Knausgaard’s intelligence is on full display here, if sometimes in strained ways.

IN THE LAND OF THE CYCLOPS

The acclaimed author of the My Struggle series offers essays on fine art, classic literature, and his own work.

In this wide-ranging, sometimes labored collection, Knausgaard argues that art is at its most effective when it destabilizes our understanding of the world. Photos by Cindy Sherman that satirize the human body, for instance, grab the author’s attention because they spark the same “discomfort, nausea, anger” he experienced while working in a mental institution. Similarly, the moody, provocative black-and-white photos of Francesca Woodman reveal the “constraints of our culture and what they do to our identity” while Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission succeeds because it suggests how easily disillusioned people might accept political upheaval, asking “What does it mean to be a human being without faith?” Knausgaard approaches his subjects indirectly, often bemusingly so. (How did we get from the northern lights to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666?) The throughline is the author’s keen, almost anxious urge to understand the artistic mind. He is fascinated by Ingmar Bergman’s workbooks, how a simple jotting can expand into a classic film like Fanny and Alexander, and how Knut Hamsun’s sensibility shifted over time. Knausgaard also gives his own work close scrutiny, celebrating the crucial role of editors and sounding boards in supporting his work and psyche—he reports that he read every word of My Struggle, some 5,000 pages, to a friend over the phone—and letting fly at narrow-minded critics who “can’t handle ambiguity.” The book’s three translators all reckon with the author’s rhetorical switchbacks and run-on sentences with admirable grace, though Knausgaard is at his best with a wide canvas. These pieces at times feel compressed and fussy, lacking some of the considered grace of his Seasons Quartet or the essayistic longueurs of My Struggle.

Knausgaard’s intelligence is on full display here, if sometimes in strained ways.

Pub Date: Jan. 5, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-939810-74-8

Page Count: 350

Publisher: Archipelago

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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A handful of pearls amid a pile of empty oyster shells.

THE COMFORT BOOK

Bestselling author Haig offers a book’s worth of apothegms to serve as guides to issues ranging from disquietude to self-acceptance.

Like many collections of this sort—terse snippets of advice, from the everyday to the cosmic—some parts will hit home with surprising insight, some will feel like old hat, and others will come across as disposable or incomprehensible. Years ago, Haig experienced an extended period of suicidal depression, so he comes at many of these topics—pain, hope, self-worth, contentment—from a hard-won perspective. This makes some of the material worthy of a second look, even when it feels runic or contrary to experience. The author’s words are instigations, hopeful first steps toward illumination. Most chapters are only a few sentences long, the longest running for three pages. Much is left unsaid and left up to readers to dissect. On being lost, Haig recounts an episode with his father when they got turned around in a forest in France. His father said to him, “If we keep going in a straight line we’ll get out of here.” He was correct, a bit of wisdom Haig turned to during his depression when he focused on moving forward: “It is important to remember the bottom of the valley never has the clearest view. And that sometimes all you need to do in order to rise up again is to keep moving forward.” Many aphorisms sound right, if hardly groundbreaking—e.g., a quick route to happiness is making someone else happy; “No is a good word. It keeps you sane. In an age of overload, no is really yes. It is yes to having space you need to live”; “External events are neutral. They only gain positive or negative value the moment they enter our mind.” Haig’s fans may enjoy this one, but others should take a pass.

A handful of pearls amid a pile of empty oyster shells.

Pub Date: July 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-14-313666-8

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Penguin Life

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2021

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A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

THE ART OF SOLITUDE

A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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