Uncle Bardie’s Spotlight Creator: Ray Bradbury’s Adventures in Writing

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. In honor of the upcoming National Poetry Month of April, this week’s Spotlight Creator is the Ray Bradbury. Here is a short documentary of Ray Bradbury and a review of his book, Zen in the Art of Writing:

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
Publisher: Joshua Odell Editions (August 1, 1994)

In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury shares the sources of many of the hundreds of stories, essays, plays and novels. They come from a vivid imagination that has continued to see things with the eyes of a child. At the heart of many of his stories is his childhood home of Waukegan, Illinois.

Unlike the Thomas Wolfe saying of “you can’t go home again,” Bradbury often returned home to Waukegan. His childhood years in that small Illinois town served as a source for many of his stories in the same way that Hemingway mined his youth in Michigan for his Nick Adams stories and Mark Twain used Hannibal, Missouri for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Waukegan was his Paris, his Oz, his Castle Rock. In Bradbury’s imagination, Waukegan became the Green Town of the Dandelion Wine stories. An encounter at age twelve with Mr. Electrico and his traveling electric chair inspired him to begin his Martian stories.

Though he was writing a story a week in those early years, he imitated the fictions of Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe and many of the pulp writers he was reading. It was his discovery of word association that broke him free from their influence. Bradbury made a list of words, took one of those words, and made that word a title for a story. Then he came up with memories and emotions for that word.

He turned the phrase :the old woman” into two stories: “There was an Old Woman” and “Season of Disbelief”. “The baby” became “The Small Assassin”. “The trap door” ended up as “Trapdoor” in Omni Magazine in 1985.

Bradbury relates how it cost him nine dollars and eighty cents to write the first draft of Fahrenheit 451. He shares how a visit to catacombs in Mexico caused his imagination to spit up the story, “Next in Line.” His stay in Ireland led to a number of Irish stories, including “The Haunting of the New.” He relates his love affair with skeletons and circuses and carnivals and dinosaurs and Mars, and how he never lost his childlike wonder for all things strange and exotic and out-of-the-normal.

In the chapter titled “Zen in the Art of Writing,” he shares his process for writing: Work, Relaxation, Don’t Think. He relates how the writer can learn from the archer of Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. Then he reveals his unique approach to plotting. He writes: “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal” (p. 152).

Zen in the Art of Writing encourages the writer, and anyone pursuing his chosen dream, to never give up. Persistence pays off. If we’re putting in the work, there will be a reward down the line. His advice is: Do the work for the joy of it. Don’t worry about the destination. Love the process.

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Mr. Ives’ Christmas

Mr. Ives’ Christmas By Oscar Hijuelos Harper/Collins, 1995.

Oscar Hijuelos’ Mr. Ives’ Christmas is not just a good novel. It is a meditation on grief. It is also a meditation on faith and weathering the worst of storms a human being can weather. The loss of a beloved child.

And the book is also about commitment, love, family and friends with a little Charles Dickens thrown in. And everywhere there is Hijuelos’ love affair with New York City, its sights and sounds and smells, and its neighborhoods.

A good man, Edward Ives, loses his son, Robert, to a cold blooded murder. Robert is standing in front of a church, talking to some friends. He’s there for choir practice.

A thirteen-year-old kid walks by Robert. He doesn’t like the look on Robert’s face. In an instant, he turns, pulls a gun, and fires bullets into Robert’s body. Robert drops onto the sidewalk. He is dead.

Robert wasn’t just any kid. He was special. He was one of those kids who did everything right. Likeable to everybody he met. Never an unkind word for anybody. Never gave his parents trouble. Close to both of his parents and his sister. But especially close to his father. The next year he was going to go off to seminary to become a priest. That was Robert. And it doesn’t help that his death came close to Christmas.

Annie, his mother, and Caroline, his sister, are devastated. But his father is the most devastated of all. At one point, Ives reflects: “You know what it was like? It was like drowning.” Ive’s grief is a river of sadness, so sad it fills his entire life. As his wife, Annie, puts it, “Robert’s death had become the defining event of his middle-aged life.”

Ives never stops grieving. Annie and Caroline find a way to go on with their lives and live with the grief without it destroying them. But not Ives. He cannot find any joy in life anymore. It’s almost like he quit breathing at the moment he heard the horrible news.

On the outside, his acts are of a saintly man, a compassionate man, showing care for those around him. Even for the murderer of his son. On the inside, he is wounded deeply, walking around in a purgatory that is as much hell as it is life. A purgatory he cannot escape no matter how good he is. His only thought day after day, night after night, is the loss of his son. His grief is immense.

This is not a novel written from the head. This is a novel written from the heart. With detail upon detail, Oscar Hijuelos has mustered all his tremendous talent to breathe life into the Mr. Ives of the title. In so doing, it’s possible to believe that Hijuelos suffers with Mr. Ives.

Ives with his memories of his beloved son finds himself in a lifetime of solitary confinement which he cannot escape. He cannot bring himself to love again, even his wife and his daughter.

Not once does he ask, “What would Robert want?”

So Mr. Ives grows into a bitter man despite everything he tries.

On that day the kid murdered Robert, he had a second victim. Mr. Ives. Robert’s death was instant. Edward Ives’ is long and slow and torturous. Mr. Ives is a good man, but  goodness is not enough to heal all the grief that he carries.

In the end, Mr. Ives emerges from a long dark night. For Mr. Ives, the sunrise comes from a place he least expected.

At the end, I realized that this is Osar Hijuelos homage to the great Charles Dickens. It seems like Dickens is hovering above every page of this novel, encouraging Hijuelos to write on and smiling when the writer had completed the journey of his story. As I finished the novel, I began to think that Edward Ives had a lot of Bob Cratchit in him.

In 248 pages, Hijuelos has packed the life of one man and his family, his faith and his love affair with life, and then the great tragedy. When the novel is over, I was left with a love for Ives and Annie, Robert and Caroline, Ramirez and Carmen and their son Pablo. I will miss them. But Hijuelos has left me the opportunity to dig into their lives again. All I have to do is open the pages of Mr. Ives’ Christmas.

Book Review: 1000 Books to Read Before You Die

1000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich, Published by Workman Publishing, New York, 2018.

If you’re looking for the perfect gift for the reader in the family or among friends, here’s a suggestion: 1000 Books To Read Before You Die by James Mustich. And while you are at it, treat yourself to a copy of this wonderful  book.

James Mustich is the co-founder and publisher of the former book catalog, A Common Reader. It is obvious from his introduction that he loves books, and the joy they bring to their readers.

The first thing you notice about this treasure trove of an advisory is the loveliness of the physical book. Workman Publishing has given the purchaser not only a wonderful read but a delight to the eyes. The cover and the open leaves and the photographs and art with many of the one-thousand essays make this volume a thing to be cherished for years to come. Workman reminds us what publishing can be.

Then there are the essays. Mustich has written one for each of his one-thousand selections. Each essay is short and sweet, not lasting over a page or two and sometimes less. They often supplies not just a summary but some of the context of the book’s creation as well as interesting tidbits. In addition to these major essays, there are even more suggestions with a final total of over than six-thousand titles by thirty-five hundred authors. Mustich does not limit his selections to one classifcation. His choices are a sampling from across the full sweep of human knowledge and endeavor.

Unlike other Reader Advisories, the selections are not laid out by category or timeline. Rather they are alphabetically placed by the name of the author from Edward Abbey to Carl Zuckmayer. In the case where the author is unknown, the selection is placed by title. Occasionally an author will be found out of order. There will be a note letting the reader know where they can find the entry.

Though Mustitch includes many of the usual suspects, such as Shakespeare, Austin and Dickens, he does not limit his selections to just the classics or to fiction or to non-fiction.And the fiction ranges across a variety of genres such as literary fiction, mystery and suspense, humor, espionage, science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, And the writers come from a slew of places, including Japan, Russia, Africa, China, Europe as well as the United States, Ireland and Great Britain.

There are children’s books and books for young adult readers as well as selections of travel, science, biography, poetry, short stories, novels, history, drama, sports, letters and diaries among others. He has even included an essay on The 9/11 Commission Report. And also included are a few graphic novels.

To see the ecumenical nature of the selections, here are a list of the first ten entries:
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (Nature, Memoir).
Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott (Novel, Mathematics).
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Novel).
My Dog Tulip by J. R. Ackerley (Animals, Memoir).
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (Science Fiction).
The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams  (Autobiography, History).
Watership Down by Richard Adams (Novel).
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Novel).
The Oresteia by Aeschylus (Drama).
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans (Essays, Photography, Sociology).

Popular bestsellers have their essays too: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, Gillian Flynn’s Gone GirlThe Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Even James Bond gets a write-up. And if a title you love isn’t included in a main entry, it still may be found among th e 5000 other titles.

Many of the titles for essays are humorous, often tongue-in-cheek. The title for the lives and times of archy and mehitabel is “The Greatest Cockroach Poet of All Time;” “Still Crazy After All These Years” for Wuthering Heights; for The Phantom Tollbooth, “Boredom Banished;” and The Count of Monte Cristo, “The Fastest 1200 Pages You Will Ever Read.” But there are some serious titles as well. For Oranges,”The fruit of One Writer’s Inspired Curiosity”; for The Boys of Summer, “A Grand Slam of a Baseball Book”, for Lord of the Rings, “A World of Narrative Wizardry,” and Alice Munro’s Selected Stories, 1968 – 1994 is given “A Nobel Laureate’s Astonishing Gallery of Life”.

From time to time there will be a quote from a work or about the work colored and in a large font. At the end of each essay is a footnote section, listing what genre, when the work appeared, awards, editions (if any), also by, further reading (a work that brings insight to the work), try (similar works) and any adaptations to literary or other media such as movies, theater or radio. In addition, there are Booknote and More-to-Explore boxes that call attention to further titles in a genre or a category the Mustich wants to mention to the reader.

At the end of the book are three indexes. “A Miscellany of Special Lists” “curated by subject or style or with a particular audience in mind.” Here are four of the lists: “Reading in a Sitting,” “12 Books to Read Before You’re 12,” “LOL,” and “”From the 21st Century.”

All in all, this is a generous helping of delights. Here’s a couple of suggestions. Read one of the essays a day. If there is another selection under “Try,” make that the next day’s essay. Or find a book listed you’ve always wanted to read or a title you aren’t familiar with. Read the essay and see if the work appeals to you. If so, maybe it’s time to read it. Perhaps, in a century or two from now, you will have covered all six-thousand  books.

To close, I want to quote from the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai found in the selection of One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji: “From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the shape of things. When I was fifty I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the age of seventy is not worth bothering with….When I am eighty you will see real progress….At a hundred I shall be a marvelous artist.”

And Good Reading one and all.

I have in no way received a remuneration for this review.

Near 500 words: The Eye of the Needle

 

For a thriller to be successful, it must have three things: great writing, great characters and high stakes. Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle delivers on all three.

In his Ten Rules for Writing, Elmore Leonard’s number one no-no is “Never open a book with weather.” Yet that is exactly what Ken Follett does with his spy thriller.

In paragraphs that Hemingway would have been proud of, Follett opens with some really cold weather.

“It was the coldest winter for forty-five years. Villages in the English countryside were cut off by the snow and the Thames froze over. One day in January the Glasgow-London train arrived at Euston twenty-four hours late. The snow and the blackout combined to make motoring perilous; road accidents doubled, and people told jokes about how it was more risky to drive an Austin Seven along Piccadilly at night than to take a tank across the Siegfried Line.

“Then, when spring came, it was glorious. Barrage balloons floated majestically in bright blue skies, and soldiers on leave flirted with girls in sleeveless dresses on the streets of London.

“The city did not much look like the capital of a nation at war. There were signs, of course; and Henry Faber, cycling from Waterloo Station toward Highgate, noted them…”

With those paragraphs that remind the reader of the opening paragraphs in A Farewell to Arms, Follett introduces the reader to Henry Faber. Henry is a German spy, living in England at the start of World War II. He is known by the alias “Die Nadel”, The Needle. From his vantage point, he counts troop movements and other items and transmits them back to Berlin. And Die Nadel is good at his job. Very good.

Professor Percival Godliman is a medievalist. And it is going to take more than a war to get the good professor away from his Middle Ages. Though his uncle is trying to pull him away from his solitary studies and recruit him to help catch spies. Then Percival finds himself in an air raid shelter, huddling with others. He realizes he misses the comradery of being involved in a great cause. So he joins up to become the spy catcher to take Die Nadel down.

Lucy and David Rose are newly weds, heading off for their one-night honeymoon. David is a pilot for the RAF. Then their car crashes into a truck. Rose is fine but David can never walk again. So they retreat to Storm Island off the coast of Scotland. There they can hide away from the world and the war with Jo, their son.

Four years pass with Die Nadle on the run, collecting information for Hitler. Finally he comes upon some information that could change the direction of the war. With Godliman and his people on his tail, Faber and his information must reach a submarine that will take him back to Germany. He steals a boat and runs into a storm and ends up on Storm Island.

Dropping half dead at her doorstep on Storm Island, he finds Rose irresistible. So he lets down his guard. Big mistake. Very big mistake. It will be this housewife who faces down the greatest German spy of the war. The fate of civilization depends on it. And at the end of the novel, we discover an afterward that is quite logical, yet surprising. And not included in the movie.

Though I had seen the movie several times and enjoyed it immensely, the novel went deeper and gave me a fuller picture of how essential it was to catch Faber. I give the novel, and Ken Follett, a big thumbs up.

A Halloween Tale

It’s October, and you know what that means. It’s harvest time. It’s time the leaves on the trees are red and gold and orange. Seems the trees make an extra-special effort this time of year. The birds take off for their southward journeys. The squirrels make a last minute snatch, gathering up a few more nuts for the coming chilly days of winter. It’s October, and Halloween’s a-coming.

Already carved pumpkins are showing up in folks’ windows and on their lawns. They’re letting us know that the show is coming soon. That show being costumes and trick-or-treating galore.

Yet, over the years, Halloween’s been the runt of the holidays. Unlike Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, Halloween didn’t start showing up in the national consciousness till the twentieth century. And it didn’t even have its own story. Until “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree.

All great stories invite the reader in with an invitation. Here’s the invitation from The Halloween Tree:

It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small norther part of a Midwest state. There wasn’t so much wilderness around you couldn’t see the town. But on the other hand there wasn’t so much town you couldn’t see and feel and touch the wilderness. The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here. And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across. And the town was full of…

Boys.

And it was the afternoon of Halloween.

Eight boys show up for trick-or-treating in a variety of costumes. Tom Skelton is dressed in skeleton bones. There’s a witch, a mummy, an apeman, a gargoyle, a beggar, a ghost and Death himself with his scythe. There’s only one boy missing. And that’s Joe Pipkin.

Joe Pipkin was the greatest boy who ever lived. The grandest boy who ever fell out of a tree and laughed at the joke. The finest boy who ever raced around the track, winning, and then, seeing his friends a mile back somewhere, stumbled and fell, waited for them to catch up, and joined, breast and breast, breaking the winner’s tape. The jolliest boy who ever hunted out all the haunted houses in town, which are hard to find, and came back to report on them and take all the kids to ramble through the basements and scramble up the ivy outside-bricks and shout down the chimneys and make water off the roofs, hooting and chimpanzee-dancing and ape-bellowing. The day Joe Pipkin was born all the Orange Crush and Nehi soda bottles in the world fizzed over, and joyful bees swarmed countrysides to sting maiden ladies. On his birthdays, the lake pulled out from the shore in midsummer and ran back with a tidal wave of boys, a big leap of bodies and a downcrash of laughs.

In other words, this Joe Pipkin was a mighty fine fellow. And the other eight boys waited in anticipation to see what he would be dressed as. But poor Joe is whisked away on a journey of life or death.

With the help of a creature named Moundshroud, the eight follow Pipkin to the celebrations of the origins of Halloween by the ancient Druids. They find themselves among the mummies of Ancient Egypt, the ceremonies for the dead by the Greeks and the Romans, the gargoyles of Notre Dame in Medieval France and the Day of the Dead in Mexico. Each ceremony has a jack-o-lantern on the Halloween Tree.

Are the boys able to rescue their friend, Joe Pipkin? And, if they do, what will it cost? Only by reading The Halloween Tree will you be able to discover the answer.