Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This came along at a good time for me. I discovered it via an excellent post by Merlin Mann on his website, entitled No One Needs Permission to be Awesome, in which he states:

If that sounds like fancy incense for hippies and children, perhaps in a way that seems frankly un-doable for someone as practical and important and immortal as yourself, then go face death. Go get cancer. Or, go get crushed by a horse Or, go get hit by a van. Or, go get separated from everything you ever loved forever.

The part in bold is the part that relates to Viktor Frankl.

I’ve been in the 12-step AA program for over 5 years now and it has helped me immensely in finding meaning. The whole idea of ‘not regretting the past nor wishing to shut the door on it’ ties in nicely with Viktor Frankl’s philosophy.

I shan’t give a synopsis of the book. Amazon does that nicely. What I will do is illustrate the parts that jumped out at me.

Firstly, it’s okay not to be happy. There is huge potential for growth in suffering. This I have learned for myself, but to have it set down on paper with such great examples is very helpful to me.

Next, the true meaning of one’s life may not be truly discernible until one reaches the end of one’s life. People can actually change; this I know to be true through AA. The example he gives is of a doctor who was monstrous during the holocaust, but about whom he heard tales of goodness years later.

More may come back to me and I really shouldn’t be attempting to write this in the few minutes that I have, but I know that if I don’t write it now, it may not get written at all!

The first half of the book as about Frankl’s time in concentration camps. The second half covers his philosophy of logotherapy (meaning therapy), which he had started to formulate before being arrested and deported to the camps. He actually refused to emigrate to the safety of the USA, knowing full well that he would end up in a concentration camp, because he felt it was his duty to remain with his family. His expectant wife, brother and both parents did not survive the camps. Imagine finding meaning after that? But he does.

If 42 no longer suffices for you as an answer, try this book. It could help!

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a cracker of a book! This was my first read on the Kindle and I have to say that it’s a very good way to consume a book. Between the Kindle app on the iPhone, Kindle 3G and iPad, it was easy to read small chunks or large chunks as time permitted.

I recently read Grapes of Wrath and went straight on to East of Eden. Steinbeck is without doubt one of my favourite writers; it’s just something about his knack of writing about the human spiritual condition that I can really relate to.

It’s quite a grand tale in terms of the span of time it covers, but in essence it’s the tale of two brothers from birth to death. The tale of how the brothers’ father comes into his own is handled very well and shows that we can shape our own destiny.

I don’t really know how to put into words the sense of spiritual well being that I get from Steinbeck’s novels. He lived in a different time in a different place, but still I can relate to his characters so well. It’s the human flaws, the inner monologues and struggles, the spiritual condition, all of those things make it seem so real. It’s philosophical, that’s what it is. I’m just at the right age for discovering Steinbeck’s masterpieces really.

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Granta 64. Russia: The Wild East

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I bought this book years ago and read only one or two stories in it. The two chapters that stand out now were the two that I read back then too. The first is called the Last 18 Drops and is about alcoholism in Russia, two things I know about. Did you know that if you finish a bottle of vodka and then sit it down on its side for a while, you’ll get 18 drops out of it? I’ve not tried it myself, but the author swears it’s true.

The other story that stood out was that of a mother seeking her son’s body after he’s killed in Chechnya. It brings that situation to life in a moving way.

The rest of the book was pretty forgettable. In fact it’s not that long since I finished it and the only other story that springs to mind is about the Romanovs, which was pretty dull, and a short story about a soldier coming home to his village and following a girl around like a lost sheep. Also pretty dull.

Eight Lives Down, Major Chris Hunter

I served with Chris back in 89 when he was an apprentice in the Royal Corps of Signals and he was always a switched on cookie. I discovered this book about a year ago on Facebook from someone else who served with us. I bought this and his second book, Extreme Risk, and read the second one first. I’m not sure why I did that, but in any event it didn’t really matter.

It follows Chris’s life from his arrival in Iraq to his departure and is quite an eye-opener. It is, as you would expect, full of military jargon, some of which I had forgotten. I’m not just talking about the abbreviation soup either; soldiers tend to form their own language and, after a while, it can become indecipherable to anyone else. As a linguist, of course I find this quite fascinating! It does, however, mean that you may have trouble with some of the vocabulary but it doesn’t detract from the book at all.

Chris does touch upon the strain that his chosen career had on his family life and it makes the book so much more real because of that. It must’ve been difficult to share such private thoughts in a novel, but it’s that that makes it work.

It does make me wonder what sort of thing I’d have been doing if I had stayed in, but I’m quite sure it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as crazy as what Chris was doing! I hope one day to get a chance to sit down with him over a pint or two and hear some sandbag stories first hand, but until I do, I’ve got his books.

If you enjoy these sorts of books, you won’t go far wrong with this and Extreme Measures. They are true, accurate and well-written accounts of what it’s like in danger zones that go way beyond what the media portrays.

The Spirit Wrestlers, Philip Marsden

A fascinating and well-written insight into the Russian Soul, filled with interesting characters and anecdotes. For anyone that’s spent any time in the former Soviet Union, you will find much to relate to in the book.

The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry

I’ve long been a fan of Stephen Fry’s. I hadn’t read his first autobiography (I’m reading it now, as it happens) and wondered whether I ought to before I read this one, but as I had this as an iPhone app, it was just too convenient to read on the go.

I enjoy reading Stephen’s blog, not only because I can relate to the content, but because his use of the English language is simply a joy.

It was really interesting to get his take on such things as low self esteem and addiction. I’m looking forward to the next book, as this one ends with his first line of charlie.

A Russian Journal, John Steinbeck

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I was a student of Russian language and literature in the 90s and spent some time in the former Soviet Union. I’m a big fan of John Steinbeck’s novels and am surprised that it took me so long to read this.

Steinbeck and his friend, photographer Robert Capa, went to the Soviet Union to document and photograph the lives of the ordinary Russian people. It’s basically a slice of life of the time and documents very well not only how Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian people live, but also the huge amounts of ridiculous bureaucracy of the Soviet machine.

One scene that stands out is the description of how long it takes from ordering a meal in a restaurant to having that meal arrive at your table.

There is some good comparative writing about the difference between the cult of personality status of the Soviet Union versus the US presidential system. The esteem in which Stalin was held whilst he was in office is quite incredible and almost impossible for a non-native to comprehend.

As Steinbeck states in his monologues, he’s not there to present the information in any particular way, he’s just there to present the information, and this he manages to pull off very successfully.

Magician, by Raymond E. Feist

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I just finished this for the second time. I first read it as an adolescent and remember enjoying it and its sequels, but, being blessed with a poor memory, I was able to read it again as if it were the first time. 

I often find that books I read as a teenager are unenjoyable now, but that wasn’t the case with this one. Sure, it’s not as dense as George R. R. Martin or Stephen Donaldson (my two favourite authors of the genre) but it was very entertaining. 

I would like to have spent more time with Pug at the Academy as I felt that chapter was skimmed over, as was much of the tale actually. I think it could have used another 100 pages or so to flesh it out a bit, although it was still almost 700 pages as it was. 

Four stars

Extreme Risk, Chris Hunter

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I served with Chris as an apprentice. He was a good soldier then and made the highest apprentice rank in our camp (Apprentice RSM). It was clear then that he’d go far. I’ve just discovered how far.

He was commissioned from Sandhurst at the age of 21 and went on to become a high-threat bomb disposal expert, working in the most dangerous areas of the world.

He’s written two books, documenting his career and personal life. I just finished Extreme Risk, his second book and could not put it down. I was never particularly army barmy and have never really read any army books, but this one had me totally hooked.

This book reminds me a little of the professional musicians I’ve met. They’re just ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I can say that I knew Chris as a teenager, so I think of him first and foremost as someone I know. Then I read about the things he’s done and how he got there and it’s utterly awe-inspiring. He’s achieved some incredible results and lived and incredibly interesting life, but there was always that background of his personal life throwing up mental obstacles, frustration, resentment and a whole package of emotions, both good and bad. And despite all of that, he achieved. And he’s not even 40!

This is an incredible story that I highly recommend.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson

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I bought this on the back of the hype, not really expecting to enjoy it that much. I was pleasantly surprised. It has a well executed plot and great pacing. The language is a little stilted at times, but I forgave that as I knew it was a translation. The character development was first class, and just enough time was given to the main character. I’m going to give this one a four.