Man’s Search for Meaning

I’m not sure how I got on the Stoicism kick, but this book was my toe in the water. Frankl survived Auschwitz and numerous other concentration camps, and he credits much of his survival to having the goal of writing about psychological survival in such places. He often quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.
Bundled in this volume is a section on logotherapy, which holds as its tenet:
* Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.
The existential vacuum affects 25% of Frankl’s European students and 60% of his American students, brought on by boredom, private nihilism.
Happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue.

City of Thieves

Thrilling, engaging story of the Leningrad siege, told by Benioff as told to him by his grandfather, who is the main character, Lev, who is thrust into the spotlight of the story by looting the dead body of a German paratrooper and getting caught. He meets Koyla in prison, the pair of them rousted the next day and put in front of the Colonel, who needs eggs for his daughter’s wedding. He gives the pair 300 roubles and a week to get the eggs.
This quest for eggs becomes epic, a trudge through the snow into enemy territory, meeting up with a band of partisan resistance fighters whose sniper kills one of the German officers the boys had planned on killing (who stopped at the whorehouse in the woods). Lev falls for the sniper, a girl Vika, who later shows up at his doorstep all gussied up and who becomes Benioff’s grandmother.
Koyla and Lev narrowly escape the cannibals in Leningrad, and they escape their last prison by plotting to play chess with the evil Kommandante, killed by Lev’s thrusting knife into his belly.

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The Way Some People Die

I had to struggle to finish this one, not my favorite Macdonald book. Lew Archer picks up a case in LA to find a girl who’s gone missing, only to unravel a more devious tale of murder, heroin, boxing fights along the way. The story briefly dips into San Francisco, into a seedy jazz club near Union Square, and a seedier hotel where the addicts are holed up. Archer drives out to Half Moon Bay, where one of the bad guys has stashed himself out of the way.
Missable. The Galton Case and Black Money are much better.

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The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

The author calls this book “a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace and, not least, its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life’s meaning.”
Ten short bursts of insight into various aspects of the working world:
* Tracking cargo ships as they enter the Thames and eventually spitting out their cargo on a forgotten dock in London, allowing us to be blissfully ignorant of the sea passage of our necessary goods (shoes, car parts, rolls of paper).
* The logistics industry, following a tuna from being clubbed to death on a deck of a boat in the Maldives through the fish processing plant and onto a cargo jet to Heathrow, loaded into an “articulated lorry” (e.g. freight truck) to drive to a grocery store in Bristol, where Linda picks up the tuna steak and is ambushed by the author and photographer to be allowed to follow her home to watch her make dinner and see the fish end up in the belly of her 8 year old son.
* An inside glimpse into biscuit manufacturer United Biscuits, chatting with the marketer who came up with a new biscuit (read: cookie) named “Moments” which aimed to address low-income mothers’ yearning for sympathy, affection and “me-time”. The division of labor allowing for specialization and narrowly constricting tasks (high efficiency but not a driver of a meaningful life). “It is significant that the adults who feature in children’s books are rarely Regional Sales Managers or Building Services Engineers.”
* Time spent with a husband and wife team of career counselors, therapists attempting to help you understand what it is you like to do best. “I left [the counselor’s office] newly aware of the unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within the magnanimous bourgeois assurance that everyone can discover happiness through work and love. It isn’t that these two entities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfillment, only that they almost never do so. And when an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, will weigh down on us like particular curses. In denying the natural place reserved for longing and error in the human lot, the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages and our unexploited ambitions, and condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to become who we are.”
* Japanese TV satellite launch from French Guiana reinforces the switch from our previous awe of nature to our new fascination with things man-made.
* A poignant peek at an artist’s time spent painting the same tree for 5 years, resulting in a collection of work that is exhibited in London and slowly sold to net the artist the equivalent salary of a dysfunctional plumber.
* A walk under the power lines from the coast of England through to London, admiring the 542 pylons holding up the currents of electricity. The engineer reveals codes that allow him shorthand notation for common electrical occurrences, and allow him to communicate with engineers the world over. The author yearns for this type of shorthand to express things like the desire to elicit love from people one does not even particularly like, or the irritation evoked when acquaintances express more concern for one’s illness than oneself.
* A tour of Ernst and Young accountancy, the financial auditors. “The advent of dedicated financial specialists, who are unable to fish or build a house or sew a coat but are entirely committed to answering questions of amortisation, standard engagement revenue and transaction tax, seems a culmination of a long history of the division of labour, which began in Ancient Egypt three millennia ago and, in oases like these at least, has generated spectacular returns and some distinctive psychological side-effects.” “In wider view of the public, accountancy may be synonymous with bureaucratic tedium, but from close up, this particular conglomeration of numerical talents presents the observer with a case-study of the discrete charms of offices, with their intriguing blend of camaraderie, intelligence, and futility.” “They seem to have no desire to undertake the kind of work which makes any claim to leave a lasting legacy. They have the inner freedom to exercise their intelligence in the way that taxi drivers will practise their navigation skills: they will go wherever their clients direct them to. They have no ambition to become known to strangers or to record their insights for an unimpressed and ephemeral future. They are well adjusted enough to have made their peace with oblivion. They have accepted with grace the paucity of opportunities for immortality in audit.” “Generating money is really an excuse to do other things, to rise from bed in the morning, to talk authoritatively in front of overhead projectors, to plug in laptops in foreign hotel rooms, to give presentations analysing market shares… Long before we ever earned any money, we were aware of the necessity of keeping busy: we knew the satisfaction of stacking bricks, pouring water into and out of containers and moving sand from one pit to another, untroubled by the greater purpose of our actions.”
* An essay on entrepreneurship and an exposé of an Inventors’ Conference; de Botton arranges for an interview with the Iranian inventor of shoes to walk on water, who is detained in customs for alleged bomb making materials and can’t make it to the convention. There are also the inventions of the Crisp Bar, a flattening of several potato chips into one bar, to save space in your pantry; a braking system to prevent accidents, a non flammable material that has no practical use, and on and on.
* The final essay on aviation begins with a trade show in Paris for the aviation industry, where the author sees deals being struck between 3rd tier nations and various aviation supplier, watches bits of cheese laid out as lunchtime snacks for the delegates to lure them closer into the booth about new wing technologies. Six months later, the author gets lost in the Mojave Desert and stumbles on an airfield of decaying planes, bribing his way onto the tarmac to take a closer look and snap photos.
A few of the longer quotes:

Most of us stand poised as the edge of brilliance, haunted by the knowledge of our proximity, yet still demonstrably on the wrong side of the line, our dealings with reality undermined by a range of minor yet critical psychological flaws (a little too much optimism, an unprocessed rebelliousness, a fatal impatience or sentimentality). We are like an exquisite high-speed aircraft which for lack of a tiny part is left stranded beside the runway, rendered slower than a tractor or a bicycle. (p 127)

The Japanese TV satellite launch in French Guiana covered by a famous Hong Kong TV personality who is decidedly out of place:

The only person who seemed unable to join in the excitement was the Hong Kong television presenter, who sat glumly at a table pushing shrimp around her plate. She had found the launch a disappointment, she said and, smily weakly, added that she had now started her own countdown: to her return to her apartment overlooking Victoria Harbour. Her bitterness smacked of bruised egocentricity. The only topic she appeared comfortable with was mosquitoes. Though tales of the bites of others are usually no less wearing than those of their dreams, she boasted at length about how she had been devoured during the launch, and proceeded to show off her ankles, hopeful that the interest of so many minute beings might stand as a last, desperate proof of her continued magnetism. I realized then that it might be possible to feel jealous of a rocket. (p 164)


The Power of Full Engagement

Although I do gag on the term “Corporate Athlete”, this is a valuable resource for anyone looking to recharge their batteries at work and home. The main idea is that everything you do, every action is a transaction of energy, either giving you or sapping your energy. If you eat a plate of vegetables, you get positive energy in the short term and long term through health benefits. You also need to balance between sprinting and recovery; you cannot go full bore 100% of the time.
Physical energy is at the bottom of the pyramid– everything you do mentally depends on having enough physical energy to handle it, to get you through the stresses. Sleep, nutrition, gym-time all help here.
Emotional energy includes things like self-confidence, self-control, and interpersonal effectiveness. Mental energy is positive realism– to recognize the positive around us in a realistic way, not Polyana-ism.
Spiritual energy is at the top of the pyramid– the purpose behind our lives. If we have a main purpose we’re striving for, it anchors us and gives an overarching structure to life.
Power of positive rituals– if it’s something we don’t have to think about, and is a positive action, all the better for us. It takes great effort for us to consciously reject something with will power. Instead of saying “I won’t eat dessert,” replace that with “I will eat a piece of fruit instead of dessert.”
The goal is to be fully engaged in our lives, expressing gratitude for the gifts we have, striving to attain a reachable and worthwhile goal that exists outside ourselves.
The importance of RECOVERY is deeply stressed in this. Our 2 week vacation structure in the US is woefully inadequate. Must disconnect on a daily basis and recharge our internal batteries.

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From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

I was daydreaming in the Yerba Buena Gardens yesterday, watching the seagulls refresh themselves in the fountain then fly away and loop back again, sometimes drinking from it and sometimes bathing in it. From a loose progression of ideas, I thought of the infamous fountain scenes in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and got a hankering to re-read this childhood classic.
Claudia is a precocious almost-twelve year old who decides to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, bringing her younger brother Jamie with her (mostly due to the face that as a penny-pincher, he’s managed to save $24 of his allowance). They hide at the back of the school bus, and wait seven minutes after the bus driver gets off before they venture out and head for the train station to take them to Grand Central. Jamie has his entire $24 in dimes, nickels and quarters, and makes quite a bit of noise with his pockets dragging his pants pocket down a few inches. With their violin and trumpet cases stuffed full of clean clothes and underwear, they enter the museum and wander the floors deciding on an ancient canopied bed as their place to spend the night. Minutes before closing, they head into the bathrooms, stand on the toilet, carefully leaving the door to their stalls slightly ajar, and then have the museum to themselves after the staff and guards leave.
After a few days, they smuggle some of their dirty laundry out of the museum and schlep it to a local laundromat, where everything turns a bit gray. Claudia is something of a neat freak, and insists that they take a bath that night, leading Jamie to the huge fountain inside the restaurant at the museum. They splash and wash and Jamie discovers coinage at the bottom of the fountain that will keep them afloat financially for a bit longer.
The main plot movement is the story of the mysterious “Angel” statue which arrives during their stay. The question is whether or not Michelangelo sculpted her, a mystery the children get involved in solving. First they discover the mark left by the statue when she is moved, writing a letter to the museum to inform them of this discovery and renting out a P.O. Box for the museum to write back, which it does and says that they already knew about the mark. The kids spend a day at the NY Public library doing research on Michelangelo and also learn from a NYTimes article that the original statue owner pre-auction was a Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. In despair about the museum already knowing about the mark, Jamie marches them up to the train station ticket desk to get tickets home. Claudia stops him, and instead they buy tickets to go see Frankweiler.
Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is the narrator of this story, writing it as a letter to her lawyer, Saxonberg, to amend her will to give Claudia and Jamie the notes and sketches that serve as evidence that Michelangelo did carve Angel.
Reading this story again as an adult, I had both positive and negative reactions: I was struck and pleasantly surprised by the sophistication of the language on the one hand. On the other, the memorable scenes of the children living in the museum were less than I remembered. I couldn’t believe the fountain-bathing was such a tiny part of the story, since in my own imagination that act had taken hold as a major incident. Konigsburg still deserves much credit for imagining the types of scenes that would wedge in children’s minds for years.
I leave you with a quote from the story that is woefully true in our information-overloaded world:

Claudia said, “But, Mrs. Frankweiler, you should want to learn one new thing every day. We did even at the museum.”
“No,” I answered, “I don’t agree with that. I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.”

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Personal Days

An exposé of dreary office life in three parts, in a similar vein to Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came To the End. New York office undergoing wave upon wave of layoffs, the survivors huddled together to gossip about their own prospects, about how everyone looks better and healthier once they get fired from this place.
The best part was the final section, a run-on email/letter from one of the workers (Jonah) to his crush Pru, who’d been fired months before, written as he’s trapped in an elevator one night so he simply writes in the dark and plugs away at telling the story of Grime the CROW (chief restructuring officer) who was never hired by the Californians but who infiltrates the company and starts creating chaos.
Easy prose, heartbreakingly true stories of life in an office.

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Love Begins in Winter

Five short stories, some dazzling, some fizzled like flat week-old soda. The first story was my favorite, a classical cellist, Bruno Bonnet, lives in past and present by reliving his childhood history in France, a dead girl who he sees when he plays. He meets a woman who is grappling with her own past, of discovering her brother dead, frozen in the snow. She keeps acorns in her pocket as a reminder of him. They spill onto the hotel hallway when she bumps into Bruno.
Gifted by Elyse, with her own scribbles and thoughts in the margins

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