Story of the Month, February 2011

I confess that when I look back on all the short stories I’ve ever read, those written by Ray Bradbury are some of the first to pop into my head. It’s partly because I have read more work written by Bradbury than I have by any other author, but it’s mostly because he is a literary genius. He was always ahead of his time, raising specific social issues in his stories before it was “popular” to do so. But most importantly, he knew how to weave a story, how to mold characters, how to captivate readers. He is a legend. And that is why That’s Classic!’s Story of the Month for February 2011 is Ray Bradbury’s “I Sing the Body Electric!”

I believe I mentioned in previous posts that I was fortunate enough to take a college class that studied Bradbury’s work at length. Over the course of sixteen weeks, we read two novels in their entirety and somewhere between forty and fifty short stories. We discussed his writing style and the mechanics of his work. But we also talked about his development as a writer and what was going on in his professional and personal life.

I fell in love with Bradbury’s early work The October Country. The stories in this particular book tended toward the fantastic, the strange, the horrific, the grotesque. The October Country was a collection of short stories that made my skin tingle and my stomach turn as I nervously flipped on the lights and cautiously peered over my shoulders. The stories reminded me of my beloved and favorite show, The Twilight Zone. They were glimpses into “What if?” scenarios that were both strange and beautiful, terrifying and captivating. In other words, I was hooked.

But Bradbury’s writing style developed and evolved. He gradually moved away from the shock- and twist-filled science-fantasy stories like “The Crowd” and “The Lake” to more literary-fantasy stories like “The Fog Horn” and “I Sing the Body Electric!” I resisted his newer stories, feeling betrayed after falling so hard for The October Country. But it took the writer–not the reader–in me to realize that his writing needed to evolve. Had his writing not developed from the stories he wrote in his early 20s…well, it wouldn’t have made him a good writer. Writers change, writers age, writers live. And as we live our lives we go through new experiences that should find their way into our work. It means that we are maturing as writers. And that’s exactly what happened, and still happens, with Ray Bradbury.

“I Sing the Body Electric!” is a rare gem of a story. The title gives the impression that it could be either a) a horror story about body parts or b) a science fiction story about technology. In all actuality, it a a fantasy story (you can call it science fantasy, if you wish) about a human family, a human family that has experienced a great loss: the death of a beloved wife and mother.

True to form, Bradbury infuses this story of humanity with a touch of the strange and a simple what-if scenario. What if this family–a distraught and helpless father, an angry and deeply hurt daughter, and a son and daughter desperate for a mother figure–were to find everything they were looking for…in a robot? A custom-built, grandmotherly robot? Would she fill the place of the children’s mother? Would she be able to properly love and care for the children the way the father needs her to? Would she be able to penetrate the cold and bruised heart of a daughter betrayed by her deceased mother?

Yes.

One of Bradbury’s most poignant stories, “I Sing the Body Electric!” is a true work of literary fantasy that creates memorable characters (something that Bradbury often struggled to do) and a heartwarming story that keeps you fully engaged, left wondering less about how a machine can fill the holes in a family’s heart left and more about how the machine would cope after children grow and age and a family no longer needs it, her, after she no longer has a purpose. What if an immortal grandmother, built to the specifications of a broken family in desperate need of love, develops an iron mind full of memories and an aluminum heart full of love for a mortal, aging family that won’t need her forever, that won’t live for forever? Do we care what happens to her?

Yes. Just as much as we do about the family, and the devastated daughter, that she tries to save.

Ray Bradbury, the only man who could make us weep for a burning house, a dying shape-shifting Martian, a robotic grandmother doomed to outlive her family. Yeah, he’s that good. Read “I Sing the Body Electric!” and you’ll see it, too.

NOTE: For all my fellow Twilight Zone fans out there, you’ll be happy (and surprised) to know that this unlikely story was beautifully adapted into a Twilight Zone episode. It lacks the spine-tingling twists of traditional episodes written by the illustrious Rod Serling, but it no doubt fits perfectly into the realm of the imagination.

Advertisements
Published in: on February 28, 2011 at 11:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Story of the Month, October 2010

The cover for the book Dark Carnival, which contains the story “Homecoming.” Thanks to fantasticfiction.co.uk for the use of this image.

The cover for the book Dark Carnival, which contains the story “Homecoming.” Thanks to fantasticfiction.co.uk for the use of this image.

For as long as That’s Classic! has been around, I’ve tried to avoid choosing stories for the Story of the Month that match the current season or holiday. However, there is something inescapably magical and enticing about autumn, especially right around Halloween. No writer has known or captured that magic better than the prolific storyteller Ray Bradbury, a man who has devoted much of his writing career to the fantasy and wonder of this special time of year. As my tribute both to the autumn season and the writer who loved it best, I have selected Ray Bradbury’s “Homecoming” as the Story of the Month for October 2010.

 

More to come in the following days. Please check back soon!

 

Published in: on October 31, 2010 at 10:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Story of the Month, March 2010

One of several covers for the book The Illustrated Man, which contains the story “Kaleidoscope." Thanks to aok.lib.umbc.edu for the use of this image.

Whenever I am at a loss for which story to pick as the Story of the Month, the first author that comes to mind is Ray Bradbury (which, my loyal readers, you could probably have guessed since I’ve already reviewed one of his novels and one of his short stories). I was fortunate enough to take a wonderful course that solely focused on Bradbury and his work, taught by his very own biographer. I’ve never read as many stories written by a single author before. Even so, I can safely say that he is one of the best writers I’ve ever read. For that reason, I have no qualms about naming another of his stories SOTM. So, without further ado, That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for March 2010 is Ray Bradbury’s “Kaleidoscope.” (I have included a link to a full-text version of the story at the bottom of this post.)

“Kaleidoscope,” which appears in Bradbury’s remarkable short story collection, The Illustrated Man, is a story that literally propels you into outer space. It is the story of about a dozen men, not far from Earth, whose spaceship blew apart and now they are accelerating further and further apart from each other, the headsets inside their helmets their only means of staying in contact. All these men, including the main character Hollis, know that they are inevitably going to die, and most can assess by what means. The captain is going to hit the moon. Stone is going to be bludgeoned in a meteor shower. Applegate is accelerating toward Pluto. And Hollis is propelled toward Earth, the atmosphere of which will undoubtedly incinerate him. Their shared, yet disparate, fates are all unavoidable.

As these men hurtle toward their fate, feeling helpless in preventing their own deaths, they understandably bicker and find fault with each other. There’s a particularly compelling argument between Hollis and Lespere, an apparent womanizer who has no regrets at the end of his life, and who lets Hollis know about it. And Hollis retorts that it doesn’t matter, that they’re all meeting the same fate now, and Lespere’s “life experiences” doesn’t make his life any better than that of Hollis. But, as Lespere explains, “I got my thoughts, I remember.”

It’s the knowledge of having affected someone else, of having meant something to someone else, that plagues Hollis. We can infer from the storyteller that Hollis has never really meant anything to anyone, and that he doesn’t feel like his life was worth anything. But at the very end of the story, in death, Hollis is finally able to mean something to someone. (But I won’t tell you anything more than that. I don’t want to end the beautifully-written ending for you. You deserve the treat of the surprise!)

Now onto the writing:

“Kaleidoscope” really is a simple story, plot-wise. The story begins after the ship has already exploded. Most of the story takes place from a vantage point close to Hollis, so we can see what he sees as Earth’s gravity is pulling him in. And soon Hollis is alone, his fellow astronauts rocketing off to the farthest reaches of space or into a collision-course with a planet, moon, or meteor. And then at the end of the story, only a few pages after the story begins, Hollis is dead.

At first, the men can see each other, but after only a few seconds they are traveling so fast they are out of sight, their headsets the only reminder that they’re not alone. This story is told unlike most other stories. Instead of having all the characters in a single location, talking to each other face to face, most of these characters are conversing without being near each other or being able to see each other. It’s an unconventional way of handling a scene and dialogue between characters, but Bradbury pulls it off.

What I love so much about this story—besides the fact that it takes place in space, a subject that has always fascinated me—is that it is so telling of the human condition. We as humans, by our very nature, become incredibly reflective when we know the end is near. We might even become bitter and spiteful and lash out. But even more than that is Hollis’ desire for his life to mean something to someone other than himself, to know that he made a difference in someone’s life. It’s just tragic that he had to die for his wish to be realized.

 Bradbury, like his character Hollis, certainly makes an impact with this story. So please don’t make it to the end of your life before reading this story. It is sure to make you think about your influence in life—as well as in death—quite a bit differently. It’s certainly worth the read.

To read a full-text version of “Kaleidoscope,” please click here. (Thanks to scaryforkids.com for posting this story.)

Published in: on March 31, 2010 at 10:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Story of the Month, May 2009

One of many covers for the book The Martian Chronicles. Thanks to barnesandnoble.com for the use of this image.

One of many covers for the book The Martian Chronicles. Thanks to barnesandnoble.com for the use of this image.

Considering that I just finished taking a course that focused solely on the work of Ray Bradbury, I think it only fitting to name another Bradbury story as the Story of the Month. However, in this case, it is a collection of stories–introducing us to dozens of characters and spanning many years and locations (including two planets)–that are expertly woven into one fluid novel. Of course, I am talking about Ray Bradbury’s The Martian ChroniclesThat’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for May 2009.

The Martian Chronicles begins in the future, in the year 1999 (remember: this story was published around 1950!), on Earth. Americans have decided to explore Mars. In this first chapter, “Rocket Summer,” we watch as a powerful interplanetary rocket ignites and lifts off, instantly melting away the frozen Ohio winter. After the next chapter, “Ylla,” which is the only story solely told from a Martian’s point of view, we watch as Americans fly rocket after rocket in the hopes of reaching Mars.

At first, we aren’t ultimately sure of what Americans will do once they successfully land on Mars, if they survive long enough to at least set up a small base camp. Do they want to colonize the planet? Simply explore it? Coexist peacefully with the Martians? Wipe out the Martians completely? We aren’t too sure. But we do know that, back on Earth, everything is heading toward a full-scale nuclear war that could destroy the entire planet at any moment. So any motivations to colonize on Mars seem justified. But, as early as the fourth expedition of Mars, we see the American explorers start to disrespect the culture and people of Mars, from the way the boisterous Biggs litters and tosses empty bottles into a Martian river to the crew’s stoic response to chicken pox wiping out the entire Martian population. The only person sympathetic to the Martians (in almost the whole book), a man named Spender, goes crazy in his one-man quest to preserve the Martian culture, and therefore meets a fatal end. And, from that point on, “the men of Earth came to Mars” and didn’t stop coming…until settlers are irrevocably drawn back to Earth.

The Martian Chronicles is told through a bridge-chapter system. In other words, seemingly unrelated short stories are connected through the use of bridge chapters–short, usually one-page chapters that provide background or additional information to flush out the novel’s overarching story, allowing each shorter story to add to the overall story. (If you have read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, then you are already familiar with this structural concept of storytelling.) Although characters from each story rarely, if ever, appear in another story, the stories all build upon each other to express what Bradbury thoughts on humanity: no matter how well-intentioned people may be, no matter what we are running from or toward, if we don’t think things through and accept our own consequences, then we will ultimately destroy those around us, as well as ourselves. This is a grave observation, to be sure, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Each story in The Martian Chronicles is deeply moving. Not only is the writing outstanding, but also the stories are innovative, sharp, and real. Okay, I’ll admit that there is barely anything in this novel that is “true.” Unlike in Bradbury’s book, Mars does not have an atmosphere and therefore is not capable of producing vegetation or supporting life, especially a race of beings superior, in every way imaginable, to humans. And, clearly, we are not capable of sending people out to Mars and having them survive. This is a book of fantasy, not science fiction (science fiction, in Bradbury’s opinion, implies the stretching of reality while maintaining scientific accuracy, whereas fantasy stretches the laws of basically everything). Yet, because of Bradbury’s attention to the destructive tendencies of humanity, this book reads more truthfully than does his science fiction classic Fahrenheit 451. There is something deeply emotional in each story of The Martian Chronicles that is lacking in his other novel. Bradbury can take humans, Martians, and even an inanimate object (i.e. a house) and give it life in such a way that we can’t help but sympathize with it. Who is the actual antagonist of this book? It’s difficult to decide. I’ll let you figure that out for yourself.

Whether you read this whole book in one sitting or only a story or two at a time, I can guarantee that you will be stretched in new ways. It will force you to examine yourself and your own participation in humanity. How would you act in these scenarios? How would you react to them? Would you be willing to save your own race at the expense of another? Would you ever get to the point that you’d turn on your own race? There are no easy answers. Only cold, hard truths.

Published in: on May 18, 2009 at 12:08 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Story of the Month, April 2009

One of many covers for the book the October Country, which contains the story the Crowd. Thanks to amazon.com for the use of this image.

As much as I love the short story form, there have only been two short stories that I’ve ever immediately fallen in love with. My February story, “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, was one such story. And I’m proud to announce that the other story is my pick for That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for April 2009: “The Crowd” by Ray Bradbury. (I have included a link to a full-text, book-preview version of the story at the bottom of this post.)

“The Crowd” begins with the protagonist, Mr. Spallner, getting into a horrible car accident. Although no one is around at the time of the accident, within thirty seconds an entire crowd has gathered around Spallner. He takes inventory of some of them: a woman with too much red lipstick, a boy with freckles, an old man with a wrinkled lip, and an old woman with a mole on her chin. And when they say to each other that everything will be fine–that he won’t die–he inexplicably believes them.

After recuperating in the hospital, Spallner returns to work and becomes obsessed with car accidents. Everywhere he goes, they seem to happen. He conducts some research and realizes, thanks to newspaper photographs, that the same people keep appearing at each accident, no matter where the accidents occur across town. And, not to Spallner’s surprise, they are the same people that were at his accident. And they seem to have some power over the crash victims. If the crowd touches a body, then the victim dies. If they leave the body alone–like they did to Spallner–then the victim lives. And Spallner is on to them. Now that the truth has been uncovered, the race is on to see if he can get to the police with his supernatural news…alive.

Before I can even talk about how “The Crowd” is written, it’s worth mentioning how much Bradbury’s material differs from each other. Many people are most familiar with his infamous novel Fahrenheit 451, which is a startling social commentary on literacy, laziness, and censorship. Many more are familiar with his novel-in-stories The Martian Chronicles, another social commentary, but regarding humanity’s destructive nature. But he didn’t always write with such social consciousness. His earliest work, including “The Crowd,” tended to read like Twilight Zone episodes: dark and haunting, with a supernatural kicker of an ending. Then he started to write more literary short stories, often integrating a bit of fantasy or science fiction. Then came those masterpieces: The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451.

So as much as people write off Bradbury as a sci-fi writer, he has proven himself way more versatile. While I prefer his more literary short stories, something about the haunting Twilight Zone-esque tale of “The Crowd” always gets me. Even though the story is written in third person, Bradbury’s writing is so infused with mystery and unease that we feel Spallner’s curiosity and paranoia. We don’t doubt that he’s uncovered some secret of the ages. We don’t think that he’s delusional, still recovering from a head injury resulting from his car accident. We are just as creeped out by these crowd members as Spallner is, and we’re rooting for him to get to the police station to expose them. Though we never quite take on all the thoughts and feelings of our protagonist, Bradbury sure gets us to rally behind him.

After all, over the course of the story, we see enough death and destruction. Our own social consciousness kicks in and we want justice. But, more than anything, we really just want to get creeped out.

To read a full-text version of “The Crowd,” please click here. (Thanks to Google Book Search for allowing access to this story.)

Published in: on April 9, 2009 at 6:07 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: ,

Top 10 Classics, According to That’s Classic!

Any Top 10 list of classics would be highly subjective, just like any list of Top 10 albums or movies would be. (Is it any wonder why the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies list changed so much in ten years’ time?) It all really comes down to personal preference and what you look for when you pick up a book. Action? Drama? Dialogue? Scene? Characters? Mind candy? Well, chances are, if you’re looking merely for mind candy, then you’ll be disappointed with this Top 10 list. Because this list is all about books that stretch your mind and your beliefs and your morals. This list has books that change you, that take you on a journey, that reveal something about life—and yourself—to you. This is my list of Top 10 Classics. These are the books that have changed my life. I hope that you’ll give them a chance to change your life, too. And, this goes without saying, they all come with my highest recommendation. (Complete analysis soon to follow.)

  1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky-I can’t help but put this epic of classic literature at the top of my list. C&P follows Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, a young ex-university student who, like most of those around him, can barely get by. He convinces himself that he is a “superman,” and therefore doesn’t need to follow the same moral code as everyone else. As a result of this belief, he plans to murder a local pawnbroker, someone who he feels has wronged him and many others by paying small amounts for their prized possessions they must sell to survive. When he does finally kill the pawnbroker, her sister catches him, so Raskolnikov has no choice but to kill the sister, a murder he had not planned on. He spends the rest of the book battling his conscious and madness–which are perhaps the same thing–as he weighs his options. To confess or not to confess? To succumb to guilt or prove to himself that he is indeed a superman and without guilt? While the setting of this book is foreign to modern-day readers, Raskolnikov’s struggle with his own guilt and mortality are things that today’s readers can understand, or at least relate to. Dostoevsky writes with such honesty and really explores the human mind. He is able to sway our prior convictions about murderers and convinces us to sympathize with Raskolnikov and his moral ambiguity. For more about this masterpiece, please see the Story of the Month, December 2008 by clicking here.
  2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  3. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
  7. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  8. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  9. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
  10. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov-This book completely took me by surprise. I had heard mixed reviews of it; I think people either hate it or love it. There’s a similar reaction to the book’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert: people either hate him or love him (in a manner of speaking). There’s no real surprise there. Humbert’s a man in his thirties who seems “normal” to everyone he meets but confesses to us readers (in Nabokov’s expertly-crafted novel-as-mock-deposition) his deepest and darkest pedophilic thoughts. In this almost journal-like novel, Humbert re-tells his sexual history including how he met, seduced, and carried on a relationship with the pre-teen Lolita. As disturbing as that may sound, it is nevertheless a wonderfully written book. The reason this book surprised me so much was that I really liked Humbert. I found him unbelievably interesting and clever and oh-so-charming. Like Dostoevsky teaches us to accept and even like Raskolnikov, Nabokov teaches us to at least listen to the ever-amusing Humbert Humbert. He is truly one of the most interesting characters that I’ve ever encountered.