Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Short Stories on Wednesday: Sci-fi and Fantasy Stories by Ray Bradbury

        It’s been so long since I did a short story post. Time has really been in short supply these past couple of months. But, here we are again. I’ve got two fantasy stories for you this time. Sci-fi or fantasy is not usually my genre of choice but I saw Francois Truffaut’s movie version of Fahrenheit 451 and loved it. It made me curious about Ray Bradbury’s work and when I found a copy of his Zen in the Art of Writing, I picked it up. It was a good book, but as far as writing guides go, I didn’t like it nearly as much as On Writing by Stephen King. Fiction is obviously what Bradbury does best. This week I read two of his best known short stories. Both of them have been adapted several times in writing, on TV and on film so some elements may seem familiar to you while you read them.

The Veldt: George and Lydia live in a fully automated house with their two children. Society has reached staggering levels of mechanization with machines to do absolutely everything for you. There are machines that will tie your shoes, cook your food and even rock you to sleep. The highlight of this home is the nursery which can convert the children’s imaginings into a virtual reality on its walls. Things start getting scarily real when the kids’ obsession with the African Veldt comes alive on the walls of the nursery.

A Sound of Thunder: This story takes the concept of “the butterfly effect” and gives it a literal spin. Set in a future where time travel is not just a reality but a form of recreation. Time Safari is a company that promises to take its customers back to prehistoric times for a thrilling dinosaur hunt. But the slightest move you make in the past can have a powerful ripple effect that can change the future in unimaginable ways.

       Both stories are set in the future. However, I hesitate to call it dystopian because, at least on the surface, it seems like mankind has reached amazing heights. But beneath the clever inventions and smart machines, people seem more dissatisfied than ever. The Veldt, especially, makes a very pertinent comment on our increasing reliance on machines and disconnect from each other. If, like me, you don’t usually dabble in these genres, read these stories anyway. They are very entertaining and there is a lot more to them than time machines and smart homes. You can read them online here and here.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

“The World had raised its whip; where will it descend?”
                                                                   -  Mrs Dalloway

       Mrs Dalloway is one of those rare books that I abandoned midway despite really wanting to read it. This was over three years ago when my son had just been born.  Let me share some hard earned wisdom with you:  Mrs Dalloway  is not the best read when you’re wading through post partum depression. In fact, you may want to avoid Virginia Woolf entirely. Anyhow, now that I’m not perpetually sleep-deprived and cranky (much) I thought I’d give  Mrs Dalloway  another go. I was surprised at how much darker it had felt the first time I’d taken it up. Goes to show, doesn’t it, that a book can mean such different things depending on where you are in your life. Now, I’m not suggesting that this book is actually all bright and sunshiny, far from it, but it’s more thought-provoking than depressing.

       Clarissa Dalloway is throwing a party that evening and the book follows her and a few other characters around London during the hours preceding the party.  The narrative zigzags between the past and the present, thoughts and words, but Woolf does this with such skill that you are never confused.  Since there’s nothing here that can conventionally be termed a story, I’d like to examine some of the elements of the book that interested me.

       Clarissa Dalloway: Woolf lived with Clarissa Dalloway for a long time before finally giving her a book of her own. The character first appears in the novel The Voyage Out and then in the short story Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street, before evolving into the woman we meet in Mrs Dalloway. Clarissa is a wonderfully multi-layered character. At first glance she’s just another charming, but shallow and self centred woman of privilege. But beneath the serene exterior, she has her own struggles with life, age, mortality and isolation, although her struggles aren’t dramatic or noisy.

       Septimus Smith: Woolf intended Septimus to be another version of Clarissa. In her notes she refers to Septimus as Clarissa’s twin. Interestingly the two characters never meet or interact but it’s easy to see the link between them. Septimus suffers from post-war trauma and hallucinations. He is also convinced that humanity is innately cruel and therefore not worth being a part of. 
For the truth is (let her ignore it) that human beings have neither kindness nor faith, nor charity beyond what serves to increase the pleasure of the moment. They hunt in packs. Their packs scour the desert and vanish screaming into the wilderness. They desert the fallen.

       Clarissa’s loves: Richard Dalloway, the very proper and safe man she married, loves Clarissa in his own measured way but one is never quite sure if Clarissa feels anything beyond affection for him. Peter Walsh is the romance of her girlhood whom she rejected because he unsettled her. Now he’s back and a lot of her feelings for him are probably because he represents her youth. However, Clarissa’s most passionate love is for Sally Seton, a radical and bold girl who visited Clarissa when they were both young. 

       Dr Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw: Woolf really spews venom at the medical community of her time through these two characters. They are perhaps the most caricature-like of all her characters. Dr Holmes, the family physician, is insufferably patronizing. He seems to think Septimus is just being a bother and there’s nothing wrong with him that a hobby and some distraction wouldn’t cure. Dr Bradshaw, the specialist, on the other hand, pretends to sympathise but his ‘cure’ is really just a way of shutting the mentally infirm out of society.
Sir William not only prospered himself but made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalised despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views, until they too shared his sense of proportion.”

       Woolf’s notes suggest that she intended this book to be a sort of juxtaposition of the sane and insane, the living and the dead, the past and the present. She succeeds quite spectacularly in this regard. Admittedly, Mrs Dalloway takes some effort to read despite being a very slim book. But don’t let this put you off. I know a lot of people who have read and hated it but I still suggest you give this a chance, possibly even a second chance. I think it’s worth the effort.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Classics Challenge August Prompt : Quotes from Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Rather than a questions this month's prompt is to share a memorable


... or a few of them from what you're currently reading. Try to select one that are not so well-known but, of course, if you can't help yourself share it too!

My classic for this month is Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.

 Here's my favorite quote from the book.

“Peter would think her sentimental. So she was. For she had come to feel that it was the only thing worth saying – what one felt. Cleverness was silly. One must say simply what one felt.” 

The quote is perhaps unlikely to find a place in any 'quotable quotes' book but it reflects the theme of the book and what Woolf was trying to convey, that feelings are more valid and important than thoughts. In the same vein is another quote,

 “What does the brain matter compared with the heart?” 

As you can see, this is an underlying theme throughout the book. I must leave you with another quote which is not from the book but about the book.

"I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide: the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side - something like that." -Virginia Woolf on Mrs Dalloway.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster

"One can’t help thinking, Daddy, what a colorless life a man is forced to lead, when one reflects that chiffon and venetian point and hand embroidery and Irish crochet are to him mere empty words. Whereas a woman, whether she is interested in babies or microbes or husbands or poetry or servants or parallelograms or gardens or Plato or bridge-is fundamentally and always interested in clothes.”

    I read Daddy-Long-Legs as part of my classics challenge about a month ago but I’m only now getting around to writing about it. This is largely because it not an easy book to write about. Let me explain. Daddy-Long-Legs has no real plot. Well, it does, but its wafer thin and quite unremarkable. It also has just one real character: Jerusha a.k.a Judy. While other people are mentioned, they exist only as part of Judy’s narrative. Judy herself doesn’t really do very much and nothing very much happens to her either. All of this isn’t meant to imply that the book is boring. Hardly that. But it is difficult to write about without getting down to a textbook analysis of a very adorable character.

     To summarize briefly; Daddy-Long-Legs is an epistolary novel about an orphan, Judy, who has been given the chance to go to college by an unknown benefactor. This benefactor, whom Judy calls Daddy-Long-Legs because of his long legged shadow, expects her to update him about her life through regular letters. Judy enthusiastically obliges and we ‘see’ her life at college and beyond, play out through those letters.

     I hate to resort to a cliché and call this a coming-of-age tale, but I’m afraid it does belong to that category. However, this is less Catcher in the Rye and more Anne of Green Gables with a little added spirit and insight. The evolution of the letters in terms of style, tone and content is interesting.  Judy’s observations about the world around her, the people she meets and her own developing character are the most engaging and endearing parts of the book. Since she has never seen or heard Daddy-Long-Legs, he is almost an imaginary character to her and so she is able to write to him with absolute candor.

“We had a bishop this morning and what do you think he said?
"The most beneficent promise made us in the Bible is this,'The poor ye have always with you.' They were put here in order to keep us charitable."
The poor, please observe, being a sort of useful domestic animal. If I hadn't grown into such a perfect lady, I should have gone up after service and told him what I thought.” 

     This book is worth reading for Judy alone. It’s a small book and a very easy read. If you liked Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, you’ll probably like this one too.