Monday, August 29, 2011

House and Philosophy by Henry Jacoby and William Irwin

I quickly reached for this one at the bookstore when I saw the great Hugh Laurie as the great Dr. House on the cover, as would any avid fan of the show House MD. House and Philosophy—a series of stimulating and provocative essays written by various philosophy professors and assembled by series editors Henry Jacoby and William Irwin—delves past the cantankerous surface of the famed doctor’s character to analyze his complex philosophies, which are revealed in various episodes in the series that deal with religion, medical ethics and the nature of human relationships.

Many aspects of House’s character—his cynical and antisocial nature, his disparagement of religion and his lack of empathy for the patients he goes to great lengths to treat—are placed within the contexts of a wide range of philosophies, from Aristotle and Socrates to Nietzsche and Lao Tzu. It turns out that, despite being a staunch atheist, House’s beliefs do fit in with certain Eastern religious practices, such as Taoism. He is also compared in depth to Sherlock Holmes, the iconic detective he is based on, as he solves medical mysteries by value of truth for its own sake and not for the sake of the people involved.

The essays, as well as the television show, also explore the ethical side of the medical field, such as medical paternalism—that is, the right of the patient to choose the treatment they want versus having doctors decide for them; utilitarianism, the philosophy that the ends justify the means; and the balance of sufficiently caring for patients without getting too emotionally involved. Examples are taken from various episodes, such as the time House resuscitating a patient who signed a “Do Not Resuscitate” form; House lying to the transplant committee in order to obtain a new heart for a patient who does not qualify; and his use of experimental treatments in order to solve an epidemic among babies in the maternity ward. Some of the essays make the case that emotional involvement would cloud House’s judgment, but there are rare cases where getting involved turns out productive, such as his befriending a rape victim and helping her through her trauma.

The philosophical analyses of House’s rapport with his colleagues are no less intriguing, as he fulfills the role of employee as well as employer; boss as well as theoretical teacher; semi-loyal friend and occasional love interest. While his verbal and emotional abuse of his subordinates does not portray him in a sympathetic light, his refusal to commit to relationships reveals his fear of making himself vulnerable to others. While he may behave disloyally towards Dr. Wilson, his only friend (the Watson to his Holmes), one essay claims that the two are morally equal and therefore are very compatible friends.

House and Philosophy ought to be required reading for fans of the TV show, as its thought-provoking quality elicits a deeper appreciation for the show as a whole as well as its multifaceted protagonist. This series also includes The Simpsons and Philosophy, The Matrix and Philosophy and even Seinfeld and Philosophy, to name a few, books that would provide a good deal of entertainment as well as educational value.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Story of my Life by Farah Ahmedi

We all have our war epics—Gone With the Wind, War and Peace, Dr. Zhivago—that serve to entertain and educate us about a particular time in history. However, sometimes the value of a war epic is not in its ability to entertain or its historical accuracy. Although a mere 256 pages compared to Gone With the Wind’s 1,000-plus, The Story of my Life: An Afghan Girl on the Other Side of the Sky is a deeply moving firsthand account of growing up in war-torn Afghanistan, powerfully told by Farah Ahmedi, who was just seventeen at the time of its publication.

Born in Kabul during the war between the Mujahedeen and the Soviet Union, Farah grows up accustomed to the sounds of gunfire and fighter planes. She attends a school with limited resources: no books, more students than seats and frequent school cancellations due to rockets and bombings; nonetheless, she is a spirited girl with a passion for learning. One day, seven-year-old Farah steps on a landmine in a rush to get to school on time, and only then does the warfare and international relations of her home country become all too real to her.

In addition to the loss of her leg, Farah eventually suffers the loss of most of her immediate family, until she is left with only her mother to travel with as a refugee throughout Pakistan. The two endure harsh conditions in refugee camps, as well as the trials of slave labor, until they are rescued by World Relief and moved to Chicago, where they begin their lives anew.

Farah is a pleasant and perceptive narrator, able to objectively analyze the differences between the Afghan and American cultures. Her adjustment to life in the United States is poignantly portrayed, as she struggles to come to terms with her past and outright refuses special treatment for her having a prosthetic leg. Her strength of will in the face of unimaginable obstacles drives the narrative and inspires readers to wish her well throughout her journey.

Currently Farah serves as a United Nations ambassador for the Adopt-a-Minefield program, as well as founder of her own charitable program, Farah’s Wings of Hope. Her story of survival and perseverance serves as an inspirational coming-of-age portrait of a girl of indomitable spirit and endurance. Needless to say, her book is highly recommended.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders by Gyles Brandreth

It’s easily discernible by its title that Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders provides mere cheap entertainment and little substance. Gyles Brandreth has written a whole series centered on Oscar Wilde solving mysteries, and judging from this one, the series has little to offer besides the fun of characterized famous figures.

The novel opens in 1890, where the Duke and Duchess of Albemarle are hosting a glamorous party. Among the guests are Oscar Wilde and journalist Robert Sherard, and they encounter Rex LaSalle, a man claiming to be a vampire. He openly declares he will kill the Duchess, yet later, when the Duchess is found dead with puncture marks on her throat, somehow it doesn’t occur to them that Rex is the culprit. Wilde and Sherard enlist the help of Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle and Dracula author Bram Stoker in their convoluted journey to solve the case—yet they never even consider the glaringly obvious truths standing right in front of them. I spent a majority of the book wondering how these allegedly brilliant men can be so oblivious.

The prologue starts off intriguing enough, when Wilde, having just been released from prison (he was jailed for homosexual acts), sits down for an interview with his old friend Sherard and begins to tell the story of the vampire murders; and so begins the flashback to the party where the murder of the Duchess took place. However, this frame story does not pick up at the novel’s end, and we are left with no conclusion to the post-prison meeting between the two men. Furthermore, had Wilde’s imprisonment had something to do with the vampire murders—indeed, he was seduced by the charming Rex LaSalle—the prologue would have served some purpose to the story. As is, I found this beginning to be quite pointless, as it is not incorporated within the main plot.

The story is told through telegrams, letters, newspaper clippings and—oddly—diary entries. Apparently keeping diaries was the “it” thing in that time and place, since almost every major character keeps one and writes with painstaking detail and verbatim dialogue. Speaking of which, Wilde’s dialogue is as contrived as the action sequences of Walker, Texas Ranger. Brandreth basically put in a bunch of his famous quotes and called it dialogue. Wilde himself is characterized as so painfully cartoonish that I could barely take him seriously.

Basically, you take some historical figures—royalty, famous writers, classic stage actors here and there—add a few grisly murders, some plot holes and a handsome vampire and you’ve got Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders in a nutshell. If you were to read it, don’t set your standards too high. I’d recommend it for a light read at most.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Grief memoirs are very much hit-or-miss, and can range from being effective and moving to bland and indulgent. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is a disjointed and at times stream-of-consciousness meditation on the nature of grief and the process of mourning. While it may serve as a self-help book to readers seeking to identify with her loss, the novel reads more like scattered thoughts of a journal and lacks the direction and unity required in a novel.

The story opens with Joan’s recollection of the night of John’s death, when the couple was preparing to have dinner, having come home from visiting their daughter in the ICU. John suddenly dies mid-sentence of a cardiac arrest, and Joan is left to deal with her grief as well as the persisting illness of her only child. The narrative regularly flashes back to that night, exploring different layers of her mental and emotional reactions.

As a means of coping, Didion does anthropological research on mourning practices, particularly the coping mechanism of magical thinking. This mechanism involves stalling the readjustment to life after loss; for example, when she brings herself to give away John’s clothes and personal belongings, she is unwilling to give away his shoes, because he would need him when he returned. When she begins sleeping alone at night, she leaves the lights on as a precaution.

While Didion’s purpose is to guide readers through her process of grief, somehow this process never quite takes off, as the constant quoting of medical studies on grief and the various self-help literatures she sought quickly becomes repetitious, and the narrative begins to meander as Didion lends more regard to personal contemplation and loses her sense of direction. Readers who seek out this book as a means of self-help could have difficultly connecting with Didion’s detached writing style, which lends more detail to place names and locations than to emotions. Instead, her grief is portrayed in her actions, such as her clinging to John’s belongings after his death.

I wouldn’t be quick to pick up this book after suffering a loss, as I had trouble connecting with it. Avid readers of Joan Didion, however, may be accustomed enough to her writing style to become emotionally involved in her story.

Monday, August 1, 2011

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

I have yet to read a novel by Ian McEwan that does not leave me breathless. He certainly does not fail to amaze with On Chesil Beach, an exquisitely hypnotic novel of a traditionalist society’s suppression of visceral human urges. Taking place in 1962, the novel portrays the promise of a generation lost to the expectations of a culture ruled by class, wealth and assigned gender roles.

On Chesil Beach is a character study of Florence and Edward, a newlywed couple spending their honeymoon in a beachside hotel. Due to the characteristic reticence of British society in the 40s and 50s, the couple has only rudimentary knowledge of sex and is unfamiliar with such a level of emotional intimacy, and their struggle to get their bearings on this new territory is at times painfully comical. Both of them stake their personal identities on fulfilling the societal expectations of marriage; Edward defines his masculinity on his ability to please his wife, while Florence feels obligated to serve her husband as a wife should.

Florence, a gifted violinist with the beginnings of a promising career on the stage, is the privileged daughter of a wealthy industrialist. Edward is a simple country boy with a history degree at the University of London. By means of interior monologue and cross-cutting between time periods, McEwan poignantly portrays the youthful innocence of their courtship as well as the environments that shaped them. McEwan possesses shrewd perception and deep empathy of suppressed human nature and its inability to comprehend and articulate its own desires.

The way McEwan writes makes me keep turning the pages until the book is finished, at which I am left wanting more. He wields all the right words to speak to the depths of the human psyche, the very thoughts and sensations thought to be indescribable. You can open this book to any page to find startlingly evocative writing to make you gasp.

In short, On Chesil Beach is an exceptionally beautiful novel. Among the James Pattersons and Stephen Kings, Ian McEwan writes with commitment to an honest portrayal of the human condition, and while we all like our thrillers and mystery novels, I consider McEwan a breath of fresh air among generic bestsellers.