Archive | Reading Monkeys RSS for this section

Review of “El obsceno pájaro de la noche,” by José Donoso

This book was over my head. I think it is too difficult for someone who reads Spanish well. I found it on a web page that recommended books for intermediate Spanish students, which I admit I am not. But I wanted to be introduced to more writing styles. I sure got that. It took six months to finish this novel, but I can say that I have as good an understanding of it as anyone, except maybe someone with a large Spanish vocabulary who could have read it in a couple of days or weeks.

Okay, now for the book itself. First, the grammar and punctuation. There was none. Sentences sometimes lasted for pages, especially when the “Narrator” was sharing a stream of consciousness, paragraphs for many pages. There was no attempt to use proper punctuation. Commas were tossed around like paper boats in a hurricane. This was what made it so difficult to read for a beginner or even intermediate reader. Prepositional phrases were not identified with commas and Spanish is a little weak on conjunctions.

As with other Spanish authors and even translated books, pronouns were avoided at all costs. To make it worse, the author used the present subjunctive conjugation more than the present tense; the PS in Spanish is the same for first person and third person singular. Also for third person and second person plural. When the narrator is speaking in first person, describing what someone else is doing…you can see the potential difficulties.

I don’t think the story has a plot. Some chapters describe historical events in Chile’s history completely in the third person, and aren’t too difficult to follow. These scenes are less than a third of the book. Most of it is the first-person narrator jumping between perspectives, occupying every character’s mind at some point. It was an interesting style, which was taken too far because this head hopping occurred in mid-sentence as often as not. I read a lot of paragraphs (single sentences) several times to verify this. Bizarre is an understatement.

Several of the threads made sense. For example, the actions of two of the characters and their families’ histories is straightforward, as is some of the action at a run-down church that serves as a homeless shelter/orphanage. There is another thread (maybe multiple — it’s hard to say) based on the assistant of a central character (Jeronimo de Azcoitía), who appears to be stark, raving mad. Paranoid delusions abound and this guy talks to imaginary characters and is pursued by newspaper photos. There’s an entire chapter of such outrageous behavior that the story wanders into Monty Python territory. This floating narrator even becomes an infant, but they are predominantly a man who apparently had a nervous breakdown and fled from his employer (Azcoitía), seeking refuge in the church.

I don’t want to forget about the deformed child of Azcoitía and his wife, who was walled into a country estate and surrounded by naked deformed people. This was a major thread that ended without settling or explaining anything. It’s like the author lost interest. Strange. The relationship between this thread and another (involving a 15 year old girl who’s pregnant) was never explored and also dropped without notice.

Finally, the book just ended. The narrator spent the last five pages imagining being sewn into a sack (in the mind of the infant) and trying to escape, and failing. Nothing happened. The story just ends with an old woman who isn’t one of the central characters from the Church/homeless shelter.

The preface is written by another Chilean writer, who warns the reader that this book was written over a period of years (1962-1969) when the author had mental health issues. That would explain the coherent chapters and those that are in never-never land. To me, despite the lack of a plot, any explanations, or an ending, I kind of enjoyed reading this novel because it gives a lot of insight into what goes through the mind of someone who’s suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, or something like that. I couldn’t help getting the impression that the bizarre, stream of consciousness thread was a reflection of the author’s own suffering.

I was disturbed by the evocative images of depredation, created for no purpose but which the narrator couldn’t get out of their mind, whichever mind they were occupying at the time. Some of these will take years for me to forget.

This novel is available in an English translation. I don’t know how that would work because of all the untranslatable sentences and words. The English version can’t be more than an educated guess at what the author had in mind. (He didn’t translate it himself although he probably could have, having lived decades in the U.S.)

I suggest it for anyone who wants to see what it’s like to lose your mind.

We are all actors

We don’t get paid as much as Hollywood stars because we’re not very good at pretending to be someone we’re not. That’s the only difference. They simply have a talent for forgetting who they are, allowing them to step into someone else’s mind. It’s possible that actors have the best-developed Theory of Mind of anyone on the planet.

Being able to get inside someone else’s mind isn’t the same thing as understanding their situation. I’m digressing so I’ll get back to the point.

We are all actors. And like professional actors, we have some capacity for understanding another person’s plight, and like professionals, we treat the subjects of our curiosity as objects. Our attention lasts only a few seconds, or maybe minutes. The length of a scene. Our lives are a series of scenes, and cinema has simply found ways to reproduce the perceived reality we share in the discontinuous manner our brains are accustomed to.

The next time you watch a movie, consciously place yourself in the story, not as a viewer but as a participant. You have of course been doing this all your life; my point is to think about it, and maintain that sense of being in the action. You will find that it is reality.

This is the reason for the title of this post. We play roles, a well known fact, but the sociologists don’t dare go further. They can’t say what is obvious: Most of us shouldn’t waste our time thinking but just go with the flow, and play our roles.

It’s good to know your role. Just do it!

Unfortunately, I can’t do that…bummer; however, I can write these blogs that no one will read…


Review of “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” by Tom Robbins

I focus on writing style rather than story in my reviews. It’s important to understand the difference because I didn’t enjoy any of the books I’ve read as part of my reading comprehension hobby. Like everybody else, I know what I like to read and I avoid reading those books. In case I’m sounding a little masochistic, let me add that I write my favorite novels rather than read them. I guess I’m narcissistic. Writing is a lot more fun than reading my favorite genres because it takes months rather than days. However, I have spent months reading some of these books. This one took more than a month to finish.

First, this book is well written, which means that it has few blatant grammatical or punctuation errors. So, it was relatively easy to read.

This book was published in 1976 and its pedigree is obvious in every page. About half the book consists of monologues by the author, sometimes thinly disguised as the words of the characters. These come in two types. The first is a summary of the first year of college. No subject is skipped, from geology to business. This was written when an encyclopedia was the best source of information and that’s how it reads. I checked a lot of the facts and they were accurate, especially for the time. The second kind of monologue consists of political and social diatribes, covering the gamut from the environment to women’s rights. This category also includes goofy ramblings on transcendental topics. Most of these diatribes are on subjects completely outside the scope of the story, which brings me to the story.

There is a story buried in all those regurgitations of Geology 101, Philosophy 101, Biology 101, etcetera, but it isn’t much. The story of Sissy Hankshaw is at most a novella. And don’t believe anything written about this book by reviewers, especially what’s printed on the back cover. Until I read this, I thought there was some kind of unspoken oath to be honest in the publication industry. No, there is not. The author spends so much time remembering (sometimes fondly) his college days, that he never got around to writing a novel.

The central character is a paper cut out, who periodically changes to a different person with no explanation, other than self-serving nonsense muttered by the author during frequent interludes. This is a cartoon disguised as a novel. It doesn’t even qualify as social satire because the author simply rants against his pet peeves, rather than presenting them within the context of a story.

For example, when the author realized he’d gotten carried away with some scenes that were special to him and presented them out of chronological order, he bragged about his error and, to prove who was smarter than us (we’d bought his book and given him money), ranted about the power he had over the reader. At another point, he went on a page-long tirade about sentences. These interruptions were continuous.

I don’t think any of the reviewers whose glowing comments I read, actually finished this book. My certainty of this was verified when I read the plot summary on Wikipedia. Wow! That’s not the book I read word after excruciating word.

This book is the worst I’ve read in my reading comprehension study, even below the Koran. It has no redeeming qualities. I can only hold it up as an example of a meme in the pre-digital age. Reading monkeys don’t actually read, but they like to pretend they do.

As a bonus, I was going to review the movie, but I couldn’t see it here in Australia. It wouldn’t play. The best I could do was see a 15 minute summary, using original film marked up to support the author’s faux-feminist concepts (my interpretation). Looking beyond the magic marker comments, I think the casting was excellent. It may have been a good movie, although it definitely varied widely from the novel. The movie outtakes I saw didn’t start until the second half of the book, and the male romantic lead never showed up, not even being listed in the credits. I don’t know if the many diversions are in the movie. I may watch it someday, just because I’m stubborn.

If I weren’t too lazy, I would tear every page out of this book, burn them, and spread the ashes in the ocean, so that no one else would have to read it.

It’s that bad, but this is only my humble opinion, as one of two or three people who read it cover to cover. (I don’t think the author was one of them.)

Zombies Revisited

In the last post, I examined the usefulness of the Zombie metaphor as a proxy for consciousness. I think I demonstrated that it depends on the definition of consciousness one chooses. The Idealists and Physicalists are using different definitions but won’t budge on their semantic representations.

It seems clear to me that the Physicalists win the first round of the fight because they can show with empirical evidence that consciousness resides within the brain and is associated with distinct electrical and chemical signatures. That doesn’t mean they’re right about everything, however, because as I said, that only means that consciousness is manifested as a physical process.

This is not what I’m talking about.

I’m going to examine the Idealist view of consciousness briefly, and what it suggests about reality, and what it means to be a zombie. Idealism represents two overlapping views of reality that share the central concept of subjective reality as opposed to the physicalist view of objective reality. Subjective Idealism, as the name implies, posits that reality is a subjective experience, unique to every conscious entity in the universe. Objective Idealism, on the other hand, proposes that there is an objective consciousness that somehow is the core of reality, independently of a human mind. This sounds a lot like some religions to me.

Reality is an illusion from the subjective perspective; however, it is a personal experience, not supplied by an external source like a god or the cosmos. I am the center of the universe, even if my illusion puts me in the worst situation imaginable. Talk about making bad choices.

Am I a zombie?

According to the subjective view, I am not a zombie, but YOU are and vice versa. I can’t help but take this thought experiment (I can’t really treat it as a serious model of reality) to the next level and ask: Does this mean that I’m the only person in my universe? A real person I mean: a non-zombie. The question of agency arises, at least in my mind. If I’m the only person in my world, why don’t I make myself happy and fulfilled, whatever that entails? Why am I not wealthy? Where are my awards and prizes, and all that money?

I don’t have to be a philosopher to answer that question. I’d give the same answer as all the religions that have ever existed: You are a god (maybe God?) and you work in mysterious ways. This is what you really need, or you’re dealing with something more important that has nothing to do with the plane of reality where you’re reading this, and living this life. Of course, the successful might have gotten it right and be living–never mind, they’re nothing but zombies in my world. It’s pretty lonely here.

If the objective idealist viewpoint is correct, we are all zombies. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds, the way I worded it. To the cosmic consciousness, we are zombies, unconscious entities who stumble around, running into each other, unaware of the Big Picture. That’s a pretty accurate image of the world. Remember that we have empirical evidence (for whatever that’s worth in the objective idealist universe) for consciousness, and my thought experiment from the last post. In this view, I am an ephemeral entity, created by some great, cosmic consciousness for their own amusement but, even though I’m a zombie, I have a sense of being alive because my brain (whether real or not) perceives. This world kind of sucks too. We’re all zombies and nothing we do matters, not to us anyway.

I can understand the popularity of the Physicalist’s perspective after giving the subject some thought. Who cares if I’m a figment of my imagination or the cosmic consciousness? I’m stuck here dealing with what seems pretty real to me, so I may as well accept the fact that I’m really living this life. The down side to this perspective is that there is no hereafter: no heaven, but no hell either (that’s a nice idea), but only oblivion just like the birds, bees, fish, trees, rocks, earth, sun, universe.

That’s not so sweet either.

I don’t know if this brief discussion satisfies you, but it’s sufficient to keep me happy for a few months.

After all, the great cosmic consciousness wants me to be happy.

Am I a Zombie?

Subjective Idealism posits that nothing exists unless it is perceived. A cornerstone of this philosophy is the existence of consciousness, a phenomenon that isn’t required by physicalism. From a physicalist perspective, if it walks like a human, talks like a human, and acts like a human, it’s a human, whether conscious or not. The idealist doesn’t accept this, claiming that consciousness is the key to being human and without it the physicalist’s human is nothing more than a zombie. They use some sketchy logic to prove that the physicalist argument is wrong, that there is no objective material world of which everything, including consciousness, is part of. Hence the title of this post. 

The gist of the argument is this: everything in the world is physical; physicalism predicts the existence of a parallel universe that is exactly the same as ours, but lacking consciousness [because it is not physical];  imagine a world full of unconscious zombies (if you can imagine it, it’s possible); thus physicalism is false by a logical method called modus tollens.

I find the assumption that consciousness is not a physical phenomenon somewhat self-serving and don’t accept it. I don’t think it convinces Physicalists either, but this introduces an intriguing idea, one I’ve been exploring in my Dao De Jing blog. I don’t think the philosophers took the zombie world thought experiment far enough. 

Let’s begin with my a hypothetical question: What would it be like to be a zombie?

I have my own thought experiment to address this, without using the word, consciousness, which the philosophers appear to be hung up on.

Imagine a day like this: you get dressed, have breakfast, and go to work, recalling a movie you watched the night before, so that you don’t recall the commute; you have a lot of busywork to do, forms to fill out and mindless emails to answer; your work day is interrupted by lunch with some coworkers talking about their new house, which they’ve been describing all week; you don’t recall the unmemorable drive home and make a dinner you’ve prepared a thousand times, talking to your family about school and other familiar topics; you clean the kitchen and watch TV until bedtime.

Question: Did you ever engage your prefrontal cortex in complex problem solving, analysis, or making plans? Remember this is a thought experiment, so brief interludes of thinking about a nagging problem don’t occur. This day was successfully traversed using only heuristic memory, your automatic behavior modified slightly using Bayesian estimation. This is a technique built into our cerebellum and thus requiring no active thinking. 

Are you a zombie?

Of course, I did the same as the philosophers, switching the definition of consciousness without telling you. My story defines consciousness as being aware (as in I AM AWARE thinking) of what you are doing. But if you can’t recall the drive to work immediately afterward, were you conscious of it? Considering the rest of this boring day, in which your mind basked in the afterglow of a movie you loved (an emotional response stimulated by memory), were you ever really conscious?

It seems to me, therefore, that the concept of a zombie world is an axiom rather than a thought experiment intended to show that Idealists are more clever than Physicalists. Such a world does exist, only not as a homogeneous universe filled with permanent zombies. We are all zombies, unconscious beings who walk, talk, act, and behave like humans much of the time.

The only prerequisite to being a zombie appears to be that the entity is unconscious. Zombies have brains with neurons, axons, and electrical signals flashing to and fro within their gray matter. Hormones are secreted by their limbic system. They have emotions. They are human. But they are also zombies, just not all the time.

I’d like to add a word on the sophistry of these arguments. There is overwhelming empirical data that demonstrates the neurological manifestation of consciousness. The brain reveals conscious acts through electrical activity. Thus, even if there is something vague called universal consciousness as proposed by Objective Idealism and there is a mind-body dualism, this unknown entity, whether physical or metaphysical, functions through the brain to create consciousness. It seems inescapable therefore that consciousness exists in the physical world as a concrete, measurable process–a process that acts on matter even if not itself a material substance. 

Next time, I’ll discuss another interpretation of the zombie concept, this time with a decidedly more idealist perspective.


The Eight Ball

No one replies. No one cares. John finally decides that he is alone in the universe. After all, is there a difference between not responding and not existing? No one exists but him, this moment is his entire life, not much to live for, getting on the subway for a short trip to the next stop. He glances at his inert phone, wondering if the internet has suddenly stopped.

He doesn’t know if it’s him or the world, so John smiles at the faces confronting him as he exits the car at his stop. Hundreds of other people join him and the dozens waiting for the next train, creating a maelstrom of humanity. John hated the subway because it was so confusing, suddenly standing on a concrete platform, surrounded by strangers, blinded by the shadows, unable to see the dimly lit exit signs. It is always the same.

Finally getting onto the brightly lit street, he reorients himself. His destination isn’t easy to find. Google didn’t know about it. John stumbles through the crowd, his iridescent, hazel eyes focused on the dim screen of his cellphone. He follows his phone’s directions, eventually finding himself standing in front of a pool hall…

Puzzled, he walks in. Was this shabby pool hall really the destination? John stopped,confused, glaring at the cell phone as its screen blinked into a new text message.
Before he could muster the towering outrage such a message deserves, John felt a sudden rush, a rude shove at his back and he plunged headlong, face first, into the pool table.
No, not into the table.
John had plunged into the 8 ball.
All of him.
John was one with the 8 ball now.
John felt the quick jab of the stick, then felt himself roll helplessly, haplessly, whirling and tumbling, his thoughts a mad jumble when with a sharp Clack! he felt himself bump and scatter the other balls on the table. He heard screams from two of the balls as they rolled into pockets on the table, and laughter, giddy relief, bubbling from the remaining four balls. 
With horror, John realized that each of the balls held trapped souls like himself.

8 Ball in the side pocket, rolling and slamming into the other balls, waiting in line in a darkened table. The clack of the cue ball slamming another ball above him drove his senses into overdrive. He could smell the beer-stale air from underneath the Pennsylvania slate table-top. The larcenous, unfeeling laughter of men, as John, expecting to be rear-ended by another unfortunate soul in ball form, cringed.

The next thing he knew, John smelled cold, open air.
A massive wall, like that of a church, rose at his feet. His eyes adjusted to the winking light and sounds of traffic, the vibrations of cars and trains. In Manhattan, his memory said, back in human form. He wheeled around looking for a clue, his body tensing for an altercation to come. He was alone, nearby, the farrago of the darkened river, by the tower of the Brooklyn Bridge

Standing on the wall, he remembered what had happened, at least what had happened before the hallucination had begun. He’d been unable to reach anyone during his recent depression attack and had come out to the roof of his run-down apartment building to jump in the river.

How had he not fallen after what he’d just experienced? Had his subconscious been aware of his every movement, leading him along the edge?

After his vision, he wasn’t sure he wanted to end it like this, drowned in the East River. He was climbing down from the wall when Sandra appeared from the door. “I just got your message, John. Are you okay?”

John sheepishly smiled and said, “Sure, but I got a great idea for that short film we’ve been talking about.”

Review of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

I’ve been reading books about people with mental problems and this was a perfect choice. This book was published in 1962 and made into a movie in 1975. The movie won five oscars, so I was curious to see if it was faithful to the novel and watched it too.

This book delivers on getting inside the mind of a man who is one of the “Chronic” patients in a mental hospital. Chronics are long-term patients who are never getting out. The story is told in the first person by Chief Bromden, a half-Indian. The story never says why he’s in the hospital but he has serious problems with reality. He pretends to be deaf and dumb to avoid human contact, and he’s been there so long that nobody knows otherwise. The story is really about him.

The person we all know from the movie is a one-dimensional character introduced to change the environment in which Bromden lives, to wake him up. This happens over a period of months and to be honest, the author kind of fails to smoothly portray Bromden’s change in mental capacity. He’s suddenly a regular guy, although there are a few of his schizophrenic behaviors lingering throughout the book. As well as his paranoid fear of the Combine, the system of institutions, rules, etc that run the world.

The story is eccentric, with more than half the book devoted to Bromden’s life, especially his early life on the Columbia Indian reservation. However, he is not involved in the conflict, which is 100% centered on McMurphy and Nurse Ratched.

I don’t recall reading another book where a first-person narrator shared so much of their life while remaining mostly out of the plot.

The book is easy to read and very interesting. I would note that it got easier after the first few chapters, however, because the author had difficulty maintaining the narrator’s poor grammar and slang. That’s another inconsistency. If you start a character out speaking with a very specific accent, you’re stuck until the end.

The movie is a subset of the book, with a lot of action thrown in like a kaleidoscope.  Some scenes were completely rewritten. I can understand why it was done this way and it doesn’t lose much from the book. However, it seems at times to be based on the book rather than an adaptation of the book.

A good book and a great movie.

Stop Talking

When I googled “how effective is verbal communication,” all I got were people telling me how to improve my verbal communication skills.

I think verbal communication is better than a dog barking, a bird or a whale singing, frogs clamoring for attention, but it doesn’t work well, certainly not well enough to sustain a complex society

I’m not a fan of evolutionary psychology because I think it’s an academic game designed to get tenure and publish papers (i.e., get more money). Thus, I’m going to avoid the anthropocentric viewpoint that “evolution” made us perfect, while admitting that some cognitive functions make sense because they are similar to those of animals. For example, the suggestion that a large prefrontal cortex allows more effective tracking of other members of a social group is reasonable.  Primates form the largest groups and we are the primate with the largest PFC and the largest group size, about 150 for humans and 50 for chimpanzees.

Being able to cope with more members of our group does not mean that humans have been transformed into amazing communicators. It just means that we can communicate poorly with more people. That might sound unfair; after all, we use symbolic representations to communicate complex ideas like plans and wishes, something other primates can’t do.

True enough, but we do most of those information transfers using written language. Human society didn’t make much progress until writing was invented, not so with language. I’m all for writing our thoughts down and discussing them with others. Oral communications has a  lot of problems that don’t occur with written language.

For one thing we don’t have time to listen to a speaker because most of us can’t remember what they’re saying long enough to formulate a reasonable response. So, we do one of several things: (1) try to keep up and forget everything, then respond based on past experience (i.e. memory); (2) focus on one thing, usually either the first or last statement; or (3) try to grasp the key point, if there even is one, and thus misunderstand most of what was said. This last is different from (1) in that it results not from trying the impossible (following in detail), but from trying to compile a summary as we listen, maybe one sentence. It’s different from (2) in that we don’t focus on ideas but on words.

The only time we can successfully listen is when the speaker is talking about something with which we are familiar enough to use any one of these three strategies with moderate success. This is what happens at workshops and conferences, where coincidentally a personal response isn’t necessarily required or expected.

Unfortunately that isn’t how daily communications operate. When we speak to someone, or they talk to us, a response is usually necessary. The thoughtful silence referred to in fiction is more like an awkward silence in reality.

Thus, we’re always thinking of our response, missing what’s being said, screwing up our understanding, and doing a poor job of responding because we used one of the listening strategies listed above. How poor a job we do depends on our unfamiliarity with the topic and how complex it is. Often, strategy (1) works fine because nothing new is being said, as is often the case with family or friends.

There are techniques that can be used to improve random communications; simple methods like listening carefully, noting key points, asking for clarification. But as we all know, a conversation is a two-way street, and our partner doesn’t always cooperate. They don’t understand why we didn’t understand what they said. Weren’t we listening?

Everybody gets flustered, and listening strategy (2) takes over; unfortunately, we each focus on a phrase or concept we didn’t understand, talk at cross purposes, and the proverbial apples and oranges problem results. How many conversations rapidly deteriorate when a simple question leads to an argument about semantics?  Having dictionaries and encyclopedias at our fingertips only makes matters worse, because we forget what we were talking about to begin with. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

My final point is more controversial. There are basically two kinds of people in the world: those who talk to themselves and those who don’t. Neither has an advantage when it comes to oral communication. The self-talkers are so accustomed to hearing nonsense rattling around inside their heads, that they are adept at tuning out spoken words. The non-self-talkers don’t practice enough and have to think to respond, which leads to the awkward silence I referred to above, giving plenty of time for any number of misunderstandings to arise.

Here’s the bottom line: spoken language is a natural extension of the communications systems used by animals. We have extended it a bit but it doesn’t work very well. Writing was invented to accurately communicate abstract concepts.

If you have something important to share, stop talking and write it down.


Review of “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

I read this book because it was referenced in several serious sociological and psychological treatises I’ve read during the last few years. I don’t think any of those researchers actually read this, however. My paperback copy was 1069 pages of 9 pt font. It took several months to finish, but I read it as carefully as every other book I’ve reviewed.

This is an example of why people become writers. Ayn Rand had a bone to pick with several aspects of American society in the 1950s, and she felt emboldened to rush into the fray without bothering to think about what she was saying. I’m fine with that because this is a work of fiction. Some people have become confused, however, naming her ranting diatribes a “philosophy” which she called Objectivism. I’ll say it now, before discussing the story and technical details, that I agree with many aspects of the views she shares through her protagonist characters. Who can argue with a slogan like, “Work hard and treat everyone with respect,” if it’s applied by all the members of society? This isn’t a political blog, so I’ll let that go, but it’s easy to learn more. As an aside, Atlas Shrugged is apparently some kind of scripture for Libertarians. Who’d have thunk it?

Technical stuff first. I don’t remember finding a single punctuation error, but I found several grammatical errors in the last third of the book. I think everyone, including the proofreader, was suffering from Writer’s Fatigue. Ayn Rand is wordy, to say the least. Her writing style appears to be “Always use twice as many words, especially in descriptive prepositional phrases, as you need. It got ugly towards the end. Here’s an example selected randomly (page 1058):

“They did not speak as they walked down the hill, with the darkness of the trees closing in about them for protection, cutting off the dead glow of the moon and the deader glow in the distance behind them, in the windows of the State Science Institute.”

Wow. The entire book was written in this style, but the author had lost it by this time. She just wanted to end the agony. It was her own fault because the characters don’t do a good job of conveying what was on Rand’s mind. The book is filled with rants and soliloquies given at the drop of a hat, but none of them elegantly summarized the speakers’ thoughts. Some of these digressions are more than 10 pages long, and they still fail to make their point (or maybe I forgot it by then).

I started off loving this book because the protagonists are just like me in many respects. I don’t retract that view after reading it. There were many scenes in the first third of the story, where the characters’ personalities were revealed in excellent style. This applied to several of the antagonists, those lucky enough to be introduced in the first part of the book. It wasn’t only the bad guys who got cheated. The man who epitomized what made this book into a pop-philosophy, John Galt, appeared too late to be seen as a real person. He was reduced to a Greek hero (he is actually compared to one near the end) with zero dimensions, the perfect man. I wanted to laugh, but I was too tired.

Summary. Okay…let’s see.

The author makes a lot of valid points about the importance of being rational, thinking, using our brains a lot more often, but she fails to show how this can be done by regular people. Her protagonists are all straight out of Greek tragedies. Or comic books. She has a gift for evocative metaphors involving all of the senses. Very good. I’m envious. She should have been a poet (maybe she was). The story wasn’t that complicated and was revealed early on, with no plot twists, not even red herrings. Straightforward story telling. There was no real conflict, a basic requirement of almost any story. It is a blow-by-blow description of the breakdown of society and the creation of a (communist) dictatorship. She was obviously concerned about the Soviet Union when she wrote this book. Did I forget to mention that the story is set in a fantasy United States that stands alone as the last bastion of capitalism?

Bottom line. I can’t recommend it unless you are like me, which I doubt. However, there was a miniseries made in maybe 2011, which is a pretty good rendition of the story, at least parts 1 and 2. I’ll watch Part 3 when I get a chance, but I don’t think it will follow the book as well because, by this time, Rand’s characters were on the path of verbal warfare with themselves (I’m not kidding…themselves), which doesn’t make a good movie. But she does destroy the world…oops, I forgot that too.

With all of the libertarian BS in this book, there are a lot of great glimpses of mental torment and anguish, not to mention the breakdown of society and a return to feudalism, described very well.

Rand ruined a great book with too much ideology. She lost it, just like her characters.

At the end, I didn’t agree with the protagonists’ decision. The bad guys won…

Review of “The Tollkeeper” by Mark R. Vickers

I’m glad to be writing a review of a novel written by someone like myself. The author recently joined the writing group I’m in, and he had published this story in paperback form. Other members of the group have published but I didn’t find any with hardcopies available. I’m not ready to commit to ebooks yet; I’m trying to give my eyes a rest. I didn’t start posting reviews of novels until recently, so I haven’t shared my views on the range of genres I’ve read. I read anything. This book falls into the category of stories I would never read if I cared. I know, that sounds crazy.

First the technical stuff. There were very few (if any) punctuation and grammatical errors in this book. The author acknowledged a proofreader’s assistance, and she did a good job. I mention this because, as an author and (mediocre) copy editor, I look for anything that doesn’t read smoothly. And I read slowly, so I don’t miss much. I noticed a little of what I call writer’s fatigue, however; the first half of the book is well-written, if a little wordy (I actually don’t mind that, but some people do), whereas the second half started to slip a little in tautness. By the last page, it was looking like an earlier draft than the first half. I’m familiar with this phenomenon from my own writing. The first part always get read more by the author and thus cleaned up. However, this wasn’t a problem in “The Tollkeeper.” I only mention it to be thorough.

The story is told in a very entertaining manner, with two threads, one in present-day Florida, and the second meandering through the central character’s life, describing events that brought him to Florida, where he’s a (you guessed it) tollbooth attendant. There were times when one or the other thread was more interesting, but I never lost interest in the story. The present-day is the main plot of course, and it was told by the central character in first-person using the present tense. I personally find this construction awkward because no one talks like that unless telling a short story (e.g., Janice says to Betty, “So I go over to the hair stylist and she’s like, out of it, and I go ahead and let her do my hair.”). See what I mean?

It almost works but I never got into the groove. I liked the narration other than that. Klaus is a very down-to-earth guy, who’s old enough not to take himself too seriously. A great antihero.

I’m not a fan of mythical fantasy novels, or even mythology in general. I had to use Google to learn about most of the Norse mythology referenced throughout the book. I didn’t mind because I felt like I was being introduced to an interesting (not really) aspect of Scandinavian culture. It was a learning experience that I can relate to (I try to put useful info into my stories as well), so I’m not complaining. Still, the quotes from epic poems and such at the beginning of each chapter could have been replaced by more informative background material.

The ending was unexpected but probably only because of my unfamiliarity with Norse mythology. I felt like it was rushed a little because so much time had been spent on Klaus’ early life that the author must have felt an urge to “wrap it up.” This brings up another problem with the structure. With so much time spent on Klaus’ early life, none of it related directly to the serious threat occurring in the contemporary world. It only supported the central character’s frame of mind, not the real conflict. With the knowledge the author obviously has of Norse mythology, I was disappointed that characters from Klaus’ past didn’t either show up in person or indirectly impact current events. Maybe they did and I missed it because I’m not familiar with Norse mythology.

If so, my bad.