Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Reflections: Swamplandia!

Adam C. Zern opines on Karen Russell's Swamplandia!:

"It's the same old story.  I hear of a supposed new modern classic by a new talented and exceptional author.  I decide to take a chance and use my precious book buying dollars to give it a read, and I end up turning the last moribund page with a sag in my shoulders and a shake of my head.

I wanted to love Swamplandia!  I really did.  The initial 50 pages of the book are excellent, so things got off to a promising start.  Mood, tenor, themes, characters—it's filled with all of the right ingredients.  And for a book that is so much about souls, sacrifice, and family, it felt surprisingly soulless to me.  There were various times in which I could see the author taking the story in one of several directions, and she always seemed to take it in a direction I didn't want it to go.  Clearly this is an extremely subjective criticism, but I'm the reader and am willing to embrace my subjectivity.  Karen Russell is a fine writer, but I didn't care for her story.  (Not to mention I think she takes one too many shortcuts in terms of plot details, almost like she was saying—"oh, yeah, I forgot to mention!").

I will mention that the State of Florida is an absolutely wonderful place to set a story.  It's natural environments and even its cultural scenery is filled with magic and mystery.  Many people come to Florida to make believe, and Karen Russell does a wonderful job in exploiting symbols of Florida, cultural and natural, to elevate her story.  She really did take full advantage of her setting, and it allows for Swamplandia!'s more interesting elements, such as when you're trying to discern whether or not the story's more fantastical elements are real or a fiction.  You feel in many ways what the main character, Ava, feels.

I wouldn't recommend Swamplandia!  Its virtues don't outweigh its weaknesses in my mind.  I was hoping for more, but this just wasn't the story I wanted to read."

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Reflections: The Time Machine

Sarah J. Zern shares her thoughts on H.G. Wells' The Time Machine:

"I grew up in a home where old movies were venerated.  It had to be a timeless classic if it were in black and white, and if it included spontaneous singing and dancing, it was most likely one of the greatest movies of all time.  One of these little gems that my father insisted on showing us kids was the 1960’s classic The Time Machine, starring Rod Taylor.  Any time that Dad saw from the TV guide that it would be coming on, the TV was off-limits to any other program during its air-time.  Needless to say, I have some very strong, and very fond, memories of watching the “Time Traveler” (as he is referred to in the book) zoom into the future of the Morlocks and the Eloi.

The only background I had on H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine was the aforementioned 1960s film, although I do have some VERY vague memories of a recent cinematic remake that was obviously ultimately forgettable.  Although a work of fiction, this book feels very much like a commentary on society as it is and as it should be, with a few interesting characters inserted along the way.  Not that the characters themselves are very distinct—the main character is never actually given a name other than the time traveler, and his female counterpart is a woman of the future that he calls Weena, but who never actually speaks at all.  Given the fact the characters in this book are so undeveloped, it lends reason to the idea that Wells’ intended purpose for this story was to offer up his own thoughts on society and its predestined future.  So, if you are interested in reading a book that has wonderfully developed characters and plot, this one is a skipper.

Although I am generally very attracted to literature that has great plot development and is character driven, I very much enjoyed reading The Time Machine.  You can see the Socialistic and Communistic themes very clearly in this book, but I don’t see it as a book that ultimately championed either philosophy.  The time traveler thinks that humankind has reached its pinnacle of existence by achieving a society in which no one must work and everyone is frail and beautiful, but that myth is very quickly debunked by our author, who I am told was in fact quite the Socialist in his day.  I found it very ironic that this futuristic society was so flawed and corrupt, yet so pleasing to the uninformed eye. 

Although there is really no way to spoil the ending of this book because it is told as a flashback from the point of view of our time traveler, I hesitate to spoil any more of the storyline.  It is a very quick read at a brief 120 or so pages, so I recommend this book to anyone with a little time and a little curiosity.  It is definitely worth the read."

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Reflections: Democracy in America

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and Two Essays on America:

"The Penguin classics version of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America weighs in at 935 pages, which includes the appendices, notes, and two essays about America.  Flipping that last page, similar to when I finished Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, was wonderfully fulfilling.  Tocqueville's exploration of 1830 America is a book about contradictions.  It highlights America's successes, its failures, and the exceptional quality of its citizens as well as their depravities.  Tocqueville is extremely laudatory of America's accomplishments, for reasons which the author outlines in detail, but also offers his warnings and concerns for all democratic societies.

Tocqueville organizes his book by separating it into two volumes.  The first volume is extraordinary.  There was hardly a page that didn't engage my attention and enlighten my mind.  The second volume felt less focused and less valuable overall than the first, but it also offers plenty to appreciate.  To a certain degree, Tocqueville writes in large generalizations, which is where many of the contradictions come from (Americans are greedy yet generous).  When he speaks of "Americans" he was referring to a population of millions and it would be difficult then as well as now to suggest that all of the citizens included in the generalization held the same morals, motivations, and outlook.  Yet, his commentaries regarding what made America unique and successful are, I believe, in many respects true.  His honesty can be seen throughout the book, and the reader can clearly discern the convictions of the author.

Perhaps of more value than any other topic addressed by the author, his commentaries on democracy, its value and its dangers, are shockingly prescient.  More than a few times I stopped reading in stunned amazement that the pitfalls Tocqueville was describing in detail had come to pass in our modern age.  There were other dangers he saw afar off in 1830 that are at our doorstep in 2012.  Tocqueville should be given credit for not limiting himself to myopic observations of his day but looking ahead and delineating the snares democratic societies would trap themselves in.

Democracy in America is an excellent book, and it's not for everyone.  Most would find plenty of benefit reading it in segments or sections, as many apparently have already*.  It's another one of my 'accomplishment' books, and I'll surely use it as a reference in the future.  I'll display it proudly on my Thousander Bookshelf.

*Interestingly, I became aware of Democracy of America because of a powerful quote that was supposedly pulled from it.  When I began reading the book, I read with anticipation to finally come across the quote from the actual primary source.  After reading around 800 pages, I began to doubt it actually existed in the book.  To my utter chagrin, I learned the quote was never spoken or written by Tocqueville and somehow became a popularized quote attributed to him without any referential support.  The experience reminded me of how the simplest of mistakes in the recording of history can lead to large misunderstandings."