Reading Log II

Tue 25 April 2017

It's been awhile since my last reading log! Here's my thoughts on some of my more recent reading:

The Stranger - Albert Camus

A short artsy novel, I read Matthew Ward's 1989 translation. The book is stylistically interesting; it consists of lots of short, descriptive sentences from a first person narrator who doesn't inspire sympathy. It's well crafted, and provides fuel for thinking.

The copy I read was littered with marginal notes from a past reader who was fixated on the narrator's use of color to describe things. I don't think color itself is a significant theme of the novel, I think these descriptions were simply an example of the narrator's way of perceiving objects, people and events without imposing meaning on them.

The quick read is worthwhile, and I might read this again one day.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - L. Frank Baum

A simple children's book published in 1900. I think this book is more interesting for its historical context than its content. In the brief preface the author explains that the story is like a fairy tale, but without any moralizing or scary stuff like witches who eat children. His reasoning for omitting these is that modern children get moral education in other ways, and that the scary parts of traditional fairy tales serve only to enforce the moral message. That's reasonable, and the novel is an excellent example of the evolution of children's literature, but to this contemporary, adult reader the story was pretty dull.

The book is whimsical and provides imagination fuel but there isn't much else to it. The primary conflict of the book is that Dorothy wants to go home to Kansas. This conflict is the only one that isn't introduced and resolved in the span of a few pages. Every other event and mishap of Dorothy's journey is introduced and then dismissed after a few minutes of reading. If story does have a moral, it is that the fear of difficulties might be a bigger obstacle than the difficulties themselves.

I had heard that sophisticated political commentary was embedded in The Wizard of Oz, a la Animal Farm. This is not true. The simple construction of the story makes it easy to impose some overarching meaning on the story but there is no intrinsic allegory, any such meaning comes from the commentator and not the author. And I think that this is the point of the story, it provides a jumping off point for the reader's own imaginings by having very little substance of its own.

I don't expect to read this again myself, but I can imaging reading it to a child maybe.

Death of a Salesman - Arthur Miller

This is very good. I don't read many plays which made this interesting, and maybe a bit confusing. The action alternates between real time and the main character's emotional, and unreliable, reminisces. I lost track of who was who and when was now a few times and had to reread some passages to get things straight. I'm not sure if my confusion was caused by the complicated narrative structure or my unfamiliarity with reading plays.

Like the Wizard of Oz, this story is interesting in part because it's a window into when it was written. Specific details of the story reflect the time period, but I think many of the play's themes are timeless. Self sabotage, self deception, unrealistic aspirations, and rosy self assessments will probably always be part of the human experience.

The Floating Opera - John Barth

This is John Barth's first novel, written in 1955 and first published when the author was 26 years old. Like The Stranger, this book is described as a philosophical novel. I think that means that the book aims to be thought provoking while placing less emphasis on narrative. The book made me anxious, which I think was the author's intent.

I think this book is pretty good overall, but it does have rough edges. A downplayed narrative is fine, but I felt that this story's narrative was almost vestigial. The events and characters of the story were constructed to convey a kind of anxious nihilist feel. This feeling was achieved, but the characters and events weren't consistently engaging when considered on their own.

The author tried several experimental writing techniques to differing degrees of success. For example the book's nonlinear structure was easy to understand and contributed nicely to the feel of the book. A less successful experiment occurred in a later chapter, which consisted of two parallel columns of text meant to be read simultaneously. The effect was carefully crafted, but I'm not sure it contributed anything to the book other than some weirdness.

I don't think I'll read this again, but I would like to read Barth's later work to see how his talent developed.

Thank you Debbie for recommending this to me :)

Reviving Ophelia - Mary Pipher

This is a nonfiction book published in 1994. The author is a clinical psychologist who has a ton of experience counseling young women and their families. The book is structured as a collection of case studies of individual clients sorted by theme (such as divorce, depression, sexual violence, and drugs). The case studies are interspersed with the author's analysis of the themes exemplified by the case studies. The analyses describe general trends, and suggestions for how negative influences from society can be addressed. The author also discusses how trends have changed overtime, for example society has higher expectations of a father's role in parenting today than in the beginning and middle of the 20th century. This trend, among countless others, make it hard for older people like the author to empathize with the experience of young women today. This type of analysis relates to the book's only flaw, the analysis is contemporary to 1994. While the themes are timeless, the specifics have drifted over time, and the book doesn't address topics like smart phones and the Internet. I'm sure there tons of other, less obvious social trends, that have transpired since the book was written and deserve attention.

This hardly detracts from the book though, it's real value to me is that it shines light on undiscussed facets of human experience that I'm mostly oblivious too. The case studies are great for building empathy and understanding the enormous range of troubles that young women can run into, while the author's analysis concentrates and directs the empathy towards useful understanding.

I read the book by reading from random sections, gradually absorbing the whole book over the course of a few months. I think this was a good approach, reading it straight through is unnecessary and would be a bit depressing.

I recommend this book to anyone. I think it's potentially useful to adolescent men though, who struggle with their own issues and could be served by insight into the experiences of the women around them. The book is exclusively focused on the United States.

I will continue to peruse this book in the future, and I'm interested in similar books that are more contemporary and that discuss other demographics.

Thanks Carson and Elana for turning me on to this book.


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