What I'm Reading (No. 11): thought-provoking new novel and ancient philosophy
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
I finished Idaho (336 pgs, 2017) on Tuesday, and I'm still thinking about it. In my own reading world of immediately picking up new books after one is finished, that's saying something. I can't quite decide how much I liked it, but I'm pretty sure I did in fact like it.
Set in Idaho (makes sense) the novel spans over 50 years in the lives of characters affected by the 1995 murder of a child at the hands of a family member. The first chapter — by far the longest — sets the stage, and almost makes it seem like the story will be a murder mystery. Slight spoiler: it's not. From there, we go back and forth in time, and back and forth between various characters' perspectives.
We largely deal with Wade, his first wife Jenny, and his second wife Ann. It's Wade and Jenny's daughter who was murdered, and Wade is not only struggling with that horrific tragedy, but with hereditary, early onset dementia as well. How does one cope with and recover from loss when, at the same time, your memory and intellectual faculties are disappearing? How do your loved ones deal with that fact?
I don't want to give too much away, but this is one of the most unique novels I've perhaps ever come across. As noted above, it's not a murder mystery. It's far more about love, memory (and its loss), grief, and forgiveness than about "solving" a murder or uncovering all the how's and why's. Beyond just the unique story and structure, the writing is quite poetic and far more literary than you might expect from this genre (which Amazon deems "thriller" — though I'm not sure I'd agree with that characterization). Ruskovich is an award-winning short story writer, and in her first stab at a novel, she seems to have succeeded mightily.
I don't think anyone would disagree with Idaho's quality; my only hesitancy in recommending it is whether or not each individual reader will enjoy the story. If it sounds like something that might be up your alley, give it a whirl. If you do read it, I'd love to know what you think.
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine
Ever since I read and wrote about Marcus Aurelius' Meditations last year, I've been rather intrigued by the philosophy of Stoicism. I'm writing another article on the topic in next couple weeks, so I've been digging into a few Stoic guidebooks. William Irvine's A Guide to the Good Life was definitely the best of the bunch that I read, and certainly worth sharing. Not all the books I read for work are, but this one is a winner.
Now, most people today probably think of Stoicism and picture the classic 1950s unfeeling man. No emotion whatsoever. Calm and cool all the time — in fact, too much so. That's actually not it at all though.
While there's plenty of backstory about different philosophical schools in the ancient world, there's no need to get into that here (and even Irvine only briefly touches on it in this book). Stoicism emerged as a way of life — similar to a religion, really — in ancient Greece and Rome somewhere around 50-100 AD. The primary idea is to reduce negative emotions — anger, grief, anxiety — and instead focus on ways to experience more joy and contentment in life. Seems like kind of a no-brainer to pursue, right?
Irvine lays out a number of practices to achieve that aim: negative visualization (imagining your life without its blessings to more fully appreciate what you have), welcoming occasional discomfort and willingly taking the hard way, pursuing virtue and the betterment of society.
As you can likely tell, there's a lot of overlap between Stoicism and other philosophies/religions, especially Christianity. If you're an adherent of any religion, you might be worried about digging into too much philosophy that advocates for a different way, but with Stoicism you don't really have to worry about that. As a school of thought, it really just provides ideas on how to live the best life (again, meaning the most joyful and beneficial to society). No matter what you may believe, most people could agree that it seems a worthwhile endeavor.
The best part about A Guide to the Good Life is how accessible it is. It largely follows Irvine's own journey in practicing Stoicism, and it's super practical, unlike a lot of other books on the topic.
I would actually recommend this book to just about everyone. We live in a very selfish, hedonistic world ("I'm going to do what brings me the most pleasure, right now."). That's not how we come about true joy though. Irvine's book provides some concrete ideas on how to get there.
P.S. I also read-skimmed How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci (239 pgs, 2017). It's worthwhile if you're into Stoicism and/or philosophy in general (or writing an article on the topic), but it's not nearly as good as Irvine's book. Pigliucci gets a lot more into the philosophical underpinnings and explanations, whereas Irvine really just focuses on the practical.
Thanks for reading, let me know what you've been into this week, and have a good Easter weekend!