Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Meditations is a series of writings by Roman Emperor and philosopher king Marcus Aurelius (famously portrayed by the incomparable Richard Harris in Gladiator). Essentially his nightly diary, Meditations is an incredibly introspective look into both his personal and political lives. Through his relationships with colleagues, subjects, family, friends, and teachers, we see an honest, humble depiction of the often mythic Aurelius: he was a simple man, a lifelong learner, and a Stoic who just so happened to be the leader of the entire Western world.

These private notes–never meant for publication–are mostly centered on the Stoic philosophy (made famous by Socrates), which sees happiness as the acceptance of every moment as it happens. The goal of a Stoic is to stop being ruled by his/her desire for pleasure and fear of pain. It is about treating others fairly and working together in pursuit of justice.

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

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7 Mini-Reviews, Largely Because I Worked Out Today for the First Time in a Long Time and I’m Feeling Tired, So Deal With It

I’ve had a pretty good start to the year, volume-wise. More than I’m used to, more than I’m prepared to write about in depth. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some good stuff happening behind the scenes in 2018.

So without further ado, here are 7 Mini-Reviews of some books I loved and absolutely didn’t love in January and February.

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Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

In university, I took a Literary Traditions course that featured Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times. It tells the story of Coketown, a fictional, industrial mill town in the 1850s where buildings are bland, sooty, carbon copies of one another. Things are overseen by factory owner Josiah Bounderby and rigid, hard-nosed educator Thomas Gradgrind. Gradgrind’s job is to stamp out any and all creativity from the town’s schoolchildren, thereby creating useful automatons for Bounderby’s factory. The workers get married, have families, and put their children in Gradgrind’s care. Thus, the cycle never ends.

In our first class about the book, the professor asked us who we thought the protagonist of the story was. Since most of the characters are given equal weight, we gave a variety of answers. Most thought it was Thomas Gradgrind, some thought it was his daughter, Louisa. A few thought it was Bounderby, others guessed Stephen Blackpool, a lowly worker in Bounderby’s factory.

Then there was the guy who sat next to me, who gave what would go down as the worst answer I heard in my six years of university. With the embarrassing esotericism that only self-conscious suck ups can muster, he said, “I think the main character is Coketown.”

This answer was stupid for two reasons: 1) he just wanted to appear like an interesting, philosophical contrarian (he was the type to wear a huge scarf indoors in September and glasses without a perscription), and 2) no matter how fleshed out a city is, settings cannot, by definition, be characters (which are, by definition, people).

I bring this up because I just finished reading China Mieville’s setting-rich sci-fi novel Perdido Street Station. Then I read some of the reviews, seemingly written by other non-prescription-wearing, scarf-toting poseurs and my life flashed before my eyes.

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Batman Rebirth: Vol 1 (Deluxe Edition)

Before you roll your eyes and scroll past this post, I’m going to ask you to set aside your preconceived notions for just a minute. Even if you’re not a fan of comics (as most of you aren’t, I’m guessing) there’s a moment in the recently released Batman Rebirth: Vol 1 Deluxe Edition that kind of blew me away.

In it, Bruce Wayne (aka Batman) writes a letter to Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) during her imprisonment in Gotham’s infamous Arkham Asylum. Despite being arch-nemeses (don’t worry, that’s a real word), Bruce and Selina have developed an attraction to one another. They’re not all that different, really. They’ve just chosen to deal with their pain in different ways.

Bruce, as you might recall, watched his parents die after they were shot in an alley when he was just seven years old. As a response to that trauma, he deals out vigilante justice dressed a man bat. Which is stupid.

It’s why I’ve never been able to get behind Batman. To me, he’s always been one of the most ridiculous super heroes (in a genre that is ridiculous by nature) because he takes the thing so seriously. He’s this dark, brooding, bad-ass character and yet he dresses in cosplay, does karate, uses words like batarang, and drives a “Batmobile”. It’s insane. And nobody talks about it.

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The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”
― Alexander Pope

I had been waiting to read Chloe Benjamin’s second novel, The Immortalists–which hit bookshelves four days ago–since last summer. That’s when Michael Kindness started shouting from digital mountaintops about how good this book was, and how he couldn’t wait for people to read it when it was finally published.

Then came the Publisher’s Weekly review, which claimed the author had written “a cleverly structured novel steeped in Jewish lore and the history of four decades of American life.” It was described as “a moving meditation on fate, faith, and the family ties that alternately hurt and heal.”

Then there’s that cover. Even if had been described as “Trump’s twitter feed, but worse” I probably still would have bought it. Early contender for Cover of the Year, for sure.

Finally, in a moment of apparent serendipity, I won a Goodreads giveaway and ended up getting a copy of the book two weeks early. More than six months after Kindness’ proselytizing, everything had fallen into place.

Things went downhill from there.

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