Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • Perhaps they would not have if he had not been white. He still looked new. The colors of his face, the colors of condensed milk and a cut-open soursop, had not tanned at all in the fierce heat of seven Nigerian harmattans.
  • His favorite title was Our Lady, Shield of the Nigerian People. He had made it up himself. If only people would use it every day, he told us, Nigeria would not totter like a Big Man with the spindly legs of a child.
  • We did that often, asking each other questions whose answers we already knew. Perhaps it was so that we would not ask the other questions, the ones whose answers we did not want to know.
  • It was the same way I felt when he smiled, his face breaking open like a coconut with the brilliant white meat inside.
  • All that cream blended and made the room seem wider, as if it never ended, as if you could not run even if you wanted to, because there was nowhere to run to.
  • Papa’s title was omelora, after all, The One Who Does for the Community.
  • The wide passages made our house feel like a hotel, as did the impersonal smell of doors kept locked most of the year, of unused bathrooms and kitchens and toilets, of uninhabited rooms.
  • The silence he left was heavy but comfortable, like a well-worn, prickly cardigan on a bitter morning.
  • The watercolor painting of a woman with a child was much like a copy of the Virgin and Child oil painting that hung in Papa’s bedroom, except the woman and child in Amaka’s painting were dark-skinned.
  • I did not say anything else until lunch was over, but I listened to every word spoken, followed every cackle of laughter and line of banter.
  • The hedges had many gaping holes, so I could see the backyards of the houses-the metal water tanks balanced on unpainted cement blocks, the old tire swings hanging from guava trees, the clothes spread out on lines tied tree to tree.
  • Obiora was reading the plaque, too. He let out a short cackle and asked, “But when did man lose his dignity?”
  • How did Jaja do it? How could he speak so easily? Didn’t he have the same bubbles of air in his throat, keeping the words back, letting out only a stutter at best?
  • His eyes closed almost at once, although the lid of his going-blind eye remained slightly open, as if he were stealing a peek at all of us from the land of tired, ill sleep.
  • “Morality, as well as the sense of taste, is relative,” Obiora said.
  • then she looked up and said Papa-Nnukwu was not a heathen but a traditionalist, that sometimes what was different was just as good as what was familiar,
  • “You haven’t asked me a single question,” he said. “I don’t know what to ask.” “You should have learned the art of questioning from Amaka. Why does the tree’s shoot go up and the root down? Why is there a sky? What is life? Just why?” I laughed. It sounded strange, as if I were listening to the recorded laughter of a stranger being played back. I was not sure I had ever heard myself laugh.
  • Besides, I did not have a right to mourn Papa-Nnukwu with her; he had been her Papa-Nnukwu more than mine. She had oiled his hair while I kept away and wondered what Papa would say if he knew.
  • He had wanted to help me into the flat when we arrived earlier in the afternoon, and Chima had insisted on carrying my bag. It was as if they feared my illness lingered somewhere within and would pounce out if I exerted myself.
  • It had rained all night. Jaja was kneeling in the garden, weeding. He did not have to water anymore because the sky did it. Anthills had risen in the newly softened red soil in the yard, like miniature castles.
  • It was what Aunty Ifeoma did to my cousins, I realized then, setting higher and higher jumps for them in the way she talked to them, in what she expected of them. She did it all the time believing they would scale the rod. And they did. It was different for Jaja and me. We did not scale the rod because we believed we could, we scaled it because we were terrified that we couldn’t.
  • It is what happens when you sit back and do nothing about tyranny. Your child becomes what you cannot recognize.
  • Every day our doctors go there and end up washing plates for oyinbo because oyinbo does not think we study medicine right. Our lawyers go and drive taxis because oyinbo does not trust how we train them in law.
  • Even the silence that descended on the house was sudden, as though the old silence had broken and left us with the sharp pieces.
  • “The white missionaries brought us their god,” Amaka was saying. “Which was the same color as them, worshiped in their language and packaged in the boxes they made. Now that we take their god back to them, shouldn’t we at least repackage it?”
  • People were packed so close that the smell of other people became as familiar as their own.
  • As we drove back to Enugu, I laughed loudly, above Fela’s stringent singing. I laughed because Nsukkas untarred roads coat cars with dust in the harmattan and with sticky mud in the rainy season. Because the tarred roads spring potholes like surprise presents and the air smells of hills and history and the sunlight scatters the sand and turns it into gold dust. Because Nsukka could free something deep inside your belly that would rise up to your throat and come out as a freedom song. As laughter.
  • He stops chewing and stares at me silently with those eyes that have hardened a little every month he has spent here; now they look like the bark of a palm tree, unyielding. I even wonder if we ever really had an asusu anva, a language of the eyes, or if I imagined it all.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

★★★★★ (5/5)

A few thoughts penned down whilst reading this profound story.

I’m reading this delightful little children’s classic “The Wind in the Willows”, wavering between a myriad of emotions. This was easily the most happily sad book I’ve ever read. All of one’s childhood and adulthood fancies packed into one classic. I wish I were reading this during winter time in my cozy, snug bed with a hot mug of coffee. I also want to move into Mr. Badger’s underground burrow-house.

….

I must give a trivial but nonetheless accountable pause to my reading of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows”, in order to absorb a myriad of emotions it evokes in me. I’m delighted, overjoyed, pulled into nostalgia for an innocent childhood out of which I struggle to get out of. Oh what memories are made of!

But it was from one little window, with its blind drawn down, a mere blank transparency on the night, that the sense of home and the little curtained world within walls—the larger stressful world of outside Nature shut out and forgotten—most pulsated.

This pause comes with a sudden deluge of sadness, irreparable, inseparable sadness. Grief and realization bought on by visiting the animals’ homes, be it on the riverside or burrowed deep under the Wild Woods. The cozy, snug spots they call theirs. A sense of wonderment and belonging when Mole feels at home at Mr. Badger’s burrow. Profound sadness when Mole returns to his abandoned albeit sorely remembered home which still houses the most beloved of his things including the past. I cannot help but feel disjointed when I inquire of myself as to what is a home for me? Where is my home? Is it or is it not? Where do I return? What do I look back to? Have I even moved at all? I’m filled with despair when I cannot find an answer to these questions within me. It is troubling, yes, and unsettling.

And the home had been happy with him, too, evidently, and was missing him, and wanted him back, and was telling him so, through his nose, sorrowfully, reproachfully, but with no bitterness or anger; only with plaintive reminder that it was there, and wanted him.

But I must return to the story, as there is always a return. A resume. A look back. Between the threads of sentences, between the spaces that cradle each word, between the pages and ancient tomes, somewhere, someplace lies my home.

The Sea Rat and his mighteous, daring adventures made me teary once again. I would weep were it not for my emotions, throttling me, chaining me up. The Sea Rat was but a wisp of joy for the Water Rat; summoning distant lands and painting vivid adventures, which the latter would never get to know despite being close to abandoning the only place he had known as home. The flight of imagination on which the Water Rat embarks upon, the fancy, the fantasy, the unreality, is all but a dreamscape, an unattainable, unassuming desire, a wish that can never be assuaged.

I’m deeply moved for I fell in love with the Sea Rat however briefly it was. I too wanted to hear the call of the South, be beckoned by a distant land, hark the call an unexplored adventure. But alas! Much like the Water Rat I too am homed.

“And you, you will come, too, young brother; for the days pass, and never return, and the South still waits for you. Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes! ’Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new! Then some day, some day long hence, jog home here if you will, when the cup has been drained and the play has been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a store of goodly memories for company.”



A. A Milne on the value of “The Wind in the Willows” is perhaps the most precious of compliments one author has paid another.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Thought-provoking statements

  • After all, the best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working.
  • What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing.
  • for it is impossible to say quite all you feel when your head is under water
  • We others, who have long lost the more subtle of the physical senses, have not even proper terms to express an animal’s inter-communications with his surroundings, living or otherwise, and have only the word “smell,” for instance, to include the whole range of delicate thrills which murmur in the nose of the animal night and day, summoning, warning, inciting, repelling. It was one of these mysterious fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal, even while yet he could not clearly remember what it was. He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him. A moment, and he had caught it again; and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood.
  • I never stick too long to one ship; one gets narrow-minded and prejudiced.

Beautiful imagery

  • Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.
  • Poor Mole stood alone in the road, his heart torn asunder, and a big sob gathering, gathering, somewhere low down inside him, to leap up to the surface presently, he knew, in passionate escape. But even under such a test as this his loyalty to his friend stood firm. Never for a moment did he dream of abandoning him.
  • Embarking again and crossing over, they worked their way up the stream in this manner, while the moon, serene and detached in a cloudless sky, did what she could, though so far off, to help them in their quest; till her hour came and she sank earthwards reluctantly, and left them, and mystery once more held field and river.

Nature’s Storytelling

  • and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.
  • and with his ear to the reed-stems he caught, at intervals, something of what the wind went whispering so constantly among them.
  • Such a rich chapter it had been, when one came to look back on it all! With illustrations so numerous and so very highly coloured! The pageant of the river bank had marched steadily along, unfolding itself in scene-pictures that succeeded each other in stately procession.
  • The Rat never answered, if indeed he heard. Rapt, transported, trembling, he was possessed in all his senses by this new divine thing that caught up his helpless soul and swung and dandled it, a powerless but happy infant in a strong sustaining grasp.
  • Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror—indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy—but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near.
  • As they stared blankly in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realised all they had seen and all they had lost, a capricious little breeze, dancing up from the surface of the water, tossed the aspens, shook the dewy roses, and blew lightly and caressingly in their faces; and with its soft touch came instant oblivion. For this is the last best gift that the kindly demi-god is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness. Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and light-hearted as before.
  • But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, and can re-capture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty of it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties; so Mole, after struggling with his memory for a brief space, shook his head sadly and followed the Rat.
  • Lest the awe should dwell—And turn your frolic to fret—You shall look on my power at the helping hour—But then you shall forget!

The Spirit of Adventure

  • There’s real life for you, embodied in that little cart. The open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs! Camps, villages, towns, cities! Here to-day, up and off to somewhere else to-morrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that’s always changing!
  • He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery.
  • Mole saw clearly that he was an animal of tilled field and hedgerow, linked to the ploughed furrow, the frequented pasture, the lane of evening lingerings, the cultivated garden-plot.
  • Independence is all very well, but we animals never allow our friends to make fools of themselves beyond a certain limit; and that limit you’ve reached.
  • At first Toad was undoubtedly very trying to his careful guardians. When his violent paroxysms possessed him he would arrange bedroom chairs in rude resemblance of a motor-car and would crouch on the foremost of them, bent forward and staring fixedly ahead, making uncouth and ghastly noises, till the climax was reached, when, turning a complete somersault, he would lie prostrate amidst the ruins of the chairs, apparently completely satisfied for the moment.
  • Next moment, hardly knowing how it came about, he found he had hold of the handle and was turning it. As the familiar sound broke forth, the old passion seized on Toad and completely mastered him, body and soul. As if in a dream he found himself, somehow, seated in the driver’s seat; as if in a dream, he pulled the lever and swung the car round the yard and out through the archway; and, as if in a dream, all sense of right and wrong, all fear of obvious consequences, seemed temporarily suspended.
  • What seas lay beyond, green, leaping, and crested! What sun-bathed coasts, along which the white villas glittered against the olive woods! What quiet harbours, thronged with gallant shipping bound for purple islands of wine and spice, islands set low in languorous waters!
  • Those eyes were of the changing foam-streaked grey-green of leaping Northern seas; in the glass shone a hot ruby that seemed the very heart of the South, beating for him who had courage to respond to its pulsation. The twin lights, the shifting grey and the steadfast red, mastered the Water Rat and held him bound, fascinated, powerless

And the longings for Home

  • and they braced themselves for the last long stretch, the home stretch, the stretch that we know is bound to end, some time, in the rattle of the door-latch, the sudden firelight, and the sight of familiar things greeting us as long-absent travellers from far over-sea.
  • But ere he closed his eyes he let them wander round his old room, mellow in the glow of the firelight that played or rested on familiar and friendly things which had long been unconsciously a part of him, and now smilingly received him back, without rancour.
  • He returned somewhat despondently to his river again—his faithful, steady-going old river, which never packed up, flitted, or went into winter quarters.
  • A fire of sticks was burning near by, and over the fire hung an iron pot, and out of that pot came forth bubblings and gurglings, and a vague suggestive steaminess. Also smells—warm, rich, and varied smells—that twined and twisted and wreathed themselves at last into one complete, voluptuous, perfect smell that seemed like the very soul of Nature taking form and appearing to her children, a true Goddess, a mother of solace and comfort. Toad now knew well that he had not been really hungry before. What he had felt earlier in the day had been a mere trifling qualm.

Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

★★★★☆ (4/5)

Beautiful meditations by a myriad of deceased characters – all residents of Spoon River. They talk about love, life, death, fate and will; about human footprint on Earth in the shape of politics and wars, religion and courthouses that dole out just and unjust sentences. The dead are reconciled and separated, heartbroken and lovelorn, they are the victims and perpetrators of grievous crimes, they are passive observers and active participants of life above the soil in which they are buried. As they recall their kaleidoscopic life journeys in verses, the reader sways at the sights and sounds of the rhythm of their words. Vivid yet fantastical, Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology” is an oeuvre to life lived and life ceased. It deserves a much thorough reading perhaps through an academic lens.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • Ollie McGee

Have you seen walking through the village

A Man with downcast eyes and haggard face—

That is my husband who, by secret cruelty

Never to be told, robbed me of my youth and my beauty;

Till at last, wrinkled and with yellow teeth,

And with broken pride and shameful humility,

I sank into the grave.

But what think you gnaws at my husband’s heart—

The face of what I was, the face of what he made me!

These are driving him to the place where I lie.

In death, therefore, I am avenged.

 

  • Theodore the Poet

But later your vision watched for men and women

Hiding in burrows of fate amid great cities,

Looking for the souls of them to come out,

So that you could see

How they lived, and for what

 

  • Harold Arnett

Of what use is it To rid one’s self of the world,

When no soul may ever escape the eternal destiny of life—

 

  • George Gray

To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,

But life without meaning is the torture

Of restlessness and vague desire-

It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

 

  • D. Blood

Why do you let the milliner’s daughter Dora,

And the worthless son of Benjamin Pantier

Nightly make my grave their unholy pillow—

 

  • George Reece

“Act well your part, there all the honor lies.”

 

  • Mary McNeely

Sitting under the cedar tree,

A picture that sank into my heart at last

Bringing infinite repose.

 

  • Ernest Hyde

The mind sees the world as a thing apart,

And the soul makes the world at one with itself.

A mirror scratched reflects no image-

And this is the silence of wisdom.

 

  • Roger Heston

Oh many times did Ernest Hyde and I

Argue about the freedom of the will.

My favorite metaphor was Prickett’s cow

Roped out to grass, and free you know as far

As the length of the rope.

One day while arguing so, watching the cow

Pull at the rope to get beyond the circle

Which she had eaten bare,

Out came the stake, and tossing up her head,

She ran for us.

“What’s that, free-will or what—” said Ernest, running.

I fell just as she gored me to my death.

 

  • Amos Sibley

Not character, not fortitude, not patience

Were mine, the which the village thought I had

In bearing with my wife, while preaching on,

…..

So lied I to myself

So lied I to Spoon River!

Yet I tried lecturing, ran for the legislature,

Canvassed for books, with just the thought in mind:

If I make money thus,

I will divorce her.

 

  • Percival Sharp

Observe the clasped hands!

Are they hands of farewell or greeting,

Hands that I helped or hands that helped me—

 

  • Hiram Scates

Young idealists, broken warriors,

Hobbling on one crutch of hope,

Souls that stake their all on the truth,

Losers of worlds at heaven’s bidding,

Flocked about me and followed my voice

As the savior of the County.

 

  • Seth Compton

That no one knows what is good

Who knows not what is evil;

And no one knows what is true

Who knows not what is false.

 

  • Felix Schmidt

It was only a little house of two rooms-

Almost like a child’s play-house-

With scarce five acres of ground around it;

And I had so many children to feed

And school and clothe, and a wife who was sick

From bearing children.

 

  • Magrady Graham

For when I saw him

And took his hand,

The child-like blueness of his eyes

Moved me to tears,

And there was an air of eternity about him,

Like the cold, clear light that rests at dawn

On the hills!

 

  • Archibald Higbie

I Loathed you, Spoon River.

I tried to rise above you,

I was ashamed of you.

I despised you

As the place of my nativity.

And there in Rome, among the artists,

Speaking Italian, speaking French,

I seemed to myself at times to be free

Of every trace of my origin.

 

  • Ami Green

And for years a soul that was stiff and bent,

In a world which saw me just as a jest,

To be hailed familiarly when it chose,

And loaded up as a man when it chose,

Being neither man nor boy.

In truth it was soul as well as body

Which never matured, and I say to you

That the much-sought prize of eternal youth

Is just arrested growth.

 

  • Calvin Campbell

Ye who are kicking against Fate,

Tell me how it is that on this hill-side

Running down to the river,

Which fronts the sun and the south-wind,

This plant draws from the air and soil

Poison and becomes poison ivy—

And this plant draws from the same air and soil

Sweet elixirs and colors and becomes arbutus—

And both flourish—

You may blame Spoon River for what it is,

But whom do you blame for the will in you

That feeds itself and makes you dock-weed,

Jimpson, dandelion or mullen

And which can never use any soil or air

So as to make you jessamine or wistaria?

 

  • Harlan Sewall

First with diminished thanks,

Afterward by gradually withdrawing my presence from you,

So that I might not be compelled to thank you,

And then with silence which followed upon

Our final Separation.

You had cured my diseased soul.

But to cure it

You saw my disease, you knew my secret,

And that is why I fled from you.

 

  • Lyman King

You may think, passer-by, that

Fate Is a pit-fall outside of yourself,

Around which you may walk by the use of foresight

And wisdom.

 

  • Hamlet Micure

In a lingering fever many visions come to you

 

  • Samuel Gardner

Who kept the greenhouse,

Lover of trees and flowers,

Oft in life saw this umbrageous elm,

Measuring its generous branches with my eye,

And listened to its rejoicing leaves Lovingly patting each other

With sweet aeolian whispers.

Now I, an under-tenant of the earth, can see

That the branches of a tree

Spread no wider than its roots.

And how shall the soul of a man

Be larger than the life he has lived?

 

  • James Garber

And of my path, who walked therein and knew

That neither man nor woman, neither toil,

Nor duty, gold nor power

Can ease the longing of the soul,

The loneliness of the soul!

Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann

★★★★☆ (4/5)

A selection of my favorite passages from the book

Writing the Unknown

  • In the end, of course, your first-grade teacher was correct: we can, indeed, only write what we know. It is logically and philosophically impossible to do otherwise. But if we write toward what we don’t supposedly know, we will find out what we knew but weren’t yet entirely aware of.

Remember that mystery is the glue that joins us: we love the unheard. The reader becomes the most complicit eavesdropper.

  • Plot takes the backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens.
  • Don’t corrupt your texts with facts facts facts. Facts are mercenary things. They can be manipulated, dressed up, and shipped off anywhere. Texture is much more important than fact.

On Language

  • A writer is capable of all sorts of agility: even if you force yourself into a narrative rigidity, you can still go just about anywhere.
  • Be a camera. “Language” us into vision. Make us feel as if we are there. Colors, sounds, sights. Bring us to the pulse of the moment. See the whole landscape at first, then focus in on a detail, and bring that detail to life.

Writers feel the grammar rather than knowing it. This comes from good reading. If you read enough, the grammar will come.

  • We have to understand that language is power, no matter how often power tries to strip us of language.

On Reading

  • You read because you’re the bravest idiot around and you’re willing to go on an adventure into the joy of confusion.

The best writing makes us sit up and take notice and it makes us glad that we are—however briefly—alive.

  • When a reader falls in love with a book, it leaves its essence inside him, like radioactive fallout in an arable field, and after that there are certain crops that will no longer grow in him, while other, stranger, more fantastic growths may occasionally be produced.

The Writer

  • Practice and time do not necessarily bestow seniority.
  • The voice we get is not just one voice. We receive ours from a series of elsewheres. This is the spark.

Bear your portion of the world.

  • Be an explorer, not a tourist.
  • The most destructive force in your life is liable to be the unwritten story. If you don’t write, you’re not a writer. You’re avoiding the competition of yourself.

There is nothing worse than a talented writer who regrets his life, and especially one who allows that regret to knock him into silence.

  • Remember that any fool can knock a house down; it takes a real craftsperson to have built it in the first place.
  • A program might allow you to write, but it will not teach you. But allowing is the best form of teaching anyway.
  • Often a lesson is not properly heard until years later anyway.

Depression is an occupational hazard, young writer. But don’t wallow in it. Don’t become fossilized in despair. Don’t paralyze yourself in the aspic of gloom. If you stare into the abyss long enough, it will stare out from you. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the over-examined life can be soul crushing too.

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

  • The considered grief is so much better than the unconsidered. Be suspicious of that which gives you too much consolation.

A first line should open up your rib cage. It should reach in and twist your heart backward. It should suggest that the world will never be the same again.

  • Don’t sit around looking inward. That’s boring. In the end your navel contains only lint. You have to propel yourself outward, young writer. Think about others, think about elsewhere, think about a distance that will bring you, eventually, back home.
  • Only that language which is capable of reaching the poetic will be able to stand in opposition to that which is wrong.

It is amazing how a book will find you. There is somehow a homing device in language. Unlike love, there is a destined one always there. And it can be found at any time. You must be open to it. Then you open it up to its magnitude of suggestion. The world is suddenly cleaved open.

  • We have art, he says, so we shall not die of too much reality.
  • The truth of the matter is that freedom is feeling easy in the harness.

Quotes

  • “Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody,” said Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet over a century ago. “There is only one way. Go into yourself.”

Then the writing became so fluid that I sometimes felt as if I were writing for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which may be the human condition that most resembles levitation. —GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

  • The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. —WILLIAM FAULKNER
  • If the novel is successful, it must necessarily be wiser than its author. —MILAN KUNDERA
  • No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. —SAMUEL BECKETT

If we’re lucky, writer and reader alike, we’ll finish the last line or two of a short story and then just sit for a minute, quietly. —RAYMOND CARVER

  • Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon. —E. L. DOCTOROW
  • The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience. —FLANNERY O’CONNOR

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison

Mr. Ellison’s excessive use of hyphenated words obstruct the flow of reading, only to serve as a trivial pause during which the reader can back up, deliberate momentarily and re-read the sentence. Initially it was off-putting but I soon realised its unintended purpose. To give pause without the commonplace comma or period. And I must say, it suits his prose style. The content of his stories demand such obstacles to coerce the reader into questioning their own understanding of the prose and revisit what has been just read in case the meaning has altered upon the second read.

Which would remain a good–humored whimsy but for something a biochemist told me a couple of years ago. It seems that there is a blood fraction which is chemically almost identical with the hallucinogen psilocybin. It’s manufactured in the body and like most biochemicals, differs in concentration in the bloodstream from person to person, and in the same person from time to time. And, said my biochemist friend, it is quite possible that there are some people who are born, and live out their lives, with a consciousness more aware, more comprehending, more—well, expanded—than those of the rest of us. He cited especially William Blake, whose extraordinary drawings and writings, over quite a long life, seemed consistently to be reporting on a world rather more comprehensive than one we “know” he lived in.

A selection of my favorite passages from the short story collection

I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

★★★★★ (5/5)

  • Then the sound began. It was light, that sound. Half sound and half light, something that began to glow from Benny’s eyes, and pulse with growing loudness, dim sonorities that grew more gigantic and brighter as the light/sound increased in tempo. It must have been painful, and the pain must have been increasing with the boldness of the light, the rising volume of the sound, for Benny began to mewl like a wounded animal
  • At first it meant Allied Mastercomputer, and then it meant Adaptive Manipulator, and later on it developed sentience and linked itself up and they called it an Aggressive Menace, but by then it was too late, and finally it called itself AM
  • Benny had been a brilliant theorist, a college professor, now he was little more than a semi–human, semi–simian. He had been handsome, the machine had ruined that. He had been lucid, the machine had driven him mad
  • Gorrister had been a worrier. He was a connie, a conscientious objector, he was a peace marcher; he was a planner, a doer, a looker–ahead. AM had turned him into a shoulder–shrugger, had made him a little dead in his concern
  • AM said it with the sliding cold horror of a razor blade slicing my eyeball. AM said it with the bubbling thickness of my lungs filling with phlegm, drowning me from within. AM said it with the shriek of babies being ground beneath blue–hot rollers. AM said it with the taste of maggoty pork
  • AM could not wander, AM could not wonder, AM could not belong. He could merely be. And so, with the innate loathing that all machines had always held for the weak soft creatures who had built them, he had sought revenge
  • And in his paranoia, he had decided to reprieve five of us, for a personal, everlasting punishment that would never serve to diminish his hatred … that would merely keep him reminded, amused, proficient at hating man
  • I’d had him. He was furious. I had thought AM hated me before. I was wrong. It was not even a shadow of the hate he now slavered from every printed circuit
  • He left my mind intact. I can dream, I can wonder, I can lament. I remember all four of them

Big Sam Was My Friend                

★★★★ (4/5)

  • and I think the only reason we all didn’t gallop out of there and pull up stakes was that we were afraid we’d all be held and executed. And Big Sam was the only teleport in the crowd. And there was something else; something I’m afraid and ashamed, even today, to say. I think we were all afraid of losing the business
  • Then I figured him for an empath, and that would have been useless for the circus; except in an administrative capacity of course. To tell us when one of the performers was sick, or unhappy, or a bad crowd, or like that
  • To see an almost certain horrible death—you know how crowds all sit on the edge of their seats, praying subconsciously for a spectacular accident—and then to be whisked away from it so suddenly—brought to the edge of tragedy, and then to have their better natures win out, showing them how much nicer they always knew they were—that was the supreme thrill
  • and there was a deep, infinite sadness about him that sometimes made me want to cry, just talking to him there

Eyes Of Dust

★★★★ (4/5)

  • The blind man and his wife, the moley woman, lived in the small units outside the city, where the farmers tilled their symmetrical fields with equipment that was handsome in its construction, efficient in its operation
  • “No, Father. I lack for nothing. I have my meal cakes and my ale. I have my shadows and my colors. And there is the smell of time passing. I need nothing more.”
  • His walk was the walk of the legionnaire, his speech the measured cadence of the wise man. He would never go bald, his smile would never fade
  • But Person had eyes of dust, and the eyes of dust saw what could not be seen, and the soul within was the sweet soul of the visionary

World Of The Myth

★★★★ (4/5)

  • Rennert was a peculiar person; amoral more than immoral
  • and when the fork came up, a deeply–charred strip steak dangled from the tines
  • Even though their relationship was one built on hatred and lust, Cornfeld knew he could be nothing to either of them. Not buffer, not catalyst, not deterrent, nothing. To them, he was there/not there
  • Hundreds of thousands of ant creatures had been stomped to greasy blackheads against the flesh of the dunes

Lonelyache

★★★★★ (5/5)

  • The force of memory of her body there, lying huddled on the inside, together cuddled body–into–body, a pair of question marks, whatever arrangement it might have been from night to night—still, her there
  • One of the assassins had pulled a thin, desperately–sharp stiletto, and Paul had grappled with the man interminably, slashing at his flesh and the sensitive folds of skin between fingers, till the very essence, the very reality of death by knife became a gagging tremor in his sleeping body
  • It was happening, just this easily. A pact of guilt and opportunity was being solidified, without the decency of either admitting its necessity
  • and worst of all, the steadily deteriorating knowledge that somehow what had gone wrong was not real, but a matter of thoughts, attitudes, dreams, ghosts, vapors. All insubstantial, but so omnipresent, so real, they had broken up his marriage with Georgette
  • Simply the mechanics of divorce were gristmill enough to powder him into the finest ash
  • He stared down at her, seeing the double–image, the future lying inchoate across her now–face, turning the paramour beneath him into a relic of incognito spare parts and empty passions
  • There was one who chewed gum while they did it. An adolescent with oily thighs who had no idea of how to live in her body. The act was sodden and slow and entirely derelict in its duties
  • But commercialism is the last sinkhole of love, and when it is reached, by paths of desperation and paths of cruel, misused emotions—all hope is gone. There is no return save by miracles, and there are no more miracles for the common among common men
  • This was how all their arguments had started. From subject to subject, like mountain goats from rock to rock, forgetting the original discussion, veering off to rip and tear with their teeth at each other’s trivialities
  • They trembled there together in a nervous symbiosis, each deriving something from the other. He was covered with a thin film of horror and despair, a terrible lonelyache that twisted like smoke, thick and black within him. The creature giving love, and he reaping heartache, loneliness

Delusion For A Dragon Slayer

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

  • For each of them was pre–ordained. Not in the ethereal, mystic, supernatural flummery of the Kismet–believers, but in the complex rhythmic predestination of those who have been whisked out of their own world, into the mist–centuries of their dreams.
  • Griffin looked down the length of his body, and for a suspended instant of eye–widening timelessness, he felt vertiginous. It was total displacement of ego. He was himself, and another himself entirely. He looked down, expecting to see a curved, pot–bellied and pimpled body he had worn for a very long time, but instead saw someone else, standing down below him, where he should have been. Oh my God, thought Warren Glazer Griffin, I’m not me.
  • And winning! Making his wager with eternity, and winning—for an instant, before the great ship struck the buried reefs, and tore away the bottom of the ship, and the lazzarette filled in an instant, and his men who trusted him not to gamble them away so cheaply, wailed till their screams became water–logged, and were gone
  • This was reality, an only reality for a man whose existence had been not quite bad, merely insufficient; tenable, but hardly enriching. For a man who had lived a life of not quite enough, this was all that there ever could be of goodness and brilliance and light
  • Empty winds howled down out of the tundras of his soul. This was the charnel house of his finest fantasies. The burial ground of his forever. The garbage dump, the slain meat, the putrefying reality of his dreams and his Heaven
  • a man may truly live in his dreams, his noblest dreams, but only, only if he is worthy of those dreams

Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes

★★★★ (4/5)

  • Long legs, trim and coltish; hips a trifle large, the kind that promote that specific thought in men, about getting their hands around it; belly fiat, isometrics; waist cut to the bone, a waist that works in any style from dirndl to disco–slacks; no breasts—all nipple, but no breast, like an expensive whore (the way O’Hara pinned it)—and no padding … forget the cans, baby, there’s other, more important action; smooth, Michelangelo–sculpted neck, a pillar, proud; and all that face
  • She carried herself like a challenge, the way a squire carried a pennant, the way a prize bitch carried herself in the judge’s ring. Born to the blue. The wonders of mimicry and desire
  • So now he stood before the machine, waiting. It spoke to him. Inside his skull, where no one had ever lived but himself, now someone else moved and spoke to him. A girl. A beautiful girl. Her name was Maggie, and she spoke to him
  • There was a ringing in his ears. Hartshorn seemed to waver at the edge of his vision like heat lightning across a prairie. Like memories of things Kostner had come across the country to forget. Like the whimpering and pleading that kept tugging at the cells of his brain
  • Broke, and tapped out in all the silent inner ways a man can be drained, he had left, without even a fight, for all the fight had been leeched out of him
  • There was a terrible shriek, of tortured metal, of an express train ripping the air with its passage, of a hundred small animals being gutted and torn to shreds, of incredible pain, of night winds that tore the tops off mountains of lava. And a keening whine of a voice that wailed and wailed and wailed as it went away from there in blinding light