Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Creative Person (Quotes)

I am finding the book Making a Living Without a Job by Barbara J. Winters very inspiring. Below are two quotes about creativity from her book:
The creative person takes the material at hand and begins to see it in a new way, to make connections and observations that others miss. The creative person looks for inspiration rather than waiting for it to magically appear.
Like everyone else, you will have ideas that are marvelous, some that are mediocre, others that are ahead of their time, and still others that are worthless. How do you know which are which? The truth is, you may be the worst judge of your own creativity; therefore, it’s up to you to keep acting on your ideas and see what happens when you do.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Caves of Steel (Classic SF Book)

A Murder. Elijah and Jezebel. A Dangerous Political Situation. Robots. Underground Cities. Overpopulation. Increasing Unemployment. Riots. Yeast. Medievalists. 

Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel is like a peanut butter cup for the geek mind, combining the two great tastes of science fiction and mystery. Oh, how fun! The novel was original published in 1953 as a serial and in 1954 as a book. It is the first novel in the Robot Series and introduces the character of R. Daneel Olivaw, who appears in many novels in the Foundation Series.

Briefly, the novel takes place in the future, where the people of Earth live in underground cities and unemployment is an ever-present concern. The relationship between the Spacers—descendents of space colonists—and the people of Earth is not good. When a leading Spacer scientist is found murdered, there is fear that it could lead to retaliation. Lije Bailey, a police officer, is called in to investigate. Like most of the people of Earth, he is not fond of robots, but the Spacers insist that he be given a robot partner, the newly created R. Daneel Olivaw. As Lije works to overcome his prejudice against robots and solve the murder, he finds himself in potential danger from both the Spacers and the Medievalists, a back to the past movement. Despite a number of wrong turns, Lije and Daneel solve the murder and form a bond.

The Caves of Steel isn’t great literature, but it is very enjoyable storytelling. I love to try to follow the threads of a mystery. The novel felt real to me, with a well thought out setting and interesting characters. While the style might be simpler than that of current novels, the plot is perhaps even more credible than it was over half a century ago. Many of us feel vulnerable in a fragile economy. Instead of blaming robots, present day people blame immigrants. Groups protesting the current political situation are becoming more common. A growing population was recently in the news. I also think that an explosion in robotics is just around the corner. While The Caves of Steel is not a must read, I definitely recommend it to science fiction fans.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Age of Innocence (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

Society. Etiquette. Expectations. Family. Loyalty. Divorce. Honesty. Innocence. Emancipation. Love.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, marking the first time a woman won the award. The novel is set in New York upper-class society in the 1870’s, where almost every action is prescribed by etiquette and tradition. While the characters live in outer opulence, their imaginations are impoverished.

Briefly, the story opens with Newland Archer about to announce his engagement to May Welland. He has romantic ideas about what their life will be like together. His expectations are complicated by the arrival of May’s cousin Ellen Olenska, a woman separated from her husband after an abusive marriage. Her presence back in New York is scandalous. Newland soon finds himself intrigued by the woman and then falling in love with her. Unlike May who is kind, innocent, and does what she is expected to do, Ellen has an honest perspective and questions life. At one point, in thinking about May, he wonders how can he emancipate a woman who isn’t even aware there is anything to be emancipated from. Newland and Ellen must deal with their loyalty to May and their attraction for one another.

I’m finding that reading a classic as a bookworm is different from reading a classic as an English major. After all, I don’t have to read the book, and I almost didn’t read the Age of Innocence because in the beginning it felt too stilted and confining. Slowly I began to be motivated by the urge to see good craftsmanship. I began to pay attention to where Wharton included a lot of detail and where there was almost none. At one point she does not even refer to May by name, helping the reader to understand how insignificant May had become. The obnoxious details that I detested in the beginning of the novel invoked in me the tediousness of all the little social rules the characters were observing. I enjoyed how Wharton paralleled and contrasted the beginning and near ending scenes of the novel. The last scene was perfect.

My mind, ever changed by reading too many time-travel books, still can’t wrap itself around the idea of sitting here in 2011, reading a book about the 1870’s that was published in1920. At the end of the novel, Archer’s adult son represents the new world to come, which is now over a century old. I realize that I look at my life differently than most people. I am aware that so many of the things that people get upset about are just passing trends, which will soon be replaced by more passing trends. Both classics and science fiction reinforce that perspective. Now, on to some good old fashioned robot novels.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (Book)

Speculative Fiction. Science Fiction. Slipstream Fiction. Superheroes. Ustopias. Utopias. Dystopias. Mythology. Maps. History. Cartography. Archeology. Anthropology. Fantasy. Folktales. Fable. Scientific Romance. Mad Scientists. Archetype. Immortality. Biography. 

Margaret Atwood’s book In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination contains bits and pieces loosely associated with the concept of Speculative Fiction. Atwood includes descriptions of the roots of speculative fiction and essays about particular books—most of which were written before the Hugo Award winners. She includes autobiographical snippets in which she describes her relationship with speculative fiction. She also includes snippets of her own speculative fiction writing.

Much of the time the book felt rambling to me. Yet there were nuggets of gold that made it at least partially worth reading for me, and in places her wit made me laugh. I wonder whether I would have thought differently about the book if I had been an Atwood fan—I vaguely remember reading something by Atwood in school. I also questioned whether a linear book was the best medium for the content, because there seemed to be so many little rabbit holes it went down. To me, the book felt more like a website with layers of hypertext and interesting links to follow.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

One of Our Thursdays is Missing (SF Book)

A Missing Thursday. An Understudy. Malapropism. Cog-based Life Forms. Men in Plaid. An Unrepeatable Accident. Metaphor. Compassion. An Imaginary Daughter.

After finishing One of Our Thursdays is Missing, I feel like a little kid who has just finished running down a hill with her arms wide opened. You definitely need your sneakers tied to read this book. It is wild and wonderful. Jasper Fforde is an amazing world builder and creates some fun characters. Most of the story takes place in the Bookworld, which has been recreated as a geographical place; the book even comes with a map. How can such an odd story seem so real? [Fforde describes the series as being on the speculative side of Fantasy.] This is the sixth book in the Thursday Next series, so don’t even try to read this before reading the other books.

Briefly, One of Our Thursdays is Missing is narrated by book Thursday, the granola munching Thursday from First Among Sequels. She gains an understudy, allowing her to take a break from her usual responsibilities. Early on, she begins to suspect that the real Thursday Next is missing and explores that possibility. Book Thursday is also given the task of investigating an accident in the Bookworld, but realizes that she has been chosen because of her incompetence. Along the way, she acquires a sidekick, Sprockett, a cog-based life-form. Near the end of the book, she visits the Outland, the real world, in hopes of finding clues to what happened to the real Thursday.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing is not as laugh-out-loud funny as some of the earlier books, yet in some ways it is one of the better books in the series. It is very visual. Even though I was reading, I felt that I was watching a fun movie. I especially liked Sprockett, with his emotion indicator. The action scenes are madcap and imaginative. Fforde’s description of the remake of the Bookworld is ingenious and also expanded my knowledge of fiction and of book genres. The ending felt right. This is another novel for those of us who love books but who also have a silly side that too seldom is let out to play.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Able McLaughlins (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

The Civil War. A Young Couple in Love. A Violation. A Secret. Mothers and Sons. Scottish Immigrants. Prairie Farmers. Justice.  

The Able McLaughlins by Margaret Wilson is a wholesome, well-written and enjoyable story. It won the 1924 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. The story is set in a Scottish farming community at the time of the end of the Civil War. The characters are warm and relatable. While the storyline is simple, it is pleasant. The novel contains a little humor, some tragedy, a lot of love, and a bit of justice.

Briefly, when Wully McLaughlin is on leave from the Civil War, he falls in love with his neighbor Chirstie. When the war ends and he comes home to marry her, he finds that she has been raped and impregnated by his cousin Peter. Wully marries her anyway and takes the blame and shame for the out of marriage conception. –Wully comes from a family with a strong sense of religion– When the baby is born, Wully accepts the child as his own. But the little family’s happiness is again challenged. The novel also has a minor storyline that involves Chirstie’s father marrying a feisty woman, Barbara, who he brought back from Scotland.

As a woman who has sometimes dreamed of becoming a novelist, I noticed a number of things that I liked about The Able McLaughlins. The first is a series of scenes that involve the people of the community searching for Peter. Wilson does a nice job of contrasting Wully, who is obsessed with killing Peter, with Aunt Libby, a woman who fiercely loves and longs for her son. Second, Wilson does a nice job of linking the ending of the story back to the beginning. She includes information that seems to be only ambient detail but later proves to have significance.

I also like The Able McLaughlins because parts of it feel familiar to me. I have known families with strong religious faiths, who always offer up a prayer with meals; hardworking farmers; fierce mothers. Wilson has a series of scenes, where Barbara is looking for flowers to put in her new garden, which resonate with my own life. Some of the neighbors where I grew up, as well as my grandmother, were passionate gardeners, who would willingly give slips of plants to appreciative strangers.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Early Autumn (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

Family. Love. Madness. Heritage. Scandal.

A small box. That was the thought I had right after I finished Early Autumn, the 1927 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Louis Bromfield. This book feels neat, tidy, and restrained, yet there are whispers of ideas that make me think. Also, the book tells the story of a woman living in a small, restrained world.

Briefly, the story begins with a party for Sybil, the daughter of Olivia and Anson Pentland, who has come of age and is being introduced to society, with the hopes that she will find a suitable husband. Olivia’s friend Sabine, who is also Anson’s cousin, and her daughter arrive in Durnham for the purpose of stirring some things up. Olivia has a loveless marriage with Anson and yet she has spent her adult life humoring Anson’s controlling Aunt Cassie, soothing his mad mother, and being a confidant to his father. Olivia and Anson have a son, Jack, who has been an invalid since birth. The story is primarily about Olivia, describing the months between the party and Olivia’s fortieth birthday. There is both love and tragedy.

This is not the type of novel I normally read. I find myself arguing with my reaction. Part of me found it depressing, yet another part of me saw a type of triumph in it. Part of me found it boring and a bit pretentious, yet another part of me was touched by some of the ideas about heritage. This is not a book I would have sought out, yet I know that I have grown a little bit in my understanding of people because I have read it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Forward the Foundation (SF Book)

The Loss of Loved Ones. Despair. Hope for the Future. A Plan. Subtle Manipulation.

Years ago when I overenthusiastically described a book to a friend, she sarcastically quipped, “You know it isn’t real; it’s pretend.” So, I have to confess that part of my mind thinks of Forward the Foundation as the biography of Hari Sheldon. The book makes me sentimental. It was written at the end of Isaac Asimov’s life and published after his death. While the novel ends with the triumph of a life’s work, it contains many stories of loss. The novel is another example of good storytelling, with little unexpected twists tucked in to make it interesting.

Briefly, Forward the Foundation fills in the period of Hari Sheldon’s life between Prelude to Foundation and Foundation. Asimov describes the origins of The Sheldon Plan, First Foundation, and Second Foundation. He describes the decay of Trantor over the decades as well as the aging of Sheldon and many of the other major characters. One bright spot is the birth of Sheldon’s granddaughter Wanda, the daughter of Sheldon and Dors’ foster-son, Raych. While the original Foundation Series novels refer to Sheldon in terms of some larger than life character, Asimov shows how other individuals made major contributions that made The Sheldon Plan possible.

Besides being entertaining, Asimov’s Foundation Series made me think. — I started reading the series almost a year ago. — I look at politics differently, losing my last bit of naiveté. The novels made me more aware of cause and effect on a large scale. Forward the Foundation also makes references to making subtle changes in order to bring about a major outcome. This reminds me so much of the recent attempts to stabilize the world economy. All in all, I’m glad I read the whole series.

End Note: Asimov wrote a Robot Series that has some overlap with the Foundation Series. Also, there are  a number of Foundation novels not written by Asimov.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Prelude to Foundation (SF Book)

I refer to the theoretical assessment of probabilities concerning the future as ‘psychohistory.’
Isaac Asimov’s Prelude to Foundation is both a prequel and a sequel to the first five books in the Foundation Series. Chronologically, the actions take place before the first book, Foundation. Informationally, the storyline builds on the details that were revealed in the previous books, including the last one, Foundation and Earth. Not only is Prelude to Foundation an interesting story about how Hari Seldon began to develop psychohistory, but it also addresses some of the questions raised about Earth, the early days of human expansion into the Galaxy, and even Gaia. This made the book doubly fulfilling for me.

Briefly, after Hari Sheldon introduces the theory of psychohistory at a mathematics conference on Trantor, his life is forever changed. The Emperor and his rival want to use Sheldon as a tool for propaganda. If they can’t use him, they want to destroy him. Hari finds that in order to protect himself, he must flee to the parts of Trantor where he will be safe. He finds a benefactor in the mysterious Chetter Hummin, a reporter with powerful connections all over Trantor. Hummin tells Sheldon that the Empire is in decay and that psychohistory might be a way of helping humanity. Sheldon soon meets Dors Venabili, a history scholar. She becomes a partner and a bodyguard to Sheldon as he travels around Trantor and tries to find a way to transform psychohistory from a theory into a practical tool. In each of the areas that they visit, Sheldon seems to get himself into some sort of trouble.

After being disappointed with Foundation and Earth, I was very satisfied with Prelude to Foundation. Intellectually, I have been curious about psychohistory since Foundation and had a drive to know more. But Prelude to Foundation is also a good story. Sheldon is an interesting, likeable character with good integrity. Each of the areas that Dors and Sheldon visit is well thought out and helps Sheldon to grow. Also, Asimov takes on such topics as selective history, prejudice, taboos, power, and tradition. The book is the complete package.