Sunday, March 27, 2011

Week 13: The Day of the Triffids

The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham

Classic science fiction about walking poisonous plants taking over the world! Who wouldn't want to read it? Wyndham published his book in 1951, positing a world in which nearly everyone goes blind overnight after unusual astronomical events. As if that isn't enough of a disaster, this is a world with triffids--tall plants that can move around. They are carnivorous and have poison stings, which are docked for domestic use, but undocked triffids are also grown industrially for their oil. After the disaster, survivors must battle hostile triffids in a dying world.

Wyndham uses his setup to explore ideas about different kinds of government. If we had to start all over again, what sort of society would work best?

It looks like someone is working on a new 3D film adaptation, so get your copy before it becomes uncool. This cover image isn't what mine looks like; it's way better. I do actually have a postcard of it on my bookshelf.

Week 13: The New Vichy Syndrome

The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism, by Theodore Dalrymple

I like grumpy writers, and Theodore Dalrymple is by far my favorite grump (though he is not quite as annoyed as Peter Hitchens). The New Vichy Syndrome is Dalrymple's take on modern European, especially British, malaise. He says that although Western Europeans believe they have created societies that are very nearly ideal, and are more comfortable and secure than nearly anyone in the world has ever been, there is anxiety that Europe is no longer in the center of the world and is falling behind. After a century of war, Europeans have a "miserablist" view of their own history and culture and no longer believe that there is much meaning in life besides personal economic security and nice vacations.

It's interesting to note that Dalrymple does not point to overwhelming immigration as a problem, as so many writers do. His feeling is that the majority of immigrants acclimate (even if sometimes only to the worst, thuggish elements of British life) and are not interested in religious fanaticism, and that if there was a robust culture to receive them and insist on the rule of law and equal treatment of women, things would be fine. Since no one does insist on these things, there's a problem.

Dalrymple always gives me plenty to think about.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Week 12: Marriage and Caste in America

Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal in a Post-Marital Age, by Kay Hymowitz

This book has been on my TBR list for a long time, and I finally got it through ILL. It's actually a pretty quick read, not long at all, but full of issues to think about. Hymowitz takes on some very touchy subjects about marriage and poverty, with some racial issues thrown in.

Her thesis is based on the last 40 years or so of social history; ever since Americans decided that marriage is optional and that raising children and marriage are easily separated, children brought up without both parents in a stable marriage have suffered (and so have the parents). Hymowitz describes what she calls The Mission--the particularly American project of republican marriage, involving a couple who have freely chosen each other setting up an independent household and raising children to be informed and self-reliant citizens. Children destined to be active, independent participants in a republic need a large investment of time and effort from both parents, and a marriage has, until recently, been considered to be the way to get that job done.

The author describes two populations in America. There is the middle- and upper-class, made up largely of fairly educated parents who marry before having children and then (mostly) stay married. These people--especially the women--say that having kids outside of marriage is fine, but by and large they don't actually do it, because they have a blueprint for life instilled in them that goes education -> job -> marriage -> children. This is a life plan that, generally, leads to stability, a measure of prosperity, and most importantly a good outcome for the children. It's a plan that results in a self-perpetuating generational cycle of success and prosperity.

The other population is poor and trapped in a self-perpetuating generational cycle of poverty and dependence. Marriage has virtually disappeared as a social force and the resulting mix of single mothers, unreliable fathers, low education and welfare dependence means that people drift through life without a blueprint and find it extremely difficult to climb out of poverty. Children suffer and then grow up with good intentions but little idea of how to reach goals like being a good father, getting a college education, or forming a stable marriage. All those things have to be learned; they're not natural or easy behaviors. Nothing is more natural (says Hymowitz) than having a baby at 16; but our complex society isn't natural and it requires a lot of very particular behaviors and education.

Hymowitz concludes that the 40-year American experiment of separating marriage and childrearing is a failure, and provides a lot of evidence to back it up. I found it to be a very informative and interesting book. I'm sure I haven't covered the author's arguments very well--I haven't mentioned racial issues or Generation X's reaction to the popularity of divorce in the 70's and 80's--so if you're interested, you can read a lecture about the book here, or an essay here.

Take a Chance: Two Titles

The Russian's World: Life and Language, by Genevra Gerhart

The Twentieth Wife, by Indu Sundaresan

These are both for the Take a Chance Challenge #2: Loved One’s Choice: Ask a loved one to pick a book for you to read. Well, my mom and I trade books all the time, and my husband wouldn't recommend anything, so I did something a little different. I posted on facebook that if anyone recommended a book to me, I would pick one and read it by the end of March. I got lots of great recommendations back, and several of them are on my TBR list, but two I got right away. My sister-in-law, Katya, recommended The Russian's World--and she should know, since she is Russian. Then there is The Twentieth Wife, recommended by Meghan, my friend in homeschooling and Bollywood ventures.

Katya was actually horrified to find that I had to make do with the first edition of The Russian's World, from 1974. She refuses to endorse it, since she's never read it and it's 40 years out of date. She wants to me read the 2001 3rd edition, which is the one pictured here because it's so darn pretty. I want to read it too, and as soon as I can afford it I will--but as long as I'm getting my books through ILL, I'll have to put up with what I can get.

The Russian's World, 1974 edition is really a sort of companion textbook for a college Russian class, and how I wish I had had it when I was taking Russian! It's a great cultural book which just goes through all the different areas of daily life in Russia and explains them thoroughly. All the little things that you never even realize are different are explained, as well as all the big things. It covers topics such as a typical home (modern and old-fashioned), clothing, school, naming customs, all that sort of thing, with lots of vocabulary and snippets from readers or literature to illustrate the point--luckily there are translations in the back for those of us who have forgotten all our Russian, or never knew it. The book brought back some familiar terms to me, so that has been nice too. It looks just like my old Russian textbook--same type and everything--so I got quite a dose of nostalgia.

Looking at Gerhart's homepage, it seems that there have been extensive changes made to the text and several new chapters added, so I will be saving up for the new edition!

The Twentieth Wife is just about Meghan's favorite novel, but I had a hard time getting into it. It's a historical fiction story about a real woman--Mehrunnisa, whose life ambition is to marry the crown prince Salim. She schemes for years for her goal, navigating her way through the political minefield of the women's zenana and learning to exert power. I didn't really find Mehrunnisa--or Salim--all that likeable, though 17th-century India is a great setting. Sorry Meghan!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Week 11: When the Luck of the Irish Ran Out

When the Luck of the Irish Ran Out, by David Lynch

This is a short history of the last 30 years or so of Irish economic (and political, and cultural) history. It gives a nice background of the difficulties Ireland has faced for so many years and then goes into detail about the Celtic Tiger period of the mid-90's to 2008 and the economic meltdown that hit Ireland much harder than it hit the United States.

Even in the early 90's, Ireland lacked infrastructure and jobs. The tech boom of the last 20 years brought the Irish into the global market, but as property prices spiraled, a massive housing bubble developed that makes Las Vegas look reasonable. I was really interested to read the details of how all this happened and the extensive cultural changes that Ireland has experienced in the last few decades.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Doll's House

A Doll's House, by Henrik Ibsen

I'm a bit embarrassed that I've never read A Doll's House before, since it's so famous and all. Anyway, thanks to the Feminist Classics Challenge, I can now say that I've read and enjoyed it. A rundown (full of spoilers!) for those who haven't read it:

Nora is a middle-class housewife who has always cheerfully submitted first to her father's and then her husband's authority, as a good Victorian woman should. Her husband, Torvald, treats her like an indulged child, always calling her his little songbird and squirrel. Of course, he would never dream of treating her like an adult or an equal. Nora admits to her friend, however, that several years ago she saved her husband's life by borrowing money to finance a year in Italy for the sake of his health, for which she forged her dying father's signature. She is proud of her secret efforts on his behalf and has worked to repay the money, but fails to understand that her good motives do not mitigate the illegality of what she has done (as a protected wife, she knows nothing of law).

When her creditor threatens to expose her to her husband, Nora believes that Torvald will shield her and take the blame himself, and she plans to commit suicide in order to prevent him from ruin. She is shocked when Torvald does no such thing: "Nora, I'd gladly work night and day for you, and endure poverty and sorrow for your sake. But no man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves." She replies, simply, "Thousands of women have."

Nora then realizes that she is not a woman at all; she has always played along with the men in her life and acted more like a doll than a human being. She decides that she cannot live with a husband she didn't choose and no longer loves--who is a stranger to her--and that she must go out into the world to gain experience and find out who she is. I can understand this, but I can't go along with the corollary, which is that Nora is leaving her three children as well: "Goodbye, Torvald. I won't see my children--I'm sure they're in better hands than mine. As I am now, I'm no good to them."

I suppose it's partly that the children are not major characters in the play, which is really about the relationship between Nora and Torvald, but Ibsen easily dismisses the children as if they are of no importance, and this bothers me quite a lot. Nora's comment that she is of no good to her children is a simple lie, not the clear-eyed assessment of her own incompetence that Ibsen seems to want it to be. Her children don't care that she has never learned to be an adult, and would probably prefer that she work on it without leaving them. Had Ibsen never seen the effects of parental abandonment, or was he just trying to keep the children out of the issue?

I would suggest to Nora that if one wants to become a responsible adult, one important step is to stick by one's children. It's not even as though it will be difficult for her to find time away from them to pursue her interests; they have a full-time nurse. Indeed, one way for Nora to grow up might be for her to spend some time caring for her own children, since she does not seem ever to have done so before.

This play is mainly interesting to me as a piece of its time. Audiences were shocked at what they saw as an attack on marriage and family (which it really isn't meant to be, more of a plea for equality in marriage). People were experimenting with ideas about marriage and equality that hadn't yet been tested. In the 20th century we went through some decades of women leaving their families in order to find themselves, so now, on the other side of Ibsen's story becoming a reality for many people, we see much more of the downside to the idea. Nora's departure no longer seems so much like the radical declaration of personhood it was meant to be.

Ibsen was a Victorian gentleman, so I'm counting this for my Victorian challenge too.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Week 10: Girls on the Edge

Girls on the Edge, by Leonard Sax

I saw this at work and thought, "Yet another book about how modern girls are in crisis--do I really want to read this?" Then I read the first couple of pages and it started talking about how there are all these supergirls with goofball brothers. As it happens, I had just been discussing that phenomenon with my good friend after reading a NYT essay. So I read the book. And it was worth it. Sax wrote Boys Adrift a few years ago, which I also thought was very good.

Sax points to four elements in modern culture that push girls to perform for an audience without, perhaps, figuring out who they really are inside: early sexualization, constant pressure to be up on social media, obsessions (such as with dieting, sports, or academics), and environmental toxins that may cause puberty to start earlier than it should.

If you've got a daughter, I think it's a good book to read and think about.