Friday, April 29, 2011

Atlas Shrugged Read-a-Long: The Last Post

Atlas Shrugged Readalong:

I have to start with a confession-- I skimmed the 70+ pages in which our hero, John Galt, recounts (in painstaking and repetitive detail) the philosophical arguments underpinning the preceding 900 pages. My intentions were noble. I was going to read it as carefully as I had read the rest of book, but I just couldn't do it. My guess is that many other readers have found themselves in the same boat. Honestly, it would surprise me if anyone has actually read the whole thing. I also feel that I should apologize to Francisco D'Anconia (yes, I do know he's a ficitonal character). It turns out that the party speech I criticized last post was, in hindsight, a model of brevity and discretion. Now that I've gotten that off my chest, let's talk about Part Three.

Dagny Taggert, who had crashed her plane at the end of Part Two finds herself in Galt's Gulch along with all of the disappeared industrialists. An unspoken love quickly blossoms between Dagny and Galt (was anyone surprised?) and Dagny adjusts with rapidity to life in the settlement. It turns out, though, that she is not yet ready to abandon Taggert Transcontinental, so at the end of a month she returns to her job in New York determined to fight the good fight. Unfortunately, the destruction of the country's industrial base only intensifies during the following weeks. After John Galt interrupts a scheduled radio address to explain the producers' strike, the powers-that-be decide that he is the only man who can save the country (and their positions in it). Of course, Galt declines. Led by pseudo-scientist Ferris, the collectivists decide to force the issue. How's that for a cliffhanger?

I don't think anyone will be surprised to find out that my opinion has changed very little since my last post. While I did enjoy the book overall, the little annoyances discussed in my previous posts continued to grate and the writing started to seem more and more self-indulgent-- probably about 400 unnecessary pages self-indulgent. Creating this novel gave Rand such a great opportunity to persuade readers of the correctness of objectivism, not that I personally endorse the philosophy. But when I was reading, I couldn't help noting all of the wasted opportunities. How much more persuasive would the book have been if the characters were more realistically drawn and were actually allowed to debate, for example? I know that sounds like a strange statement considering the novel's devoted following and it's ongoing popularity, but I'm unconvinced that reading Atlas Shrugged would convince many nonbelievers to shift their viewpoints. In fact, the opposite is probably more likely-- readers finish the book even more entrenched in their old ways of thinking.

There is one thing, though, for which I must give Rand credit. Part Three of Atlas Shrugged does a superb job of conveying the sense of futility you feel when watching the world around you move in the wrong direction. I don't know if I've mentioned it before, but I've been working in schools for a number of years now. Unfortunately, the situation in public education has taken quite a sour turn in the last year with many school systems undertaking "reforms" that not only fail to confront the real problems we're facing but will also, I'm convinced, actually prove harmful. The situation in Rand-world is eerily similar and I found myself, at times, almost recognizing the climate she created.

Whew! Sorry that this post took such a maudlin turn, but Atlas Shrugged just isn't really a happy book. I'm both super-proud and super-excited that I finished it (the act of putting the book back on my bookshelf was particularly gratifying). Thanks to Allie at A Literary Odyssey for hosting the read-a-long and congratulations to all of us read-a-longers who finished (or who tried!).

Have a great Friday! I think I'll try posting about some happier books later this weekend.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

On How Dorothy Dunnett Has Ruined Me for Other Books

With the exception of a read-a-long post, I've been MIA from this blog for a couple of weeks now. Hopefully, you'll agree that I had a good excuse-- I was reading.

I mentioned in my post on Deanna Raybourn that finishing her Lady Julia Gray novels had left me a touch bereft and that I would be filling the reading void by revisiting Dorothy Dunnett's The Game of Kings. My intention was to reread the novel slowly, to pick up on all the details I'd missed last fall during my first frenetic reading and to maybe, someday, do the same with the other books. That was the extent of the plan-- really... Now four weeks and six novels later, I am now more convinced than ever that The Lymond Chronicles is the best series of books ever written.

I actually came to this book rather surrendipitously. After having seen the books mentioned in passing on Danielle's blog A Work in Progress, I noticed several stacks available for a great price at a local bookstore. Thinking "why not," I purchased a copy of The Game of Kings and made a firm plan to read it at some point in the future. I can't actually say what made me pick it up, but about halfway through Book One, I knew that I would be reading the others. I went back to the bookstore only to find the stacks depleted and just three of the other titles available. Lucky, the wonderful people at the Barnes and Noble were able to supply me with the others in both print and NOOK forms.

The novels follow Francis Crawford of Lymond from his experiences as a twenty year old Scottish outlaw, through the French court of King Henri and Catherine De Medici, into the Eastern Europe/Middle East of the Sultan (including the harem at Topkapi), the Russia of Ivan the Terrible, and the England of Mary I and King Phillip. The research that went into the novels is clearly copious and the attention to detail meticulous. That's not why, though, people continue to read these books-- they do so, I believe, because in Francis Crawford Dorothy Dunnett created a character more compelling than any I've previously experienced-- a character I have heard referred to in several contexts, not inappropriately, as the perfect romantic hero.

I won't summarize the plot here-- I honestly couldn't do it justice and all of the bookstore sites include that type of information-- but I will say that the experience of reading the six Lymond books has been the most singular of my reading life. Interestingly, this was true both the first and second times. At some point in both cycles, I have found myself forced to abandon all other books (I was particularly surprised that this happened the second time through when I knew what was going to happen!). I also think that I may have been vaguely hostile at all times when my real-life obligations prevented me from reading. Though I intended to read slowly this time, I noticed that my pace kept picking up as I progressed. Reading the last book, Checkmate, took only two days. I get the impression, based on the comments of other readers, that many Dunnett fans find the books equally consuming.

So now I am both happy and sad that I have finished my second go round with the Lymond Chronicles-- sad because the story is over and because I don't imagine I'll discover its like again, happy because I've gotten my life back (yay! I can do other things beside read with my free time!) and because I've discovered how great a reread the series actually is (considering that a companion volume is available to translate the quotes, it should be no surprise to find that you miss a lot of important details the first time through). Even though the books were finished before I was born, they truly feel like they were written for me. I don't know if reading can provide a greater gift. If you are a fan of historical fiction, please give Lymond a try. The books are quite dense, but well worth the effort.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Atlas Shrugged Read-a-Long: Part Two

Atlas Shrugged Readalong:

Note to Self: Never invite Francisco D'Anconia to a party.

Welcome to Post Two in the Atlas Shrugged Read-a-Long hosted by Allie at A Literary Oddessey. This post covers Part Two of the novel-- a section I was tempted to rename The Part in Which People Make Speeches Rather than Speak to One Another until I heard the rumor that I should really reserve that name for Part Three. In this section, the quantity (though not the quality) of the philosophical ramblings increases as the state of the fictional US deteriorates. Remember the missing industrialists I mentioned in Post One? Well more and more of the country's great thinkers and producers have now disappeared, and the government has stepped into the void with more and more intrusive and counterproductive programs. You can probably imagine the catastrophic results. Our heroine Dagny (and her trusty side-kick Hank Reardon) continues to fight the moochers and looters until a particularly trying board meeting compels her to quit. Just when it seems that she will be joining the other missing businessmen, though, a particularly horrific accident sends her running back to Taggert Transcontinental and the moochers she'd left behind. The section ends with a rather unbelievable plane chase which seems to promise that all of our questions will be answered in Part Three. Oh, and by the way, we know who John Galt is now!

The Positives:

This will surprise you when you see the long list I've compiled of not-so-positives but I continue to like the book. I'm now almost 650 pages into Atlas Shrugged and its been quite a fluid and enjoyable read. I can say that this will be my last Rand book--I only chose to read her work as an intellectual exercise so I think it's fine to stop after reading her two "masterpieces"-- but not because I haven't enjoyed Atlas Shrugged.

I also want to give credit to those few nuggets of truth that I can see in her philosophy. I certainly agree, for example, that people should be rewarded for their productive achievements and that our society should be one in which innovation and intelligence are valued. Like Francisco, I agree that:

"when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors-- when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don't protect you against them, but protect them against you-- when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming self-sacrifice-- you may know that your society is doomed."

The difference between Rand and I, though, leads us to the not-so-positives:

In a perfect world, I could subscribe to a philosophy like Rand's. Unfortunately, it seems that in our society the people who most express a Randian worldview are the very ones who propagate and support a system like the one being decried above. Our world is far from perfect, and Rand's arguments do nothing to account for the fact that the deck really is stacked in favor of those who have. The children I work with sometimes like to play a game called "opposite day" where everything is understood to be the reverse of what they claim. Often when I am reading, I am struck by the thought that the dystopian world Rand is presenting is really just the world we actually live in on opposite day. Further, I do find it interesting that two of Rand's main characters are heirs to large fortunes.

My second criticism of Part Two involves characterization. Admittedly, I continue to like Dagny (though I am really getting bored with her unyielding determination-- give up and join the other producers already!), but I am becoming increasingly irritated with the fact that these characters, who Rand continually claims to be so filled with the capacity for joy, are actually so humorless. The novel's dialog is a huge part of the problem. I am willing to forgive a certain lack of verisimilitude, this is after all a philosophical novel, but is it too much to ask that the characters actually have a real conversation once in a while? Since I'm talking about the things I find irritating, I also have to once again mention the portrayal of male/female relationships as ones predicated on violence and willing submission. This seems, based on my other readings, to be fairly classic Rand, but I find it both disturbing and inauthentic.

Lastly, the plane thing at the end-- really? And, is it just me or do others agree that this book really needed a better editor? Of the 600+ pages I've read so far, I would argue that somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 were probably unnecessary.

I hope everyone is enjoying their weekend-- I'm on to Part Three!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Villette Read-a-Long: Week Eight

Eight weeks and more than 400 pages later-- I'm still not sure if I completely liked the book.

As it turns out many of my ideas and predictions from last week were premature. Lucy had not quite gotten over Dr. John (a fact finally remedied in the last section) and the ending was anything but typical or conventional. Even so, I found the novel's last seven chapters satisfying, though Bronte did resort, once again, to using (an unlikely) coincidence to advance the plot.

Since this is my final post of the read-a-long, I've decided to focus on the positives and the not-so-positives of the whole novel.

  • Charlotte Bronte is a master at creating characters who exhibit the depth and complexity of real people. Lucy Snowe was a mess of contradictions-- independent yet needy, courageous and interesting yet insipid. At times, it was almost painful to eavesdrop on Lucy's thoughts and witness her interactions, but isn't that how life is. The supporting characters were also finally drawn, though because Lucy narrated throughout, we never got much of a glimpse into their inner lives. To me, this is sad.
  • Bronte was quite clearly ahead of her time. Villette has a distinctly modern feel (not the language and style, they are solidly Victorian)-- so much so that many critics railed against the book when it was first published. While this may disappoint some readers who approach the novel expecting/wanting a reworked Jane Eyre, I appreciated Bronte's willingness to push the envelope.
  • I also really enjoyed the way Bronte tied up the various storylines by including amusing anecdotes about the characters' futures. In addition, I think the resolution to Lucy's storyline was rather perfect.
  • The novel did manage to hold my attention and there were parts that I enjoyed a great deal, but I never felt the impulse to read more than my read-a-long "assignment." This may not be a fair way to judge a book, but I find that my desire to read is a fairly reliable indicator of how much I like a book.
  • As great a character as I think Lucy is, I am not really sure that I liked her. My feeling towards her, if anything, are strangely familial. I cared about her fate and I was on her side in all matters, but I don't think I would really have wanted to spend anytime with her.
  • While accurately reflecting Lucy's experience, the action in the novel is very restrained. At times, it really felt like nothing was happening.
So what conclusions can I draw from the above? I guess it would be fair to say that I am ambivalent about the novel. I can, though, say for sure that I deeply admire Charlotte Bronte's skill and creativity and that I am glad to have read Villette. I can also, though, say that I still like Jane Eyre better.

I really want to thank Wallace from Unputdownables for hosting the read-a-long. I not only got to read a book that I probably would not have tackled this year, I also got to visit a number of blogs I may not have found otherwise. I also discovered that reading a book slowly and thoughtfully can be deeply satisfying. My normal tendency is to race through books (so many little time :)). This read-a-long allowed me to slow down and really reflect on what I'd read before I continued. I think I may try and approach more books this way.

Thanks also to everyone whose visited during the read-a-long. I can't wait to see what you thought. Has Villette managed to supplant Jane Eyre in anyone heart?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Villette Read-a-Long: Week Seven

Oh, the revelations! Dr. John loves Paulina (not that we didn’t know, but the declaration is new), M. Paul is giving and charitable and wants Lucy’s good will and good graces, Lucy is overjoyed at the prospect of Paul’s, however chaste, affections, and—maybe—we now have a name for the mysterious nun appearing before our fumbling lovers!

With so many interesting tidbits in the reading, it's scary to realize that I almost missed this week's deadline. I made the mistake of opening a favorite book for a reread only to find that the book’s addictive powers did not diminish on the second go-round. I couldn’t pick anything up until I finished. Luckily, this section of Villette was short and engaging, so I was able to finish the chapters last night.

Overall, I am quite content with the direction Bronte is taking the story. Lucy has finally begun to know herself and the people around her, though she does continue to flounder at times—running away from Paul, being one example. I am delighted to see that the Graham/Paulina relationship may be reaching a resolution, though I would like to see Ginevra Fanshawe re-enter the narrative. I don’t feel that her story has yet played out satisfactorily. I am also excited to see that M. Paul and Lucy are moving toward greater intimacy, though the presentation of such intimacy remains almost painfully awkward.

I do wonder, though, if the story is becoming increasingly predictable. Does everyone else suspect that some incident will release M. Paul of his burdens and, through some auspice of fate Lucy will be required to enter his esteem more fully—a situation that will eventually lead to matrimony? This isn’t a complaint, as I would hardly mind it the story played out in such a fashion, but I do wonder what, if any, surprises Bronte has in store. And, of course, I wonder WHAT IS THE DEAL WITH THE NUN?

Happy reading! Can you believe that we are so near the end?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Pleasant Diversion and My Reading Plans Go Awry

Once in a while it happens-- I'll be plodding through life, minding my own business, when I suddenly and without warning become briefly addicted to a series of books. When it happens, it seems that I can't read anything else until I have read every book available in the series. This time, it was the Lady Julia Gray novels by Deanna Raybourn, and it all started with a chance encounter at the public library.

I must have noticed Dark Road to Darjeeling three times prior to ever picking it up. The book made it into my pile, but I really had no firm intentions to actually read it-- I'm not even sure what prompted me to start. The novel read quickly and I enjoyed it, but not to the point where I intended to immediately read more. But the next time I visited the library, I looked on the shelves under Raybourn and picked up another one of her books (this time the third in the series-- I had actually started with book four). When I got home it was the only thing I wanted to read, and by the time I got finished with Silent on the Moor, I was well and truly hooked. I stopped at the library the very next day to pick up the other books in the series.

For those of you unfamiliar with Raybourn's work, the novels feature 30-year old Victorian gentlewoman Lady Julia Gray. Gray's husband dies in the first novel under suspicious circumstances. After it becomes clear that Gray was likely murdered, Julia undertakes an investigation with enigmatic enquiry agent Nicholas Brisbane. Of course, an attraction develops between the two, and the subsequent books focus, not only on the crimes they investigate in tandem, but on the course of their relationship.

I feel I should warn potential readers that the books have a modern sensibility and that Julia does not behave in ways typical of the era. Though it doesn't trouble me, I know that many readers are turned off by characters who act outside the scope of their period's behavioral norms. What I appreciate is that Raybourn clearly recognizes Julia's lack of Victorian-ness and attempts to account for it within the storyline. It seems that Julia comes from a family long famous for their quirks and oddities. Overall if you are looking for a fun series that combines the historical fiction, mystery, and romance genres, you would probably enjoy Raybourn's books.

As a pleasant a diversion as the Raybourn books were, there were only four titles and I came to the end of the series rather quickly. Since part of my book addiction involves a lack of desire for other novels, I found that the end of the series left me in a bit of a lurch. After some thought, I decided to scuttle my previous reading plans-- Fall of Giants is the primary victim here (though I had reached page 350 and had enjoyed it enough, I don't really feel compelled to read it at the moment)-- and begin anew. Two books have made the cut. Because my ebook-hold at the library came in much more quickly than anticipated, I'm currently reading Connie Willis' All Clear. I also re-picked up The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett. I don't usually reread books-- there are just too many new titles to get to-- but I loved, loved, loved this series. The first time through, for me, was almost a race because I was so desperate to see what happened. This time I have slowed down enough to truly appreciate how gifted (and funny) a writer Dunnett was.

So what are you currently reading? Any good series to recommend?

Happy Spring-- at least here, it technically starts today!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Atlas Shrugged Read-a-Long: Part One

Atlas Shrugged Readalong:f

Welcome to the Atlas Shrugged read-a-long hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey. Over the next two months, we will be tackling Rand's 1000+ page behemoth and posting along the way. This post covers the first part of the book, a section running ten chapters and around 300 pages.

I should probably preface my remarks by admitting that my interest in Rand and her work is strictly academic and that I am not a proponent of objectivism. I do, however, find Rand and her continued influence quite interesting. I began my reading on the subject last winter when, for reasons I can no longer remember, I decided that I wanted to read Jennifer Burns' biography Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (I had previously seen Burn's speak on Book TV). Though we were having a blizzard at the time, I was able to get the book through the magical combination of my NOOK and the internet. I found the book (and Rand) alternately disturbing and fascinating. Never had I anticipated actually reading any of Rand's fiction, but the Burn's book stirred my curiosity enough that I read The Fountainhead shortly thereafter. While I had some issues with the book, I enjoyed the read experience enough to place Atlas Shrugged on this year's reading list. Allie's read-a-long came as a happy coincidence.

While I know that it is typical to post a summary of the chapters read, I am going to dispense with that formality-- the participants in the read-a-long know what happened and I don't believe that people choose whether or not to read Atlas Shrugged based on the story. At it's heart, this book is a philosophical novel whose real purpose was to allow Rand to expand upon her ideology. The story is simply a vehicle for that discussion. It is, however, an entertaining enough vehicle. While I am not a Rand fan, I find her fiction quite readable.

My thoughts on Part One fall into two distinct categories-- the things I liked and the things I didn't. Since I always prefer saying nice things, I guess I'll start with the positives:

  • Just like in The Fountainhead (in fact these two books have so much in common that you can just assume that the things I'm saying about Atlas Shrugged apply to it as well), Rand's heroes are well-drawn and likable. I want Dagny, Henry, and Francisco (does anyone really believe that he has become a ne'er-do-well?) to succeed. I feel their pain as the whole world seems to conspire against the ideals they believe in.
  • I am finding myself drawn into the book's central mystery even though I know how it is going to play out. I mean, I know who John Galt is (after reading the Burn's book)-- but I can't wait to see how the threads Rand has laid (the disappearing industrialists for example) resolve themselves.
  • I am also always impressed when someone can write such a tome in a second language. Nabokov similarly impresses me.
On the other hand:

  • Rand once again shows a propensity for tearing down straw men. While people predisposed to agree with her philosophical positions may not mind that most of her heroes' enemies are flatly drawn and border on the ridiculous, I am not convinced that this is a good strategy for gaining converts. Rand would only have strengthened her arguments if she had allowed her characters to spar with worthy opponents.
  • Similarly, one of the guiding principles of persuasive writing is gaining trust by proving, at least implicitly, that you understand the arguments and positions of others-- after that, you are welcome to dismantle and demolish those arguments. But that isn't what happens here. A book and third into the Randian canon, I remain unconvinced that Rand considers any ideas but her own. Of course, Rand still has my attention for about 700 more pages, so we'll see if she can change my mind.
Thanks to Allie for hosting the read-a-long. Our next post will be in about three weeks. Non-participants-- for the brave among you, that's still plenty of time to catch up :)