Friday, April 25, 2014

Door Stop: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

No, your eyes do not deceive you. This post is indeed on Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. I, like many of you probably, believed for a long time that no one actually ever read this book...not all of it. Why would they? I've never even heard of anyone ever being assigned it in school. But I assure you, as unbelievable as it may seem, even to myself, I have in fact read all 1168 pages of Atlas Shrugged.

The Situation: It is commonly understood that Dagny Taggert is the real power behind Taggert Transcontinental Railroads. Her official title may be that of Operating Vice President, but since her older brother James, that actual president, is incapable of making a real decision, much less one that affects the railroad for the better, Dagny runs the show and does an excellent job of it. James deeply resents his sister's ability to make effective improvements, brilliant business deals, and other decisions that only further the influence and profit of an already great railroad. He will sometimes make decisions of his own, ready to take the glory for them if they succeed, but even more ready to shift the blame to someone else if they fail. James also makes his decisions under the guise of helping the common good, and accuses his sister of only caring about making money. So while James and his friends in Washington seek to force major businesses into sacrificing for the common good, Dagny is making friends and striking deals with the leaders and owners of those businesses, making the best of the increasing amount of restrictions James and his friends attempt to impose.

The Problem: Just as Dagny and her like-minded business partners make incredible strides in the industry, James and his friends in Washington find a way to take those advancements from them in an attempt to spread the profits around and give everyone equal access. This ultimately causes the competent to run at a loss, and the incompetent to have the means to produce, but because they are incompetent, they don't produce enough. If that wasn't bad enough, it seems that accidents such as trains derailing and mills catching on fire are happening more and more often. Plus, the inventors, scientists, and leaders of the large companies are disappearing and abandoning their companies and causing whatever market they were in to suddenly have a shortage. It soon becomes clear to Dagny that none of this is an accident, and someone who was once a childhood friend has admitted as much and is proud of being a part of it. But Dagny is resolved to never abandon Taggert Transcontinental and continue fighting, even when there are now two opposing sides who insist on having her lose.

Genre, Themes, History: Clocking in at just about 40 pages shy of 1200, this book has earned the heading of "door stop." In fact, this is the second longest book I have ever read...War and Peace still holds the blue ribbon for first place in that category. Atlas Shrugged could also fall into a few interesting and unexpected (to me at least) genres such as science fiction, dystopian fiction, alternate history, historical fiction, mystery/thriller, and even romance. It takes place in an unspecified time period, when railroads were still a massive deal. The best estimation would be late 1800s to about 1930s or depression era America. The primary theme is probably greed, along with capitalism. It is reiterated over and over, without shame or any attempt to disguise it, that people should be able to invent and produce whatever they can, and do with it what they want, and hold onto the profits however they please. In fact, they are encouraged not to share anything: not their genius, not their product, not their profits, nothing. And anyone who thinks otherwise is not only an idiot, but also evil. The man who serves as the poster child of this philosophy is presented as somewhat of a Jesus figure, while preaching almost the exact opposite of what Jesus preached during his ministry. And at one point, Rand makes an appearance in her own book. At least I think she does. There is a point where the greed poster child points out a female writer who has followed him and explains that her books and ideas were not accepted by the public. The reader doesn't actually get to meet the writer or hear anything she has to say, but it seemed to me that Rand had placed herself within her own book. This isn't unheard of, of course, but if this writer is supposed to be Rand, then I'd say she is also making it clear that she supports what the greed poster child stands for.

My Verdict: This book is exhausting. Make no mistake about it. Most books become easier to read as you go along because you eventually find a rhythm to reading them and get used to the language, allowing you to read faster and faster the further along you get. With Atlas Shrugged, I had the opposite happen. Yes, I did find a natural rhythm after about page 200 that allowed me to go along a little smoother, but for the most part, all 1200 pages were a struggle. It was part the ideas that were presented, part the complete absence of likable characters, and part the epic speeches that every character seemed to feel entitled to make. One in particular goes on for 60 pages. For me, with a speech that long, and especially for one that was advocating what it was advocating, I not only eventually lose interest, but I also eventually just get angry. I felt like I was listening to the rant of a drunk man where the longer he insists on holding you hostage with his nonsense, the harder you find it to be polite. I have a hard time believing that even if you agree with what was being said, you'd be okay with having to read all of these speeches that are essentially making the same point over and over again, which more or less boils down to people wanting to keep their money and not share with anyone, but it's said with fancier words and high rhetoric in an attempt to be convincing. From what I gathered, they want everything, and they believe they deserve it because they are the inventors and producers. And if you don't agree, then God help you. Those who don't agree not only endure the speeches, but the insults within them. As I mentioned before, those who don't agree are made out to be idiots and the evil of the earth. The book has every inventor, producer, scientist, and genius turn out to be selfish and greedy, and proud of it, and only those that don't invent and produce and who aren't geniuses could possibly be the ones who believe in sacrifice and sharing. Even Dagny, who doesn't completely agree with what is being said in the beginning, holds the same basic belief. But I eventually lose all respect for her opinion when it becomes clear that she is simply attracted to the most powerful man around. 

For me, there just aren't any likable characters in the book, and I can't get behind what it preaches. The story itself, without all of the philosophy, is actually quite good. But around page 600, Rand takes what I like to refer to as a "Huck Finn" turn. Essentially, a Huck Finn turn is when a completely unlikeable character is introduced into the story and ends up sticking around for the reminder of the novel, despite the reader's desperate wish that they would disappear or be killed off. I named the situation after Mark Twain's novel because it happens twice within Adventure of Huckleberry Finn. First when the duke and the king make their appearance and are allowed to stick around for a ridiculously long time, and second when Tom Sawyer shows up on the scene near the end of the book. Such a turn also takes place in Atlas Shrugged, and it is brutal. So, for these reasons, it won't surprise anyone when I say that I did not like this book.

Favorite Moment: When Eddie Willers, a childhood friend of Dagny's who now also works at Taggert Transcontinental, makes a discovery about himself in relation to how he feels about his friend and coworker.

Favorite Character: There really isn't anyone I can choose here. I mean no one. Even the ones attempting to do good are terrible. Just awful.

Recommended Reading: As a follow-up to Atlas Shrugged, I recommend Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, because if what Rand had put down in this book were to actually happen, I believe the world Huxley presented in his book is a pretty reasonable and eventual outcome. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: Safe With Me by Amy Hatvany

I agreed to review Amy Hatvany's Safe With Me, mostly because I had read her previous book, Heart Like Mine, just last year and enjoyed it a great deal. I expected the same kind of honest sincerity I encountered before and was curious to see if I would also hear more intriguing female voices. 

The Situation: It has been a year since Hannah has lost her 12 year-old daughter Emily in a tragic car accident. Now she is focusing on the impending opening of her hair salon's second location. She fills her days with the renovations going on downstairs, and lives in the small apartment upstairs, having decided to rent out the house she used to share with Emily, since being there alone proved to be too painful. Hannah admits that she is still far from over her daughter's death, but while friends and family try to comfort her and bring her closer to closure, Hannah stays guarded and protective of her time and feelings. But when a young girl walks into the new location with her mother, Hannah starts to believe that this could be the girl who received Emily's liver after the doctor declared her brain dead. Now the memories and emotions that Hannah has been trying to downplay and avoid take center focus again, just when Hannah was hoping to get everything back under control.

The Problem: While Hannah still grieves over her daughter and wonders if she should be honest with Maddie and her mother, Olivia, about her suspicions, the mother-daughter pair have problems of their own. While Emily's liver may have saved Maddie's life and was the answer to her family's prayers, they still must deal with James, Maddie's father and Olivia's husband. For as long as Maddie can remember, James has been an abusive husband to Olivia, though her mother would never admit it to her. Olivia lives in fear while hating her life and who she has become, while Maddie attempts to navigate her new life outside of hospitals, in a new school, and through the fake online profile she has created for herself. Things only become more desperate as James' rage increases, but Olivia doesn't see many options, and fears that her new friendship with Hannah could only make matters worse.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel mostly set just outside of Seattle, Washington. The main theme seems to be that of domestic and spousal abuse, but the book also addresses organ donation, and the difficult decision family members sometimes have to make just after they receive news that no one wants to hear. The story switches between the three main characters, moving from Hannah, then to Olivia, then to Maddie, and then back to Hannah again to start the process over, with each chapter focusing on the actions of a different character. While Hannah and Olivia have a third person narrator for their chapters, Maddie gets to tell her story from her own point of view. And because Maddie gets to use her own voice, it becomes clear that she knows a lot more than her mother, or her father, even realizes, and that she has secrets of her own. Maddie's story is not only of someone who grew up watching her mother be abused by her father, but also of someone who has been sick for the majority of her life and doesn't quite know who she is separate from her illness.

My Verdict: Domestic abuse is not at all easy to read about, and I doubt very seriously it is easy to write about. What I loved about Hatvany's Heart Like Mine are the same things I loved about Safe With Me. Hatvany approaches the subject with honesty, but without getting too heavy-handed with the message. She doesn't shy away from the hard stuff, but doesn't just dwell on them either. And while Maddie may be the only one who gets to tell her story in her own voice, the reader still gets a clear sense of what Hannah and Olivia are going through. Few parts of the book seemed rushed, and the ending seems well thought-out, and not just something Hatvany put together simply because the book needed and ending.

Favorite Character: I decided my favorite character was Hannah. She essentially experiences a parent's worst nightmare, and like most people, she is way too hard on herself for feeling the incredible amount of grief that comes with such a situation. But ultimately, she is able to function, doesn't alienate herself completely, and does her best not to take her grief out on everybody else.

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When Maddie decides to delete her fake online profile and break it off with the much older guy she has been chatting with online.

Recommended Reading: For this book I am going to recommend the young adult novel Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, mostly because it also deals with domestic abuse and its effects on children. Plus, like Safe With Me, it switches narrative voices, this time between two teenagers who have formed an unlikely relationship.  

Friday, April 11, 2014

Nonfiction: Dad Is Fat by Jim Gaffigan

That's right. I am reviewing the book written by the Hot Pockets guy. Not only am I a fan of Jim Gaffigan's stand-up routine, but I am also a fan of the show My Boys and the character he played on it, Andy Franklin. His delivery is always so spot on, and I looked forward to seeing how his humor translated onto the page in Dad Is Fat.

The Situation: Jim and his wife Jeannie currently have five children. Five young children. There is eight year-old Marre, six year-old Jack, three year-old Katie, one year-old Michael, and the newborn, Patrick. At the beginning of the book, Gaffigan introduces the cast of characters and gives them titles, such as Marre being the founding member of the Dad Is Fat company, Jeannie being everything from director to casting director to usher, and Jim himself as simply "Dad."

The Problem: Of course Gaffigan loves his big family, but the seven of them currently live in a small two-bedroom apartment in New York City. At one point in the book, Gaffigan explains the sleeping arrangements, which involves one more crib than necessary and one less bed than is actually needed. At one point at least one child is sleeping in the master bedroom before Jim and Jeannie go to bed, and then when they do, two of the older kids are sharing a bed while a younger child occupies a crib in the living room/kitchen/dining room. By the end, all seven of them are in one bed, the master. But the issues with raising a big family in New York City don't stop with the space shortage. Gaffigan discusses the difficulty of everything from going to church, going to the park (which is essential since most New Yorkers don't have yards), dropping the kids off at school, picking them up from school, taking everyone on vacation, naps, birthday parties...everything comes with its own complications when five young children are involved. And Gaffigan tells the reader at the very beginning that the credit for any success he may have had in the parenting area should be given to his wife.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction, humor book written by a comedian, actor, and writer, with help from his wife Jeannie. Unlike other nonfiction books by celebrities that I have covered on this blog, such as Tina Fey's Bossypants and Steve Martin's Born Standing Up, Gaffigan doesn't go into a whole lot of detail about his life growing up. He does talk a little bit about what it was like growing up in a big family, especially since now he has a big family of his own, but the book primarily focuses on life with his kids. And of course, it is incredibly funny, and every semi-serious point is punctuated by a sarcastic or deadpan one liner. Gaffigan even occasionally addresses the reader directly, either to thank them for buying the book, blame them for something that happens, or to offer some absurd piece of advice or an idea.

My Verdict: I am sure if I had kids of my own I would have appreciated this book a lot more. Even so, it is still incredibly funny, even for the childless. As I mentioned, Gaffigan is able to translate his deadpan observational humor onto the page. While I was reading Dad Is Fat I was able to hear his voice as I read, which doesn't always happen for me when I read a book by a celebrity. The book is both honest and funny, while still making some very good points and helping to enlighten. And probably one of the best things about it is that Gaffigan is not afraid to poke the most fun at himself.

Favorite Moment: The description (with accompanying pictures) of the sleeping situation is pretty great. But I also enjoyed reading about his dislike of camping, mostly because I whole-heartedly agree with him.

Favorite Character: I usually don't pick a favorite character with nonfiction books, but since Gaffigan gives a cast list at the beginning of the book, I will go ahead and say my favorite is Jeannie. First of all, the woman has had five kids. Second, she now lives with and takes care of said kids in a small apartment in New York City, while helping Gaffigan with his career. And even he admits he could easily be counted as a sixth kid.

Recommended Reading: I would recommend both Tina Fey's Bossypants and Steve Martin's Born Standing Up. Both are also incredibly funny and worth reading.   

Friday, April 4, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

I wished I could have covered Edwidge Danticat's Claire of the Sea Light sooner, as it came out in August of last year, but I am glad I was able to eventually get to it and discuss it here. It is my third Danticat book after Brother, I'm Dying and Breath, Eyes, Memory, and I knew I would get another interesting look at life in Haiti.

The Situation: Nozias, a fisherman in Ville Rose, Haiti, takes his daughter Claire to her mother's grave every year on her birthday. Claire never knew her mother as she died in child-birth, and she still knows very little about her as her father doesn't speak much about her, or about anything really. And while the trip to the grave site is an annual tradition, this year the ending will be slightly different as Nozias has finally come to the difficult decision of giving Claire away so she can have a better life with another family. It isn't a decision he is making for money, and he knows it is one that would bring Claire's mother much grief if she were alive to witness it. Even so, he has decided that this, her seventh birthday, will be the last birthday on which they will visit her mother's grave together.

The Problem: As Nozias prepares to hand Claire over to Madame Gaelle, the local fabric store owner, Claire suddenly goes missing. In Ville Rose, there are many possibilities as to where she could have gone. The sea could have claimed her, as it has claimed so many over the years. But she also could have simply run off, knowing full well that she was about to be handed off to someone else and would most likely never see her father again. Soon, everyone gathered at the beach that night is looking for Claire and calling her name, while Nozias pretends not to panic. And as the history of Nozias and his daughter is told, so is the history of other citizens of Ville Rose, as well as their connection to Nozias and Claire, as well as each other.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in modern-day Haiti, although there is never an actual year given. Also, parts of the story go back at least ten years, before Nozias had even met Claire's mother. And for a good chunk of the novel, maybe even more than half of it, the story isn't even focused on either Nozias or Claire. Danticat tells the story of Madame Gaelle and her life full of loss and grief; of Max Senior and his attempt to protect his position as well as his school; of Max Junior and his desire to prove himself to his father while creating a whole other kind of trouble; of Louise and her scandalous radio show that few approve of but everyone seems to listen to; of Bernard and life in the Ville Rose slums; and of Flore and her attempts to live her life despite the cruel hand it has dealt her. It is one of those novels that starts in one place and spreads out like a spider's web across the town, connecting characters to each other and to the town itself. On the surface it is a story about death and life as there are several instances where as one life is ending just as another one is beginning. But it is also about family, and the kind of pain being part of one can bring you. 

My Verdict: When this is done well - starting with one character and moving throughout the community, jumping from one character to another, connecting them along the way - it can make for an incredible story. When it is done badly, it just becomes confusing and frustrating, especially when it feels like a writer is just leaving a character behind when the reader just became interested in them. But Danticat does it very well. Instead of it feeling like Nozias and Claire have been neglected for the majority of the book, it feels like the reader is getting several stories for the price of one. And the fact that they are all woven together creates a curiosity as to where the story could be going next, and a wonder as to what other secret could possibly be revealed on the next page. Sure there is an ever-present concern as to whether Claire is okay and will ever be found, but Danticat made it where I was okay with waiting for the answer while learning about other people who at first seemed to be completely unrelated to the basic story. Lover's of Danticat's previous books will appreciate this one as well, as will anyone else interested in writer's from the new immigration.

Favorite Moment: When Louise uses her radio show to expose a great injustice that has occurred in Ville Rose.

Favorite Character: I have decided to pick Madame Gaelle because of her generosity despite having gone through her own amount of pain and grief. She shows her generosity to both Nozias and Claire even before agreeing to take the young girl into her home. Also, she was generous to Claire's mother before she moved in with Nozias.

Recommended Reading: I recommend one of Danticat's earliest works, Breath, Eyes, Memory. It is part set in Haiti, part set in New York City, and tells the story of a young girl who joins her mother in America after having lived most of her life without her.