this week's review

July 4, 2000

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Time Tripping: Three Summertime Favorites

Dandelion Wine by Ray

Dandelion Wine
Ray Bradbury

The cover at left is a scan of my own much-loved
and tattered paperback edition, bought used
when I was a boy.

Although it's only July 4th at the time of this writing, I can't help but think of the Doors' refrain, "Summer's almost gone." Maybe it's because I just finished rererereading Ray Bradbury's poignant and wise Dandelion Wine, a book that was a summertime rite of my adolescence. It had been at least ten years since I last read it, so it's hard for me to pinpoint why I find it so touchingly appropriate now. Is it because I have grown into the ideas of mortality framed by the narrative, or did those seeds so long ago sown burst into bloom at memory's touch? It is nostalgic without being maudlin, instructive without being pedantic.

Few books treat childhood with so much insight and respect. The children are not precocious wiseacres, but rather keenly observant, sensitive, and thoughtful beings with an intense curiosity about life. 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding and his 10-year-old brother Tom are at the center of events in Green Town, Illinois, Summer of 1928. It is the summer when Douglas loses his innocence, thus ending an age. Bradbury is also keenly aware of and ambivalent about the technologies changing the rhythms of life in this small midwestern town, so in a larger sense the book is saying goodbye to an American way of life which by the time of the book's writing in 1957 was long gone. And although it's never mentioned, the story takes place one year before the start of the Great Depression--a great wicked something which will eventually shatter the fragile community so idyllically portrayed here. But as much as Dandelion Wine is a meditation on mortality, it is equally a celebration of life.

The book starts magically on an early summer outing to pick berries and foxgrapes. Bradbury is a master of suspense and lends a tense supernatural air to the outing, calling to mind with concise yet vivid descriptions the almost narcotic air of childhood's summer days. But there is something lurking out there--not a bogeyman (there will be those later), but a great, natural force. Douglas exults when he discovers what it is: the revelation that he is alive.

Echoing Laura in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, he asks his younger brother, "Tom...does everyone in the world...know he's alive?" He is elated by this new awareness, but there is a darker flipside to the joyous epiphany. Through deductive reasoning and after watching many of the townspeople die--some of old age, others by more sinister means--he realizes that he, too, must one day die. And, after watching his great-grandmother opt out of life, so too does he realize that the decision whether or not to live is a matter of personal choice.

While Dandelion Wine is both a heartbreaking and heartwarming evocation of a bygone era, above all it is about embracing the moment, letting go of the past, and forgetting the future.

Time's Arrow
Martin Amis

I don't like to use terms like tour de force, but really there is no other description which comes to mind when considering Martin Amis's astounding book Time's Arrow. A story told in reverse, where effect is cause and cause effect. The simple premise of telling a story faithfully in reverse, starting with death and ending with birth, yields achingly poetic descriptions and opens a whole can of metaphysical worms. What's most amazing is the degree of suspense in wanting to know where the protagonist (a psychosomatic amnesiac) was before he got to where he ended up. This book will fascinate anyone who's ever run films in reverse for the pleasure of watching water run uphill and bullets being sucked into guns.

Einstein's Dreams
Alan Lightman

I used to assign this book to my English students because it's easily digestible standalone chapters made for easy and entertaining reading. It's also a tiny book, perfect for carrying in one's pocket for quick little impromptu reads at bus stops and bank lines. Framed as the dreams Einstein might have had while formulating his theory of relativity, the vignettes are as poetic and humane as they are philosophically intriguing. Lightman, a professor of physics at MIT, rifs on different possibilities of the structure of time by couching the mindbending postulations in mundane contexts, deftly balancing theoretical physics with human interest. More than an intellectual exercise, it is a strangely consoling book which calls into question our preconceptions of the inflexibility, linearity, and irreversibility of time. So much so that it's the one book I gave my mother when she was diagnosed with cancer.

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© 1999 robert zverina