Charles Darwin and the Mystery of Mysteries

These past several months, I’ve been trying to read to my son, daily-ish. I do believe these sessions do me more good than him—they are islands of calm in otherwise frazzled days. There is no expectation other than he listen while I read, and we can be as serious or as silly as we like. We’ve read the Thornton Burgess books, The Wind in the Willows, The Little House on the Prairie, The Boys in the Boat, among several others, and just last week read about Darwin in Charles Darwin and the Mystery of Mysteries.

The titular mystery of mysteries is a question posed by British astronomer and mathematician, John Herschel, and answered by Darwin: how and why did new species arise to replace ones that had gone extinct. Incidentally, Herschel was also a photographic inventor who coined the word photography.

After a description of Darwin’s early life and family, the book traces his journey on the HMS Beagle, up and down the Atlantic coast of South America, then through the Strait of Magellan on to the Pacific coast of the continent, on to, possibly its most famous destination, the Galapagos Islands, and then to New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, before finally making its way back home to England. With photographs, maps, and other archival material, the book is as fascinating as would be expected.

Darwin was a bright young man, but his revolutionary evolutionary ideas were shared by a few other scholars as well, and it is likely that as scientific climate changed, someone, if not Darwin himself, would have put forth a similar theory in time. Indeed the impetus for Darwin to present his theory of natural selection at the Linnean Society for the very first time on July 1, 1858 was a fellow naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, writing to him an essay outlining a theory of evolution by natural selection and asking that it be shared. Wallace’s work was presented at the meeting too. Darwin was not present at this meeting where his groundbreaking ideas were first presented to the world (the world didn’t pay much heed at first). His 19-month old son, Charles Waring Darwin, had only just died of scarlet fever.

Darwin’s great scientific achievements are certainly why his countrymen voted him among the top three figures of British History. But his family life, ordinary in several respects for his time, is what captured my own attention. Darwin was born into a wealthy family—an educated wealthy family. Although an enthusiastic beetle collector, Darwin entered Cambridge to become a clergyman. The sheer luck which catapulted him into voyage aboard the Beagle cannot be overstated:

  • He went without pay during his five years aboard the Beagle. This meant that not only did his family finance his trip, but they also paid for his onshore excursions across the world, and specimen purchases and shipments. Darwin was lucky that his family was affluent enough to afford this and support him.
  • Captain Robert FitzRoy of the Beagle did not want to be lonely. He wanted a person (naturalist, without pay) who was not his subordinate, who he could talk with. Darwin was lucky to be of the right type .
  • Darwin did take a natural science class at Cambridge with a Professor John Stevens Henslow, who was then “at the height of his university career, and one of the most respected men in his field”. Darwin was lucky to be part of Henslow’s circle. Henslow wrote him a letter of introduction which must have meant a great deal.

Indeed, “Darwin wasn’t given a place on the Beagle because he was a great naturalist or because he was a great scholar, but because he was of the right social class and looked like he’d be pleasant to have around” (p. 27).

Some years later, two weeks before his thirtieth birthday, Darwin wed his first cousin, Emma Wedgewood, who, in time, bore him a brood of ten children. Charles and Emma encountered much the same problems faced by city parents today—too much pollution and too little space, and moved to the countryside. Darwin then, much like parents today, became a “community man”, indeed a “family man”, apart from being a “scientific man”. He continued to practice science, studying barnacles, pedigreed dogs, and also orchids, while also serving as the local magistrate and throwing himself into home improvement. At one time, with six children under the age of ten, Emma and Charles struggled with an important question that nagged me when I had two under ten:

Should they keep the children off it [the expensive furniture]? Or should they let them play on it as they wished? They had decided not to worry about the furniture; the children would we welcome to play on it. Sometimes they pushed all the drawing room furniture to one side of the room. Then Emma would play “the galloping tune” on the piano and the children would gallop around the room.

This may be an entirely unremarkable side note, but it struck me in its very ordinariness. Scientists, and important scientists, by accounts I have read, are usually singularly curious individuals. They are often eccentric, even socially awkward, and so involved in their extremely consequential research, that they see fairly little of their families, when they have one. Indeed, the very absence of children galloping around the room seems to be correlated to the germination of innovative ideas in their scientific minds. Darwin himself did all the legwork required before he married or had any kids. Even the idea of natural selection was sown in his mind long before he got a kitchen garden underway. However, his later life as a parent seems all so real and familiar. And sad. Including little Charles Waring Darwin, Charles Sr. and Emma lost three of their kids to childhood illnesses. In fact, right about the time his life’s work was presented at the Linnean society, not only was his son Charles sick with scarlet fever, but two of his other children were also ill with measles and what seemed like diphtheria (all three deadly at the time).

Darwin and his wife had a considerable household staff to help them care for their kids and their home: “a butler, a footman, two gardeners, a cook, a kitchen maid, a laundry maid, a house maid, and one or two nursery maids”. If Darwin was able to study barnacles and disappear into his study every day, this must be why. Science and sanity have a price.

Mystery of mysteries has a very neat epilogue that sums up why Darwin’s theory is so powerful, and can be helpful in explaining the concept to interested big kids (and grown-ups).

The controversy over Darwin’s writings rages on. Sometimes people object that evolution is “only a theory” as though there is a scale of credibility with “fact” on top, “theory” somewhere in the middle, and “lie” at the bottom. In science, however, all the important facts are theories. Scientific theories never become facts, they explain facts. Facts do not change. Theories that explain how and why the facts are what they are can change.

A scientific theory enables scientists to make predictions about how something will behave. The more accurate those predictions prove to be, the sounder the theory becomes. Gravity is a theory—but no one doubts its truth when they see an apple fall. And before there was a theory to explain why apples did fall, the fact remained that they did. The existence and nature of atoms is a theory. So are plate tectonics, quantum mechanics, and Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Scientific theories are built on vast accumulations of solid evidence, observation and experimentation. This does not mean we do not continue to test these theories. Charles Darwin taught us how to test the idea of evolution by natural selection through careful observation of nature. The changes produced through evolution are there to be seen in both fossils and living species…We can see evolution in action. When attacked by man-made drugs, viruses and bacteria mutate into forms not affected by the drugs. Only those with resistance to the drugs can survive, and the resistant organisms reproduce. That’s natural selection we can see right in front of us…Evolution by natural selection is a theory, yes—but it is one of the most powerful theories ever proposed in modern science.


An Age of License

age of license

Age of License: A Travelogue (2014) by Lucy Knisley was an impulse check out at the library last night.

We all know that rule that personal finance advisors often spout with regards to sticking to one’s budget: Buy only what’s on the List. One part of me tries to apply that same rule to my book checking out habits which often suffer from a lack of discipline: Check out only what’s on the TBR list. Only because I have 1526 books on this list right this minute. It usually grows by a few books every other day, even though I am selective about what I add to it and often review it and cull out books that I don’t believe appeal to me any longer. Books on this list get crossed out (read) at a much, much slower pace. If I mean to make any significant progress on this List in my lifetime, I need not to give in to temptations I see along the way. Otherwise, I may never have time to read all those books that I really, really want to read.

Except, I really, really want to read these other books that catch my eye as well. The other part of me says what’s life without a serendipitous discovery or two? Borrow away. And so I did.

Lucy Knisley (you may know of her from her more famous work Relish, which I haven’t found in my local library thus far) mostly writes autobiographical accounts. I have read Displacement : A Travelogue(2015) where Knisley writes and draws about a cruise she takes with her 90-something grandparents and delves honestly into the realities of ageing and caregiving for elderly relatives that you love—the frustration, the helplessness, and the sadness. On many levels, Displacement was reminiscent of Roz Chast’s terrific graphic memoir, Can’t we talk about something more pleasant? (2014).

Age of License is just as much about youth being a time of endless possibilities, as Displacement is about the frailty and finality of advanced age. Knisley is invited to a comics fest in Norway and decides to make a trip out of it: romance a cute Swede in Stockholm, visit honeymooning friends in Berlin, taste wine and spend time with a vacationing mother in France, before finally flying back home to New York.

Knisley mostly does comic artist things in Norway—meeting fellow artists, giving talks, conducting comics workshops for kids, while also eating Norwegian foods, sightseeing and sketching, attending free outdoor concerts, drawing in cafes, strolling through Norwegian streets, visiting beer bars. The usual suspects, I suppose, if you are a food and culture curious comics artist visiting Norway. Knisley then travels to Stockholm to be with Henrik, whom she has met earlier in New York (and known only “for a couple of days”). Henrik is a “vegan Swedish swing dancer and former mathematician who lives in a commune” just outside Stockholm. Her journaling in Stockholm is a lot less painstaking than it is in Norway. Henrik is rather distracting.

Henrik is not just a cute face. He has a PhD in Mathematics for one. He even quotes Marcus Aurelius:

Everything we hear is opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not a truth.

True and true.

So, Knisley invites Henrik to go to Berlin with her and they decide to meet in Paris afterwards. Meanwhile, Knisley drives to Beaune, France, to meet a friend who works for a wine importer. There is some drinking and talking. Knisley then travels to Royan with her mother and her friends and later to Paris where she has one final rendezvous with Henrik. The short, sweet romance comes to an end, as was inevitable. Knisley flies back to New York, back to her “amazing, lucky, beautiful, sad, boring, wonderful…surprising” life as a comic artist.

Somewhere in the wine capital of Beaune, this travelogue went from just pleasant to deeply and personally meaningful. Invited to a post-wine tasting wine-drinking, Knisley and her friend Jane end up talking with Denis, a wine aficionado:

“The French have a saying for the time when you’re young and experimenting with your lives and careers. They call it L’Age License. As in: License to experience, mess up, license to fail, license to do…

…whatever, before you’re settled.”

I wonder if it’s even a real term…

If it’s not a real term, it should be!

It’s nice to have a name to give to this era of my life, where I’m exploring, experimenting…messing up and flailing a little.

I think this time can help us figure out what we want…

…And what we DON’T want!

…And to look at examples of other adult lives, and decide what life to aim for.

There, there it was. Over the past few months, as I have observed the past and current lives of people I think of as thinkers extraordinaire, I have been struck by what seems to be a common thread in their rich, purposeful lives—a period, sometimes an extended period, of boundless exploration, a period full of mistakes and meaning. While young adults I encounter today certainly seem to have more freedom to explore, I have often wondered if the right to this experience is tied to culture and time. I frequently think of the entire generations of people who have gone through their lives wanting and denied this essential rite of passage simply to adhere to notions of cultural appropriateness, and who were prematurely thrust into a very different age, The Age of Responsibility.

I can’t stop thinking about “The Age of License.” It’s so interesting that such a phrase exists, but the meaning is so nebulous—Do we have license due to being unattached or single? Does it have more to do with babies? Or youth? Or is it money?

Or is it just a combination of circumstance and a state of mind?

To what do I owe my greatest gratitude for this age of license?

Youth? Health? Savings? Friends?

A confluence?

Good Luck?

I haven’t been able to stop thinking either. I’ve wondered about precisely the same connections—what are the six-point requirements to apply for this license? Being young and untethered? Or simply the absence of familial commitments, specifically children, which seem to be the single most notable absent feature in many of these lives? My son who’s not yet seven wants to be an explorer (exploring every inch of the earth), and among other interesting missions, search for live thylacines in Tasmania. He tells me he can’t have a wife or kids, because being an explorer precludes this by definition. He will have friends though, that’s okay.

So, what does being no longer young and unfettered mean? Or, more practically, as we progress through various Ages, how can regular people integrate meaningful exploration into their everyday lives, reclaiming some of the elements of this Age of License that has eluded them in the past, reconciling the joys, stresses and limited mind space that come with being a parent (by which I do not mean 25-minute guided meditation sessions)?



Shigeru Mizuki (manga author) maybe well-known for stories of Yokai (Japanese spooky monsters, trolls and other supernatural creatures), but I have only ever read his war stories. Mizuki himself served in the Japanese Imperial Army and just about survived (not in one piece though, he lost his dominant left arm), and his rage about the tragedy of war and the wasteful deaths of countless soldiers is only readily apparent in the semi-autobiographical Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths.

Hitler (published in English in 2015) is another such work of the more serious gekiga (dramatic pictures) tradition as opposed to the more whimsical manga (which does cover a wide range of genres that don’t really seem all that whimsical—history, drama, science-fiction, in addition to the fantasy genre that many associate it with). According to Wikipedia, gekiga is “akin to Americans who started using the term ‘graphic novel’ as opposed to ‘comic book'”. I think the exact differences between this comparison, and indeed, between a graphic novel and comic itself is open to debate. Another master, Osamu Tezuka, also experimented with the darker gekiga. I’ve read Message to Adolf, coincidentally also having to do with Hitler, but a fictional political thriller very different from Mizuki’s Hitler.

Serious or not,

…Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler…shows his signature combination of realistic, high-contrast backgrounds traced from photographs, and characters drawn in a cartoony style. Humans are rarely beautiful in Mizuki’s world: they usually appear as loopy, lackluster characters, acting as misshapen as they look.

– From the introduction to Hitler by Fredrik L. Schodt, noted scholar in manga and anime.

In Hitler, the cartoony humans look mostly goofy and grumpy—bad-tempered, angry, depressed, morose, or tormented. With the exception of the cover, where Hitler looks as realistic as the background, the great dictator is usually either comically enraged or woefully miserable inside the book.

Mizuki’s focus is on Hitler, the person, and not on his role in the Holocaust. Through his detailed portrait and comprehensive notes, Mizuki covers Hitler’s beginnings as an impoverished and not particularly talented art student, his winning the Iron Cross, and traces his political career that seems to be driven by some strange destiny: his joining the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) which came to known as the Nazi Party, the Beer Hall Putsch, his close relationship with his half-niece Geli and her subsequent suicide which supposedly left him a broken man, the Night of the Long Knives where Hitler purged his enemies and cemented his authority, the rousing speeches and political maneuvers that led to the rise of this former vagrant to Chancellor and later Fuhrer of Germany, his role in the War, and his final downfall.

With his trademark toothbrush mustache, hair slicked back with pomade, Mizuki depicts in Hitler a melodramatic patriotism (“my pains are nothing compared to the wounds suffered by my beloved Fatherland”, Hitler weeps), megalomania (“I am swelling with talent”, he claims mournfully), and a deep-rooted anti-semitism, without delving much into the Holocaust itself.

“I am poor and unpopular. This is entirely the fault of the Jews…Thousands of bowlegged Jews invade our land like an army. They tempt and steal our women. I boil for the sake of all German woman”, Mizuki’s Hitler rages to his landlady.

“Jews are the lowest of the inferior races. You know that”, he tells a virtually imprisoned Geli whom he discovers with a boy he presumes to be a Jew (“You don’t need to say his name. I know he’s Jewish”).  “Even one kiss taints a woman forever. You’ll be Jewified. Understand?” Her “betrayal” is compounded by the coming true of his greatest fear: a Jewified Geli.

Furthermore, Hitler squarely blames Germany’s depression, unemployment, hunger and poverty on the “global Jewish conspiracy”.

The Nazis promise a sense of belonging and escape from this economic hole, as well as the chance to blame someone else. People flock to the banner.

Hitler ends with Hitler’s demise, and his gift to Germany—a country in ruins.

What was the significance of Mizuki’s focus on this one person in particular?

My destiny would have been different. In other words, I would have avoided my wretched life in the military, and I might still have my arm. So how could I not be interested in Hitler, and in knowing what sort of a man he really was?”

Schodt writes further that:

But in a darkly humorous style only Mizuki can pull off, we see Hitler as a very ordinary human, who through a historical fluke, assumes power over his nation and leads it to ruin…at the core, he was just a miserable human. And because he was human, it’s important for us to know him as such. There are Hitlers in every era, culture and ethnic group, and perhaps deep inside all of us. Best then, to know them, and know them well.

On the Move: A Life

On the Move

I don’t know when I first heard of Oliver Sacks. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat has been on my TBR pile for years and I remember reading it, only to abandon it soon afterwards. And then, of course, like many others, I read his February 2015 Op-Ed in the New York Times and like many others was moved by this essay, where Sacks announced he had terminal cancer and declared “there is no time for anything inessential”…”but there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well). I then listened to and was drawn inexplicably to his voice, on RadioLab, and YouTube. Then came his final Op-Ed in August 2015, where he alludes to his imminent death as the Sabbath of his life—an eternal and well-deserved rest.

In the final days of 2015, I began reading On the Move: A Life that Sacks completed shortly before learning about his metastatic cancer. His memoir is consequently free from his thoughts on what it means to live with terminal cancer (mercifully for me, who is not brave enough to read about this disease and what it does to life). It also means that the book seems to have a celebratory spirit overall—Sacks is glad to be alive and looks forward to living a good life. That is not say his life has been without pain, heartbreak, loss of loved ones, or broken bones and sciatica. But, oh, what a remarkable life Sacks lived! What a prodigious intellect the man had! And what a prolific writer he was (not just of published books, but unpublished journals that spanned six decades, letters, clinical notes and other correspondence).

Sacks was not just a neurologist (and a celebrity in the later years of his life). He was a (sometimes foolhardy) world traveler and adventurer, meeter of interesting people (from truckers to Nobel prize-winners), and a documenter of interesting stories and accounts. A young Sacks traveled across America in a circuit that took him from…

Las Vegas, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Albuquerque, Carlsbad Caverns, New Orleans, Birmingham, Atlanta, Blue Ridge Parkway to Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston…Montreal…Quebec. Toronto, Niagara Falls, Buffalo, Chicago, Milwaukee. The Twin Cities…Glacier and Waterton National Parks…Yellowstone Park, Bear Lake, Salt Lake City. Back to San Francisco. 8000 miles. 50 days. $400. If I avoid: sunstroke, frostbite, imprisonment, earthquakes, food poisoning and mechanical disaster—why, it should be the greatest time of my life!

…on a secondhand BMW R69.

In 1961, Sacks set a California state record when he performed a full squat with 600 pounds across his shoulders. In the late 1970s, Sacks spent his weekends swimming, sometimes around City Island, that took him about six hours. On one such swim, he saw a house he liked and met the realtor still in his swimming trunks. Soon afterwards he bought that house.

Sacks also writes in that last New York Times essay about reflecting on “what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself”. That four sentence paragraph above by no means summarizes his rich life, but offers glimpses into how very extraordinary it was. Sacks’ life was, of course, also shaped by his family (both his mother and father were Jewish physicians), his homosexuality and how people around him viewed it, and his experiences as a neurologist.

“It has sometimes seemed to me that I have lived at a certain distance from life”,  Sacks writes towards the end of the book. Indeed. It seems like Sacks has his first real relationship at the ripe age of seventy-seven. While this was not by choice—there are a few stories of unrequited love and discouraging experiences in the book—I couldn’t help but wonder how much this ‘distance’ contributed to his full life. How much did the absence of family, children, or relationships to complicate his life throughout his most productive decades (again, not by choice) contribute to his uncommon prolificacy? Sacks was also fortunate to live a relatively long life in a very particular time (1933-2015), although I do recognize that a long life alone does not guarantee a productive life.

What have I learned from Sacks on how to experience life more fully? I believe that at least two of his habits contributed in no small way to his singularly rich life: journaling and correspondence. Sacks was a lifelong journaler. He writes of a keeping a journal by his bedside, by the lakeside when he swam, and the book has pictures of him writing away on car roofs, train stations, trains, at his desk, on a couch with a friend (Jonathan Miller), and even at Machu Pichu. He writes that he rarely looked at his journals, “the act of writing is enough”. I think about what this constant processing and writing down words and ideas can do to one’s extent of understanding and awareness. Writing down what you feel, think, see and hear forces you to slow down and contemplate, even if briefly, even if you are never going to revisit your  own writing. Sacks also wrote long letters and maintained regular, even if not frequent, correspondence  with a diverse circle of friends and scholars (poets, scientists, writers, researchers, actors), always exchanging, debating, discussing and questioning ideas. “I find these old letters a great treasure”, he writes, “a corrective to the deceits of memory and fantasy”. What a wonderful way to appreciate points of view, to nurture learning and curiosity. I can’t think of a better antidote to insularity and bigotry.

I did not, however, think that On the Move was an exceptionally well-written book (sacrilege?), or maybe it needed more artful editing. Or perhaps, it was impossible to whittle down what must have originally been a behemoth into a mere 382 pages. I remember that I struggled to read The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat several years ago. Did I think it too technical? Was I not in the right frame of mind for this genre? Did I not particularly enjoy what I was reading? Did I give up too easily? I do not remember. Well-written or not, I find Oliver Sacks, the person, infinitely more fascinating than Dr. Oliver Sacks, the eminent neurologist*.

*On a similar note, I remember listening to Maurice Sendak on Fresh Air, soon after his death in May 2012. I had read Where the Wild Things Are (1963), In the Night Kitchen (1970), and Outside Over There (1981), but I am not going to pretend I completely ‘got’ his books. However, I did ‘get’ Sendak, the person, and  remember being moved to tears listening to him talking.

My Struggle: Book 1

Source: amazon.com

Source: amazon.com

I first noticed Karl Ove Knausgaard’s name on a bookshelf at Powell’s in Portland. I took several pictures of books that intrigued me, or that I thought my son might find interesting. Among those, is this picture of a young boy on the cover of My Struggle: Book 3.


So I came home and read a little (much too little) about My Struggle, found that I needed help to pronounce ‘Knausgaard’, discovered that he was Norwegian, and thought that it would be interesting to read about the life struggles of a foreign dude. My local library helped me search and locate the book in its vast, state-wide network and transported it for me to my doorstep (or a mile from it). Whereupon I spent two weeks reading the book, sometimes struggling through Knausgaard’s struggles, and at other times engrossed in them.

My library put a sticker on the book’s spine that says ‘FIC KNAUSGAAR’. Without this sticker, I wouldn’t have thought of the book as anything other than Knausgaard’s memoirs, a six-volume autobiography. But one of the reviews on the very first page also tells me that the book is “a brilliant start to a giant autobiographical novel cycle”. I have difficulty understanding what an autobiographical novel means. I have some trouble as it is with works deemed non-fiction, especially when they are autobiographical accounts. But now here is a work of fiction that tells me, what exactly? That there are some truths, some half-truths, and some, well, fabrications? This is made especially problematic when you see Karl Ove’s handsome, lined face staring up at you from the cover of the book.

Knausgaard begins with a meditation on death, whose significance becomes apparent later in the book and then transitions, in the first among several, to an eight-year old self watching a television report on a local fishing boat accident and talking, hesitantly, to his father about it. The reader is then made privy to what seems like an odd assortment of episodes from the author’s (fictional?) life, over various times from a thirty-year period. We read about a young Karl Ove smuggling beer to a New Year’s party,  performing his first gig as part of a band (“utterly hopeless”), living on his own as a teenager, agonizing about his first love, as we also read about an older Karl Ove, 39 years old, and in his second marriage. He has three children now and struggles to reconcile the chaos that a parent of young children has to endure, with the solitude he needs to fuel his creativity as a writer. Karl Ove jumps back and forth across time, he is now a teenager again, and we read about a conversation with his father where he is informed that his parents are separating.

“Mom and I have decided to separate,” he said.

“What?” I said.

“Yes. But it won’t affect you. You won’t notice any difference. Besides, you’re not a child anymore and in two years you’ll be moving to a place of your own”.

They were going to separate, fine, well, let them.

Admittedly, this is just a selection of text from the passage where this announcement is made, but the tone of delivery, and reception is decidedly, remarkably cool and matter-of-fact. Later, Karl Ove visits his father and his girlfriend at a garden party with several of their friends and his father’s cousins, where he father (uncharacteristically?)  weeps over a beloved, long-dead cousin.

Fast forward to many years later and Karl Ove is now again married to his second wife, Linda, who is hugely pregnant with their first child. Karl Ove expresses the frustrations of being a writer, and this comes through in a conversation with his wife about cocoa.

Suddenly, on page 226, more than halfway through the book, Karl Ove is looking at his father’s body laid out on a table in a chapel. While the tone and pace of the book remain the same, I sensed that somehow this was the pivotal incident in an otherwise strange collection of sometimes interesting and other times not so interesting life episodes. Karl Ove, now married to his first wife, Tonje, meets up with his brother Yngve, and goes to his grandmother’s house, the site of his father’s death, to deal with the “practical side” of things.

His father, in the years since his divorce, became an alcoholic and the extent of his depredation is evident in the grandmother’s house, where his father had moved in. Karl Ove and Yngve discover unimaginable filth and stench, not only alcohol-related litter, but months of human waste and decomposing matter. They encounter their grandmother, who is now old, bony, incontinent and whose cognitive abilities are clearly on the decline. Karl Ove is often overcome by tears, but he and Yngve manage to painstakingly clear out the detritus and make some parts of the house habitable. They also see the father’s body and make preparations for a funeral. The book ends with Karl Ove arranging for a final viewing of his father’s body with the funeral director.

All of that would be a very incomplete summary of Karl Ove’s struggles. There are layers and themes that add interest, and sometimes, relatability. Some of the more tender and identifiable parts of the book, for me, are when he talks about his family and children, and his struggles as a writer juggling these roles, and living on “the brink of chaos…[with the feeling that] everything can fall apart at any moment”. The excessively long sentence below might be meaningful to you too:

Time is slipping away from me, running through my fingers like sand while I…do what? Clean floors, wash clothes, make dinner, wash up, go shopping, play with the children in the play areas, bring them home, undress them, bathe them, look after them until it is bedtime, tuck them in, hang some clothes to dry, fold others, and put them away, tidy up, wipe tables, chairs, and cupboards. It is a struggle, and even though it is not heroic, I am up against a superior force, for no matter how much housework I do at home the rooms are littered with mess and junk, and the children, who are taken care of every waking minute are more stubborn than I have ever known children to be, at times it is nothing less than bedlam here, perhaps we have never managed to find the necessary balance between distance and intimacy, which of course becomes increasingly important the more personality is involved.

Although there is nothing really special about the sentence, except its length, it is impressive in its simplicity in recounting an everyday struggle that many of us go through. Karl Ove also describes his love for his children, while also describing his frustrations with fatherhood and caprices of young children in a way that I suspect wouldn’t be without significant backlash if the same confessions were made by a hassled mother. Well, Karl Ove is not a mother, and his struggles, universal as they may be, are also uniquely his own.

When I look at a beautiful painting I have tears in my eyes, but not when I look at my children. That does not mean I do not love them, because I do, with all my heart, it simply means that the meaning they produce is not sufficient to fulfill a whole life. Not mine, at any rate. Soon I will be forty, and when I am forty, it won’t before I’m fifty. And when I’m fifty, it won’t be long before I’m sixty. And when I’m sixty, it won’t be long before I’m seventy. And that will be that.

Clearly, Karl Ove’s troubled relationship with his father is a central theme in the book, if not the impetus for writing it. While Karl Ove’s writes about being fearful of his father, that his father’s “fury would wash over him” at the slightest lapse, and that he “hated the hold he [the father] had over me, which was clear from how I became so happy about so little”, the tyrannical aspect of his father is not entirely clear in his (the father’s) actions. Yes, he didn’t strike me as warm and loving, and I can even see hints of mild sadism, but I don’t know if Karl Ove explores the menacing aspects of his father that seem to affect him all through his life. Weeping over his father’s death and realizing he had written a book for his father, Karl Ove asks himself:

Did he really mean so much to me?

Oh yes, he did.

I wanted him to see me.

I had also wanted to show him that I was better than he was. That I was bigger than he was. Or was it just that I wanted him to be proud of me. To acknowledge me?

The only incident where Karl Ove seems to refer to something ominous in his father’s character is this curious conversations he reports with his mother when he sees her with a black eye.

She had a large bruise around one eye. I opened the door. “What happened?” I asked. “I know what you’re thinking,” she asked. “But that’s not what happened. I fell. I fainted, I do that once in a while, you see, and this time I hit the edge of the table upstairs. The glass table.”

“I don’t believe you,” I said.

What is it that she thinks Karl Ove is thinking, I wondered. I felt that Book 1 withheld much about the father, while revealing even lesser about the mother. The step-sister is mentioned just once. I would have liked these characters and the relationships to be explored in more detail, at least to understand the seeds and nature of this troubled relationship that clearly is a baggage that Karl Ove bears all his life. Anther mystery is the circumstance surrounding the father’s death—Karl Ove is told that his father’s drunken heart gave out while he was sitting on a chair, and yet the funeral director tells him that “there was a lot of blood” and his nose is clearly broken. One gets the sense that all these gaps and holes serve some meaning, but I am not sure what that is.

The other major theme in the book is drinking. Alcohol. Karl Ove discovers the pleasures of alcohol early in life.

That was the summer of 1984, I was fifteen years old, and had just made a new discovery: drinking alcohol was fantastic.

Much of the first half of the book involves parties and sneaking away to drink, and reveling in drunken wantonness. “Drinking was good for me”, he insists. But while drinking is shown as a more or less benign activity that the young Karl Ove indulges in, it assumes a different significance very early in the book. The older Karl Ove writes:

When I drink, I also have blackouts and completely lose control of my actions, which are generally desperate and stupid, but also on be on occasion desperate and dangerous. That is why I no longer drink.

Karl Ove’s father descends into the downward spiral of alcoholism in his later years, despite having been shown as having little penchant towards drink when still married to Karl Ove’s mother. The alcohol destroys and tarnishes everything in his path and leaves behind a legacy of filth. In the days and Karl Ove and Yngve spend cleaning out their grandmother’s house, they are shocked to discover that she might be a bit of an alcoholic herself.

It is not surprising that My Struggle, being the tell-all that it is, has ruffled some feathers in the author’s native Norway. Such words as “Judas Literature” and “Faustian Bargain” have been used when speaking about this book, and I gather that a lot of speaking is being done. This is ironic considering the passage where Knausgaard writes that “in this house …we had always been so careful to prevent others from prying, where we had always been so careful to be beyond reproach in everything that could be seen”.

A problem I have with autobiographies (I know that the book does not claim to be one) is the veracity of all the minutae and the sensory details, such as the “smell of gunpowder from the rock Dad was pounding” or the whiff of salt in the gently northerly breeze. I realize that Karl Ove has carefully curated all the moments he has chosen to include in this book and wonder about the artifice inherent in this selective portrayal. Then I remember that this is after all a work of fiction. And  then I see Karl Ove’s eyes looking directly at me.

My Struggle might not be an enthralling read for everyone, and I don’t know if it is simply that there’s some thing about this work that is new and fresh and different, but it makes you want to read it. It may not be easy, or rewarding, but there is something both and ordinary and extraordinary about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s struggles, that may be worth a read.

A Girl Named Zippy

Source: goodreads

Source: goodreads

Mooreland, Indiana was in the news recently. According to Health News from NPR, shortly after buying a house in Mooreland and moving in, a family discovered that it had been once used as a meth lab. I read about meth houses from time to time, and this article would not have been very remarkable except for the fact that I also happened to be reading a memoir of Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana. I had never heard of Mooreland before.

I grew up in cities, but I have heard some older family members remember life in small towns (in India) that had just two streets, a ‘main’ street running north to south, and one or two smaller streets running east to west—a town where everyone knew everyone else, a town with just one tailor, one priest, one school, and one grocery store. Mooreland is that town.  Only, there is no dull soul in Zippy’s Mooreland. There are people with peculiar talents: they can sit really still or sneeze so loud that “the whole house rocked”; they have very little hair as babies (Zippy); or are so ancient that they “seem as inevitable as the moon”.  Zippy’s stories are funny, small-town accounts of friendship, family, poverty, school, pets, and encounters with scary grown ups. They are told in the voice of an adult’s recollection of her around seven-year old self, so while the seven-year old Zippy can say the things that only seven-year olds can, she wouldn’t be able to pull off her deadpanning without the benefit of adult hindsight.

Here is what Zippy has to say about her father:

My father was a great smoker and driver of vehicles. Also he could whistle like a bird and could perform any task with either his left or right hand, a condition he taught me was called “ambisexual”…He could hold a full coffee cup while driving and never spill a drop, even going over bumps, He lost his temper faster than anyone.

But on to Zippy herself now. Zippy (otherwise known as Haven Kimmel, the author) is featured on the cover of the book, a smart marketing move, as Zippy’s face is anything but meh. What she lacks in hair, she makes up in spirit. You can tell that this child is not sweet and kind and good and angelic and all honey. Zippy is better than that—she is wicked and witty and wicked. Zippy is fearless. Zippy has personality with a capital P. I also thought it was refreshing to see a little girl dressed in all blue, a baby blue, but a blue that has been foisted on boys, and boys only in the past several years.

A Girl Named Zippy made me think again about what it means to have an ‘ordinary childhood’ and how ‘unusual’ and ‘remarkable’ sometimes need the context of a time and place. Zippy’s Mooreland childhood was perhaps less remarkable and exotic than that of Sissy Bellings, another Mooreland citizen, who lived with her fifteen siblings and half-siblings in a two-room house next to Mooreland’s only diner. Three years ago, I read and enjoyed Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, another childhood memoir of growing up poor in small towns in an unorthodox family. Sometime earlier, I tried to read another childhood memoir, Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, which I found eccentric and bizarre in an off-putting way. Zippy is neither irresistible nor  unpleasant. It has a very understated poignancy, a deliberately impassive humor, and an abundance of quirky individuals. A note on the flavor of humor—it is not the kind that inspires deep belly laughs, nor is it the warm kind that leaves a general feeling of contentment; it is entertaining and funny overall, and I half-laughed three or four times, but it is not the kind of humor I would be compelled to revisit, or even find funny upon rereading, such as this passage:

Mom kindly refrained from mentioning my many, many visits to the emergency room. She also kindly refrained mentioning the little incident last summer which had resulted in my losing two toenails, severely abrading the top of my foot, and breaking two toes. At the hospital the nurse had asked how I’d done it, and I had to admit that the injuries were because of my foot being run over while it was upside-down, by a bicycle I myself was riding.

I’ll admit it was funny the first time I read, but now as I am reading it again, even my inner smile isn’t awakened.

Zippy is a smart and funny book, and perhaps people who grew up in small towns or have second-hand memories of growing up in small towns might find it especially meaningful. It did make me imagine growing up two minutes from everywhere—the Main Street, the Diner, the School, the Drugstore, and all my friend’s homes, a town where everyone knew everyone else, and everyone was the same race. It made me think of how different such a life would be. It made me think about how it would not necessarily be a simpler life.

On the whole, I feel mostly ambivalent about A Girl Named Zippy, although I can see it has its charm.

Side note: It is so much more fun to write about a book that elevated me in some way, or even better, that aggravated me. Why am I writing this then? Early this year, I resolved to write at least about one book a month, a very unambitious goal to begin with, but I suppose I was secretly hoping that it would then be easier to exceed my insignificant expectations, and write twice a month, or even once every week. January was a successful month, and I wrote about the singularly interesting Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. The next six months are a different story. This July, as I turned a year older, I resolved to write again even if Zippy didn’t inspire me or amuse me as much as it has some others. Simply because writing makes me happy.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

smoke The meaning of life is that it ends – Franz Kafka (from Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory (2014) by Caitlin Doughty)

There comes a time in many of our lives when our preoccupation with mortality deepens, and the possibility of death seems to brim with a whole new meaning. I am not talking about when we first discover death as five-year olds, terrified and confused by the finality of it. This renewed understanding seems to happen much later, and to those of us who are lucky to live to be adults.

My mother tells me that when I was a petite six-year old, I would stare sadly at any senior we encountered, even for the briefest period. Because, I said, they were soon going to die. As a parent of a young child, who has had his own phase, I was afraid that he would ask a random white-haired, wrinkle-skinned person the question nobody wants to be asked: Are you going to die soon? While I may laugh at my fears over coffee with a friend, I know that the seeds have been sown. Death will now and forever occupy some portion of my child’s mind-space.

Caitlin Doughty, the author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (2014), talks about having a complicated relationship with death since she was a little girl. “Ever since childhood, when I found out that the ultimate fate for all humans was death, sheer terror and morbid curiosity had been fighting for supremacy in my mind.” As a young girl , Doughty witnessed the accidental death (I should say possible death, for the fate of the person is unknown) of another young girl—a memory that lingers on in Doughty’s mind long after the tragedy. “I became ‘functionally morbid’, consumed with death, disease and darkness yet capable of passing as a quasi-normal school girl.”

Quite recently, science reporter David Adam spoke with Terry Gross on Fresh Air about his OCD regarding HIV/AIDS. I believe that many of us share this “hypervigilance about an obsessive fear” (as Terry puts it) in varying degrees over various subjects. Most of this ‘many’ learn to be functionally morbid, yet privately absorbed in their thoughts.

Doughty talks about being drawn to not just death and dying, but to bodies, death rituals, grief, and other aspects of mortality. After spending four years at college researching the subject, Doughty finally decides that she has had enough of death on paper, and wants real bodies and real death. She then takes up the position of a crematory operator at a family-owned mortuary with dreams of one day owning a unique funeral home, La Belle Mort (Beautiful Death).

The book demystifies the post-death journey of those who choose to be cremated, and how they get from Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so to an urn of ashes and ground up bones. I knew very little about how modern crematories operate in the United States, and Doughty’s account was helpful in understanding how people  (veterans, mothers, incarcerated drug addicts, the still born, amputated body parts, and bodies donated to science) all meet the same fate.

Corpses are rarely a thing of beauty. While they are themselves dead, they are a breeding ground for a veritable host of living creatures that, while are too tiny to be seen themselves, are not shy about leaving their mark behind. Decomposition is hard to miss, and you often smell it before you see it. As a crematory operator, Doughty was required to make the bodies ‘natural’ and presentable’ for a viewing, if the families so desired it. This involves make-up, of course, but also shaving, wiring the gums together, eyecaps to mask the flattened eyeballs, and other unnatural devices. While this prettying up is not meant to last more than a few hours, corpse preservation has apparently been a national preoccupation for about a century and a half. Embalming, as the process is known and which Doughty describes in some detail, “decorating our dead as lurid, painted props on fluffy pillows” is “the primary procedure in North America’s billion-dollar funeral industry.” Even a corpse can be a product.

Procedural details aside, Doughty’s central thesis is that the modern (American) relationship with death is fundamentally unhealthy. Our children are raised in a carefully corpse-free world, where people no longer die in their homes, bodies are transported quickly and discreetly in anonymous white vans, painstakingly given a “life-like” appearance before being expensively disposed. Doughty argues that corpses “keep the living tethered to reality”, make us aware of own mortality and in that process give rise to self-awareness and “the beginning of wisdom”, going as far as to say that the absence of dead bodies is the root cause of problems in the world.

Encountering a corpse forced the man who would be Buddha to see life as a process of unpredictable and constant change. It was life without  corpses, trapped behind the palace walls, that had prevented him from reaching enlightenment.

Far from destroying the meaning in our lives, death, Doughty says, is the very source of our creativity, “the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love and create…the great achievements of humanity were born out of the deadlines imposed by death.” According to Doughty, our culture that actively denies death and hides bodies is to blame not only for this morbid fear of death, but also for acting as a barrier to a good death—a death where living is valued over life, where life is not prolonged indiscriminately, where death is accepted as being serene and beautiful, just as birth is.

I found Smoke Gets in Your Eyes entertaining, not only because of  Doughty ‘s description of her unusual occupation,  but also because while ageing and dying seem to be the topic of many timely and important articles, memoirs and discussions, literature about death and the dead body is perhaps still considered too morbid for mainstream consumption. This book made me think about the meaning (or lack thereof) of the many rituals surrounding death, cultural practices surrounding the disposal of the corpse, and the idea of death as an impetus for life.