The Stranger

downloadAlbert Camus, 1942
Translated from the French by Matthew Ward, 1988

My first reading of The Stranger was unimpressed. I’ll admit that I was only 18  when I had read it during my summer break between my freshman and sophomore years of college and my initial impression was distracted because The Stranger was handed to me by an enthusiastic friend that had proclaimed this book’s originality and importance as the quintessential existential treatise. Reflecting on my initial impression I recognize that one element of my character that has been unchanged through the years is that I am often subject to a self-inflicted criticism susceptible to deflated expectations. The great blockbuster is typically a flop to my overtly sensitive sentimentalities and the buildup of the The Stranger‘s importance affected my initial impression. Now, on a second visit through more mature and experienced eyes I was engrossed by Camus’ narrative as the unrecognized masterpiece read by my younger mind.

What captivated me in this second reading was the concise and direct narrative voice. The abrupt and direct sentences spoken by the indifferent narrator, Meursault, portray a man that lives among but separate from his surroundings. He is a blank slate that floats through the circumstances that surround him. His simplicity may seem off-putting or unsettling to conservative sentimentalities, yet his openness and malleability represents the modern man disjointed from tradition or history. Though his actions are far from perfect, his separateness from the expectations of the society that surrounds him ultimately serves as his condemnation.

The book opens with the death of his mother and Meursault attends her funeral because that is what is expected of him. He declines the offer to look upon her deposed body and sits through a long night of funerary viewing unemotional and appearing disinterred. The day after her funeral he begins a relationship with a sometime acquaintance simply because the opportunity presented itself and he only shared his mother’s passing with the lover interest after he had slept her. His neighbor asks him to be his close friend and confident and Meursault accepts not out of friendship but simply because it appears as though what is expected of him.

These apparently indifferent choices are later perceived by the social order as indications of a corrupt moral character but the astute reader is better informed and will not so easily be seduced by the social expectation to judge and convict. Meursault isn’t necessarily evil or morally corrupt. Neither is he heroic or a representation of the ideal. Meursault simply is. Meursault exists as a man with only one motivation, to be. When faced with a morally challenging scenario, to defend his friend’s honor, he acts not out of anger or brutality, he simply acts. When imprisoned and put to trial for his action, he does not cry the victim or plead his defense, he simply accepts the consequences of his actions as the expectation of his social surrounding.

The plot scenario that failed to impress my young mind succeeds to impress my older mind primarily due to the economy of narrative and the believability of the scenarios depicted. The circumstances of the plot are simple and the narrative voice is direct. The scenario may not yield a universal portrayal of circumstances, but the perspective of Meursault, the narrator, is universal. His voice portrays a man that is aware of the falsity of the expectations of morality and social order for he lives apart from the learned and expected behaviors of society’s mores. He lives so not out of choice, but simply because he lives. Ultimately this simplicity is unacceptable within society’s expectations and his simplicity must end to appease the judgement of his surroundings.

The question posed to the reader extends beyond the plot scenario – how can society judge the strangers among us who live apart from our understanding. Are we moral in exacting such judgement and if not, what is the basis for any moral judgement?

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The Better Angels of Our Nature

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Why Violence Has Declined
Steven Pinker 2012

This was the opposite of light, summer reading. In fact, The Better Angels of our Nature felt more like summer school. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. Although this heavily academic and thoroughly researched book weighed in at four pages shy of seven hundred, the depth presented in Steven Pinker’s thesis about the decline of violence through the ages was thought provoking, informative, and inspired optimism about humanity’s future.

Now, you’re probably all up in arms at the proposition that violence is in decline, especially in world with recent tragedies such as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the beheading of journalist James Foley by the Islamic State, the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the subsequent militarized policing of the poor citizens of Ferguson. All of these recent events are admittedly distressing and discouraging. However, according to Pinker’s analysis of the trends of violence throughout history, these recent events are not actually signs of an unravelling world order but actually outliers in a downward trend of an overall reduction in worldwide violence.

Admittedly, I am just as much as pessimist about society’s misgivings as the next guy, but while reading Pinker’s book I allowed myself to swallow the kool-aid and accept his argument that violence has actually been in decline through the ages, despite our gut reaction to the contrary.

How so?

To acknowledge this trend, one must accept a big picture view when looking at current events. Pinker actually urges us to take a very, very big picture view that compares the global violence experienced today with a perspective that acknowledges that our ancestors were often brutal towards one another in ways that is unimaginable today. Yes, brutality does still exist today, Pinker is not arguing that violence has been erased from human nature, and no one can deny the relatively recent past of the first half of the 20th century as the father to the two most destructive wars in human history. However, through careful analysis of world population statistics, it becomes apparent that the proportion of people living today (or even during the time of the two world wars) untouched by the many faces of violence depicted through slavery, rape, genocide, murder, and war far outweighs the number and proportion of people living (and dying) than do feel the awful touch of violence’s brutal hand.

To consider the relative possibility of an ever present peace one must reflect on the brutal past. Genocides may occur this very day in under-developed and poor nations, but these occurrences are current outliers in the global scheme of historical reference. The record of history’s past, including both the biblical record, classical Greek poetry, and countless documents and artistic representations depict a world unlike ours that celebrated war and the total destruction, rape, and pillage of enemy tribes and nations that were frequently erased from human memory. Among countless examples to consider are gladiatorial fights to the death enjoyed as common entertainment that would be completely shunned by modern society. It was once common practice to watch executions for fun and now few modern countries permit executions at all (the US is the one exception in the western industrialized world). At one time gentlemen would settle matters via a duel to the death and now disputes are more often settled in court. Powerful nations thrived on extensive battles that lasted decades and exhausted the peasantry with little benefit to the common man and now the major focus of international relations is economic commerce that promotes shared prosperity. Even the total body count of wars of the current and recent past pale in comparison to the body count of years prior.

These are but a few examples of the many changes in human relations that are apparent as a downward trend in violence through the ages. In discussing these changes Pinker provides an in depth review of historical data to present the decline of the once common practice of violence through a step wise discussion of the process of pacification, civilization, and the enlightenment (otherwise called the humanitarian revolution) to demonstrate how cultural trends have reduced the frequency, magnitude, and length of global war and improved conditions for all mankind. His historical review is extensively reliant on graphical presentation of the trends. Although many readers may be distracted by the analytical data presentation, this reader accepted the graphic format as a persuasive tool to support the over arching thesis that violence has really decline through time. Over and over again through both textual and graphical discussion Pinker argues that the frequency and magnitude of inter-governmental war, civil war, torture, execution, murder, slavery, rape, the treatment of women, children and even animals has declined through the ages.

Despite the consistent presentation of the decline, Pinker could not get around the fact that the historical record clearly presents two recent blips of atrocity that could distract many readers from accepting Pinker’s argument: WW I and WW II. Pinker provides some good analysis of these blips by arguing that they were statistical anomalies that can distract historical review because “events that occur at random will seem to come in clusters, because it would take a nonrandom process to space them out” (203) and the overall impact of these world wars, though atrocious, are not the worst events to occur in human history. Through a review of the most horrible events that mankind has done to one another, Pinker clearly demonstrates that the two world wars of the early 20th century do not measure up to the global proportionality of destruction. Although those wars were the most brutal events that occurred with respect to total body count, when adjusted to compare the death toll to the proportion of human population at the time of their occurrence the second world war ranks as the 9th and the first world war ranks as the 16th as the most destructive wars in human history.

This presentation of the past may seem like clever historical revisionism, and in many ways it is, but one cannot argue with the realization that since the second world war a third has not come to destroy us despite the proliferation of nuclear weapons and despotic leaders in backwater nations capable to extend their power to exact such global destruction. Yes, since the second world war there have been many shocking and destructive events, but when looking at the most recent devastations such as 9/11 and the subsequent Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the total death toll is minuscule compared to atrocities of ages past.

So, what has changed? For one, you the reader are probably disgusted by the suggestion that  9/11 is a minimal event. That disgust is actually a good sign of changing human sentiment. Pinker argues that this human sentiment is a result of a progressive change in human awareness and rationality that is a result of several fortuitous historical events. Primarily, as human civilization moved from rural hunter gathering tribes towards agrarian and then towards urban metropolitan styles of living, the civilizing process had a pacifying element that curbed our violent nature through an increased sentimental appreciation for the value of human life. Every year in the US there are approximately 17,000 to 18,000 deaths resulting from murder, but these deaths are distributed across a nation of greater than 300,000,000 and therefore represent only a small percentage of actual death as a result of murder. The approximately 3,000 that died on 9/11 is only 1/6 the total that die year after year as a result of murder in this nation, yet the gut reaction to the 9/11 event is heightened by the media attention, national pride, and ideologies that surround the event. The atrocity may seem appalling, but the truth is that it is an outlier and we generally live in peace.

The reasons for that peace have a lot to do with our respect for the atrocity as a representation of a loss of human life that could easily be yours or mine. In times past that respect was lacking. What has caused that change in respect for life through time? Pinker presents several multi-factorial arguments that play together to change human nature for the better. First among many factors are the pacification and civilizing process necessarily inherent in the development of societies that moved from tribal to cosmopolitan nature. As more people lived together in tighter more dependent relationships, people grew to value commercial and social relationships. Secondly, the development of a state system with a monopoly on the jursidication of social order served to limit the violent behaviors of the social constituents for fear of the judicial consequences of social disorder. The increased availability of knowledge through print and literacy subsequently affected and expanded the possibilities for empathy and understanding that ignited the humanitarian revolutions that sought an end to slavery, promoted woman’s suffrage and feminization, racial rights, gay rights, children rights, animal rights and so on.

In short, as mankind has grown to accept reason and rationality while concurrently become reliant upon a system of social order, our moral perspective has expanded and has grown to expect rational and moral treatment towards each other. Of course we are far from perfect and many continue to struggle for safety and simple livelihood across this expansive globe, the fact that you or I can grow so inflamed towards a jaywalker or a car that has cut us off in the fast lane to only forget it minutes later is a sign of a greater good, for these inconsequential problems that ignite and later quench our emotions are but mere trivialities when compared to the greater perspective of mankind’s capacity for atrocity towards one another.

The real question through the ages is less so what is wrong with the world, but rather what is right?



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The Corpse Exhibition

downloadHassan Blasim, 2009
Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, 2013

Gruesome. Macabre. Visceral. Telling.

The words needed to describe this collection of stories of Iraq by the expatriated Hassan Blasim all share a common theme. These aren’t stories for the faint of heart. These aren’t tales of sweetness or beauty. These are tales that communicate a blunt disregard for life by those that must live amidst a ravaged and crumbled society. As alluded by the title story, these stories exhibit the corpse, not life.

And yet, despite the grit and brutality on display in this body of fictional works, there is an eye-opening importance to this collection. Art serves many necessities, and at its best the written art-form inspires the reader with a new perspective that increases empathy and understanding. Blasim has succeeded in that endeavor; for despite the display of brutality in these stories, he is a writer capable of penning a narrative voice that remains in touch with a humanity worthy of consideration. For example consider this passage:

“The magic of words was like rain that quenched the thirst in my soul, and for me life became an idea and a dream.” (117, A Thousand and One Knives)

That passage was from a semi-magical tale about a group of unique friends that include a paraplegic soccer coach name Jafar who lost his legs in the Iraq-Iran war, Jafar’s sister-in-law, a butcher, and the narrator who was once a player on Jafar’s soccer team. The group each possess unique abilities to cause knives to disappear, with the exception of the sister-in-law’s ability to make knives appear. Jafar makes a living selling pornography on the black market, but he is inevitably arrested and tortured by the police for his secular profession. As the police attempt to cut off his arms (to punish him since he apparently did not learn god’s message when he lost his legs) he causes their knives to disappear, rending them unable to cut him. The police profess him a devil and ultimately amputate his arms with bullets instead of knives and then set fire to him. The reflection of his torture is told with a straightforward sincerity, reflecting that this is something that just happens to men such as him. Rather than succumb to sorrow for his lost friend, the narrator gives him new life by naming his newborn son Jafar.

Not all of the stories in this collection use magical devices to achieve an effective narrative impact. Many of the stories are blunt in their realism, while others have an otherworldly voice.

The opening and title story, The Corpse Exhibition, begins the collection from the otherworldly realm. The Corpse Exhibition is a first person monologue that spoken to a voiceless listener petitioning to step down from his role as artistic murderer. In this monologue the narrator describes with pride the artistic murderer profession a necessary class of men who kill and put their victim’s bodies on display in unique situations, such as cutting off limbs and hanging them from electrical wires or using colored thread to hang organs in different and ironic locations. These murderers aren’t terrorists or fanatical Islamists, they serve a higher cultural need since their actions are driven by an artistic pleasure that transcends religious or political motives. As the narrator ultimately expresses his displeasure at the listener’s desire to quit the profession, it the reader chillingly realizes that narrator’s intended listener is the next victim to be put on display.

The fantastic realm of The Corpse Exhibition is contrasted by the very real story presented in The Iraqi Christ, which reveals a man who is forced to set off a suicide bomb in order to spare his mother’s life. The straightforward progression of The Iraqi Christ is more chilling than the gruesome nature of the otherworldly narration of the The Corpse Exhibition because the existential choice to use a bomb to kill oneself and bystanders in order to save the life of a loved one is somehow believable and real.

There are a total of fourteen stories in this slim book and each tale is captivating with page-turning intensity. The few words I have shared above are only vague expressions of the grim but necessary feelings that came over me as I read these stories. Why is it that the gruesome words in print can affect the mind so greatly and why did I succumb to the compelling need to return to Blasim’s vision again and again? The answer to that may be driven by a need for catharsis or a nihilistic thanksgiving that I live in a more peaceful world unable to imagine the horrors expressed in this book. Despite those possibilities, somehow the visceral horror is necessary and a satisfying path to invoke the realization that these stories exist only as fictional and artistic representations intended as reflections of a life unlived, yet a life that is possible.

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Oakley Hall, 1958

The western genre is a funny thing. The genre is a uniquely American mythology populated by noble and ignoble characters that stand for idealized notions of right and wrong. This mythology of the great American west of the latter 19th century stands for a time and place when men and woman sought out the last possibility of the American dream: to grab a piece of land that was still untouched and pure and to make something of that purity in that vast expanse of unpopulated desert beyond the reach of governance and country.

As is often told through the many stories of the western genre, the frontier spirit of the good natured prospecting and cattle ranching citizens were often troubled by the wild natured and free shooting outlaws of the wild west. The gunslinging hero is generally a loner that wanders into town to redeem the helpless citizens from the constant pressure of outlaw terrorization. I am not particularly a fan of this romantic idealization of the genre because it is often told from a black and white perspective that simplifies reality. In my opinion, there are a few books that do the genre well, and some of the best westerns are actually anti-westerns that destroy the simplified romantic mythology by revealing the complex human nature beyond the celebrated stories of the wild west. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian does this particularly well, however many reader will admit that McCarthy takes the anti-western to the nth degree by murdering the genre in a blood-bath of gruesome proportions. Conversely, Oakley Hall’s Warlock is an impressive anti-western that expands the possibilities of the genre through the development of an existential perspective towards the western mythology. Yes, Warlock is populated with plenty of murder and deceit, but unlike McCarthy’s writing that brings the violence into focus, Hall’s Warlock focuses on the complexity of human emotion and philosophy.

The novel’s title namesake, Warlock, is a small, but growing town just out of reach of the neighboring county seat and therefore lacks a court or sheriff. Warlock is faced with a bureaucratic conundrum as its population swells due to the neighboring silver mines and it must make due with a sequence of ineffective deputies that lack the authority to maintain order as rowdy cowboys have bullied the townsfolk with vandalism and murder. What makes this conundrum worse is that any criminal sent to trial in the neighboring Bright’s City get set free on acquittal as the juries of Bright’s City’s courts are often stacked by or threatened by the leader of the cowboy hooligans. Therefore, the deputies are often murdered or run off by the “innocent” men they had arrested. The bureaucratic complexities run even deeper since Bright’s city is run by an uninterested and fattened sheriff remaining subservient to a dementia-crazed governor/general more interested in reliving his military past chasing off Apaches than he is in developing the mining town of Warlock.

Mixed in all of this is the development of a miner’s union that additionally complicates the politics of the township, further limiting its influence with the county seat. So, with few options available to protect them, the civil minded people of Warlock develop a questionably legal Citizen’s Committee that pools together the money to hire a fast-shooting Marshal to protect the townspeople from the rowdy hooligans. What makes this scenario all the more interesting, is that the people of the Citizen’s Committee are troubled by their choices and often find themselves in deep philosophical discussion about the legality and moral rational behind their decision to hire a gunslinging marshal, as depicted in the letters that one of the Citizen Committee members writes:

“We do not break so simply as some think into the two camps of townsmen and Cowboys. We break into the camps of those wildly inclined, and those soberly, those irresponsible and those responsible, those peace-loving and those outlaw and riotous by nature; further into the camps of respect, and of fear – I mean for oneself, and for all decent things besides.” (172)

With moral questions such as this, the plot sounds pretty thick doesn’t it? Well, it gets thicker as the new deputy, John Gannon, a former friend of the cowboy leader McQuown, is not trusted by either the town or the gang of cowboys, especially since his hot-headed brother, Billy Gannon is running with McQuown’s cowboy gang. His brother eventually is “posted” out of town, or in other words, marked for death by the gun-slinging marshal if seen within the borders of Warlock. This causes all sorts of moral dilemmas for the deputy who must uphold the law and save face with his family, friends and love-interest; however, when faced with this dilemma Gannon is troubled to the point of ineffective lassitude. He spends most of his time observing rather than enforcing the law, and is of the mind capable of pondering the following:

“It seemed to him that hate was a disease, and that he did not know a man who didn’t have it, turned inward or outward.” (66)

If Gannon, the deputy, were to seek out a moral compass in his town, it would be difficult to find. Despite the lack of a courthouse, Warlock is judiciously served by an accusatory alcoholic judge that does little but criticize the marshal and the Citizens Committee with a harsh voice frequently drowned by free flow of whiskey. There is also a gambling card-shark who happens to be a close friend with the marshal and somehow behind the scenes of many of the town’s troubles. Although the town is sparsely populated by women, the few women characters are complex with well developed and complex motivations. Throughout the book the narrative voices weaves back and forth from each character’s perspective, expressing different character’s personal view of their neighbor’s actions and beliefs. This form of storytelling, creates a forward progressing narrative that reads easily with an engaging drive. It is as though everyone that populates Warlock is a central character, each with their own weaknesses and strengths that are both tragic and comic, fully human and believable. This is not the stuff of romantic writing, as demonstrated by this passage from the doctor’s monologue about his involvement as a union organizer:

“He gazed at his world through inward eyes and saw all his ideals and aspirations crumbling gray and ineffectual…He had deluded himself with his ideals of humanity and liberality, but peace came after war, not out of reason…So it had always been, and revolutions were made by men who conquered or who died, and not by gray thoughts in gray minds. Peace came with a sword, right with a sword, justice and freedom with swords, and the struggle to them must be led by men with swords rather than by ineffectual men counseling reason and moderation.” (435)

As I have expanded upon above, Warlock is a wonderful character driven novel, but I must acknowledge that it is also beautifully written with poetic passages of scenery that have an intoxicating allure. For instance, reference this passage about the gambler sitting in the local pub watching the sun through the slats of the swinging doorway:

“He watched the thin slats of sun that fell through the louvre doors, destroyed each time a man entered or departed, in a confusion of shifting, jumbled light and shadow as the doors swung and reswung in decreasing arcs. Then they would stand stationary again, and the barred pattern of light would reform.” (378)

This book pleased me greater than any book I had read in quite some time. It had long been on my to-read list because it was noted as a favorite and influential work of Thomas Pynchon’s. Oddly, the style and subject matter is unlike anything that Pynchon wrote, with the use of multiple character perspectives being the only similarity to Pynchon’s style. Pynchon’s admiration for this book is understandable because Warlock succeeds as an engaging work of art through its use of multiple views from several distinct characters to develop a universal story that isn’t simply about the American wild west. Warlock is a human story, the moral and bureaucratic scenarios that drive its plot are not merely the problems of some forgotten western town, they are the problems faced by societies across this globe, societies populated by peoples attempting to make right amidst the wrongs suffered at the hands of their peers and neighbors. This is a powerful story that raises its ante in each chapter invested by the reader and the payoff is immensely enjoyable and memorable.

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The Man Who Walked Through Walls

41htyqi02blMarcel Aymé, 1943
Translated from the French by Sophie Lewis, 2012

This collection of short stories by Marcel Aymé was a total pleasure that I slowly savored in between some of my other readings. Several of the stories had a dream-like magical quality that was both intoxicating and jarring. Of the ten stories, four were phenomenal and only one was a total dud (The Proverb) and all but that one dud captured my attention completely, preventing me from doing anything other than finish the story in hand. These writings possess both the quality of the bizarre and the profound with a whimsical and enjoyable artistic realism. And they were fun too!

The first two stories, the collection’s title namesake of the The Man Who Walked Through Walls and Sabine Woman both felt like blunt superhero stories told within a world that takes no notice of super hero powers. The first story was literally about a man that possessed the power to walk through walls and the second story was about a woman who was able to multiply her physical self infinitely. These plot scenarios could easily be subtexts for any Marvel X-Men story lines, but Aymé wrote these stories not to explore these powers as would a comic book writer who exploits the childlike wonder of superhero possibility, but rather to explore the moral and ethical choices of people granted unusual attributes.

The man who could walk through walls first found annoyance with his ability, going to a doctor to figure out what was wrong with him, but as he finds trouble at his work he soon exploits his ability to toy with his boss and then he later becomes a criminal and escape artist. Just like the man who could walk through walls, the woman with the ability to multiply herself is at first suspicious of her ability, only using it to expedite the completion of her household chores, but she later finds the enjoyment of comfortably living out an affair while remaining chaste to her husband. She later becomes addicted to the excitement of living multiple lives at once as she multiplies herself again and again. In both stories, the title characters become corrupted by their unique abilities, breaking both moral and legal laws, yet their corruption is told from a light and playful narrative voice that speaks with a practical tone. The practical voice portrays the characters’ stories with believability, as though their outcomes would be the expected outcomes of people with these abilities in our world.

My favorite stories from the collection were two stories that explored the concepts of time. Tickets on Time told the story of an overpopulated world where the elite decided that the days of the month would be granted to individuals that were most productive, thereby creating days when unproductive individuals would disappear from existence until the subsequent month. This created an unusual barter system where the poor sell their tickets on time to others and the wealthy are able to live extra days each month. In The Problem of Summertime it is determined that time will be moved forward by seventeen years for society to skip over the turmoil of the second world war and the German occupation. One individual finds himself in a strange time warp when he was once in 1960 and then back in 1943 occupied France, yet with all his memories of the peaceful future intact. As he tries to understand the truth of his reality he rather profoundly states the following:

“It seems, and it might just be my imagining, that my memory of the future is already less certain.” (134, The Problem of Summertime)

Astute and philosophical statements such as this are interspersed throughout Aymé’s writings. Just as both Tickets on Time and the The Problem of Summertime bend the reader’s perception of the concepts of time and The Man Who Walked Through Walls and Sabine Woman toy with the reader’s expectations of human abilities, all of the stories in this collection are presented as a playful twist on reality to provide the reader with an altered perspective on truth, morality, and human relationship. These stories, written when France was occupied by Nazi Germany, come from a voice that knows the potential for, but denies the cynical perspective. After having stated that, I must acknowledge that there were a couple of stories with a darker perspective such as The Proberb, which portrays a stern and short-sited father and While Waiting, which tells the story of several destitute survivors of a never-ending war. However, despite those two outliers, most of the the stories in this collection are from a voice that portrays a playful perspective on life; it is a voice that questions moral, philosophical, and physical laws to prompt the reader to better enjoy the reality lived through reading.

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download (1)Cheryl Strayed, 2012

Last fall I spent three days biking alone through Oregon’s Willamette valley. I road through a day of heavy heat sandwiched between two days of torrential rain carrying little but my camp gear on my bike. Leading up to the trip I had spent a few months researching the route, picking out gear, and even took a test-ride in the Bay Area with a friend to safely get a feel for what it was like to ride with a fully loaded bike. My trip was actually far less ambitious than I had originally planned because I had to cut the trip short due to the wet weather.

Despite the shortened route, that trip remains up there as one my most memorable and rewarding experiences. Prior to my solitary bike trip I have enjoyed numerous multi-day biking, backpacking, and river rafting trips through beautiful and scenic wilderness and backcountry roads. Although each of those trips has given me great joy and lasting memories, those prior trips were all group expeditions comforted by the support of reliable friends. My Willamette trip was special because it was a solitary trip, led by, organized, and completed completely by my own design and determination. On the final day of that brief trip I road 65 miles through a ceaseless down-pore that wore down my spirit. Half way through that day and far beyond any point of return I thought myself crazy for ever embarking on such a wet and wearying ride. Beyond my self-doubts I wouldn’t give up. At the end of that long and draining day I was rewarded with the pure bliss of knowing that I had made it. I had made it on my own and purely for myself.

I speak about this trip in opening my review of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to provide some context towards my deep respect for Cheryl’s accomplishment. I had biked nearly 160 miles in three days and although I had carried my breakfast and dinner and all my camp gear on my bike, I had the luxury to fill my water at parks and gas stations, the luxury of stopping for lunch, the luxury of using my GPS phone for guidance, the luxury to call or email my wife at the end of my long days or during my rest breaks. Cheryl had no such luxury as she backpacked nearly 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on her own relying on her compass and the trail and the infrequent kindness of strangers she stumbled upon from week to week. Though my ride was solitary and powered by my own energies, it was along a paved road and if I ever ran into trouble I didn’t have too long to wait before a car would pass me by. Cheryl’s hike was truly solitary with several days passing before anyone crossed her path and she ran the risk of dehydration since safe watering holes could be as far as 35 miles down the trail. Although her original plan was sidelined by snow, as mine by rain, she persevered and continued on, making her way to the Washington border from the Mohave desert while rediscovering herself in the depths of wilderness.

Despite my respect for her journey, despite my acknowledgment that her book is an accomplishment in itself, I haven’t been so annoyed at a book in as long as I can remember. From the opening prologue that depicted Cheryl losing one of her hiking boots at the edge of a cliff and then throwing the other I knew I was in for a raucous ride.

Much can be said about Cheryl’s ridiculous unpreparedness, how she never even packed her bag for a test run before her first day on the trail, how she assumed hiking was simply walking and therefore she didn’t practice her strength or endurance training, how she packed the wrong fuel for her stove, and how she clogged her water filter. These foolish actions are forgiven due to her youth and naiveté. Much can be said how she spent the months prior to her hike dabbling in heroin, completely distracting herself from a practical approach towards long distance preparation. This can also be forgiven since the purpose of her hike was prompted by her realization that her life choices had drifted her far from her roots. What can’t be forgiven is her ceaseless self degradation and whining about her life. Yes, I understand that her story has purpose, she did have a challenging and unique upbringing and her mother’s sudden and unexpected death impacted her greatly, but in reading about it, I wanted her to move on beyond her personal history and tell me more about the PCT and how its beauty impacted her. She did this on several occasions, but too often she turned back to herself with such navel gazing proclamations as the following:

You should see a therapist, everyone had told me after my mother had died, and ultimately – in the depths of my darkest moments the year before the hike – I had. But I didn’t keep the faith… I had problems a therapist couldn’t solve; grief that no man in a room could ameliorate.” (134)

I will say that Cheryl writes well, her style is engaging and despite my annoyance with her story, I finished the book: but that endeavor felt like an accomplishment in itself. This book should have been about 100 pages shorter to make it a fantastic book, but too often it returned to Cheryl’s self-analysis and felt more like a written therapy session than an adventure in the wild. I guess what distracted me was that I enjoy stories that have a universal quality to them, but Wild fails to reach out with a universal voice. Strayed speaks from her singular personhood, often repeating her regrets towards her adulterous behavior that ruined her marriage, her self destructive use of heroin, and her recurrent sorrow for her mother’s loss. I have no problems with anyone dealing with personal struggle and writing about it, but what fazed me by Wild was its complete lack of applicability to the human story. Even when Cheryl appears to move on and reach new achievements, she strays off the trail with a boy she just met to enjoy a few nights of relaxation and pleasure on the Oregon coast, hundreds of miles from the PCT.

Cheryl’s achievement as a young woman on her own is without a doubt an accomplishment, but after reading her story, I was disappointed in the book, because it felt less about being wild and more about being tamed by the trail in the wilderness. I wish that the book was filled more with the passages such as the following and less with the navel-gazing self analysis that so frequently annoyed and frustrated this reader:

“I was crying my first tears on the PCT. I cried and I cried and I cried. I wasn’t crying because I was happy. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I wasn’t crying because of my mother or my father or Paul. I was crying because I was full. Of those fifty-some hard days on the trail and of the 9,760 days that had come before them too.” (234)

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The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine: Reader Criticisms

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Jame Le Fanu, 1999, 2012

In my last post I was inspired to reflect upon my personal experiences relevant to a patient I had cared for.  I don’t read a lot of medically inspired books and this blog is primarily an outlet for my own memories and inspirations pertinent to the many books I read. I was reading James Le Fanu’s book, The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine during a challenging period in my nursing career and felt that it was appropriate to apply some of the discussion material of the book to a patient case that had deeply affected me.

If you, reader of this blog aren’t aware, I am a registered nurse at a large medical institution. And if you know me well, you are aware that I have been intimately involved with medicine most of my life since my career prior to nursing involved work at several large and small biotech companies associated with the “big” pharmaceutical industry. In many ways I have been self-aware for several years about the double edged nature of my involvement in the medical field. Medicine does great good but the business and high cost of medicine is slightly unsettling because the efforts of profits distract from my altruistic intent in being involved in medicine. I had left the pharmaceutical industry primarily because my ten plus years working in the industry failed to fulfill my inherent desire to help my fellow human kind. At the end of my workday I knew that despite the indirect knowledge that the my workaday efforts assisted the patients in need of the drug therapies my companies had manufactured, my daily efforts were ultimately and directly best serving the corporation and the shareholders of the companies that I had worked for. The choice to pursue nursing was one of the best and most formative choices of my life. However, I am not naive to think that in becoming a nurse I have morphed into an idealized altruist. As I have taken on leadership roles within my profession I am all to aware of the influence of reducing costs of care and lengths of stay, but these are necessary realities that are married to the great reward of working in a profession that intimately touches the lives of people whom I would never had contacted otherwise.

Now, with that aside and off my chest, I feel that I need to say a few things about The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine that weren’t appropriate to say in my last post about this expansive book. This book was originally published in 1999 and I read the 2012 updated copy of the book. For a book that argued so much about the lack of integrity in medical science, I was sorely disappointed in the format that Le Fanu had updated his book. The updated copy wasn’t really an updated in as much as Le Fanu had written a few new chapters that were applicable to the 13 years since his original publishing but the original content of the book was completely unedited from its 1999 presentation. This was most notable in the references to costs of medical expenditure in the 1990’s that could have easily been updated with 2012 figures without needing to add on new redundant chapters to cover the last decade.

Another drawback to this book is that in being British and enjoying the benefit of a single-payer medical service, Le Fanu completely omitted any reference to the debilitating influence of American style medical insurers as a downfall to the medical system. Le Fanu did make reference to the overall expenditure of the US economy, but he seemed to completely ignore one of my most influential factors in the US system, that being that a myriad of insurance providers have an overly influential power with regard to dictating care administered because the insurance providers influence the cost of care received. Furthermore, in ignoring the influence of insurance providers Le Fanu takes no notice of the plight of the uninsured who do not receive the benefits of preventative medicine because they avoid the cost of seeing a medical provider. Shannon Brownlee’s OverTreated provides a much more thorough analysis of the labyrinthian influence of the American medical system and I would recommend that book over Le Fanu’s if you have interest in the cause for the high costs of medicine.

On less of a criticism of content and more a criticism of style, I did feel that The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine was an easy and approachable read. I was able to breeze through its 500 pages in just under two weeks. However, after reading it I found my dissatisfied with the personal substance of its subject matter. Le Fanu’s book is fact heavy on the historical development of modern medicine and he does make reference to many of the key players that participated in the defining moments of medicine. However, as a story teller, Le Fanu stuck to the simple facts without adding any sense of personal appreciation for the characters that were the people involved in the development of modern medicine. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Emperor of All Maladies was a much more touching book that sought to achieve many of the same goals as Le Fanu’s he Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine. Mukherjee’s Emperor was entirely focused on the history of cancer and therefore its scope was not as encompassing as Le Fanu’s exploration of all of modern medicine, yet Mukherjee’s book was far more satisfying as a read due to the numerous personal anecdotes and interviews that were included in the text.

Despite these criticisms, The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine was a worthwhile and informative book that I would recommend as a good point of reference to anyone with interest in the applications of modern medicine.



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