April 10 2013 12:19 PM

San Diego celebrates Fahrenheit 451'-plus reviews of Bonnie ZoBell's The Whack-Job Girls' and Marivi Soliven's debut novel, The Mango Bride'


What would the world be like without books?

That's the question Write Out Loud is asking San Diegans in its month-long celebration of the dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. The readers-theater group has teamed up with the National Endowment for the Arts' "The Big Read" to create 24 events in April, including readings, discussions and an homage to Bradbury at the Old Town Theatre.

In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury explores a world where it's illegal to own a book. He wrote an early 25,000-word draft in nine days on rented typewriters in a basement at UCLA. While there are instances where the novel feels like something dashed off in a bunker, there's an urgency to the prose, a breathlessness that's borderline hysterical.

Yet for a work of high-concept science fiction, Fahrenheit 451 shows incredible restraint. In Bradbury's world, firemen start fires instead of putting them out. Their chief occupation is the burning of books, but after pilfering one of the volumes he was supposed to incinerate, a fireman named Montag begins to have second thoughts.

Set in the near future, the world of Fahrenheit 451 is recognizably our own. People get up, go to work, come home and watch TV. In some instances, Bradbury is eerily prescient. Take this description of the protagonist's wife, Mildred: "And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind." When Mildred takes these earbuds out, she watches her wall-size television. The programs feature a cast of characters she refers to as her "family." It's not a show, per se, but a reality-based vehicle upon which Mildred projects her hopes and dreams.

The extent to which one thinks that "It can't happen here" will determine whether Fahrenheit 451 is a fantasy or a satire, a warning or a wake-up call.

One of my favorite scenes comes toward the end, when Montag encounters a group of refugees, each of whom has a book memorized so that when things settle down, he or she can publish it again. It's reminiscent of the scene at the end of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, when the father instructs his son—albeit somewhat cornily—to "carry the fire."

For me, the image of a young Ray Bradbury feverishly feeding dimes into a typewriter machine is the one that will endure. There's no question that he had the fire.

Bonnie ZoBell is en fuego. The San Diego writer has a new book out from Monkey Puzzle Press called The Whack-Job Girls and another collection of stories set in North Park due out next year.

The Whack-Job Girls is a slender collection of short stories about women in unusual situations. There's a stay-at-home mom who makes a living as a phone-sex worker, a retailer who wakes up blind but goes to her job at Macy's anyway, and a petshop owner whose partner sings the theme song to Cal Worthington commercials while they're in the sack:

"If you want a car or truck, go see Cal / If you want to save a buck, go see Cal / If you want to change your luck, save a dollar or a buck / go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal."

The Whack-Job Girls is a name given to the regulars at Nellie's Hair Salon in the book's title story, but it could apply to all of ZoBell's flawed protagonists. These women aren't misfits; they're victims of ordinary misfortune.

There's an abundance of misfortune surrounding the characters in Marivi Soliven's debut novel, The Mango Bride, which comes out early next month from New American Library, an imprint of Penguin.

The book's already received attention in the author's native Philippines, where, in 2011, it received the top honors for a novel written in English at the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, the Philippine equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize.

The Mango Bride reads like a fairy tale gone wrong. The fortunes of a wealthy Filipino family are reversed and its members disgraced. Soliven's examination of the role that class plays exposes how dysfunctional a society can be when the gap between the haves and the have-nots cannot be overcome, even when the passion burns up the page.

Jim Ruland blogs at vermin.blogs.com and you can find him on Twitter @JimVermin.


See all events on Monday, Oct 24