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.

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Review: Yosl Rakover Talks to God by Zvi Kolitz

I stumbled across this tiny book among the shelves of my library and was drawn to it, mainly thanks to the title: Yosl Rakover Talks to God. I had never heard of the story before and the history behind it, but I was in for a wild journey.

Warsaw, 28 April 1943

There are two stories here. One is the now legendary tale of a defiant Jew’s refusal to abandon God, even in the face of the greatest suffering the world has known, a testament of faith that has taken on an unpredictable and fascinating life of its own and has often been thought to be a direct testament from the Holocaust.

The parallel story is that of Zvi Kolitz, the true author, whose connection to Yosl Rakover has been obscured over the fifty years since its original appearance. German journalist Paul Badde tells how a young man came to write this classic response to evil and then was nearly written out of its history.

What struck me almost immediately -and most noticeably- upon starting Yosl Rakover Talks to God was the unnerving honesty behind each sentence. There’s no purple prose or watering down the vocabulary; the author tells of the events as they are, and you feel it reverberating for pages to come. A simple passage made me contemplate as if I had just read a whole story. Take for example the one below:

“Rachel had said nothing to me about her plan to steal out of the ghetto — a crime that carried the death penalty. She went off on her dangerous journey with a friend, another girl of the same age.

In the dark of night she left home and at dawn she was discovered with her little friend outside the gates of the ghetto. The Nazi sentries and dozens of their Polish helpers immediately went in pursuit of the Jewish children who had dared to hunt in the garbage for a lump of bread so as not to die of hunger. People who had experienced this human hunt at first hand could not believe what they were seeing. Even for the ghetto this was new. You might have thought that dangerous escaped criminals were being chased as this terrifying pack ran amok after the two half-starved ten-year-old children. They couldn’t keep up this race for long before one of them, my daughter, having expended the last of her strength, collapsed on the ground in exhaustion. The Nazis drove holes through her skull. The other girl escaped their clutches, but she died two weeks later. She had lost her mind.”

The ending is what gets me every time because these two half-starved ten-year-old children were dying of hunger and are being chased as if they’re “dangerous escaped criminals.” Nothing makes my blood boil more than my hatred for Nazis. Nothing.

This is also why I don’t read the horror genre when you can just take a look at History, or even the news, and have pretty much the same feelings evoked.

But circling back to the story, the language created by Zvi Kolitz was rich in its attention paid to each deserving line, as every word takes part in delivering to the overarching theme.

“I am proud to be a Jew — not despite of the world’s relation to us, but precisely because of it.

I would be ashamed to belong to the peoples who have borne and raised the criminals responsible for the deeds that have been perpetrated against us.”

No author has consumed my world as much as Kolitz’s did with his short story. It’s my mission to get my hands on any of his remaining works. In the meantime, I will be sure to share Yosl Rakover Talks to God with anyone I can because it’s impossible to keep to myself.

Point proven, one last quote I want to share that talks about keeping quiet in the face of evil:

“The world will consume itself in its own evil, it will drown in its own blood.

The murderers have already pronounced judgment on themselves, and they will not escape it. But You, I beg You, pronounce Your guilty verdict, a doubly harsh verdict, on those who witness murder and remain silent!

On those who condemn murder with their lips while they rejoice over it in their hearts.

On those who say in their wicked hearts: Yes, it is true that the tyrant is evil, but he is also doing a job for which we will always be grateful to Him.”

The lengthy afterword offered necessary insight on Zvi Kolitz’s life before and after releasing Yosl Rakover Talks to God, his family history, the Yosl Rakover myth and  Kolitz’s fight to have his authorship be recognized. It was dynamic and all-consuming.

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Review: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

I had quite high expectations going into The Alchemist, granted that it had been my mom’s favorite read about a decade ago when she picked it up. But upon having reached the last page myself, I was unclear on whether the book had made a positive impression on me or not. The one thing I remember for certain is that the ending had me laughing out loud (more on that later*). Oh, and there were a number of passages that made me either contemplate everything I know or feel like someone could see through my soul.
However, there were also a lot of moments were I completely zoned out while listening to the narrator. So I don’t know what to take out of this book.

Having this as my second Coelho read, I knew more or less what to expect: a quick read with beautiful quotes that I would think about for a number of weeks. Also, the author’s prologues are always exceptional in stealing my thoughts and time:

“Who better than you to know that?” the goddesses said in wonder. “After all, it was by your banks that he knelt each day to contemplate himself!”
The lake was silent for some time. Finally, it said:
“I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.”

Greek mythology combined with wit guarantees my interest secured in the palm of your hand.

The Alchemist follows a young Andalusian shepherd in his journey to Egypt, after having a recurring dream of finding treasure there. No one knows what the treasure is, or if Santiago will be able to surmount the obstacles along the way. But what starts out as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasure found within.

My love for this book is a quiet kind of love. The writing changed something inside me that I don’t have words for yet. So I’ll let Paulo Coelho’s quotes speak instead:

“You came so that you could learn about your dreams,” said the old woman. “And dreams are the language of God. When he speaks in our language, I can interpret what he has said. But if he speaks in the language of the soul, it is only you who can understand.”

I was instantly won over when dreams were mentioned in here.

“People say strange things, the boy thought. Sometimes it’s better to be with the sheep, who don’t say anything. And better still to be alone with one’s books. They tell their incredible stories at the time when you want to hear them.”

I found this to be so fascinating that I ended up reciting it back to my mother.

“The boy knew what he was about to describe, though: the mysterious chain that links one thing to another, the same chain that had caused him to become a shepherd, that had caused his recurring dream, that had brought him to a city near Africa, to find a king, and to be robbed in order to meet a crystal merchant, and . . .
The closer one gets to realizing his Personal Legend, the more that Personal Legend becomes his true reason for being, thought the boy.”

“The closer he got to the realization of his dream, the more difficult things became. It seemed as if what the old king had called “beginner’s luck” were no longer functioning.
In his pursuit of the dream, he was being constantly subjected to tests of his persistence and courage. So he could not be hasty, nor impatient. If he pushed forward impulsively, he would fail to see the signs and omens left by God along his path.”

“Don’t be impatient,” he repeated to himself. “It’s like the camel driver said: ‘Eat when it’s time to eat. And move along when it’s time to move along.’”

“If good things are coming, they will be a pleasant surprise,” said the seer. “If bad things are, and you know in advance, you will suffer greatly before they even occur.”

This kind of reminded me that quote from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:
“My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice.”

“When people consult me, it’s not that I’m reading the future; I am guessing at the future. The future belongs to God, and it is only he who reveals it, under extraordinary circumstances. How do I guess at the future? Based on the omens of the present. The secret is here in the present. If you pay attention to the present, you can improve upon it. And, if you improve on the present, what comes later will also be better. Forget about the future, and live each day according to the teachings, confident that God loves his children. Each day, in itself, brings with it an eternity.”

“Every search begins with beginner’s luck. And every search ends with the victor’s being severely tested.”


One last thing I want to point out is that I wasn’t expecting this book to be so philosophical…and I wasn’t anticipating to like it so much for that. I’m truly excited to see what I’ll think of my next Coelho book.

*That ending…. I genuinely laughed out loud when Santiago realized where his treasure was buried. And I kind of applaud the author for interweaving the intricate details of this tale in such a seamless way.

I also listened to this song while reading thanks to the latest and most beautiful episode of This Is Us:

The “And I will remember you” from the song has me on the edge of tears every time.

3.5/5 stars

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