Lying (Sam Harris, 2011)

If you’re not familiar with Sam Harris, he’s great.

As well as being a public critic of religion and one of the major proponents of the New Atheism movement, he’s also a neuroscientist, philosopher, and blogger. He parts company with a lot of other atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens etc.) in that he’s interested in (and believes in) transformative spiritual experiences, and he writes and speaks about topics such as meditation (he spent a year in Asia studying meditation under Hindu and Buddhist teachers) and human consciousness fairly regularly. In fact, he has a new book coming out – ‘Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion’ – in September.

Lying is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read. The premise is simple – lying, in most situations (even situations in which most of us would make exceptions), is bad. It’s bad for you, bad for those around you, bad for relationships, bad for the world. By way of many, many examples and anecdotes, Harris illustrates the destructive effects of lying. Some are funny, some heart-breaking, some surprising. It’s also quite a daring book – Harris doesn’t shy away from difficult cases, such as lying to a terminally ill child about dying, or lying to a murderer about his target’s whereabouts. It covers a broad range of ground, from white lies to life-changing lies, and there’s a Q&A section at the end dealing with readers’ questions.

Harris’ arguments really made me think. I thought that in such a small number of words (it’s really more of a long essay than a book), he did a fairly thorough job of convincing us that there aren’t many examples of seemingly virtuous lies that can easily escape scrutiny. Having said that, he’s not an absolutist in his stance. He is simply inviting us to think – to pay attention to what the truth is in every moment and to evaluate whether it’s really necessary or beneficial to deviate from it – rather than outright condemning all lies. The writing is also impeccably clear, and it’s not a difficult or challenging read, making it accessible to and enjoyable for most anyone who enjoys a mental workout, from time to time.

Yet, I did think that some of Harris’ arguments lacked a certain cultural awareness, if that’s what you’d call it. This is surprising, given that a lot of his work and engagements have seen him talking to people from rather orthodox, oppressive backgrounds. Having said that, the book is only around 50 (very small) pages or so, and its ambitions were probably more just to plant the seeds of thought as opposed to setting out the most detailed and comprehensive argument possible. Still, for me, the culture factor was too big not to address, simply as I thought it was just so relevant to a lot of his discussions. It made it seem like he was oblivious to the realities and situations of people less affluent, less free, with less opportunity, and less privileged generally. I don’t think Harris had to accommodate lots of space and time to this in the text, but just alluding to some of the limitations of his ideas might have made all the difference and, in my opinion, made it more of a credible read.

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On the Road (Jack Kerouac, 1957)

2*

Feels kind of piddling to be writing an unfavourable review of a book as popular and generation-defining/culturally important as this one (especially since I didn’t finish it…). But here goes!

I never finished On the Road (I had 30 pages or so left). If I’ve started reading a novel I usually see it through, even if it kills me. But it felt like Jack Kerouac really didn’t care about me as a reader, and I felt completely excluded from the whole experience. I’ve been told this is one of those ‘marmite’ books, but I wanted to love it – I expected to love it, because I loved the idea. I recently spent some time in San Francisco just after graduating, and after seeing the Beat Museum, the Jack Kerouac alley with all those lovely quotes and poems from Beat-era literature engraved into the concrete, and the brilliantly quirky City Lights bookstore, I was enchanted by the energy of it all. So, I picked up a copy and began.

The story simply doesn’t go anywhere. It goes to lots of places, sure. It goes all the way across America, several times. I can see why so many love it – the excitement, the speed, the fleeting moments of pain, pleasure and madness – it’s a visceral read. But in between all the madness, there wasn’t enough to keep me going. The characters weren’t sympathetic, not individually anyway. Collectively, there was something relatable about their situation that spoke to the human condition, but I didn’t like them (with the exception of Sal, about whom I felt neutrally).

The book is filled with Americana, and I wasn’t too familiar with a fair few of the cultural references – which is likely the reason I didn’t connect with it as much as others may have. But besides that, it felt to me that these characters didn’t really stand for anything – except their own madness! That’s what it’s about, it’s been said – the immediacy of experience, and the uninhibited, free style of prose which was new for its time. There are some really beautiful sentences, some that hit you hard.

What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

But ultimately my conception of Jack Kerouac became of somebody who never really grew past adolescence, and so wasn’t able to offer anything more to this story than just a bunch of guys moving from one city to the next, getting drunk…and then doing the same thing again, over and over.

Interestingly, I was speaking with a friend about On the Road, who said he thought that in the current age of online blogging etc., the book has far less appeal. I think its cultural impact, like many books’ I suppose, may very much have been just a product of its time.

But who knows – maybe I’ll try it again someday. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong frame of mind, perhaps. I find when you pick up a book expecting great things, it can often disappoint in one way or another.

Audition (Ryu Murakami, 1997)

3*

A compulsive, one-sitting read.

I picked this up by mistake while browsing the (Haruki) Murakami section at Waterstones. So this is who they call the ‘other Murakami’! This ‘psychosexual thriller'(?!) races at top speed through the story of Aoyama, a documentary film-maker living in Tokyo with his son Shige. After Shige suggests that Aoyama remarry (his wife died seven years ago of cancer), and best bud Yoshikawa agrees, a series of events is set into motion, ending in a pretty gruesome and genuinely shocking climax.

The premise is this: in order to find a suitable wife for Aoyama, Yoshikawa suggests holding auditions for a bogus movie (that he has no intention to produce). This is a quick and easy way to filter through tons of women until the right one comes along. So far, so good.

The thing is, the premise turns out to be kind of pointless, because Aoyama becomes infatuated with Yamasaki right at the start of the selection process, as soon as her resume catches his eye. At the insistence of Yoshikawa, he reluctantly watches the other women’s auditions, utterly convinced that they are all petty and shallow compared with the stunning Yamasaki. Given that the title of the book is ‘Audition’, and that the audition idea is introduced early on in text and serves as the motor for all subsequent events, I thought a lot more could have been done with the idea. It really didn’t feel germane to the overall plot. I expected it to be explored more deeply and was left feeling a bit cheated when it wasn’t.

Anyway, Aoyama begins his courtship of Yamasaki, who I found to be a bit of a two-dimensional character. I didn’t share Aoyama’s infatuation, and for me she held no intrigue. It seems that in an attempt to make her seem compelling and captivating, Murakami actually constructed her character rather unconvincingly. We are privy to only two sides of her: on the one hand she is lovely and sweet, and on the other, a complete monster. We are told she suffered awful abuse in the past, but due to the undeveloped characterisation, it seems somewhat far-fetched when she breaks out psycho at the end. I did enjoy the concept though, and if you enjoy the occasional blood and gore and gruesomeness then the final act is a real treat.

However, this isn’t to say the book lacked all manner of depth. Some of the observations contained are thought-provoking. We’re given some insights into Japanese culture and society: a slightly tipsy Aoyama philosophises about sushi bars at one point – how Japan’s conformist, rigid social culture is reflected even in its cuisine. The descriptions of how Aoyama and Shige adapt after the mother’s death are also moving and delicately executed.

Ultimately, Audition was a fast-paced page-turner, and – despite its shortcomings – certainly a gripping read.

Siddhartha (Herman Hesse, 1922)

4*

Written in an elegant, lyrical style (at times it really did feel like poetry), Siddhartha, by German author Herman Hesse, tells the story of a handsome and intelligent Brahmin’s son who abandons the comforts of his home and sets out on a spiritual journey of self-discovery. On a quest to seek enlightenment, he encounters a myriad of people and situations along the way, all leading up to his final realisation that the world must be loved in its completeness, and it is the totality of conscious experience that is the best approach to understanding the nature of reality.

This really read like a fairy tale for adults! Though the text is informed by tenets of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, it should not be seen as a substitute for or guide to the principles of those religions. Published in 1922, long before the Hippie movement of the ‘60s, it was the first major work dealing with Eastern thought in the Western world. For this reason, it has influenced the works of many others ahead of its time, such as well-known Beat-era author Jack Kerouac.

There was both a loveliness and profundity present throughout the pages of Siddhartha, and the ending left me feeling uplifted, positive and to an extent, wiser. The final chapter was particularly touching, with its musings on love and life and meaning, and I put the book down feeling light and airy.

And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid, 2007)

3*

Short, very evocative read.

Simple structure – a monologue. The protagonist, a Pakistani man named Changez, tells his story to a nervous American stranger in a tea shop in Lahore. His story – falling in and out of love with America – is a gripping one. He tells us of his studies at Princeton, his relationship with an American woman, his high-paying job at a valuation firm where he’s quickly recognised as one of the brightest talents, and then his gradually occurring disdain for the nation, post 9/11.

Changez’s account felt real and convincing. His disillusionment comes about slowly, progressively, and as a result, we are empathetic. The love story between him and Erica is poignant and delicately written, and takes up a large part of the novel, serving as a sort of allegory of Changez’s turbulent relationship with America (but to me it still felt like a touching – albeit sad – love story in its own right).

It was difficult to miss some of the ironies though. One that struck me in particular was when Changez referred to Erica’s father’s tone (he makes some rather arrogant comments about Pakistan’s political problems) as having a ‘typically American undercurrent of condescension’. This felt a little hypocritical, considering his lofty manner of speech and pompous narrative throughout when addressing the American stranger who sits opposite him. But this, I think, was the point.

An intriguing novel, to say the least, and one that forces the reader to confront uncomfortable, but necessary, questions.

Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger, 1951)

5*

The Catcher in the Rye is a novel I think will always be relatable. Through the mind of the narrator and protagonist, seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield, we too begin to observe our surroundings with increasing disenchantment and disillusionment. We are, along with Holden, in total despair of the adult world.

I first read this when I was eighteen or nineteen, and, being of an angsty age, it felt somehow significant when I began to identify with the bleakness of Holden’s musings. The polarising nature of the novel, it seems, comes from the fact that you’ll either identify with Holden, or you won’t.

Holden is not a child but not yet a grown-up either. This is a period of time that everyone has experienced and to an extent, never stops experiencing. For me, that’s what makes Holden’s story memorable. It follows his rather spontaneous (and often drunken) escapades over the course of three days, after he’s expelled from his boarding school. His observations and perceptions expose the banality of the real world, and of adult life, serving as a very astute commentary on the ‘phony’ nature of everyday human affairs. I especially enjoy the stream of consciousness style of fiction, but even for those who don’t, the novel isn’t short of dialogue or humour. There’s an awkward incident with a prostitute, a confrontation with a pimp, and several other bizarre encounters through Holden’s erratic exploits. The atmosphere of alienation and isolation, rather than making Catcher a depressing read, force us to see the astonishing beauty in moments of innocence:

I felt so happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.

Here, Holden describes his joy at seeing his little sister going around on a carousel. That’s another thing about Catcher in the Rye – it’s written in in the teenage colloquial speech of the time, and allows us as readers to fully engage with Holden’s thought processes and identify with his impressions of the world surrounding him. We are cocooned in his disgust for corruption, and there is a certain comfort to be found in the loneliness of his ventures.

Holden’s attitude remains unchanged at the story’s end, differentiating the novel from other young adult fiction. If there is an overriding message to be understood, it is vague and unclear. But again, this is what sets the book apart. There are no dramatic character epiphanies or revelations. There is no Hollywoodesque element to the story (Holden by his own admission hates Hollywood), and no real purpose to our hero’s adventures. It is simply an account of something that happened to a lonely teenage boy.

In the Miso Soup (Ryu Murakami, 1997)

3.5*

My second novel from Ryu Murakami. This gave me the creeps! It was delicious. I do like the way Murakami combines the horror/thriller genre with a sort of philosophical quality, addressing fundamental questions of human nature – loneliness, meaning, despair – all within the context of Japanese society.

Kenji is a 20-year-old ‘nightlife guide’ for foreigners who visit Tokyo. He shows them around the sex clubs and hostess bars of the city. His latest client, Frank, an overweight American tourist with disturbing (murderous) tendencies, arouses Kenji’s suspicion from the outset. We accompany Kenji and Frank on their night tour of Tokyo, and through Kenji’s narration, we learn a lot about Japan and Japanese society along the way.

There’s only one really gory part (as in Audition), but when the actual horror begins it completely throws you off balance. Kenji’s state of mind after the horrific event was the most interesting thing to me about the novel – an examination of the human psyche, struggling with questions of right and wrong.

The writing is engaging – Kenji’s insights and curiosities provide plenty of food for thought and reflection on every page, and he remains a likeable character to the very end, even though his decision is shocking. The innocent quality of his narration makes him very sympathetic and exposes the extent of the decadence all around him. Having him as a narrator, the environment we are in becomes easier to deal with and there’s some security to be found in his observations, even after he decides to not to act on what he’s witnessed.

My (limited) experience of reading Japanese fiction so far is that novels’ endings are often left quite open, quite ambiguous – you don’t feel the story is truly over. It’s intriguing, but in this case I would have wanted some more questions answered.