December 29, 2009

"Books You Can Live Without"

Here is a fun article from the New York Times that I identify with a lot these days. Because I'm kind of in between homes at the moment (my home home and the apartment I'm staying for who knows how long), and probably will be for the next few years, my book collection is constantly divided. Inevitably, whenever I'm in one place I miss the books in the other. So, I find myself identifying most with the comments of author Joshua Ferris, especially what he says here:
Books are notes from the field, bound and domesticated, life brought into narrow focus. Get rid of a book? No way. Every one is a brick keeping the building standing. Books are my life. I leave and come back, and the books I find there tell me I’m home.

Get rid of my books? Me? Never.

December 28, 2009


As I imagine most dog owners do, I constantly stare at my dog and wonder what she is thinking. There are times I can tell by her facial expressions and gestures: when she wants some food, when she wants me to move over on the couch, when she is about to pee on the floor because she is angry at me. But, sadly, most of the time I don’t know what she thinks, because she is a dog and cannot talk. But in the lovely The Art of Racing in the Rain, we are privy to the thoughts of Enzo, the dog and narrator of the story, as he looks back and recounts the story of his life with his family. And with Enzo (as I often suspect with my own Remy), there is a lot going on in the mind of a dog.

We meet Enzo as an old and sickly dog as he and his owner try to accept his coming death. For me, this meant the waterworks began at the start of the book and continued to the end (at which point they came in at full force). As he prepares for his hoped-for reincarnation as a human, Enzo reflects on what it is to be a dog and part of a human family. Enzo, as so many dogs are, is a vital part of his family and has been there for so many of the defining points of their lives. Enzo’s journey with Denny, an aspiring race car driver and his master, began with just the two of them. Over the years their family number increases, and is marked by much happiness followed by even more tragedy. Enzo’s loyalty to Denny is often what keeps him going, and Enzo knows this. It is his duty, as he sees it, to love and protect his family inasmuch as he can, and he fulfills this responsibility up to the very end. He proves that all that stuff about dogs and unconditional love and loyalty is true. But now, through Enzo’s thoughts, we see where it comes from and why dogs are such wonderful creatures.

Dogs have a lot of time to think. Enzo has used this time for the better, using his own observances and his wide-ranging knowledge (thanks to lots of television) to shape his philosophies on life. For such a quick and enjoyable read, the book tackles lots of big ideas – namely because Enzo is a smart dog and has some deep thoughts. What stuck with me most were his ideas on death and what comes next. Of course everyone has their own ideas on the Afterlife, whether it is shaped by culture or religion or just convenience. Enzo’s hope and faith in his coming reincarnation as a human with opposable thumbs (thanks to a National Geographic special on the Mongolians) is comforting in light of the life he has led and the tragedies Denny and the family have endured.

It goes without saying, but should still be said, that having a dog as a narrator makes for a unique read. If at first the idea seems at all strange, however, it quickly becomes natural and Enzo proves a reliable narrator. It never falls into gimmick or becomes trite; Enzo is a consistent narrative voice, with a personality and opinions and convictions. We get to know him well, and his family through his eyes. We feel his frustrations at not being able to express himself, and hope along with him that some Stephen Hawking-like machine existed for him to speak all that he knows. I learned a lot about car racing thanks to Enzo (I know its really thanks to Garth Stein, but I like to think it is directly from Enzo), and identified with his picks for favorite actors (number one on his list is Steve McQueen, naturally). Just as dogs themselves are, Enzo’s voice was honest and heartwarming, and gave me a renewed appreciation (and curiosity) for my own dog.

Because it is so many things – funny, heartbreaking, life affirming – The Art of Racing in the Rain is the type of book that travels quickly by word of mouth. (It doesn’t hurt that there are so many dog people out there). My own experience with it is an example of that; my boss lent it to me, only for me sister to read it first. After she read it, she not only made sure I read it, she bought three copies as Christmas gifts – and now I fully intend to recommend it to many. It is nice to think that in this day of the e-book and precarious position of the publishing industry, the reading public and word of mouth still holds so much power. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go spend some quality time with my dog.

December 21, 2009


"To live is to suffer; to survive is to find meaning in the suffering"

Recently I watched the film Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (good movie, and the book is in my to be read pile), in which Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is a significant plot point. I made a mental note to search for it at the library, and then went downstairs only to find it staring at me from my Dad’s bookcase. If that is not a sign to read the book, especially a book about the meaning of life, I don’t know what is.

Frankl’s book is many things in one: it is a historical account, philosophy book, theory of psychology, and memoir. He writes about his time in various concentration camps over three years during WWII, and how his experiences shaped and solidified his work as a psychologist and the theories he developed both before and after his imprisonment. As all works concerning the Holocaust do, Man’s Search for Meaning brings up many difficult questions. How can man be responsible for such horrible actions? How can what happened be explained or justified? How does one go through so much suffering and still survive? What is the purpose of all that suffering? Frankl provides a philosophical answer to these questions (at least, as much as they can be answered) by exploring how his and others’ experiences in concentration camps are proof that the human spirit can overcome anything.

Frankl’s existentialist philosophies unfold in the two parts of his book. In Part One, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” he reflects on his own imprisonment and the development of the psychologies of his fellow prisoners. As with any kind of life, humans adapt to their surroundings, no matter how horrible they might be. Thus, there is a psychology and set of stages that accompany camp life, which he identifies through stories of his friends and fellow prisoners. Though they are often told as case studies and in an academic light, these stories are, of course, heartbreaking, – but also life affirming. It is the conclusion he comes to regarding the human spirit and its ability to endure and survive that shapes his philosophy, and subsequently his school of psychological thought. In looking at his own survival and that of those around him, he theorizes that the ability to endure and surpass great suffering is in the mind of the man, as long as he has decided that he has something to survive for. As a sort of summation of his theory, Frankl often quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

In the second part of his book, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” Frankl takes the theories he has put forth in Part One and uses them to shape an introduction to logotherapy, the school of psychological thought he founded. I’m no student of psychology and knew little of logotherapy before I read the book, but Frankl clearly and accessibly outlines his theories in his short introduction. Logotherapy exists on this premise that the most powerful and motivational force in human beings is the desire to find meaning to their lives. In terms of theories of psychology (especially Viennese ones), logotherapy differs from, say, psychoanalysis in that it looks towards the future rather than towards the past. In logotherapy, there is no examining of the effects of childhood traumas on the unconscious while lying on a couch; rather, neuroses are cured by putting the patient’s desires in context and righting them on the path towards finding their own meaning of life. It is clear why this sort of psychological theory developed in Frankl’s surroundings of great suffering. When horrifically stripped of literally everything – belongings, loved ones, basic human rights, often even hope – Frankl and many of his contemporaries still endured. All they had to live for was the idea of their future, and their desire to ascribe meaning to all their suffering; and yet, it was this that kept them alive.

I’m sure you’re thinking through all this (as I was), What is the meaning of life? Well, Frankl contends that this question in its abstract and general terms cannot be answered. Rather, the meaning of life is constantly changing for each unique person in every unique situation he is in. It is life that asks us for meaning, not the other way around. We must rise to what life brings us, and justify our existence by succeeding with what we are given. (I suspect whoever first said the phrase ‘when life gives you lemons…’ was a logotherapist.) I absolutely understand why Frankl’s book is not only one of the most important works of psychiatric literature, but why it is still consistently read and loved by so many people. Man’s Search for Meaning is the sort of book that you always want to have nearby as a reminder of why and how to keep going, particularly when going through hard times. I am very grateful to Brief Interviews..., and my Dad's library, for bringing it to me.

December 20, 2009


'In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms' - Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

-W.B. Yeats

December 09, 2009


I’ve been terribly neglectful lately in writing about the books I’ve read right after I finish them, so sadly this discussion of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History may suffer a bit. I finished the book weeks ago and, while I loved it, it is no longer fresh in my mind and so I may be a bit lacking in my remembering of it. Alas, I will do my best.

I came upon The Secret History when a friend and I were talking about The Likeness. She said that as she was reading Tana French’s book, she was reminded of Donna Tartt’s novel. As I read reviews of The Likeness, I noticed many of them mentioned The Secret History, almost always in a favorable way (for both books). And then, when said friend gave me a copy of the book, I figured it was about time to read it. It is true that there are many (many) similarities between The Likeness and The Secret History; both are set at secluded academic locations, both feature a bizarrely close circle of friends, both involve a the murder of a student, et cetera et cetera. And yet, I did not find The Likeness to be a rehashing or copy of The Secret History (which came first – it was published, and apparently was very popular, in 1992).

The book opens with Richard Papen, our trusty protagonist, reflecting on his tumultuous time at Hampden College. As a sophomore transfer student, Richard was quickly accepted into an exclusive group of five friends. His need to belong, particularly to this elite group by which he is fascinated, moves him to make sure to fit in at any cost. Though he must work hard and often to put himself through school, he pretends to be of the same wealthy class of his new friends (though in some of these friends’ cases, it is more like used-to-be-wealthy class). Their collective wealth, with the leisure and freedom (especially academic) it brings, makes their self-inflicted seclusion all the more influential on the developments of their philosophies. Hampden, the small liberal arts school at the foot of a mountain in Vermont, keeps its students isolated in a bubble of academics, drugs, and general college-revelry. These six students, however, are in their own tiny bubble within Hampden. They take only Classics course with each other, with only one professor. Entrenched in the Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, mythologies, epic poems, and dead languages, their worldview and mindset is entirely disconnected from modern reality. This disconnect – with its accompanying amorality and intellectual and social isolation – inevitably leads them towards irrevocable evil.

As these students are consumed by the Ancients in their mountainous Vermont isolation, their imagined world clashes with the real one. The bizarre recreation of an Ancient tradition leads them to an accidental (but no less horrific) murder. And yet, this is only the beginning; Richard’s story is really the story of he and his friends’ murder of Bunny, one of their own (worry not, no spoiler here – this murder is revealed on the first page). The horror of it is that as the book progresses, their actions begin to make sense. Bunny (who acts like a character from out of a Fitzgerald short story, both intentionally and not) has become a threat, not to mention a nuisance to his friends, and so he must be gotten rid of. In the warped minds of these students, this makes sense. As we become part of this mindset and their world – a world that is set more in Ancient Greece than in reality – the thought of murder seems less inhumane and more as an ordinary part of life. Bizarre events and elements of the book somehow seem reasonable, as Tartt has slowly eased us into this strange world where the natural and philosophical reign over the logical and corporeal. And yet, the students find that their otherworldly actions and beliefs have very real consequences.

As a sort of intellectual murder mystery that unfolds backwards, The Secret History kept me reading like crazy (into very late hours) to finish it. I loved so much about it: the quiet college setting, the complex and slowly unfolding relationships between characters, the structure of the story, the juxtaposition of the high intellectualism of Latin poetry and Greek philosophy with the basic animalistic act of murder. It is certainly one of those consuming books, one that you cannot put down and that appears in your dreams. At least, it was for me.