Review: The Snow Child

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The Snow Child
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Perfect.

Perfect in structure, perfect in language, perfect in scope. This novel is as perfect as novels come. It is easy to say that of a short story, because the author has so few chances to err. Novels are much more difficult. There can be problems with pacing, with believability, with contrivances, longwindedness, etc. The Snow Child has none of that. The language is simple, arranging ordinary words in beautiful new ways. The plot and premise are ingenious, drawing on that very deep wellspring of mythic symbols to bring a real fairy tale “to life” on the pages of a fiction novel. But don’t just take my word for it. Any debut novel that makes it to the final three in the Pulitzer judging is illustrative of a strong new voice in literature, and Eowyn Ivey has proved herself.

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Review of Reconstruction A Short History

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A Short History of ReconstructionA Short History of Reconstruction by Eric Foner
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Confusing, unclear, and scattered, not unlike The Guns of August. Every sentence in the book is an uncited statement of fact, with little in the way of a narrative or an analysis of any one set of facts. Thus, I am forced to discriminate between raw statements of fact and skewed statements of interpretation myself, while flying completely blind. Having said that, I did learn quite a lot. The book is dense with facts about the ten-year (or so) period after the Civil War that are not common knowledge. For all the rhetoric about the brutality Reconstruction wrought on the South, the only dubious action I read was the disenfranchisement of former confederate officers. Other than that, most of the perceived brutality can be chalked up to the social changes forced upon the vanquished that they obviously fought to resist, and can hardly be called “brutal” by modern standards.

Although the book makes no overt reference to any kind of egregious stripping of Southern rights and values, I did begin to understand the fundamental connection between union victory and big government. One of the quests I have set out on with my Civil War reading list is to answer a question that has bugged me for a while: Why does moral conservatism go hand in hand with financial conservatism, and likewise liberal morality correspond to liberal spending? This book’s hint of an answer lies in the nature of the Grant administration. Social equality must be enforced upon a society bent on clinging to the old hierarchy. The Departments of Education, Health, Commerce, the Freedman’s Bureau, union army occupation, etc. all cost money. The victorious North could not just emancipate the slaves, they had to tax and borrow horribly in order to afford the apparatus of implementation. All that money promoted the graft and corruption that history remembers Grant for.

Still, I am not convinced that the Civil War was fought over “the rise of centralized government” as the Lost Cause proponents claim. I’d have to read more books about the decades leading up to the war, of course. Rather, it sounds like a classic case of historical convenience, to take some of the obvious (and inevitable) evils of Reconstruction and claim them as the evils the South had sought to defeat from the outset. The greatest disappointment, reading from a modern perspective, is not how intrusive Reconstruction was, but how toothless and pathetic the abortive attempt turned out. What began as a noble mission, to eradicate slavery and enfranchise the freedmen, quickly degenerated into political infighting. How very American. One thing is certain: the postwar decades made us a modern United States, leaving the self-rule of farmers and artisans behind and ushering in the world of factories, corporations, railroads, and communications.

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Review: Night

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Night
Night by Elie Wiesel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that is important to keep in circulation, especially among young people. It feels awkward to review because it is, as one critic put it, “beyond criticism.” Any short, blunt memoir from an Auschwitz survivor is bound to be important and beyond reproach. Most people today are no longer holocaust deniers. To most educated people, the very idea now seems sacrilegious. Brilliantly, Elie Wiesel begins the book with a story about a man who witnessed a massacre before the population was shipped off to concentration camps, who made it back to his town to warn them. They didn’t listen. They, the future victims of genocide, treated him the same way they themselves were to be treated after the war. They thought him insane; they thought he exaggerated for pity’s sake. They did not believe, and they did not act. I will repeat the oft-repeated treacle: Keeping books like this alive is the only way to keep history from repeating itself, because a tragedy of this magnitude must never be allowed to happen again.

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Atlas Shrugged or Fountainhead?

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Before becoming active on Goodreads, I was asking & answering a lot of book questions on Quora. I stumbled across this one and thought it worthy of a repost. The question was: “Which is better, Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead?”

Atlas Shrugged.

Since “better” is so subjective, let me rephrase your question: “Which of the two books encapsulates Ayn Rand‘s worldview and delivers her point more wholly?” Atlas Shrugged. (Disclaimer: this is my favorite book; I’ve read it three times. Though I have read The Fountainhead also, once.)

First of all, both books say exactly the same thing, have exactly the same theme, and are about of equal length. So, what’s the difference? The Fountainhead focuses on a single protagonist, Howard Roark, as he struggles to succeed as an individualist. There are only a handful of main characters. The “big monologue” comes toward the end in a court case scene, but I won’t say more to spoil that. Atlas Shrugged spans years of time and focuses on a huge group of protagonists represented in the book as genius industrial innovators. There are literally hundreds of characters to keep up with, but they all fall into very few well-defined classes, so it’s not too difficult to keep track. She called these classes “prime movers” and “moochers” although there are shades of grey, specifically characters I would classify as “the wretched” or “the fallen.” The “big monologue” comes toward the end as a radio broadcast from John Galt. In both, the “big monologue” is kind of the kernel of ideas, much like a college thesis embedded in the novel.

While The Fountainhead was inspired by the life and work of Frank Lloyd Wright and his “form follows function” post-modernist architectural style, Atlas Shrugged feels more like a social science fiction. Much like George Orwell did in 1984, Ayn Rand takes the world that she knew (specifically 1950s McCarthyism) and attempts to push it forward by a couple of decades. She takes the complex political question of communism vs capitalism and frames it simply as a social “good vs evil” struggle. Though she sets both novels in New York City, The Fountainhead never leaves NYC, while Atlas Shrugged is a story that spans the entire U.S., specifically Colorado and Washington D.C., and also Mexico (there is even a “pirate on the high seas” character).

Most importantly, Ayn Rand would probably tell you the same thing. Look at the progression of her work: 1936 We the Living is a semi-autobiographical account of a young woman growing up in the worsening conditions of Soviet Russia. The American public, increasingly warming to the concept of communism (particularly the burgeoning, left-leaning movie industry), rejected it as propagandist. 1938 Anthem was a short sci-fi novella about a human race in the distant future so collectivized that the society took on a form akin to an ant colony, where people had lost the faculty of recognizing themselves as an individual body apart from society. 1943 The Fountainhead expanded this idea into a full-fledged, well-crafted, novel-length story set in the present day. According to Rand, she began journaling Atlas Shrugged the moment she finished The Fountainhead, because she envisioned a much grander stage upon which to set her story. In 1957 she achieved this, delivering another full-length novel, Atlas Shrugged, with exactly the same theme, though an order of magnitude greater in scope, clarity, and power. Then she stopped writing fiction. For the remainder of her days, until her death in 1982, she wrote prolifically on her worldview in the form of non-fiction philosophic treatises. From her own point of view, she had accomplished her lifelong quest to produce her masterpiece, that seminal work that summed up her ideology for posterity.

This places her in the ranks of a very small subclass of artists like Robert M. Pirsig and Harper Lee, who, upon finishing what they believed to be their masterpiece and receiving the critical acclaim they desired, retired from writing fiction. They had something to say, they said it, and that was the end of it. Ayn Rand strikes me as one who grew up in ideological and economic poverty, came to this country and worried it was going in the same direction, and dedicated her life to correcting public opinion on the matter. Although the U.S. left’s sentiment for communism would not wane until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, I believe she played a prominent role in speaking out against it and preserving our more historically capitalist ideals. I once heard a quote that went something like “An artist is a lover of art who sees a void in the art world and feels compelled to fill it.” In that sense, she was an artist, through and through.

By all means, read all of her books, but know that her ideas crystallized as she got older and thus each of her books was “better” than the one before it. (Also, as an aside, the 1949 movie The Fountainhead with Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper is masterful (despite the cheeky trailer), in part because Ayn Rand wrote the screenplay. The recent Atlas Shrugged movies were terrible (despite the very good trailers).)

So, if you’ve heard a lot about her or her books and are looking to see for yourself what she’s all about, that’s my recommendation. Why anyone would voluntarily sit down and read a fifteen hundred page book is a tough question to answer. I hate long books. But, contradiction that I am, Atlas Shrugged is not just my favorite long book, it’s among my favorite, most influential books I’ve ever read. It’s one of those rare long books where every page is engaging, and it’s difficult to imagine cutting it down without sacrificing its quality.

Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes

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Something Wicked This Way Comes
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Sorry, Ray. I didn’t like this or The Martian Chronicles. I guess the short story master was right to stick to short stories, aside from his one great accomplishment, Fahrenheit 451. I wish I’d read this when I was 13, it seems very obviously geared toward young adults, with very little for a grown reader to latch onto.

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