Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. This is another short one at 178 pages. It was first published in 2013 and is a reflection of childhood. A man revisits his childhood town for a funeral and finds he is drawn to the pond at the end of the road that a childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock, once claimed was an ocean.

Most of the book recounts certain events of his childhood and his interactions with Lettie, the youngest of her family that is still able to see the world as it is. Something ordinary humans no longer see. Our main character gets pulled into this ancient world while trying to stay within his own. It all starts when he sees the aftermath of a man’s suicide which seems to spark a series of fantastical events that are frightening, mystifying, and uniquely magical.

I would not consider this a children’s book. I’d say it’s more for those who have grown up and forgotten the elusive magic of childhood. The good and bad. The frightening imagination. The wonder. The exploratory drive to know more about the world. This book is a look through that lens. It is also a reminder that the lens fogs over with our day-to-day adult responsibilities, and we need clean it every so often so as not to forget what it means to be alive.

If you have not read Neil Gaiman, this is a good book to start with. If you have read Neil, then you’ve probably already read this book. If not, then you’ll know if you’ll like it. He is great at what he does, which is make you believe the magic he spins within each sentence. I’ve recommended his books before and I will probably continue to recommend them as I read them. This book, however, is one that I think can be returned to with each time reading like new. The words won’t change, but our lens will, as it does with each passing year.

Happy Reading.

 

Incineration

This view was his favorite thing in the entire universe. Greg sat in the cockpit of his small ship. It was a GK-200. There were only two like it in the known galaxy. He owned one. The other belonged to his younger brother, Keel. It could easily fit a crew of five, but at the moment Greg was the only one aboard.

He tried to take it in, enjoy the view he’d normally go out of his way to see, but this time he couldn’t. Somewhere in the slow rotation of stars and planets before him his brother was in trouble. The console beeped letting Greg know the sensors had finally picked up on the faint signal unique to Keel’s ship. It was coming from a region on the outskirts of Vanguard IX. Greg quickly prepped then made the jump. His console said it would take three hours, which wasn’t enough time to sleep–not that his nerves would let him–so he went to make a cup of coffee.

“Bring up Vanguard IX, section 236, sub-section 19,” Greg called to the on-board computer. He sat on the small couch that took up half of the small cabin and sipped his coffee. On the wall in front of him, the computer displayed the small section of the galactic map. Parts of the map were black, unfinished. Spots like this were rare. Over 99% of the galactic map had been pieced together when the seven empires called a treaty several centuries ago. The only reason Keel would be out in a “blank spot” meant he’d picked up a job that either paid enough to buy a planet, or someone played his heartstrings like an authentic horse-hair violin. Greg hoped it was the former.

“Zoom,” he calmly called, and area enlarged to include three small planets. One, named Ajax Minor, was a few seconds jump from the black, uncharted area. “Ding Keel’s beacon.” At the command a blue dot pinged onto the map and soft ripples scattered from the location. It was inside the “blank spot” a few seconds jump. Equidistant as the planet from the line that divided the known and unknown.

Greg took another sip of coffee. “Pull up all jobs listed across Ajax Minor.” A short list popped up next to the map. Normally a world like this, on the outer rim, would be crawling with jobs for mercenaries, craftsman, even farm hands. The list on the screen listed three jobs. One was a haul job. Transporting two hundred livestock off-world to a planet even further out. Great pay for the work. Greg would have taken it if he had a freighter big enough and he didn’t have to worry about his little brother. The second listed was a bounty. A few renegades ditched the local militia and took off into the “blank.” Greg doubted that was enough to entice Keel, until he saw the third job.

The third job was pretty much the same as the second except it wasn’t issued by the local government. It was, however, issued by a local magistrate.

⊇600,000 For the return of Christa, daughter of Magistrate Kalus. Kidnapped by two deserters of the Zilan Guard. For further details, contact the Magistrate’s estate.

Greg nearly coughed his hot coffee into his nose but was able to swallow it after some effort. 600,000 credits! Not enough to buy a planet, but not far off either. This was it. There was no way Keel would turn this down. He could hear his brother selling it to him.

“Greg, it’s two jobs in one. We go out, rescue the girl, grab the guys, and bring them all back. One trip, 650,000 creds. It’s almost too good to be true.”

Keel was charismatic and could make anything sound more fun than dangerous. Greg knew better. In this scenario, Keel would be more focused on the girl than the money. Which meant Greg would have to cover the actual details of the job while Keel fantasized about marrying a rich magistrate’s daughter who he would get bored of in a few months.

The real problem in this situation was that Keel hadn’t called Greg until he was already on whichever planet he tracked the deserters to. The signal had been weak, garbled, only enough to let Greg know that Keel needed help.

As soon he finished the jump, Greg contacted the magistrate’s estate to get the details. They were pompous enough to tell him that another “bounty hunter” had taken the job a few days ago, and they would only provide the funds to whoever brought back Mistress Christa. Greg fake smiled his way through the communication until he got what he needed. Then he made the jump toward Keel’s signal. He made the calculations manually so he would stop well outside the signal’s location. Jumping into a “blank” was never the best idea. He double checked the distances. Then punched it.

Maybe twenty seconds passed before Greg was spit out into the empty space before a planet the color of half-digested junk-rat kebabs. Hoping the color indicated a mostly desert-like surface, Greg set the scanners to work looking for life-forms while he pinged Keel’s ship. The ship was straight ahead. He gunned it. At normal speed, it would take a few minutes to make it to atmosphere. He checked the scanner. The entire planet was covered in red. There were no areas without a signature. He flicked the screen, but the readout remained the same.

“Damn thing must be picking up plant life again,” he said, and was convinced when he was a few thousand feet above the surface. He could see dark and light brown areas that consisted of large plants. Tall and broad with leaves that hid the surface from above. He circled, pinging Keel’s signal, until he found his brothers ship. The tip of the nose was all he could see in the bright light of the nearby star. The rest was covered in some kind of vine, like arms pulling it into the planet itself.

Greg hovered. He tried to signal his brother but didn’t receive a reply. He began his descent, increasing his engines output so it would incinerate the plant-life and make a clearing for landing. His brother had taken the job only a few days ago. The state of his ship suggested that whatever these plants were, they grew fast and could prevent them from taking off in a hurry if needed.

His landing gear transferred the weight of the ship to the planet’s surface. Ash drifted up into his view and slowly fell. He checked his readout. The display showed a compatible atmosphere, but he pulled on an exosuit anyway. Something wasn’t right.

He hopped out of the airlock. The ground underneath was soft. He made his way toward Keel’s ship. The vines were thick and taught. His suspicion was right. The spacecraft was effectively tethered to the surface. He found the airlock. The door was open and covered with moss. Smaller vines had entered the ship, covering the airlock walls. Greg climbed in. Almost every surface was covered by the aggressive plant-life. He made his way toward the cockpit but came to a halt when he entered the cabin. The layout was the same as his ship. A couch took up most of the cabin and a display board covered the wall opposite.

The difference was that this cabin was layered in the brown vines. They covered everything. The floors, the walls, the display, the couch. They outlined a body sitting on the couch. Greg carefully stepped toward it and pried the layers off until he confirmed what he already knew. A wave washed over him and tears welled in his eyes. He braced himself against the vine-covered wall then lowered himself onto the extra-padded couch. He felt himself begin to cry and he almost let the tears fall, but he remained steadfast. He was in danger.

He stared at what had been his brother. Keel was smart. He would have left something behind knowing his older brother would come for him. Greg looked around the cabin but couldn’t see anything but vines.

“Play last transmission,” he called. Beneath the vines, the ship buzzed and a voice began talking through muffled speakers.

“…sorry. I should have waited. Do not come for me. I repeat…”

The transmission cut out. It was the same one Greg had received roughly sixty hours earlier, but he could understand what little had played. A thought sparked through Greg’s mind. Keel must have known his warning would fall on deaf ears.

“Play last recording,” Greg called. The muffled speakers once again broke the silence, but this time it came from the display board. Greg began pulling vines away until he could see the screen. Keel’s face was there, looking sickly, as he spoke.

“…brother. I mean it. I always appreciated you even if I never said so, but it seems this time you won’t be able to save me. Even if you showed up this second. It’s too late. This planet. These vines. They cover everything and grow too fast. I know you will find this. If you are watching, leave now. I can only hope there is still daylight for you. Once night comes, these things will cover your ship like they did mine, and they won’t let go. They are tougher than you can imagine…”

Greg looked through the cockpit window to see the sunlight fading. He quickly tapped the display, sending the recording to his own ships computer. He paused to look at his brother’s remains one more time before exiting the ship and running toward his own. He reached the airlock door before noticing small vines reaching out like little fingers from the ash at his feet. He climbed inside and signaled an emergency extraction. His ship kicked to life, automatically ascending until it would exit the atmosphere and settle into an orbit around the planet. Greg sat huddled in the airlock, inside his exosuit, while his ship flew him to safety.

He stripped out of his exosuit and climbed out of the airlock and into the ships prep room. He headed straight for the cabin and played his brother’s recording.

“…I know the soldiers landed here. Their ship is on a few hundred meters from here. I found them. What was left of them anyway. The girl wasn’t with them. The magistrate must have assumed they took her. If she were here, then she’s dead. None of that really matters now. I’ll be dead by nightfall. It seemed like such an easy job. You always said those were too good to be true. And here I am to prove you right once again. One last time.

Greg, you were always there for me. Maybe I took that for granted a few too many times. I just want you to know that I always wished I could return the favor. I tried, but I always seemed to screw it up. I’m sorry. I love you brother.”

The recording stopped. Keel stayed frozen on the display. There was a sad smile on his face. Greg sat there. Once again, he felt the wave come over him. This time he let himself succumb to it, and for the first time that he could remember, he cried. He fell into the couch in his small ship, hovering over his little brother’s grave, and began sobbing. Tears wracked his body. Through those tears he made his decision. He would build a funeral pyre. He would burn an entire planet. He didn’t know how, but he knew it was possible. He would find the means. The incineration at a global scale. He couldn’t wait to see it.

Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Originally published in 1974, this book is both autobiographical and philosophical fiction, which means it is based on true events while delving into philosophical topics that, well, make you think about the world we live in. This may be one reason I liked it despite struggling to get through a few, small sections of the book. This book is a bit long at 540 pages.

It starts off as a simple cross-country trip and ends up as an examination of self. The subtitle “An Inquiry into Values” refers to the philosophical topics. There is a sequel to this book titled Lila: An Inquiry into Morals that I have yet to read and was not as popular as Motorcycle Maintenance, but I may eventually pick it up. Motorcycle Maintenance was Pirsig’s first book and became hugely popular shortly after its release selling approximately five million copies worldwide.

The title has been played off of since it first became popular. You have probably seen other books or titles that start with “Zen and the Art of [whatever]” around, but this title is actually a play off of Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel that actually goes into Buddhism and facts/practices of archery. Motorcycle Maintenance states little about actual motorcycle maintenance, but does have a few tips in that area. It rather focuses on Robert himself and what some may consider a slip into madness. This “madness” is what made me consider the constructs of language and how we are shaped, imprisoned, freed, and defined by it along with other social constructs we otherwise do not see because we grow accustomed to them.

The best analogy I can come up right now to explain this is ‘air’. We do not think about air. We constantly breath and bring it inside our chests where exchanges happen that allow us to continue living. We depend upon. We cannot live independently from it. When you really start to think about it and examine what it is and how it impacts us as people/living beings, you start to realize different aspects about it that you originally didn’t care to know or never experienced. Many people probably don’t realize the actual composition of air (mostly nitrogen, but of course contains the oxygen we thrive upon, and many other elements). The closer you look at it, the more it consumes your vision. There is a lot to learn.

But it is also not necessary information, right? We don’t need to understand ‘air’ to continue living, nor can we live “better” lives by knowing more about it. It is more a reflection on how it affects us and how it is a part of us. This is really the best way I can describe what this book does. It brings some things into focus as if they were hiding behind a thin veil of reality. A solid thought for you to juggle with.

You’ll take away from this book what you put into it. Cliché, I know, but true. It is definitely easier to read than most philosophical books, and like other philosophical books, this one may not be an easy read for many people. However, I do think it is worth the read, which is why I’m recommending it.

Robert M. Pirsig died last year on April 27th, 2017. His words have inspired millions and will continue to do so. Maybe they will provide you with a different way of looking at the world.

Happy Reading.

Tradition

“I was a kid. Eight years old and ecstatic to finally be allowed to accompany my father on his annual trip up north. No more than a hike really. I couldn’t tell you why I was so excited, but I can tell you that what I learned that day was essential to who I am now.”


The sun hadn’t yet risen when my father woke me. He had already packed our bags so all I had to do was shoulder the pack and follow him. My only job that early was to not fall behind. My tired eyes almost appreciated the dim early light. The overcast sky made the damp air chilling and my father encouraged me to put on the jacket he packed for me. I refused for no logical reason until my fingers began to grow numb.

After three hours, I was ready to quit and go back. My logic was that to return meant a three-hour walk by myself and also never learning why my father took these trips alone every year. My mother had refused to tell me, saying “One day your father will take you. Then you will know.”

I looked forward to it. Asking every year if I could go. Every year he said no. I began to think he would never take me. This year was the first time I didn’t ask and didn’t expect to go. He never told me. He just woke me up.

The clouds had dissipated and the sun was peaking when we finally turned from the roadside path into the woods toward the mountain. By this time, I had walked the sleep out of my body and replaced it with a creeping ache. The only thing worse than my feet beginning to hurt was the lack of food in my stomach. I held out knowing my father would stop because he was hungry too. Just before I couldn’t bear it any longer, he tossed me a nutrition bar and we kept walking. It didn’t help much but after a while my stomach finally quieted down.

We climbed as evening began to set and it was nearly night before we stopped. I was too exhausted to care about anything more than food or sleep. He let me rest while he started a fire and set up our tent. He settled in and started making dinner by setting a can of beans in the embers near the outside of the fire. The throbbing in my feet had dulled a bit when he asked me to gather wood for the fire. Enough to last the night. He asked gently which caused me to answer in kind before I even realized what I said.

Night had fallen and with a full stomach all I wanted was sleep. He could see me drifting off and would poke me with the charred end of the stick he used to tend the fire, look at me, and shake his head. This kept up for a few hours and I was nodding off yet again, my shirt already covered in soot, when instead of poking me he spoke.

“I think it’s time,” he said.

I opened an eye and was thankful to finally go into the tent and sleep, but that wasn’t what he meant.

“I’m sure you’ve wondered what I do up here every year.”

I perked up a bit. Hoping he would tell me his secrets.

“The truth is I come up here every year to learn from your grandfather.”

The confusion must have been visible on my tired face because he smiled one of his rare smiles.

“There is a tradition that runs in our family. We are tied to this mountain and every generation has come back to our town when they are near the end of their lives. You’ll find the graveyard filled with our ancestors. All you need to know is…” another, brief smile, “…you can always find help atop this mountain. What do you remember of your grandfather?”

I didn’t remember much. He died when I was two years old. All I could remember was white hair and a stern look. I didn’t want to tell my father that, so I just shrugged.

“That’s what I thought. I could tell you about the time he owned a bar in Tennessee. Or the time he was hit by a car while out for a walk and he asked the driver if they were okay. I could tell you a hundred stories, but a story is like a photograph. It is only a few minutes. It can’t tell you who someone really is. It gives you a precise moment, and we are each made by millions of moments. You may be too young to appreciate this, but I thought you might be ready. What do you think dad?”

I began to realize my father had gone insane, but then a shot of adrenaline raced through my system as a man walked out of the trees from the peak of the mountain. I thought it was a stranger coming to kill us but my father greeted the man. They hugged, something I’d never seen my dad do to anyone besides my mother. My eyes were starting to hurt and I had to force myself to blink. They sat down. I studied each of their faces in the firelight. They could have been brothers.

“He may have recognized you if you were older,” my father casually said to my deceased grandfather.

“Perhaps,” my grandfather said, “but it was hard to move when I was that old, and no one wants to be old. We just don’t have a choice in the matter.”

“Fine. Maybe it’s better for him that you came like this. Now, let’s get going before the sun catches us.”

I was too afraid to talk despite the hundreds of questions running through my head, and they effectively ignored me as I listened to them talk about all sorts of things. They made efforts to include me, but I was too shocked to react.

I saw a new side to my father that day. He talked about things I never knew he was concerned about let alone even thought about them. He opened up and I began to see him for who he was and not what he let the world see of him.

They finished talking as dawn began creeping to the horizon. They stood and hugged. I never moved from my spot by the fire. My grandfather came over and squeezed my shoulder. Then he walked into the woods toward the peak of the mountain. I wouldn’t see him for another year.


“I never really appreciated the small things my father had done for me. Like letting me sleep while he got everything ready for me in the mornings, driving me around, supporting me in his reserved ways. He took great care of me and never complained. I always thought he didn’t care much because he never said much. But every year I was reminded and even when he went back to his old ways after leaving the mountain, even when I eventually forgot how open he could be, I truly knew who he was. I guess what I’m trying to say is, if I fall into his habits, don’t ever think I don’t love you.”

I smiled at my son and hoped he didn’t think it was a rare sight. He was starting to nod off despite the fairly one-way conversation. “I think you’re ready. What do you think dad?”

Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. This book surprised me to say the least. Written in 2003, the story follows a fifteen-year-old boy named Christopher John Francis Boone. Christopher is a boy who sees the world quite differently than many of us do, and though his condition is not specified, it is often considered (by readers) to mirror many behaviors of Asperger’s syndrome. When I first read the book, I thought it was an excellent insight into that world. Haddon himself did declare back in 2009 that the book is not about Asperger’s but is about being different. About seeing the world in a logical but somewhat tilted view. In this he succeeds. It doesn’t really matter what you read into at first. What you take away from it is what is most surprising.

It is relatively a short, quick read for being 226 pages. The inciting incident is the “curious incident” that upends Christopher’s world (though most of us would shrug it off). A journey follows that allows us to ride along inside the mind that doesn’t grasp social concepts but can do extraordinary things. The book was turned into a play in 2012.

This book first came to my attention through a gift. Not of the book itself, but through a bookmark given to my by my girlfriend (now fiancee, soon to be wife). The bookmark listed 50 books to read before you die. The Lord of the Rings was the first book listed so of course I took the remaining 49 books into serious consideration. This book was one of them. I then came across the book in a bookstore a few months later and bought it. A week or so later and I had read it all the way through. It was compelling, entertaining, quirky, sad, and eye-opening to anyone who has never been around anyone who thinks the way Christopher does in this book.

You know I hate to give anything away (if you didn’t, you know now), so I’ll just leave you with this: I’m glad I read this book because I think it gave me a better understanding to the thought processes of someone quite different from myself, which I think not only allows me to understand the person a little better but opens my own mind and makes me think about how my own view of the world. It can differ greatly than anyone else’s while both interpretations are correct. It prompted my to reconsider how this chaotic world of ours is taken in by each person and made me appreciate those differences. I hope you experience something similar, though of course it will be through your eyes.

Happy Reading.