Friday, December 22, 2006

52. Classic Stories 1

by Ray Bradbury

I saved this book specifically so it would be my last read of the year. I’ve been feeling a science-fiction jones for the past couple months (looking through my list it seems I haven’t read anything sci-fi since the summer) and I also haven’t read any new-to-me Bradbury in quite some time. Ray Bradbury is, simply put, my literary hero. He writes such sentences that roll on your tongue, spreading flavor through your senses like a spoonful of ice cream as it dissolves in a warm mouth. They are sweet, they are strong, and they are memorable in a way that unbearably good things are. Bradbury’s writing both depresses and enlightens me. Every time I read his work I’m reminded that I will in no way contribute such greatness to the world, but I’m also reminded of how grateful I am that someone has.

Classic Stories 1 comprises the entirety of The Golden Apples of the Sun and R is for Rocket, the later of which I believe is out of print except that it’s being included in a reprint of a book titled just The Golden Apples of the Sun. The first half of the book features shorter stories that are more theoretical in nature, while the second half’s longer stories are more emotional. Both are fantastic. In “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl,” Bradbury gives us a man driven to murder by his wife’s lover, only to go insane trying to wash his fingerprints from the crime scene. The man is convinced the lover forethought his own murder and, as way to trap him, gave him things to hold and lead him through all the rooms of the house, encouraging him to touch everything. The man is eventually found and arrested by the police the day after the murder, not because his fingerprints identified him, but because he’s still at the house trying to wash it clean. “The Garbage Collector” is about a man who is content with his job as a garbage man until the day all the employees receive instructions on what do with the bodies when war breaks out. Suddenly the job takes on new meaning and he’s unsure if he can ever go back. My favorite story in this first half was “The Murderer,” which starts with a man committed to a psychiatric institute. His crime? Shooting his telephone and television, stuffing his car’s radio transmitter with ice cream, and using a device to interfere with everyone’s communication devices on a bus. “It was all so enchanting at first,” he says. “The very idea of these things, the practical uses, was wonderful. They were almost toys, to be played with, but the people got too involved, went too far, and got wrapped up in a pattern of social behavior and couldn’t get out…so they rationalized their nerves as something else. ‘Our modern age,’ they said. ‘Conditions,’ they said. ‘High-strung,’ they said.” But all he wants is silence from these mechanical things. The story mirrors our current 24-hour-news-channels, cell-phones-that-can-be-used-in-the-subway, iPod-dependent society so much that I had to look up the copyright. It was written in 1953.

I’ll wait a moment while that blows your mind just a little.

Several of the stories in the second half are also published in The Illustrated Man, but it’s been about five years since I read that book so they were like new to me. One I do particularly remember, though, is “The Rocket Man,” about a man who spends months at a time on Mars and Venus while his wife and son stay at home. Although he always proclaims his most recent trip to be his last, it’s only ever a few days before he’s looking at the stars again. His wife generally acts as if he’s dead so as to cut her grief when it inevitably happens, but when it does the news has far greater impact than they could have ever imagined. (I also remember it from a play I saw based on Bradbury’s short stories, also called “The Rocket Man”. The play was, surprisingly, fantastic.) “A Sound of Thunder” was completely new and it retells the well known “when a butterfly flaps its wings…” allegory. Only this time there are dinosaurs and time machines involved. “The Exiles,” another reread, travels along the lines of Fahrenheit 451 in that it tells the story of a society that’s banned books from their planet and once an author’s very last book is destroyed, so too is that author’s essence and being.

Two stories originally published in Dandelion Wine round out the collection and they’re a beautiful end to a stunning compilation. I can’t say that this was my favorite read of the year because that would be obvious and unfair, but it was the perfect way to bring a year of reading to a close: My favorite author, gorgeous writing, and a goal reached.

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