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“Who’s John Galt?” – Atlas Shrugged Read-Along

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I kick off second half of 2015 with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, reading in conjunction with Tina at Book Chatter. Here are the mechanics:

Runs from July 1-Aug 15, 2015
Use #AtlasRAL to talk about it on Twitter.
Tina hopes to write an update post on my blog after each part (I, II, III) just to see how we are doing.

Schedule:
Part I by July 15 (approx 300 pages)
Part II by July 31 (approx 320 pages)
Part III by August 15 (approx 450 pages)

First published in 1957, it’s a huge book with a tremendous scope. It is a dramatization of her unique vision of existence and of man’s highest potential. It explores the pursuit of profit and success against individualism. It probes the relation between faith and reason. Is self-esteem possible or are we consigned to a life of self-doubt and guilt?

I started this morning and I’m riveted at it already, despite the daunting size. The famous opening line “Who is John Galt?” is a mystery. Nobody knows where the expression comes from. The mystery of the plot certainly hinges on this bizarre question. Thank you Tina for calling the shot to read this one!

[754] We Are Not Ourselves – Matthew Thomas

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” I want you to remember there is more to live for than mere achievement. It is worth something to be a good man. It cannot be worth nothing to do the right thing. ” (Part VI, Ch.8, 594)

A quotation from King Lear prefaces this novel and gives its title, setting the tone right from the beginning. It foreshadows how one’s mind will be stripped naked, identity crumbled, and language blown out of him, leaving behind only the memory of the last words. It’s no secret that this long debut, taken ten years to write, deals with a suffering mind. Spanning six decades from early 1940s, We Are Not Ourselves follows the history of a family, from the impoverished childhood of Eileen Tumulty in an Irish-American household in New York, through her marriage to Edmund Leary and the birth of their son, Connell.

There was something romantic about that, but living with him made his eccentricities curdle into pathologies. What had been charmingly independent became fussy and self-defeating. (Part I, Ch.9, 70)

Scarred by alcoholism of her family in childhood years, Eileen is determined to break away from the turbulent upbringing and lives a life of prestige. She keeps her emotions at bay. Deep inside of her is a sensuousness that she safeguards at all times. his protectiveness makes it difficult for anyone to feel for her. She justifies her existence to herself through tireless work as a nurse, and the equally relentless pursuit of a better life for her family. In a way, she is a character-in-the-make, slowly being refined and polished in the face of tough times. She is angry and frustrated at her husband’s frugality, and, although she wants to show her son affection, it never occurs to her to try to be Connell’s friend. Sometimes her lack of warmth can be appalling. Her great trial will reveal the strength of her uncompromising nature and her capacity for love.

It hadn’t happened for a reason, but they would find something to glean from it anyway. There didn’t have to be a divine plan for there to be meaning in life. People’s lives will be better because of his illness. (Part IV, Ch.57, 382)

Ed Leary is a scientist whose ambition has never been for fancier titles and fatter paychecks—he’s for something unquantifiable and philosophical which, after his passing, becomes a legacy for his son. A sentimental education from a father who seems dorky. While the book’s prime focus is Eileen, the moral lesson is from Ed Leary and his illness. Thomas’s treatment of Leary’s Alzheimer’s is extraordinary. It seems to come upon the reader with the slow realization as it comes upon his wife and son. The novel’s account of the illness and its terrible progress through a life, wrecking a brilliant mind, is unsparing, but never cold. The illness renders Eileen’s awakening to her senses and values in life. The luxury, perfect home she always lusts after is at best only second to her husband’s heart. Thomas creates an intimacy with Ed’s struggle against his own mental dissolution that is intensely moving.

We Are Not Ourselves maintains a ponderous pace with very lyrical prose. While the narrative can be slightly sluggish at times, it is rich in detail and scrutiny. It’s one of the most nuanced portrait of a contemporary family in the face of challenges that can befall us.

620 pp. Simon & Schuster. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[753] Someone – Alice McDermott

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” In the darkness, I felt him sink himself a bit farther into the bed, as was his routine. I felt myself, my heart, sinking as well. My brother had been the golden child reciting poetry I couldn’t understand, the thin seminarian emerging from the shadow of the tall trees . . . silent communion with the words he found in his books. Incomprehensible, yet, but in the same way that much that was holy was incomprehensible to me, little pagan. ” (226)

We’re all transients of this world, vulnerable to disappointment, sadness, sickness, loneliness. Someone is that quiet novel that shines on this seemingly cruel fact, but with much tenderness. It’s told in very plain language, depicting someone’s mundane, ordinary life—more than an everyman like you and I. Anybody. Zigzagging back and forth in time, McDermott gives us vignettes and scenes of Marie’s life.

The novel opens in an Irish American neighborhood in Brooklyn between the world wars. Time and place are delivered rather subtly, through familiar references. The 7-year-old Marie is seen “keeping vigil” on the stoop outside her house, taking in the sights and sounds of the neighborhood, waiting for her father to come home from work. She is perceptive and observant, but rather comical. She notices the fragile and clumsy Pegeen, young daughter of a Syrian neighbor, who later falls down a rung of staircase to her death.

The ordinary, rushing world going on, closing up over happiness as readily as it moved to heal sorrow. (173)

The narrative unfolds slowly, through small moments of intimacy and vividness. Marie’s mother is a headstrong woman who forces her to learn how to cook. Her father is an alcoholic who sneaks a drink during his evening stroll. Her brother, always buried in books, becomes ordained but quits priesthood shortly. Her best friend is Gertrude Hanson, whose mother dies while giving birth to her fifth child. Marie’s adolescence is uneventful, but her morose and stubborn resistance brings her mother to a standstill. She suffers a devastating betrayal by an opportunistic suitor. She becomes an assistant to the funeral parlor director. She becomes familiar with the mundane lives of people who are waked at the funeral home. She endures her father’s appalling death. She has gone to hell and back in childbirth years later.

Someone irradiates that rawness and immediacy of life, showing reader what it is to be alive, in this place and at this time. One of the strengths of this book lies in the sense of tenderness and intimacy, of empathy for the human condition. It deftly captures the nonchalance of time, and people’s resiliency.

232 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[750] A Good School – Richard Yates

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” Never say anything the doesn’t improve on silence. ” (Ch.4, p.90)

A Good School is a short emsemble novel, probably Yates’s more gentle work, charting the last days of a second-rate boarding school, Dorset Academy, in New England on the eves of the Second World War. The narration opens with a foreword in the first person by an anonymous man who reflects to that time and talks about his divorced parents. The father is a salesman for GE and the mother a frustrated sculptress. It’s the mother’s decision to send him to the school for the gentry.

The meandering prose revolves around happenings in the school, not the most prestigious and in the red, and all its quaint Cotswold architecture can’t disguise that fact from the boys. Later in the novel it dawns on the reader that the narrator of the foreword is the hapless William grove, at first a victim of the worst schoolboy humiliations. He is utterly self-conscious, but gradually across the novel, over time, learns to respect his own abilities. Winning an essay contest appoints him to the editorial staff of the school paper, and commands respects from the other boys.

Robert Discroll often assumed himself that Dorset Academy was a good school; even so, there was a nagging qualification: if only it were more like a real school . . . carry that sense of inauthenticity around with them. (Ch.2, p.31)

Indeed, underneath that veneer of an anglophile education is a savage packing order based on money, looks, and athletic skill. Tawdry secrets abound, like the brilliant mind suffering mental depression; the wife of a disabled teacher sleeping with the French instructor, the able athletic getting caught with a younger peer alone in his room.

The fate indiscriminate to everyone is the war, which is not only hungry for the boys but also marks the end of the school. Looming in the background is that inevitable draft into the army for which no education, let alone a prep school, should prepare the pupils. By the end of the novel, Grove comes to terms with his self-consciousness and matures. He reminds us all that is in the past is gone.

A Good School is bittersweet and elegiac. The prose is so simple and yet depicts people so average and readily identifiable. The loneliness and adolescent angst come through beautifully, and there’s that same sense of innocence tested. It’s an enjoyable read but lacking the depth of Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade.

178 pp. Picador. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

William Gaddis

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“I feel like part of the vanishing breed that thinks a writer should be read and not heard, let alone seen. I think this is because there seems so often today to be a tendency to put the person in the place of his or her work, to turn the creative artist into a performing one, to find what a writer says about writing somehow more valid, or more real, than the writing itself.”
–from his acceptance speech for the National Book Award in Fiction for J R , April 1976

William Gaddis was born in Manhattan, New York City, in 1922, a year which saw the publication of two of the great works of literary modernism, Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s The Waste Land, whose techniques of multi-voiced narration and literary allusion would have a profound effect on Gaddis’s own working methods. In the early 1940s, he attended Harvard, where he edited the Harvard Lampoon but left without a degree. After working as a fact-checker at The New Yorker in the mid-1940s, he traveled to Europe, North Africa, Spain and Central America and wrote his first novel, the monumental The Recognitions (1955).

William Gaddis was famously labeled “Mr. Difficult” by Jonathan Franzen in The New Yorker, and the length of most of his works does little to encourage the new reader. But time has shown that he is a writer who can change how a reader looks at the world. His concern with the detrimental effects of the desire for money links him to Twain, Henry James, Dreiser and Fitzgerald, while many of the most important novelists writing today, Don De Lillo for example, have acknowledged the influence of Gaddis’s fiction on their own work. Gaddis is one of those writers whose role is to deny the easy affirmations by which we live and to expose the abysmal blackness of life we choose to ignore.

It’s high time to overcome my fear and read Gaddis.

[745] Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet – Jamie Ford

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” Until he was twelve, he had been forbidden to speak English in his own home. His father had wanted him to grow up Chinese, the way he had done. Now everything was upside down. Yet the cadence of the words seemed to have more in common with that of the fisherman who came over from China than with the English Keiko and her family spoke so fluently. ” (122)

This is a heartfelt, sentimental novel that portrays two children separated during the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War Two. In 1940s Seattle, ethnicities do not mingle. Henry Lee, American born, is a 12-year-old son of Chinese immigrants. He meets his true love, Keiko Okabe, at the all-white elite school, which his staunchly nationalistic father enrolls him in. Despite the Sino-Japanese conflict, Henry and Keiko, the only Asian kids in school, are like a pair of gloves. Friendly at the mercy of schoolyard bullies, Henry quickly forges a forbidden bond to the nisei Keiko, who speaks no Japanese.

His father hated the Japanese. Not because they sank the USS Arizona—he hated them because they’d been bombing Chongqing, nonstop, for the last four years. (14)

Undoubtedly, Keiko lies at the heart of Henry’s subsequent struggles, with his Chinese-patriotic father, his racist classmates, and his suspicious and xenophobic country. Whereas there’s a war going against the innocent Japanese-Americans, there’s a silent war going on at home. Henry’s father stops speaking to him upon the discovery of possessions of Keiko’s family hidden in the drawer. As Keiko’s family is rounded up for relocation, the relationship between Henry and Keiko ends abruptly.

The novel alternates between 1986, just after the death of Henry’s wife, and the 1940s, just before Japantown is shut down. A chance discovery of items left behind by the Japanese in the basement of Panama Hotel i Seattle provokes Henry to share this story of Keiko with his son. The 12-year-old boy in the flashbacks is one without a bone of rebellion, but slowly transformed, as he learns to stand up for what he believes. He also scrapes an acquaintance with a black jazz musician, Sheldon, who becomes his moral support in reaching Keiko’s family at the camp.

The beauty of this book is the evocation of rich period details on the eves of war. Like Henry and Keiko, Sheldon is also socially marginalized, being a black man who lives from hand to mouth by perform on the street. These relationships and episodes of racial discrimination keep the pages turning. The only downside is that Henry’s voice always sounds like that of a grown man, not apropos of a child, even a precocious child who is caught in a time of historical strife.

300 pp. Ballantine Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[744] Green Light – Lloyd C. Douglas

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” For so long had the name of Newell Paige been indisolubly associated with her mother’s tragic death that it had acquired, in Phyllis’s memory, a peculiarly sinister quality, symbolic of an inexcusable and irreparable disaster. She had never tried to visualize him. ” (XII, p.192)

Green Light begins with the stock market crash in 1929, on the eves of Great Depression. Newell Paige is a young surgeon who is to assist his venerable mentor, Dr. Endicott, in a kidney excision operation for a Mrs. Dexter, who has scraped an acquaintance with Paige that has ripened into a comradeship. When Endicott receives news of the stock market crash, he botches the operation, the patient dies, and Paige takes the blame for it rather than have his elderly mentor’s reputation sullied. To escape the ensuing publicity, he runs away, travels under a new persona, Nathan Parker, and finds himself in a hotel and later a mountain research station in Montana.

People collide with circumstances that push them off the commonly accepted moral reservation—and then they assume that they have lost their souls… (IV, 53)

Through the various people Paige (Parker) meets, he comes under the influence of the deeply spiritual Dean Harcourt, left permanently crippled by infantile paralysis, is knowledgeable of the various anxieties which bedevil the mind of the average citizen. He has also come to meet, inevitably, Mrs. Dexter’s daughter, Phyllis Dexter, who has alternately dreaded and desired to see him. The story is very simple, but heavy in authorial intrusion, propelling along with the multiple plots tethered together by Dean Harcourt and his philosophy. Although the characters are not fully developed, Douglas manages to put the troubles of Paige in perspective. It’s a good novel about how a man finds his redemption.

326 pp. Grosset & Dunlap. Hardcover 1st Ed. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[742] Remember Me Like This – Bret Anthony Johnston

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” It was what happened when you spend time near someone who’d suffered the way Laura had: You felt the stranger. You saw the void surrounding her, stranding and diminishing her, and you saw her seeing it, too. Undoubtedly, what everyone experienced around Laura was what she experienced around her poor, ruined son. You only saw the wounds. ” (Ch.21, p.246)

Remember Me Like This delves into the tension and complex dynamics of the Campbell family, which reunites with their son who has disappeared for four years. Despite Justin’s miraculous return, the family struggles to reacquaint itself with normalcy, tiptoeing around their son’s unexplained torments.

The book is very dense; but its beauty is in its complexity, in its characters’ endless search for truth behind Justin’s disappearance. The narrative, which begins with the reunification of the victim and his family, proceeds with multiple perspectives. While the Campbells are dazed with happiness upon his return, as time goes by, they realize no easy endings are coming. The return has become Laura and Eric’s worst nightmare because, of course, while their son was held in the abductor’s apartment, he has been, one can only assume, the victim of unspeakable violence. They are ravaged by the desire to know the truth and the fear of knowing. Justin is glad to be home, but he carries with him four years of damage: anger, abandonment and isolation. The Campbells abide the therapist’s order to avoid broaching about Justin’s captivity for fear of further traumatizing him. But the awkwardness and strained silence suggest that they are incapable of giving voice to their most lurid fears. They tread lightly, tiptoe gingerly, until their reticence erodes what joy they have managed to revive.

Johnston strives to hold back all the juicy details of Justin’s life with his captor that would place this book among the huge canon of thrillers. The closest to fulfilling one’s voyeuristic pleasure is when Justin confides in his brother at the spot where he was abducted. To his brother’s question that alludes to his “away-life” Justin says, “Is that a clever way of asking if he raped me?” In a way, Johnston, using his authorial silence, keeps his characters and reader at a narrative distance in order to keep Justin safe from all interior access. This induces a very powerful moral standard that rebuffs voyeuristic curiosity. Instead of inventing gruesome facts or conjuring a courtroom scene, he redirects the attention into a more private sphere, safe from public prying—the house and hearts of the victim’s family.

There’s Laura, whose fear and guilt have shut down her life. She and her husband have drifted apart. She desires to erase her identity as a mother by signing up to volunteer with her maiden name. Eric has an affair with his friend’s wife Tracy. Cecil the grandfather conceives his own plan to bring the abductor to justice. Griff, wallowed in guilt, believes his argument with his brother is the cause of Justin’s leaving. As their perspectives intertwine, Johnston’s characters are fully realized. All their mistakes, blind spots, and secrets become undone and raw.

Remember Me This Way is far from a mystery or thriller despite the buildup of tension. It is an uplifting portrait of a family in crisis, and how they struggle to overcome it by love and acceptance.

373 pp. Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[741] The Color Purple – Alice Walker

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” But I don’t know how to fight. All I know how to do is stay alive. ” (18)

The Color Purple is an epistolary novel that begins in the early 1900s and ends in the mid-1940s. It’s the poignant story of Celie, a poor, barely literate Southern black woman who struggles to escape the brutality and degradation of her treatment by men. The tale is told primarily through her own letters, which, out of isolation and despair, Celie addresses to God.

Anyhow, I say, the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful, and lowdown. (193)

As a teenager, Celie is raped by her stepfather—even worse, she believes him to be her real father. She’s made to bear two children that are taken away from her. She is married off without her own consent to Albert, whom she only addresses as Mr. _____, who only uses her to raise his children and to do housework. By sacrificing her body to Albert without love and feeling, Celie saves her sister Nettie, whom Albert wants, making it possible for her to escape. Soon Nettie goes off to Africa to work as a Christian missionary. About halfway through the book, Celie’s sub-literate dialect letters to God become woven with letters from Nettie in Africa.

Ironically, Celie finds a friend and unlikely redeemer in Shug Avery, Albert’s blues singer-lover, who in defiance of what men expect of her, brazenly asserts her individuality. She is made the subject of sermon in church. Shug forces Albert to stop brutalizing Celie. She opens Celie’s eyes and encourages her to fight for herself. Shug’s pride, independence and appetite for living act as a catalyst for Celie and others and Sofia, whose rebellious spirit leads her not only to desert her overbearing husband but also to challenge the social order of the racist community in which she lives. It is also Shug with whom Celie first consummates a satisfying and reciprocally loving relationship. The most Shug does is free up Nettie’s letters, hidden away by Albert, thus granting poor Celie a tangible life and bringing about a shocking revelation of her family history.

I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it. The thing about color is that you do have to notice it. It is the beauty of that that is lost in muddling through an endless string of hopeless days.

Without Celie’s knowing, for almost 30 years, Nettie has been writing her letters from west Africa. Mr. _____ has intercepted the letters and hides them. The girls in a male-dominated society don’t fare any better than those in America. They are not allowed to be educated in any matter other than what will transform them into good wives. Nettie, a lonely girl who has to struggle for her own life, is often looked down on and pitied. Her letters broaden and reinforce the theme of female oppression by describing the customs of the tribe that parallel some found in the American South.

What makes The Color Purple so powerful, besides the dialect folk voice, is the choice of narrative style which, without authorial intrusion, forces intimate identification with the heroine. Whereas the letters in the beginning give a knothole view of her hard life, as the book progresses, Celie grows in experience. Her observations become sharper and more informed; the letters take on authority. Her once awkward fumblings slowly transform into a more fluid cadence as she finds some quiet dignity in her life.

The book is a triumphant work that explores self-realization. It’s a poignant but inspiring tale of women’s struggle for equality, independence and dignity. Despite the loss and misery, it is tempered by hope. The story is caked with layers of discrimination and prejudice that surround us, in races and in gender. Different as the subjects are, they are the realities of out world. This book is an important work in the canon of American literature.

294 pp. Harcourt. Mass Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

The Color Purple

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I have never read The Color Puprle, but has long been aware of its controversy. Written in 1982 by Alice Walker, The Color Purple tells the story of black life during the 1930s in the deep south of the United States from a female’s perspective. The Pulitzer Prize winning (1983) novel is told in the epistolary form over a 30-year period, following Celie Johnson as she struggles through life. What unfolds is a heart-wrenching story of neglect and abuse.

Like many books that have been banned over years, the list of charges against The Color Purple includes homosexuality, offensive language, and being sexually explicit. The literary merit of the book is shadowed by challenges in schools in which parents want the book removed from the curriculum. The book was removed from libraries and rejected for purchase in some school trustee—all because of its rough language,

I am not saying the book should be used for bedtime story for children. The point is to choose practically and wisely. I believe students in high school should have enough intellectual and psychological development to not only deal with the content, but to analyze it with logic and reasoning for its artistic and social relevance. Most importantly, placing themes like racism, violence, incest in the context of fictional characters could help convey a sense of healthy understanding.

The reason I’ bringing up The Color Purple is that on Independence Bookstore Day last Saturday, this book was one of the featured title at my local bookstore, which is in Oakland, California, the very battleground for an episode of censorship. It was decided that a high school honors class was not intellectually mature enough to study the work due to its “sexual and social explicitness, and troubling ideas about race relations, man’s relationship to God, African history, and human sexuality.” And back in 1984, predominant population of Oakland was African American.