Monday, March 19, 2012

Oh charmer!

It’s no secret to those who know me that I am in love with John Steinbeck. In fact, if he were still alive I believe that I could make him a very fitting fourth wife. I would encourage his literary talents and polish his Nobel Prize metal weekly. The fact that he died nearly 20 years before I was even born is probably a sign that it just wasn’t meant to be. If I can’t be with him in real life, I will have to be content in getting to know him more through his literature. I’d like to eventually read all of his works, which is why I chose The Pearl for my next book.

Although this is just a short novella (less than 100 pages), it shouldn’t be counted out among his other great work. It can’t necessarily stand up against comparison to say The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden but it has its own merits due to Steinbeck’s true talent as a writer. The Pearl is a folktale turned parable in which the main character’s life is ruined by just the prospect of great wealth, which a great pearl he has found could bring him. The short story packs a powerful view of the downfall of “the American dream” and the contrast of strong community ties versus a life of wealth. The morals of the story are not unfamiliar by any means, but they are ideas that we could stand to be reminded of as often as possible.

The true beauty of this short book was in Steinbeck’s use of music throughout the work. Yep, I said music. You usually don’t think of music underlying the scenes of a book because you just can’t hear it. Not to mention, music can be an extremely difficult thing to express in words. Movies have the musical theme thing locked down, but who would have thought that books can incorporate music too? But Steinbeck did it so well! You can almost hear the calm sustaining music of the family as they go about their morning routine. Your heart almost skips a beat when the song of evil begins to take more and more of a hold in the lives of the main character and his family. Just like a movie, without the music underlying the action this novella would be so much less powerful.

It’s impossible to conjecture whether the musical element would have worked so well if the novel was written in a time before movies. Maybe we need that framework, in which music compliments images and words, to really appreciate The Pearl. Even if that is the case, Steinbeck did a phenomenal job with this book. I can only assume it’s because he was a genius.

"A plan is a real thing, and things projected are experienced. A plan once made and visualized becomes a reality along with other realities -- never to be destroyed but easily to be attacked." ~John Steinbeck, The Pearl

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Just give in to the Hunger already!

Chances are you’ve heard the recent buzz about The Hunger Games. The three book series has become wildly popular and the first movie is scheduled to hit theaters later this month. It’s become a big deal….so what? I am always amazed by some people’s reactions to any fad that hits society. I know many people who will avoid something simply because it’s popular. Does it make us cool to say we aren’t giving into the latest craze? Maybe. But here’s my advice when it comes to books that quickly become wildly popular… give in to it. That’s right, pick up the book and give it a read. You will gain one of two things from this:

1. You will see that the book became wildly popular for a reason and was worth your time.


2. You will be able to silence the misguided fans of the book with an informed rebuttal on why the book is crap (if there’s one thing I hate, it’s people who say a book is stupid without ever having read it).

Either way you win. You especially have no excuse for not picking up The Hunger Games because it’s young adult literature; it won’t take a lot of effort or time to read.

Oh and also….The Hunger Games is awesome! It became wildly popular for justified reasons.

I gave into the fad last fall and found myself reading all three books in about a week. Since then I have pretty much recommended the series to anyone who will listen (or in this case read). The problem was that as I started recommending the books to friends I got jealous when I saw them reading. I seriously would look upon them with envy (one of the seven deadly sins…oops) and as we would talk about the books I was sad that I wasn’t immersed in Suzanne Collins’ dystopia version of future America. Obviously the only solution was to reread the book, and with the release of the movie on the near horizon, there seemed to be no better time than the present. So, I reread The Hunger Games.

Let me start by saying that rereading a favorite book is one of the greatest pleasures in life. You already know that you like the characters and you are invested in the plot, so on the second (or third or eighth) read you can feel free to really revel in the details and the writing. You can explore the characters at a new depth and take your time getting to know the world. It’s the best.

In this go-around I really focused on the main character, Katniss. It struck me that she is what has made the series so successful. Suzanne Collins wrote the character Katniss extremely well. If you think it’s easy to write a teenage girl as your main character and make her not only believable but likeable to millions of people, you should try it sometime. Katniss is strong and intelligent but she is also vulnerable in many ways. In the face of the horrible Hunger Games she is able to maintain her humanity and even has some characteristic teenage emotion without going over the top. Readers don’t just sympathize with her, they empathize with her. That is the sign of good writing, even if it is young adult literature.

While enjoying my second read of this book I was able to pinpoint the characteristic in Katniss that makes her so relatable…her inability to be scripted. Throughout the series various constituents attempt to tell her how to act in front of crowds and cameras, but she just can’t do it. Even when she thinks she is pretending, there is real emotion behind it. It’s so refreshing to read a character who has no idea how to be anything but a truly honest and genuine version of herself. Katniss also has her priorities in order. She values her family as well as the dignity and freedom of others over her own fame and fortune. All of these qualities make for a relatable character and provide the centerpiece for a bestselling series. I’m glad that young people, as well as adults, are connecting with such a worthwhile character and books that propagate important values while shedding harsh light on the course our society seems to be on.

So if you haven’t read The Hunger Games, what are you waiting for? I just wrote an entire blog post about them while trying to avoid any spoiler details…I did that for you! The movie will be released on March 23rd, so there’s still time. If you have read the books, read them again. Or at least the first one before seeing the movie. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Still not convinced? Maybe this will get you motivated to read the books:

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Worldview Follow Through

Well hello there blog! What’s that? You feel as though I’ve been neglecting you lately? I want our relationship to be open and honest, and in that vein, I will tell you that there is someone else I’ve been spending time with. His name is Grad School. But it doesn’t mean anything, I swear! I would much rather spend my time with you. Maybe if the two of you just meet, you will see that it’s just a passing fancy….

I rarely allow my reading-for-pleasure life and my reading-for-grad-school life mix, but there are exceptions to every rule. In this case, I read a book that was worthwhile and interesting and I want to share it. Since it’s my blog, I do what I want. I read the book, The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. as part of an Organizational Ethics class. The book places the opinions of opposing worldviews side-by-side using the lives and writings of two very intelligent and outspoken historic figures. Sigmund Freud represents the atheistic worldview and C.S. Lewis represents the religious side of the dichotomy.

The problem with reading this book, of course, is that it is pretty much impossible to read without some sort of bias. Every single person will approach this book with leaning towards one worldview or another and with preconceived notions of each. I know that I read this book without objectivity. With that being said, I found a great deal of what Freud wrote and believed to be outlandish.

Freud’s contributions to the field of psychology and to science in general are undeniable. I find many of his theories to be seemingly legitimate (his notion that childhood shapes us, the importance of our dreams, etc.) and the psychoanalysis practices that have been built on his life’s work have a valuable place in our society. However, I can’t help but find some of his theories to be over the top. After reading more about his life, in this book, it seems that his central subject in the development of his theories was himself. For example, he had inappropriate feelings of love toward his mother so he assumed that was true of everyone and began to look for it in his patients…hence the Oedipus Complex, developed by Freud. It seems like most of his theories were developed in that way and that seems like an unsound scientific practice. You need to have facts to arrive at conclusions, not develop conclusions and then mold facts to support them.

I also learned that Freud was a deeply troubled man. He struggled with clinical depression most of his life (which he often treated with cocaine), he was superstitiously obsessed with his own death, and he struggled to maintain both friendships and professional relationships. If Freud is one of the best examples that the atheistic worldview can come up with, that makes is even less appealing to me.

Furthermore, based on the examples in this book, I don’t think that Freud was ever thoroughly convinced or at peace with his own atheism. He seems to struggle with the question of God his entire life. In fact my favorite quote about God, from this book, was written by Freud when he was a young man: “Science of all things seems to demand the existence of God.” This statement was sent to a personal friend in a letter but he later denied that he had ever swayed in his atheistic views. He also made a great effort to categorize believers as unintelligent and delusional. To me that signifies unrest. If you are secure in your atheistic beliefs, why would you need to put down the people who oppose your worldview? It seems childish to me. In all, this book made me sad for Freud. He never reached a sense of peace in his life or in his beliefs.

C.S. Lewis, on the other hand, seemed to have a full, contented life after his conversion to Christianity. The interesting aspect about Lewis is that he was also an atheist until his 30’s and seemed to be on a similar life path as Freud was. Lewis was unhappy and withdrawn before his conversion with bouts of depression marring his life. After he became a Christian people said he was caring, warm, and lively. He became one of the greatest advocates for Christianity in the 20th century and his writing is still very impactful. I really enjoyed reading more about his viewpoints the way he tackles huge questions in such a simple and elegant way. It’s worth saying that Lewis wasn’t blind to the devastation and travesties that have been committed in the name of Christianity. He didn’t think that theists are perfect people and atheists are idiots. He had a personal relationship with God that was well thought out (from an academic perspective) and the positive influence of that relationship was evident to those around him. This book convinced me to spend some time reading Lewis’s writings as a means of understanding my own beliefs better but I don’t want to ignore the writings of atheists either.

Regardless of the opinions a person might bring to this book, I think it is a very worthwhile read for anyone. If nothing else, it persuades you to look at your own past and your own values to get a sense of how your worldview has been shaped. I think that’s important for every person. We shouldn’t just become complacent about our beliefs but need to take a daily, active role in reaffirming or questioning what we believe. That way, if nothing else, at least we can defend them when challenged. And I don’t mean that we can get heated or irrational and rage about our beliefs. I mean that we can have a structured, calm discussion with the people around us.

"There are no ordinary people. [No one ever talks to] a mere is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors...your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses." ~C.S. Lewis