The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

Arnold Spirit is a teenager living on the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington, where everyone calls him Junior.  As a baby, he was hydrocephalic, which caused seizures, poor vision, and a perception from his peers that he was different.  Most of the others on the rez picked on him, except his family, and his closest friend, Rowdy.  Rowdy was a tough guy and would fight anybody over anything, especially anyone who got too rough with Junior.

Beginning high school at the rez became a turning point for Junior.  He got upset that the textbooks were so old his mom’s name was in them.  He was suspended for throwing the book, which hit the teacher, Mr. P.  During his suspension, Mr. P visited Junior and convinced him to get his education off the reservation.

Most of the Indians picked on Junior because he was different, now they picked on him because he was a traitor for leaving the rez.

Reardon was Junior’s new school, it was twenty miles from the rez.  Sometimes his dad was sober enough to drop him off and pick him up, but every once in a while, Junior had to walk. He was the only Indian at the white school, and it was a rough start for him.   He was half white at the rez, and half indian at the school.  It took some time but Junior found his place, realizing he was as smart and athletic as anybody at Reardon.  While finding himself there, he also lost some close friends and family back home.  Rowdy believed he was a traitor and went for blood during the high school basketball game. Alcohol was also a major contributor to the losses at the rez.

Reading this book, I was reminded of the character’s in NS Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, which focuses on an American Indian’s struggle with modernization- living in the white world. It is a struggle between balancing everything your family knows and has held on to for centuries, or going out on your own to find a better life.  A struggle of honoring your ancestors to keep the culture alive or turning your back on them to leave the rez. It is a tough battle, and many on the rez don’t fight it.  They stay and become prisoners there.

The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury

The early culture of space sci-fi was built on a foundation which portrayed Martians as beastly killers attacking Earthlings with no remorse.  However, in Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles (1950), we have a chance to think about what really might happen.  How would humans feel if Martians came to settle Earth- Would we defend ourselves? Would we welcome the aliens with open arms and help them make a home here?  Another viewpoint Bradbury explores is the human pioneering spirit, such as the US’ Western Expansion through the 17-18th centuries. In both cases of settlement humans are determined to take what they want, and to make the land and culture adjust to themselves, rather than adapt to the new settings.

The first few chapters had a humorous tone. The humans sent the explorers to Mars, but the first three crews were killed in defense.  A Martian woman dreamt of the first rocket coming, she talked to the captain of the rocket in her sleep.  Her jealous husband overheard the conversation and resolved to keep his wife away from the mysterious visitors. He made sure she stayed at home while he went for a casual walk and hunting gun (which shot shells full of bees!).  The chapter ends with two shots in the distance and the wife solemnly welcoming her husband back home.

The second crew found themselves in a frenzy of Martian paranoia.  They have used telepathy to brainwash each other.  Many don’t care that the humans have arrived and find it more of an annoyance.  They send the captain and his crew here and there until finally a smart Martian welcomes them and sends them into a room to wait for him to return.  The crew was dumfounded, how could the the aliens not acknowledge that they have actually travelled through space?  This was a major accomplishment! The crew ment many Martians in the room they entered and soon realized that each one of the Martians were delusional.  The smart Martian was a psychologist, he returned and conducted interviews with the humans and determined that only the Captain was real and the other crew members were holograms to trick those who met him.  Then the psychologist asked the  Captain to take him to the rocket as he suspected this was also a hologram, and he could prove that the space travel was fake.  After exploring the rocket, the psychologist knew it was the best mental projection he had ever seen.  The Captain’s brainwashing telepathy was unlike he had ever seen before.  He knew if the simply shot the Captain the rocket and crew would disappear- but it didn’t.  It was the best projection he had ever seen, even when dead, the Captain’s brain power still made him see the rocket and crew! So he shot each crew member, and he still saw it all in front of him.  The only other explanation he could think of was he, himself, was projecting the imagery, so he took his own life to stop it.

The third rocket’s crew landed in a small town on Mars.  Each crew member recognized the village as their own hometown.  Each happened to see a deceased loved one they recognized in their fake hometown.  The friends and family explained that they didn’t know how they got there, but they had died on Earth and showed up there.  They tried their best to make it more like home.  This Captain was very leery of it all, but dropped his guard when his brother showed up and took him to visit their parents. They had a wonderful meal and the captain held his mother close and danced in the living room with her for hours.  At bedtime, the two brothers lay in the same room, when the Captain had a quick thought that it might be a trick… He decided to sneak back to the ship to wait for the others.  The Captain crept across the floor toward the door when the brother took him out.  The following morning, the entire town of Martians held a service to bury all the dead human explorers.

Further into the book, similarities between the real pioneers and the characters in MC are more apparent.  A Johnny  Appleseed character saw a need for oxygen production in the early days of humanity on the red planet, so he devotes himself to the task.  A husband and wife build a business selling hotdogs at an intersection of two major roads.  Priests believe the Martians need saved so they join the adventure and send missionaries.  Bradbury said Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was a major influence on the Chronicles and with the mass migration the states saw in the 1930’s, one can find many parallels between the two works. The Martian Chronicles was a very imaginative work 70 years ago, and can still captivate audiences today.

The venture, Mars One, plans to turn The Martian Chronicles into reality with a mission to create the first permanent human settlement on Mars.  You can find out more here.

 

Lord of the Flies – William Golding

William Golding’s 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, resonates as a cornerstone of required reading in schools over the last fifty years, winning the Nobel Prize in 1983.  While it plays out well as a captivating story, it also serves to teach young students about using symbolism in writing.

Ralph and Piggy find themselves together after their air transport makes a crash landing on a deserted island during a wartime air transport to keep the children safe.  Piggy annoys Ralph but he decides he might be helpful in some ways, on an island with no adults.  They find a large conch shell and Ralph blows it because Piggy has asthma and shallow breaths won’t make the shell bellow. Soon, a large group of children gather around the boy with the conch and they begin a meeting in which Ralph is elected leader over another confident boy named Jack, which builds jealousy in the latter.  Ralph assigns Jack and his choir boys as hunters to try to capture meat and food. Others are assigned to build a fire for a rescue signal, and others are to build shelters.

Nothing seems to go right.  While Ralph and Piggy have the right ideas, most of they boys are looking for adventure and fun, and half of them are ‘littl’uns,’ too small to be much help in any way.  The boys used Piggy’s glasses to light the first fire, which burned a large section of the forest, and seemed to have also killed one of the young boys. The first shelter the group built was pretty good, but the second had fewer helpers, and the third only had a couple of the boys, so each one was progressively worse.  Jack’s jealousy kept building and when Ralph was angry about all of the boys hunting instead of minding the fire, Jack started trying to talk the boys into choosing himself for leader, which was unsuccessful.  A few days later, Jack saw his chance when most of the boys were expressing their fears- ghosts, monsters, and beasts.  Jack offered to keep them safe, besides, weren’t the boys all tired of all the rules Ralph was trying to push on them?

Two tribes formed and by luring with roasted pig along with the fear of violence to keep them, Jack pulled most of the boys to his side of the island. In their first hunt, as a new tribe, they killed a big female pig with small piglets suckling.  They put her head on a stake to offer to the much feared beast nobody had actually seen.  Simon, one of the boys sleeping near the pig’s head became entranced in his thoughts, projecting his own voice into the fly-covered head. The Lord of the Flies told him that the fear they felt was close, in fact, it was inside each of them… Simon ran away to escape the head, finding another secret, the boys need to know.  He ran to Jack’s tribe and they saw him in the darkness as a beast. Their fears came alive and they beat the boy to death.

In a couple of night raids, Jack’s tribe had stolen fire, then stole Piggy’s glasses to take all of the power to their tribe through the ability of making their own fire.  The four remaining boys of the original group, Sam and Eric, Ralph and Piggy walked together to the boys fort to ask for the glasses back, Piggy was practically blind without them.  A fight escalated, and an accident happened.  Not really an accident, the wild tribe hoped to cause damage, but it seemed they really didn’t understand the falling rock killed Piggy. Sam and Eric were captured and forced into the new tribe, and Ralph became a hunted boy.  Through the next day, Jack’s tribe systematically hunted Ralph, spreading through the island and walking it together, being sure not to miss a hiding boy.  They also started a fire to push Ralph out, and at the last moment, Ralph ran and darted out of the forest toward the beach, where he found a sailor who had come ashore to check on the fire. He took the boys onto their warship,  the boys were safe.

Symbolism:  Ralph projected the ideal society with rules and order. Piggy served as his brain trust, no power, but good ideas if they were heeded.  Jack represented the opposite end of society- evils, lack of morals, acting on emotions.  The large female pig symbolized sex and desire.  The head on the stick, or the Lord of the Flies, represented subconscious thought, or what some psychologists term the Id. At the end of the story, the sailor stumbled upon the boys fighting a battle to the death, while they were then safe from themselves, the sailor would be taking them on a ship in war time, to essentially fight an adult battle to the death, a sort of transfer of boys to men fighting.

 

Twitter: @83mrlong

The Quick and the Dead – Louis L’Amour

The day finally came when the McKaskel family set out upon the Santa Fe Trail. Duncan, his wife, Sarah, and their son Tom had only known the city life back East.  Both parents were educated and Tom was eager for adventure as any teenage boy would be.  Little did they know how much adventure they would find.

All of the education they gained in life would not be enough to secure their survival on the dire trail.  Within the first week the horses were stolen, surely they would have had to turn back if- the hero, Con Villain hadn’t shown up.  He was only passing through, and the pretty Sarah sure makes a great cup of coffee.

The McKaskels weren’t sure what to make of Con.  Was he just waiting for the right moment to rob the family himself?  Little by little, Con earned their trust. First of all, he never had to follow Duncan to the outlaw’s town to retrieve the horses.  He especially didn’t have to shoot the man in the barn aiming to shoot Duncan in the back.  Con didn’t even have to stay with the McKaskels when the Indians came to visit.

With his help, the family gained a different knowledge.  Learning what had not been written in the books they read.  The horse thieves followed them on the trail and Con always helped the McKaskels stay a step ahead.  One night, they were split up by the outlaws and Sarah figured they might not ever see Con again. If it were true, would the family make it on their own?  Would they overcome the struggles of the trail or would they become like the thousands of unmarked graves on the dangerous route?

A classic Western, The Quick and the Dead has been made into movies and is one of Louis L’Amour’s most popular works.  The suspense found between the pages keep them turning to find out if the family survives, if Indians attack, if outlaws return, and if Con Villain would be their savior, or a wolf in a sheep’s skin…

Twitter: @blookworm

IG: @83mrlong

 

Hollywood – Charles Bukowski

 

Bukowski’s book, Hollywood, gives the reader a backstage pass to see how the gears move behind a Hollywood film. Many pieces fit together to line up the financial backers, the writer, the director, all the way down to the movie premiere.  From the late nights drinks to make a deal, to the ghetto BBQs, this one digs deep for the unedited glimpse behind the scenes and characters.

Henry ‘Hank’ Chinaski is an alcoholic writer, late in life.  Most of his old friends have died from their habits, but his most recent wife, Sarah, has been pushing the health foods and Hank thinks this is the reason he’s outlasting all the other alcoholic writers from his generation. He’s done several novels and poetry, but his friend, Jon Pinchot, a director, is urging him to write a screenplay.  Pinchot has some connections, money, which will help it along.  What would an alcoholic novelist write  a movie about?…  His glory days of course.  The dirty bars, the seedy motels and apartments, the women, the fist fights.  Hank barely believes his movie will amount to much of anything, but the eager support of Pinchot has him playing along.  Financial backing appears and disappears, actors want their own directors, production companies withhold payments and threaten to shut down the movie.  Pinchot takes matters into his own hands when Firepower Productions tries to back them into a corner by refusing to release the movie deal while they also refuse to make the movie.  Finally the day of the big premiere, and Hank gets to relive the good ol’ days.

What does a writer do when his first screenplay is developed into a mildly successful movie?  Write a novel about writing the screenplay, of course!

Exile and the Kingdom – Albert Camus

Albert Camus, the Nobel Award winning author from Algeria, explores isolation and character’s intense revelations  with a series of 6 short stories in Exile and the Kingdom.  Each of the stories have a character who seems to be lost or isolated from a part of their society and each finds a way to connect with themselves or those around them in the muck of what is playing out around them.

The first story is ‘The Adulterous Woman,’ in which a wife accompanies her long-time husband to rebuild his dry-goods business after a war.  She contemplated why they were still together after so many years- was it because he loved her or because she needed to feel loved? A stop in a desert town with so much foreign to the couple, the woman finally finds an answer, but perhaps not the one she had been looking for.

‘The Renegade’ is the second story.  A young man from the outskirts of the Catholic Kingdom joins the church to become the greatest missionary.  His hubris broke himself from order of the church to go to a Christian’s forbidden area.  A desert land of other gods and deities. He believed his strength would hold out, but after torturous days and nights, he falls to the dark side, and makes a decision to defend his god.

The next story, called ‘The Silent Men,’ a shop of coopers return to barrel-making after several weeks of striking for higher wages.  Mixed feelings spread throughout the shop, the boss was sour that his workers walked out on him, the workers were upset that the boss was not so understanding of their situation, and ugly words  from the boss did not help the resolution.  The main character, Yvars, lived each day to come home to his wife and a glass of anisette to enjoy the sunset over the sea.  That was his kingdom.  While at work, he felt undervalued, but could understand the boss’s view.  A tragedy of the boss’s family on the first day back to work still could not overpower the silence in the shop, and Yvars ends up watching the sunset in reflection that night.

The fourth story, ‘The Guest,’ is a tale about a school teacher living alone on the top of a mesa.  As the first big snow fell over the plateau, he knew the small group of students would have their own struggles surviving the winter.  He watched two men ride horses up the mesa and welcomed an old acquaintance, a lawman, transporting a prisoner.  The lawman quickly delivers the prisoner to the objecting teacher and leaves to continue preparing for his duties back in the city.  The teacher was to continue the transport to a city a small distance away.  The prisoner had killed his cousin to help feed his family, the family had hidden the man and it took a while for the law to catch up.  A war was forming at their home and the lawmen could not take care of all of their duties themselves.  The teacher disagreed with the transport and hurt the lawman’s feelings when he said he would take the prisoner but had no intentions of delivering him to the prison in the other city.  The lawman left and the teacher and prisoner spent a night together in the schoolhouse.  Did he need his gun?  Did he lock it up?  Would he continue the transport?  What will happen if he released the prisoner?  Many questions ran through his mind as the sun rose and  dawned on a new day.  What ever happened to that prisoner?  Were the choices the teacher made the best he could have made?

The fifth story was called ‘The Artist At Work.’  A man with special artistic ability was grateful for his abilities and had never asked for more.  Early in his career he knew he had talent and graciously accepted the first contract given to him.  There were no major complaints and he soon found love.  The years passed, the family grew, and the artist’s work also grew, but he remained humble.  Many followers visited the house daily at all hours, and the artist was grateful for friends and critics.  An architect he was friends with from childhood also came often and gave him honest opinions of art, and life. As the years went by the artist’s fame waned and he realized he needed to rekindle the creativity.  Weeks went by and he turned to alcohol, then women, and his work continued to fall behind.  Finally he builds himself a loft to paint in and he believes this will bring everything back, but a change may not be enough to bring an artist back to relevance.

The final story, ‘The Growing Stone,’ is about an engineer who is hired to construct a jetty to protect a small village on a large river delta in South America.  The man is touted as a hero before he even proposes an idea.  The man meets many of the locals and joins in a Christian festival, but it follows many of the local customs and seems to be a mix of the new and old religions.  The following day, he joins the judge and chief of police to watch a parade, in which his new friend, a chef has volunteered to carry a large stone on his head to show his gratitude in Jesus for saving him from a sinking ship.  After the parade has finished, the engineer has not seen the chef, so he runs to the street and finds him struggling to carry the stone.  The engineer takes the stone and quickly walks it to the church himself, but he does not stop there, he continues on to the chef’s hut and drops the stone onto the floor inside.  The struggles between new and old were all around in this story, and as the engineer drops the stone, he shows his respect for the people and their ways instead of taking the stone to the church where it was intended to be taken.

Each of the stories were entertaining alone, but altogether they form a great theme of realization and reverence.  Characters come to respect their own callings and others around them.  Much like his more popular work, The Stranger, the internal struggles of the characters are apparent and central.  A nice read for thinking and personal self-reflection.

Once There Was a War – John Steinbeck

The Nobel Award winning author, John Steinbeck often created themes of domestic economic struggle with such titles as East of Eden, Cannery Row, and Grapes of Wrath, but in the very center of his career, he took his pen to the European Theater of World War II as a war correspondent.  Later in his life, Steinbeck looked back at his time during the war and compiled several of the newspaper pieces he wrote into a book called Once There Was a War.

Steinbeck’s introduction started as nearly a paradox by saying the most famous war was mostly forgotten by the men who fought it.  He explains that the trauma, the urgency, the peril was experienced and acted on with instincts of war, and a fighter might not remember exactly how many barrels of the enemy were trained at them as they ran across fields, but perhaps, they also might forget at times, due to the fear that grips them as each step the soldier took was escaping death, while many of the comrades were not so lucky.

Steinbeck also adds that during times of war, many of the media are censored.  Partly because the soldier’s missions are treated as top-secret, any news the enemy might receive of an upcoming attack, or position of the allies could put many men in danger.  With somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Steinbeck adds that any news of less successful missions might reflect on commanding officers, so to protect their egos (and the correspondents), the failures, and the officers names were often struck from the record by censorship.  With America’s values of freedom of speech, someone today might think that the censorship then was unfair, but the correspondents did their best to follow the rules- nobody wanted to lose a shot a nice job in journalism after the war, and least of all, none of them wanted to be blamed for losing the war.

Steinbeck joined the war in 1943 and spent about a year in the action.  Through the book, the reader gets a first hand account of sailing from the US to England on a troopship, life at a bomber squadron in England, life in Tunisia, and missions to Italy.  The correspondent’s accounts give the reader, the ups and downs, the little-known pieces of war life, not known to someone living 75 years after the event.

My favorite pieces in the book were about a private named Big Train Mulligan.  Big Train was a driver in the army, he was a smart man and the soldier life suited him. He would do anything that was asked of him, but he also decided he loved his position as  driver in England better than any other option.  He loved it enough that he seemed to always mess up details when he was in line for a promotion, but not quite enough to lose the job.  That was the kind of guy he was.  He could have gone far in the army, he could have been an officer and led many men, but Big Train wasn’t interested in being responsible for other men, he just wanted to do his job.  He drove officers to and from appointments, and waited for them at the car until they required a ride to the next place.  Big Train somehow always attracted women as he waited at the cars, and he kept a big address book where he wrote each woman’s information into it.  When he drove the officers to a cramped house with tattered sheets and stiff beds, Big Train always had a woman from his book nearby where he would stay in a soft and comfortable bed and have a home cooked meal.  The women would stop at the car and talk to Big Train and he would reach into the officer’s belongings and pull a pack of cigarettes out for the girl, sometimes chocolate. The ladies loved the guy for this.  When the officers returned from the meeting to find their personal cigarettes or chocolates gone, Big Train would just explain that the woman was there and it seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do to offer her whatever he could find, and the officer agreed completely and no feelings were hurt.

Whether you’re a fan of WWII, Steinbeck, or just want a good book to read, this one fits the bill.  There was a nice range of emotion- fear, disgust, sadness, joy- this has it all. As we lose many WWII veterans to time, it is nice that we have these accounts Steinbeck has left us. Stories like these and from the veterans I’ve spoken to always send a chill down my spine and remind me of the enormous amount of respect these men and women earn.
Twitter- @blookworm