Wednesday, July 04, 2007

What I've Read Recently II

Faith at Dumb Ox Academy has posted her Summer Reading plans. If you look on my sidebar you will see my ongoing reading plans and here is my last Recent Reading post from May --but here are some more that I read too fast to want to go to the trouble of putting them up on my sidebar.

Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

He started writing these after reading Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Asimov obviously has a cynical view of the role of religion in society -- in these books a religion is invented in order to inspire and control the society so they carry out the ideas of the intelligentsia. He neither approves or disapproves this, just depicts it as part of the sociological landscape.

The premise is that the Empire is collapsing in slow motion and a mathematic-historian devises a Foundation in order to preserve and regenerate civilization -- there is a millenium-long "Dark Age" and the stories in the trilogy are to do with how historical events in actuality line up with the founder's mathematically based prediction.

As Asimov writes in the introduction, these stories are all about dialogue and the play of one intelligence against another and the sweep of history. There is hardly any romance and no graphic violence. Interesting to read. My teenage boys read it in their mid to late teens -- could be read by younger teens but probably better once they've reached a more analytical stage and can think through premises.

Ender's Game
, Speaker for the Dead, Children of the Mind. Someone in my local community must be a fan of Orson Scott Card since this is the second of his series I have found in part on our library remainder shelves. It looks like there are a total of 8 books in this series, but I only read the three above. There is plenty of violence and intensity in the first two listed above; much less in the third one. All were thought-provoking and dealt with Card's themes of guilt and family dysfunction and intellectual talent. Ender's Game, which is apparently a sci fi classic, is about an intellectual prodigy who is being trained to save Earth from aliens called the "buggers". The other two books are about Ender's attempts to redeem and regain control of his life after the events of the first book. Card is a serious writer (a practicing Mormon, incidentally) and according to the intros in the books, he was consciously writing in the tradition of the Foundation novels. My oldest son read the first two as well and we had some interesting discussions. I personally would not give the books to my kids until they were older teenagers.

Right now I am reading The Belgariad, which I found recommended on a Waldorf site for nine year olds along with some other fantasy books. I don't think I would give the book to my nine year olds, personally. The first book (it's another3-in-1 edition) is a relatively mild coming of age story that reminded me slightly of Lloyd Alexanders' books (not quite as sweet and formative but with the same idea of an ordinary boy who is involved in great events) but the second two have graphic violence (similar to Homer's epics) and some elements of moral cynicism. I think they would be better for a high schooler.

My library sale shelf also had some discards in the teen-sociology non-fiction genre. So when I got back from Ireland I read:

Eating Disorders by Diane Yancey

This is a clear and straightforward book about 3 kinds of teen eating disorders -- anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive eating. It approached the disorders through seven case studies, explaining some of the risk factors and the progression of the disorders, and gave summaries of the partial or complete recovery of the seven people described.

If you look on Amazon under "Eating Disorders" a LOT of books come up. When I was a teenager, anorexia nervosa was just coming onto the radar due to Karen Carpenter's sufferings from the disease. I mentioned once before that I suffered what appears to be a relatively mild bout of it brought on by depression and viral illness during my teenage years. Though my case has resolved, this book brought back some painful memories. This is the first book I've ever read about the condition -- instinctively knowing, I suppose, that it would have been harmful to gather information about it in the past, since one notable feature of the disorder is a competitive element.

A Tribe Apart.

This book is a keeper, though often painful to read -- about the lives and (mostly) school culture of eight "typical" teenagers in Virginia in the 1990's. It is a descriptive, anthropological account more than a problem-solving book. It would be interesting to read alongside Hold On To Your Kids (which I read last year and which seems to take note of some of the same problems and propose a more detailed solution) and in contrast to the more optimism-inspiring Real Lives by Grace Llewellyn -- accounts of eleven"unschooled" teenagers who have managed to escape the alienation and intense peer dependency of their "schooled" peers in A Tribe Apart.

Then I read two self-help books called:

Smart Love

(another library sale find) about alternatives to punitive discipline, using what the book calls "loving regulation" to bring up kids. It is subtitled: The Compassionate Alternative to Discipline That Will Make You a Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person. The authors, apparently a husband-wife team, have raised five children using their methods. They propose an alternative to the two extremes of permissiveness or punitive-type discipline. It deals with the concept of "inner happiness" somewhat similar to a book I read last year -- The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness. The idea is that in the first years of life, a child assumes that his parents are parenting ideally. This forms the foundation for later life -- for example, if the child is unhappy for his first years of life, he will try to seek out unhappiness in later life assuming that this is the ideal state. If a child is brought up to experience love and security as foundations, he will have an equilibrium based on a drive for happiness, not misery. This rang true with what I've noticed through the years -- that often, severely disciplined children seem to TRY to get themselves in trouble, which of course perpetuates the punitive discipline since the parents feel that the kid would be even more out of control if they "let up". A lot of the book's recommended practices made sense to the style of parenting I have intuitively gravitated towards. It reminded me a bit of St. John Bosco's Preventive Discipline and some of the teachings of other saints, like St Therese and St Francis de Sales, of winning hearts and souls through love and trust rather than fear.

John Bosco writes:

How then are we to set about breaking down this barrier (of mistrust and fear)? By a friendly informal relationship with the young, especially in recreation. You cannot have love without this familiarity, and where this is not evident there can be no confidence. If you want to be loved, you must make it clear that you love. Jesus Christ made himself little with the little ones and bore our weaknesses. He is our master in the matter of the friendly approach.

In general, the system we ought to adopt is called Preventive, which consists in so disposing the hearts of our students that they ought to be willing to do what we ask of them without need of external violence

Where Smart Love is at its best, it follows this prescription. I don't feel it would entirely work as a parenting system in itself -- it might be better as a counter-balance type book. I think the concept of children needing to acquire primary happiness is a useful one and explains things that would otherwise seem mysterious, but at some points in the book I think it goes over the line to the point where some parents reading it might be tempted to surrender authority in return for presumptive happiness for their children. The book does warn a bit against this, saying that some parents experience a need to inappropriately cushion their children from any type of obstacle to immediate gratification.

The last book on my list (whew!) is one that was recommended somewhere (can't remember where). So it cost more than a dime -- 40 cents plus shipping, to be precise.

When You Can You Will

This seemed a bit like a grown-up, self-help version of Smart Love. It discussed the underlying reasons why we can't make ourselves do what we want to. Like Smart Love, it did not explicitly discuss sin and fault, so I think some conservative Christians would call both of them "modernistic" and dismiss them as psychobabble. However, to me as a conservative Catholic who has been attracted to the (thoroughly orthodox) teachings of the saints mentioned above, I think that sometimes labelling some personal problem "sin" CAN become a dismissive label, and a shortcut..... just like "God's creation" CAN be used as a shortcircuit to avoid rather than pursue legitimate scientific research. I'm trying to finish off this summary in haste and hope not to be misunderstood. Sin has always been recognized -- descriptively, ontologically, poetically -- throughout history, but of course not always under that name and not always with the metaphysical specifics of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The way St Paul describes it rings very true to me

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
But not everything that goes wrong in human life is sin, and punitive, retributive methods are not always the most effective or the most appropriate even for moral issues. Jesus makes that clear in several of his dealings with the people around him. If you read St Paul's description above, you will see the mental turmoil of a child or adult who WANTS to do better but can't. Harshness is not the answer -- the answer is love, and grace and true guidance and support.

The idea of When You Can You Will is that sometimes the methods we use to try to change ourselves --- like self-criticism, behaviorial regimens, imitating what worked for others, and so on -- are methods that oftendo not address the REAL problems, or do not address them constructively, and thus fail. Say you are trying to be a better homeschooler, or make a career move, or change a destructive relationship -- WHATEVER. Berating yourself, or imposing some "failproof" system, or copying some perfect other person -- these things usually don't work anymore than scolding, comparing or complicated discipline systems usually work in raising children. The reason -- according to both these books -- is because the real situation is underneath -- and usually concerns something that is presently somehow "working" even though in a non-functional way.

This actually does accord with traditional Christian thought more than you would think at first sight. For example, St Augustine said that Sin and Evil are not positives, but negatives. Sin is a lack, a choice of the lesser good. No one chooses something except when he or she somehow thinks it is good. Even when St Augustine stole the peaches even though they were not good peaches, he knew he was operating under what his nature dictated as "good" -- self autonomy, and pride, perhaps.

I guess I could go on and on about this, but the post is long enough already.


Faith said...

Will just started reading Ender's Game and he's completely engrossed. He hasn't been this into a book since he read Life of Pi. Do you think it's too old for a brand new 15 yo? Though Will is pretty good at knowing what he can handle.

melanieb said...

Ender's Game is one of my all time favorite sci-fi books. I wasn't such a fan of Speaker for the Dead and Children of the Mind.

However, Card returned to the setting/characters of Ender's Game years later for Ender's Shadow, an intriguing novel which follows almost the same time line as Ender's Game but from the point of view of Bean, another of the boys in Battle School. This had several sequels, all following Bean. I can't get all the titles straight but they all had the word shadow in them.

Again, a lot of violence, so not necessarily suitable for younger kids. But some very interesting themes are explored, some pro-life sentiments especially and a Catholic nun character who seemed very well drawn, especially considering Card's a Mormon. I enjoyed this sequel series much more than I enjoyed the original sequels to Ender's Game and I'd recommend checking them out.

Also, I love the new banner photo!

Willa said...

Thanks for going into more detail about the series, Melanie. I saw the other Ender books on Amazon and was wondering what they were about.

It's interesting to hear other Catholics talking about sci-fi.

Card said that a lot of bright teenagers loved Ender's Game and really identified with the character. If a 15yo in my household was reading it, I don't think I'd feel inclined to stop him in the middle.

Speaker for the Dead presents Catholic culture and doctrine in a bit of a negative light.

Cindy said...

HI Willa-

Again, my only complait about your blog is I never give myself enough time to sit and read and absorb it all. I need to block out Tuesday mornings for Willa's blog.

Love your book notes. Am still reading but wanted to mention if you like movies I just watched a really good one called The Freedom Writers. It is based on a true story about gang kids in LA circa the Rodney King riots in the early 90s. Very hopeful and uplifting personal story, but also does a wonderful job showint the tribalism of the cultures in LA and the gang culture.

Side note- I hated all rap until I saw this. Now I see how it bonds them and reminds me of the Southern and Chicago blues I came to love and learn about.

I still don't like the lyrics and violence of rap but see that it is an expression of pain in many cases.

A Tribe Apart reminded me of this and wanted to share.