23 March 2012

"Taoism: the Enduring Tradition," "Sophie's World," "A Grief Observed," "Five Moral Pieces," "1491," "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," and "The Hunger Games."

Taoism: the Enduring Tradition, Russell Kirkland
Sophie's World, Jostein Gaarder
A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis
Five Moral Pieces, Umberto Eco
1491, Charles C. Mann
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

Taoism: the Enduring Tradition, Russell Kirkland

I wanted an explanation of Taoism that was comprehensible and accessible, like Alan Watts' explanation of Zen in The Way of Zen.  I did not find it here.  Instead, I found a scholarly parsing of terms, rigorous and stultifying self-arguments, and a book that was as dense as it was impressive.  In short, I found the problem with casual browsing in a university library.

I love my uni library.  I love it.  They have ordered no fewer than five books on my request, they are always helpful when I can't find a mis-shelved item (occurs at least once every few weeks), and last year they let me check out books over the ten-item limit (now I have a thirty-item limit!)  But it's a very different thing from a city library, where nearly every available book is intended for the general public.  The requirements of scholars can be much more exotic.  There are stacks of old German church tracts, bound between cardboard covered in a cloth that's fraying down to its last few granular threads.  There's a thick row of nature journals that are at or near their centennial.  And there are nigh-unreadable messes of careful caveats and impenetrable insights.  Taoism: the Enduring Tradition is one of these last.

I should say that Kirkland's work is extremely rigorous.  He took care to lay down definitions, sort out categories, and heap scorn on mistaken assumptions.  He works methodically to sort out the tangle of complicated ideas of uncertain origin.  For example, he picks apart the false dichotomy of a "religious Taoism" and "philosophical Taoism" that has comforted so many "spiritual" people with the idea that this tradition comes in a flavor untainted by superstition.  And he destroys with calm devastation the long-standing notions about the Taoist sages we accept as canonical - it turns out that such selection is just as baseless as what took place with the Bible's many rejected texts.  Lazy scholars have long prowled the field of the Way, it seems.

But after admitting the serious worth of Kirkland's book, its valuable insights, and its extraordinary effort at precision, I can only beg: someone, please write an accessible book using this same rigorous information!  I'm sure I was only able to get some fraction of what is in Kirkland's, and so until someone makes this material approachable, I will remain like a toothless man with a walnut tree: frustrated and hungry.

Sophie's World, Jostein Gaarder

My wife is a very smart woman, so it's not too surprising that she was able to sum up Sophie's World in one short sentence: "There's not enough plot."

Sophie's World is a very clever book, and Jostein Gaardner is a very clever man.  If nothing else, he deserves praise for having written a light history of philosophy that's easy to read.  It takes the form of a sort of mystery, as a young girl begins getting letters from a mysterious and unknown philosopher.  This stranger teaches her all about the history of philosophy, from beginning right up until the modern day (even some of Rawls!)  But while he teaches her, a metatextual game plays out and the reader is led to wonder at the philosopher's identity and the purpose of this unrequested series of lessons.

There are two main observations I have about the book:

  • The clever history of philosophy that is unfolded for the reader is accurate and well-written.  It fairly describes and assesses the great people of Western philosophy.
  • The plot of the fictional frame for that history is clumsy and poorly-written.  It starts off decently enough, if a bit thin, but by the end of the book it's intrusive and a bit disturbing.

I suppose there might be a need for a book that tries to use a clever story to shoehorn philosophy into the reader.  But I suspect that this need could be better met than with Sophie's World.  It'll to have to do, for now.  Pick it up if you're new to philosophy and looking for a way to broach the subject - don't bother, otherwise.

A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis

In 1883, Henry James wrote to a bereaved friend a beautiful letter offering sympathy and sorrow.  Perhaps most interestingly, included in his advice was the idea that she shouldn't "melt into the universe" and generalize her grief.  James advised her not to put herself wholly in context with the sum of all mankind's losses. He told her that she must "remember that every life is a special problem which is not yours but another's, and content yourself with the terrible algebra of your own."

When I read James' letter, C.S. Lewis' beautiful A Grief Observed leapt into mind. Compiled from the diaries he filled in the days after his beloved wife's death, they are a shockingly direct expression of grief.  Lewis tackles that terrible algebra without flinching.  He turns to all of the strange manifestations of mourning in their turn: the odd self-centeredness of the process, the weird but terrible fears, and the agony.

As the foreword by Madeleine L'Engle notes, C.S. Lewis' relationship with his wife was an unusual one.  They'd known each other for many years before they became involved, and each had a deep and abiding respect for the other well before it developed into love.  Moreover, they married with the specter of death already beginning to loom over her in the shape of terminal illness. Yet that doesn't seem to have dulled the loss - perhaps long acquaintance and foreknowledge only sharpened the pain.

Above all, Lewis' book is honest.  He does not appeared to have polished it up or cleaned out any of the things that might reflect badly on him: from first to last, this brief, grim, beautiful book stares you right in the eye.

Read this book.  It will take little time, and you will be the richer for it.

Five Moral Pieces, Umberto Eco

In this slim collection of essays, Eco writes on five moral topics.  They range from instant classics to merely superb, although it must be admitted that at least one is not very accessible.

"Ur-Fascism" is probably the essay that will be most remembered.  Indeed, I have already often heard it quoted in the decade since this book's publication.  Eco grew up an enthusiastic fascist boy in WWII Italy, mouthing the required pablum and hating the required people.  He gives an account of his delight at the revelation of the wider world beyond the fascist construction - an account that ably answers the disbelief of latter-day readers, who might wonder how anyone could have swallowed the obvious idiocy of fascism.  But even more valuable, Eco gives a studied and intelligent list of the qualities of fascism, clarifying a variable concept that would otherwise be consigned to fuzzy vagueness in our mind (those of us who aren't in political science, anyway).  The essay has the authoritative sound of the final word on a subject, the sort of thing to which everyone must now refer when they speak of fascism.

Almost as interesting are his "Reflections on War," a discussion of how we cannot flinch from a moral certainty that war is wrong, even in the face of a well-executed conflict with a just objective.  Particularly cutting to myself and my wishy-washy thoughts on Obama's strike into Libya, it forced me to reconsider my position on the matter and try to find an ethically consistent stance.  With similar impact but opposite effect, "When the Other Appears on the Scene," a discussion of the source of ethics with a Catholic cardinal, provided a well-articulated set of reasons to support some of my beliefs about being good without God.

Less effective are the essay on the media, "On the Press," and a discussion of immigration in Europe, "Migration, Tolerance, and the Intolerable."  It's tempting to suggest that the problem is just the insular nature of the discussion in these essays, as their focus is on Italian journalism and the xenophobia of wealthy Europe.  Still, even these lesser works are still remarkable, and it's only the company they keep that makes them look bad.

I strongly recommend that you find a copy of this book, or at least find a copy of "Ur-Fascism" on the net somewhere.

1491, Charles C. Mann

I am always suspicious of a convenient argument that threatens to relieve me of some of my lapsed-Catholic guilt at the misdeeds of my ancestors, race, class, country, etc.  1491 is a good example, since it presents a much-altered vision of America prior to European colonialism.

In Mann's view and in the view of those anthropologists and archaeologists for whom he speaks, the New World was not the pristine wilderness we have always been told.  Instead, the Native Americans had extensively changed the landscape, reworking it with labor, water, and fire to craft it into a world that would better suit their needs.  Further, almost all the peoples of the continent were destroyed not by the rampaging colonists - who did severe damage and often finished the job - but rather by diseases that wiped out an order of magnitude more people than previously thought.  In this vision of America, millions of people had swept across the continent over centuries in order to reshape it from its natural state, but were wiped out by diseases that left them at their nadir when colonists actually encountered them.

The Native American spokespeople and many mainstream scientists have been either suspicious or outright hostile to this proposition for much the same reason as myself: the idea has long been that America was a relatively virgin continent where a small population of natives lived in harmony with nature before being crushed by colonial encroachment.  A revision of this idea, where one terraforming people were wiped out accidentally by disease before being replaced by another, lessens the responsibility of the terrible actions of colonial invaders.  We should be rightly uncertain about theories that let us off the hook.

I'm certainly not competent to judge the quality of the archaeology discussed in the book, or assess its conclusions in context with all the evidence.  In this, as in any case of scientific dissent, we must just allow for a new element of uncertainty to arrive in our consideration of the narrative, with an addition of "although some people have suggested" tacked onto our story of the past.  At the least, Mann's well-written and well-considered book deserves that honor.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua

Amy Chua has a philosophy of parenting.  She calls it "Chinese parenting," though admit it's more "immigrant parenting" than anything else.  It is a very simple philosophy of parenting: she forces her children to learn and improve themselves all day, every day.  They don't goof off, don't explore themselves, and don't misbehave. Standards are kept spectacularly high: the children must not just do well, they must be exemplary.  When they lead their class or deliver a flawless performance, they are praised.  Anything less is failure, and the children are told so.

It's straightforward.

I guess I'm pretty behind the curve on this one.  It caused a huge stir six months ago in the media.  The hubbub came from the same tension that drives the book: "Chinese parenting" seems incredibly cruel and ultimately self-defeating, yet it also seems to work extremely well.  It is an undeniable fact that Ivy League universities have quotas on the maximum number of Asian students they will accept.  How do we deal with a method of child-raising that seems so terrible but gets such amazing results?  And are the results actually so good?

Let's start with the book: it's nothing over which to crow.  The first third of the book is really the whole, with the remaining bulk of the text padded with directionless anecdotes.  These latter chapters, limp and mealy, are slung over a basic frame that traces the actual application of Chua's parenting method on her daughters and the varied triumphs and agonies that followed.  Chua writes with a learned woman's concentration but with the mechanical plunking of an amateur: it is functional prose, but it's not pretty.  This last section of the book is also cramped by the fact that a reader's interest in the musical performances of the author's daughters will be limited.

These problems are all surmountable, though, and Chua's thesis is interesting enough to make this brief text worth reading in whole.  Children of a certain kind of hardship excel, and their own children - pressured to succeed - also excel.  We all can see this, personally and statistically.  We even see it generationally: look at the generation of the Great Depression and then their children, the generation of World War 2.  So many of the titans of yesterday and today seem to have achieved not just in spite of the weights placed upon them, but because of those weights.

I suppose I'm striking the same tone as every other reviewer during the firestorm of discussion that accompanied publication of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: "Golly this seems kind of mean, but it sure does seem to work," with a gutless little caveat tacked on at the end: "Or does it?"  But this is the sort of book that starts a debate, rather than ending it.  And as far as I know, the text to conclude this discussion has not yet been written.

My advice is that you should simply read the excerpted heart of Chua's book, rather than bothering with the unfocused whole.  The Wall Street Journal has a good selection.  Read it, and get in on the conversation.

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

When reading The Hunger Games, I am most struck by what seems to be the obvious process by which the book was created.  This book, the story of a girl's trials through a brutal game of combat in a horrible future world, was manufactured and assembled as perfectly as any product.

Laura Miller has shown in her typical interesting fashion how young adult fiction is more heavily top-down than any other sector of publishing, with a handful of deeply influential people choosing the books that get chosen and discussed, and how that focused into a perfect storm of promotion for Collins' dystopian trilogy.  Collins, who already had proven ability with her hit series The Underland Chronicles and who had long experience writing television for Nickelodeon, was a great bet for publishers.  Every chapter of The Hunger Games is a television-esque cliffhanger, and some of the essential elements of recent blockbuster fiction are present, such as the love triangle between the earnest guy and the brooding guy (e.g. Jacob and Edward)

Even better, Collins has played to one of the strengths of the genre with barely-disguised classical references.  You don't need to be subtle with kids, so you can call your dictator "Coriolanus Snow" and include a clever little story about a man named Titus and the shocking violence of cannibalism.

And, being relatively below the radar of ideological suspicion, you can use some hoary old tropes from the most fiery sector of sermons, the socialist disgust with inequality, unfairness, and the self-indulgence of the masses.  But before I go into that, let's tackle the book itself.

These are, above all, well-crafted books.  Sleek and clever, they trickle out just enough information to the reader to make the story intelligible without detracting from the central drama.  It's only after a lengthy opening few scenes of hard times that we're given any explanation of the dystopic world of Panem, and that amounts to only a single paragraph of history of the world and background for the brutal Hunger Games.  It might have been tempting for Collins to have listed all the Districts, or released some fragment of information about the first uprising against the Capitol, or even just have told the reader a few slivers of solid geography. But Collins avoids this while still telling us sufficient background so that we don't feel lost.  We're kept on track, locked on to Katniss' story.

Early in this book, there's a wonderful example of Collins' skill as a writer.  Katniss has left her hellish coal-dusky home, and gone into the woods with her bow to meet a friend:
In the woods waits the only person with whom I can be myself. Gale. I can feel the muscles in my face relaxing, my pace quickening as I climb the hills to our place, a rock ledge overlooking a valley. A thicket of berry bushes protects it from unwanted eyes. The sight of him waiting there brings on a smile. Gale says I never smile except in the woods. “Hey, Catnip,” says Gale. My real name is Katniss, but when I first told him, I had barely whispered it. So he thought I’d said Catnip. Then when this crazy lynx started following me around the woods looking for handouts, it became his official nickname for me. I finally had to kill the lynx because he scared off game. I almost regretted it because he wasn’t bad company. But I got a decent price for his pelt.
Here, in a slim paragraph, we can see the gears mesh as Collins' assembles her character and story.  It's brisk yet sentimental, a style maintained through the book and reflective of Katniss herself.  She climbs out of the bad place, to a rock ledge overlooking a valley - and who doesn't have a mental image of a wondrous example of that? - and two very brief anecdotes drive home Katniss' enchanting vulnerability (which allows us to relate to her) and her fierceness (which allows us to be proud of her).

This is a very well-written book, and that's not something I often say about young adult literature.

Much ado has been made of the fact that the Hunger Games seem to be pulled straight from the Japanese Battle Royale - the group of kids forced to fight until only one remains, the lovers who have to find a way to both win, the Careers who indulge in the game for fun, etc.  And I have already said that I think that the love triangle is handled almost an identical way to Twilight's love triangle.  But even more interesting are the similarity of rhetoric I hear in the book with old socialist texts such as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and William Morris' News from Nowhere.

The cry about how the elites divide the poor to keep them in check:
On other days, deep in the woods, I’ve listened to him rant about how the tesserae are just another tool to cause misery in our district. A way to plant hatred between the starving workers of the Seam and those who can generally count on supper and thereby ensure we will never trust one another. “It’s to the Capitol’s advantage to have us divided among ourselves,” he might say if there were no ears to hear but mine.
The disgust with how the system is rigged to both appear "fair" yet systematically oppress the poor:
The reaping system is unfair, with the poor getting the worst of it. You become eligible for the reaping the day you turn twelve. That year, your name is entered once. At thirteen, twice. And so on and so on until you reach the age of eighteen, the final year of eligibility, when your name goes into the pool seven times. That’s true for every citizen in all twelve districts in the entire country of Panem. But here’s the catch. Say you are poor and starving as we were. You can opt to add your name more times in exchange for tesserae. Each tessera is worth a meager year’s supply of grain and oil for one person. You may do this for each of your family members as well. So, at the age of twelve, I had my name entered four times.
The focus on social class and its secondary but no less effective stratification:
“At least, you two have decent manners,” says Effie as we’re finishing the main course. “The pair last year ate everything with their hands like a couple of savages. It completely upset my digestion.” The pair last year were two kids from the Seam who’d never, not one day of their lives, had enough to eat. And when they did have food, table manners were surely the last thing on their minds. Peeta’s a baker’s son. My mother taught Prim and I to eat properly, so yes, I can handle a fork and knife. But I hate Effie Trinket’s comment so much I make a point of eating the rest of my meal with my fingers.
The outrage at the indolence of the rich:
What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?
And of course the subtle distinction between the lower-middle-class and the true proletariat:
“He let you go because he didn’t want to owe you anything?” asks Peeta in disbelief. “Yes. I don’t expect you to understand it. You’ve always had enough. But if you’d lived in the Seam, I wouldn’t have to explain,” I say.
I should be clear here and say that I do not find such sentiments objectionable: there's nothing wrong with finding powerful rhetoric in socialist texts, or discovering those same rhythms independently.  This is not meant as a criticism.  But it does seem interesting that The Hunger Game's status as young adult fiction has enabled it to fly below the radar and indulge in a lengthy and vocal attack on conspicuous consumption, social stratification, and inequality in an era when so many Red-hunters are eager to sniff out any whiff of socialism.  As it turns out, the Republicans should never have feared Obama's Evil Communism, but rather should have been on the lookout for plucky Katniss all along.

Need I even say?  Read it.

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