Saturday, January 18, 2014

(Re)-Inventing Yourself

Book Review: The Answer to the Riddle is Me by David MacLean

What would you do if you suddenly found yourself in a foreign country, with no recollection of how you got there, or even who you were? I, for one, have never had to answer that question. David MacLean not only had to face that question, but went on to tell about it in his fine work, The Answer to the Riddle is Me.

His subtitle, A Memoir of Amnesia (isn't that an oxymoron?) gives a clue to his often tongue-in-cheek humor in confronting the conundrum of 'who is David MacLean?' For most of us it would be impossible to find anything amusing in losing our identity. MacLean relates the random thoughts that rebounded through his head, and manages to keep a human face on an inhuman experience.

Under that veneer of irreverent bravado, there is sheer terror. Like a drowning man, MacLean finds himself grasping at straws in an effort to stay afloat in his hallucinatory hell. He desperately grabs on to anything and anyone that might give him a clue as to who he was/is. In some cases he finds himself caught between his two selves - the David MacLean he was, a portrait held by family and friends; and the David MacLean he is, who finds that "continuing on in the world of the sane is harder than you thought."

"My hallucinations left me feeling like the inside of my soul had been flapped out for the world to see; the shame I'd carried through my life had bubbled out and been exposed to the air, and now it wouldn't recede." Epiphany is not always a joyful, uplifting experience; sometimes it can be downright painful, even depressing. "The Answer to the Riddle" is an intense, deeply personal ride through the inner workings of a mind that has had the "reset" button pushed, and the effort of moving forward from that experience. Sometimes funny, sometimes harrowing, always human, this is one of the most honest books I have ever read.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

It's All in Here

Book Review: The Best American Essays 2013 edited by Robert Atwan and Cheryl Strayed

In my opinion, the purpose of literature is to help me see the world through other eyes, and to look beyond the narrow construct of my personal view of 'how things are'. The essay seeks to accomplish this by allowing the author to forward their personal viewpoint on matters of their choosing; a well-written essay will bring the reader into the author's world view, hopefully to expand the reader's viewpoint in the process.

The Best American Essays 2013 opens to the reader a wide selection of windows on the world. While they are all written from a first-person perspective, the subjects they reveal go beyond simple autobiographical short stories. It's all in here: economics (the subject on everyone's mind), politics, science, psychology, relationships. Every essay reveals not just the author's personal outlook; to the perceptive reader they also show our collective views as Americans.

In this day of sound bites and tweets, maybe it is too much to ask for readers to look beyond the mere words on the page, to read between the lines, to savor and mull over the stories that are laid before us and see the deeper secrets they hold. As Charles Baxter points out in "What Happens in Hell": "Why do you desire to believe the ideas that you hold dear, the cornerstones of your faith?" Are we more comfortable with our heads in the sand, seeing only that which is directly in front of us? That world where "... people will walk smiling through puddles of your blood, smiling and talking on their cellular phones. They're going to the movies." (J.D. Daniels, "Letter from Majorca").

Editor Cheryl Strayed points out that "Essayists begin with an objective truth and attempt to find a greater, grander truth by testing fact against subjective interpretations of experiences and ideas, memories and theories. They try to make meaning of actual life, even if an awful lot has yet to be figured out." This demands of us as readers to look for the greater truth as well; to not merely look at these stories like we do the evening news: passively absorbing what we are told and moving on to the next. We need to be actively looking within, even as the author shares THEIR experience of the world.

A book to be read slowly, thoughtfully, and purposefully, digging out those golden nuggets of greater truth.