Monday, May 11, 2020

Reading in Quarantine: The First Seven

I always have a stack of seven books to read. Sometimes I'll get to pages or chapters from all seven in one sitting (or bath), other times I'll zero in on one that I'm enjoying more than the others and finish it first before going back to the remaining six. This time around, I was watching The Handmaid's Tale while also reading The Testaments in early March, so I worked it out by reading Testaments in the morning and then by watching Handmaid's Tale at night (with wine, because yeah). I can't say it was fun, exactly, but I was very interested in both stories having read Atwood's THT novel years ago. Things were a lot different back then.

I didn't set out to create a depressing stack of dystopian books to read, it just sort of assembled itself. My friend lent me the Atwood, I had been reading small bits of the Rand since summer, Cronin's last in his vampy trilogy had sat gathering dust on my shelf since after returning home from China in summer of 2018, I'm just always reading something of GRRM's, and I've been rereading each of King's novels just for the fun of it. The other two I just picked up because I wanted to learn more about history and international diplomacy. When I posted a photo of this stack on March 16 (the week after my graduate school internship was suspended and the quarantine unofficially began), many people noticed the theme and remarked upon it. Very heavy, very dark, they all said; I went with it. It was indeed a very heavy and dark collection of books, but without spoiling anything, there are a few happy conclusions snuck in, too. Not the non-fiction, mind.

After a while and given the way the events under quarantine have unfolded throughout my time at home, I started balancing these stories with television programs that became an outlet for my disgust and anger at the administration's handling of the situation (Sons of Anarchy, Rescue Me, House, Mrs. America) and my need to escape it all (LOST). Here's what I read:

1. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. 2019, 431 pages.

This story continues the events of The Handmaid's Tale and is told through POV chapters from two young girls, one inside Gilead and one across the Canadian border, and Aunt Lydia, one of the women charged with the education of Gilead's young women.

I could give my thoughts on this in a balanced and proper way highlighting interesting bits of prose or clever links back to the previous novel --Hey, Aunt Lydia's backstory! Awesome!-- but this would really be a waste of a good rant. It's obvious that Atwood knows how to write; everything she does is intelligent and skilled, but I wasn't thinking of this while I read. I was cringing and scowling and squeezing the book (as during the show but sub squeezing the book with gulping my wine) because I was ANGRY. This experience was quite unlike reading The Handmaid's Tale so many years ago because for various reasons, now, I am more afraid of it ACTUALLY HAPPENING. I found myself thinking several times that this might give the wrong people worse ideas than they already have and that women might need to have a plan in case this someday gets put into play. Just like everyone is likely to have a "pandemic plan" that has toilet paper, yeast, and bottled water hidden away in a bin after this COVID debacle, I move that women start developing a "Gilead plan," for safety's sake. I don't know what it would entail, but once we can meet again friends, let's get something down on paper, okay?

Verdict: Great book, well done (will raise blood pressure). Men? Reading this could really help with insight and self-awareness, please try.

2. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. 1957, 1084 pages. 

I will try to be tactful with this. I started reading it a really long time ago and planned to stop at least six times throughout different stages of it but didn't. I read The Fountainhead about twenty years ago and thought it was okay until I actually started thinking about the date rape presented as, "well, it worked out in the end, didn't it?" I had a hard time with that, but it's another story for another day. Atlas Shrugged is an entirely different experience although there's definitely gender stuff and a weird, destructive vibe around the intercourse that gets had among characters.

Dagny Taggart is the vice president of a successful railroad company; her brother is the company's president but he's spineless and bad at his job. Hank Reardon is successful in running a steel company having created his own superior brand of metal. Europe is in the grips of communism, which seems to be spreading to other parts of the world, and this worries the two industrialists because every single liberal-minded person in America favors collectivization, helping one's fellow man, eschews science, progress, and rational thought, and they're beginning to take over. Through the guidance of several other mysterious and lauded industrialists, the two realize they've been approaching their businesses in a way that rewards laziness and ignorance, and that this needs to be radically halted.

I get that communism was scary, but seriously.

(Epoche: I have a liberal arts undergraduate degree and have very nearly completed a graduate degree in a field that combines art and science. I taught little kids to read for four years; I serve others in a helping profession. I am a writer and musician. I have more children than average. I read a lot. I am not a business owner, nor I am remotely interested in becoming one. I realize I am speaking from a position of privilege, as a reader and as a middle-class, white, cishet American whose parents created a comfortable life for me). As such, I was not made to be afraid of the ills described in this story, nor was I guilted by the implications leveled at liberals. I won't say it's not an important story, it is, but it's of another era, another world, even.

Most liberals are not going to put the time in with this. Hell, most followers of Rand are probably not going to put the time in, either. It's long, it's complex, and it deals with a lot of abstract ideas that don't really get interesting until halfway through the book. That said, I was intrigued by the two characters' views and experience in their respective industries. The book itself is written well (if a tad long-winded), it's passionate, and presented in an intelligent manner. As someone who enjoys a good rant, I appreciated that this book had several: Francisco's wedding rant was maybe 15 pages, John Galt's radio lecture was almost 60. I didn't particularly enjoy those rants but I liked some of the other lines, mostly Dagny's: (New sis-in-law tries to throw down. "I'll put you in your place. I'm Mrs. Taggart, I'm the woman in this family now." "That's quite all right," said Dagny. "I'm the man.") I liked her energy and inner focus, and I liked that she, a woman, was competent and respected.

What I rolled my eyes at a lot were the thoughtless and negative blanket statements about professors, teachers, mothers, and even writers and musicians that were presented as absolutes as well as the whole idea of moral codes being the guiding forces in these industries. Please. If she's trying to sell us on America's superiority and the strength of the American businessman, that's some real fairy tale, revisionist bullshit that ignores a hell of a lot of exploitation that this country was built upon. I don't think Rand considered how quickly and completely her little idea would eventually 180, (the word moral as it applies to this outfit, today? People rejecting logic and intelligence? Come on!) but whatever. I can have a sense of humor about being a liberal, and in so doing, I can laugh about this very misguided idea of Rand's that caring and empathizing is wrong and that only selfishness matters.

Verdict: It's obviously written by an intelligent person, just one I don't personally agree with. If a greater understanding of "what moves the world," was the goal, the book is only interested in what moves the unemotional, disconnected world of white businessmen and their money. I'll take real humanity, thanks.

3. The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin. 2017, 602 pages. 

I really shouldn't have let so much time pass between installments, but it all worked out in the end.

In the reorganization after the defeat of The Twelve, members of the new civilization throughout various locations in Texas make ready their next moves for survival while Zero (Timothy Fanning) shares his backstory and furthers his plan.

I'm not gonna lie; Timothy Fanning stole this story completely away. His chapters had the best events and the most emotion and insight into his character. I had to try very hard to keep everyone else straight. This survivor's doing this, this is a dream sequence, this survivor's over here, now, and so on.  Really loved the line about Hollis, "This large, gentle man, collector of books and reader to children, had become a warrior." I very much dug the book and thought it wrapped up the trilogy nicely; the idea of hitting reset on humanity is not something I thought about in any seriousness before, but funny enough, it's on my mind a lot now. Bonus points for viruses being not just interesting but all of a sudden relevant.

Verdict: Enjoyable book, lots of feeling, a smart series about vampires. Enjoyable series overall. Check out The Passage and The Twelve first, if you're interested.

4. The Stand, the complete and uncut edition by Stephen King. This release, 1990, 1141 pages. 

A virus named "Captain Tripps" wipes out most of the country; good versus evil battle it out in the aftermath. 

I've never read the edited version, I wonder now what initially didn't make the cut. This I read 10 years ago in search of what I thought would be clues to the ending of LOST. I whipped through chapters and did not appreciate all the subtle little details that I really enjoyed this time around. Although there are definite ancestor text references, this felt decidedly less like LOST and very much more like The Walking Dead after the initial threat of the zombies had been extinguished. They have to elect a new government. They have to figure out how to get the power back on. And gardening! The community-building was a huge part of the novel, mixed in with the creepy jealous evil of first, Harold Lauder, and next, Randall Flagg, aka "The Walkin' Dude." I had forgotten the last battle, as it were, and was expecting some sort of desert ultimate fight scene, so I was a little let down by the abruptness of the final battle (but appreciated the link to a certain Juliet Burke). 

Overall, the story itself doesn't seem to me to be rooted in horror at all: The Stand is about its characters, which is very much like LOST, and I can't fault it for that because all of them are interesting and well-written. It's a long read, it takes its time, and some of the language feels very dated and cheesy, but it still holds. Especially now. Did you know they were releasing a new version of it in 2020? Good to see the Skarsgaard family is making a habit with these creepy updates; Eric the Vampire as RF? Nice.

Verdict: If you are a patient reader, a fan of King, or both, you'll dig it. Surprise, it's disturbingly relevant, also.

5. "The Skin Trade," from Dreamsongs, volume II by George R. R. Martin. 2012, 88 pages. 

Werewolves (lycanthropes) do wolfy things in this crime story. Skins are also removed.

This was a nice longer short story. I was hopeful that the wolf and skin stuff might be some generationally-relevant reference to the Starks and the Boltons, but no such luck. I just want everything GRRM writes to have some basis in the world of ice and fire, is that too much to ask?

Verdict: It's fine. It's not Winds of Winter but we make do, you know? Enough said.

6. The World Since 1945: A History of International Relations by Wayne C. McWilliams & Harry Piotrowski. 2001, 618 pages. 

This was a textbook for a current events history class I took back in 2000 at MCTC. I learned a lot; it was definitely one of my favorite history classes, ever. The professor was super smart, liberal as hell, and had done his studies on China, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

A detailed volume of how the threat of communism guided US policy and got us all in bed with terrible dictators. Also colonialists did not leave their former colonies with the skills or tools to prevent corruption, so that happened. Germany and Japan rebuilt and learned a lot from their horrible mistakes; globalization has its good and bad points. The former Soviet Union and modern-day Russia is a shit show, but we can't really even know the half of it. Oil. Pollution. Poor nations become indebted nations. 

Verdict: Yes. Read it. 

7. War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence by Ronan Farrow. 2018, 392 pages. 

In summary: There used to be smart people in the State Department, and while those smart people didn't always have all the right answers and made a lot of mistakes, they were smart, they understood diplomacy, and legitimately wanted to help the country and the world. Those people were fired or quit 3 years ago and weren't replaced or are governed by people unfit for such roles who don't understand or value diplomacy. Or anything, really. Gross. 

Verdict: WE. ARE. SCREWED.