Review: Momma and the Meaning of Life by Irvin D. Yalom

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about Yalom’s titular story in Love’s Executioner, particularly this one line I keep circling back to: “Perhaps the function of the obsession was simply to provide intimacy: it bonded her to another—but not to a real person, to a fantasy.”

So wanting to bask again in the author’s wisdom, I took the plunge and started Momma and the Meaning of Life. In six enthralling stories drawn from his own clinical experience, Irvin D. Yalom once again proves himself an intrepid explorer of the human psyche as he guides his patients–and himself–toward transformation. With eloquent detail and sharp-eyed observation Yalom introduces us to a memorable cast of characters. Drifting through his dreams and trampling through his thoughts are Paula, Yalom’s “courtesan of death”; Myrna, whose eavesdropping gives new meaning to patient confidentiality; Magnolia, into whose ample lap Yalom longs to pour his own sorrows, even as he strives to ease hers; and Momma–ill-tempered, overpowering, and suffocating her son with both love and disapproval.

I knew I’d picked the right time to read this when it opened up with the titular story Momma and the Meaning of Life, recounting a dream of Irvin Yalom discussing with his late mother. Exploring dreams and the message behind them is my Achilles’ heel. What took my breath away was their earnest conversation about motherhood by making him understand that his mother is human and him not seeing her as such by upholding too many unrealistic expectations is hurting both of them.

“The way I what? Go ahead. You started—say it—I know what you’re going to say.”
“What am I going to say?”
“No, Oyvin, you say it. If I tell you, you’ll change it.”
“It’s the way you don’t listen to me. The way you talk about things you don’t know anything about.”
“Listen to you? I don’t listen to you? Tell me, Oyvin, you listen to me? Do you know about me?”
“You’re right, Momma. Neither of us has been good at listening to the other.”
“Not me, Oyvin, I listened good. I listened to the silence every night when I came home from the store and you don’t bother to come upstairs from your study room. You don’t even say hello. You don’t ask me if I had a hard day. How could I listen when you didn’t talk to me?”

Oh, what last lines. She knows how to hold her argument; the final comment completely shifted my perspective.

And as I continued my reading of the tales in this collection, I came to realize that his grief for his mother lies at the heart of the following stories. The strong-willed women that followed, all with a formidable presence, left a lasting impact on me.

I took many notes of the conversations shared throughout my reading because it not only made me think and try to understand my own life, but certain phrases were “too important to me to be entrusted to memory.”

I think these stories are so readable and therapeutic to me because, as Yalom put it: “Perhaps they had benefited from spectator therapy: watching someone else work effectively in therapy often primes a patient for good therapeutic work in the future.”

As well as this line that captures it all: “Most of all, I had shown them that there is no such thing as a boring or empty patient—or group. Within every patient, and within every clinical situation, lies the chrysalis of a rich human drama. The art of psychotherapy lies in activating that drama.”

Each story, featuring a strong and multifaceted woman that reverberates off the page, had something show-stopping to say. From Paula’s grandiose faith through her terminal illness in Travels with Paula (“I remember once telling you that a compromise cannot exist alone: it breeds, and before long you have lost what you most dearly believe.”), to Irene’s grief-stricken state of loss and rage, where I took to heart her deeply specific point about connecting with people. I felt a little off-kilter in the best of ways when I read it:

“When I started seeing you, I was not going to take the risk of losing someone important to me again. I couldn’t go through that. So I had only two choices—”
As she so often did, Irene stopped, as though I should be able to divine the rest of her statement. Although I didn’t want to prompt her, it was best, for now, to keep the flow going.
“And those two choices were?”
“Well, not to let you matter to me—but that was impossible. Or not to see you as a real person with a narrative.”
“A narrative?”
“Yes, a life narrative—proceeding from a beginning to an end. I want to keep you outside of time.”
“Today, as usual, you walked into my office and straight to your chair, without looking at me. You always avoid my eyes. That what you mean by ‘outside of time’?”
She nodded. “Looking at you would make you too real.”
“And real people have to die.”
“Now you’ve got it.”

My head reeled. The point she made on holding eye contact struck a hidden chord in me. Really, truly, with all of my heart, I was awestruck that someone I’ll never meet could describe something within me so precisely with one phrase. It’s like this article conveyed, “where I fully understood the power of words and their ability to bring about a strange sort of comfort through shared experience.”

It was worth saving this insightful, revealing, painful book to read at the right time, though, the hours passed all too quickly with this to consume. Of course, not all the stories were revolutionary, but each contained something wholesome and uniquely kind that made for a healing and enriching reading experience.

I do have to note, though, that the last two stories dissatisfied me in comparison to the preceding tales, mainly because it wasn’t with Yalom as the therapist, rather a random (and fictional) Dr. Lash inserted with no prior introduction. The only thing that doctor made me realize was the fact that having Irvin D. Yalom in our story was a central point in the therapist-patient interactions. Before the out-of-nowhere insert of Dr. Lash, I was under the impression that the patients were the ones that made the story so worthy. But after reading Dr. Lash’s average therapy with his patients, it made me appreciate and look at Yalom’s approach through new eyes. Dr. Lash feels like the therapist you’d meet in real life, whereas Irvin D. Yalom is the one you want to read about in books; the therapist that challenges your thought process and goes out of his way to make sure you’re both on the same page. It just goes to show that sometimes you got to see the bad to know that the good is underappreciated. But it still threw me off that we didn’t receive a warning that the story was fictional until the afterword at the very end. A little heads-up that we were about to explore “the boundary between fiction and nonfiction” would’ve been much appreciated before I got into the story feeling confused as to who this Ernest Lash was.

On a more positive note, the shortest tale talking to his mother’s ghost in his dream and the longest tale describing Irene’s raw grief and laments is where I feel this collection really flourishes. I got answers to a questions I didn’t even know I had. It’s what I hoped Yalom’s writing would evoke out of me, as it did in his previous collection. He has my everlasting admiration in the Nonfiction area.

Lastly, the central theme of disentangling dreams and trying to make sense of them through analyzing every corner was an added bonus for me.

4.5/5 stars

Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying Momma and the Meaning of Life, just click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!

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Review: No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

This was so not what I was expecting. No One Belongs Here More Than You has got to be one of the worst books I’ve read in years. I can’t even recall the last time I was this appalled by a short story collection.

I started off my reading experience thinking this would follow the usual way of having no real structure to the stories but still including great quotes to ponder. And at first, that’s exactly what was being delivered to me with pieces of writing such as: “They seem easy to write, but that’s the illusion of all good advice.”

And this line from the story Majesty that’s all about dreams: “That day I carried the dream around like a full glass of water, moving gracefully so I would not lose any of it. ”

But then the story collection decides to take a turn for the worst by having stories written about incest (“I Kiss a Door”) and pedophilia (“The Boy from Lam Kien”) in such a tone as if they’re perfectly normal and acceptable everyday things.

“It is as if she came up from hell to make this one thing, a record, and then she went back. But who am I to say. Maybe it wasn’t hell. Maybe she really wanted to go back.”

I felt physically sick, so much so that I had to open up a window in the middle of the freezing night. And I still can’t shake off my disgust. Needless to say, I didn’t even bother to complete the rest of the stories because I don’t despise morality.

  • I usually note at the end of my reviews that I’m an Amazon Affiliate, and if you’re interested in buying the book I reviewed you can go through my link so that I’ll make a small commission. But instead, I’ll now implore you to browse through literally any other book on Amazon because No One Belongs Here More Than You is not worth your time or money.

1/5 stars

Review: Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis

Wow! What a way to end my 2017 reading challenge on a complete high.

“What was the point of talking about it? You lived as you lived while you lived. Today he was drinking tea and watching checkers, why ruin a nice afternoon worrying about tomorrow?”

I was on the search to find a collection full of interlinked short stories to read, when I came across this recommendation video talking about Natasha. Suffice to say, I’m beyond thankful.

Told through Mark’s eyes, and spanning the last twenty-three years, Natasha brings the Bermans and the Russian-Jewish enclaves of Toronto to life in stories full of big, desperate, utterly believable consequence.

Natasha and Other Stories Everything is at once new and familiar, from the Russian-Jewish references to the nuances put on certain sayings and jokes. For example, Sergei being nicknamed ‘Seryozha’ is such a tiny detail but captures exactly the kind of things that have slipped my mind with time. I mean, if I ever feel the need to revisit my childhood, I can just open up this book to any story and feel the nostalgia surging in.

These two quotes get what I’m trying to convey: “He was energized by the proximity to his former life.” “…I watched a scene I recognized as familiar only once I saw it.”

It’s such an exhilarating experience to read the first page of a book and come to realize right off the bat that this one is something made especially for you. It’s a rare occurrence nowadays for me, so I’ve learned to cherish the reading experience as I go.

Frankly, I was really in my element with this read, and it was emphasised by combining my favorite aspects from coming-of-age tales to capturing the complexity of Jewish families to including subtle humor. I’ve never felt as heard and seen as when I read Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis.

My favorite stories include:

  • The Second Strongest Man which follows Mark’s childhood adoration for Sergei Federenko.

“There wasn’t much I remembered from Riga—isolated episode, little more than vignettes, mental artifacts—but many of these recollections involved Sergei.”

“When Sergei visited I was spastic with a compulsion to please him. I shadowed him around the apartment, I swung from his biceps like a monkey, I did somersaults on the carpet. The only way I could be convinced to go to sleep was if Sergei followed my mother into my bedroom. We developed a routine. Once I was under the covers Sergei said good night by lifting me and my little bed off the floor. He lifted the bed as if it weighed no more than a newspaper or a sandwich. He raised me to his chest and wouldn’t put me back down until I named the world’s strongest man.
          —Seryozha, Seryozha Federenko!”

  • An Animal to the Memory set around Mark’s Hebrew school with the focus being on his misbehaving on Holocaust Remembrance Day. It leads to a particular fascinating scene between him and his Rabbi that I can’t stop spinning around in my head.

“Now, Berman, he said, now maybe you understand what it is to be a Jew.”

  • The collection hit a bit of a rough patch for me with the titular story and the following one, but thankfully redeemed itself with this final story “Minyan,” set around Mark’s grandfather and the familiar old Jewish folks surrounding him in his subsidised apartment complex.

“The change of locale hadn’t done much to improve his social situation. For every reason to leave his apartment he could always find ten to stay where he was.”

I came to cherish more so the tales that delved into backstories and family lineage, rather than the stories that focused on whatever Natasha & Choynski tried to be.

But I think it goes without saying that I’m interested to go look into any and every book the author has to offer.

5/5 stars

Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying Natasha and Other Stories, just click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!