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.

 

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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.

Born on a Blue Day – Daniel Tammet

Years ago, I watched a BBC documentary on autistic savants in the world.  Kim Peek, the inspiration for the movie, Rainman, was a contribution to the program, but another major focus was on a twenty-something Daniel Tammet.  He was filmed setting the European record for reciting over 22,000 digits of pi, the irrational number which has an infinite amount of decimal digits.  When I picked up ‘Born on a Blue Day,’ I didn’t have this person in mind, but it was a nice surprise to find his autobiography in the pages.

Tammet was the first born in a large family with many siblings, but the new parents could tell from an early age he was unlike most children.  He cried constantly and found it difficult to make friends in school.  His interests were fascinating but bordered on obsessions.  He collected hundreds of ladybirds over a period of weeks (lady bugs to the US readers) and proudly brought them to school one day.  He had thoroughly read about the insects and was excited to share the small pets to classmates and his teacher.  The teacher realized the bugs may live a better life in the wild, so he created a note to send Tammet out of the classroom while a classmate freed the insects outside.  Tammet was crushed and didn’t speak to the teacher for weeks.

Daniel also had a fascination with numbers from an early age.  He uses a rare case of synesthesia to develop visual images of numbers.  The number nine, for example, resembles tall figures, and the number six is represented by a dark hole.  Putting these figures together, he can quickly find arithmetic answers, and even large prime numbers (his favorite).  When he set the record for reciting the digits of pi, he created a landscape of the digits which helped him memorize the thousands of numbers in the correct order.

Tammet’s synesthesia not only gives him numerical gifts, it also allows him to learn foreign languages more easily than most.  One challenge given to him was to learn a language in less than a week, and speak fluently enough in it to be interviewed on a local news program in the native language.  The language chosen by producers was to be Icelandic.  It is a difficult language spoken by only around 300,000 people.  It was a great challenge, but Daniel was successful and gave a great interview on the local news program in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Though his gifts are now apparent, it wasn’t always that way.  As a child, Daniel had few friends. As is common with children with autism, he lacked emotional connections to peers, and found it difficult to maintain conversations. Daniel Tammet said of his experiences, “The very same abilities that had set me apart from my peers as a child and adolescent, and isolated me from them, had actually helped me to connect with other people in adulthood, and to make new friends.”

Currently, Daniel Tammet runs a successful website in the UK that provides language tutorials to consumers.  From a teacher’s prospective, Tammet is  an ideal model for many students with autism.  He has focused on his abilities to create a successful living and has overcome some challenges to become successful in the world.

 

Veronica Decides to Die – Paulo Coelho

As morbid and depressing as the title seems, this Coelho book takes the usual turn for understanding of the universe and an inspiration for readers to strive not to settle into the kind of routine they don’t wish to be in.  Coelho’s books have been NY Times Best Sellers and translated into dozens of languages, he’s one of the top selling modern authors.  It just takes one book to understand why, and this book certainly fits into that category.

Veronica is a young woman with a happy life.  She has loving parents and a nice job.  She lives in Ljubljana, the capital city of the newly formed country of Slovenia (after the Yugoslavian civil war). With as many positives points in her life, Veronica found nearly as much sadness.  She believed the routine of her life was inconsequential and secretly vowed to kill herself to leave the world behind.  After feigning sleeplessness, she collected strong sleeping pills and went about the deed.  She slowly fell into a drowsy state, but the peaceful death was not coming, a burning throughout her body led her into a coma and she woke in the infamous Villette hospital for the mentally insane.  Upon waking, the doctor told the girl she would survive, but her heart had taken the toll from the suicide attempt.  The state her heart was in, she could expect a week of life before she succumbed to the death she had wished for.

Not to give too much away, Veronica reluctantly made friends, and rediscovered her passion for the piano.  In fact, her piano playing was said to lift many spirits in the gloomy hospital.  With a week left to live, what would you do? Veronica searched her soul and others joined.  Her weak heart pushed the limits and she found herself having heart-attacks through the week.

In a previous interview, Coelho explained his need to write this book.  He had been put into a mental asylum himself as a young man. Coelho even modeled a character in the book after himself. His parents expected him to become an engineer, but his thirst for writing could not allow him to complete the studies the family expected of him.  He made his way out and the rest is history.

Whether you’re feeling ‘in a rut’ or just enjoy Coelho’s books, this is a good read.  Coelho never lets you down. Enjoy.