Review: The Fountainhead

The Fountainhead
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overall I enjoyed the plot of this novel, and the story moves quickly. However, I think it is the sort of bad fiction that tries too hard to awkwardly wedge philosophical concepts into the dialog instead of accurately describing human nature through the choices of the characters.

Much of it seemed liked science fiction. The main characters and the choices they make resemble no human being that I have met along my life’s journey. It was like an episode of Star Trek where a species of beings on a different planet has a different sense of justice and interdependence.

First of all there are no children anywhere in the 700 pages. It is as if human beings are fully formed out of the womb. This is magnified by the not-so-subtle philosophy that we are to live for ourselves and not for other people. But children and their upbringing as well as the self-sacrifice good parents make for their kids are completely left out of the equation. Perhaps this is why college kids like this novel – they think they are all grown up, mature, and that all aspects of children in their lives have been removed. The only example of parents are the spineless Mrs. Keating and the paternally impotent Guy Francon.

In Ayn Rand’s philosophy known as Objectivism, there is an idea that the only form of knowing is reason. She weaves this idea throughout the fabric of the novel, suggesting that the heroes of the story also believe this. I only ask, then what purpose does fiction have? Why not just write non-fiction? It is because story telling also transmits knowledge in a way that is complimentary to and not subservient to reason. A novelist, by the very medium, rejects that reason is the only form of knowledge.

I understand the time period that this was written, and I recognize her need to make a statement about the evils of Marxist Communism. Losing one’s own identity within the mass of society is not good for anyone. For a true atheist, the only alternative is self-seeking.

That is because we all define and come to understand ourselves, as the philosopher Martin Buber put it, in an I-Thou relationship. I am myself and not another. Those of us who open ourselves up to God (who has with non-physical and non-temporal personal characteristics) have a consequent I-Thou relationship, discovering ourselves as a person other than God. Atheists must designate that relationship to other physical human beings and so must always put the self first in order to not lose themselves in an amorphous population.

But even the atheist has to see that biologically we a the combination of two people. Our very being is dependent upon human interdependence.

From the final courtroom testimony of the main character Roark, I think Ayn Rand really does think that she is writing something Promethean. But the fire she is offering is as old as that associated with the serpent in the first pages of the Hebrew Bible. She has created her own following of “second-handers.”

I give it 4 stars because it is worth reading, but only as a glimpse into the poorly-formed 20th Century intellectualism that expedited the self-centered mess that we are currently in.

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Review: Charming Billy

Charming Billy
Charming Billy by Alice McDermott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Good fiction wrecks me, and this novel wrecked me. At least intermittently. It is a story about an extended Irish Catholic family from New York, their loss of a friend and husband (the story starts at the funeral so that is not a spoiler), and how the trajectory of their lives are changed by the choices that all of them make.

I enjoyed that it was not written in chronological order, as some events in the past carry more weight by knowledge of the future. The narrative voice was confusing at times, sometimes easily identifiable as one of the characters and at other times seeming omniscient, describing the person who the reader thinks is the teller of the story.

There were religious undercurrents but not the abstract theology that gets awkwardly wedged into bad Christian novels.

By the end I cared deeply for the characters.

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Review: A Thread of Grace

A Thread of Grace
A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a good story, but not a great novel. I did start to care about the characters, but there were so many characters that I didn’t have time to get to know each one better.

This is historical fiction about the end of World War II after Italy surrendered but the Germans did not. The Germans began attacking Italy and coming after Italian Jews. An attempt was made by Italian Catholics to protect Jews as much as they could.

Sometimes I felt the author got in the way of the characters by inserting an attempt at cleverness that made me stop thinking about the story and start thinking, “the author is trying to be clever” or “the narrator is in the 21st Century, not the 1940’s.”

The characters all speak Italian or German although the novel is written in English, therefore it is a little weird when the phonetic spelling of English-speaking Germans or Italians is employed in the dialogue.

I did enjoy the story and finished it to find out how it ends. Russell portrays both Jews and Catholics in a positive light. This book was a gift, and I’m glad I received it.

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Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book. I wish I had known about it sooner. It is a post-nuclear war futuristic story about a series of monks whose job is to preserve the knowledge of the past. It’s rare to find books where more than a few of the protagonists have right reason and strong faith and where the author is aptly skilled in the human side of storytelling. I found it to have the wartime type of humor you might find in Catch 22 or the TV show, MASH.

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