Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Make Me Think

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  This week’s topic is books that make me think.  In some cases, it’s easier to come up with an author that makes me think as opposed to one book, but here goes in no particular order other than when they popped into my head:

1.  The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

2.  Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

3.  Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard

4.  The Stranger by Albert Camus

5.  Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

6.  Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

7.  The Chosen by Chaim Potok

8.  We Make A Life By What We Give by Richard B. Gunderman

9.  When I Was A Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

10.  The Sea Wolf by Jack London

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Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Books Read During The Lifespan of My Blog

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  So far it’s been a fun way to find out what others are reading and get some good ideas on books to read in the future.  This week the topic is Top Ten Books Read During the Lifespan of Your Blog.   Even though my blog is less than a year old and I haven’t read as many books compared to some blogs I’ve visited, it was still difficult to determine exactly which books I would include in my list.  Here’s what I came up with (not in any particular order):

1.  We Make A Life By What We Give by Richard B. Gunderman

2.  When I Was A Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

3.  Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

4.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

5.  The Sea Wolf by Jack London

6.  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

7.  Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

8.  For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

9.  White Fang by Jack London

10.  11-22-63 by Stephen King

My Favorite Agnostic

I could have called this post “My Favorite Martian” but I believe that title has already been taken.  And besides, Valentine Michael Smith, or just plain “Mike”, the Man from Mars in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land wasn’t my favorite character in the book.  His agnostic Earthly father figure, Dr. Jubal Harshaw, was.

I’ve seen this book in bookstores since I was a kid hanging out in the science fiction section but never had a clue as to what it was about.  Last summer, a friend recommended Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  I read it and enjoyed it enough to read another of his novels this summer.  I’ve also heard good things about Starship Troopers (the novel, not the movie).

For the book to be published in 1961, Heinlein had to cut around 60,000 words.  My understanding is that the publishers simply didn’t want the book to be as long as it was; it didn’t have anything to do with the subject matter.  In 1990, the novel was published as Heinlein originally wanted it published.  With that publication, Kurt Vonnegut wrote an interesting review of the uncut version in the New York Times.  The version of the novel that I read included those 60,000 words.

I have to admit that the novel itself was a little bizarre for my tastes.  Mike technically is not a Martian, he is a human born on Mars and raised by Martians.  Actual Martian creatures are discussed but never given a concrete description.  A human expedition brings Mike back to Earth as an adult; however, he seems more a child until he learns earthly ways.  He still maintains his Martian “powers”.

Harshaw, an attorney and doctor, rescues him from the world government and brings Mike back to his household to tutor him.  His household includes several adult employees who all take a liking to Mike.  Harshaw reminds me of Wolf Larsen in Jack London’s The Sea Wolf  although with significantly more compassion.  He’s extremely knowledgable in art, philosophy, history, religion and literature and enjoys debating ideas from all of these fields with his employees, whom he treats as both his children and friends.  He’s comfortable with doubt if he cannot come to a hard and fast conclusion.  He’d rather live with doubt than come up with a pat answer that somehow doesn’t ring true.   He’s not afraid of tough questions that cannot be immediately answered.

As Mike finishes his human education, he moves into the world to spread the Martian “gospel” in the form of a circus cult commune.  According to Vonnegut’s article, Heinlein’s wife indicated that he considered monotheism and monogomy to be our society’s “sacred cows”.  This strange Martian cult throws both of these “cows” out the window.  Many of Harshaw’s employees join the cult to his disappointment.  Ultimately, Harshaw lives with them physically but never quite gives in to their beliefs emotionally, mentally or spiritually.

The novel uses a device that I sometimes find annoying:  to enjoy the story, the author feels the reader must be familiar with religious, historical and philosophical ideas that are not necessarily known to the average reader; therefore, the author gives mini lectures and writes mini essays through “conversation” among characters to bring the reader up to speed.  If the author wants to inform the reader, he could give a lecture or write an essay.  Including it in a novel seems awkward.  This device could possibly be why Heinlein hasn’t gotten his due from the literary critics Vonnegut refers to in his review.

I enjoyed the ideas that Heinlein throws out in this novel, I’m just not sure I agree with his conclusions.  I prefer Harshaw’s ability to live without a conclusion if a “real” one doesn’t seem to exist.

Jack London by Earle Labor

I picked up Earle Labor’s book Jack London thinking it was a biography; however, it was actually more of a literary analysis of London’s work with a little biographical information thrown in.  It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but because it was short, I read it and gathered some interesting facts and insights.

1.  According to Labor, The Call of the Wild was London’s “masterpiece”; however, I was surprised to find that he wrote numerous novels that I had never encountered:  Martin Eden, Burning Daylight, The Little Lady of the Big House.  He also mentions The Scarlet Plague, an apocalyptic, dystopian science fiction novel.  I’ve only  heard of it within the last few weeks as Jay, over at Bibliophilopolis, recently read this.

2.  Critics have generally loved Wolf Larsen of The Sea Wolf but have hated the inclusion of Maud Brewster toward the end as a sort of love interest for Humphrey Van Weyden. While I didn’t necessarily hate her, I thought her popping up in the middle of the ocean seemed a little too coincidental.  London indicated that he felt his “fans” would want a romance included in the novel.

3.  London was not the starving artist like some authors.  He gained a considerable amount of success and fame in his relatively short life (he died when he was 40).  The fact that he was successful has always been a source of contention with many critics and has kept him from being considered truly great.

4.  He ran for mayor of Oakland, CA as a Socialist candidate twice and lost both times.  The fact that many of his protagonists or heroes were rugged individualists and London himself pulled himself up by his boot straps more or less, he considered himself a Socialist and many of his lesser known works have a bit of propaganda included in them.

5.  Many have believed that London committed suicide when he was 40; however, according to Labor, London was in bad health, due in part to alcohol and in part to working too hard, and died as a result, but it was not suicide.

The Buzz About “The Mother Hive”

Last week I read Jack London’s short story, “The Strength of the Strong”, which was a reply to Rudyard Kipling’s attack on Socialism in the form of his short story, “The Mother Hive”.  This week I read “The Mother Hive” and liked it just as well as London’s story.

As the title would suggest, the story’s setting is a bee hive with a certain working order that maintains the life of each individual bee.  One day, a negligent guard bee lets in a dreaded Wax Moth.  Throughout the hive’s existence, the bees have been warned that a Wax Moth that infiltrates their world will destroy their working order and eventually will destroy their world.  The Wax Moth begins to tell the bees that their work and order isn’t necessary, that the traditions of the hive are simply outdated and that the bees could have just as much of a good life by rejecting the traditions with which they have been living.  One bee, Melissa, sees the error of the Wax Moth’s ideas but is unable to prevent the majority of the hive from buying into them.  As a result, the bees end up eating parts of the hive that are not meant to be eaten and giving birth to strangely shaped baby bees which continue to eat the hive.  Melissa is able to persuade only a few bees to secretly raise up a Princess Bee to replace the current corrupted Queen Bee.  As the hive becomes increasingly decayed, the Bee Master eventually burns it while Melissa, the Princess and the few bees in Melissa’s camp “swarm” to the Oak Tree to start a new hive and a new life.

The story is written as a fable, almost a fairy tale, and stands up with the best of them.  It’s beautifully written and is probably one of the best stories by Kipling that I’ve read.  The way he is able to take the natural world and infuse it with a battle for good and evil is amazing.  The burning of the hive by the Bee Master is painted brilliantly in sweeping apocalyptic prose.  I have a feeling that perhaps the politics involved may have in some way kept it from being thought of as a great story in some circles.  I have not done exhaustive research as to the specific circumstances or events that may have prompted Kipling to write this story.  The only information I could come up with was that the story was his attack on Socialistic ideas that he thought were infiltrating his society.  The story itself does not specify the Wax Moth as a Socialist; it simply shows the Wax Moth undermining the traditions that have kept the hive going.

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If I would recommend these two stories to anyone, I would probably suggest reading “The Mother Hive” first and then read London’s “The Strength of the Strong”.  The idea that Jack London would stand up for socialism was a little surprising to me.  His characters all seem to be rugged individualists that pull themselves up by their boot straps.  It’s difficult to imagine Wolf Larsen in The Sea Wolf as a socialist.  At the same time, I’m reminded that many of London’s rugged individualists end up dead.  I plan on reading biographies of London and of Kipling in the near future, perhaps this will shed some light on their lives and political beliefs.

“…oppressed by the primal melancholy of his race.”

Much of Jack London’s writing prompts me to think about the differences between animals and humans.  None of his characters have made me think about this so much as Wolf Larsen in London’s novel, The Sea Wolf. 

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Larsen is the Captain of a seal-hunting schooner called the Ghost.  Reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s novel Captains Courageous, The Sea Wolf tells the tale of Humphrey Van Weyden, a learned man of privilege who is abandoned by his luxury liner and picked up (and saved) by Wolf Larsen’s ship.  As with Kipling’s novel, Van Weyden learns “the ropes” of seafaring, something he never dreamed of doing.

The Sea Wolf, however, puts much more depth and complexity into this story and into the relationship between Larsen and Van Weyden.  Wolf Larsen is created with varied contradictions that form a realistic if somewhat scary and perhaps even tragic man.  While he rules the ship the way a lion (or perhaps a wolf) would rule the jungle, he has the seemingly educated mind of a philosopher.  He becomes attached to Van Weyden because he can have conversations with him about literature and philosophy.  However, he fundamentally disagrees with Van Weyden about what makes a human.  Van Weyden implies that his world view is one where humans have a moral code, an ability to think, and a soul.  Larsen understands his ability to think as a human; however, he looks at it as a curse instead of a blessing.  He almost would rather be an animal that doesn’t have to think or worry about morals or his soul.  He tells Van Weyden this in one of their confrontations:

You have called me snake, tiger, shark, monster, and Caliban.  And yet, you little rag puppet, you little echoing mechanism, you are unable to kill me as you would a snake or a shark, because I have hands, feet, and a body shaped something like yours.

London’s ability to display both the fondness and the disdain Larsen has for Van Weyden is truly amazing.

While Larsen is certainly the more compelling character of the novel, Humphrey Van Weyden gives him a run for his money in a more subtle way.  As the reader, while I was in awe of Wolf Larsen as an intellectual monster, “oppressed by the primal melancholy of his race”, Van Weyden quietly seemed to grow on me.

He acknowledged the influence that Larsen had on him:

While my faith and hope in human life still survived Wolf Larsen’s destructive criticism, he had nevertheless been a cause of change in minor matters.  He had opened up for me the world of the real, of which I had known practically nothing and from which I had always shrunk.

Van Weyden also managed to “find his legs” to stand on during his conversations with Larsen:

You will observe there… a slight trembling.  It is because I am afraid, the flesh is afraid; and I am afraid in my mind because I do not wish to die.  But my spirit masters the trembling flesh and the qualms of the mind.  I am more than brave. I am courageous.  Your flesh is not afraid.  You are not afraid.  On the one hand, it costs you nothing to encounter danger; on the other hand, it even gives you delight.  You enjoy it.  You may be unafraid, Mr. Larsen, but you must grant that the bravery is mine.

Van Weyden’s ability to adapt to his surroundings and his circumstances made him something more than simply a self-proclaimed man of ideas.   His intellect crossed over from the world of thinking to the world of doing when “doing” was required to survive.  Perhaps this is bravery?