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The Fear Book by Cheri Huber

May 8, 2021

I got this reco from the Tim Ferris podcast. It’s a pretty short, simple book about how to think about and cope with fear. Not the useful kind of fear, like the kind that kicks in if you see a grizzly on the trail ahead of you. This is about the fear that holds us back. Fear of failure. Fear of risk-taking. Fear of trying something new. Fear of difficult conversations.

Huber reframes fear as a signal that we’re actually on the right path, because fear usually comes because we’re in unknown territory—a necessity for growth. She gives guidance on how to see fear as a fiction. Fear often comes from us imagining a bad outcome, and then we let that that imagined outcome deter us from taking the steps we need to move forward. Rather than focusing on what we can control in our present moment, we obsess about something that doesn’t exist and we can’t control. It’s an approach rooted in Buddhism, similar to what Eckhart Tolle recommends in The Power of Now.

Huber also coaches us to hold the fear separate from us. We are not the fear and it is not us. Observe it and recognize it for what it is—an irrational response that is part psychological, but can also be physical (e.g. I’m so nervous I want to lay down and take a nap—how strange. Or my hands are shaking before I give this presentation—look at them shake). This stepping back and observing our fear and its manifestations can make it feel more like a curiosity than a true barrier, and it can also make it easier to be compassionate with ourselves. Rather than being embarrassed or ashamed by our fear, we can observe it, understand it, then coach ourselves through it.

Unfortunately, the form of the book is annoying. It’s printed in a dreadful handwritten typeface, with only a couple paragraphs on each page. And the middle section is written in the same obnoxious format as The Power of Now—a dialogue between student and teacher. I think it’s a trope associated with Zen Buddhism instruction. I hate it, which is not a very Zen thing to say. It’s less condescending here than in The Power of Now, but it’s no less contrived. And it’s completely unnecessary.

If you can overlook those minor annoyances, this is a pretty good book. Huber articulates some practical, foundational mindset shifts to help anyone deal with their fear. I recommended it to people on my team at work, since dealing with fear is such an important part of the creative process. I’ve already found it applicable to my day-to-day life.  

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? The Graduation Speeches and Other Words to Live By by Kurt Vonnegut

May 8, 2021

Commencement speeches are an artform. They need the right balance of gravity, sentimentality, insight and, ideally, humor. Maybe that’s why my favorites tend to be comedians and writers. Comedians have a little bit of an advantage, because they are used to being funny in front of groups of people. This plays well to crowds of itchy, impatient graduates anxious to party themselves silly. But also because comedians can catch you off guard when they shift to a heavier topic. One would expect weight and emotional depth from former presidents, titans of industry, etc., but with comedians we don’t always always see it coming.

Stephen Colbert and Conan O’Brien are high on my list. And David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College is a fantastic speech. They’re all brilliant, but also funny and kind. But all modern commencement speakers owe a debt to Kurt Vonnegut. “After the publication of his novel Slaughterhouse-Five brought him worldwide acclaim in 1969, Kurt Vonnegut became one of America’s most popular graduation speakers,” Dan Wakefield writes in the introduction.

Vonnegut, who passed away in 2007, was someone who could easily and naturally connect with young, intelligent, ambitious, rowdy men and women. He’s a provocateur. A rebel. He calls out the hypocrisies of our sacred institutions. He calls out the evils in society. He bolsters his points with history. He laces it all with irony and hilarious, inventive turns of phrase—I’d challenge anyone to find a cliché anywhere in his writing. Yet he does it all with a vested interest in all the things the institutions of higher learning supposedly promote: intellectual curiosity, artistic courage, freedom of expression and openness to new ideas. He also speaks about kindness, compassion, and concern for the wellbeing of others. One of his most famous quotes is: “There is only one rule I know of, babies—Goddammit, you’ve got to be kind.”

Yet, one of the most remarkable aspects of his speeches is how he skips between modes—from sardonic to sentimental, philosophical to ironic, from professorial to comedic. He does it with the casual expertise of someone who understands deeply how to construct a narrative, how to elicit a response in an audience. Which, of course he does…he’s Kurt Vonnegut.

And so through these speeches, you find descriptions of some of the worst humanity has to offer—Vonnegut himself was an infantryman, captured in WWII at the Battle of the Bulge, and witnessed the bombing of Dresden in 1945—next to quips like, “Those who believe in telekinetics, raise my hand.” Vonnegut is master of the non sequitur.

These speeches are a treat to read. They span most of his career, 1972-2004. They are a great collection of thoughts from the mind of a great man.

Related reading:

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

May 5, 2021

First published in 1899 as a serial, this tale of the utter savagery… that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men” is remarkable in the impact it has made as inspirational source material for other classics, notably Apocalypse Now. It’s widely considered among the greatest novels of all time and appears at 67 on the Modern Library’s list of top 20th Century novels (the serials were re-published as a novel in 1902).

The story is bookended by Charles Marlow, an English merchant marine, aboard a boat on the River Thames, recounting to a group of sailors his journey up the Congo River into the Free State of Congo, into what at the time was considered the “dark heart of Africa,” to locate Kurtz, an ivory trader and station chief of the furthest outpost in the jungle. Kurtz has been unresponsive to the outside world for a year.

In Apocalypse Now, Marlon Brando famously played Colonel Kurtz as a brooding, bald-headed, slovenly but ruthless madman mumbling hallucinogenic poetry. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz is described as a kind of Mephistopheles of the jungle, “a prodigy, an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil-knows-what-else.” He is brilliant, but he has also lost his mind.

Heart of Darkness was published during the height of imperialism, amidst a particularly fervent exploitation of the people and resources of the African continent. And though it has been criticized as being racist itself, it is explicitly critical of the depravity of the imperialistic impulse: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly fatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

This is a fairly quick read, but impactful and influential. Beyond Apocalypse Now, references to Heart of Darkness are in the notes for McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. It’s easy to spot the influence of Kurtz on the character of Judge Holden, but also the narrative context of imperial expansion, and the devastation and exploitation of the native populations to clear the way for more lucrative ventures. The Judge’s reverence for war and violence might be informed by the haunting, handwritten recommendation Conrad’s Kurtz appends to the official report back to the Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs: “Exterminate all the brutes!”

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop

April 26, 2021

Set on the merciless Western Front during World War I, this short novel is about Alfa Ndiaye, an African fighting for the French, who loses his “more-than-a-brother” in the fighting, then slowly loses his mind. It is written as a confession of sorts—a poetic piece that blends the gruesome atrocities of the war and Alfa’s own brutality with questions of what it means to be human in a setting where the main purpose is the destruction of other humans. Everything becomes an object, descriptions of the trenches and damage done to the land overlap with wounds of the flesh.

At one point, Alfa realizes that even in an arena filled with depravity, he has gone too far. His fellow soldiers are afraid of him and the officers want him gone. “Yes, I understood, God’s truth, that on the battlefield they wanted only fleeting madness. Madmen of rage, madmen of pain, furious madmen, but temporary ones.”

This is a pretty tough read for all the violence, but the writing is so good that it might be compared to other elevated traipses through hellscapes—Dante’s Inferno, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

It’s also interesting to consider, a century later, the colonial nature of World War I and the convoluted alliances that would bring a soldier from Senegal to fight against Germany in the trenches of France. I’m in the middle of David Reynolds’s The Long Shadow, about the legacies of World War I, and it was interesting to have this ground-level, fictional companion piece.

Cormac McCarthy and Performance: Page, Stage, Screen by Stacey Peebles

April 24, 2021

Stacey Peebles was on a recent episode of Reading McCarthy, the podcast of the Cormac McCarthy Society, discussing the field of Cormac McCarthy studies, which has blown up in the past couple decades (relatively—it’s still a nerdy, niche academic field dedicated to a single author). She noted that it used to be possible to have “read everything” on McCarthy, meaning all the academic papers and the semi-regular books. Now, though, there are constantly new books published, and people all over the world contributing to the field.

When it comes to books about McCarthy, they’re usually one of two types—collections of academic essays from different authors, sometimes around a certain theme; or written by one author, with a unifying theme throughout. This is the latter, which I prefer. More so because the topic is one I’m interested beyond McCarthy—the adaptation of written work to performance.

My Cormac McCarthy shelf.

McCarthy, though he is known primarily as a novelist, has written for the stage twice (The Stonemason and The Sunset Limited), for television once (The Gardener’s Son), and several screenplays. Interestingly, a couple of his novels were originally written as screenplays (No Country for Old Men, which the Coens adapted from the novel, not McCarthy’s screenplay; and Cities of the Plain, which eventually became McCarthy’s border trilogy).

Peebles sorts through all of these, grouping the works and their adaptations generally by their level of success. Which turns out to be a fascinating way to look at McCarthy’s work. Because while he’s had successes in adaptation—No Country for Old Men being the foremost example—there have also been a few duds. Billy Bob Thornton’s All the Pretty Horses, which, as the story goes, suffered from studio pressure to cut the film from 2:40 down to two hours, gets re-litigated (I re-watched it after reading this chapter—it’s not terrible, but could be so much better with a longer edit. Maybe someday.). Child of God, which feels like a low-budget exploitation flick, and The Counselor, which feels like a high-budget exploitation flick, both failed to deliver on the hype. In both of those films, Peebles argues that the “combination of directing, casting, acting and costume design…has the effect of making [the characters] less rather than more interesting” and in at least one case “openly offensive.”

This is the interesting thing about adaptation in general. Whereas the novel is a solitary effort, a production—be it a stage performance or a film—brings other major collaborators on board. This can elevate the work, or it can be a debacle. Sometimes it’s a fine line. It can balance on a single creative decision, on interpersonal dynamics, on the business of the entertainment industry, or any number of potentially fickle factors.

Cormac McCarthy and Performance is one of my favorite academic studies of McCarthy’s work, mostly because it doesn’t feel academic. It goes beyond literary analysis (though there is some of that) and tells stories of projects. And because McCarthy’s work has had both success and failure in adaptation, there is insight to be gained by comparing them.

The last chapter of the book deals with the various failed attempts to adapt Blood Meridian into a film. The two McCarthy projects I’d love to see come to fruition (though only if they’re actually good), would be a film of Blood Meridian and the full-length border trilogy, possibly as a miniseries. It’s fun to dream.  

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

April 9, 2021

Many of my reading journeys start or eventually loop back to Cormac McCarthy. It is where I nerd out the most, and thankfully there is a verdant niche of academic study constantly churning out new books, articles, journals and, recently, a podcast called Reading McCarthy. On episode 3 of the podcast, they discuss The Orchard Keeper, and in episode 4 they focus on the McCarthy’s place in the Southern Gothic tradition. Which requires at least a nod to the queen of Southern Gothic, Flannery O’Connor. And that’s how I recently got the itch to read more of her work.

Wise Blood is the first of her two novels, started while she was a student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the 1940s, published in 1952. It is the story of Hazel Motes, a veteran of World War II, who returns to his Tennessee home to find it abandoned. He boards a train for the fictional town of Taulkinham, where he takes up with a prostitute and befriends a disturbed young zookeeper. Motes, who struggled with his faith growing up but became a stringent atheist during the war, preaches the gospel of anti-religion.

A parade of oddball characters with various forms of physical maladies and views askew come in and out of the story. True to the Southern Gothic tradition, everyone seems to be some sort of misanthrope, lowlife, loser or con artist. It makes for a story that a mix of funny—and I had forgotten how funny O’Connor is—and menacing.

The absurdity of some of the characters reminded me of Gene Harrogate, the “country mouse” in McCarthy’s Suttree, as well as Ignatius Reilly from John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. They are up to no good at best, but often intent upon something downright dastardly. They have strong opinions and loud voices with which to make them known.

And, of course, over it all is O’Connor’s masterful manipulation of the language, whether she is describing a man’s reaction to a woman—“His throat got drier and his heart began to grip him like a little ape clutching the bars of its cage”—or a “rat-colored” car, or dropping little bits of country wisdom, as when Motes tells some passersby, “I preach there are all kinds of truth. Your truth and somebody else’s. But behind all of them there is only one truth, and that is that there is no truth.” O’Connor’s writing is always sharp, always colorful.

I am currently in the middle of her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, which she wrote a decade later. It feels more developed, but Wise Blood is no slouch of a novel. What’s remarkable about O’Connor is that she made such a mark on American literature with only two novels and two collections of short stories, before she died at only 39 years old.

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis by Jared Diamond

April 8, 2021

Diamond, author of the Pulitzer-winning Guns, Germs and Steel (and strong follow-up, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) has spent a career writing about what makes nations and cultures successful and what leads to their demise. Here, he examines the crux of those two story arcs—turning points.

What is true of personal turning point can also be said to be true of national turning points—that they are often caused by crises. The word “crisis” is rooted in the Greek krisis, which is the turning point in a disease, the critical turn for the better or worse; and in krinein, which means “to separate and judge or decide.” A crisis is a moment that can be instructive or destructive. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

Diamond uses cases from history, of countries that faced political upheaval, economic upheaval, and upheavals caused by war. Countries like Germany and Japan that had to decide how to confront their own atrocities. He examines the paths to renewal, in some cases, and decline in others. And he lays out the factors that he has determined can lead to a rebirth, as well as those factors that he sees as the greatest current threats to the United States (our political polarization, economic equality, declining education systems, racial strife, and climate change).

This book is similar in approach and style to Guns, Germs and Collapse, but I found the first half of it to be a little tedious and meandering. Diamond includes a fair amount of his personal experiences while traveling to some of these countries, which might be interesting but felt out of place and a little self-aggrandizing here. By the back half, though, the stories start to feel tighter to the thesis and the point he is making clearer.

The most interesting aspect of this book is the comparison between countries post-crisis, particularly those in which the countries experience global shame (e.g. Germany and Japan post WWII). The different ways a society reckons with its sins, and how those sins play into national narratives of admission and omission, can set that country up for future success where its past is put behind it, or they can be left to fester, causing continued turmoil.

I’d start with Guns, Germs and Steel, but this book certainly has its provocative moments.

Related Reads:

Political Order and Political Decay by Francis Fukuyama

Cowboy Graves by Roberto Bolaño

March 21, 2021

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, his nightmarish 900-page magnum opus, was published in 2004, a year after his death from liver failure. He knew his health was declining, and worked frantically on the novel in the last five years of his life. How close he considered it to “finished” is uncertain, but in the years since his death, a half dozen or so other pieces of writing have been discovered in Bolaño’s files, presumably edited to some degree, and then published.

In The Guardian’s review of Cowboy Graves, a set of three novellas discovered on Bolaño’s computer, Rob Doyle makes light of this constant stream “diminishing” work, anticipating the day that Bolaño’s publisher releases his shopping lists or selected email drafts. The danger, he notes, is not that these are unwelcome to fans, but that they are not where one should start. Readers should start with 2666 or The Savage Detectives, both fantastic novels.

Cowboy Graves, on the other hand, is much further down the list. It’s not without merit, but much of the enjoyment comes from recognizing the intersection with Bolaño’s other works. His alter ego, Arturo Bolaño, appears here as Rigoberto Bolaño. A group similar to the Visceral Realists of The Savage Detectives appears in the second novella here, this time as the Clandestine Surrealist Group, poets who are literally forced underground, living in the sewers below Paris.

Other stories have themes that interlock with other Bolaño works, and the author’s talent for gesturing at remarkable side-stories, of weaving together melancholy and violence and irony and absurdity, and of colorful descriptions (e.g. “the horizon was flesh-colored, like a dying man’s back”) are all on display here. But for certain this is a collection of sketches, a deep cut for fans of the author still hungry for more material.

Dune by Frank Herbert

March 21, 2021

“Although Herbert’s fusing of adventure, realpolitik, and dropout soul-searching perfectly caught the spirit of the mid-1960s, it did so by invoking long-standing cultural myths whose resonance transcends that era,” James Mustich writes about Dune in his 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. It’s a pretty good summary of the blended themes that make up this classic sci-fi novel.

Dune has been one of those books on my “someday” reading list for quite some time. David Lynch made a famously bad adaptation of the novel in 1984, which Roger Ebert named the worst movie of the year, called “confusing beyond belief,” and added, “In case I haven’t made myself clear, I hated watching this film.” It remains the only Lynch film I haven’t seen. But Denis Villenueve (one of my favorite directors of the past decade; Blade Runner 2049, Sicario, Prisoners) has a new attempt with a delayed release date of October. This version looks spectacular, and I wanted to make sure I got to the book first.

A summary of the plot of Dune risks putting someone to sleep, but let’s try it. Set thousands of years in the future, the novel takes place on a desolate, sand-covered wasteland of a planet called Arrakis. Water is precious there, and living requires suits that reprocess sweat, among other innovations. But Arrakis is also the only source of a valuable drug, Melange Spice, or just “the spice.” 

The galaxy is ruled by feuding families. The main character, Paul, is of the House Atreides, who have just received ownership of Arrakis by royal decree. But a rival family, the violent Harkonnen, have revolted and seized the planet. Paul and his mother, a member of a religious sect of witches, head to Arrakis to deal with the issue. Also, Arrakis is home to giant sand worms.

Although Star Wars is more famous, George Lucas owes much to Dune. His planet of Tatooine shares some traits with Arrakis, and the terribly boring second prequel, Attack of the Clones, with all its talk of trade federations and intergalactic diplomacy, seems like an attempt at what Dune achieves—a blend of fictional, intergalactic politics with the story of a heroic protagonist.

Dune will likely try the patience of all but devoted sci-fi geeks. It is dialogue heavy, and much of the dialogue requires careful attention to the names of the various factions and maneuverings. But it is a book that achieves a balance, that has as much in common with Machiavelli’s The Prince as it does with Star Wars. Arrakis is a planet of menace, and the characters who populate Dune are constantly scheming, attempting to outwit and outmaneuver their opponents. This makes it an exciting read, if not always action-packed (though there is action too).

I’m looking forward to seeing the new film adaptation out this year. It seems like something that will not just delight the cult followers of the Dune franchise (many sequels and prequels have been written), but will also be accessible to casual moviegoers. I, for one, have high hopes.

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

March 14, 2021

Upon the publication of On the Road in September of 1957, Gillbert Millstein of the New York Times dubbed Jack Kerouac the “principal avatar” of the Beat Generation, and that book the “clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation.” To other literary critics, it was all style and no substance. And the cultural Puritans came at it with the same fervor they come at every generation’s artistic rabble rousers. The Beats were their new favorite target. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was on trial for obscenity in 1957, so the editors of On the Road required that much of the sex and drugs be toned down so as not to meet the same fate.

Keroac wrote The Dharma Bums in November of 1957, just as his star was becoming bright. It picks up many of the threads of On the Road. A lot of travel. A lot of sex and drugs and hanging out and writing. A loose, spontaneous movement from place to place and scene to scene that feels more about the energy and some of the ideas than anything that would be called a plot. It’s raucous, unpredictable, and there is much fun to be had.  

Kerouac used pseudonyms throughout his work, sometimes comically thin disguises for his real-world friends and acquaintances. In The Dharma Bums, Ray Smith is Kerouac and Japhy Ryder is his friend, Beat writer Gary Snyder. Snyder introduced Kerouac to Buddhism, and much of this novel is dedicated to the interesting, if incongruous, mixture of eastern philosophy and their Bohemian lifestyle. They are seeking a freedom for their bacchanalian existence, a freedom from the strictures of American life, but also a higher plain of consciousness. Buddhism seems to contain both.

Ray contrasts Eastern religions with American Puritanism, which he describes as “dreary gray newspaper censorship of all our real human values.” He goes on to say, “When I discovered Buddhism, I suddenly felt like I had lived in a previous lifetime innumerable ages ago, and now, because of faults and sins in that lifetime, I was being degraded to a more grievous domain of existence, and my karma was to be born in America, where nobody has any fun or believes in anything, especially freedom.”

The other interesting juxtaposition in the Dharma Bums is Ray’s growing communion with nature and seeing the beauty of the natural world as a path to higher consciousness, while at the same time being fully immersed in the urban poetry scenes.

He includes a description of the “night of the birth of the San Francisco poetry renaissance”—the legendary reading where Alva Goldbook (Alan Ginsberg) first read Wail (Howl) while the crowd, drunk on wine and whipped into a frenzy, yells, “Go! Go! Go! Go!”

There is a self-consciousness to the writing that surprised me. On one hand, Kerouac portrays them as an idealistic, youthful movement, a kind of missionary group, like the Crusades, but “with springtime in their hearts.” On the other hand, Kerouac recognizes that it can’t all fit neatly together—this higher purpose stuff with the sex and drugs—and trying to force it is a little ridiculous. There are a few moments of, “Yeah, well…close enough,” and an acknowledgement that the whole scene is a little bogus: “Alva says that while guys like us are all excited about being real Orientals and wearing robes, actual Orientals over there are reading surrealism and Charles Darwin and mad about western business suits.”

The novel ends with Ray taking a stint as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the North Cascade Mountains, based on Kerouac’s own experience there for a summer. It is a moment portrayed as analogous to the Buddha obtaining Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, though in reality Kerouac apparently described his time there as tortuously boring.

I read On the Road and Big Sur more than 20 years ago, but I remember the same feeling with them. There is an ephemeral nature to Kerouac’s storytelling. It tends to evaporate pretty quickly after reading. But in the moment, he captures the excitement and energy of a scene, and his own excitement and energy for that scene. Perhaps it’s like a good party—the details are a little fuzzy, but you know you had a good time.