1001 Books, 2012 Challenges, 2012 TBR Challenge, Book Review, Dystopia, Fiction, Literature, Margaret Atwood, Religion, Sociology

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 04 


Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rather terrifying vision of an America wherein the government has fallen to religious (Christian) extremists, and society is forced to regress to puritanical social and cultural constructs.  First, women are forced out of their jobs.  Then, their bank accounts are frozen and their funds accessible only by their husbands or male next of kin.  Soon, women, non-believers, and sinners are being rounded up and sorted out – either to fulfill various “roles” in the new society or to be exterminated as examples of “justice” being served for violators of God’s laws.  The Jews are shipped out of America or killed.  Children birthed out-of-wedlock or born to parents who are in their second or third marriages (and, thus, unrecognized by the Church) are stolen from their parents and subjected to early indoctrination.  Offred, the main character, is a Handmaid.  She is hunted down, separated from her husband and daughter, and mercifully “allowed” the chance to serve God’s purpose, by becoming a live-in sexual servant to a Commander – one of the new society’s highest leaders.  All women are subjects, after all, and their primary purpose is to serve their men by giving birth to children (and births have declined rapidly due to toxins in the air, water, etc.).  Offred must accept, or die. But, beneath all tyrannical regimes there exists small rays of hope – freedom fighters and subversives, working slowly, quietly toward change.  Will Offred live the remainder of her life – however long or short that may be- in full service of her Commander and the will of the new regime?  Will she be tormented by echoes of the past – memories best forgotten and certainly left unsaid?  Or will she find a way out, after all? 


Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

The world Atwood has created in The Handmaid’s Tale is by far the most important character in it.  The plot is executed in such a way as to lend a feeling of suspense and mystery to the novel, an accomplishment which makes the book simultaneously more than just “literature” and more than just “entertaining.”  This is accomplished primarily because of the slow development of the story’s primary character, which is the world itself – the religious regime and the cloistered, domineering social structure.  They are living, breathing elements of the book – just as much as Offred, Ofwarren, the Commander, or any other character within it.  That being said, the story itself is so powerful and commanding, that it allows less room for growth and development of the traditional characters.  While there are certain changes to watch for, primarily in Offred, the Commander, Nick, and Ofwarren (and, also in Offred’s relationships with each of these characters, which also change and develop slowly, in different ways, throughout the course of the novel), the back stories of many of the characters are left untold – hinted at, but never completely explained.  This is one of those books where one might wish it had been another 50 or 100 pages long, simply to allow for more character development and interaction.  What exactly happened with Serena Joy, for example?  Or, how are Rita and Cora different – what does it mean that one is always smiling and tender, while the other is guarded and gruff?  So much, including the ending, must be guessed, assumed, inferred – this does add to the mystery of the story and allows for personal interpretation but, personally, I would have loved just a bit more guidance and clarity.  Small complaints, really, for what turns out to be an incredibly engaging read.  


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Atwood creates a style of prose – a type of narration – which was completely new to me, and highly appropriate to the conditions in which the narrator lives.  Most of the book is narrated in such a way as to depict not just internal monologue, but a person who spends time speaking to herself.  This makes sense, considering the fact that most Handmaids had few, if any, people they could speak openly with – but how Atwood actually manages to physically narrate in such a way as to give the reader the impression of a narrator who is talking to herself, without expressly mentioning it, is beyond me.  Still, she absolutely does it.  The exceptions to this style are found in the form of brief moments of dialogue and in the epilogue.  Speaking of the epilogue – this turns out to be a transcript of a speech given at a “Gileadean Symposium.”  It is a section at the end that I almost skipped because it was labeled “Historical Notes” – just another example of Atwood’s cleverness.  To get full appreciation for the story, be sure not to miss this last section of the book! 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

There are so many reasons to love this book:  the language and the prose; the setting – familiar but so changed; the mystery and suspense; the humor.  The best of all these, though, the reason to truly love this book, is because of the story itself.  It is terrifying in theory and would be equally terrifying in practice (allowing one’s self to admit that such practices did exist, largely, and still do exist, in certain communities, makes the sting even sharper).  Also adding to the intrigue is the understanding that societal changes such as this one are not too difficult to imagine.  How many times in the history of humankind have we witnessed the seemingly rapid rise of brutal dictatorships?  How quickly are we “re-educated” – turning in neighbors, friends, co-workers for their transgressions, in hopes of keeping ourselves, our families safe?  The situation described in The Handmaid’s Tale can be compared effortlessly to that of Nazi Germany – the treatment of the Jews, the gays, the “others.”  It is larger than that, though – there is a deep, dark element of human nature being explored here; something that is more than just racism or sexism or any form of bigotry or dominance.  It is the nature of fear and power.  What really controls us?  How can we be made to do things we would never, in our right minds, consider doing?  Fear and power.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Dystopian Society, Religion, Social Constructs, Power, Male/Female Dynamic, Fear.

Notable Quotes:

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum – Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

“Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, f or security reasons they said.  The road-blocks began to appear, and Identipasses.  Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful. “

“She is a flag on a hilltop, showing what can still be done: we too can be saved.”

“There is something reassuring about the toilets.  Bodily functions at least remain democratic.  Everybody shits, as Moira would say.”

“Better never means better for everyone, he says.  It always means worse for some.”

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2012 TBR Challenge, Book Review, Drugs, Dystopia, Gay Lit, GLBT, Postmodernism, Satire, Sexuality, The Beats, William S. Burroughs

Experimental Review: Nova Express by William S. Burroughs

Nova Express by William S. Burroughs

YTD: 03

William S. Burroughs is an unusual author, and this book irritated me, in a way. I’ve decided to adjust my review a bit to fit my mood, reaction, and the author.  I do this out of love and respect (and frustration).  William S. Burroughs was a master of the cut-up technique – he was a postmodern writer, “Godfather” to the Beat generation, and he oftentimes had a habit of writing in a nonsensical, satirical way, particularly about things – political/social- that he felt were being addressed nonsensically by those in power.  This includes, primarily, drugs, sex, and privacy.  As Burroughs is a favorite of mine, and because this book and its predecessor (the third and first, respectively, in a trilogy, which includes a book called The Ticket that Exploded, which I’ll likely read later this year) were so ridiculously cut-up and disjointed, I’ve decided to pay homage in my review, thusly:


Plot/Story: 2 – Plot/Story could work with better development.

Third in a trilogy.  Fourth in a quartet.  Nova Express – agents of the body searching for, fighting against, elements exploding.  Some sex – homosexual, heterosexual, asexual- mild.  Tame. Boring, comparatively.  Not the Wild Boys. Third book following Naked Lunch makes Burroughs prudish, bizarre, twisted, normal, odd. Remember disembowelment?  Remember parasites – anuses, walking and talking?  Anuses like mouths, with teeth to bite.  Burroughs forgets – forgets the past, forgets the future, forgets, mid-sentence.  Remembers.  Where are the cats? The balance?  Closed captioning provided by the Nova Agents – looking for you.  Put you on drugs to make you weak. Make you stupid.  Catch you on drugs – detox, death.  Double paradox.  Double jeopardy.  No-win situation.  Chemical and biological hazards, walking bombs, all of us.  Overdose.


Characterization: 2 – Characters slightly developed.

Character development.  Human faces, human emotions, inconsequential.  Attachments where attachments due, feeling detached.  Characters Good?  Bad?  These are descriptors – qualifying phrases applied to one and another, sometimes with cause and sometimes without.  Fruit salad.  Rabbits.  “Agents.”  Characterization lacking – list of goods, non-existence, list of bads, like The Goodbye Mister.  People stand for things, things mean what?  Control elements vs. language – power vs. power.  Nature vs. machine.


Prose/Style: 3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Jonathan Swift, but not really.  Eat the young?  Maybe. Probably – especially the boys, if they’re high.  To get high.  Brilliant in a way, subtle.  Subtle but over the top – possibilities previously impossible, unexplored.  “Good Grief, Charlie Brown.”  Masterful like Stein – obnoxious like Stein.  Henry Miller.  Love child. Cut-up experimentation, finished.  Culmination of phase, of trilogy, of mathematical series (four).  Onward to reality (which is what, exactly?).


Additional Elements: 3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

Control elements:  Government, Society, Culture.  Language is virus.  Language is power.  To catch the virus – to get sick – to make noise.  To be vocal, is power.  Is wrong and right.  Right is might.  Speak out against Control Elements.  Law powers create criminals to justify existence of Law powers.  Good creates bad to create good.  To be in control.  Addiction, dependence.  Junkies.  Criminals are the powerful ones – only if infected.  Infected with speech.  What is human?  Who defines humanity?  Addicts, homosexuals, criminals – disappear for utopia?  Not really.  Make more for Utopia? Not really.  Break down the walls – with voice – break down the walls to win.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Drugs, Privacy (Invasion of), Sexuality, Cut-Up Prose, Postmodernism, Beats, Culture

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Book Review, Dystopia, Fiction, Psychology, Science-Fiction, William Sleator, Young Adult

Review: House of Stairs by William Sleator

 House of Stairs by William Sleator

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 45


Plot/Story:

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

William Sleator’s House of Stairs is a fascinating psychological thriller about five orphans who are kidnapped, brought to an enormous facility (housed entirely of stairs and nothing but stairs) and left to their own devices.  They are controlled by a mysterious box which provides food – but at a cost.  Slowly, the box begins to subtly demand what it wants, and the teenagers must react and adapt accordingly, dancing a twisted dance of survival; if they refuse to participate or if they do not infer correctly what the box wants from them, they will go without food – and it is never certain when the next chance might come.  As three of the teenagers descend further and further into darkness and insanity, two others take a stand, willing to risk their lives to do what is right, rather than submit to the devious whims of whatever mad scientist controls the box.  House of Stairs is a psychological page-turner, similar to the likes of Cormier’s I Am the Cheese.  It is a rebuke of the over-reaches of science and a warning against the loss of humanity for the advancement of research. 


Characterization:

3 – Characters well developed.

Each of the characters in this book is interesting in his or her own way, including the scientist who makes a rather brief appearance at the end.  While I found certain characters a bit flat and overly simplified (such as the “fat girl,” Blossom, being always hungry and eager to steal food), others were genuinely interesting.  The main character, Peter, is one of the interesting ones.  He has a fascinating back-story and intriguing personality; unfortunately, because the book is so short – the more interesting characters do not get nearly enough time or development.  Learning more about Peter and his obsession with a boy named Jasper, or spending more time with the scientist and finding out what happens to him after his “results” presentation, could have gone a long way to developing this story as a work of master dystopia and science-fiction, rather than just a pretty good, interesting YA book.  What is an achievement, though, is the clear distinction between the characters – Abigail, the shy, pretty girl who wants to be good; Oliver, the dominant, popular kid who is needled with self-confidence issues; Blossom, the rich girl who was orphaned recently and knows of a world different from any of the others; Lola, the tough girl, who smokes, has sex (probably) and breaks pretty much any other rule she can; and Peter, the follower who just needs someone to believe in him and who turns out to be the one possible hero.  Thrown together, the five of them create an environment which is disturbingly fun to watch – it’s just too bad the story was so short.


Prose/Style:

3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Sleator is certainly a good writer.  His style and narrative voice, plus a great use of dialogue and an interesting plot all work together to create an interesting, worthy read – which makes me wonder why I had never heard of the book or author before.  The writing level is middle grade or young adult, but the themes are definitely YA+ so some parents may want to preview the book beforehand for violence, psychological abuse, and “mild” torture.   Despite the twisted elements, the skimmed histories, and the too-rapid, open-ended conclusion (or, perhaps because of these things), the book is still an enjoyable, quick read.  Much of this is thanks to the style and prose – this is an easy story to sink into, because the writing seems effortless, and it echoes what is happening in the story at any particular time. 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Aside from the general theme and moral of the story, what is also great about this book is that it presents elements which, in other books, might seem like a big deal (such as one of the characters being gay) but, in this book, just “happens to be.”  I also appreciated the study of human experimentation and the nature of violence and decline into madness.

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: High School +

Interest:  Dystopia; Psychological Experimentation; Nature of Violence; Survival of the Fittest; Government Control.

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1001 Books, Book Review, Dystopia, Fiction, George Orwell, Literature

Review: 1984 by George Orwell

1984 by George Orwell

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 43


Plot/Story:

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

In the country of Oceania, Big Brother is always watching.  Even the tiniest twitch in one’s face or a blink of recognition from one person to another is enough to condemn one as a traitor, a spy, or a thought-criminal.  Winston Smith is a thought criminal.  He is one of those who The Party employs to destroy printed history and recreate it, to suit The Party’s needs.  He knows what he does is wrong and one day purchases a small diary (the very act of which could incriminate him), which he keeps hidden in his home.  In this diary he writes down his thoughts about Big Brother, The Party, and the daily struggles he must go through just to appear “normal” (read: submissive and obedient).  Unfortunately, one day, he takes a step too far and trusts the wrong person, in hopes of joining a group known as The Brotherhood, which Winston believes exists to overthrow The Party.  He is soon arrested, tortured, and re-indoctrinated… released only after committing the deepest betrayal imaginable, his soul and spirit completely broken.  How can there be hope in a world where even one’s children will spy against his parent?  Where lovers will betray each other to save themselves?  There is no hope – there is only Big Brother.


Characterization:

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

Winston Smith’s development over the course of the novel is written brilliantly.  The mindset Orwell must have been in – the steel he would have needed in his bones – to write about this one lone character’s struggle for individuality and independence, like a gnat battling against an ocean tide, is incredible.  Winston’s slow-developing confidence, his minor decisions which move him closer and closer to large decisions, the methodical way in which Orwell allows Winston to come to realizations and make choices are all very natural and thus very exciting to witness. His character is what makes the plot work and his development is what keeps the reader engaged, rooting for him and hating Big Brother, to the death.  The minor characters as well, such as Winston’s mother, who appears only in memories; or O’Brien, one in possession of “the book” of rebellion are crucial to understanding Winston and the dynamic between what is good and what is evil – what makes a person a person, or an animal.  Winston and Julia’s relationship too, and Julia herself, are imperative to the final resolution.  Julia’s youth and dismissive attitude of Big Brother and The Party, in contrast to Winston’s defiance of it, show two interesting viewpoints – two hatreds of the power structure, but hatreds which developed for very different reasons (Julia has never known anything different, so hates it without any hope or understanding of things being different; Winston knows another time, so hates with a hope that Big Brother can be defeated).  Julia’s use of sex as a form of rebellion is also fascinating, particularly in relation to Winston’s use of writing/journaling.


Prose/Style:

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

What I knew about Orwell, from reading Animal Farm, was that he was a great writer.  He was smart, creative, and thoughtful.  He had great ideas and could put these ideas into story form with seemingly little effort.  What I know after reading 1984 is that Orwell was not just a great writer, but a masterful one.  His prose is almost cinematic – the words flow in such a way as to create flashes of images in one’s mind.  He connects his reader to the story, through the language.  When moments are tense, the language and prose reflect it.  When people are being secretive, deceptive, or easy-going, the style mirrors this.  The language he created, Newspeak, for the people of this universe is naturally incorporated into the story in a way which makes it understandable but appropriately different, and the appendix which explains “The Principals of Newspeak” – its development, mutations, purpose, etc. is genius. 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

George Orwell’s 1984 is a classic and a “must-read” on nearly every literary list imaginable, and for good reason.  Lord Acton once said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  1984 is the quest for power, in print.  Big Brother is the symbol of absolute, near-omnipotent power.  It is the figure-head or symbol for “The Party,” a group of humans completely obsessed with wielding unlimited power through the oppression of all other people.  To gain control, The Party employs people to alter history, making Big Brother appear infallible, and keeps people in a state of fear, where they must always doublethink rather than just “think.”  Orwell clearly held misgivings about the advent of electronic media and the potential for it to be misused or altered to suit the party in power’s needs.  I found myself relating this book to Fahrenheit 451 in that the primary themes are destruction of the self, blind loyalty to government and the law, and elimination of creative or independent thought in print (and the dissemination of those materials to others).  I also couldn’t help but hear the band Muse’s song Uprising playing in my head, whenever talk of The Brotherhood or rebellion came up:  “Paranoia is in bloom / The PR transmissions will resume / They’ll try to push drugs that keep us all dumbed down / And hope that we will never see the truth around / They will not force us, / They will stop degrading us, / They will not control us / We will be victorious.”  Although I did expect 1984 to end on a hopeful note, Orwell fully committed to this anti-utopian vision; The Party’s control and methods, crafted over decades, turn out to be resolute.  Interestingly enough, the follow-through and lack of happy ending, though part of me was hoping for something else, is actually what makes 1984 such a stand-out novel – powerful, thought-provoking, and terrifyingly possible.


Suggested Reading for:

Age Level:  High School +

Interest: anti-utopia, oppression, political/social oppression, rebellion, nature of power, nature of fear.

Notable Quotes:

“Four! Four! What else can I say? Four!”

“It is a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” 

“If there was hope, it lay in the proles!” 

“One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.  The object of persecution is persecution.  The object of torture is torture.  The object of power is power.” 

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Catching Fire, Dystopia, Fantasy, Suzanne Collins, Young Adult

Review: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 33


Plot/Story:

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

In book two of Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss, Peeta, Haymitch, Gale, and the gang are back – and better than ever.  In Catching Fire, Collins exposes her readers to the deeper horrors and animosities of the Capitol and of President Snow.  Just when Katniss and Peeta begin to feel safe, President Snow, ever vindictive, turns up in District 12 to remind them that they have defied him and the Capitol, and vengeance would be served.  Soon, the Hunger Games are brought to the districts and as uprisings begin to occur, Katniss and Peeta are dragged back to the games – their punishment for defying President Snow.  What this sequel has that the first book lacked is a deeper and more realistic connection between this fantasy story and the world around us.  The ideas of oppression, capital punishment, and resistance – passive and active- are well-developed, leaving the reader eager to find out what happens in the final installment of the series, Mockingjay.


Characterization:

3 – Characters well developed.

Though characterization is still one of the “weaker” elements in Collins’s series, Catching Fire was certainly an improvement over The Hunger Games.  The majority of the story takes place in the districts, rather than inside the Games themselves, so the reader spends much more time with Katniss in the “real” world.  This allows her relationships with Gale, with Peeta, and with Haymitch to grow and develop further, which is interesting to watch and builds the connections necessary for the reader to really start to care about what happens to them (something the first book lacked).  Minor characters, too, like Cinna, refugees from various districts, and some of the previous Hunger Games victors are given page-time and attention, which adds to the believability and intrigue of this story’s universe.


Prose/Style:

3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Once again, Collins demonstrates her talent for progressing a story smoothly, naturally, and at an appropriate pace.  As with the first book, there are some disappointing deus-ex-machina moments, which provide resolutions to seemingly irresolute problems; however, in this case, the deus-ex-machina serves as a cliffhanger and catalyst for the third and final book.  This is an added complication from the conflict resolutions employed in The Hunger Games and, overall, it works.  There were moments where the story seemed to move too rapidly, as when the victors are called back to the Capitol.  At times, these rapid changes made it seem as if Collins was writing the story without much forethought and without a clear idea of where she was heading with the story.  This might not be the case, but the final impression is ultimately what matters.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

The tension Collins builds in this second book is superb, and it adds that realistic element readers of the series might be looking for after the knock-out introduction to the story, provided by book one.  The idea of this story is what to love about it – the writing is good, the characterization is getting better, and the setting is interesting, but it is really the premise and underlying themes which make the book tick.  Basic human rights and the idea that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” are at the core of this series, and it is a notion which is easily relatable to current events and human history.  President Snow is like the love-child of Hitler and Nero – a leader who rules by fear and who is so evil and sadistic, he must be clinically insane.  The psychological aspects too – how family, friends, and neighbors cope with sending their children off to die (or fight to the death)- are intriguing, and the new element – the resistance of the Districts against the cruelty and corruption of the Capitol government is just what this series needed to lift-off.  Interesting, entertaining, and thought-provoking.  Not to mention a little bit terrifying.


Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: MG, YA, Adult

Interest: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Dystopia, War Games, Politics,

Notable Quotes:

“The bird, the pin, the song, the berries, the watch, the cracker, the dress that burst into flames. I am the mockingjay. The one that survived despite the Capitol’s plans. The symbol of the rebellion.”

“So it’s you and a syringe against the Capitol? See, this is why no one lets you make the plans.”

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Ayn Rand, Book Review, Dystopia, Fiction, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, Monthly Review, Philosophy

Review: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Final Verdict: 1.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 13


Plot/Story: 
1 – Unbelievable Plot/Story.

I must preface this review by stating that, having read Ayn Rand’s “About the Author” section, prior to reading this book, I commenced this monster with the complete knowledge that Ayn Rand was a liar and a hypocrite.  In her “About the Author” section, she states: “I had a difficult struggle, earning my living at odd jobs, until I could make a financial success of my writing.  No one helped me, nor did I think at any time that it was anyone’s duty to help me.”  The premise of the book expands on this, in essence demonizing any personal, unselfish acts of altruism or charity, and calling for the overthrow of any government which enacts social welfare programs for the needy, underprivileged, or even mentally/physically disabled.  Yet, Ayn Rand herself cashed-in on Social Security (welfare) benefits and was a recipient of Medicare and public aid later in life, when she became afflicted with lung cancer.  She reaped the benefits of these services, however, under another name – and through a legal agency.

This introduction is all by way of saying: you cannot take Ayn Rand’s philosophical stance, expounded nauseatingly transparently in Atlas Shrugged, seriously whatsoever; so, naturally, you cannot take the plot seriously either.  Still, though I could not agree with the philosophy or so-called morality of the book’s message, I will still review it as a whole, objectively, by viewing it objectively – in a way which, ironically, Ayn Rand, mother of Objectivism, could not view anything in any way whatsoever. 

Essentially, the book tells the story of the “human elites” – the small group of men (and one woman) who have reached the pinnacle of human achievement and who, after bearing the burden of society’s injustices for so long, disappear and leave the world to collapse without them.  To me, reading the book was a bizarre experience – one which I am grateful for, in a way, in that it exposed me to a type of thinking and belief system which is completely antithetical to my own: it was like Superman being trapped inside the mind of Lex Luthor; it was like Harry Potter being trapped inside the mind of Voldemort.   The book is disguised as a type of dystopian murder-mystery, wherein a group of “Freedom Fighters” attempt to overthrow and undermine the atavistic government.  The government is supposedly turning the inventors, the big businessmen, the corporate geniuses into slaves – demanding that they become servile to the working class. 


Characterization:
2 – Characters slightly developed.

This section, too, almost received the lowest possible rating; the only saving grace for Rand’s characters is that 1) they are clearly (if disgustingly) imagined and 2) I have read worse characterization.  Still, all of the characters in this book are absurd grotesques of the virtues and vices of Rand’s mind.  The heroes and champions all share the same motives, characteristics, instincts, and supposed laudable qualities – like selfishness, lack of emotional feeling, and assumption that sexual acts are only merited when they happen as the result of the meeting of two “worthy” minds.  The villains, too, are the same person with different names.  They are all portrayed as soft, bumbling, lecherous, and needy.  Any character who believes in kindness toward or charity for their fellow man is a fool and a danger to society.  Any character who believes that thousands may die, should they not prove their “right” to life by inventing something or by running a business, is thereby deemed moral and good.  It’s an absurd romp-through a tops-turvy la-la-land of philosophical horror, and it is no wonder that Ayn Rand conceitedly snipes at Aristotle in her afterword, because Aristotle, had he read her work, would likely lambast her to no end, and possibly encourage the natives to slip some hemlock in her wine. 


Prose/Style:

 2 – Prose/Style in need of Development but works.

Oh, where to begin.  Fortunately, Ayn Rand is not difficult to read because she writes rather pedestrianly.  She has no mastery of prose or language whatsoever, which is perhaps why she later admitted to never being able to amass her riches as a writer.  She comes across as a peculiar confluence of Harlequin romance writer meeting undergraduate Philosophy major.  At any given time, you may be reading about the heated love-making of two powerful beings, scenes lacking any depth or connection whatsoever and which make you wonder whether Rand ever got any (I sure wouldn’t go near it).  Then, inexplicably, the writing becomes that of an essayist who is determined to beat his theory into your head and gives you that same beating over and over and over, in different forms but of the same message (Making money is life’s highest goal and having money is life’s highest achievement).  When it gets really strange is when the pounding of that message gets muddled up with the oddly numerous instances of sexual passion – and, also weirdly, that the beating tends to manifest itself in every man brutally dominating, physically and sexually, the one primary female character – she gets it rough from three different men, and loves it every time.   What, exactly, is this supposed to tell us about Ms. Rand’s philosophy, I wonder? 


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

2 – Additional elements are present but do not develop the Story.

The reading experience, well, it was awful, horrible, terrible – and enlightening.  That people like Ayn Rand exist in the world is something which I would gladly deny or ignore but, if there is one thing to praise about this book, it is that it forces one’s eyes –and mind- open to the possibility of true evil.  And it does so unsparingly, not with the touch of an angel’s fingertips on your eyelids, but with a cold iron wrench.  You can see, I am pulling no punches, and for a book whose final sentence -after 1200 pages of ideological, polarized and supposedly didactic “story-telling”  is as follows, you can, I hope, understand why: “He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.”  Seriously?

The book discusses morality in a fringe, whacked-out way, only made possible by the twisted mind of a sociopath.  What is “good” and what is “evil” is reversed, and all binaries are eliminated, so that the world, apparently, can only exist in “actuals” – in clear black and white, either or.  Indeed, the “middle-ground” world in which we truly live is laughed at, scoffed at as if mediation, moderation, or compromise is simply an attempt by menials to refuse responsibility or real action.  Instead, Rand’s heroes claim total and complete philosophical, economic, and intellectual right in all they believe, simply because they believe it and put it into action – and it is that principal, “action,” in addition to the glory of wealth and private property, which stands as a beacon for what is holy and moral. 

Now, to be fair and objective, there were moments of this book that I enjoyed – the swashbuckling ending, for instance, which felt like something straight out of the A-Team – that was fun! I also appreciated Rand’s point that hard work will and should pay off, and that every person should have a meaningful purpose in life, a driving force or goal which inspires and fulfills them.  But, where she loses me is when she jumps off from that point into the abyss of selfishness, stating that the only real goals worth having are the ones that are financially rewarding, and which deny any admittance of charity. She says, even in romantic relationships and friendships, that giving for the sake of giving – just being generous- is an act of immorality.  Sorry, but not in my book.

It is incredible to read about a type of America wherein people have only emotions or intellect, but not both; an American where people are either superficial and selfish businessmen or wholly altruistic, giving, selfless mystics, but never elements of each.  It is even more incredible to learn of an author who would put the formers – the greed, the selfishness, the amassed wealth without concern for the needy, on higher moral ground than the selfless servants of man.  Rand scolds the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and even Jesus Christ, in favor of complete and total Capitalist might.  It is not hard to see why this book would be a favorite amongst college students, those impressionable youths who are breaking free from their parents, throwing off rules, and heading out to conquer the world – but it is horrifying to think that some of them might actually believe that Rand’s is an acceptable or just way of doing it. 


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adults

Interest: Sociopathic Capitalism, Criminal Negligence of Thought, Antipathy, Pseudo-philosophy, anti-altruism, whack-a-doodle world views

Notable Quotes:

“The Utopia of Greed” (Title of Part Three, Chapter Two)

            -The one quote, in my opinion, which sums up this entire sham of a novel.

“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark. In the hopeless swamps of the not quite, the not yet, and the not at all, do not let the hero in your soul perish and leave only frustration for the life you deserved, but never have been able to reach. The world you desire can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours.”

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2011 Challenges, 2011 TBR Challenge, Book Review, Dystopia, Fantasy, Fiction, Jeanne DuPrau, Post-Apocalyptic, Science-Fiction

Review: The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0
YTD: 4

Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

It is sometime in the future, on planet Earth, and something rather terrible has happened. For reasons not explained (though one would infer nuclear apocalypse), most of the world’s population has been eliminated, and only a small few survive, deep below the Earth, generations after the catastrophic event. They have no knowledge of their true origins, or of what happened centuries before their births. All they know is a group of people named “The Builders” created their city and left it stocked with an inexhaustible amount of supplies. That is – the people of Ember thought their supplies were never-ending. As it happens, the people were to have vacated the city some time ago, using instructions left for them by the builders. They were supposed to have resurfaced and rebuilt their community above ground, before supplies ran out, but those instructions were lost – and it is up to two inquisitive and daring twelve-year-old children, who stumble upon the instructions, to find their way out and get a message to the rest of the city: Egress!

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

The two main characters, Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow, are twelve year olds who have just graduated from school and gone off to join the city’s work force, as all citizens do at the age of twelve. Lina is fiercely loyal and has a strong sense of morality – wanting to do what is right. She is protective of her young sister and respectful of her grandmother and other elders, though she does not hesitate to let adults know when they are in the wrong. Doon is independent and hot-tempered, but sensitive. He too has a strong connection to his family, and his primary goal is to make his father proud. Unlike Lina, though, Doon is more able to leave the city behind and to let its people fend for themselves, preferring to leave further instructions for everyone on how to get out, rather than guide them. Doon’s independence comes across as uncaring or unsympathetic, which makes Lina, in contrast, seem to be the true leader (though she turns out to be forgetful – a trait which could cost the entire city but, fortunately, a convenient dues-ex-machina at the end is her -and their- salvation). These two are well written and distinct, as are the other minor characters, such as the Mayor, Lina’s caring neighbor, the botanist, and the shady shopkeeper. The characters do not have much depth, but this is a young adult novel, so they are as engaging as necessary, without complicating the story.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
*This portion has a few minor spoilers

The highest achievement for this book is the writing. Dialogue and prose are both very well done – simple but not boring, and well-paced overall. The most impressive example of the masterful writing, though, is in all that is described rather than told. This is necessary in a book where the people have forgotten their histories and do not know the meaning of many words or the uses for many tools. One of the greatest moments of the book is when Lina and Doon discover a boat, but have no idea what it is. Fortunately, “The Builders” anticipated this, and have left small cards indicating what each item on/around the boat is (though, not what it does). This type of description happens again later, when Lina and Doon come to the surface and see, for the first time, things like grass, the moon, the sun, a small animal and a new kind of fruit (fresh, not canned). None of these things have names, for the citizens of Ember, so they do not get names in the book – the reader does not witness Lina gazing at the moon but, instead, at the silver lantern in the sky. These types of necessary descriptions for common objects turn out to be some of the most beautiful and thought-provoking moments in the book.

Additional Elements:
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

Overall, this book is an interesting take on the post-apocalyptic novel. Many of this genre are set in other places – outer space, other planets, underwater. Many are set on Earth itself, but an Earth changed – barren and hostile. The City of Ember, though, is one of the few set almost entirely underground (preceded by Suzanne Martel’s The City Underground in 1963). This makes for an intriguing and uncomfortable story – witnessing people of Earth living under ground, with no knowledge that they are underground; instead, they simply think they are the one and only city – nothing exists outside the city limits, except darkness. There is a definite moral element to the story, a damning indictment of the nature of humanity – condemning and chastising a people who would willingly bring their civilizations to destruction and force their offspring to live miles below the Earth, their histories a complete mystery. There is also an examination of the dangers of power and greed – the age-old tale of a community forced to suffer due to the immorality and cowardice of its leader. Each of these themes is strong and woven well enough into the storyline to make it present without being overt. The one minor nuisance is the story’s resolution (though, of course, the story goes on in subsequent books) – the last few moments of the book allow Lina and Doon to look down upon their city, in an interesting way, but one which, in this reader’s opinion, puts the book’s realism in question.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Young Adult
Interest: Dystopia, Eschatology, Post-Apocalyptic Society, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Friendship, Adventure, Coming-of-Age

This book is now available in the SHOP @ Roof Beam Reader

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