22 September, 2020

Four Books I Spent My Summer Reading

Compelling evidence for the argument that it's less what you say than how you say it, The Corrections could be summarized: "a novel about a dysfunctional white Midwestern family." That'd be an awfully poor description for a novel so masterfully written. Jonathan Franzen's saga of a fractious family of five captivates with its language, titivates with its story, and infuriates with its characters' passive-aggression toward one another, putting other, more plot-driven titles to shame. The Corrections is recommended reading for anyone intimately familiar with the hypocrisies of people who place extraordinary emphasis on looking "normal" and being "nice."

Purity: A Novel, Franzen's more recent book, portrays more messed-up family relationships, this time against a backdrop of what seemed to be low-intensity suspense. I say "seems" because I might be wrong. See, I set that book aside after two chapters, unable to get into it at all. Then I picked up Donna Tartt's The Secret History and was instantly swept up in its tale of tension: a college murder and the paranoia and double-crossing that its privileged young perpetrators fall into after doing the heinous deed. Narrated with great erudition by one haunted participant, the story's effect is bewitching. Tartt won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Goldfinch. Just in reading The Secret History, her debut novel, I can see why. This book held me in thrall. I read its last 150 pages in one go, and at the end exhaled, suddenly conscious of having held my breath for who knows how long.

Between 1966 and 1995, the venerable Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera, the German Buddhist Hellmuth Hecker, and the monk Bodhi Bikkhu wrote a series of profiles of the Buddha's disciples. Their primary source was the Pali canon, the largest collection of religious texts on earth. They also studied an ancient collection of stories known as the Jatakas, and several millennia-old Buddhist commentaries. Bodhi later compiled them as the book Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy, which my friend (and new boss at work) Luke loaned me. You might expect that, with that title, the book would be cover-to-cover mythic exploits. And sure, there are flying monks, a man morphing into a woman (and back), and a woman so pious that not even boiling oil can harm her. These are, however, mostly human stories that give life and color to the pale, static mental picture of ancient India most of us probably have.

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, might sound like about the driest damn thing a guy could read, but I find propaganda – the systematic creation and distribution of half-truths and untruths favorable to government interests – fascinating. Using as examples the news coverage of such twentieth-century travesties as Vietnam War atrocities, Salvadoran "free" elections, and Cambodian genocide, the authors break down how media coverage gets slanted, spun, and outright silenced in service to the powers that be. Although Herman and Chomsky wrote Manufacturing Consent before the Internet's democratizing effects changed the mediascape, the propaganda techniques that these scholars detail have actually spread and intensified. The book could actually be more relevant today than ever. Thank you, Elyse M., for this enlightening read!

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