Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus

The philosophy of the absurd is introduced in Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.  To begin, one needs to know the story of Sisyphus, a character in historic Greek mythology, who was condemned by the leaders of the time to a meaningless task of rolling a boulder up a steep mountain.  The result was a repetition of the same task over and over again, because the boulder would then roll down.  The tale underscores Camus’ claim about the absurdity found in this life, the challenges, the unexplainable events, and the humanity within us all. Camus spends time describing the life we live in (and the things we face) and man’s thoughts on trying to understand our world, a world of “absurdity.”  
In our existence of the absurdity, he asks the question, by facing what we do, does it mean that our civilization should accept the act of suicide?, a chance to escape the unanswerable and devastating elements of life through taking one’s life?  Camus shares a resounding, NO!  Life does have a meaning, even if formalized religion or the personal commitment in a higher being is not within a person’s belief.  Camus notes that “killing yourself amounts to confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it.  A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world,” one we all experience on some level.  Camus offers lots of explanations as to why the absurdity should not provide rationale for ending one’s life.  He furthers his arguments through drawing support from the philosophies of fellow writers, such as Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard to further his value-driven thinking. 

Camus examines the absurd man through the lens of Don Juan, an actor and warrior.  And who is the absurd creator?  The artist… as he notes, "If the world were clear, art would not exist."  And then it all comes back to Sisyphus.  The endless madness that we face, rather rolling a stone up the hill to see it fall, or the human condition of failure and rejection, yet Sisyphus keeps rolling that stone up the hill…. Shouldn’t we?  Camus is a brilliant writer, from drama, novels, essays and short stories, he captures human life, simple yet complicated.  This essay gives reason to contemplate the importance of life, one person at a time.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Truest Thing About You

David Lomas’s The Truest Thing About You is a book on reflection…. on how one’s life connects with what their religious/spiritual side, specifically as a Christian.  Those exploring their journey of faith development will be pushed to reflect on their own lives while reading this book. 

Lomas, a pastor for the Reality Church in San Francisco, CA, is a young man, recently married and shares the challenges and joys that are inherent in the struggle of life.  The key message of the book is that we should not believe we are our jobs, our relationships, or the things we have, we should dig deep through reflection on what are inner core represents to determine what the truest thing is for each of us.  Lomas draws from authors/role models from various walks of life, to include:  noted writer C.S. Lewis; Saint Catherine of Siena; Soren Kirkegaard, and NYU’s own faculty extraordinaire Kwame Appiah.  I love his reflection on why “community” in our society today.  He notes: 

… it means that no matter what profession we find ourselves in – no matter what we do – we live by a different set of rules.  Whether we are raising kids, banking, making sculpture, studying, or practicing law, we see ourselves being sent into our jobs as stewards of the time, talents, and resources that a higher being has endowed and gifted us with.  Culture, simply is what happens when humans live together, from the smallest to the most sprawling city.  … it’s what happens when we contribute to our families and society, it’s what happens when we’re kind to strangers, when we honor the dignity of the simplest job, and when we look for opportunities to serve others. 

His final passage reinforces his over message:

You will not find your identity in what you have, but in who has you.  You will not find your identity in what you do, but in what has been done for you.  And you will not find your identity in what you desire, but in who has desired – at infinite cost to Himself – a relationship with you…

Truer words never spoken.  A different type of book for sure, but again, illustrates the complexity and commitment of the NYU student to be passionate about being committed to self-awareness and knowledge of something bigger than a dollar bill.  Great insights and quick read in those 200 pages.   

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Corpse Walker

In my opinion, The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu gives the best insight into the life of the poorest Chinese people who were caught in the line of fire between communist leaders and the counter revolutionists.  In this real life series of stories, Yiwu interviews hundreds of the poorest member of the communities that were deprived of many resources.  The book contains 27 of the interviews he conducted, in actual interview format. 
Yiwu builds relationships with the cast of individuals through hours of meetings.  This is a dream book for any qualitative social-scientist in how to gather the feelings, emotions, and experiences of peers who have had the hardest lives imaginable.  Yiwu does a masterful job of uncovering the bloodshed, famine, and destruction of a person to the lowest possible moments of existence.  Each chapter is named after the individual being interviewed, most all based on the profession the person had in the community: grave digger; abbot; retired official; safecracker; composer; migrant worker, etc. 

The commonality in each is how they all seemingly were committed members of the Communist party and somehow through a love interest, needing money to exist, or being turned on by another, were turned in to the local officials for not supporting the government.  What happened next usually resulted in imprisonment, torture, the murdering of family members, and/or loss of all material possessions.  The cruelty is horrific and the detail of forced abortions, bodily harm, rapes, and starvation reveal the stories never told in history books. 
Additionally, for those who were alive during the student uprisings in Tiananmen Square twenty-six years ago bring back vivid pictures of the student who stood in front of the tank defying authority.  This turn of events caught on tv for the world to see, started a new awareness of cruelty and human devastation to the leaders of a country that needed to be told.  Communist leaders killed those who might tell of the stories revealed by Yiwu, who himself was terrorized and nearly escaped death himself many times.  We get a glimpse into real people and Yiwu does it in a way that raises the hair on your arms and brings tears to one’s eyes.  Moving book.  A book that must be read to remind all that this happens every day somewhere in this world.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Dead Beat

Dead Beat is the seventh book of the eleven book Dresden Files series.  Dead Beat is a very long read, but luckily, you can read it without reading all of the previous books. 
The lead character is Harry Dresden, a detective living in Chicago, who also happens to be a wizard.  In this book, Harry, seen as the outcast wizard, is challenged to save the life of his mortal friend, a woman whom he has a huge crush on.  To save her, Harry makes a deal with Mavra, a villainess from the last book, to find the “the word of Kemmler,” the information that would help teach Marva about the necromancers, the ability to bring people back from the dead! Harry faces many old demons in his journey to get the Kemmler information, with the clock ticking. And of course to add more to the eeriness of the book this is all set only two days before Halloween.  There is a ton of battles between Harry and his arch-rivals and even with the White Council, a group he eventually is asked to join based on his past battles. 

What I enjoy about the Dresden story is the mixed worlds (mortals and wizards), and how the mortals have no idea that the wizards exist, but are reliant on the good will of the wizards to keep the community safe.  Harry Dresden is a complicated free-spirit who is unafraid of the challenges that face him seemingly at every turn of drama in Chicago.  He doesn’t fit in with his peers, but in the end defends justice for all.  The story had lots if intricacies and twists, always keeping the reader on the edge of their seat wondering if Dresden will escape the next challenger for power to destroy the world.  While he isn’t “human” he does have the feelings that mortals have, even falling in love!  I’m sure the next book will bring Dresden and the elusive Karin Murphy closer to falling in love.  

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza

Gloria Anzauldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza is a wonderful book that allows the reader to enter the world of being in between.  The author offers two parts to the book (prose and poetry) as she relays her autobiography of growing up in the lands between Mexico and the U.S. (south of California).  The community in these lands were disadvantaged by changes in American policy that held the natives from crossing the border. 
In the first part of the book, there are a number of chapters focused on the historical background on how the Chicano community was formed from their native ancestors (3500 BC).  Anzauldua depicts much of the ruthlessness that the Chicano community experienced, such as the farmers who continually lost money against the American purchasing economy.  Anzualda also emphasizes the impact of the Catholic faith in the community as well as the male dominated culture.  With this background, she delves into her personal journey in Mexico as a lesbian woman, where both homosexuality and women were oppressed, disadvantaged, and recipients of aggressive behavior.

Her approach in writing, melding both Spanish and English language throughout most all of her stories, made it difficult for non-bilingual readers to engage in the entirety of the book.  I enjoyed the two very different styles of prose and the short poems throughout the second half of the book.  Anzualda’s use of intermixing language, form of style, story-telling through vivid description, and at times loaded word choice provide a raw experience for the reader.  Clearly there is a great deal of pain in her upbringing, and as a reader, I felt it throughout this moving piece of writing.  I highly recommend Borderlands as it highlights a piece of American history that most people are not even aware of.  As the US community becomes even more diverse with a larger Hispanic/Latino/Chicano community, it is critically important that this group within our society have their story told and ingrained on the history of the nation.        

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Game: Penetrating the secret society of pickup artists

Every time I finish an RA Favorite book, I reflect a moment and say, “I wonder why this was chosen?” Today my only reaction is, REALLY?!  I mistakenly missed watching the first Met’s playoff game to waste my time reading Neil Strauss’s book The Game: Penetrating the secret society of pickup artists. This story is essentially a terrible reality show that has been given way too much hype turned into a book.  If I was supposed to be entertained by reading this book, I missed the point.   In summary, this book can be stored in the hallway closet and never taken out.  Skip it, as this story has been so overplayed in cheap movies and in 10th grade high school conversations.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015


I have read several of Kurt Vonnegut’s books, but my latest read, Slapstick, may be my favorite.
The book opens in an interesting way as Vonnegut presents some of his own life experience, including divulging personal family issues such as the “distant” closeness between he and his brother and the death of his sister, Alice, who suffered from cancer.  In a very strange twist of life, Alice’s husband dies in a well-publicized train accident, two days before her death.  Vonnegut adopts her boys and raises them as his own. 

It is with this personal backdrop that Vonnegut begins the story of Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, who is writing his autobiography.  Clearly there are references made in the opening to have the reader interpret the main characters in his story as Vonnegut and his sister, who in the story are twins (Eliza and Wilbur).  Their strange upbringing included being isolated from the rest of the world, except for their private doctor, housekeepers, and other servants in the mansion.  The two pretended to be mentally-challenged, speaking in gibberish and throwing feed at each other.  When people left them alone, they read, studied, and learned about everything they could get their hands on.  Finally they “come-clean” and note their intelligence, though it doesn’t work for Eliza, she is institutionalized, Wilbur goes to prep school and eventually receives a PhD from Harvard.
The siblings’ hope while growing up is to end loneliness, a noble charge considering their situations.   Wilbur uses the “loneliness campaign” for a run at the Presidency, which he wins.  But this is the least of his problems, as the world faces two devastating plagues that cause destruction and devastate humans on earth.  As a result, the world nearly runs out of oil and the Chinese people work to get smaller and smaller (so as to use less of the world’s resources), but in the process get so small that they become extinct!  In between all of the challenges facing society, Wilbur proposes to give everyone a new middle name, his sister is killed in an avalanche, and all the while, Wilbur still wants to rid society of loneliness.  Isn’t that in the end what we strive for? 

If you don’t get the book, you may need to familiarize yourself with the comedy of Laurel and Hardy, which he refers to at the beginning of the book; between the “hi-ho’s” at the end most passages and the yearning to connect to others.  In the end, Vonnegut’s social commentary on our time seems like a comedy.  Well, it is more sad (death, destruction, illness, the absurd) than we choose to believe but if we don’t laugh we would have to cry…. more often than we would like.   From the story:  “Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous.”  And it can also be the opposite, which is the comedy of it all.  Nothing is what we want it to be, as Shakespeare said, “all the world is a stage”… we are the actors, so let’s enjoy what we can as there are too many things that force the reality of our eventual demise.  Vonnegut’s work is complex, but with simple meanings, and always making fun of the absurdity that life can be.  Worth the read!   

Monday, October 5, 2015

Maze Runner

Never a fan of reading the first in a “series” of books, but I have to say, James Dashner’s Maze Runner was pretty compelling.  This young adult book captures a post-apocalyptic era which begins with the arrival of a young man, Thomas, to a distant location with other young boys. 
Thomas has no memory of his past, nor do any of the other 40+ young boys who arrived as Thomas did, in a box on a clearing.  Shortly after his arrival, comes the first young girl to the area which the boys live.  There is a pecking order among the boys, with a group of twelve serving as the core leader group, whom make decisions for the group, including enforcing rules and creating order.  Each of the boys are assigned tasks, one that Thomas is drawn to do is working as a “runner,” a role which allows him to enter the maze, which sits outside the “glade,” the flatland outside the maze.  The maze is believed to have an opening which would allow the boys to escape and go “home”?  or a place they think that is better than here.  The only problem is that the maze locks up at night and during that time the “Grievers” – a machine like creature that eats will eat the boys alive is always lurking around.  As Thomas attempts to gain better insights from his memory, he learns that he and Teresa, who finally comes out of her coma, has the ability to communicate telepathically, which proves to challenge the other boy’s faith in them in trying to uncover the secret of the maze.  There is a series of riveting action throughout.

I love the names of the characters, which they all later learn are pseudonyms for famous scientists and inventors who created societal improvements during their lives.  Of course, there is even more to learn after the boys fight their final fight against the Grievers!  The escape is at hand… with a few leading characters finding their demise.  I really enjoyed this solid sci-fi young adult story, reminiscent of Ender’s Game and Hunger Games that keep you hoping that the “good guys” survive while knowing that it may not be possible.  Fun read, or in this case, listen!      

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Sam Walton: Made in America

Just finished the autobiography of “self-made” billionaire, Sam Walton, Sam Walton: Made in America.  I guess a billionaire can call his book whatever he wants, even have his name be in the title.  Which is not entirely surprising as he did the same with his stores (Wal-Mart – using the first three letters of his last name and Sam’s Club, using his first name).  Walton was inspired to write his memoir at age 72, when he learned that he had terminal cancer.
Walton started his business life working at JCPenney before a short stint in the military.    He then quickly became the king of the small rural town department store.  The book chronicles the growth of the Wal-Mart chain, starting with his first store in Bentonville and the first true Wal-Mart opening on July 2, 1962, in Rogers, Arkansas.  Walton recounts the days when the corporation was so strapped for cash flow that he and his entourage would fly around the country to borrow money from banks.  He also recalls outlandish store opening day celebrations and when Wal-Mart went public on the stock exchange.  Yes, Wal-Mart is one of the true icons in the business world. 
He married his wife, Helen and then had four children, two of which stayed gainfully employed by the booming business.  
Walton’s style for writing the book was to provide his perspective and then immediately follow with quotes from members of the Wal-Mart family.  The chapters focused on various topics including, how he involved family in his work (kids could be seen sweeping the floors), how he recruited his “dream team” of management (some he recruited from the competition), creating a culture with the associate staff, giving back through philanthropy, and the ten rules of what worked for him as a leader.  Those ten roles are worth repeating here:
      1.       Commit to your business – believe in it more than anything else

2.       Share your profits with all in your company

3.       Motivate your partners

4.       Communicate everything you possibly can with your partners

5.       Appreciate everything your staff does for the business

6.       Celebrate your successes

7.       Listen to everyone in your company

8.       Exceed your customer’s expectations

9.       Control your expenses better than your competition

10.   Swim upstream (go in directions that ask you to take risks)
Walton was a shrewd and very successful business man.  Although, some would say his CHEAP way of living and poor treatment of others in his employ are what made him a pretty rich guy.  Some of the story gets a bit old (patting the back of every person who helped him) instead of highlighting more of the challenges and mistakes of building his empire.  I bet they sell this book cheaply at Wal-Mart…..

Friday, October 2, 2015

40 Rules of Love

I have not read many books with as many GREAT life quotes embedded in it as I have in 40 Rules of Love by Elfi Shafak, a Turkish author.

After learning of his terminal illness, Aziz Zahara writes a story and submits it to a literary company not expecting to fall in love with Ella Rubinstein, the reviewer of the book, who secretly emails him about the meaning of the story.  Ella, a 40 year-old mother, has given her life to raising her three children while her husband has numerous affairs.  Aware of the affairs (unbeknownst to her husband), Ella is living life… but not truly alive until Aziz and his book.

Aziz’s book is set in the thirteenth century and follows the life of a very unhappy Muslim cleric, named Rumi, who searches for a greater knowledge, understanding and connection to love and God, and is introduced to a man from another tribe, named Shams.  While Rumi’s sons are baffled that their beloved father would turn to a man from an “inferior” background, Rumi is enthralled with Sham’s teachings pertaining to the “forty rules of love” that provide a view into ancient thinking about how all people are the same, as are all Gods, whom are within all of us. 

Through Aziz and his book, Ella starts to learn what it is to live and love.   The two stories parallel and inform each other creating a meaningful work.   The quote worthy lessons shared through the ancient story also encourage great reflection.  Listed below are a few:

"At first you meet someone; someone who differs from all around you.  People see everything differently, and it makes you change your perspective, noting everything from new, inside and outside,, and you think that you can maintain a safe distance between you and him, and it seems to you that you can navigate and your way in the midst of this storm, even realize suddenly that he was back to open and you can’t control that.”

“Whatever happens in your life, no matter how troubling things might seem, do not enter the neighborhood of despair. Even when all doors remain closed, God will open up a new path only for you. Be thankful!"

“And when you get to the circle of love, that we may be out of time, something that cannot be expressed in words cannot be realized by silence.”

“Do not go with the flow. Be the flow."

“Love cannot be explained, yet it explains all.”

"Every true love and friendship is a story of unexpected transformation.  If we are the same person before and after we loved, that means we haven’t loved enough.”

“If God us to be the same, we created the same, therefore, the lack of respect for differences and impose your ideas on others mean lack of respect for the sacred order established by God.”

I could go on and on…. The protagonists from each story surprise the reader as they learn invaluable lessons in this beautifully written intertwining novel.  Loved this beautiful story!!!