Abraham, Rachel, Soren and Liam. Our life together in Smalltown, Idaho.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Book Reviews: Atlas Shrugged, Earthly Possessions, Elantris

Atlas Shrugged
Ayn Rand

If someone asked, yes or no, if I liked this book, I would say yes. I did like it. It was the size of a dictionary and, despite that, I read every durned page of it. It consumed my life for weeks, leaving me with a filthy home and a neglected child, but it was definitely worth the sacrifice.

So what makes this month-long reading project worthwhile? There are a couple of things:

First, the philosophy. Ayn Rand’s books are all attempts at illustrating the principles of her personal philosophy, Objectivism. Her firm, no-nonsense defense of libertarian politics and laissez-faire economics appeals to me. The novel is a neglected source of philosophical discussion, one that Rand tapped into with great ingenuity. Her works clearly illustrate that, where simple explanations may fail to persuade, contextualization in a story can significantly boost an idea’s air of veracity.

Second, the language. I found myself frequently pulling out my own writer’s notebook to jot down phrases that warmed my writer’s senses, glowing gems like these: “His eyes were shrewd without intelligence, his smile good-natured without kindness.” “The glow was red and still, like the reflection of a fire: not an active fire, but a dying one which it is too late to stop.” “It meant nothing to him any longer, only a faint tinge of sadness—and somewhere within him, a drop of pain moving briefly and vanishing, like a raindrop on the glass of a window, its course in the shape of a question mark.”

There are some things that bothered me a little about the book, however:

Ayn Rand was clearly a feminist, but she fell short as a feminist in a couple of ways. First, her primary female character, though shown a strong, competent, and commanding, lacked some of the strength and competence that her male protagonists displayed. Also, sexuality was clearly illustrated as being a male dominated activity; for the time period, I suppose Rand was stepping over the line for even acknowledging a female sex drive, but all the sex in the novel was very much along the lines of “Thor see woman. Thor takes woman. Woman submits. Woman happy.” Which isn’t to say that the sex scenes weren’t tastefully written and sexually appealing—it’s just that, in both Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead, sex always more closely resembles rape than a consensual act of love.

Everything in Rand’s novels (maybe even in her eyes) is exhaustingly black and white. She doesn’t leave any wiggle room for the humanity that lies within us all, our foibles and inner conflicts, our personalities and histories; in fact, if she were to read this review, she would probably say that those who allow for the humanity within themselves are simply failures allowing themselves to fail. For her, there is only one acceptable type of personality; there is only one acceptable goal.

The repetition. Halfway through the book I began to feel insulted at the frequency with which Rand felt that she needed to explicitly restate her philosophies. There was even a fifty-page chapter near the end of the book in which one of her characters does nothing but lay out the whole of the objectivist philosophy. Gee willakers, if a reader hasn’t figured out the basics of the philosophy after 1000 pages of 4 pt font, I think they’re probably a hopeless case and should be cast off as a sacrifice made in the name of capitalism. I wanted more credit as a reader.

Earthly Possessions
Anne Tyler

Ah, sweet Anne Tyler. Earthly Possessions was a nice follow-up to Atlas Shrugged, a simple story with more a more subtle style and quietly poignant message. The story is about a woman who goes to the bank to withdraw enough funds to leave her husband--and winds up being taken hostage by bank robber. In Tyler’s novels, however, the plot isn’t nearly as important as the people. Her Pulitzer-prize-winning writing style is gentle; her characters are quirky and multi-faceted. Her world is full of wobbles and bumps, but never any real violence or darkness or evil. Just people. Regular people stumbling along, trying to live together, doing their best to make sense of their lives.

If you’ve never read any Anne Tyler, I probably wouldn’t recommend beginning with this particular novel—it’s a bit strange— but I would recommend reading something written by her.

Some of my favorites include:
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Breathing Lessons, Back When We Were Grownups, Saint Maybe, Ladder of Years, A Patchwork Planet, Searching for Caleb.

Brandon Sanderson

Abraham checked this out from the library for me. I was a little hesitant to pick it up because it is, after all, a fantasy novel, and a rather thickish one at that. I’m not really a fantasy reader and also have a limited amount of reading time, but I finally consented to give it a try, telling him, “Fine. I’ll give it 100 pages.” I didn’t notice when I reached the 100 page mark, however.
Elantris is a good novel for people who don’t usually read fantasy because the world Sanderson creates, while definitely different from our own, isn’t so foreign and complex that it takes several years to figure out. The characters are witty, interesting, and believable; the plot is engaging, full of twists and turns and loops that are surprising and satisfying; and the writing style is crisp and unobtrusive --though I did find a few editing errors!
If you enjoy Orson Scott Card’s work, you’ll probably like Elantris. Sanderson’s characterization and plot formation is similar to Card’s. A bonus is that Sanderson is a BYU alumnus and also currently works at the Y as a creative writing instructor. Go Cougars!

If you’re one of those people who can’t stand the thought of reading a book containing swears or sex (bless your little heart), Anne Tyler and Brandon Sanderson are both good sources of quality “clean” writing.


Mark said...

Thanks for reviewing "Elantris" I am a big old fantasy nerd and I like the "Wheel of Time" series and I heard that Sanderson is supposed to finish the series after the orginial author died. I thought I should read Elantris to see if it would be worth my time to finish the Wheel of Time series when he finishes it.

Lindy said...

Oh, I'm so glad to have new book recommendations. I walk into libraries and bookstores and want to read everything, but instead indecision gets the better of me as I am paralyzed by the sheer number of options available.

Your reading experience of Atlas Shrugged sounds much like mine. I actually had it on the shelf for five years taunting me before I finally tackled it. It is indeed a draining book to read, and I very much agree with your assessment of it. In fact, I got halfway through the final 100-page tirade of her philosophy before I just skipped on to the end. I had more than "gotten it" by that point and was likewise bored and insulted at the repetition.

QT said...

Interestingly enough, Ayn Rand is Angelina Jolie's favorite author. No, I'm not obsessed with Angeline Jolie, I just pick up a lot of stuff. Also, she is starring in a film production of this very Ayn Rand novel. What a strange name, Ayn Rand.... Anyways, I have to go to my next class. And there, I will finish reading your blog until I am updated.

collette said...

Ahh, Rach...You could do this professionally. It's nice to have a built-in editor-type person in the family. I plan to utilize your considerable skills.


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