016 Severance, Part 3

“I just want for you what your father wanted: to make use of yourself….No matter what, we just want you to be of use” (189).

As the Shen Fever takes over the world, Candace struggles with feeling like her work doesn’t give her life any meaning. Is she just wasting the opportunities her immigrant parents worked so hard to give her? I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.

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015 Severance, Part 2

“I liked working in an office. It took my mind off things” (75).

The truth is that Candace doesn’t entirely hate having to give up wandering around the city and taking photos to work a job that has little meaning to her. Finding meaning in her life continues to be a struggle, but finding routine seems to be a decent substitute. I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.

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014 Severance, Part 1

“The end begins before you are ever aware of it. It passes as ordinary” (9).

Severance is Ling Ma’s millennial zombie story. Centered around the, now, particularly chilling idea of a global pandemic, the story is a meditation on identity, work, and the need to find something meaningful to fill our time. I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.

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012 The Martian Chronicles, Part 3

“It’s a new World. It’s like the old days. The men first and the women following” (150).

Captain Wilder and his team have made Mars a viable option for those wishing to leave their Earthly lives behind. A new civilization springs up, but it remains to be seen whether they’ve truly escaped their problems. I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.

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Today we’re going to talk about the stories “February 2034: Interim” through “November 2036: The Luggage Store” in The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.

Last week, we saw Christian missionaries attempt to impose their religious beliefs on a civilization that has no need for it. Jeff Spender, a member of Wilder’s crew, sympathizes deeply with the Martian race that has been driven to extinction by chickenpox. So great is his concern that they respect the land they’re on, that he’s driven to kill several of his fellow crew in the hopes of stopping future expeditions. Instead, he loses his own life. People start leaving Earth by the thousands, the rockets descending on the planet like a plague of silver locusts. We also talked about the historical relevance of these conquests, as they strongly symbolize the violent erasure of idigenous people by Spanish conquistadores that is responsible for the Americas as they currently are. Now, we’ll see what the Earth people make of their new home.

THE MARTIANS

In “September 2036: The Martian,” we meet a 55-year-old man named LaFarge and his 60-year-old wife, Anna, who have come to Mars to live out the rest of their lives in peace. They’re doing their best not to think about their son, Tom, who died long ago on Earth. One evening, LaFarge sees a boy standing in their yard who looks disturbingly like their son. At first, LaFarge tells the boy to leave, but the boy doesn’t move. He then tells the boy that, if he is Tom, the door will be unlocked and he can come in and warm himself by the fire. 

The next day, he runs into Tom outside the house, who greets him with a cheerful “Good morning, Father!” LaFarge asks Tom how he got there, and Tom responds by asking why he shouldn’t be there— doesn’t his father really want him there? When LaFarge says yes, Tom says he should just accept him. There’s no point in asking questions. When they go home, Anna greets Tom as if she already knows he’s going to be there. Tom tells them he’s fourteen, which makes LaFarge ask him, again, who he really is. He tells Tom that it’s okay if he’s really a Martian; he’ll understand. Upset by the constant questioning, Tom yells at LaFarge, telling him not to doubt him. Unlike her husband, Anna seems untroubled by Tom’s presence and doesn’t understand why her husband asks if she remembers Tom having pneumonia. She’s simply happy to have her son in the house with her.

When LaFarge later goes into town, he hears a rumor about a man who left Earth after he killed another man. The rumor is that the man who he killed has been seen alive on Mars. That evening, LaFarge asks Tom what he did that day, but Tom just says, “Nothing.” Anna announces that she wants to go into town and take Tom with her, but Tom doesn’t want to go. He’s afraid of the people there. Despite this, Anna insists and brings him with her. Tom begs LaFarge to stay close to him, saying that he doesn’t want to get trapped. It’s yet not clear why he’s asking this, but when there’s a distraction caused by three drunken men crashing into each other, LaFarge realizes that Tom is nowhere to be found. While Anna is saying not to worry, that he’ll be back, another couple suddenly rushes by the two of them, eager to reach something or someone past the crowd.

When Tom doesn’t return that night, Large promises his wife to go looking for him. He walks by a man’s house and the man asks if LaFarge remembers Lavinia Spaulding, the daughter of the couple who rushed past them in town. Lavinia was believed to have died a month ago, her deteriorated body having been found at the bottom of the dead Martian sea, but, suddenly, she returned. The Spauldings saw her in town that night and she came home with them. The man goes inside and LaFarge hears a voice coming from the balcony of the two-story building in front of him. Eighteen-year-old Lavinia appears. She says she knows LaFarge, but there’s nothing he can do. LaFarge knows this is Tom or, at least, the Martian who appeared as Tom. He pleads with Lavinia to come back with him, but she says she’s not their son anymore and they should have never gone into town. LaFarge asks if she had really been Tom and, if so, that means she’s not really Lavinia. She responds that she’s not anything; she’s just herself, and she must think about these people, the Spauldings, now. They guessed what she really was, but, unlike LaFarge, they didn’t question it: “You don’t question Providence,” she says. “If you can’t have the reality, a dream is just as good.”

LaFarge continues pleading with Lavinia, and the Martian is forced to return to the shape of Tom. The Spauldings hear the noise outside and Mr. Spaulding says to stop, that he has a gun. LaFarge tells Tom to run, but they lose each other as they race toward their house. The townspeople come out to see what’s happening, and they corner the Martian on a boat. The Martian appears like someone different to each person, rapidly changing shape in front of their eyes to embody the person they think about most. Finally, the Martian falls over exhausted, his face appearing like melted wax, a combination of all of the faces the townspeople are looking for. He’s dead. In their eagerness to claim the Martian for themselves, they forgot who he really was: a person.

THE HUMANS

In this portion of the novel, we see how the humans have gone about making over Mars to be just another version of Earth. They import lumber from Oregon and California to construct their buildings. Some familiar names come back to us in the form of Hinkston Creek, named for the Third Expedition’s archeologist. Lustig Corners bears the name of the crew member from the same expedition who was overjoyed to see his long-dead grandparents again. Nathaniel York Town honors the captain of that first ill-fated expedition, and Spender Hill is named in ironic honor of the Fourth Expedition’s archeologist who was so concerned about preserving the land and culture of the native inhabitants. There is also an Iron Town and Aluminum City and Detroit II. Children play in dead Martian towns, defying their parents’ rules to stay in their own neighborhoods. Old people follow on their rockets. People travel from Earth to have parties, to go on vacation, to do some shopping. It’s a chance to get away from their ordinary lives. 

Some people are motivated to travel for another reason: love. In “May 2034: The Wilderness,” we meet sisters Janice and Leonora on their last night on Earth. What draws them to the planet sixty-million miles away isn’t a sense of adventure or wonder; it’s the chance for Janice to be with her fiance Will. Janice packs a wedding gown and talks about how their children won’t be American or even Earth people—they’ll be Martians, just as she and the other interplanetary immigrants will be for the rest of their lives. Leonora says, “It’s a New World. It’s like the old days. The men first and the women following.” Janice is afraid, but Leonora reminds her that Will is up there waiting for her. In her anxiety, Janice says she wishes it were some other year, and Leonora suggests 1492 or 1612, saying that it’s always Columbus Day or Plymouth Rock Day and there’s nothing women can do about it. As Janice falls asleep, she wonders if this is how it was long ago, the women ready to jump up and leave when the men decide to head to new lands. She decides yes, and it will always be that way. In Janice we see the beginning of a new identity, one that will be appropriated from the native people of the land. The holidays that Leonora mentions—Columbus Day and Plymouth Rock Day—are fitting, as they both celebrate invasion as progress. In similar fashion, the full erasure of the Martians looms ever closer as human occupancy grows and grows.

Unfortunately, those who come to Mars bring their rules and regulations with them, pushing and directing people, just as they did on Earth. Many people originally came to Mars to leave the oppressive ways of Earth behind, and we’re given the impression that they won’t easily be forced back into the constricting molds from which they traveled so far to break free. One such person is William Stendahl, who looks in approval at the house he had designed. It’s a haunted house of sorts, one based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” involving a house that is believed to be alive. Stendahl explains that Poe died a long time ago, and all of his books were burned in the Great Fire of 2006, along with the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ambrose Bierce, and all other tales of horror and fantasy. The fire was the result of a law passed in 1999 that permitted the censoring of certain books, and the law grew to allow the complete censoring of film and literature. Only literature that was deemed to be “pure” was allowed. Stendahl says that he came to Mars to get away from the “Clean-Minded people” on Earth, and his goal is to teach a lesson to all those who burned up Poe’s works. 

On the day the house opens, Stendahl is visited by Mr. Garrett, an Investigator of Moral Climates. He doesn’t approve of the haunted castle. He says that the Dismantlers and Burning Crew will be there by the evening, and, by midnight, the building will be completely destroyed. After all, Garrett says, Stendahl knows the law: “No books, no houses, nothing to be produced which in any way suggests ghosts, vampires, fairies, or any creature of the imagination.” After some arguing, Stendahl nods to an ape standing next to him, a signal that the ape is to kill Garrett. The ape, like many features of the house, is a reference to another Poe story; in this case, it’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” After Garrett’s death, a robot version of Garrett that Stendahl had created comes out to report back to Moral Climates and delay any action for at least 48 hours. During that time, Stendahl plans to have the greatest party of his life, for in coffins wait the bodies of robots, waiting to be set in motion. 

Not coincidentally, the honored guests at the party are all members of the Society for the Prevention of Fantasy, all of whom advocate the burning of supposedly impure books. Once the first settlers completed the nasty job of killing the native Martians, they came to enact their own version of morality on the new inhabitants. Some of them are uneasy about the costume ball, saying that it’s blasphemy and seems illegal. However, they convince themselves to enjoy the house and the rooms that are each painted in a different color, housing a different threatening creature, just like in “The Masque of the Red Death,” another Poe story. 

As the party carries on, Pikes, Stendahl’s assistant, reports finding nuts and bolts in the fireplace where they burned Garrett’s body. It turns out that Stendahl isn’t the only one employing robots as substitutes for people. Stendahl knows this means the real Mr. Garrett will soon appear to put an end to this fantastical house. Before that can happen, though, the guests appear to be meeting their deaths one by one. At least, a version of the guests seem to be killed off, as those same guests reappear to assure others that it was just some sort of trick. When the real Garrett arrives, we learn the truth: those deaths were real and the robot bodies have been awakened from their slumber to take the humans’ places. As Stendahl shows Garrett through the house, filling him with drink, he leads him to a basement where he locks the inspector in chains and starts building a wall up over him, following the plot of yet another Poe story, “The Cask of Amontillado.” Stendahl says he’s doing this because Garrett and those like him burned Poe’s works without actually reading them; they just followed other people’s advice that the writings were unfit for reading and should be burned. At midnight, he and Pikes run out of the house, jump onto a helicopter, and watch the house collapse, as if destroyed by an earthquake. With Pikes reciting the final lines of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” he and Stendahl fly away, having enacted revenge upon those who attempted to impose their moral beliefs on the rights of others.

And finally, in “November 2036: The Luggage Store,” we learn that a war is coming to Earth. The store’s owner is preparing to sell lots of luggage to people on Mars, as they rush home to save the world and their loved ones. He says he expects they’ll all go back, for while they left Earth to get away from politics, nuclear weapons, war, prejudice, and laws, the Earth is still their home. They’re not truly Martians yet.

IN THE AUTHOR’S WORDS

As anyone who has read Fahrenheit 451 is aware, Bradbury was always very concerned about the issue of censorship, especially the censorship of books. The story “Usher II” is about that very thing, and we can see the beginnings of the ideas that would be further developed in his story of firemen who burn books. In his interview with the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read, Bradbury explained how he was affected by the book burnings that have occurred throughout history. He said:

“When I was 15 years old, Hitler burned books in the streets of Berlin. And it terrified me, because I was a librarian and he was touching my life. All those great plays, all that great poetry, all those wonderful essays, all those great philosophers. So it became very personal, didn’t it. Then I found out about Russia burning books behind the scenes. But they did it in such a way that people didn’t know about it. They killed the authors behind the scenes. They burned the authors instead of the books. So I learned then how dangerous it all was, because if you didn’t have books and the ability to read, you couldn’t be part of any civilization. You couldn’t be part of a democracy. Leaders in various countries are scared of books because books teach things that they don’t want to have taught. Well, if you know how to read, you have a complete education about life. Then you know how to vote within a democracy. But if you don’t know how to read, you don’t know how to decide. That’s the great thing about our country, is we are a democracy of readers, and we should keep it that way.”1

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The practice of book banning and burning has had a long history, not just in the world, but particularly in the United States. Each year, the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, in partnership with other organizations, hosts Banned Books Week to celebrate the freedom to read. The event began in 1982 as a response to an increase in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores, and libraries. While a challenge refers to an “attempt to remove or restrict materials or services based on content,” a ban is the “removal of materials or cancellation of services based on content.” According to statistics gathered in 2019, 66% of challenges take place in public libraries and 31% take place in schools or school libraries. The most frequent reasons for challenges are due to LGBTQIA+ material, racist content, political or religious viewpoints, sexually explicit material, and violence.2 The top ten challenged books of that year included George by Alex Gino, which was challenged, banned, restricted, and hidden for featuring a transgender main character, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which was banned and challenged for containing “vulgarity and sexual overtones,” and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, which was banned and forbidden from discussion for “referring to magic and witchcraft” and for “containing actual curses and spells.”3

A recent news story from June of this year, which I learned of via the Book Riot Podcast,4 reported on parents in the state of Pennsylvania who filed a lawsuit against their children’s high school for discussing topics such as “systemic racism,” “white privilege,” and the Black Lives Matter movement.5 The parents’ complaints started when the children were assigned to read Robin DiAngelo’s anti-racism book White Fragility, saying that the topics, “do not coincide with [their] moral compass or conservative religious views” and that they were “degraded, victimized, embarrassed, and emotionally distressed” by the teacher’s refusal to excuse the children from the reading assignment. Here, it’s not just a book that’s being challenged, but an entire way of thinking that examines one of the most vicious problems still plaguing the United States.

Banned Books Week occurs at the end of every September, and will start next week, running from September 26 through October 2. This year’s theme is “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.” You can find a link to their website in the description to learn more about the program and about book bans and challenges in the US.

That’s all for today’s discussion of The Martian Chronicles. Join me next week when we’ll finish the novel with the stories “November 2036: The Off Season” through “October 2057: The Million-Year Picnic.” With the Earth erupting in war, big changes are in store for Mars and the humans who have come to start their lives anew. Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode, subscribe and leave a rating and review in your favorite podcast app. I would really appreciate it, and it helps other book-loving English learners find the podcast. What are your thoughts on the way the Martians are being treated? Is it necessary to impose the rules of Earth onto a new planet and its society? Leave your comments at theenglishchronicles.com, where you can also find a transcript of each episode, send an email to theenglishchronicles@gmail.com, or find me on Instagram @theenglishchronicles.  Until then, keep reading.


Notes:

  1. National Endowment for the Arts, “NEA Big Read: Meet Ray Bradbury,” YouTube Video, October 3, 2017, 22:18, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pqp38_uS-eg.
  2. “Censorship by the Numbers 2019,” Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association, accessed August 4, 2021, https://www.ala.org/advocacy/sites/ala.org.advocacy/files/content/Censorship%20by%20the%20Numbers%202019_0_0.pdf
  3. “Top 10 Challenged Books of 2019,” Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association, accessed August 4, 2021, https://www.ala.org/advocacy/sites/ala.org.advocacy/files/content/Top%2010%20of%202019_1_0.pdf.
  4. Jeff O’Neal and Rebecca Schinsky, “Ding the Basket,” June 28, 2021, in Book Riot – The Podcast, podcast, 1:07:35, https://bookriot.com/listen/ding-the-basket/.
  5. Rudy Miller, “Parents Sue Over Black Lives Matter Lessons in Lehigh Valley School District,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 16, 2021, https://liber.post-gazette.com/news/crime-courts/2021/06/16/lehigh-valley-county-parents-sue-east-penn-school-district-Black-Lives-Matter-lessons/stories/202106160156.

011 The Martian Chronicles, Part 2

“We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things” (73).

So says Jeff Spender, a crew member of the Fourth Expedition to Mars and one of the few humans who worries about what their race might do to the land and the people they intend to conquer. I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.

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Continue reading “011 The Martian Chronicles, Part 2”

010 The Martian Chronicles, Part 1

Rocket summer. The words passed among the people in the open airing houses. Rocket summer. The warm desert air changing the frost patterns on the windows, erasing the art work….Rocket summer. People leaned from their dripping porches and watched the reddening sky” (1).

So begins Ray Bradbury’s debut novel, The Martian Chronicles, an allegorical tale about the dangers of leaving our home planet to live on another. I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.

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Continue reading “010 The Martian Chronicles, Part 1”

October, November, & December 2021 Selections

Hi Everyone! This is Veronica with a mini-episode to announce the next three books for The English Chronicles.

First, in October we’ll take some inspiration from the Halloween spirit and read Severance by Ling Ma. Severance is a modern take on the zombie story, and the plot bears an eerie resemblance to recent events. A new fungus emerges from the manufacturing district in Shenzhen, China, and, thanks to outsourcing of labor, it spreads through shipments of goods throughout the world. The fungus causes a reaction that is called the Shen Fever. While symptoms are, at first, similar to those of the common cold, in a few weeks the infected begin repeating meaningless routines in a zombie-like state. Twenty-six-year-old Candace Chen is our narrator, and the book follows her life in New York, starting with her time as a coordinator in the Bibles division of a book production firm all the way until she’s forced to leave and team up with a group of eight other individuals in a post-apocalyptic journey to a safe haven they call the “Facility.” The book is a fantastic examination of the way we turn to work and routines to fill our lives and how they fail to do just that. The truth is that we don’t need to be fevered to lead a zombie-like existence.

In November, we’ll read the first two books in a three-part series. March is Representative John Lewis’s graphic memoir of his participation in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Shifting perspective between that time and the date of Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, the series offers a look at the violence and injustices Black Americans suffered simply for the fact of their skin color. Stark black and white drawings accompany Lewis’s words, and offer the images of citizens being drenched with fire hoses, attacked by mobs, and beaten by police officers, all because they demanded to have the same rights afforded to others in the country. Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders who tested the Supreme Court ruling that segregation on buses was unconstitutional, was an organizer and speaker at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to fight for voting rights. That day would become known as “Bloody Sunday.” Lewis served as a Representative in Congress for the state of Georgia from 1987 until his death in 2020. The series provides a stirring look at the effort to ensure all Americans are granted equal rights, and chronicles an important part of this country’s history.

Finally, in December, we’ll read Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky. A mixture of both science fiction and fantasy, this novel looks at the classic battle between science and magic and follows two young people as they grow up and become absorbed by their two different worlds. When Patricia is a girl, she discovers that she can talk to birds. She is a witch and is plagued by the need to answer “the Endless Question.” Laurence, on the other hand, hates his parents’ suggestions that he spend more time in nature, preferring instead to work on his machine that allows the user to jump forward two seconds in time. Years later, the two bond over the feeling that their families will never understand them, and they become friends. All of that is put in jeopardy when a member of the Nameless Order of Assassins finds them, infiltrates their school under the guise of being a counselor, and reveals a dastardly act that must be done. Anders’s writing style is particularly enjoyable, as she creates memorable characters, portrays the grim reality of adulthood that awaits most children, and does it all with moments of great humor. I hope this will be a light-hearted way to bring the year to a close.Don’t forget that by subscribing through Patreon, you’ll also get access to three more story and screen pairings. Next week, we’ll continue with Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Keep reading, my friends!

009 From the Page to the Screen – Malcolm X (Bonus Patreon Podcast)

“It has always been my belief that I, too, will die by violence. I have done all that I can to be prepared” (3).

Malcolm X speaks these words after telling of his father’s brutal death at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist hate group formed after the American Civil War in 1865. He describes his father, the Baptist minister Reverend Earl Little, as a six-foot-four, very black man with only one eye. He believed that Black people could never achieve freedom in America and should return to the African homeland. Four of his five brothers lost their lives to violence. Reverend Little would join them, as would his son Malcolm. 

I’m Veronica, and thank you for joining me for this first episode of the bonus podcast From the Page to the Screen, focusing on stories and the movies and television shows they’ve inspired.

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008 Intimations, Part 4

“I thought if that knowledge became as widespread as could possibly be managed or imagined we might finally reach some kind of herd immunity. I don’t think that anymore” (83).

In a searing finale, Smith merges her thoughts on racism and the pandemic to provide her theory on what’s really plaguing America.  I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.

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