Orange and Lemons

They say that the opening line of this book is one of the classic lines in literary fiction: It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were all striking thirteen. Well, it’s a bright day in October and the clock will be striking 13:45 in just a few moments, Central Standard Time.

I read 1984 in high school and somehow failed to recall the total bleakness of this novel. Winston Smith is trapped in a world in which privacy is impossible, personal relationships are perilous, and independent thought is criminal. There is nothing beautiful or moving in this story, nor in the language Orwell uses to convey his nightmarish future. And I remember, in high school, wanting to learn the whole rhyme for the London churches – Orange and Lemons say the bells of St. Clemens/You owe me five farthings say the bells of St. Martins/When will you pay me say the bells of Old Bailey/When I am rich say the bells of Shoreditch. I remember that part. I think I purposely blocked out the rest.

So, thirty-odd years later, thanks to the insanity that has been #theLIST, Mr. Orwell and I are locked in a bitter struggle – we are trying to see if his vision of the future can really happen.

With a sick and sad feeling in the pit of my stomach, I must humbly acknowledge that at least a part of it not only can be, but is.

Political season, you know. Presidential elections in the US – you see boogie men around every placard.

Winston’s job is to alter the past to suit the present. There never was a past – only what the “Party” has approved to be remembered. And, naturally, giving the shifting of time, what can be remembered is altered daily. Winston, himself, alters it. It is a dreary desk job, performed by a colorless man with an ulcerating sore on his ankle and a secret – he commits thoughtcrime daily, without even attempting crimestop, and is forever lost in doublespeak.

The country of Oceania has always been at war. With whom it has been at war changes, and yet does not change. The war is a necessity, for keeping the common man, or proles, from engaging in any sort of prosperity. The destruction of goods is a necessity.

Here, I pause and look over my shoulder. War is necessary. Peace is War. And there is war a-brewing, just waiting for a new catalyst from the United Nations. If I am not mistaken, gasoline prices in California are very high. There is unrest in Syria. There is oil in Syria. The political possibilities, so far out of the reach of my fingers, ring like church bells in my ears. I think I have just committed thoughtcrime – and is it just me, or do those campaign poster eyes follow everyone around?

The destruction of the family is well underway in Winston’s world – while marriage is encouraged, affection is not. Children are little spies encouraged to turn on their parents. Parsons falls victim to this.

And Winston, who knows, continues to alter the past and engage in a pointless affair with Julia, who is only a rebel from the waist down.

Needless to say, Winston does not escape the notice of Big Brother and certainly pays the penalty for his thoughtcrime. It takes a while, though, and he resists through rounds and rounds of torture. Once again, I take my nerd hat off to Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and the episode Chain of Command. In an eerie homage to Orwell, Captain Picard and the The Cardassian played by David Warner, play out the initial phases of Winston’s punishment.

What price a man’s soul? In a soulless world, Winston finds out the price of his own soul. His soul does not come cheaply, but it does come. War is Peace. Orange and lemons. It all flutters to dust in the end. I am saddened and warned and now must return to Netflix and find my Star Trek episode and look at it with new eyes.

What price a man’s soul? What price mine?

8/10 Hearts. This was not a pleasant read, but it is truly necessary.


The Beastie Within

In the back of my mind, I hear the opening credits of Survivor with the plaintive and haunting cry of a conch summoning the castaways to Tribal Council. After reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, I will never hear that little bit of reality television the same way again

One great thing about #theLIST is that it has brought me face-to-face with my own deepest emotions. I am going to make a giant leap in mental association and assert that this very reason is why each of these books made #theLIST. Staggering works of heartbreaking genius have been my fare and Lord of the Flies is heartbreaking.

Golding has challenged my view of children by marooning them on an island and letting them, in the immortal words of Jeff Probst, establish a new society. The setting is World War II and the children are the British children who have been taught to “do the right as we see the right”. It does not matter what the war. It does not matter what the nationality of the children. It matters only that “the right” quickly gives way to the myriad of beasties that lurk in the hearts of men.

Children, freed of the restraints of “grown-ups” begin by establishing an imitation of the order that they had enjoyed under adult rule. The conch – the symbol of power – is used to call assemblies where children decided important matters. However, soon they learn that deciding something is entirely different than carrying through the idea. Ralph clings to the rules and ranks of the other world, working quickly to be elected “chief”, recognizing that, if he does not act quickly, the other strong leader, Jack, will usurp his honors. He labors to create a civilized environment, complete with signal fire to facilitate rescue.

Golding does not give timelines except there is a vague mentioning of the passing of seasons and hair growing longer. Clothes fall into disrepair or are discarded. Bit by bit, the beastie that lives in the creepers or falls from the sky begins to live in the nightmares and day-terrors of the Littl’uns. The tribe divides into hunters and gatherers – Jack is the hunter, seeking the elusive pig for meat, while Ralph and Piggy and the little ones are gatherers, living on scavenged fruit, coaxing fire with Piggy’s specs, and struggling to maintain shelter and order.

Hunters hunt. That is what they do. And as they hunt, the last vestiges of civilization fall from them. Ralph and Piggy cling to the conch and the smoke, barely hanging on to their last alliance with Samneric, a set of twins who somehow merged into one name. As the hunters kill a pig and leave an offering for the beastie, they feed the beastie within themselves. They feast – not only on meat but also on power. The power of life and death is heady and they fan the flames of power within their own breasts until they hear nothing else. Painted in red and white clay, with their hair hanging down, they no longer fear the beast. Rather, they are the beast.

And in the midst of it all, Percival incessantly recites his address as if that one magic piece of information will help him hang on to his identity. His recitation is replaced with the hunter’s chant. Simon assumes a new identity and has critical information, but the beastie has already possessed the hearts and minds to such a powerful effect that no one hears or cares. The dance of the hunt must be satisfied.

Golding inexorably leads us down a path to an unwelcome knowledge – that we all have a beastie. If the beastie is fed, it demands and consumes, just as the island is consumed with the flames. Having never much believed in the goodness of Man, I am generally not surprised at his foibles. But I have believed in children, and my faith is shaken to its core.

A man has two wolves within him, one who is vengeful and mean and one who is gentle and noble. Which will win?

The one he feeds.

I must tend closer to the garden of my soul. Lord of the Flies reminds me which wolf to feed.

8/10 hearts. I am ineffably saddened and unsurprised, which makes it more sad in the end. The conch sounds plaintively in my heart.

A Firestorm for the Frozen Soul

When I made #theLIST, I pulled random works of supposed genius out of a hat and made it my business to read them. As an English major and classic book junkie, I had seriously neglected the science fiction genre, with the exception of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne Classics Illustrated, read when I was 12.

Nothing in my high school or college career even mentioned Fahrenheit 451, the Ray Bradbury classic that needs no illustration whatsoever.

I have to say, first and foremost, that I was drawn in immediately by Bradbury’s rich language. It was a pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. That is the second line. By then, I was hooked. The apocalyptic vision of a hose streaming kerosene to cause fires – burning books – draws forth a vision of a page dropped into a fire – it blackens and thins and finally collapses in a heap of ash.

Guy Montag lives in a world that has collapsed in a heap of ash. In his world, faster is better and suicide is painless. Humanity is disconnected. Walls are televisions and television is falsely interactive. Entertainment is the morphine for the emptiness of everyday life, where people are disconnected with one another on the most basic of levels. They tolerate each other but there are no deep feelings. Amusement parks offer violence at the speed of light and respect for life seems to be at a nadir. Suicide by sleeping pills is so common that there are reanimation technicians with two machines – one to pump the stomach and one to change the blood. No need for a doctor. It’s kind of like a quick lube for rusted souls.

Guy’s wife has a rusted soul.

Be that as it may, Guy becomes aware that there is an undercurrent both in his own soul and in his city – the ripple of discontent that comes from wanting human interaction, not mindless entertainment. Clarisse – the marvelously mad voice of sanity – clues him in on why houses no longer have porches – to prevent people from gathering to talk – really talk – about life and death and dandelions. Those that hoard books have their books burned. Those that gather and talk disappear.

And Guy comes alive when he witnesses a real death – reincarnation-less death. He snaps out of his denial and pushes himself off the cliff of comfort into the abyss of thirst. He is thirsty for knowledge but lacks faith in his ability to understand. Sadly, his boss and the Mechanical Hound more than understand his awakening. Between the two, the Mechanical Hound is more menacing.

I am drawn into the action as I watch in true horror and awe as Guy Montag stumbles from death to life. I have come to appreciate Ray Bradbury’s visionary roadmap that has led us, almost without deviation, to the world we live in today. With the foreshadowing of wall-to-wall entertainment, the disconnecting with nature and people through devotion to technology, and the need for faster, more violent entertainment, Bradbury shows us how easily a people can be led to ignore war and political corruption by a society that dangles high speed life-and-death entertainment on all four walls. Once the disconnect is complete, only a non-symbolic firestorm can put a stop to the freezing of our souls. However, Bradbury has not left me sad or disheartened. I have been set aflame.

10/10 hearts. I am wonderstruck. I want to run in the sunshine and see if dandelions stain my chin. That’s saying something.

Busy, Busy, Busy

I am lost in the insanity and brilliance of Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut is the Everyman that I would love to be. As Jonah (not his real name) stands in the background of an impossibly insane series of events, his drifting narrative ropes us into believing the impossible.

Jonah, like his biblical namesake, starts with a noble quest – to find out what one of the major creators of the atomic bomb was actually doing the day the bomb dropped and changed life and death as the world knew it. From an improbable letter from the inventor’s son, it seems that the creator of the atomic bomb, disconnected from humanity in his pursuit of pure science, was playing with a string, making “Cat’s Cradle” and frightening his height-challenged (read midget) son, Newt.

Where is the cat? Where is the cradle?

And how can one see it in the series of crisscrossed strings that resemble neither a cat nor a cradle?

Our hero discovers the existence of Ice-9, the genius’ final undocumented scientific breakthrough. It makes the destruction of the atomic bomb look like child’s play.

See the cat? See the cradle?

Jonah’s journey is indescribably brilliant, and it is entirely due to Vonnegut’s ability to remain current. This work was prompted by the Bay of Pigs crisis. It remains enormously relevant today, in these uncertain times, when governments tell us what we should or should not believe and spend obscene amounts of money to demonize any given target on any given day. Really, the conquerors of that tiny island where most of the action takes place had the right idea. They outlawed all religion and, therefore, everyone became a Bokononist. I’m considering it myself. I need a new granfallon.

We like to think that much has changed since 1963. But we are presented with our current fomas such as the acceptance of the thought that Americans are not highly regarded all over the world. Something has not changed a bit. Instead, we are presented with two concepts over and over: Science is not truth and neither is religion. However, the wholehearted pursuit of either one can lead to disaster. Sound familiar?

Where is the cat? Where is the cradle?

Vonnegut is the master of the ridiculous that touches on the eternal truth of the human condition. He invents vocabularies and religions and makes me want to know all the members of my karass, even though I know that I have none. His use of the Crosby’s and their ultimate granfallon – Hoosiers – demonstrates the lengths to which a human will go to belong to something. Or rather, to belong to anything.

There is no joy, really, in this novel, nor in any of Vonnegut’s work, although I did really like the Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse 5. He creates the seriously ridiculous or the ridiculously serious with the ease of a flower-bearer, scattering petals upon which his readers tread. I marvel at his ability to use the word “cantilevered” in a sentence without missing a beat – I dare any other writer to write “cantilevered” correctly in a paragraph.

His voice is unique. I always imagine it smoky with cigarettes and slightly slurred, as if he is taking a step away from the world after finding it sad, ridiculous, and utterly inexplicable.

And then he explains it. And I understand.

I am spellbound with wonder. I see the lights and tread on the blue-white terrain of certain death knowing that we are all in this together.

Maybe we are all Hoosiers.

9/10 hearts. Only because Boknonoism is not a viable religious option.

Kipple and Bytes

A Nebula Award winner in 1969, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick became the very loose basis of the 1982 film noir Blade Runner. #theLIST led me to read this little pocket of somewhat obscure science fiction, largely because I needed to include science fiction and I have an irrational fondness for Rutger Hauer, who played Roy Baty in the movie.

That being said, I was not in a film noir but in a novelle noir – a dark, dry novel that leaves more questions than it answers. In a post-apocalyptic world after World War Terminus, life on earth is a death sentence. There are very few real animals left and ownership of a real animal is a symbol of status. Moods can be controlled with the aid of a machine and religion, in the form of Mercerism, is truly the opiate of the masses. Life on earth is dry, dead, and disjointed. Mercerism brings individuals into a collective consciousness. No one knows if it is real, just as no one knows how Buster and Friends can be on 48 hours per day – on the radio and on the television.

Rick Deckard’s world is decaying into kipple – the dry, crumbling remnants of a society that has fled to the Martian Colony to escape the fall out. The only ones left cannot pass either physical or mental tests. They, too, are crumbling into kipple, bit by bit. Do they really have a life? Are they truly alive? The androids escaping from Mars declare that life is not better there. And why should they be retired, when their cells cannot regenerate and they will crumble into kipple in four years? Deckard questions his motives, but after the first three retirements, he buys a real Nubian goat on a four-year installment plan. In the end, his desire for something that is truly alive drives him to commit the retirement of three highly evolved but soulless androids who would have died in less than two years anyway.

Life loves life. Androids intellectually covet life without the emotional component that goes into envy. And the worst murder of all involves an android and a goat.

There are no winners in this book. Every character has a gap in his or her life and soul. I rubbed my hands to brush off the dust and I am struck with the idea that all of my possessions may somehow deteriorate into kipple. The world feels like an episode of mass hoarders after the nuclear winter, where the possessions we have gathered together eventually fill the space abandoned by people. Soulless, mindless, and hopeless. The hopeless emptiness of an abandoned planet with nothing but a slow, dry death to anticipate is a concept that makes a four year life span appealing.

The next time I am frustrated with a person who seems really ruthless or unsympathetic, I will recall Rachel Rosen and her idea of vengeance. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has me cherishing hope and optimism in my daily life again. The hopelessness that can be lifted by thinking one has found a real frog, long thought to be extinct, and crushed when one finds the control box makes even my dog’s snore a precious thing.

In the end, everyone is retired in this novel. The only question is how many years it will take to die.

7/10 hearts. It was short and sad, but the dry dustiness lingers in my soul.

Things That Go Bump In The Night

Pardon me if I seem a little jumpier than usual today. It is somewhat embarrassing to explain, but I just finished Stephen King’s The Shining last night and I have a little, teeny bit of post traumatic stress disorder. I know I am approximately 25 years late for this particular party, but I must congratulate myself for knowing my limits. This book sent me over the precipice of my imagination into the abyss of irrational fear.

I know it’s not real. I know this is a “fake face”. Nevertheless, I find myself turning on lights in dark rooms and looking over my shoulder at suspicious shadows. It’s real enough to me.

My familiarity with King’s work began with movies. Frankly, I thought I would die of horror at Cujo and I never, ever want to see a St. Bernard again. The Jack Nicholson version of Jack Torrence terrified me into never seeing another Stephen King movie again, unless it was The Shawshank Redemption. Guilt over never having read a Stephen King novel overwhelmed me and I chose this one. What was I thinking?

I got on the roller coaster of my own free will. I knew the major plot points. I went in with eyes wide shut (note the gratuitous Kubrick reference). What I did not know that was that King is a master story-teller and his portrait of the Torrence family, the Overlook Hotel, were believable, even when they should not have been.

And the red death held sway

It is difficult to review this book because I am utterly speechless. It is an emotional experience, not an exercise in intellect. While everything in this book is smart and well done, the overwhelming experience is emotional. I am now afraid of dark rooms and shadows and old hotels and I don’t know that I will ever get better. That’s how good this book is. I am gutted.

If you have 1) an active imagination; 2) a day or two; and 3) the overwhelming urge to be scared witless, read this book.

But never, ever read it after midnight when the wind is blowing. Just saying.

9.5/10 hearts – I knocked off 1/2 a heart for the sleepless night.

The Thrilling Days of Yester-Year

One of the most interesting things about reading works on #theLIST is placing the work in a time in history. Wilkie Collins, close friends with Charles Dickens and considered to be the forerunner of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the detective novel, is an example of why knowing how a novel was written gives you a clue on how to read it.

The Woman in White is a massive novel – as far as Kindle locations go, it has over 9600 locations. That is roughly comparable to Stephen King’s The Shining. As an early Victorian piece of work, it contains all the hallmarks of that period – richly complex language that rolls in periods of exquisite detail. As much as you want to sit down and read it, start to finish, it is difficult.

As I struggled through it, with its multiple narrators, an archetypal hero, and a true rapscallion for a villain, I began to wonder why I struggled. So I stopped and did some research.

The Woman in White, like many novels of its time, was originally published in serial format. Therefore, an episode was written and the reader was left hanging on a cliff (multiple times) waiting for the next episode. It reminded me of cliff hanger finales on television shows – the whole “who shot JR Ewing” brouhaha comes to mind. So, I changed my reading style to locate the episodes and read them in a sitting and walk away (for a day, an hour, or, at the end, a minute). The work was much less of a struggle.

In The Princess Bride, the grandfather tells the grandson: “In my day, television was called books.” The Woman in White is a sterling example of this principle. In my mind’s eye, I can see the readers lining up to purchase the magazine that held the next thrilling installment, as Walter and Marian and Sir Percival and Count Fosco worked their way through a series of misfortunes that include love, heartbreak, marriages of convenience, voyages to the wilds of South America, kidnapping, wrongful imprisonment in an asylum, and all sorts of calamities. These calamities were regular and without an end in sight, orchestrated by a villain who trained canaries and white mice as if they were children. Throw in a secret society, an opera, and an unexpected death or two, and, by the end, the reader is breathless and satisfied.

If a reader as cynical as I can wholly commit to a villain with the improbable name of Count Fosco, then the suspension of disbelief is complete and I am swept away to another time and another place. The suspension of disbelief is so complete that I cared deeply about what happens to our hero and heroine, and, strangely enough, what happens to our villains, too.

A worthy read, indeed. The next time I’m reading about some prairie family who is thrilled to get a bundle of magazines because of the serial stories, or watch Jo March scribbling her thrillers in hopes of them being published in magazines and newspapers, I will remember The Woman in White. I now have an understanding that was not there before, and, quite possibly, a way to muddle my way through Dickens, one episode at a time.

8/10 Hearts. It was a worthy read and, by the end, a page turner that could not be set aside.