Archive for the 'non-fiction' Category

On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

Monday, March 19th, 2007

seneca penguin shortness of lifeSpam Madness… No, this is not the title of a book, this is what happens every time I come to my book blog to post. I login and instead of writing about literature, I spend precious, irreplaceable moments of my life wading through hundreds of spam comments.

Why don’t I just erase them all? you ask. Because I’m haunted by the idea that someone who actually likes books might stop by and say hello… and I’ll miss it.

Unfortunately, the most interesting comment I’ve gotten so far was an offer for a laser comb that cures baldness. I should write them and see if they have laser sunglasses that perform corrective surgery for nearsightedness. I imagine you would have to put them on very, very carefully. And NEVER flip them up to rest on top of your head unless you want an impromptu lobotomy.

But I digress.

Ever since I read Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life” (Penguin, Great Ideas Series) I’ve been much more aware of how I’m spending my life. I’m getting better at using it wisely, making conscious decisions, not blowing it rashly and so forth, but it’s kind of like herding fluffs — there’s always a breeze blowing…

Sloth, guilt, tiredness, perfectionism all tempt us to fritter our time away like dandelion fluffs in a hurricane. I keep having to remind myself that I only have a finite amount of it. (Time, that is, not the dandelion fluffs.) Why is this so hard to remember? Of course, it’s probably tied to the fact that not having infinite time means that I am going to die one day. This, frankly, is unacceptable. There are far too many fine books to read.

Here are a few quotations to whet your appetite:

On choosing people to hang out with: “But in the current dearth of good men, you must be less particular in your choice. Still, you must especially avoid those who are gloomy and always lamenting, and grasp at every pretext for complaint. Though a man’s loyalty and kindness may not be in doubt, a companion who is agitated and groaning about everything is an enemy to peace of mind.”

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”

“We all sorely complain of the shortness of time, and yet have much more than we know what to do with. Our lives are either spent in doing nothing at all, or in doing nothing to the purpose, or in doing nothing that we ought to do. We are always complaining that our days are few, and acting as though there would be no end of them.”

~ Seneca, Roman philosopher (4 BC-65 AD)


An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

Oliver Sacks An Anthropologist on MarsWherein Oliver Sacks hangs out with different people who have various neurological disorders. One essay per person, seven in all — fascinating stuff.

I’ve always had a weakness for anything brain-related. (Probably because I’m so fond of my own.) And I’ve always enjoyed Oliver Sacks. How can you not be fond of a man who raises ferns?

One of the essays that really stuck with me was the one about the painter who lost the ability to see color. And it wasn’t even that simple–not a world of black and white, but of unprocessed wavelengths which he described as nightmarish and alien.

Two other artists Sacks devotes essays to are Franco Magnani and Stephen Wiltshire (an “artistic autistic savant”) — both of whom have an astounding visual memory.

Another essay is devoted to Temple Grandin, who is a biologist and engineer famous for her work with animals; specifically, she designs more humane slaughterhouses. As a realistic vegetarian, I think this is honorable work. She has had an incredible influence on the industry and its treatment of animals.

All of these people have lives very different from the “ordinary”, whatever that might really be. Oliver Sacks pulls us in as close as he himself can get and shows us glimpses of these unusual experiences of the world. And in doing so, makes us rethink our own.

No tag for this post.

Eric Newby - Obituary

Wednesday, November 1st, 2006

Another irreplaceable, old-school travel writer gone.

Here’s a bit of audio with couple of short snippets of interviews with Eric Newby and his wife Wanda short article with a great photo and the official Guardian obit.


Emergency Sex by Cain, Postlewait and Thomson

Sunday, September 24th, 2006

book reviewWhat can I say, three youngish people join the UN. Rwanda, Bosnia, Haiti, Liberia. The chapters alternate between the first person accounts of the three authors. There is a lot of mutual congratulation. The doctor was the one I admired. Interestingly, though, all three quit after a number of years. The doctor understandably burnt out.

Now, I feel I’m treading on dangerous ground here as this is non-fiction. But I found two of the authors’ motives a little unsettling. Postlewait seemed to have joined because she was bored with her life and needed a good paying job. She spends a lot of time drinking, taking drugs, going to parties and sleeping with everyone. Sometimes her parts of the book seem like a diary of a sex tourist. Cain is a Harvard law graduate convinced that America will enlighten, liberate and generally save the world. For all that he went through, he seems to have come out of it only slightly shaken and still remarkably naive.

I’m going to stop there. I don’t regret reading it, because it certainly was a small window into a world I didn’t know much about — i.e.: a glimpse of how the UN functions on an everyday basis.


If you have Real Player, you can listen to an interview with the authors.

Here’s an interesting essay entitled “Dereliction express” by Roger Sandall on the problem of philanthropy and corruption in Africa.

I heartily recommend the movie Constant Gardener. (It’s based on the book by le Carré. Interestingly, I found the film better than the book — it’s almost always the other way around.) This is a work of fiction, but as the author said, what he found in research was a lot worse than the story he came up with.

And if you’re just overwhelmed by all the suffering in the world and are tired of feeling helpless, consider helping Doctors Without Borders. They have some pretty painless monthly automatic contribution plans starting at $7.50 a month. They’re “an independent international medical humanitarian organization that delivers emergency aid to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural or man-made disasters, or exclusion from health care in more than 70 countries.”

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