Book Review, Christopher Phillips, Death and Dying, Fiction, George Saunders, Grief/Recovery, Historical Fiction, LGBT, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Potpour-reads, Will Walton, Young Adult

Lincoln, Socrates, and A Funeral

In this third “potpour-reads” post, I share some quick thoughts on three recent reads, all of which were completed in June. Somehow, none of these books are ones from any of my challenge lists. Go figure. I read Lincoln in the Bardo because it is getting a lot of attention and because it sounded interesting. I read Socrates Café because I have been pivoting toward philosophy and history pretty heavily in the last couple of months (since January, really, when I began my focused study of Stoicism); and I read I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain largely based on the recommendation of the incomparable Andrew Smith, who has not steered me wrong, yet.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo is unlike anything I have ever read. It is a contemporary postmodernism married with black humor and historical fiction. As a first novel, it seems a stunning achievement, though this is the first Saunders work I have read at all, so I do not know how it compares to his short stories. (I’ve had Tenth of December sitting on my shelf for years, having purchased it only a few weeks after it was published; it is safe to say I plan to get to it sooner rather than later, now.) Essentially, Saunders combines historical accounts of Lincoln’s life and presidency with fictional ones that he creates, and then interweaves in almost testimonial fashion between the narrative portion, which is told by a trio of bizarre ghosts who meet one of Lincoln’s sons and, through him, the President himself. I’ve read a number of reviews that found the humor in this book to be off-putting and even inappropriate. I can understand their point, as some of the bawdy comedy does seem to come out of left-field. And yet, I can’t help thinking about what I’ve learned about Lincoln’s sense of humor over the years. It seems to me that he would actually appreciate the irreverent take on his life and legacy, particularly as it highlights the elements of human nature that Saunders explores, here, including fear, sexuality, death, mental health, and loneliness. It is safe to say that I did not know what to expect of Lincoln in the Bardo, even after reading the description and other reviews. Then, when reading the book, it somehow managed to be even more different than I thought it would be. In this way, I think, it deserves all the praise it has received as a contemporary masterpiece and a novel approach to, well, the novel. I was also thrilled that Saunders explored a lot of contemporary issues that are actually historical, yet would have been “taboo” for discussion in Lincoln’s time

Socrates Café by Christopher Phillips

I have been reading much more non-fiction, lately, including history and philosophy. I stumbled upon Christopher Phillips’s Socrates Café while perusing the philosophy section of Barnes & Noble for contemporary overviews (I’ve been in a kind of “self-help” exploratory approach to the history of philosophy, I guess.) Despite reading the blurb, this is another book that caught me slightly off-guard and was not what I had expected. It is in many ways a reference guide to creating your own Socrates Café, something I had never considered and yet left the book feeling, “well, why the hell not?” I loved Phillips passion, though I did sometimes feel like the examples he gave from his own cafes around the country seemed a little far-fetched. Maybe they did happen, I don’t know, but he himself says that most of this was reconstructed after the fact, so I can’t help thinking he added a bit more flair and impressive insight than might have occurred originally. (So many of his café participants seemed to know so much about philosophy, for example, and could quote a range of philosophers from memory.) In this way, I found the book might be setting false expectations for people who are using it as a guide to beginning their own Socrates Cafe. That said, as a generally interested reader, one who is on his own journey to learn more about ancient philosophies andto think more thoughtfully about the current world, this book does an excellent job of putting the two together. In the end, it did make me want to get out there and engage with other thoughtful people, to ask big and small questions without expecting concrete answers, and to wonder gleefully about all manner of things. I think, then, Phillips does what he set out to do: make philosophy exciting again.

I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain by Will Walton

Like Lincoln in the Bardo, Will Walton’s young adult novel about grief and loss, I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain, is a creative approach to narrative (and verse) fiction. It was also not what I expected from the blurb and from reading other reviews, and yet somehow ended up being much more satisfying, much more curious, than I imagined it would be. I’ve been let down by “hype” on too many occasions, as I think we all have, but in this case, I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain lives up to the hype without necessarily living up to expectations. I’m not sure how to clarify that except to say, even though the book did not meet my expectations, I ended up appreciating it and what it does in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. This is mostly due to its construction and to the fact that, somehow, Walton manages to create that sense of grief in his text, the confusion, the sense of drowning, the psychological wandering we do when we have lost someone important to us. There are a lot of books about grief and loss, some of them are beautiful in the way they treat the subject or in the language they use to explore it. Walton’s is beautiful because, inexplicably, it simply reads like the experience of grief. I think back to a time when I most felt a terrible loss and can easily connect those feelings to the way this narrative is told and the way it unfolds, in choppy segments, in distant characterization, and in the interplay of concrete prose and transcendent verse. My only personal critique was that I felt, sometimes, like some of the segments read as if they were creative prompts inserted for the sake of it, and not as if they developed along the course of this particular story. That said, I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain, is a special book that explores a difficult topic in a unique way. It is unlike anything else on the market this year.

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Ancient Greece, Classics, History, Marcus Aurelius, Philosophy, Stoicism

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180. Marcus Aurelius was known as one of the “Five Good Emperors” and was, indeed, the last of those. Having followed such Emperors as Caligula and Nero, Marcus Aurelius, a stoic general, fair but fierce, was well-respected in his time and remained so afterward, although his son Commodus thought he was weak (mistaking patience, poise, and temperament for weakness). My edition is the Penguin Classics Clothbound, which has both a brilliant introduction and exceptional end notes. 

The Meditations are essentially a collection of diary entries. Marcus Aurelius takes a philosophical and introspective approach to assessing his own personal and political life, including his relationships with family, friends, and teachers. He treats his daily and his whole life as a constant work-in-progress. One of the more unique aspects of this text is that they were never meant for public consumption, so one might argue that they have a rare honesty  and vulnerability in comparison with other classical texts.

When I first read the Meditations, I took them one at a time. This was a slow process, as each entry tends to be just a few lines in length, and there are hundreds of them. This time, I read them rather quickly, as a refresher/re-introduction to Stoic philosophy, which I am practicing much more practically and conscientiously this year (I am reading a variety of stoic writings but also engaging in a year-long daily stoic reading and writing exercise). Reading Marcus Aurelius was a helpful start because, like many of us (and probably more than most), as an Emperor and general, he was an extremely busy man. He felt the weight of the world on his shoulders and had to spend a lot of time on others’ needs. As a stoic, he often reminded himself to distinguish between what is necessary and what is frivolous, what he could control and what he could not; and he maintained perspective by writing daily, whenever he could find the time (usually in the morning or the evening).

In that spirit, I have been doing the same: reminding myself to control what I can, and to let go what I cannot. It has also been important to find time to write every day. Most of Marcus Aurelius’s writings seem to be reflections, which means he probably wrote them at night before bed; I have been trying to write briefly in the morning, pondering a particular stoic teaching and beginning my day with it in mind, and then writing briefly at night, reflecting on where I was successful or where I could do better. The exercises have been helpful in my personal and professional life so far, and thinking about them in context with one of the original and most prominent stoic philosophers has been an interesting experiment.

The Meditations are separated into twelve books, each with its own theme (sometimes tightly woven, sometimes a bit looser). They range from reflections on politics and his role as Emperor, to lessons learned from the important people in his life, to thoughts on religion and spirituality, atheism and the afterlife. Whether taking a single entry at a time, or one book at a time, or any combination thereof, the Meditations reveal the perpetual process of a thoughtful man determined to live a good life, to treat others better (though that was a daily struggle), and to find peace in the chaos.

Some of my particular favorite entries:

“It is ridiculous not to escape from one’s own vices, which is possible, while trying to escape the vices of others, which is impossible.” (7.71)

“Vanity is the greatest seducer of reason: when you are most convinced that your work is important, that is when you are most under its spell.” (6.13)

“Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny – what fraction of that are you?” (5.24)

“Fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you – but your love must be genuine.” (6.39)

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2018 TBR Pile Challenge, Aristotle, Classics, Criticism, Essay, Philosophy

Aristotle’s Poetics

What can I say about Aristotle’s Poetics that has not already been said, and by those much more capable? Certainly, despite being just a collection of drafts and journal entries, this is one of the most significant, relevant, and pervasive pieces of literary criticism in the western tradition. It continues to influence readers and scholars alike. While some have said the work is difficult to read and understand, I thought the Malcolm Heath translation (Penguin Classics 1996) was excellent, and the Introduction even better.

Heath takes Aristotle’s Poetics chapter-by-chapter, explaining what each of the core concepts is in any given part of the text, then elaborating with details, explanations, and contemporary context, which makes the original text much more readable. It was particularly helpful to read the introduction because the translation itself dropped some of the original language, without reference. For example, mimesis, hamartia, and katharsis, three incredibly important terms in literary criticism (including the study of rhetoric, drama, and narrative), are addressed by descriptions of their functions, only, and the translated terms (imitation, error, and purification) are what is given in the text itself. This is one of the few flaws I found in the translation because, presumably, anyone reading this text is doing so for edification on the topics of literary study and should hopefully be aware of the Greek terms that we continue to use in conversation of these topics, even 2,000-plus years later.  

That slight blip aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Aristotle’s Poetics. The majority of his musings are about dramatic tragedy, particularly in comparison to dramatic comedy, which he finds a lesser art form. That said, much of what he describes also applies to the study of narrative fiction and storytelling more generally. His methods of analysis, too, are fascinating in that they illustrate how one might go about “doing” the work of literary criticism, not to mention that his insights provide excellent food for thought regarding the dramas he analyzes himself (such as works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Homer). Of the utmost interest is the idea that readers (more appropriately: audiences) derive pleasure from what are often painful emotions related to tragedies: fear, anger, loss, disappointment, etc. This, of course, leads to Aristotle’s explanation of catharsis and supports his argument that the cathartic experience of reading emotional works or witnessing an emotional play (of a specific type, at a specific sophistication, and for a certain privileged kind of audience) is the reason why storytelling is so powerful and effective.

One of the most unique and compelling aspects of Aristotle’s analysis, for me, has to do with the study of character, and what makes a “good” character. Aristotle claims that the character needs to be moral, but not perfect. He should be believable in his purposes and his struggles, but should also be “better” than we are, so that we can look to him as one to admire and so that we react rightly when said character falls. I think of the kinds of books I most often respond to, and they do indeed tend to have characters that are flawed but noble, that often fail but do great good (either actually or didactically/philosophically). In treating my thoughts on characterization in book reviews, I will try to consider Aristotle’s perspectives a bit more closely.

Aristotle also explains the function of plot and describes which are better or worse, depending on their constructions and outcomes. He describes “ordered structure” for example, and the idea that even in chaos, there must be some kind of realistic expectation for the events that are occurring. In other words, a character/reader/audience might be surprised by something that happens, but whatever it is that happens must be probable to the situation at hand. This is somehow both an obvious observation but also a profound one: how many plots have run afoul because the author seemed to throw in some plot device or tangent that made no sense and that could have been removed without influencing the story whatsoever? Everything must have a purpose. Whereas I found the exploration on character interesting from my perspective as a reader, I find this analysis of effective plots invaluable when thinking about my work as a writer.

The last element I found most fascinating, though I am skipping plenty that is interesting for the sake of brevity and because I simply did not conduct an academic reading on this text, is the idea of language. Aristotle criticizes some of his contemporaries who balked at the fact that some poets were using colloquial language. He writes that “the most important quality in diction is clarity, provided there is no loss of dignity” and adds that “the clearest diction is that based on current words” (36). He argues that the best language is that which is “some kind of mixture” of diction that is both clear and out of the ordinary, traditional and inventive. In many ways, I think this argument presages what Shakespeare would do in retelling familiar stories but couching it in the language of the people, even going so far as to invent much of the language he needed because it simply didn’t exist yet (or didn’t fit into his rhyme scheme). It is heartening to think that Aristotle, one of the foremost minds in all of western philosophy and an authority on language, was not an old fuddy-duddy.  

Aristotle’s Poetics is book 2 completed for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

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1001 Books, Classics, Classics Club, Hermann Hesse, Philosophy

Thoughts: Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

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Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 3

Siddhartha is the story of, well, Siddhartha. It begins when he is a young boy in India, well-liked and well-respected by his peers and elders. He is on the path to holiness, surpassing even his masters in his knowledge and spiritual awareness (much like Christ). Siddhartha “is the story of a soul’s long quest in search of the ultimate answer to the enigma of man’s role on this earth.” As Siddhartha ages, he tries different means of achieving the ultimate enlightenment, first believing he must separate himself from the world in order to find the true “Self” within – then thinking the “Self” must be destroyed or ignored before one can find peace. He meets the Buddha and, while even his closest friends become followers, Siddhartha decides that he cannot find truth and Nirvana by following anyone else’s teachings, even if those teachings seem true. The story comes full circle, and it is only when Siddhartha is an old man, having faced and succumbed to temptations of wealth, sex, and power, that he finds himself in the quiet solitude of nature and learns that, to be one’s self, one must be willing to teach himself, to learn by himself, and to chisel out a path, slowly and painfully, just for himself.

Siddhartha is the main character throughout, and he is well-developed, particularly in terms of change in the “self” over time. The story of his sacrifice is believable, as is the story of his fall to vice and lust. Perhaps the most well-flushed episode is late in the book, when Siddhartha grows old and finds the land, and the sense of self, which will allow him to reach that place of inner-peace and calm that he had been searching for, for so long. Vesudeva, the ferryman who becomes Siddhartha’s closest friend and silent mentor, is equally interesting, which is appropriate as he and Siddhartha’s paths to enlightenment will ultimately coincide. The minor characters, such as the Buddha, Siddhartha’s son (Siddhartha Jr.), and Govinda, Siddhartha’s loyal but ever-searching friend, are relatively flat but serve their purpose, which is to advance Siddhartha’s journey toward awakening.

In addition to an interesting and thought-provoking story with believable and purpose-driven characters, Hesse employs an almost mystical prose which, though modern, is reminiscent of epic poetry or biblical storytelling. His narrative descriptions and use of dialogue are well meted and poised. The language is sensual, which parallels the deep, searching premise of the story itself.

This was an interesting reading experience. The book is one which should be approached with an open mind and in a calm setting. It is not very long (my edition was 122 pages) and, while it may not be feasible for everyone to read it in a single sitting, I do recommend it – although, not if that will cause the reader to rush. This reading experience should be savored. There were moments where I felt, genuinely, that Siddhartha was a complete idiot and that Hesse’s message was becoming completely antithetical to the original premise and to my own perceptions of the soul and the meaning of life.  But then there were moments (including the Siddhartha’s final enlightenment) where I thought, “Hesse: You’ve pierced me.” This is a novel, but also a philosophy. It reminds me of Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych – a story that can be enjoyed for its literary brilliance, but also for its philosophical message, one which will resound for days, months, and years after.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Philosophy, Enlightenment, Soul-searching, Wisdom, Meaning of Life, Education

Notable Quotes:

“I have spent a long time and have not yet finished, in order to learn this . . . that one can learn nothing” (15).

“Through thought alone feelings become knowledge and are not lost, but become real and begin to mature” (30).

“This riddle, that I live, that I am one and am separated and different from everybody else . . . and about nothing in the world do I know less than about myself” (31).

“Writing is good, thinking is better. Cleverness is good, patience is better” (53).

“I am not going anywhere. I am only on the way” (75).

Siddhartha is Book 8 for my Classics Club Challenge.

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1001 Books, Book Review, Classics, Doctoral Work, Literature, Naturalism, Philosophy, Re-Reads, Realism, Theodore Dreiser

Review: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 33


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

Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie is perhaps the perfect example of American Naturalism.  In it, a small-town Wisconsin girl, Carrie Meeber, moves to Chicago to live with her sister and brother-in-law.  While on the train into the city, she meets a man named Charles Drouet, and this encounter (characterized by Carrie’s adoration of his fancy clothes and well-to-do appearance) will set in motion Carrie’s entire future.  Carrie’s life is filled with example after example of good fortune and coincidence, so that, without taking any real agency of her own, she finds herself elevated from the lowest levels of society (once forced to work in the harshest of factory conditions) to the ranks of wealth and stardom, on Broadway.  Concurrently, the life of her second lover, Hurstwood, begins to deteriorate as of the day he meets her.  At the start, he is a powerful, charming, and accomplished business man.  His wife and children are normal and healthy, although rather self-absorbed.  Soon, the powers of fate and destiny converge on Hurstwood & Carrie – their lives are linked and their livelihoods inverted.  Hurstwood falls tragically and cannot seem to find his way back, while Carrie rises ever higher, without ever putting in much effort of her own.  But, though she ultimately achieves her dreams, she is never happy, never satisfied.  She is lost in a world of “cosmopolitan morality,” where success is defined by things and where possessions are consumed at an ever-growing rate, in an attempt to fill an un-fillable void.


Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

There are two main characters in Sister Carrie, including Carrier herself, as well as George Hurstwood.  Although the story’s title would lead readers to believe that the story is all about Carrie, it is not hard to argue that the true main character ends up being Hurstwood (whose decline is ultimately much more interesting than Carrie’s rise).  Carrie is naïve, but not inept.  She is not exactly a coquette – not immoral, by any means, but she is quite possibly amoral.  For most of the book, she lacks completely any agency – she allows others to guide her and care for her.  Fortunately, this ultimately works for her, and it is not until near the end of the story, where her relationship with Hurstwood has become interchanged (Carrie becoming the powerful and wealth partner), when she takes a firm action of her own and leaves him to his poverty.  The fact that her one self-guided action is to leave Hurstwood when he is down says much about her character, as does the fact that, though she becomes increasingly wealthy and famous, she remains wholly unsatisfied and lonely. 

In addition to these main two, there is Drouet, a prominent secondary character.  Without Drouet, Carrie’s story could not exist.  He is a constant throughout – never changing much, never learning or growing.  He does eventually come to love Carrie, but only after she has gone out of his reach (becoming desirable to him after it is impossible for him to have her).  Drouet’s constancy allows for the inversion of Carrie and Hurstwood’s situation to be put into perspective – their changes are made clearer in relation to Drouet’s stationary presence.  Finally, there are a few prominent tertiary characters, such as Mr. Ames, who is the one person Carrie seems to love and respect most in the world and the one person she wishes most to be like (and be with), but who is also the one person Carrie could never truly understand.  Ames is an intellectual – a philosopher and he is entirely without need for commercial things.  Carrie is in awe of his ability to be content with whatever he has, because she can never seem to get enough.  In addition to those, there are quite a few minor characters (such as Carrie’s sister and Mrs. Vance’s brother).  Dreiser’s characterization is brilliant, in that each cast member has a clear and necessary purpose to the story.


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

The only downfall of this novel, for me, was the prose.  Dreiser’s writing was heavily criticized as being pedantic, ungrammatical, and long-winded (even elephantine).  Take, for example, the following passages:

“The, to Carrie, very important theatrical performance was to take place at the Avery on conditions which were to make it more noteworthy than was at first anticipated.” 

“They had young men of the kind whom she, since her experience with Drouet, felt above, who took them out.”

Clearly, Dreiser was not a master of the poetic.  His prose is often clunky and, some would say, cheap or common.  Dreiser himself, as well as some of his defendants, assert that his style is actually presented this way as artistic choice – that he was seeking to present “an accurate description of life as it is,” which means narrating in the way common people would think and talk.  A poetic or graceful prose, then, would be unrealistic of the circumstances described within Sister Carrie and thus his style makes perfect sense.

Whether or not it was true artistic choice, it comes across as sub-par prose from a journalist-turned-novelist who still had much to learn about writing style.  Fortunately, his descriptions and dialogue were generally solid, and his use of concrete and purposeful themes/symbols (the rocking chair, the sea, etc.) throughout help raise the overall tone and value of the prose.  


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

William Dean Howells, critic and novelist (and the one man, other than Mark Twain, who was responsible for the success of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) is considered by most to be the father of Realism.  In his explanation of Realism, he stated that it is “nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material.”  There should be nothing sensational, nothing inexplicable in a story, if it is to be considered of literary consequence.  (This is, perhaps, why I found his book The Rise of Silas Lapham so incredibly boring, but I digress!).  He and other Realists believed that the following principles of life were truth, and thus make up the doctrine of Realism in literature.

–       That the world is amoral.
–       The men/women have no free will. 
–       That lives are controlled by heredity and environment.
–       That religion’s truths are illusory.
–       That the destiny of humanity was misery and oblivion in death.

If one takes these principles into account when reading Sister Carrie, then it becomes clear that not only is Dreiser a practitioner of Realism, but this text might be one of the best examples of theory-in-practice.  Each of these five thoughts about life are clearly present in the novel.  Dreiser was a true Naturalist, in that he believed we were all drifting along on a sea of pre-determination, destined to end up wherever life would have us end up.  The choices we make have very little bearing on what we will be or where we will go, because all of that has been decided for us already (not by God, but by a confluence of fate and chance). 

In addition to Sister Carrie being a brilliant example of Realism (if not the best written example), there is also much to examine in regards to the themes of morality, materialism, fate/fortune, cosmopolitan (city) life and even romance.  Its place in the canon of American literature is well-deserved, both as an example of a shift in the treatment of women (previous to Dreiser, most “lost” women would end up dead) and in the shift from American Romanticism to Naturalism.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Determinism/Fatalism, Naturalism, Realism, American History, Rural-City dichotomy.


Notable Quotes:

“She looked into her glass and saw a prettier Carrie than she had seen before; she looked into her mind, a mirror prepared of her own and the world’s opinions, and saw a worse. Between these two images she wavered, hesitating which to believe.”

“People in general attach too much importance to words. They are under the illusion that talking effects great results. As a matter of fact, words are, as a rule, the shallowest portion of all the argument. They but dimly represent the great surging feelings and desires which lie behind. When the distraction of the tongue is removed, the heart listens.” 

“When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse” 

“A real flame of love is a subtle thing. It burns as a will-o’-the-wisp, dancing onward to fairy lands of delight. It roars as a furnace. Too often jealousy is the quality upon which it feeds.” 

“Men are still led by instinct before they are regulated by knowledge.”

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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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Angst, Book Review, Culture, Depression, Fiction, Loneliness, Philosophy, Tao Lin

Review: Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin

Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin
Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD:  7

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

The title of this novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, should be enough to tip off the reader that the book is going to be, well, a bit odd.  And it is.  While many aspects of the book are entirely believable – even to the point of being mundanely typical- some elements are just, well, completely inexplicable.  Still, Tao Lin leaves no room for doubt in these bizarre situations, so the reader must push forward, accept what is happening (like talking bears with depression, and homicidal dolphin philosophers, for example), and try to wade through the nonsense to get the picture being presented, which is one of hopelessness and lethargy.  This book is a scathing, though creative, argument against American capitalism, which Lin seems to believe has been a creative and moral leech on society and progress.

Characterization:
2 – Characters slightly developed.

The main character, Andrew, is a depressed, socially awkward, slightly delusional twenty-year-old pizza delivery man, with an obsession for a girl who may or may not exist.  The reader must wonder whether or not he is just weird, or if he might be suffering from some serious acid-trips gone wrong, considering the amount of time he spends talking to humanoid animals – most of which are just as depressed, sad, and bizarre as Andrew is himself.  His friend, Steve, and Steve’s family are equally weird, though not so strange as Andrew (one can imagine that the other characters, though just as lazy, could possibly succeed at something whereas Andrew will surely never amount to anything).  There is little depth to any of the characters, and absolutely no growth for any.  Some of the most interesting characters are the ones who are not real – the dolphins, bears, gerbils, etc. who have human-like qualities and often communicate with Andrew in some way (taking him in on strange, Labyrinth-like journeys to hidden, underground worlds).  There is also a strange and funny meeting with the United States President (Bush?), an alien, the animals, and Andrew, near the end of the book.  The bottom line seems to be that there is no point to anything, and no happiness or purpose to be found anywhere.

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

Lin’s prose is certainly engaging – playful but serious at the same time.  He moves the story forward at a great pace, and his descriptions are simple but well-wrought.  The language is simple, too, but not in a dumb-down sort of way.

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

What is most impressive about the novel is its purpose.  I am not head-over-heels about the delivery or the plot/story itself, but its intent – the passion and beliefs behind it- are well-received, important, and thought-provoking.  What is happening to America’s youth and the American dream?  Children stay children younger – dependent on their parents and families for years after college, in many cases; and yet, children are also forced to grow up so fast – exposed to adult themes and moral situations at younger and younger ages.  The result:  Loneliness, despair, a sense of disconnect from the world, and a total loss for meaning and purpose in life.  We live in a world and culture which measures success by how much someone can afford – how big is your house?  How many cars do you own, and how much did they cost?  How much energy can you waste?  How long can you live at home, avoiding things like responsibility, building a career, starting a family?  What happened to accountability, hard work, and valued achievements?

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Adult

Interest: Angst, Depression, anti-Capitalism, America, Despair, Philosophy, Culture

 Notable Quotes:

“A world without right or wrong was a world that did not want itself, anything other than itself, or anything not those two things, but that still wanted something. A world without right or wrong invited you over, complained about you, and gave you cookies. Don’t leave, it said, and gave you a vegan cookie. It avoided eye contact, but touched your knee sometimes. It was the world without right or wrong. It didn’t have any meaning. It just wanted a little meaning.”

“He used to think things like, This organic soymilk will make me healthy and that’ll make my brain work better and that’ll improve my writing. Also things like, The less I eat the less money I spend on publicly owned companies the less pain and suffering will exist in the world. Now he thinks things like, It is impossible to be happy. Why would anyone think that?”

 

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