Wednesday, January 30, 2008


The novella now has seven point-of-view characters.

The basement is clean. Thank you to all of you who sent ideas about what to do with the remaindered books -- they're useful suggestions (except maybe for Mike's :)

The University of Leipzig has informed me that my seminars meet only once a week for ninety minutes each. Pressure is on to make those ninety minutes count.

Rochester is having gale-force winds, gusts up to 70 miles per hour. The newspaper blew away. The dog nearly blew away. We may lose power, which would not be good -- what if I need to add another POV to the novella?

Monday, January 28, 2008

Point Of View

One thing I tell my students is to stick to one point of view in a short story, two if you absolutely must, but with two be aware that you're sacrificing some immediacy as the reader is forced to jump around from head to head. We're accustomed, after all, to seeing reality from inside ONE head, our own. This seems to me sound general advice.

So why am I writing a story with -- count 'em -- six point-of-view characters?

It is a novella. Even so, six seems excessive. But I genuinely can't figure out any other way to tell this story. Especially since at the end.... But I'm not going either to give away the ending or to rely on it as an excuse. Six POVs is too many. But I'm doing it, can't figure out any other way to do it, and just have to hope to hell it works. I won't know until I finish and ASIMOV'S either accepts or rejects it.

Sheila Williams just rejected a possible novelization of my December '08 Tor novel, STEAL ACROSS THE SKY. However, her reason was that there just isn't time to get it into print, broken into four sections, before the book itself appears. This is reasonable, since magazines have a lead time of several months and I waited to long to submit it to her, having been not paying sufficient attention. Mea culpa. Still, it was cheering to hear that she liked the novel. We take what we can get.

Sunday, January 27, 2008


I am cleaning my basement, a long and dirty and puzzling job -- keep the old propane camp stove even though I have never once gone camping, have no propane, and don't know how to use the thing? What about that slightly rickety end table? My kids' solid-maple building blocks? They don't make 'em like that anymore, and you never know...even though my kids are now adults.

The biggest problem, though, is remaindered books. My cellar holds thousands of out-of-print books written by both me and my late husband, Charles Sheffield. I can't think why we bought so many. And I really can't think what to do with them now. I don't want the bother of selling them one-by-one on the Internet, even assuming anybody wanted them, and I don't know of any place that would be interested in, say, fifty copies of the same book -- so now what?

Any ideas out there?

On the other hand, cleaning the basement has yielded a few rewards. Just this morning I discovered the original ms. of BEGGARS IN SPAIN, my oldest son's baby book (complete with a lock of hair), and a ballet book I thought I'd lost forever and which is now out of print. Definitely worth every single aching muscle from shoving around furniture and books.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Nebula Nominees

I've finished reading the short stories on the preliminary Nebula ballot -- not a long task, since there are only seven of them. My favorite is still Andy Duncan's "Unique Chicken Goes In Reverse." Like all Duncan stories, it's difficult to say briefly what it's "about." Maybe it's about what miracles mean, what grace means, and why extremes are needed to bring about both. Or not. The story has layers and allusions and wonderful metaphors, like this one about a church secretary:

Wreathed in cigarette smoke, Miss Ingrid fielded dozens of telephone calls in an eight-hour day, none of which were for her, and while she always managed to correctly record addresses and phone numbers on her nicotine-colored note paper, the rest of the message always emerged from her smudged No. 1 pencils as four or five words that seemed relevant at the time but had no apparent grammatical connection, so that reading a string of Miss Ingrid's messages back to back gave one a deepening sense of alarm and mystery, like intercepted signal fragments from a trawler during a hurricane.

This sentence, Jamesian in its 99-word-long complexity, made me laugh out loud.

I also liked Jennifer Pelland's "Captive Girl," perhaps the most horrifying story I've read in a very long time. It's not what the aliens do to humanity in this story that's so horrifying; it's what we do to each other in the name of love.

Finally, I enjoyed David Levine's "Titanium Mike Saves the Day," a neat story about the importance of stories.

It's worth noticing that of the seven short stories, only two appeared in the "big three" digest magazines, and that two are from an on-line magazine, HELIX, that I hadn't even heard of before. The publishing times, they are a-changin'.

On to the novelette category.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

University of Leipzig

I'm pleased to have been offered, and accepted, the Picador Guest Professorship at the University of Leipzig. From mid-October to mid-January, I'll be teaching at the university's Institute of American Studies. Two courses: SF and Creative Writing. They haven't yet had an SF writer in this position, so it should be very interesting. I'm excited.

In order to do this, I needed to find someone to watch my dog for 12 weeks (Thanks, Marty!) My life's activities now depend on a spoiled toy poodle with a penchant for McDonald's. I will also need to learn some German, since at the moment I can say "Thank you," "Check, please," and "Where is the toilet?" Useful phrases, all, but hardly comprehensive. Anybody out there know of a good German-language CD-plus-book?

Yesterday was pretty much consumed by arrangements for (1)Germany, (2)frequent flyer tickets to Austin for the Nebulas, and (3) booking a hotel room for Denvention. This last was actually the worst. Apparently there are several other conventions going on in Denver at the same time as Worldcon, and the Hyatt has some days already fully booked at the Worldcon rate. I may in fact be homeless for one night -- this is still unclear. I remember another con, years ago (maybe decades ago), in which the con was sharing hotel space with a convention of gospel singers. The two groups eyed each other in the elevators as if belonging to entirely different species. We were more colorful, but they sounded a whole lot better.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Novels, Movies and T-Shirts

Over the weekend I saw ATONEMENT at the movies, and immediately went out afterwards and bought Ian McEwan's novel. The film is evocative, questing, and gorgeous to look at. An added bonus, it concerns the art of writing, and how words can shape lives. Anthony Lane's movie review in THE NEW YORKER seemed to imply that this aspect of the plot is even stronger in the novel, which further heightened my interest. So far, 100 pages in, Lane was right: This is a fiction about how fictions shape reality.

It's also a very interior novel. Page after page features one character alone, musing about events and perceptions and feelings. The word count devoted to characters' solitary musings far outnumbers the word count of characters interacting. We in SF seldom do this, or at least not for longer than a scene or two. Nor does mainstream commercial fiction. In fact, this way of writing might almost be said to be a hallmark of literary fiction.

I like it. I like knowing so much about the characters' interior lives, even at the expense of pace (ATONEMENT is glacially slow) and of outer drama. I'd like to try writing this way in the story I'm working on now. But would it work in SF? Would readers respond well to it? I don't know, although I suspect not. But I'm still thinking about this.

Meanwhile, my sister sent me a T-shirt for my birthday, with another use of words, the overt literary threat. The shirt says: CAREFUL, OR I'LL PUT YOU IN MY NOVEL.

You've been warned.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


My SF writing class has resumed in Rochester at Writers & Books, and they look like an interesting bunch. I'm looking forward to the class. I hope, however, that no one asks me The Question.

The last time I got The Question was when I taught Clarion West last year. I got it twice. No writer likes to be asked The Question, which is always heart-felt and intense: "Do you think I have what it takes to succeed as an SF writer?"

The only honest answer to this, which satisfies nobody, is "Damned if I know." In 30 years of teaching, which includes ten Clarion classes, I have had students that I thought had a lot of talent, but who didn't succeed as SF writers because they became more interested in writing mysteries, or computer books, or in computers, or racing cars, or any number of other things. I've had students I thought had only average talent who have gone on to be successes due to hard work and the persistence of a bulldog with a burglar in its teeth. I've had students who turned in God-awful stories but they were very early stories and the writers had a very steep learning curve; within a year they were publishing. I've had students with much raw talent but a total resistance to changing anything ever from their first drafts, who therefore never improved the technical aspects of their craft and never sold.

If you ask me The Question, and I've seen only one or two samples of your work, there's no way I can assess your persistence, ability and/or willingness to learn, stores of imagination you haven't yet transferred to the page, and toughness to absorb the often massive doses of rejection that accompany the start of most writing careers. That's my answer right there, and it satisfies nobody.

So don't ask. The answer lies inside you, not me.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

First Person Speculative

I was thinking about my fiction -- writers are always thinking about their fiction -- and I realized something that had not occurred to me before. Please bear with me for a minute; what follows is not ego but tentative insight. Of the four stories I have in upcoming Bests of the Year, plus the two on the preliminary Nebula ballot, all but one ("Safeguard") is written in first person. And of my previous awards for short fiction, only one ("Beggars in Spain") was written in anything except first person.

Why is this? It's not because readers in general prefer first person narratives; a quick scan of a long list of Nebula and Hugo winners reveals that. I think, rather, that it's because I, with my personal idiosyncrasies, write better in first person than in third.

In first person, I feel more free -- not necessarily am more free, but feel more free -- to go deeper into a character. The character's voice helps me to become him or her, which is my general (if vague) strategy for writing anything. When the voice is in my head, the character comes more vividly to my page.

I could be wrong on this, of course, even for myself (let alone other writers). After all, "Beggars in Spain," my most widely known work to date, is in third person. But nonetheless, the explanation rings true to me.

The work I have just begun, however, is in multiple third. There's no other way to tell this particular story. Ah, well.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Mistaken Identity

Today it happened again. I got an email from a fan, thanking me for my very helpful book DIALOGUE TECHNIQUES. That would be lovely, except that although I've written three books on writing fiction, none of them is called DIALOGUE TECHNIQUES. According to, Gloria Kempton wrote that one.

Over the years I have been asked to autograph books I didn't write, thanked for stories I never heard of, and (once) reviled on a panel for a novella penned by another female SF writer, who happened to be nominated for an award in the same year and the same category that I was. This happens to all writers. Allied with the phenomenon is the fan who says airily, "I read a lot, but I never remember authors." His or her privilege, of course. But the fact is that writers want to be remembered. We're greedy little creatures, whether we admit it or not. Yes, there are a few Thomas Pynchons and Cormac McCarthys and J.D. Salingers out there, who either just avoid publicity or openly disdain readers, but they're rare. Salinger may seal all his current writings away in a safe so none of us plebes out here can soil it, but most of us want to be seen, noted, remembered for our work. We have you in mind, at least subliminally, while we're writing it. We hope it will appeal to you. We want you to behold our idiosyncratic visions. In that sense, writing is an act of narcissism: Look at me! Or at least at the product of my mind!

With or without the technique of dialogue.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Chess, Two Ways

David Hartwell emailed me that he is taking my story "End Game" (ASIMOV'S, April/May '07) for his Best of the Year. I'm pleased, of course, but since this is the fourth entirely different story chosen by editors for different BESTs, also bemused. However, I've said enough about that particular bemusement in previous posts.

"End Game" is about the fascinations and frustrations of chess. I play chess, a lot and very badly. Last night I lost a U.S. Chess Federation-rated match to a nine-year-old. a very promising nine-year-old, but still... The most frustrating part was that I should have won. I had his king backed into a corner with no fewer than THREE of my major pieces, including my queen. He was also, of course, advancing on my king. A large crowd of people whose matches had already finished and who apparently had nothing better to do, gathered to watch. I find this nerve-wracking. A First Board with a rating approximately equal to light-speed smiled slightly. That smile said: I know how to end this game in one unanswerable move. I did not find that move. I made a different move and the crowd melted away, which said clearly: Game over. And, essentially, it was. The kid beat me, and at home I lay awake for an hour and a half replaying the end game in my mind, trying to see what I could have done.

Chess can be addictive. It can take over one's mind. H. G. Wells called it "a nameless excrescence upon life. It annihilates a man." Several world champions have either gone mad or killed themselves. I'm in no danger of that. But...

It would be nice to be able to beat a nine-year-old.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Open-Jawed Astonishment

According to my newspaper, scientists at the University of Minnesota have grown a beating heart in a jar.

It's a rat's heart, and it was grown from a few cardiac cells taken from new-born rats, growing over -- this is the jaw-dropping part -- a scaffold made from a dead rat heart. The dead heart was soaked in detergents that stripped away all cardiac cells, leaving just a scaffold of connective tissues. Then they grew the new heart over that -- and the thing beats and could, theoretically, pump blood.

I've used tissue engineering in SF stories, most notably my now-out-of-print novel MAXIMUM LIGHT. I knew we were able to grow simple organs, such as the human outer ear famously grown on, and nourished by, the back of a mouse. (The photo of this is truly macabre.) But I had no idea tissue engineering had progressed this far.

God, I wish I could live another couple hundred years. I really want to see what happens when we can grow in a jar a pulsating, neuron-firing human brain.

On far -- far! -- more mundane news, Sheila Williams is taking my story "Exegesis" for ASIMOV'S. Actually, it's not a story. It's future lit-crit, sort of. You can take the girl out of the English Department but not, apparently, the English Department out of the SF writer.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Reading my way through the stories on the preliminary Nebula ballot, I was struck with a thought. Although I enjoy a variety of SF subgenres -- humor (Connie Willis), sociological extrapolation (Bruce Sterling), metafiction (John Kessel, sometimes), space opera, hard SF, soft SF, high-viscosity SF (in Mike Flynn's wonderful term) -- what I really want from my SF is not so much hard science as hard humanism.

Hard SF works to supply scientific extrapolation that is believable within the parameters of what we think we know about how the universe actually functions. Hard SF is concerned with how things work. What I want is fiction whose characters are believable within the parameters of what we think we know about how human beings actually function. I want SF concerned with how human behavior works.

And very often, I don't find it. Characters are too sketchy to be believable. Or they behave in ways that may be required by the plot but don't ring true to me. They are too good or too villainous or too competent or too all-knowing or too heroic or too stoic. Nobody is any of these things all the time, and so characters who are, don't seem real to me and thus violate the tenets of Hard Humanism. On the other hand, writers whose characters are both consistent enough to be identifiable AND complex enough to have varying moods and behaviors, sometimes admirable and sometimes not, running on their own quirky individualism -- such characters can, for me, carry even the most recycled plot. Ursula LeGuin, for one, is superb at such characters. Shevek! Estraven! Owen Pugh! Yoss!

LeGuin is not, of course, the only writer who can create such multi-dimensional characters. So can some of the writers I mentioned above, which is why I like to read them. Such "hard humanism" wrters are worth any number of attacking aliens, intricate robots, or FTL starships.
To me, anyway.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Nebula Ballot

I'm pleased and honored to have two stories on the Preliminary Nebula Ballot -- "Fountain of Age" and "Safeguard." I'm also, once again (this is getting to be a chronic state) bemused because neither of these stories was picked up by any of the three Best of the Years that, instead, chose others of my 2007 publications. This is clear evidence that I should never work as an odds bookie in Las Vegas.

The novella ballot is an interesting one: four stories from F&SF and mine from ASIMOV'S. The F&SF stories are by Gene Wolfe, Bruce Sterling, Lucius Shepard, and Matt Hughes. All of us are well over 50. There are younger writers in the other categories, but we Baby Boomers (plus Gene, who is perpetually young) seem to have the novella category to ourselves. Does this mean anything? Does the next generation of SF writers prefer to go either shorter or longer?

The novella is my absolute favorite length to write. It's long enough to create a well developed background, but short enough to need only one plot, without a lot of subplots to keep track of. Much of SF's classic, Golden Age work took the form of novellas. I hope the form is not dying out.

Another interesting point, and a contrast to previous years: All five novella nominations appear to be SF, not fantasy. I say "appear to be" because I have not yet read Matt Hughes's "The Helper and His Hero," although a quick scan of the download gave me the impression it's SF. For an SF writer all too aware of the eclipse of my favorite genre by fantasy, this is encouraging news indeed.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Finally Giving Up

This morning I made the decision to scrap my novel-in-progress. It's not easy to junk 24,000 words, but I've done everything I know to get this thing moving, including:

--leaving it alone for a few weeks and then coming back to "see it fresh."

--going back to the last scene I liked and trying to re-plot from there.

--adding another "intriguing" point-of-view character.

--starting the story in a different place in its chronology.

--upping the stakes for the outcome of the conflict.

None of these methods worked. The thing is dead. R.I.P.

This leaves the question: What next? Haven't got a clue. I know writers who say they have hundreds of ideas, more than they could ever write, but I'm not one of those writers. So I don't know what next, and -- frankly -- it feels a little scary.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

It's Good, But Is It SF?

A few days ago SF Signal ( asked me, as part of its Mind Meld round-up of author responses, for my definition of science fiction. I gave it, and later went to the website to read everybody else's definitions. Very enlightening, especially in view of my recent reading of Robert Reed's story "Roxie" in last year's ASIMOV'S, which Gardner Dozois had placed on his list (on the ASIMOV'S Forum) of his favorite stories the magazine published last year.

"Roxie" is a very nice story -- affecting, believable, interesting, and well-written. It features two intertwining threads: the unnamed narrator's long relationship with his dog, Roxie, from puppyhood to nearly death, and an asteroid that may or may not hit Earth a few years from the end of story time. The asteroid gets closer, the dog gets older, the narrator deals with the usual human problems of age and time. I liked the whole thing a lot. But when the story ends, the asteroid has not hit, it's not certain it will hit, and no one is doing much to stop it. The story is all mood, which is fine with me -- but is it even remotely SF?

Now, I am not one that requires aliens, robots, clones, or gee-whiz tech to call a story SF. Nor do I require resolution, or even much of what is conventionally considered "plot." But I do wonder if what is there shouldn't have some speculative element in it, some changes to reality as we know it (see Mind Meld, above). If that's in Roxie, I didn't see it. No, we don't have a killer asteroid on the way toward Earth (that we know of), but the one in "Roxie" is still a long way off, with decent odds of not hitting at all, and that we have all the time.

So -- is "Roxie" SF? And does it matter?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

More Difficulties

Some writers like writing (me, usually). Some don't (me, lately, on the novel that is not going well). Some loathe and detest it, to the point where one wonders why they do it at all. Essayist Fran Lebowitz: "I hate writing. I will do anything to avoid it. The only way I could write less was if I were dead." Such writers say they would rather eat a rat, or walk over broken glass, or have a root canal...

Except that yesterday I did have an emergenct root canal. Part II of the reconstructive process for a badly broken tooth occurs today, with -- like some endless and tedious five-act play -- more Parts to follow. No writing is getting done. And now I wish it were, because Lebowitz & Company are wrong.

The root canal is worse.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

More Best of the Year

I'm pleased to say that Gardner has chosen my story "Laws of Survival" for his Best of the Year. This novelette, which was in the December '07 on-line issue of Jim Baen's Universe, features a lot of dogs. A very lot of dogs. Yet Gardner, a known cat lover, chose it anyway. I am pleased -- but, yet again, a bit surprised. This makes three different choices among my stories chosen for Best of the Year volumes -- and none of them is the one I consider the best story I published last year, which was "Fountain of Age." This means (pick one):

--I should never become an editor.

-- I should become an editor, and set things to rights.

-- I have an irrational fondness for stories with criminal protagonists.

I also have (this is a clumsy segue, but so what) an irrational fondness for my new laptop. The old one died, one organ at a time. The first symptom was the demise of the "o" key. It turns out English has a lot of words with "o" in it (I actually sent email to a friend saying, "I visited the cinema."). This problem might have been cured, as several people rushed to helpfully tell me, if I cleaned the keyboard and then stopped dripping crumbs into it from injudicious eating. But before I could do anything about that, more symptoms developed, and now I have a lovely little Toshiba Satellite around which I will not eat. Nothing. Ever.

Sure. Right.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Rx For fiction

My new novel is floundering. Staggering, lurching, possibly going down for the third time. I spend four hours at the computer every morning with Code Blue equipment. I think in the next few days it will either resuscitate or flat-line. Part of the problem is that I'm trying to juggle a whole lot of background for a future America plus three (maybe four) points of view, so..

But I don't want to write just now about my novelistic difficulties. I want to write about Jane Smiley's. She's the author of the wonderful A Thousand Acres, a retelling of King Lear in the American Midwest, which won the 1992 Pulitzer. I have read that book three times. Now I'm reading her non-fiction 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, which I received for Christmas. Smiley is erudite without being pretentious and has many interesting things to say about the novel form. What has caught my attention, however, is her unusual way of getting herself unstuck.

She was struggling with the writing of her novel Good Faith, and it was not going well. In her own words:

"One day I waited for inspiration, got some, went off in a completely different direction, then had second thoughts the next day and tried something else new. This was a symptom indeed, a symptom that I didn't know what in the world I was doing, and it was way too late in the game for that. My heart sank. No, my flesh turned to ice. No, my eyes popped out of my head. No, my stomach churned. No, all I did was close the file on my computer and walk away. But that was very bad."

What she decided to do to get back on track was -- to read 100 novels. A hundred! They ranged from Fielding to Faulkner to McEwan. Since I haven't finished Smiley's book, I don't yet know how this experiment turned out as a spur to writing her own novel. But....maybe I should read instead of write this thing of mine?

Of course, I am reading....Jane Smiley.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Real Life vs. Fiction

Every week I have lunch in a Rochester diner with two very old friends. Today at lunch we had more than soup and salad; we had drama. A man who had been loitering near the counter pocketed money left on a table to pay a lunch bill and then walked out the door. The waitress noticed this and yelled, "Hey, he stole my money!" Three men sitting at a table near the door jumped up and took off in pursuit, followed by the waitress. A plain-clothes policeman coming out of the bank building saw the running four, heard the shouting pursuers, grabbed the thief and threw him in a snowbank, of which we have lots -- it's sixteen degrees Fahrenheit outside. The cop arrested the perp, the money was returned, the pursuers went back inside, and the waitress burst into tears.

What I especially noticed about all this was how fast it happened. The whole story took about three minutes. If I were writing this in a story (as opposed to a blog), I would probably take three or four pages to write the scene, which means it would take between five and eight minutes to read aloud (depending on the amount of dialogue and whether the reader was from upcountry Georgia or downtown New York). I'm used to thinking of fiction as happening faster than real life, but here real life was much more rapid.

I'm not sure what this means -- I should use fewer words in writing scenes? Thieves should plan better escapes? Cops shouldn't be so efficient? I'm not sure of the lunch-time drama's literary implications for me, but I'm pondering them.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Edges of Desperation

Last night R-Spec, the Rochester Speculative Fiction Fans, held its monthly meeting, an occasion I nearly always enjoy. This month we had a program of three presentations on non-English SF. Ruhan Zhao, a Chinese national currently in the United States to teach mathematics and also an SF writer, gave a power point presentation on SF in China. Two other people talked about SF in Romania and in the old Soviet Union. The whole thing was fascinating.

One detail that I keep turning around in my mind came from Gabe, the Romanian. He said that during the Soviet rule of Romania, books were scarce, but those that existed were often put to unliterary uses. A man he knew acquired a complete set of Lenin's works -- because the leather bindings made excellent shoes.

Tied in with this (although only in my own mind) is my recent reading of Cory Doctorow's on-line story, "After the Siege," in which people in a future besieged city go to any lengths to survive. I wonder: Could I eat rats? Would I think to use book leather for shoes? Could I kill to eat?

I don't know. I hope I never have to find out. also rankles me that I don't know. I think this is one reason writers write -- to test out extreme situations that, with any luck, we'll never have to face in "real life."'s not quite the same.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A New Year

Dorothy Parker always greeted the ring of doorbell or phone with "What fresh hell is this?" But I feel much more optimistic about greeting 2008. There is no reasonable justification for this. The political situation is terrible; the environment just gets worse and worse; my generation is aging, falling apart, and starting to die. So why optimism?

As I said, it's not reasonable, which hasn't stopped people from trying to find reasons for hope. Various offerings:

--It's evolutionarily beneficial. If people as a species saw only doom, they wouldn't strive to find food, mate, invest in children, or invent laptops.

-- It's genetic. Some people are just born sanguine.

--It's a plot. The powers-that-be want you to feel optimistic so you don't rebel.

-- It's faith-based: The future will be better.

Any, all, or none of these may be true (although I incline toward number 1). But it's also true that some people rarely feel optimism about the ordinary world, and they're the subject of a book I've been reading -- slowly, slowly, it's that kind of book -- over the holidays. It's THE OUTSIDER by Colin Wilson, a non-fiction discussion that basically boils down to the question: Why bother living? His focus is on people he calls "outsiders," who are those who ask the question at all, who feel a discontent and longing for meaning in life, who feel they never quite belong anywhere "normal." Wilson starts with a round-up of writers, thinkers, and doers who have felt this way, including Camus, T.E. Lawrence, William Blake, George Fox -- the author is nothing if not eclectic. He examines each for the "questions" they pose about life and then the "answers." Since he first looks at those who found no answers but instead sunk into despair, the first two-thirds of the book is incredibly depressing. But now I'm getting into the part about answers, and my interest is keen. I recommend this volume to anyone interested in the "more" they feel that "normal" life does not provide. Warning: You may encounter a definite, although unusually hard-headed, mysticism.

On another subject, I will engage today in a peculiar New Year's Day ritual that I've followed for about twenty years now: excavating under my bed. As I finish books throughout the year, I stash them there for handy bedtime perusal in case I want to reread something. So now there are fifty-plus books under there to be retrieved, sorted, and shelved -- except that I'm out of bookshelf space.

Ten hours into the 2008 and I already am stymied.