Books : Notable Reads from 2011

by macksemil


Love has no middle term; either it destroys, or it saves. All human destiny is this dilemma. This dilemma, destruction or salvation, no fate proposes more inexorably than love. Love is life, if it is not death. Cradle; coffin, too. The same sentiment says yes and no in the human heart. Of all the things God has made, the human heart is the one that sheds most light, and alas! most night.Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

I found this tome for cheap at Smith Family Books in Eugene. I selected this book because one of my high school crushes who I admired for her smarts and love of Zelda had pointed it out as her favorite book to me once. At the time, I couldn’t imagine someone sitting down and reading through a brick like that so I forgot about it. When I saw it again it rang a bell, and I decided that nearly ten years had gone by and I should be grown up enough to read a book of that magnitude by now. I also remember being vaguely impressed by the movie version in high school literature class. Why were we wathcing movies in literature class? Welcome to ‘Murka.  Well, it took me nearly seven months and was put on hold numerous times, but I did it.

Victor Hugo – the champion of romanticism. This book wound its way through rural and urban squalor in 19th century France. The setting was developed with a nearly overwhelming attention to detail physically, emotionally and politically. Hugo created one of the most admirable protagonists ever, Jan Valjean. The ex-convict turned wealthy philanthropist turned foster father in hiding from the French police force is a deep and fascinating character. His good deeds, wit and physical abilities pave the way through a story thick with intrigue and suspense as he is tracked at every turn by a sinister authoritarian police inspector, Javert.

Hugo’s depth of feeling for Paris and its inhabitants is overt. He writes about a street, district or neighborhood as if it were a close friend he were introducing to the reader. The characters walk the border between theatrical and believable, from the street urchins and pickpockets to the criminal masterminds and revolutionaries that filled the streets of Paris. This book is a classic and an amazing showcase of pure writing talent. If you’re finding yourself tired of flippant popular paperbacks, settle down with this volume and enjoy Hugo’s cast of characters weave themselves through a masterfully constructed plot in a France on the edge of revolution.

The only thing detracting from this book for me is the lengthy digressions into obscure topics. Recognizing that this is a work of political commentary it’s hard to get too down on Hugo for the diversions – but it was difficult to get through some parts of the book which rambled incessantly about things that I not only had never heard of before, but didn’t particularly care to learn about, such as the customs of certain obscure Christian sects and a complete summation of the Battle of Waterloo.



Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swaps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists.. it is real.. it is possible.. it’s yours.” – Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

I had been meaning to read this title for a few years, ever since I read Rand’s The Fountainhead  a few years ago. Ayn Rand is an interesting literary figure – especially since the ideas she lays down in her works are being borrowed from to support neoliberal economic policies. For this, she gets a bad name. Some time ago I was talking with a friend and said something snarky when her name got brought up, and he said to me, “have you ever read any of her books?” Well, after I got done feeling like an idiot about it, I did read her books. And I was pleasantly suprised to uncover a truly gifted writer. Say what you will about the politicos touting her quotes while they try to globalize the world economy and perpetuate our sick tendencies to fuck other people over in order to get what we want – her writing is driven, fierce and focused. It’s amazing, especially considering that Rand moved to the US at the age of 21 after having spent her young life in Russia under the iron curtain. English was not her native language. The theme of her works is a stoic, nonyielding individualism which she calls objectivism.

Now on to the book itself. One of the reasons I had been excited to read this book is that The Fountainhead had changed the way I thought about things and challenged some of my ideals. It really made me think. I was hoping for something along similar lines with Atlas Shrugged. I have to say here that I was a little dissapointed as the general themes were the same same, just played out through a different storyline and cast of characters. The hero of the story is a woman named Dagny Taggart, daughter of the legendary railroad Tycoon Nat Taggart. The book follows Dagny as she strives to make the railway work in the face of an industrial world crumbling around her. As per usual with Rand the heroine’s romantic relationships are strained and bound up in a dense web of power dynamics which struck me as a little bit forced and overly dramatic.

Atlas Shrugged’s political world is one in which personal gain is the ultimate evil. The successful, innovative and often sexy industrialists become popular enemies as the economic structure that they support begins to collapse into ruins. The great movers in the country’s production economy sequentially and mysteriously dissapear as the government clamps down by issuing a set of crippling emergency directives. One of my favorite parts of the book was Rand’s descriptions of the slide into dystopia and its effect on the people of the country.

The characters in the novel are made to represent specific divisons of society, for better or worse. Rand champions the capable working class throughout the novel and villifies the intellectual elite, painting them as pompous, parasitic hypocrites. None should say that Rand is subtle in using her plot and characters as a battering ram with which to assault the reader’s mind and innundate them with her ideas about society and economics. It’s broad in scope and the story runs from the dreamy idealistic portrait of the American industrialist to science fiction. Rand takes an unexpected turn toward the obscure by including pirates, fanciful new age electronic gadgets, transcontinental gold smuggling operations and invisible commune-cities in the mountains.

I think it is worth mentioning that this book is number one on Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels Readers Poll, with The Fountainhead at number two and her two other major works Anthem and We The Living also listed in the top ten. That’s quite an accomplishment.

It was a good read, but I’m just going to say it: The Fountainhead was better.



Creemos que existimos pero no, somos un espejismo de la nada, un sueño de basuco.” 

We believe that we exist but no, we are an illusion of nothing, a basuco dream.

– Fernando Vallejo, La Virgen de los Sicarios / Our Lady of the Assassins (Basuco is the street name for a smokable form of low-grade cocaine)

I had the pleasure of reading this book while in Colombia last fall. I read a translation of Vallejo’s work done by a close family friend who is a fan of Vallejo’s writings. He had done the translation, printed it and had it bound as a personal hobby.  It’s not a lengthy book – I swept through it in two days while staying with family friends in barrio Vanecia, Bogota. What the book lacks in girth it makes up for in raw power. I was hooked once I picked it up and immediately understood my friend’s appreciation for the author.

La Virgen de los Sicarios takes place in Medellin, Colombia after the fall of Pablo Escobar.  Pablo’s drug empire employed scores of young assassins, the sicarios of Medellin. The novel is the story of the author and his interactions with the young sicario boys, two in particular, during the violence that ravaged Medellin after the fall of Escobar.

The book takes place mainly during Vallejo’s relationship with one young killer named Alexis, who Vallejo calls ‘the angel of death.’ There are several things that make this work stand out. One, Vallejo’s sexual relationships with the boys in the novels. Societally this is extremely taboo, but the assumed power dynamics are inverted; the boys he sleeps with are hardened killers and the relationships are seemingly free and consentual. Two, the violence is extreme. There are point-blank executions of taxi drivers, passerby, women and children, police officers and dogs. The writing itself is adds another aspect to the shock of the novel as Vallejo sharpens the monotony of the city life with language rich with emotion and dulls the sharp edges of random violence with nonchalance. This novel is a look into a world where life is frivolous and fleeting, the Medellin that not only consumed the lives and souls of its inhabitants but even managed to dampen those things about life that make living worthwhile in the meantime: hope, compassion and love.

It’s true that this book isn’t for everyone. But for those of us amused by the twisted and intruiged by the insanities and truths that come to light during dark moments in history, La Virgen de los Sicarios is not to be missed. Vallejo’s writing alone makes the book worth reading.

(Painting by Fernando Botero – The Fall of Pablo Escobar)



 “Before I knowed it, I was sayin’ out loud, ‘The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing.’ . . . . I says, ‘What’s this call, this sperit?’ An’ I says, ‘It’s love. I love people so much I’m fit to bust, sometimes.’ . . . . I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,’ I figgered, ‘maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit-the human sperit-the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.’ Now I sat there thinkin’ it, an’ all of a suddent-I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it.” – John Stienbeck, Grapes of Wrath

I picked up Grapes of Wrath in my company’s bunkhouse in Dutch Harbor, AK between fishing trips because I had run out of other things to read. I’d read some of Steinbeck’s other works and loved them: Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat and of course the epicly awesome East of Eden. Steinbeck is a quintessential American author for good reason. He had an eye for things that exhibited the tough reality of the times and Grapes of Wrath is as poignant as it is lyrical.

His purpose in Grapes of Wrath was to point the finger of blame for the Great Depression and the suffering therein at the “greedy bastards” who caused it. His novel was extremely controversial, leading Steinbeck to be labeled as a dirty commie on both sides of the aisle. The novel withstood the test of time and was a main factor in his winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, according to Wikipedia.

We follow the bittersweet (alright, mostly bitter) cross country trek of the Joads, a family of sharecroppers, to California. The bank having seized their home the families were forced to cut their losses and leave Oklahoma in search of a better life in the west, watching the bank-hired bulldozers knock down their homes as they pulled out of their driveway in a broken down truck and left all they knew behind. The hard working common farmers weave their way through a maze of poverty stricken wanderers, weathering the storm of heartbreaking scenes with the undying, necessary optimism of honest salt-of-the-earth farmers.

The Joads struggle through discrimination for being “no good Okies,” living in roadside camps known as “Hoovervilles”. The heartbreak continues once in California where the stories of employment opportunities prove to be false. The national depression deepens and the situation becomes desperate as the starving Joads watch the California farmers destroy food in an attempt to raise the prices on the ruined market. The entire book is a downward spiral to something sickeningly deep, dark and real. Steinbeck showcases the brutal reality of market economics, when the shifting tides of supply and demand take a turn for the worse it is the common folk who bear the brunt of the discomfort.

Although the book is heartwrenching, there are moments of inspirational brilliance from many characters. Tom Joad and Jim Casy the recalcitrant preacher were two of my favorites. The beauty of the characters and the artful storytelling make this novel a formidable slice of Americana sure to remain a standard for generations to come.