November 2004: George W. Bush is re-elected. Five days later, Alan Meister, a New York professor of philosophy, is diagnosed with lymphoma-not that he can prove the two are connected. While coping with the rigors of chemotherapy, Alan begins work on a long-postponed book titled The Health of a Sick Man, arguing that the core of Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical thought was a decades-long attempt to cope with his lifelong incapacities-his blinding headaches, upset stomach, weak vision, and all-around frailty, not least his vexed relations with women. As Alan's treatment proceeds, he finds relief by imagining Nietzsche not as a historical figure, but as a character in his daily life, a reminder that his own heart continues to beat. Rooted in the author's personal experience with lymphoma, this novel is a compound of reminiscences, aphorisms, anecdotes, and encounters: with Alan's errant daughter Natasha, who has returned home to help care for him; with mortal friends; with a mysterious hospital roommate; with students; with contemporary life as it reaches him through the newspapers and his readings. Steady, spare, and often bracingly funny, Undying cries out in a robust voice: I am.
Gitlin (Sacrifice) offers a jumbled and heavy-handed reflection on life and illness in his unpolished latest. In the fall of 2004, Alan Meister, a professor of philosophy living in New York, contemplates the possible correlation between his recent cancer diagnosis and the re-election of George W. Bush. So begins the cataloguing of Alan's life, anchored by journal entries about his illness and treatment; his loving wife, Melanie; and the mildly but more playfully contentious relationship with his daughter, Natasha. There are long backwards glances at his past and an obsessive philosophical waxing on the ideas of Nietzsche-who becomes less a dead philosopher and more of a mentor and guide during Alan's treatment. Gitlin is generous with details about life in New York and living with cancer and finds some lovely moments dealing with each, but these elements alone aren't enough to create a satisfying narrative, muted as they are by uninspired intellectual rumination and wan nostalgia. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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January 31, 2011
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