Monday, January 30, 2012

The Invisible Man (Classic SF Novella)

It was worse than anything. Mrs. Hall, standing open-mouthed and horror-struck, shrieked at what she saw, and made for the door of the house. Every one began to move. They were prepared for scars, disfigurements, tangible horrors, but nothing!
The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells was first published in 1897. This classic story has been made into numerous movies and inspired even more. For me it has the feel of a short story. The plot isn’t very dynamic. The characters aren’t particularly sympathetic. What makes the story so fascinating is the way Wells slowly unwraps the main character: first, there is a mysterious man; then we find out he is invisible; slowly we discover his name; we learn how he came to be invisible; finally, we learn his fate.

This isn’t my favorite Wells novella, but I still found it enjoyable. Part of the reason for the story’s success is its ability to connect with our childhood fear of the bogeyman.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Back of the Napkin (Business Book)

Visual Thinking. Stick Figures. Business Problems. Graphs. Maps. 

While language is a necessary tool, it has its limitations. The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam describes a step-by-step, common sense approach to solving business problems by using visual images. This allows people to perceive a problem in a more comprehensive way and to use more of their brains. While at first the title of the book and the pictures might appear cute, this is an extremely practical, well-written book. Roam describes:
  • The process of visual thinking: look, see, imagine, and show 
  • The six ways we see: who and what, how many and how much, where, when, how, and why 
  • The five questions that open our mind’s eye: simple or elaborate, qualitative or quantitative, vision or execution, individual or comparison, change or status quo 
  • The types of visuals to use with the different ways of seeing 
The book is inspiring and contains many good examples. By the end of the book, I wanted to roll up my sleeves and start solving some problems.

Monday, January 23, 2012

So Big (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

Truck Farming. Adventure. Cabbages. Beauty. Chicago. Hands. Success.

So Big by Edna Ferber is one of those books that gently touches the heart. It looks at the meaning of beauty and of success. Ferber shows us the life of Selina, whose grand adventure unexpectedly leads her to truck farming in Illinois in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s.  In one of the first chapters, Selina remarks that “Cabbages are beautiful,” a sentiment that sets the tone for much of the book. Later on, Ferber contrasts the life of Selina’s son, So Big (Dirk), with that of Selina’s protégée Roelf, who take very different paths in their adult lives. The novel won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel and was made into a movie three times.

Briefly, Selina lives with her loving father, a philosophical man and a gambler. After he is killed, she takes a position as a teacher in a farming community. She plans this to be a launching point for a much bigger life. She lives with a farming family that includes a twelve year old boy, Roelf, who has “odd ideas.” His father thinks that he is too old to go to school. Selina nurtures his interest in books, beauty, and life. Soon, Selina falls in love with a loving but unadventurous farmer, Pervus, and they marry. Selina adapts to the hard farming life. In the early years, Selina continues to befriend Roelf. Pervus, who has always been “unlucky” at farming, ignores her suggestions on how to improve the farm. They have a son Dirk (So Big). When Pervus unexpectedly dies, Selina is left to support Dirk. With the financial help and moral support of a friend’s father, Selina creates a success farm. Despite always trying to do the best for Dirk, he turns into a man who has values that are very different from hers.

Selina is a strong female character. By the end of the novel I wanted to know her, even to be her. What I most admire is her sense of seeing the beauty in life. This is a gift.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Island of Dr. Moreau (Classic SF Novella)

A Rescue at Sea. Experiments. Vivisection. Animal Nature.

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells was first published in 1896. The story is part science fiction and part horror. Like The Time Machine, it is a timeless classic. I can see the influence of The Island of Dr. Moreau in China Mieville’s descriptions of the Remade from his novel Perdido Street Station.

Briefly, Edward Prendick is rescued at sea by Montgomery and finds himself on a strange island. He hears screams coming from the locked laboratory of Dr. Moreau. To evade the screams, Prendick explores the island. There he finds strange men who look like animals. His first thought is that Moreau is somehow turning men into animals and that his own life is in jeopardy. Moreau assures him that this is not true. When Montgomery and Moreau are both killed, Prendick finds himself alone with these strange creatures.

While I am normally not a fan of horror, I found the story fascinating. Wells’ world building is admirable. This could quite easily be a modern story. I am reminded of the recent discussion in the news of frankenfish.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Time Machine (Classic SF Novella)

It is a law of nature that we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble.
Time Travel. The Fate of Mankind. The Fate of the Earth. Prophesy. 

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells was published in1895. This novella is the ancestor of so much of the science fiction that we read today. —Would Connie Willis have written Blackout and All Clear if there had been no The Time Machine? Would Walter M. Miller have written A Canticle for Leibowitz? — While the novella introduces time travel, most of the story is devoted to describing a haunting dystopia. H. G. Wells challenged the people of his generation to think in a new way. The story might have even more relevance to those of us in the current era.

Briefly, a Victorian Era inventor creates a time machine in which he travels to the year 802,701. There he discovers that humanity has evolved into two separate species, neither of which is particularly intelligent. One is the frail but beautiful Eloi. The other is the unattractive, underground living Morlocks. When the time traveler’s time machine is stolen, he must find it or be stranded forever. Along the way, he becomes friends with Weena, an Eloi. He also uncovers the true relationship of the Eloi to the Morlocks.

This is the type of story that is hard to forget. The time traveler raises questions of why the two species evolved. More than a century later, one could argue that our dependence upon technology has the potential to propel us to a fate similar to that of the Eloi or Morlocks.

Monday, January 9, 2012

One of Ours (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

Claude sat down again almost lost to himself in the feeling of being completely understood, of being no longer a stranger…Claude sat alone for half an hour or more, tasting a new kind of happiness, a new kind of sadness. Ruin and new birth; the shudder of ugly things in the past, the trembling image of beautiful ones on the horizon; finding and losing; that was life, he saw.
One of Ours by Willa Cather won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. It is the story of a Claude, a young man from Nebraska, becoming his own person. I found the story melodic. Reading the novel felt like listening to music. Most of the story had a slow, but forward moving cadence.

Briefly, Claude is a sensitive young man, coming into adulthood before WWI. His parents send him away to a denomination college, instead of the state college he wants to attend. Just when he starts to enjoy school, his father puts him in charge of the family farm. He marries a woman who has no feelings of affection for him. Finally, he enlists in the Army, where he feels he is “somebody.”

I found reading One of Ours very peaceful, yet not the least bit plodding. Yes, there were gory scenes near the end of the novel, but the overall feeling was calm. The details and descriptions made the story worthwhile for me. There were many beautiful scenes of both Nebraska and Europe. The description of Claude taking the train on his wedding night has just the right details to create a feeling for Claude’s marriage. The two descriptions of Claude with cats help create other moods. Scene by scene Cather shows how Claude’s family slowly understands the extent of what is happening in Europe. Cather describes both the horrors of war and the beauty of Europe.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Amazing Absorbing Boy (Novel)

You know something Sammy? You is the first person in the family who so ambitious. I can’t figger out where you get it from…”

“…I remembered that less than two years earlier Miss Charles, our teacher at Mayaro Composite, had hinted that most orphans were doomed to become pickpockets and petty thieves…But, I thought of other orphans, Batman and Spider-Man, and most of the X-Men and the Legion who had refused to give in: each evening locating their special power and patiently understanding how to properly use it.”
Serendipity brought The Amazing Absorbing Boy by Rabindranath Maharaj into my world; it was mistakenly on our library’s list of new science fiction and fantasy. The novel is a light and touching tale of a comic book loving young man from Trinidad who finds himself living in Canada. The novel won the 2010 Trillium Book Award and the 2011 Toronto Book Award.

Briefly, Samuel has lived in Mayaro Trinidad all his life. As the story opens, he is seventeen and his mother is dying of cancer. His father abandoned them when Sam was six years old. About nine months after his mother’s death, his father, who has been living in Canada, sends for him. This is far from a happy reunion. His father is a jerk, barely talking to Sam and wondering why he is there. Sam sleeps on a piece of foam on the floor and has to find food for himself. But, most of the story is a fascinating tale of the people that Sam meets and the places he discovers. Told from the first person perspective, Sam often uses comic books as his point of reference. Towards the end of the story, the reader understands why the book is called The Amazing Absorbing Boy.

While in some ways this is a novel about Canada told from an immigrant’s perspective, it is so much more. It is about a boy mourning the death of his mother and trying to figure out his father. It is about a boy trying to make the best of a bad situation, drawing strength from his childhood, and finally triumphing. It is about the perspective—sometimes wise, sometimes naive—from which he looks at the people around him. I liked the book because it was a bit quirky, definitely well-written, and had a nice dash of humor. It definitely is enjoyable, even for those of us who are not Canadian.