Mockingbird is set about five hundred years in the future; robots rule the Earth and humans live in a narcotic bliss pursuing pleasure and respecting...moreMockingbird is set about five hundred years in the future; robots rule the Earth and humans live in a narcotic bliss pursuing pleasure and respecting Privacy.
Robots were designed with increasing levels of ability and they perform various tasks based on their skills. Robert Spofforth, a dean of a university in New York City, is a Make9, the most advanced robot model. The Make9s were created using a clone of a human brain so they experience emotions and retain memories that once belonged to the human. Spofforth is thus able to feel things like longing and anger and has distinctly human habits, such as whistling and enjoying long walks. He is unable to die as long as there are humans to serve. He is weary of existing and willing to resort to devious means to eradicate the human race.
Humans are raised in dormitories, where they are taught strict rules regarding how society operates. Conversation and eye contact are considered Invasion of Privacy. “Quick sex is best” is the guideline to follow; romantic relationships are forbidden so there are no marriages or families. The platitude “Don’t ask, relax” means asking “Why?” is unacceptable. And because robots perform tasks typically allotted to humans there is nothing to do, so people fill their days with mindless television programs, quick sex, and drugs. There is no curiosity, no intelligence, no passion.
Mary Lou is a renegade who escaped from the dormitory where she was being raised so she was not exposed to the indoctrination. She has lived on the fringes of society and learned to subvert all the rules. Paul Benchley is a rebel of a different sort. Quiet and scholarly, Benchley has mastered the forgotten (and forbidden) skill of reading, which brings him to the attention of Spofforth.
Spofforth hires Benchley to watch ancient silent films and transcribe the subtitles. In performing this task, Benchley discovers the magic of words and the beauty of a lost civilization. One day he finds Mary Lou living at the zoo and brings her home with him. He teaches her to read and they fall in love. Driven by intense jealousy, Spofforth has Benchley imprisoned for the crimes of “reading” and “co-habitation” and takes Mary Lou as his own wife (though he is physically incapable of consummating the relationship).
In prison, Benchley continues to read (having found a library of forgotten books) and discovers the unexpected joy of community through relationships with his fellow inmates (who mostly ignore the rules of society). Mary Lou, meanwhile, learns more about Spofforth and the evolution of this new society. She also discovers the shocking secret of Spofforth’s plot to eradicate humankind. Benchley eventually finds his way back to Mary Lou and together they change the course of history….and grant Spofforth his ultimate wish.
The world building in Mockingbird is simply phenomenal. The author creates a future drastically altered from all that is familiar and makes it something both understandable and believable. The characterizations are also remarkable. Spofforth is a villain yet is someone the reader is totally able to empathize with. Benchley is such an unlikely hero - the bookish nerd saves the universe! - that the reader can’t help but love him and cheer for his triumph.
Mockingbird is profound and poignant and compulsively readable. It makes the reader question technological advances and reflect upon the danger of unthinking obedience. The author posits the question: Who are the robots? The creatures that were designed with that label or the humans who live a meaningless existence?
The title comes from a phrase that is often repeated in the novel, Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods, which captures the theme of the book. A mockingbird is a creature that mimics the songs of other birds and the sounds of insects. The “mockingbirds” in the novel are the ones who simply repeat the platitudes they were taught rather than singing their own song. And because they are unwilling to search for their own heart’s song, they exist only on the borders - the edges of the woods - rather than discovering the wild adventures of the deeper forests.
Ultimately, Mockingbird is a romance novel of sorts. It is a story about the love of books, the love of all that makes a culture something sentimentally beautiful, and the love between two people and how critically important that is. (less)
If civilization ceased to exist, would humans still act civilized? Thomas M. Disch constructs his 1965 novella “The Genocides” upon that theme.
Mysteri...moreIf civilization ceased to exist, would humans still act civilized? Thomas M. Disch constructs his 1965 novella “The Genocides” upon that theme.
Mysterious plants with the ability to grow to the size of a mature tree in only a month take over the planet, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem and decimating the human population. A small group of survivors, led by the religious fanatic Anderson, is trying to eke out a living in the ravaged landscape. When refugees from a destroyed city arrive in Anderson’s village, he orders their execution, only sparing two people whose skills he believes may be useful. One of these people, Jeremiah, vows to seek revenge against Anderson for the murders.
Shortly thereafter, the village is attacked by flamethrowers sent to to destroy anything that has managed to survive the already horrific devastation caused by the plants. A few villagers manage to elude the flamethrowers and take refuge in a nearby cave. The roots of the mysterious plants have overtaken the cave and it is within these roots that the villagers live for the next several months.
Many volatile emotions - fear, lust, envy, anger - build to combustible levels and bring the story to a harrowing and intense finale. This is the focus of the novella - the unspeakable darkness that dwells in a man’s soul. It is a parable about original sin, the concept that humanity is born with a propensity for evil. If civilization - a system of laws based on the foundations of God’s principles - is destroyed, is depraved behavior the inevitable result?
“The Genocides” is quite remarkable for its sociological and theological focus and is a story that could be studied at length and in depth. However, as a post apocalyptic narrative, I found it to be lacking. The backstory is sketchy, the characters are underdeveloped, and the conclusion is ambiguous. Had the author developed this into a full length novel, I think it would have been truly astounding. (less)
“Report to the Men’s Club” is a collection of short stories by Carol Emshwiller that spans her career from 1977 to 2002. I was curious about Emshwille...more“Report to the Men’s Club” is a collection of short stories by Carol Emshwiller that spans her career from 1977 to 2002. I was curious about Emshwiller, having come across her name in numerous places; none of the summaries of her novels especially interested me so I decided to discover her via this collection.
There is no theme that connects the stories in this collection but there is discernible similarity in the writing style. The 19 stories, seven of which had not been previously published, cover several different genres - mythic fiction, science fiction, fairy tales/folklore.
“Acceptance Speech,” about a woman who is kidnapped by aliens to write poetry, is perhaps the story that falls most clearly into the science fiction genre. “Grandma,” a sort of tall tale variant of mythic fiction, is the recounting of a woman’s years as a superhero as recalled by her granddaughter. In the folklorish “Creature” a man adopts a monster that isn’t quite what it seems to be.
The ideas are imaginative and clever but for whatever reason the stories did not resonate with me. I was never captivated by a story. I never felt the bewitching enchantment of the author’s storytelling skill. I never felt the lingering echo of the stories still resounding in my heart days later in the way a truly masterful story tends to do.
“Report to the Men’s Club” is a good collection of short stories - solid, respectable, and well written - but for me they were unremarkable and forgettable. (less)
After suffering a nearly fatal injury while stationed in the Middle East, Bronwyn Hyatt returns to her home in Tennessee. Bronwyn is much more than a...moreAfter suffering a nearly fatal injury while stationed in the Middle East, Bronwyn Hyatt returns to her home in Tennessee. Bronwyn is much more than a soldier, however. She is a pure-blood Tufa, a mysterious magical clan that has resided in the Appalachian mountains for centuries, and now she must face her obligations as a First Daughter of the Tufa.
The essential idea of this story, based upon Celtic mythology, is fascinating. The Tuatha Dé Danann were supernatural, angelic-like beings who came to Ireland and fought for dominance against the inhabitants. Though they were at first successful they were eventually defeated and rather than leave Ireland they chose to remain, living underground in caves and burrows. The Irish believed it was bad luck to call the Tuatha Dé Danann by their proper name and instead used various euphemisms, such as hill folk, the gentry, and wee folk. Over time, one of these euphemisms - fair folk - was shortened to the more commonly recognized “fairies.”
In The Hum and the Shiver, descendents of these “fairies” came to reside in the hills of Tennessee and became the Tufa. This is a very clever idea but unfortunately it was poorly executed. The mythology is not explained, the history of the Tufa is murky with many unanswered questions, and the magical skills the Tufa employ border on silliness (like obscure hand gestures to invoke spells).
In addition to the weak back story, I found there were multiple problems with the book. The writing quality is mediocre, the characters are unlikable and underdeveloped, and the plot is riddled with holes. Plus, there is excessive sexual content (both implied and explicit), general vulgarity, and foul language. The overall impression I had was that this was a book that might have been written by a 16 year old boy who receives Bs in English class.
From the pen of a more gifted author, The Hum and the Shiver could have been extraordinary. As written, though, I found it hugely disappointing. (less)
When I was in my ‘20s, I went through a vampire-obsessed phase (as girls of that age are wont to do). Fortunate...moreFirst, let me ‘splain about this book.
When I was in my ‘20s, I went through a vampire-obsessed phase (as girls of that age are wont to do). Fortunately, I had Anne Rice and not the sparkle chic with the initials S.M. (ahem). I read a lot of vampire fiction and a bookseller acquainted with my reading habits mentioned a series by a British author that he thought I might like. Unfortunately, this was back in the stone ages of computer technology so you couldn’t just log onto the internet and order a book from across the pond. You had to hope it got released internationally or you probably weren’t ever going to get a copy.
Well, I never did get those books and I mostly forgot about them…until one day a year or so ago. I somehow came across information that a series of vampire books (Blood Wine) by a British author (Freda Warrington) was being reissued and as I read the synopsis I realized,
“Oh! It’s those books! The ones I’ve been waiting, like, 20 years to read.”
O my stars!!!
And so, book one of the trilogy. A Taste of Blood Wine. First published 1992. Reissued October 2013 (with much better cover art).
England, 1920s. Charlotte is an intellectual young woman who would rather spend her time in a science laboratory than at a party. She is often perceived as timid and reserved but when she meets the vampire Karl, her true personality, someone who is strong-willed and passionate, emerges. Charlotte and Karl fall in love but their romance is complicated by many factors, including the interference of Karl’s maker and master, Kristian, who is determined to control Karl by whatever diabolical means necessary.
A Taste of Blood Wine captures all the elements of Victorian fin de siècle Gothic literature - romance, melodrama, supernatural activity, moral dilemmas, dreary weather, decrepit mansions, insanity, scientific curiosity. The writing style is similar to this type of literature as well - horrifying but not grotesque, erotic but not explicit.
It is a remarkable work with much more in common with Interview with the Vampire than Twilight. This a strongly crafted literary book with intelligent vocabulary, excellent character development, and a well-balanced mixture of philosophical musing and dramatic action. Perhaps what impressed me most is that the author created an entirely new vampire mythos. Because none of the familiar vampiric rules apply, the reader is unable to conjecture how the story will unfold and is therefore kept in a constant state of heightened anticipation.
Earth is nearing the End - a deadly new strain of flu, cataclysmic natural disasters, overpopulation, famine, wars. Mary Hope, a 20-something aspiring...moreEarth is nearing the End - a deadly new strain of flu, cataclysmic natural disasters, overpopulation, famine, wars. Mary Hope, a 20-something aspiring author, flees the city hoping to find refuge and solace at the beach house she inherited from her aunt. But disaster is everywhere and Mary nearly dies when the bus she is traveling on is attacked by a gang of road rovers.
She is rescued by Rachel, a reclusive artist who gives Mary a home when she learns that her aunt’s home is a derelict ruin that has been overtaken by squatters. Not long after, the End does come - in the form of a nuclear bomb. Over the next decade, Mary and Rachel struggle to survive in a devastated wasteland ravaged by nuclear winter. And together they embark on a project to preserve the thousands of books that Rachel owns because they believe that these may be the only books available for future generations (if there are any other survivors out there).
And then one day a stranger arrives at their home, a man from a fundamentalist Christian cult who has gone out in search of survivors. Though his beliefs clash with the more pagan nature-based spirituality that Rachel and Mary subscribe to, Mary falls in love with Luke and decides to abandon Rachel and return with Luke to the cult.
Mary is barely accepted by the 50ish members of the cult. When Rachel arrives a few months later, gravely wounded and needing medical attention, the cult leader brands her a witch and turns her away. Her eyes finally opened to the narrow-minded hate of the cult, Mary leaves with Rachel and attempts to nurse her back to health. When she fails she returns to Rachel’s home, alone, and continues the book preservation project.
Several years later, members of the cult appear at Mary’s home, seeking refuge after a fever has nearly wiped out their membership. Mary accepts them into her home but only after they are willing to accept the terms of agreement she sets. The cult’s beliefs are still practiced, however, and their teachings are passed on to the next generation. Ultimately, there is a violent clash between their beliefs and Mary’s, and both her life and the books she has preserved are endangered.
The story is told from two perspectives - the present, several years after the cult members arrive at Mary’s home, and the past, which is the basis for a book that Mary is writing, The Chronicles of Rachel.
Mary’s development through the novel is remarkably well done - from a naïve idealistic young woman to a resilient survivor; from a woman willing to sacrifice friendship and beliefs for a chance at a new beginning to an old woman who is wise and strong with a faith that she has handcrafted from all she has endured. The author shows Mary at each of these stages of her life, making the transitions believable, and truly makes her come alive upon the pages.
There is much to ponder in the story about spirituality and faith. Though on the surface the author seems to be claiming that there is something inherently wrong with Christianity as a whole (as evidenced by the beliefs and actions of the cult), I think the message is much broader than that. What is wrong is any religion that is narrow-minded, judgmental, and insular. When a belief system demands that it’s followers adhere to a particular dogma without questioning it, it becomes something damaging rather than affirming.
As Mary says in the book, “When you can say ‘I don’t know’ you’ve freed yourself to find the answer.”
That truly is what this story is about - a quest for truth and faith and answers. Mary has to discover spirituality, rather than blindly accepting what was right for Rachel or what was taught by the cult. She has to seek the God that can answer the questions in her own heart, just as we all do. God is multifaceted with many interpretations.
And the books that Rachel and Mary preserve are an integral part of this search for truth, because in each book there are clues that lead to understanding. God is found not only in the Bible but in every volume of poetry, in every science textbook, in every novel.
Near the end of the book, someone is reading the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Mary comments, “I think of the reclusive Emily reaching across an ivy-covered stone wall more than a century and a half thick to cast wildflowers in his path.”
Yes, for those who know how to see, one can discover God’s beauty and grace in an Emily Dickinson poem.
In addition to all this profundity, the novel is quite simply a beautiful work of art - full of vivid description and raw emotion - and it is very well crafted and well written. Though it may not appeal to everyone, for the right reader it truly is a gift.(less)
This collection of short stories is simply sublime. There is something about the author’s voice that brought to mind the way one would approach a frig...moreThis collection of short stories is simply sublime. There is something about the author’s voice that brought to mind the way one would approach a frightened animal - softly, slowly, and cautiously. Yet at the same time the message of most of the stories was thought-provoking in a “smack you upside the head” sort of way. That dichotomy worked, and it worked very well. The overall tone is melancholy, there are strong messages about society and spirituality, and there is a hint of the supernatural that wafts like smoke from an extinguished candle. And the quality of writing is just perfection.
My favorite stories in the collection:
The Lives of the Philosophers. A man receives an epiphany about his thesis on Thomas Aquinas and Friedrich Nietzsche when his girlfriend experiences a tragedy. This story just shattered me. It left me breathless and weepy. I had to go for a walk. I almost took the book to my sister-in-law and demand that she read the story that very second (because I knew she would understand what I felt).
A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pockets. A man purchases a coat at a thrift shop and discovers the pockets of the coat mysteriously fill with scraps of paper on which prayers have been written. This was such a unique concept and there was a such a quiet desperation in the story. Poignant and profound.
Father John Melby and the Ghost of Amy Elizabeth. A priest endures a crisis of faith when he is visited by a ghost. This story is dark and gothic, and so compelling that I couldn’t look away for an instant.
The View from the Seventh Layer. A woman reflects on how her life has been impacted by a childhood visitation from an angel. I loved this story for how it was structured, in a sort of a circular, stream-of-consciousness manner. Beautiful and brilliant.
I also appreciated (but didn’t love) The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device: A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Story. This one is just very very clever.
There were two clunkers in the book - a StarTrek fan fic piece and one about a television show similar to America’s Funniest Home Videos. These were awful in a “Can I tear these pages out of the book?” way. But ultimately they didn’t detract from my rating of the book because the stories I loved, I loved A LOT. (less)
Pocoda's debut novel The Art of Disappearing was my #1 read in 2011 so I was more than a little excited to read her newest work. The books are pretty...morePocoda's debut novel The Art of Disappearing was my #1 read in 2011 so I was more than a little excited to read her newest work. The books are pretty much nothing alike but once I got over that initial disappointment I began to really enjoy Visitation Street.
It is not so much a mystery novel as it is literary fiction with a mystery central to the plot. Two teenage girls take a raft out for a summer night adventure...and one of the girls goes missing. What happened to her is the mystery; how the answer is reached is the literary meat of the book.
The story takes place in Brooklyn in the neighborhood of Red Hook. It's a racially diverse neighborhood - the whites in their middle class homes, the blacks dwelling in the projects, and several shopkeepers of various ethnicities providing services to everyone. The author explored the tension that is created by this atmosphere while slowly revealing how and why this is related to the disappearance of June.
Pochada fills the novel with a superb cast of characters - Val, the girl who was with June when she disappeared; Jonathan, the music teacher who rescued Val when she washed up on shore; Cree, the teenager who witnessed Val and June's raft adventure; Fadi, the bodega owner who knows everything about Red Hook; Ren, the artist who mysteriously appears in the neighborhood and befriends Cree. They crash through the novel like pinballs, ricocheting off each other as they individually struggle with guilt and secrets and grief and dreams.
The story builds to a quiet, sad end and when the mystery is solved it seems inevitable (though it was never obvious). Yes, this not a mystery novel with clues and detectives and adventure. What it is, though, is a tragic story about the damaging repercussions of prejudice and silence.(less)