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 Heartsmoke; GV photo


November 16, 2022

Decades ago when I first moved to California, I found work in an analytic lab in Palo Alto, where I teamed up with a Filipino engineer, Nick. We became fast friends, and I learned a lot about life in Manila. One anecdote sticks in my memory.

"Uh-oh, big election coming back home," Nick said one day.
"Why the Uh-oh?"
"Because every time we have an election, there's lots of shooting, many people killed."

At the time I thought, how lucky we are in the States to have peaceful transfer of power. That belief was tested on January 6, 2021. Reverberations from that event are ongoing. During the 2022 mid-terms, I worried we might see election violence here--especially after a far-right home invader took a hammer and cracked the skull of Speaker Pelosi's husband.

With that notable exception, things have been peaceful, to my relief. It appears the Republicans will just capture the House, and the Senate will remain, just as tenuously, in Democratic hands. A large number of 2020 Republican election deniers (174 and counting), however, were elected to Congress.

In spite of multiple reviews, court judgments, and recounts that failed to show any significant problems with the 2020 election, a huge swath of the U.S. still refuses to acknowledge that Joe Biden won.

This is serious. Notably, many of these same election deniers also deny anthropogenic climate change, the scientificly unquestionable value of vaccines, and other non-evidenced-based beliefs.

"If I don't like it, it must be false."

This kind of thinking is a recipe for disaster. It can only lead to "many people killed."

May 11, 2022

Mid-spring, and life goes on. I still brush our golden's teeth every night--that chicken-flavored toothpaste makes all the difference. Bella puts up with the electric toothbrush, too, a good thing since de-plaquing flesh-cutting carnassials is tough. We learned to label her toothbrush, since it's identical to the brushes the humans in the house use. The poultry flavor also let's you know when you grabbed hers by mistake.

Nothing like a good bike-surf:




April 4, 2022

Sorry not to have written anything in What's New for so long. I've been finishing up yet another novel, STAR MAESTRO, my latest escape from climate change, COVID, and the threat of nuclear war arising from the idiotic Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Here's the pitch: "Yvette Brünhilde and her brother, Bioxby, orphans and musicians in a multi-sensory band, steal a starship to make it in the Galactic Center. When they discover the ship carries twenty-five Procyon assassins in suspended animation, they end up in the midst of an intergalactic war between democratic underdogs and an all-powerful dictatorship."

Here we are, meanwhile, in 2022. These are unsettling times. We have a global climate crisis, evidenced by the latest report from the IPCC, in which researchers from 67 countries outline "a damning indictment of failed climate leadership." In spite of increasing floods, fires, and famines attributed to global warming from anthropogenic CO2, the short-sighted view of most politicians leads to inaction. "Get re-elected" always seems to trump "Do what's right."

As COVID slowly recedes into the rear-view mirror of public consciousness and pent-up travel and consumption demands rise, inflation, boosted by profit-taking from corporations, has the Democratic executive branch of the U.S. on its heels. Car-loving Americans (or, more accurately, pick-up truck and SUV-loving Americans) are quick to blame any rise in gas prices on the president.

Ignoring that the Keystone XL pipeline was not yet operational, the right wing blames the president's cancellation of it as the cause of oil prices rising (a false claim, as per Politifact: https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2021/dec/01/facebook-posts/no-evidence-biden-canceling-oil-pipeline-caused-hi/).

While blaming Biden, many ignore recent record profits from oil mega-corporations. Reading the room, the president is now considering cutting the gasoline tax of 18.3 cents per gallon, when, if anything, he should raise it to decrease demand and prevent more CO2 production. Conveniently, most Republicans and the oil and gas industries that support them still deny human-caused global warming is real.

On top of all this, we have the dictator Vladimir Putin, leader-for-life of a petroleum-based economy. Knowing eastern Ukraine has enough newly-discovered natural gas to fuel much of Europe and steal his power, the despot has launched a cruel lose-lose invasion of democratic Ukraine. His muzzling of independent reportage of the war has been remarkably successful, with the majority of the Russian people believing his lies and supporting the invasion. Of course, with Putin's new fifteen-year prison sentence for calling a war a war--you can hardly blame them. George Orwell had so many things right in 1984.

At present, Russian troops are in retreat, but the threat from shelling and bombs, including nuclear bombs, continues. Russia has become a pariah in the eyes of most of North America and Europe. Economic sanctions cripple Putin's economy. There is no good exit ramp for the dictator, who is alleged now to be guilty of war crimes against Ukrainian civilians. Corpses in recaptured Russian-occupied territories such as Bucha, near Kviv, appear by the dozens, many with hands tied and single bullet wounds to the head. The former 45th U.S. president, however, who never met a dictator he didn't love, continues to praise Putin, calling his invasion "genius" and "savvy."

Other than donating to Ukraine relief groups, to politicians running against supporters of said former 45th president, and to pro-environmental groups, there is not much a lone Californian of a certain age can do in this chaotic world.

What I can do is write. I now am able to devote my full time and attention to writing fiction. I use made-up worlds, made-up names, and made-up situations to tell the truth. I write about the evils of dictatorship and the clumsy benefits of democracy. I write about the unfortunate need, at times, to fight for that democracy against despotic autocrats. And I write about the need to take care of one's planet.

Just because it happens in the year 3200 doesn't mean it is not also true today.

July 4, 2021

Independence Day, and all is not well. There is good news: More than half of Californians have gotten one of the COVID vaccines, and the virus is at bay, here, for now. The Delta variant still lurks, though, and many in the country and world either refuse a vaccine or can't get it. It is not at all clear if the pandemic is done. Yet people are back out and about, and that is wonderful. The economy seems to be righting itself.

The USA remains as divided as ever, though. OK, the cop I wrote about below did not get smashed by a fire extinguisher, as originally reported, but blasted in the face with grizzly spray. One way or another, he and four others died in the January 6 insurrection, a day that shall live in infamy. The GOP is trying mightily to whitewash the events, but most of us cannot and will not forget.

Meanwhile voter suppression, based on phony accounts of fraud but seated in racism and a win-at-all-costs mentality,, has reared its head in hundreds of new state Jim Crow laws. Many provisions inject partisanship into management of elections and enact severe punishments for election officials who make mistakes. Look for chaos in future elections.

As Republican judges and legislatures make it harder to vote, they are making it easier to buy guns. Yay. According to a 3/2021 article in Forbes, more than 20 million assault rifles currently reside in American households. Does that make you feel safe?

Democracy--and domestic peace--was great while we had it.

Meanwhile, in spite of continued denial from the right, the global climate disaster grows. Floods in the SE. Fires in California. Deep freeze in Texas. 121 degrees F in British Columbia. British Columbia! All related to rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Global weirding.

And so we march on to the sea.

And yet...we have a president who does not spew lies like water from a fire hose, who is concerned about more than just himself, and who listens to scientists. A few dying embers of bipartisanship still glow in the House and Senate, although gerrymandering has rendered centrists all but extinct, and made extremists the rule of the day. Still, at least for a few years, we have a leader who, although no spring chicken, is intelligent, competent, and kind. We still have many of our freedoms, although sizeable chunks of the country's population are handicapped by race, poverty, or injustice. Nevertheless, there is much to celebrate.

Happy Fourth!


January 11, 2021

The current week has been excruciating--if not-unexpected. The Democratic Party assumed leadership of the United States, with an over-whelming majority voting for Joe Biden. Democrats retained control of the House and squeaked out a 51-50 win in the Senate (counting VP-elect Harris's tie-breaking vote) after a tense Georgia run-off resulted in twin Democratic victories.

Normally this historic political shift would have dominated the news cycle. But no.

Egged on by loser Donald Trump, members of the far-right stormed the Capitol Building on January 6, smashed through a thin police presence, entered and desecrated the halls, and forced members of Congress to hide in safe rooms. Five people died, one a San Diego QAnon-following woman shot by capitol police while storming through a broken window, one a police officer smashed to death by a mob member wielding a fire extinguisher, one crushed to death by the crowd, and two dying of excitement-induced stroke and heart attack.

The repercussions from this event will last a long time. They must include:

1) Devising a fitting punishment to Trump for what many see as a failed coup.
2) Acknowledging and correcting the unmistakable difference in anti-riot preparation for this widely broadcast insurrection and the summer's Black Lives Matter protests.
3) Prosecution of the members of the mob.
4) Preparation for a continuance of white supremacist violence at upcoming events, including the 1-20-21 inauguration of President Biden.

Meanwhile, the COVID epidemic rages on. Southern California, where I live, is now a major epicenter of the disease. The hospital I have worked at for 34 years has again halted elective surgeries. Vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer are being administrated to health care workers like myself, but the roll-out is slow. ICU beds are stuffed. ICU staff are exhausted.

Did I neglect to mention San Diego has received only 0.5" of rain this season, which is now half over? Climate change, with its never-ending cycle of horrific fires, droughts, floods, and more and more powerful hurricanes, has been relegated to the shadow of the back page behind the flash of explosive current events. The possible end of democracy and an attempted coup d'etat is no small matter. Nor is the fact that hospitals and morgues are over-whelmed by sick COVID patients, with businesses and the economy in shatters from attempts to halt the spread.

Yet almost five percent of California burned last year. Scientists report the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps are melting faster than anticipated, threatening the planet's coasts with dramatic sea-level rise. Permafrost in the Arctic is melting and releasing carbon in a positive feedback loop.

What to do?
Keep calm. Carry on.

We must save democracy and fight authoritarianism--fascist dictatorship--at all costs.
We must use masks, distancing, and vaccines to beat down corona.
We must stop dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, even as we fight nut-case right-wing extremists and spiked-protein viruses.
We can do it. We must.

August 31, 2020

The litany of disasters from the past two years is near Biblical in proportion. The corona virus epidemic, police killings and ensuing protests, hurricane flooding, and horrific fires worldwide all conspire to make one wonder if humanity, especially America, is at some kind of breaking point. While no one disaster can be directly traced to our current leader and his sycophants, his actions and non-actions have clearly inflamed already bad situations.

With 4.25% of the world's population, the U.S. has 21.6% of the world's deaths from the COVID-19 virus as of this writing (data from NY Times and Wikipedia). A large proportion of the country refuses to mask up and keep social distance, following the (lack of) leadership from the president. Rather than calling for Americans to come together in peace and deal with systemic racism, he has inflamed the situation, all but encouraging violence from the Far Right in response to Black Lives Matter protests. As for global warming: he has done everything in his power to roll back environmental protections and squelch any form of encouragement to industry and the public to divest from fossil fuels.

I am not a political person. Yet, in these times, I have forced myself to change. For all the faults of the Democratic party, and there are many, it is still far and away better for our health, our ability to combat racism, and our environment, than the current vestige of the once admirable Republican party and the cult followers of the president, who are blind to his lies, cheating, and refusal to stand up to his apparent puppet master, Vladimir Putin. Has he erupted with anger over possible bounties the CIA warns Russia placed on American soldiers in Afghanistan? Nope. Has he excoriated the Novichok poisoning of yet another Putin opponent, Alexei Navalny? Nope. I could go on and on.

When your president loves dictators and openly says so, Democracy has a problem. When he and his party do everything they can to prevent Americans from voting by crippling the Post Office, curtailing the U.S. Census, and suppressing votes in likely Democratic districts whenever possible, Democracy has a problem. When California, Siberia, the Amazon, and Australia burn up year after year, when ever-larger hurricanes batter the world's coasts, and the government does nothing to abate global warming, not only Democracy, but the human race has a problem.

So, yeah, it's time to get political. The choice is between democracy and autocracy.

VOTE this November as if your life depends on it--for it might.


August 12, 2018

So much ink has been spilled about our current president and his latest outrageous tweet or comment or political snub that I refuse to mention his name. Our climate change denier-in-chief, while gutting the EPA and trying to force California to redact its progressive mileage standards for vehicles, blames everything and everyone under the sun for the Houston flooding, the California fires, and record-breaking sea and land temperatures--except the root cause, anthropogenic dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere. Like lemmings, we drive our internal combustion machines en masse into a rising sea.


April 23, 2017

I've kept silent for many months as the political situation in our fair country has shifted backwards, oh, maybe 100 years. Large corporations have outsourced manufacturing for decades. Why pay a U.S. union worker $30-plus dollars an hour when you can hire good labor in Mexico or China for $1 per hour with no legacy costs? To that add automation (machines work for free!), and the result: the blue collar, lower middle class of our country has taken it on the chin. Rather than blame or address the true causes of their misfortune, these folks, many lacking a college education, have latched onto a racist, sexist demagogue and elected him president.

One of the many, many casualties of this foolish move is the current president and the current Congress's denigration and abnegation of science and all things scientific. Hence, 15,000 of us marched in San Diego, elsewhere in the U.S.A., and all over the world in support of science. There were great slogans: "There is no Planet B." "Equations, not Explosions." "Science is Not an Alternative Fact." There were polar bears pulling melting ice. Mr. Spock arrived from the planet Vulcan, I saw him with my own eyes. Did it do any good? We'll see. Did the woman's march in January do any good? We'll see. Good luck, America!


June 6, 2016

Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

Having recently finished a short story set in multicultural Berkeley, I find myself pondering cultural appropriation. This sociologic term (see also "intersectionality") appears in literature and the media frequently, and revolves around the white Western world's nasty habit of borrowing music, fashion, and, yes, even literary tropes from minorities. Even though any nation or civilization, present or historical, forms a pastiche of various cultures, the United States, because of its history and melting pot tradition, may be even more mongrel than most. Still, it is easy to understand the rage of minority critics when modern day musicians perform in blackface (see Miley Cyrus) or directors cast whites for obvious black, Hispanic, or Asian roles (too many examples to count) or Victoria Secret models don Native American-styled feather war bonnets with leather bra and panties for photo shoots (see Karlie Kloss).

When we immerse ourselves into the ocean of literature, the waters of cultural appropriation turn murky. In 2015, Sherman Alexie, a famous Native American writer, judged the Best American Poetry anthology and published an ironic poem by Michael Derrick Hudson, a white man using an Asian pseudonym (Yi Fen Chou). This set off a major literary brouhaha, with many calls from Asian-American writers to have the honor stripped from the writer, and calls from others to blind judges from authors in such contests and let the poems speak for themselves.

Alexie refused to exclude the work, stating he picked the piece because, well, it was a good poem. In a lengthy explanation, (blog.bestamericanpoetry.com), he wrote that while the race of the author played a definite role in his looking closely at the work, in the end he felt he couldn't back down from his initial, and admittedly subjective, decision. In this case, Hudson appropriated a Chinese name, but the actual work (The Bee, etc.) has a contemporary feel grounded in Western tradition, so one could argue this is an imperfect illustration of the issue. Still, the episode speaks volumes re the passion surrounding the debate.

Arthur Golden's, Memoirs of a Geisha, a 1997 novel made into an Academy Award-winning movie, may be a better example of cultural appropriation in literature. Despite the success of both the book and the movie, Japanese critics such as Kimiko Akita felt the work "treated geisha as an object to be sexualized, exoticized, and romanticized by the West." Given the somewhat salacious topic, this is not unsurprising. The movie, directed by Rob Marshall, used Chinese actors to portray Japanese characters, again resulting in criticism. Yet production notes state it was difficult to get Japanese actresses interested in the production.

Perhaps, then, it is not so much whether a writer dives into another culture, but how he or she does so.

Some years ago an issue of AWP's (Association of Writing Professionals) Writer's Chronicle debated the topic of fiction authors writing about cultures not their own. Many pros and cons were raised, but the comment I best remember was this (and I paraphrase): "If you believe an author cannot write a story set in the point of view of an alternate gender, social class, or race, then you are saying one can only write autobiographical fiction."

Parul Sehgal, an editor for the NY Times Book Review, wrote a thoughtful New York Times Magazine piece in Sept. 29, 2015 entitled, "Is Cultural Appropriation Always Wrong?" In his essay, he quotes the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie, who calls for more appropriation. "The moment you say a male American writer can't write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, Don't tell those stories. Worse, you're saying: As an American male you can't understand a Pakistani woman. She is enigmatic, inscrutable, unknowable. She's other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness. Write them out of your history."

Sehgal goes on to ask, "Can some kinds of appropriation shatter stereotypes? This had been literature's implicit promise: that entering into another's consciousness enlarges our own."

The writer Thomas Bissell goes even farther: "There would be fewer wars if more novelists allowed themselves to imagine themselves into other cultures."

While that notion is certainly debatable, the message for me as a writer is clear. It's OK to climb out of your comfort zone. It's OK to resist the self-censorship of restricting your point of view to whatever your own status might be. In fact, to inject yourself into someone else's brain--someone younger or older, or of a different age, race, culture, historical period, or gender--may be admirable. You and your writing will benefit. You might even help the world become a better place--if you do so with respect and care.


May 30, 2016

Notes on the Jonathans

I met Jonathan Lethem, writer and English professor at Pomona College, at my son Erik's graduation (yeah, Erik! Neuroscience major!). I introduced myself to the author, told him I was a big fan, asked how he went about researching Tourette's for MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, a novel I much enjoyed, and made brief small chat. Nice guy.

I also read a fine work by Jonathan Franzen in The New Yorker today, The End of the End of the World. In it, Franzen describes how he receives an inheritance from his Uncle Walt and spends it on a Lindblad trip to Antarctica with his brother, interspersing musings on family in general and Walt and his aunt in particular. Heartfelt writing, writing that puts humans into nature, writing I found moving and wise. A confession: I tried to read THE CORRECTIONS years ago, even bought the hard copy. For whatever reason, perhaps my own mental state at the time, I made it in about fifty pages and bounced off, never to finish. But this essay, rich with avian imagery and heartfelt human drama, really grabbed me.


April 24, 2016

Bill Finnegan just won the Pulitzer Prize for best biography/authobiography for his fine work, BARBARIAN DAYS: A SURFING LIFE. You go, Bill!


February 21, 2016

The El Nino event has been a bit of a disappointment this winter. Yes, we had a splendid January for rain in SoCal and snow in the Sierras. But...a persistant high has kept local rainfall below average, leaving us wistfully hopeful for a Miracle March. Still, big surf has pounded our coast for months, and the skiing has been sublime. Here's a shot of the boys and I having the time of our lives in January.

And here's a shot of an unkown rider at a local break, the same place where my big-wave gun (on a similarly sized wave) had the temerity to smack me a session-ending blow in the neck:


August 23, 2015

Spent a week with Nick and Erik back-packing in the high Sierras out of Bishop. We set out from South Lake trailhead, tooled up to Saddlerock Lake, and discovered a beautiful campsite. The boys caught their limit of rainbow trout, and we feasted before climbing into our sleeping bags. The next day, up and over Bishop Pass (11,928 feet) to Upper Dusy Basin (pronounced Doozy). Lots of smoke down near Le Conte and Big Pete Meadow, so we stayed at 11,000 feet under the shadow of a pair of fourteeners (Thunderbolt and North Palisade). Did I mention our daily refreshing swim in each lake? Back up over the pass to Bishop Lake and another round of trout fishing (brook). For our finale, we descended toward the roadhead but made an eastern detour to Chocolate Lake, using an all-but hidden trail to make our most scenic camp yet under Cloudripper Peak.

Off the grid! No cell phones, no computers, no e-mail, no cars. Yes! Just mountains, forest, lakes, streams, magpies, fat marmots, and conversation with fellow trekkers. Highly recommended.

August 9, 2015

A hectic summer, and not even close to being done. A concert in Atlanta, solo piano (always a challenge); a trip to the redwoods with my son, Nick; visits from old friends; work, insane with the drama of life and death; and writing, writing, writing. Check out the review on BARBARIAN DAYS, by William Finnegan (full disclosure: he's an old friend). Man Bites Book

May 30

Lots of new reviews now appear in Man Bites Book, most of recent novels, one of a book published a few years back. ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, by Anthony Doerr; THE BURIED GIANT by Kazuo Ishiguro, SUSPENDED SENTENCES by Patrick Modiano, and CUTTING FOR STONE by Abraham Verghese all filled my brain with mastery and evocative imagery. Doerr and Verghese's works, in particular, deserve reading by anyone interested in wonderful literature.


March 27, 2015

Every year in December, Literary Review, a respectied British lit journal, hands out a much anticipated--and much dreaded--literary award. The "Bad Sex in Fiction" prize of 2014 was given to Ben Okri (a Booker winner) for a bit from his book, THE AGE OF MAGIC, a passage complete with rockets going off. I never fail to read up on the "winner" of this award, both for yucks and to warn myself of over-doing such writing myself. Past winners include Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and John Updike (a "lifetime achievement award for Bad Sex in Fiction"), so one may conclude accurately it ain't that easy writing good sex scenes.

I'll never forget a cringe-worthy passage by the otherwise brilliant Ken Follett in his novel, LIES DOWN WITH LIONS. I won't go into the particulars but suffice it to say there was way too much information. Today, having added a necessary sex scene to one of my own novels (OPUS BROOKLYN) I was chagrined upon a re-read to find, shall we say, excessive metaphoric language. I axed a sentence or two, following the best prescription I know for writing such scenes: Less is More. All this would be no big deal, except I'd fired the manuscript off earlier to a publishing professional interested in the work.

Perhaps the more famous and established the writer, the less power editors possess to correct such faux pas. Personally, I would prefer it if Literary Review also gave out a "Good Sex in Fiction" award, maybe in the spring (ha-ha), to counterbalance their negative prize. Perhaps the editors fear the legal results of getting people too excited. Still, such a gesture would be admirable.


January 21, 2015

Sitting too much, it seems, is bad for your health. A January 20 meta-analysis in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a study of 47 previously published articles, came to my attention. If you're a writer or a pianist, the results aren't pretty. If you are both, watch out. You are 1.24 times as likely (Hazard Ratio) to die if you sit too much, according to the report. This is grim news for yours truly.

So, today I converted my computer to a stand-up desk. Nothing to it, just a matter of rearranging furniture. Feels great. My feet ache, of course, and the veins in my legs are now lined with blood clots, but hey, I'm standing. I am no longer 1.24 times closer to pushing up daisies. Maybe 1. 2, since I gotta figure out how to raise a thousand pound piano. I'll need some lumber for that job.

On another topic: My son, Erik, returned from his fall semester abroad. He traveled to New Zealand by way of Fiji, then came home by way of Australia and Tahiti. Smart boy.

Here he is in Port Douglas, North Australia, getting clawed by a koala:

January 11, 2015

Whenever it is "a damp, drizzly November in my soul," when some turn to drink, others to football, me, I turn to Calvin and Hobbes. Just finished THE REVENGE OF THE BABY SAT, an anthology my two boys (aged 17 and 21) pulled out of the stacks and were perusing. Now there is no finer elixir for Melville's lament, except, of course, going to sea on the Pequod or (in my case) going surfing. So, yesterday, after a dismal all-nighter at the hospital, I did both.

What is it about Bill Watterson's comics? Calvin is rotten, irremediably rotten, bad to the six-year-old bone, yet so lovable. And his stuffed tiger, Hobbs, plays the perfect straight-cat, the side-kick to our hero-kid's zany adventures. Whether threatening to flush baby-sitter Roselyn's homework down the toilet, careening down a hill on a toboggan, or driving his mother crazy (short trip), Calvin makes you laugh, makes you forget your cares, and makes you glad to be alive.

After ten years, Watterson felt the story had run its course and hung up his pen and watercolors. Man, do I miss reading a fresh C & H in the paper. There are some good funnies today: Dilbert, Doonesbury, Get Fuzzy, Crankshaft, Bizarro, etc., etc., all strips I read as an antidote each morning to the combined assault of the national, local, and business sections. Yet none hold a candle to Calvin and Hobbs (or Gary Larson's Far Side) for that perfect blend of sick humor, topicality, natural wisdom, and humanism.

If they can still run old Peanuts strips (nothing wrong with that), why can't newspapers run some oldies with my little rotten buddy, Calvin?


January 1, 2015

Another year done, and a new one to come. A time to take stock of the past, and to look forward--or brace oneself--for the future.
Globally, more and more humans swamp the planet. The latest projections from population researchers, as published recently in Scientific American (11/18/14), show human populations not leveling off at around 9 billion by 2100 as previously hoped, but soaring instead to 11 billion or more. Most of this growth will take place in Africa. Meanwhile, the London Zoological Society (ZSL) published a report (9/30/14) stating wildlife populations on Earth, overall, have decreased by an average of 52% in the past 40 years.

Hmmm, perhaps a connection exists between those two...that troublesome concept, ecologic carrying capacity.


October 15, 2014

Mona Golabek is a pianist, and not just any pianist, but a Steinway Artist who has concertized with major orchestras. She is also an actress of extraordinary ability who just finished a five week run of the one-woman/one-musician play, THE PIANIST ON WILLESDEN LANE, here in San Diego. Diane and I felt lucky to see the final show this past weekend. The play documents the history of Golabek's mother, Lisa Jura, also an amazing pianist, who was sent to Britain alone via Kinderstransport from Germany as a young teen in 1938. Tens of thousands of Jewish refugees, all children, were granted asylum by the English during these dark years. Lisa's parents perished at Auschwitz.

The play combines this alternately heart-breaking and heart-warming story with solo piano pieces performed by Ms. Golabek. The combination of Ms. Golabek's musicality and acting is devastatingly effective, making the show one of the most moving works of art I have ever seen. The work has played off-Broadway in NYC, in Chicago, in Berkeley, and here in San Diego. If you are lucky enough to get the chance to see it sometime, or if it plays on TV or in the cinema in the future, move heaven and earth to get there. The mix of music, drama, and personal and world history is incredibly potent and not to be missed. We shall never forget this wonderful 90 minutes of pianism and theatrical brilliance.

Bravo, Mona!


September 6, 2014

Three profound quotes on writing from the NY Times Book Review this week ( the 9/7/2014 issue):

From Matthew Thomas, author of a debut novel, "WE ARE NOT OURSELVES," signed to a seven-figure advance (!!), a guy who finished not one but two MFA's in writing and taught high school English in NYC: "Workshop is productive in insisting that you look at your flaws and hold your work to a high standard, but I think it serves its purpose and then you have to move on." Re time spent alone writing his novel: "I learned not to look away at the moment when I should be paying the most attention," he said." The closer I got to the heart of a scene, to the really difficult material to write, the emotionally challenging stuff or the exchange in which the conflict is made most explicit, the more I'd look for a way out of writing it. This was out of fear, obviously..."

From an interview with Ken Follett, author of THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH (one of my favorite books of all time, a work that has sold 23 million copies): Asked about the key to a great thriller, Follett replies: "A thriller is always about people in danger. The key is to make the reader share the hero's anxiety...to get the reader to feel the emotions of the characters."

And last, from William Giraldi, author of HOLD THE DARK, and fiction editor of Agni: "Every book lives or dies by its language."


August 31, 2014

CHEF, a delightful truffle of a movie, filled our cinematic appetites last night. Jon Favreau wrote, directed, and starred in the movie, and I can't say enough good things about it. Sure, it's the movies. All the men are handsome (well, Jon is sorta chunky but in a handsome way), the women are gorgeous (Sofia Vergara and Scarlett Johanssen), and the children above average (Emjay Anthony plays a sweet computer-nerd chef-son).
What really struck me about this film is what wasn't in it. There is a road trip without a chase sequence, just fun scenes in New Orleans and Austin that charmed without leaving a cloying aftertaste. The bits in the LA restaurant at the beginning (Dustin Hoffman plays the clueless owner who forces our hero to quit his chef job and run a food truck) rang true without a single fist fight or shootout.

Did I mention the cinematography? It ain't easy filming food, but the dishes Jon whips up are visually tantalizing.
If you haven't yet devoured this tasty flick, put on your napkin and tuck in. You won't be disappointed.

June 5, 2014

I spent three days at a chamber music master class with Janet White and Wendy Loeb at SDSU this past weekend. We played 6-8 hours per day, honing our skills on the Brahms Op. 87 C Major Trio, and getting wonderful tips from our coaches: the Hausmann Quartet (Isaac Allen, Guillaume Pirard, Alex Greenbaum, and Angela Choong), Peter Wiley, Ida Kavafian, and Anne-Marie McDermott. Of course, the concerts given by the above as part of the weekend were even better.

Here's a photo by Cliff Thrasher (of the SD Opera) of our trio paying close attention in a master class with Ms. Kavafian:


May 20, 2014

All these deaths! The circle of life must wind its merciless way. So, now Gabriel Garcia Marquez. My son, Nick, just finished ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, and I skimmed through it, having read it twice before. LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA and THE GENERAL IN HIS LABYRINTH are two other favorites. Magic realism--what a great synthesis, what a fascinating mode of writing. As Peter Saccio, Princeton Shakespearean, reminds us, "The purpose of Art is not Realism. Realism is merely a technique..."

A-ha, all you realists out there, take note. One can add a bit of magic or whimsy or whatever to one's fiction...as Marquez did so well, and something wonderful may well happen. There is so much to learn and re-learn about the human condition in that wonderful town of Macondo, where strange events in the city of mirrors really do reflect the world.

An aside--a guilty pleasure, on the death of a literary hero--so many fine eulogies and interviews published, such a treasure trove of reading in newspapers, magazines, and the 'Net. Ah, Gabe, you crusty ol' Columbian/Mexican Nobel laureate, you live on, along with Peter Matthiesen and Papa Hemingway and all the other immortals.


April 6, 2014

Recently two of my literary heroes died. Today I read in the NY Times of the death of Peter Matthiessen, author of THE SNOW LEOPARD, SHADOW COUNTRY, IN THE SPIRIT OF CRAZY HORSE, and many other wonderful books. He is one author whose work I sought out, ordering even obscure works like BLUE MERIDIAN. I missed reading very few of his many publications. About ten years ago I attended a lecture of his at UCSD and left entertained and in awe.

OK, like all of us, he wasn't perfect.

There's that CIA business in the fifties, founding Paris Review as a cover, etc. But those were different times, and the CIA a different organization than it is now.

There was his revision and compression of the Watson Trilogy (SHADOW COUNTRY), that won a National Book Award. Having slogged through the three original books, I agreed with Matthiessen's assessment years later that he needed to edit and cut and chop like crazy. I'm sure SHADOW COUNTRY was a great book, there were too many amazing moments in the three tomes for it not to have been. Still, that was one I decided not to read.
There were so many other great books, though. WILDLIFE IN AMERICA, for starters. A factual recounting of what things were like in our country before the European invasion, this book was a true eye-opener. AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD: dark doings in the Amazon. I couldn't put that one down. The movie was pretty good, as well, faithful to the book, although it tanked at the box office. SNOW LEOPARD: ostensibly a book detailing the biological adventures of George Schaller, the work really was about grief and suffering after the loss of a loved one. I could go on. THE TREE WHERE MAN WAS BORN: PM's take on Africa. UNDER THE MOUNTAIN WALL: New Guinea tribesmen at war. PM was there. FAR TORTUGA: you will taste, mon, the true flavor of the Caribbean.

If you want to read about nature, and really be there, if you want to read amazingly lyrical depictions of wildlife and landscape and to discover poetic notes on the interactions of humans in those landscapes, read Peter Matthiessen. I don't know if he ever wrote a clunker, for in both his fiction and non-fiction, I never read a book I didn't marvel upon. RIP, Peter.

My second hero was not as prolific or as famous as Matthiessen. Jonathan Schell, author of THE FATE OF THE EARTH, took on the heaviest, most depressing, and most important problem facing modern civilization: nuclear weapons and nuclear war. FATE was published in 1982, when Reagan was at his extreme right-wing, arms-rattling stage. The book outlined very clearly the cruel outcome of a nuclear war, including the inevitable nuclear winter it would engender, with resulting crop failures and famines for many years.

Schell's death came just as Russian troops invaded Crimea last month, and worldwide fears of Cold War revival sparked once again among all of us. I'll never forget the warnings we received in grade school about what to do in case of nuclear attack: hide under your desk, keep your eyes shut, etc. Even at age 11, when the Cuban Missile Crisis was ongoing and the US and the Soviet Union were at hair trigger, holding hostage humanity, I and my classmates, mere children, knew nothing was going to save us. That was when I realized adults were really incompetent idiots.

Unfortunately, in 2014, not a damn thing has changed. Over 10,000 nuclear weapons remain extant, with most owned by Russia and the U.S., their warheads totaling 11,425 megatons (million tons of TNT). With seven billion humans, that comes to, roughly, well over a ton of TNT-equivalent explosive per capita, enough to destroy each man, woman, and child on earth multiple times over. And that is without factoring in fallout and nuclear winter.

One would hate to think of the wildlife and plant life destroyed, as well.

It's more than depressing. It's ridiculous.

"Humans think they are smarter than dolphins because we build cars and buildings and start wars, etc., and all that dolphins do is swim in the water, eat fish, and play around. Dolphins believe that they are smarter for exactly the same reasons." Douglas Adams (1952-2001)


February 23, 2014

Yikes. A new year, and not just that, but another winter Olympics done tonight. It's hard not to have mixed feelings watching the athletes, many laboring in obscurity for four years, and then Bang, on stage to the world. Our central link to the festivities, NBC TV, caters to a certain denominator, plugging the usual jingoist, nationalist angle, asking countless athletes about the recent death of a loved one and how it affected their performance (enough, already!). The newspapers do something similar, listing national medal counts daily, as if it's all about countries battling as in some giant board game, rather than individuals striving and performing. For every medal won, dozens of athletes from all countries will go home with nothing but memories.

And yet...there will be memories. To watch Ted Ligety blaze his way to a GS alpine victory was beyond words. Ditto watching little Yulia from Russia skate flawlessly in the team event, and then fall, fall, fall in the solo. The downhill--ostensible sane men and women throwing themselves down the mountain at ridiculous speeds. I never tire of watching that one, distantly remembering my buddy Gary Larson skiing downhill at Lutsen in high school--even then, guys were averaging 60 mph. This is not safe, I'm sorry. Nor is the skeleton, or the luge, or even the speed skating.

There must be a million dramas, a million comedies, a million tragedies, that arise from every Olympics. The Jamaican bobsledders running cool once again, after a long hiatus, the Swedish cross-country skier, Charlotte Karra, coming from way, way behind (well, 25 seconds) to take the gold in the woman's relay, the 17 yo woman's slalom sensation, Mikaela Shiffrin, the usual figure skating judging snafu, Adelina Sotnikova skating her way to the gold, winning on muscular points over the graceful Yuna Kim.

And then, of course, there were the hidden dramas, the homes razed and Sochi families uprooted to make way for the new roads and buildings. You can't make an omelet without cracking an egg, or so Joe Stalin said, and perhaps nothing really changes in Russia.

It sure beats a world war, I guess. Do the Olympics defuse international tension or add to it? Does an Olympics help solve global warming, or just make it worse with all the plane flights in and out? Do Olympics help the inevitable stresses cramming seven billion humans onto a finite world create?

Dunno. But I still like the winter Olympics, and I'll be watching the events again four years from now, when it takes place in South Korea--if I'm still alive.


December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas and Season's Greetings. Went for a tennis game, followed by a two-hour surf session, all with my son, Erik, on his 20th birthday. Yikes. Hard to keep up with youth. Beautiful day.

December 16, 2013

I've been listening to the new Sting album, THE LAST SHIP, and am having trouble turning the damnable thing off. These are the songs that will go in the eponymous musical opening in Chicago this summer; THE LAST SHIP will then move on to Broadway in the fall. Without exception, the lyrics have transcended mere pop and occupy a space somewhere near Bob Dylan and Seamus Heaney territory. The music is understated, full of English folk influence, and immaculately done, as one would expect from a musician of this caliber. But it is the poetry, pure and simple, that makes this album irresistible. Using the mordant metaphor of "a last ship sailing," Sting explores death, love, class struggles, and father-son and husband-wife relationships. And--he does it with great passion, soul, economy, and wit. None of the songs will, most likely, ever make it on the radio. But--they are exquisite.
The opening title track anthem, with a reprise at the finale, is hair-raisingly powerful, especially with Sting (ne Gordon Sumner) taking on the brogue of his Wallsend, NE England upbringing. No phony American accent here. The next track, "Dead Man's Boots", sets the stage for the rebellious youthful protagonist and his father. The third track, traditionally the one most pop musicians hope will make the radio, "And Yet", has lines that do not leave your brain. It's jazz infused and a bit less folky than the others. I could go on, track by track, but suffice it to say the quality in all of the songs is high. "The Ballad of the Great Eastern" is particularly fine, as is "So to Speak," perhaps the deepest track on the album.

Will the play be a success? I cannot say. But the album is wonderful.

On another subject: My as-yet unpublished novel, OPUS BROOKLYN, was a finalist in the Faulkner-Wisdom novel contest, one of 13 finalists out of 362 entries. Deborah Grosvenor was the judge.


October 11, 2013

Hurray! Nobel lit prize goes to Alice Munro. Congrats, Alice.

I'd better get on it and read her latest. For now, here's a review from the past:

I picked up a copy of a woman whose work I love, Alice Munro. Strangely, because I am a faithful New Yorker reader, I found I've already read each and every last damn story in TOO MUCH HAPPINESS. This proved not to be a bad thing, as re-reading fine works helps you understand subtle nuances in the writing you missed before, not to mention craft details. Munro's stories contain twists that seem, well--and this is hard to write without sounding chauvinistic--macho with a feminist leavening, similar to that side of Flannery O'Connor that helped her create the Misfit. Take the first story, "Dimensions." It's the tale of a young woman visiting her husband, who is locked up forever--for murdering their three children. Yikes. This is heavy stuff. Yet Munro develops a lightness of being in her lead character that pervades this dark subject, enabling her to explore it without turning the reader away.

In another odd story, "Wenlock Edge," a college girl gets invited to dinner with her roommate's older, rich male friend--who insists she take off her clothes before dinner and remain naked for the duration of the evening. Munro makes this peculiar idea (if I were more Ivy league I'd say "conceit") seem rational in its dirty-old-man way. Of course, the author is too smart not to know the story turns on the girl's disgust with herself at putting up with the request.
The very best writers figure out a way to jump the male-female divide and cover the territory on both sides. Munro certainly is one of them. Thank you, Canada, for giving us yet another fine writer. (1/24/10)


Sept. 8, 2013

Saw a pod of blue whales today about a mile past the kelp beds. Their spout hangs in the air for four or five seconds, then dissipates. Beautiful. Always good to know the world's biggest creature--ever--is still around.

September 2, 2013

The Late August of Late Deceased pianists and writers. After Elmore Leonard, Seamus Heaney passed. I shall forever love his poem, "Scaffolding." If you don't know it, look it up. So short, so sweet, so full of love.


And then, as if that was not enough--Cedar Walton died, too. Saw him once at the Summer House Inn, La Jolla. Smoothest jazz pianist I ever heard, velvet touch, his playing sliding down like cognac, winding solos making perfect sense, in the pocket with bass and drums. Ach.
The music is there, and then it's gone.


August 21, 2013

Elmore Leonard died. Que lastima. I'll always remember his rules of writing (a few of which I break now and then, but, hey, you've gotta know the rules before you break 'em):
1. Never open a book with weather (broke that one once, had a reason).
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue (this one I rarely, if ever, break).
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said," (ditto).
5. Keep exclamation points under control. Two or three per 100,000 words. (The !!! is so over used nowadays, what with texting and all. It's almost as bad as using the word, "awesome.")
6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
7. Use regional dialect or patois sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.

Leonard's summary rule: "If it sound likes writing, rewrite it."
(Excerpted from the NY Times article (which I heartily recommend): "Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points, and Especially Hooptedoodle" NY Times, July 16, 2011).


August 20, 2013

A recent review of NORTHERN LIBERTIES in the Philadelphia Review of Books:



August 19, 2013

An inveterate New Yorker reader for 25 years, I have followed Atul Gawande's work with some interest. His latest piece, "Slow Ideas," in the July 29 issue, discussed how teams of health workers have worked on changing ingrained attitudes in Africa, in an effort to save lives from diarrhea, child-birth, and a host of other life-threatening occurences. The article inspired a response on my part, and the letters editor, after some editing, printed it.


Hey, it's a miniscule foray into New Yorkerdom. I'll take it.


June 22, 2013

Regarding my book review section, Man Bites Book:
Should a reviewer publish negative reviews as a service to readers? This is a hard one for me as a writer. I know how much I've worked on my own writing, from researching, to studying craft, to attending seminars, to first drafts and re-writing, to soliciting readers and their criticisms, and I find it hard to be critical of others. Yet what if other writers don't put in the work required and toss junk out there? What if they have a great platform (a TV show, a movie persona, celebrity), and get through the "gatekeepers" based solely on that?

Bottom line, I'm re-thinking my policy of early-on tossing and ignoring bad books I've stumbled upon. If you have any thoughts or comments on this, please send them to forum@gvanstrum.com.


June 3, 2013

Some good quotes from Anu Garg's wordsmith.org:

"The cure for anything is salt water -- sweat, tears, or the sea."
Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) 1885-1962

"Since my house burned down
I now own a better view
of the rising moon."
Mizuta Masahide 1657-1723



Working on a screen play, a rom-com with Larry Pollack. The log-line:
"A computer nerd has three months to marry a beautiful Trazakhstani with a secret. You can't hurry love, though, you can only let it happen: FIANCE VISA."
Stay tuned.


Albert Camus is oft quoted, saying, "Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth." Some digging in Francophone websites shows the original saying to be a bit different, including a lovely metaphor:
"La verite, comme la lumiere, aveugle. Le mensonge, au contraire, est un beau crepuscule qui met chaque objet en valeur." This, roughly, and crudely, translates to "The truth, like light, can blind. The lie, on the other hand, is a beautiful twilight that shows the value of each object."


Won third place in a lit contest, the SLS. I wrote a series of short stories a while back, all based on strange photos from my collection (see "Heartsmoke," above). One of them was inspired by an image from Kenya of a Maasai woman striding across the savanna as a trio of wildebeest dash in the opposite direction :


A writer I respect, Mary Gaitskill, was the fiction judge for the contest and the primary reason I sent in the piece to SLS. She writes fearless work that explores dark corners of the human condition without judgment or moralizing. Here's a quote from Gaitskill on form and formlessness in a BOMB interview from 2009:
"Music is a part of it. Music is a form that tends to give shape to rules, social mores, social attitudes, feelings--it does this in a very beautiful, fluid way..."
I can relate to this notion.
And thanks, MG, for liking my story!

Valentine's Day! A week off...with my lovely wife, Diane, good waves, lots of music, writing. Life is good. What a joy to be alive, to be happily married, to have our good health. Peaceful, but wonderful. Like that Louis Armstrong song (the song not turning to treacle, of course, because of Louis' gravelly voice and phrasing). Wouldn't change my life for the world. Anyhow, one has fiction for all kinds of crazy, dysfunctional living.

Co-wrote a novel-based screenplay with Larry Pollack, we've gone back to OPUS BROOKLYN as the title. Log line:
"A young psychiatrist, ignoring her lecherous director, brings three musician/patients together, and learns that the deeper the madness, the sweeter the music. OPUS BROOKLYN. It's making the rounds...
Music-wise, just gave a piano trio concert with Roy Bak and Janet White. See Vanstrum/Bak/White trio on You-tube.

A buddy of mine has been writing screenplays; he read my latest ms, OPUS BROOKLYN, along with his wife, and urged me to write a screenplay based on the story. So...like the nerd I am, I dutifully read three fine screenwriting books (reviewed in Man Bites Book), wrote my log-line (25 words or less), ordered a dozen movies to study ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Shine," "Shutter Island," "Music of the Heart," to name a few), wrote out 40 index cards with scenes, figured out my breaks into Acts 2 and 3, my mid-point, my opening and closing book ends, and now, finally, NOW...am writing the 110-page, brad-bound, three-hole, mother-jumper.
Yikes! I will soon be able to join the ranks of the Southern California screenwriters, of which there are multiple millions.
I'm on page 25, just finished the first act. And you know what? It's great, rollicking fun. A new genre. Action, sound, dialogue -- that's it. No deep introspection into your characters' heads. Nope. But -- if you love subtext, devious dialogue, short, active-mode sentences, you'll see what a blast it is. So...look for a major motion picture coming to a theatre near you soon.
Concert alert times two. La Jolla Library, Sunday, 2:00 p.m., October 21, 2012, Violin/Piano duos with Roy Bak, works by Handel, Martinu, Schubert, and Dvorak. Carlsbad Library, Schulman Auditorium, Sunday, 2:00 p.m., October 28, repeat performance: Violin/Piano duos with Roy Bak, works by Handel, Martinu, Schubert, and Dvorak.

Greetings, fellow Earthlings. The novel, OPUS BROOKLYN, is more or less done. Colleagues and friends are reading it now. There will be blood, of course, and revisions, but the author, at least, is coming up for air, fixing a broken computer, painting the stairs, surfing, and doing other mundane activates.
Sent my eldest off to college--that's hard, don't care what you say, hard on our son and hard on us. But, the dude keeps in touch, and not just to ask for things. We are blessed.
So...look for a new travelogue (Los Cabo) in Surf News, also some new concert listings in the piano section.

Just got back from Brooklyn, New York, a borough I've grown fond of, and not just because my latest novel is set there.
Some impressions: hot days, hot nights, lots of bicycles, bicycle lanes now, many obstructed with double-parked utility vans; a sudden burst of rain, tropical rain, like in Hawaii; lunch at a Mexican burrito shop--every bit as good as Mex food in San Diego; lots of long-limbed girls in cute dresses striding up and down the streets with mean don't-mess-with-me looks; long runs in the morning to DUMBO, into Manhattan (corporate hell) on the Brooklyn Bridge and back; jogging past a drunk passed out in the sun in front of a deli near BAM; reading the new Onion (comes out on Thursdays, free at the newsstand on the corner of Smith and Atlantic): ELECTION TO COME DOWN TO A FEW KEY SWING CORPORATIONS...
Brain bending literary seminar; Dan Chaon skyping us about AWAIT YOUR REPLY, his latest novel, soon to be a film; writing mind-altering exercises, yes, Josh, they work; subway-ride exercise--only one person missed her stop and rode the train to the end of the line and back...warm friendships renewed; dozens of new books to read, new authors to investigate, multiple ideas to incorporate in my own writing...thank you, Josh.
Deli lunches, superb pastrami; Josh gets his bike--and Sophie's--stolen, cable sliced clean and neat...even a U-lock won't stop 'em with their hand-held, battery-powered saws--the city can get ugly; talked to an ER doc getting off her shift at Downstate..."It was a zoo last night, a real zoo..." back to my watering hole, 61 Bergen, for a cold beer and a garden salad...car alarms in the night, whoooop, whoooop, ear plugs, gotta have 'em...
Subway rides to Kingsboro Psychiatric Hospital, subway ride to Rockaway (reconnaissance missions for the book), sketches of people, all shapes, colors, sizes, and ages, sign in subway car: "493 people fell in front of NYC trains in 2011, 148 died--STAND BACK!"; dinner with delicious dumplings and eggplant at Joe's Shanghai in Chinatown with Josh, Peter, Paulette, and Sophie; practicing at the Brooklyn Conservatory every evening, all the pianos tuned and decent, no time to get to Steinway Hall this year...ah, New York, hard not to love ya...running up and down the streets in the cool mornings, walking in the evenings, cicadas in the Brooklyn trees--yes, there are trees in Brooklyn, lots of 'em...

Photo: Peter Schilling


This just in: Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way will collide, with catastrophic results. I kid you not, I read it in Science News, July 14, 2012, p. 10. "New observations from the Hubble Space Telescope show...the cosmic collision will transform the heavens into a hallucinogenic swirl...the sun will be tossed out during this galactic mash-up..."

Here we are, worrying about mundane details like the upcoming 2012 election, the London Olympics, the effect of sugar drinks on obesity, and we're about to have a head-on between our own galaxy and some nut-case bunch of stars driving a kind of celestial Hum-vee. I'm just saying...
True, it won't happen for four billion years, but THAT'S NOT THE POINT. It's gonna happen, and who knows what the consequences might be. So, what the hell. Go to your neighborhood bookstore and splurge. Or, buy an e-reader and a few books. You've got nothing to lose.

The Higgs bozo! Now, if that ain't news, what is? 6,000 scientists around the world have found evidence of the existenc

e of this bizarre and all universe-matter-enabling clown of a particle. Now, if you can't get excited about that, what can you get excited about?
I always felt the math behind the bozo was oblivious, but now we have the real deal. Check out the following website for a cogent, 3-minute explanation of the Higgs, the Higgs field, it's relation to the weak nuclear force, how it may prevent a black hole from sucking up the world economy, how it will stop the sun from exploding into a super-nova and frying us all to a crisp, and how it just may end e-mail spam forever (amid other fascinating details):

http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/07/05/12583436-the higgs-boson-explained-in-just-a-bit-more-than-a-minute



Sorry for the long hiatus--always seems to happen when I'm deep in novel. I must share a dog adventure, though, from yesterday--Andrew the piano tuner came to tune our new Yamaha C7 (yup, it's a beauty, 1982, barely played, seven-foot-four concert grand). Teddy, our golden, got so excited by his visit that he grabbed the first thing he could find to put in is mouth (something goldens do), namely, an Albuterol inhaler one of the kids left on a counter.
There was a faint "pop" and Nick grabbed the thing out of his mouth, a tooth hole gaping in the side. Hmmm. Busy talking to Andrew about the intricacies of tuning concert grands, giving the treble a sharp lift and other esoteric matters, I quickly forgot about the incident.
An hour later, Diane called me to look at Teddy, who was lying on the floor with a heart rate of 150. Hello, Vanstrum, but where is you brain? Teddy had been a bit sick the last two days, threw up several times, and we tried but failed to forget our last golden, Hudson, who died of cancer with similar symptoms before his fifth birthday.
So, a call to the vet, an appt that afternoon, and off to go surfing for an hour. Nothing like breaking your board in fifteen foot surf to erase any thoughts from your mind about land-locked activities.
At the vets, a mystery. Fast heart! Low potassium! High glucose! Negative x-rays! Extreme lethargy! $700, please. The vet wanted us to admit him to the pet hospital and get an internal medicine vet specialist to figure it out, start him on an i.v., and spend seven thousand.
After a long discussion with Diane, we said, "no." We knew it was a toxin of some sort, got some potassium into him, and planned to ride it out at home. Then Nick called and reminded us about the albuterol.
DUH! Case solved. Some propanolol down the hatch (mixed with peanut butter) and Teddy is cured by morning. The Internet is full of stories like this--dogs love to chew albuterol inhalers. Go figure.

A tip, something I've been getting daily now for several weeks: "A Word A Day" by Anu Garg.
He sends you a new vocab word, Mon-Fri, and on Saturday, a number of letters from readers across the English-speaking world discussing the words, reinforcing your weeks learning. Nice to get e-mail with educational value, and no hard-sell or hype. In this stochastic world, filled with damascene ornamentation and sybaritic indulgences, what a joy to infuse the ol' frontal lobe with some fresh verbiage.


While we're at it, here's a bit of Tennyson inscribed on the wall of Auckland International Airport:

"For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales.."

Check out the 2012 surf reports for some big wave action.
And: another six-worder from Chris. (He's got the idea, people).
"Spouse abused. Resolution failed. New address."

We have a winner! Well, it's in first place. Still time for more entries, but this one is very good for an election year:
"Politicians talk. People fooled. Nothing changes."
Chris Milbank

Six Word Short Story Contest: Rumored to have been started by Ernest Hemingway, on a bet that he could write a complete short story in a restaurant on a napkin (but may have originated in John deGroot's one-man play, Papa):
"For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn."
How about Michael Pollan's lengthy diatribe on healthy eating?
"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
Six words, Michael. Please. Not seven. Maybe cut the "too"?
Here are my humble offerings:
"Surf daily. Or swim. Smile follows."
"Play music. Every day. Feed soul."
And, finally:
"Read books. All kinds. Flex brain."
Got one? Send to forum@gvanstrum.com. Winner will get a free e-book!

Many writers think it's bad luck to discuss new work. I've never been the superstitious type and am excited about a new project. I can't share much, but the following will out: It's a music novel, the working title is Opus 1, No. 3, and it's about a trio of musicians who all have serious mental illnesses. Sort of a Cuckoo's Nest on Beethoven and Halidol. We'll see.
What is this compunction to write all about? David Mamet notes that those of us with the disease create new works (and forgive me, David, if I misquote you) "to resolve the terrible contradiction between our conscious and unconscious selves."

We survived another solstice. The days grow longer, and now, in the heart of winter, maybe we'll get an epic north swell, cold bombs in the fifteen-foot range sweeping down from Alaska, giant walls of ice-water mansions, walls for drawing epic lines and frozen memories. There's always hope. At present, though, my surfin' guns are sitting in the garage, gathering dust.

The surf is up, the water is cold, e-books are out there, and we gave another concert. Pretty busy for a November. I took the train up to Santa Ana yesterday--during a 50 mph Santa Ana wind, to see a beautiful piano. Read some, worked some, snoozed some, all on the train. Now, I don't know about you, but for me it sure beats driving. If...and sometimes it's a big if...you don't need a car when you get there. The Southern California dilemma. Thank Firestone and the other automotive businesses for buying and shutting down the Red Line in the 40's. A bit of California lore, and one of many reasons why we have no mass transit.

Against all odds, the Nobel prize for 2011 went to: Not Bob Dylan (the five-to-one favorite in British betting circles) but to........Tomas Transtromer, Sweden's greatest poet. Hey, I've read some of his work. It's damn good, sort of a Swedish Seamus Heaney, lots of cold, dark imagery, stark landscapes...thoughtful. Soulful. In the spirit of supporting my ancestors back in Svenska land, I have ordered up a few of his works (in English, OK, OK, I know I should speak Svenska, but hey, the Spanish we use daily here in SoCal kinda pushed that project onto the back burner). Look for some new review
in Man Bites Book.



Played a concert Sunday at the LJ Library, 80-100 in the audience. Roy and I did OK, of course we played it better during rehearsal, but the performance had some moments. That Brahms D minor is one handful of notes. Meanwhile, the novel Humboldt is now up on Kindle, and soon to go out via Smashwords on the rest of the e-book platforms. First rain of the season, blue whales at Seawind, and we're all getting ready for the swells of November, if they come early...

New page alert: Piano News, news of upcoming concerts, current repertoire, etc. Check it out.



Roy and I flew to Atlanta to give a piano/violin recital. The concert went great; we played Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, Roy on his fiddle and myself on a very sweet Mason and Hamlin. Lots of family there, but we skipped the party afterward to escape a nasty winter storm. Heavy snow and ice was predicted to fall at midnight, so we booked a flight through Indianapolis. As we boarded the plane at 8 p.m., snow blew through the cracks of the jetway: not a good sign. Roy and I were stranded there in Atlanta at an airport Hilton. But hey, we found an old piano in the hotel and managed to practice.

Southern California never seemed so nice as when our jet finally landed in LA and we drove south in light traffic. Good to be home.


A new review in Man Bites Book, and an update on surfing in Southern Californa, in pacific surf report 1/10-12/10.


Typed up the flash fiction shorts from Brooklyn--hey, maybe we've got something here. We'll see. Mostly, it's all about music nowadays. Roy Bak and I have a concert, a celebration of the violin/piano sonata, Sept. 19 at the LJ library. Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms.


Just got back from NYC--Brooklyn, actually. A friend, N----------, is a senior fiction editor at a large publishing house in Manhattan, but likes to teach fiction workshops from time to time. He invited 7 students he knew from U. of Iowa, and we all shlepped out to Brooklyn for an intense writing workshop.

I found an apartment via airbnb.com. Every day I worked out and went for a run in Fort Greene park (in the old days, this neighborhood was referred to by some less-than-politically-correct individuals as "Indian country," nowadays, it's gentrified), then joined my colleagues on Dean Street for a writing assignment. We were given a theme, an idea (e.g., "the ticking clock," "a visit to a pet store", etc.) on which to launch a short story, and launch we did. N-------- and company then critiqued each piece, as if we'd worked on it and polished it for months. Nothing like a bit of pressure to bring out the best in you.

Afternoons we work-shopped finished, re-written fiction.

In the late afternoons, class over, my brain fried, I walked over to the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music on 7th Ave and Lincoln Place, a fine old brownstone at least one hundred years old, where they were kind enough to let me play a Yamaha grand piano for three hours every night. Yeah, baby.

After that I would find myself dinner (a real problem with so many varied restaurants to choose from), drink a couple of beers, and crash.

Saturday, the conservatory was closed, so I took the C train to the west side of Manhattan and visited Steinway Hall, a beautiful show room built in 1925, marble everywhere, busts of famous pianists and composers lining the corridors, a nine-foot concert grand sitting in the rotunda of a lobby. I found a brand-new Steinway B and played it for two hours. What a joy. On such a fine instrument, one can hit the softest of pianissimos, the gutsiest of fortes, stabbing staccatos, smooth legatos, and fifty gradations in between. If only I had a spare 81,000 bucks lying around...

Some observations of NYC in August, and Brooklyn in particular:

Lots of people in Brooklyn--3 million.

Lots of trees, compared to Manhattan.

People seem cordial enough, with a hefty dose of NY attitude, but there does not seem to be, socially at least, the racial integration one finds in California. Just a first impression, maybe I'm wrong.

While I was there, a bunch of kids beat another kid to death with a pipe. I could make a big deal out of this, but a similar thing happened here in La Jolla a few years back.

Lots of good places to eat and people-watch in Brooklyn.

I'd go back again in a heart-beat.



Sorry, my friends, for the long hiatus. My excuses are multiplicitous--but mostly one can blame that damn Steinway that sits in our living room. I've been playing A LOT of piano lately, working on a violin/piano duo with Roy Bak, a violinist who studies with Ruggiero Ricci. We've been playing mini-concerts, getting ready for something more grand this fall, playing Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. Plus, I've been working on a solo program, Beethoven, Copland, and Liszt.

Also, I've been writing another novel (see below). Can't say much about it right now. Needless to say, these activities have sapped my blog time. As if to add injury to insult, I became the index case at work for some kind of horrific GI thing. The less said about that, the better.

And, naturally, there has been surf. A decent south over the Fourth, for example.




See the Pacific Surf Report 1/10-12/10 for the low-down on Hawaiian North Shore surfing.



I've been working on a new novel, having fun researching it. Can't say too much, but it involves redwoods, tree climbing, big-wave surfing, Yuroks, pot growers, and salmon. Yahoo. Also, I've been preparing for a piano concert, playing Beethoven and Brahms sonatas (sonata-so-good?) with a violinist. It's exhilarating to mix your arts, there's some kind of weird synergy thing that can happen. Of course, the waves have been pumping, too, and I've done my share of surfing. Business as usual.



Another wild stroke of literary luck--THEMA will publish a short story of mine, "Piano Trio," in their "Music and Math" issue, on October, 2010. I have been a subscriber to Virginia Howard's journal for some time, and love her themes and the way writers respond to them. Unlike other lit mags (Tin House comes to mind), THEMA doesn't keep things secret, or only reveal upcoming issue themes to a stable of famous writers. They let you know well in advance, and all are welcome to submit. Check out this magazine.

Note: More surf news in section 3 of the Pacific Surf Report. El Nino strikes the California coast! pacific surf report 1/10-12/10 

Lots more surf pix and oceanic musings in pacific surf report 7/09-12/09.

Happy New Year!


December 27, 2009

Best of the holidays to you, dear readers. And all best for 2010.


November 25, 2009

LITnIMAGE, a very cool on-line mag that combines flash fiction with visual art, will run one of my short shorts (Cretaceous Photo Primer) in their January issue. Check it out, and check out the mag, www.litnimage.com/vanstrum.htm. A quirky, fun journal, it reminds me of BLACK CLOCK, only with more humor. The fiction editor, Roland Goity, who has an MFA from SDSU and writes book reviews for the SF Chronicle, has more satire than info in his bio. My kind of guy.


October 13, 2009

Once again the Nobel committees have made their choices. Eleven out of 13 prizes went to Americans. Even the economics prize went to a pair of Americans, that most ridiculous award existing in the known universe, an award for a pseudo-science, a nonsensical world of mathematical mumbo-jumbo, apocryphal theories, and con-artists steeped in mendacity.

A Norwegian committee hands out the Peace Prize--the one prize that does not come from Svenska-land. They gave it to Barack Obama, who, understandably, felt it was a bit premature to accept after being prez for only nine months. Obama (who will no doubt prove to deserve it in the years to come) wisely donated it to charity. A nice gesture, giving away a cool 1.4 mill.

The Swedish Academy, headed by Peter Englund (who made some remarks about American authors that stung last year), bestowed the literature prize upon Romanian-born German writer Herta Mueller. As an insular American, I don't know her, but I'll read her stuff and give you a report soon. See Man Bites Book.

A note to the Academy: Yes, he has a mass following. Yes, he is a musician. Yes, his lyrics are abstruse, byzantine, and, at times, cryptic. But please give the most deserving living writer in the world the 2010 Literature Prize. Let the medicine, the chemistry, the peace prize, and the physics prizes go to non-Americans. Donate the economics prize to whom it belongs, to the poor. But give the lit prize to Bob Dylan, ne Robert Zimmerman.

Please. Pretty please. If there is a God...


"And every one of them words rang true

And glowed like burnin' coal

Like it was written in my soul from me to you,

Tangled up in blue."


October 3, 2009

Yet another book review, and meditations on Bob Simmons in Pacific Surf Report.


September 26, 2009

Note the opening of a non-fiction heading in manbitesbook, also a review of Alexander McCall's Smith's books.


August 16, 2009

More book reviews, more surf essays in Pacific Surf Report.


August 2, 2009

After surfing for nine days straight in the third week of July, and revising a novel (NORTHERN LIBERTIES), my body reacted badly. Not to the revising, but to the surfing. Check out pacific surf report for news of the great southern swell, also manbitesbook.html for a review on Steig Larsson's latest masterpiece.


July 5, 2009

South swell on Kaua'i. Book reports.

June 20, 2009

New review, new surf report.

June 7, 2009

There's lots of new book reviews in man bites book, and you'll find the latest in SoCal surfing in the pacific surf report.

March 31, 2009

Took a recent March '09 trip to New York City and Atlanta. Not having set foot in Manhattan since the seventies, I found the city, especially the Village, amazingly upscale, yuppified, gentrified, and clean. Unlike my visits in the seventies, aggressive panhandlers did not threaten my carotids on Broadway strolls. A mugger did not reside behind every bush in Central Park. Even the weather cooperated, the sun shone every day, although the wind whistled through my Southern California bones. Luckily I bought a fine cashmere scarf for a mere $5 from a street vendor (Hey, it felt like the real thing. And if a rube from California ain't gonna support those vendors, who the hell is?). It kept me warm and looked good. Several people asked me for directions in Greenwich Village, so I guess I blended in. Most everybody wore black, though, it seemed. I had a dark brown jacket that made me feel like member of the rainbow coalition. Hey, after the financial markets tanked, after 9/11, I can understand the general mood on the streets. Still, NYC is NYC and there is a buzz there you can find nowhere else.

Saw some scintillating jazz at Small's, a music bar on 7th Ave., the Ethan Iverson (piano) trio, with Ben Street on bass and the astounding "Tootie" Heath banging the skins, what a drummer, the guy played with Coltrane for Chrissake. He's still immeasurably cool, perfect in his control, and varied in his range. Iverson and Street, to their credit, gave him lots of room. I caught a great couple of sessions and found them worth every penny of my twenty bucks. Iverson opens each number with melodic, wandering, almost classical preludes. On one piece, the standard Shadow of Your Smile, he played the melody with his left hand while weaving musical lace with right hand filigrees. The result, with Street's pitch-perfect double-stops and Heath's mastery, made the hairs on my neck stand straight up.

I went to the movie Gomorrah in NY, too. A great film by Mateo Garrone--if you can stand it. Gritty violence from Naples, five stories seamlessly interwoven about the Camorra mafia. Not light entertainment, but searing, heady stuff. Not the quasi-glamorous world of the usual cinematic Mafiosi, this one, down and dirty, paints a realistic picture of how the bastards steamroll ordinary citizens into early graves--or worse. I liked the scenes with the tailor who moonlights in a Chinese sweatshop the best. Based on the non-fiction book, GOMORRAH: ITALY'S OTHER MAFIA.


March 9, 2009


The latest New Yorker published a last-days biography of David Foster Wallace, author of INFINITE JEST, followed by an excerpt from his unfinished current novel, a meditation on boredom among IRS agents. I found both the biography and excerpt fascinating. Miss it at your peril.

The writing is full of verbal calisthenics, not easy or transparent, but insightful and acrobatic. With such a grim self-assignment, poor guy, no wonder he killed himself. The progression of his disease is not unlike Hemingway's: depression, shock therapy, memory loss, suicide. Their writing styles, of course, are as far apart as one can imagine.

Wallace went off Nardil, a MAO inhibitor anti-depressant, some months before his death. Even though it kept his demons at bay, he felt like he lived on an "alternate planet" when he took it. He thought he might write better off the stuff. Yikes, what a decision. You've got to hand it to the guy, he gave his all to art.


Feb. 22--More book reviews (Man Bites Book), more surf reports.

March 8, 2008

New book reviews, new surf tales. Read a great article in Harper's about the book industry meeting in Frankfurt, Germany--there's still people out there in the business who love books, who want to publish good books. Even in the Great Recession, that's encouraging. Hopefully all is not lost for the aspiring author out there.


Feb. 15, 2009--See new book reviews, news from the Pacific. All best wishes--storm track is giving us rain, finally. Maybe we'll get our average for the year.

News Flash: Forum section up and running. I couldn't figure out the Earthlink blogware, so it's just an e-mail address, have no fear, I'll post your comments without your return address.

Early visitors note, new book reviews and news from the pacific are in.





What's new is this web site, a new creature complete with an ongoing (and soon to be expanded) book review section, a surfing journal straight to your computer from La Jolla, California, and info on the author, Glenn Vanstrum. Moi.

I've been re-writing novels lately, getting ready for a trip, and writing short stories. The latest tweak to the muse: I pulled twenty bizarre photos from my files (all images I made years ago), picked one out, and stared at it. Stared at it some more. Until...voila. A story emerged.

So far I've got three (addendum: now seven) in the can (see fiction in progress). You can find an excerpt from the story based on the photo above there (Heartsmoke).

All this creative work has been made difficult by an amazing series of six to eight foot waves hitting the coast. Luckily I'm not able to surf much more than two hours per day, not like Erik, my son, who puts in four or five. Nick, my younger boy, can do four or five, too, if he's on his game. Not dad.

Thanks again for joining the site.

All best,

Glenn Vanstrum