a blank slate

a blank slate

Tag: memoir

Peeling the Onion by Günter Grass

(I had to finish this in November, for German Literature Month, but it spilled into December.)

The first book I finished this weekend was a beautiful autobiography of German Nobel-Prize-winning author Günter Grass. The title, Peeling the Onion, is a running metaphor for peeling back the layers of memory, gradually, carefully, taking care not to cut too deep too soon and unleash withheld tears. It is popularly considered a confessional account of Grass’s entry into the Waffen-SS, the Nazi military wing. It follows him through his days as an ex-Nazi prisoner of war and the later years as a sculptor and an artist, and how these life experiences influenced his writing and peace-time politics. 
To start with, let me just say I have read nothing by Grass and not a lot about him. And yet, I knew this – he was the voice of post-war Germany, their self-appointed moral compass, and the man who said, “it is a citizen’s first duty to not keep quiet.” And yet it took Grass so many years to break his silence. This book caused quite a stir when it was published, precisely because of the irony of its revelation; the fact that Germany’s so-called conscience-figure had been a willing believer in the Third Reich. This was why I was looking forward to reading the book. I wanted to read the ‘confession of guilt’, make sense of it, the scandal it caused; it could be a non-fictional version of Miller’s The Crucible, and with this expectation, I was setting myself up for disappointment.
I went in expecting a very different book. Peeling the Onion is not Grass’s daring confession about his part in the Waffen-SS. Guilt is a major theme in the book, and war played a major role in his life – but not in the way you’d expect or want it to be. The controversy, in hindsight, makes as little sense as accusing To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee of racist talk or trying to ban Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

The controversy takes a cursory glance at the book and misses the subtext. Grass was not a hypocrite, for the man demanding and expecting honesty from fellow men did not carry himself on a high horse. This book shows, in fact, that he was rather a man who had spent the better part of his life struggling with remorse for not having done just that – for not having had the courage to speak up. For not asking, “Why?” The narrator of a book is ideally a sympathetic character. This, Grass is not. Yet, it is perfectly possible to look past that for the book has a lot to offer. 

“When shortly after my eleventh birthday synagogues in Danzig and elsewhere were set aflame and Jewish merchants’ shop windows shattered, I took no part, yet I was very much a curious spectator. I simply stood by and observed, and was, at most, surprised.

No matter how zealously I rummage through the foliage of my memory, I can find nothing in my favour. My childhood years seem to have been completely untroubled by doubt. No, I was a pushover, always game for everything that the times, which called themselves – exhilaratedly and exhilaratingly – modern, had to offer.”

Grass is unerringly honest. And this honesty is disconcerting to read, as in the chapter ‘His name was WEDONTDOTHAT’. Grass tells us about a spirited blue-eyed blonde boy, a fellow soldier in the Luftwaffe, who would pointedly refuse to hold any weapon because it was un-German. “We don’t do that,” he would say, no matter how and how often he was punished for it, and “Wedontdothat” became his name; Grass talks about how relieved they were when, one day, he disappeared from te camp and with him, the pricking doubt he put in the rest of their minds finally vanished. Grass didn’t care where he had gone, though they all knew. It was difficult to take Grass’s brusque honesty in a stride at such times. I had to take periodic breaks from the book as it was too emotionally charged to read at one go. 
Of course, the infamous Waffen-SS is only a minor feature in the 500-page book. One-fourth of it, perhaps. A large quarter of the book is about hunger, and how Grass spent most of his life satisfying one hunger after the other, hunger of the stomach during war-time, of the flesh as a youth and of the mind. How hunger frequently dictated the course his life would take. Grass details his experience as a prisoner of war at the age of eighteen. Injured, in mind and body, yet never having shot a bullet himself. Tells us how it was to meet Jews for the first time since the war, how it was to learn about the horrors of the concentration camp and how the ex-soldiers would refuse to believe that it existed. He talks about listening to late night arguments on politics and coming to terms with his ignorance and indifference. He details later learning what happened to his family “when the Russians came.” How the war changed his mother, who never told him what really went on when Danzig, the hometown, was raided. How it broke his sister’s spirit. It is a cinema-reel of atrocities and the clear sun-lit reality of it all makes it so difficult to tell black from white. The supposed controversy of Grass’s revelation has long ceased to matter at this point.
Günter Grass was a sculptor. This, I did not know at all. He had been an art enthusiast as a child and artist was one of the things he wanted to grow up to be. A waning half of the book is about his career as a sculptor, the women in his life during this time. Amidst all the women (and his children) in his life, this book details only one of his marriages, to Anna Schwarz, the dancer. His second wife Ute makes guest appearances in his travels.

The various characters of his numerous books start taking shape now, inspiration flowing in from his war memories, and we finally begin to learn a little something about Günter Grass, the writer. He used to stand when he wrote! What a weirdly inconsequential thing to discover, yet it has stuck, maybe because it is so random – it was a habit he picked up as a sculptor, he wrote at his stand-up desk. He was left-handed, and talks as though he is constantly aware of his left-handedness; and of course he is, so am I. (Aren’t right-handers constantly aware of their right-handedness? Must be, because so many show surprise when I casually raise my left hand to do something.) He also dwells on his transformation from a total non-smoker who’d use cigarettes as a favourite barter in his prison days to the young artist who smoked for careful pretense until it became an incorrigible habit. 

Often he drifts into the third person talking not of himself but a boy and I cannot help but wonder, is he making it impersonal for our sake or his own? But, of course, he has already told me that. I should know by now… nothing escapes him, least of all his own failings. The very first sentence of the book reads – “Today, as in years past, the temptation to camouflage oneself in the third person remains great.”  
It cannot be easy to fashion a tangible narrative out of wisps of memory. Moreover, to convert ones past into something of interest to another. The writing does not possess an inch of self-importance or flattery, nor does he ever put on an air of fake modesty. Quite possibly because it took me so long to read it, but also because of how far and deep it extended, I neared the end of the book with the conclusive impression that I had experienced a lifetime – a long, long trek, and I was the mental equivalent of out-of-breath.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air is an incredible, honest book. Written in the face of cancer by a man who happened to have spent the better part of his life trying to gain an understanding of death, the book has the urgency of a story that needs to be told. There is no scope for pretences, there are no airs and, perhaps, Kalanithi held only a vague awareness of a reader in mind, and little concern for the impression the book would have on a prospective reader. Its authenticity is its driving force, which is a rare quality for memoirs.

“Most lives are lived
with passivity toward death — it’s something that happens to you and
those around you. But Jeff and I had trained for years to actively
engage with death, to grapple with it, like Jacob with the angel, and,
in so doing, to confront the meaning of a life. We had assumed an
onerous yoke, that of mortal responsibility. Our patients’ lives and
identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are
perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is
stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and
yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach
perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are
ceaselessly striving.” 
I sometimes feel like my childhood was a montage of medicine names
and hospital tales. I grew up around doctors and hospitals and what was
most interesting to me about this book was how so many of Paul’s
experiences with and views on medicine paralleled my father’s. The book
felt very personal. When Breath Becomes Air offers an insider’s view on
medicine, as a
profession, as a calling, as something that exists on the slippery slope
of morality. It gives a glimpse of the doctor’s view that we often fail to consider. 
Medicine, the hard reality of a doctor’s life, requires you to suspend the values you
have internalised – of what is right and wrong, what is permissible and
what is just, and most significantly, what is possible. Kalanithi writes, delicately, about music blasting in the
operation room, about dissecting cadavers in med school and about each time that a doctor has to tell a family that he is
sorry he could not help. 
When Breath Becomes Air is not about cancer. It is written by a man dying of lung cancer, yes. It is most definitely about death, or about life, which is rather the same. But it is not about struggling against the disease. It is not the glorification of a short life, it is not about making the most of your time left, it is no ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ (as my sister put it) and while there is nothing wrong with being any of these, I appreciated that the book was written not because the man had cancer but because he wanted to be a writer. His diagnosis only sealed the chosen fate.
“Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I
didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die,
but I didn’t know when.
But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one.
The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”
This book has a lot going for it. The biggest reason it appealed to me is for how it has planted this narrative in my head – this internal argument that forced Kalanithi to write the book. Have you read Because I could not stop for Death by Emily Dickinson? It is about the constant presence of death in the carriage of life. There is a persistent awareness of mortality in us, that Kalanithi suggests is what being human entails, be it in the form of loss or disease. What then, taking into account the inevitability of death, constitutes a meaningful life? A brilliant young man, in his final hour, muses on how to live.
When Breath Becomes Air lies on a fascinating intersection of
Literature (with an L) and science. Kalanithi writes at length about
studying literature with the aim to untangle the complexities of the
mind and later, almost dissatisfied with the limits of literature,
majoring in neuroscience to analyse the brain and its role in making
life meaningful. He flutters between the two, building a life around the
practice of science in the best of times, seeking comfort in Samuel
Beckett in the worst. He writes about where the two meet, philosophy and
science, their intersection. This book is about what literature and
science offer and what they lack, explained by a man who intimately
knows and loves both.
The book is also about family. About the fate of relationships and ties in life and death. Even as I write this, I wonder how a slip of a book was so many things… and this particular aspect of it, I don’t want to spoil with my words. I leave this for you to explore and experience. Terry Pratchett wrote, ‘no one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.’ Paul Kalanithi has left us with a stormy ocean. Do read the book.

Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Summary: Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor. His book, Man’s Search for Meaning, was originally titled, Nevertheless, Say “Yes” To Life, which I think makes a much better title for what the first half of the book recounts – Frankl’s experiences during WWII as a prisoner in a concentration camp. The second half is an introduction to Frankl’s theory of logotherapy. The basic premise of logotherapy is that the will to find meaning in life is a person’s main motivation to go on.
My thoughts: I struggle with books like these, non fictional accounts of tragedy and survival, because I can afford to be impersonal towards them. This does not go well with people. I have ineptly invited criticism on myself before, for instance, by accusing a certain teenage victim of the Holocaust of being too maudlin in her personal diary. This is why, of course, I had some reservations about “reviewing” Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. But now I find myself overcome by a need to rant.
Before I talk about the content of the book, let me say a bit about the style of writing. I went in expecting not to like the book, mostly because of my somewhat disappointing experience with the dramatically tear-inducing Night by Elie Wiesel. Man’s Search For Meaning makes for quite a different experience. It is unforgivingly cerebral. In the introduction, Frankl explains how he wrote his account, as a scientist and a memoirist –
To attempt a methodical presentation of the subject is very difficult, as psychology requires a certain scientific detachment. But does a man who makes his observations while he himself is a prisoner possess the necessary detachment? Such detachment is granted to the to the outsider, but he is too far removed to make any statements of real value. Only the man inside knows. His judgments may not be objective; his evaluations may be out of proportion. This is inevitable. An attempt must be made to avoid any personal bias and that is the real difficulty of a book of this kind. 
Frankl consciously tries to be objective and it is this tone that leads to reviews on Goodreads that accuse him of being too clinical. I disagree with the readers who call him dry and unemotional, because it is this very clinical precision that makes his writing visceral and honest. Frankl begins his narrative with a description of how some of them were chosen as prisoners, while others were sent off to be killed, their lives dependent on whims. How, upon arrival at the camp, all sense of dignity was stripped off and how awfully soon they got accustomed to their bare new existence. Much later, Frankl talks about becoming impassive to all the deaths. He adds that he would not even have remembered them now had he not been analysing his own reactions as a psychiatrist. A reader would have to be profoundly obtuse not to recognize how steeped in emotion such a confession is.
There are incidents in this book that I wish I could unread. Dreadful images have now permanently set up home in my mind. The German SS officers and guards in the camps are villains out of distastefully gory thriller fiction and their fiendish sadism is difficult to digest as Frankl’s reality. These are things that will keep me away from books of this kind for a long, long time. But he also writes moments of great tenderness worth stumbling around in the darkness for. I keep going back to the parts when Frankl talks about his wife, when he passes by his home town and fights to get a glimpse, when he chooses to stay by a dying patient’s side when he could have escaped the camp. I cannot hope to justly convey the treasures these bits carry, so let the words do their work – 
“In front of me a man stumbled and those following him fell on top of him. The guard rushed over and used his whip on them all. Thus my thoughts were interrupted for a few minutes. But soon my soul found its way back from the prisoner’s existence to another world, and I resumed talk with my loved one: I asked her questions, and she answered; she questioned me in return, and I answered. A thought crossed my mind: I didn’t even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing – which I have learned well by now; Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and my image of my beloved.”
The problem arises for me in Part Two, when he begins to preach. This is a man who has lived through a war, writing to men of that age, people who want to hear that their suffering was not for nothing, that having struggled on and survived through it with the right attitude gave their lives meaning. To form a method of therapy out of the undiluted terror they faced and to apply it to the considerably happier masses is rash. Simply put, his suggestion is to find a purpose at every turn in life to feel positively about, which sounds right. But based on the assumption that every happenstance has a meaning, including unavoidable misery, logotherapy is hopeful at best, and dangerously misleading at its worst.

Because, like all self-help books, it is subjective. Disillusionment is the biggest vice to the former prisoner. Yet this disappointment felt when circumstance unchangingly delivers pain can be overcome, the book seems to say. But often, hope is a feeble self-deception in the face of an inevitable loss of control. The diligent search for meaning in everything could prove fruitless to an introspective cynic. And I could not, even if I wanted, apply to my life all the advice Frankl hands out in the latter section (the parts that do ring true and earn my utter admiration are evident in the first half anyway.) Add to this his ample criticism of Freud’s psychoanalysis. In an age where questioning Freud is hardly new, Frankl’s stubborn defence seems tedious.

The first part of the book, as I have written already, is amazing. This second part is, as it helps, tiny. But I would advise you to read up on logotherapy before you decide to read it. Finally, I don’t know if I want to recommend this book to people, it is a rather painful read. If you are interested in history or the war, do read it. For I must say, of the books on the Holocaust that I have read, fictional and otherwise, the memoir-ical half of Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl is by far the greatest.

Ramblings in Ireland by Kerry Dwyer

I received this book in exchange for an honest review from the author.

I checked my e-mails this morning as soon as I woke up and found Kerry Dwyer’s Ramblings in Ireland in my inbox. I started reading it and just forgot to go to work. So, here I am, writing the review that I promised (this very morning) to post within the next two weeks.

About the book: This is not a book about rambling in Ireland.

It tells the tale of one particular walking trip and the memories and musings
it inspired.

Exploring the West of Ireland is a time for meditation, spiritual reflection
and strengthening the bonds of life. More practically the ability to read a map
might have proved helpful. The tourist office in Ireland has all their paths
clearly marked. You can’t go wrong if you follow that little yellow man. Or can
you?

As British ex-patriate Kerry Dwyer leads Bertrand, her trusting
French husband, astray once more, they reminisce and reflect upon accents and
accidents, family and friends, love and what it means to be alive. Bertrand
doesn’t mind getting lost – he loves Kerry all the more for going off
the beaten track.

This is a book about ramblings in Ireland. Walk with Kerry and
Bertrand and follow where your thoughts lead you.


My thoughts:  I love the way the book is written. The author recreates the atmosphere, talks about the language, the people, the sounds and even the smell of Ireland. The detailed imagery brings the scenes to life! Having been on the road a lot lately, I have come to realize that travelling, for me, is more than just checking ten places off the “To-Visit List”. Every place makes me think of different things, every new experience conjures up older memories I didn’t even know were there and it is the most exciting feeling! The author has captured this perfectly and I was glad the book was not just about rambling in Ireland; they surely have travel guides for that! Instead of just dumping loads of information about the country on us, the author manages to make the most ordinary things seem fascinating and can weave stories out of thin air! The actual facts about Ireland and the descriptions of the countryside are interspersed with snippets of old conversations, funny anecdotes and obscure memories. I particularly enjoyed reading about the author’s experiences teaching English as a foreign language, about her childhood difficulties with accents, about French, English and Irish food and the running gag about her navigational expertise.

I found the book thoroughly engaging, right from from the very first page, when the writer tells us what to expect from the book. The narration has an ease or a flow to it. The book is very interesting, touching and fairly amusing all at once, and I was chuckling to myself throughout. It seems from the style of writing and the pure randomness of the anecdotes that the author wrote the book entirely for herself and that makes the book very genuine. And, being the kind of person who finds it very hard to write without going off on tangents myself, it was easy to relate to her! 

I loved the book. I haven’t written “what I didn’t like”, the way I usually do, because there was nothing I didn’t like! I would recommend this book to everyone. In fact, please, go buy your copy right now right here!

Giving Up the Ghost by Eric Nuzum

I received this book in exchange for an honest review through Netgalley.

About the book: Giving Up the Ghost: A Story
about Friendship, 80s Rock, A Lost Scrap of Paper and what it means to be
Haunted 
is written by Eric Nuzum, published by Random House Publishing
Group on 7th August 2012. 

Summary 
(partly from here):
Eric Nuzum is afraid of the supernatural, and for good reason: As a young boy,
he believed he was being haunted by the ghost of a little blonde girl in a blue
dress, first in his dreams and slowly in his real life. It ended with Eric in a
mental ward. His friendship with a girl named Laura was the only thing that
kept him “normal”. She made him alive again – only to become a ghost
herself in a tragic twist of fate. Years later, Eric is still scared of
‘ghosts’. In order to finally face his fear, he decides to visit America’s most
haunted places. But deep down he knows it’s only when he digs up the ghosts of
his past, especially Laura, that he’ll find the peace he’s looking for.
My rating: 2/5
My thoughts: The book description seemed
so interesting. The book was supposed to be “hilarious” and
“moving”, as described, but what I got, instead, was moderately
amusing and overly emotional. I loved the premise of the book, the idea of such
a memoir, but the execution could have been way better.
(What I liked) Look at that cover: it’s
fabulous, isn’t it? The mysterious girl, the silhouette of that guy, the creepy
shade of blue and even that font made me immediately want to grab the book and
read it. And the book
started off great. I was completely engrossed for about the first fifty pages.
I could completely relate to the funny, quirky narration along with the
descriptions of the narrator’s inexplicable, overwhelming fears and obsessions.
I loved that strange recurring dream, the constant feeling of being haunted,
the eerie way in which it is described. I also liked the parts in the present,
when the writer is hunting down ghosts in the supposedly most haunted places in
America. It’s interesting and well written. The premise of the book was
thoroughly fascinating.
(What I didn’t like) What I didn’t quite
appreciate was the haphazard execution of the idea. I didn’t like the book, because I just
found it boring. Let me elaborate: the book sounds too much like a rant, at
times. I though it was a bit overdone. The book was an obviously hard and quite ineffective attempt to seem profound. It was dull in places and I felt like skipping ahead (which is
something I rarely feel.) Having lost a lot of people myself, I could relate to
the writer, but I still can’t make out the point of the book. The worst thing,
for me, was halfway through the book, I realized I was reading further only because
I had to write this review. I would have loved the book, even if it had just been the
writer’s journey to all the haunted places all over America, trying to figure
out if any of them were actually haunted. What could have been a much more charming read, seemed only okay to me.
That being said, I can think of people who
might actually like it. I would recommend the book to people who don’t
put much thought into reading, who are looking for a light, breezy read. It is
also a good horror book for people who want to avoid the violence in horror
fiction, but do like that eerie feeling it gives you.