Book Review: The Martian Chronicles

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Once, Mars was a place of mystery.  Humans looked at it from the blue Earth with feeble telescopes, and imagined what life, if any, might inhabit that red dot in the sky.  Were there canals filled with water?  Bloodsucking tripod operators?  Beings that had never fallen from grace with God?   Ray Bradbury looked, and imagined stories of Martians and Earthlings, and the doom of both.

The Martian Chronicles

Several of the stories in this volume were written in the latter half of the 1940s, and then connected with interstitial material in 1950 to make a chronological narrative.  The book opens with “Rocket Summer”, when a January 1999 Ohio winter is interrupted with heat from exhaust tests on the launchpad.  It ends with “The Million-Year Picnic” as refugees from war-torn Earth arrive on Mars in October 2026, and see the new Martians.   In between is the coming and going of the human presence on Mars.

The first three expeditions to Mars all die; perhaps if the U.S. government hadn’t outlawed science fiction and fantasy (but apparently not religious texts) in the 1970s, they would have been  better prepared.  But they get posthumous revenge; in a nod to H.G. Wells, by the time the Fourth Expedition arrives, the majority of Martians have been killed off by a common Earth disease.

Wave after wave of Earthlings arrive, most of them from the United States, as it monopolizes the construction of interplanetary rockets.  In the story “Way in the Middle of the Air”, the entire black population of the Southern U.S. decamps to Mars.  (in this bleak future, race relations did not advance beyond the early 1950s; poll taxes have only recently been abolished as of 2003. and the Klan is still very active.)   One particularly virulent racist panics when he realizes he will soon not have African-American people to oppress!  There’s use of the N-word and other racist language, so this story is sometimes left out of school editions of the book.  Because of the stitched-together nature of the collection, this large population of emigrants is never mentioned again, and their fate is finally revealed in a completely different short story collection.

Eventually, once the early settlers have made the place relatively safe, the moral guardians who eradicated speculative fiction  on their homeworld arrive to make Mars just as joyless.  “Usher II” has a multimillionaire who is still hopping mad about their destruction of his library take revenge in inventive ways mostly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe.  Mr. Bradbury was tangentially involved with the comic book industry, which was undergoing the attacks (“think of the children!”) which would lead to the Comics Code.  He would return to the theme of book burning in Fahrenheit 451.  As a kid I could easily imagine boring grownups banning all the good stuff.

Eventually, atomic war breaks out on Earth, and most of the population of Mars returns to that planet in a probably vain attempt to help out their relatives or home nation.   “The Silent Towns” concerns one of the very few people left, a miner who’d been up in the hills without communication for a few weeks when everyone else took the rockets home.  He’s initially thrilled when he learns there’s a young woman also still on Mars, but isn’t pleased when he actually meets her.

Some of Bradbury’s stories from this time period showed a nasty streak of misogyny, and this is one of them.  Genevieve stayed on Mars because she’d been constantly bullied about her weight, but rather than treat her sympathetically, the narrative flow treats her as a gross monstrosity for daring to be fat, and indulging herself in ways roughly equivalent to those Walter had done earlier in the story.  Walter escaping and hiding from her for the next twenty years is treated as a happy ending.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” is also included in this collection, one of the most perfect short stories ever written.  After the atomic war on Earth, we look at the last day of a “smart house” that hasn’t quite figured out that all the humans in its city are dead.

One of the interesting things about the stories is that in the early ones, while the Martians are still flourishing, we see their petty sides and moral failings; but after they have mostly died off, those fall by the wayside and their great accomplishments and gentleness are emphasized.

Ray Bradbury really does have a gift for poetic turns of phrase, and his nostalgia for Midwestern small towns shines through.  Sometimes the poetry can get in the way of comprehensibility, or become self-indulgent, dragging on for a paragraph or two too long.  And of course, he made no attempt to be scientifically accurate even to what was known about Mars back in the day–he readily admitted that the stories were really fantasy.

Several of the stories were adapted for EC Comics, and there have been some television show versions as well.

The book is certainly well worth reading at least once, even if it will not be to everyone’s taste.

Book Review: Famous Nathan

Book Review: Famous Nathan by Lloyd Handwerker and Gil Reavill

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or given.

Famous Nathan

Nathan’s Famous was the number one hot dog stand in the world for several decades, and synonymous with the Coney Island experience.  It was the creation of Nathan (originally Nachum) Handwerker, an immigrant who worked his way up from grinding poverty to being a successful businessman.  This book is primarily his story, told by his grandson.

According to the book, Nathan was born in a Jewish shtetl in Galicia (now part of Poland) in 1892.  At the time, the region was occupied by Austria, and was proverbial for its inhabitants’ poverty.  His father Jacob was a shoemaker who was usually unemployed and his mother sold vegetables as a sideline whenever the chance came up.  Nathan grew up constantly hungry and early on decided he wanted to be in the restaurant business.  Over time, his hard work and good business sense got him enough money to buy passage to America in 1912.

To make it in business, you need a strong work ethic, canny business sense…and a walloping dose of good luck.  Nathan had all three, and by 1916 had learned enough English and accumulated enough savings to open his own “grab joint” selling frankfurters and lemonade from a tiny storefront on Coney Island.  His initial partner backed out when initial sales weren’t good, but Nathan found a good price point and soon became able to stay open all year, expanding the store and his menu bit by bit.

After a year or so, the initially nameless joint became “Nathan’s”, and then “Nathan’s Famous” as business boomed.  Nathan used a business philosophy of fast service, a limited menu and consistent high quality to grow his enterprise.  (This was later independently discovered by the McDonalds brothers, though the highness of quality is debatable.)

A big believer in family, Nathan brought over almost all of his clan from Europe as well as marrying and having children of his own.  He didn’t let nepotism stand in the way of good business practice, though, once firing his older brother the same day he hired him for failure to follow procedure.  He was a very hands-on manager, and ran a tight ship; his contentious personality meant that he often fought with his top workers, but it also bred loyalty.  He integrated his staff very early on and was generous with benefits, but was firmly against unions.

Nathan’s Famous was huge, and the book describes its interactions with American history.  But by the time Nathan’s sons Sol and Murray moved into management positions under him, times were changing.  The brothers had clashing ideas about where the store and its brand should be going, and did not work together well.  Coney Island was losing its place as a tourist attraction, helped along by a city planner who wanted to gentrify the area.  (Unfortunately, his plans had the opposite effect, crashing the local economy and increasing crime.)  And chain fast food places became the standard.

The original Nathan’s Famous has never closed, but is no longer in family hands, and in the modern day, it’s more famous as a hot dog brand than as a destination.

Most of the material about Nathan’s early life is derived from a single interview done with him by another of his grandsons, so should be taken with a grain of salt.  The book also talks about some Nathan’s Famous legends and whether they are based on truth or the result of a public relations campaign.

There’s quite a bit of time spent on the logistics and mechanics of running a grab joint in the early part of the Twentieth Century, which will be useful to people who have always wondered about that sort of thing.  There’s also family drama, as well as details about some of the long-time employees.

To be honest, the book never really grabbed me, but I think it will be of great interest to hot dog aficionados and those who are nostalgic for the Nathan’s Famous of yore.  Each chapter has a black and white photo heading.  Also, there are end notes (functional but lackluster) and a bibliography for further reading.

Book Review: The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies for Modern Business

Book Review: The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies for Modern Business by Lan Bercu

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies for Modern Business

Beginning some time in the late 1970s, when it became obvious that Japan had become an economic powerhouse, American businesses began taking an interest in Asian philosophies that might explain why companies from those areas were doing so well, especially in industries where America was faltering.   Thus, books for business explicating on The Five Rings, The Art of War and so forth have been written and often sold well.

This is the latest book in that tradition.  The author was born and raised in Vietnam, where The 36 Strategies, a text on warfare believed to have been compiled during China’s Warring States period, is read by schoolchildren.  She has since found the information included helpful in her career as a speaker on business and international matters.

The main text is divided into thirty-six short chapters, one for each strategy.  Each starts with a short story about ancient Chinese warfare, then one or more examples of how modern businesses have implemented these strategies, whether by name or by chance.  This is followed by translation into more basic tips, and questions for the business to ask itself based on the strategy.

Some of the strategies have poetic sounding titles, like “slough off the cicada’s golden shell” or “borrow a corpse to resurrect a soul”, while others are more plain-spoken, like “kill with a borrowed knife.”   The strategies themselves, however, tend to be simple to understand, if sometimes difficult to apply to a given situation.  That last bit is why they’re arranged by type; some are better when you have a clear advantage, others when you’re on the defensive or in a losing position.

It should be noted that the more literal applications of some of these strategies to business, such as “replace the beam with rotted timbers” and “deck the tree with false blossoms” may be considered unethical, and in some cases are outright illegal.  The author points out that businesses (and customers) should be aware of these strategies anyway, to help defend against them.

The short chapters and copious examples make this a good read for the busy person on the go; this is one time I would suggest buying the e-book version.  The book comes with an ad for the author’s services, bibliography and an index.

The utility of this book will depend on whether you already have another of the books relating the 36 strategies to business.  If so, you may not need this one.  This book also has a lot of synergy with The Art of War, so you may want to invest in one of the business books that concentrate on that text as well.

In war, do not repeat the tactics that have gained you one victory.  Rather, let your methods be determined by the infinite variety of circumstances. — Sun Tzu

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