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Commentary: Here's a start on reading for summer

Jack Zaleski

FARGO — Suggestions for summer reading:

"Brave New World" by Aldous (1932, Easton Press collection,1978) is a timeless novel that is as disquieting today as it was when published 86 years ago. It was required reading when I was in school. I was unimpressed; not smart enough, not mature enough to appreciate its message. Rereading Huxley's masterpiece was like reading it for the first time.

Huxley set the tale in a future where perverted science and a manipulated social code created a controlled society that depends on collectivism and passivity. Individuality is criminal. Sex is for quicky pleasure, not love and procreation. Physical sex has no role in reproduction. Embryos are conditioned in laboratories for predetermined functions, a caste system in which individuals are genetically and psychologically programmed. Once determined by the state, there can be no escaping assigned status.

Soma, the state-mandated drug, is the universal tranquilizer — a remedy for unpleasantness of any sort. The apparatus of the state is Huxley's version of doctor feel good.

The plot turns on deviation from norms. Newfound identity and resistance to the state's template drive the story to its tragic end. A couple of Huxley's soma-addled characters are appalled by what's happening; their fate is appalling. "Brave New World" is not a feel-good book.

The novel can be read as an indictment of modern America: abuse of prescription drugs, legal marijuana, promiscuous sex, the comfort of groupthink, genetic engineering. My edition includes the author's 1946 foreword in which he warned his prophecies were happening more quickly than he had anticipated in 1932. He should see us now.

"The Fires of Spring" by James A. Michener (Random House, 1949) is a coming-of-age saga of singular sensitivity and insight. This is not the Michener of sweeping novels such as "Hawaii." Rather it's a bitter-sweet exploration of a boy's transit into manhood. From poverty as an orphan in rural Pennsylvania, David Harper learns about cons, thieves and the wisdom of the old men in a "poor house." He discovers books and music. He experiences first love, obsessive love and the enigmas of women. He dreams of a life that seems distant, if not impossible.

Michener plumbs a boy-to-man journey during simpler times, but the characters and their struggles are anything but simple. Poignancy and clear-eyed candor set the narrative apart as one of the author's best works. It will move readers who recall—with satisfaction or trepidation—the euphoria, angst and vexations of finding their way.

"Death on the Nile" by Agatha Christie (1938, Harper Collins) is the famed mystery writer at her best. The fast-paced novel should be called "Deaths on the Nile," because more than one character dies. Belgian detective Hercule Poirot leads the investigation of the murder of a beautiful socialite aboard a Nile riverboat. In the fashion that has made him one of the most beloved fictional characters of all time, Poirot methodically unravels the mystery, eventually solving the crimes.

As in most of Christie's novels, the fiendish plot is peopled by snobs, racists and lovers. Good choice for lighter summer reading. Enjoy.

Zaleski retired in 2017 after 30 years as The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's editorial page editor. He continues to write a Sunday column. Contact him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or (701) 566-3576.

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