Since the passing of Ray Bradbury, I’ve been re-reading his books (or reading ones for the first time), trying to find a lost classic, a gem I had not discovered before.
So far I have reviewed three of his books (Something Wicked This Way Comes, From the Dust Returned and The Halloween Tree). This review is on Summer Morning, Summer Night, published in 2008.
I have attempted to write this review three different times. Frankly, this difficulty is because I am uncertain what kind of a book Summer Morning, Summer Night by Ray Bradbury is exactly attempting to be.
- Is it a sequel to the great Dandelion Wine and the embarrassingly bad Farewell Summer?
- Is it a collection of unpublished short stories?
- Is it new work?
- It is old work?
- Is it an insight into Ray Bradbury’s notebook? A collection of unfinished ideas and unused snippets?
The frustrating answer is yes and no to all of my questions.
The best way I have discovered to explain this book is to think of your favorite CD. You know how artists will sometimes include an additional CD in a boxset? It might include demos, songs that were cut from the album, and early versions of the songs you love? Well, in many ways, Summer Morning, Summer Night is that additional CD for Bradbury, and like one of those collections there is good and bad, and a little of everything within it.
For me, I came to this collection hoping for one last glance at Green Town, Illinois. Dandelion Wine is my favorite of his books, and I admit each time I pick up an “undiscovered” Bradbury book, my hope is that I will be able to recreate the experience of first diving into that classic. I know that this is an unfair burden to put on any Bradbury book, but I can’t help it. It is the bar I use to judge his work.
On the back of the book, the publisher very wisely avoids using the word “sequel,” but there are elements of that masterpiece here. The brothers, Tom and Doug are here, so is the town, and even the grandfather with his speeches. I’ll even go so far as to say the best story in the book actually stars our characters. It is called “Autumn Afternoon” and it is about the grandmother recognizing that time cannot be saved or recovered.
Which brings me to the themes of the book, because it does have them. Even though this is a collection and moves from short stories into a series of small vignettes—that gave me the impression of the book slowly disappearing step by step away from me into a fog, until the stories were only a paragraph in length, many times without beginnings, endings, and even one was missing a middle—there are the classic themes of love and death, and they each appear (sometimes together) throughout.
In this book, love is youthful, it is life at its fullest, it makes you make mistakes. Death means old age, loss, regret, and depression.
Published in 2008, it is one of the last of Bradbury’s books, and if some of these works in it were truly written during the last years of his life, it gives the reader, if anything, an insight into the great man’s mind during the end.
He doesn’t want to die, but is trying to accept it. He loves life and the earth, and when he sees children, he misses those moments he once had. He is an atheist in his opinion of the afterlife (one story actually has two mothers scolding each other for using, in his words, “a fantasy” to explain death, as compared to a “realist” answer to their children). Also, he wants to say something lasting to his readers, but he is uncertain what. In some of the vignettes at the end he gives his Grandfather character from Dandelion Wine (always the philosopher) some speeches about life; yet, I wonder if Bradbury was truly in the long run saying something to his readers, but more to himself about how to look back at his own life.
Many of the early short stories in the collection were written and unpublished in previous collections and in many ways I am not surprised. They are lost in a period of the 1940’s and 50’s romantic style: the girls are innocent and silly, love is magical, and parents just don’t understand and complain about “those kids today”; reminding me more of some of the simpler sitcoms from the period. I would never have considered before Bradbury to use stereotypes in his writing, but those stories have some examples of it in their two-dimensional female characters.
While there are some short works in it I really enjoyed (“Autumn Afternoon,” “The Death of So-and-So,” and “The River that Went to the Sea”), much of the rest only felt like a glimmer of the great man and his writing. Oh, the hints of wonderful writing are there, but you have to look for them.
Which returns me to my questions at the beginning of this review and exactly what this book is.
Many times when a popular writer passes you begin to see their unpublished work sneak into print (For example, this has been happening with Kurt Vonnegut’s writing; most recently, While Mortals Sleep). Honestly, most things that are not published during an author’s life are for a good reason, they don’t reach a level of excellence the author was working towards (I am not including the wonderful A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway in that assessment, of course). These books become something more for the devout fan and collector, as compared to the new reader.
So is a book like Summer Morning, Summer Night the work of a publisher just planning ahead of the curve? Giving us a collection of oddities that would have appeared after his death anyway? This answer would definitely explain away a lot of my questions around the book.
Ray Bradbury’s voice, in any story of his I read, feels like an old friend. So whenever I pick up a work like this, one that I had not read before, it is a joy for me as a fan to rediscover him, knowing that he had a few more stories to tell.
There will probably be more of his work like this to discover as they trickle out, one by one, from his old file cabinets. We readers will become something like a child with a big puzzle then, trying to put together the image of the storyteller from the pieces we find scattered around. Summer Morning, Summer Night is a piece of that puzzle, a possible glimpse into his mind at the end of his extraordinary life.
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Scott, if you’re prepared to spend a few bucks, the greatest book that lays out exactly what each Bradbury book is, and how it was put together, is THE LIFE OF FICTION by Jon Eller and William F. Touponce. It was published in 2004, so it doesn’t include SUMMER MORNING, SUMMER NIGHT, but it describes in exhaustive detail how Bradbury struggled to create what was to have been his “Great Illinois Novel”.
Bradbury already had a host of stories, sketches, and unfinished chapters for the novel and was hoping to mesh them all together with a central theme, namely that of a struggle between the young and old denizens of Green Town. And obviously, this would entail musings on age versus youth, life versus death, and so on.
But as time wore on, the project just wouldn’t quite come together. He had some superb pieces on hand, but they just didn’t all fit into the “youth versus age” theme. So, because the publisher (Doubleday) was getting impatient, Bradbury settled for an interim solution: he took all the best stories he already had, completely removed the theme of a battle between young and old, and fused the result together into the book we know and love as DANDELION WINE. The idea was that he would eventually get to the novel he’d originally meant to write.
But, of course, Ray never really did return to the novel he had meant to write. He had some of it, but there was a lot of work still to be done. The author had a stroke in 1998, and after that his powers faded fast. I love Ray Bradbury with all my heart, but there it is. Nevertheless, he decided in his late years that the “young versus old” novel had to come out. It was unfinished business. The result was FAREWELL SUMMER, which shows all the signs of some good material sloppily bound together with some hastily written or half-baked connecting pieces.
But even after this unsatisfactory effort, there were still some remnants of the “Great Illinois Novel” which had gone into neither DANDELION WINE, nor FAREWELL SUMMER. So that’s what SUMMER MORNING, SUMMER NIGHT is.
Some of the book is quite good, of course. That’s because the first eleven stories had been previously published—ten of these had in fact been included in earlier Ray Bradbury story collections. One (“A Walk in Summer”) had been published in a magazine in 1979, but was never included in a Bradbury collection. All the rest—from “The Beautiful Lady” onward—are previously unpublished. The reason why the published and unpublished ones were thrown together is because they all had one thing in common: none of the pieces had been part of either DANDELION WINE or FAREWELL SUMMER.
And there you have the book’s history, as I remember it.
In case you’re wondering: I’ve just finished the book myself and was looking for reviews on the internet. That’s how I found your blog!