The Sorrows of Young Werther

Book 23 of 2020 was The Sorrows of Young Werther. I am the patron saint of unrequited love, so I figured I’d get to know one more of my subjects. Werther is, I suppose, the German version of Frédéric in Sentimental Education, which I read earlier this year. We could do an entire post of compare/contrast, but I’ll just summarize. Werther is so much more earnest and single-minded. Frédéric liked to be dramatic about his one way love but was also a playboy fully capable of being flattered by other women. For Werther, there was only one. Amusingly, both young men have some disdain for the workaday lives of older, more established men.

The book was written in high German, so it sounds almost as stilted and old-fashioned as Shakespeare. Most of the book consists of letters written by Werther to his friend Wilhelm, and most of the letters are an unconvincing telling of how great Charlotte (object of Werther’s affection) is, or how obsessed with her he is. I say “unconvincing” because everything is trite and sounds like a “textbook” case of unrequited love. He describes her beauty and her good qualities, and how time has become a blur to him, and his obsessive thoughts, and how happy he is thinking about going to see her. There’s nothing fresh in his descriptions. Though, to be fair, it may have sounded less overused at the time of writing.

The story was too realistic. Too like real life in that nothing happens. From his descriptions of Charlotte, I’m not convinced his love is based on actually knowing her at all. Maybe just confirmation bias — an initial meet-cute, some fun dancing at a ball, then spending the remainder of his life assigning positive attributes to her. She’s not actually a saint: she knows how he feels and wants to keep him around, even after she’s married, because she likes the attention. She briefly considers marrying him off to one of her friends, but decides that she doesn’t think any of them are a good fit. How awkward.

Overall, too much telling, not enough showing. Not very much happening in this book and the writing wasn’t good enough to offset the lack of narrative progress. The reader should feel sorry for young Werther, but he’s hard to get close to, because he doesn’t seem like a real person. Actually, now that I think of it, this book reads like a novel-length, yet barely more grown up version of any story from Der Struwwelpeter.

All that being said, I did find a few quotes I liked, so I’ll leave you with those:

“Often do I strive to allay the burning fever of my blood; and you have never witnessed anything so unsteady, so uncertain, as my heart…. I treat my poor heart like a sick child, and gratify its every fancy.”

“I examine my own being, and find there a world, but a world rather of imagination and dim desires, than of distinctness and living power. Then everything swims before my senses, and I smile and dream while pursuing my way through the world.”

“A dim vastness is spread before our souls: the perceptions of our mind are as obscure as those of our vision; and we desire earnestly to surrender up our whole being, that it may be filled with the complete and perfect bliss of one glorious emotion. But alas! when we have attained our object, when the distant there becomes the present here, all is changed: we are as poor and circumscribed as ever, and our souls still languish for unattainable happiness.”

“He values my understanding and talents more highly than my heart, but I am proud of the latter only… All the knowledge I possess every one else can acquire, but my heart is exclusively my own.”

“I fear, I much fear, that it is only the impossibility of possessing me which makes your desire for me so strong.”
— Charlotte to Werther

Sustainable Happiness

Book 22 was from a Little Free Library and titled Sustainable Happiness. I know, I know… self-help? I promised not to discriminate on genre, and hey, who doesn’t want to know the secrets to sustainable happiness, right? So here we are. The basic premise of this book is that while consumerism is necessary for continued economic growth, it doesn’t make humans much happier after we have the basics.

Here are the 10 things that will make you happy, according to the book:

  1. Savor everyday moments
  2. Avoid comparisons
  3. Put money low on the list
  4. Have meaningful goals
  5. Take initiative at work
  6. Make friends, treasure family
  7. Smile even when you don’t feel like it*
  8. Say thank you like you mean it
  9. Get out and exercise
  10. Give it away now!

Many of these things make sense intuitively, and #10 is the basis of Marie Kondo’s de-cluttering manifestos. 4 and 5 are probably the most difficult, because they’re hard to define, and the benefits are hard to quantify.

I did also appreciate the following list from the book, though it sounds more like a list on “How to be French”:

The Sabbath Manifesto — 10 ways to take a day off

  1. Avoid technology
  2. Connect with loved ones
  3. Nurture your health
  4. Get outside
  5. Avoid commerce
  6. Light candles
  7. Drink wine
  8. Eat bread
  9. Find silence
  10. Give back

The book is composed of several essays, and I found a couple of them… goofy. For example, there’s one on internet porn addiction that seems out of place. Author Dan Mahle says giving up porn helped him restore a sense of personal integrity, dismantle his subconscious sexism, reconnect to his tears, trust himself more, increase self-confidence, gain clarity on his life’s purpose and be passionate about the work he’s doing. Wow, what an infomercial. Makes me wonder why there are people who were never into porn but don’t have those things (eg clarity, passion, self-confidence). Then there’s some stuff about “Earth university,” “Earth Democracy,” and restorative justice. I’m not really sure what they have to do with an individual finding happiness, but maybe the point is to help all humans get there.

In short, to be happy, try to live more simply, enjoy and be thankful for what you have, and be Frencher.

Quotes from the book that I enjoyed:

“Slavery was motivated by “the love of ease and gain,” and no luxuries could exist without others having to suffer to create them.”

I definitely disagree with this one. Fine dining? Those chefs have the time of their lives. I don’t think the artisans at Staub are suffering a lot to make the luxury cocottes I love either.

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Simple living is not about abandoning luxury, but discovering it in new places.”

Maybe this quote addresses my objection to the previous luxury quote. Maybe I’ve discovered it in places where it doesn’t cost suffering. Yay, me.

“It’s not that we actually have an overwhelming desire to accumulate property, it’s that we’re concerned with how we’re seen all the time. It’s not material self-interest, it’s that we experience ourselves through each other’s eyes — and that’s the reason for the labels and the clothes and the cars.”

“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” — Viktor E. Frankl, concentration camp survivor

*Not about actually smiling, but a recommendation to have a positive outlook so as to see more opportunities

Identity

For book 21, I read Milan Kundera’s Identity. Kundera’s strength is that his thoughts are interesting enough that even if his stories and his writing are unremarkable, there’s still something to be gained from reading his books.

The story itself was predictable. I figured out who the secret admirer was before the protagonist did, and I’m not usually good at figuring that out when reading mysteries. Kundera gives up on even writing an ending, throws something together and says “oh, at some point this turned into a dream.” Then sort of cheekily tells the reader to try and figure out when it was.

The author doesn’t describe the physical world much, and doesn’t believe in doing so. Too much description does get plodding, but when I try to imagine the people or settings in Kundera’s work, it comes out like cubism or impressionism or abstract art. I guess neglecting descriptions can be its own type of distraction.

Kundera’s strength is that his insights, even if I don’t agree with them, seem like they could be true for many others. Here are some that stood out to me:

“This is the real and the only reason for friendship: to provide a mirror so the other person can contemplate his image from the past.”

“Every woman measures how much she’s aged by the interest or uninterest men show in her body.”

“When he wondered: what should I choose for my life’s work? His inner self would fall into the most uncomfortable silence.”

“The feeling that he was about to find himself alone on a platform all the trains had left.” — in re: dropping out of medical school

“I would imagine life before me like a tree… We see life that way for only a brief time. Thereafter, it comes to look like a track laid out once and for all, a tunnel one can never get out of.”

“The quantity of boredom… is much greater today than it once was. Because the old occupations… were unthinkable without a passionate involvement.”

“Since they’re hopeless, the beggar’s desires have one feature that’s beyond price: they are free and sincere.”

“Only through her can he feel compassion… What if he should lose this one person who binds him to humankind?”

“We put makeup on desolation.” – in re: the advertising industry

I agree with that last one at least. I have been targeted dozens of times for ads on social media demonstrating undergarments into which I could shove copious fat rolls for a smoother appearance under skin-tight dresses. That my goal should be to look better in spandex dresses if I had copious rolls of fat around my middle is indeed desolate.

Things that bring me joy

I’ve decided to write about things currently bringing me joy because what everyone else is posting right now isn’t. And remember what Marie Kondo says about things that don’t spark joy? That’s right. Thank them, then remove them from your life. Unfortunately, current events have infected my Facebook and Instagram feeds with repetitive, performative content I quickly got bored of. So I’ve decided to take a break until Stonemill posts matcha again, until Dogspotting is all about dogs again, and until my well-intentioned friends return to posting about their cooking adventures.

Here’s what’s making me smile these days, in no particular order:

Hospital Playlist

It’s a (Korean) medical drama, and I like it because it’s full of things I can’t do right now. There’s a group of 5 surgeons who have been friends since medical school (aww) and now work at the same hospital and play in a band together. They frequently eat meals, all of them together. At restaurants. This is my fantasy life, eating kbbq at a restaurant with a group of friends. Laughing and teasing each other. I miss eating at restaurants. I miss seeing friends. Also, everyone in the show is a good person, but in a realistic way. It was so cheery to watch that show that I was sad when I ran out of episodes.

Newfies of Norway

This Instagram account features another fantasy life. The owners run a farm with a forest on their property and post videos daily of hiking or working with the newfies running around “helping.” You know, napping nearby or sloshing around in muddy ravines.

Animal Crossing

This is a game for Nintendo Switch. It’s yet another fantasy life, where I live on an island and all my neighbors are cute animals who give me gifts and speak to me. I breed flowers, buy myself new outfits, visit friends’ islands, make furniture out of fruit, fish, and redecorate my huge house with multiple bathtubs. Oh yeah, another reason it’s my fantasy life is that there’s no crime on this island. You can leave things you own anywhere, and no one will touch it. Even literal bags of money or trees that grow bags of money. If only San Francisco could be more like my island in Animal Crossing!

Schubert – Impromptu No 3., Op 90

How did I take piano lessons for 9 years and never know this song existed? I found it when looking for a new piece to learn and this one took my breath away. I have learned about half of it now, and it is so moving that it messes with my breathing to play it. I know, dramatic. I couldn’t find information about what inspired Schubert or what it might have meant to him. But to me, it sounds like sweetness, hope, longing, with brief undercurrents of darkness or frustration. The only thing that would make this one even better is if I could find a recording of Lang Lang playing it.

Yoo Yeon Seok singing

He has a nice voice: velvety, comforting. One of the most important components to performing music well is expressing the feeling behind it. It’s hard when performing for an audience, but getting outside yourself, your nervousness, your fear of fumbling — and finding joy in the music: that’s the key. He does a really good job. Almost as good as Lang Lang.

Buy Nothing groups

All that time quarantined at home. All that Kondo-ing you’ve done. And now, walls and entry halls are lined with paper bags full of things awaiting their trip to Goodwill. Which has also been covided. Enter Buy Nothing groups! No matter what you have in those bags, I can guarantee there’s someone who would be grateful to have it. And who would come to your house to take it off your hands. Also, people give away nice things too. I recently saw a street lamp that you could plug in!

Weighted blanket

Speaking of buy nothing groups, I recently got this blanket from one. Some people hate feeling pressed, but I love it. It’s so relaxing. As a child, I used to fantasize about being pressed under the couch or refrigerator. Yeah, while other girls my age were wearing towels on their heads dreaming of being brides, I was imagining what it would be like to be squashed by my couch. TMI? It’s better than a spa day. Really! It’s relaxing and there are no strangers touching you. (How can anyone relax with strangers touching them…)

The Calm app

I linked to the Amex offer: a free year for any cardholder. The meditation lessons are the highlight. They’re funny because the guide’s story is that he was once a clubby party bro and then he found meditation. It probably sounds hokey to anyone who hasn’t tried it, but after a 10 minute guided meditation, I do feel more relaxed for the rest of the day. It sure beats being angry or anxious or agitated about things I can’t solve. The rest.. well, I tried listening to the bedtime story read by Stephen Fry, and it made me imagine things (a mouse with silver claws and silver eyes) that were terrifying and made me less sleepy. I tried the Sigur Ros “calming” music too, but it sounded like a horror movie soundtrack replete with voices of haunted children.

Ok, friends. I hope that helps. Remember, die gedanken sind frei. Don’t let anyone pressure you into doing something you don’t actually believe in.

In the Shadow of the Valley

Book 20 of 2020 was In the Shadow of the Valley: A Memoir. I heard it compared to Hillbilly Elegy, which I liked. This book was purely memoir, though, and didn’t offer any broader discussion or prescriptions like Hillbilly Elegy. Tl:dr, don’t bother with this book if you’ve already read the other.

To be fair, this book doesn’t claim to be anything other than one woman’s memoir about growing up in Appalachia. And her writing is good. It was engaging and painted a vivid picture. It never got in the way or made me want to scroll to get to the next interesting part. But the subject matter itself was not enlightening. It’s a litany of all the ways she was mistreated, more or less. I don’t think I had any added insight after reading the book, so that was disappointing.

I also came away unsure how exactly her husbands were abusive. She admitted they weren’t physically violent. But she doesn’t describe specific incidents to show the reader what was so terrible about them. She compares them to her father, implying that they are as bad in terms of wanting to control her. It sounds like one husband was a cheater and the other was a gossip, but it wasn’t clear what this had to do with her abusive father, or how it could be as bad as being whipped with a belt. I guess she was confused, so she left her reader confused too.

I am glad that she managed to graduate from college, get an advanced degree, and become a published writer despite the poverty she was raised in. It’s confirmation bias, but I collect examples of people getting where they belong, despite less than ideal environments. It’s some variation of “If Yan can cook, then so can you.” We make too many excuses in the United States. In Asia, you fail because you didn’t try hard enough.

I would’ve loved to see her tell us what could have made things better for her. Anything her teachers could’ve done? The government? The other students? College professors? College friends? Any self-help books for people who are growing up similar to her?

Flights

Book 19 is not really a book. It was a Nobel Prize and Man Booker Award winning “masterpiece.” It was Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. When I first heard of it and its awards and the founts of praise, I was excited. I like travel. I like intelligent discussions on the human condition. I like good books. What could go wrong? Everything. Everything.

Where to begin? You can’t say anything bad about a book that has critical acclaim like this without fear of accusations that you aren’t smart enough to understand. Or that you just didn’t get it. Or your tastes are coarse. Whatever: believe me or don’t. Read the book for yourself or don’t. I’m not here to convince you that I’m qualified to say this, but the emperor has no clothes. Yes, her prose is good. Good enough that it wasn’t distracting like the writing style of many suspense or sci-fi writers. Fine, I’ll give her that. But was it good enough for there to be no plot? No characters we care about? No point? No glue? Not by half. This isn’t Nabokov. It’s not Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s not even Stephen King. It just stays out of my way enough for me to refrain from throwing my Kindle across the room in frustration.

There’s just nothing here to hold the reader’s interest. For example, there is one longer short story about a man searching for his wife and child on a small island where no one can get lost. There are endless descriptions of completely random things that have nothing to do with finding them. Or even with any of the characters. Such as descriptions of ferry passengers. Why? Why waste the reader’s time like that? Infuriating!

However, what this book did give me is inspiration. That’s not a compliment. President Donald Trump gave me inspiration more than any other president. No other president made me believe as truly that anyone, just anyone could be president. Likewise, this book, having won prestigious prizes that much better (more gripping, more interesting, more coherent) books could never come close to winning — that’s brought me hope too. If Tokarczuk can be a Nobel Prize winning author, then anyone, anyone can be an author. I have a set of 100 pointless, disjointed essays. Who wants to publish me?

I’ve reached 35%, and I’m not going to finish. Some tips from me if you want to produce a work like this:

  • Write a bunch of unrelated essays on whatever sparks your fancy at the moment.
  • Be sure to name drop every Greek philosopher  you’ve ever heard of in at least one of them.
  • About 50% of them should be whatever you happen to be thinking or seeing at a random moment in your life. Just set phone alarms for and write down whatever was going through your head, or record what you see people doing wherever you happen to be.
  • Go to anatomy museums and describe what’s on display.
  • If you include stories, don’t write endings. Just spend the entire time setting the scene, introducing the problem, then end the story without explanation.

That, folks, is how you can produce a work like this and perhaps also be a Nobel literature award winning author.

Sentimental Education

I will count as book 18 Sentimental Education, even though we can only say I read this book using a very loose definition of “read.” You see, I’ve succumbed to the world of Korean dramas and I’ll never be the same. A book cannot compete with a kdrama (in the realm of romantic storytelling) unless it’s truly stellar. Like Call Me By Your Name. But I have read only one or two books of that calibre in my entire life. Maybe I should start writing detailed metas for the kdramas I watch. Wouldn’t that be hilarious?

I wanted to read this book because of a boy I once knew. We were on a ski cabin trip and I saw him putting away his kindle, so I asked what he was reading. He looked at me, startled.. eyes wide, exposed. As if I had caught him committing a crime. He stuttered the name of this book, nothing else, and fled. This was years ago, but I have not forgotten his reaction.

So this book, it must be a revelation, right? Some truly guilty pleasure? I saved it all this time, waiting for the right moment to savor it. What better time than a lockdown.

I should have saved it forever because it’s just an annoying book. I am so disappointed. The author takes too much time describing clothes, furniture, decor, parties. Badly. As if he’s an intern at a museum doing inventory. He spends too much time on side characters that we never get to know well enough to be invested in: characters that all blur together or are flimsy enough to be summarized in a few words. He allows himself the luxury of opining on the politics of the day through his characters. Long-winded entreaties that have nothing to do with the story. It’s every sin that a first year writing course would beat out of you, but maybe it was acceptable in Flaubert’s day. Or maybe this book is read today to appreciate the zeitgeist of the French Revolution.

I got through the entire first volume and there was very little except unrequited longing which was poorly explained. A young man moves to Paris and falls in love with his mentor’s wife. For no reason. I guess she has nice hair? Now, in the second volume, the wife finds out the young man is engaged and decides she loves him too. Out of nowhere. Where does it go? Nowhere. He has a few side romances, has a child out of wedlock who then dies right away, has an engagement with a society woman, leads a country girl on for a bit. But there’s never a good motivation given for any of it. Was the prompt for this book “write some fluff about a young man’s sexual adventures, and make sure he’s driven by not much more than his libido and his basest social climber instincts”?

Maybe I’m judging a classic by today’s standards. Unfairly. Or maybe I’ve completely missed the lesson I’m supposed to learn. That young men are shallow and ambitious? Inflamed by senseless passions? Have no thought or significant motivation behind their actions? I love frivolity as much as anyone, but when frivolity reads like a slog, it earns a hard pass from me.

Wall of Silence

The 17th book I read this year was Wall of Silence. It was a free Amazon book of the month, and it was interesting enough to keep me reading until the end. I confess I didn’t see the ending coming, though the author did give hints.

I didn’t find it believable that the daughter could stab her father, even given the circumstances revealed at the end. I also found the father character poorly developed. When he was young, he was a perfect, sheltered golden boy. But sweet. And then he grew up to be paper thin. An adulterer, a win-at-any-cost politician, a sociopath? It’s not a clear trajectory and there doesn’t seem to be trauma to explain how it happened. He just became this way to make the plot twist work out, I guess.

This book was interesting enough to finish, but may make you resentful because, on the whole, it isn’t interesting. Take my opinion for what it’s worth though: I felt the same about Slaughterhouse Five and wished a painful death to the author every time “and so it goes” was repeated.

In an Instant

Book 16 this year was In an Instant. This was an Amazon First Reads book, and probably the best one I’ve picked. The characters are vivid and I can see them being real people. No one is that ideal hero you’re rooting for. (Okay, maybe Mo). Everyone makes mistakes.

Maybe one reason the book is so well-written is that the author had an experience in her childhood similar to the accident at the beginning of the story. The story illustrates the idea that regardless of our everyday personas, when it comes to life and death, we become selfish and protect ourselves and family first. None of the characters are painted as sociopaths: they’re normal, average people. They seem happy and generous; their friendships look strong. But once they’re put into a life-threatening situation, they begin to scrabble like rats for any small advantage: warm boots, who drinks water first, etc.

Most of us will never be in that situation, so it’s hard to say what we would or wouldn’t do. That’s probably what makes this book so interesting. None of the characters would have seen themselves as the type of person who would choose to help themselves to the detriment of their friends. We don’t like to see ourselves that way: it makes us uncomfortable. But what if we would make the same choice if we were faced with the same situation? How strong is the instinct for self-preservation? The parental imperative to protect our children?