It Can’t Happen Here

There’s a good story in here somewhere. The premise is intriguing. What would’ve happened had a populist presidential candidate, who campaigned on the promise that he would give the lower classes exactly what they wanted, had won the 1936 presidential election? The result is a watered-down version of Nazi Germany in Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here. Happen

This book has seen a boon in sales recently, seeing as how we have elected a populist president who’s given the lower-classes (i.e. blue-collar Whites) what they wanted. The difference is that so far the checks on power have not failed and we have not devolved into tyranny. While the political consequences of the book have no come true, I understand why some would want to read about a book that warned against this type of political upheaval; it’s a good cautionary tale. What doesn’t work is the vehicle Lewis uses to carry his idea in.

We bounce around from Doremus Jessup, a rural Vermont newspaper editor, and the cadre of despots in Washington. The plot of the book reads like a movie you may have seen on TCM or the like. It’s set in the 1930’s and the actors can’t decide whether they are going to stick with melodrama or devolve into stand-up comedy. It wasn’t clear to me whether Lewis was trying to keep the book from becoming to heavy by adding in the random comedic attempts or whether he just didn’t know how to write characters that are complex.

The protagonist, Jessup, reminded me a lot of “1984”‘s Winston accept that Jessup is not as misogynistic, nor as poor-me as Winston. At the same time, my eyes are still sore from the many eye-rolls when Jessup complains that he just wishes he could spend more time with mistress in order to escape all of his wife’s flippant comments about American politics.

I’m also not convinced that Lewis wasn’t a hermit. A lot of the dialogue seems flat as if everyone is reading the script some seventh grade wrote about mobsters. The worst offenses occured whenever Shad Ledue would try and make a pass at Sissy. If men really talked like that, and women really responded as she did, I’m shocked that humanity has been able to survive.

Ok, enough savagery. Read this book if you dare, but maybe read it in installments with something more exciting in between to cleanse your literary palate.

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The City of Ember

A city called Ember has survived, as the citizens believe, as the only human civilization left after a catastrophe no one can remember. Things aren’t going well though because the lights won’t stay on, supplies are running low, and growing political unrest. The city doesn’t produce anything other than vegetables in green houses, so any building materials have to be recycled.  Even things such as paper and coloring items (e.g. paints, crayons, colored pencils, etc.) have become luxury items.

EmberLina and Doon are 12 and about to choose their careers. Similar to Divergent, teens are sorted into what will be their future careers.  There’s a certain prestige to some of the careers so all are vying for the more exciting ones.  Lina has her heart set on being a messanger, but draws working in the Pipeworks.  Doon draws messenger which doesn’t interest him. He swaps Lina because he knows that she wants badly to be a messenger.For all of the importance that’s given to these careers, it seems anti-climactic that the kids just draw from a bag.

Doon decides that he will use his career to help solve Ember’s problems. Lina is just trying to keep her family together. Until she stumbles on some instructions that lay out how Ember can solve its problems. Early on readers will realize that Ember is a city in a cave but the people living in Ember don’t know that since they only know Ember as their reality. I don’t know whether it was meant to, but this read like an allegory of Plato’s “The Cave”. Picking up on this early on made the plot more interesting. Lina and Doon are pretty flat characters and the plot isn’t too complex. This is definitely a middle school read rather than high school but adults may be interested in the allegorical elements.

1984

Where to start with this review?  First, I think I missed the boat on this one.  I think had I read it in high school or college I would have enjoyed/appreciated it more.  I’ve read more compelling dystopian novels and this one just doesn’t compare. Saying that, I feel like the wrath of the reading world will rain down upon me.  “1984” seems to be a classic for many readers and I can appreciate it that. What was most powerful about the novel was the world that George Orwell created.  He aptly took the communist structure of the Soviet Union and took it to its logical conclusion.  At the same time, he doesn’t let the West off of the hook.  He seems, instead, to be critiquing the entire structure of the Cold War.  Mr. Orwell was able to detail how totalitarian government structure their programs and ensure their power.

1984So, what didn’t work? Winston.  I can’t stand Winston.  He’s not the type of guy I would choose to hang out with nor do I really appreciate.  He starts the book off giving off the vibe that people owe him for his terrible life.  Winston, everyone around is having a terrible life! You aren’t any worse off than your comrades! If you’re that angry, than fight back!  I thought he was going to rally when he started writing in his journal, but that takes a backseat to his fling with Julia. It was also odd that he’s able to understand how and why the Ministry of Thought is able to torture him, yet he’s not able to out-game them. How can you be so self-aware and to know what O’Brien wants from you and yet you can’t deliver the results?  It’s torture.  You can lie to them and it doesn’t make you a bad person. I might have been able to forgiven him, had I not felt that I was supposed to like Winston.  I don’t know whether I felt that due to Mr. Orwell or the reviews I’ve heard from others.  Maybe it’s both.  Either way, it killed my interest in Winston.

Then we have Orwell’s woman problem.  I’m very uncomfortable with the way that women were depicted.  Winston feels that Julia owes him sex since he’s interested and she’s beautiful.  It gets to the point that he has rape/snuff fantasies about her. He even tells her this and she just brushes it off!  Julia, you’re smarter than this! Mr. Orwell doesn’t give much description of men throughout the book, but he gives a lot of description of women. He describes their weight, breasts, hips, and how firm their bodies are.  By the end of the book it just was too much and so necessary; there’s no relationship between how the women look and the relationship to the plot.  They seem to just be objects for the men in the story and have no agency or purpose.

I think there’s better books out there, but this does deserve it’s place on the political dystopian shelf.

Ship Breakers

Continuing on my quest to read through the Printz award winners and honorees, Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi was the next one on the list.  The setting of this YA dystopian adventure novel is in the future of the U.S.  Apparently there was a cataclysmic shift in weather and the seas rose swamping much of the gulf coast.  Hurricanes became stronger with the power to completely decimate cities.  The book centers specifically on the Louisiana coastline, west of New Orleans.

ShipOpening the book in media res is usually a device that I appreciate, but not in this case.  Bacigalupi, in my opinion, doesn’t do a good job at helping the reader make sense of what happened to make the world the way it is.  It was frustrating because the setting plays such a big part in relationship to the plot.  This was a large factor in what kept me from really enjoying the novel.

The story focuses on a group of teenagers who are stripping oil tankers, stranded on their beach, of the copper wires.  They all live in hovels on the beach in a community that reminds me of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or the shantytowns of Johannesburg.  There’s a clear distinction between the haves and the have-nots.  This becomes one of the themes of the novel as these poor kids come into contact with wealthier individuals.

There’s also a theme of “family”.  As in, those who are biologically related to you don’t necessarily make them a family member.  The protagonist, Nailer, has a father who is an alcoholic, drug user, and physically abusive.  Due to this, Nailer spends most nights with his best friend and her mother. When push comes to shove, pun intended, Nailer abandons his father with only a little guilt because he knows that if he had stayed he would’ve been killed.

Besides the setting, the other I had with this novel was the way it ended.  It literally just stops in the middle of the teenagers walking towards the ocean.  There’s no resolution to the action that happened earlier.  I’m pretty sure it’s because Bacigalupi had already planned to write the sequel and I’m sure if I read the sequel I would find that it begins exactly where this one left off.  The crazy thing is that even with these to significant issues, I was absorbed by the story.  Much to my chagrin.  So, in essence, I would say the writing is mediocre, but the story itself is engrossing.  This one was a B- in my book.