Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

When I made a trip to Berlin in early November 2017 I took with me the short story collection by David Foster Wallace “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” and, in page 98, I came upon the subject of an interview (titled B.I. #46 07-97), who uses Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning to explain what is it like to be fully stripped way of your identity in the face of complete and absolute degradation and still making the choice to keep your humanity. Although Frankl’s book deals with the experience of living in a concentration camp from a psychological perspective, subject 46 uses it as the starting point to advocate that incredible things can come from horrible events. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the text that sets the whole thing in motion:

Having a knee-jerk attitude about anything is a total mistake, that’s what I’m saying. But I’m saying especially in the case of women, where it adds up to this little condescending thing of saying that they are fragile or breakable things and can be destroyed so easily. Like we have to wrap them in cotton and protect them more than anything else. That is knee-jerk and condescending. I’m talking about dignity and respect, not treating them like they are fragile little dolls or whatever. Everybody gets hurt and violated and broken sometimes, why are women so special?”

I’m writing this on February 4th 2018. A time when the following terms are being thrown around quite a bit: “safe-space”, “victimhood”, “third-wave feminism”, “#Metoo”, “#Timesup”, “Tweet/Twitter” and “Donald Trump”. The reason why I’m stating the date and terminology is because context of the time that we live in is important to explain why, in barely five pages, David Foster Wallace’s text (published in 1999) and Viktor’s Frankl book (published in 1946) have managed to really get me thinking on a topic that is in everybody’s mind these days.

Following the question of “Why are women so special?” and continuing with the reference of Frankl’s experience, subject 46 proceeds to mirror the idea of a woman being raped with the idea of a man living in a concentration camp, but also making clear of how narrow-minded it would be to just think of her as just a victim:

What she knows is that the totally most terrible degrading thing that she ever could have even imaged happening to her has really happened to her now. And she survived. She’s still here. I’m not saying that she’s thrilled, I’m not saying she’s thrilled about it or she’s in great shape or clicking her heels together out of joy it happened, but she’s still here, and she knows it, and now she knows something. I mean really knows”

The brilliance in Wallace’s text and these interviews is that we never get the chance to read the question or rebuttal to what subject 46 is saying, and instead Wallace writes “Q” and lets the reader fill in the gaps. So as the text goes on and the subject 46 continues to explain the idea of rape as a possible “catalyst” to self-discovery there is one “Q” that, at least for me and based on the following answer, appears to ask if subject 46 is justifying a woman being raped. To which he answers:

That’s the knee-jerk reaction, that’s what I’m talking about, taking everything I say and taking and filtering it through your own narrow view of the world and saying what I’m saying is Oh so the guys that gang-raped her did her a favor. Because that is not what I’m saying. I’m not saying it was good or right or it should have happened or that she’s not totally fucked up by it and shattered or it ever should have happened.”

The interview follows this line of thought and shows subject 46’s increasing frustration with women and with the interviewer as he continues to defend the idea of destruction leading to improvement (Nietzsche’s: What doesn’t kill you make you stronger) whilst making clear that he is not justifying rape to women. As the conversation escalates, right before the end, there is very powerful turn of the table: What if he was the one that was raped? What if it was a man being raped?

This text is so well written that ever since I read it I kept thinking about the argument being exposed, and I was shocked and in awe of how compelling it was (particularly with the last twist in mind). However there was one thing that I couldn’t help thinking over and over again: The book is titled Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Key word being “Hideous”. Could there be a possibility that David Foster Wallace was trying to make me agree with a horrible man?

I thought about this for a long time and I wasn’t  able to find a clear conclusion, but considering the impact this text had I decided to buy Frankl’s book (again in my favorite used book store) to see if it could help to clarify things and also because the premise of a psychologist in a concentration camp seemed quite fascinating.

El hombre en busca de sentido
This is the cover of the paperback I bought

The holocaust constitutes one of the saddest events in human history and Viktor Frankl’s book dealing with his experiences in a small concentration camp is both a sad reminder of the worst and the best of humanity. Frankl doesn’t dramatize nor exaggerate the events; he merely narrates his experiences and observations through a psychological perspective, explaining the effects of the systematic dehumanization that he and other people in the concentration camp were subject to.

All these actions designed to destroy the human spirit resulted most of the time in death in all its different forms: suicide, exhaustion, cold, age, sickness, hunger, etc… However, according to Frankl, when it didn’t come in the form of death it all came down to a choice: to be oneself and hold to your identity and humanity or choosing to be lower than an animal like the sadistic guards favored by the SS to keep the rest of the prisoners in line. He then proceeds to explain how the few people who made the active choice to hold on to their humanity began to flourish spiritually (the word is stripped from all religious connotations), and how, because everything that surrounded them was so horrible, their sense of self and their sense of purpose had to come from within

At the end of the book of the edition that I bought there is a section that explains the principles of Viktor Frankl’s psychological practices which he himself labeled logotherapy, and that expands the idea of psychology beyond merely explaining the “logic of the brain” and adds the idea of the “meaning” of oneself as a key aspect to take into consideration in psychotherapy. According to logotherapy there are three ways to search for man’s meaning: through an action (i.e: desiring to publish a book, feeling the need to teach), accepting the donations of existence (i.e: looking in awe at the beauty of a sunset, loving another human being), and through suffering (i.e: incurable sickness). Frankl states that the search for meaning is ever-fluctuating between these three options based on each individual’s circumstance.

If we return to Wallace’s subject 46 it is now easy to spot that he is advocating’s Frankl’s third way for meaning: through suffering. However, if this is the case, why do I still feel that there is a “but” to his whole argument?

After thinking about if for quite a while I was able to conjure a couple of counter-arguments, but even I feel that they are somewhat weak. First, he is challenging a “knee-jerk attitude” (absolutism) with an extreme example and that as in most cases the truth must be somewhere in between and not in the extremes (but if this is the case I can’t find it). Second: considering the limits of fiction and the interpretation of Wallace’s text, this short story is most likely designed to question rather an answer and to trick rather than to expose. But then again, this would be me changing the subject from the content of the text to the intentions of the author (which would be really fucking weak and a disservice to this whole post) and I really wouldn’t be finding a flaw in the subject 46’s rationalization per se.

I may just have to admit that after reading Frankl’s book all signs indicate that this is indeed the case, because even if at the beginning of the post I stated that I found myself agreeing with subject #46, I was really hoping that by the end I could find a deeper truth or a hidden meaning beyond such an extreme example; but the truth is that I can’t.

I think that Wallace’s last sentence may be very appropriate in this case to close this failed exercise: You don’t know shit.

Editorial note: I finished reading Viktor Frankl’s Man Search for Meaning the 4th of February 2018. It has been snowing all day. It was such a pretty picture from the window were I sat and typed this.

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Slammed by Colleen Hoover

Slammed by Colleen Hoover

A quick look in the dictionary will tell you that the word honest can be defined as:

  1. free of deceit; truthful and sincere.
  2. morally correct or virtuous.
  3. fairly earned, especially through hard work.
  4. (of an action) done with good intentions even if unsuccessful or misguided.
  5. simple, unpretentious, and unsophisticated

When I received this book I also got the following bits of information from the young woman who gave it to me:

  • It is her favorite novel.

  • She loves the poetry and lyrics in it.

  • If I were to review it in my blog I’d have to be honest.

All five definitions and all three bits of information have shaped this post so, random people of the internet, please note that this review is first and foremost for this lovely young woman. 

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Slammed is Colleen Hoover’s debut novel. It tells the story of Layken, an eighteen year old girl who has moved with her family (mother and brother) to Michigan after her father’s passing. Upon arrival to her new house she meets Will, a twenty-one year old neighbor that invites her on a date to a poetry slam (open mic for poets) and, after the proverbial magical date takes place, drama ensues when she learns that she can’t be with him because he is… her new poetry teacher! Cue the video!

Let that moment of levity be the turning valve to the following words because what I’m about to write is something that I just really need to get off my chest for the sake of my sanity:

<rantmode>

Layken is the most self-absorbed asshole of a main character that I’ve ever read. She is empty, selfish, egotistical, petty, ordinary and a waste of a human being. Classic Layken actions and/or preferences include: crying (a lot), slamming doors (a lot), monothematically obsessing over Will (a lot), treating Will like crap (a lot).

What Will (a handsome, muscled, sensitive, caring, poetry-loving, young man) actually likes about this girl remains an absolute mystery to me and, whilst I’m aware that love is not logical, this dude can do better.

</rantmode>

Before you light the torches please let me say that I get “it”. I’m a thirty-one year old dude and I very strongly doubt that Collen Hoover wrote this book with my demographic in mind. I’m also aware that one could challenge the validity of this point and say that a book should be “good” regardless of the intended demographic (a fair point no doubt), but that would deviate the review into muddy waters that I don’t particularly want to navigate this time around.

I also want to highlight that I’m still thinking about the right approach to take for this review and that, even though I was required honesty, I wasn’t asked to disregard the fact that this is someone’s favorite book which has really helped me to gather my thoughts on the novel. After careful analysis I’ve realized that attacking what I hate about the book is simply the easy way out.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still keeping the rant because it is the result of approximately two hundred and ten pages of eye-rolling, groan inducing, frustrating narration from Layken. However, past that mark it is revealed that her mother has terminal cancer and these news actually snap Layken from her Will-obsessive thoughts and for a few pages she became something that I thought impossible: relatable.

I was around Layken’s age when my father was  diagnosed with cancer and, although I’m a bit furious that the cancer subplot is clearly used as a narrative device, I have to admit that these few pages reminded me some of the emotions that I felt back then and that were really hard to process. (Editorial note: don’t worry my dad is still alive and kicking. He is fucking awesome). So congratulations  Mrs. Hoover! I won’t deny you that you stirred some shit up even if by the end of the novel you go back to that boring romance subplot.

To recap: Main character is horrible. Didn’t care about the forbidden-love angle. Didn’t particularly care about the poetry aspect (I’m sorry S I know that this is one of the things that you really like about the book but I’m a prose guy). Didn’t care about most of the characters (except for the mom). I was touched on a personal level with the cancer subplot.

I think that the most accurate “honest” definition for this short review is somewhere between options four and five.  It has been a challenge reading something that is so far from my radar and being asked to give an honest opinion, but just for that I want to thank the young woman who gave me this book. She shared something that was especial to her and only requested that I was honest about it. A most unusual and gladly welcomed petition which I can honestly confirm I’ve done – hopefully without being too much of an asshole like Layken is -. 🙂

I finished reading Smashed by Colleen Hoover the 22nd of January. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the next book review.

Last Editorial Note: Did you really think that I was going to skip those lines you highlighted? I may not like the poems but the lyrics and music are pretty cool. 😉

2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke

2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke

Once again I delve into the realms of science fiction! After my first David Foster Wallace experience I wanted a lighter read and in one of my quick visits to my favorite used bookstore I found 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke for just two euros in a pretty okay-ish condition and made it my next reading choice.

According to the third page of the book this was a “Gift from Isabel, Alberto and Fernando. October 83 (Second procedure)”. The name of the recipient is nowhere to be seen but I do hope that the procedure went well and that, if by some reason I bought a dead man’s gift, it is not because the scheduled procedure went badly but because he died of old age. One way or another, this paperback has been rescued from book limbo and is now a proud addition to my library where other works fathered by Arthur C. Clarke like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Ramma and Reach for Tomorrow also rest – this last one was my first taste of Clarke and it was also purchased from the same used bookstore -.

I think it is difficult to write about 2010: Odyssey Two without mentioning one way or another 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick’s film is an iconic work of art that plagues the viewer with question after question and never really gives a straight answer. In fact, one of the reasons why Kubrick insisted on releasing the film before the novel could have been out of fear that the novel would skew the viewing experience. However, after reading the novel (that is 2001), I think it is fair to say that it only enriches the questions but is equally ambiguous about the answers. Even the quote from the back of the book says “When 2001: A Space Odyssey first shocked, amazed and delighted millions in the late 1960s, the novel was quickly recognized as a classic. Since then, its fame has grown steadily among the multitudes who have read the novel or seen the film based on it. Yet, along with almost universal acclaim, a host of questions has grown more insistent through the years”.

For many years after the release in 1968 of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke claimed that there couldn’t be a sequel to the novel; it is only by reading the author’s note and the acknowledgements that one sees how ideas starting popping up and how it all came to fruition and was published fourteen years later in 1982.

2010: Odyssey Two
Carl Sagan’s name is as close as you are going to get to a seal of quality

Reading 2010: Odyssey Two it is clear that the author felt very confident about the story and where he wanted to go with it. The book is divided in seven parts. The first three: Leonov, Tsien and Discovery deal with the race between Russia and the US, aboard the Leonov ship, (name taken from General Alexei Leonov, the first man to take a walk in space and author of the post image – that is also addressed in the novel -) and China, aboard the Tsien ship, towards the Discovery; left there by David Bowman before going inside the monolith “full of stars” and slowly falling down towards Jupiter (that is the ship not Bowman). In these sections we also get to meet the crew of the Leonov and also our main protagonist Heywood Floyd, who was involved with the original launch of the Discovery.

To Clarke’s credit, he manages to create amazing scenarios but also very relatable characters. However, during the first four sections of the novel I was sorely missing the Kubrick influence and felt that he was settling for a fairly straightforward story. The back and forth between the two led to some pretty wild and big ideas being thrown around (both in the novel and the film) and yet I kept feeling that, although well told, the scope of 2010 was smaller. Only when I reached the section titled A Child of the Stars did I really feel like the story picked up the pace thanks to the return of David Bowman and the increasing presence of HAL 9000 (by far my favorite character in this novel). Random Trivia: I also love the fact that Clarke addresses the HAL and IBM myth in the novel.

By the end of the book, Arthur C. Clarke did something that was extremely hard to pull off: he created an answer to the mystery of the monolith that made the fourteen year gap worth the wait. The story ends with a world-changing event (wink wink) in a way that only a great science fiction writer could conjure up, building on the first novel but also moving it in a direction where Kubrick’s shadow is no longer present and feels one hundred percent Clarke (very much in the vibe of Childhood’s End).

I haven’t watched the film nor do I intend to, but if 2061: Odyssey Three comes my way I’m very interested in where the story might go. For now, I’ve been sated of my science fiction craving.

Next on my reading list I’ve been given someone’s favorite book to review and required to give an “honest review” to which I added “I’ll give a brutally honest review”. So watch out S. Until then, thanks for reading. I finished 2010: Odyssey Two the 14th of January 2018.

Author’s note: I know there is a nineteen day delay when I publish this, but I can’t skip the proverbial: Happy 2018! Another year ahead full of interesting books to read and hopefully lots of writing! This is the first time in my life that I haven’t taken any vacation days during Christmas due to exceptional situation in my workplace and unfortunately this has led to a bit of a reading (and writing) slump in the past month and a half but I intended to remedy the situation.

 

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (Part II: Finding Wallace – Short Stories)

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (Part II: Finding Wallace – Short Stories)

It was difficult chosing where to start reading David Foster Wallace. One could argue that Infinite Jest should be the most obvious recommendation based on its popularity and reputation but most reviews do point out that, although rewarding at the end, it is still a daunting tasks due to its size, non-linear reading structure and style. I haven’t read Infinite Jest (yet), but I decided to start with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men because, as previously mentioned in my last post, it was the first David Foster Wallace work I came to know and because of the short story “Suicide as a Sort of Present” in it, which you can hear below narrated by Wallace himself.

In “Suicide as a Sort of Present” you can draw parallelisms between Wallace (the mother) and his work (the son), or you can simply read it as a story dealing with the subject of perfectionism and its consequences but in my case, regardless of the interpretation of the text, when I heard Wallace’s voice narrating this text I felt rawness and truthfulness in each word. I understood what he was trying to say and I empathized with it and felt that this was the right book to start with; although being absolutely honest, by page one, I thought I had made a huge mistake because I immediately felt out of my depth with “Death is Not the End”, a three page-long sentence, extremely hard read, which feels like an attempt to ward-off casual readers from buying this book. After three tries I still couldn’t understand it and I feared that the rest of the book would be similar to this type of short story.

It wasn’t until I read the first “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” chapter (in total there are four chapters titled Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) when I finally managed to get into Wallace’s rhythm. It had been nearly a decade since I watched the movie and I barely remembered it, but the text did echo some of the images in it and that really helped in a weird way because what I remembered as really pretentious acting and snobby dialogue was really working on the page and, giving credit when credit is due, although Wallace himself said in an interview that his texts don’t read out loud well (and I think that the film adaptation clearly shows this) if it wasn’t for those visual echoes I’m not sure if I would have gotten into the book.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
Cover of the American edition. Much better than the UK one if you ask me.

Two of the things that I couldn’t stop thinking about when I finished the book were the word “Hideous” and the question “Why am I identifying with some of the points made by these men?” I think that some of the interviews are obvious caricatures of really shallow men that manage to create a mirror surface to reflect upon on an equally shallow level. However, when Wallace delves deeper (beyond the shallow man) and provides a more three-dimensional interviewee he is able to create more than a twisted reflection and instead begins to show the reader some of what is inside a man. In particular the second chapter of interviews has two of them that deal with sexual dominance and what destruction of the idea of self by others does to a man, that I found awfully disturbing and yet very effective in rationalizing the logic of the argument. Throughout the many interviews you are able to see that these men are indeed hideous for reasons such as narcissism, misogyny, anger, incompetence, sexual frustration, etc. All of them characteristics that are undoubtedly negative but that are nonetheless present in men and women in one way or another, to a higher or lower degree, passively or actively.

Outside of the interviews, there are chapters in the book that felt far more experimental than anything else like “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko” or “Adult World (I)” & “Adult World (II)” and that didn’t do much for me. I wasn’t able to fully understand them or even follow them in some parts (which could be the intended objective) because they were structured with techniques that I’m not too familiar with, and I’m still not sure if it is because I simply don’t have the level or because Wallace is much smarter than I am (probably it is a lot of the second and a bit of the first). However there are other chapters that, although experimental, were a blast to read like “Octet” with its clever pop quiz style, or the really funny “On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, The Acclaimed New Young Off-Brodway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon” which will give readers a whole new outlook on fatherhood.

The one story that I think deserves a careful read is “The Depressed Person”. What one could easily interpret as an extremely tedious and repetitive text that borders on the unreadable, is actually a really effective text that captures the behavior, patterns and thought process of an extremely depressed individual. Whilst the entertainment value is debatable –although I don’t believe this particular chapter is meant to “entertain”- I think the text is very successful in showing what a terrible condition depression is and unfortunately, knowing that Wallace ultimately committed suicide because he was unsuccessfully dealing with this mental disorder, the portrait painted in this story shows a sad and lonely existence that one can’t wonder to think approached actual reality.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men has been a wonderful first look at the works of David Foster Wallace and has made me a bigger fan. I read it in two round trips, one to Berlin  and one to London,  with the exception of the last ten pages, which I had to finish at 01:20 a.m (after getting back from London) because I couldn’t go to bed without finishing it; which I did on the 24th of November 2017. In a few posts I’ll be looking at his non-fiction book: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Until then, thanks for reading!

Editorial note: Because I’m really pleased with this review and it helped me to discover this great book, despite its problems here you can see –for free– Brief Interviews With Hideous Men adapted to the screen and directed by John Krasinski.

 

How I discovered the figure of David Foster Wallace (Part I: Finding Wallace)

How I discovered the figure of David Foster Wallace (Part I: Finding Wallace)

I’ve been sitting in front of my computer for the last ten minutes trying to figure out why I should write this post. My main concern is that it will only make sense to me and that, even after I make the proverbial thirty revisions creating a somewhat coherent text from beginning to end from what would otherwise be a collection of random  and unrelated anecdotes,  it will seem incoherent/redundant/stupid/pointless (reader’s choice).

The worst part is that I think that I nailed it down with the first sentence I wrote and only when I went to add a second word insecurity creeped in. I’ve also gotten into a fairly decent routine with book reviews and straying from them feels odd. Perhaps the right thing to do would be to write a disclaimer with huge big fucking words.

“WARNING: THE FOLLOWING POST IS VERY  RANDOM AND IT TREADS ON TOPICS THAT I’VE PREVIOUSLY WRITTEN ABOUT SO YOU MIGHT AS WELL DO JUST ABOUT ANYTHING ELSE OTHER THAN READING THE TEXT BELOW”

Now that I’ve gotten all my existential dread out of my system – and what better way to do that than by having a complete breakdown and posting it on the Internet – I think I’ll go back to my original first sentence to tell you how I discovered the magnificent writer David Foster Wallace.

I’ve wanted to do this for a long long time. When I first started this blog, one of the main objectives I had (besides book reviews that chronicle my reading habits), was to trace back the path that leads me to a book. Whether it is by mere chance (Dracula), nostalgia (Tolkien: The Painter), or a gift (Cathing the Big Fish) I like looking at the bread crumbs to see if I can identify the source that ultimately lead me to a book or an author whose work speaks to me on a personal level. In the case of David Foster Wallace the first crumb fell more than a decade ago in an office.

In the year 2007 the fourth season of “The Office: An American Workplace” had come to halt due to the writer’s guild strike. I had begun watching the show soon after the end of season two when Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly’s will-they-won’t-they romance was at a fever pitch, and two seasons later I was still committed one hundred per cent to the succesful coupling of those characters. (Context: This was at a time when I was hoping that my best friend would actually fall in love with me, so one can imagine why I responded so strongly to Jim’s predicament). Even though by season four the characters were together, the writer’s strike had left me wanting more so I went looking in IMDb to find out about The Office’s return. Going through all the different articles and post I read that John Krasinsky (Jim Halpert) would be taking his first stab at directing by adapting the book “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” by David Foster Wallace. Two years later I finally watched it.

Without going into too much details and to avoid spoilers in my next post, the problem with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men as a movie is that it is very slow and lacks any real sense of character. Despite an amazing cast and the richness of the source material it feels both pretentious and looks amateurish. I think that Krasinsky did not have the experience or the skills to pull this off so unfortunately his passion-project passed without much recognition from the general crowd and was quickly discarded in my film library.

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A few years into the future another sitcom ruled the world: “How I met your Mother”. Theodore Evelyn Mosby, “Ted” to his gang of friends, and his never-ending quest to find “The Mother” had conquered TV audiences thanks to its creative reverse story telling and the growing popularity of womanizer Barney Stinson played to perfection by Neil Patrick Harris. In a similar cycle of repetition I found myself hooked on a show with a romantic underdog and once again I prowled IMDb looking for more information on the show. In this search I found out that Josh Radnor (Ted) was going to direct his second film called “Liberal Arts”, and once again I made a mental note after watching the trailer.

Liberal Arts is a well-executed, competently directed film that is pretty much harmless to the casual viewer and that may resonate with people who miss their college days; I’d also recommend it to fans of the Ted character in HIMYM since Radnor pretty much plays the same notes in this film. There are a couple of scenes that I really liked centered around the (lack of ) quality of the Twilight books and another one about the calculation of the age difference between the two leads, but the movie also had moments where I was almost waiting for the characters to say “Liberal Arts are more profound people than you” and it felt a bit pedantic. Also, whilst I commend Radnor for directing and writing his own film I wonder if he ever noticed that every single female in this movie is sexually attracted to him.

Pros and cons aside, there is one subplot in the movie that caught my eye. Radnor’s characters meets an awkward and lonely college student and their first conversation pivots around a book that he (the lonely college student) is reading for a second time and that Radnor’s character also read obsessively during his college days. Minor spoilers ahead: In the third act of the movie the college student tries to commit suicide Radnor’s  character tells him that he does not have to be like the author of the book – which again is unnamed – and in fact he should read something stupidly bad (Twilight). This unnamed book and unnamed author piqued my interest and once again thanks to IMDb I found the name of both: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

This time I got curious enough to research deeper on David Foster Wallace and I learned about the impact of Infinite Jest, his other works on fiction and non-fiction and his suicide at age forty six after struggling with depression. However, after doing the research my immediate reaction towards his work was intimidation – or in far more simplistic terms I thought “Whoa, this is BIG BOY reading” -, so I didn’t immediately jump into his writings which, at first glance, show no clear reference point as Infinite Jest is well-known for its difficulty and behemoth-sized.

The path set by The Office/Brief Interviews with Hideous Men/How I Met Your Mother/Liberal Arts had guided me to the figure of David Foster Wallace but did not manage to make me commit to one of his books. That honour goes to the essay “This is Water” and to the movie “The End of the Tour”.

This is Water by David Foster Wallace is a speech first given to the 2005  graduating class at Kenyon College. It is a beautiful text dealing with the importance of empathy and awareness beyond our self-centered default mechanism that expertly communicates a sense of optimism. It is the one piece of his that I constantly re-read and that I keep always on my phone because it is both inspiring and motivating and because it really helps me to put things in perspective. If you’ve managed to reach this point in this text, please indulge me a bit further and listen to his speech:

The End of the Tour has been the other big reason why I decided to read David Foster Wallace and that was, in fact, part of the subject of my very first post. Editorial note: after this sentence I re-read my very first post in this blog, where I talked about this movie. It is funny how I’m still echoing some of the sentiments in that post.

The film, as past-me said, is “a road-movie based on the trip that David Foster Wallace (played by Jason Segel of How I Met Your Mother fame) and Dave Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg of The Social Network fame) took to promote Wallace’s famous book Infinite Jest. Lipsky, an unknown writer working as a reporter for Rolling Stone, covets Wallace’s achievements, thus creating the whole dynamic of the film”.

To this day, I still re-watch it from time to time. The conversations in The End of The Tour create a sense of kinship in me. It has become one of those perfect background movies that I can have on whilst I’m working on something  and that I can just jump into for a few minutes. As someone who loves books and that has been struggling with the idea of writing one for many years, hearing rationalized conversations about the sensations that I felt but that I wasn’t able to put into words was like finding a beacon of sanity. Every fear, hope and reality about writing is directly or indirectly present throughout each conversation.

It has been more than two years since The End of the Tour came out but I’ve finally read my first David Foster Wallace book and I’m happy to announce that the decade-old trail of crumbs has led me to a fantastic book and an amazing author. Next post it comes full circle: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace. Until then, thanks for reading!

A Brief History of Time by Stephen W. Hawking (A brief review)

A Brief History of Time by Stephen W. Hawking (A brief review)

I bought Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time for one euro in my favorite used book store. I wasn’t really sure about this purchase– obviously not because of the price tag –, because I was worried that a book regarding physics would not make for a very interesting reading in my mathematics-friendly-yet-low-attention-span mind. Fortunately the paperback I bought had a seal of approval in the cover that calmed all my fears: Introduction by Carl Sagan. This introduction dissipated all the doubts I had, and I can think of no better way to start this review than by quoting what Sagan wrote about A Brief History of Time.

A Brief History of Time
Couldn’t find a decent picture on the web that had the exact cover of my paperback. Sorry for the quality of the picture

This, Hawking’s first book for the nonspecialist, holds rewards of many kinds for the lay audience. As interesting as the book’s wide-ranging contents is the glimpse it provides of the workings of its author’s mind. In this book are lucid revelations on the frontiers of physics, astronomy, cosmology, and courage.

This is also a book about God … or perhaps about the absence of God. The word God fills this pages.

In 211 pages Stephen Hawking achieves quite a feat. Not only does he manage to give a history lesson on all the subjects Carl Sagan mentions, but he also describes each one of them in a way that is understandable for the casual reader. In all the topics regarding physics – which is ninety percent of the book – Stephen Hawking does a fantastic job explaining everything in simple terms, with each chapter usually starting with a basic idea that is gradually developed and fitted in a holistic vision of the universe. Hawking seems capable of easily identifying concepts or ideas that may be difficult to understand and, whenever that is the case, he usually asks the reader to visualize particular scenarios (nearly in all cases accompanied by Jon Miller’s helpful illustrations) to help with the explanation. Editorial note: through no fault of Hawkin’s and most likely due to a particularly dense day on my part I found that the chapters titled “Elementary Particles and the Forces of Nature”, “Black Holes” and “Black Holes Ain’t so Black” where a bit too complicated even with illustrations.

What I enjoyed the most about A Brief History of Time are the casual anecdotes. The first chapter, “Our Picture of the Universe“, begins with a very funny one that sets up what the entire book is all about: What do we know about the universe, and how do we know it?

A well-known scientist once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the end of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down”

I guess you could say that the anecdotes in this book make his relativity a bit more about relatability (PU TUN TA!). From Hawking’s personal adventures, like his participation in a convention organized by the Catholic church (where I learned that they -the church- embraced the Big Bang Theory originally proposed by Hawking because it fits with the idea of a creator) to Einstein’s disregard of quantum mechanics (despite his role in its development) with the famous phrase “God does not play with dice” to Newton’s apparently unpleasant persona, the anecdotes in A Brief History of Time provide moments of levity within what is essentially a book about physics, and they give an added value (at least for me) to what Hawking is talking about because they show that he has a good sense of humor, curiosity, and most importantly that he loves a good story.

Wordplay aside there is so much more to this book that I enjoyed. As Carl Sagan mentions in his introduction, this book is filled with the word God and, as someone who struggles with this idea, I loved reading what Hawking has to say about the role that a creator would play in the universe. I also found very interesting the whole idea of deterministic VS probabilistic models  (here is where Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Einstein’s dices collide), as it sparked an idea in regards to the actual probability (or lack of) of predicting the future – a science-fiction concept if there ever was one –.

Random Meta-Trivia: and if you ever read Hannibal by Thomas Harris you’ll learn that Hannibal Lecter also finds some of Hawking’s ideas very interesting, particularly the one related to a broken tea cup. I just love these coincidences!

“Dr Lecter was watching a film called A Brief History of Time, about the great astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and his work. He had watched it many times before. This was his favorite part, where the teacup falls off the table and smashes on the floor.

Hawking, twisted in his wheelchair, speaks in his computer-generated voice: “Where does the difference between the past and the future come from? The laws of science do not distinguish between the past and the future. Yet there is a big difference between the past and future in ordinary life.

“You may see a cup of tea fall off of a table and break into pieces on the floor. But you will never see the cup gather itself back together and jump back on the table.”

The film, run backward, shows the cup reassembling itself on the table. Hawking continues: “The increase of disorder or entropy is what distinguishes the past from the future, giving a direction to time.”

Dr Lecter admired Hawking’s work very much and followed it as closely as he could in the mathematical journals. He knew that Hawking had once believed the universe would stop expanding and would shrink again, and entropy might reverse itself. Later Hawking said he was mistaken.

Lecter was quite capable in the area of higher mathematics, but Stephen Hawking is on another plane entirely from the rest of us. For years Lecter had teased the problem, wanting very much for Hawking to be right the first time, for the expanding universe to stop, for entropy to mend itself, for Mischa, eaten, to be whole again.”

I finished reading this book on the 4th of November 2017 (lots of work and travelling hence the reason for the delay in the review). For those loyal followers thanks for reading and stay tuned for more broken tea cups in two reviews!

Hannibal by Thomas Harris (Jodie Foster’s choice)

Hannibal by Thomas Harris (Jodie Foster’s choice)

I was not planning on reading this book so soon. Both Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs left a wonderful taste (link to that review is right here), and I was worried that the third dish in Hannibal’s menu would spoil my enjoyment of those novels. After all, this is the book that fans are split upon. Some say it is nowhere near as good as the previous two and others say it is superior (Stephen King is in this camp). Alas! Once again browsing through my favourite used book store I found a paperback of Hannibal for two euros and I just couldn’t resist buying it. Random Trivia: The book was in fantastic condition. Inside there was a signature “Laura 01/01”. I wonder why Laura got rid of it…

A novel based on Hannibal had a couple of things going against it. First is the hype and the risk of comparison: Both Red Dragon & Silence were huge hits, and once Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster embodied those characters on film they became part of mainstream culture, so the pressure on Harris to deliver something as good as his previous works must have been immense. Second, in both novels Hannibal is not at the centre of the story and maybe that is why he is so effective. This begs the question: Will knowing more about the character kill his appeal?

Before I address these two points and even if I run the risk of being unpopular among fans of the first two novels – that will of course flood my blog, AMIRITE? –, I have to point out that both Red Dragon and The Silence of The Lambs are very similar books: the structure is the same, they have the same length, same genres, both main protagonists are FBI, both antagonist have a fairly similar idea of becoming/transforming into something else. This is not meant to take away anything from them, I think they are fantastic books and I really like the different spin on the same type of story, but I believe that some readers could have been expecting more of the same on the third novel and were disappointed when Hannibal didn’t tread familiar grounds.

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Book cover of the paperback edition I got. Thanks Laura!

Hannibal is not The Silence of the Lambs Part Two. I think Thomas Harris was smart enough to realize that he had to go in a different direction with this novel and avoid replicating his previous work, so this time around, instead of a thriller, he delivered a grotesque character study centred around – but not focused on – Hannibal. This forces the reader to look at the story on its own, making all comparisons a matter of taste rather than quality, and it also keeps the character of Hannibal a mystery. 

When I was reading the book, I felt that Harris understood that revealing more about the character would ruin him (and before you bring up Hannibal Rising please note that Dino de Laurentiis basically put Thomas Harris on the spot to write it), so instead of a story from Hannibal’s perspective he delivered a rich tapestry of old and new characters deeply affected and pivoting around the figure of Hannibal.

As far as new characters go the Vergers were my favourites. Both Mason & Margot Verger were once patients of Hannibal. He, a sadistic, brutal, crippled monster, is the only known surviving victim of Hannibal – who made him cut off and eat his own face – and is dedicating all his fortune from the meat-packing industry to capture and torture him. She, an unfertile lesbian body builder, abused by her brother since she was little, needs to cooperate with him to fulfil her desire to have a child with her partner.

Sticking strictly to the above paragraph, these two characters may seem a bit too much –almost caricatures –, but in the expert hands of Thomas Harris they are both wonderful additions to the story. Mason is a disgusting human being psychologically and Hannibal saw this from the very beginning and merely made his appearance match the inside, and Margot and her relation with Barney is one of the highlights in the novel; in a way she is almost a twisted version of Clarice, determined and strong but brutalized and broken by her brother.

On the other hand Chief Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi, a member of the Italian that has fallen out of grace, didn’t bring much to the table as a character, but this is compensated by the most beautiful passages describing Florence and its history (a city were the author spent a few years living), and also the re-introduction of Hannibal under his new façade.

From The Silence of the Lambs, we also get appearances from Jack Crawford, Krendler, Barney and Clarice Sterling. For the past seven years since the Buffalo Bill case ended, Krendler has been sabotaging Clarice’s career for robbing him out of all the fame and glory, but Jack Crawford remains a firm supporter of Clarice and gets her out of the political cogs of the FBI for one last attempt before his retirement to capture Hannibal. Barney no longer works in the mental hospital that once held Hannibal prisoner but remains oddly connected to him after all this time.

But what about Clarice? What has happened to the one rising star of the FBI?

As mentioned before, the capture of Buffalo Bill was a curse in disguise. All the unwanted recognition she received for that case created jealousy and bitterness (not just from Krendel), and the once idealistic agent begins to see cracks in the FBI. The determination that endeared her to the reader in the first novel is still there all throughout the story until the last part titled A Long Spoon where things take a weird twist; and which made Jodie Foster decline the chance to reprise her role in the movie sequel.

Warning: I’m going to go into heavy details about the end of the book, so if all the above has piqued your interest I suggest you stop reading.

In the last part of the novel Hannibal takes Clarice away to a safe place to begin a treatment of hypnosis and drug induced hallucinations. This gets Clarice to slowly open on past traumas dealing with her father’s death, and it also strips her personality away in order to make room for Misha, Hannibal’s dead sister. When these sessions are over Clarice offers herself to Hannibal. The book ends after a year has passed with Barney seeing both Clarice and Hannibal together at the opera in Buenos Aires.

Miss Foster’s thoughts on what this ending meant for Clarice was that it betrayed everything that Clarice stood for in The Silence of the Lambs; hence her (unofficial)reason to refuse reprising the role that gave her a second Oscar (despite the fact that the final movie had a completely different ending).

My personal opinion is that the ending of the novel was a good idea but that it wasn’t particularly well executed. I understand what Hannibal is trying to achieve and how he is trying to achieve it. He is the ultimate manipulator and has the skills to do it. However, we’ve been inside Clarice’s head for two novels. We know how she ticks and how stubborn and firm she can be, so for her to end up like a puppet in the hands of Hannibal with no qualms, no real struggle or fight just seemed off and a bit anticlimactic. An argument could be made that Hannibal understands and accepts her for what she is, or more accurately for what she could be, so it’d make sense for Clarice to offer herself to him, but I’d have to remove the hypnosis and drugs from the equation in order for the catharsis to ring true. Another argument could be made that Clarice ends up seeing that her believes have gotten her nowhere and embraces the catharsis that Hannibal offers. 

Ultimately, I like the idea that Clarice and Hannibal end up together because it is twisted and it is unexpected  unlike the movie , but something in the execution of how they end up together felt off and I wish that she had embraced Hannibal voluntarily rather than through active manipulation on Hannibal’s side. Regardless of the end, I immensely enjoyed reading Hannibal. Thomas Harris is an expert story-teller, a fantastic talent developing interesting characters and his pacing is spot on. Will I go for the fourth Hannibal book? Actively no, but for another two euros I just might have to consider it.

I finished reading Hannibal the 28th of October of 2017.