When I Was A Child I Read Books

I finished Marilynne Robinson’s collection of essays When I Was A Child I Read Books.  I find her thought process fascinating.  I end up having to read her essays slowly so that I can think about all that she says.

Marilynne Robinson

One aspect that I appreciate about her writing is that she does not “pigeon-hole” herself into any specific political or ideological category.   She does not hide the fact that she embraces the Christian faith and takes on Victor J. Stenger’s The New Atheism in a critical debate.  At the same time, many of her ideas about generosity and aleviating poverty could put her on the liberal side of politics.

Her knowledge of science, religion, philosophy, literature and history is amazing.  She has a fondness for sixteenth century theologian John Calvin, old church hymns, and Edgar Allan Poe:

Edgar Allan Poe began to matter to me in what might fairly be called my childhood, my early adolescence.  I more than forgave him his febrile imagination.  In fact I loved the dark gorgeousness of his mind, and the utter, quite palpable, almost hallucinatory loneliness of it.  His elegance and learnedness were his defenses, ironic, conscious, and pure for that reason.  I have always thought of him as a man waiting out the endless night of his life with a book in his hand, some quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, noting the smell and feel of the leather binding, the pretty trace of gilding on the spine, almost too moved by the gratuitous humanity of the thing to open it and put himself in the power of whatever old music still lived in it.  Runes and rhymes, labials and sibilants, trying the sound of them under his breath, while the long hours passed.  I read everything I could find of his, at some point even the essay – or as he would have it, the poem- called Eureka.

I’m now going to have to read this poem by Poe.

Bradbury’s “The Picasso Summer”

Around the time of Ray Bradbury’s death this year, I read that, in spite of being known as a science fiction writer, he technically considered most of his work to be fantasy.  His short story “The Picasso Summer” happens to be neither (at least according to my definitions).

Have you ever had an experience (read a book, heard a song, looked at a work of art, met someone) that was so meaningful that you couldn’t explain it to anyone else?  And even if you did, you knew they wouldn’t understand.

George Smith has a brief and wordless meeting with Picasso on a beach in France.  I say wordless because Smith and Picasso have no conversation.  Smith simply observes Picasso doing what he does best.  However, Bradbury’s words in describing this chance encounter are nothing short of poetic.

When Smith goes back to his wife at their hotel, she asks him “What is it?”  He replies with an understated “Just the tide”.

This short story (it is very short, about 4 pages) ranks up there with some of the best ones I’ve read.

(Below is one of my favorite Picasso paintings, The Old Guitarist,  – if you’re ever at the Chicago Art Museum, check it out!)

File:Old guitarist chicago.jpg

Dickens’ “The Signal-Man”

I usually don’t think of Charles Dickens when I think about ghost stories.  This in spite of the fact that he wrote one of the most well-known (and a personal favorite of mine) ghost stories ever.  I think because A Christmas Carol is about Christmas as opposed to holidays in which ghosts are more prevelent and because it’s basic message is uplifting even if it does have a few scary moments, I tend to not put it in the “ghost story” genre.

This weekend, I read Dickens’ short story “The Signal-Man” and was pleasantly surprised that it was a ghost story – the creepy kind.  The narrator becomes acquainted with a railroad signal-man and occasionally shares the man’s solitude on the job.  The signal-man confides to the narrator that he has seen “Appearances” at the mouth of the tunnel by his station.  They occur coincidentally (perhaps?) before some unpleasant circumstances.  The story is rather short, but Dickens writing is beautiful as he describes the personality and station (no pun intended) in life of the signal-man.  The story ends in typical ghost story fashion, so you’ll have to read it for yourself to find out what happens.

I thought I would mention, though, that what makes the story creepy for me is the narrator.  The reader knows absolutely nothing about him except that he is staying at a nearby inn.  No reason is given for why he is roaming around the railroad tracks or why he takes an interest in the signal-man.  It makes me wonder!?

P. S. As I was reading this story, I was reminded of Edgar Allen Poe.

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov’s novel, I, Robot, consists of a number of shorter stories that tie together.  An elderly Susan Calvin is being interviewed about her career as a robopsychologist with one of the premier developers of robots.  Each of the stories take place during a different stage of history in which robots and later, machines, have a greater degree of influence on the world portrayed in the novel.

The novel was written in 1950 and some of the future dates in the book are presently in the past, but it’s not difficult to make the adjustment.  Like much science fiction written several decades ago, it’s always fun to see what kind of things “came true”.  While much of the technology in the book probably exists in some form today, the story to me still seemed like the future.

I don’t know whether this was part of Asimov’s plan or whether it’s just me, but I had a difficult time relating to the humans in the story.  None of them seemed very likable – with the exception of the little girl, Gloria, who had a robot (Robbie) as a nursemaid.   On the other hand, I loved the robots, especially the one who read human minds and romance novels.

I did develop an appreciation for Susan Calvin.  As time went on, she seemed to gather a considerable amount of insight regarding robots and humans and the world in which they both lived.  When the relatively peaceful world could not determine whether the machines were making right or wrong decisions, in spite of technological advances, she came up with this conclusion:

…it would be harmful to humanity to have the explanation known, and that’s why we can only guess – and keep on guessing.

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

How a novel can be gut-wrenching and called Year of Wonders at the same time and somehow have that make sense is truly remarkable.

The tag line of Geraldine Brooks’ novel is A Novel of the Plague: so I wasn’t expecting it to be a barrel of laughs.  The story is set in 1665 in the small village of Eyam, Derbyshire in England while it is hit with the plague for the better part of a year.  Voluntarily quarantining itself at the advice of the kind, but occasionally misguided, rector, Michael Pompellion, the novel tells the story of two women, Anna Frith and the rector’s wife, Elinor, as the three of them take care of the villagers both physically and spiritually.

While Anna’s faith waivers, she increases her own determination and willingness to research (along with Elinor) various herbs and medical practices that could help the plague victims and prevent it’s spread.

I think the brilliance of the novel comes in allowing the reader to take this journey with these characters and become just as weary, frustrated, confused and determined as they are.  I think the word “wonder” in the title might actually mean “to question” as opposed to something inspiring awe.  All the people affected by the plague ask age-old questions: How can God do this?  Does God even exist?

The closest Brooks gets to giving an answer comes at the end when the plague is finally gone and Anna describes her faith:

…that flimsy, tattered thing that is the remnant of my own belief.  I see it like the faded threads of a banner on a battlement, shot-shredded, and if it once bore a device, none could now say what it might have been…I cannot say that I have faith anymore.  Hope, perhaps…it will do, for now.

 

“Christmas on Ganymede” – in July

Against Jupiter’s great yellowness was outlined a flying sleigh, complete with reindeer.  It was only a tiny thing, but there was no doubt about it.  Santa Claus was coming.

There was only one thing wrong with the picture.  The sleigh, “reindeer” and all, while plunging ahead at a terrific speed, was flying upside down.

I don’t mind posting about Isaac Asimov’s short story “Christmas on Ganymede” (written in 1941) in July because years on Ganymede are not the same as years on Earth.  This little fact plays into the conclusion of the story that I would describe as enjoyable, funny and, I’ll say it, cute.

Mild-mannered Earthman, Olaf Johnson, works on Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede, for a company that ships Ganymedan natural resources to Earth.  When Olaf unwittingly tells the Ganymedan natives (also employed by the company) about Santa Claus, they refuse to work until they see him, putting the company’s quota in jeopardy.

The rest of the story consists of Olaf’s reluctant plan to let the Ossies (that’s what the native Ganymedans are called, you’ll have to read the story to find out why this is so) see Santa Claus – in order to appease his boss, a sort of outerspace Scrooge if I may allude to another more famous Christmas story.

This is the first writing of Isaac Asimov’s that I’ve ever read.  I have a feeling that not all of his stories are as light and fun as this one, but I was exactly in the mood for this story.

“There was nothing to say.”

History fascinates me because I wasn’t there – at least not for a significant chunk of it.  With accusations of “revisionism”  being thrown around when some aspect of history gets uncomfortable, I found James Alexander Thom’s novel Sign-Talker a beautiful account of Lewis and Clark’s monumental expedition as seen through the eyes of their hunter and interpreter, half-Shawnee George Drouillard.  The novel seemed to encompass the ideals, both noble and flawed, of everyone involved – but again, I wasn’t there.

According to Thom’s afterword, Sacagawea has been romanticized in her role as Lewis and Clark’s guide.  While she had a specific role in the journey’s success, Drouillard served as their most important “hired hand” due to his exceptional skills at hunting and interpreting languages both spoken and signed.  Throughout the novel, Thom presents excerpts from the explorer’s journals, poor spelling included, to supplement the novel’s story.  Thom’s writing style reminds me of a journal:  the details of the landscape and peoples encountered seem as detailed as William Clark’s measurements of moth’s wingspans he finds along the way.

Meriwether Lewis uncharacteristically provided one of the more humorous moments in the novel when months of work resulted in his iron boat leaking and finally sinking.  He exclaimed “Damn, what a time to run out of whiskey!”  While he may not have actually said this, it’s documented that a significant amount of whiskey was brought with them and it ran out a year before the end of the journey.  Thom also insinuates that Lewis liked his whiskey a little too much.

Drouillard’s incredible value to the expedition is contrasted with the detachment he feels being half-Indian among whitemen.  “Indian” and “whitemen” are the words Thom uses which are probably historically correct by 19th century standards if not politically correct by 21st century standards.  While Drouillard has more of an affinity toward the various tribes encountered during the expedition, he feels “left out” because of his association with Lewis and Clark.

While learning about the personalities, attitudes, ideals and implications involved in the journey was well worth the read,  I enjoyed most the anticipation of getting to the Pacific Ocean:

There was nothing to say.  They had all seen immense wonders beyond imagination in these two years, and should have been immune to amazement by now.

George Drouillard stood in the wind and the noise watching the light play over the endless water.  This was the last edge of the land known as Turtle Island by his own people.

Never having seen the Pacific Ocean myself, I can’t think of a better description.