“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.

“Underground” by Antanas Sileika

Underground: A Novel

(Author: Antanas Sileika) + (Year: 2011) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Lithuania)


Review:

I found this book quite interesting and informative. My knowledge about the Baltic countries is rather limited, so I was eager to read a book from the region and Underground was the right thing for me.

The reason why it interested me as much as it did is because it gave a historical view of the country, as is the purpose of my Reading around the world challenge, and it told a rather engaging story at the same time.

From the point of view of the main narrative, I wasn’t sure where things were going, but I wanted to find out and that kept me turning the pages. The part of the story I found kind of scary was that the struggles of the main characters, the Lithuanian partisans, against the Soviet oppression, were set in the late 40’s and yearly 50’s, which meant for me, the reader, that they were likely to be unsuccessful and to disappear under the veil of communism. Despite that, I wanted to read on and see whether there was going to be any salvation for the characters.

What makes me realize that a book has touched upon an interesting topic is when I catch myself reading up on it on the internet once the book is over. Therefore, I would say Underground managed to interest me in the story of the Lithuanian partisans.

It was also intriguing to be able to once again compare someone else’s version of communism to the one that existed in my country. In this case it made me appreciate the positive sides of Bulgaria’s geographical location, and think about the differences in the values of the people. While the partisans in Underground were fighting for national freedom, the Bulgarian partisans (one of the longest standing partisan movements behind the Iron curtain), were small landowners who didn’t want their land to be taken by the communist government. Food for thought, huh?

From the character point of view, I would say that the people in the books were to some extent colliding ways of life and ideas, rather than personal points of view. By this I mean that their main goals in life more or less defined their place in the book and the purpose they had to play in the scheme of the author’s philosophy. I found it harder to connect to them because of this, but I nevertheless appreciate that they were the tool of the author’s beliefs.

“Impossible Views of the World” by Lucy Ives

Impossible Views of the World(Author: Lucy Ives) + (Year: 2017) + (Goodreads)


Review:

This was the first book I received from Penguin Books on NetGalley and I was very happy about it. Add to that the interesting premise of a museum and a mysterious map of a magical settlement, as well as the beautiful cover, which reminded me of The Grand Budapest Hotel movie cover, and I was hooked.

Unfortunately, the book is anything but exciting. For starters, the main character was a strange, self-contradictory woman, who was as hard to like for me, as she was for all the rest of the characters. She seemed to possess mainly negative qualities, and most of all, she was rude and judgmental to the other characters, yet extremely gullible when it came to the museum heartthrob who managed to get her interest, despite being a very obvious sleazebag.

Also, story-wise, there were two separate stories which had nothing to do with each other, aside from being connected to the main character, Stella, and they kept pulling the main story in different directions, making it scattered and unbalanced.

The map story was very naive, childish and not really interesting to follow, and the story of Stella’s private life was just so out of place in terms of the book, that while finding it somewhat more interesting, I felt awkward reading about it, because it so obviously did not belong in the book, at all.

The writing itself was not to my liking either. To some it might have been clever, but to me it seemed very pretentious. There’s nothing bad about using a rich vocabulary, but it just seemed very forced and ostentatious, like a teenager trying to sound smart at a college party.

“The Joke” by Milan Kundera

(Author: Milan Kundera) + (Year: 1967) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Czech Republic)


Review:

One of my all-time favourite books is Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. So when I went to the Czech republic, I wanted to get a new Kundera book along my plan of buying books from the countries I visit. I had heard about The Joke from several people, so I told myself “Why not?”. Well… I shouldn’t have.

This book represented everything I could possibly hate about Kundera. I had heard before that he has many misogynistic tones in his books, something that didn’t strike me as hard in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but it did so in The Joke. In fact, I had an extremely hard time finishing this book because of the terrible representation of human emotions, interpersonal feelings and the role of women in them.

In The Joke, women are nothing more than playthings. The only thing they do is serve a purpose. They are not beings on their own but only in relation to what men need from them. The characters themselves admit it at certain points, but it was not my impression that while the author does self-mock, he also criticizes this open misogyny. I don’t think that Kundera actually disagrees with his characters. He might realize that the roles he attributes to women are wrong, but I don’t think he has any other way of thinking, and that is clearly visible in the entire book.

This fact bothered me so deeply that I could focus on little else outside of it.

Throughout the entire book, I was deeply disturbed and disgusted by the fact that this is how some men see and treat women. This indifference, this humiliation, it was so scary – if we are to accept the world as seen through Kundera, it would be a sad world indeed. And the most terrifying part of it all is that this type of behaviour is not only real, but also very common. I noticed even more of the exactly same attitude toward women, while I was reading the book, in the world around me.

Indifference was also what was killing the characters in the book. Helena was tortured by the indifference of her lovers, Ludvik – by the indifference of the other people to his sorrows and need for revenge, Jaroslav – by the indifference of the modern world to his beloved traditions and folklore.

I believe that we all shudder at the idea of indifference. Anger is passion, same as love. It means that a person cares, one way or another. But indifference… that is altogether different and scarier. It means that to someone, or to a group of people, or even to the whole world, something that you care about, or worse yet, your entire being, is something of no importance and no consequence. And there is nothing at all to do to fight indifference. A cold and indifferent heart can hardly be shaken by any desperate action.

There was one character that I found more tolerable than the entire bunch – Kostka. He was the only character that was not entirely closed off into his own world and wanted to give and not just get. There was also one quote from Kostka that made me think long and hard until I ended up agreeing:

“I can understand you, but that doesn’t alter the fact that such general rancor against people is terrifying and sinful. Because to live in a world in which no one is forgiven, where all are irredeemable , is the same as living in hell. You are living in hell, Ludvik, and I pity you.”