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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Childhood's End is No Bedtime Story for Adults: a book review

Childhood's EndChildhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is, recently, the book more people have confessed to having loved as a teen or young adult--with the air of someone finally brave enough to admit a gauche early love. Such as sci-fi.

It's deserved. I came to this late--but it's an excellent fable in a George Bernard Shaw kind of way. The Miltonian central trope, while reminiscent of C.S. Lewis at his didactic worst, is so delicately revealed and after that, suppressed, that it's possible to finish the book and only then realize, holy shit! (Redacted spoiler alert.)

I have always liked speculative fiction, speculative anything, except currency speculation. But it's best taken in small doses instead of chain-reading volume after volume of the same old rocket science. Then again, I could be wrong. Chain-reading anything can get you through the end of civilization, which is what Childhood's End chillingly, serenely, evokes.

View all my reviews

Monday, July 20, 2015

The 10 Questions People Ask When They Hear You Have a House in France

The 10 Questions People Ask When They Hear You Have a House in France

1. Where is it?

2. Is that in Provence?
Funny, that’s what my mother asked. Repeatedly. Even after she was there. It’s in Brittany, Mom, about 400 miles north and west of Provence.

3. How do you get there from here?
It’s 27 hours from where we live, Honolulu, nonstop. That includes two redeyes, a 3-hour fast train, a one-hour slow train, a 45-minute ferryboat, a 20-minute walk to our garage, and a 10 minute drive to our village. From New York, where we lived when we bought the house, it was only 13 hours if we made all the connections just so. Miss a connection and it’s purgatory as the jet-lag catches up to you.

4. Are you crazy?
There are times when, yes, we must have been crazy. In 1984, when we got the letter saying there was a house for sale on the island, we were broke, stressed, working entry level jobs in Manhattan and maybe already a little nuts. The letter was from our friend Gwened, a French professor who had a house on the island. It sounded like a wonderful contrast to our gritty, down-and-dirty Manhattan. We bought the house in 1985. We were probably certifiable at that point.

5. Wait—it’s on an island?
Belle Ile en Mer, a tiny Breton island, ten miles by five.

6. Who lives there? How many people?
It has about 4,500 full-time residents, mostly Bellilois with roots going back three or four hundred years. It is one of France’s most beloved places to visit, however, so in summer as many as ten or even twenty thousand people are on the island on any given day. There are twelve ferries a day; everybody rents bikes and just heads off into the countryside. They picnic, hike along the rocky shores, stop in cafes to eat crepes and mussels. And then they go home, many of them after just one long, memorable day. The result is it’s not ruined. There are no condos, no beachfront villas, no time-shares.

7. What do you do there in your glamorous French house?
We live our slow village days, which include talking to our neighbors, walking from house to house to check out the roses and gardens, strolling down the lanes to pick blackberries or go down to the beach, about 20 minutes away on foot. At the beach we lie on towels with our neighbors from the village and adjoining villages and talk some more. When the waves are good we go surfing. We hike the moors. When they’re not we read books and practice our French, while our French friends practice their English.

8. And that’s it? You call that a vacation?
Well, there’s going to the open market for local produce, local fish, lamb, cheese… You tend to go with your neighbors there, too, or run into them there. Then you cook your food and eat it, usually with a neighbor or two, if you’re not over at their house. Then in the evening you have drinks as the sun sets and there’s food cooking again. After dinner you drop by your neighbors. So, yes, we call that a vacation.

9. Doesn’t anything else ever happen? Don’t you get bored?
Things do happen, I swear. The pace and style of the days are lulling, however. The peace and repetition tend to inflate the meaning of small events, of course. Someone once left a bike leaning against a stone wall for two days. The suspense was unbearable: when would this person move his bike? The mailman brings gossip from other villages. He also cuts the grass, if you have a lawn; but we don’t. I once offered to cut the Viscount’s lawn, but my French was bad and he thought I was offering to cut off his penis. That was about 25 years ago and people still talk about it.

10. So how did you stretch all this into a book that has 326 pages?
It’s a story about how we got there as much as what we found—for instance, there was a long struggle for seven years before we could spend the night under our roof. There was a stunning deception by our friend the French professor—at the very beginning she tricked us, sort of hypnotized us, into buying the house, which turned out to be a ruin. And at the end she tricked us again. There were bad moments early on when several people in the village—a local Bellilois, a neighbor, and a second home-owner from the Continent—did us wrong. What, you ask? Oh, they stole our well, stole our road, murdered our rose bush. Yes, it was murder. Then there was the actress, known for assassinating bad guys while wearing vinyl culottes and nothing else. Of course I mean in the movies, not in real life, but man, did she ever stir things up. Not as much as Marlon Brando did when he apparently came through about fifteen years before us. His mistress still was dancing around the Celtic temple stones at twilight, twirling her scarves like an AARP-worthy Stevie Nicks, decades later. And then, of course, there is the story of how we introduced surfing. And baseball. And guacamole. Two out of three caught on. Guess which? We also started a tradition, completely by accident, of Bellilois newlyweds spending their wedding night in our bedroom. Not with us. But the really major moments came when…well, they’ll come when you read the book, of course. You think I’m going to give it all away?

Friday, July 17, 2015

After the Hacking, The French House gets a new DonWallaceWriter.Com website

We've got a new website and address:

Do me a favor and take a look? I want my machines to become acquainted with it...


Sunday, June 14, 2015

How to Find Your Special Place

Everyone has a spiritual home, I believe, that is embodied in a physical space.

We found ours—a ruin on a tiny island off the coast of Brittany—almost 35 years ago. Every time I think or write those words, it still surprises me. We had no business going to Belle Ile. I was from Scotch-German-Swedish-English stock, born and raised in a mid-size city in Southern California, Long Beach. My wife, Mindy, was a half-Korean, part-Dutch-English-maybe-Hawaiian from Honolulu. We’d met in Iowa. Five years later, still trying to crack the entry level of any profession to do with books and writing, living on seltzer and pizza in New York City, we got a letter asking us if we’d like to buy a “little house in our village.”

Instead of going into what happened next—there’s a whole book about it (which I seem to have actually written)—or what happened after we bought that 1830s Breton house which threatened to collapse even as I signed on the dotted line—or even how I’ve come to feel how committing to this ruin that nearly ruined us saved us in the end—I’d like to explore how we find our special places. I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, obviously, but what I’ve gone through has enough parallels in literature and in the experiences of my family and friends that I do feel comfortable speculating. (Okay, I love speculating—give me any fragment of information and a cup of coffee and I’ll spin you a theory—but still, bear with me.)

All of us are imprinted with sensory impressions from early childhood. I remember the warm laundry in the basket at my mother’s feet. I don’t remember, but always respond to, small or self-contained natural environments—humble gardens, wild patches in the corners of yards, alleys overgrown with morning glory vines. As I grew up, a certain iconic California landscape began to feel like mine; if I close my eyes I can picture it: a stand of wind-sculpted cypresses or pines or eucalyptus on a tall bluff overlooking a small cove. I assume it’s a patchwork of my years touring with my parents, going for picnics and weekends in San Diego, Palos Verdes, Laguna Beach, Pismo Beach, Monterey and Santa Cruz, where I ended up going to college.

That’s the physical side. Fifteen years into our adventure in “real simple” island living, I stood up while digging a hole for a new planting and realized I’d recaptured all those places here: my backyard, Boy Scout camping trips, family jaunts, college years, the sea. Belle Ile had it all.

So if you’re pondering where to find your own special place, even a mental place where maybe you can slip away by yourself for a few minutes, I’d start there. Ask yourself: what is my interior landscape? Take notes.

On the rational/intellectual/cultural level, I was the last person anybody in my college would’ve thought would end up in France. Everyone on my dorm floor had gone to Europe after high school; I’d worked at a winery. Spanish was my second language; like most SoCal boys, I loved heading down south of the border to rip it up. Tequila, surf, tacos and enchiladas—

And then I met an island girl who read Proust in the original and despite loving surf and her roots back home wanted to see the world. Who dragged me along, unwillingly, to France. Where the history available to the eye, the dizzying depth of time visible in the landscapes, the stubborn resistance to modern clone architecture, and the butter—oh, the butter—knocked me out of my comfort zone.

Suddenly I realized: I didn’t have to be “that guy.” That maybe I wasn’t finished growing yet, if I’d just give myself a chance.

Getting knocked off-balance, thrown for a loop, lost in the forest in mid-stride: that’s what France did to me. And that’s what we all need, counter-intuitive as it may seem. To find your special place, it seems, you have to escape your own coordinates, if only briefly. A period of disorientation is absolutely necessary to grow, to assess, to come to understand yourself. If you’re forced to grope around and make connections based on what you feel, not what somebody tells you or teaches you, then you’re on the path to finding out what matters to you.

And if there’s good butter there, well, then you know you’re getting close to home.

DON WALLACE's most recent book is
THE FRENCH HOUSE: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village that Restored Them All (Sourcebooks, 2014). Photos at Pinterest Don Wallace The French House. His website is (when it isn't under repair) and he tweets @don212wallace.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Are Books the New Yoga?

One measure of how much books matter is to see a child react when you tell him or her that the story is over.
No, no, goes the wail. And then: Read it again, Daddy.
Lately, though, I’ve been hearing a similar message from people of a more (shall we say) settled age. I’ve had people talk about their “reading” who’ve never gone there before in our relationship. Where last year it sometimes seemed that all people wanted to talk about was yoga, and the year before that, the tango, this year it’s books.
As a writer, I’m pleased, of course. As a writer with a new book out, I even feel lucky, for the first time in my stop-start career.
But mostly I’m curious as to why. If something about our last decade has brought out the reader in us, even as distracting devices proliferate, it feels counter intuitive. Is it because everyone is determined to forestall discussion of the latest pop star outrage, or the latest diet, food allergy, exercise regimen, kale cleanse, and so forth?
I’ve wondered whether a flagging interest in sports could be responsible. As a former athlete and sportswriter, part of me has noticed I just don’t care about all these Cups and Masters and Bowls and Races. I’ve finally hit my limit. And my male friends have been saying the same (even as our eyes migrate to the widescreen over the bar):
What are you reading? they ask, followed by: I need a new book.
Then they look at me, the writer. After all these years, finally I’m in my element. As Curtis Mayfield sang, I’m your pusher. And here are my picks for a variety of readers who’ve run dry:
For the thriller reader who wants to aim higher (and replace the cheap sugar rush of pulp fiction with something finer): David Benioff’s City of Thieves. Yes, the man behind The Game of Thrones is a crack novelist (The 25th Hour was turned into a pretty good Spike Lee movie). That this love story set during the Siege of Stalingrad is swift and self-assured is a cause for wonder.
For the lover of Downton Abbey and Masterpiece Theatre and all those other Upstairs/Downstairs dramas: Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose Novels. Going deep inside the English upper classes of the last 50 years, St. Aubyn delivers a vision of hell lived on a hundred thousand pounds a year with houses in four countries. The dialog would make Oscar Wilde envious. Your mother may not forgive you for leaving it lying around. But she won’t give it back, either.
For those familiar with Tom Wolfe’s epic takedowns of entire strata of society, Mark Panek’s Hawaii is a savage, deeply researched and hilariously apt portrait of a colonial-tropical multi-ethnic society destroying itself with corruption, cultural warfare and real estate development. Mandatory Pacific Rim reading by a rising star.
Finally, for all those who’ve been quietly reading boxes of books for decades, may I suggest my favorite quirky-deep reads? Think of them as palate cleansers: Andrei Platanov’s Fierce and Beautiful World, Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders, Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star, and Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Call me when you surface for air.

BIO: Don Wallace is the author, most recently, of THE FRENCH HOUSE: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village that Restored Them All (Sourcebooks, 2014). He lives in Hawaii, grew up in California, spent 27 years in Manhattan, and visits a surf shack in Brittany with his Hawaiian wife almost every year.

This article first appeared in

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

My Year of Being Mork (Thanks to Mindy)

It's not easy being me--as, I'm sure, it's not easy being you. But I doubt you had to spend a year being called "Mork" by a group of people you barely knew, in a town where you knew nobody else.

My wife had enrolled in a law school in a small town in rural California. The first year had been very hard, as law school first years are. My wife had quickly realized she'd made a mistake and didn't want to continue with law. She'd had her revelation the first week, actually, but stuck it out: a good Korean girl trapped by her mother's demand that she put her four younger brothers through school.

That first year we got to know my wife's classmates, but under duress. We felt at times like the cattle in the boxcars trundling past our rented bungalow every night, packed too close together, panicky, guessing the fate that awaited us at the end of the line.

The second year, 1978, we arrived back in Davis after a summer spent completely detached from law school and, to a degree, America. We'd taken our wedding cash, those envelopes Asian families so thoughtfully give in lieu of china and sterling, and hightailed it to Europe for a delayed honeymoon. In Europe we backpacked around and got thoroughly lost in our pre-law dreamscape. Coming to town, finding a rental, me looking for another minimum-wage job, all felt disorienting.

The welcome-back party was held at a wealthy student's fancy apartment, an anomaly in a cowtown like Davis. When Mindy and I walked in, the first people we saw, Craig and Leslie, both blonde and pretty in a Southern California way, turned and began to call out: "Mork! Mork and Mindy!"

Not having seen or even heard about the TV sensation of the year, Robin Williams' breakout show, we were completely unprepared for the hysteria that greeted us. It was like all our friends had taken a group-think drug, a kind of Pop Culture Ecstasy; nothing we could do or say dissuaded them from the desire to call out "Mork and Mindy" every couple of minutes.

And that was how the year went. It spread, the meme. At the bank, post office, apartment office, whenever Mindy said her name, or showed her ID to write a check or order a beer, we got tagged. And it stuck. And others hearing it, said it, over and over: "Hey, it's Mork and Mindy!" It was like Ebola, burning through entire populations.

The weirdest thing was that people assumed we were like them--Robin Williams and Pam Dawber. Mindy, my Mindy, is a brunette (though today it's a bit ehu, as Hawaiians call russet). Pam Dawber was America's Sweetheart that year, which for Mindy meant being on the receiving end of crushes: supermarket checkers, drug store clerks, gas station attendants, for the most part.

For me, Mork, it was more aggressive, the strain of personality disorder. I did not look like Robin Williams the way I once was said to look like John Denver (also with typical, horrifying results). But I was a cutup, comic, quick-change artist, a chameleon in conversation, "a trippy guy!" as one grad school rival once exclaimed loudly, unfortunately to a room full of university professors who were soon to pronounce on the fate of my application for a fellowship I didn't get.

Trippy guys, I'd already learned, suffer from a surfeit of thoughts and a deficit of gravitas. In junior high, that meant you don't get the girls. (Humor as prophylactic, in more ways than one.) While I'd wrestled my slippery self into a semblance of seriousness long enough to become a writer-in-progress, and a purty durn good one, too, the risk of backsliding was never more than a bright shining quip away.

We never did see a full episode of "Mork and Mindy." Somebody once heard us say that and forced us to watch a few minutes. But, Jesus Christ, who could take it--the shrieks and stares of our friends, every time either character spoke, entered, said their names?

It was, I think, a tiny taste of what life inside Robin Williams' head must have been like, for him. The nonstop river of impressions, jokes, quips, non sequiturs--oh, the non sequiturs, those delicious rainbow arcs from here to... nowhere.

So went my year of being Mork. Robin Williams had me in some secret grip; what he did on the screen passed through osmosis and the helpful interference of friends and strangers into my consciousness. I couldn't fight him. I was him, in a lesser way. I was his Mini Me. When "Good Morning Vietnam" came out I remember being chilled to see it was about a manic radio personality who slipped in and our of characters--I'd spent 1975 doing much the same as a late-night AAA dispatcher in Santa Cruz. My midnight voice infiltrated tow truck, ambulance and police radios, soft yet stern, offering advice and deep thoughts. My handle: Sergeant Serious of the Highway Patrol.

When the Mork and Mindy craze began to pass, I don't know. We left Davis and law school and our law school friendships. We returned to Europe, tried to stick it out a year. We stayed on a tiny island off the coast of Brittany where nobody had a television set. When we returned, we moved to New York City, where, again, no one we knew had a television set.

Nobody in New York City ever called me Mork. In time, I forgot. And my personality--even the quick-change, quip-a-minute me--felt like my own again.

Personality is fluid. Even after the amoebic years of childhood and teenagerdom, the process of acquiring traits that are "yours" can seem arbitrary, accidental.

That's why I instantly responded to the F. Scott Fitzgerald line in his essay about losing his mind, The Crack-Up, about personality being nothing more than a series of successful gestures. Liked the line? No, I felt interrogated by it. Because, my first reaction was, What if my "I" amounts to a series of un-successful gestures?

Yep, that's me, all right, muttered by insecure ego. The embarrassment that left you tongue-tied all through elementary school, the fumble on our own 20 yard line that ruined your football career, the failed first kiss in sixth grade, the avoidance of going to class freshman year, not following up on this or that opportunity...

We're all losers,in the end, if we accept the un-successful gestures as our narrative. We all lose the fight and die at some point, after all. If we get dementia or Alzheimer's or have to live on a drip feed of painkillers, we will lose our personality by degrees. Not having a handle on a personality is just part of the process of going through the days.

Now I finally stand on more solid ground, personality-wise. Mindy and I have spent almost 35 years on that Breton island, on the installment plan, and it was there that some friends once cornered me and asked why I couldn't be more serious. My facility with jokes and puns had become a screen, covering up my lousy French. They loved my humor, my French friends, but they wanted to see a little more of the other me.

I think I was never that bad, but that intervention helped. Maybe because I'm closer to the end of life, and thus, personality, than the beginning. Now I am able to think about myself as a ripple in a moving stream without panic.

Which panic, voila, brings me back to Robin Williams. May he rest in peace--finally, that marvelously supple, distracting, disorienting mind, at rest.

DON WALLACE is the author of The French House: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village that Restored Them All (Sourcebooks).

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Village Idiots by Don Wallace: vignette "Oh, Well" -- the story of our contested source du village

You wouldn’t guess it to look at it, but that’s a highly contested piece of village real estate there, under the hat of green leaves. It’s our well. Well, it was our well. Hell, it’s still our well, but we don’t want to fight about it, so we let the neighbor across the lane tell people it’s his well. But we and he and the village know full well whose well it is. Ours. Before us, Jeannie’s. And as nobody would’ve ever dared to claim Jeannie’s well as theirs, we’ll rest our case here. Except to add: it’s beautiful to stare down, a tunnel of dripping moss and rock edges, with darkness where the water should be, darkness and a faint plop-plop-plop.

—Village Idiots