Fire in the Minds Of Men

book cover James H Billington Fire in the Minds of Men Origins of the Revolutionary Faith

I just finished reading James H. Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith. It took me a while to get through as it is quite dense, and I took a break halfway through to re-read Neil Gaiman’s and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens after watching the Amazon miniseries as a little palette cleanser. But there is so much food for thought in Billington’s book.

As someone who drastically wants to change the structure of our society, and as someone who is so far from actually laying down her life for any kind of group cause (and is, in fact, exceedingly wary of group think), I find myself fascinated by the history of the revolutions leading into and during the Industrial Revolution in Europe. What drives people to an act of terrorism and violence, what it takes to direct others to violent acts.

It is also interesting to read Billington’s dualisms of intellectual/worker and nationalist/socialist. I had an interesting discussion with my husband about the split in the revolutionary spirit of those wanting social change and those rallying behind a national flag, and how difficult the two sides had in communicating with each other, and how that parallels a lot where we are in America today. We have those that fervently believe in the nation as symbolized by the flag and the idea of freedom and democracy being more important than actual freedom, and we have those that believe in social justice and equality even if it means dictating to others (as in a form of control and tyranny) to get there, and it’s these two extremes yelling the loudest and playing off one another.

As a musician and artist, it was especially fascinating to consider the role opera and music played in revolution. Billington discusses this and the role journalism played in both inciting and then pacifying/distracting the public.

I do disagree with Billington on his dismissal of the faith of the revolutionary that a secular order being able to overthrow traditional order. I just don’t think we as a species are necessarily capable of handling that level of responsibility yet. But that doesn’t mean that it is implausible or impossible.

If you consider yourself a revolutionary soul, I recommend reading this book, even if you aren’t used to reading histories. It’s well worth the effort for the amount of thinking it will make you do.

Democracy, An American Novel Review

I just finished reading Democracy, An American Novel by Henry Adams last night, and it was a fascinating read for several reasons. The history behind it’s publications is really interesting. Henry Adams published it in 1880 anonymously, and his publisher didn’t release his authorship until after his death even though the novel became popular.

It deals with the corruption of politicians and lobby groups in Washington D.C., which goes to show you that nothing much has changed over the several centuries of this “great experiment” of a nation, and includes some absolutely delicious quotes like “…a government of the people, by the people, for the Senate…” and “No representative government can long be much better or much worse than the society it represents. Purify society and you purify government.”. It gives some remarkable insight into both the male and female positions in society during the 19th century, and those who were “in” society and those who were not. You can read the Wikipedia entry here and get the book for free over at Project Gutenberg (both of which take donations and if you have a few bucks to spare at the end of the year, I would suggest either as worthy causes since they are the depository of so much free information).

I got two very big things out of this book for myself. Firstly, the main suitor of our heroine, a Senator Ratcliffe, honestly thinks he is behaving the only way he can in the corrupt world of politics, and he also honestly thinks he loves the widow Mrs. Lee as far as any self-serving narcissist can, and Henry Adams neither makes apologies nor condones his (or any other character’s for that matter) behavior during the course of the book. Ratcliffe operates in the only way he knows how to operate in the only game he knows how to play, even though it is repugnant and reprehensible in many ways. Apply this to a lot of the people who are not only allowing evil to operate in this world but encouraging it because it allows them to feel some semblance of power and privilege to do so. Many of them don’t know better. It doesn’t excuse the behavior, nor should the general population allow such behavior to happen, but knowing that they don’t know better provides us common folk with some clues on how to correct the problems, if enough of us ever stand up and start trying to. Secondly, Mrs. Lee almost gets trapped in a kind of savior complex in trying to “save” Ratcliffe from his lower instincts and thus help influence a change in the overall machinations of D.C., but she realizes that this wouldn’t happen and it would be her character that would change and be destroyed in the filth of the political atmosphere, a kind of textbook narcissist/empath relationship played out on a grander scale. This is important for those of us who do want to change things to keep in mind as we go about our work.

Some might read this novel and despair at the impossibility of real change ever happening, considering the distance between then and now and yet the similarities in corruption. But I really do feel like this period of time we’re in now is a necessary purging. We can’t hide from the filth anymore, nor should we, so our options now are to drown in it or to clean it up, personally and collectively.

Anyway, a random but timely quick read, and I recommend this book if you like witty, sarcastic 19th century literature.

First Amazon Review of “Penumbra” is Up!!!!

Lookey here!  At some point (May 4th, evidently), “Penumbra” received it’s first review!  4 stars, woohoo!

4.0 out of 5 stars Mysterious fairy tale! May 4, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Amazon Verified Purchase
I downloaded this title to my kindle for a road trip and I’m glad I did! It’s a dark fairy tale that starts with a seemingly fragile woman and transforms her into a true heroine. Very interesting characters and descriptive writing make this a fun and fast read…almost too fast!
And of course, my brain being what it is, I immediately started thinking “oh my goodness, it’s too fast a read, people are going to hate that it’s so short” but that’s how the story progressed, and I don’t know if the characters would have been served better by more time or not.  My readers will have to be the judge of that!  I will say that the pace it moves could mean that it is very easily adaptable for other media options, and I kind of like that.
Yay first review!

Book Review: Margaret Atwood’s “The Robber Bride”

I finished Margaret Atwood’s “The Robber Bride” this past weekend, and I’m left with conflicting feelings on the book.   I had read and enjoyed “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Cat’s Eye” in high school, so I was looking forward to this book.  (Warning: some spoilers ahead.)

The good from a structural standpoint: Atwood is a master at balancing prose and poetry.  She has a wonderful ability with phrasing.  You can take a single sentence or paragraph out of context and allow the words to roll around your mind for a while.   I was engaged enough by the story to not be brought out by her style, but I enjoyed the rhythm and cleverness of it all the same.

The bad structurally: I felt like she confined herself too strictly to a self-imposed cadence.  Maybe she was influenced by the fairy tale structure she pulled her source material from (“The Robber Bridegroom”) or maybe she just did it as an exercise in self-restraint, but at times the flow of the story seemed hindered.  I also did not enjoy the ending of the book.  I felt it dragged on.  I see what Atwood was going for, but I’m not sure it served the rest of the story or her characters well.

The good from a character and plot standpoint: The story was engaging.  I found myself sucked into the downward spiral of the characters despite my slight disgust.

The bad from a character and plot standpoint: I did not feel connected with any of the characters in this book.  The men were all manchildren, simpering and whiny and ridiculous.  The three main female characters clung to their men in a ridiculous way, all while trying to come to terms with their own selves, and the villain Zenia had no redeeming qualities but rather was a stock character.  This was probably what Atwood was going for, as again she was pulling from fairy tales, but it made for a rather two-dimensional character.  Also, I feel like Atwood at this point in her life felt disgust for the entire human race.  She writes from a feminist lens but simultaneously was mocking feminism through her characters.

And here is my utterly personal emotional response.  I read literature occasionally because I like to challenge my mind, and I feel that it is healthy to be uncomfortable by what you read/view occasionally.  But I hate that each of the main characters had such horrible childhoods.  I hate reading about children being abused sexually and beaten.  I’m someone who cries when I read a news article about babies and children and animals that die tragically or are hideously scarred (physically or emotionally) by an adult’s hand.  It’s unnatural.  But it happens.  So reading books like this help me to acknowledge the dark side of humanity, the side that I would love to see us as a species rise above but I’m not sure we ever will.  So while this bothered me, it was like choking down medicine that I know needs to be taken occasionally.

But I am also bothered by feminist authors who don’t bother to make any redeeming men in their stories because I know several good men personally and feel like dismissing that potential is a bad road to travel down (and I feel the same way when male authors marginalize women – if you can’t write for the opposite sex, then stick to only writing about your own!).   Characters need to be more than paper dolls, and when you have one gender well-fleshed and the other flat, it takes away from the effect of the book.

I enjoyed this book in some ways, but I will probably never read it again.  When I want challenging, poetic, feminist literature and poetry, I will continue to turn to Deena Metzger’s body of work instead.

Anyway, final thoughts – this is a well-crafted novel and worth the read, but overall I’m left feeling less than satisfied.