Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mini Reviews: Pressfield, Barthes and Boyle

Here are some more quick-hit reviews to bring me up to date on my recent reading:

The War of Art , by Steven Pressfield

This is a book for anyone who wants to create something great, or accomplish some secret dream, and has had trouble getting started. “There's a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't and the secret is this: it's not the writing part that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.” He does a great job of naming the condition, and of helping you identify it in your life. And while I really liked this book as I read it, as I look back after a month or two, I’m hardpressed to remember what it was exactly that I’m supposed to do about it. This could just be a fault of mine, but maybe the solutions he provides aren’t as earth-shattering as the first read led me to believe. I guess I’ll have to take a second pass through it to make sure I didn’t just fall asleep at the wheel. But the good news is that it’s a book that would only take a couple hours to read in the first place. I liked it as a breazy, but well-written, get-your-butt-in-gear book, but it has yet to change my life so I’m going to withhold judgement.

Mythologies , by Roland Barthes

This one was at times fascinating, but at other times bordered on boring and arcane. Barthes is on a mission to uncover the real meanings behind various pop culture phenomena that interested him in the France of the mid 1950s. He might deconstruct the Tour de France, analyze a Marlon Brando movie, pick apart a French governmental policy, explain a recent court case or take a deep look at celebrity marriages. In some sections I found myself saying, “Yes, exactly! Why haven’t I ever seen it that way before.” Take this post I wrote after reading his thoughts on professional wrestling, for example. But on other topics, I found myself shrugging my shoulders and wondering, “Who really cares?” I imagine I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if Barthes and I shared the same cultural milieu, or if he was still around to  turn his attention towards the American culture of our day. But even so, when he wanders into semiology in the second part of the book (in essence, the explanation of his explanations) I quickly lost interest. It’s a pretty interesting literary touchpoint to have, though, so I’m glad that I read it. And I’ll admit that some parts were laugh-out-loud funny.

When the Killing’s Done ,  by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Before picking up this book, I had only read two stories by Boyle, “The Lie” and “ Rapture of the Deep,” both of which were excellent, and neither of which I can find for free online. So no links, sorry. I was excited to see what Boyle can do in long form. And while I can’t say the subject matter of this book was especially gripping (a battle over eradicating invasive species on the channel islands of California) it really is masterfully written and it will transport you into the clashing worlds of both environmental activists and government-employed ecologists. In doing so, Boyle does something pretty amazing: he makes you care almost equally about the protagonist and the antagonist, as he unveils the background experiences and rationale that drives each of them toward collision. I think the narrow focus of the themes keeps it from being a great, universally appealing book, but it’s certainly a good one.


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