Book review – “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E Frankl

This was the February choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a non-fiction book. I’d had some excellent suggestions from others, but when I walked into the bookshop, this slim little volume with the beautifully coloured bird on the front, jumped off the shelf at me. It was only on closer inspection of the cover that I noticed the barbed wire and the unmistakable image of a watch tower in misty monochrome. This book is written by a Holocaust survivor, a former inmate of Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp where over a million Jews were murdered; the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was commemorated at the end of January.

2020-02-06 12.42.07Viktor E Frankl was a psychiatrist who is credited with developing one of the most important theories in the field human psychology (logotherapy) since Freud. He was developing his theory before he was captured by the Nazis but his time in the concentration camp enabled him to observe human beings in extreme conditions and further evolve his ideas.

The core idea of logotherapy (if I understand it correctly) is that human beings have a ‘will to meaning’ and that is what enables them to survive even the most shocking brutality. To illustrate his point, Frankl writes in the first part of the book (about two thirds of the total) about his day to day experiences in the camp. We all know how terrible, degrading and dehumanising these were, but I certainly never fail to be shocked when I see or hear of them. Frankl suffered terribly, but he was also fortunate, as a doctor, to be called upon to look after sick inmates, and this enabled him to observe others at their most vulnerable.

It often occurs to me that it was a particular torture to keep those rounded up into the camps alive when the ultimate goal was extermination. Prisoners were used as slave labour and Frankl describes the horrific conditions they were expected to work in, digging up frozen ground in sub-zero temperatures wearing only the standard issue striped pyjamas, shoes which injured their feet, and surviving on a thin broth that was barely more than hot water. Frankl writes that horror was so commonplace and exhaustion so total that people became inured to feelings – being insensible was a necessary protection. Some inmates effectively ‘colluded’ with their captors and became mini foremen, acting as wickedly as the Nazi guards at times, but Frankl is philosophical:

“No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”

In the face of absolute degradation, where the prisoner’s life had no value, stripped of all freedoms and autonomy, Frankl observes that the only thing left is ‘spiritual freedom’ – the ability to choose one’s attitude in a situation. And this fragment, he believes, is enough to give one hope and purpose. He also observed that once this is lost, when a person can no longer see a goal or meaning, their physical life ebbs away.

Very few of us will ever have an experience like that of Dr Frankl or the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, though a few experience extreme privation, imprisonment and torture. Dr Frankl carried his theories into his work with normal people experiencing difficult things in their life. He cites an example of a bereaved colleague, devastated after the death of his wife, who felt that there was no longer any purpose to his life. Only once Dr Frankl was able to show him that his loss meant his wife had been spared the grief of being widowed, was he able to find meaning in his life again and thus move beyond his grief. Frankl is clear though that suffering is not necessary in order to find meaning in life, rather, that even through suffering, meaning can be found.

According to logotherapy we can find meaning in three different ways: by creating a work or doing a deed; by experiencing something or someone; and by the attitude we take to unavoidable suffering. Even when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are able to change ourselves. This for me, was the strongest message that came out of the book – Dr Frankl’s account of his time in the camp is both harrowing and compelling, but he is nonetheless able to draw from it, wisdom that is relevant to us all.

Viktor Frankl died in 1997. The second part of the book was revised and updated in 1962. I was struck by his reference to what he calls the ‘existential vacuum’, the depression people experience when they seem to lose the meaning in their life. He writes of how increasing automation in the workplace could lead to such a state. Retired an ageing people, he writes, can easily be afflicted by this as their once busy lives become seemingly empty. Here in the 21st century many of us have more leisure time than ever, but many of us don’t know what to do with it and may in fact be lonelier and less fulfilled than ever. Perhaps this explains the ‘Blitz spirit’ that older British people often reminisce about – in the suffering they found community and meaning and purpose. Perhaps it also explains the mental ill-health epidemic that seems to be affecting developed nations all over the world.

All of the above may be total gobbledygook, the ramblings of a middle-aged woman trying to work out her own purpose! I hope what will have come across to you, however, is that this is a very powerful book, that we should all read and which, I guarantee, will give you much food for thought.

Highly recommended, maybe even essential.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Parents and children in literature

We learned last week of the death of  Christopher Tolkien at the age of 95. Although he was a renowned Oxford scholar of Old and Middle English, the obituaries that I read, and the tributes I heard on the radio, tended to focus on his rather more famous father, JRR Tolkien. Not unreasonable; he was, after all, chief custodian, curator and champion of his father’s literary archive after his death in 1973 and from all accounts he was pretty well-adjusted, not seeming to have suffered any lack of self-confidence or self-esteem as a result of his eminent parent.

Christopher Tolkien
Image CNN.com

The same cannot be said of other children of famous or high-achieving parents: the two children of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes seem to have experienced great unhappiness – Nicholas hanged himself in 2009 and their daughter, Frieda, a poet and painter, moved far from her UK birthplace to become an Australian citizen and is three times divorced. I reviewed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a couple of weeks ago and learned that Muriel and her only son became estranged, her having left her husband and child not long after she married in 1937, and Doris Lessing also left her husband and two young children to pursue her literary career. In Lessing’s case, I am not aware of what impact the separation had on the children longer term, and, I hasten to add, I make no judgement. It cannot be easy, though, growing up in the shadow of a famous, high-achieving literary parent.

It got me thinking about parent-child relationships explored in literature and I decided to write a list! Here are my top picks (in no particular order):

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  1. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson – based on the author’s own difficult northern childhood
  2. Educated by Tara Westover – a memoir from the child of religious zealots
  3. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – harrowing novel shows us how a lack of nurturing in childhood leaves its main protagonist deeply damaged
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – an awful meddling mother and impotent father cause chaos in their daughters’ lives
  5. Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens – most of Dickens’ novels focus on family relationships but this for me is one of the darkest
  6. Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence – an unhealthy relationship between mother and son blights a young man’s future
  7. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – a woman suffering in the shadow of a toxic parent
  8. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy – a brilliant study of a young woman trying to escape the straitjacket of life with a domineering and emotionally manipulative parent
  9. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – among his many other misdemeanours, Heathcliff would surely be found guilty of child cruelty today!

I’ll no doubt think of a few more in the coming days!

What are your favourites?

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Book review – “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” by Muriel Spark

150120Last week I launched my 2020 Facebook Reading Challenge and promised I would post this week, my thoughts on the final book of 2019 – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. The theme for December was a novella – I wanted something short as I know it is a busy time of year and I never get as much reading done as I think I’m going to! In some ways, though, this does not do full justice to what is a highly complex, multi-layered and thematically dense piece of work. You simply have to read every word on its 127 pages and read them at the measured pace of how you imagine Miss Brodie might speak.

Dame Muriel Spark is considered one of the finest writers in English and one of Scotland’s finest writers. She won many glittering international literary awards in her life, and was made a Dame in 1993. She was married briefly, just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, during which time she gave birth to a son, from whom she later became bitterly estranged. In the 1960s she lived in New York and in Rome, where she met her long-term female partner. The couple settled in Italy, where Dame Muriel died in 2006 at the age of 88. Quite a life!

Muriel Spark
Dame Muriel Spark

I think the author’s background makes this novella all the more interesting because it is such an ‘Edinburgh’ book – I say this as a non-Scot, so please forgive me if you disagree! – or at least, an Edinburgh of a certain time (pre-war). Spark left Scotland quite early in her adult life and her father was a Lithuanian Jew. Perhaps this makes her acute observation of Miss Brodie and her other characters even more profound.

 

You will probably know the basic plot of the book; the 1969 film starring Maggie Smith is widely considered a classic. There was also a television series made in the late ‘70s starring Geraldine McEwan, which I vaguely recall having seen, though I was very young at the time – I definitely would not have ‘got’ it; although the book is set in a girls’ school, Malory Towers it most definitely is not! Miss Brodie initially cuts a dominant and impressive figure – determined to influence a selected group of pre-pubescent girls about the broader aspects of life which she feels the school curriculum neglects, such as genuine appreciation of art, social and cultural awareness and matters of the heart (or, more accurately, matters of sex). The strictures of the girls’ school, with its emphasis on knowledge, facts required to pass the exam for the secondary level, and the protestant ethos are seen by Miss Brodie (so she tells us) as narrow and not a true preparation for life. She tells the girls:

“I have no doubt Miss Mackay [the headmistress] wishes to question my methods of instruction. It has happened before. It will happen again. Meanwhile, I follow my principles of education and give of my best in my prime. The word “education” comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning and the stem trudo, I thrust. Miss Mackay’s method is to thrust a lot of information into the pupil’s head; mine is a leading out of knowledge, and that is true education as is proved by the root meaning.”

maggie smith
Dame Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie in the 1969 film

At first, we may see these girls as lucky to have such a dynamic, interesting and strong female personality in their young lives who, for example, is prepared to take them to the theatre off her own bat. What we gradually learn, however, is that the girls are merely Miss Brodie’s ‘project’, that it is not altruism and genuine care that drive her, rather it is her ego. She manipulates the girls, in some cases to their tragic detriment, and they become a vicarious extension of her own ambitions and disappointments, particularly in the matter of sex. Here, she acts as little more than a ‘pimp’, though I am aware this may be a 21st century reading of what may have been regarded at the time as less shocking (a sexual relationship between one of the girls and the married one-armed art master with whom Miss Brodie is herself in love).

In the end we can only see Miss Brodie as disappointed, disappointing, manipulative and manipulated, a deceiver and ultimately deluded. She becomes increasingly troublesome morally, as she expresses her admiration for Mussolini and fascism, and the various fates of the girls she once sought to educate are laid out before us.

This is such a clever book which I would encourage anyone to read. And read again once you’ve got to the ending!

Recommended.

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Facebook reading challenge – join us in June

Despite the awful British weather, it is actually June at the moment, halfway through it in fact, so it must be time for a new book on my Facebook Reading Challenge. Earlier in the week, I published a review of the May title – Lord of the Flies by William Golding, one of the great literary classics of the 20th century. So many people have studied this book at school, at a time, perhaps, when English literature was not the thing they were most into, that it can often elicit groans of anguish! In fact, coming to it again after so many years (and as a mother!), I saw new things in this book. That’s the great thing about a reading challenge; you pick up books that you might otherwise have turned away from.

This month’s theme is something from the Women’s Prize shortlist. At the time of setting the challenge I obviously did not know what was going to be on the shortlist. The title I selected is a book I have had my eye on for some time. In fact, I recommended it over a year ago in a post Hot new books for springAn Amercian Marriage by Tayari Jones has since been announced as the winner of the prize, as of 5 June, so I’m delighted to be reading it this month.

2019-06-14 10.49.53The book is about a young newly-married couple, Celestial and Roy, and is set in the American Deep South. Their lives appear full of potential until Roy is accused of a crime he did not commit. He is convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison. The book concerns the effect of the separation on their marriage, how Celestial copes alone and what this means for their shared dreams.

The chair of judges of the women’s prize described the book as one that “shines a light on today’s America” and it has won praise from the likes of Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, as well as achieving wide acclaim in the review columns. The whole shortlist was extremely impressive and I could have chosen any of the books on; the fact that it beat Anna Burns’s Man Booker winner Milkman, which I loved, tells you something about the high calibre.

So, if you fancy a good read and getting involved in the discussion, do join us, it’s not too late. 

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Book review – “To A Mountain in Tibet” by Colin Thubron

It is some time since I posted a book review – pretty shabby for a book review blog, though I like to think my non-review posts are suitably bookish too! I posted last week about my challenges in getting much reading done at the moment; even Why Mummy Drinks, Gill Sims’s very light, asking-to-speed-read, novel that my book club chose, seemed to be taking me ages. It has been a very busy few weeks – my paid work has been quite demanding (as has my non-paid work!), we have been undertaking a big decorating project in the house, plus we are properly working on the garden for the first time since we bought this house four years ago, and I am on revision-watch as one of my kids is on study-leave for exams this summer.

To A Mountian in Tibet imgSo my reading time has been severely curtailed. I managed to finish Why Mummy Drinks just after the book club meeting, just as well it was a quick read and did not require too much mental investment. My other big read for last month, however, did. Colin Thubron’s To A Mountain in Tibet was the April title for my Facebook Reading Challenge. The theme was travel writing, not a genre I know very much about, so I did a fair bit of research before choosing Thubron. It came with some fantastic recommendations. At just over 200 pages, it is not particularly long, but it felt like a very slow read.

The author has written more than a dozen travel books (as well as eight novels), mostly about the East. In this book he crosses the border between Nepal and Tibet on foot, to follow a route taken by thousands of pilgrims each year to Mount Kailas. I confess I had not heard of it, but it is one of the holiest shrines on earth, important to both Hindus and Buddhists. Whilst I have not read much travel writing, I guess my expectation is that it should educate and inform the reader about the location (tick), consider some of the social and political conditions of the people living there (tick), and include the personal reflections of the writer (tick). After all, isn’t travel writing as much about an emotional and psychological journey as well as physical one?

Thubron’s book does all these things and does them well, and the writing is beautiful. I learnt a great deal about Buddhism, about pilgrims’ reasons for undertaking the perilous trek around Kailas, about the political tension between China and Tibet, and about the poverty and social problems in the region, particularly in Nepal. All of that said, I’m afraid I have mixed feelings about the book. I gave it four stars on Goodreads, but there was something languid about the book that at times failed to engage me. Some of the history was rather dry, while the account of the poverty, the terrible conditions in which some of the people in the towns and villages on Thubron’s route live, was brought vividly alive.

The ‘journey’ that Thubron himself is on, in a state of bereavement, all his family members now dead, reflects the motive of many of the pilgrims in whose footsteps he is following. He writes about his late parents, and his long-dead sister, but I feel this wasn’t covered in as much depth as I would have liked. The blurb on the book’s cover indicates this is a major element, but I would disagree and feel the content could have had a little more meaning if these passages had been included in a slightly less random way.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and I would like to read more of Thubron’s work. I imagine if you know a little more of the subject matter it might have greater impact.

Which other travel writers would you recommend?

 

 

Facebook Reading Challenge – May’s book

The months are passing at a rapid rate and I can’t believe it is already time to consider a new book for my Facebook Reading Challenge. Last month the theme was travel writing and I chose Colin Thubron’s To A Mountain in TibetI have to confess that, almost a week into the new month, I still have not finished it. Although I am enjoying it, it is a very slow read. Something about the way it is written makes my reading pace reduce to the author’s speed of ascent up the mountain! I wish I could say look out for the review next week but I have had to set it to one side to speed-read my book club book, which I had forgotten all about…

lord of the flies img

It will get finished, of course, and I posted a video on the Facebook group’s page last week announcing this month’s book which is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. A few people replied to say they had done it for ‘O’ level – I am sure they are of a similar age to me, but it was obviously not my year, as I had forgotten that it’s a favourite set text for 16 year-olds. Most people seemed happy to be reading it again though. You can see things in a completely different way when you come back to a book, particularly after a number of years and a number of life changes. My recent re-read of Perfume (the March choice for the Reading Challenge) gave me an insight into that.

 

So, if you care to join us for the challenge this month, hop on over to the group’s Facebook page and request to join, or else just read along and let me know your thoughts when I post a review in early June.

Happy reading!

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Book review – “Perfume” by Patrick Süskind

This book is without doubt one of the most extraordinary novels of the late twentieth century. It was first published in the original German in 1985, and published in English the following year. It has sold over twenty million copies worldwide and been translated into 49 different languages. It won numerous prizes, remained on the bestseller lists in Germany for many years and was universally acclaimed. Despite this, its author published only a handful of other works (Perfume was his second book) and virtually retired from literary life in the mid-1990s and now, in his seventies, lives as a recluse between Germany and France, shunning all publicity. None of this surprises me; this book has surely to be the product of a very unusual mind.

Photo 11-03-2019, 13 52 18The book begins in mid-eighteenth century Paris when the central character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is born beneath a fish stall, to an indigent mother. She pauses her work briefly in order to give birth to him but then, believing or perhaps wishing him to be yet another of the many stillbirths she is said to have had, she leaves him for dead amongst the discarded fish guts. When he is discovered alive, his mother is tried for infanticide and executed. He is left to the mercy of the church, but proves a demanding and difficult baby, who, despite his unpromising start, appears to enjoy rude health. So much so that the wet-nurse hired to take care of him, returns him as he is drinking too much of her milk, making it impossible for her to take on any other infants and therefore make a living. The sense of his insatiable appetite and how he sucks the life out of those around him is established. As he goes through life, we learn that those who come into contact with him invariably meet a tragic end.

Once old enough he is apprenticed to a tanner and lives a brutal existence. He also begins to learn that he has an exceptional sense of smell – it’s almost painterly in its precision. An unscrupulous perfumer in the city, whose best days are behind him, discovers the boy’s skills and buys him from the tanner, obviously without revealing Grenouille’s gifts. The vain Baldini uses him to copy the successful scents produced by others and to create remarkable new fragrances which restore Baldini’s fame and fortune.

It is whilst working for Baldini that Grenouille commits his first murder, spontaneously and without any particular malice. He follows an enchanting smell only to find that it belongs to a young nubile girl. In its purity and its goodness, the smell is like nothing Grenouille has ever come across and he wishes to possess it. He kills the girl and remains with her body until he has absorbed every atom of her odour into himself. The curious thing about Grenouille is that despite his acute sense of smell her has no odour of his own and can pass through society virtually unnoticed. With this first murder he realises that he will never be found out.

Years pass and Grenouille moves out of Paris, including spending a number of years as a hermit, living in a mountain. He is constantly searching, for some essence of life that he lacks in himself and covets in others, for some sort of olfactory peace. He has the capacity to deceive others and, although he is cruel and unfeeling, by doing so he exposes the foolishness, vanity and greed of others. It is inevitable that Grenouille will become a prolific serial killer. His final act is a kind of aromatic climax, following which he is both spent (there is nothing left for him to do) and satisfied.

The opening chapters of the novel are an assault on the senses – eighteenth century Paris, with all its filth, poverty and physical and moral dereliction, is right there beneath your nostrils. Grenouille’s journey is narrated in the most extraordinary prose that you will ever read. The final scenes, with the baying crowd of thousands that gathers to witness his execution but which then, utterly transfixed by the hypnotic odour he has doused on himself, stolen from the bodies of his young female victims, descends into a wild orgy. It’s like the author presents a Hogarth painting on the page! (Hogarth was working at around the same time and I wonder if the author had him in mind?) It is quite extraordinary.

Perfume was one of the first books I read after graduating. I had a reading holiday after I’d finished my degree in English and this novel reminded me of my love for literature (at the time I was feeling pretty spent myself!). The other memorable book I read around this time was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and I count both among my favourite books of all time. I was nervous coming back to Perfume, concerned that I might not find it as good and therefore its memory may somehow be spoiled. I needn’t have worried – it was an even greater pleasure second time around. Parts of the book left me breathless they were so powerful.

Highly, highly recommended, whether as a first or subsequent read. Astonishing.

Have you read Perfume? If so, how do you rate it?

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