Sunday, August 30, 2015

Reality Is a Figment of Your Imagination

Phillip K. Dick liked to say reality is a forgery. His stories challenged reality. They challenged the norm. He fully embraced the drugs and counterculture of the sixties. At one point, it is said, he was taking 1,000 amphetamines a week, but I can’t verify this statistic. He suffered many mental breaks from reality, and his writing portrayed his strangeness. In the end, P. K. Dick was insane, and spent some time institutionalized after an attempted suicide in 1972. Dick lived in a different reality than the rest of the world, but that is what makes his books interesting.

Some say his identity crisis derives from the death of his twin sister. She died six weeks after their birth. His paranoia and schizophrenia come from the part of him that went missing when she died. He spent his entire life trying to find himself through the use of religion and drugs, and he shared the search through his stories.

Dick published 44 extremely strange novels and over 121 short stories. He worked in the science fiction genre telling stories of metaphysics, alternative history, religion, drug abuse, paranoia and schizophrenia. His writing voice screamed of an alternative reality, and his lifelong search for wholeness.

The books are not well written. Dick is not famous for his prose. He is famous for his uniqueness. When you finish one of his books, you sit back, and go WTF. The story does not draw in the reader rather its oddness hooks the reader. You find yourself trying to figure out where the story is going, and what is Dick trying to say.

At least eleven of his books have been turned into movies, Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau are just a few. Only Matheson may have more stories converted to movies.

Recently I read The Man in the High Castle. He won his only Hugo Award in 1962 for this book. Japan and Germany won World War II. Germany controls the east coast of the former United States and Japan runs the West Coast. The middle part of the country including Denver is technically free.

We don’t meet the protagonist, Juliana, until half way through the book. We are introduced to her earlier in a scene about her ex-husband, but we don’t actually meet her until much later. Are we getting the story from her point of view; I’m really not sure.

I tried to stop reading the story a couple of times, but it strangeness kept me intrigued. After finishing, I still think about it. What did I actually read? What was the story about? I’ve come to the conclusion it is a schizophrenic’s view of post World War II, but I haven’t figured out what is reality and what isn’t in the book. Possibly, you should give it a try.

Be warned it is not an easy read. On a number of occasions, you will ask yourself, why I’m a wasting my time with this? It is also very non-politically correct, and many may find it offensive, but then it is a world ruled by the Nazis.

What makes a good book? Certainly a book should be well written. It should entertain. But shouldn’t it also cause us to question our beliefs and our values? After reading a book are we content to throw it on the floor, and walk away. I think, a good book is one that causes us to think about long after we have finished reading it.

Monday, August 17, 2015

An Analysis of Lois Lowry's The Giver

The Giver begins a tale that takes Lois Lowry nine years to tell, and four short books. Written in 1993, It tells us of a dystopian society in which mediocrity and sameness are celebrated. 

Individuality and success no longer exist. Everyone eats the same food, wears the same style of clothes, and every house is an exact replica. There is no color. Talk about sensory deprivation. Blandness and complete boredom for the people living there.

This society prevents anyone from being better than anyone else. Pride is not allowed. No one wins the game, and everyone receives a prize. It sounds a bit like Communism, maybe a lot like Communism. Maybe a little bit like education in the United States these days.

Maybe their society needed a little bit of Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison’s philosophy. He made his sons give back their participation awards. He wants his sons to get awards for winning, not for doing their best – Kudos to James Harrison.

The protagonist, Jonas, no last names in this society, has felt no emotions. He has felt no pain. These are not allowed. There is no love, compassion, or physical contact. Everyone is chemically neutered except for a few breeders. This society uses artificial insemination. His parents were assigned.

On the other hand there is also no violence, hatred or envy. No wants or desires anything, and if they do they are reprogrammed or “released.”  Would anyone want to live in such a society?

The Giver won the Newberry Medal in 1994. Over 10 million copies have been sold, and it has been made into a movie. It is on middle school reading lists as well as challenged book lists.

It is one of the most controversial books of our time. The Giver was definitely written for middle school students, but the subject matter is a bit complicated. Many parents find the content a bit mature for their children. Some religions find it offensive. I wonder how many students will catch the deeper meaning underlying the story.

I like dystopian or apocalyptic books. They challenge the norms. They say this is where we’ll end up if society doesn’t change. But I have to wonder, does Lowry want a society like this or does she wish to avoid this kind of society? I think many people might want to live in such a society as long as they feel safe and secure.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Field of Fantasies a Collection of Baseball Short Stories

Picture by Stephanie Maatta, The Quiet Image
We are well into the baseball season, and the boys of summer have worked loose their winter kinks. I usually have a baseball blog or two by this point, but his year I’ve been remiss. I recently finished reading a baseball anthology pulled together by Rick Wilber and Night Shade Books.

Wilber has written a number of short stories and books. His two main themes concentrate on science fiction and baseball. This made him an excellent choice as editor for this anthology, Field of Fantasies: Baseball Stories of the Strange and Supernatural.

It is a collection of short stories fusing baseball, fantasy and the supernatural. Authors on the fantasy and supernatural side include Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling and Harry Turtledove. Among the baseball notables assembled are Cecilia Tan and W.P. Kinsella.

The book opens with a story from Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan. They pen a supernatural story based at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays. The protagonist, Dean Evers witnesses specters from his past sitting in the stands behind home plate as he watches games on television. Dean does not remember the good things about his life only the bad. It’s a combination of Charles Dickens, Twilight Zone and baseball.

In John Kessel’s “The Franchise,” he asks us to consider what if Fidel Castro and George H.W. Bush never went into politics. Instead they played baseball, and played against each other in the World Series. It’s an interesting mix of baseball and politics. Two other stories “Understanding Alvarado” and “The South Paw” also take a look at Fidel Castro playing baseball.

David Sandner and Jacob Weisman take us back in time with “Lost October.” A San Francisco earthquake causes a rent in time. Old, tired baseball fan DeRosa and his young friend, Eugene watch DiMaggio playing in old Seal Stadium of the Pacific Coast League.

My favorite story is by Cecilia Tan, “Pitchers and Catchers.” Spring training has always been a magical time. Dreams are made and lost during the month of March in Florida. She tells us a story of spring training in the Boston Red Sox camp. A rookie catcher hopes to make the Boston Red Soxs. He is teamed up with Roger Clemons. She does a good job of capturing the antics of spring training and the chemistry between pitchers and catchers before the rest of the team shows up.

Baseball has been around for at least 170 years. In 1845 The New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club published their rules and regulations. Since then the rules have changed, and it’s had many controversies and surprises. It is an integral part of our society and local communities. The short stories contained in the anthology try to capture that emotion and history as well as entertain. I used the ebook version for this review. 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Dashiell Hammett Collection at the University of South Carolina

Dashiell Hammett
The University of South Carolina immortalized that saucy hard-boiled detective Sam Spade. His sandpaper personality made all the ladies quiver, and sent the bad guys scurrying for their hideouts. Humphrey Bogart got his start by playing the rough and tough Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon.

Spade’s author, Dashiell Hammett created and perfected the noir genre. Hammett started out working as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency that helped with his writing. Most of his stories were first published as serials in magazines. He spawned many other authors in the genre including Elmore Leonard.

In addition to the Maltese Falcon, Hammett also wrote the Thin Man. His main characters in the Thin Man included a hard drinking couple Nick and Nora Charles from New York. He loosely based the characters on his relationship with his long time girlfriend, Lillian Hellman. Both stories became Hollywood classics.

Hammett’s literary contemporaries included Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like these gentlemen, Hammett also enjoyed imbibing alcohol and smoking cigarettes. He suffered from lung complications most of his adult life, and died from lung cancer in 1961 at the age of 67.

The War Years

Hammett Grave Site Arlington National Cemetery
Hammett declared himself to be both a patriot and a Communist, two items not often seen linked together. He served in both the great World Wars. He enlisted in the ambulance core in World War I where he caught the Spanish flu and tuberculosis.

Due to his TB doctors recommended he separate from his wife, Jose Dolan Hammett and his two daughters. He used the proceeds of his books and films to support his two children. He later entered a relationship with Lillian Hellman, and remained with her the rest of his life. Like many artists of this era, Hammett joined the Communist party.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army. Because of his TB and Communist affiliation, he needed special permission. He was assigned to the Aleutian Islands where he edited the Army newspaper. The Army provided close supervision to ensure no subversive Communist propaganda found its way into print. The cold Alaskan climate irritated his lungs, and he contracted emphysema.


In the late 1940s his activities against the Un-American Activities Committee and his support for the Hollywood 10 earned him the recognition of Congress. He was invited to testify, but choose to plead the 5th amendment. For this, he served time in a West Virginia Federal Prison cleaning toilets.

His time in prison further exacerbated his lung condition. He spent the last few years of his life in obscurity, and wrote no more. Hellman remained at his side the whole time. They were together 30 years. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery because of his military service.

The Collection

The University of South Carolina procured two collections for an undisclosed amount of money. The first collection was obtained from Hammett’s daughter and grandchildren. It includes family letters. The other collection came from Richard Hayman who has spent 40 years collecting materials, researching and recording Hammett’s biography.

The combined collection contains letters, books, family photographs, screenplays and memorabilia including his Pinkerton badge. The collection should be available for viewing in about a year. The University of South Carolina also houses other fiction detective collections including Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Memorial Day 2015

As we spend the weekend celebrating, it is important to understand the importance of Monday’s holiday. Around 160 years ago, the United States was trying to recover from the Civil War. The nation had torn itself apart, and destroyed many cities, and killed irreplaceable numbers of our young men. We should never forget the devastation this war brought on our country lest we repeat it.

Shortly after the Civil War, Union Officers William F. Fox and Thomas Leonard Livermore estimated the combined death toll as 618,222 men. In 2010 the number of dead was raised to about 750,000 based on research compiled from census data by J. David Hacker.

The movement to remember the fallen began on a local level with cities and municipalities marking the graves of the dead soldiers with wreaths, and they called it Decoration Day. Overtime the name slowly changed to Memorial Day, and after World War II people started honoring all war dead.

President Johnson officially signed a proclamation in 1966 declaring the first celebration as occurring on May 5, 1866 in Waterloo, New York. However, this date and location are highly controversial. He also officially named it Memorial Day, and designated it as the date to honor all members of the United States armed services who died serving their country.

The estimate for the total number of deaths for U.S. military service members killed in war stands at 1,321,612. The American Civil War accounts for more than half the deaths of our military soldiers killed in war.

Memorial Day holiday celebrations occur on the last Monday in May. Flags are flown at half-mast, and markers are placed on the graves of fallen soldiers. Some towns still hold parades to honor the fallen. It is also considered the first weekend of summer, and many families participate in outdoor activities.

However you choose to enjoy the weekend, please take a moment to remember those that have given their lives for our freedom.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Tribute to B.B. King

Picture by Tom Beetz, CC-BY
From Mississippi to Las Vegas and all points in between, born B. B. King played and sang the blues on his Gibson guitar named Lucille. Last night blues legend B.B. King died in Las Vegas at the age of 89.

Born Riley B. King on a cotton plantation in Itta Bena Mississippi, he purchased his first guitar at the age of twelve. He played in the church choir, and by twenty-three he was playing on the radio in Memphis. He used the stage name of Blues Boy, which became truncated to B.B. 

I’ve seen B.B. King in concert several times. The last time was at the University of South Florida Sundome on December 30, 2004. B.B. King not only played the guitar, he entertained. Every song had a lead in story, a history, and a meaning. Like his music, his stories contained a bit of sadness, and a touch of irony. Sometimes you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. After all, he was a master of the blues.

With his passing another great musician joins that fantastic band in heaven. Imagine the jam sessions they must play, that would truly be heaven to listen in. Most of his songs were written based on life experiences that evoke emotions. His concerts were a treat, and he will be missed.