“Quo Vadis” by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Quo Vadis(Author: Henryk Sienkiewicz) + (Year: 1894) + (Goodreads)

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Review:

Technically, the rating I would give Quo Vadis is 3.5, but I feel like 4 full stars would be misleading.

I’ve been living in Poland for a year now, and Quo Vadis is certainly the most famous piece of literature that came out of this country. Despite being written in 1894, this book is as much in line with the Polish mindset, as it was 124 years ago. That is to say, Quo Vadis, in its essence is a praise to Christianity in its most basic and purest form.

Sienkiewicz is undoubtedly a great writer. The style of Quo Vadis is very sophisticated without being overly philosophical and complicated. Both the writing and the ideas of the book are easily accessible to any reader, and yet, the writing is very beautiful and poetical.

On the other hand, I see that this book would appeal to a certain type of crowd and it might not be as enthralling for others. I started reading it without knowing anything about the theme, and therefore, I did not have the opportunity to feel prejudiced or doubtful. Now, as I mentioned, Quo Vadis is a book which leans heavily on religion. It glorifies and idealizes Christianity to a point it might become burdensome to a reader who is not as engaged with religion. And the issue here is not that the book lies, or preaches fake morale, on the contrary, it spreads the original version of the New Testament Christianity – love to all, forgiveness for all, good deeds and compassion. It would be a lie if I said that Sienkiewicz urges people to do anything else, because he really does underline the importance of the goodness in people.

However, a critical mind can’t help but take not only the contents of the book, but also the reality of religion in consideration. Yes, in terms of this book, the author does not say anything of the bad things which have emerged from Christianity, and yes, maybe the world would be a better place if Christians actually followed the true pillars of their religion. But this experiment has been going on for 2000 years, and just as the followers of the Greek and Roman gods, who are greatly demonized in Quo Vadis, have done bad deeds, so have Christians. In fact, no other religion has ever been deadlier.

Therefore, I would just accept the sermons in the book without mentioning them, if the book itself was written at a time no one knew where this religion would ultimately lead. Unfortunately, Quo Vadis was written in the 19th century, and Sienkiewicz knew very well that just as Nero was torturing Christians in his book, so did Christians torture, maim and kill countless people in the times of the Crusades, the Inquisition and the witch hunts, even up to our times, and not to even mention issues such as molestation, abortion, and so on. And I know that it might be unjust to bring this up in terms of this particular book, but this is the context of the philosophy of the book, and no matter how much I wished it was possible to take everything out of context, because it would be so much clear, that is not the situation, and when we form an opinion about something, we need to look into the background, as well.

That set aside, I would say that Quo Vadis, as a narrative and story, was very engaging and even enticing, because one could anticipate historical events which were made part of the book. Most of all, I enjoyed the final scene of St Peter, as the historical event was beautifully interwoven within the book and as a glimpse both at the future of Nero, but also at the future of Italy and the Vatican much, much later. Actually it was St Peter that was my favourite character in the book overall. He stood aside the romantic events of Vinicius and Lygia’s lives and was the symbol of the purest form of faith that one can have. As I mentioned above, if Christians did believe, as he did, wholeheartedly and with absolute devotion, the world but be amazing, wouldn’t it?

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“Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged(Author: Ayn Rand) + (Year: 1957) + (Goodreads)

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Review:

This is probably going to be one of the reviews I’ll have the hardest time writing. The reason is that while Atlas Shrugged is a blatant piece of philosophical propaganda and a manifesto of Rand’s views, and as appalling it might be as such in certain moments, it is not fully without merit and I am not 100% opposed to her ideas.

I am not even sure why, but I’ve had Atlas Shrugged for years, and for some insane reason, I thought that this was one of those must-read contemporary classics that everybody loves. It was only after I had read a chapter or two, that I actually decided to read the reviews on Goodreads and I realized that I was sadly mistaken, and on the contrary, this book has many fans, but is also deeply hated by many.

As an overview of the actual story, Atlas Shrugged is set in an undetermined time period in which most of the countries of the world have been destroyed by wars and very few are still producing anything, mainly the ones in the Americas, while Europe is poor and devastated and relies on the charity of the States. At such a time, the big industrialists of America are trying to keep their companies afloat among many ridiculous laws, which force them to equalize their production with smaller companies. Suddenly, most of the biggest and brightest minds of the country start disappearing one by one and the last stand against all of this destruction is made by the owner of a metal company, Hank Rearden, and a train company heiress, Dagny Taggart.

Right, so far so good. This story, however, takes place in over a thousand pages, and for the most part, not much happens. Now, you have to keep in mind that Atlas Shrugged is a manifesto. Therefore, there’s an insanely large amount of preaching, and a much smaller amount of things happening. The entire first part of the book is train schedules, train rides, pouring of metal, arguing over rails and trains, and laying rails for trains. This made the book very hard to get into, and ultimately, it remains just as hard to finish. I imagine that getting through Atlas Shrugged feels kind of like swallowing sand.

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So, why weren’t the characters more appealing, or interesting enough to drive the story and make it more engaging for the reader? Why, because:

  • All of the characters are black and white manifestation of Rand’s purpose for them. Industrialists are good, we like industrialists. Therefore, they are attractive, well-dressed, well-behaved, rebellious, clever, intelligent, creative. The enemy, let’s call them the leeches, are ugly, stupid, lacking talent, don’t have a creative bone in their body, don’t have any idea what they are doing, aside from giving orders which are bad for the industrialists and the future of the world.
  • Women are usually weak, stupid and manipulative. The only exception is Dagny Taggart, who is also the prize female for all of the smart capitalist men. Aside from a pretty actress, Dagny is the only female who earns a place among the capitalists in their Atlantis, and most certainly the only one who does it because she is also smart and hard-working.
  • Capitalist men, however, are all dashing, ridiculously smart, and capable of saving the world. They, therefore, deserve to own everything in the world, including women. Sex, in that case, is owed, rather than simply desired. And since selfishness is the highest of all virtues in Rand’s world, sex is also done in a selfish, almost forceful way. More so, since Dagny is the only woman worthy of standing by the side of the great capitalist men, she is to be passed around between the best of them, because the purpose of her existence is to be with the strongest and most intelligent man and form no attachment or affiliation with any other.

From the point of view of Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, the worst thing that a person can possibly do, is make a sacrifice. In such case, giving anything to anyone and taking something from your own self in the process, is a sin against human nature. Also, any person who comes up with an idea, therefore has the right to abuse the control they have over their own idea and do with it as they may. Therefore, a capitalist who manages to create a product, has the right to offer this product in a way that no one but the richest of the world can buy.

Now, here comes the moment where I can both agree and disagree. My issue with the philosophy of the book is that it goes from one end of the spectrum to the total opposite one. Pure evil vs complete good. There is no place for modification and moderation. So, I would not support the right of the government to confiscate anything it wants and steal it from its owners. Taking control over all patents, for example, would be something I would not agree with. However, using patents to make products and gain ridiculous amounts of money while not allowing the poor access to the product, is also something that I don’t think is right. For example, if a doctor develops a vaccine against cancer and the doctor decides to sell it at the price of 100 million dollars, therefore, making it available to only the richest, I would think that that’s a form of evil on its own. In Rand’s world, however, that would not only be acceptable, but also be the most logical decision, firstly, because it was the doctor’s idea and it’s therefore his own right to decide the price, and secondly, because it is such a big contribution to the world, that it should only be shared with people who can match it in value.

According to Rand, there should be no social security, no charity, no welfare, nothing, that is common to all. I, too, don’t think that, for example, people who have never contributed to society and don’t want or plan to do it in the future, deserve to live comfortably, while someone else is breaking their back from work and paying taxes honestly. I do think, however, that if a person is temporarily out of a job, because of events out of his or her control, they should be allowed to receive money from the government while looking for another job. See, the difference between these two situations is in nuances. And nuances are something that Ayn Rand doesn’t accept or see: If you don’t make millions, you might as well go and die somewhere, because you sure as hell don’t deserve to live off the back of the noble capitalist heroes who are the pillars of the society.

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Simultaneously, while I think that Atlas Shrugged is the epitome of a misguided, materialistic philosophy, I can’t help but admire Rand’s ability to write such a manifesto. The book might not be the most exciting one and I might not agree with the author’s ideals, but she is, undoubtedly, a masterful writer who has the ability to make an impression, and more so, do that in a language which is not her native. To me, that is the most admirable part of her writing talent. The book was probably heavily edited, but nevertheless, for a Russian emigrant in the first half of the 20th century, Ayn Rand managed to master the English level in an amazing way.

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“Us Against You” by Fredrik Backman

Us Against You (Beartown, #2)(Author: Fredrik Backman) + (Year: 2018) + (Goodreads)

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Review:

While I liked Beartown, I didn’t have the feeling it needed a continuation. And Us Against You proved my prediction.

This was not a bad book, but had it not existed, I still would have accepted Beartown as a complete story.

That being said, my biggest problem with the book was that I read it too soon after Beartown, and I think they were meant to be read as they were written – with a certain amount of time between each book. The reason I’m saying this is that in Us Against You the author kept retelling moments from Beartown, which were very fresh for me, so I was bored with the constant repetitions. I might have accepted it if some story from the previous book was mentioned once or twice, but certain events were retold time and time and time again. For example, the moment when Amat goes against the team in the snow at the end of Beartown was mentioned fifteen times and every single time it was narrated as if it was for the first time. If all of these repetitions were removed from the book, it would have been about 150 pages shorter.

I liked the new additions to the team, though. Without giving away any spoilers, I thought the new kid on the team was an interesting addition and had a very unfortunate ending.

In general, I like Backman’s writing, because it’s very bittersweet, but if I have to be honest, I can’t stand any author in large quantities in a short period of time, so I think I will take a break before I read anything of his again.

“Beartown” by Fredrik Backman

Beartown (Beartown, #1)(Author: Fredrik Backman) + (Year: 2016) + (Goodreads)

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Review:

A Man Called Ove was one of the best books I read last year, so I was interested in reading another one of Backman’s novels. A friend lent me Beartown and Us Against You, so I immediately got on with it.

Beartown was a rather good book, although it was more sad and dark than I expected. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but I was taken off guard by the sober and honest narrative of the problems of a small, lost town in the Swedish forest. Had this book been American, I kind of expect there would have been a lot more sugar-coating of the heaviness in the hearts of the characters. European authors, however, often have this cheerful way of telling sad stories.

And I think that’s what Beartown really was – the sad story of people who deserve to be happy, and how they deal with that. I felt that the characters had a lot of personality and were very realistic, which is something I always greatly appreciate. The inhabitants of Bjornstad all had their own crosses to bear and it wasn’t very easy to separate who’s good and who is not, as it was obvious that even good people do bad deeds, and bad people can surprise us by lending a helping hand.

Out of all of the characters, I liked Benji the most, and my suspicion is that so did most people. He was the one person in the book who always stepped up, despite his constant urge to fail. I felt like this was the kind of person that I would rather be – predisposed to failure, but instead fighting for success, rather than a person like Kevin – used to success and bored with it. But really, each character presented a different moral that the author wanted us to draw and this was done so smoothly that I wasn’t even annoyed and I didn’t find it preachy.

Beartown was not flawless, however. I would say that it had more issues than A Man Called Ove, for example. At a certain point I started growing tired of Backman’s writing techniques. I felt like almost every statement in this book was made at least twice (when it came to Beartown’s love for hockey, then 200 times). For example, we read time and again how no one outside of the town would understand their love for hockey. Okay, I get that I will not get it, enough already, let me read. Same thing applied to the ominous way of delivering information about the upcoming violence “There’s going to be violence.”, “No one knows how the violence came”, “People will later talk about the violence in the town” etc etc.

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“Circe” by Madeline Miller

Circe(Author: Madeline Miller) + (Year: 2018) + (Goodreads)

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Review:

Okay, I will be the minority here. I have been following this book for months, ever since the early reviews started appearing. I had extremely high expectations, which might have been why I couldn’t enjoy Circe properly.

In all honesty, it was a mix of things that I disliked, rather than one specific element of the book.

For starters, I couldn’t get myself to like Circe as a person. In mythology she is mostly a bad person, while Circe tries to present her as a misunderstood/misrepresented character who was neither good, nor evil. What I saw more than anything was the underlying theme of her weakness and desperation. She let most characters walk all over her and then, when she was “growing” and “changing”, she decided to stand up for herself, but really, it seemed like it was forced writing. Somehow, to me Miller’s description of Circe becoming stronger and more fierce didn’t appear realistic. It was obvious that the author wanted to her to seem so, but it was an unconvincing evolution.

At the same time, the book felt rather claustrophobic, as perhaps it was meant to, but not just in the sense of Circe’s confinement on the island, but also the reader’s confinement in Circe’s head. I felt unsatisfied with the other characters, especially Circe’s enemies, because I only saw them through her eyes and neither their motives, nor their actions seemed to make all that much sense.

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I guess it’s hard to spin a more exciting story out of known mythology, but the bits and pieces of Circe’s life that were woven into an entire story, were not enough to support it. The moments that were filling the gaps between the major points of the narrative seemed drawn out and repetitive, such as a lot of weaving, a lot of walking around the woods and gathering herbs, many walks on the beach, etc. etc.

I kind of expected a female perspective Percy Jackson actually set in mythological times, and what I got was a journal of a single mom, mixed in with a pinch of magic. Not necessarily bad, but not what I was going for, either.

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