Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Review: Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury
Hardcover, Special Edition, 227 pages
Harper Voyager, March 28, 2013
(first published 1953)
Classics, Dystopian Fiction, Literary Fiction, Science Fiction

Book Synopsis:
The terrifyingly prophetic novel of a post-literate future.
Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books, which are forbidden, being the source of all discord and unhappiness. Even so, Montag is unhappy; there is discord in his marriage. Are books hidden in his house? The Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department, armed with a lethal hypodermic, escorted by helicopters, is ready to track down those dissidents who defy society to preserve and read books.

The classic dystopian novel of a post-literate future, Fahrenheit 451 stands alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World as a prophetic account of Western civilization’s enslavement by the media, drugs and conformity.

Bradbury’s powerful and poetic prose combines with uncanny insight into the potential of technology to create a novel which, decades on from first publication, still has the power to dazzle and shock.

My Review

Ray Bradbury’s books make for immediate, mesmerizing, entirely compulsive reading. His prose is electrifying in its use of poetic metaphor and dramatic syntax. In his novels, the reader is instantly plunged into an alien culture, or a terrifying future, and is not really released even after the last page is turned.

I had been postponing reading this novel for years. I am, after all, a confirmed bibliophile. Reading a novel with a plot involving the burning of books would, I kept telling myself, be too traumatic for me.

I finally decided to wade in.

Need I say that I only put the book down when I absolutely had to, when reality intruded? The novel carried me along on its relentless wave of narrative. Of course, I tried not to picture the books burning as I read, but Bradbury wouldn’t let me. Not when he was describing them as living creatures, dying, their pigeon wings flapping…. The fact that I managed to endure this at all is a real tribute to the greatness of his writing.

The characters are indelibly imprinted on my brain. The most compelling, of course, is the protagonist, Montag. Equally compelling are Faber, who is obviously Montag’s alter ego, and the numinous Clarisse. She is the one who first awakens Montag to the futility of denying his own soul, the stirrings of thought and penetrating questions that reading invariably arouses. The most tragic character is Beatty, who struggles hard against his love of books, in his work as chief fireman. This struggle culminates in a final, ironic conflagration. Montag’s wife, Mildred, is to be pitied, since she is unable to acknowledge her emptiness, her consuming loneliness. She pushes away the power and beauty to be found in books. She refuses to come out of denial, preferring ‘the family’, a banal cast of characters she endlessly watches in the living room ‘wall-to-wall TV’, in order to anesthetize the deepest longings of her soul.

As I read, I became aware of a deeper sense of discomfort, underneath that elicited by the burning of books. Due to my own life experiences, I, along with this disturbed society, had been unconsciously longing for a world in which no one would ever get his or her feelings hurt – a world where everyone’s rights would be respected, especially those of minorities.

Bradbury gave me a sobering look at such a world, and it was absolutely terrifying. It was “American Idol” gone wild, a world in which people no longer thought, felt, or even communicated on a soul level with other human beings. Instead, they spent all their time being ‘happy’, through mindless, ongoing entertainment.

I realized that I didn’t want to live in such a world; it would mean the total annihilation of what makes us most deeply human – the ability to dream, to wonder, to ponder the deep truths of life.

Books and the questions they raise are incompatible with living in a world where nobody would offend anyone else. Books disturb, probe, anger and challenge. Books are flawed at times, due to their authors’ all-too-human penchant for furthering their own pet theories, however twisted they might seem to a reader. Books can make us squirm, for they can force us to face the unwanted realities we try to bury.

There is still a part of me that thinks that books such as Hitler's Mein Kampf should be burned, or at least, allowed to expire by going, and staying, out of print. The Marquis de Sade also comes to mind as an author of books with a markedly offensive subject matter. Then there’s Anais Nin, the notorious 20th-century writer of erotica. Although her prose is absolutely brilliant (I have read excerpts from her books), the subject matter of her books is prurient in the extreme. One of her books even chronicles the incestuous relationship she had with her father…

The problem is, where do you draw the line? Who decides which books merit extinction?

I don’t have a final, satisfactory answer.

And so I am left feeling restless and slightly depressed, although I’m glad to have read this novel, nevertheless. It has caused me to ponder what I really and truly believe regarding the banning of books, and their potentially harmful influences.

Yet another uncomfortable element of the plot is Montag’s desperate, evil act toward the end of the novel. I suppose it is inevitable, however. It is indeed immoral, but then, so is the entire, nihilistic society he is a part of. It is the desperate act of a man who has turned on a symbol of that society, and so, turned on himself, in a sense, in order to be reborn as a new man, a man who thinks and feels, even if doing so causes him some measure of unhappiness. This act could, itself, be considered a harmful influence on a reader, since Montag evades punishment. Yet, as an act of rebellion, of a misplaced sort of justice, it is totally fitting. Therein lies “the treason of the artist”, as Ursula K. LeGuin puts it. For the artist makes meaning out of pain, suffering, and tragedy. Furthermore, this is also part of the value to be found in books.

The symbol of rebirth is ubiquitous in the novel. At one point, the myth of the Phoenix is mentioned. Ironically, civilization is being reborn out of the very fire it has used to destroy the very objects that had given it meaning – books.

By the end of the novel, groups of people have quietly begun the reconstruction, the return to reading. It is a movement that is slowly gathering momentum. Civilization, suggests Bradbury, as Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz was to affirm years later, is constantly rising from the ashes of every Dark Age in order to reinvent itself.

So I know that I will be re-reading this book sometime in the near future, as I intend to do with Miller’s. Both are books that apparently dwell on despair, only to end with a feeling of hope.

Bradbury has once again sparked my imagination and tickled my intellect. He also refuses to let me forget his incredible take on a future that may or may not turn out to become all too real, even in the digital age.

About The Author

(From Goodreads)
Ray Bradbury, American novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, screenwriter and poet, was born August 22, 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois. He graduated from a Los Angeles high school in 1938. Although his formal education ended there, he became a "student of life," selling newspapers on L.A. street corners from 1938 to 1942, spending his nights in the public library and his days at the typewriter. He became a full-time writer in 1943, and contributed numerous short stories to periodicals before publishing a collection of them, Dark Carnival, in 1947.

His reputation as a writer of courage and vision was established with the publication of The Martian Chronicles in 1950, which describes the first attempts of Earth people to conquer and colonize Mars, and the unintended consequences. Next came The Illustrated Man and then, in 1953, Fahrenheit 451, which many consider to be Bradbury's masterpiece, a scathing indictment of censorship set in a future world where the written word is forbidden. In an attempt to salvage their history and culture, a group of rebels memorize entire works of literature and philosophy as their books are burned by the totalitarian state.

Other Bradbury works include The October Country, Dandelion Wine, A Medicine for Melancholy, Something Wicked This Way Comes, I Sing the Body Electric!, Quicker Than the Eye, and Driving Blind. In all, Bradbury has published more than thirty books, close to 600 short stories, and numerous poems, essays, and plays. His short stories have appeared in more than 1,000 school curriculum "recommended reading" anthologies.
Mr. Bradbury passed away on June 5, 2012.
Online Links

Thursday, November 19, 2015

NPR Books: The Top 100 Science Fiction & Fantasy Books

I recently came across a 2011 poll taken by NPR Books, in which more than 60,000 people who read F & SF voted, thus generating a list of the top 100 books in these two genres. 

Below are some of my personal favorites. By clicking on each title, you can access the books at Goodreads and Amazon; the comments accompanying each book are mine.

The complete NPR list of 100 books is available HERE.

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien's immortal epic, sold in both one-volume and three-volume formats, has been the reading delight of several generations of fantasy fans since its publication in the mid-1950s. The author, an Oxford professor, made full use of his expertise in and love for ancient myths and languages in this richly-detailed masterpiece, which tells the story of the War of the Ring, pitting the seemingly insignificant hobbit, Frodo Baggins, against the fearsome, evil, Sauron.

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

This is a mesmerizing, although horrifying and sobering look at what the world would be like if books were declared illegal, and burned when found in anyone's possession.  The main character, a 'fireman', comes to realize just how special books are, and begins a journey of discovery from which he will never turn back.

The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov

Asimov's declining Galactic Empire is the background for the founding of a special colony that will bring together all of humanity's knowledge throughout the centuries, as well as its aesthetic achievements.  Hari Seldon, a leader in the field of psychohistory, is the founder of this unusual colony, which reminds me of Castalia, the fictional intellectual province so central to Herman Hesse's masterpiece, Magister Ludi , also known as The Glass Bead Game.

Animal Farm, by George Orwell

A brilliant satirist, Orwell here creates a humorous, although chilling look at the development of a totalitarian regime.  At the beginning of 'the revolution', the motto is "all animals are equal".  By the time the dictatorship, obviously based on communism, is in place, the motto has changed to "all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others".

 I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

In this collection of related stories, Asimov brings to life his uique conception of robotic technology, with his highly original "Three Laws of Robotics".  These tales reflect his preoccupation with the latent dangers of artificial intelligence for human beings.

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein

The clash of cultures, especially religious beliefs, is portrayed in this novel.    The Martian in question is really a human, born and raised on Mars, and brought to Earth as a young adult.  Valentine Michael Smith is a mystic whose particular brand of off-world religion will transform the culture of Earth.  The title refers to Exodus 2:22.

Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey

For centuries, the Dragonriders of Pern have staved off planetwide disaster due to the fall of Thread, which falls like rain, but destroys everything it comes in contact with.  Now, the Red Star is approaching the planet, and there are very few riders left.  Lessa, a lowly kitchen servant, meets a queen dragon, and realizes what her true destiny is.

I'm sure Paolini's Eragon series was based on McCaffrey's own books. It really galls me that her books were not made into movies first, when she was the original creator of the concept of dragonriders.

A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

After civilization is nearly wiped out in a nuclear war, the Monks of the Order of St. Leibowitz the Engineer became the custodians of pre-war knowledge.  Through long centuries, they endured.   And then history began to repeat itself...  This is a masterpiece of irony and even humor, which presents a staple of human nature, the repetition of historic cycles, with wit and style.

The Once and Future King, by T.H. White

This modern retelling of the Arthurian tales sparkles with humor and vivid characterization.   It follows the life of King Arthur from his boyhood as brother to Kay, who calls him "The Wart", to his coronation as king of England, the establishing of the Round Table, and the adventures of the Holy Grail.

The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

This collection of eerie, mesmerizing tales covers the years of the colonization of Mars.  They are poignant, reminiscent of smalltown Americana, and yet, strangely alien.  Some of the stories are weirdly humorous, but they all share an atmosphere of past nostalgia mixed with the reality of a new world, in the future.

There's also a printable version of the complete list, which you can access HERE.

For more details about each of the books that made the list, just go to the original post, and click on the book images.  Enjoy!!  

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Du Maurier's Rebecca: Some Disturbing Elements Thereof


Daphne Du Maurier
Trade Paperback, 428 pages
Virago Press, Reprint Edition, 2012
(first published 1938)
Classics, Gothic Fiction, Historical Fiction,
Literary Fiction, Mystery, Romance,
Suspense, Thriller

(Note: This post contains several spoilers.
They had to be included, in order for
the topic of this post to be fully explored. . )

I am hereby emulating my book blogger friend, Brian Joseph, who blogs at Babbling Books, in writing more than one post about a book I've read. Some books do lend themselves to such treatment, as one review cannot possibly encompass everything a reviewer would like to state about a given book. 

My recent rereading of this novel (which I have recently reviewed) has left me feeling very disturbed, and I can't seem to be able to shake off this feeling. There are two reasons I feel this way; first of all, the novel's male protagonist -- Maxim de Winter -- commits a horrible crime, and actually gets away with it; second, the unnamed female protagonist, who is his second wife, completely supports him, helping him to cover up this crime.

I had been enjoying the novel until these events took place; Du Maurier's writing is lush, elegant, full of vivid, poetic imagery, while her expert buildup of suspense, and equally vivid characters, make for truly riveting reading. Thus, I was utterly shocked and disappointed with the eventual denouement of the story.

My first reading of this novel, years ago, did not affect me this way, but I now think that I must not have finished it; I really don't remember. Shortly thereafter, I also saw the Hitchcock movie, which changes this crucial plot element so as to completely exonerate Max de Winter. Hitchcock thus turned the story into a more romantic tale, although his film is still full of suspense and mystery, with the Gothic touches present in the novel. His version made the book more akin to another famous Gothic novel, Jane Eyre, with which Du Maurier's novel has been somewhat unfairly compared, in my view. So I think that my subconscious mind probably substituted Hitchcock's version for the book version. I can't think of any other reason for my previous, unequivocal, acceptance of Du Maurier's novel, although I still regard it as a literary masterpiece.

Equally disturbing to me is the afterword that accompanies this edition of the novel. It was written, in 2002, by writer Sally Beauman, who has also penned a 'sequel' to Rebecca, titled Rebecca's Tale. Beauman's take on the famous literary character strikes me as ironic, inaccurate, and totally unacceptable, although I haven't read her novel. In her afterword to the original book, however, she makes it very clear that she considers Rebecca to be a feminist heroine. She even states that "...there are indications throughout the text that the second Mrs. de Winter would like to emulate Rebecca, even to be her -- even when she knows Rebecca has broken every male-determined rule as to a woman's behaviour." This quote totally irritates me; I would love to have a personal discussion of it with Beauman. Why she defends Rebecca, a woman whom Du Maurier presents as cruel, vicious, and blatantly unfaithful, is beyond me. A feminist heroine? Ah, I see. This means that women who imitate male patterns of cruelty and promiscuity are to be lauded as progressive leaders of the fight for gender equality. Right..... In contrast, Jane Eyre is certainly to be regarded as a feminist heroine, yet she never descended to the depths of depravity Rebecca did.

Readers are free to side with Beauman, of course. They can go along with her contention that Max deliberately maligned Rebecca in order to justify his reprehensible actions. And they would be totally entitled to their opinion, too, were it not for one thorny little matter -- the character, jack Favell. Why would this man be so interested in a deeper investigation of Rebecca's death, if he had not, in fact, been her lover? Why does he hound Max so relentlessly, unsatisfied as he is at Rebecca's death having been officially ruled a suicide?

So it's very clear that Rebecca was indeed as evil as Max had portrayed her. She was no 'feminist heroine', but a ruthless, cold, calculating woman who wanted nothing more than to exploit and use her husband. These truths about her do nothing to justify her husband's actions, of course. That they are indeed true, however, is borne out by the presence, and actions, of Jack Favell in the novel

As for the nameless 'heroine', the second Mrs. de Winter, I can relate to her to some extent. We both tend to be shy and not very assertive at times. However, she is so self-effacing as to go along with Max's attempts to cover up his murder of Rebecca. I would under no circumstances do such a thing! This is utterly abhorrent to me, and totally unacceptable. Why this novel has remained so popular over the years truly baffles me. Mrs. de Winter's strongest wish -- to be loved by her husband -- comes true, but at the expense of her submission of her will to his, a sacrifice she gladly makes, much to my horror and dismay. She's actually desperate to help him cover up his crime, in order to prove how much she loves him! This is unconscionable. Furthermore, it's the very antithesis of feminist ideals. 

That a woman's only goal in life should be that of getting a husband, and then making him her entire world, to the exclusion of her own interests, needs, and even conscience, is totally deplorable. Mrs. de Winter has no self of her own, even though she could have become an accomplished artist. She fails to pursue art as a career, even though, as the wife of a very wealthy man, her freedom from financial concerns would have enabled her to do so. At the time of the novel -- the 1930s -- there were few opportunities for women artists to make it on their own. Mrs. de Winter certainly should and could have taken advantage of her position, hopefully with Max's total support and encouragement. Instead, she mopes around, going on solitary, melancholy walks with Jasper, the de Winters' dog, and endlessly ruminating on Rebecca's reputation as a flawless first wife, which makes her feel inferior to her dead 'rival'. She becomes totally obsessed with Rebecca, worrying that Max still loves her. Hardly a page can be turned without some mention of her depressing thoughts regarding the dead woman.

The entire novel thus turns out to be a pathetic portrayal of the two prevailing patriarchal views of Woman -- either sinner or saint, although Mrs. de Winter's version of 'sainthood' is psychologically unhealthy. What, I wonder, was Du Maurier's real intention in writing this novel? Did she mean it to be an ironic, cautionary tale, in her depiction of Mrs. de Winter's lack of self-esteem and self-reliance, which she suddenly and almost magically acquires, once she is completely assured of her husband's love? Or did Du Maurier herself agree that Mrs. de Winter's complicity in Max's crime is totally acceptable, that her self-effacement is even admirable, as a 'necessary' requisite for attaining the love of a man?

I'm really not sure what conclusion I can come to, regarding Du Maurier's intention in writing Rebecca. The possibility remains that she might have intended the novel to be taken as a picture of the insidious triumph of patriarchal values, which condone even murder if necessary, in order to uphold these values.

That Max de Winter is willing to go to almost any extreme in order to protect his precious house, Manderley, and the surrounding lands, from any scandal or impropriety, is very obvious. It's also very cowardly, as well as contemptible, for he places more value on his property, which is a source of male pride, than he does on his relationships with women who are, after all, fellow human beings. He marries both Rebecca and the second Mrs. de Winter after a very brief courtship period. It seems that his sole intent is that of having 'a trophy wife' to complete the picture of the wealthy landowner with the grand old mansion. The only conclusion I can come to is that he views women as property, as well. However, Du Maurier depicts him as being Rebecca's 'victim'. Poor Max.....he wants to avoid scandal, so he gives in to the evil wife's outrageous, immoral demands....Why didn't he try to get to know Rebecca better before he married her? With his vast wealth, he certainly could have hired a private detective to get information about Rebecca's background, if he had any doubts about her.

And so this novel also depicts an unholy 'love' triangle -- one that embodies the gender stereotypes of the time in which it was written. There's Max, the trusting, unsuspecting man who is duped by an unscrupulous, evil woman, there's Rebecca, the very embodiment of the shrewdness and evil conniving traditionally attributed to women by the patriarchy, and the second Mrs. de Winter, who is otherwise nameless, she who represents 'the good woman' that sacrifices everything, including her own conscience and moral scruples, for the sake of 'love'.

This, my dear readers, is by no means a pretty picture. 

Beauman is correct in her assessment of the second Mrs. de Winter's personality; this character is, indeed, totally passive and submissive to her husband, with no will of her own. However, Beauman is totally mistaken about Rebecca. I do agree that women can and should rebel against limits placed on them by a male-dominated society. However, this does not mean that they are then to be applauded for imitating the worst, most immoral behaviors of that society. Therefore, Beauman's take on Rebecca is as deplorable as Mrs. de Winter's willing subjection to Max.

There is a lot to explore in this novel, especially since there is such a richness of psychological insights within it. Besides, I am still trying to process my initial reaction to it -- one of disbelief and horror. I will probably need to come back to Rebecca in a future post. The question still remains: is this novel to be considered a feminist manifesto, or a disgusting reaffirmation of traditional patriarchal values that serve to demean women?