Night Has a Thousand Eyes by Cornell Woolrich

Woolrich is a master of suspense and a brilliant writer. I was hoping to like this one more, but unfortunately, I could never fully buy into the story.

The book begins with Detective Tom Shawn walking home from work at one A.M. along the river, where he finds a young woman, Jean Reid, about to kill herself. He stops her from jumping and asks her why she wants to end her life when she’s young, wealthy, and beautiful. Her explanation forms an unusually long and well-written chapter of backstory.

The narrative switches in the second chapter, which is well over 100 pages, from third person to first, with Jean doing the telling. She’s an excellent narrator, as well as a confident, thoughtful, observant and well-grounded character. She lives the charmed life of the wealthy, without being dysfunctional. She’s deeply attached to her father, Harlan Reid, whose recent troubles are the source of her own.

Her father, a clear-eyed practical man, has recently encountered a strange reclusive man with clairvoyant powers, and he’s become obsessed with extracting predictions from the reluctant seer. Some of these predictions are innocuous, some are helpful, and one–the prediction of the exact time and manner of the father’s imminent death–is terrifying.

After hearing this prediction, Harlan Reid is so consumed with terror and dread he cannot function. His own suffering and his imminent demise are what led Jean to attempt suicide.

After telling her story to Detective Shawn, Jean, still rattled by events, refuses to go home. The Detective takes her to the police station, where the lieutenant takes an interest in her tale. The lieutenant, a hard-eyed realist, doesn’t believe in the supernatural. He sees the whole affair as the attempt of a clever con man to manipulate a wealthy old man and separate him from his fortune.

Realizing that the setup is complete, and the shakedown will occur within the next 48 hours, the lieutenant assigns several detectives to investigate the characters Jean Reid described in her story. From here on, the novel plays out in two parts: one follows Jean and Harlan Reid, along with Detective Shawn who has been assigned as their bodyguard. The other follows the detectives sent out by the lieutenant as they shadow the characters they believe are extorting the Reids.

The Jean/Harlan/Shawn chapters read like dark psychological suspense with tinges of madness and the supernatural. The detective chapters read like classic, well written police procedurals. Few writers can write so well in two different genres, and fewer can merge two genres into a single book in which both tellings–the criminal and the supernatural–make sense.

My problem with the book was that the psychological suspense depends on Harlan Reid’s pathological and paralyzing dread. When we meet Mr. Reid in the long second chapter, he is confident, sharp, and vigorous. How could he be so thoroughly undone so quickly? If the reader were to accompany Harlan Reid on his descent into dread–for example as the reader feels the young Mrs. de Winter’s deep earnestness, sensitivity, and insecurity in Rebecca–the story would be more convincing and powerful.

Instead, we watch Mr. Reid from the outside, and from that perspective, his helplessness and paralyzing dread seem like an exaggeration and an out-of-character overreaction. A flaw like that is excusable when it involves a minor character and a minor plot point, but it’s a problem when the entire novel and the actions of all the characters hinge on it.

Woolrich was certainly ambitious in this book, unfolding a complex plot through an equally complex narrative structure, incorporating prose that is at times tedious and at times powerful and strikingly brilliant. Even if some elements of the book aren’t entirely satisfying, he sure aimed high, and there’s a lot to like about this one.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

The most disturbing thing about this book is that the vapid, false, and mind-numbing world that the media produces and the population so whole-heartedly consumes is so much like our own. The narrator points out more than once that the government didn’t take the initiative to ban books (and by extension, reflection and depth of thought and experience); the people themselves stopped wanting them.

In this world, humanity has rejected its own cultural history and the hard-won wisdom of preceding generations in favor of comfort and isolation. They choose to consume life second-hand, as remote spectators, accepting whatever their screens feed to them.

They wanted instead a world of empty thrills and non-stop stimulation. And then they wonder why they’re not happy. They don’t even understand their feelings of dissatisfaction, because those feelings have no place and no representation in the media-produced world they consume. Guy Montag doesn’t understand quite why he’s unhappy today, after being perfectly fine yesterday. His wife Mildred almost kills herself with an overdose of sleeping pills and doesn’t even know it.

In this world, war is entertainment, one more flash of excitement on the screen. War’s death and destruction are distant and abstract. As one character puts it, death is something that happens to other people’s husbands.

Everyone in this world is asleep, and they don’t even know they’re asleep. Swap out a few details–TV for the internet, the three-walled televisions for smart phones–and you have something pretty close to the world we live in now. Even the manner of death the society chooses for its outcasts is ironic: the robot dogs hunt them down and numb them to death with massive injections of procaine (novocaine).

What do you do with a world like this? Bradbury gives us the analogy of the Phoenix that must descend into self-immolation before it can rise again.

Fahrenheit 451 is an allegory. Bradbury doesn’t spend a lot of time on character development, because the characters aren’t the point. They’re merely types against which the characteristics of the world he portrays come into sharp relief. It’s a chilling read, not because it makes you think of the dystopia into which the world may someday evolve, but because it so uncannily portrays aspects of the world we live in right now.

Awareness by Anothony De Mello

This book reads like a transcription of talks given before live audiences. The initial chapters read like the joke-filled exhortations of a professional self-help writer, but the book begins to deepen around pages 60-70. De Mello was a Jesuit priest, a trained psychologist, and apparently a devoted student of both Eastern and Western religion. His knowledge is broad and deep, and he has obviously brought great passion to his learning.

At its core, this book is about the difference between reality and our constructs of reality, most of which we have inherited from our culture, our parents, our teachers, the clergy, and the media. The constructs are all second-hand and almost always false. Our suffering comes from the strife we feel when reality does not conform to our false understanding of how the world should be.

De Mello points out repeatedly that most people are not aware of the constructs they live by. These constructs include the ideas that we must succeed financially, that we must find another person to give us love, that illness and death are personal affronts, that we must adhere to this or that ideal, that our lives must go a certain way. Our false understandings control us through fear and desire, and they do so invisibly until we take the time to see them and root them out.

Even the love we think we feel toward others is often simply an expression of our need for approval and validation. We don’t see this until we look deep inside and discover that we expect to get something in return from the person to whom we think we are giving selflessly.

Our most deeply cherished beliefs are the most dangerous. De Mello offers this excellent observation and parable:

Reality, God, divinity, truth, love are unknowable; that means they cannot be comprehended by the thinking mind. That would set at rest so many questions people have because we’re always living under the illusion that we know. We don’t. We cannot know.

What is scripture, then? It is a hint, a clue, not a description. The fanaticism of one sincere believer who thinks he knows causes more evil than the united efforts of two hundred rogues. It’s terrifying to see what sincere believers will do because they think they know. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a world where everybody said, “We don’t know”?…

A man born blind comes to me and asks, “What is this thing called green?”

How does one describe the color green to one who was born blind? One uses analogies.

So I say, “The color green is something like soft music.”

“Oh,” he says, “like soft music.”

So a second blind man comes to me and asks, “What is the color green?”

I tell him it’s something like soft satin, very soft and soothing to the touch.

So the next day I notice that the two blind men are bashing each other over the head with bottles. One is saying, “It’s soft like music”; the other saying, “It’s soft like satin.” And on it goes.

We see this kind of trouble in the world all the time. This is the difficulty of trying to use concepts that people understand to point them toward concepts that they don’t understand. People get attached to the bits they understand, and their understanding ends there, often permanently.

We can only change our false concepts, De Mello says, when we become aware of them. In fact, our false understandings often lose their power as soon as we become aware of them. In this, he is in line with Socrates and the Buddhists, with the stoicism of Seneca and twentieth-century European existentialists. Life is flow. Abandon your ideas and go with it.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. There’s nothing more terrifying than being asked to accept what you cannot control or understand. Yet with the acceptance comes freedom.

De Mello notes that the few people who really do start to question their understanding of the world do so only after immense suffering. Only after it becomes too painful for them to hold on to their ideas of how the world should be. He notes that there are only two paths for those whose world-view is completely shattered: they become insane, or they become mystics.

De Mello is deeply critical not of religion, but of the way religion is practiced and misunderstood. If people devoted to awareness the time and energy they currently devote to worship, they and the world would be much better off. Toward the end of the book, he gives this excellent parable:

There was a man who invented the art of making fire. He took his tools and went to a tribe in the north, where it was very cold, bitterly cold. He taught the people there to make fire. The people were very interested. He showed them the uses to which they could put fire–they could cook, keep themselves warm, etc. They were grateful that they had learned the art of making fire. But before they could express their gratitude to the man, he disappeared. He wasn’t concerned with getting their recognition or gratitude; he was concerned about their well-being.

He went to another tribe, where he again began to show them the value of his invention. People were interested there, too, a bit too interested for the peace of mind of the priests, who began to notice that this man was drawing crowds and they were losing their popularity. So they decided to do away with him. They poisoned him, crucified him, put it any way you like.

But they were afraid now that people might turn against them, so they were very wise, even wily. Do you know what they did? They had a portrait of the man made and mounted it on the main altar of the temple. The instruments for making fire were placed in front of the portrait, and the people were taught to revere the portrait and to pay reverence to the instruments of fire, which they dutifully did for centuries. The veneration and the worship went on, but there was no fire.

This powerfully describes the problem of many of the world’s religions, where people are taught to direct their worship outward through ritual, rather than inward toward awareness, growth, and change. They have duty without fire, maintaining the symbols without ever discovering the thing the symbols were meant to lead them to.

“These are the more dangerous idol worshippers,” De Mello says. “They use a very subtle substance, the mind, to produce their God.”

True spiritual practice is not a palliative to soothe us in times of trouble. It is the root of how we perceive and experience the world, and it comes from surrender, from accepting that we can simple be without having to know or control or even understand. “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow,” De Mello reminds us. “They toil not, neither do they spin.”

The Long Dry by Cynan Jones

In this extraordinarily beautiful and deep short novel, author Cynan Jones follows four characters through a summer day on a draught-stricken farm in Wales. Gareth begins his day by checking on two cows that are due to give birth. He finds the first one in the barn, kneeling beside her stillborn calf, “lowing sadly and gently.”

The second has disappeared, wandered off in the night to god knows where. Gareth sets out to find her, but first:

He took the dead calf by its ankles and lifted it from the straw that was bloodied by birth, not by the calf’s death. It was strange because the mother had licked the calf clean. He thought of the mother cow licking her calf and not understanding why it would not stand clumsily to its feet, its legs out of proportion, its eyes wide. Why the incredible tottering new life did not come.

As we follow Gareth on his search for the second the cow, we get a tour of the farm, the neighboring properties, and the bog. We also meet his wife Kate, his son Dylan, and his daughter Emmy. Every inch of this world is teeming with life, death, and memory, and the extraordinary power of this book comes from the author’s use of simple, direct language that is always tied to objects and creatures in the physical world, to natural processes and elemental needs that affect every living thing.

The farmer and his family–especially his daughter Emmy–are deeply aware of and viscerally rooted to the physical world around them. Even the insects can’t go unnoticed, from the cuckoo bee who invades the bumblebee’s nest to the flies that torment both the cow and its owner, to the lacewings that Emmy distinguishes from fairies. The lives of every being in the story are deeply intertwined, and like the thirsty pregnant cow wandering lost through the bog, most are driven by forces they feel but cannot fully understand. The dynamics between Gareth, his wife Kate, and their daughter Emmy are particularly complex, based in part on secrets, lack of communication, and misunderstood desire.

As Gareth searches the bog for his missing cow, he notes the skeletons of other animals who have perished there. The ones who wandered in during the wetter seasons got stuck and died, years or decades ago, and only now, in the drought, does the earth yield up evidence of their being. In reading his father’s handwritten memories, Gareth notes the old man followed a similar process as he tried to recall the important events of his life: it was as if he had drained the water from the landscape of his memory and let the earth reveal what was below the surface.

Memory and real care sit under the surface, like still reservoirs waiting to be drawn from.

It’s easy, he knows, to take from the surface of things, like dipping a bucket into water self-consciously: you can call up these things. But when it comes up unbeckoned, without self-control, set off by some scent in the air, or fear, you can be shocked by its depth, which you hold in yourself all the time.

This book will linger in your mind long after you’ve finished it. The vivid imagery, the depth and simplicity of the prose, and the richness of the world the author creates are like magic.