Thursday, April 30, 2015

Z is for Zappa

April A-to-Z: must-read books

The Real Frank Zappa (1989)
by Frank Zappa
(1940-1993) USA

Zappa was clearly one of the most unique musicians of all time, if not singularly, the most. The man had an almost supernatural imperviousness to peer pressure. That same quality which served deliberate counter-culture musical approach and theory, combined with fearless free-thinking, made him a vocal anti-drug advocate at a time when recreational drugs were rampant in the industry and among his closest associates, and a vocal contrarian to most common societal and political views.

This book, written so appropriately in his own style, literary norms be-damned—and delightfully effectively so!—was largely an effort to set a few records straight, clarify many of his opinions, and I think: to offer support to like-minded fans who probably find themselves disenfranchised by our particularly narrow-minded society. And he was an opinionated man to be sure. The book is marvelously unsubtle! The problem with being a courageous contrarian in a society where the sheep will fear your ideas, is that the sheep will spread myths about you which paint you as a simple anarchist. Not a conscious conspiracy, I suggest, just a natural consequence to our seeking comfort as we hide from the truth.

Zappa never shat on stage or bit heads off animals or whichever such nonsense was attributed him. This is a very intelligent man who thought for himself.

I loved the book and call it a must-read for selfish reasons: I agree whole-heartedly with the great majority of his opinions and not for the reason most of us do agree with what we read. This is not the common case where the author slowly seduces you with unarguable views early on, purloins your trust and strings you along through the later chapters growing progressively radical; an offense that is kind of hard to avoid. I’ve caught myself at it unintentionally!

When a man has such little care for pressures of peers and his own popularity, it enables a rare freedom for quality thinking and contemplation. Thus such a man has opinions which are worth something because they are discovered honestly; not conveniently provided.

And this book is definitely a must-read for young musicians. Zappa’s tutelage comes from wonderfully nurturing priorities which encourage his followers to let go of a lot of academic, creativity-hindering baggage! Great stuff.

A few quotes which I find amusing and comforting:

I believe that, to a certain extent, kids get weird because their parents made them weird. Parents have more to do with making their children weird than TV or rock and roll records. The only other thing that makes them weirder than TV and parents is religion and drugs.

Stupidity has a certain charm. Ignorance does not.

I would say that today, dishonesty is the rule, and honesty the exception. It could be, statistically, that more people are honest than dishonest, but the few that really control things are not honest, and that tips the balance. I don't think we have an honest president. I don't think that he is surrounded by honest people. I don't believe that most of the people in Congress or in the senate are honest. I don't think that people who head up businesses are honest. We have let them get away with it because we're not honest enough to face up to the fact that we are 'owned and operated' by a bunch of bad people.

Politics is the Entertainment Branch of Industry.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Y is for Youth

April A-to-Z: must-read books

The Adventure Series (1944-1955)
by Enid Blyton
(1897-1968) England

I’ll keep this short as there is little to say outside the observations I’ve already made about Treasure Island and the Chronicles of Narnia earlier this month.

These eight novels follow the adventures of a four-pack of British cousins (and a parrot) whose mom/aunt informally dates a fellow we perceive is wrapped up in some kind of Secret Service type work, if I correctly recall. Plot twists keep putting the kids in those hair-raising situations which are breeding grounds for kid-magic: high stakes jeopardy where adults are not available to intervene, and so the kids must dig deep into their nascent maturity in order to save the day.

It must be about thirty four years since I read this delightful series, rushing through them in a couple reading-manic weeks, but I well remember feeling intimately connected to the characters and emotionally charged by the thrills, mysteries and dangers of their circumstances.

This is great stuff for kids if you can find these books (I have access to early-edition hard covers of each). Especially great for girls perhaps, as these adventures are not generally male-centric.

Don’t let the age of these books sway you. They were already a little foreign in my reading experience, already 20-30 years old and set on another continent. But the culture gap only serves to make them more interesting. I often run into other adults who remember reading these books and it seems they are universally loved.

A passage from The Castle of Adventure:

   They crossed over to the sink. The old-fashioned pump had a handle, which had to be worked up and down in order to bring up water from some deep-down well.
   Philip stared at it in a puzzled manner, his eyes going to a puddle on the floor, just below the pump.
   “What’s the matter, Philip? said Jack.
   “Nothing much – but where did that water come from?” said Philip. “It can only have been there a day or two or it would have dried up.”
   Jack looked up to the dark old ceiling, as if he expected to see a leak in the roof there. But there was none, of course! He looked down at the puddle again, and he too, felt puzzled. “Let’s pump it a bit and see if water comes up,” he said, and stretched out his hand.
   Before he could reach the handle Philip knocked his hand aside, with an exclamation. Jack looked at him in surprise.
   “See here, Freckles,” said Philip, frowning in bewilderment. “the handle of the pump isn’t covered in dust like everything else is. It’s rubbed clean just where you’d take hold of it to pump.”
   Dinah felt a prickle of fright go down her back. Whatever did Philip mean? Who could pump up water in an old empty castle?
   They all stared at the pump handle and saw that Philip was right.

The Island of Adventure (1944)
The Castle of Adventure (1946)
The Valley of Adventure (1947)
The Sea of Adventure (1948)
The Mountain of Adventure (1949)
The Ship of Adventure (1950)
The Circus of Adventure (1952)

The River of Adventure (1955)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

X is for Xenocide

April A-to-Z: must-read books

Ender’s Game (1985)
by Orson Scott Card
(1951-) USA

The American political anti-terrorism action-drama debacle I’d previously read did nothing to prepare me for the very significant collection of insights Card would reveal in novels Ender’s Game and (even more so) in the sequel. Dynamite stuff in terms of morality and the psychologies of war, tribal structures and the developing minds of youth, which can only be properly explored in this sci-fi speculative world, free of our North American blinders and prejudices. What a wonderful surprise. Add some wildly inventive ideas around biological evolution and society and human socio-political structure and this is simply the best brand of sci-fi around. A rather stunning achievement which all becomes far more evident in book two: Speaker for the Dead.

I found it challenging to relate to the main characters or to understand why they had to be so young. I wanted to imagine them as young adults but I must trust Card’s priorities. He clearly knows what he’s doing. His intelligence is apparent.

This is a must read for any youth or adult with any use at all for sci-fi or anyone remotely open to giving the genre a chance. And if you’ve seen the Ender’s Game movie which touches on book one only, do not let it stop you. The film amounts to a vacuous teaser trailer for the book which runs a thousand times deeper and yet doesn’t even compare to book two. If you’ve yet to see the movie though, for goodness sake, wait. Don’t let it spoil the book’s powerful climax. And whatever you do, don’t cheat yourself by reading Ender’s Game without going on to Speaker for the Dead. Ender’s Game is primarily a critical prologue to the real tale.

A passage:

   “I thought you were my friend.” Despite himself, Ender’s voice trembled.
   Graff looked puzzled. “Whatever gave you that idea, Ender?”
   “Because you—” Because you spoke nicely to me, and honestly. “You didn’t lie.”
   “I won’t lie now either,” said Graff. “My job isn’t to be friends. My job is to produce the best soldiers in the world. In the whole history of the world. We need a Napoleon. An Alexander. Except that Napoleon lost in the end. And Alexander flamed out and died young. We need a Julius Caesar, except that he made himself dictator, and died for it. My job is to produce such a creature, and all the men and women he’ll need to help him. Nowhere in that does it say that I have to make friends with children.”
   “You made them hate me.”
   “So? What will you do about it? Crawl into a corner? Start kissing their little backsides so they’ll love you again? There’s only one thing that will make them stop hating you. And that’s being so good at what you do that they can’t ignore you. I told them you were the best. Now you damn well better be.
   “Look Ender, I’m sorry if you’re lonely and afraid. But the buggers are out there. Ten billion, a hundred billion, a million billion for all we know. With weapons we can’t understand, and a willingness to use those weapons to wipe us out. It isn’t the world at stake, Ender. Just us. Just humankind. As far as the rest of the biosphere is concerned, we could be wiped out and it would adjust, it would get on with the next step in evolution. But humanity doesn’t want to die. As a species we have evolved to survive. And the way to do it is by straining, and straining, and every few generations, giving birth to genius. The one who invents the wheel. And light. And flight. The one who builds a city, a nation, an empire. Do you understand any of this?”
   Ender thought he did, but wasn’t sure, and so said nothing.
   “No, of course not. So I’ll put it bluntly: Human beings are free until humanity needs them.”

Ender’s Game (1985)
Speaker for the Dead (1986)
Xenocide (1991)          
Children of the Mind (1996)
Ender’s Shadow (1999)
Shadow of the Hegemon (2001)
Shadow Puppets (2002)
First Meetings (2002)

Monday, April 27, 2015

Winter is coming

April A-to-Z: must-read books

A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-present)
by George R. R. Martin
(1948-) USA

“Winter is Coming” are the words of House Stark, some of the noblest and interesting, yet morally realistic characters you’ll ever meet in speculative fiction. And hopefully the series will be complete before hell freezes over…

Captivating and brilliant storytelling!

For an author to know so many characters so well; to bring them so vividly to life and especially to give them the legitimate voices to exert their genuine will and yet still somehow manage an intricate plot is a major achievement in storytelling.

The other hurdle with such a cast of hundreds, of course, is its threat to overwhelm and chase away the reader but Martin uses tricks of nomenclature and innumerable hints and reminders (plus cheat sheets at the back) and tames what at first looms a beast .

The dialogue is key to a tale that is largely court intrigue (ah, but so much more interesting than that sounds) and this dialogue is absolute dynamite; unendingly clever and multi-faceted in its uses. It keeps the story charged and well-paced, with regular nuggets of humour and subtle genius which bring scenes sparkling to life. Make no mistake: this is fantasy fiction but it is also a reminder of the beasts that we are and the beastliness we have so far overcome.

This series is a must-read for all who appreciate the human element of the fantasy genre.

A passage:

The wolf pup padded closer and nuzzled at Jon’s face, but he kept a wary eye on Tyrion Lannister, and when the dwarf reached out to pet him he drew back and bared his fangs in a silent snarl. “Shy isn’t he?” Lannister observed.
   “Sit Ghost,” Jon commanded. “That’s it. Keep still.” He looked up at the dwarf. “You can touch him now. He won’t move until I tell him to. I’ve been training him.”
   “I see,” Lannister said. He ruffled the snow-white fur between Ghost’s ears and said, “Nice wolf.”
   “If I wasn’t here he’d tear out your throat,” Jon said. It wasn’t actually true yet, but it would be.
   “In that case, you’d best stay close,” the dwarf said. He cocked his oversized head to one side and looked Jon over with his mismatched eyes. “I am Tyrion Lannister.”
   “I know,” Jon said. He rose. Standing, he was taller than the dwarf. It made him feel strange.
   “You’re Ned Stark’s bastard, aren’t you?”
   Jon felt a coldness pass right through him. He pressed his lips together and said nothing.
   “Did I offend you?” Lannister said. “Sorry. Dwarfs don’t have to be tactful. Generations of capering fools in motley have won me the right to dress badly and say any damned thing that comes into my head.” He grinned. “You are the Stark bastard though.”
   “Lord Eddard Stark is my father,” Jon admitted stiffly.
   Lannister studied his face. “Yes, I see it. You have more of the north in you than your brothers.”
   “Half brothers,” Jon corrected. He was pleased by the Dwarf’s comment, but he tried not to let it show.
   “Let me give you some counsel, bastard,” Lannister said. “Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”
   Jon was in no mood for anyone’s counsel. “What do you know about being a bastard?”
   “All dwarfs are bastards in their father’s eyes.”

A Game of Thrones (1996)
A Clash of Kings (1998)
A Storm of Swords (2000)
A Feast for Crows (2005)
A Dance of Dragons (2011)
The Winds of Winter (forthcoming)
A Dream of Spring (forthcoming)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

V is for Victim

April A-to-Z: must-read books

Touching Spirit Bear (2001)
by Ben Mikaelsen
(1952-) USA

When I began working with advanced grade seven and eight students in the exploration of books and creative writing at a level more appropriate to their abilities, a dear friend; a teacher’s assistant,  rushed this book into my hands, claiming it was incredibly popular; loved by the students at her school.

I thought that it was a bit rudimentary in style and structure to be challenging enough for those at an early high school reading level, but it was a great story with great ideas, strong characters and useful insights. And being such a contrarian by habit, it certainly aroused useful questions in me around our society’s views on justice. Coincidentally both my bread-and-butter work and my volunteer endeavors have been re-directed to the justice community; specifically the rehabilitation of former offenders and community protection.

Marvelous that a book for youths could prove so inspiring and a source of consolidation to a thoughtful forty-six year old.

It’s a solid powerful tale in terms of plot and mood and is provocative in terms of societal norms; It does not tread lightly around painful matters. And it reveals Native traditions in a thoughtful light which happens far too little. More and more I realize that my ancestors could have learned so much from native culture instead of ramming so much of our white-man crap down their throats. What a tragic backwards evolution whose effects now threaten the biosphere.

I had the Liberal Theologian give it a read. Her only complaint was around victim healing and offender rehabilitation coming face to face: offender interacting with victim. How unrealistic to her standard psychology models. Good, I say. All the more reason why the idea must be explored in literature if it will not be explored in white-man institutions. How obvious to any thinker that ideal restitution must occur between sinner and the sinned-upon. When I hurt someone I make it up to them, of course. I don’t confess to a priest or give money to charity and then wash my hands of it. Is that nobility not of obvious merit? Sure, we must tread carefully around the spectre of trauma but in the healthy society some of us like to envision, we might not be so addicted to holding on to our suffering and perceived suffering. And as one who has overcome so many fears, let me assure that it was done by facing them, not hiding from them.      

Delightful book; a journey of pain and struggle and reward, and a must-read for any boy or girl; especially non-native boys and girls.

A passage:

    Cole sat tight-lipped. The jail talk was getting old. If he was going to end up in jail anyway, he might as well have gone through normal justice and avoided all this Circle baloney. Suddenly he wanted out of this place. If only there weren’t a guard waiting in the hallway.
    Cole slouched low in his chair as the feather passed on to Peter. Peter gripped the feather with a tight fist and looked down at his lap. When a full minute had passed, the Keeper walked around and placed her hand gently on his shoulder. “Peter, would you like to tell us what you think would make things better again?”
    Peter bit at his lip before speaking in a struggling, slurred voice. “I think someone should smash Cole’s head against a sidewalk so he knows how it feels.”
    Uneasy glances followed Peter’s comment. Even the Keeper’s voice sounded tense as she took the feather gently from Peter’s hand and returned to her place in the circle. “Tonight raw feelings have been exposed like plowed-up ground,” she said. “But that’s when you plant seeds. We now understand better, the struggle we face, and share the desire to find a solution. Let’s stand and hold hands again.” Three hours after it began, the Keeper closed the Healing Circle with a prayer.
    Cole stood but refused to hold his parents’ hands. He folded his arms defiantly across his chest, causing a break in the circle. On his left stood a liar who had beat him numb, and on his right stood a dressed-up puppet, afraid of her own shadow. Cole would not let them hold his hands and find out how sweaty they were. He would not let them pretend they loved him. Especially his dad.

Friday, April 24, 2015

U is for Unity

April A-to-Z: must-read books

Island (2000)
by Alistair MacLeod
(1936-2014) Saskatchewan

The stories in this collection were penned between 1968 and 1999 and all bear MacLeod’s patient, precise and deliberate writing. The stories are circumstantially simple, emotionally complex, deep and prone to a reader’s thoughtful pondering.

At a writing seminar he explained his usual method, one devoid of outline. He imagines sorts of people, sorts of environments and circumstances, and folds them together like a recipe; lets them interact on the page, each component faithful to its nature, and in the act of writing, discovers what comes out at the end. This was an excellent lesson to learn: writing as a sort of lab experiment. It changed me significantly.

When I cornered him for a signing, I said without eloquence, about Island, "The family relationships in these stories: they’re so… sad!”

“Oh well!” he said pleasantly.

The tales in Island all involve Cape Breton Islanders in one way or another, and what struck me heavily, and permanently, were the familial relationships in the stories, the bonds of family unity which sometimes nurture and sometimes hinder, and so many struggles around the love they find so often so hard to show. Of course this is how we are. The burdens of our lives find their way in between the hearts of every child, parent and sibling. It is a sober thing to contemplate.
This book is a must-read for any Canadian.

A passage from The Vastness of the Dark (1971):

     “I am perfectly capable of walking home by myself, James,” he said, looking down at me off the tip of his nose and over his walrus mustache. “No one is taking me home. I only want company. So you stay over on your side and I will stay on mine and we will just be friends going for a walk as indeed we are.”
     But then we turned into an alley where he had placed his left arm against a building’s brick wall and leaned, half resting, his forehead against it while his right hand fumbled at his fly. And standing there with his head against the wall and with his shoes two feet from its base he had seemed like some strange, speaking hypotenuse from the geometry books at school and standing in the stream of his urine he had mumbled that he loved me, although he didn’t often say so, and that he had loved me even before I was born.
     “You know,” he said, “when I learned that your mother was knocked up I was so happy I was just ashamed. And my wife was in a rage and your mother’s parents were weeping and wringing their silly hands and whenever I was near them I would walk around looking at my shoes. But I think that, God forgive me, I may have even prayed for something like that and when I heard it I said, ‘Well, he will have to stay now and marry her because that’s the kind of man he is, and he will work at my place now just as I’ve always wanted.”
     Then his forehead seemed to slide off his resting arm and he lurched unsteadily, almost bumping into me and seeming to see me for the first time. “Oh God,” he said, with a startled, frightened expression, “what a selfish old fool! What have I done now? Forget everything I said!” And he had squeezed my shoulder too tightly at first but then relaxed his grip and let his gigantic hand lie there limply all the way to his home.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Tomorrow… Together

April A-to-Z: must-read books

The Road (2006)
by Cormac McCarthy
(1933-) USA

People have called this novel “the most depressing book I couldn’t put down.”

It is dystopian to the very max. A man and his son are on a mission to survive against all odds as the very biosphere of the Earth appears to be shutting down. It is largely seen as a very simple story, perhaps even a love story, between father and son.

But I believe there is something extremely critical happening here. I believe that McCarthy looks at the human circumstance as I do: That we humans are a doomed creature; doomed at the genetic level with all of our current global threats simple manifestations of this necessary flaw (basically our greatly misunderstood slavery to instinct) BUT… with the marvelous and severely under-developed miracle of consciousness our only hope to pull survival out of the jaws of extinction. I’m sure I could write an entire book on my reasoning for all of this by the way. I have studied this for years.

I’m going to give you a hint: I believe that the man represents instinct and the boy represents consciousness. Keep that in mind and apply it especially, to the ending. It says something profound. I won’t give away anything else – and by the way – I fully admit that I could easily be mistaking applicability for intent. McCarthy for all I know might be scratching his head if reading this. Regardless, I’m sure that he is at least commenting on our species chances of survival, and not just the chances for these two characters.

The writing is brilliantly precise. Every word is perfect, every sentence powerful.

This is simply a must-read book for any adult; perhaps fathers especially. Stock up on kleenex.

A passage:

They came upon him shuffling along the road before them, dragging one leg slightly and stopping from time to time to stand stooped and uncertain before setting out again.

What should we do Papa?

We’re all right. Let’s just follow and watch.

Take a look, the boy said.

Yes. Take a look.

They followed him a good ways but at his pace they were losing the day and finally he just sat in the road and did not get up again. The boy hung on to his father’s coat. No one spoke. He was as burntlooking as the country, his clothing scorched and black. One of his eyes was burnt shut and his hair was but a nitty wig of ash upon his blackened skull. As they passed he looked down. As if he’d done something wrong. His shoes were bound up with wire and coated with roadtar and he sat there in silence, bent over in his rags. The boy kept looking back. Papa? He whispered. What is wrong with the man?

He’s been struck by lightning.

Can we help him? Papa?

No. We can’t help him.

The boy kept pulling at his coat. Papa? He said.

Stop it.

Can’t we help him Papa?

No. We can’t help him. There’s nothing to be done for him.

They went on. The boy was crying. He kept looking back. When they got to the bottom of the hill the man stopped and looked at him and looked back up the road. The burned man had fallen over and at that distance you couldn’t even tell what it was. I’m sorry, he said. But we have nothing to give him. We have no way to help him. I’m sorry for what happened to him but we can’t fix it. You know that, don’t  you? The boy stood looking down. He nodded his head. They went on and he didn’t look back again.

S is for Subtlety

April A-to-Z: must-read books

Gently Down the Stream (2005)
by Ray Robertson

Having met Robertson briefly and warming to his down-to-earthness, I wanted one of his books on my shelf and so made this purchase. My reading list was heavy at the time but I made the mistake of reading page one in the bookstore which forced me to read page two. At that point I couldn't put it down and would have read the whole thing in one long sitting except that I was forced to take one break due to a client commitment in the morning where I dared not show up on the heels of a literary all-nighter looking like Barney from The Simpsons.

To that point I'd attributed my great enjoyment to his marvelous sense of humour. I had laughed out loud - and hard - every few pages and was amused by the extent of things the hero and I had in common. We were men of the same era, locale and background and shared personality traits and flaws and pet peeves. I'd never experienced such a connection before, but then I'd never before read an author who is roughly the same age as I and who grew up in the same area. Suddenly I felt a new kind of belonging to a culture.

Robertson is a master of subtlety and this book is clearly semi-disguised autobiography and told in first-person perspective, present tense and as such does not reveal any of the narrator's self-awareness that would have been gained in reflection. The result is something I've never experienced before or since: The narrator exposing his own flaws in masterfully subtle manner: I had to absorb the hints thrown by the surrounding characters which the narrator himself fails to absorb. What a marvelous active engaging experience for the reader.

This is definitely a must-read book for any 40-something Ontarian male, though I'd recommend it to anyone.

A passage:

“We’re both working tonight,” I practically shout. They’re both decked out like they’ve got a heavy-duty social scene to tend to, but double-date nightmares dancing in my head mean I just can’t be too careful about being too obvious.

“Ah, yes,” Rebecca says, smiling, cutting her eyes Mary’s, then Phil’s way. “The mysterious meisterwork of Mr. Henry Roberts. Any news on when the world will finally get a glimpse of your magnum opus, sir? Now, this is the same book you’ve been working on that started out as your undergraduate philosophy thesis, correct?”

I nod. “Actually I’m in the revision stage right now.”

“It’s been in the revision stage since the late eighties,” Phil says, stroking Rebecca’s bare forearm.
“That’s not true,” Mary says, joining the fun. “The eighties were when Hank was editing. The nineties were when he revised. The new millennium is for spell-checking.”

Giggles all around.

“Joyce spent thirteen years on Finnegans Wake,” I say, drinking from my glass, clamping on a piece of ice between my molars.

“Well, let’s hope your book is a little less self-indulgent,” Rebecca says. “My theory is, get in, get out, and move on. This guarantees a certain freshness, an immediacy of expression, don’t you think?” She looks around the table for confirmation, and Phil must have given it to her because she kisses him full on the lips. The sound of their kiss is like a toothless man dying of thirst. “Besides, life is too short,” she says.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

R is for Rocket Ships

April A-to-Z: must-read books

The Martian Chronicles (1950)
By Ray Bradbury
(1920-2012) USA

Nineteen Fifty was a long time ago. It would be easy to pick out the peculiarities which cultural changes and scientific discovery have made passé, and equally pointless. Criticism is ever so easy, and the constant delight of the idiot. All things ever conceived are both useful and useless, depending upon the perspective. For those with a little more evolved and sensitive mind, especially if you’re a guy, Bradbury is a gold mine. A guy, I say, because Bradbury, unapologetically, was a boy, and a sensitive one, and never in life did he lose that capacity for youthful imagination—not simply imagination, I stress—but the youthful variety.  And as youths, boys and girls tend towards very different interests, Not that I can propose any reasons why females shouldn’t connect with Bradbury magic, whether rocket ships are normally their thing or not.

Yesteryear’s science fiction is like a genre of its own: a sci-fi realm with a twist of nostalgic fantasy in terms of speculative direction not ultimately supported by interim scientific discovery. And this sub-genre, if you will, has a charming time-travel-ish feel of its own; like an alternate reality.

The Martian Chronicles is a roster of 26 short stories, each compelling, heartfelt and cautionary. Or call them 26 chapters of a novel if you wish, one of tremendous emotional scope. For together they tell a cohesive story, but each entry has the structural independence of short fiction.

Like all of his sci-fi work, Chronicles contains the requisite speculative science content, but the onus is all on people; regular ol’ humans with their crutches, emotions and frailties. I don’t consider Chronicles a Bradbury entry point though. If you’re looking for your first taste of him, start with The Illustrated Man perhaps, then R is for Rocket or S is for Space; all short fiction collections. Save novel Fahrenheit 451 for later too.

This book is a must-read for any Bradbury fan or any young man with a curious or empathetic mind.

A passage from The Million-Year Picnic:

   “Now I’m going to show you the Martians,” said Dad. “Come on, all of you. Here, Alice.” He took her hand.
   Michael was crying loudly, and Dad picked him up and carried him, and they walked down through the ruins toward the canal.
   The canal, Where tomorrow or the next day their future wives would come up in a boat, small laughing girls now, with their mother and father.
   The night came down around them, and there were stars. But Timothy couldn’t find Earth. It had already set. That was something to think about.
   A night bird called among the ruins as they walked. Dad said, “Your mother and I will try to teach you. Perhaps we’ll fail. I hope not. We’ve had a good lot to see and learn from. We planned this trip years ago, before you were born. Even if there hadn’t been a war, we would have come to Mars, I think, to live and form our own standard of living. It would have been another century before Mars would have been really poisoned by the Earth civilization. Now, of course—“
   They reached the canal. It was long and straight and cool and wet and reflective in the night.
   “I’ve always wanted to see a Martian,” said Michael. “Where are they, Dad? You promised.”
   “There they are,” said Dad, and he shifted Michael on his shoulder and pointed straight down.
   The Martians were there—in the canal—reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad.

   The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water…

Q is for Questions

April A-to-Z: must-read books

Year Million: Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge (2008)
Edited by Damien Broderick
(1944-) Australia

Here are fourteen essays by leading scientists and science writers who were asked to predict the look of human existence come the year one-million. Their responses are consistent: The task is impossible but the exercise in trying provides a remarkable wealth of material to ponder for those more interested in the question, who are we, than who will win American Idol. They write with generous restraint, allowing the reader to ponder ramifications and ask the big questions for themselves.

Dougal Dixon's non-partisan perspectives on carbon dioxide cycles bring some clarity to the contentious global warming arena. Wil McCarthy's handling of matters concerning the rarity of life and of intelligent life and the scope of cosmic time and distance are of critical relevance to the alien question. Journalist Jim Holt delves into the nature of mathematics. Fundamental reality or human invention?

Amara D. Angelica explores the digital and analog natures of all things and probes the inherent compatibility of computers, human beings and galaxies while Robert Bradbury and Rudy Rucker "debate" the eventual restructuring of star systems into habitable super computers versus the eventual rejection of computers as humans meld with nature’s inherent computation.

For those with a view to the parasitic nature of mankind's dominance over the Earth, beware of Robin Hanson's treatment on the plausibility and rapidity of space colonization.

Dr. Steven B. Harris's insights into evolution leave apparent the gaping flaws in any notion of grand design theory while he, Pamela Sargent and Anne Corwin delve into biological science and technology, promoting an inevitable confrontation with polymorphability and immortality. Meanwhile Sean M. Carroll, Gregory Benford and George Zebrowski arouse the greatest life-or-death question of all, exploring the troubling matter of entropy and the fate of the universe.

A passage from the introduction by Damien Broderick:

My own view is that we will negotiate the hazards threatening our species. We will not kill ourselves off. We will not die off from disease. We will wax and wane with all manner of climate changes, asteroid impacts, runaway technology, and evil robots. We will persevere… Perhaps this view that we are unkillable–at least as a species–is naïve. But even if we are to live as long as the average mammalian species—between 1 and 3 million years—we still have a huge stretch of time left, for our species is barely a quarter of a million years old. And who says we are average? My bet is that we will stick around until the very end of planetary habitability for this already old Earth.

Peter Ward, Future Evolution:
An Illuminated History of Life to Come

A million years—it’s a haunting number, quite terrifying if you put your imagination to work trying to grasp what it means, what it implies.
     Casting our minds a million years into the past, we find in the wide world no trace anywhere of familiar, comforting intelligence. Yes, there are scattered hominids, Homo antecessor, Homo heidelbergensis, our ancient precursors—but  perhaps they have only rudimentary speech and song, few tools, little in the way of clothing (although at least they own fire to warm them in the night), maybe no shelter from the rain or snow other than huddling beneath bushes or in caves as lightning cracks the sky. We imagine our first true ancestors to have been nasty, brutish and, if not short, then certainly short-lived. It is eerie to consider that these protohumans were not entirely alone, as we are; for they shared their planet with equally brutish cousins—Homo erectus, Homo ergaster, others—who separated from common ancestors a quarter of a million years earlier.
   In our future, we can anticipate a further splitting of our hereditary line, but on a vaster and stranger scale. A million years hence, if any of our lineage survive, they will be very different from how we are today, far more alien to us than we are to early Homo.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

P is for Plague

April A-to-Z: must-read books

The Stand (1978)
By Stephen King
(1947-) Maine

Most King fans I know call this book his best. I concur. I’ve read most of his work up until 2003 or so and only the Dark Tower series compares. This story grabs you from the very beginning with all kinds of tension and never relents, pulling in a host of interesting characters with compelling problems and developing into an epic struggle of good versus evil.

The achievement here, I find, is that the plot, having intimately to do with the entire planet earth, is hugely ambitious. That’s an awfully big “set” for an author to build in his head and yet King succeeds. He transports the reader to a very intricate place, difficult even to conceive, and makes it very real. Bravo.

And I must tip my hat for the trick play he perpetrated, for which he laid the bait at the close of chapter 62!

This is a must-read for anyone with a penchant for dystopian stories.

A passage:
     “So I say with more money in circulation you’d be—“
     “Better turn off your pumps, Hap,” Stu said mildly.
     “The Pumps? What?”
     Norm Bruett had turned to look out the window. “Christ on a pony,” he said.
     Stu got out of his chair, leaned over Tommy Wannamaker and Hank Carmichael, and flicked off all eight switches at once, four with each hand. So he was the only one who didn’t see the Chev as it hit the gas pumps on the upper island and sheared them off.

     It plowed into them with a slowness that seemed implacable and somehow grand. Tommy Wannamaker swore in the Indian Head the next day that the taillights never flashed once. The Chevy just kept coming at a steady fifteen or so, like the pace car in the Tournament of Roses parade. The undercarriage screeched over the concrete island, and when the wheels hit it everyone but Stu saw the driver’s head swing limply forward and strike the windshield, starring the glass.

Friday, April 17, 2015

O is for Omnipotence

April A-to-Z: must-read books

Under Satan’s Sun (1926)
By Georges Bernanos
(1888-1948) France

In hindsight, why the hell (yes, hell; it’s appropriate here) did I unthinkingly include this book in my plan for this exercise? It was an extremely profound read but truthfully, I’m sure I didn’t understand much , or perhaps even most, of it and it is a must-read, by my accounting, only for small minorities of readers. Oh well. ‘O’ is a difficult slot to fill. We are stuck with it so, what the heck? Watch me struggle! I’m okay with that. Here goes:

Here is what I wrote on this blog in October 2007 following my first and only reading:

Under Satan’s Sun (1926) by Georges Bernanos, translated by J.C. Whitehouse. It’s very deep. I read it slowly, painstakingly, and still much of it went over my head. I believe I understand what he’s suggesting though. It concerns God, Satan and humanity and it’s clearly an honest interpretation of the divine landscape. And what it suggests is entirely shocking. Makes Da Vinci Code look like Curious George.

Now here is what I did not say (warning: spoiler alert. I have tried not to include any spoilage of—or even reference to—plot this month but Under Satan’s Sun strikes me as such an academic experience, I feel the plot is not overly relevant though this is admittedly a subjective opinion!):

Bernanos was clearly a poet of significant success in terms of grasping the human mind. He is also touted a devout Catholic and a gifted student of Catholicism. That said, Catholics, as with any tribe, religious or otherwise, cannot be expected to easily let go their claim to an esteemed member should he go astray, or otherwise evolve beyond the tribe. So where his true loyalties lay, at the time of this writing, if anywhere at all, I would not make assumptions.

It is said that one needs to thoroughly understand Catholic doctrine in order to properly grasp the intended messages in this book. That may be a perfectly valid point. Personally, I parted from Catholicism when faced with the Confirmation ritual choice at age thirteen. It is said that the meat of this book is in the question: What would happen if a proper saint appeared in the post-modern era? I don’t remember connecting much to that idea.

What totally intrigued me was my perception that the very basic nature of “God” and “Satan” were being called into question. And I admit: Perhaps Bernanos meant nothing of the sort. Or perhaps he meant precisely that but without expecting anyone to necessarily get it. For I’m reminded of this painting by Michael Pacher (c1975) which was recently pointed out to me by a young associate who was intrigued by the funny idea of a face on one’s bum. I was instead intrigued that the image garnered endless internet comments from Christians who were delighted that dumb ol’ Satan had been tricked into holding the Bishop’s (or whatever his rank is) scriptures for him. I find that point of view adorable and would bet any money the painter intended nothing remotely so goofy as that, regardless what currently-approved version of a Christian story might actually support that scenario. No. When I look at this painting I see something far more sinister going on; something far more worth painting. My point is: tribal addiction invites a conceit which blinds us to all but what we wish to see, no matter how lame.

I believe Satan’s Sun was written with much subtlety in the storytelling but with none in the writing. It is written fully in the tell style, not show, and rightfully so as the greatest usefulness lies in Bernanos’ exploration of the mind. Thus he leads us directly in to the consciousness of the character. There is simply great stuff for the reader to explore this way.

I suggest that this is a must-read for those with a fascination for the human mind or for Christian theory or for the concept of a superpower, or superpowers in the universe, divine or otherwise. 

Some passages which were of magnificent comfort and consolidation to me:

No one ever discovers the depths of his own loneliness.

The human mind is constantly varying the shape and curve of its wings, attacking the air from every angle, from positive to negative, and yet never learns how to fly.

The simplest emotions are born and grow in impenetrable darkness, attracting and repelling each other like thunderclouds in accordance with secret affinities. All we see on the surface of the darkness is the brief flashes of the inaccessible storm. That's why the best psychological hypothesis can perhaps throw some light on the past but can never tell us what the future may hold. And, like many other conjectures, they merely hide a mystery that our minds find intolerable even to contemplate.

Will each of us, if he turns his head, see behind him his shadow, his double, the beast that resembles him, silently watching him?

And he also knew what man really is: a grown up child, full of vice and boredom.

What does the truth matter? Haven't we mothers all given our sons a taste for lies? Lies which from the cradle upwards lull them, reassure them, send them to sleep.

For the first time he contemplated, lovelessly but with pity, the lamentable human flock, born to graze and die.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

N is for Narnia

April A-to-Z: must-read books

The Chronicles of Narnia (1949-1954)
By C. S. Lewis
(1898-1963) England

Nearly every reader I talk to remembers these books from their elementary school days and loved them. Do your kids a favour: Encourage them not to see the movies until they’ve had the opportunity to read the books. Novels are such a richer experience than movies because our imaginations can reach so much further than an image on a screen can. Let the jeopardy do its job in the books; let it create the tension it is supposed to, as it only can when free of spoilage of the plot. Then let the movie supplement the book afterwards! 

It seems to me that there are two main brands of kid magic you can find in books and Lewis’ approach to fantasy, unlike that of his friend, Tolkien, is dedicated to both: It’s got the magic of imagination and limitless possibility in a world of rich creation. And it has the kid magic which happens when kids transcend the normal boundaries of childhood by taking on serious circumstances, rife with adult jeopardy, where the plot conspires to block adults from coming to the rescue. That is a magic that I forgot existed through all my adult life, until I was forced to read youth books again in the scope of school volunteer work.

I re-read one of these books as an adult, judging it would serve well in a writing exercise of my own design. I turned The Horse and His Boy into a poem, in pursuit of the idea that my own unfinished epic fantasy novel, begun a long time ago in over-ambitious and naïve manner and subsequently abandoned, might finally come to life in the form of an epic poem (the exercise was successful but the adaptation of my own novel still lingers on the back burner). In the course of that exercise I was stunned to see Lewis’s Christian agenda and bigotry toward Arabs so obvious; stuff I certainly never caught as a kid.

My advice is: Don’t let this deter you or your kids from experiencing these delightful stories. Wait until they’ve read the books and then ask them whether they identified such agendas, and use it as a parenting opportunity.

Times have changed and kids may be more aware of diverse cultures than I was, and thus I may be wrong, but my guess is that they will experience the simple joys of the stories without falling prey to the politics.

These are must-read books for every young person, and probably, sixty-five years later, still available in every library.

A passage from The Horse and His Boy:

…there was a great splash and he found his mouth half full of salt water. The shining thing had been a long inlet of the sea. Both horses were swimming and the water was up to Shasta’s knees. There was an angry roaring behind them and looking back Shasta saw a great, shaggy, and terrible shape crouched on the water’s edge; but only one. “We must have shaken off the other lion,” he thought.
   The Lion apparently did not think its prey worth a wetting; at any rate it made no attempt to take the water in pursuit. The two horses, side by side, were now well out into the middle of the creek and the opposite shore could be clearly seen. The Tarkaan had not yet spoken a word. “But he will,” thought Shasta. “As soon as we have landed. What am I to say? I must begin thinking out a story.”
   Then suddenly, two voices spoke at his side.
   “Oh, I am so tired,” said the one. “Hold your tongue Hwin, and don’t be a fool,” said the other.
   “I’m dreaming,” thought Shasta. “I could have sworn that other horse spoke.”
   “Soon the horses were no longer swimming but walking and soon with a great sound of water running off their sides and tails and with a great crunching of pebbles under eight hoofs, they came out on the farther beach of the inlet. The Tarkaan, to Shasta’s surprise, showed no wish to ask questions. He did not even look at Shasta but seemed anxious to urge his horse straight on. Bree, however, at once shouldered himself in the other horse’s way.
   “Broo-hoo-haw!” he snorted. “Steady there! I heard you, I did. There’s no good pretending, Ma’am. I heard you. You’re a Talking Horse, a Narnian horse like me.”
   “What’s it got to do with you if she is?” said the strange rider fiercely, laying hand on sword-hilt. But the voice in which the words were spoken had already told Shasta something.
   “Why, it’s only a girl!” he exclaimed.
   “And what business is it of yours if I am only a girl?” snapped the stranger.  Youre probably only a boy: a rude common little boy – a slave probably, who’s stolen his master’s horse.”

The Magician’s Nephew (1955)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
The Horse and His Boy (1954)
Prince Caspian (1951)
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
The Silver Chair (1953)
The Last Battle (1956)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

M is for Mysticism

April A-to-Z: must-read books

The Morning of the Magicians (1960)
By Louis Pauwels (1920-1997)
and Jacques Bergier (1912-1978)

I’m a little pissed off with myself for putting this book on the list this month. It needs to be here to satisfy the purpose of this year’s A-to-Z project, but it’s hard to know what the heck to say about it.

To me, Morning of the Magicians is a great collection of historic testimony, presented in such a way that it invites contemplation of many different forms.

The greatest impact that the book made on me was in the realization that so many phenomena, while largely understood today, would have been interpreted as mystical or supernatural (or simply not believed) when (or if) witnessed in past ages—and that the scientists of today have still not explained everything. Thus, quite logically, I must not entirely dismiss all contemporary claims of mystical/supernatural/fantastic natures as certain fiction, as science may still one day discover their validity and mundane causality. It marks a significant growth in my own manner of logical and philosophical exploration.

What makes the work so useful and prone to trustworthiness in that Pauwels and Bergier were Physicists and were plainly courageous enough to explore the cracks in their own work; in essence to hinder their own reputation in pursuit of knowledge, and that is a noble sacrifice.

No matter what sorts of ideas intrigue you in your own journey, you will find some good stuff in these pages! This is a must-read book for anyone who would rather develop their brain than watch TV.

Some observations:

In a generalized and wide ranging overview of the occult or paranormal, the book presents a collection of "raw material for speculation of the most outlandish order", discussing conspiracy theories, ancient prophecies, alchemical transmutation, a giant race that once ruled the Earth, and the Nazca Lines.
Adams, Deborah (2009). Review of "The Morning of the Magicians"

It also includes speculations such as German occultism and supernatural phenomena conspiracy theory that the Vril Society and the Thule Society were the philosophical precursors to the Nazi party.
Hodapp, Christopher; Alice Von Kannon (31 March 2008). "18". Conspiracy Theories & Secret Societies For Dummies

Some brief passages from which I took much comfort in:

Human consciousness is like an iceberg floating on the ocean: the greater part is beneath the water. 

Psychology in depth has shown that a man's apparently rational actions are in reality governed by forces of which he himself knows nothing, or which are closely linked with a symbolism having nothing in common with ordinary everyday logic.

Deep down in ourselves our dreams are never completely effaced, any more than the stars are when daylight returns. They continue to shine, as it were, behind our feelings, our thoughts and our acts.

There are no governments, only limited liability companies, with humanity as their capital, whose mission is not to make history, but to express the various aspects of historic fatality.

When all American families possess two cars, they will then have to buy a third. When the market for television sets is saturated, motor-cars will then have to be equipped with them.

It is not cracked mirrors that bring bad luck, but cracked brains.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Love and Loss

April A-to-Z: must-read books

The Screaming Room (1987)
By Barbara Peabody

A superior novelist has a good sense of the emotional landscape of their work and takes the reader on a balanced ride, alternately building then dissipating tensions. This book is instead a roller coaster with far more downs than ups. There is no balance here because this was not written by a superior novelist, but by an inexperienced writer; a mother whose child has succumbed to AIDS. This is in fact her diary.

This happened some years ago, when AIDS was new to North America, not well understood, and generally received as a death sentence. The story is told with fearless explicit honesty.

I grew to love these people and was deeply hurt by their experience. For a couple weeks after reading it I had to regularly remind myself that I had not actually known these people; that they were not counted among my friends and loved ones. And yet, I will never forget them.

Nothing I can say could oversell this book’s impact. It’s emotionally devastating; so much that perhaps I should not even recommend it. And yet I do and without hesitation. For all the hurt there is a great reward which is hard to express. I think my capacity for empathy was greatly nurtured from this experience and that is a precious thing in a world that needs so much more of it would we survive this species' reckless adolescence.

This is a must-read book for anyone with a heart.