The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Category — Book Reviews

When Truth Becomes Lies

I first heard of Martin E. Seligman, the prominent American psychologist who invented learned helplessness theory, from online articles implying he was involved in aiding the military to torture suspected terrorists. After investigating, I discovered this was a fabrication. According to Jane Mayer, Seligman had given a lecture at the SERE school in San Diego in 2002, but it was intended to help soldiers resist torture, not the other way around. In many ways, liberal bloggers are as hysterical as their conservative counterparts.

Learned helplessness theory posits that our problems, fears, anxieties, and depressions are often learned (not the result of brain chemistry) and reinforced through our thoughts. A trained cognitive therapist can intervene to help the patient solve many longstanding psychological problems—even something as severe as agoraphobia—by simply relaxing him and helping him stay with his feelings of helplessness until they become less overpowering. Eventually, he learns to control them.

Seligman has written a number of self-help books to promote his theories. The one I’m reading is called What We Can Change and What We Can’t. The book delineates the most common psychological problems and whether they can be effectively treated by cognitive theory. I highly recommend it. Whether you agree with Seligman or not, the book is packed with insights into the human psyche and offers approaches to ameliorating common anxieties, anger, sexual dysfunction, and depression.

That Martin Seligman’s ideas may have been perverted (turned on their heads) by the miliary is only natural. Blaming the psychologist for it is ridiculous.

November 15, 2010   Comments Off on When Truth Becomes Lies

The Play’s the Thing

Now in his dottage, my humanities teacher has almost certainly forgotten that he presented Hamlet as an example of physical cowardice. To him, this was the essence of Shakepeare’s play. Hamlet couldn’t do the right thing because he was afraid of directly confronting his uncle.

Being a high school student, I had never really thought about the idea of physical cowardice (even though we had previously read The Red Badge of Courage), and being naturally averse to fighting (at least, at that time in my life), I turned this notion over in my mind and wondered if I was, in fact, like Hamlet a coward. I remember even asking my teacher if this were true in front of my girlfriend, and was told he did not think so. I was not the type.

Just the opposite, perhaps. I’ve often thought that if I had gone to Nam, I’d be dead right now. I was, and still am, a bit reckless. No doubt I’d have placed myself in front of a bullet—perhaps from some guy in my own unit—and died like a fool for nothing. Maybe I knew this when I refused to go.

In any case, Hamlet is not about physical cowardice, but, rather, the importance of being certain of one’s facts before taking action. Thanks to Shakespeare, we watch Hamlet go through this process. What son can stand idly by knowing his uncle killed his father and then married his mother? Hamlet needs to be sure, however, before he can act. The tragedy that results is not because Hamlet is a physical coward, but precisely because he is not.

November 9, 2010   Comments Off on The Play’s the Thing

And the Winner Is…

Eat, Pray, Love has toppled all contenders. It contains the ultimate chick (Julia Roberts)—a kind of everywoman—in the ultimate chick flick. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t compare notes, but judging by what I saw on the screen, I won’t be rushing off to buy it any time soon.

My intention is not to denigrate Roberts, who is a fine actress, nor to denigrate the film, which is generally well done for its genre, but to discuss the central theme of the movie (and, I assume, the book), which is the notion that women have trouble defining themselves apart from relationships.

A former female friend of mine was fond of saying that women are “relationship builders.” She implied that women instinctively create webs connecting themselves to those they love, with an emotional strand for each point of attachment. As an unfeeling, emotionally repressed guy, of course, I have no clue what this might mean (though I’m laughing as I write this). The notion that this is a problem only for women is quite amusing.

Our author apparently got an advance so that she could travel to Italy, India, and Bali and then write about the process of discovering herself, and, ultimately, love, on her own terms. Very romantic. Sort of like romance squared. Glad for her, actually. Her books are now the next best thing. She has arrived. Hundreds of thousands of women identify with her heroine and buy her books, and millions more watch the film(s) made from them.

Her sense of what it’s like to be a woman in relationship is undoubtedly true, and I applaud her for her efforts. This is important stuff. My only issue is the cynicism behind it. It defines the world of publishing these days—yet more manufactured books based on marketing research for a select audience designed to be turned into films making millions.

November 9, 2010   Comments Off on And the Winner Is…


To be there, to exist, whether you find meaning in existence or not, is the normal state of humans, though we often do anything we can to avoid being where we actually are. Naturally, the Germans, with their love of combining simple things to express others more complex, would make a noun of it. “Dasein” was the word I often thought of as I read Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader (Der Vorleser). Literally, “there to be.”

In a way, the novel is better than the film because the first person narrator in the book is a more interesting character than the hapless kid being manipulated by Kate Winslet, or reflected in the ruminations of the older version of the boy played by Ralph Fiennes. It’s quite a story. From this first sexual experience with an older woman, the boy is never the same. Nor is the man. Literally, he is incapable of loving again. Dasein. He can never be totally in the present with any other woman again.

The beauty of the story, of course, is discovering who this woman really is by slowly untangling her past. And what a past it is!

September 20, 2010   Comments Off on Dasein

Inherent Vice

Desperate for a book to read while in San Francisco, I picked up a copy of Thomas Pychon’s latest novel, Inherent Vice. Expecting to find something dense and off-putting, I was surprised, instead, to find an old Pychon persona—Smart Sixties Guy—narrating a ridiculously funny tale of a stoner detective involved in solving a crime. There is no substance here—I doubt there is in any of Pychon’s works (his motto seems to be that form is everything)—but the writing itself is, at times, blissfully inspired. My problem is that I sometimes tune out, but—no biggie—Inherent Vice is so simply and joyfully written (there is only one thread to follow rather than dozens), that I easily found my way back home again. I quite like it. There is nostalgia here and more than a little mockery.

September 17, 2010   Comments Off on Inherent Vice

The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor

Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, principally for his his novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude (he didn’t write Love in the Time Cholera until 1985) and his unique style, which became known as “magical realism.” As his fame spread around the world, he pandered himself to some extent, living off his name as a famous writer. One of these weaker moments came with the publication of The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, which he had written earlier as a journalist for El Espectador, that gives the firsthand account of a Colombian sailor’s ordeal in the Caribbean. I found a “remaindered” copy at Red Hill Books.

Once you get used to the notion that this isn’t fiction, nor even very good journalism, it begins to grow on you, not so much for the writing as the luminance of the sailor’s account of being washed overboard, surviving on a raft, lauded as a hero by Colombia’s corrupt regime, and then promptly forgotten once the truth came out that the destroyer carried illegal goods and no attempt was made to rescue the sailors. It is a story quite unlike that of the author himself who lived a charmed life (even beating cancer) once his fame took hold.

The nicest thing about the book is the introduction, which Márquez calls the story of the story, in which he admits—in an understated, indirect way—that what is to follow is fodder being recycled for profit. He allowed it, he says, because he gave his word to the publisher. It seems that even the divinely inspired Márquez needed all the money he could get. Who can blame him?

September 11, 2010   Comments Off on The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor

The Ambassadors

Since high school, I have been trying to read Henry James’s The Ambassadors after enjoying his much easier novel, The American, on the same theme—the corrupting influence of Europe on Americans. I tried again in college and, after that, as a young man and, then later, as middle-aged one—but always without success. The problem was that The American was written in 1877 and The Ambassadors in 1903. James’s style grew more convoluted with each passing year, until by the turn of the century, his writing resembled an intricately assembled patchwork of refined and intricate observations, not always consistent with the others, which James impudently leaves the reader to work out for himself.

For example, take this sentence that describes Strether’s meeting Waymarsh in Europe for the first time with Miss Gostrey by his side: “He left it to Miss Gostrey to name, with the fine full bravado as it almost struck him, of her “Mr. Waymarsh!” what was to have been, what—he more than ever felt as his short stare of suspended welcome took things in—would have been, but for herself, his doom. It was already upon him even at that distance—Mr. Waymarsh was for HIS part joyless.”

The mind almost chokes on it. But there is a certain beauty as well, if you have the patience to dig it out. Of course, Miss Gostrey does the talking to save Strether the embarrassment of dealing with his own ambivalent feelings toward Waymarsh.

On this current reading (hopefully I’ll get through it this time), I’m struck by the charm and irony of Henry James, even at his stuffy and eccentric worst. He loves his characters, especially the female ones, and lavishes upon them his full, undivided attention, and we must have the patience–and pretend we have the leisure–to fully enjoy them.

September 2, 2010   Comments Off on The Ambassadors

Secret Lives (2)

It’s never a good thing to have your worst enemy write the preface to your novel, but that is precisely what happened when Gore Vidal penned the introduction to the Modern Library’s edition of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. It’s funny in a way. The two men never got along—perhaps because each understood the other all too well—and it seems a strange kind of irony that Vidal was allowed to introduce Maugham’s famous novel. Because it’s Vidal, the comments are biting and nasty.

Consider this statement about Maugham’s prose: “…the plain style can help the dishonest, pusillanimous writer get himself off every of ideological or ethical hook. Just the facts, ma’am. In this regard, Hemingway, a literary shadow self to Maugham, was our time’s most artful dodger, all busy advancing verbs and stony nouns. Surfaces coldly rendered. Interiors unexplored. Manner all.” Or, consider this quote from Edmund Wilson, which Vidal throws in for good measure, in case anyone had any doubts about what he thinks of Maugham: “The language is such a tissue of clichés that one’s wonder is finally aroused at the writer’s ability to assemble so many and his unfailing inability to put anything in an individual way.” Truly disparaging stuff.

Of course, this accurately sums up Somerset Maugham’s writing style, but in a rather unflattering way. His prose is unadorned and plain to the point of being flat and ugly. No one is arguing this. Still, I think both Vidal and Wilson secretly admired Maugham because he managed to achieve something neither of them could—he was wildly successful as a writer and, consequently, lived exactly as he pleased.

Naturally, I don’t agree with either Vidal or Wilson. Just because Maugham had limited resources as a writer does not mean he wasn’t good. Quite the contrary. Despite his weaknesses in style and plotting and abundantly self-conscious workmanlike effort, Maugham was brilliant. His portraits of women, in particular, are inspired and complete—better than anything Henry James achieved—and his instinctive knowledge of the limitless capacity of human beings to cause harm (I’m thinking of Vidal and Wilson here) was something he knew his readers must never forgot.

August 29, 2010   Comments Off on Secret Lives (2)

Secret Lives (1)

I’m reading The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings. In a way, it is a less literary biography than A Great Unrecorded History, though Hastings makes up for it with a very fluid writing style that is as captivating as Moffat’s. Both Maugham and Forster were gay (though I suppose Maugham was technically bisexual) and both were writers. There the similarities end. Aside from their fame, the two men could not have been more different. Somerset Maugham decided to become a writer as an act of will, whereas Forster, a genius, was born one. It doesn’t make Maugham any less interesting, however. In many ways, his life was an adventure of a much grander scale than Forster’s. Not because he was larger than life, but because he was intensely curious about the roots of human depravity and explored it vicariously in his writing. His weakness as a writer was that he couldn’t help telling us why.

I happen to like Maugham and have since I read everything I could get my hands on in the summer between high school and college. My summer instructor saw a similarity in writing styles and suggested I read him. In a way, Maugham was perfect for a teen about to enter college.

The really wonderful thing about Hastings is that like Moffat, she likes her subject and understands him in a way that, perhaps, a man cannot. He has a keen understanding of women and responds to men in a way that a woman might. Of course, we didn’t know this until recently when his secret life became known. I find that it makes Maugham’s writing more understandable, not less, whereas understanding Forster’s homosexuality made his most perfect fiction a kind of abberation. Odd how these things go.

August 20, 2010   Comments Off on Secret Lives (1)

A Great Unrecorded History (3)

After publishing A Passage to India in 1924, E.M. Forster effectively stopped being an important writer. As his sexuality grew and his love life blossomed, his fiction (unpublished at the time) focused exclusively on gay themes. Connected, he could not connect with the rest of us. Sublimation and subterfuge were no longer necessary and, as a result, his fiction suffered.

Much the same, it turns out, is true of A Great Unrecorded History. We learn intimate details about Forster the homosexual and less and less about one of England’s greatest novelists. Pity. Not so much that it is an uninteresting tale, but that Forster was unable to be both gay and a great writer.

At least, now we know what happened.

August 8, 2010   Comments Off on A Great Unrecorded History (3)