march 2014 books.

The Sea
John Banville
This was...quiet. A man who is recently widowed returns to the shore where he spent a formative childhood summer. He is supposed to be working on a book about art history, yet he spends his time writing recollections about his wife's illness, his childhood, and his current life.

When I say that this book is quiet, I mean that nothing happens. Something sorta happens at the end, or rather something happened years ago in his childhood and he finally gets around to telling you about it. But mostly it is him, processing his grief. As you read, you figure out just how bad a state he is in. He mentions drinking some, and drops a few details about carrying around a flask, but by the end you find out he's drinking quite a lot. And in the middle of one of his stories is just an angry outburst at his wife for dying and abandoning him this way. I guess that's what you call an unreliable narrator.

Still, the writing is very beautiful. I made myself go slow and appreciate the pictures he was painting, rather than try and skim for the plot. The grief felt very real to me. Still, while I will say that Banville is an excellent writer, I don't think I'll be picking up any more of his books. Too quiet.

Yevgeny Zamyatin
You know what I love? A good dystopia. Not only is this book an excellent one, but it predates both Brave New World and 1984, plus probably most of the other dystopias you've ever read. It was predated only by Jack London's The Iron Heel, which I had never heard of until just now, and I definitely want to read. All I know about Jack London are his books about wolves; I had no idea he wrote social commentary.

The book is a record kept by the head engineer of the world's first spaceship, the Integral. It is set a thousand or so years in the future, in a very tightly controlled society made mostly of glass. Everyone's life is scheduled by the Table of Hours, and they all live in glass apartment buildings so that the overlords can keep an eye on them. There are Guardians, which are like secret police, and then the Well-Doer, a robot leader. A giant wall surrounds the populated areas, while nature keeps on with her business outside. Our narrator, D-503, is happy and contented in this world, where everything has structure and is maximally efficient. I really related to his engineering mindset, which leaked into his phrasing, and I could see how such a controlled society would be comforting in a lot of ways.

Ah, but then our hero meets a mysterious lady and falls for her. He begins having dreams and breaking rules. He goes to the doctor, and they tell him that he has developed a soul. It's apparently chronic. The book was pretty funny in its treatment of the ancients (which means us, basically) and how the narrator perceives our lives to have been. They have an election day, which they call the Day of Unanimity. He wonders at the ancients, who used to have elections without knowing what the outcome would be. How foolish! He talks about something called "inspiration," which he describes as a form of epilepsy that went extinct. The OneState offers operations to people who are plagued by dreams and dissatisfaction, promising to remove their "fancy," which is apparently located in the frontal lobe. The OneState is similar to the government in The Handmaid's Tale, in that they say that it is free will that makes people unhappy - having the ability to choose means you can choose wrong.

The mysterious woman who causes the narrator to develop a soul is trying to start a revolution. D-503 doesn't understand - he says that they already had the revolution a long time ago and that's how they were able to live optimally now. She uses the concept of infinite numbers to explain that there is never a last revolution. Heck yeah.

Zamyatin never really wrote anything more. He was a Socialist who quickly became disillusioned with the communist revolution. He was able to get out of the USSR before they started killing artists for not creating Soviet-positive art (in the book, there are creative types, but their topics are assigned), but he apparently stopped writing completely while in exile. We was written to satirize communism, showing the outcome when you elevate the collective we over the individual I. Also, that it doesn't work, because those darn souls always pop up again. The book was first published in English in 1924, being the first work banned by the Soviet censorship bureau. It was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988.

The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back
Andrew Sullivan
Andrew Sullivan is a political blogger who I have read nearly daily since the 2008 campaign. I had never followed politics really at all. I'm still no junkie, but I am relatively aware of what is going on...which is a good feeling! It's nice to know what is going on and be able to say something about it. He writes a lot about the experience of being gay, and through him, I have come to a much better understanding about what being gay is about (hint: pretty much the same thing as being straight is about).

Sullivan considers himself a small-c conservative, but has parted ways with the Republican Party, particularly since the Iraq War (which he initially supported vehemently, but has since decided that it was a really terrible idea). He has also found that he does not have much in common with the party in terms of social issues. The marriage equality movement gives him a lot of credit for starting that push nearly way back in the 80s.

So this book is an exploration of how the American Republican party has gotten away from conservatism by fusing with fundamentalist Christianity. Sullivan says real conservatism is about skepticism - skepticism about the ability of humans to know or do anything, and therefore skepticism about government to know or do anything (seeing as how it's made up of humans). So the best the government can do is basically get out of the way. The government should provide security only, and that security allows maximum freedom of the individuals to pursue happiness as they define it. How he defines security, by the way, includes education and healthcare (reminds me of the line from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation about helping people to live healthy, productive lives).

Sullivan's problem with fundamentalism is that it says it knows what is best and how we should all be living, and it claims to come from the highest source. Sullivan is a faithful Catholic, and he often writes movingly about his faith. In reading this book, I realized that he is kind of a mystic. I guess I already knew that from his blog, since he often talks about the mysteries of faith. I definitely relate to the mysteries of faith rather than the certainties, so maybe I'm a small-c conservative, too, and just never knew it.

Winter Notes on Summer Impressions
Fyodor Dostoyevsky
This was probably a terrible first book to pick for my first Dostoyevsky, but it's too late now. Wiki says that a lot of his themes here pop up again in his novels. This book, which is actually a very long essay, is an account of his travels through Europe, where he complains about the bourgeoisie. He says that the revolution (meaning the people's revolution, i.e. socialism) is possible in France, but will take time because the society is too individualistic.

Understand me: voluntary, fully-conscious self-sacrifice utterly free of outside constraint, sacrifice of one's entire self for the benefit of all, is in my opinion a sign of the supreme development of individuality, of its supreme power, absolute self-mastery and freedom of will.

He may be right about that. But it seems like you'd need a society that works to develop the individual for any person to get to that point of supreme individuality. It was an interesting read when paired with We. Dostoyevsky was writing in the 1850s, while the revolution in his Russian homeland was still a long ways off. Of course, it's all doomed to fail because it's being put on by stupid humans, who can't do anything right and usually corrupt everything anyway.

The Stranger
Albert Camus
I was really excited to read this, because I liked The Plague so much. In fact, I searched for and bought this book at a used book store, rather than wait for the thrift store gods to favor me.

I did not enjoy this as much. It was stark. A man's mother dies. He gets involved with a friend who beats his girlfriend. The man shoots the girlfriend's brother. He is tried and convicted, sentenced to die by the guillotine. The end.

Yeah. I already gave away the whole plot, but I guess we can try and break this down some. The narrator, Mersault, is unmoored from society. He lives, but seems to have no real emotional attachments. He has a girlfriend who says that she loves him, but he shrugs in response. His mother dies, but he shows little response. He goes to the funeral, but does not cry and behaves "inappropriately," according to society's rules of How To Be Sad. During his trial, his lack of visible grief ends up convicting him to death, as the prosecutor pegs him as a monster who puts his mother away in a home and then smokes cigarettes at her wake. I had a bit of trouble on this part - yes, it was silly that his lack of emotion was the deciding factor in his sentence, but he was actually guilty of straight-up killing a man. It was implied that, if not for the dead mother issue, he would have gotten off easy because the dude he'd killed was "just an Arab" (book is set in French-ruled Algeria).

Camus is lumped in with the existentialists, but he did not say that existence was meaningless. Rather, he said the question of meaning was absurd, because of our tiny human brains. Either way, the result was the same - you gots to make your own meaning. Mersault, unable to find meaning in his own life, gradually realizes that there is none to be found and became accepting of the "gentle indifference of the universe."

I did a bad job on this one, I'm sorry. The Plague was so much better.

The Rise of Silas Lapham
William Dean Howells

This is a rags-to-riches story about Silas Lapham, who inherits some land which has a paint mine on it. He starts up a mineral paint business and becomes filthy stinking rich and attempts to join society by buying his way in. He is uncouth and uneducated, but also immoral, as his professional success is partly due to forcing a former partner out of the business. As a result of shady dealings and lavish spending, he is faced with a choice to save his fortune and his business by selling some misrepresented worthless property. So the "rise" referred to in the title is not his rise in fortunes, but his moral rise.

Howells is considered the father of American Realism. He is hard on the sentimental novel, where nothing happens but people feel very strongly about things. There is a tragic love triangle in the book, and the characters sit around discussing a sentimental novel with an identical tragic love triangle in it. In the sentimental book within the book, no one in the triangle ends up happy, which the characters in the realist book think is stupid and silly. But then it happens to them and they do the same sort of wailing and dramatic room-leaving for a while, until finally the two people who love each other get together and the other person just gets over it. American Realism, ladies and gents. Still has goofy love triangles which cause a lot of silly moaning and moping, but at least it was resolved sensibly.

This book was okay.


You'll notice that there is no book club selection this month. Our club leader asked whether the current moderators would like to continue to be so, and I declined. Now free from obligation, I was able to decide whether or not to attend the meeting based on how interested I was in the book. It sounded stupid and terrible, so I svaed my money and my time. While I did not enjoy The Stranger, at least I picked it for myself so it is my own fault.

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