Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Still Life with Woodpecker

            Still Life with Woodpecker* is not exactly as advertised. The back of the book claims it “is sort of a love story that takes place inside a pack of Camel cigarettes” (Robbins, back cover). Knowing Tom Robbins’ quirkiness, I figured he’d be just the guy to write a novel that literally involved two cigarettes falling in love. Turns out, it’s actually about two unlikely lovers (an exiled princess, Leigh-Cheri, and a dynamite-obsessed outlaw, Bernard) who bond through symbolism in the cig’s package while separated.

            I fell in love with Robbins when I read Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. He creatively infuses his novels with feminism that empowers women and men. He also really likes to talk about sex. This particular novel touches on both the burdens and wonders of female reproduction. Robbins’ female characters use their womanhood to their advantage instead of allowing biology and society to bring them down. Yet men are not shunned in this process—they have a role. For instance, Robbins revises the princess story prototype, having the princess play the hero. Leigh-Cheri says, “‘Fairy tales and myths are dominated by accounts of rescued princesses…isn’t it about time that a princess returned the favor” (Robbins, 16)? Still, Bernard does not lose his heroic attributes. He doesn’t want to “save” her or affirm her every thought; he challenges her and picks apart her ideas, which ultimately helps her refine them.

            The best way to describe Robbins’ works as a whole is to compare him to Vonnegut. Robbins is similar to Vonnegut in that he employs peculiar metaphors that sometimes involve cheap puns (although they never fail to make you giggle). He’s similar to Vonnegut in that his books are interconnected and he leaves little Easter Eggs in each to create that link. He’s similar to Vonnegut in that he’s socially conscious and makes poetic digs at established systems. He’s similar to Vonnegut in that he uses ongoing jokes within each story à la Arrested Development. He’s similar to Vonnegut in that he introduces a preposterous predicament, unintended to be taken literally, and somehow makes the reader incredibly curious as to what will happen next, even though anything could happen next because he’s operating outside the realm of external reality. And he’s similar to Vonnegut in that each scene has some existential import—asking big questions like “Who knows how to make love stay” (Robbins, 4)? He’s not similar to Vonnegut in that Vonnegut has a heavy science-fiction streak while Robbins’ esotericism is more of this world. That being said, if you enjoy Vonnegut, chances are you’ll enjoy Robbins, and vice versa.

            I clearly admire Robbins’ work and I think he’s a pretty chill guy IRL. He makes fantastical tales relatable and serves satire on a platter well-done. Still, I enjoyed Even Cowgirls Get the Blues better than Woodpecker. Perhaps having already been exposed to his style I was less shocked by his skills and thus slightly less impressed. So, Still Life with Woodpecker earns 3 out of 5 camel humps. While the story has plenty of Robbins-pizzazz, there were moments when I was not as engaged with the Camel-box symbolism and wished it had been a story of two literal cigarettes falling in love. If you’re a Robbins-virgin, I recommend Cowgirlsit has the same basic feminist values appealing to both sexes but packs a bigger punch.


*Robbins, Tim. Still Life with Woodpecker. New York: Bantam Dell, 1980. Print.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

           Meet Monkey, my thirteen-year-old brother. His real name is Treyson (“third” “son”), but when he was born I didn’t like that name. I had a bad teacher named Mrs. Rayson and a bully in my class named Trey, so I channeled my inner preteen brat and renamed him Tanner, which has served as his name ever since. A few years ago I nicknamed him Monkey because he’s little and always hangs on bigger people like the aforementioned primate. When Monk has short hair he looks like this...
and when he has long hair and makes this face, he looks like Robert De Niro.

I’m 12.5 years older than him because he was an accident child, so our relationship is unique. When he came into the world I was old enough to realize that being an ass-hat to your younger siblings is actually pretty wack and I was young enough to be the cool, suave older sister. I really like my brother, he’s arguably my favorite primate on the planet, but let me be clear: I do not want to raise him. I get to take him to movies and stay up late with him and break the rules. I don’t have to dole out punishment or make sure he gets to school on time or question why he doesn’t eat his veggies. Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius* did not have that choice. At age 21, his family fell apart when both of his parents died within five weeks of each other. His mother’s death was imminent, as she had been suffering from gastric cancer, while his father’s death was relatively surprising. Dave was forced to become primary caregiver for his youngest brother Toph, who was eight at the time of his parent’s death. I don’t know about you guys, but at age 21 I was learning the art of a mixed drink, not the art of convincing little kids that brushing your teeth is important. Admittedly, I had to Google “what do eight year olds do” to finish the last part of the previous sentence. I didn’t find anything interesting, so I guess I’m going the eight-year-olds-probably-brush-their-teeth-or-at-least-they-should route.

Dave’s transition from playful older brother to roommate/father figure was as tumultuous as you’d expect. What you don’t necessarily expect is Dave’s gripping prose. He’s straddling the threshold of adulthood/responsibility and youth/recklessness and he unhesitatingly lobotomizes himself for readers, allowing us to penetrate the depths of his struggles and confusion. He writes with a manic-depressive tone, excitedly portraying his predicament as an opportunity in one breath and dejectedly reflecting on the potential martyrdom of his twenties in another. On the one hand, he has “this amazing chance to right the wrongs of [his] own upbringing” (Eggers, 117). Toph’s “brain is [his] laboratory” where Dave can input his own life views and raise Toph in a way that specifically corrects the mistakes his own parents made (Eggers, 49). On the other hand, this duty to rightly-raise his kin leaves no margin for error. No pressure or anything. Dave is overwhelmed with guilt as he (semi-jokingly) questions whether his poor cooking/cleaning skills and his inability to show up anywhere on time will result in Toph growing up to be a mass murderer or pet torturer. Toph is a responsibility that is sometimes a burden despite the fact that Dave loves him tremendously.
           
Dave’s life is worth reading in and of itself but what made the memoir the critically acclaimed bestseller that it is was Dave’s ability to be terribly funny amidst his terrible tragedies. He’s a self-conscious smart ass who manages to even make the typically bland Copyrights page laugh-out-loud amusing. He combines Nick Flynn’s poetic insight in Another Bullshit Night in Suck City with Joseph Heller’s satirical witticisms in Catch-22. He’s comedic in the way he writes and the way he interacts with others in real life. For instance, he starts a fringe magazine with his friends that runs segments like “What’s Hot/What’s Not”. “What’s Hot” lists things like the sun and lava (molten). “What’s Not” lists things like a cold beverage and lava (hardened) (Eggers, 172).

Still, Dave's comedy does not shroud his brutal honesty. He’s talking about really sad stuff in really intimate ways and he doesn’t shy away from explaining things as they really are. When he walks into a room, he paints a blatant picture of what everyone is thinking, saying, and feeling. And sometimes it’s ugly. But it’s true. There are multiple layers to his reaction to his parent’s death and he won’t stop until he picks through them all. He honors parts of his parent’s lives while recognizing their flaws. He admits that while his situation is awful, there is a celebrity associated with orphan-ism, a “good brother” status that comes with raising Toph, and an advantage to playing the “tragic guy” card. He obsessively combs through these conflicting emotions, showing the reader how unhinged he is by feeling all of these things at once. Furthermore, the death of his parents and the darkness that follows him like a cloud thereafter produces a kind of hypochondria where he fears that terrible things will continue to happen to him and his friends. This transmutes into a belief that he deserves these terrible things. The man is taking a psychological beating.

When I originally picked up this book-- at the astute recommendation of my book-loving friend Shreya—I thought the title was merely goofy and dramatic. Eggers is both goofy and dramatic… but the story is truly heartbreaking and the writing is staggeringly genius. It resonated with me by reminding me of my dear relationship with my youngest brother (Pic on left: 2015, reasonably spaced eyebrows. Pic on right: 2005, questionably spaced eyebrows). 


Nevertheless, I think that it will resonate with most readers because of its openness. A writer who is sincere in his struggles and conveys that sincerity skillfully is worthy of reading and as such, I give this book 5 out of 5 camel humps.


*Eggers, Dave. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. New York: Vintage Books, 2000. Print.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Man's Search for Meaning

            A few weeks ago, I realized that several of the books I review are deep, dark, and depressing. I’ve chosen books that discuss homelessness, random deadly diseases, attempted suicide, child molestation, dystopia government, murderous crime, and ones with morbid titles like As I Lay Dying. I figured I’d change it up and pick something on the lighter side: Man’s Search for Meaning* by Viktor Frankl. Because who isn’t down for a casual existential reflection on whether your life is worth anything at all.
           
            Exciting news for all of you readers: Frankl thinks that your life can be meaningful! Frankl, a Jewish, Austrian boy born in 1905, practiced as an esteemed psychologist and neurologist until he and his wife were deported to Auschwitz in 1944. He spent three years in concentration camps thereafter. Unlike many of the camp’s prisoners, Frankl was interested in his deplorable environment from a professional standpoint. As he suffered, he studied his own mind and the responses of his fellow men and women, hoping that he’d eventually be freed and have the chance to share his observations. He believed that looking to the future gave him something to live for, which contributed to his health both mentally and physically. “In the words of Nietzsche: ‘He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How’” (Frankl, ix).
           
            Upon liberation—an event that he poignantly described—Frankl shared a new kind of psychotherapy: logotherapy. Logotherapy derives from the belief that “the striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man” (Frankl, 99).  Frankl claims that when ask ourselves-- Lyndsay, what is the meaning of life? —we’re asking the wrong question. (When we say – Lyndsay, it obviously involves watching Breaking Bad while snuggling your dachshunds – we’re giving the wrong answer). Instead of framing the question in a vague, all encompassing way, we should be looking at minute moments. Each individual moment is an opportunity to find meaning in life. Consequently, “meaning” means different things for different people. Frankl explains, “To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: ‘Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?’ There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence” (Frankl, 108). My move is different than your move. Checkmate, bitches.
           
            Of course, there’s this whole predestination debacle. Not in the religious sense, but in the nature-nurture sense-- the notion that how you’re biologically built + what your upbringing is like  = who you are as a person. Frankl says that based on his experiences at the hands of the Nazis, he can confidently assert that men are able to act freely in response to their conditions. Condemnation to a concentration camp does not automatically necessitate pessimism, death, or meaninglessness. Namely, prisoners can triumph over their suffering, and in doing so discover a deep inner value and sense of achievement. According to Frankl, suffering is inevitable. By viewing that suffering as a challenge and an opportunity to rise above, your life is rendered meaningful. As Frankl saw all of the horrific agony around him, he trusted that those who were dying and suffering were still capable of leading meaningful lives.

            In addition to responding to suffering, logotherapy holds that we can experience meaning in life through creating/doing and experiencing/encountering others (Frankl, 111). Thus, his psychotherapy applies to all humans at all points in time. As such, he imbues even the most mundane choices with great import. In logotherapy, we have the freedom to act in certain ways. Similar to Spiderman, with great freedom comes great responsibility; you have a responsibility towards yourself to act in a way that dignifies your life.

The first portion of the book chronicles his time at the hands of Hitler and the second half introduces a cohesive ideology that he hopes to relate to the masses. In the former, I was intrigued in a way that felt almost sadistic. Because I cannot possibly imagine the awfulness that Frankl and millions of others endured, I am curious, sympathetic, despondent, and astounded all in one. Truthfully, I have not read much literature about the Holocaust, and most of my knowledge stems from museums and history textbooks. I was shocked to learn about the terror of the Capos—prisoners who were entrusted by SS guards to reign over other prisoners (Frankl, 4). They were among their own people and yet so many of them exercised their privilege in the form of immense cruelty. How is this not blatantly evident and advertised in history books? If it is… how have I not taken that to heart and remembered it? Man’s Search for Meaning enlightened me on historical facts of the Holocaust from a first-hand perspective, and for that I am grateful.

The latter half was existentially interesting. I have the utmost respect for Frankl; he was a remarkable man (he passed in 1997 at age 92!) who did a lot of good for a lot of people, reassuring them of their value in the world. He was an incredibly smart man with an incredibly impressive moral compass. When speaking of his liberation and his fellow prisoner’s difficulty in accepting their own fate and the fate of their tormenters, he states, “no one has the right to do wrong, even if wrong has been done to them” (Frankl, 91). And I’m over here ready to bitch slap someone if they stand on the wrong side of the escalator in the city. The man behind the book deserves 5 out of 5 camel humps.  The book itself, admittedly, deserves 3 out of 5 camel humps. As an absurdist, I’m biased. I think that the pursuit of meaning in life is fundamentally impossible (uplifting, I know). So, I take what he says with a grain of salt, acknowledging that while I don’t buy what he’s selling, he still has thought provoking ideas that help me further articulate what I personally espouse.


*Frankl, Victor. Man's Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006. Print.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Wild: From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail

            Over Thanksgiving break, I embraced my Texas roots and went hunting with my dad and younger brothers. For my “hunting book”, I chose Wild: From Lost of Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed.  I thought to myself I’m totally just like this woman in the book who backpacked 1,100 miles through the wilderness because I’m sleeping in a campervan for three days and peeing outside. The memoir makes for a better story than my “camping” trip. The run down is as follows: Cheryl is devastated by the premature and tragically painful death of her mother (Bobbi) who happens to be her best friend. Her dad was an abusive dick and eventually Bobbi fled with Cheryl and her two siblings.  Bobbi’s single-working-mother status did not dilute her optimism and immense love for her children. When she passed, Cheryl unraveled as a human being. Her experimental nature became hazardous as she dabbled with heroin and random, unprotected sex. Consequentially, her marriage dissolved and her friendships waned. In order to redeem herself from rock bottom, she decides to hike a famously challenging West coast trail and regain the “Cheryl Strayed” she had lost with the loss of her mom. I did not do any heroin while on my hunting trip (thanks a lot for being so uptight, dad) but I did eat exclusively meat with no side dishes for every meal, which is probably just as unhealthy.
           
Incidentally, I snapped this charming, rugged photo.

I had just sniped a deer (swag) and had to set my book down while I went to retrieve my future noms. When I returned, I noticed how picturesque it all looked and couldn’t help capturing the moment. Not pictured: a dead deer to the right of the frame and the irony that Bobbi was an avid anti-hunter and animal rights activist.

I read this memoir while in the deer stand next to my dad. He was probably judging me seeing as I spent most of the time stifling sniffles because this book is about death, struggle, restoration, and all those other things that make you feel simultaneously happy and sad. Of course, I can’t just let my emotions get the best of me when I have to maintain a hunter-mindset, awaiting unsuspecting animals with bated breath. That’s tough to do when Cheryl Strayed is making you feel all of the feels.

Some readers will recognize this story from the 2014 widely praised and aptly named film, Wild. Reese Witherspoon was nominated for an Oscar for her heart wrenching portrayal of Cheryl. Of note, Witherspoon is a straight stunner and she manages to pull off the dirt-on-my-face look much better than most. This might actually be the lone case where the movie is (slightly) better than the book. The film hardly deviates from the memoir at all and much of the script is drawn verbatim from the text. While Cheryl’s book offers vivid descriptions of her environment, I think it’s difficult as a reader to fully comprehend the magnitude of her journey in the imagination. I think that the treacherous paths and the physical tolls are more palpably depicted in motion picture format. I mean, Cheryl’s trip was no joke. She was an inexperienced backpacker (as in, she had zero experience) and she was poor, so there was no wiggle room for error as she scraped by on literal nickels and dimes. Her expectations fell *wildly* short of reality. For example, she assumed that she would average 14 miles a day over the course of the trip but in the first few weeks, she was only able to pull off a mile an hour pace (Strayed, 64). She also thought that the hike would be a time of intense personal reflection—a meditation among nature. Instead, her physical sufferings were so all encompassing that she could barely focus on anything else but bodily pain. She lost six toenails in total (as in, they ripped off…) and she collected innumerable bruises from her undersized boots and oversized backpack. Bravely tackling these ailments made her a stronger person both physically and mentally.

Not only was the trail difficult, it was also dangerous. Hiking alone on the trail is perilous. Hiking alone on the trail as a woman is mega perilous. Yet, she found power from within. Cheryl says, “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control” (Strayed, 51). She was intimidated by the trail--with its harsh, unpredictable weather conditions and its bears and mountain lions and rattlesnakes—but she did not let it crush her. She became a part of the raw beauty of her surroundings and realized that she too was beautiful, not just in spite of her mistakes but because of them. Her entire past had led up to this moment, on that trail, and contributed to the deep clarity that she felt having traversed the thousand plus miles. She suggests, “What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done” (Strayed, 258)? Her massive physical and mental achievements encouraged her to embrace and love her whole self, even the self that turned to drugs at a time of overwhelming sorrow. Before her expedition, she dubbed herself “the woman with a hole in her heart”; afterwards, she had earned the name “Queen of the PCT” by her fellow hikers (Strayed, 299).

Because the film captures Cheryl’s despair and transformation so well, I give it 5 out of 5 camel humps. Clearly, though, the movie would not exist without the book. I have deep respect for Cheryl Strayed for what she endured and how she came out the other side. Her triumphs are truly inspirational. Still, in comparison to how the movie stirred my heartstrings, I give the book 4 out of 5 camel humps. Strayed is a remarkable writer (and an ardent reader!) but if you don’t like to read, the film is a perfectly acceptable replacement. Here's the link to the trailer if you want to check it out for yourself: *Trailer*


*Strayed, Cheryl. Wild: From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail. New York: Random House, 2012. Print.