reading: Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand (1957)

I can sum up Atlas Shrugged in two words I’ve never used to describe a book before: magnificent and brilliant.

Yes, it’s that good.

At close to a thousand pages, there is no repetition of ideas, no useless page filling, and no thumbing quickly forward wondering when something is going to happen (do you read Stephen King at a skim, too, wondering when the words are going to stop and something is going to happen? I hate that).

And I didn’t want the story to come to an end.

I’m going to lift the book blurb from Amazon:

    With this acclaimed work and its immortal query, “Who is John Galt?”, Ayn Rand found the perfect artistic form to express her vision of existence. Atlas Shrugged made Rand not only one of the most popular novelists of the century, but one of its most influential thinkers.

    Atlas Shrugged is the astounding story of a man who said that he would stop the motor of the world–and did. Tremendous in scope, breathtaking in its suspense, Atlas Shrugged stretches the boundaries further than any book you have ever read. It is a mystery, not about the murder of a man’s body, but about the murder–and rebirth–of man’s spirit.

    Atlas Shrugged is the “second most influential book for Americans today” after the Bible, according to a joint survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club.

Why this book is not taught at college, I have no idea — it should be! No one should be allowed to vote having not read it, and no one should be allowed to become a politician without having read it, nor a maker of public policy. Frankly, every high schooler should read it just to make sure they are exposed to its ideas (which would never happen at college).

Make some time to read it. If your library does not have it, request it via interlibrary loan. You’ll be glad you did.

I’ll say it again: magnificent and brilliant.


Reading: The Kitchen House (2010)

Again I have to say, I don’t mention all the books I read, only the best ones. I hope this one gets more readership. It’s very rare to read a book so compelling that it is torture to put it down, and this one kept me up reading into the night far longer than I usually do (and actually kept sleep at bay, as well).

Set in the late 1700s, here is the blurb from the book jacket, because it really does sum up the story better than I could:

    When a white servant girl violates the order of plantation society, she unleashes a tragedy that exposes the worst and best in the people she has come to call her family.
    Orphaned while onboard ship from Ireland, seven-year-old Lavinia arrives on the steps of a tobacco plantation where she is to live and work with the slaves of the kitchen house. Under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate daughter, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her adopted family, though she is set apart from them by her white skin.

    Eventually, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles opium addiction. Lavinia finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds. When she is forced to make a choice, loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare, and lives are put at risk.

    The Kitchen House is a tragic story of page-turning suspense, exploring the meaning of family, where love and loyalty prevail.

From what I can tell, this is a first novel for Kathleen Grissom, and the amount of time she spent researching her people, places, and situations shows in the writing through beautifully rich characterizations, without being a minute compendium of historical facts.

It isn’t a book I would normally pick up, but I saw a write up for it and was impressed. I hope maybe you’ll pick up The Kitchen House, too.

reading: Uglies, Scott Westerfield (2005)

I read an article in a newspaper about The Hunger Games books (already reviewed, see here), and it mentioned several other current young-adult books set in a dystopian future so I noted them down and checked out three at the library. I am amazed they were all available.

Spoiler later, don’t read this if you don’t want the BIG SECRET revealed.

Uglies seemed like the most likely of the books, so I read it first. Set three hundred years from now in a government-controlled society, except the people don’t realize they’re controlled. Physical beauty has been deemed a human right, and at age 16 everyone is re-molded into physical perfection in face and form. This reforming is the catalyst for the transition into adulthood, and with perfection comes acceptance of the world as it is and the peace that takes years and years for most people to find is suddenly just understood.

Sounds like a great world, right? Well, there’s always a catch.

Our 16 year old protagonist, Tally, is days away from her medical transformation, when she becomes embroiled in the rumored secret outlaw society who live in the forest outside of civilization’s walls. People who don’t want to be beautiful? How could there be such people? Tally is thrust out to find and reveal these outlaws to the people who represent civilization’s government, and she finds once there she wants to stay and eat real food and do hard labor and never be pretty.

Of course there’d be no story without the conflict between the two groups, and with a little romance, teenage angst, and a new understanding of the world, our heroine makes all the wrong choices but still comes out on top. Sheesh, I make it sound bad and it’s not–I read it over two days and want to read the next three books!

Here’s the spoiler that makes what the outlaws are doing so important: when one is given the pretty makeover, one also receives a partial-lobotomy to make one pliant.

It’s really the hook that makes the whole thing work. And Uglies is darn exciting, too.

reading: Short Stories of Jack London (1990)

Remember around 8th grade or so you read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” because everyone everywhere read that one, right? Did you know there are two versions? 1902, and 1908. I can’t remember 8th grade beyond a few glimpses of moments here and there, but I’m pretty sure we read the 1908 version. And now I’m curious if anyone read the other version, and if not, why not?

To make it easy to understand the world of difference between the two versions, here are the final paragraph of each:

1902: In a month’s time he was able to be about on his feet, although the toes were destined always after that to be very sensitive to frost. But the scars on his hands he knows he will carry to the grave. And — “Never travel alone!” he now lays down the precept of the north.

1908: Then the man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known. The dog sat facing him and waiting. The brief day drew to a close in a long, slow twilight. There were no signs of fire to be made, and, besides, never in the dog’s experience had it known a an to sit like that in the snow and make no fire. As the twilight drew on, its eager yearning for the fire mastered it, and with a great lifting and shifting of forefeet, it whined softly, then flattened its ears down in anticipation of being chidden by the man. But the man remained silent. Later, the dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and back away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were other food-providers and fire-providers.”

Isn’t there a world of difference between the two? In one he builds the fire and takes to heart the wisdom of “don’t go out alone when it’s freezing out,” and in the other one he dies. Both are well written, and frankly speak of a writer who knows what freezing limbs feel like.

In the forward of the book there’s a brief overview of the author’s life. He quit school at an early age, but self taught at the public library. Jobs included: delivering newspapers, setting pins at a bowling alley, sweeping saloon floors. After grade school, he went to work full time stuffing pickles into jars. Realizing the futility of manual labor, he went to sea on a sealing schooner. Other adventures followed, giving him a wide scope of personal experience to draw from. His understanding of human nature and motivation revealed through his characters demonstrate the universal truths that never change.

Overall, I am flabbergasted how good his stories are. That taste in eighth grade of one depressing story left no incentive to investigate the greater wealth of stories left behind.

It makes me wonder why the school system chose that story, and not the other one.

Reading: Hunger Games, The (2008)

When I went to watch a certain serial vampire movie (rhymes with Twilight), one of the trailers was for a movie set in a dystopia where kids had to fight to the death to win a reality game. “Cool,” I said, “they’ve finally made Battle Royal,” by Koushun Takami (2003), “into a movie!”

My friend said, “No, it’s The Hunger Games,” and she was right and I was wrong. She said it was a really good series of books, so I checked the first one out from the library. Boy, was she right, I read it in three days and I am still hopping up and down waiting for my request for the second book to come in.

I have read that the best things are happening in Young Adult fiction right now, and between this series and the Twilight one, I’d have to agree. And I also have to say, If either of these series had been written when *I* was in junior high/high school, you would have been laughed out of school for reading either one. “You’re reading a book about being in love with a vampire?” nose wrinkled in disgust, “You’re weird!” and you’d be gossiped about. And, “You’re reading a book about a failed America where kids have to kill each other so their villages win food for a year??? You’re weird!” and you would have been shunned. Seriously.

How times have changed.

I was thinking how is speaks to, as a novel writer, you not only have to good story idea, but it has to be written when the audience is ready for it. Neither of these book series would have gone anywhere twenty years ago. But today, the zeitgeist is ready.

So, recap: The Hunger Games is a winner, and if you missed Battle Royal, see if you can check that one out, too. Complete page turners.

reading: Make Way for Ducklings (1941)

Make Way for Ducklings is the Robert McCloskey book most of you have probably read. Or it was read to you a long time ago. A winner of the Caldecott Medal of honor.

I read the book trying to figure out why it won this prestigious award. I decided that it probably resides in two reasons: a lovely rendition of true-to-life Boston, and use of perspective uncommon for the time. Even today, side-view perspective is almost always the norm.

A mama and a daddy duck are trying to find a suitable place to raise their ducklings. They spend some time at the Public Garden pond. Look how big this swan boat is! How nicely the people are all dressed, the men in suits and the ladies in hats. And no seat belts for the kiddies? I wonder if anything similar even exists today.

The ducks decide this is not a good park to raise a family after a rude boy almost mows down father duck. How do we know this is a bad boy (besides the duck incident, of course)? Why, his shirt is all untucked, his socks are falling down, and his tie is loosened. Although, all little boys getting out of school probably did all these things right away, come to think of it…

Here is an example of the use of perspective that I mentioned.

At the end of the story, Michael the policeman helps the ducklings to cross the street through traffic. It is very sweet. I wonder if policemen every really did look like this? Of course they did. That’s why they looked like this in cartoons and movies. Because it was real.

I should have taken more photos of the lovely architecture around Boston. I wonder how much of it remains? Probably quite a lot, I’ll bet if we ever go to Boston we could take a tour and figure out the route of the ducklings. That would be fun.

Also, do you know why I keep coming back to noting how respectable people used to look, as reflected by their clothing choices? It made me remember that I worked with a lady back during my college days, both of us at an unskilled warehouse job. You learn everyone’s life stories at this kind of job, as there’s not much to do but stand around and talk while performing your work task. She had four children, was unmarried, and had used the first child as a way to move out of her parents’ home via welfare money. This was back during the clinton years, where if your kid was over 2 years old you had to get a job to keep getting any assistance. So every two years she had another kid, and I think finally just didn’t get pregnant in time and ended up working where I worked. I tell you this as it helps you understand her mindset: do as little as you can, don’t read books, and frankly she barely took care of her children. Anyway, one day she was relating how her nine year old son wanted a suit. She laughed about it, and not in a nice way. “What would a nine year old want a suit for?” None of the rest of us said it, but I’m sure we all thought it: “Because he wants to look respectable, and not poor.” She wouldn’t have understood, but her nine year old got it.

reading: Lentil (1940)

Lentil was written by Robery McCloskey; I wish our library had more of his books as it looks like he wrote or illustrated abut nine.

The very first page of Lentil is shocking by today’s standards:

What is that on his watch chain? A pocket knife? At school?

The other kids seem so unconcerned. No one is running to tell a teacher. What could he possibly use it for? Maybe slicing up a tomato for his sandwich, so he didn’t have a slice sitting on the bread all morning making the bread soggy? Heaven forbid.

And a picture of his school room. I wonder if people complained there wasn’t enough money funding the school. All they had was desks, chairs, books, probably a blackboard, a teacher, and a piano. and I’ll bet that piano was quite a luxury, a result of someone’s personal donation.

The hardware store is full of surprises. you can buy saws, an auger, a harmonica, and


I love that the house of the richest man in town looks like it was designed by Charles Addams.

Of the McCloskey stories I’ve read, I think this is the weakest. But it is still a nice slice of time gone by.