Book Review: My Struggle Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

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4/5 Stars.

This book is brilliant, but it is frustrating. I want to give it a high rating for it’s undeniable magnificence, but a lower rating for the actual experience I had reading it. I suppose I’ll rate it somewhere in the middle.

It begins with a beautiful, deeply philosophical (yet entirely unemotional) musing on the nature of death. Then, the bulk of the book is dedicated to the mundane micro-details of Knausgaard’s childhood and family life—including 100 or so pages about a New Years Eve party he attended when he was a teenager. Diversions lead to other diversions, to the point where I skimmed full pages at a time, eager to get back to the good stuff.

Finally, it all comes full circle in the final third: his father has died, and this book is Knausgaard’s attempt to cope with it. Suddenly, as Death becomes personal for him (no longer abstract as it was in the beginning) the mundane descriptions all start to make sense within the larger context of the book: they allow Knausgaard to apply that same detailed scrutiny to his father’s death, and in doing so, reduce it to a similar level of banality.

It’s a frustrating read in its unevenness. There are passages of sheer beauty, depth and intimacy alongside boring recollections of past events. This is purposeful, but that doesn’t necessarily make it less frustrating as a reader.

It’s certainly one of those books whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I feel satisfied and fulfilled upon completing it, yet there were times in the middle when I was tempted to bail.

Will I read the next one? My answer is a begrudging yes. Knausgaard has a hold on me now, whether I like it or not.

Book Review: The Fire This Time by Jesmyn Ward

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4.5/5 Stars.

A book like this is especially important right now. Amid the Black Lives Matter movement, the widespread national anthem protests and the recent election of a racist president, The Fire This Time digs deep into the legacy of racism in America and what it means to be black in the past, in the present and in the future.

Curated by National Book Award-winning author Jesmyn Ward and dedicated to Trayvon Martin, it’s an anthology divided into three parts: Legacy, Reckoning and Jubilee.

Each writer is tasked with examining what Ward calls “the ugly truths that plague us in this country.” The essays and poems contained within are deeply personal in nature, filled with anger, sadness, and hope.

White people in America (myself included, of course) can never truly understand what it’s like to endure unfathomable injustices based on the color of our skin. I believe that we have a responsibility to listen to black voices and become more empathetic and aware. The Fire This Time joins Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me as as an important work of non-fiction that can help us with that. Like Coates’ book, this one wasn’t written for us (white people), but we can all become better people by reading it.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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4.5/5 Stars.

This beautiful, heartbreaking memoir by late neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi is a stunning meditation on life, death and – above all – what makes life meaningful. It’s the cruelest of ironies that a brilliant man who would surely make a lasting impression in the field of neurosurgery was stricken with stage IV lung cancer at the young age of 36, just as his career was about to really begin. Paul faced the unbearable certainty of his fate with incredible dignity; When Breath Becomes Air is a testament to his limitless insight into the existential quandaries that plague us all in the face of our inevitable mortality.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

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2/5 Stars

If you like learning about the best and worst kind of soil on which to build a skyscraper or all the bureaucratic details that stand in between the construction of new buildings, you’re gonna love this book!

I know it’s universally adored, but this nonfiction book – which chronicles the construction of the 1893 World’s Fair and the simultaneous rise of infamous serial killer H.H. Holmes – really didn’t do it for me. In fact, I had to force myself through most of it.

I appreciated the juxtaposing stories of two vehemently ambitious men (Holmes and Daniel Burnham, the architectural mastermind behind the World’s Fair), but I mostly found myself skimming through the Burnham parts and eagerly awaiting the Holmes parts. (Though even they were admittedly underwhelming.)

Perhaps you should take my opinion with a grain of salt though, as historical nonfiction isn’t a favorite genre of mine to begin with.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

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4.5/5 Stars.

In this powerful memoir, Viktor Frankl recalls the years he spent in a Nazi concentration camp during World War 2, providing readers with a deeply intellectual and analytical account of the suffering he and millions of others endured. His time at Auschwitz inspired him to create a school of psychotherapy called logotherapy, which he explains in the second part of the book.

Much of logotherapy is based on Nietzsche’s quote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Frankl goes on to suggest that man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life – and that man can find meaning in unavoidable suffering, specifically in the attitude he takes toward it.

 

Rabid by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

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2.5/5 Stars.

So, I randomly decided to read this book about rabies…because why not? I mean, there’s something inherently fascinating about a virus that has a 100% fatality rate once symptoms are present.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find this to be as thrilling and entertaining as the reviews suggested. The first few chapters focused far too much on the cultural history of the dog, which wasn’t really what I signed up for. It did finally get interesting when the focus shifted to Louis Pasteur and vaccination, zoonotic diseases in general, theories on how rabies has factored into the evolution of vampires and zombies and stories about victims and survivors.

I found some of Wasik’s narrative confusing, and sometimes contradictory. I wound up doing some of my own research to supplement what I was reading. I did learn some interesting things though. Here are two of my favorite takeaways:

  • Rabies can cause frequent and involuntary ejaculation in men
  • Bat bites are the cause of nearly all human rabies infections in the U.S., accounting for 32 of 33 deaths from domestic exposure since 1990. Why? Because bat bites are so subtle that people can be infected without their being aware of it, especially in the night, when a bat bite is sometimes not even painful enough to wake up a sleeping human. The CDC actually recommends that anyone who awakens with a bat in his or her room seek out vaccination for rabies. Scary, right?

Overall, not as interesting as I wanted it to be. Though, admittedly, I tend to prefer fiction over nonfiction, so it takes a lot for a nonfiction book to truly impress me.

The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science by Will Storr

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4.5/5 Stars.

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but when a friend mentioned this book, I was immediately intrigued.

Once I started reading it, I was hooked.

Will Storr is successful in so many ways in the writing of this book: He’s an enthralling storyteller. He’s a tenacious investigative journalist. And somehow he manages to tackle everything from Creationism to Morgellons, from homeopathy to alien abduction, from ritual abuse to false memories, from Holocaust deniers to psychics…without coming across as condescending or self-righteous. That in and of itself is quite the feat.

Storr’s main thesis is essentially this: We all have our own set of firmly held beliefs and opinions and none of us has ever met anyone who has all the same opinions as we do, yet we each assume that we are right about everything. The conclusion? We are all wrong in that assumption. But what makes us so sure of our convictions?

What follows is an in-depth epistemological exploration of the nature of truth, knowledge and belief. Rather than making it easy on himself and interviewing the abundance stupid people out there who hold tight to preposterous beliefs, Storr is more interested in why intelligent, seemingly rational people believe in Creationism and deny climate change, to use two examples.

Here are some of the takeaways that stood out the most to me. Part of the reason I’m including them is because I want to be able to reference them in the future; they are that fascinating to me.

  • Psychologists conducted a test among groups of people in which they showed them lines that were two different sizes. In each group, all except for one person was an actor. When the actors all said that the lines were the same size, the test subject said the same thing. Further tests showed that he may not have been purposely deceitful, that the consensus of the group may have actually changed his perception of the lines. This is a fascinating example of the powerful influence that groups can have on individual behavior.
  • Storr makes the claim that we are each invisible actors at the center of our own worlds. He writes about confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance, claiming that we are guilty of both. We think we are above being biased, but we aren’t. Furthermore, our brains can only process so much information at a given time, so they will easily accept opinions that fit with our world views so as not to have to rearrange themselves. Even when we attempt to challenge our biases, we often reinforce them because we wind up holding the opposition to much tougher scrutiny.
  • Maybe everything isn’t so black and white. Maybe there’s a gray area. For example, homeopathy can “work” by triggering a powerful placebo effect. Morgellons sufferers may be crazy, but it’s because they’re afflicted by an undiagnosed disorder.
  • Studies show that many of our memories are false, and even go as far as to reveal that recovered memory therapy and hypnosis can cause us to recover memories that didn’t really happen. Test subjects have been prompted to recall a list of memories – one of them completely made up – and haven’t been able to tell which one was false.
  • False accusations are typical in people who subconsciously seek to blame crappy things that happen to them on some outside force. There are even cases in which it is believed that therapists have planted false memories in their patients.
  • We confabulate and tell stories: If there is an obvious explanation, we accept it. When there isn’t, we generate one. We need cause and effect. This can explain why people say that homeopathy works, for example. They feel better and tell themselves that it’s because the remedy worked.
  • Why do we create stories? To make us happy. To give us certainty. One study showed that out of a group of people who had a 50% chance of developing Huntington’s Disease, those who chose to find out if they had it and did have it were happier one year later than those who chose not to find out. They got that certainty, and then they were able to build their narrative around it.

So, what does Storr conclude? Essentially, we can’t ever really know the black-and-white truth about anything. How can we in a world where everyone – including well-respected scientists and psychologists – has his or her own subconscious agenda? When we are each guilty of things like confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance and false memories? You’ll find two brilliant and accomplished individuals who hold completely contrary truths, and who villianize each other to the point where it’s hard to come to any objective conclusions.

We are all crafting our own narratives. Everything we tell ourselves is a story: cause and effect plus emotion. We have certain feelings, and then we subconsciously look for evidence to support these feelings. We confabulate. But ultimately, our stories work against the truth.

Storr concludes that human consciousness is a “hero-maker.” Most of the heretics who he speaks with throughout the course of the book have something in common: They all believe they are fighting against something. And of course, to be a hero, we must have an enemy. We tell stories, we cast monsters, and then we become vulnerable to our own delusional narratives of heroism.

I can honestly say that this book has changed the way I think and altered the way I view the world.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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4.5/5 Stars.

Through Coates’ powerful, lyrical prose – written as a letter to his 15-year-old son – he recalls his experience growing up and living as a black man in America and presents an unapologetic analysis of racial injustice. It’s impossible, in reading this, not to feel his anger, his frustration, his fear, and his grief.

What is especially fascinating, to me, is Coates’ shameless atheism and how it is an essential part of who he is and the experiences that have shaped him. His underlying focus, throughout this book, is the destruction of black bodies throughout history and the grave need that black people have to protect their bodies and bear responsibility for their bodies in ways that many will never understand. “In America,” he writes, “it is traditional to destroy the black body. It is heritage.”

To quote a New York Magazine profile on Coates:

“The heavy force in Between the World and Me — what makes it both unique and bleak — is his atheism. It gives Coates’s writing urgency. To consider the African-American experience without the language of souls and destiny is to strip it of euphemism, and to make the security of African-American bodies even more crucial.”

Atheist undertones aside, Between the World and Me is a profoundly moving book that compels its readers to face harsh truths about the country in which we live, about the racial injustices that formed its history and that persist today in spite of the placating lies that many tell themselves about these injustices being a thing of the past.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

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3/5 Stars.

I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of empathy, so it was nice to read an entire collection of essays devoted to this topic. As expected, I enjoyed some much more than others. Jamison’s writing can be kind of irritating and self-absorbed, as if she’s trying very deliberately to impress her former English professors with her stylistic choices. Rather than emerging with her own distinct voice, much of what she writes feels derivative of the writers, poets and philosophers she cites. Still, the subject matter is undeniably interesting.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

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4.5/5 Stars.

David Foster Wallace could write a 12-page essay about [insert the most boring topic you can imagine] and it would be hilarious, poignant, sad, insightful, and brilliant. This collection of essays features a broad range of topics, each infused with DFW’s wildly entertaining and deeply human analyses. If you’re even vaguely intrigued by him, this is the place to start. Here you’ll find many of the profound personal philosophies at the basis of his fictional works: musings on freedom and choice; irony vs. sentimentality; the American condition; and ultimately what it means to be a human being.