In Darkness Visible, William Styron describes depression as "a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to th...moreIn Darkness Visible, William Styron describes depression as "a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description" (7). Given the incomprehensibility of depression, how it resists definition and frustrates those who try to communicate its effects to others, it makes sense that the charge of putting this persistent melancholy into words belongs to the artist rather than the psychiatrist, and to the novelist in particular. Whether the reader has struggled personally with depression or not, it seems clear that figurative language is the only channel through which the experience can be even partially conveyed.
I love how how Styron uses metaphor to describe his depression, the "leaden and poisonous mood the color of verdigris" (24), the "veritable howling tempest in the brain" (38), the "gray drizzle of horror" (50). According to Styron, to be depressed is to experience "despair beyond despair," and is like "being imprisoned in a fiercely over-heated room" (50). It's "a storm indeed, but a storm of murk" (47).
With the same affecting language, Styron explores possible explanations for his depression—biological, genetic, emotional, and—very briefly—existential. I wish he had unearthed the last one more fully. To quote Elif Shafak in her memoir Black Milk: "Is that what depression is about—the sinking feeling that your connection to God is broken and you are left to float on your own in a liquid black space, like an astronaut who has been cut loose from his spaceship and all that linked him to earth?" (220).
Wavered between 2 and 3 stars on this one, but at last decided to be charitable. The older I get, the fewer qualms I have about putting a bad book dow...moreWavered between 2 and 3 stars on this one, but at last decided to be charitable. The older I get, the fewer qualms I have about putting a bad book down, so the fact that I did finish this in a relatively short span does say something. The plot is engaging.
The best thing about Burial Rites, though, is its setting: 19th century rural Iceland. The author never lets us forget how arduous and dirty life was for hardworking peasants living in crofts and tending to animals in this unique time and place. I loved that aspect of the book.
I was less impressed by the dialogue. It just didn't ring true to this reader and often descended to near-melodramatic depths. I didn't find the author's writing particularly memorable like other reviewers; her use of metaphor and simile seemed a bit strained to me.
But, the research that went into this book is quite impressive, and from beginning to end I was very much intrigued by its female protagonist, Agnes.
All Joy and No Fun is not a child-rearing manual or a "how-to" parenting book. Rather, it's an analysis of how mothers and fathers are affected by the...moreAll Joy and No Fun is not a child-rearing manual or a "how-to" parenting book. Rather, it's an analysis of how mothers and fathers are affected by the task of raising children in 21st century America. What does it mean to be a parent today, and how are we changed by it?
It's the second book I've read this month on the topic of modern parenting, which may account for the less than stellar impression it made on me. Maxed Out by Katrina Alcorn and this one by Jennifer Senior cover much of the same territory. The biggest difference: Alcorn's book is more of a tell-all memoir, while Senior maintains the stance of a thoughtful, and removed, observer.
I experienced something akin to boredom while, ironically, reading the section of the book that analyzes the parenting life-stage I currently find myself in (i.e., the baby/toddler/preschool phase.) Perhaps this is because, like most introspective parents, I've already navel-gazed my way through most of the insights she shares. The section on raising teenagers—currently unexplored territory for me—was much more interesting. And I was very touched by the final chapter, which differentiates parental happiness from parental joy, outlining the ways in which people find deep meaning and satisfaction in this "high cost, high reward" endeavor called parenting.
The author writes beautifully; her prose is, I think, the best thing about the book.
I did, however, think Senior was remiss in not interviewing at least a few mothers and fathers whose parental identities and child-rearing methods are shaped by religion and theology. One of the very interesting themes teased out by the book is the lack of outside guidance and community-connectedness many modern parents feel while raising their children in this "bowling alone" culture of ours. We're trying our best, but we don't really know what we're doing here seemed a constant refrain throughout this book, and while I doubt there's a religious text out there that painstakingly outlines which parent ought to change the baby's tenth explosive diaper of the day, or who should get up this time to sooth the crying toddler, I do think religion at its best offers parents a theological framework in which they might find a sense of objective meaning and purpose, as well as a few parenting strategies and easy opportunities to engage in much-needed fellowship with like-minded friends. (Note, I'm not arguing at this point that religious parents are better parents; I'm simply suggesting that religion soothes the existential angst that, according to Senior, many modern, secular parents experience. This book is about what parents experience, after all.) By profiling at least one religious family, Senior could have provided an interesting counterpoint to the majority report. And, for better or for worse, there are a great many religious families in America today.(less)
Several years ago, I was sitting in an undergraduate education class listening to a professor lecture on a few boldface definitions we read in our tex...moreSeveral years ago, I was sitting in an undergraduate education class listening to a professor lecture on a few boldface definitions we read in our textbook the night before. “Withitness (with-it-ness),” she explained as though she were carefully defining the term Myelin Sheath, “is the skill of knowing exactly what is going on in your classroom at all times.” I cringed at that moment, feeling a tinge of embarrassment for my future profession that was always straining so hard to be taken seriously as “a science” by coming up with its own special, and very unnecessary, jargon. Withitness? Come on! Totally not worthy of the boldface font.
I’m not exactly sure why, but I experienced the same feeling while reading Games People Play. Berne’s thesis is interesting and, I suspect, true—that the vast majority of human interaction consists of people playing “games” with one another, saying and doing disingenuous things in order to gain some advantage (an advantage Berne believes to be biological; he calls it a “stroke,” something we need to thrive.) The problem is that it’s so obviously true, and that ancient philosophers and spiritual writers have long affirmed its truth—although, unlike Berne, they might add that there’s also a spiritual explanation for our constant game-playing.
Here’s one voice from ages past: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
Well, Dr. Berne, apparently.
Games People Play struck me as needlessly tedious, overly technical and smacking of pseudoscience.
And Berne’s prescription to this age-old social problem? Nothing new. It’s the same answer the ancients offered: “Know Thyself.” (Although Berne is far less concise.) (less)
Nina Munk's The Idealist is a fascinating, yet ultimately disheartening, profile of Jeffrey Sachs and his hubristic quest to end poverty in Africa. Mo...moreNina Munk's The Idealist is a fascinating, yet ultimately disheartening, profile of Jeffrey Sachs and his hubristic quest to end poverty in Africa. Monk, a business journalist, spent several years shadowing Sachs as he set up Millennium Villages throughout Africa, intentional communities heavily funded by outside donors that would promote health, agriculture and business among populations ravaged by hunger and disease. Sachs adamantly believed that his small interventions would give the local inhabitants a "leg up," spawning a wave of prosperity that would eventually permeate all of Africa, thus putting an end to poverty for good.
What readers of The Idealist see instead is a slew of unintended consequences and unfulfilled hopes. It seemed that with every problem Sachs solved (and due to Monk's fair reporting, we do learn of these), he created several new ones.
This is not a pretty portrait of Sachs. If you are generally cynical about human nature and tend to view with skepticism "the agents of virtue" in Africa (to quote Paul Theroux), much of your suspicions will be confirmed here. While Sachs doesn't look quite as bad as Greg Mortenson in Jon Krakuaer's Three Cups of Deceit, what we are left with is a picture of a brilliant but petty man, narrow-minded in his vision and combative in the face of criticism. Whether Sachs is simply an egocentric genius failed by his theories or the very epitome of neocolonialism, his story is a sad one. (less)
Amazingly written and utterly unsettling. Although I already knew this from reading Anna Karenina, Tolstoy has incredible insight into the human condi...moreAmazingly written and utterly unsettling. Although I already knew this from reading Anna Karenina, Tolstoy has incredible insight into the human condition.
Maxed Out tells the story of one American woman's attempts to balance a successful career with the 24-hour demands and joys of motherhood and family l...moreMaxed Out tells the story of one American woman's attempts to balance a successful career with the 24-hour demands and joys of motherhood and family life, a precarious juggling act that pushed her to the brink of insanity and caused her to reevaluate her definition of the good life. This book comes at a time when many American women are seriously grappling with the implications of "having it all," and whether or not it's worth it.
When taken as a memoir, this book is fantastic and compulsively readable. I found it strangely addictive and moving, even though it contains none of the sordid family details that often promote the sales of memoirs. The mother of two young children with a part-time job, I was able to identify in part with Alcorn's struggles; however I can't claim to understand the full extent of the stress she endured. Her engaging writing style thrust me into a world that I found both familiar and foreign, one that made me nod in agreement and shudder.
The book's best virtue is Alcorn herself. She's wise without being pedantic, honest without being awkward and caring without being sentimental. And, she's one of those rare people who can detail her successes and strengths and still remain both likable and accessible. (A rare person, indeed!)
What I found unsatisfying about the book is everything else about it that doesn't fall into the "memoir" category—that is, Alcorn's occasional prescriptions for how to improve the standard of living for working mothers. She concludes each chapter with a mini-essay that steps outside of her own personal experience and tries to somehow address, relying on statistics and other data, the plight of working mothers in America (e.g., the dearth of sick days available to them, the lack of affordable, quality daycare, the problem of husbands who can't or won't share domestic responsibilities, even though their wives earn at least as much as they do, the opposition breastfeeding mothers often face when trying to pump milk at work, etc.) Her argument is that, were these problems reversed, both the personal happiness and career prospects of working mothers would improve, leading to positive changes for society as a whole.
This is all well and good, and I mostly agreed with her suggestions. However, this reader kept stumbling over a rather large elephant in the room: the fact that, by her own admission, Alcorn had extra support in all of these areas, probably more than most American working mothers enjoy, and still had to eventually leave her enviable full-time job for the sake of her children, her marriage and her mental and physical health. For example, her husband, a free-lance web designer, was able and willing to be way more helpful around the house and with the kids, I suspect, than the average American husband; her boss, a fellow working mom, was surprisingly flexible, allowing Alcorn extra sick days, paid leave when needed, and a four-day work-week; her daycare was great and her office extremely amenable to making accommodations for nursing employees. (An entire conference room was deemed 'the nursing room' and a fellow worker was shunned when he questioned whether it was appropriate to store breast milk in the fridge next to the staff lunches.)
Even though I'm sure many of her suggestions are doable and would improve the quality of life for many women, I'm still left with the sneaking suspicion that working mothers have essentially three choices: to limit time at home in order to fulfill the demands of a career, to limit time at work in order to fulfill the demands at home, or to fulfill all of the demands—both at work at and home—and, like Alcorn, go completely insane.
And, I had to chuckle at the fact that she concludes the book with a to-do list—ten things women can do to promote the working mother's cause—when the whole point of the book is that working mothers have way too much on their plates! (I'm somewhat joking here; her suggestions are well-intentioned and probably not that hard to do.)
So, in closing, I recommend this book to people who 1) want to know what it's like to raise young children while working full-time and 2) want to commiserate with an intelligent and thoughtful woman who understands well the unique pressures working moms face. I'm not sure I recommend it for those who desire suggestions for how to alleviate their burdens as working mothers.
Still a worthwhile read. Even my husband thought so. (He finished it two days after starting.) (less)
Distant View of a Minaret by Alifa Rifaat is a captivating collection of vignettes about everyday life in modern-day Egypt. I was unaware of Rifaat be...moreDistant View of a Minaret by Alifa Rifaat is a captivating collection of vignettes about everyday life in modern-day Egypt. I was unaware of Rifaat before this collection was reviewed and praised by my Goodreads friend, Rowena.
I'm still trying to wrap my head around this somewhat obscure author. From reading the preface to this collection written by her translator, Denys Johnson-Davies, I learned some intriguing facts about Rifaat: she writes only in Arabic, is not college-educated, has traveled very little outside of Cairo and is an orthodox adherent of Islam. And, yet, her stories are dominated by a concern for the spiritual, emotional and physical fulfillment of women, in their home lives, in society and in their marriages. Perhaps this betrays an ill-informed prejudiced on my part, but I had no such category in my mind before reading this collection. Women's liberation and traditional Islam, are they not mutually exclusive?
And, here's the most interesting part. She's not a feminist. At least not in the Western sense. According to her translator, "...the last place she would look for inspiration for any change in [in Muslim society] would be the...West." Yet, these stories undoubtedly speak to the suffering of women, particularly suffering at the hands of absent husbands. She's not a feminist, but she's also not what most Western readers might expect.
Sexuality, desire, longing, unsatisfying marriages, satisfying marriages...these are the themes that populate these stories. And the belief that underlies her treatment of these themes is that her characters need not seek fulfillment outside of orthodox Islam. Happiness and contentment in these areas can be achieved within a traditional Muslim schema, she seems to argue. As the preface states, "...Alifa Rifaat's point of view is radically different from any postured by Western women's lib. Love and sex outside the boundaries of marriage is no part of the scenery of her stories."
Despite our large theological divide, this quality of Rifaat's work caused me to feel a great affinity for her. A theologically conservative Christian myself, I often find myself sharing a similar mindset, that in order to alleviate the suffering endured by many women we need not abandon the core tenets of biblical Christianity, that whether you think Paul is a misogynist or a man concerned with the well-being of women and their happiness in marriage is a question of hermeneutics, that if a husband were truly following the New Testament ethical guidelines for marriage he would bring joy to his wife, etc. Like Rifaat's contention that women's fulfillment and traditional Islam are compatible, this probably sounds rather ridiculous to secular society. Even though we would disagree on a great many points, I felt some sympathy for her cause.
And, regarding the stories themselves, they are surprisingly raw and beautiful. The majority fewer than ten pages long, they offer fleeting glimpses into the lives of different women at different stages in life. The brevity of these stories is often frustrating to the reader; like a passenger on a train, you want to linger and study these quickly moving subjects but you are not allowed. The tension between death and desire haunts all of these stories, to such an extent that I couldn't get Blanche DuBois (death...and the opposite is desire!) out of my head. This is an absolutely fantastic reading experience and a wonderful window into another world. (less)
Nadine Gordimer's Crimes of Conscience is a collection of short stories set in Southern Africa during the independence era and the decades that follow...moreNadine Gordimer's Crimes of Conscience is a collection of short stories set in Southern Africa during the independence era and the decades that follow. Cerebral in nature and slow to unfold, they require a small measure of self-discipline before handing over their rewards. They also demand a solid knowledge of the politics and history surrounding the decolonization of Southern Africa, something of which I have only a beginner's grasp.
Because good things come to those who wait, these stories are ultimately very satisfying. Gordimer is adept at fostering subtle psychological tension and pathos without manipulating the reader with gratuitous detail or flowery language. And, because they are so steeped in history, these stories are a wonderful way to learn more about Africa. One reviewer calls Gordimer a "literary record keeper," and I think that is a very apt description.
My favorites from this collection include "Country Lovers," "The Termitary," and "The Ultimate Safari." Only after reading these stories can I see the irony of their titles. (less)
Blue Horses Rush In is a stirring collection of vignettes and poetry, written by Navajo author Luci Tapahonso.
As Tapahonso explains in the preface, s...moreBlue Horses Rush In is a stirring collection of vignettes and poetry, written by Navajo author Luci Tapahonso.
As Tapahonso explains in the preface, some of the writings are autobiographical in nature but many others are inspired by the stories and experiences of friends, family members and individuals from her community, past and present. Every page in some way celebrates "the Diné love of language and stories," whether the subject matter is happy or sad.
My favorites include "Shisoi" which sweetly conveys the inexplicable happiness little children bring to their family members' lives:
"She sleeps, even breaths and milky sighs just below your ear. Other times she snuggles into you and watches with bright, dark eyes. It feels so much like the trust we have somehow forgotten over the years. All you can do is kiss her warm forehead and say, "'She is so sweet, I don't know what to do.'"
I also enjoyed "'Ahidziskeii," a beautiful tribute to a long-term romance. I love how the speaker captures the juxtaposition between the sleepless anxiety felt when the lover is away with the warm comfort of his presence. When she sleeps alone at night, she hears every creak and sound as something malevolent, and when he's home, they drink morning coffee together and she "move(s) closer to knowing what the Creator means by 'nizhonigo ahidziskeii. / They are sitting beside each other in a house of beauty."
I was very moved by "It Was," which was strange since I have no clue what it's about.
My favorite piece, though, was a funny one that made me laugh aloud: "I Remembered This One in Tucson." If you are a woman and you've ever had a best, bosom friend, the kind of friendship that barters in the currency of your shared stories and thrives on the retelling, this story will resonate. In only three pages of very simple, lovely language, she captures that profound and beautiful quality of female friendship.
I'm so happy I read this. It made me thankful for every good gift.
This was not my first experience reading The Metamorphosis, but it was my favorite. It's amazing how age, a bit of perspective and the experience of h...moreThis was not my first experience reading The Metamorphosis, but it was my favorite. It's amazing how age, a bit of perspective and the experience of having lived in roach-infested student housing for three years can help one more fully enter into a Kafkaesque nightmare.
I think the brilliance of this story lies in the way it lends itself to multiple interpretations. And not in the same way that amorphous, allergic-to-Truth postmodern stories do. I suspect there is a "right" interpretation; we're just not going to get there until Kafka messes with us a little bit.
This reading, I couldn't help feeling like the Freudian interpretation ultimately wins out in terms of textual evidence and Kafka's own person family history. But, I'm always partial to the existential reading, myself. (less)