I have heard so much about this book from friends who know of my growing affection and love affair with Bradbury that I knew I just had to find it, and I am glad I did. It took me quite awhile to get into the book as there were many things that also needed attending to. One thing I realized about this book is that you need to have your energies focused on Bradbury’s weaving of words, otherwise you’d get terribly lost and you can’t make heads nor tails of what you’ve just read.
An Ode to Summer. This entire book is a celebration of summer in all its glories, tastes, and windy feel with the sun in one’s back, dandelion wine bottled and preserved for curious delectation during the cold of winter. While the first three Bradbury books I managed to read were about autumn people and spectres and twilights (Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked this Way Comes, and October Country), this one is all light and life, with a touch of the surreal, the strange, the odd, the mystic, the occasional darkness. There is also a celebration of life as 12 year old Douglas Spaulding realizes during this Summer of 1928 how alive he is.
The grass whispered under his body. He put his arm down, feeling the sheath of fuzz on it, and, far away, below, his toes creaking in his shoes. The wind sighed over his shelled ears. The world slipped bright over the glassy round of his eyeballs like images sparked in a crystal sphere. Flowers were suns and fiery spots of sky strewn through the woodland. Birds flickered like skipped stones across the vast inverted pond of heaven. His breath raked over his teeth, going in ice, coming out fire. Insects shocked the air with electric clearness. Ten thousand individual hairs grew a millionth of an inch on his head. He heard the twin hearts beating in each ear, the third heart beating in his throat, the two hearts throbbing his wrists, the real heart pounding his chest. The million pores on his body opened.
I’m really alive! he thought. I never knew it before, or if I did I don’t remember. – pp. 9-10
I’ve always thought that Bradbury was a frenzied man with fire in his fingertips, words escaping and tumbling over each other, forming gorgeous phrases and sentences that are his alone – as if he is the only writer-god in the face of the earth – and everyone else are mediocre mere mortals. This book is really a collection of short stories that have been woven together through the eyes of a tweener boy, 12 year old Douglas and his younger brother, ten year old Tom. Yet, I feel that each vignette/chapter is a stand-alone story. Bradbury is after all the master of short stories. Rather than share the novel’s plot or summary with you, I thought that I might as well highlight my favorites – those that stood out for me with their celebration of oddities and strangenesses.
The Happiness Machine. Leo Auffmann, a family man, thought how wonderful it would be if he could create a happiness machine for all to savor and enjoy. So obsessed was he in capturing the essence of joy, the truths of delight, the very core of laughter – that he sucked the very spirit from which it came from. He abandoned the little everyday things that are actually the source of happiness making everyone around him thoroughly unhappy and exasperated in the process. As his wife noted:
“Leo, the mistake you made is you forgot some hour, some day, we all got to climb out of that thing and go back to dirty dishes and the beds not made. While you’re in that thing, sure, a sunset lasts forever almost, the air smells good, the temperature is fine. All the things you want to last, last. But outside, the children wait on lunch, the clothes need buttons. And then let’s be frank, Leo, how long can you look at a sunset? Who wants a sunset to last? Who wants perfect temperature? Who wants air smelling good always? So after awhile, who would notice? Better, for a minute or two, a sunset. After that, let’s have something else. People are like that, Leo. How could you forget?” – p. 60
I thought that was one of the more brilliant lines in the book. It reminded me of the nature of happiness – and that ‘forever and a day’ is created in a singular moment – a fragment of thought, a fleeting beauty.
Mrs. Bentley, Young Girls, and the Cruelties of Childhood. I thought that this story was a bit sad. It shows how young children often think of grown-ups or adults to have been eternally the way they had been, that they have not passed through any kind of childhood – and shall be the way they are forevermore. In the same vein that we could not imagine our parents as children or as young as we had been, this story shows the cruelties of young girls and the faded dreams of Old Mrs. Bentley. It was her late husband who imparted sage-like wisdom about time and aging:
“No matter how hard you try to be what you once were, you can only be what you are here and now. Time hypnotizes. When you’re nine, you think you’ve always been nine years old and will always be. When you’re thirty, it seems you’ve always been balanced there on that bright rim of middle life. And then when you turn seventy, you are always and forever seventy. You’re in the present, you’re trapped in a young now or an old now, but there is no other now to be seen. – p. 75
Swans and Dragons and the Space in Between. Admittedly, this is my absolute favorite in the book. I have a thing about May-December love affairs. The story of 95 year old Miss Helen Loomis and her young 30 year old beau, William Forrester moved me like no other. And it all began with unusual sounding ice cream, a chance encounter, and thousands of teas, biscuits, and fine conversations.
I thought that was beautiful. And wise. Theirs was a connection forged through words and a lifetime of missed opportunities as they dance to an age-old music as their physical beings keep on finding each other in inopportune moments – when it simply couldn’t work – except for long conversations in the afternoons and ruminations about countries visited and plans that will never be realized.
“We’ve had a nice time, haven’t we? It has been very special here, talking every day. It was that much over-burdened and worn phrase referred to as a ‘meeting of the minds.’” She turned the blue envelope in her hands. “I’ve always known that the quality of love was the mind, even though the body sometimes refuses this knowledge. The body lives for itself. It lives only to feed and wait for the night. It’s essentially nocturnal. But what of the mind which is born of the sun, William, and must spend thousands of hours of a lifetime awake and aware? Can you balance off the body, that pitiful, selfish thing of night against a whole lifetime of sun and intellect? I don’t know. I only know there has been your mind here and my mind here, and the afternoons have been like none I can remember. There is still so much to talk about, but we must save it for another time.”
“We don’t seem to have much time now.”
“No, but perhaps there will be another time. Time is so strange and life is twice as strange. The cogs miss, the wheels turn, and lives interlace too early or too late. I lived too long that much is certain. And you were born either too early or too late. It was a terrible bit of timing. But perhaps I am being punished for being a silly girl. Anyway, the next spin around, wheels might function right again. Meantime you must find a nice girl and be married and be happy.” – p. 151
Need I say more? My heart aches just typing those words. The release. The exquisite grace of the dragon that ate the swan as the latter is glimpsed in the corners of the dragon’s eyes when she laughs or smiles.
Douglas’ Fevered Dreams and Mr. Jonas’ Junk. This is the last vignette that I would be sharing with you. I know I do tend to get carried away whenever I review a Bradbury book, but it is how it is. The man deserves no less than such an effusive response. Our 12 year old protagonist, Douglas got unaccountably sick towards the end of the novel – the whyswhatshows are not clear, even to a medical doctor. Yet the eccentric Mr. Jonas, a vagabond with his wagon filled with treasures or junk – it really depends what perspective you take – knows exactly what is wrong with Douglas and how best to heal him. And his “diagnosis” clearly shows how Douglas is our beautiful oddity, our strange boy with the strange beautiful eyes who have seen too much and felt too much too soon.
“Some people turn sad awfully young,” he said. “No special reason, it seems, but they seem almost to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I’m one of them.”
I love this beautiful description of heightened sensitivities – bordering on altered states of consciousness. It is not surprising then that Mr. Jonas found the most unusual of healing energies packed neatly in a bottle that revivified our young man with the old soul. It comes with very clear instructions too:
“… remember this clearly, I will leave these two bottles here upon your bed. And when I’ve gone I want you to wait a little while and then slowly open your eyes and sit up and reach over and drink the contents of these bottles. Not with your mouth, no. Drink with your nose. Tilt the bottles, uncork them, and let what is in them go right down into your head. Read the labels first, of course. But here, let me read them for you.”
He lifted one bottle into the light.
” ‘GREEN DUSK FOR DREAMING BRAND PURE NORTHERN AIR,’” he read. ” ‘Derived from the atmosphere of the white Arctic in the spring of 1900, and mixed with the wind from the upper Hudson Valley in the month of April, 1910, and containing particles of dust seen shining in the sunset of one day in the meadows around Grinnell, Iowa, when a cool air rose to be captured from a lake and a little creek and a natural spring.’
“Now the small print,” he said. He squinted. ” ‘Also containing molecules of vapor from menthol, lime, papaya, and watermelon and all other water-smelling, cool-savored fruits and trees like camphor and herbs like wintergreen and the breath of a rising wind from the Des Plaines river itself. Guaranteed most refreshing and cool. To be taken on summer nights when the heat passes ninety.’”
What I would give right now to have a taste from that bottle. But perhaps another air from another time gathered lovingly by another man’s hands would be the one that would work best, who knows really with these things?
Ray Bradbury is a gift. Each time I read him, I look at the world through a poet’s eyes. Everything is magnified as I taste Dandelion Wine and its summer energies filling every fibre of my being with sunlight and starshine. Salut.
Read-a-Latte Challenge: 56 of 150