“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for AlgernonCharlie is a good-natured but mentally challenged man in his early thirties. He works in a bakery as a janitor and every week he goes to the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults where he is learning to “read and write good” so he could get smart. He gets an offer from the researchers at the Beekman Institute to increase his intelligence with an operation. The operation is a success and he becomes a genius, experiencing the opposite end of the curve.

Before the operation, Charlie lived on the edge of the society, unwanted from his family and ridiculed by others. His co-workers saw him as a sideshow attraction and someone they could put down so they can feel better about themselves. After the operation and at the height of his intelligence, he again was an outsider. It infuriated him that people he looked to aren’t all-knowing masters of the world, but ordinary people.

Flowers for Algernon questions the role of memory in emotional growth.Intelligence comes in many forms. There’s the typical one, the one people usually associate with geniuses, the ability to understand complex concepts and solve abstract problems. There are also artistic intelligence, social intelligence, the emotional one and a few others. While raw intelligence is an amazing thing, humans are social creatures that learn through the interactions with others how to have healthy lives.

What I really liked about this novel was that it gave insight into the daily life of a person with a mental disability. They usually make people uncomfortable so their troubles aren’t very well known. From what I know and read, it seems that they are often victims of all kinds of abuse, without knowing if what’s happening to them is wrong. Charlie talks about his own abusive mother who couldn’t accept that her son wasn’t like the other kids, which brought a lot of difficulties with it and is basically the central topic of the novel. He also mentions a girl from his class who had three kids before she was 18 when her parents had her have a hysterectomy. She would often be picked up from the street by men who would then take advantage of her. It’s really sad to think that there are people who would take advantage of these people who just don’t know better.

All in all, we’re all human with our personalities and memories, no matter where our disabilities and strengths lie.

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“Contact” by Carl Sagan

ContactI’ve recently discovered the joy of listening to audio books rather than reading on my phone or in the physical form. I put on my sneakers and put in my earbuds. Then I start walking. Or perhaps I catch a bus to work or wherever it is that I’m going.

It works great. I lose a lot of time daily on commuting and this way it doesn’t feel like it’s gone to waste. The amount of reading I do now has gone up and I do less of anxious over thinking I unavoidably do when my mind isn’t focused on other things.

Contact was the perfect audiobook. I had the edition read by Laurel Lefkow and I wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s another one read by Jodie Foster, who is famous and all, but the way Lefkow read this amazing piece of fiction was just perfect. The way she adjusted her accent and the depth of her voice to suit the characters really enhanced my experience and made me feel the book more deeply than I would have if I was just reading it.

That being said, I was pleasantly surprised by the way Carl Sagan writes. It’s vivid, easily understood even when he talks about complex topics and endlessly vibrant. Since the original Cosmos was way before my time, I had little knowledge of his work, let alone that he wrote amazing fiction.

Ellie Arroway is a radio astronomer and a director of “Project Argus”, an array of radio telescopes who are a part of SETI or the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. One day they pick up a strange signal from a star called Vega which is 26 light years away and the brightest star in the constellation Lyra. As it turns out, the signal contains a reflected transmission of the 1936 Summer Olympic games in Berlin and Hitler’s speech at the opening. Under the original message, there is another one containing blueprints of a strange machine and a handbook how to build it.

This novel is a fantastic blend of discussions about philosophy, science, religion and the future of the human kind. It entertains the idea (and the very probable fact!) that we aren’t alone in the universe, but are just one of many endless civilisations out there. It’s as scary as it is exciting to think about it.

There are about 7 billion of human beings on Earth at the Earth at the moment and we all like to think that we are different and that something like our religion, race, political affiliations or even just our career makes us better than the others. But far from it. We all forget that we all are just human beings. And if it takes a machine sent from beings from the outer space to makes us unite and stop killing each other as much, I really hope there is a radio signal on its way to Earth from the star Vega.

The characters occasionally seem secondary to the whole plot but they are the carriers of the conversations that discuss the values of humanity. Hadden, the eccentric billionaire, was my favourite character, apart from Ellie. He represents the human ingenuity and the courage to not conform to anything that sets our progress.

What we often forget and this book reflects is that we are as technologically advanced as we have ever been as species. WE may not have commercial space flight yet nor we’ve terraformed Mars (looking at you, Elon), but we have small technological wonders that we use on daily basis. Powerful computers of the size of a palm, panels that convert the Sun into energy that conserves our food, bring us light at night and warms us in the cold months and so many machines that make us lazier.

But we’re getting there. It’s only exponentially upwards from here. Our world is a beautiful one.

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“Post Office” by Charles Bukowski

Post Office

In his first novel,  Post Office, Bukowski makes us emerge into the dirty everyday life of an alcoholic who accidentally wastes 12 years of his life working in The Postal Service of America. Written from Chinaski’s point of view, he paints his self-portrait and stripping his prose of emotions, as if he’s talking about a neighbour or a distant cousin. That simplicity of storytelling makes us feel all of the frustrations of the main character as he delivers mail in pouring rain or while he’s drinking his fifth beer in the ungodly hours, thinking how even if he falls asleep right now he needs to get up in 2 hours and 39 minutes anyway.

The writer lets us see all of the shortcomings of the lowest social class of the American society, where every individual exists only as a part of the system and the statistics. There is no will to make the future better, only self-destructive hedonism. It doesn’t give any meaning to the existence but makes the daily life more bearable.

The novel is made of short chapters and it’s far from humorous. The topics that it talks about, like rape, poverty and alcoholism, although harsh and unpleasant, to say the least, but each of the short stories makes us laugh and see the beauty in catastrophes.

I haven’t read any of Bukowski’s poetry, mainly because poetry isn’t really my cup of tea, but the way he writes his prose makes me want to read the rest of his novels. I tried reading Ham on Rye a few years ago but it was too graphic for younger me. Perhaps it’s time for me to give it another go.

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