Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy by Charlotte Greig

"Have you read Human, All Too Human?"

I thought as it was Nietzsche, Rob might understand, but he just looked irritated.

"No," he said. "Not yet. What's that got to do with it?"

"Well, Nietzsche says that if you want to live as a free spirit, you can't be too attached to anyone or anything. You've got to live your life as a wanderer. It's difficult, and lonely, but it's your task, your secret destiny. You can't be chained up to hatred and love like other people. You have to live like a bird, fluttering here and there, flying upward, without any certainties. You have to live without yes, without no..."

Rob gave an exasperated sign. "Stop talking bollocks, Susannah. You're just trying to wriggle out of making a decision." (from A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy, pages 111-112)

I'm not big on philosophy. I just can't wrap my mind around it. I have no idea how I passed Philosophy 101 because all that abstract thinking made my head hurt. But I decided to read Charlotte Greig's A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy because I like coming-of-age stories, and I thought the addition of philosophy to relationship issues was a unique touch.

Greig tells the story of Susannah Jones, a 20-year-old philosophy student at Sussex University in the 1970s. Susannah lives with her boyfriend, Jason, a 30-year-old antiques dealer whose attention is consumed by a milk-teeth box that may have belonged to Princess Charlotte Augusta and could make him some serious dough if he can prove it was a gift from the Prince Regent. With Jason away for long stretches, Susannah gets romantically involved with a fellow philosophy student, Rob, who lives in a messy student apartment and promotes lecture strikes to protest Pinochet's regime in Chile.

Although I breezed through this 275-page book and never found myself bored, A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy never truly grabbed me. The main point of the book (and this tidbit is in the blurb on the back cover, so I'm not giving much away) is that Susannah finds herself pregnant...and of course, she doesn't know whether Jason or Rob is the father. This plot point was too cliché for my tastes. Given that the book takes place on a college campus in the 1970s, Susannah's friend, Fiona, spits out feminist ideology every chance she gets, and of course, Susannah must choose which man she wants and whether or not she wants an abortion.

Having Susannah delve into philosophy (with Greig covering Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Søren Kierkegaard in three separate sections) to come to a decision was interesting, but I just didn't feel connected to any of the characters. Susannah seemed to care too much about what other people think, and I couldn't really relate to her situation at all. And neither Jason nor Rob seemed to be a great catch.

However, I think what kept me reading was Greig's writing style. The book is beautifully written, and I like how the philosophy was brought into the story, though I think it helps that it doesn't bother me to read things that don't necessarily align with my own personal beliefs.

Over the Christmas break, I'd started reading Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling and it had blown my mind, even more than Heidegger. In some ways, I wished I hadn't. It was too close to the bone. It was all about the biblical story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac to God; about what it means to kill your own child; about how you can justify that to yourself or anyone else. I kept thinking, this guy's a Christian, and I'm not; this doesn't apply to me. But I knew it did, because Kierkegaard's God wasn't a father who told you what to do; his God was a conscience that tormented you day and night until you were forced to choose your fate for yourself. (pages 205-206)
Greig also did a great job creating the setting. Susannah's words and tone transported me to the 1970s (or at least what I understand of the 1970s, as I was born toward the end of that decade).

The music wasn't like anything else I'd ever heard. It was slow and spacey and it drew you in. It sounded like a person starting to fall asleep, where everything starts going a bit weird and distorted, but at the same time you're being wrapped up in a delicious, warm haze so you want to stay there and start to dream. (page 19)
That passage just screams 1960s and 1970s music for me, and it also brings me back to all the Hendrix we listened to in college...which caused our dorm room to be nicknamed the "acid room" though we never did anything of the kind. But I digress.

A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy was an okay read overall. I just couldn't connect to the story or the characters, and that's important to me. Still, I'd recommend it if you have an interest in philosophy and women's issues and are looking for something more than the usual chick lit.

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy from BlueDot Literacy, LLC for review purposes.


Iliana said...

I really enjoyed reading your review of this book Anna. It's one that's been on my radar since I heard about it. The whole using "philosophy" to tell the story sort of reminded me of Sophie's World. I'll definitely keep it on my list for one of these days!

bermudaonion said...

Yeah, I don't "get" philosophy either. I just read a book that had some in it and found myself skimming those paragraphs. I think I'll skip this one.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Haha - you're funny! You wild woman! I'm not a big philosophical person either. I don't know if it is because I'm not deep, I'm dense, or I have ADD. And you bring up an interesting point...about books that read easily but at the end you go "Oh. OK. That's all there is." It is kind of sad really, because the potential is there, but maybe the correct muse just hasn't been discovered.

Staci said...

I think I liked reading your review much better than the book!!!

The Reading Momster said...

Well this book is most definitely not for me! :) Thanks for a great review!

Unknown said...

Philosophy isn't my thing, but great writing is. I might give it a try if I run across it somewhere.

Thanks for the review!

Blodeuedd said...

I did enjoy Sophie's world by Gaarder and that was just philosophy. But would I enjoy a book like that again, can't say, but it sounds good

Lisa said...

The first time I saw this book I thought "well, that looks...dull." Then I read the summary and thought "maybe..." Thanks for steering back to "no; this is not for me."

Wanda said...

Glad I read your review first because although this book has a few elements that would draw me in, ultimately it sounds like it would have been a so-so read for me as well.

I have an award for you here.

Serena said...

I still have to read this book...maybe this will be my Conscience Point! LOL

Anna said...

~Iliana: I have Sophie's World and read it a while ago. I just didn't get it. Maybe I'll give it another try at some point. If you ever read A Girl's Guide, let me know what you think!

~bermudaonion: I really want to get it, but I don't. LOL

~Sandy: I was a bit wild in my time, but I've definitely mellowed in my old age. LOL And you're right, it was an easy read that left me wanting more.

~Staci: Thanks!

~Veens: Thanks! It's definitely not for everyone.

~Janel: Please let me know your thoughts if you get a chance to read it.

~Blodeuedd: See, I just didn't get Sophie's World...so I guess I'm not surprised that this one was a bit too much for me as well.

~Lit and Life: I wish I could steer you to a glowing review, but I haven't found one yet. Actually, after reading them -- most of which said the book was just okay -- I was a little hesitant to read it. I'm not sorry I did, though. It just wasn't among my favorites.

~Wanda: Thanks so much for the award. You've made my day!

~Serena: What are you trying to say? LOL

Unknown said...

I think it would be interesting to read it just for a refreshment course in philosophy.

Anonymous said...

I found my philosophy classes to be so interesting. I didn't always get everything, but I loved trying to work my way around the complex ideas presented by famous philosophers and attempt to apply them to current issues. This book sounds like an interesting read that I might enjoy.

S. Krishna said...

I liked this book but didn't love it - I thought you captured my opinion nicely in your review!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

You've reminded me that I have this on my TBR. I did start it; only got about 20 pages in and something distracted me (look! shiny new books!). It's an interesting concept, I'll have to revisit it.

Thanks for your honest review!

Anna said...

~lilly: If you've studied the philosophers mentioned in the book, I'm certain it would provide a bit of a refresher course.

~justicejenniferreads: I hope you get a chance to read the book. My problem in philosophy class was that I didn't understand what the philosophers were trying to say back in their day, never mind trying to see how their philosophies pertain to current issues!

~S. Krishna: Thanks!

~Dawn: I'm looking forward to your thoughts when you get a chance to finish it. I know how easy it is to get distracted by new books! ;)