Thursday, September 29, 2016

Redemption in a Small Western Town

Eventide (Plainsong, #2)Eventide 
by Kent Haruf

"They came up from the horse barn in the slanted light of early morning.  The McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond.  Old men approaching an old house at the end of summer.  They came on across the gravel drive past the pickup and the car parked at the hogwire fencing and came one after the other through the wire gate At the porch they scraped their boots on the saw blade sunken in the dirt, the ground packed and shiny around it from long use and mixed with barnlot manure, and walked up the plank steps onto the screened porch and entered the kitchen where the nineteen-year-old girl Victoria Robideaux sat at the pinewood table feeding oatmeal to he little daughter."

Earlier this year I read Kent Haruf's novel, Plainsong, about the people living in and near the small town of Holt, Colorado. This novel continues that story. Some of the characters from the previous novel are joined by others to form another heart-warming story about life in this small western town.

Two characters in particular, the McPheron brothers, are at the center of the story. In the previous novel they had befriended a young unmarried woman and her child who needed a home. As the story continues she is starting college and the brothers are once again alone with themselves. While they try to learn to live without Victoria their saga contains heartbreak and, for one of them, a chance to connect with a woman late, but not too late in a life that had come near to a new depth of loneliness. There is a young boy stoically caring for his grandfather while another couple try,but do not succeed to protect their children from a violent relative. The story with its many small town characters is not only about loneliness and distress, but also about people helping each other. There are moments when danger and evil touches some lives but it is depicted in a way that seems a natural part of the human condition.

Haruf writes about people who share a stoic vision of life--and of the community and landscape that brings them together. Through his spare prose on every page these lives emerge with a beauty and endurance that is impressive. The title of the novel is from a familiar church hymn; one that I remember singing in my youth. The short chapters might be compared to the stanzas of a hymn as the story unfolds with a a sort of musical rhythm. Ultimately, Eventide is a story of the abandonment, grief, and sorrow that bind these people together. It is also a story of the kindness, hope, and dignity that redeem their lives.

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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Satiric Essay

Selected Prose and Poetry 
by Jonathan Swift

"The army of the Ancients was much fewer in number;  Homer led the Horse, and Pindar the Light-Horse;  Euclid was chief Engineer: Plato and Aristotle commanded the Bowmen, Herodotus and Livy the Foot, Hippocrates the Dragoons."

Jonathan Swift was one of the greatest satirists of his age and we still read his prose with delight for its wit and humor. This collection includes several examples of his satire with the essay "A Modest Proposal" being perhaps the best known. Early in his career as a prose stylist he wrote an essay that was equally witty while blending satire with polemics. That essay was "The Battle of the Books".

Mirroring an earlier literary argument in France was one in England where Sir William Temple published an answer to the "Moderns" entitled Of Ancient and Modern Learning in 1690. His essay introduced two metaphors to the debate that would be reused by later authors. First, he proposed that modern man was just a dwarf standing upon the "shoulders of giants" (that modern man saw farther because he begins with the observations and learning of the ancients). They possessed a clear view of nature, and modern man only reflected or refined their vision. These metaphors, would be continued in Swift's satire and others. Temple's essay was answered by Richard Bentley, the classicist and William Wotton, the critic. Temple was supported by friends and clients, sometimes known as the "Christ Church Wits," referring to their association with Christ Church, Oxford and the guidance of Francis Atterbury, then attacked the "moderns" (and Wotton in particular). The debate in England lasted only for a few years.

Notably, Jonathan Swift was not among the participants, though he was working as Temple's secretary. Therefore, it is likely that the quarrel was more of a spur to Swift's imagination than a debate that he felt inclined to enter. He worked for William Temple during the time of the controversy, and Swift developed his short satire entitled "The Battle of the Books" in which, there is an epic battle fought in a library when various books come alive and attempt to settle the arguments between moderns and ancients. In Swift's satire, he skilfully manages to avoid saying which way victory fell. He portrays the manuscript as having been damaged in places, thus leaving the end of the battle up to the reader.

The battle is not just between Classical authors and modern authors, but also between authors and critics. The prose is a parody of heroic poetry and not any too easy a read for such a short essay. One section of the essay that helped this reader immensely was the interruption in the combat in the "Battle" with an interpolated allegory of the spider and the bee. A spider, "swollen up to the first Magnitude, by the Destruction of infinite Numbers of Flies" resides like a castle holder above a top shelf, and a bee, flying from the natural world and drawn by curiosity, wrecks the spider's web. The spider curses the bee for clumsiness and for wrecking the work of one who is his better. The spider says that his web is his home, a stately manor, while the bee is a vagrant who goes anywhere in nature without any concern for reputation. The bee answers that he is doing the bidding of nature, aiding in the fields, while the spider's castle is merely what was drawn from its own body, which has "a good plentiful Store of Dirt and Poison." 

This allegory was already somewhat old before Swift employed it, and it is a digression within the Battle proper. However, it also illustrates the theme of the whole work. The bee is like the ancients and like authors: it gathers its materials from nature and sings its drone song in the fields. The spider is like the moderns and like critics: it kills the weak and then spins its web (books of criticism) from the taint of its own body digesting the viscera. The moderns were depicted as narrow-minded, filled with poisonous prose, and in general intellectual upstarts. In spite of this depiction the ancients were not without faults and the essay does not conclude with either side winning.

As satire it is fascinating if not exactly fun, and it is especially interesting to see the early use of metaphors like that of modern thinkers "standing on the shoulders of giants". As a reader who values the ancient classics I appreciate this discussion recognizing that there is room for new ideas as long as we do not neglect the foundation provided by the giants of the past.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Speculative Fiction

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish.

This week's Top Ten Tuesday is all about my  Ten ALL TIME Favorite Books Of Speculative Fiction.  Using the definition proposed by Margaret Atwood this includes Science Fiction and Fantasy.  They are listed in no particular order. I highly recommend all of the following:

The Voyage of the Space Beagle

by A.E. van Vogt

Among the many science fiction authors I discovered in my youth Van Vogt was my favorite, primarily for the super-human heroes of many of his novels.  This was based on several stories, the first third of  which appeared in the 7/39 ASTOUNDING as Van Vogt's first science fiction story, "Black Destroyer".    Van Vogt (1912-2000), named an SFFWA Grandmaster in 1995, was the most influential science fiction writer of his time.

The Martian Chronicles

by Ray Bradbury

I loved Ray Bradbury's stories but Bradbury's Mars mesmerized me with its stories of  hope, dreams and metaphor - of crystal pillars and fossil seas - where a fine dust settles on the great, empty cities of a silently destroyed civilization. It is here the invaders have come to despoil and commercialize, to grow and to learn - first a trickle, then a torrent, rushing from a world with no future toward a promise of tomorrow. The Earth man conquers Mars...and then is conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race.

Out of the Silent Planet 
by C.S. Lewis

In the first novel of C.S. Lewis's classic science fiction trilogy, Dr Ransom, a Cambridge academic, is abducted and taken on a spaceship to the red planet of Malacandra, which he knows as Mars. His captors are plotting to plunder the planet's treasures and plan to offer Ransom as a sacrifice to the creatures who live there. Ransom discovers he has come from the 'silent planet' – Earth – whose tragic story is known throughout the universe...

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

by Jules Verne

I read several of Verne's adventure novels but this one where French naturalist Dr. Aronnax embarks on an expedition to hunt down a sea monster is my favorite.  He is surprised to discover instead the Nautilus, a remarkable submarine built by the enigmatic Captain Nemo. Together Nemo and Aronnax explore the underwater marvels, undergo a transcendent experience amongst the ruins of Atlantis, and plant a black flag at the South Pole. But Nemo's mission is one of revenge-and his methods coldly efficient.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland 

by Lewis Carroll

This is one of the first novels I remember reading (I still have the original book in my library).  Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (commonly shortened to Alice in Wonderland) is an 1865 novel written by English mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. It tells of a girl named Alice falling through a rabbit hole into a fantasy world populated by peculiar, anthropomorphic creatures. The tale plays with logic, giving the story lasting popularity with adults as well as with children. It is considered to be one of the best examples of the literary nonsense genre. Its narrative course and structure, characters and imagery have been enormously influential in both popular culture and literature, especially in the fantasy genre.  I have reread it several times over my life and look forward to reading it again.

The Left Hand of Darkness

by Ursula K. Le Guin

A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can choose -and change - their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter's inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters.  In the process he becomes friend with one of the aliens and it is this friendship that is one of the outstanding aspects of  Le Guin's wonderful story.  Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.

The Road

by Cormac McCarthy

 A father and his son walk alone through burned America, heading through the ravaged landscape to the coast. This is the profoundly moving story of their journey. The Road boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which two people, 'each the other's world entire', are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.

The Man in the High Castle

by Philip K. Dick

 It's America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some 20 years earlier the United States lost a war, and is now occupied jointly by Nazi Germany and Japan.  This harrowing, Hugo Award-winning novel is the work that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction while breaking the barrier between science fiction and the serious novel of ideas. In it Dick offers a haunting vision of history as a nightmare from which it may just be possible to awake.

 Lord Foul's Bane (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever #1)
by Stephen R. Donaldson

He called himself Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever because he dared not believe in the strange alternate world in which he suddenly found himself.
Yet the Land tempted him. He had been sick; now he seemed better than ever before. Through no fault of his own, he had been outcast, unclean, a pariah. Now he was regarded as a reincarnation of the Land's greatest hero--Berek Halfhand--armed with the mystic power of White Gold. That power alone could protect the Lords of the Land from the ancient evil of Despiser, Lord Foul.  Only...Covenant had no idea of how the power could be used!
Thus begins one of the most remarkable epic fantasies ever written and one of my favorites.

Number Ten must be left to a list of some of the other books that could have been included.   I could not decide between these wonderful works of speculative fiction, all of which I have enjoyed immensely:  The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr., and Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke.  Thus there are fifteen in total for my top ten and many more that have brought me enjoyment over more than fifty years of reading.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Alone in the Castle

Tales of H.P. Lovecraft"The Outsider" from
Tales of H.P. Lovecraft 
by H.P. Lovecraft

"Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness." 
 -  H. P. Lovecraft

In this volume Joyce Carol Oates has selected some of the best tales of the master of the macabre, H. P. Lovecraft. 
The introductory tale, "The Outsider", is written in a first-person narrative style, and details the miserable and apparently lonely life of an individual, who appears to have never contacted with another individual. The story begins, with the narrator explaining his origins. His memory of others is vague, and he cannot seem to recall any details of his personal history, including who he is or where he is originally from. The narrator tells of his environment: a dark, decaying castle amid an "endless forest" of high, unlit trees. He has never seen natural light, nor another human being, and he has never ventured from the prison-like home he now inhabits. The only knowledge the narrator has of the outside world, is from his reading of the "antique books" that line the walls of his castle.

The narrator tells of his eventual determination to free himself, from what he views as a prison-like existence. He eventually decides to climb the ruined staircase of the high castle tower which appears to be his only hope for an escape. At the place where the stairs diminish into crumbled ruins, the narrator begins a long, slow climb up the tower wall, until he comes upon a trapdoor in the ceiling, which he pushes up and climbs through. Amazingly, he finds himself not at the great height he anticipated, but at ground level in another world. With the sight of the full moon before him, he proclaims, "There came to me the purest ecstasy I have ever known."(p 3) Overcome with the emotion he feels in beholding what—until now—he had only read about, the narrator takes in his new surroundings. He realizes that he is in an old churchyard, and he wanders out into the countryside before eventually coming upon another castle.

Upon visiting the castle, which he finds "maddeningly familiar," the narrator sees a gathering of people at a party within. Longing for some type of human contact, he climbs through a window into the room. Upon his entering, the people inside become terrified. They scream and collectively flee from the room, many stumbling blindly with their hands held over their eyes toward the walls in search of an exit. The narrator attempts to discover the source of their terror and in doing so the short story culminates with a shocking revelation.
This short beginning to the collection of works by Lovecraft is reminiscent of Poe at his best with its atmosphere of death and decrepitude; the feeling of isolation and desire for discovery; and the not-unexpected yet still horrifying revelation that ends the tale.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Life in the Hive

The Bees: A Novel 
The Bees: A Novel

"Flora did not hear the rest.  With the slightest press of intention the air rushed beneath her wings and the apple trees fell away below.  She took a strong, high course, and as her antennae automatically adjusted to flight position, she felt a channel open deep within them through which streamed Lily's knowledge and aerial skills." (p 111)

From the first page of chapter one I found this novel thoroughly riveting. The protagonist, a bee like all the other characters in this fantasy, is Flora 717 who is born into a caste of the humblest of workers in a honeybee hive: the Sanitation workers. All other workers are associated with specific flowers: where the Teasels work the Nurseries, the Thistles guard the hive, and Sage priestesses govern in the Queen's name, Floras are dismissed as unworthy of differentiation and forbidden to speak. But from her emergence in the opening chapter, 717 is marked by a Sage priestess as unusual: much larger and uglier than her kind, she speaks and also has the capacity to produce royal jelly, called Flow, at a time when the Hive is in dire need of more nurses. This first distinction leads to more, and Flora 717 gradually becomes involved in complicated and dangerous activities. She is reminiscent of a Cinderella who appears to belong to the scullery but instead finds herself more and more at home in the highest reaches of the Hive Hierarchy.

The author, Laline Paull, demonstrates all this with a lovely prose style that sounds a bit like that of an ancient royal clan, but without detracting from the suspense and action of the plot. Furthermore, the way Paull portrays the bees' world through scent, heat, and movement is effective. There were moments of an all too noticeable tendency to anthropomorphize — a bee prodding another bee with a stick, for instance — but none of the stylistic choices seemed to intrude; rather they fade into the background as the bees story, that is Flora 717's story, takes the forefront. 
The bees develop a relationship with flowers by seducing them through pollination; they name all the Hive's enemies The Myriad; the first encounter experienced by Flora 717 of a battle with Wasps is tremendously exciting; and they have scent-painted histories of the Hive in a sort of library. The result of all of this is both evocative and beautiful.

I enjoyed the novel tremendously, much as I have previously enjoyed animal fables like Narayan's A Tiger for Malgudi, London's Call of the Wild, and Adams's Watership Down. Paull's belongs in this territory as she focuses on the rhythms and mores of animals even though she eschews using metaphor for political or social allegory. This novel begins and ends with the Hive, effectively dramatizing its life cycle. This is underlined by book-ending the story with reference to the human owners of the property, including the Hive and, in doing so, underlining the indifference of the bees to the humans. This is a tantalizing and tremendous fantasy that takes the reader on a wonderful journey into the world of Bees.