Monday, October 28, 2013

Review of Zorba The Greek

Some top 100 lists include Zorba The Greek in the best books of all time. Gimme a break. Before reading it, I had several times stumbled upon quotes from this work, like the following, which encouraged me to read it, : “All those who actually live the mysteries of life haven't the time to write, and all those who have the time don't live them!” Not bad. But the seemingly profound, extrapolated statements are absolutely wrung dry and beggared by a literary and philosophical context as poor as any I’ve ever read. Zorba is a sensualist, a completely lascivious man able only to offer intuitive observations about the world which came across to me as childish, offhand, and specious. Also, the narrator portrays himself, perhaps unintentionally, as weak-willed and swayed by every insect-like whim of Zorba. He is convinced that Zorba is somehow plugged in deeply to his human ancestral roots and thus closer to the meaning of life than most. I see nothing of the sort. Zorba is honest, passionate, and strong…but not emotionally/ relationally/ intellectually evolved. Reason has, I believe, made possible a better life for mankind, and even if it hasn’t yet been made to work for some, going backward hardly solves our problems. Zorba’s primitive instincts are easy to understand and consistent, but they aren’t forceful or pragmatic in the long run. I understand that the author is attempting to depict a contrast between Zorba and the narrator, between instinct and intellect, but he falls too easily the side of the destitute animal and not the struggling angel in humanity.

More specifically, Zorba is an undisciplined skirt-chaser who punches his boss without a thought about consequences, rages about trivial events, is driven by hunger, changes him mind about the world every day, relentlessly pursues old widows to sleep with in his travels, and harasses his friend when he won’t sleep around with new women that he meets.  To be frank, I just grew sick of Zorba’s crudeness and never-ending rants about his fondness for seducing, and being seduced by, old women. I can only take so much bruv.

Granted, Zorba is interesting, colorful, romantic at times, and a hard worker, but mostly he is a joke. This guy is a Bohemian flop whose libidinous wisdom is simplistic and, if anything from him seems profound, it is quickly mudded over by a raving tantrum or story that clearly identifies him as the idiot some poor village lost. Mostly his cleverness is accidental or it is a primal, instinctual urge transmogrified into something more insightful by the alchemy of the more enlightened narrator. Which reminds me, I did like the narrator’s bash against Buddha, believe it or not, when he referred to Buddha as a person who cleansed himself of a will to live and no longer loved this life. I, personally, think Buddha was more than that within his environment, as he emancipated his Hindu brothers from the tyranny of an old asceticism and helped his followers realize a new form and interpretation of happiness not dependent on material possessions or sensory pleasure. I also think secular Buddhism has a lot to offer Western thinkers, but the author’s jibe against him was well-played nonetheless.

I kept waiting on the book to change tracks and allow the narrator to pull away from Zorba’s extreme lustiness and intemperance, but it didn’t happen. Good luck mining the few gems out of this one.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Review of Bossypants by Tina Fey

Bossypants is Tina Fey’s recollections about her meteoric rise to fame as actor and writer at Saturday night Live, and as actor/writer/producer for 30 Rock.  Some things about her life that I found interesting were:
In kindergarten was slashed across the face while walking home through an alley. To date she hasn’t given any more details than that because she doesn’t want to use it for leverage (making people feel sorry for her).
Her father was a university grant writer, whom she has a lot of respect for.
She got started as an actor with the travelling theater company “Second City”.
She began writing for SNL first, and “After I lost weight, there was interest in putting me on camera." Most famous SNL sketches were Weekend Update and Sarah Palin impersonations.
She began 30 Rock in 2002, and has now finished its final season.
She appeared in films including: Mean Girls, Baby Mama, Invention Of Lying, Date Night, and Admission, the last of which sucked. Sorry Tina.
She is now married and has two children.
She starts off the book with a warning against those trying to moralize from her stories. “If you’re looking for a spiritual allegory in the style of C. S. Lewis, I guess you could piece something together with Lorne Michaels as a symbol for God, and my struggles with hair removal as a metaphor for virtue.” Yeah, she’s not giving anything up easily. Her stiff-arm against over-zealous critics is tantamount to Mark Twain’s famous rebuff for those seeking meaning where he intended no meaning beyond a simple tale to be found, “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order of the Author.” But to the chagrin to all the Tinas and Twains of the world, there’s always a reason a writer writes, and Tina’s is to be found on page 5…sort of. “Why is this book called Bossypants? One, because the name Two And a Half Men was already taken. And two, because ever since I became an executive producer of 30 Rock, people have asked me, “Is it hard for you to be the boss of all these people?” and “Is it uncomfortable for you to be the person in charge?” So Tina spends the rest of the book hilariously describing her journey from being a nerdy, misfit, struggling, improv actress to her current position of a powerful feminist celebrity who is the writer/producer for her own show and a voice for funny, intelligent women all across the U.S….and maybe Bosnia.

Now, I’ll admit that she comes down hard on men who apparently are the cause of all of women’s problems. But, to be fair, our country is still combating sexism even in the workplace, and she has witnessed some pretty pathetic male a-holism in her time. Comedians are such a tremendous forces in any culture, and they have a way of making you laugh at things you wouldn’t normally find funny, and a way of making you see and admit to things you normally suppress. They can make it seem cool to admit that you’re evil, even when you’re not really sure that you’re evil. But kudos to her for being able to make everyone believe that men are pigs. Laughing at stupid people is funny.

Now, to pull a ‘Fox News’ and be ‘fair and balanced’, she also takes shots at superficial women who are photo-shopped into existence. She doesn’t rail against the use of photo shop in general, or being skinny, but she does make jokes at the expense of women who think that people are fooled by their spray-on beauty or who think that being skinny is all there is to happiness. She has been photo-shopped (hardly, she contends) and she has been skinny at times in her life, but she can see through it, and hopes her humanity hasn’t been erased in the cosmetic boost. “You looked forward to them taking out your chicken pix scars and broken blood vessels, but how do you feel when they erase part of you that is perfectly good?”

I will always remember the line I read somewhere, “Humor is just another defense against the universe” (Mel Brooks). True that. It’s worked for Tina somehow, and seems to have preserved a very sweet, intelligent, authentic, and courageous girl against the soul-effacement of success and popularity. Even Einstein said, “With fame I become more and more stupid.”I don’t think Tina is immune to the spirit-sags and wrinkles of celebrity, but she is on guard. Which helps.

Review of Unbroken By Laura Hillenbrand

This was one of the most amazing true stories I have read in recent years. It’s almost too over-the-top to be believable: a punk kid turned Olympian, surviving at sea for forty six days, enduring two and a half years inside Japanese POW camps, and later a conversion at a Billy Graham crusade to boot! It’s four books in one, with each part paced extremely well and holding my attention equally. I remember hearing that Laura Hillenbrand’s previous biography of Seabiscuit, a story about an underdog depression-era racehorse and his campaigning team, was significantly shorn of some of its true dramatic details because it was almost too unbelievable and readers would be incredulous. In much the same way, this story was also larger than life, and though I was thoroughly impressed with Seabiscuit, Unbroken outdid it in my estimation. Plus, it was a story about a human hero, and not, well, a horse. It’s the kind of book that renews one’s faith in humanity and pays tribute to the endless and barely tapped potential of the human will. For me, it fulfilled the ideal of the best kind of literature which Nietzsche referred to when he said, “I will not read anything that isn’t written in blood.” If any book has ever been written in blood, this book has.

Louie Zamperini was a rough-and-tumble, strong-willed child that got in a lot of trouble. No one knew what to do with him until his older brother Pete changed history by helping his young punk-of-a-brother discipline himself for competitive running. This was the beginning of an understanding for Louie: he could channel his energy and skills, previously wasted in boredom and domesticated restrictions, and perform incredible feats that would win the hearts of those around him instead of angering and alienating his community. Regrettably, much of what passes for education and ‘good citizenship’ in our society is in effect slashing the tires of pent up ‘inner wildness’ in young people, instead of placing them on the right track for their bent, and letting them take off with the full force of their passion and unbound intelligence. We should mourn civilization’s failure in recognizing brilliance and strength because it is outside of it natural, aboriginal environment in which it might thrive. Louie was a perfect example of the kind of life that can be lived if one finds the right kind of ‘wild’.

Louie went on to became an Olympic athlete, and that celebrity status is likely the reason his story is a bestseller now. When the war hit, he joined the Air Force, and served on a B-24 bomber. After a few successful bombing raids, his bomber went down with its crew, crash-landeding in the sea. He and one friend (Phil) survived in their inflatable raft for 46 days, fighting sharks (literally), watching a friend die, and living on captured birds, fish and sharks, before they neared an island in Japanese territory. It was during this time that Louie made a promise to God that if he was saved, he would dedicate his life to God forever. This would come back to haunt him, but would eventually deliver him from another type of prison.

As they neared the island, they were discovered, brought aboard a Japanese ship, and immediately taken to a POW camp where they were tortured physically, mentally, and emotionally. Over the course of two and a half years he was transferred between a few different POW camps, and somehow survived the inhumane labor and beatings, the personal vendetta of an especially cruel prison official called “The Bird” (he called Zamperini ‘prisoner #1’ because of his high priority on The Bird’s blacklist), sickness, starvation, and the fear of a mental breakdown. The prisoners’ sense of dignity was intricately woven with their hope, and many reported that the loss of one drastically affected the other. Louie admitted that the closest he ever came to feeling truly beaten was the time he was forced to clean out a pig sty with his bare hands. I fail to see how this is worse torment than taking a beating from 250 fellow POW’s forced to stand in line and hit him their hardest, or cleaning out the overflowing latrines with a soup ladle, or being injected with fluids being tested for chemical warfare, or being spat on by hundreds of visiting Japanese…but, what do I know. And I mean that this time.

Spoiler alert. He survived. But it wasn’t over. When he went home, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) took its toll and drove him to alcoholism and severe rage. He met and married his wife, Cynthia, shortly after his return to civilian life, who stuck with him through his transition back to normal life, but she became concerned and fearful over Louie’s decline. She experienced a spiritual awakening while attending a Billy Graham crusade, and Louie eventually went to a crusade and also experienced a change of heart and mind. He recounts remembering the promise he made to God while in the life raft that if he were saved, he’d dedicate his life to God forever. He was true to his word. It’s actually pretty amazing that he remembers sensing an immediate relief from his hatred and fear, and found peace that he traces back to that moment of conversion. He even ceased to experience nightmares and flashbacks. Louie was back to his stupendous self. He began travelling the world, speaking about his story and transformation, and even spoke a message of forgiveness to former POW camp guards and officials, shaking hands with his clearly recognized torturers. He even started a camp for delinquent youth called Victory Boys Camp, and later reconciled with The Bird, who he had initially determined to hunt down and kill during the first year of his return to civilization. And, get this, dude is still alive and kicking at 96 years old (there’s even a picture of him learning to ride a skateboard at 81) !!!

There is, perhaps, no contemporary memoir that can better illustrate the resilience of the human spirit. The message comes through strong and clear: you can make it through anything, and come out well on the other side. Though a happy life wasn’t the outcome for every person’s account relayed in the book (some of his friends actually died very unluckily and tragically), it only takes one example to blow the lid off of what we think is possible. And besides that, even Louie will one day have to die, and, as G.K. Chesterton reminds us, “Death is more tragic that death by starvation.”The real moral of this story is not that you can avoid tragedy (though you often can) but that some unseen, unknown good can come of sorrow and suffering. Everyone has to come to grips with the fact that life is a lottery that might seem to work for or against you, but every instant we live is unlikely. Every second is an impossibility. What is the probability that I would come to be, and come to think these thoughts and live this way? The odds of every moment are a universe-to-one, and these odds have obviously been in our favor, for we have come to be. What we often think of as misfortune is the lack of continuance of an apparent good, which at some point, is inevitable. But we have to believe deeply that life is lucky in its very existence, though it may appear unlucky in its limitedness. But it is the limit which reveals life and causes us to appreciate it. And if we’ve learned nothing else in this life, it’s that every moment is miraculous, full of potential, and it’s up to us to fully actualize that potential. Louie taught me that. Well, sort of.

And if you want a “Love and forgiveness conquers all” sort of message, it’s here. All through the narrative Louie is sharing with someone. He is sharing his water when he is dying of thirst, he is sharing his rice, he is sharing the fruit which, eating on his own could have helped him, but sharing with 20 other men only contributed to spiritual solidarity. He learned one of the most important lessons of survival as a human being: when you’re alone, you’re dead.

To be sure, there wasn’t a whole lot that was intentionally philosophical, or articulated as such, in the way it was written. The meta-message wasn’t exactly distilled into a concise thought or maxim you can carry with you, like, for instance, my line above, “The odds of every moment are a universe-to-one.” I know what you’re thinking. Let’s say it together, “That is a line I’ll commit to memory.” You’re welcome. There was even one of the most anti-climactic lines I have ever read, though it was mostly me making more out of it than what it was, but let me have my fun. Shortly after being rescued Louie said, “If I knew I had to go through those experiences again…I’d kill myself.” What? Are you kidding me? What are we reading this for if it’s so horrible an incident that the author himself would do himself in rather than face it again? Why am I trading some of my comfortable time taking on the stress of reading his story if even Louie ends up wishing it all away? Okay, I’ll admit, though it was a little unsettling to read after admiring him through the whole story for his courage, I’m definitely being harsh. I think what he was really saying was that he wouldn’t want to repeat the experience, though maybe he’s not quite wishing the original and unrepeatable experience (which all experience is) away with all of its accompanying lessons. At least, I hope that what he meant. Otherwise our takeaway is, “Carry a death-pill with you at all times.”

Looking back on this biography, I’m not sure how intentional Louie was about his life, or how calculated and conscious his courage was. His actions and thought processes seem, as the narrative reveals them, mostly reflexive and instinctual, even his Christian encounter at the Billy Graham crusade. I’m not saying he didn’t make good, strong moral choices, but there’s also no denying that he was a man with good survival genes. And maybe that’s the best thing to have for survival. Of course, if that’s true, his story can’t help me if I don’t have those same genes, but maybe I can intellectualize his earnings and put them to work in my life in a new way to inform and motivate good choices. Whatever made Louie the person he is, worked. He passed with flying colors. And a few scars.
Someone has said, “A crisis does not only make a person, it reveals what a person is already.” This story forces the questions in our mind as we read, “How do we know what we’re made of? How do we test our mettle? How do we prepare for crisis?” Watching Louie show us ‘how it’s done’ is encouraging and inspiring, and deeply soul-searching. It’s a book I wish upon on all my friends and enemies.