Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

My girlfriend, Lauren, has been recommending this book to me for over two years and I have continued to put it off. It's not due to a lack of respect for her literary judgement; her other recommendation, Wild Swans, is one of my favorite books. My idea about The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down was, "Yeah, I get it. Cultural differences lead to misunderstandings. What more can I learn by reading the book?" Well, I learned a lot. This book is a page-turner that made me think.

Author Annie Fadiman begins with a brief introduction on Hmong history. They are an ethnic group that has lived in mountainous areas of Asia for thousands of years. Their culture has been protected from assimilation due to remote living and a fierce independence. During the Secret War in Laos they were utilized by the CIA as soldiers to combat the communist Pathet Lao. Now, thirty years later, tens of thousands make their home here in the United States. The Hmong's transition and continued challenges to adapt to Western living serve as the basis for the book--specifically the challenge of a single Hmong family trying to receive medical care for their sick daughter.

The Spirit Catches You does an excellent job of fairly presenting both perspectives: the doctors come across as compassionate and intelligent, while the Hmong family, the Lees, are depicted as very caring parents. In fact, although Ms. Fadiman eventually spills the beans and admits her preference for the family, she initially emphasizes the frustrations of the doctors trying to provide medical care to a non-compliant patient.

The conflict centered on two disparate views of medicine. The Hmongs are shamanistic and view healing holistically. This knowledge has been passed down for generations and they believe in its efficacy as surely as we believe in aspirin. The Western medical community has its own distinguished history and is confident in its technical knowledge of how the body works. I side with the American doctors. What was intriguing to me about the tension in this book, however, was not which side was right, but what rights do each side have in a conflict of interest.

The doctors have all taken the Hippocratic oath. Does this mean that they have the right--indeed, the responsibility--to provide what they think is the best care, regardless of what the parents think? Or, do the parents have the right to select what treatment they want for their daughter even if it flies in the face of current medical understanding?

In the end I support the family's rights over the doctors' responsibilities. Like abortion, it is their body and there is a line of personal autonomy that is inviolable. Where the Lee family lost me is when they insisted on following their traditional methods, but then raced their daughter to the hospital when those methods failed. It was unjust to drop off such a heavy load of stress and financial commitment if you weren't willing to follow the necessary steps to prevent these occurences.

Overall, I would recommend this book to everyone. There is only one catch: The author's tone is a bit anti-American, which gets old. For example, she writes scathingly about culturally unaware Americans and then praises the Hmong's cultural insularity and naivete about foreign customs. She would bash the American looking for a McDonald's burger in India, then insist that we make major accomodations to allow cultural inflexibility here at home. In my opinion, being open to other's values does not require us to forget our own. But, like I said, overall this book is a great read and I wouldn't let this minor annoyance to stand in the way.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Things They Carried

I have never been to war, have never even been a part of the armed services. I suppose this has to do with my family history: my father was in the Navy, my uncle and grandfather both served in the Air Force. From an early age I remember my dad distanced himself from the military and his experience in Vietnam. He didn't kill anybody, didn't suffer from psychological trauma. I think he just thought it was bullshit. In his later years, he occasionally talked about the discipline and the camaraderie, and how he thought there was some merit to the experience. When it came to his influence on me as a young man choosing a path after high school, however, the military was never even an option.

So, I have no basis on which to claim Tim O'Brien's novel The Things They Carried is realistic or not. That said, the discordant notes of sadness, courage, boredom, and surreal violence in these pages seem authentic. Perhaps this perception is more a testament to the skill of the author than to an accurate depiction of the realities of war. Yet, it is fair to say, because of the the author's pragmatic conception of Truth and personal experience(he served as a foot soldier in Vietnam), this book depicts his reality of the war.

O'Brien expresses a belief in fiction's ability to tell a true story through invention and imagination. Like an impressionist painter, he is striving to capture what he felt, what he lived, through his work. This communication of personal impression is more important than a fidelity to the facts. I think there is validity to this concept; the experiences that effect us most can rarely be captured through a simple description of events. My first accident was far more than a fender-bender, my first kiss was far scarier than any objective lens could capture.

O'Brien uses various methods to show the reader that his experience in Vietnam is always changing. Throughout the work a few stories get told over and over. Each time the details change, sometimes in incompatible ways. It is as if the Vietnam war is trying to find itself, arrive at a definite statement of what actually happened. In the end, however, we are left with a history in flux, with political and personal forces continuing to try and arrange it in a way that makes sense to their needs. The author concludes his own attempt at understanding with the phrase "There it is" and a silent high-five into a rural Vietnamese river where his good friend died. In the end, there was no moral to the story, no meaning to it all. Kurt Vonnegut uses a parallel phrase in his Vietnam classic Slaughterhouse Five: "And so it goes".

What struck me as a non-combatant so much about this book was its relevance to my life. O'Brien touches on this as well. He writes that war and its proximity to death provides us with a vivid glimpse into our Lives--our vibrant, real lives, which are as elusive as war in being understood or defined.

Monday, April 21, 2008


I rarely read fiction. That said, when I consider my all-time favorite books, many of them are fiction. There is something about this genre that has the potential to make a big impact on me. Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan, does not make that list, but it was pretty good.

McEwan's story is largely character development. The plot, although intriguing, serves primarily to shape his characters. The setting is modern London and centers on upper-class writers and artists. And while I could not relate to the lifestyle of the characters, I enjoyed exploring their complex and darkly humorous minds.

I would consider Amsterdam to be literature and not general fiction. I suppose I make that distinction when the author is attempting to do more than entertain. The idea of reading as mindless entertainment--you know, the small paperback books with obnoxious covers--actually seems bizarre to me. Why not watch a movie and save yourself the trouble?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation

Have you ever heard of going through an "Ayn Rand phase?" It is what happens when somebody reads a couple of her books and then goes around acting like a jerk for a few months afterward. This person usually misunderstands Rand's championing of the individual to justify a blooming of his latent arrogance.

I am going through a grammar phase, and it is ugly. For the past month, to my horror, I find myself stopping in the grammar section of the bookstore. This is my third book so far and I just began another. Help me. To be clear: none of this has helped my writing. In fact, it has only added anxiety to the writing process and left my papers with an obscene amount of unnecessary and probably misplaced punctuation marks. I am trying hard to learn sophisticated writing, but it is fitting like a bad suit.

Enter " A Dash of Style", by Noah Lukeman. This book was the worst of the grammar books I have read so far. Instead of explaining the rules of correct punctuation, Mr. Lukeman offers vague advice: Use the semicolon as a bridge, he writes. What does that mean? The book comprises interactive exercises (yeah, right), his ideas on what it means about you as person if you use certain punctuation (I don't care), and examples in literature (You don't learn how to paint by looking at paintings).

He did write well, and so it was a fairly enjoyable read. In the end, however, I think he is too concerned about the creative uses of punctuation to be a reliable instructor for the beginning writer. I would not recommend this book to someone looking to learn how to use punctuation properly.

The American Intellectual Tradition: Volume II - 1865 to the Present

This book is incredible; David Hollinger and Charles Capper have edited a collection of essays that deserves prominent placement on any bookshelf.

The second volume of an anthology, a quick glance at the table of contents reveals a superstar line-up of American intellectuals: William James, George Santayana, Sidney Hook, Hannah Arendt, Thomas Kuhn, Martin, Luther King, Jr., and more. Essays from the Greats are arranged chronologically to provide the reader with a rough sketch of the development of American thought. In addition to the work from the household names, many impressive essays from lesser-known writers are included. In fact, some of my favorites were written by them. It just goes to show that popularity is not necessarily an indication of quality--Nicholas Cage is a star.

What continually struck me while reading this book was the quality of writing and clarity of thought. George Santayana (pictured at right) contributes an essay titled "The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy" that left me in awe. Composed with apt metaphors and picturesque imagery, the essay stands in stark contrast to the dry, pedantic works that dominate philosophy today. His poetic prose is complemented well by the humorous and insightful works by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and H.L Mencken. Both of these men exude a powerful intellectual acuity made rich through personal experience.

The range of voices in this book demonstrate the disparate ideologies that have formed our modern consciousness: Woodrow Wilson appears evangelical in his conviction to save the lesser nations; Malcolm X comes across much more petty and much less intelligent in his personal writing here than he presented himself, with the help of Alex Haley, in his autobiography; Randolph Bourne contributes an essay on pacifism that rings as true today as it did when he wrote it during WWI.

I highly recommend this book to everybody. Everybody should read this book. If 500 pages of essays seems boring, choose a few that intrigue you. You won't be sorry that you did.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Blackwell Guide to American Philosophy

There are not many books on the history of American philosophy. The general consensus seems to be that there was a glory period during the late 19th century and not much else to merit discussion. However, to gain a thorough understanding of my place in the world today, specifically my intellectual perspective, I find it necessary to understand the development of thought in my country. It was therefore a nice surprise to find this book patiently waiting for me on Amazon.

The format of the book is perfect: a general overview of the different "chapters" in American philosophy, short introductions to several prominent American philosophers, and some essays on general themes explored by these men and women. So, great topic plus great format equals great book, right? Not exactly. The book was limited by a couple of key shortcomings that ultimately deflated my reading experience.

A narrow scope. The copyright date for this publication is 2004, yet the narrative of philosophical history ends with Naturalism in the early 20th century. Surely a contemporary summary should see fit to include the last one hundred years. The justification for this omission could be that this book focuses on American philosophy and not philosophy in America. It could be argued that original developments in theory have not arisen here since the roaring twenties. This could be true, but I doubt it.

Poor writing. The Blackwell Guide is edited by two men, Armen Marsoobian and John Ryder, and is comprised of essays by over twenty professional philosophers. With this pedigree I expected more engaging prose. Although many essays were interesting, some authors- that means YOU, Joseph Margolis- were pedantic and insulting. At one point Mr. Margolis, a professor at Temple, writes that William James had neither the patience nor competence to understand the technical distinctions of his peer. I do not think it appropriate to write condescendingly of a deceased person, perhaps more so if that person is an American Intellectual Giant who lived in an era you are not familiar with and who is out of your league in accomplishments and importance.

I do not want to communicate too negatively about this work; I was introduced to some people whom I wish to learn more about soon (Justus Buchler and Jane Addams)and became more familiar with others who continue to inspire (George Santayana and W.E.B Dubois). My overall recommendation is to read this book with a realistic understanding of what it is: a collection of writing by different people, of different caliber, writing on different subjects. Pick what interest you, and don't waste your time with what's left.