Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Margaret Mead and Samoa

Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and unmaking of an Anthropological Myth – Derek Freeman

In this thoroughly researched and expertly argued analysis, Derek Freeman sets out to correct all the mistakes, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations of Margaret Mead’s famous “Coming of Age in Samoa.” Freeman begins with a summary of the time at which Mead did her research on Samoa, which was a critical time for the young field of anthropology, struggling for acceptance. Anthropology found itself in direct competition with biology and the then popular field of eugenics, brought about by Darwin’s theory of evolution. After establishing the period of her research, Freeman then goes on to explain all her misconceptions about Samoan culture and way of life. Point by point, he explains what she falsely portrayed, then refuted her with both his own extensive research in Samoa and countless other written works and observations on Samoa. He shows conclusively that Mead’s research was poorly planned and executed, misled, and misinformed, yet was still accepted and venerated because of its implications for the field of anthropology.

This particular work by Freeman (I’ve still got two more of his books on the same topic in my reading queue) was mostly dense and academic, and understandably it must be. Mead’s work on Samoa was unquestioningly accepted for decades, so any refutation must be expertly researched and argued. Freeman does his work well. He takes particular care to explain the attitudes at the time Mead did her research, which also requires quite a bit of history. This was hard to follow at times, but when I caught the flow of it, I found it quite interesting. Obviously the most interesting part of the book is when he takes apart Mead’s research piece by piece, but it still had some difficult moments. Those chapters are laden with dates, names, and locations, which are important for research, but don’t help for ease of reading. He includes enough of Mead’s writings so that this book could probably be read alone and still give sufficient understanding of “Coming of Age in Samoa,” but I thought it made a great follow up after reading Mead’s work first.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of Freeman’s arguments. Every time he quoted Mead, I would think to myself “but I see that all the time.” Then he would follow up with his own counter-example to contradict her findings and I would think to myself “Oh, but I see that all the time too” (I remember as I was reading “Coming of Age in Samoa,” I thought a few times “Oh really? I didn’t see that before reading this.” I never had that reaction with Freeman). After mulling it over, my opinion is that Mead’s research was a surface analysis of Samoan culture, and at times it was absolutely false. Many of the things she wrote about do happen here, but that’s only if you get a really quick glimpse at life in Samoa, which is exactly what her research was based on. She makes sweeping generalizations based on limited and often wrong information. Freeman’s examples seem more substantial, and more fully show the intricacies of fa’asamoa. I think Freeman is angling for a scientific perspective in his work, meaning if one instance proves a theory false, then the whole theory is false. I say that, humanly, there are exceptions to the rule, and Mead was wrong in general, but not in everything. Conclusion: If you read “Coming of Age in Samoa,” you must also read Derek Freeman (which I was told many times as I was reading “Coming of Age in Samoa”).

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Hobbit

The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit, a creature with a notable lack of tendency for adventure. But, Bilbo Baggins is distantly related to the Took hobbits, who do have a tendency for adventure. So when Bilbo finds himself invited to be the thief on an adventure with 13 dwarves (Bilbo makes the 14th member of the party so as to avoid any misfortune from an unlucky number), he hesitates, sleeps late, then finds himself in the middle of adventures he never could have imagined. Throughout the story, Bilbo survives encounters with trolls, elves, goblins, eagles, and a dragon. His luck and ingenuity drags the entire group of dwarves through all kinds of sticky situations, and along the way he picks some pockets, pinches food, and finds treasure as only a thief can.

“The Hobbit” is the prequel to “The Lord of the Rings” epic and makes for a nice tale itself. We hardly get an introduction to Bilbo’s comfortable life in the Shire before the adventures begin, and the entire book moves along quickly. Despite the large cast of characters (14 in the treasure hunting party, plus occasional appearances from Gandalf, then all the others friends and enemies they run into), the story still makes sense even if you gloss over most of the details and kind of let the characters blend together (as I did). The narration gets a bit confusing at times because he often refers to directions (heading east towards the mountain, disembarking on the west riverbank), but I found that the story was also simplified if I glossed over those parts. The story is written from the perspective of the narrator, but the narrator makes occasional comments addressed directly to the reader about his own observations and comments. It gives the book a light and friendly tone, which is also enhanced through an unapologetic yet effective use of clich├ęs.

I really enjoyed reading “The Hobbit,” though I wasn’t fully expecting to. I read “The Lord of the Rings” when I was in 8th grade, and all I can remember from the books are long lists of genealogies and some episode with Tom Bombadil that didn’t make it into the movies (the movies, by the way, cleared up a lot for me about the story). I was expecting something similar with “The Hobbit,” but it was a much easier, more enjoyable and entertaining read. And I remember more about the overall story. I’m going to say that has more to do with more developed reading skills and a longer attention span on my part than different writing styles on behalf of the author. But this is really a great book. Well written, entertaining, and understandable. You should definitely read it.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Alchemist

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

Santiago is a shepherd in Spain who knows every last aspect of how to care for his sheep. He is intrigued by a recurring dream, though, that tells him he will find treasure at the Pyramids of Egypt. He finds a woman to interpret his dream, and she tells him he will find treasure at the Pyramids of Egypt. Then he meets a man, a King in disguise, who tells him to follow the omens in order to fulfill his Personal Legend. Those are the first omens in a long trip that takes him across the waters into a foreign land in pursuit of both his treasure and his Personal Legend. Along the way, he suffers hardships, finds talented teachers, and learns how to speak the Language of the World that will help guide him on his Personal Legend. Ultimately, he learns to live his life as a pilgrimage, instead of just the one journey to fulfill his Personal Legend.

Paulo Coelho is an international renowned author with (I’m not sure so I’ll estimate) who knows how many books in print, and probably even more honors and awards to his name, and it’s easy to see why. ”The Alchemist” is a thrilling story because it is so eminently relatable but also such a dream. Santiago drops everything he has to go on a journey to a foreign land in search of something. How many people actually have the opportunity to do that, but how many people always imagine going on a similar journey? It’s also a simple story. The wording is basic and understandable, the cast of characters is fairly uncomplicated, and the settings, although I’m not personally familiar with them, are easy to imagine. Not to mention all the quotable portions. Coelho has a magic pen that lets him write boggling life lessons in straightforward prose. It’s so easy, but so magnificent.

Absolutely, you have to read “The Alchemist.” Way back when, one of my friends recommended it to me and I was less than thrilled with it. But I reread it just a year or so ago, and loved it. And this time around, I still loved it. It’s an amazing book for thinking. It’s so easy to read that you can get through it in a matter of hours if you really want to, but if you are looking for a soul-satisfying discussion, stop and think about it a little bit. It could take you days to get through it that way, but it’s worth it. You must read this book.

She's Come Undone

She’s Come Undone – Wally Lamb

By numbing herself with television and junk food, Dolores Price makes her way through life while hiding, repressing, and ignoring the things she doesn’t want to acknowledge. Or, if she does acknowledge them, she only feels guilt, inadequacy, and failure. Unfortunately, she has a lot of crap to deal with. Following a messy divorce, Dolores finds herself living with her grandmother while her mother has a stay at the mental hospital. She finds her way through school, a personal breakdown, recovery, and her own failed marriage and once more back to stability. Her life is littered with the remnants of broken relationships, unlivable expectations, and personal grief. Afraid of happiness because of the heartbreak it brings when it goes away, she eventually finds her way back to some sense of control, which gives her enough strength to risk her heart again. The limitless depths of her personal strength help her both to survive and even thrive in the midst of insurmountable struggles.

When I told people I was reading this book, I was told it would make me cry. Many times. And it did. This book is thoroughly depressing. As soon as it seems like her life is back on track, something else happens. Personally, I felt it bordered on unbelievable at times because there was so much bad stuff happening back to back, but it also had really strong moments of personal breakthroughs. Maybe that’s the author’s way of moving away from the victim mindset. After all, he traces the life of a single woman from the time when she is a little girl through to middle age – we all go through quite a few changes and life experiences in that time. Some of the word choice felt a little awkward, but it had some great lines in there. I even laughed out loud a few times. He develops so many different characters and brings them all into the story through Dolores, showing how even when we think we have no connection to anyone or anything, we actually do if we look hard enough, or fall far enough that someone needs to pick us back up.

“She’s Come Undone” is an inspiring story showing many of the infinite possibilities for the human spirit to overcome hardship. Just when you think Dolores has lost the ability to overcome (which happens quite a bit), she finds a way to pull herself through. Sometimes I felt a little overwhelmed with all the bad stuff, and at the end of the book, I wasn’t fully satisfied with her happy ending, but it was a great read. It was hard for me to put down, which is always a good sign of a good read. I’d recommend it, but have a box of tissues or someone to hug nearby.