Thursday, January 28, 2016

Book 9: Oriental Mythology

"Those who have identified themselves with the mortal body and its affections will necessarily find that all is painful, since everything- for them- must end. But for those who have found the still point of eternity, around which all- including themselves- revolves, everything is acceptable as it is; indeed, can even be experienced as glorious and wonderful"

Dates read: November 12-27, 2015

Rating: 5/10

After examining the mythology of "primitive" societies in his previous volume, here Joseph Campbell turns his examination of mythology to the East, the Orient. He begins with ancient Egypt, before devoting the bulk of his text to the development of various movements (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) in India, concluding with relatively short chapters on China, Japan, and Tibet.

Egypt being included in this volume, while the Middle East is included in the succeeding volume on occidental mythology, shows that Campbell is not above glossing over the finer details in pursuit of making the case he wants to make. In this case, the second volume of Masks of God is where Campbell begins to make his argument that Eastern religion drives its adherents to turn away from the world, accepting one's place in the social strata while seeking to end the cycle of death and rebirth  by detachment. That Campbell thinks Western religion drives its adherents to focus on what they can achieve with their single life, and is therefore ultimately superior to Eastern religion, isn't laid on super thick but is definitely obvious.

But what we get through that sometimes distasteful bent is a well-researched and interesting examination of the development of Eastern religion. The largest portion of the text is devoted to Buddhism and reading about how it developed, grew in India, and then was pushed out to China, Japan, and Tibet (with mutations in each culture that reflect its unique perspective) is genuinely compelling. The chapter regarding Tibet does not shy away from the atrocities committed against the monks there by the Chinese, but one of Campbell's strengths is that he's not afraid to be critical. He certainly has no problem puncturing the ideals that religions would like you to believe about them by discussing the historical realities of how they actually functioned.

There is a similar psychoanalytic frame of reference here as in the first volume, but it's not as prominent (probably because there's more substance here to work from than there was with the first) and so it's not as problematic. Indeed, this volume is superior to the first all around. It's still thick, and fact-dense, and reads like a textbook, but Oriental Mythology is a more rewarding read, both in information and readability (it's still very slow, though) than its antecedent.

Tell me, blog friends...what Eastern country is on your must-visit list?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Book 8: Kramer v Kramer

"And if they could get this over with soon, in a few years they would be out of infancy and they would have this beautiful family, his beautiful wife, his beautiful children. And so, to be complete in some way, to create a perfect universe with himself in the center, husband, father, his domain- for all the old, buried feelings of not being attractive, for all the times his parents were disapproving, for all the years he struggled to place himself- he would have something special, his beautiful little empire, which he, in his self-delusion, was going to build out of sand from a sandbox."

Dates read: November 9-12, 2015

Rating: 7/10

I feel like I have a unique perspective on stories about divorce and custody. For one thing, I was raised by a single mother and had a relationship with my father only after the time I turned 10. For another, I actually spent about a year and half working as an attorney specializing in post-divorce custody litigation after I graduated from law school. I have a whole rant about how doing that kind of work was a significant factor in driving me out of the practice of law, but that's not what we're here for. We're here to talk about Kramer v. Kramer.

I saw the movie before I read the book and it's one of the more successful literary adaptations I've might actually be more effective than the source material. Which isn't to say the source material isn't very good in its own right. There's a legal philosophy known as the "tender years doctrine", which basically boils down to the belief that women are presumed to be better parents of very small children. There was a time when it was applied essentially automatically to grant a mother custody of a young child, almost regardless of the circumstances of the situation. This book, and its big-screen adaptation, were a part of helping drive a social shift away from that doctrine, ultimately making a difference in how custody law is determined by the courts.

The story is simple, with a straightforward plot: Ted and Joanna Kramer get married and have a son. Joanna stays home to raise him, but finds herself increasingly unsatisfied by an entirely home-and-child-based existence. Ted is unsympathetic, believing child-rearing to be Joanna's responsibility, particularly while their son is small. So Joanna leaves. Ted is has no choice but to assume full parental duty in her absence. The couple divorces and Joanna signs away her custody rights. After over a year, in which the father and son become extremely close and Ted completely rearranges his life and his thinking to be the father his son deserves, Joanna returns out of the blue, demanding custody. And she gets it, based on the tender years doctrine.

I didn't feel compelled to spoiler alert any of that, because the book and movie have been around so long that the conclusion is no longer a surprise. But also because the power of the book comes not from the outline of the story, but from how it's told. The beginning portions, detailing how Ted and Joanna came to be married, could in large part take place in the present day. They don't end up together because of their undying love, but because they're both bored of the singles scene and the other is good enough. Joanna's frustration at being forced into the primary caregiver role, at the expense of her own desires to be a contributing member of outside society, also feels like it could be written about any number of women today. We watch Ted go from the kind of man who insists that his wife stay home to take care of their son even though she doesn't want to, to the kind of man whose whole world is his son, slowly and organically. It's not forced or rushed or false, which makes the gut punch of Joanna's return that much harder to take. It ends happily enough, with Joanna relinquishing her victory and Ted retaining custody. The novel makes its point without preaching, and is all the more powerful for so doing.

Tell me, blog friends...what do you think of the tender years doctrine?

Monday, January 18, 2016

I Don't Get It: 7 Classics That Leave Me Cold

When you think of yourself as a Reader, you want to read all the "important" works of literature. Or maybe that's just me being pretentious. Some of my effort to read the classics has gone well...Moby-Dick is better than you think it'll be and surprisingly modern in structure, I loved Anna Karenina with my whole heart, and getting into Jane Austen has been a joy. Some of it has gone...less well. Here (in no particular order) are seven classics that I have read and completely failed to understand why I'm supposed to care
  • The Catcher In The Rye: I think I read this at entirely the wrong time in my life. I read this when I was 23, during my second year of law school. This is really a book that should be read around 16, or whatever age you are when you start deriding everyone who isn't exactly what they appear to be on the surface as "fake". Because that's basically what it's about: the disillusionment of realizing that the world isn't always what it seems to be, and a longing to go back to a time when it was. If you've emotionally progressed past this stage, this is probably going to be more irritating than anything else, but if you're right in the middle of it, you probably will love it for the rest of your life. I'm in the former camp.
  • Don Quixote: I feel like this is probably a weird comparison, but Don Quixote reminds me of what I liked least about "The Office" on TV. Don Quixote is basically Michael Scott, all cripplingly awkward delusion. Which makes Sancho Panza the Dwight figure, which works surprisingly well, but I digress. What I'm trying to say is that this is a book that consists essentially entirely of awkward humor, which is my least favorite kind of humor. It was really long and I just wanted it to be over
  • The Grapes of Wrath: Either this or Of Mice and Men could have gone here, honestly, but I hated Grapes more. Just heavy-handed metaphors about misery and despair, and then long passages about misery and despair. I will rewrite the book in one sentence: the Dust Bowl and Great Depression super sucked for everyone, but especially Great Plains farmers. The end. 
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: I read this in either 11th or 12th grade English in high school and I can remember very little about it except an overwhelming feeling of "do not want" whenever I opened the book. I remember that Huck and Jim go down the river together, but I can't recall a single other thing that happens. The fact that I don't have the slightest recall of the plot tells you I just completely didn't connect with it, because that's really unusual. I don't remember this being bad, per se, just that I found the exercise of reading it to be, well, exercise rather than enjoyment.
  • Love In The Time of Cholera: A sprawling epic about the power of true love to last a lifetime...or a five alarm snorefest? I'm in the latter camp. Dude falls in love with lady, lady ultimately rejects him, and he bangs everything in sight while thinking about how much he loves the lady that rejected him. Meanwhile, lady marries someone else and they stay married, more or less happily, until he dies. Dude comes back in the picture (this is when everyone is old) and he and the lady finally rekindle their romance. I found the plot ridiculous and the language excessively flowery. I'd heard great things about it and was really disappointed a
  • The Sun Also Rises: This could have been any Hemingway that I've read (besides the short story The Snows of Kilamanjaro, which I actually rather like), but this one was my least favorite of his. Bullfighting and humans fighting and drinking and thwarted, doomed love affairs and precious few adjectives. Reading Hemingway, to me, feels like watching Scorcese. Stories about men and violence and the women in their lives who aren't people, really, but objects and symbols. While I can appreciate Scorcese movies (even though I usually don't like them), I can't get there with Hemingway. He's just the worst. 
  • Crime and Punishment: I'm normally not one to pitch a fit about books where nothing happens. The Virgin Suicides is my favorite book of all time and not much happens in that one. But this one? White dude thinks he's better than everyone else and could get away with murder without feeling guilty. He commits murder. He feels guilty. That is essentially the entire plot, and it goes on for eons. 
Tell me, blog friends...what classics didn't do it for you?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Book 7: Primitive Mythology

“Clearly, mythology is no toy for children. Nor is it a matter of archaic, merely scholarly concern, of no moment to modern men of action. For its symbols (whether in the tangible form of images or in the abstract form of ideas) touch and release the deepest centers of motivation, moving literate and illiterate alike, moving mobs, moving civilizations.” 

Dates read: October 27-November 9, 2015

Rating: 4/10

I'm actually glad I have a little distance from this book when reviewing it. If I was reviewing it immediately after reading it, I would likely give it an even lower rating than I have here. But having read the succeeding three books in the series, I can understand why this book is written the way it is: it serves as a foundation.

All of the books in the Masks of God series are dense. They read like textbooks, rather than the kind of non-fiction novels in the In Cold Blood style that it seems like more "modern" nonfiction is written in. There is a ton of information here, and Campbell is presenting his research rather than telling us a story. This first volume focuses on what we know about the religious/mythological beliefs of (mostly) prehistorical cultures. Since many of them didn't leave written text behind, it's a lot of interpretation of artifacts and paintings, etc.

Which makes this volume a little problematic. While it does lay a lot of ground for the future volumes in terms of tracking social change from cultures that worship a female diety with primarily female priestesess, focused on honoring the Mother Earth and the cycle of life (often taken very literally with human sacrifice) to societies that worship a male diety with male priests, it also was written over 50 years ago based on the state of archaeology at the time. There has been a lot of progress made, not in the least not referring to tribal societies (whose belief systems form a part of this book) as "primitive", but also in archaeology itself. Also, like Joseph Campbell's most well-known work, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, there's a heavy influence from what was de rigeur psychology at the time: Freudianism and psychoanalysis. While I personally believe that the pendulum has swung a little too far away from these kinds of theories (which is a whole different topic), there's no denying that they've fallen far out of favor because of their lack of scientifically provable reliability. To read a book (and series) premised on psychoanalysis as the appropriate lens through which to view the world is a little jarring.  

If you're a big mythology nerd who thinks you might want to read this series, pick up The Hero With A Thousand Faces and read it first. Campbell's writing style can be dry and pedantic, but if it holds your interest, then ask yourself if you really really want to read over 2000 pages of world mythology. While I found reading The Masks of God to be ultimately rewarding, it was also a slog at times (especially in this first volume) and you need to be prepared to watch your normal reading pace slow considerably.

Tell me, blog you think Freud has merit or is a cigar just a cigar?

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Book 6: The Nazi Officer's Wife

“You see, even the inhuman ones were not always inhuman. This was a lesson that I would learn again and again—how completely unpredictable individuals could be when it came to personal morality.” 

Dates read: October 25-27, 2015

Rating: 10/10

An Austrian Jewish woman survives the Holocaust by marrying a member of the Nazi party. When she meets him, he is initially a high-ranking factory official, but by the end of the war, when everyone is pressed into active duty, he is an officer within the party. And the kicker? He knows she's Jewish. Totally made up, right? Wrong. That is the actual story of Edith Hahn Beer.

The Shoah has, understandably, sparked a lot of significant literature. The Diary of Anne Frank. Night. Sophie's Choice. Why this incredible memoir hasn't been included in the canon is beyond me, honestly. It was (like almost all of my Kindle books) a sale selection, the title promising a fascinating tale although memoirs aren't an especial favorite of mine. And it's been one of the few books I've read recently that I literally couldn't put down.

One of the upsides of the Kindle is its portability. And I have the Kindle app on my phone, although I hardly use it usually. Not here. I was reading on my eight-minute walk to work. I was reading in the bathroom. I was reading every spare second I could grab. Beer's writing voice feels like a story your aunt or grandma is telling's immediate, it grabs you and doesn't let you go. From the moment that she's sent to her first work camp assignment, missing her mother's departure for the ghetto, to her friend's bravery in giving Edith her identification documents (which the friend then reported as "missing") so that Edith, unable to draw rations on her false ID, will at least be able to try to find work, to her first meeting with her future husband Werner, to her refusal to have any pain medication during the birth of their child so that she won't spill her desperate secret, all of it is incredibly compelling and although we know she survives her experience because she wrote a book about it, we can't help but eagerly turn pages to see how it plays out. Basically I was completely swept away and never wanted it to end and recommend it to anyone who enjoys a well-told story.

Tell me, blog you like memoirs or am I the weirdo that finds them very skippable?