Ideal: Ayn Rand’s “New” Novel

Calling Ayn Rand a controversial figure would be the understatement of the year. In some circles claiming to be a fan of her work could get you labeled an elitist or a nut. Then there are the legions of acolytes who hold her work up like stone tablets from the mountain top, whether they understand it or not.

As for myself, I’m a fan of Rand’s novels and her thoughts on literature, but don’t subscribe to her political-economic views. Occasionally I muse about whether she would hold the same views were she alive today. After all, Rand was logical above all else. She defined her own terms, spoke them eloquently, and did so as a Jewish immigrant in the early/mid-twentieth century. That’s nothing to dismiss lightly. But on to her “new” novel.

Rand died in 1982, so Ideal is not really new. It was written after We The Living (1936), Rand’s first novel, but before The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) made her famous. Ideal was never intended for publication as a novel; it was rewritten and ultimately produced as a stage play. This book contains both the novel and the play script. In Ideal fans of Rand’s fiction will find everything they’re used to expecting from her: larger than life characters, a plot that keeps you turning pages, crackling dialogue, flawless prose, and of course a highly moral (or at least moralistic) theme.

The plot surrounds a murder. Famous film starlette, Kay Gonda, is accused of the killing and she races around Hollywood seeking refuge. She has taken six pieces of fan mail with her and hopes that someone among them will hide her from the police. Who will save her? The respectable family man? The activist? The cynic? The preacher? The playboy? Or none of the above?

But what kept me reading, just as much as the question of “whodunit?” is “What is this author saying?” Each of Gonda’s encounters with her fans makes a different statement on values, appearances, society, etc., making Rand herself as much of a character in the story as the novel’s protagonist. The novel’s climactic and controversial conclusion, which I won’t give away here, is designed to get you thinking, and it certainly does that.

Bottom Line: Ideal would make an ideal kick-off to an Ayn Rand book club, a warm-up to her lengthier and better known works. Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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The Power of Words: If You Find This Letter by Hannah Brencher

The Christmas season is a great time to reflect on one’s character and to determine what makes a “life well-lived.”  Whether you are young or old, becoming the best version of your self often presents a challenging dilemma.

If you enjoy inspirational memoirs, you will want to read Hannah Brencher’s book If You Find This Letter: My Journey To Find Purpose Through Hundreds Of Letters To Strangers. If youAs the title suggests, the book exposes Hannah at a crisis point in her young life.  Fresh out of college, she has visions of her future as a successful, happy, glamorous individual with an important career…able to make a difference in the world.  Having the wisdom of several decades behind me, I could sympathize with the youthful struggles to commit to the right career path, to develop a clear picture of God and his expectations, to connect with others in new surroundings, and to find a life worth leading.

I would call Hannah a “wordsmith.”  She is a talented writer with a gift for painting pictures for the reader.  Early in life, she wrote journals and was comfortable exposing her feelings and aspirations using social media, and on her own blog. During a volunteer year in New York City (she worked at the United Nations and helped at a preschool), Hannah found herself struggling with self-doubt that caused her to doubt her worthiness, her physical attractiveness, and her faith. Life in New York City left her feeling alienated, lonely, and depressed.  Knowing how much her mother’s letters had meant to her in the past, Hannah impulsively decided to leave a letter to an older woman wearing beat-up clothes and an exhausted demeanor:

I was watching the old woman, pulling at the curls in my hair, and thinking about the love letters my mother wrote and how she must have known an ordinary piece of loose-leaf paper morphs into a love letter when a person puts their self into it.  Suddenly, the words steam off the page.  Suddenly, your hands are caked with the remnants of someone else’s understanding and compassion and goodness. (p.83)

Though the letter to the lady on the train was never delivered, it did spark something creative and hopeful in Hannah.  More honest letters poured out of Hannah, conveying her hopes, fears, and inspirational thoughts.  She picked random people and places and distributed letters throughout the city. In a moment of bravery, she decided to blog about leaving the love letters all over the city and offered to write those in need of a letter, signed with her real name. The need was great and overwhelming.  Hannah wrote letters to people contemplating suicide, those facing illness, young people being bullied, and the lonely and previously ignored.

img_0783Ultimately Hannah decides to build a website dedicated to connecting other letter-writers all over the globe with those needing letters, and tracking the impact if possible. The crazy idea was based on love and the fact that many people want to make a difference:

Love.  it’s crazy to think it took me that long to figure out the one thing to make this all spin and go.  It might have been the only thing that mattered the whole time.  Not me. Not the stationery.  Not the stamps or the strangers.  Just the love we learn to give one another when no other motives stand on the table.

The small project morphed into something large and global. I dare you to walk away from this book without feeling the urge to connect with those in your community, friends, or family. It’s time to get out a pen and paper and “show up”…

If you like this book, I would suggest:

9780812993257The Road To Character by David Brooks

This New York Times bestselling non-fiction book evaluates America’s transition to a culture that values self-promotion over humility, explaining the importance of an engaged inner life in personal fulfillment.  Looking to some of the world’s greatest thinkers and inspiring leaders, Brooks explores how, through internal struggle and a sense of their own limitations, they have built a strong inner character. – Publisher’s Summary

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#TheGirlIsBack : New Salander Mystery Meets Cynic’s Expectations

When I first saw The Girl In The Spider’s Web on bookshelves early in October, I was apprehensive. I remain a huge fan of the Stieg Larsson Millennium mysteries (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest) as well as the films based on them. I lamented when I discovered that Larsson had died shortly after delivering the completed manuscripts to his publisher. I thought to myself, “No one else could possibly do a decent job carrying on this series.” And yet the series begged to be continued. The characters were so deep and interesting, the issues raised by the books so topical and discussion worthy. So I decided to give The Girl In The Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz a fair shot.

I am aware of the negative reviews penned about this book, claiming it lets the series down. To the authors of those claims I say, check your expectations. No one placed the Millennium books on a higher pedestal than I. In fact I once stated, with all the authority vested in me by my English degrees, that the Millennium books were among the most important novels written so far this century. Think about it –computer hacking, privacy, the security state, misogyny, surveillance, the place of high-technology in society, the power of information, the embattled state of journalism –all these issues are explored in the books through nail-biting plots and captivating characters. Yet as much as I loved the original series, I would say the yard by which we measure this new installment by David Lagercrantz should not be: “Is it as good as the original three?” but rather “Does it accomplish what it needs to?” I would say that it does.

The Girl In The Spider’s Web deepens the mythology behind the first three books by introducing us to characters just mentioned previously. It fleshes out existing characters with more detail and back story. It continues exploring all the major themes just as the original books did. It remaines true to the style and pace of the original trilogy. My only complaint about the book is that it could be longer. I hope to see three more Millennium books by Lagercrantz and/or other equally talented authors.

Bottom line: don’t set unrealistic expectations and you’ll be delighted that the characters of Millennium live on long after their original author. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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When Everything Feels Like The Movies: YA Fiction With an Edge

What’s it like growing up gay and fabulous in dingy small town America? That’s one of the many questions explored in author Raziel Reid’s first novel When Everything Feels Like The Movies.

The book won the Governor General’s award for Young Adult Fiction in 2014 and was a runner up for CBC’s Canada Reads competition. More importantly, it was also the third selection of the Guelph Public Library’s LGBTQ book club led by yours truly!

Marketed by Arsenal Pulp Press as a young adult novel, the book is gritty and unapologetic in its depictions of sexuality, violence, and drug use. Narrator Jude Rothesay experiences the scene of his northern, small town high school as a film set. There are the stars, the supporting actors, the crew, the paparazzi, and so on. The book even comes with two completely different endings, one of them a “director’s cut,” requiring the reader to be actively involved in the making of this “film” by choosing which ending to believe.

Everyone in our book club loved the book, but there were mixed feelings about the main character. Personally, I was confused by some of the professional reviews I encountered. In some Jude, the main character, is held up as a “role model” and the book as a “beacon” for queer youth. I’m not so sure, neither were some of the folks in our book club –a dynamic, diverse, and well educated crew if there every was one. Around the table were a social worker, a teacher, a retired principal, a massage therapist, a professional actress, an educational assistant, a few folks whose careers I can’t remember right now, and me –a former teacher now librarian-in-training.

At one point our group wrestled with the question, “Should this book be available to (or marketed to) young adults?” Given the book’s mature subject matter, this was a legitimate question. The librarian in me screamed “Of course! Access! Access! Access!” But I also joined the consensus of the group that the book would be better taught than simply found and read by a fourteen-year-old on their own. “Kids should read this in their Grade Nine classrooms!” someone suggested. Personally, I think it would be a great follow-up read to To Kill a Mockingbird. Seriously!

A few people in the group found Jude’s character “annoying” and “foolish” but neither of them wanted to stop reading. Many in our group read the book as more of an indictment of the society around Jude and its failure to recognize any worth in its young people, especially young people who weren’t perfectly “normal.” A few of the more senior members of the group were somewhat shocked: “Good, Lord! Is this what kids go through these days!?”

At one point I held up the book and asked everyone: “Is this what happens when kids are forced to raise themselves?” Jude’s mother is all but absent and his step father mistreats him. One person in the group suggested that better kids raise themselves than be raised by the less-than-ideal adult figures in the story. Another pointed out that Jude didn’t readily go under the wing of the one positive adult figure in the story, one of Jude’s teachers. Of course, as it turns out, that may have been a good intuition on Jude’s part. As a character, it seemed everyone around the table wanted to either hug Jude or kick him in the behind. But no one wanted to leave him alone.

Ultimately, When Everything Feels Like The Movies is an ode to human creativity, an exposé of what an young man’s heart and mind are capable of when placed in a less-than-ideal environment amid more enemies than allies. Highly recommended!

I look forward to our book club’s next read, Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter by Alison Wearing, now available for pickup at the Main Branch.

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Literary Award Winners Announced: Perfect Additions To Your Reading List

3959786-4x3-340x255It’s that time of year again…literary award season.  Here is a list of some of the recent winners that might intrigue your book club, interest you personally, or make a great Christmas gift for someone special:

Man Booker Prize For Fiction 2015: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

In A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James combines brilliant storytelling with his unrivaled skills of characterization and meticulous eye for detail to forge an enthralling novel of dazzling ambition and scope.51XKcOaAopL__SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

On December 3, 1976, just before the Jamaican general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica Concert to ease political tensions in Kingston, seven gunmen stormed the singer’s house, machine guns blazing. The attack wounded Marley, his wife, and his manager, and injured several others. Little was officially released about the gunmen, but much has been whispered, gossiped and sung about in the streets of West Kingston. Rumors abound regarding the assassins’ fates, and there are suspicions  that the attack was politically motivated.

A Brief History of Seven Killings delves deep into that dangerous and unstable time in Jamaica’s history and beyond. James deftly chronicles the lives of a host of unforgettable characters – gunmen, drug dealers, one-night stands, CIA agents,  even ghosts – over the course of thirty years as they roam the streets of 1970s Kingston, dominate the crack houses of 1980s New York, and ultimately reemerge into the radically altered Jamaica of the 1990s. Along the way, they learn that evil does indeed cast long shadows, that justice and retribution are inextricably linked, and that no one can truly escape his fate.

Gripping and inventive, shocking and irresistible, A Brief History of Seven Killings is a mesmerizing modern classic of power, mystery, and insight. – Publisher’s Summary

Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize 2015 and Scotiabank Giller Prize 2015: Fifteen Dogs by André Alexistumblr_inline_nfrjw7J2ZI1rylrlh

It begins with a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo: “that animals would be even more unhappy than humans are if they were given human intelligence.” This leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto veterinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking and those who embrace the change. The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into their newly unfamiliar world, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings. By turns meditative and devastating, charming and strange, André Alexis’s contemporary take on the moral fable offers a compelling and affecting look at the beauty and perils of human consciousness. – Publisher’s Summary

Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction 2015: Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary SullivanStalin's+Daughter

Stalin’s Daughter is a work of narrative non-fiction on a grand scale, combining popular history and biography to tell the incredible story of a woman fated to live her life in the shadow of one of history’s most monstrous dictators. Svetlana Stalina, who died on November 22, 2011, at the age of eighty-five, was the only daughter and the last surviving child of Josef Stalin. Beyond Stalina’s controversial defection to the US in a cloak-and-dagger escape via India in 1967, her journey from life as the beloved daughter of a fierce autocrat to death in small-town Wisconsin is an astonishing saga. – Publisher’s Summary

Nobel Prize in Literature 2015: Svetlana Alexievich

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2015 is awarded to the Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” – Jury Statement

Governor General’s Literary Awards 2015

Fiction: Daddy Lenin And Other Stories by Guy Vanderhaeghe

51jIimH8dpLBestselling author Guy Vanderhaeghe’s new book of fiction is both timely and timeless and showcases his supreme talent as a storyteller and poignant observer of the human condition. Among these nine addictive and resonant stories: A teenage boy breaks out of the strict confines of his family, his bid for independence leads him in over his head. He learns about life in short order and there is no turning back. An actor’s penchant for hiding behind a role, on and off stage, is tested to the limits and what he comes to discover finally places him face to face with the truth. With his mother hospitalized for a nervous condition and his father away on long work stints, a boy is sent to another family for his meals. His gradually building relationship with a teenage daughter who has been left handicapped from Polio opens unexpected doors to the world. In the powerful title story, a middle-aged man remeets his former adviser at university, a charismatic and domineering professor dubbed Daddy Lenin. As their tense reunion progresses, secrets from the past painfully revise remembered events and threaten to topple the scaffolding of a marriage. – Publisher’s Summary

10667876Nonfiction: Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive by Mark Winston

In his exquisite Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive, Mark L. Winston distills a life’s devotion to the study of bees into a powerful and lyrical meditation on humanity. This compelling book inspires us to reevaluate our own relationships both with each other and the natural world. Vital reading for our time. – Jury Statement

Check one of these books out from Guelph Public Library today! Click here for a list of all library locations.

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Conquering Overwhelming Obstacles: Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius

51pO05wsSRL__SX326_BO1,204,203,200_We all face challenges as we move through the stages of life…whether it be losing weight, buying a new house, or the stress of a new job. Few of us, however, can imagine facing the obstacles that confronted Martin Pistorius and his family. In 1988, at age 12, Martin fell sick and experienced a steady physical and mental decline that proved difficult to diagnose. Martin had traveled beyond the realms of what medicine understood.  He was treated for meningitis but no definitive diagnosis was ever made.  He appeared to be suffering from a degenerative neurological disorder.  The South African medical profession advised his parents to put him in an institution until he passed.

This memoir (Ghost Boy) reveals the complex web of emotions and responsibilities that Martin’s family had to confront on a daily basis. Martin’s mother eventually fell victim to feelings of darkness and desperation, concerned about the effect the exhausting care for Martin was having on her other children. At this point, Martin truly appeared like a “ghost boy”…unresponsive and in a persistent vegetative state. His father insisted that Martin not spend all his time at a care center where the only entry requirement is an IQ of thirty or less.  Martin spent every evening, his overnight hours and his weekends in his own home, thanks to his father’s dedicated and loving care. Martin loved being with his family (even if he could not express it) and felt sadness on Sunday nights when he faced another week at the care center with Barney and Teletubbies blaring.

 Photo: Martin Pistorius (1992) via HarperCollins

Photo: Martin Pistorius (1992) via HarperCollins

At the age of sixteen, Martin’s mind began to slowly awaken, and he was no longer an empty shell. By age nineteen, he again knew who he was and where he was situated.  Unfortunately, he had no way to communicate his return to awareness, as he could not speak or control his unruly limbs. There is an excellent chapter in the book called Coming Up For Air that recreates in short snippets what this experience was like for Martin:

I can smell sunshine.

Music, high and tinny.  Children singing.  Their voices fade in and out, loud then muffled, until they fall silent.

A carpet swims into view.  It’s a swirl of black, white and brown.  I stare at it, trying to make my eyes focus, but the darkness comes for me again.

In later chapters, Martin recounts with brutal honesty the abuse he suffered at the hand of some of his caretakers.  As a mother, it was painful for me to read these passages and to know that people could abuse their power and take advantage of the weak and defenseless. Among the bad apples, there were many truly good caretakers who engaged Martin in conversation, even if he did not appear to respond.  A new employee at the care centre named Virna looked at Martin with fresh eyes.  She had heard experts talk about what could be done to help those who can’t speak, using switches and electronic devices to help people communicate. She thought Martin might be a suitable candidate. Virna spoke to Martin’s parents, who agreed to have him tested.

The book enters inspirational territory as we learn of Martin’s rapid progress back to the world of the living.  With the help of a computer with a special software program, the tireless support of his parents and some mentors, Martin learns at a rapid pace and uses his computer skills to find volunteer work and eventually a paying job.  His world was expanding rapidly.  Physically he still had many limitations and mentally he was challenged by a world that requires a million decisions, from what cereal to buy (of the 100 on the shelf) to the colour of a new pair of shoes. Since Martin spent his formative years making absolutely no decisions, you can imagine how challenging this modern world must seem!

In one chapter Martin describes his experience trying to make breakfast. He had never even made coffee before as he did not trust his shaking hands.  The vivid imagery in these passages really brought home the complexities of a task that most of us take for granted:

Now for the jam – my final Everest.  I pulled the jar towards me and thrust my knife into it. It clattered inside the jar before skidding off in the opposite direction to the toast when I pulled it out.  I forced the knife downwards, cleaving it to my will as it hit the side of the toast before skittering across the plate and leaving a glistening red slick on the table.  I stared at the battered toast before looking at the floor, which was covered in coffee granules and sugar.  The butter looked as if a wild animal had chewed it and jam had erupted like a volcano across the table (p.235).

Making breakfast fills Martin with euphoria. That is really what living is all about: achieving previously unattainable goals, and then making a new list.

Martin’s new life, though busy and rewarding, was incomplete.  Would he ever find love? He was open to the prospect.  A chat with his sister on a webcam introduced him to his sister’s friend, Joanna.   If you are a romantic at heart, you must read this book and find out for yourself how this relationship progresses!

If you like this book try reading (or watching):

The_Diving_Bell_and_the_Butterfly_DVDThe Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

The diary of Jean-Dominique Bauby who, with his left eyelid (the only surviving muscle after a massive stroke) dictated a remarkable book about his experiences locked inside his body.

The movie (directed by Julian Schnabel) is also excellent, and won numerous awards including Best Foreign Language Film  and Best Director at the Golden Globes.

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“In One Person” by John Irving

In-One-PersonJohn Irving is the celebrated American author of “The World According to Garp” (1978), “The Cider House Rules” (1985), and over a dozen other well known books and plays. “In One Person” (2012) is one of his most recent works. Our narrator Billy describes himself as a “sexual suspect” and much of the novel explores themes of sexuality and gender. It is set in small town, 1950s New England (First Sister, Vermont) as the story opens and it remains there for many of its chapters.

For me Billy felt like a “catalyst” narrator who primarily brings the reader to the more interesting secondary characters of the story. The most interesting character by far is Miss Frost, the mysterious and attractive librarian at the public library of First Sister. Billy encounters Miss Frost early in the story when he goes searching for stories about characters who have crushes on the wrong people. Billy explores his bisexuality and this exploration becomes the basis for much of his interactions with other characters. In addition to other books, Miss Frost eventually (and carefully) recommends to Billy Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, a novel relatively new to the characters in this story (it was published in 1956). Literary references abound in the book, which gave it a somewhat academic feel, even for me (I have an English degree). Unfortunately, I don’t feel as though I can tell you much more about the enigmatic Miss Frost without spoiling the story. You’ll just have to meet her yourself.

As to the story, I got the feeling that In One Person is a fictionalized or thinly veiled autobiography of Irving. Other reviews I read agreed, but nowhere in the book does Irving own up to this. As a reader, I couldn’t decide if this was a faux memoir trying to be a novel or a novel trying to be a faux memoir. In One Person won the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for its honest and unapologetic portrayal of a bisexual narrator, but the structure of the novel is closer to memory than memoir –it fixates on a few climactic moments in the narrators life instead of trying to give us a full picture of it.

This was my first John Irving novel and maybe it shouldn’t have been. His fans do not seem to consider this his best work. If I had to guess as to why, I’d say it was the case of an editor unwilling to give The Great John Irving honest feedback. Had the novel simply been about Billy and Miss Frost, making their relationship the primary focus without attempting to be a memoir of any kind, it would have been more interesting and engaging. As it was, I found myself plodding through several chapters wondering when Irving would get to the point.

Bottom Line: In One Person is kind of like life itself. When it’s good, it’s great. When it’s not, have faith. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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