How the World Was Saved; Trurl’s Machine; A Good Shellacking (from, The Cyberiad Stories), Stanislaw Lem

Just a reminder that during November, I’ll be reviewing short stories instead of novels. This adjustment will hopefully allow me to complete both the manuscript due December 1st and 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. 

 

I have to admit that I picked up this book only as a favor to my friend Rob, who sent it to me months ago after I told him how much I loved the Stanislaw Lem Google Doodle. Go play with the doodle. I promise it will be more fun than this review, and if you disagree, well, that’s very kind of you, but you’re mistaken. Anyway, I played with it way back when it first came out, and I thought it was one of the greatest things I’d ever seen on the internet (to be fair, I am an infamously bad internet surfer). I posted about my experience, and Rob, who is apparently a huge Lem fan, sent me this book of short stories.

I didn’t like the cover. If you’ve been around here for a while, you know that covers are important to me, and a bad cover (or in this case, a cover that reeked of geeked-out testosterone) will put me off of a book for a long time. Fortunately, Rob lives on the other side of the country, so I didn’t have to face him and fess up about how I hadn’t read the book yet. Until a week ago, of course, when he was in town. I don’t know how the subject came up, but it did, and I had to admit that I not only hadn’t read it, I hadn’t even given it a fair chance. He was disappointed, and given the strangely numerous recent discussions I’ve had with people about giving a new author or genre a try, I made sure it was on my November list.

As it turns out, it’s not so much a collection of short stories as it is, well, a collection of short stories featuring the same two characters in a loosely related and shockingly compelling narrative. So instead of reading one story, I read three. And they were delightful. (I would have read more, but I have deadlines.) Strangely enough, these stories reminded me of Turgenev and Hemingway, two authors I was surprised to discover I loved when I was a teenager; although all three men write from tremendously different perspectives, they all manage to invoke a similar excitement in my brain.

I can’t figure out how to describe it really, except to say that it’s like a tuning fork is set off inside. Some element of these stories, of the way Lem writes, is so familiar…and somewhere deep inside, that familiarity sets off a chain reaction of happiness. But that isn’t the right word…they do make me happy, but it’s more complicated than that. They invoke a series of images from my past, moments that don’t seem connected to me, but they must be in some way because each of them resonates to the notes the stories play.

It isn’t the same feeling I get from reading a great book, although I can already tell that Lem is going to end up on my favorite authors shelf. I don’t expect most people would have the same reaction while reading his stories, although I hope that I’m not the only person to have experienced this unexpected world shifting while reading the right book…

 

To learn more about Stanislaw Lem, go here (and seriously, go play with that doodle).

Murphy’s Rules of Travel (from, The Tao of Travel), Paul Theroux

Just a reminder that during November, I’ll be reviewing short stories instead of novels. This adjustment will hopefully allow me to complete both the manuscript due December 1st and 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. 

 

As a child, yearning to leave home and go far away, the image in my mind was of flight – my little self hurrying off alone. The word “travel” did not occur to me, nor did the word “transformation,” which was my unspoken but enduring wish. I wanted to find a new self in a distant place, and new things to care about. The importance of elsewhere was something I took on faith. Elsewhere was the place I wanted to be. Too young to go, I read about elsewheres, fantasizing about my freedom. Books were my road. And then, when I was old enough to go, the roads I traveled became the obsessive subject in my own books. Eventually I saw that the most passionate travelers have always also been passionate readers and writers. And that is how this book came about. (pg vii, Theroux)

I have always loved to travel. In fact, I think I like the motion to or from a destination even more than I like the arrival. I can’t read or write when I’m in a moving vehicle, so it’s the one time that out of necessity, I must stop and think. I don’t take pictures during this time. I don’t text or tweet or post emails. I just sit and listen to music and stare out the window at the world whizzing past. It’s an intensely private time, a recharging really, and I am not one of those people who likes to be engaged in conversation when I’m taking myself so deeply out of the world. I find it jarring. I get cranky. It’s really better just to leave me alone.

This may be why this little story about Dervla Murphy appealed to me. This remarkable woman traveled around the world alone, mostly on mule or bicycle, and often dressing as a man to pass safely through countries where, certainly in the sixties and seventies, but even today, many women would be anxious traveling by themselves. She traveled lightly, choosing to rely on the kindness of the worldwide community as she went thousands of miles with just the clothes on her back and enough food to keep from being a burden on the communities she encountered. I appreciated though, that she was well-educated on the cultures she was visiting. She was not naive, nor did she expect the people she met to bend over backward to help her; instead, she researched customs to be sure that she was making those she met feel comfortable and respected.

Murphy was the kind of traveler I could only dream of being. I have to admit that I like having a change of underwear (or two) on hand, and allergies keep me from being as adventurous as I want to be when I try off the beaten foods. I also enjoy traveling with friends and family, something she thought (rightly so) kept a person from connecting deeply with strangers met on the journey. There’s something about her experiences, though, different as they have been from mine, that elicits a connection for me. I think it comes back to that first quote by Theroux, to the idea of writers and readers being passionate travelers, even at home. Some people, even those we never have or plan to meet, just feel like kindred spirits – maybe it’s the books we read that bring us together, or the way we like to travel, but some element ignites a spark of recognition. Once that spark is lit, years can go by and it will still be difficult to forget the feeling of companionship, the joy of a familiar soul.

For more about Paul Theroux, go here, for Dervla Murphy, here.