Tag Archives: The Meaning of Life

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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Child Is Father to the Man

Some Assembly Required (nook book)

Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Baby by Anne Lamott and Sam Lamott (Riverhead Books, $26.95, 288 pages)

I’m a huge fan of Anne Lamott. Having said that, it’s nevertheless hard to fathom who the audience is supposed to be for her most recent memoir, Some Assembly Required. This is the follow-up to Operating Instructions, in which Lamott wrote about the sometimes tense, oftentimes close relationship with her aspiring artist son, Sam. In Assembly, she writes about her first year as a grandmother (“Nana”) to baby Jax, balancing her love for a new male child with the demands of her son’s new life and the often conflicting desires of her daughter-in-law – a young woman who has very strong, opinionated ideas about the best way to raise a child.

The first Scripture reading today was Luke 15, the Prodigal Son. Of course. It’s the only real story – coming back to God, who welcomes us with heartbroken joy, no matter what, every time. I do not get this.

Ask and allow: ask God and allow Grace in.

What makes this memoir odd and often troublesome is that Lamott writes about her strong Christian beliefs (and about such things as the Four Immutable Laws of the Spirit) but frequently does so in language that would cause devoted church goers to blanch. For example, there’s the point at which she thinks about taking her son aside to say “something spiritual like ‘Shape the f–k up!'”. The latter type of language is going to draw the interest of some young, alienated college students – possibly a new audience for the writer, but they may be alienated by the countless references to God in the traditional religious sense.

And then things get even worse, as the memoir detours in another direction. Notwithstanding her Christianity, Lamott writes about traveling to India in a seemingly sideways search to find the meaning of life:

We were on the Ganges at five in the morning, in a riverboat in the fog. One image that had called me to India for years, besides the Taj Mahal, was a dawn visit to the Ganges on a riverboat, for the sunrise.

How does all of this come together in a manner that makes some sense? Well, it doesn’t. Reading Assembly is like reading the diary or journal notes of someone whose life heads in all directions at once, without meaning or apparent purpose. If Anne Lamott does not seem to know how to tie the loose ends of her life together, then – trust me – the reader is certainly unable to do so.

Some Assembly Required reads like an overly-rough draft of a memoir that screamed out for a very talented editor – a figure that apparently failed to appear.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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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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A Small Prayer

A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler (Bloomsbury USA; $16.00; 320 pages)

Animal lovers of each and every type will love A Small Furry Prayer.   I’m a cat person and yet this story got me to thinking about the joys of living with a dog.   Note that I deliberately did not use the phrase “owning a dog,” as Kotler makes clear that every canine retains a measure of independence.

“My home was now an environment where some level of danger and unpredictability – two of the defining characteristics of wildness – were part of the basic package.”

This true tale of a dog rescuing fortyish couple starts in Los Angeles before moving to the comparative wilds of New Mexico.   They begin by serving as emergency foster parents to one dog, then two before winding up living in a dilapidated farm-house in Chimayo, New Mexico – with 20 dogs!   (They later lose count of the total when it exceeds 20.)

Steven Kotler and his wife Joy (known to the locals as el angel de los perros) wind up being less foster parents than the providers of a wooly home for abandoned dogs.   Because six or so of the dogs are Chihuahuas their abode comes to be known as Rancho de Chihuahua.

The Kotlers don’t have a lot of money in 2008 but nevertheless they must purchase $500 worth of good quality dog food each week (sickly dogs require good nutrition) and spend their savings on expensive life-saving operations for their wards.   Kotler is sceptical that he’s going to get much payback from this situation other than having kept his commitment to following Joy’s number one rule in life, “Love me, love my dogs.”

Eventually, of course, Kotler gets his reciprocation in the form of love and acceptance from the rescued dogs, some of whom had been feral and mistrusting of humans.   And there’s the instance in which one of the dogs saves the author’s life when a mountain climbing expedition goes bad.   The dogs, in a sense, demonstrate that love and affection is always paid back in full.

As a former newspaper and magazine writer, Kotler is used to doing extensive research and in this book he includes many fascinating summaries of research performed with (not on) animals.   Much of the research verifies the benefits – mental and physical – that dogs and other animals bring to our existence.   Kotler also makes a convincing case for the notion that the modern dog is just as smart as (but perhaps shrewder than) his wolf ancestors.

At the end of A Small Furry Prayer, the reader will likely come to accept the positive message that our lives on this planet are meant to be shared with furry creatures; creatures that are never owned but which reward us with their unique and special presence.   Part of the truth about what it really means to be human can be expressed in the phrase, “Love me, love my animals.”

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   A Small Furry Prayer will be released in trade paper form on October 11, 2011.

“This is a delightful, rich read sure to take you to unexpected places and beyond.”   Bark magazine

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A Small Furry Prayer

A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler (Bloomsbury; $25.00; 320 pages)

Animal lovers of each and every type will love A Small Furry Prayer.   I’m a cat person and yet this story got me to thinking about the joys of living with a dog.   Note that I deliberately did not use the phrase “owning a dog,” as Kotler makes clear that every canine retains a measure of independence.

“My home was now an environment where some level of danger and unpredictability – two of the defining characteristics of wildness – were part of the basic package.”

This tale of a dog rescuing fortyish couple starts in Los Angeles before moving to the comparative wilds of New Mexico.   They begin by serving as emergency foster parents to one dog, then two before winding up living in a dilapidated farm-house in Chimayo, New Mexico – with 20 dogs!   (They later lose count of the total when it exceeds 20.)  

Steven Kotler and his wife Joy (known to the locals as el angel de los perros) wind up being less foster parents than the providers of a wooly home for abandoned dogs.   Because six or so of the dogs are Chihuahuas their abode comes to be known as Rancho de Chihuahua.

The Kotlers don’t have a lot of money in 2008 but nevertheless they must purchase $500 worth of good quality dog food each week (sickly dogs require good nutrition) and spend their savings on expensive life-saving operations for their wards.   Kotler is sceptical that he’s going to get much payback from this situation other than having kept his commitment to following Joy’s number one rule in life:  “Love me, love my dogs.”

Eventually, of course, Kotler gets his reciprocation in the form of love and acceptance from the rescued dogs, some of whom had been feral and mistrusting of humans.   And there’s the instance in which one of the dogs saves the author’s life when a mountain climbing expedition goes bad.   The dogs, in a sense, demonstrate that love and affection is always paid back in full.

As a former newspaper and magazine writer, Kotler is used to doing extensive research and in this book he includes many fascinating summaries of research performed with animals.   Much of the research verifies the benefits – mental and physical – that dogs and other animals bring to our existence.   Kotler also makes a convincing case for the notion that the modern dog is just as smart as (but perhaps shrewder than) his wolf ancestors.

At the end of Prayer, the reader will likely come to accept the positive message that our lives on this planet are meant to be shared with furry creatures; creatures that are never owned but which reward us with their unique and special presence.   Part of the truth about what it really means to be human can be expressed in the phrase, “Love me, love my animals.”

Well recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.   A Small Furry Prayer will be released by Bloomsbury USA on Tuesday, September 28, 2010.

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