Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Erika Hayasaki delivers a masterful rendering of a tragedy in America's corn country


This Kindle Single is an incredibly compelling piece of long-form journalism than reads like a gripping novel. It’s the agonizing true story of a tragedy that befalls three young people in America’s heartland, and the consequences that played out over the next three years.

In the summer of 2010, three young men, Will Piper, Alex “Paco” Pacas and Wyatt Whitebread took jobs working for a grain elevator complex in the small town of Mount Carroll, Illinois, deep in the heart of America’s Corn Belt.

In a case of egregiously poor judgment, lack of oversight and stunning disregard for federal safety regulations, the boys were directed to climb inside a large grain bin filled with tons of corn. Their job was to loosen up clots of kernels where they tended to stick along the sides of the metal bin so that the grain would auger smoothly out the bottom.

I don’t want to go into a lot of detail and rob too much of the story for the reader, except to say that three young men went inside the bin, and only one came back out alive. The survivor, Will Piper, was nearly killed as well, but far worse, he was an up-close witness to the horrifying suffocation of his two friends. One of them was just 15 years old.

Journalist ERIKA HAYSAKI delivers a masterful piece of writing. She tells a sensational story without ever sensationalizing. She never falls prey to melodramatic hype or gratuitous sentimentalism. She maintains an uncanny discipline by writing within herself — and by that I mean that she renders this story as a “just-the-facts” journalist.

Hayasaki is the kind of writer who is savvy enough to recognize when the true details are enough in themselves to deliver a captivating drama. I must add: What’s truly magical is how Hayasaki manages to make the reader feel the emotional impacts, the sense of heartfelt tragedy and the numbing confusion about the unexpected random cruelty of life can dish out — and she does it all while staying in command of her professional objectivity as a reporter. It’s brilliant!

There is background theme to this work as well. Hayasaki has chosen to position this case against a troubling phenomenon — the ascendancy of the commodity of corn to a place where it has become extraordinarily pervasive in our lives.

Erika Hayasaki
The dominance of corn is a complex issue. It encompasses global food production, distribution and other fundamental choices about how we are managing what we eat and the environment — but also — corn has become a enormous factor in other areas of our economy. We dump corn into our gas tanks in the form of ethanol, we use it to make plastics, and an array of other non-food materials that reach deeply into our lives. Is it sustainable?

At first, I thought the author was taking a wrong turn in this regard; however, she ends up not letting this overarching issue consume too much of the primary narrative, and the corn factor ends up being tantalizing food for thought. (No pun intended).

This is the second Erika Hayasaki work I have read. The first, another Kindle Single titled “Dead or Alive,” (I review it here on Amazon), and that was an equally skillful and impressive piece of writing. so I would recommend you check out that one too.

It’s great stuff.


Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS


Monday, December 22, 2014

French writer Patrick Modiano wins the Nobel Prize for Literature


An obscure French writer, all but unknown in the United States, has been awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature.

The choice to bestow the writing’s most prestigious honor to Patrick Modiano has some in the literary world scratching their heads, while others recognize this author as a unparalleled talent and deserving recipient.

Modiano writes and publishes in French. Although his books have been translated into more than 30 languages, few have been rendered into English. But even these titles have never caught fire with American, or any of the Anglo-English speaking nations.

One of his most successful, award-winning novels, Missing Persons, was issued in English translation in the United States in 2004. It sold a paltry 2,400 copies before vanishing from American bookstores forever.

Modiano is a prolific writer, having produced some 30 novels since 1968. He has also written screenplays and children’s books. Several of his works have been adapted as feature films, all of them French-language films.

Sometimes compared to Marcel Proust, Modiano might also be compared to the likes of Philip K. Dick. That’s because a persistent theme in Modiano’s works are characters who are strangely unhinged from reality, and confused about reality.

His protagonists have problems with memory. They struggle to determine what is real and imagined, or perhaps only dreamed. They labor to come to grips with the meaning of their own lives. Memories and every-day events shift and flow without anchor in a solid foundation of reality. In a Modiano book, few people can be entirely certain about their own identities, or of anything, for that matter.

This is not science fiction, or fantasy, however. Some have described his works as “surreal detective novels.” What’s being investigated by the characters is the nature of their own reality as they try to figure out just who the hell they are, why they are here and, well, what on earth is life all about?

Prior to winning the Nobel, Modiano scored numerous other top literary awards, including the Austrian State Prize for European Literature, the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca from the Institut de France, the rix Goncourt and the 2 Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française.

Patrick Modiano is 69 years old and lives in Boulogne-Billancourt, a commune in the western suburbs of France. He is the 111th person to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

New author J.R. McLeay pens a clever and enthralling tale of the future


The best science fiction is hard science fiction — and the best hard science fiction is that which takes real-life, complex and thorny issues of science, and injects them into a compelling story with an intriguing plot played out by likable, interesting characters.

This book, THE CICADA PROPHECY does all of that.

It’s not only a top-notch SF read, but it has a unique enough flavor and style that proves, once again, hard science fiction can still be made fresh while working within the confines of genre fiction.

The science at the center of this yarn is the biology of aging, sex and reproduction, and mankind’s eternal quest to cheat death by tampering with the rules of Mother Nature.

We are up against billions of years of biological evolution — and the question is, can our super science grapple with what nature has decreed? Can we boldly change the rule-set of the ancient game? Can we really make our biological bodies live forever? Can we cheat death? And if we do, will there be some kind of trade-off? Will there be a terrible price to pay for upending the “natural order of things?”

This premise is by far nothing new in science fiction, but author J.R. McLEAY pumps new life into into the situation by creating a world where the majority of the human population has opted to remain frozen in pre-adolescence.

That’s right. The entire human population are now fresh-faced 12-year-olds!

But they have the minds of adults because they are many decades old!

In The Cicada Prophecy, yet another science fictional Brave New World-like scenario — (or Frankenstein, or Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children or Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality of Mankind) — the hubris of humanity is at it again.

This time meddlesome scientists have arrested the aging process by preventing sexual maturation, and they do that by clipping the pituitary gland in the brain. They replace the hormones once regulated by the pituitary with a skin patch that delivers the cocktail of hormones the body needs to stay a healthy adolescent.

The viewpoint character is the brilliant Dr. Richard Ross. Let me tell you — a more suave, charming, brave, kind and intelligent character has not bestrided the stage of science fiction for some time. What’s terrific is that Dr. Ross is both charismatic and likable while sustaining the demeanor of a coldly logical Mr. Spock.

It’s a tribute to this author’s considerable skill in that he created a character that is a walking wonk, a bio-medical technocrat who can spew forth incredible knowledge on everything from genetics to cell biology to botany, but who also wins us over with an ever-present warmth that is understated, yet his tender, graceful demeanor is felt by the reader.

The delightful Dr. Ross can even make a visit to a dreary graveyard seem like a grand celebration of the fame and folly of mankind marching across history!

However, Dr. Ross is balanced with an antagonist which, I must admit, is a tad too cookie cutter for me — the demented fundamentalist, hell-and-brimstone preacher Calvin James — who rails that the arrogance of science will bring on the certain retribution of God — in the case, the fire-breathing, vengeful Judeo-Christian God of the Old Testament.

The Calvin James character does the minimum needed to set up the ultimate central conflict needed for tension in the narrative, but the way the character is handled is, in my view, a missed opportunity to bring more depth to the overall theme of the book. The raving preacher is too simplistic — but again, I’ll just leave it there because I don’t think this does enough damage to tarnish the overall luster of the novel.

(Note: I could also take issue with some of the way Darwin is oversimplified with too much emphasis on the “survival of the fittest” subset element of his work, and the way the author rattles around inside the box of an age-old dilemma — the vexing issue of cause-and-effect that continues to haunt the eschatology of material science today — but again, I’ll beg off on that too).

All in all: No worries! This is a marvelously entertaining work of science fiction that one can kick back and enjoy while rooting for the heroes, hissing at the villains ... and if a bit of education on cutting edge biology happens to seep osmosis-like into your brain along the way, well, all the better.

The Cicada Prophecy gets my top recommendation.

Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS