What follows is a list of what I read/listened to in the month of June 2020, accompanied by a short publisher’s description and my brief thoughts/reactions.
The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
“One of the most influential works of this century, The Myth of Sisyphus–featured here in a stand-alone edition–is a crucial exposition of existentialist thought. Influenced by works such as Don Juan and the novels of Kafka, these essays begin with a meditation on suicide–the question of living or not living in a universe devoid of order or meaning. With lyric eloquence, Albert Camus brilliantly posits a way out of despair, reaffirming the value of personal existence, and the possibility of life lived with dignity and authenticity.”
A fascinating rumination on absurdity and on living a life without meaning, or more properly, finding your own meaning in life. Camus encourages us to accept and to find power in a meaningless universe. I read this book right before reading Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man and was surprised to see both books, published around the same time, tackled so many of the same themes.
Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam by James M. McPherson
“The Battle of Antietam, fought on September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest single day in American history, with more than 6,000 soldiers killed four times the number lost on D Day, and twice the number killed in the September 11th terrorist attacks. In Crossroads of Freedom, America’s most eminent Civil War historian, James M. McPherson, paints a masterful account of this pivotal battle, the events that led up to it, and its aftermath.”
I had read Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, McPherson’s collection of essays, and really enjoyed it. I looked forward to checking out this slim volume and was not disappointed. McPherson masterfully balances the dramas of war, political maneuvering, social change, and global pressures in this account. The reader comes away not only with a sobering understanding of the battlefield carnage, but also with an appreciation for just how much was at stake and how easily the currents of history might have shifted. This is an excellent primer. For a more detailed military history, readers should check out Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears.
The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson
“While on holiday, Scott Carey is exposed to a cloud of radioactive spray shortly after he accidentally ingests insecticide. The radioactivity acts as a catalyst for the bug spray, causing his body to shrink at a rate of approximately 1/7 of an inch per day. A few weeks later, Carey can no longer deny the truth: not only is he losing weight, he is also shorter than he was and deduces, to his dismay, that his body will continue to shrink.”
Matheson crafts a thoughtful, fast-paced sci-fi horror novel. The horror of the novel comes from the fears of emasculation, which is a common theme we see in the 1950s due to the rise of suburbia. Until the end, Scott Carey can’t get out of the mindset of the 1950s male, with expectations that he should be taller than his wife, the primary breadwinner, the master of the house, and respected by his child. He should be ruler of his domain. The book, therefore, is a record of the slow death of the male ego. The situations in which Carey finds himself in the book are dark, especially for the 1950s, including nearly being molested by a drunk in a car who mistakes him for a prepubescent boy. His shrinking stature also makes him susceptible to being bullied by neighborhood teens. More than anything we see his sexual frustrations, such as when he’s sitting next to his wife and desiring her, but he’s the size of a twelve-year-old and is afraid she’ll reject him or be disgusted if he tries anything. As he gets smaller he resorts to spying on a teenage babysitter and then later laying with a doll in a dollhouse desperate for some form of human affection.
It’s not until he drops the rigid ideals of conformity that he stops thinking of himself as a freak or a child or effeminate and comes to accept himself for what he is that he finds release.
The Witches by Roald Dahl
“This is not a fairy-tale. This is about real witches. Real witches don’t ride around on broomsticks. They don’t even wear black cloaks and hats. They are vile, cunning, detestable creatures who disguise themselves as nice, ordinary ladies. So how can you tell when you’re face to face with one? Well, if you don’t know yet you’d better find out quickly-because there’s nothing a witch loathes quite as much as children and she’ll wield all kinds of terrifying powers to get rid of them.”
This was without a doubt my favorite book when I was a kid. I remember the summer after second grade sitting in a lawn chair in the backyard devouring each page. The curse of the little girl trapped in the painting, growing older each day, haunted me for years. This time I read it with my seven-year-old son and took to it just as I had. It’s certainly different reading it as an adult. One sees the gendered assumptions more clearly, for instance. This time I was struck by the Grand High Witch’s germanic accent and her diatribe against children, and I wondered if Dahl was channeling Hitler’s speeches as he wrote it. But considering Dahl’s documented antisemitism, there’s room for doubt.
The Life and Times of Prince Albert by Patrick Allitt
“In 10 lectures, award-winning historian Patrick N. Allitt transports listeners to England in the 1840s and 1850s. During those two decades, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, became one of the most influential people in the country and remains a figure of fascination even today. In fact, the British royal family as we know it wouldn’t exist without the private and public actions of this detached, impartial, and upright political figure.”
Royal life does not usually peak my curiosity, but Allitt does a fine job of explaining the era in a balanced and objective manner. I was surprised to find how many modern customs and attitudes stem from Albert, and it was very interesting hearing the impact he had on Britain and the world.