The Don Flows Home to the Sea by Mikhail Sholokhov, translated from the Russian by Stephen Garry, 2/5
Like other Russian novels I’ve read, this one contains a dizzying array of characters–41 to be exact, according to its “Key to Principal Characters.” This unwieldy list appears at the beginning of the book and is much less helpful than you might expect since it is organized by last name. Once you’ve scanned from “Astakhov, Stepan” to “Zykov, Prokhor,” you’ve likely either forgotten who you were searching for altogether, or why you were interested in the first place. Add to that a writing style that jerks from unrelatable dialogue, to flowery descriptions of scenery, to endless, dry accounts of military movements associated with the Russian Civil War of 1917-1922, and it makes for a very tedious reading experience indeed.
Fortunately, the drama heightened as the story progressed and I felt more invested in the characters and their experiences during the last 400 pages than the first 400. Judging by this trend, I can only assume that if I’d known beforehand that this novel forms the second half of a four-volume work (preceded by And Quiet Flows the Don) and read these books in order, I would have enjoyed it a lot more. It was very interesting to learn about the Russian Civil War from an “inside” point of view, though it is difficult to know to what extent personal bias and political constraints affected the author’s depiction of historical events. I perceived a clear anti-Communist perspective throughout and the author was awarded the 1965 Nobel Prize in Literature, but the novel is considered a work of socialist realism and won a Stalin Prize, which seems very contradictory. If anyone can explain this to me, I’d appreciate it!
Why I read it: This copy belonged to my grandfather and has been on the shelf for years. Since I’m trying to read through all my old books, it seemed like a satisfying one to accomplish.
Castles: Their Construction and History by Sidney Toy, 2/5
Never has a book more sadly lacked a glossary! In retrospect, I should have created one of my own as I encountered endless, undefined technical terms like “barbican,” “corbel,” and “machicolation.” Because the author is very good at describing castles in painstaking detail and creating architectural drawings, this book has historical value as a record of the condition of various castles at the time of the author’s visits (pre-1939). Unfortunately, however, Sidney Toy is more focused on presenting data than interpreting it, so there is very little narrative flow or sense of the bigger picture as far as castles’ construction and history in general is concerned.
Why I read it: With several castles on the itinerary for a recent trip to Ireland, I was hoping to gain some knowledge on the subject, but this book was disappointingly unhelpful.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig, 2/5
Reading this philosophical novel was, for me, like trying to experience a song by simply reading the lyrics–I understood the words, but I couldn’t hear the “music.” I suspect this is due in part to my reflexive antipathy for the 1960s zeitgeist and a general shift away from academic thought in my life. However, I’d prefer to think that the fault is the author’s, for alternating arbitrarily-detailed descriptions of a motorcycle road trip with dry, preachy philosophical rants that fall into the trap described by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man:
“…But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see (81).”
In an attempt to understand my negative experience with such a popular, respected book, I read a lot of user reviews afterwards and learned more about the author. I now know that the book is highly autobiographical and wonder if my dislike of it reflects a basic personal incompatibility with the author/narrator and a recognition of how his pursuit of personal catharsis might taint the intellectual integrity of his arguments. I didn’t feel any sort of sympathy, connection or respect for the main character, suspecting that I would dislike him if I met him in person, which is certainly not a great basis on which to approach a book. With this understanding, I might re-read it in a few years and see if I can get something more out of it than I did this time.
Why I read it: I was browsing Half Price Books for reading material for a trip to Scotland and recognized the title.
It by Stephen King, 2/5
Stephen King is more than a popular writer, he’s a respected one, so I was excited to read one of his most famous books despite hating the 2017 film it inspired. Initially, I was impressed by the length and density of the plot, which caused me to forget characters’ names and refer back to previous chapters with an urgency not felt since I read War and Peace. However, after a while all the details and increasingly gross events lost their novelty and the thread of the story felt more like a patchwork of cliches. That same scattered aesthetic and uneven tone is what put me off the 2017 film version, which felt like 2 hours and 15 minutes of movie trailers for every horror film made in the last 40 years. I didn’t really experience any feelings of “horror” until near the end of the book, when I encountered King’s casual description of ritual group sex between children. At that point, I lost respect for the author and will likely not read anything else by him.
Why I read it: I was looking for something entertaining to read on the plane during our Scotland trip and while browsing in Half Price Books, realized I’d never read anything by Stephen King before.
The Field Guide: The Art, History and Philosophy of Crop Circle Making by Rob Irving and John Lundberg, edited by Mark Pilkington, 2/5
This book, bizarrely, seems to affirm the mystic nature of crop circles (in the process, condoning the associated pseudo-science and quackery of self-styled “experts” in the field) while completely denying crop circles’ otherworldly origins so blatantly as to give instructions for their creation and to interview the men credited with starting the whole phenomenon back in the 1980s. At least, that’s what I understood from the rambling, incomplete sentences in this confused and cluttery little book, which is so deficient as to lack even good photographs of the patterns it describes. The only redeeming feature of this little disaster is the informative interviews with crop circle makers at the end.
Why I read it: the title caught my eye in a used bookstore.
Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek, 2/5
Sinek poses an interesting premise: companies wishing to develop an extremely loyal customer base and have the greatest influence on society and industry must let a clear sense of why they do what they do influence all decisions about what and how. By communicating a sense of purpose and how this purpose fits into the bigger picture of life, a business can ostensibly attract similarly-minded, passionate customers and ultimately have the freedom to be more innovative and influential than the faceless corporations trapped in “features” battles with each other, desperate to manipulate buyers with endless “deals” and minute spec improvements. Sinek basically argues that companies should function like good people, with strong character, ethics and a sense of higher purpose, instead of being focused solely on the bottom line. In fact, he goes so far as to say that “The goal of business should not be to do business with anyone who simply wants what you have. It should be to focus on the people who believe what you believe. When we are selective about doing business only with those who believe in our WHY, trust emerges” (80).
While Sinek’s approach is thought-provoking, I see a clear conflict between it and a society that is rife with lawsuits against businesses who refuse to provide services, based on religious beliefs. I wish the author had addressed this issue instead of beating one simple idea to death with a tedious, repetitive writing style and relentless references to Apple Inc. Perhaps he also could have supplemented his few cherry-picked examples, by explaining why numerous industry-leading companies have achieved great success while clearly not following his why-centered philosophy. He also does not adequately address the connection between authenticity and advertising–couldn’t it be argued that the only difference between companies appearing to have a strong “why” and all the others is merely superior advertising strategies (not necessarily fundamental differences in philosophy and operation)?
Why I read it: My brother recommended it under circumstances I have since forgotten (I procrastinated on writing this review for far too long!).
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, 2/5
Holy cherry-picked data, Batman! At least it’s hand-picked, I guess? That is about the nicest thing I can say for this book, which, though entertaining, smells like bad science. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I think I’ve been exposed to enough good research and logical reasoning (thank you Daniel Kahneman and David Hackett Fisher) to recognize the sketchy stuff. The thesis is all over the place, ending with a laughable call to action that sounds great on the surface (let’s give everyone the same opportunities in life so they can all achieve success) but is idiotic in context (let’s wave our enlightened magic fairy wand and give everyone identical backgrounds, community, family legacy, historical timing, interests and skills, so everyone can be super successful genius millionaires). Frustratingly, this book’s popularity was inevitable–who doesn’t like to read a good success story AND be told that it isn’t all due to talent, you unluckily ordinary human being with untold potential, you.
Why I read it: Heard about it from my Dad, who thought it would be fun if I read it (I’ve been avoiding Gladwell for years).