Friday, August 29, 2014

Books I Read This Month - August 2014

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

A mentally challenged man undergoes surgery to improve his intelligence in this novel, but it does not quite turn out exactly how he or the scientists expected. This is one of those classic books that had been sitting on my shelf for a while and that I knew I would have to read eventually, but when I finally got to it, I didn’t realize that it was going to be so well written and moving. The author perfectly captures the main character’s voice and emotions as he goes through this experience, using the medium of a journal to describe the events over the course of several months and what he thinks about his mental development, relationships, and work life. His family history also plays an important part in his emotional development over the course of the novel. The book discusses some important themes of where intelligence comes from and what makes us happy in life, though I wouldn’t say I was satisfied with the ending. Overall, it was an engaging read that I would recommend for people who enjoy science and thoughtful books.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

In this book, a young girl named Harriet aims to solve the cold case of her older brother’s murder, which took place when she was only six months old. Harriet is very smart for her age but has trouble making friends and getting along with her family members because of her snarky, sarcastic, and smart-alecky personality. She constantly is asking why, which makes her annoying to the people around her but makes her a compelling protagonist, especially in the literary mystery genre. There is a pervasive To Kill a Mockingbird vibe here, which makes this a relatable read, as it follows the coming of age of a girl learning about the adult world a bit before she is ready for it. The first quarter or so of the book seems to consist of a lot more telling than showing, but it’s done in such a way that it come across as skilled storytelling. Tartt knows how to tell a great story with well developed characters. The writing style is clear and concise, not involving a lot of elegant, literary turns of phrase, which is sort of what I was expecting based on what I heard about the author and the fact that she has won big literary prizes. It's mostly the storytelling that makes this book a good read.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

This is Haruki Murakami’s latest book, which just came out this month. Of course, it was amazing, as to be expected from Murakami. Also, you should expect me to say it was amazing because he is one of my favorite writers. As a character, Tsukuru Tazaki is similar to many of Murakami’s protagonists in that he is a youngish loner who is in love with an independent woman but who is going through some sort of existential crisis. The plot of this book is easier to follow than some of Murakami’s other books, and it seems to have a bit fewer surrealist elements, even as it involves dreams and an exploration of the past. While I wouldn’t say it’s unique amongst Murakami’s books, it is certainly worth the read and has only reinforced my enjoyment of his work on the whole. Murakami has been and continues to be an important influence on my own writing.

Dune by Frank Herbert

I am not one to read soft science fiction or fantasy like this, but I felt the need to read this since it is considered a classic in the genre. I loved it, surprisingly, as the plot developed gradually and understandably, and the main characters were all well developed and empathetic. I can see why it’s such a popular and distinguished book. It takes place on a strange desert planet where a royal boy named Paul goes with his parents to learn the ways of a rare supernatural group of people to which his mother belongs (a bit like the Jedi). However, there is an evil man who wants to kill Paul's father, called the Duke---I'll be honest, I wasn't entirely clear on his intentions. Despite this latter fact, though, I found all the characters to be well rounded and entertaining to read about. I will continue reading the series, though probably not right away.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Proximity, Part 3 of 4 (A Summer of Flash Fiction #13)

“I said go,” Krane repeated. The muscles in her arms were beginning to loosen, to relax in uncertainty.

“I want to ask. I’d like to know,” Amma said, averting her gaze. She shifted her feet, as if she too wanted to leave, but something was stopping her. “Are you lost? Or are you sneaking around like me? You let me do what I came here to do, so I want to help you. Do you need to get back to the barracks?”

“No. Please leave before I change my mind and decide to report you.”

A smirk snuck across the girl’s face. “That doesn’t seem like something you are going to do. I bet you know as well as I do that even wardens aren’t allowed back here on their own.”

“I know the rules. Why won’t you just go?”

“Why won’t you loosen up? We’re both here without permission. You’re not in charge of me, you know. We can help each other.” She lifted her chin and raised her eyebrows. With her spine straight, she was taller than Krane, her long, thin limbs lifting her high above Krane’s five and a half feet.

“I don’t need your help,” Krane said.

“I don’t believe you. Now tell me your name. I told you mine.”

“Mariángel,” Krane spat out, submitting to Amma’s unrelenting pressure. It was her grandmother’s name, the first that came to her mind. “Now will you go, please?”

Amma’s eyes lit up, her smile shining briefly and smugly. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

With a slight, ambivalent shrug, Krane shook her head. “Are you going to leave now?” She said, sounding even to herself a broken record.

“If you really want me to.”

Krane paused, then let out a sigh. She lowered her head, looking down at her black boots, new and shining. In a few days, they would be covered in mud from training outside—if she could find her way out of here.

“You know, Marie,” Amma said with a smile, and Krane cringed at the name, spoken in such an Americanized, almost teasing way. “We’re both being secretive, which means that neither of us has to be, to each other, at least. Since we know we’re not going to tell anybody we were here.”

The girl’s optimism, her innocence, was starting to irritate Krane. When Amma took a few more steps closer, Krane stiffened and backed up against the wall. She could feel her cheeks going hot with frustration and fear.

“You’ve got me curious now,” said Amma, but before she could continue pestering Krane, the light above the door leading to the locks switched from red to amber, and the sound of air rushing in to destroy the vacuum boomed.

“Hide,” Krane yelped, lurching forward and pushing Amma into the storage cell opposite her. Krane ducked into room twenty-one, watching Amma across the hallway as her eyes grew wide with terror and she crouched behind the boxes. Only the top of her blonde head was visible over the crates of lost toys and trinkets.

The door hissed open. From her hiding place, Krane could see Clark enter the room but hold the door open with his bulky, muscular arm. His hard expression, his lips tight and his forehead creased, was betrayed by the shaking fingers of his free hand, his wrists shivering violently with fear.

Krane stepped out from behind the crates.

“Clark,” she said in a muted voice, using his name instead of his title, as was expected from a trainee. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. You left me there.”

“Jesus, Decleric,” he blurted. The lines in his face fell into momentary relief. “We need to get out of here.”

He grabbed her arm and yanked her through the door, giving her only a brief moment to shoot her gaze toward Amma’s location. She was invisible, still hidden.

The door closed behind them, and they safe in the locks.

“You breathe one breath in there,” Clark said, gripping Krane tightly by both shoulders, “and everyone in this fortress could be dead within days. Do you really want to have that on your conscience?” Clark’s eyes darted back and forth between Krane’s, and she could feel his own breath, heaving and Immune, warming her collar bones.

“No sir,” she said.“Then we need to get out of here.” He released his grip on her shoulders and began marching, which quickly morphed into a quiet run, down the dark hall. Shaking, Krane followed.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Lord Soul by S. M. Kois

In her second novel, S. M. Kois ups the ante in terms of philosophical discussion and spiritual questioning. This book, Lord Soul, introduces a young boy named Charlie who has an extremely high IQ. When his baby brother is diagnosed with an incredibly horrible disease and is given a life expectancy of only a few years, seven-year-old Charlie is determined to find a cure. He studies books well beyond his education level, and his ideas are soon funded by a research lab that takes over the project for him. However, Charlie begins to see a man called Lord Soul, whom his parents believe is a hallucination, and he is diagnosed with schizophrenia. What follows is a philosophical journey consisting of dialogue between Charlie and Lord Soul, as well as an emotional journey as Charlie deals with adult issues at his young age.

The philosophy is definitely the most important part of the book, to S. M. Kois, as more than half of the book is devoted to these compelling discussions, which provoke thought very effectively. Even though the plot often takes the passenger seat to the theme, the dialogue and descriptions drive the story forward at a fast pace. The content of the discussions paired with Charlie’s age and circumstance makes the story fascinating.

It does seem a bit unrealistic that Charlie is so young and yet so intelligent, but there are certainly a few children out there with IQs as high as his, and his questionable mental stability makes this more realistic. He is naive, like a seven-year-old, and his relationship with his brother is empathetic and emotive. That relationship and the scientific discoveries work well together to bolster the theme of the book.

This novel is perfect for people who prefer philosophical books and value theme over plot. The characters are well developed, so there is no shortage of literary merit there. With straight-forward prose and in-depth discussions of empathy, animal rights (though this second one often feels out of place and a step away from the plot and theme on the whole), and the nature of reality, this book is an interesting contribution to philosophy, while containing a decently compelling story, as well.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Proximity, Part 2 of 4 (A Summer of Flash Fiction #12)

The girl spun around, her eyes wide. Krane lurched backward, falling deeper into the small room. She pressed her back against the cool concrete wall and tried to make herself as flat as possible. Her throat burned as she pushed the rejected saliva up as silently as she could muster.

“Hello?” said a fragile, shaking voice. “Who’s there?”

Now, Krane had to make a choice. For a short moment, she allowed her heart to beat wildly, her eyes to dart around the room in search of a weapon for self defense, her chattering mind to desire flight instead of fight. But then she chose. She straightened her back and pulled back her shoulders, lifting her chin and pursing her lips, building up the false face her two years of military training had taught her. And then the girl appeared in the entrance of room twenty-one.

“Hello?” she repeated. She was tall, thin, blonde, and beautiful—she looked just as Krane had imagined a Susceptible would look. But her blue eyes were wide, moist with fearful tears, and her hands were clenched together near her chest, as if protecting her heart from a painful emotional blow.

“Hello,” Krane said hoarsely then cleared her throat, attempting to keep her expression rigid while clearing out the remnants of saliva and phlegm that had been her downfall. “Go about your business.”

Wringing her delicate, white hands, the girl stammered. “I was just looking for my brother’s teddy bear. I was going to get an escort, but he was crying, so I didn’t want to have to wait.”

The girl’s voice cracked as she spoke, the words flowing out one after the other in a stream of worry. Krane stood firmly, like a soldier, like the fortress guard she’d always wanted to be. Though as she stood, unable to speak any other words, as she couldn’t discern what she was possibly supposed to say, she watched as recognition slowly melted over the girl’s milky-white face. Her expression eased into a different kind of crumpled, the confused kind. Krane stiffened her posture further, but she felt her position of authority in front of the girl weaken.

Her hands halting their twisting motion, the girl tilted her head ever so slight. “Are you a warden? You’re not, are you?” Her brow furrowed. In all her life, in all her childhood and her military training, Krane had never been caught doing something wrong. She’d never done something wrong. So she was unprepared for this experience and didn’t know what to do with the hesitant moments between the girl’s question and her as-of-yet unknown response. Rationally, it would be best to lie, to claim to be one of the wardens of which this girl spoke, except that she was unsure how the Susceptible, upon entering an area they were apparently not permitted to be, were punished. She didn’t know her way around the chambers, let alone the inside of the fortress, but if she revealed herself to be Immune, to be someone from the outside, she would likely be immediately killed. As she held her breath, out of fear of the consequences of her actions—albeit considering their accidental nature—she recognized the irony of her adrenaline-filled lack of reflexes. If she opened her mouth again, who knew what the result would be. This girl could fall ill, and the plague could erupt again within moments. This was the very thing the government was trying to prevent. This was the reason for the walls.

Krane cleared her throat again, with one beat, to be sure her voice would be assertive. “You’re not supposed to be here,” she said as confidently as she could muster, though she could feel her clammy fists, tight at her sides, beginning to shake.

“I don’t think you are either.”

There was no tremble in the girl’s vocal cords. As the girl’s blonde brows furrowed, Krane observed her inch forward one of her feet, garbed in a white slip-on shoe. She took another step, but Krane remained stolid in her repose. Her lips were hard and clenched, like her mother’s when she commanded the child Krane to go to bed or to finish eating her vegetables. She could hardly imagine what her mother, so proud of having a guard-in-training for a daughter, would think of her now.

The girl stopped, standing with a ballet dancer’s grace, four feet in front of her. “Are you lost?” she asked. “Were you looking for the wardens’ barracks? If you’re new, I understand. Everyone gets lost if they’re not used to being in this area of the compound.”

“I know perfectly well where I am. Get back to your business. Find whatever it is you’re looking for. Your brother’s toy. Then get out. I’ll let you go this time, but only this time.”

“Thank you.” By the confused glint in the girl’s blue eyes, Krane discerned that she was not saying the right things. But now that she’d said it, there was no going back. Inconsistencies would be more likely to give her away. “But, can I ask? Are you a new warden?”

“That’s none of your business. Now go.” She rose the volume of her voice ever so slightly, ting to make it sound more firm, more authoritative. She stiffened her arms at her sides even more. She could feel her veins pulsating in her fingertips and her palms.

The girl took a few steps back, slowly. Her brows were furrowed, her cheeks glowing pink. “Thank you,” she repeated, sounding not quite convinced, but getting there. Walking backwards, the girl kept her gaze pointed at Krane, though her lips were slightly pursed and her forehead was wrinkled. When she rounded the corner and slipped back into room eighteen, Krane heaved a silent sigh and allowed her shoulders to relax. She listened to the sound of the girl moving objects around in the crates and boxes, plastic bouncing against plastic, metal, and wood. The search seemed to go on for several minutes, but as Krane counted her breaths, forcing their steady slowing, she knew it could have only been thirty seconds before the girl’s gentle footsteps began again. She appeared in the entrance of section twenty-one, where Krane still stood. Once again, Krane stiffened her military stance.

“Thanks again,” the girl said, a tattered teddy bear in her hand. It had one button eye, the place where the second eye should be a hollow divot. A blue ribbon was tied around its neck, much shinier and smoother than the rough brown fur of the bear. “Can I ask your name?”

Krane hesitated. If she said her name, the girl could report her for not doing her duties, if that was what was going on. But the nervous tick of the girl rubbing the ribbon around the bear’s neck between her thumb and forefinger alerted her that there was no need to fear anyone ever knowing she was there. The girl was obviously not supposed to be here in what Krane discerned was the storage areas, some sort of lost and found.

“My name is Amma,” said the girl. “I just want to thank you again for letting me look for the bear.” She lifted it awkwardly. “I found it.”

“Good. Now go.”The girl didn’t move. The long pause in their words made both of them shift their feet, though Krane’s posture remained frozen. The desire for Amma to leave, the fear of sparking a new plague into being, had her legs nearly shaking with the need to run.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Proximity, Part 1 of 4 (A Summer of Flash Fiction #11)

Krane Decleric was somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be. Her junior commander and trainer—the bug-eyed, golden-haired, always-on-the-edge-of-smirking Clark—had ditched her, maybe as some sort of trainee initiation prank, and left her in one of the chambers near the entrance to the locks. She had warily gone through a door, which led her into a hallway, which took her to another door. Forgetting she was supposed to be scared, she opened it, knowing she probably shouldn’t but feeling as though she had no other choice. She was lost and it had seemed like it could be a way out. Instead, it had been a way in.

Krane found herself in a concrete room with areas sectioned off by concrete walls. These doorless rooms, whose exposed entryways allowed her to see inside, contained boxes. Cardboard boxes, clear plastic boxes, crates—they filled these small rooms, each area labeled above its entrance with numbers growing chronologically up the left side of the room toward Krane—to number twenty—and back down the right side—ending with number forty—toward another door, huge and wooden, on the opposing wall.

A dull, heavy noise resounded behind her, and a slurping, like the sealing of a vacuum, was the coda to the sound. Krane lurched and spun to face the door through which she had just entered, only to see the light, in the shape of a thin rectangle tracing the top border of the door, flip from amber to deep red. She gulped down the beating of her heart in her throat and flicked her eyes to her right, then to her left, but there was no guard or code panel in sight.

With all the effort the government had put into protecting the Susceptible, Krane found it awfully disconcerting that there was only one coded door—never mind the labyrinth of the chambers and the locks—separating them from the Immune. Of course, only the fortress guards were privy to the codes, which meant no one could get in or out without one letting them through the door. But a code and one guard, even with his sturdy body and stern expression, his bulletproof vest and hefty firearm, seemed less of a barrier to this sensitive world than all the propaganda claimed they needed. Yes, there was the gargantuan electrical fence surrounding the fortress on the outside, barricading civilians from entering, but it seemed that the military could come and go as they pleased, as long as they surpassed the guards and the code. Krane had always assumed that inside the chambers were men with stronger artillery, and on either side of the locks were ID scanners, disinfectant rooms, and cameras taping from every angle. Maybe the guard on the inside of the locks was off duty at the moment, or maybe he was taking a bathroom break and had no one else to step in—but, more likely, the Susceptible, craving their near royal treatment, were not subjected to staring at a beefy, rifle-bearing monster standing at their doorstep every moment of the day like the Immune were. Krane entertained the thought for moment, then froze in place. No guards meant possible surveillance. Cameras could be anywhere. Alarms could go off any minute. And Krane would more than likely be shot dead with no chance to explain herself.

Even in the chambers, where her only fear had been failure to impress Clark, who would report about her to his senior commander, she had not been much concerned with the possibility of surveillance. Hell, even on the streets of the city, where she knew there were cameras aimed at every storefront, every window, every corner, she’d known she didn’t have anything to be afraid of—as long as she followed orders. But now, the threat of arrest was real.

Arrest, while not uncommon in New York, was something reserved for people who disobeyed. Misbehaving men, women, and children, regardless of their age, were snatched away shrieking by police doing their rounds, often returning starving and bruised a few days later, or weeks, depending on their crime. Krane had witnessed from her own bedroom window rebellious teenagers dragged away shouting into the night several times over the course of her childhood. Their dirt-smeared trousers and wild eyes told her that these deviants needed to be kept in line. So Krane had always followed the rules: she’d never stayed out past the ten o’clock curfew; she’d attended every day of her eight years of classes, unless she was ill; she’d joined the military academy upon her graduation at sixteen; and she’d even had her first kiss from a boy, Bobby Durkheimer, when she was twelve, even though his lips were pink and sticky from the raspberries they’d been picking in the fields and she could smell the dull stench of old sweat emanating from his armpits, barely covered by his government-provided t-shirt.

She’d done what the law, her parents, and her peers had told her to do, and now she was stuck somewhere she wasn’t meant to be, unsure of how she’d managed to get there, and likely to be killed the moment she was found. As a trainee guard, she had only been allowed to look at the map of the chambers briefly before this first tour, and it had not shown the inside of the fortress. There were the chambers, like a cell wall, lining the miles-wide holding area, and there were the locks, four small hallway-like structures on the center of each of the square-shaped fortress’ sides. But beyond the areas she was permitted to enter, there was a big blank space. Not even senior commander’s had the privilege of seeing the maps of the inside of the fortress.

Having studied the limited map for only a few minutes before being escorted by Clark through the North guard-and-code-locked entrance, Krane could not discern whether she had gone through the locks or not. Was she still in the chambers? Or had she passed into the fortress? There was nothing to indicate either possibility. The smooth concrete walls had an industrial presence, but the dozens of boxes in the unenclosed rooms appeared fairly domestic. In some of them, Krane could make out items peeking up over the tops: tennis rackets, tattered books, dishes, stuffed animals. She squinted as she surveyed them from her place in front of the door, contemplating, analyzing, rationalizing why they were there. Then she realized, even though her confusion and mild worry about the surveillance clouded her minded, there was a soft rushing noise serving as background music to the room. She followed her ears to search for the source of the sound. Still standing in place in front of the door, unsure yet if she should move, she saw a vent in the upper corner of the room to her right. Quietly humming, the vent seemed to be sucking in air, and when he turned to her left, she saw an identical vent giving off a similar sound. This was further evidence, she thought, that she was inside. These vents had to be cycling and purifying the air, making it safe for the Susceptible to breathe. She thought harder, pondering each step she had taken to get to this room, in case there was a chance she could manage to open the sealed door behind her and to get out. Obviously there had to be a way. Under no circumstances could she possibly be trapped inside the fortress. She couldn’t let that happen to herself. She couldn’t imagine the guards—or Clark—letting that happen to her.

Then, beyond the barely audible hum of the vents, Krane heard another sound, like footsteps, echoing toward the room from the other side of the huge wooden door fifty feet in front of her. They were quiet, so quiet that she could hardly discern that they were in fact footsteps. She could tell by their volume and the fact that they resonated marginally that the door was thin, that the dim light she could see around the edges of it was shining through from whatever was on the other side. It wasn’t Clark, that was for sure. His gait was crooked, even after his five years of military training. His boots were heavy, not gentle, like these steps. Whoever it was, though—despite their delicacy—would likely not be happy to see her.

As the wooden door shifted, scraping against the concrete floor, Krane slid into the room closest to her on her right, number twenty-one. The wall hid her from the view of the person entering the room—just one, thankfully. But that also meant that Krane could not see the person either, and therefore, she couldn’t know if they were armed. The footsteps edged closer, and Krane’s abdomen tensed. But then the person halted, probably too close for Krane to be able to make even one peep. There was shuffling, the sound of plastic items knocking against each other, as if the person was searching for something.

She moved her head slowly and peered around the edge of wall. What she saw, in the section labeled eighteen, not ten feet away across the hallway from her, was a long, white-blonde head of hair, hanging loosely and bouncily and nearly grazing a pair of narrow, feminine hips. This wasn’t a guard, that was for sure. This wasn’t even someone from the military. This was the final clue that Krane needed to tell her that she had indeed passed through the locks and into the fortress. She gulped. It was the kind of gulp she dreaded, the kind that happened after drinking an abnormally large swallow of water, the kind that made her choke on her own saliva like a child just learning how the throat works. She felt it go down her windpipe, felt her chest attempt to push it back up, and tried with all her might to force it to stay, to let her drown for only a minute, until the girl had found what she was looking for in room eighteen and left. But then she coughed. She coughed and knew there was no chance now she wouldn’t be caught.