Review: “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry”

I like fairy tales. I also like fairy tales re-imagined, but not all of them. For instance, I hated Gregory McGuire’s “Wicked.” I thought it disrespected Baum’s innocent vision of Oz, though obviously I am in the minority, and Gregory McGuire is now a rich man. On the other hand, I loved McGuire’s “Lost,” which skillfully weaves together Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” shades of Jack the Ripper, and some other goodies into a gripping ghost story.

“My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry,” by Fredrik Backman, is a rare jewel. It is a fairy story that combines several related fairy stories and reveals the truth behind them. And it’s completely original, in that it doesn’t rehash older source material. (Not that I’m saying it’s wrong to rehash source material. What would we do without it?)

Elsa, our protagonist, is seven years old and precocious, but I am happy to say she is precocious in a believable, seven-year-old way. Her grandmother is a character, to put it mildly. Among other things, Elsa’s grandmother has taught her a secret language and told her stories of the several kingdoms of the Land of Almost-Awake. Her grandmother is her super-hero, and Elsa adores her. In fact, Granny is Elsa’s only friend, because Elsa doesn’t think much of the kids at school who don’t understand great literature. Like “Harry Potter.” And Marvel Comics.

Elsa, her mother, her grandmother, and her stepfather live in a kind of a boarding house. Some of the tenants are very much in full view, like Britt-Marie, who bosses everyone around about signs in the laundry room and strollers in the stairwell. Others are never seen, including the mysterious “Our Friend,” as Granny refers to him. Elsa’s mother works all the time, her remarried father is not a strong presence, and she resents her stepfather. Her grandmother is her rock.

And then Granny dies. But before she does, she asks Elsa to deliver a letter. Elsa does, and sets off a chain of events that reveal the true nature both of Granny’s stories and of the people in Elsa’s life. Bit by bit, she comes to understand who these people are and how they came to be who they are. She also discovers her grandmother’s hidden connection to every soul in the boarding house.

Elsa eventually discovers a mother who loves her unconditionally, a stepfather who’s actually okay, and a father who turns out to be important after all. She even makes a friend. She learns some things about adults that in the end, she knows she just has to forgive.

While the protagonist of “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry” is a child, this is not a children’s story. The heartache and sadness are all-too-poignant, and the adults’ stories are, well, adult. The story is about a child finding her way through the complexities of life by relying on herself and her memories of her grandmother. She learns the truth behind the tales, and adult truth is sometimes difficult and scary.

Fortunately, there is enough humor in Elsa’s take on things that the book never becomes dreary—and I was pleased that the humor never condescended, even though the lead character is a child.

I had a hard time deciding whether to categorize “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry” as a fantasy or mainstream, even though the only fantasy elements in the story are Granny’s stories. It’s a fairy tale, but although it has a happy ending, it is a realistic ending. Granny doesn’t come back to life. Britt-Marie was never a princess. “Our Friend” is not really a wurse from the Land of Almost-Awake. And yet, the fantasy carries the story. Read it and decide for yourself.

 

Book Review: “The Shepherd’s Crown” by Terry Pratchett

shepherds crown

Yesterday I finished Terry Pratchett’s last book, “The Shepherd’s Crown.”

[Pause to wipe unexplained moisture from eyes.]

First, I’m glad it was a Discworld story. I have enjoyed everything Pratchett has written on his own or in collaboration with someone else. But­—as with most of his readers, I suspect­—I adore Discworld. I adore its cast of thousands, many of whom have become old friends. I adore Discworld’s manic buffoonery, it’s defiance of science in favor of its own wacked magic, the humor and humanity of its inhabitants (many of whom are not actually human).

Second, I’m glad it was a Tiffany Aching story. The first Aching novel I read was “A Hat Full of Sky.” I didn’t realize it took place in Discworld. It seemed to exist in the wide spaces of the High Chalk, covered by an expanse of endless blue sky and connected to nothing else. I fell in love with Tiffany. And I enjoyed the stories of the other witches enormously. I loved the idea of witching as a profession. I loved that witches served the needs of their community, not for gain, but because somebody had to do it. I loved that they didn’t often use magic in the performance of their duties, but usually applied common sense, deep insight into the foibles of humanity, and—not infrequently—threats. You don’t have to actually turn someone into a toad if they truly, deeply believe that you will if they get so much as a hair out of line. I loved the tension between the tough old witches like Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg and the New Age witches with their tinkly amulets and sparkly dresses.

By the way, I am embarrassed that after reading all those books, it wasn’t until last night that I realized why Nanny Ogg was named Nanny Ogg. {Blush}

As world-building goes, Discworld is a shining, if unachievable example to other fantasy writers. It is so detailed and internally consistent that during the time I was immersed in a Discworld story, I believed in a flat world resting on the back of a giant turtle floating in space. I believed that Death was a kindly, inexorable presence in a black robe who SPOKE IN CAPITALS and rode a white horse named Binky. I believed that there was a City Watch consisting of a werewolf, a female dwarf, a troll, something called Nobby Nobbs, and the uncrowned King of Ankh-Morepork, headed by Commander Samuel Vimes. I believed, and if that isn’t magic, what is?

I had to look up the shepherd’s crown of the title. Shepherd’s crowns are fossilized sea urchins commonly found in the chalk downs of England. They have five ridges that meet in the center of the fossil, looking somewhat like the star on some species of sand dollar (a closely related animal). Apparently, the ridges looked like a crown to someone, if not to me. Back in the day, these fossils were thought to be magical charms against evil. In this story, a shepherd’s crown is passed down through the Aching family to Granny Aching, and finally to Tiffany. Because Tiffany belongs to the Chalk, the little fossil becomes a powerful talisman in her last fight against an invasion of evil elves from Fairyland. (Those who have read “Lords and Ladies” will remember that in Pratchett’s universe, elves are beautiful, glamorous, powerful—and the cruelest, nastiest creatures imaginable.)

The story is about what happens when people band together to fight a just cause. Traditional adversaries become allies. Strong becomes stronger. And Tiffany truly comes into herself as a witch. Beyond that, I’m not giving out any spoilers.

Is “The Shepherd’s Crown” Pratchett’s best Discworld novel? No, not in my opinion. However, I am absolutely certain it is the finest novel in any language or genre written by a man dying of a vicious form of Alzheimer’s Disease. I am certain he had lots of help here, but it is Pratchett’s voice and spirit that shine throughout the tale. It is his last love letter to humanity, and his last admonition to us to behave like witches—practical, wise, kind when called for and tough when not, taking up the burden of service because it is the right thing to do. “The Shepherd’s Crown” sums up what Terry Pratchett has been trying to tell us all along: “Do the right thing.”

Time for a snack. I’m going to have a rat on a stick, how about you?

The Last Day in Kona, Revisiting Sam, Plus Kukui Nuts and Awa

Day 6: Hawaii to Molokai

Our last full day here dawned bright and beautiful. The plan was to visit Pu`uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park, the place of refuge. We had visited years ago and thought it was beautiful. There is a restored heiau, ancient fishponds, interesting plants, and more.

Hōnaunau sits on the opposite arm of the bay where we went snorkeling a couple of days ago. There is an easy entry into the water there, and I hoped to snorkel that side of the bay, as we had done before.

Which reminds me of a story that Bob told me that I forgot to relate. One day in ancient times, the shark god took human form and stepped out of the bay at Hōnaunau. He was greeted in a friendly way by the people, and took a wife among them. He lived with them happily, but in the end had to return to the sea. Before he assumed his shark form, he told the people that because of their kindness and hospitality, the bay between the two points would always be a safe place for them to swim; his people (sharks) would not come there. And so it is to this day.

As I was fixing breakfast on our open lanai kitchen, I heard the sound of crashing surf. This is  thousand feet above the ocean, and perhaps four miles away, as the crow flies. I had never heard the surf from the lanai before. I peered out at the sea and I could see the white spume flying up from the bay at Hōnaunau and along the coastline cliffs. We would not be snorkeling today.

However, Hōnaunau is always worth the visit, so after breakfast, we drove down there. Sadly, the park was closed, a ranger standing at the barricade patiently answering the same question over and over and cars wheeling around and heading away. Of course, we had to ask, too. He told us there was a lot of damage from the storm.

What storm? It had been clear and calm the night before. We headed to Two-Step to see what we could see, and the road was covered with sand and rocks. Huge waves were crashing on the rocks, but people were paddling around in large pools that had been left by the water that splashed over the rocky barrier. We walked out on the rocks (not too far) to take pictures, then left.

Wave surge at Two-Step Beach.

Wave surge at Two-Step Beach.

 

View of Hanaunau from Two-Step. You can see the restored heiau on the point.

View of Hanaunau from Two-Step. You can see the restored heiau on the point.

On the way back, I spotted a wonderful tree that looked as though it were melting. I wanted Tom to take pictures. The tree is truly amazing, with aerial roots and twisty white tendrils that looked as though made of wax rivulets from a burning candle. There was a macadamia nut-Kona coffee-fruit store across the road, so we wandered over to look. I asked the shop keeper what kind of tree that was across the road. He looked blank and said, “What tree?” I guess that incredible-looking tree was just same-old, same old to him. (It turned out to be a banyan.)

Is this not an amazing tree?

Is this not an amazing tree?

The shop keeper’s wife asked what we were doing on the Big Island, and I explained I was researching a novel. She said her daughter wanted to write a book, and how did I get published? I said I’d be glad to help her daughter out if she wanted to email me. I don’t think I can help anyone get published, but I can tell her a bit about how the industry works–or doesn’t.

We tried raw macadamias (meh), then roasted and salted (yum!). But the absolute best were chocolate covered with sea salt–to die for. We bought some, needless to say.

I wanted to go see Bob again. I wanted to tell him about my experience with the lei at Kilauwea. I also wanted another healing–this time on my elbow and ankle. My elbow was so sore that day I could barely touch it (don’t know why), and my ankle has arthritis. Also, my hair was beginning to bug me. It is curly, and when it gets longer, it flies around and looks awful. The humidity of Hawaii wasn’t helping any; I might have been walking around under a gray haystack.

Bob was delighted to see us again. He listened to my story with great satisfaction, then told me more tales of his personal encounters. As he was speaking, a lovely Hawaiian lady came in and sat down. Bob talked and snipped, snipped and talked, until finally I said, “my husband is going to kill you if cut any more off.” I was afraid he would just keep on until I had a fashionably bald head (fashionable for young men, but not for ladies my age).

I said he should take the Hawaiian lady next and I would wait for my healing, but she said to go ahead, so we did. It was the same quiet ritual as before. I thanked her for her patience when we were done; I don’t know how long it all took, but where I live, the next customer would have been foaming at the mouth by then.

After the healing, my elbow in particular felt better. Not perfect, but better to the point where I could touch it without pain. I am really indifferent to whether or not I am merely suggestible, so long as the results are there.

Then we headed off to Greenwell Botanical Gardens, as it had been closed the last time we tried to go. It turns out the garden is operated by the Bishop Museum. Ken’s friend Peter was sick that day, so I will have to email him. I selected some books for the grandkids and chatted with Aloha, the lady behind the counter. Tom took off around the garden by himself, and I followed later.

Greenwell is dedicated to growing and preserving native Hawaiian plants. They don’t charge visitors. Tom and I wandered, reading the informative signs, which noted how the Hawaiians used the plants for food, dye, adornment, etc. I collected a list of questions to ask one of the guides. (We had elected to walk around by ourselves for a while.)

Native loulu palms at Greenwell Botanical Gardens. Highly endangered in the wild, although they once formed forests that carpeted the islands.

Native loulu palms at Greenwell Botanical Gardens. Highly endangered in the wild, although they once formed forests that carpeted the islands.

Back at the visitors center, I introduced myself to Jim, a guide with a magnificent white beard and twinkling blue eyes. After I asked a few questions, Jim cocked an eye at me and said, “Where are you from? You seem pretty well-informed.” That made me happy. After doing all this research, I still feel like the greenest newbie.

I won’t bore you with all the questions I had, but I did think what learned from Jim about Kukui trees was interesting. Kukui nuts were used by the Hawaiians as lights, and are also known as candlenut trees. The nuts are full of oil. The Hawaiians stacked them in a vertical row along a straight sliver of wood and ignited the top nut. It would burn for a while, then ignite the nut below it, which would burn in turn. I knew this, but what I wanted to know was if they were edible. In response, Jim found a good nut lying on the ground and cut it open for me. I tried it. It was a lot like the raw macadamia I ate at the store, and I commented it would probably taste better if toasted a bit. Jim said Kukui is sometimes roasted and salted and used as a condiment for poke. But you can’t eat very much of it, or you get the runs. He hastily added that the small amount I had consumed wouldn’t have that effect on me.

If you shop at Trader Joe’s you have seen some of the staff wearing Kukui nut leis. They polish up beautifully.

Koa trees are acacias, but their leaves are a beautiful, long sickle shape. Koa produces a gorgeous hardwood with light and dark streaks, and it appears the population is not endangered. Ancient Hawaiians made short surfboard and canoes out of the wood. I asked about this peculiarly non-acacia type of foliage, and Jim said they put out juvenile leaves that have the typical feathery appearance of acacia, but this new growth falls off and is replaced by the sickle-shaped leaves–which aren’t leaves. They are structures called “phyllodes,” but as they perform the necessary task of photosynthesis, I don’t think us non-scientists need to worry about the difference.

I noticed what looked like a tiny heiau (temple) constructed of lava rock near the visitors center. It was shaped like a four-sided pyramid, with the top flattened to make a small platform. It had an oval stone standing upright on top of it, like a Ku stone. I asked Jim about it, and he said it was built by the men who worked in the garden. It was not a miniature heiau, it was a replica of a district (aha-pu’a’a) marker. I asked if the stone on top was a Ku stone, and he said, no, it was dedicated to Kama-pu’a’a. I don’t yet know how the Hawaiians could tell the difference between one sacred stone and another.

Now seems as good a time as any to tell you about Kama-pu’a’a, the pig god. Kama (if I may be informal) was born on Oahu to parents who were of divine and chiefly ancestry. Kama was born in the shape of a little pig, and he got into all sorts of mischief in this form. In that sense, he is rather like Coyote the Trickster, of Native American tradition. There are many such gods/culture heroes, like Anansi (Africa), Loki (Norse), and Ti Malice (Vodun).

Kama’s human form was that of a stunningly handsome young man. Eventually he moved to Kahiki and married a woman there. But Pele began to beckon him across the ocean with her smoke. Given what happens next, I am not clear why Pele did this, but if you expect legends to make sense, you should probably stick with mathematics. (Not that math makes any sense to me. That’s why I write fantasy.)

Kama returns home to Oahu first, to recruit the assistance of his family in dealing with Pele, whom he knows is a fierce and powerful goddess. His grandparents agree to follow him to Hawaii (hidden in his genitals, which sounds uncomfortable), and Kama turns into one of his other body forms, the humu-humu-nuku-nuku-a’pu’a,a, and swims to the Big Island.

Kama makes his way to Pele’s home at Kilauwea in his human form, which had been enhanced  by his grandparents until there was no more beautiful man in all of Hawaii. He begins to chant at the crater’s edge. 40,000 of Pele’s people come out of her home to see who is chanting, and her sisters see this dazzling young man and desire him. They tell Pele about him because they are under kapu unless Pele frees them, but she is scornful. She tells them he is a hairy pig, and not worthy of them, but they don’t believe her and think she just wants Kama for herself.

Kama didn’t come for the sisters, he came for Pele. He chants to her with alluring words, whereupon she chants back, heaping insult upon insult. Kama is humiliated, and takes it out on his grandparents by slapping them (talk about adding injury to insult). More insults fly, and then Pele sends her lava right to Kama’s feet. A great fight ensues, and Kama’s family helps him. His sister floods Pele’s house, making it unfit to live in. Pele rekindles her fire and begins to chase Kama, who reverts to his pig form. Pele scorches his bristles, causing one of his grandfathers to die of grief, thinking his grandson dead, but Kama lives.

Pele finally chases Kama into the sea, where he assumes his fish form. Pele sends her eager sisters to the shore to entice him with their bodies (I’m being euphemistic here), but he mocks them from the waves. The Pele clan gives it up as a bad job and goes home. Kama resumes his handsome human form and follows. The sisters being as enthusiastic as ever, Pele releases them from the kapu, and Kama makes love to both of them. But he wants Pele, who has assumed the form of an old woman. Undeceived, Kama sweet-talks her into an assignation. They go at it for days, and Pele is in danger of dying. Another sister of Pele, who has a detachable, flying ma’i (Remember what a ma’i is? It’s her lady parts.), dispatches this organ to distract Kama from his piggish behavior with Pele. This is successful, and Kama goes chasing off to the other side of the island. So the dry side of Hawaii is Pele’s, and the wet side is Kama’s, and they continue their love-hate relationship to this day.

Whew. You wouldn’t believe how much detail I eliminated from this story in the interest of not losing my readers!

Then I asked Jim about awa (pronounced ah-vah, and known as kava in much of Polynesia). I knew that awa was cultivated by the ancient Hawaiians as a social drink, sometimes as part of ceremonies. I wanted to know what it tasted like, and what the effects were. (Research, you know). I asked where I could experience this–as long as it was not prepared in the traditional manner. (Traditionally, people–often children–chewed the root and spat into coconut shells. The resulting ickiness was imbibed.)

Jim looked at me and asked, “Have you tried going to a kava bar?”

Well, no, Jim, we hadn’t. It never occurred to me that such places existed.

So next stop, Ma’s Kava, which turned out to be immediately next door to Shear Magic. Ma’s Kava was a teeny space that shared its commercial doings with Qina Girl Floral. There were several small children surging around behind the bar. There was a diminutive bar made of koa, and three little bar stools. Both businesses are operated by a nice young couple, April and Josh. April has a degree from University of Hawaii, and Josh is a Fijiian ex-British Army guy. They served us two coconut shells full of a cloudy, pale, beige-ish liquid. Tom took two sips before deciding that was enough, so Josh gave him a half-cup of nettle tea to take the taste away. The tea, made of stingless nettles, was tasty, comparable to oolong.

It is abundantly clear that awa is not drunk for the taste, which is muddy, with a slight bitter aftertaste. Because I was, after all, doing research, I drank his as well as mine. It really is not intoxicating. After two shells (as they say), I was perfectly clear-headed, but maybe a little livelier than usual. Awa soothes body soreness, is a muscle relaxant, and a mood elevator, according to April. She and Josh showed us an awa root, which was about 12 feet long, twined and tangled. April said the older the root, the more potent the awa. It is extremely tough and has to be pounded a long time before it can be used. The taste differs with the variety, as does the potency. It left us wondering how anyone originally discovered its effects, as without modern equipment, the stuff is hard to make.

April shows us an awa root.

April shows us an awa root.

 

Awa is not regulated like alcohol or marijuana. April said there were kava bars in most areas, but not in every town. Their customers were mostly working men who come in for a shell after work to ease soreness and relax at the end of the day. They had no other customers while we were there–maybe we scared them off. We thanked April and Josh and went back to Camp Aloha.

We had a lovely evening. Joan came out and we offered her some wine and talked and talked. Casey eventually showed up, and more wine was poured. And there was more talking. Eventually, our hosts retired, we cleaned up the lanai kitchen a final time, and so to bed.

But before we begin the journey to Moloka’i, here is a photo of the amazing spider that hung outside the lanai. It had spun a white “X” in the center of its web, and it always sat right in the middle of the X, as you can see. The X consisted of zigzags of thicker white silk. I looked this up, and they don’t know why spiders sometimes do this. One theory was to make the spider look bigger to discourage predators, and you can see that this might indeed be so. It was quite large enough to discourage me.

X marks the spot.

X marks the spot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Reviewer Blogger Liis Pallas Reviews “The Obsidian Mirror”

Liis Pallas reviews “The Obsidian mirror”–and I am thrilled!

Cover to Cover

Environmental issues, power-play, ancient Mayan gods, a Coyotl (yes, Coyotl) that turns into a drop-dead-gorgeous young man, a green being of mannegishi, vodun (no, not voodoo), and a bit of reality- admit it- it sparked some interest in you!

from Goodreads

A few days ago I published an interview K.D. was so very kind to tackle.

You know what? It feels strange how some times you read a book, or watch a film, on a serious issue (such as environmental problems, a nuclear power plant worry, fracking causing earthquakes, rubbish in the vast oceans, etc) and when we read about these issues in books, or see them in the movies, we tend to take them as someone’s brain-children, or brain-babies. But I really am humbled and in awe and in the process of having my faith restored because people notice! Authors notice the issues, the global issues that should…

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Looking Back: “A Canticle for Leibowitz”

A_Canticle_For_LebowitzI have decided to write a few book reviews from time to time. I don’t intend to turn this into a book review blog, but I’d like to be able to set down my musings on random books as the fancy strikes me.

I recently re-read (listened to an audiobook version of) “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” by Walter M. Miller. I read it as a teenager, but I’ve noticed I get a lot more out of everything I read now than I did when my system was awash with raging hormones. (For example, I discovered that Thomas Hardy, far from being an incredible drag, was a funny, vivid and poignant writer.)

“A Canticle for Leibowitz” has been called a classic of science fiction. It’s also a classic in post-apocalyptic fiction, equal to George Stewart’s “Earth Abides” (which has held up remarkably well), “The Death of Grass” by John Christopher or “Malevil” by French writer Robert Merle. It has all the elements I look for in a great read: well-delineated characters, drama, mystery, humor and sorrow.

“A Canticle for Leibowitz” was published in 1960, at the height of the terror of nuclear annihilation. I remember “duck and cover” quite well; while crouching under my desk in my middle-school classroom, I was fairly certain that a blackout curtain and a wooden desk were not going to preserve me from frying to a crisp if an atomic bomb landed on, say, Los Angeles. At the time, nuclear catastrophe was a chill breath on the back of everyone’s vulnerable neck.

Miller’s opus opens after a nuclear apocalypse has literally bombed all of mankind back to the Stone Age. There’s a backlash against science, knowledge, and everything associated with the catastrophe buy anti-intellectuals who proudly call themselves “Simpletons.” Those perceived as intellectuals or scientists are murdered. Books are burned. Mankind descends into another Dark Age. Mutated humans, called “Children of the Pope,” are more or less accepted, because there are so many of them.

But there is one beacon of intellectual light left in the world: the Catholic Church, which resumes its ancient tradition of preserving past knowledge. The story opens with Brother Francis, a young postulant in the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, somewhere in the Southwestern desert of the United States. Leibowitz was one of the scientists murdered by the Simpletons, and after his martyrdom, miracles are said to have happened under Leibowitz’s aegis. The monks of the monastery want to canonize Leibowitz as a saint, but there hasn’t been enough evidence of his sanctity to satisfy New Rome. Brother Francis stumbles upon a cache of ancient papers, some of which appear to be pre-apocalyptic shopping lists—but others are blueprints. It becomes obvious to the reader (but not to the monks) that Leibowitz was an engineer, a designer of electronic circuits.

Poor Brother Francis meets his end as the first section of the book closes, having delivered his copy of one of the blueprints (suitably adorned with fanciful illuminations) to the Pope in New Rome.

The second section of the book takes place a few centuries later. An esteemed scholar visits the abbey to study the Leibowitzian relics and is able to tease out some of the technology from the ancient manuscripts. Technology is clearly in a renaissance as one of the monks has succeeded in building a generator to power an arc light. The scholar departs to New Rome to share his new-found insights and to recommend the canonization of Leibowitz.

The third section takes us another six or seven centuries into the future. Technology—much of it based on the study of old documents like the Leibowitzian relics—has developed to the point where space flight is practical. But nuclear weapons have been reinvented, as well—in all likelihood directly due to the knowledge preserved by the Order of St. Leibowitz—and nuclear war is imminent. The last abbot of the order perishes after an atomic blast brings his church down in ruins as he tries to save the consecrated hosts. But a ship commissioned by the Order launches into space, looking for a new home for humanity.

Well, sure, we destroy ourselves all over again, but maybe that rocket ship full of devout Catholics will colonize a new world that will never see an atomic mushroom cloud. Yet the reader is left with the impression that the human race is ultimately doomed to repeat its worst mistakes.

Sadly, “A Canticle for Leibowitz” was the only novel published during Miller’s lifetime. His last work, a follow-up novel called “St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman,” was published after his suicide in 1996. He must have seen that his ability to continue was in doubt, because he asked author Terry Bisson to finish it for him if he were unable to do so. Bisson did finish the book after Miller’s suicide. It’s thought that Miller’s traumatic experiences in WWII—including the bombing of an ancient abbey at Monte Casino—contributed to his depression and eventual suicide. That may be the case, but it also contributed to the creation of a science fiction masterpiece. Some people write to exorcise their demons, but even St. Leibowitz couldn’t exorcise the dark demons of Walter M. Miller’s haunted spirit.