Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea

Santiago hasn't caught a fish in eighty-four days and must set out in deeper waters to end his draught and gain his fellow fishermen's respect and the boy Manolin's admiration. After days at sea, he comes upon a marlin and struggles with it for two days before killing it and tying it to the side of the skiff. But while he is returning home, sharks follow the scent of blood and though Santiago kills several of them, they eventually eat most of the marlin, leaving only the fish's skeleton.

The Old Man

In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago struggles though he couldn't win but because to struggle is human. He fights not to overcome, but to assert his humanity and transcend destiny and fate through his determination amid destruction. In his own words: "… man can be destroyed but not defeated." Like Dr. Rieux and his friends in Camus's The Plague, struggling with the plague, while people continue to succumb to the disease. Perhaps Hemingway has seen enough death and destruction while reporting on the Spanish Civil War to understand that at times, a person can only fight without the hope of victory, and he or she must choose either to give up, or to fight and be destroyed. In his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan, in accepting the assignment to blow up the bridge, knows he wouldn't survive the task and he didn't. Still, he, like Santiago, chooses to fight. Hemingway in praise of human resolve.

And the Sea

Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable

In his trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett explores the frailty of existence.

In the first novel, the unreliable narrator recounts his decline but through the monologue, the reader learns not so much his past as declining state of mind. From his phrases and sentences, we realize how far he has departed from reality and how little we can trust his words. And even Molloy couldn't trust his recollection of events and his perception of world. In the second part of the first novel, the narrator Moran, a private detective searching for Molloy, follows a similar decline into delusion and his world becomes as unreal as Molloy's. As if they are the same person.

In Malone Dies, an old man confined to an asylum recounts his story and that of a boy named Sapo. But here, as in Molloy, the unreliable narrator conveys not so much the events as his delusion and decline. And we see Malone's death on the last page of the novel through the paragraphs and sentences distorting into fragments to reflect the narrator's last thoughts.

Samuel Beckett

“Lemuel is in charge, he raises his hatchet on which the blood will never dry, but not to hit anyone, he will not hit anyone, he will not hit anyone any more, he will not touch anyone any more, either with it or with it or with it or with or
or with it or with his hammer or with his stick or with his fist or in thought in dream I mean never he will never
or with his pencil or with his stick or
or light light I mean
never there he will never
never anything
any more ” from Samuel Beckett's Malone Dies.

Beckett's Birthplace: Foxrock, Ireland (Photo by Sarah777)

In The Unnamable, the narrator asks " What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed?" As if only a nameless person, perhaps a nonexistent person, can seek to act and to live. The narrator claims to have created Molloy, Malone and other characters in Samuel Beckett's novels, and like them, he also struggles to communicate reality and follows the same path toward non-existence.

Beckett's trilogy is a postmodern fiction, not a meta-fiction but a story where the plot collapses and character and, even more so, style dominates. Through the narrators' babbling and occasional insight, through the fragmented thoughts and distorted sentences, we learn about their psyche, isolated and delusional. And we realize Beckett is describing postmodern men and women.

Tanith Lee's All the Birds of Hell

In the fifteenth year of “Industrial Winter,” Henrique Tchaikov arrives as curator in a countryside dacha. In one of the towers, a pair of lovers has taken sleeping pills and committed suicide nine years ago and tourists would come to see their frozen remains. After the military removes the bodies, another couple commits suicide in the same bed and Henrique finds their bodies in the bed the next morning. Then he finishes his tour as curator and returns to the city to resume his life in the endless freezer.

All the Bird's of Hell is a dreamy and chilling tale of people defying fate and nature and seeking their dreams even through death. The haunting atmosphere of an everlasting winter and Henrique's quiet resignation contrasts with the couple's determination to define their own ends.

Tanith Lee

Ayn Rand's Anthem

Anthem is a parable more than a novel and its purpose is to praise individualism. Equality 7-2521 is the new Prometheus, bring "fire" to humanity that is under the bondage of collectivism and anti-intellectualism. Though the plot is formulaic and at times the pages read like propaganda, the last two chapters are poetic and indeed an anthem to individualism, and perhaps to elitism. After reading ten chapters of "we," "us," and "they," it is refreshing to see the word "I." As Prometheus has discovered fire, so Equality 7-2521 "I" and he, like his predecessor, will bring it to mankind.


When I was reading Anthem, I kept thinking of Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel We. In both books, "we" and collectivism and the totalitarian state dominate the story and the alphanumeric names stand out. But whereas Yevgeny Zamyatin analyzed the evils of Scientific Taylorism, Rand praised individualism as mankind's salvation.

Ayn Rand

Given Rand's experiences with Leninism and Stalinism, we can understand her enmity toward collectivism and anti-intellectualism. For her, only an individual's thoughts, talents and all the qualities of excellence that rise above the mass's mediocrity can defeat the evils that seek to destroy civilization. And so, Equality 7-2521 surpasses his brothers and sisters and will lead them out of bondage.

Whether we agree with Rand's philosophy or not, Anthem gives us a taste of the ideas she would expand upon in later novels.

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf details the intricate and ambivalent relationships among members of the Ramsay family and their friends. During the gathering, when the son James wants to go to the lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay asserts himself by declaring that the weather wouldn't allow the trip the next day. Yet, when he seeks Mrs. Ramsay to comfort him, he shows his insecurity. And Mrs. Ramsay wants to make everything right and everyone happy. Lily Briscoe struggles to paint Mrs. Ramsay's portrait while Charles Tansley, Mr. Ramsay's admirer, undermines her confidence with his chauvinist remarks about women incapable of writing and painting. During dinner, when the poet Augustus Carmichael wants a second helping of soup, Mr. Ramsay was rude to him. When Mrs. Ramsay leaves the guests and reflects on the events of the day, we can sense the sadness amid the laughter and hubbub of the party.

The section "Time Passes" gives us a sense of loss. Not only because W.W.I. comes and goes, taking along with in millions of lives. Not only because Mrs. Ramsay and the son Andrew and the daughter Pru passed away. But also because the passage of time has washed away the past: the laughter of the party, the joy of the engagement between Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle, the promise to go to the lighthouse, and Lily Briscoe's struggle with self-confidence. Those moments relegated to the survivors' memories, waiting to drop into oblivion.

Hoy Lighthouse, Orkney Islands (by Richard Harvey)

In the section "The Lighthouse," Mr. Ramsay his son James and his daughter Cam go to the lighthouse, and Lily finishes her painting. Promises and goals fulfilled. Yet, Mr. Ramsay remains insecure and seeks comfort from Lily but fails to receive any. He also asserts himself but forcing his son and daughter to go to the lighthouse, though eventually they come to respect him. Again the ambivalence between these characters. And Virginia Woolf is a master at these subtle emotions. To read her work is to experience the passing of time, and loss and sadness mixing with life and joy.

Virginia Woolf

Ernest Hemingway's FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS

Ernest Hemingway's FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS is not only a war novel but also a story of life, love, lost and ultimately death. Robert Jordan lives to fight with the republican guerrillas and he dies fighting alongside them. He lived a life that meant more to him than living in American suburbia with his wife and two children and a dog, working a nine-to-five job. That wouldn't be Robert Jordan, or Ernest Hemingway.

Sierra Guadarrama

Hemingway's minimalist writing reflects the pristine snow trails and pine forests, which reflect loneliness and death but also love and hope. Like a full moon reflected in a still lake. A poetry of war and camaraderie, where the violence of the writing would only temper the tragedy of lost. To experience these feelings is to experience the beauty of Hemingway's writing. For a war novel, there aren't many battle scenes. But we get to feel Robert Jordan's subdued emotions against the violence of war. The power of his love for Maria is that it couldn't be consummated. In the end, he chooses the only path consistent with his other choices: to fight to the end and risk capture and torture rather than have his comrades shoot him.

Ernest Hemingway

Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude portrays seven generations of the Buendía family and mimics the history of Columbia. A family saga as tortuous as Colombia's political journey. The magical realism of Márquez animates the brutal and shocking events and cements in the reader's mind a family determined to leave its footprint in history. The determination of José Arcadio Buendía and his wife Úrsula Iguarán, the passion of Colonel Aureliano Buendía, the ruthlessness of Arcadio contribute to the tragedy and comedy of the Buendía family, which reflects not only Colombia, but also of humanity. To read One Hundred Years of Solitude is to experience humanity's grandeur and disgrace.

Gabriel García Márquez

What a fun novel to read. To enjoy the magic of Gabriel García Márquez's writing and to savor the peaks and valleys of humankind. Who needs realism when we have writers like Márquez?

Tennessee Willians’s The Glass Menagerie

In Tennessee Willians’s The Glass Menagerie, a domineering mother directs the destinies of the son and daughter, thereby stifling their individualities and aspirations. The theme isn’t fresh but Tennessee Williams, with masterful strokes of his pen, draws forth the drama that tucks the hearts of audience. We feel the tension, the frustration, the struggle, and ultimately the resignation. We sympathize with the children for having to sacrifice their dreams but we also pity the mother for trying to fill the role of the father and to revive a past that no longer exists. The play is humorous, satirical, and ultimately sad.

Kasuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant

Kasuo Ishiguro’s writing is magic. I usually don’t read fantasy fiction, but by creating a mesmerizing dreamscape, he turns a dragon-slaying tale into a contemplation of memory and the nature of humanity. Is the loss of memory the only way to avoid retaliation and vengeance? If we don’t forget, can we ever forgive? Furthermore, the elderly couple as unlikely protagonists in a fantasy story gives to the story repose and warmth that younger heroes couldn’t. Read The Buried Giant for the love between the protagonists. Read it for Ishiguro’s prose, which matches the dreamy milieu.

Release of Leonard Seet’s novel Magnolias in Paradise

Excelsior Publishing will be releasing Leonard Seet’s latest novel Magnolias in Paradise in Fall 2016.

Ernst arrives at the Paradise train station with fifty-thousand dollars to ransom his sweetheart, and while looking among the crowd for the young man with a magnolia, a beggar seizes his bag of cash and escapes through the revolving door. Chasing after the rascal, he slams into his contact--his girlfriend's lover in town. Now, he must beat his love-rival to the money and rescue her before the deadline.

Magnolias in Paradise (252 pp., tpb, $14.95) is a 96,000-word crime novel and the first in a potential series. As in Larry Brown’s Father and Son, good confronts evil in a southern town. And as in Joe R. Lansdale’s Cold in July, an ordinary man gets sucked into a conspiracy, with psychopaths terrorizing a small town and FBI agents going after a corrupt sheriff. In the end, the man must take the law into his hands. But in this case, ending in tragedy. Here, I combined Will Christopher Baer’s surreal settings and mentally unstable villains, with Brian Evenson’s literary minimalism and heroes cursing their knowledge.

Leonard Seet brings his intelligence and wit and gifts as a writer to a broader audience in Magnolias in Paradise in a gritty, realistic novel. He uses a narrative style which brings you the perspective of the players in this grim game of hide-and-seek reminiscent of the narrative technique of As I Lay Dying and Charming Billy… Mainstream audiences will appreciate the intelligence of the narrative of this book in this genre, which is so often short-changed by lesser lights just out to make a buck. Seet has reinvented himself as a writer in his evolution from his deeply rich, engaging and inspirational books about spirituality to the rough ride on the mean streets of Magnolias in Paradise. If you are into this genre, then you’ll definitely be engaged by this novel.” -David Lentz, author, Bloomsday: the Bostoniad

Leonard Seet is the author of the novel Meditation On Space-Time and the non-fiction The Spiritual Life. His articles and short fiction have appeared in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Banana Writers and Pilcrow & Dagger. He learned the art of writing from Brando Skyhorse and Tim Johnston through George Washington University's Jennie McKean Moore Fiction Workshop, which is by application.

Magnolias in Paradise is available in most brick-and-mortar and online bookstores.

Review of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried

Tim O’Brien’s experience equipped him to tell powerful, emotional stories about the soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War. This book is a tribute to them. O’Brien’s no-nonsense prose comes through like a lightning flash in the night sky.

“… I detest their blind, thoughtless, automatic acquiescence to it all, their simpleminded patriotism, their prideful ignorance, their love-it-or-leave-it platitudes, how they were sending me off to fight a war they didn’t understand and didn’t want to understand. … the polyestered Kiwanis boys, the merchants and farmers, the pious churchgoers, the chatty housewives, the PTA and the Lions club and the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the fine upstanding gentry out at the country club. They didn’t know Bao Dai from the man in the moon. They didn’t know history. They didn’t know the first thing about Diem’s tyranny, or the nature of Vietnamese nationalism, or the long colonialism of the French… but no matter, it was a war to stop the Communists, plain and simple, which was how they like things, you were a treacherous pussy if you had second thoughts about killing or dying for plain and simple reasons.”

Perhaps, only someone like O’Brien, who had fought in the war, could understand the struggles these soldiers must confront.

“All those eyes on me--the town, the whole universe--and I couldn’t risk the embarrassment. It was as if there were an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river, and in my head I could hear people screaming at me. Traitor! they yelled. Turncoat! Pussy! I felt myself blush. I couldn’t tolerate it. I couldn’t endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule.”

What is courage, which is especially important for a soldier? Here, the narrator, in the story “On the Rainy River,” says, “I was a coward. I went to the war.” Could there be a sadder or more powerful statement on courage?

To read the stories in The Things They Carried is to enter the world of these soldiers. And O’Brien is a masterful storyteller.

Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island

Teddy Daniels goes to Shutter Island to locate Rachel Solando, a psychiatric patient in Ashecliffe Hospital who has disappeared from a guarded cell. No one knows how she escaped and no one knows where she could be. Teddy suspects the staff conspired to make her disappear but they wouldn’t let him review the patient list. When he keeps finding cryptic codes, he suspects the hospital is experimenting on the psychotic criminals by operating on their brains. But nothing is what it seems. Soon, he cannot distinguish between reality and illusion. The doctors there begin to imply that he may be insane.

Shutter Island is a page-turner of a novel. Nothing is what it seems and the boundary between reality and illusion blurs. Did Rachel Solando really escaped? Who is leaving the code for Teddy? Is the hospital operating on the patients to eliminate their violence? Is Teddy going insane? The truth is a surprising twist and the reader will enjoy the ride.

A Very Easy Death

In A Very Easy Death, Simone De Beauvoir said, “She (her mother) had a very easy death; an upper class death.” But it wasn’t an easy death. In this frank account of her mother’s struggle with intestinal cancer, Beauvoir not only reveals the struggle to release our loved ones but also the lies that we sometime perpetrate to spare them of suffering. The process of dying was gruesome, even for her mother, who wanted to keep a stiff upper lip. Worse were the doctors whose only goal was to keep the patient alive, regardless of pain and suffering, both physical and emotional. “… even when I was holding Maman’s hand, I was not with her -- I was lying to her.” Her mother losing her dignity as a human being is one of the most disheartening parts of the account. For many, like Beauvoir’s mother, dying may be a far worse ordeal than death. A must read for anyone who wants to prepare for and face death.

Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles

Ray Bradbury’s Martians aren’t microbes, or insects, or energy forms. They have brown skin, yellow eyes, and russet hair, and can be romantic (Mrs. K) or jealous (Mr. K). Though they are telepathic and live in crystal structures, they resemble humans more than amebas. Mars’s atmosphere sustains human life: the settlers didn’t wear any masks or respirators. Therefore, the air has oxygen and not much toxic gas such as chlorine and carbon monoxide. And the air pressure doesn’t much from that of earth. There is water though at least one sea dried out and there are sand vessels to surf through the desert. In many way, Bradbury’s Mars resembles a skewed version of earth. It is a romantic vision of the next frontier.

In contrast, wars permeate Earth and nuclear weapons were destroying the land to such an extent that some decided to leave Earth for Mars.

The colonists fled earth and settled in Mars and they create towns in their own images. The settlements resemble American mid-western suburbs of the 40’s and 50’s with ranches and gardens and the idyllic life. Like the colonialists on earth, the first visitors to Mars brought diseases that killed most of the natives. The settlers claim the land as their own and drove the remaining native into the hills.

In the section “The Million-Year Picnic,” the dad said to his children, “Now we’re alone. We and a handful of others who’ll land in a few days. Enough to start over. Enough to turn away from all that back on Earth and strike out on a new line--” The Puritans who came to the new world probably had the same vision.

Ray Bradbury (Photo: Alan Light)

In The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury shows how the settlers try to escape the evil on Earth only to bring the same seed of destruction to another land by creating it in their own images.

On Grief and Grieving Review

In On Grief and Grieving, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross applies the Five Stages model from her book On Death and Dying to grieving. Those who grieve while a loved one is dying or afterwards also struggle with denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While she confronts her own death, Ms. Kubler-Ross, together with co-author David Kessler, shares the inner and outer worlds of grief. For those who have grieved, some and perhaps many of the issues are familiar. We may be emotionally drained; we may feel relieved to see our loved one no longer suffering but then guilt may overwhelm us. During anniversaries and holidays, we would be especially pained. The book helps us grapple with our grieving and lets us know that we are not alone in the struggles. For those who are grieving as well as those who had grieved and those who will grieve.

A Short Review of @House of Leaves

At one level, @House of Leaves[1] reminds us of Nabokov’s Pale Fire[2], in this case commenting on a series of films The Navidson Record[3] rather than on a poem. However, Jorge Luis Borge’s footprints[4] tag the pages of this novel, critiking a fictitious text and footnoting with real and fictitious sources. It is fiction mirroring gnirorrim noitcif-non, with footnotes, Exhibits, Appendices and even an index.

To say that @House of Leaves is a postmodern[5] work doesn’t even begin to describe the how avant-garde this novel is. Yes, it is metafiction, with Zampanò critiking The Navidson Record but within this critik are multiple levels of footnotes: Zampanò’s of course, but also Johnny Truant’s about Zampanò’s work and his (Johnny’s) life as well as those of the “editors,” which comments on both Zampanò and Truant. Not to mention footnotes on footnotes. And yes, it is visual text: the world @house[7] in blue; text in various fonts; text being cross out like an edited manuscript; text inverted, slanted, mirrored, etc. Mark Danielewski, in writing this book, pulls out almost all the punches in experimental fiction.

Sample Page from Novel 1

However, he didn’t sacred story for format. The Navidson Record is gripping surrealist ho…or…roo…or[8] story. We rue for Navidson as he and his team journey into the malleable space of the @house and as he and Karen struggle with their relationship. We mourn the loss of his brother Tom and lament Navidson’s determination to enter alone into that dark hallway, his Moby Dick[10].  Navidson and Karen are characters who struggle with their dark souls and the @house is the symbol that reflects the darkness. The @house is one of the most memorable non-human characters in fiction. It is alive. It reflects the darkness of those who enter it. But also, it represents the force of nature: random, chaotic, and XXXXX[11].

Sample Page from Novel 2

At the meta-level, Johnny Truant’s story is also compelling. Though at first Truant seems like a shallow character, even in the beginning, we see in Truant’s prose a mixture of the lyrical and the crude, which foreshadows his schizophrenia. The Whalestoe Letters, letter from his mother, reveal her troubled mind and also hinted at his. In those letters, Danielewski uses layout and format to show her descend into insanity. Likewise, the chrolonogy mentfraged in entries lanruoj Truant’s woshs mind his oozing ouch with time/emit.
@House of Leaves is a modern mastermasterpiece. Ififyou like BorgesBorges… you… you will… will… love… love… love… le…[12]*

* Since Blogspot does not support all the formats in the manuscript, we have attached Exhibits I and II to show the original review. –Ed. 

1. Danielewski, Mark, @House of Leaves (MM). Pantheon Books, New York.
2. Nabokov, Vladimir, Pale Fire (MCMLXII). G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.
3. See @House of Leaves by Zampanò with introduction and notes by Johnny Truant for a better understanding of this film series.
4. See Leonard Seet’s review of Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinth.
5. By postmodern, we mean the rebellion against pre-modernism’s reliance on authority whether they be gods or priests or kings or feudal lords, and modernism’s worship of the individual, reason and science.[6]
6. We have EDITED Leonard Seet’s spiel on postmodernism, which spanned six pages and twenty-eight lines. There have been enough arguments about what we mean by postmodern, just as there were enough bickering about PARA-digm sh-----ift, that we can lay them to ZZZZ for now. –Ed.
7. We have not checked whether anyone has claimed this hashtag in Twitter. –Ed.
8. For an analysis of how Navidson exploited the techniks of horror in film, see The Navidson Record.[9]
9. We believe this is an error. Disclaimer: we do not endorse self-referential loop in logical discourse. That is not to say we dismiss M. C. Escher’s drawings such as Relativity and Drawing Hands, for art is different from yada yada. -Ed.
10. The whale, not the restaurant chain.
11. We have EDITED out the word to comply with Blogspot’s censor on reviews. –Ed.
12. Apparently, time began to dilate while Mr. Seet was finishing his review, just as the space expanded when Navidson entered the hallway. And as @House of Leaves has affected reviewers, so it also has affected our spa… ace… tim… me… cont… tin… nu… u… u… –Ed.

Exhibit I: Original Review Page 1

Exhibit II: Original Review Page 2

On Death and Dying Review by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

It has become cliché to say we live in a society that denies death. From her experiences with dying patients, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross sheds insight into how we face, or not face, death. She details the famous Five Stages --denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance--through case studies of patients. The Kübler-Ross Model, for better or worse, have become the model from which academics and lay people understand the process of dying. But more than the model, the book forces us to gaze death in the eyes and confront our fears. Only then can we integrate death into life and realize that death is part of our life and indeed a vital part. If we deny it or even just neglect it, our lives become incomplete. We don’t have to obsess over death just as we don’t just focus on our health to the neglect of other parts of lives. When death becomes an integral part of our beings, our lives become more dynamic.

Great insight into the psychology toward our ultimate end. On Death and Dying is not only for those facing death and their close ones, but for everyone, to prepare our journey to the end, and thus to gain strength in living our lives and in caring for those around us.

Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle

In a world where the Axis powers won W.W.II, Germany rules Europe and Japan Asia and the Pacific and they split the United States. Then, as in the Cold War, Germany and Japan rival for world domination. But the playground is the U.S. rather than Germany. The Man in the High Castle takes place in Japan-controlled San Francisco and the neutral Rocky Mountain States between the Pacific States of America and the East Coast of America. Germany plans to subdue Japan by creating an incident in the Rocky Mountain States, but a faction within the government sends a spy to warn Japan. In this world Germany’s final solution in Africa wipes out the continent and the country continues to persecute the Jews throughout the world, the remnants fleeing to the Rocky Mountain States and the Pacific States of America. The I Ching, the oracle that has replaced Christianity and the horoscope in the Pacific State of America, guides the masses in their decisions and through the ancient Chinese scripts answers their questions about life and death and the vagaries of living. This ancient scripture consumes the people’s imagination. In The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick created a world where the power players have shifted roles but familiar brinkmanship and subterfuge remain.

The World in The Man in the High Castle

Within the novel is another book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen, the man in the high castle. This novel within a novel delineates an alternative history to the one above. What if Germany and Japan lost W.W.II? Not a Cold War between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Not the victory of the communists in China. Rather, The Nationalist defeats the Communists in China, establishes a right-wing regime and allies with the U.S. The British retains most of its empire and continues to expand its dominance. Indeed, a Cold War develops between the U.S. and the U.K. with the latter eventually dominating the former. What is interesting is that this alternative to an alternative isn’t our history. So even with Allies victory, many scenarios can play out.

Dick’s comment on the Nazis is thought provoking.

“They want to be the agents, not the victims, of history. They identify with God's power and believe they are godlike. That is their basic madness. They are overcome by some archetype; their egos have expanded psychotically so that they cannot tell where they begin and the godhead leaves off. It is not hubris, not pride; it is inflation of the ego to its ultimate — confusion between him who worships and that which is worshiped. Man has not eaten God; God has eaten man.”

The Man in the High Castle is not just science fiction, but a thought-provoking look into the nature of humanity. Of course, as with other works of Dick, the cultural nuances and biases of the 60’s rear their heads throughout the novel. Nevertheless, a novel worth reading.

Ursula K. Le Guin's The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

Omelas's citizens have all the blessings we could imagine and they are cultured and wise but the price of having these good fortunes is one child's misery. A "scapegoat" to take on the "sins" of the city. Similar to the Biblical idea of the Savior taking on the sins of the world.

Though at first appalled at the barbarity of such a bargain, we may begin to realize that in our civilization, though not in such an extreme way, the majority benefits from those who sacrifice to make their lives better.

Ursula K. Le Guin (Photo by Eileen Gunn)

Policemen and policewomen put their lives on the line so we may live in a safer society and though we pay taxes for their services and they choose their profession, we are nevertheless benefiting from their "sacrifices."

Adults and children from Bangladesh may choose to work in garment factories but they didn't choose the poverty they were born into. And we as a society benefit from the relatively cheap clothing.

We may avoid buying clothes from Bangladesh but if we are to live in a society we cannot avoid benefiting from others' services. Ursula K. Le Guin's tale reminds us that our blessings come at a cost but also cautions us not to move toward Omelas, that "utopian dystopia." As in Omelas, some will choose to walk away from our society. But if they try to form another utopia, they will face similar dilemmas. That is not to say that we shouldn't look for solutions, but that those who walk away will bring the problem to their paradise.

Patrick Süskind's Perfume

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille has no scent but can identify the minutest one. To create a perfume that would seduce people into loving and worshiping him, he searches far and wide for the perfect ingredient. When he found that scent on a teenage girl, he intended to extract it from her even if that meant killing her.

In Perfume, Patrick Süskind has created a Gothic tale as dark as Frankenstein, but a tale of creation of the perfect perfume rather than the perfect man. Scents and fragrances dominate the book and details of the extraction processes make the book a good read. But Grenouille is a greater monster than Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. Through his misery and suffering, Grenouille learned to hate humanity and to take revenge upon it. He has no conscience and his only goal is to create the perfect perfume. If he had to kill innocent girls, so be it. He aspires to be God. He wanted the people to love and worship him. He succeeds. He becomes all-powerful, but without his own smell, he has no identity. That is his grief. In the end, he destroys himself.

Ten With a Flag by Joseph Paul Haines

What if we can find out everything about a fetus: its potential health problems, including longevity; its skills and potential careers; its characters and temperaments? In Joseph Paul Haines’s “Ten with a Flag,” the government health organization has rated a fetus a ten--indicating potential greatness: an Mozart or an Einstein--but a flag hints at potential complications. And the parents have the option of aborting the fetus. To complicate the situation, their social status will depend on whether they have the baby: having it will raise them to status level eight--ten the top level.

We’re learning more and more about embryos through DNA mapping and technologies will advance to give us more information about a fetus’s health and perhaps its innate skills. Should parents get and view the information? What should they do if they find out their baby has a high risk of heart attack or Alzheimer’s disease? A situation similar to whether we should look into the future if we can. Will the information help us plot a course to minimize the risks? Or will it stifle us with fear and worry? And what are the moral implications? These are not easy questions though in general we should go through life with our eyes open. But we are humans and we fear and worry and indeed sometimes knowledge chokes us. May we have the wisdom and maturity for greater knowledge.

Shirley Jackson's The Lottery

In Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, though the stoning reminds us of the Old Testament punishment, its original intent has long been forgotten. We view with horror at the barbarity and insanity of the custom, just as we consider the Romans barbaric for entertaining themselves with gladiators. But perhaps a visitor to the U.S. without previous exposure may find American football, shoulders banging into heads and players piling on top of each other, also “barbaric and insane.”

We do not question our customs and habits just as the villagers in the story do not theirs. What we view as “normal living” may be considered insanity to foreigners, and vice versa.

We sit in the traffics for hours, stare at the TV or computer or tablet until bedtime, and text 24/7 to feel connected with some body. Just because everyone else is doing it? Just because our parents or grandparents have been doing it for years? Just because TV ads tell us it’s the good life? Or because it’s the path of least resistance?

Through Jackson’s story, the reader reflects on his or her customs and habits, most of which are detrimental only when gone through without understanding their purposes. We may realize how silly some of our routines are. And also others’ habits and customs may no longer be as “strange.”

The Blue Religion: New Stories about Cops, Criminals, and the Chase Edited by Michael Connelly

The collection of police crime fiction includes Law & Order type police procedural such as Persia Walker’s “Such a Lucky, Pretty Girl” to capers such as Bev Vincent’s “Rule Number One.” But all the stories are about cops and criminals and the onus and responsibility of the badge. And there is even a provocative story by Diana Hansen-Young, “Oaths, Ohana, and Everything,” about the handing-over of Hawaii to the United States. A great collection for crime fiction fans.

Philip K. Dick's The Minority Report

What if we can detect crimes before they happen? What if we can arrest criminals before they commit crimes?

Anderton is the commissioner and founder of Precrime, the police force that arrests criminals before they have a chance to commit crime. Computers manipulate “gibberish” from three “precogs,” each one seeing into a possible future, and Anderton determines whether a crime will be committed. When two or more “precogs” agree on an outcome, the resulting agreement is a majority report and the police can act on it. The system has been working fine until one day a majority report indicates Anderton will murder a retired general.

When he reviews the reports and tried to understand how the minority report differs from the majority. He realizes the fact that he, unlike other criminals, could see the report has altered the results. The first report gives the situation where he doesn’t know he will kill the general and in this scenario he would kill the general to prevent the military from taking over. But the second report, the minority report, considers his seeing the first report and therefore changing the outcome and in this scenario he wouldn’t kill the general. Then the third report, which consider his seeing the minority report, indicates he would kill the general. The very fact that he could see into the “future” changes it.

In this story, Philip K. Dick questions the validity of “seeing into the future.” If we could “see into the future,” we have the opportunity to change that future and therefore create a different future. Hence, the paradox.

I enjoy reading Philip K. Dick because his stories spurs to think about issues in our existence. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it is the nature of being alive and being human. In Ubik, it the nature of reality. And here, it is the paradox of knowing the future.

Stephen King's Novel 11/22/63

When Jake Eppings, a high school teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine visits Al, the owner of a local diner, the latter reveals a time tunnel in the diner’s kitchen, which could take him back to September 9, 1958, specifically at 11:58 a.m.  Al has traveled through the tunnel several times to buy cheap beef for his diner but in his latest trip, he tried to prevent John F. Kennedy’s assassination. When his health begins to deteriorate, he returns to tell Jake everything and asks the teacher to take on the mission. Jake at first hesitates but eventually agrees to save Kennedy from Lee Harvey Oswald, and using Al’s notes, he carries out the plan to stop the assassin. What Jake didn’t realize is changing such a momentous event redirects the course of history, the Butterfly Effect.

John F Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963

Time travel isn’t new in literature and through nitpicking we can always find technical flaws. In this case, given the asymmetry of the time tunnel, it is interesting to ask: if someone at Lisbon Falls on September 9, 1958 steps into the “rabbit hole” what date and time would she emerge into?

Lee Harvey Oswald in Custody

But nitpicking aside, Stephen King, through his research, succeeds in painting a picture of the cultural and social environment during the late 50s and early 60s, particularly in Maine and around the Dallas/Fort Worth area. King has delayed writing the novel for years because he needs time to research that era and he has succeed in the effort and written a novel that immerses the reader in the local climate of that period. And the characters come alive because of the local flavors.

The Butterfly Effect

After reading the novel, the reader would reflect on the causality of historical events, i.e. the Butterfly Effect on a global scale. What if Hitler didn’t rise to power? What if Gandhi remained a lawyer in South Africa? Would the world be better or worse in either case? We don’t know. We observe a triumph or a tragedy in history and we evaluate it according to our values and biases but a triumph may lead to a catastrophe and a tragedy a breakthrough. I wonder whether one day our supercomputers can predict the course of human history through Genetic Algorithms, Dynamic Programming, and other stochastic estimation methods. But at any moment in history, without knowing the “global optimum,” we like Jake Eppings would still strive for the “best” according to our values. We are human. We are only human.

Germinal: Emile Zola's Realist Literature

The wobbly cages descending into the pit, miners half-naked toiling in the scorching darkness of the mine’s galleries, the veins bursting and flooding the passages, the meager wages the miners receive at the end of the day, the wives desperately scouring for gruel each meal, the parents giving their daughters to the grocer to get flour and sugar; all recounted in a calmly detached voice.

Etienne, a vagrant worker, joined the fraternity and dissatisfied with the inhuman daily drudges and ambitious to rise above these defeated and resigned miners organized them into a union and led the strike. But the strike revealed as much the indifference of the owners and managers as the ignorance and violence of the miners. After many lives perished, many families shattered, many mines destroyed, the strike failed, the miners returned to work and Etienne left. In Germinal, Zola harmonized the detached narrative voice with the miner’s sub-human existence and their potential for gratuitous evil to evoke a chilling sonata that would haunt the reader long after the novel’s conclusion.