, marketers, websites, monopolies, and writers. All are better compensated than the writers. Yet the system is totally upside down as those better rewarded are all derivative of what is primary; the writer. Without that person the readers have nothing to read; the editors have nothing to edit; the reviewers have nothing to review; the interviewers have no one to interview; the publishers have nothing to publish; the marketers have nothing to market; the website cannot adware infect ‘members,’ and the legalized monopolies have nothing to monopolize. So, in effect, this is where the troll steps in. He’s kind of a writer; but he’s not taking the time to churn out masterpieces. He’s just effortlessly telling the vultures exactly what they are.

Various books by Tom Milton: Golden Door, etc. I’ve been picking up some freebies by Tom Milton recently, but ran out of time to write about him. I’ll cover him next month. In the meantime, check out Milton’s author site.

Soundtrack of an Ordinary Life by Alan Allsop. (KU) This is what it says. An autobiography of the author, as told through the songs punctuating his life. (Confession: I’m a sucker for this genre).

Published by Amazon (Crossing, etc)

Generally these are titles published by the Amazon imprints. I frankly ignore most of the genre stuff and focus on the international authors and biographies. these remain 99 cents or 1.99 until the end of the month. I’ve already bought a ton of these titles in previous months (check previous columns here and here), so maybe my recs will be sparser than usual

  • Life by Lu Yao. This author won a major literary prize in China for his novel Ordinary World (which apparently has its own wiki page but has not been translated!) He died in his 40s after writing two books, with this being his first (and having been made into a film). It details the travails of a young man who loses his teaching job in the 1980s; it also shows how some areas transitioned from rural to urban living. I am such a sucker for these books — and the sample chapter drew me in).
  • 600 Hours of Edward by Craig Lancaster. Part 1 of a two part series. (Both are 99 cents on various months). Comic tale of a 39 year old male with Asperger’s and OCD. Rave reviews for both books, with one comparing it to Flowers for Algernon.

Creative Commons/Free Academic Publishing

A few months ago I wrote about free academic monographs on Amazon. A week ago I discovered another publisher Routledge which also has a lot of free titles. Subjects are random and cerebral. Titles which I downloaded:

  • Against Meritocracy (Open Access):
  • Culture, power and myths of mobility,
  • Consciousness and Moral Status,
  • Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: African-American Narrative Poetry from the Oral Tradition,
  • Myths We Live By Mary Midgley

Blink and it’s Gone Sales

None this time.


I haven’t had time to look through the poets I downloaded free ebooks of. (I will give you the ereaderiq search query to let you find the latest KU poetry examples.

George Manos Sonnets. KU In addition to editing an edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, this poet has written 100s of sonnets — (some of these original collections are free, the rest are 99 cents)

Kenyatta Jean-Paul Garcia KU is an author of numerous poetry books — also from Albany –either free or 2.99. (Poet’s website). His soundcloud page contains numerous recitations of poems.

Public Domain

I mentioned this already in the previous Raves & Reviews columns, but at Project Gutenberg, I have been proofing editions of Book Review Digest from 1900 to 1922. I cannot tell you how great these volumes are. They reprint book reviews from periodicals of the day about notable books.

Talking Thrush and other tales from India by William Crooke. A delightfully illustrated compilation of fairy and folk tales. I loved this!

It’s not on Gutenberg, and it costs 99 cents on Amazon, but Memories of the White House: Home Life of Our Presidents from Lincoln to Roosevelt (1911) is a great look behind the scenes of US history. From a BRD 1911 review: ” Personal recollections of the home life of our presidents from Lincoln to Roosevelt. They are pleasant, intimate observations of the home life of ten presidents written by a man with forty-six years of continuous service in the executive office. During Lincoln’s administration he was on duty as personal body-guard. It is interesting to learn that on the evening of the assassination the president sent Mr. Crook home to bed, and that the latter Was not the guard at Ford’s theater who became so absorbed in the play as to desert his post. The growth of social life in the executive mansion is depicted, from the simple levees of President Lincoln where men appeared in negligee shirts, slouch hats and cowhide boots to the present day receptions planned on a large scale with lavish appointments.”

Personville Press Giveaways and Deals

I run Personville Press, a small literary book press where all the ebooks cost less than $4. All the titles are discounted on Smashwords for less that price — and usually under $1.50. Pay attention to any 100% coupon codes which I occasionally list below — they can be redeemed only a small number of times, so first come, first serve. Smashwords only sells epub versions of these titles, but you can easily convert them to Amazon’s mobi format by using Kindle Previewer or Calibre.

Novelist Manipadma, Maithili author of Bharti’s Cat

View Robert’s Roundups || View the Mike’s Likes Series ||View the Raves & Reviews series

I hate Summer Reading roundup articles. They’re unnecessary and based on the faulty idea that people read certain things depending on time of year. During college, I worked as a gate monitor at a swimming pool and read all sorts of subversive stuff — Sartre, Camus, Goethe, Beckett. I was outside in a bathing suit under the hot Houston sun and sweating my ass off; yet it didn’t affect my ability to enjoy or understand anything. Here therefore is my official Robert’s Anti-list of Summer Readings:

  • Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (actually, I’m going to be reading this for real this summer).
  • Malloy by Samuel Beckett.
  • Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
  • Opium and Other stories by Geza Csath.
  • Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
  • Stories by Chekhov. (I think I actually read a lot of these stories over one summer).
  • Arcadio by William Goyen (Texas writer btw).
  • Inferno by Dante (actually fitting because it’s a hot place too!)
  • Fathers and Sons by Turgenev. During that summer at the swimming pool, I vividly remember reading Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Becket and tons of other gloomy Continental stuff while ogling the pretty lifeguards at the pool. Ah, summers of youth!

Public Domain

Neglected Books flips out over the 1942 book, My Heart for Hostage by poet Robert Hillyer. From its dust jacket illustration, one can imagine that My Heart for Hostage was being aimed by Random House for a sentimental, mainly female audience, but in reality, this is a book that would have appealed to G.I.s if they’d made it past the title page. Hillyer’s soldiers carry some scars with them they little understand and can’t control. They find relief in sex and drink, and feel a distance between themselves and the folks back home they can’t quite express.

(PS, I’m currently reading the novel now — on Interlibrary Loan. It’s a compelling read).

RJN: It can be frustrating to see how many out-of-print titles from the 1930s and 1940s may in fact be in the public domain (as this one surely is). (Another is the 1931 masterpiece short story collection, Many Thousands Gone by John Peale Bishop). Strangely, Project Gutenberg is so busy with pre-1924 stuff that it doesn’t have the resources to digitalize the many works whose copyright was never renewed. One curious coincidence about Hillyer and Bishop is that they were respected poets dabbling here in fiction.

To my amusement I was proofing a 1911 edition of Book Review Digest when I found a book review by Theodore Roosevelt. Turns out that Roosevelt wrote a ton of books and articles (you can find his books on PG and his articles on a TR Almanac site. Related to this, I found a memoir by William H Crooke (a White House personal assistant who served 10 different presidents). Not on PG yet, but I see that someone is selling a digital copy for 99 cents. My god, someone should adapt this into a movie!

General Essays/Lit Crit

Speaking of gloomy Europeans, I saw the great HBO series Chernobyl. I was delighted to learn that one of the story lines was lifted from Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl. (This link contains most of the story monologue).

Robert Chandler wrote about Vasily Grossman’s less famous novel, Stalingrad. (Life and Fate is on my summer reading list).

Silly me, in reading about Emily Ruskovich‘s Idaho novel receiving a huge cash prize for the International Dublin literary award, I remember thinking, where the heck did this literary prize come from? Apparently — corrected by Michael Barrett — this prize has been around for 2 decades (here’s the list of winners and nominees). Here’s the magical page for Ruskovich’s writings. Here’s ER’s lit-listicle of US rural novels and her nostalgia about reading Watership Down as a kid. (Amazingly, her boyfriend at the time recorded himself reading chapters from the book which he forwarded to her).

Here’s a nice ER discussion of opening paragraphs and a dissection of an Alice Munro story and an allegedly innocent detail. When you start the story, the box is just an object sitting among other objects, covered in dust—next to a horse harness and an old dentist’s chair and an apple peeler. But as you read and re-read, you start to sense the human history that can be told through these objects. Each one is suffused with a whole lifetime of compassion and secrets and suffering. And though Munro gives us the privilege of looking at one of them, the red box, the other objects are left unspoken for. That’s very moving: you get the sense that you could write an entire novel about the horse harness, too, or the dentist’s chair, or the apple peeler.

RJN: I agree. Often the best thing to do after finishing a short story is to re-read the first paragraph. It’s usually obvious how the author promised to lead you in one direction and instead brought you in another.

Hilary Mantel writes about why she’s a historical novelist:

But my chief concern is with the interior drama of my characters’ lives. From history, I know what they do, but I can’t with any certainty know what they think or feel. In any novel, once it’s finished, you can’t separate fact from fiction – it’s like trying to return mayonnaise to oil and egg yolk. If you want to know how it was put together line by line, your only hope, I’m afraid, is to ask the author.

For this reason, some readers are deeply suspicious of historical fiction. They say that by its nature it’s misleading. But I argue that a reader knows the nature of the contract. When you choose a novel to tell you about the past, you are putting in brackets the historical accounts – which may or may not agree with each other – and actively requesting a subjective interpretation. You are not buying a replica, or even a faithful photographic reproduction – you are buying a painting with the brush strokes left in. To the historian, the reader says, “Take this document, object, person – tell me what it means.” To the novelist he says, “Now tell me what else it means.”

I love Mantel’s essay so much! Maud Newton linked to it in an essay about Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind by Claude Lecouteux. and even mentioned her mother, who still believes in ghostly presences and curses:

When I was growing up, though, my mom saw demons and angels everywhere. Sometimes she held exorcisms when I was in the next room, trying to do my homework. Through the wall I’d hear her hollering. The person the demons were being cast out of might weep, punch things, turn over chairs, curse in an inhuman voice. Sometimes the unearthly voice emanated from someone I knew. I worried the demons would slip under the door and into me.

Deliverance sessions also erupted at the start of my mom’s church services every month or so. And occasionally, she went after evil spirits she detected in me. In one episode of this kind, I finished off a big bag of chips, and she commanded the “gluttony demon” to come out of me. She was troubled by my inability to see demons for myself and blamed this lack of vision on a “doubting demon,” or, sometimes, on an “Antichrist demon” that had apparently been passed on by my father.

(Some Mantel novels that Newton recommends are Beyond Black and, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies). I should mention that my fave author Jack Matthews likes to put ghosts especially in his 19th century stories (especially Soldier Boys and Ghostly Populations — which is the name of the author’s domain). This struck me as really strange.

Speaking of ghosts and stuff, now is a good time to invoke public domain Texas author Dorothy Scarborough, who edited early anthologies of ghost stories and wrote a book, Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (free on Gutenberg!). Fun fact: Not only is Scarborough’s 1925 novel, the Wind one of my favorite novels, but I also wrote a wiki page about her and this very book!

Christopher John Stephens revisits the 1994 novel In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (which I also enjoyed).

In a Postscript, Alvarez notes that “…what you find in these pages are not the Mirabal sisters of fact, or even the Mirabal sisters of legend. The actual sisters I never knew.” She notes that the myth-making of the Mirabal sisters (which is what this novel accomplishes) also means they have once again been lost. The Mirabil sisters we read here are of Alvarez’s creation. Liberties have been taken, dates changed, events reconstructed, but the motivation is sincere. “A novel is not, after all, a historical document,” she writes, “but a way to travel through the human heart.”

Laura Miller on Tales of the City (which is now a Netflix series):

 I arrived in the Bay Area in 1978, younger than Mary Ann Singleton but (as a Californian whose parents had a couple of gay friends) not quite so green. It was a daunting place when I arrived, at the tail end of a period of strung-out, apocalyptic violence. The Zebra murders and the Patty Hearst kidnapping were not that far in the past, and even more unsettling than being abducted by crackpot radicals was the idea that they could turn you into an entirely different person while you were in their clutches. A few weeks after I moved to Berkeley, 918 members of the Peoples Temple, many of them people of color seeking a new social order, died by mass suicide in Guyana. Because the church had a large center in San Francisco and its mad leader, Jim Jones, was well-connected among the city’s elites, local media covered the baffling massacre as if it had taken place right in town. Less than 10 days later a disgruntled local politician shot both the mayor and Harvey Milk, the city’s first openly gay supervisor, right at City Hall.

“Is this what it’s like here?” I remember asking myself as these catastrophes went down. Was adulthood really a matter of navigating random killings, messianic doomsday gurus, and machine-gun toting radicals? Even to a child of liberal parents who had opposed the Vietnam War, the chaos thrown off by the social change of the 1960s was scary. For the first time, I began to regularly read a daily newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, in an effort make sense of it all. In the Chronicle’s pages I found a confusing column full of short paragraphs, breezy dialogue, and references to people I’d never heard of. It was fiction, something I’d never seen in a newspaper before, and called “Tales of the City.” Everybody who lived in San Francisco and its environs seemed to follow it avidly and talked as if its characters were their intimate friends.

A gay friend recommended this book very highly, and it’s been on my short list for quite some time (i.e, decades). Perhaps the existence of a TV series is sufficient goad for me to hurry up and read the book first.

Lists from Fivebooks: Arab historian Robert Irwin about classics of Arabic literature. French novelist Mathias Enard has his own list of the Orient and Orientalism. Also Best Transnational Literature books by Mohsin Hamid (whatever that means).

I spend a good bit of time on reddit — the book ones tend to be mediocre, but some of the special interest professional topics are great — I’m thinking selfpublish, Truefilm, etc. I’ve really been loving Askhistorians mainly because the moderators remove any comment which is not erudite/brilliant. How to judge a history book by its cover. I have some experience on that matter, having bought a ton of history ebooks last year. I actually enjoy popular history a lot — because it’s easy to read, and the narrative is easy to follow. The key to writing a good history book is to pick an overlooked event or person and apply current standards of critical scholarship (and be transparent about your methods). Also, if you can, write it as you would write a novel.

Hans Rollman responds to Jaron Lanier’s book about why we should give up social media.

As Lanier observes, the pioneers of social media and its algorithms didn’t consciously try to make the internet predatory. They pursued something they conceptualized as an apolitical middle-ground: engagement. Social media is about encouraging engagement, whether it be positive or negative (or both simultaneously, depending on one’s perspective). Social media algorithms seek to bring about user engagement and response, and they don’t really care whether we click on something because they’ve made us feel happy, or sad, or angry; whether we click/purchase/read/subscribe because of altruistic feelings, or self-deprecatory feelings, or violent feelings, or racist/sexist feelings. They simply seek a response; an engagement. Generating a response, from the perspective of programmers, is translated as success.

Likewise, when anonymous users promote posts, create accounts, buy ads; the administrators of Facebook and Google don’t know, or even care to know, whether they’re altruistic NGO’s, Russian spies, or obscure terrorists. They simply seek to help them maximize their aims through facilitating broad-based engagement with whatever those users are willing to pay for. The hands-off, DIY nature of paying to “expand your reach” via social media is deliberately designed to remove human oversight and responsibility as much as possible from the ethical dimensions of a consumer’s actions.

It is this pretense at a neutral, apolitical, individualized-optimization that makes social media the ultimate in technologies of neoliberal capitalism.


(I’m reading this book right now!)


Wow, I see that Houstoniamag publishes regular features and book reviews (I’d never heard of this zine before). About half of their coverage is on local visiting writers. (That’s ok, but it means going crazy over whatever literary road show NY publishers have provided). Still, there’s a decent amount of local coverage too . (This and lone star literary life are bringing literature back to the state after the dailies have essentially abandoned their book coverage). Let me highlight some local authors featured here:

Analicia Sotelo‘s poetry collection Virgin (author website). “I have this theme of an absent biological father in the book,” explains Sotelo, “ and I use famous artists who are now dead as mythological figures who knew my dad. My parents were very into the visual arts, so a lot of conversations I had with my father, who I didn’t see very much, were about artists. So how do I access someone who I didn’t know very well? Well, how about through the art that he taught me about?”

Doni Wilson writes a penetrating review of Chris Cander‘s Weight of a Piano (Author website). The novel is about the significance of a piano in various people’s life, from the builder to the daughter who keeps it to preserve her parents’ memory.

One woman’s musical instrument is another man’s photographic focal point, and Cander reminds us that the piano is not only an instrument of interpreting music, but a subject of interpretation: a psychological presence that reveals the inner longings and insecurities of those who are affected by its presence. Greg Zeldin’s motto for his photographs is a quotation from the composer John Cage: “When we separate music from life, we get art.” And this is what Cander has accomplished in her novel that separates the objects of our lives from the creative projections that we extract and place on them. In the many scenes that dramatize the piano being moved from one location to another, we see the emotional significance of this instrument. Katya’s son recalls that “he watched his mother bring blankets with which to drape it, good blankets they used every night that were made by his grandmothers and brought over during the emigration from Russia years ago.” 

Cander forces us to consider the lengths we will go to not only for art, but for our personal past, no matter how full of turmoil that past may be. The Blüthner in Greg’s photos “became just another one of those heavy objects silently fleeing their histories,” but Cander infuses the piano with a power of a character itself, an important and towering figure that both gives and weighs one down. With a vast knowledge of classical music and a masterful use of setting from Europe to Death Valley, The Weight of a Piano is not just a meditation on the things of our lives, but also an argument that these are also subjective correlatives for all of the things that we cannot stand to lose.

Pics from the Julie Ideson Rare Books collection in Houston.

Here are 2 Reviews of the latest book by Oscar Casares, who I recently realized is on the creative writing faculty of UT Austin. Amazingly, I put Casares’ first book on hold until I realized that I already possessed a copy — in fact it was sitting several feet from my desk!

Houston political poet Anis Shivani (website) writes:

Equally effective is Casares’ decision, unlike in his previous books, to restrain the narrative to a narrow geographic range. This is enhanced by his supreme ability to convey the physical plenitude of such ordinary locations as the canal, the raspa trailer and the changing tropical landscape on the way to Brownsville, not to mention the claustrophobia ingrained in Nina’s main house and the fraught dynamics along the international bridge. The pink house, with the trapdoor beneath it, through which Daniel surfaces from time to time despite Nina’s instruction for him to stay hidden, becomes more than a convenient symbol: It emerges as a rebuke to the way politics has constrained our humanity to be less generous and fluid than it ought to be.

(Source: Texas Observer)

Michelle Newby Lancaster summarizes: The fact that his story isn’t exceptional is what makes it exceptional. Though evenly and quickly paced, it sometimes seems as if not much is happening, but this novel is suffused with boredom and menace—twins of a fugitive existence, punctuated by moments of pure terror. This is what passes for normal.

I used to be familiar with creative writing departments around Texas (and for that matter, around the country). I haven’t followed these affairs anymore — though I remember being flabbergasted recently to learn that author Tim O’Brien was teaching at Texas State. UH has lots of distinguished faculty and students, and I try to follow them, although sadly, I’ve reached the conclusion that these programs cater to a kind of literary elitism at the expense of being accessible. That said, creative writing programs are great places to learn about poets (both faculty and students). I’m saying all that as someone who passed through one such program, but luckily I got out in the nick of time. I’m trying to feature more Texas writers from such programs on my blog.

Norma Elia Cantú is an ethnographer teaching at teaching at Trinity University and lives in San Antonio and Laredo. Here’s a MNL review of one of Cantu’s books . Here’s an interview where she provides a historical overview of Latinx/border fiction, she recommends Occupied America by Rudy Acuña; Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa; and Diana Rebolledo’s Woman Singing in the Snow.

Poet Andrea Syzdek (website) has lots of book reviews about literary topics. She even uploaded her UH MFA poetry thesis here (which you can download as a DOCX file).

On Jane Casale‘s the Girl who Never Read Noam Chomsky (a novel about a feminist writer who feels attracted to a boy reading Chomsky) , Syzdek writes, ” From this point on, Noam Chomsky takes on a deeper, more symbolic meaning. He represents radical political thought. Even more importantly, he represents a possible gateway to other radical thinkers such as Howard Zinn, Michel Foucault, Frantz Fanon, Adrienne Rich, and Angela Davis—thinkers who could provide Leda with the necessary tools to imagine alternative paths that might help her become a fully-realized human being. Never reading Noam Chomsky means she never develops creatively, intellectually, or politically and her sense of self as a woman is often defined by capitalistic, patriarchal notions of what a woman is even as she resists these definitions. She ends up giving into them. Readers begin to wonder what might happen if Leda actually read Noam Chomsky; this is the invisible thread that runs through the novel.

Illuminating Interviews

I have been poring over the incredible interviews by ubercritic and author Dan Schneider. He interviews people from any genre, but especially poets and filmmakers and critics. As I go through them, I’ll highlight some moments.

Here’s a terrific and long interview with African-American poet James A. Emanuel who lived most of his last years in Paris. It actually took me 4 separate sittings to reach the end of it. (Sadly, his poetry collections have not been digitalized and a long compilation, Whole Grain: Collected Poems (published in 1991) is out of print and very expensive. Several poems are included, plus a critical essay by Schneider at the end. Here are some quotes:

There is a possible procedure that I do not consciously use: to bring into consideration an idea normally adult but not easily or commonly expressed by adults, then search for a child’s voice and child’s situation to develop that idea.


If a poem came to me fully made, I would have to change it as the words took shape on paper, assuming paper to be its final imprinted surface, because the final creator, thinking as his hand (or machine part) approached the paper, might conceive of an improved word or punctuation mark. Such is the prerogative, the necessity of the creator at work: to bring the product at hand to a state of perfection.

            Olympic champions who have nothing to do with poetry understand why it took me seven years of thinking to write the sixteen lines in Emmett Till, so terrible were the true images that inspired its creation; they might guess why the last eight lines of “The Treehouse” would not come until two years passed. My mother, during her final years as a licensed Christian Science practitioner, used to say, “God’s man is perfect.” Even then on my way to ambivalence toward established religion, I thought that “God’s man”—whatever she meant by that—did not exist. I now add the consequent idea: perfection (if God’s man is an authentic example of it) does not exist; and poetry need not be judged by what does not exist. Moving in this deep water, I return to the moment of creation, when the poet’s whole life and being—the truth and beauty in it—has this instant to impress itself judgmentally on what is passing as its best particular expression.


Just as discipline is most needed when freedom is first won, my turn to free verse at the end of the 1960s entailed a conscious struggle to fuse widening subjects with what might be called “veteran” form. Like the boxer who knows when to shift from dancing jabs to a strong right hook, the veteran in free verse knows when an anapest or two cannot do the job of a well-chosen monosyllable.

            What I want to say in poetry (what I want to present or picture, rather) has little to do with form, for I could use a sonnet to present the Harlem street jive, dig? Some time ago, the following line in iambic pentameter could have opened a sonnet: “Had only ink to drink for many brights.” As for the haiku form, its subjects are unlimited. I turned to it because of its unusual challenge to say much in little, to waste no word, to find and express the possibilities of beauty in all of creation.

Personville Press Giveaways and Deals

I run Personville Press, a small literary book press where all the ebooks cost less than $4. All the titles are discounted on Smashwords for less that price — and usually under $1.50. Pay attention to any 100% coupon codes which I occasionally list below — they can be redeemed only a small number of times, so first come, first serve. Smashwords only sells epub versions of these titles, but you can easily convert them to Amazon’s mobi format by using Kindle Previewer or Calibre.


Mike’s Likes #1 (Book Reports — June, 2019)

(“Mike’s Likes” is the first book column for what will soon be a regular feature on this blog. Michael Barrett is a San Antonio critic and longtime college friend. He has been writing erudite cinema reviews at Popmatters for over a decade — I even did a long interview with him about cinema on this blog. Although Barrett is happy with the film critic label, he reads widely too. With his permission, I will occasionally compile some “book reports” which Barrett has recently posted on Facebook).

View Robert’s Roundups || View the Mike’s Likes Series ||View the Raves & Reviews series ||


NYRB classic reprint, Checked out of the library!

The narrator is a cultured married woman who seems to spend her days flying the world for rendezvous with her spy-lover, who changes his appearance easily and communicates cryptically via National Geographics.

The novel’s present is a couple of weekends, one in Guatemala where he calls her on the phone to cancel and say he’ll meet her next weekend in Toronto, where she actually lives or used to with her family, and then that Toronto weekend as she wanders through her memories and fantasies of her life and repressed tragedies, until she magically comes to a resolve that may be as imaginary as everything else, for we suspect she’s refracting her experience through breakdowns and dreams. The ending involves a doppelganger derived partly from the author’s own life. It becomes impossible to know if she really travels the world for spy affairs–and if she does, whether she just sleeps with random lovers whom she identifies as the same person, or whether these are messages to herself, or whether she stays home and reads magazines.

The style is lucid and hyper-real yet bewildering and dreamy, esp. when she has a dialogue with a woman in a Bonnard painting that echoes the narrator of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” The whole affair becomes increasingly psychological and symbolic, with tossed-off nuggets like “I was afraid that I had finally capitulated to vacuity” and incidents like this (amid the curious punctuation, I must wonder why the semi-colon):

“When I was forced to come to a stop by a street photographer, a lean young man in a green corduroy suit who stood feet astride in my path, I became angry. He had apparently taken my picture. He offered me the print for a dollar. I uttered a sharp No! He could not have known that he copied a likeness I no longer wanted. He persisted in holding the picture up to me, saying, It’s no use to me. Nor to me, I answered. He tore it up before my eyes; tossed the glossy bits into the gutter. Perhaps, it occurred to me, through the ‘evil eye of the box’ the photographer had removed a soul that was weary of wandering. Despite the breeze, the pieces of my soul just lay there. Good, I said to myself. Good riddance.”

When the rats come out, or What a peste

Audiobook of Albert Camus’ THE PLAGUE, Checked out of the library!

My second recent visit to Oran after THE SHELTERING SKY. The most surprising thing is how this supposedly atheist/existentialist tract of alienation and desperation could so easily lend itself to a Catholic interpretation. The priest is presented as in dialectic with another character (not the narrator but the diarist) but they’re not so much opposites as alternate facets; both believe man is tainted by Original Sin, though the latter calls it the plague we all carry, the guilt of collaborating with civilization’s crimes. The priest is given two long sermons, the latter of which has him arriving at a potentially heretical-existential “all or nothing” theory of choosing God consciously. Both characters come to the same conclusion of committing themselves completely to their convictions and die of them. Much is made of the “crucifying” nature of the death contortions, which take about as long as the agonies on the cross, and the plague breaks its fever, as it were, on Christmas. The narrator-doctor is even watched over by a beatific mother. The finale of this essentially philosophical book, which aims to be a “factual record” in the manner of Defoe’s (invented) “Journal of the Plague Year,” pulls off two brilliantly orchestrated bits of melodrama.

Although the setting feels removed from time and space to accentuate isolation, to the extent that the action takes place in a French colonial town in Algeria (with no Algerians–that conscience was pricked with the murder in THE STRANGER), this can also be seen as a political commentary or allegory of the colonial adventure that Camus presumably foresaw swallowing up and depleting France, for several characters (like the priest) state that the town has brought its troubles on itself. This arguably makes it less universal than an exclusively and specifically French catastrophe. The one who’s glad of the plague is a criminal who wishes to escape justice. His implication is that when everyone’s in the same boat, all are alike and therefore it’s a town of criminals. No explicit political comments are made; it’s left implicit for those who can see to see, with remarks on the initial incompetence of officials and special disaster meted out to a magistrate. (This would be a very different reading from the more common one of celebrating French resistance to Nazis.)

TALK by Linda Rosenkrantz

Checked out of the library!

For anyone who’s wished they had recorded conversations of their brilliant witty friends, at least one person went and did it.

The raw material, accent on raw, of Linda Rosenkrantz’s 1968 TALK is tape-recorded conversations among three arty New York friends from the summer of 1965. Two women, one of whom (“Marsha”) is recording these tapes, even when she’s absent, and a male homosexual painter (before it was cool to discuss such things casually and frankly) hash and thrash over every minute analysis of each other’s behavior and blather endlessly, sometimes hilariously about sex, friends, lovers, shrinks, art, abortions and the cat, roughly in that order, while lounging on the beach, interrupting each other, preparing and eating food, and hanging out. They’re full of exaggeration, one-liners, insight and witty play for each other’s benefit.

Apparently Linda/Marsha didn’t alter the tapes, only selected which ones to use from hundreds of hours, and they’re merely transcribed as play dialogue without directions or commentary. References to Warhol (whom they know personally) remind us that he believed a film is what happens when you turn on a camera and record whatever someone is doing, and that sometimes the camera alters their behavior and sometimes not. These friends are all circa 30 (one divorcee, who has just emerged from alkie rehab, is “punching 30”), reminding us also of the line in “The Great Gatsby” (quoted, though not that line) in which the narrator suddenly ends a chapter by remembering that it’s his 30th birthday. As Rosenkrantz reminds us in a 50-years-later note, this came out one year before Roth’s PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT and mortified her mother.

Related: Judy Berman reviews the book and a (paywalled) NYT profile/interview.

3 curiouser and curiouser not-long novels

Checked out of the library!

Ray Russell’s brisk THE CASE AGAINST SATAN reads like a blueprint for THE EXORCIST. In what may be a coincidence, one character is a Father Halloran, and someone with that name was involved in a 1949 case that allegedly inspired Blatty. Mostly dialogue or argumentative dialectic punctuated with grotesque moments. As an example of the author’s careful construction, a lengthy passage on “dung” might make us think he’s avoiding the word “shit,” and he is, but only so he can later use it to maximum effect in a single moment when it has the whole paragraph to itself. The argument carefully leaves itself ambiguous as it exposes what must have seemed especially shocking elements in 1962, but although the main priest states at the end that all the elements could have a rational explanation, he forgets to mention the catapulting against the wall and that fact that three people had to pry the victim off. The ingeniously handled climax tosses in a quick whodunit.

If Ursula Le Guin’s THE LATHE OF HEAVEN has a continual shifting of reality superficially similar to Philip K. Dick, the earlier CITY OF ILLUSIONS is an onion-peeler that keeps redefining what we should believe before revealing its final truth. The amnesiac lynx-eyed alien hero, who awakes naked and frantic in a forest and makes his way across a North America of a few millennia in the future, might foreshadow other amnesiac heroes like in Silverberg’s LORD VALENTINE’S CASTLE. A romantic picaresque full of vivid scenes, basic characters, shifts of setting that keeps a tight grip on the hero’s perspective even at his most confused. The fortuitous ending is based on tremendous mental powers and the ability to maintain two identities in one’s brain.

Barbara Comyns’ THE JUNIPER TREE, named after a Grimm tale, has a deadpan “naive” female narrator (as in the wonderful OUR SPOONS CAME FROM WOOLWORTH’S) calmly unrolling what seems at times like a fairy-tale romance, at times a realistic portrait of a single mother making her way in the world of antiques and junk, at times a casual reportage of tragedies that come out of the blue and are told with the same sense of detail and balance as the happier events. A world of vivid passing characters is conveyed in this rapidly moving tale.

How to live with loss in a science fiction universe

Checked out of the library!

Most of the stories are narrated by lesbians (two of them rock stars), and all are about the consequences of living with things lost: mothers, grandmothers (a nod to Ray Bradbury’s “I Sing the Body Electric”), an arm (the only story with a male protagonist), a husband (the story about a straight couple), an imaginary daughter (a nod to John Wyndham’s MIDWICH CUCKOOS, and this is one of two stories about sirens on rocks), a viable world. Two stories submerge the pulp adventure to a distant undiscussed memory that still has repercussions. One Stevensonian tale that’s really about self-acceptance is told by what used to be called a hermaphrodite and now is called intersex.

The last two stories are the funniest and most brilliant: “The Narwhal” (the only story not previously published) is about a road trip in a supercar shaped like a whale. “And Then There Were (N-One)” nods to Agatha Christie in a multiverse conference in which all the attendees are variants of the same person (named Sarah Pinsker, but the narrator isn’t “our” Pinsker who won a Nebula, but she’s there too) and somebody gets murdered. It’s about how we’re never satisfied with our choices, even good ones, and it’s not really a spoiler to say the lady-or-tiger ending is totally appropriate. Compare with Sean Farrell’s time-travel novel MAN IN THE EMPTY SUIT.

“Our Lady of the Open Road”, the least fantastical story here, is the one that won the Nebula, while a whopping four others were nominees–including “(N-One)”, in which the Nebula Award is used as a murder weapon (!) and which was also a Hugo nominee. In short, this book is a one-stop for recently acclaimed stories and a very gentle intro to SF for people who might be nervous about it.

When the honeymoon’s over, baby

NYRB edition, translated by Len Rix, Checked out of the library!

I can easily believe this is among the 20th Century’s most delicate and pleasurable novels, although it feels like a spoiler to call it a comedy and perhaps it’s really not. It’s a human comedy, or humane comedy.

This 1937 Hungarian work, also known as THE TRAVELER and (most literally) THE TRAVELER AND THE MOONLIGHT, is a kind of proto-existential odyssey about a hapless young misfit, chafing at working for his father’s business, who tries to cure his abnormality by marrying a woman who scandalously divorced her rich husband for him, but he semi-accidentally ditches her on the honeymoon for a dreamlike stay in Italy, as though he has Stendhal Syndrome. In a state of inertia marked by restlessness and panic, he reminisces about his youth with insular brother/sister play-acting twins (along with a brash scoundrel and a Jewish scholar who converts to become a Catholic monk) and indulges thoughts of the suicidal death-wish, which he discusses with a bombastic religious/literary Hungarian colleague and a Christian English doctor after a brief affair with a good-natured, gloriously stupid American “art student.” There’s a rich Persian “tiger” and surreal and absurd moments.

Could be accurately yet misleadingly described to sound like a gloomy plod, when in fact it’s funny and surprising, the work of an urbane witty man whose compassion for others, even at his most satirical and jaundiced, is based upon knowing and forgiving himself. Friendship and understanding are major themes, as well as love and gently observed despair. Although touching on grim topics, it wears them with the cosmopolitan irony we associate with Kafka, Kundera and other Eastern Europeans.

It’s a pleasure to be in the presence of this creative generous mind, whose other works include untranslated histories of Hungarian and world literature that make him seem like his country’s Martin Seymour-Smith. Speaking of whom, MSS’ Guide to Mod World Lit doesn’t seem to know this novel but remarks of Szerb’s history of world lit that its author “has been, of course, told off by everyone in the most grudging manner, even while they make use of it.” Szerb has also written a fantasy-thriller, THE PENDRAGON LEGEND. Must track down.

According a German source on Wiki’s page, when Szerb was sent to a labor camp in 1944 for his Jewish origin (though raised a Catholic), he rejected friends’ attempts to get him released on false papers, and that’s why he died there the following year. Let’s pause to think about that.

ALSO: I see more translations are coming.

Michael Barrett is a writer, librarian and critic based in San Antonio. In addition to writing film criticism for Popmatters, Rotten Tomatoes and other national publications, he has published two works of children’s fiction. You can follow his daily posts on his Facebook page (and read a long interview with him on this blog). For the last 10 years he has written a Christmas letter detailing things read and watched for each year. Periodically, his book reports from Facebook are reposted here as “Mike’s Likes.”


2 months of KU for 99 cents …. again!

I’m in the middle of 3 meaty posts which I’ll be publishing very soon. Just wanted to mention the remarkable fact that the Kindle Unlimited (KU) promotion still seems to be working.

I have already signed up twice for this promotion, cancelled before the end of 2 months and signed up again. It still works!

The link is here.

Although the KU titles are more likely to be indie titles than things from major publishers, there’s a lot of interesting stuff.

By the way, I am generally not a fan of Kindle Unlimited or Kindle in general, but what are you going to do?

On another note, I signed up for Kobo and received a $5 ebook voucher for a purchase costing more than $5. For the life of me, I cannot find something in the $5-10 price range. Prices tend to be 10$ and above (undiscounted) or $4 and below (discounted).


Random publishing tips by myself

I post a lot of things on forums and subreddits and social media. Here’s the best of what I’ve posted there over the last year or so.

What I Wish I’d known about ebook publishing:

  1. A book is defined as something which takes no longer than 2 years to write.
  2. Pay for one review in the trades (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, etc) especially for your first book.
  3. Set pub date 3-4 months after it is 100% finished and use the intervening time to find reviewers/beta reviewers.
  4. Focusing all your efforts on Amazon is dangerous. It’s good to sell at least in one place which is DRM-free. (smashwords).
  5. I personally don’t like reading or writing serials, but be prepared for books to be rolled up into and sold as bundles later on.
  6. Every book is different. The way to market every book is different. What works with one author (or one book) is not necessarily going to work for you.
  7. Don’t fixate on the opinions of what beta readers and friends think. Some people obsess about pleasing everyone with their book. Don’t water yourself down just to make Sam or Sally happy.
  8. Recognize that you’re going to waste a percent of your ad budget on things which accomplish nothing.

Finally, and I hate to say that, but 99.9 of the world’s population does not care about books and specifically your book. Don’t let that get you down. (I have more to say about marketing strategies, but I want to see results before I mention them publicly).

How to Format Images on Kindle

In 2016 I spent a few week’s flailing about trying to do custom CSS formatting for an ebook with illustrations. Then I figured out an all-purpose solution which is below. Don’t be distracted by the image-replace-title name of the DIV. (In this case I was simply using an image as a chapter heading, so I used that time; but this trick works for ANY images).

I’ve been using interior images with minimum width 1800 px (although some may think it’s overkill).

It’s not necessary to compress images for your ebooks on the Kindle platform because Kindle will automatically downconvert images to a more practical size for e-ink and smaller mobile devices. Also, if people are downloading an ebook with a larger file size, they usually know to download it when on wifi. I don’t think the customer or the publisher pays extra bandwidth fees if the customer downloads it via wifi.

The key thing is to make the CSS scale the images depending on the device’s dimensions. It’s tricky to do because kindle does not support the max-width css property for images. Instead, I use css media queries for different screen resolutions (i.e breakpoints). Here are the breakpoints I used.

  1. generic styles, for everybody (and for devices which don’t detect media queries)
  2. phone media queries valid for both portrait and landscape: min-width 320px max-width: 767px
  3. phone media queries valid only for landscape 768 to 1500 px landscape (because we assume 2 columns, this is basically the same as Phone/Portrait)
  4. Landscape over 1500px — when 2 columns, this will look the same as portrait 768-1024
  5. 768-1024 portrait — this probably comprises about 60-70% of the devices
  6. 1025-up portrait — future proofing, just in case

Third, use variations of this CSS code inside each media query.

div.image-replace-title {

width: 95%;

margin-left: auto;

margin-right: auto;


div.image-replace-title img {

width: 100%;

display: inline;


By leaving the img width at 100% and varying the width of the div containing the img file, you can approximate the same effect of scaling the image. I put 95% for the most common media queries, and then decreased it to 75% for huge (and I mean HUGE) media queries. The oldest e-ink devices didn’t recognize these media queries, but the rest did. The key thing is that using high quality images to begin with allowed Kindlegen to compress as needed. My images rendered great on the e-ink devices.

Finally, if you don’t know how to do css media queries, the Kindle Publishers Guide has code examples. They basically look like this:

@media only screen

and (min-device-width: 768px)

and (max-device-width: 1500px)

and (orientation: landscape)


your css code here


Pricing Strategies for Ebooks

Here’s my current strategy:

  1. Make an ebook with enough quality content and book size to compete with the majors.
  2. Price it on 2.99 on Amazon. (the lowest price for 70% royalties).
  3. Sell the same ebook on Smashwords .Price it the same as on Amazon and use a PUBLIC COUPON (not a private one) to price it at half of your Amazon price. (In the 1-2 dollar range, royalty percents on Smashwords are quite nice).
  4. Occasionally do spot sales to price the 2.99 ebook in the 1-2 dollar range when running ads on newsletters.

For those who say, it should be higher than 2.99 on Amazon. Ok, maybe 3.99 or possibly 4.99, but I am pelted every day with notices of dozens of high quality titles by known & well-reviewed authors in the 2-3$ price range. Also, a lot of decent Amazon Crossing titles are discounted monthly at 99 cents. I buy lots of titles (and blog about my finds on my Robert’s Roundup ebook deal columns), It’s very rare that I have paid more than $4 for anything….

(I don’t generate a lot of sales from Smashwords — or any sales at all, but using public coupons seems like a no-brainer. The problem with pricing under the 2.99 threshold on Amazon is that it’s harder for ad buys to pay off at 30% and below.)

See also: default Kindle fonts by device and how to hide HTML pages from the ebook’s TOC.


Back in the Saddle (Memorial Day Edition)

Excuse the radio silence here for the last month. A lot has been going on in my life — maybe at some point I’ll go into detail, but not now.

Generally though, my time sucks are behind me, so I’ll be back to blogging and other literary things. Stay tuned!