The Possibility of Fireflies by Dominique Paul

The Possibility of Fireflies by Dominique Paul has much in common with Paul Zindel’s play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Both feature two sisters who are being raised by a mother who is not really up to the job. The older sister in each is a troubled figure, clearly a character who will not do well in life. The younger sister, in contrast, is a bright, inquisitive, thoughtful girl who stands a fairly good chance of doing well in spite of her difficult family life.

But times have certainly changed since Mr. Zindel wrote Gamma Rays which was a fairly hard hitting story for its day. The girls in The Possibility of Fireflies face life with one of the worst mothers I’ve ever encountered in fiction. While the mother Gamma Rays cannot adequately provide for the financial and emotional needs of either her disabled older daughter or her gifted younger one, she does love them both. If you remember the play you’re probably thinking about what happens to the rabbit right now and asking how could I say that she loves her girls after that scene. I offer how hard she works to get by as evidence of her love. She works multiple jobs, takes in elderly borders, does all she can to scrounge up enough money to get by. And, in the end, she stays with her elder daughter and cares for her knowing full well that the girl will never be able to do so for herself.

The mother in The Possibility of Fireflies may have a redeeming feature somewhere but I couldn’t find it. She leaves the girls alone while she goes out to bars all night long and then gets physically violent with them if they come home late. She won’t give them a key to their own house which leaves them locked out in the cold night waiting for a chance to sneak in when she returns. She is emotionally and verbally abusive towards them. The girls are left to face the world without any help or guidance. The older one ends up in trouble with the law while the younger ends up desperately lonely. The only decent thing the mother does is actually a questionable act; she provides an alibi for her older daughter who has been accused of setting fire to the barn where local teenagers hang out to smoke and do various drugs. She then uses this alibi to blackmail her elder daughter into doing her favors.

At the end of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds the younger daughter reads from her science fair presentation. She talks about how some of the marigold seeds she planted were able to survive exposure to radiation and grow into flowers, while others, ones that faced too much radiation, withered and died or did not sprout at all. In the almost 40 years since Gamma Rays was first published, maybe things have gotten a lot worse, or maybe Young Adult literature has come to the point where bad situations can be portrayed as truly terrible as they really are. There is a ray of hope at the end of The Possibility of Fireflies, but I wasn’t quite able to buy it. I have had students, girls, whose mother’s stayed out in bars until very late at night. There is not much hope there.

The Possibility of Fireflies was the most recent choice of one of the book clubs in my 7th grade class. A group of five girls picked it; I told them they could read it if they could all get a copy since it’s not one I have a class set of. Luckily, none of their parents read it, or didn’t object to it if they did. It’s too racy for a class book in the 7th grade which I now know. Of the five, four liked it enough to want to see the movie when it comes out. They are convinced that there really are people like the mother out there in the world and that the issues the girls face are very real. They also buy the ending and the hope it offers, which I was glad to hear.

I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in February of 2009.  In the years since I have completely forgotten the book.  Moving my old posts over to this new site has given me an excuse to reread my old posts, which I’ve enjoyed doing.  It’s interesting to see what I remember and what I don’t.  A little embarrassing, too.  Did anyone see the movie?  I don’t remember if the girls who read the book liked the movie or not.  

 

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The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

Invisible man

The Invisible Man is kind of dick.

I can’t help but notice just how closely H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man aligns with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I really think Wells is writing his own version of Shelley’s tale.

The openings are similar.  Wells’s Invisible Man wanders into an inn seeking shelter from a storm. Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein seeking escape end up on a ship heading for the arctic.  After a couple of unfortunate false starts, Well’s Invisible Man finds someone to tell his story to.  Dr. Frankenstein does the same with the ship captain once he is frozen in the arctic ice.  Both explain their unusual experiments and the seemingly logical reasoning behind them.  In the end Dr. Frankenstein is chased across the ice by the monster he created which is a visible manifestation of his internal demons while the Invisible Man ruined by his own demons is chased by the local townspeople.

Both books contain lengthy philosophical dialogues, though Wells’s hero is really only interested in justifying his own actions.  Wells  is dealing with Superman arguments that Nietzsche and Bernard Shaw both do a better job making. The Invisible Man shares a common bond with Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment  in that he sees himself as outside of everyday morality. An invisible man is not bound by the restraint society puts on everyone else.  “An invisible man is a man of power.”  He believes this gives him moral authority to commit a series of crimes against the visible.

It all worked much better, as far as I’m concerned, in Mary Shelley’s hands. Somehow, she made it possible for me to accept the possibility that someone could reanimate dead tissue, create life, at least as long as the novel lasted.  The stories of both The Monster and Dr. Frankenstein are interesting enough to make this reader willing to play along with everything else.  The Invisible Man, while it deals with similar material, never really made me willing to forget just how ridiculous the story’s premise really is in spite of how diligently Wells tries to make a case that science really could make someone invisible.

But, parts of it were fun, and overall I have to admit I had a good time reading The Invisible Man.   Though, in the end, I’m with the villagers. The guy was a jerk! He got what he deserved.

Posted in Thriller, Fiction, Book Review, Classic, English Literature, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Novella | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Sunday Salon: Random Ranting

Friday I took a sick day and paid a visit to the Rug Doctor.  I should say the Rug Doctor paid a visit to my house where C.J. and I spent most of the day working on two floors of carpets.  We have three dogs at the moment, only one of which is consistently housebroken.  So every couple of months we arrange for a visit from the Rug Doctor.

Are the dogs worth it?  Yes, of course they are.

While on a break between rugs I visited Facebook where someone had posted a link to an article I really had to reply to.  I didn’t care about the topic or what the person had to say about it, but right there in big bold face font was “ALOT.”

I immediately replied “‘A lot’ is two words.”  Within minutes my comment had two likes.

I leave that same comment on Facebook and Twitter and student papers so often, I think it should be inscribed on my tombstone.

When you’re posting some outraged rant on Facebook or some other dark corner of the internet, please take the time to run spell check before you publish.

Or face my wrath.

This week I was reminded that 7th grade students cannot pronounce certain words correctly.

  • Arab – Every time we begin the unit on Islam in my history class the room sounds like an Archie Bunker convention.  They all pronounce Arab as “A-rab.”  We have to go over the correct pronunciation again and again or the room sounds like a bunch of racists.
  • writhing – When first encountered is almost always pronounce with a short ‘i’ vowel sound as in ‘writ’.
  • brooch – I guess no one has a grandmother who wears a brooch anymore because this one always gets pronounced with the same ‘oo’ sound found in ‘pooch’.

The joys of reading out loud.  But, honestly, if I don’t teach them how to say these things, who will?

You never know when brooches will come back in style.

Since joining Twitter earlier this year I have noticed that some authors leave very dumb tweets.

One author I follow, whose book was one of my top ten favorite reads for the year a couple of years ago, leaves all kinds of information about his dating life, which is a bit adventurous for a man in his 40’s if you ask me.  Nothing explicit, but he certainly goes to a lot of dance clubs for a serious journalist.  It kind of makes him sound like a college kid.  Do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea to tweet about it when you’re a serious journalist.

But that’s not as bad as authors who tweet things that make them look stupid.  One newish science fiction/fantasy author, who wrote a short story that I loved, tweeted something to the effect of “What is ‘literature of ideas’? I hope I never write any.

I almost replied “You’re right; there’s nothing worse than a writer with an idea.” but I thought better of it.  Or maybe I just chickened out.  I really don’t want to stir the pot, unless we’re talking about “a lot” being two words.

Two words people.  Two words.

Also on Facebook this week I found people complaining about free things that aren’t going to be free anymore which kind of bugs me.  At issue was a linky site that was going to start charging for services that had previously been free.  I’d never heard of the site since I haven’t used linkies in a long time.  When I did, I used Mr. Linky which I paid for.  I think it was just ten dollars a year, less than I pay for this website, but I still paid for it.

The person posting (ranting) was upset that she would have to pay to do things she used to do for free and that the site in question had been rude to her when they replied to her email.  I have to say I was on the linky site’s side.  We’ve all grown too accustomed to free stuff online.  People have to make a living and frankly, you get what you pay for.  Complaining about the service you get when something is free….honestly? Were you planning on leaving a tip?

No rant would be complete without something about work, in my case school.  My district is in the process of eliminating higher level courses for some reason I do not understand. They did not ask me for my opinion, nor did they ask any teacher near as I can tell.  I defended my program as best I could, but some administrator at the district level read a study and there is no arguing with a district administrator who has read a study.

They have already ended higher level math, English and history at the middle school level and have now set their sights on the high school, which I predicted two years ago thank you very much.

I learned via a colleague who was forced to attend a recent district meeting that they plan to phase out Honors English starting next year or the year after.  Instead of having a higher level program for students who qualify, all students will take the same English class while some will do a few extra assignments to earn an ‘H’ for honors on their transcript.

When I told this to C.J., he said principals at local private schools must all be popping champagne ’cause their enrollment just went up.

We’ll see.

But whatever English class they take, high or low, if they only learn one thing, I’ll be happy as long as that one thing is that ‘a lot’ is two words!

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Aliens Among Us by Ruth Montgomery

Aliens Among Us by Ruth Montgomery is actually a sequel to Strangers Among Us which described how alien beings are able to visit the earth as”walk-ins” who temporarily take over the bodies of humans by exchanging souls with them. The human soul then visits the alien’s planet, some other planet or the alien’s spacecraft while the alien can observe and interact with humanity. Aliens Among Us is a collection of first hand accounts by people who experienced becoming a “walk-in” and commentary from Ms. Montgomery’s spirit guides whom she channels through a process known as automatic writing. Ms. Montgomery’s “space friends,” as she calls them, are here to help us get through the upcoming shift in the axis of the earth which is what destroyed the ancient kingdoms of Mu and Atlantis.

It’s difficult to figure out how to critique a book like this. While it would be fairly easy to take snarky pot-shots at it, and that could easily produce more than a few laughs, readers who take works like Aliens Among Us seriously would remain unmoved and skeptics, like myself, would soon become bored. I’m not out to make fun of anyone here. If I produce laughter, I didn’t mean it.

If you can believe an account of alien encounters based solely on the words of an eye-witness then Aliens Among Us may be of use to you. Myself, I need footnotes before I can take any work of non-fiction seriously; I want a full accounting of all sources. Ms. Montgomery provides neither footnotes nor bibliography, nor does she include reproductions of the paintings and photographs she refers to as evidence. She asks her spirit guides if something is true and their confirmation is good enough for her. You either believe she is as good as her word as are her spirit guides or you don’t. She does provide a list of addresses, so if you want to you can contact the witnesses in Aliens Among Us directly, I suppose, assuming they are still alive. Ms. Montgomery died in 2001.

So why bother reading the book at all? I signed up for the Dewey Decimal Challenge and needed something in the 00’s for one and I’ve been curious about this genre for some time. A search for “alien encounters” at Amazon.com produced over 3,400 titles; I’d say that qualifies as a genre. Searching for Ruth Montgomery listed over 800 books including one that she’s written from beyond the grave, I assume through someone else’s automatic writing. Other than satisfying my own curiosity, I can’t think of another reason for a skeptic to read Aliens Among Us. I suspect, even believers would be better off reading the first book, Strangers Among Us based solely on the general belief that the first book is usually the best one.

What I do find interesting is how a group of people, working together some of the time and on their own some of the time, can collectively come up with such a complicated mythos. Ms. Montgomery’s spirit guides and the “walk-ins” others experience are all playing by basically the same rule book. Together they create a fantasy world as fully imagined as any you’ll find in the fantasy genre. You may be thinking to yourself, that’s how religions get started isn’t it. You may be right.

CORRECTION: In a previous post I wrote the Ms. Montgomery predicted the axis of the earth will shift around 2012 and that all of North America, except Florida and the coast of California would be lost. This is not so. That’s actually the punchline to a favorite joke of mine, but Ms. Montgomery predicted that most of North America would be fine after the shift in the earth’s axis except for coastal California and Florida. Either way, the decline in my property value will no longer be much of an issue

 

I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009.  Over the years it has been a steady source of traffic.  I’m hoping it will do the same here.  For the record, I have not gone on to read any of the other books Ms. Montgomery wrote.

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Dakota Ate this Book: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I’ve been saving my review of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky for several weeks; a book like this requires some reflection. It was not what I expected. I have read lots of 19th century fiction, most of it English fiction, so I was expecting Dostoevsky to fall in place neatly alongside Charles Dickens. Dickens wrote about crime and criminals in several novels and was said to be a fan of Dostoevsky’s work. I was wrong. Rashkolnikov, the murderous anti-hero of Crime and Punishment bears little resemblance to any of the criminals in Dickens’s novels–the two authors have little in common in their approach to the subject at all.

Even in Charles Dickens’s most intimate story the reader gets the impression that he is in an expansive universe. The richness and the variety of characters imply that there is a colorful world out there if only we can go and find it. I think this is even true in a novel like Little Dorrit much of which is confined to small rooms the Marshalsea prison. Even in prison the characters create a world. I had the opposite sensation with Crime and Punishment. Throughout the novel I felt that the world was collapsing on Rashkolnikov. Although there is a large cast of characters, many colorful enough to be in a Dickens novel, everything seems to close in on Rashkolnikov’s lonely room. To the point that when he left it, he was still in it. He takes his isolation with him when he enters the world, rather than bringing the world with him into prison as the characters in Little Dorrit do.

Rashkolnikov is a young student in St. Petersburg, Russia, just eking out a living barely able to pay for his classes and his own support on the money his family can send him. He reaches a point when he can no longer even do this and is faced with paying the rent. He reasons that his life is worth more than that of the local pawnbroker, that if he were to kill her and to rob her he would be no different really from a Napoleon who did just that on a much grander scale and is hailed as a genius and a hero for doing so. Men of genius are not subject to the law and morality of ordinary men according to Rashkolnikov, so what would be an act of murder for one is not so for the other.

Raskolnikov kills the old woman and her servant only to be tormented afterwards by guilt and by the fear of discovery. He becomes ill as a result. His friends and neighbors along with his mother and sister arrive on the scene, each one voicing their own theory as to why he is ill and how to cure him. They hover over him in his tiny room talking about the flu while he is consumed with guilt and the suspicion that they all know what he did and are mocking him. Once he recovers his health he must deal with a police inspector who has found a witness, a young neighbor girl whom Raskolnikov has fallen in love with in spite of her lower status and suspect reputation. In what many, myself included, find a weak ending, she brings him to redemption.

This all takes place in the space of a few days and it all makes for compelling reading. I don’t know why that surprised me but it did. I was expecting Crime and Punishment to be something of a slog, but I found it difficult to put down right from the start. Parts of it are actually very funny, but what is most interesting is the study of a single criminal mind. I felt like I was reading a case study in a book by Sigmund Freud. Since the main reason I read Crime and Punishment in the first place is that Matt has talked about it so frequently on his blog A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook, I decided to ask him about this. His reply follows:

I haven’t stumbled upon any published literature that Freud has written on Crime and Punishment. Fyodor Dostoevsky began to write this novel in 1859, the last of his ten years of exile in Siberia. Living a life of suffering, he created the character of Raskolnikov with the preconceptions of his own harrowing experience. I have read volume after volume of critical essays on where Raskolnikov’s suffering originated, which is, from the frame of the novel itself, in his murder of the pawn-woman. The lectures on the novel in my undergrad class also focused on this topic. But Dostoevsky’s main concentration I believe is why suffering must exist and how one can overcome this suffering.

In part one of the novel, Dostoevsky describes Raskolnikov as “having been in an over strained irritable condition, verging on hypochondria” for some time past. When out in public, he is almost always preoccupied with his own agitated thoughts or muttering to himself in a state of feverish confusion. These irregular characteristics indicate Raskolnikov’s nervous anticipation of the murder that he plans to commit. The guilt that he experiences after carrying out the murder further amplifies his irritable condition, thus plunging him into a period of illness and delirium. A reader would conclude, therefore, that Raskolnikov’s mental state is directly linked to the guilt about the crime.

As a neurotic, Raskolnikov is unable to suppress his instincts as effectively as a regular person. He engages in these palliative measures for the same reasons as everybody else does, yet is unable to achieve the same results due to the abnormal strength of his instincts. When the instincts of regular people come into contact with their palliative measures, they are instantly subdued. But when Raskolnikov’s powerful instincts come into contact with his palliative measures, they combine with the palliative measures, thus turning them into extreme and distorted mental obsessions.

How is it that Raskolnikov’s aggression still exists, when the conditions of civilization are supposed to repress such instincts? Freud maintains that civilization “is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression, or some other means?) of powerful instincts.” In order to answer our question, we must again remind ourselves that Raskolnikov is a neurotic character with instincts that cannot be repressed as readily as those of normal people. He maintains his aggressions, therefore, while others find their aggressions limited by civilization.

Freudian analysis of Raskolnikov might indicate that complex connections exist between civilization and the human psyche—connections which are impossible to completely sever. The presence of these connections make it impossible for us to try to oppose the structure of civilization without ending up in the same plight as Raskolnikov. Thus, both Freud and Dostoevsky seem to suggest that it is necessary for us to adapt ourselves as best we can to the pre-existing constructs of civilization and learn to accept its less pleasant aspects.

Reference: Freud, Sigmund. “Civilizations and Its Discontents.” The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1989.

I find this to be the key point Matt makes: “Raskolnikov is a neurotic character with instincts that cannot be repressed as readily as those of normal people. He maintains his aggressions, therefore, while others find their aggressions limited by civilization.” This should be a major point of debate: does civilization place a positive limit on more natural instincts towards violence? By the end of Crime and Punishment I suspect Dostoevsky’s answer would be yes, but I’m not sure mine is. While Raskolnikov is punished and does come to repent his actions, Napoleon is still considered a genius and is still praised as a hero. You can visit his tomb in Paris and see the bas relief sculptures that portray him as the great unifier of Europe. I’m left to wonder if Raskolnikov’s great sin is not that he committed murder but that he thought he was the kind of man who could get away with it.

I’d like to thank Matt for his participation in this project. I envy his students. I bet his classes provide lots of food for thought.

Update: This book was eaten by Dakota on July 6, 2009.

 

This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009.  Dakota ate several more books before she stopped her book eating habits.  As many of you know, Dakota, who is much older now, has lymphoma.  She has outlasted the doctor’s predicted time left by four weeks now, but she has started to slow down noticeably.  As I type this, she is laying on the rug by my side, probably wishing I would get up and fix her breakfast already.  That’s just what I’m going to do.  

Posted in Book Review, Classic, Fiction, Novel, Russian Literature, Translation | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments