Tag Archives: philosophy

Lost On The Journey

The Point Is

The Point Is: Making Sense of Birth, Death and Everything in Between by Lee Eisenberg (Twelve, $26.00, 279 pages)

Who am I? Where am I going? Why am I here? Is that all there is? What’s the point?

Over-promising and under-delivering.

Having spent years in college studying philosophy and religion – the very things meant to explain birth, death and everything in between, I was skeptical that Lee Eisenberg could supply these answers. I think I was right. This is a sometimes interesting, sometimes rambling, journal about various insights that dropped into Eisenberg’s mind as he attempted to give meaning to life.

Eisenberg is one of the people that he references as thinking too much about things in life. As such he often seems to miss the living forest while he’s wandering around writing about the trees.

Eisenberg is first and foremost a writer and he sees life and living from a writer’s perspective: “The point is to write the best story we can.” Fine, but being a diligent writer-detailer is not the same as understanding the deeper what and why of existence.

Eisenberg may have intended this to be a book of modern philosophy, but even here it falls short. One often-covered subject he tackles is happiness. The conclusion is best expressed by P.D. James: “…happiness is a gift not a right.”

the point is 3d

The Point Is might have been titled Random Thoughts and Ruminations. It’s less, far less, than satisfying.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A Woman of Heart and Mind

Joni: The Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell by Katherine Novak (Greystone, $21.00, 298 pages)

Joni Mitchell, a self-described woman of heart and mind, never shows up within the pages of Joni.   There are a couple of reasons for this.   First, Katherine Monk never had the opportunity to interact with Ms. Mitchell, leaving her unable to shed light on the human being.   Second, Monk sought to create a quasi-academic treatise on the subject of Philosophy and Religion and the Music of Joni Mitchell.   Frankly, it’s simply not that interesting even if one was (like this reader) a Philosophy and Religion major in college.

No, this is not another fan’s tribute to Joni; instead, it’s a somewhat overwrought collection of essays that seeks to find the meaning of Mitchell’s music via the words of Nietzsche and other philosophers.   This is painful enough, but just when one hopes that she won’t throw religious figures into the analytical mix, she proceeds to discuss St. Augustine and revisit the biblical Story of Job.   In the end – in the words of Bob Dylan, nothing is revealed.

Mitchell herself once said that writing about music is like trying to dance to architecture.   Picking up a copy of Joni’s Blue or For the Roses album is much preferable to attempting this strange dance.   Very much preferable.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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Question

“Why do we never get an answer, when we’re knocking at the door?”   Question, The Moody Blues

Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt (Liveright Publishing Company, $27.95, 309 pages)

From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time by Sean Carroll (Plume Reprint, $17.00, 448 pages)

“Could it be… that the world exists precisely because it is, on the whole, better than nothing?”

Reading Tim Holt’s extended treatise on life and the universe is the equivalent of listening to a classic philosophical album by The Moody Blues – one hears numerous questions about being and existence but receives no answers.   All in all, Why Does the Earth Exist? is an entertaining read but it’s far too clever by half; one gets the impression that Holt is trying to dazzle the reader with his brilliance – supposed or real – as he all too often gets off track.   Holt never answers the question raised in the book’s title, and much time is wasted on diversions such as mathematical formulas and the rules of formal logic.

The writer seems to be at his most engaging while pondering deep thoughts after nights of imbibing far too much alcohol at the world’s glamorous hotspots.   As such, he comes off as a tamer, more intellectual version of the Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary); one whose entertainment value (unlike the late Thompson’s) runs thin very, very quickly.   Another flaw with Why concerns Holt’s unwillingness to acknowledge that much of the interest in time, and the birth and death of our 13.7 billion year old universe, relates to our personal fears of death and non-existence.   Occasionally, he grudgingly concedes the point:  “Our mild anxiety about the precariousness of being…  might yield to cosmic terror when we realize that the whole show is a mere ontological soap bubble that could pop into nothingness at any moment, without the slightest warning.”   “The life of the universe, like each of our lives, may be a mere interlude between two nothings.”

“…philosophy is a terribly difficult subject, and sorting out the hardest questions in the finite time of a human life is asking a lot.”   (Emphasis in the original)

This book’s recommended only for those few selected – if perhaps strange – individuals who felt they didn’t take enough tough philosophy classes in college.   And if you want to cover the majority of the same ground – from Einstein to modern physics, time travel and more – and get even deeper into the weeds of existence, existentialism and science – a better choice would be From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time by Sean Carroll (2010).   Carroll offers less entertainment value, and fewer side trips than Holt but he delivers more content that actually helps us understand “how we came to exist” and where our existence (our world and our universe) is headed.

From Eternity to Here is well recommended, although it has the feel of a very serious college textbook.   The universe itself is a terribly difficult subject, one not for the timid, weak or lazy.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy of Why Does the World Exist? was provided by the publisher.   From Eternity to Here was purchased by the reviewer.

Note:  Tim Holt was raised as a Catholic.   Undoubtedly, some will find that he spends far too much energy on religion in this work, while others will decide that he’s not said enough about God.   What cannot be denied is that he gives full space to the arguments (and views) of all of the great modern and ancient existentialist philosophers – a matter that some will find pleasing, and others extremely painful.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt.

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Gotta Serve Somebody

The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion by Herman Wouk (Little, Brown and Company, $23.99, 192 pages; Hachette Audio, $26.98, 5 CDs)

“It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, all the different planets, and all these atoms with their motions, and so on,  all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil – which is the view that religion has.   The stage is too big for the drama.”   Richard Feynman

Having a scant knowledge of Herman Wouk (the movie version of “Youngblood Hawke”) and having a great appreciation of Richard Feynman (the book Feynman’s Rainbow by Leonard Mlodinow) put this reviewer in a one-down situation for listening to the audio book, The Language God Talks.   Moreover, the author’s age of 94 at the time of the book’s completion puts him in my late father’s generation.

The book is brief, a five-CD set.   Bob Walter, the narrator, provides a worldly and mellow voice that one can easily believe to be reminiscent of the author’s.   The smooth wording lends itself well to an audio book.   Sometimes, the somewhat self-indulgent musings of the author drift along pulling the listener into a past that is only partially shared.   Yes, the space age is fascinating and was most riveting at the time of the biggest breakthroughs.   However, those glory days are nearly gone as are the days enjoyed by Mr. Wouk.

In fairness to the author, his works will, no doubt, keep their places on required reading lists for some decades to come.   The quality of his writing puts him far ahead of many of his generation.   His Hebrew scholarship is quite notable and admirable.   Perhaps the comfort he has found in his studies is well matched with the acquaintances he shared with the luminaries of science and philosophy like Richard Feynman.   Wouk’s exploration of science versus religion is a personal one – and not a new one – but his efforts in that regard are exhaustive and lengthy by his own statements.

For this reviewer, the book felt like an honest retrospective of an enormously intelligent man reaching the end of his life’s path.   The book also seems to fulfill a personal promise of exploration that he has kept to himself.   Being honest about why we believe what we believe is something that few in middle age or younger actually ponder.   Perhaps it is left to the last part of life due to the enormity of the subject.   It would be a good listen for persons of any age, as exploring the meaning of life is a most worthwhile pursuit.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy of the audiobook was provided by the publisher.   Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and Life by Leonard Mlodinow is available as a trade paperback book (Vintage, $14.95, 192 pages) and as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.   Also recommended is The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Mlodinow (Vintage, $15.00, 272 pages).

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Of Missing Persons

The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke (Riverhead Books; $25.95; 320 pages)

Someone once wrote: “We fear death the way children fear going into the dark.”   Meghan O’Rourke

There’ll come a time when all your hopes are fading/ When things that seemed so very plain/ Became an awful pain/ Searching for the truth among the lying/ And answered when you’ve learned the art of dying…   But you’re still with me.   George Harrison (“The Art of Dying”)

Meghan O’Rourke has presented us with a serious, somber and thoughtful memoir about the grief she suffered when her mother died at the age of fifty-five.   Although her mother’s age is noted, one has the impression that she would have felt the same burden if her mother had lived to be 100, as O’Rourke was simply unprepared to live in a world without its (to her) most important resident.   As she states so well:  “One of the grubby truths about a loss is that you don’t just mourn the dead person, you mourn the person you got to be when the lost one was alive…  One night (my brother) Liam said to me, as we were driving home from my dad’s to Brooklyn, ‘I am not as sad as I was, but the thing is, it’s just less fun and good without her.'”

In order to deal with her pain, O’Rourke conducted a personal study of death, the standard fear of it, religious beliefs and traditions surrounding it, and the vast amount of research that has been done on the human grieving process.   She even touches upon grief in animal colonies.   One discovery she made in the process is that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ work on the stages of grief has been grossly misinterpreted.   These were not intended to be the stages that mourners – those left alive – go through; they were intended to represent the stages that the chronically ill pass through.

O’Rourke is at her best when she discusses her own fears with us.   She has been afraid, since childhood, of the notion of death but it remained an abstract, if frightening, notion up until her mom’s passing.   Then her grief became all-encompassing and something she could not put aside in order to lead a “normal” life.   Grief, in a sense, made her insane for a period of time but it also taught her some very valuable  lessons – the chief among them being that one has to focus on death in order to truly appreciate life.   As her father told her many months after his wife’s death, he had always focused on what he didn’t have; now he had learned to look at what he did have in the world and in the universe.

After a loss you have to learn to believe the dead one is dead.   It doesn’t come naturally.

There’s a sense of accepting humbleness that permeates O’Rourke’s account – although she was raised a Catholic, she refers numerous times to Buddhism.   If there’s a weakness in the telling, it’s a factor that naturally affects most memoirs, a tendency to make one’s own life sound more important than that of the others that share the planet with the writer.   And, like Julie Metz in Perfection, O’Rourke tends to tell us more than we actually want to know about her social (meaning sexual) life.

At one point, O’Rourke comes off as strangely naive in regard to social relationships.   At the time that her mother died (it’s Christmas), an old boyfriend – whom she once dropped without explanation – comes back into her life, and O’Rourke wonders why, “…he always seemed to be holding back – why, I did not know.”   The reader wants to scream back at her, “Because you dumped him when you went away to college!”   (The ex was simply acting like a normal, scarred, self-protective human being.)

But these are minor points, because O’Rourke succeeds quite well in making us examine death as something both macro and micro; as something that must be fully understood before we can make realistic choices about what is most important in our lives.   In her almost philosophical approach to examining death and dying, she has written not only a monumental love story for the person who has gone missing in her life, she has also placed death in its natural and proper context.

(I think I wanted to grow up to be my mother, and it was confusing to me that she already was her.)

This is, in the end, a work about acceptance – the good with the bad – survival with death, the sudden eclipse of a life and eternal love.   O’Rourke masterfully teaches us about the art of dying, a matter for both hearts and heads (minds).

Very, very well done.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   “She is gone, and I will be, too, one day…  all the while my brain will be preoccupied by the question of death.   And that makes it hard, at times, to pay my bills…”


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On Wisdom

Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience by Stephen S. Hall (Knopf, $26.95, 320 pages)

Whether you’re fascinated by psychology, philosophy, or science, you’re likely to find much of interest in this survey book by Stephen Hall.   This is a search for the meaning and definition of “wisdom” with a capital W – sometimes interpreted to be emotional intelligence or an internal calmness.   Hall’s journey reads like the script for a public television documentary, one that might have been entitled: “The Search for Wisdom.”

Boomers will like the conclusion that older persons are apparently wiser, calmer and far more content than those with their entire futures ahead of them.   Research shows that younger people become angrier about daily slights and hold onto these negative feelings longer than their elders.

Although the language in this nonfiction work is generally clear, it unfortunately sometimes sounds like an academic textbook.   It also often comes close to parody (“proverbs and aphorisms…  are the cocktail peanuts of conventional wisdom”; large events in the world can “change the lens of one’s emotional view like a new prescription from a spiritual optometrist.”).   Wisdom could have used a lot of wise editing, still it offers both old and young readers a chance to re-examine their lives and their yet-to-be-made choices.

Recommended.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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