BOOK: Zorba the Greek


“Once again I reassured myself that happiness is something simple and self-restrained — a glass of wine, a chestnut, a paltry brazier, the sea’s rumble, nothing else.  The only requirement for one to sense that all this is happiness is to possess a heart that is also simple and self-restrained.”

I read Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis for the first time in high school.  I remember it being a beautiful book, with lots of noteworthy passages.  I had a quote from it taped above my desk in college:

“As I watched the seagulls I thought: That is the road to take; find the absolute rhythm and follow it with absolute trust.”

I loved that quote.  But it’s basically all I remember.

I had an old copy of it lying around, and the book has been called “one of the greatest life-affirming novels of our time.”  So I decided to give it another go.

Basic plot: the narrator, a 35 year old brooding intellectual is sitting in a cafe moping about a past relationship when he meets Alexis Zorba, a spirited, exuberant older man.  The narrator, enraptured by Zorba’s spirit, invites Zorba to join him as a business partner on the island of Crete where he is re-opening a lignite mine.  The book is the story of their time together living in a small, rural Greek town.

I didn’t remember much of the plot from my first go-round and to be honest, I now realize why.  The story was kind of strange.  Scenes felt contrived and choppy, inserted into the plot to expose certain philosophies as opposed to carry the storyline.  The narrator seemed whiny, and Zorba, the hero of the novel, came across as shallow, selfish, and outright crazy.  Everything seemed a little melodramatic.

Another thing I did not remember is the role of women in the story.  The way the men use them, and the way they refer to them (a few examples: brazen bitch, brood mare, slut, whore, hussy, wench, “having no brains”…)


I thought maybe it was just me, that I was being a little hypersensitive because we were mid-election and there was all sorts of talk coming from our country’s leaders about grabbing body parts and blood coming out of wherever.  But really:

(Describing a Russian man dance):
“I watched his hands, feet, chest, eyes, and understood everything: how they had entered Novorossiysk, killed the bosses, looted the shops, entered homes and grabbed the women, who at first wept, scratched at their own faces, scratched the men’s faces, but grew tame over time, the hussies, shut their eyes, and squealed with pleasure. Women, after all!”

I understand that this was written in 1950s about rural Greek society.  Still.

I finished this book thinking, wtf.  Of all the books out there, THIS is consistently on the “Top 100 Books of All Time” list?

But I finished it.  And a few days later I sat there thinking about the fact that in spite of the above, I kept reading.  Because intertwined in this story of a twisted society with imperfect, ugly people and barbaric, unpalatable scenes, are beautiful, poetic prose about that same world:

“It had begun to grow dark.  The western sky had acquired great sweetness: somberly violet beneath small, scattered clouds with golden edges weaving gently in and out of hte evening light and incessantly changing form — sometimes boats, sometimes swans, sometimes fantastic wild beasts made of cotton and frayed silk.”

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And I thought: Maybe that’s the point.  That these passages, sprinkled amongst the disturbing plot twists and character interactions, were what kept me coming back to a world that, on the surface, turned me off in so many ways.

Maybe this book is way more meta then I initially thought.

Kafka said: “Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”

People are cruel, the world is ugly, society is barbaric, and often times there isn’t much you can do to stop or change that.  This is as true today as it was then.  But mixed in with all of that is a beauty in the things we do and experience every day.  But to see it we have to get out, we have to engage, which means exposing ourselves to the not-so-beautiful as well.

So maybe Zorba’s heroism lies not the fact that he is callous or dismissive of the ugliness surrounding him, but that unlike the narrator he is able to move through the world without shouldering the burden of everything bad.  He may seem insensitive and irresponsible at times (because he is), but his strength is in that he manages to revel in the good, which keeps him young and alive.

This book is about contradictions.  It’s about how to live, and about humanity.   Zorba wasn’t a perfect person.  But his vigor and successful quest for happiness made him a hero nonetheless.

“God changes his appearance every second.  Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises.”

…or maybe that’s not it at all.  Maybe I just need more sleep.

As I was sitting there pondering these deep, deep thoughts (aka zoning out), my three year old came marching over to me, naked, with a gross old baby blanket draped around her neck like a cape:

“Mommy, can you play some music please?”
“Uh, sure I can…where are your clothes?”
“No, I’m wearing my dress because I need to dance.  Isn’t my dress sooooooooo beautiful?”

Yes, yes it is.


“…there is only one life for all men…there is no other…all that can be enjoyed must be enjoyed here.”



To file under “things that are not as awesome as they sound”: being forced to lay in bed not really moving for 3 days.

I threw my back out 3 days ago.  Haven’t been able to stand up straight since.  I managed to make the drive up to my parent’s house after the first day so they could chase children around while I lay on ice packs.  Fortunately my three-year-old knows that fashion should not fall victim to situations like this.

file_000-16white bedazzled headband. #glamour

The silver lining is I’ve had some time to read (when I’m not too dazed from the Norco.)

Since having kids I just haven’t had the time, energy, or attention span to really get into books.  I never fully quit reading, but it was no longer a part of my daily routine. And eventually I hit a point where I felt like my reading muscle had atrophied. That part of my brain wasn’t functioning anymore.  Almost every single book I picked up I struggled to get into.

So the past two months I decided to make reading a priority.

It took a little effort on my part to sit down and open up a book as opposed to zone out and watch Ep 9, Season 3 of SATC for the 30th time in a row while simultaneously browsing social media on my computer.  But eventually it paid off.

Because once I got back on board it became easier.  And I had forgotten how much the right book can open up the world and change the way you see things.  I had forgotten how much I really love reading.

And since people are always asking me for book recommendations, and I am always looking for book recommendations, and more than once I have started reading a book only to be realize, a few chapters in, that I had already read that book a few years ago and just didn’t recognize the title, I figured it can’t hurt to start writing down a few thoughts about the books I’ve been reading.

So brace yourself.  Things are about to get crazy.

P.S. Previous book “reviews” can be found here.

The Endurance


I recently finished reading The Endurance.  I really need to stop whining about how cold our house is in the mornings.

A few years ago I started following a blogger who may have mentioned once or twice that Shackleton is her hero.  At the time I was like, pfft, explorer, whatever.  Then a few months ago my dad mentioned him and was like, no, seriously, that is a crazy story, it’s such a good book.  And I was looking for a book anyway.  So  I went online to check it out and ordered a used copy for one cent on Amazon Prime.


…and this hardcopy behemoth was delivered.  But turns out it is actually great, because the photos in there are incredible.


Basic synopsis: British explorer attempts to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent in 1914.  Not something I would have ever picked up on my own.

Legend has it that Shackleton placed this ad in the paper to find his crew:



Tim Ferris recently used this to advertise for a personal assistant (true story).  The book never mentioned it, and from what I’ve read elsewhere it sounds like there’s no proof that it ever existed. But it’s awesome to think that the crew was made up of people who would respond to that.

One of the remarkable things about this trip is that in addition to including a photographer, Frank Hurley, on the crew, Shackleton and a large number of the crew kept journals religiously.  Shackleton had struggled to scrape together the financing for the expedition and had sold exclusive story and film rights prior to his departure, so the trip was documented extensively.  When things were looking really, really bad, many continued to write.  Even when (SPOILER ALERT!) they had to abandon ship and had to leave behind everything except for emergency provisions, all of the journals and a sizable portion of Hurley’s negatives, as well as his basic photography equipment, were considered important enough to be saved.


Pretty awesome.  A few other takeaways:

First:  You (or at least, I) would assume that there would only be room for one expedition of this magnitude, with this amount of risk, in a lifetime.  But for Shackleton, and many crew members, this was their second, or third, or FOURTH trip to the south pole.  From England. On a boat.  In the early 1900s.  Following the expedition, a number of them went to fight in the war, then came back and went on even MORE arctic explorations, then finally settled down and led regular lives as pub owners or fishermen.  What.

Lesson 1: there is time to accomplish a lot of big things in life.  Don’t let the magnitude of something stop you from trying.

Second: (again, SPOILER ALERT!)  The expedition never even set foot on the continent, and yet their story is held up as one of the greatest, most amazing adventure/survival stories of all time. In a letter to his wife Shackleton wrote, “I have done it.  Damn the Admiralty…not a life lost and we have been through Hell.”

Lesson 2: “Success” redefines itself over time.  You never know what it will look like.

Third:  Shackleton was a badass and that was why his crew survived.  Not because he performed superhuman feats of strength, but because through subtle, everyday actions he conveyed a fortitude and unwavering faith in the crew’s collective ability to succeed, no matter how horrifically bleak the situation.  Caroline Alexander wrote:

“(Shackleton) would be remembered not so much for his own accomplishment….as for what he was capable of drawing out of others.  …  The mystique that Shackleton acquired as a leader may partly be attributed to the fact that he elicited from his men strength and endurance they had never imagined they possessed; he ennobled them.”

Lesson 3:  How you act really does effect others.

And seriously, the pictures.


Good read.  Great story.  Check it out.



Looking at pictures of shelves of books on Pintrest is like crack.  I know….where does the excitement end.

Books are potentially good that I started this year and have not been able to get through:

  • Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling.  I had been looking to read this book since it came out like 2 years ago. One afternoon, after a rough week at work, I was in Target for a baby something and decided to splurge and bought it.  SUPER. EXCITED.  Got about 150 pages in and found myself forgetting to pick it up when I had a free minute, and not remembering what was going on when I started reading again (the biggest signs that I am just not into it).  It is dark.  The characters are depressing.  You know it isn’t going anywhere good.  Maybe it was just the wrong time for me to read it?  But I put it down and picked up…
  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.   Great name (the book).   A few tech blogs I read had said it was a really fast, fun read.  I was very excited.  And I liked it, for the first part.  But about 2/3 of the way through it started to drag.  Plus the way they talked about certain parts of the tech community in Silicon Valley kind of bugged.  So I quit and moved onto….
  • The Sting Man by Robert Green.  Story of Abscam (Americna Hustle).  Organized crime, corrupt politicians, scandal, intrigue…totally up my alley.  But the writing style for some reason didn’t work for me.  So many names.  Had serious trouble engaging.  Could not get into it.

Time to bring in the pinch hitter…

  • The Goldfinch.  Since everyone and their mother was talking about it.  Finished it 3 weeks ago.  Winner!

Books I have been reading on and off that I like:

  • My Best Race.  A series of short stores by 50 runners talking about what their greatest race was (and in many cases, it’s not the biggest race or the one that brought them the highest accolades.)  I like it.

Books sitting on the sidelines that I plan to read next:

…and there, my friends, is a book update.

Time’s a Goon

I LOVE SUMMER SO MUCH.  Even when I get tangled up in the pool vacuum hose.  (and no, I don’t know where my bellybutton went in that picture…maybe the whiteness ate it.)

It doesn’t hurt that Paul’s sister’s boyfriend’s mother (did you get that?) has a house with a pool around the corner from where we live.  And she lets us use it pretty much whenever we want.  She even brings us lemonade and pretzels while we float around in the sun, which reminds me of summers in high school when we lived at Emily’s pool and her mom would bring us popcorn.  And now that I’m not doing 3 hour bike rides every weekend, this is what I do instead: lie on my floatie reading my book, drinking lemonade, getting sunburned, and dreading the end of August.  It’s amazing.

Anyway, the book I’m reading above is A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and I thought it was pretty phenomenal.  Different format than most novels, almost a series of short stories, very fragmented and unconventional in both the narrative and the actual visual presentation.  Really good.  Recommend.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I started this book on Sunday and finished it last night.  I know it’s a young adult novel geared towards the Twihard generation, but I was actually pretty surprised about that after I learned the premise.  Thought it was a little dark for that demographic.

But if you’re looking for something to fly through that you won’t be able to put down, read this immediately.  It’s good.

What I talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Somerset Maugham once wrote that in each shave lies a philosophy. I couldn’t agree more. No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.

I LOVED Kafka on the Shore, so was pretty excited when I found out Murakami had written a book about running.

Honestly, I had a little trouble getting into it…and it never really picked up speed (pun intended).   He hit a few points that rang true (like the above), but overall kind of disappointing.  Bummer.  But it was short, so no harm done.   I’ll go back for more Murakami…but maybe no more autobiographical accounts.

This Is Where I Play With Fire

Books, books, books…

This Is Where I Leave You by Johnathan Tropper
GREAT BOOK.  Really entertaining, parts of it are hilarious (though the subject matter is anything but…death, infidelity, being stuck in a house with your family for 7 days…)  I haven’t read any of his stuff before, but will check out some other novels.  Definitely worth a read.

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Steig Larsson
I know, everyone and their mother has already read this.  Good airplane book.  Plot driven, exciting, much better than the first (which I thought was kind of slow in the beginning), though it did get kind of…ridiculous?…toward the end.  (Like…SPOILER ALERT: A giant man with superhuman strength and exceptionally strong bones that are impossible to break who also has a strange disorder where he feels no pain.  Really?)  But still a fun read.  Have been told I should read the third one soon, so it’s on my list.

Let my people swim to Antarctica

Time for more books!  (In addition to Feel Better Little Buddy)

Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard
Written by the founder and owner of Patagonia,  this book takes you on a brief tour through the childhood of Chouinard, his early interest in rock climbing (and the subculture surrounding the sport long before it became mainstream), and how his desire to create good climbing tools for himself eventually led to a business that is consistently listed on Fortune Magazine’s top 100 companies to work for.  Aside from just being a good story, Chouinard’s philosophies regarding the company’s role as a steward of the environment and the unconventional policies adopted by Patagonia are both inspiring and a case study of how, in an industry where the bottom line usually means everything, maintaining your integrity and a clear vision of mission can pay off in much bigger ways.  Plus the book has pictures.  Great read.

Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox
Lynne Cox is a pioneer in cold water marathon swimming.  This is her story, from swimming summer league as a kid to being the first person to swim across a number of increasingly freezing (literally) bodies of water.  Don’t go in expecting a literary masterpiece (the woman is an athlete, not a novelist), but the accounts of her actual swims and training make the book worthwhile.  Good read.

I eat stories like grapes

photo via

I haven’t said much about books in a while, but the two I’ve read in the past few weeks deserve mentioning.

  • Stiff by Mary Roach.  A book about cadavers.  I know, sounds a little morbid and not awesome, but it is.  It’s short, really interesting, and will give you a new appreciation for all that those who donate their bodies to science do for the living.  Read it.
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck.  I am one of the few college grads in the country that never read this book (or seen the movie).   A 600+ page classic, I had no idea what it was about and was a little wary going in.  But I like Steinbeck and decided to give it a shot. Verdict?  I LOVED IT.  I loved every second of this book.  It took me about 5 days to read (thanks largely to the fact that I was stuck in the Chicago airport for 24 hours with nothing else to do.)   I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner.

He never fell, he never slipped back, he never flew.

~East of Eden