3.5 4 starsThe Futilitarians is a weightier book than I normally choose to read, but I enjoyed it nonetheless The book is heavy on philosophy, a subject I honestly did not know very much about before I read The Futilitarians Anne Gisleson and her husband Brad chose to create the Existential Crisis Reading Group (nicknamed The Futilitarians) to focus on the question of how people move on in the face of great loss Anne lost two younger sisters to suicide, weathered Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and lost her father to cancer Feeling burdened by her many losses, she strove to find a way to carry on using the group’s monthly meetings and reading choices as a path to recovery Gisleson chronicles a year of the Futilitarians’ meetings including their reading choices for each month I enjoyed some monthsthan others but learned a lot as I followed her path to find meaning in her life I am glad I received it as part of Little, Brown’s Ambassador program; I doubt I would not have chosen it myself, and it was well worth the read All opinions are my own. Anne Gisleson's memoirs dealing with her father's death and her twin sister's suicides 18 months apart is quite a heavy read Her husband had his own losses he was grieving through as he lost his partner and mother to his son very early in their marriage to cancer Combine that with suffering through Hurricane Katrina and life's daily offerings, there is a LOT of pain in here.Together with their friends (who had many pains, as well), Ann and her husband, Brad, start a book club, the ECRG in which they really delve deeply into the meaning of these books I can attest that I did add several of those books to my TBR pile.A book dealing with loss, comfort and healing Not your basic summer beach read at all.Thanks to Little, Brown and Company and Net Galley for providing me with a free egalley in exchange for an honest, unbiased review. One for angsty, bookish types In 2012 Anne Gisleson, a New Orleansbased creative writing teacher, her husband, one of her sisters and some friends formed what they called an Existential Crisis Reading Group (which, for the record, I think would have been the better title for this book) Each month they got together to discuss their lives and their set readings – both expected and offbeat selections, everything from Kafka and Tolstoy to Kingsley Amis and Clarice Lispector – over wine and snacks.One of their texts, Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, proposed the helpful notion of the Trivial and Tragic Planes The Trivial is where we live everyday, and the Tragic is where we’re transported when something awful happens Gisleson had plenty of experience with the latter: not just the suicides of her younger twin sisters, a year and a half apart, and her father’s death from leukemia, but also the collective loss of Hurricane Katrina She returns again and again to these sources of grief in her monthly chapters structured around the book group meetings, elegantly interweaving family stories and literary criticism.I found the long quotes from the readings a little much – you probably shouldn’t pick this book up if you don’t have the least interest in philosophy and aren’t much troubled by life’s big questions – but in general this is a fascinating, personal look at what makes life worth living when it can be shattered any second I particularly loved the chapter in which the book club members creatively reenact the Stations of the Cross for Easter and the sections about her father’s pro bono work as an attorney for death row inmates at Angola prison Sometimes it really is a matter of life and death.Favorite passages:“Generations of parents have put their children to bed in this house and even if I haven’t quite figured out the why and the how of living, others have found reasons to keep moving things forward In quiet moments I can feel the collective push of these ghosthands on my back, nudging me on.”“As you get older all the bodies of your stillborn selves may pile up around you but every decision is also its own act of creation That’s one of the miracles of the self—that we keep creating ourselves amid the personal carnage.”“this is something many of us do intuitively, giving our woestexture and universality through art.”Josiah Royce, from “Doubting and Working”: “Doubt not because doubting is a good end, but because it is a good beginning Doubt not for amusement, but as a matter of duty Doubt not superficially, but with thoroughness Doubt not flippantly, but with the deepest—it may be with the saddest—earnestness Doubt as you would undergo a surgical operation, because it is necessary to thoughthealth.” I was drawn to this book by the premise of an existentialist book group But I plodded along through much of this book especially the reading discussions which felt superimposed This book wasn't really about the members of the group or even the readings, but about Gisleson's own grief and I wish she had stuck with that focus Her writing came alive when she wrote about New Orleans and the post Katrina rebuilding and about working through her own personal losses. I'm giving this memoir five stars, not because it is perfectly written, but because it is so wellconsidered by the author and because for me it's the right book for our perilous and uncertain time If ever there's a need for community and doubt and an exploration of the Tragic vs Trivial planes of existence, it's now The memoir covers a single year, 2012, of monthly meetings for contemplating works of art that question our purpose Woven into analysis of the works that were chosen is the story of Gisleon's family history: her challenging and larger than life father and all his contradictions, the elision of her mother from hard truths about family secrets, and her tragic sisters' early and selfchosen deaths It seems at the beginning like this might be superficial, but it's anything but I felt a connection to the stories and the primal need for community that comes through deliberative acts of wanting to learnNew Orleans and the catastrophic Katrina also play a major role in this memoir, broughtto light and to bear by the hurricane in Houston I would likepeople to read this book. The Existential Crisis Reading GroupMy participation over many years in a book group with friends attracted me to Anne Gisleson's 2017 memoir of her reading group, The Futilitarians: Our year of Thinking, Drinking Grieving, and Reading While our book group reads novels, Giselson's group focused on existential philosophical issues about finding meaning and purpose in life in the face of tragedy, loss, and superficiality Her group covered a broader range of literature than my book group, and generally shorter selections, including philosophy, religion, poetry, biography, andTo bespecific, I wanted to read this book when I learned that one of the writers considered was the American idealistic philosopher, Josiah Royce (1855 1916), through a collection of his early writings, the Fugitive Essays I have read a substantial amount of Royce He is not widely read today, especially the posthumously published (1920) collection of rare works researched and gathered together as the Fugitive Essays by his student, Jacob Loewenberg A teacher of creative writing in New Orleans, Gisleson and her husband founded their existential crisis reading group (ECRG) at the end of 2011, and it was dubbed The Futilitarians by the participants Consisting of about a dozen members, the book met monthly with a different person responsible for choosing the texts each month and leading the discussion The book usually met in members' homes, but sometimes elsewhere, and the meetings featured snacks and ample quantities of alcohol in addition to the books and discussions at hand The group consisted of people of varied ages and educational backgrounds, but all were somehow driven by a search for finding meaning under a philosophy and condition loosely described as existential The ECRG made some excellent reading choices as shown in Giselson's memoir The group began with Epicurus and Ecclesiastes and continued through many works, ancient and modern, wellknown and obscure The group read Tolstoy, Dante, Shakespeare, Kafka, and Satre as well as figures including Jacques Brel, Shel Silverstein, and Clarice Lispector I was pleased to see the inclusion of the Irish writer George Moore's 1906 book, Memoirs of My Dead Life which is little known today.The Futilitarians held a lot of promise, but for me it was only partially fulfilled The focus of Giselson's memoir is less on the reading group andon the events of her own life and to an extent the lives of other participants in the group There is a lot to discuss Giselson's father had just died and, some short years in the past, Giselson had lost her two youngest twin sisters, each of whom committed suicide about a year and onehalf apart Then too, Giselson's life had become chaotic during the time of Hurricane Katrina She describes at great length how she and her family had been forced to leave their beloved New Orleans and the difficulties they and their fellow citizens felt in the following years in rebuilding their city and establishing their lives.The materials in the book make a fitting and interesting subject for a memoir The book, however, goes on with them far too long and too repetitively at the expense of the books and the reading which are the apparent subject of the story The events of Giselson's life and the readings of the ECRG are interlaced not always convincingly The group members have interesting things to say about their readings but much of the time the books are glossed over in favor of the author's own personal experience which helped lead her to form the group While interesting and moving, her story tended to ramble and to be selfcentered There is also a good deal of discussion about drinking I would have much preferred a greater attention to the books and the discussions of the ECRG.The philosopher Josiah Royce is featured in the final chapter of the book Still tipsy after some New Year's drinking, the author goes to the philosophy section of a used book store in the hope of finding a book for the ECRG She had no knowledge of Royce but when she happens upon his Fugitive Essays she purchases the book, describing doing so as one of the few good decisions she had been able to make when under the influence When Giselson opens the book a few days later, she turns to Royce's essay, Doubting and Working and is moved by the doubts Royce expresses about the possibility of human knowledge when individuals are beset by finitude and by their own demons She quotes a lengthy passage from Royce's essay about the value of skepticism and honest doubt and about the need for perseverance in the search for the truth Giselson finds that Royce's wise words were mirrored in the search and in the discussions of the ECRG She determines to continue with the group and with her own search for meaning in her life Apparently, with some changes in membership, her ECRG is still meeting and reading.I found this book got too heavily involved in Giselson's own story and was overly long Still I enjoyed learning about the ECRG and sharing in its discussions I enjoyed learning about the books the group read, and I particularly liked the attention Gisleson gave and the wisdom she found in an early essay of Josiah Royce, particularly because Royce receives little attention in popular literature.Robin Friedman A memoir of friendship and literature chronicling a search for meaning and comfort in great books, and a beautiful path out of griefAnne Gisleson had lost her twin sisters, had been forced to flee her home during Hurricane Katrina, and had witnessed cancer take her beloved father Before she met her husband, Brad, he had suffered his own trauma, losing his partner and the mother of his son to cancer in her young thirties How do we keep moving forward, Anne asks, amid all this loss and threat? The answer: We do it together Anne and Brad, in the midst of forging their happiness, found that their friends had been suffering their own losses and crises as well: loved ones gone, rocky marriages, tricky childrearing, jobs lost or gained, financial insecurities or unexpected windfalls Together these resilient New Orleanians formed what they called the Existential Crisis Reading Group, which they jokingly dubbed The Futilitarians From Epicurus to Tolstoy, from Cheever to Amis to Lispector, each month they read and talked about identity, parenting, love, mortality, and life in postKatrina New Orleans,In the year after her father's death, these livingroom gatherings provided a sustenance Anne craved, fortifying her and helping her blaze a trail out of her wellworn grief More than that, this fellowship allowed her finally to commune with her sisters on the page, and to tell the story of her family that had remained long untold Written with wisdom, soul, and a playful sense of humor, The Futilitarians is a guide to living curiously and fully, and a testament to the way that even from the toughest soil of sorrow, beauty and wonder can bloom In short: I think this ranks as one of the best memoirs to come out of the South in some time I’ve been waiting for someone to use the Katrina timeline to illustrate the pain and random brutality that is so normalized here that it is often clichéd in the retelling Gisleson's take on New Orleans life is important in that she is a native of the city and it has been my experience that that is a too small group writing about New Orleans in recent years Her tender and often witty memoir frames how the city shapes and sometimes breaks family and friends, leaving the survivors to live with the absurdity of existence where most of one’s day is wrapped up in the practical matters of life even as the tragic stays near, ready to overwhelm one’s own thoughts and fears when the night falls Or, when it is made personal via the faces or actions of the other souls that populate the city, sitting on bar stools at breakfast time or dancing for tips on Bourbon Street As a writer, she seems to have known that she will write about her family tragedies and confesses that when she told that to her father at his regular lunch spot at the Rib Room, he calmly told her that he would stop talking to her if she did Just like most Southerners would and do, she waited until he passed to do so His story defines this book, just as his personality and aspirations defined the family life even as he kept his own secrets that are only partially understood by his children even to this day.The overt search for meaning in the postKatrina era is captured by the group of friends who begin to meet as the Existential Crisis Reading Group Gisleson offers entertaining descriptions of the attendees, and what they offer each other in terms of solace or clarity but its the moments of solitary musings about her family, her own history, and the city are what make this memoir While discussing Borowski’s 1946 painful short stories “This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” (illuminated by his own concentration camp experience) she makes an excuse to take her child to bed so she could instead lie in the dark, listening to the group through the open transom in the next room Even though slightly removed, the presence of friends comforts her as does the house, with its mark of previous generations who lived there before Not surprisingly, essayist Joan Didion, author of the brilliant book about her own family tragedies in The Year of Magical Thinking is mentioned; Gisleson originally considers Didion’s defense of writing painful truths about other people as “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” and dismisses it Then, as she realizes her own urgent need to tell these stories she concludes that Didion may be right after all And that addressing the murky emotions that people live with after horrible things happen is the furthest thing from futility and instead, is pretty close to transcendence which may lead, finally, to peace. Mucha personal memoir than a book about a book group (the “our year” in the subtitle led me to expect a broader approach to the group's experiences), Gisleson organizes her musings on grief, loss, renewal, and what might give life meaning when one is faced with loneliness and death, around a year of book group meetings Gisleson, a mother of young children and third daughter in a tight knit family of eight children, works through feelings of grief and futility over the loss by suicide of her two youngest sisters, of her father by cancer, and of the terrible destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina on her city, New Orleans For some reason it took quite a while before I really felt engaged by this one – for the first half or so, Gisleson seemed a little too angsty and selfindulgent By the June meeting, though, which included John Cheever's story, “The Swimmer,” I was hooked I really enjoyed the way the different readings, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama, offered such varied perspectives One of my favorite bits, though, was from a piece Gisleson wrote and presented at a literary event, with a background story of her father's death, a condolence letter from one of her lawyer father's death row clients, and the John Cusack movie, “Hot Tub Time Machine,” (and a nod to Dante, lost in the dark wood, “midway on our life's journey”)”Though I'm starting to think that the dark wood isn't really so bad Sometimes you run into people you know, sometimes sympathetic strangers There can be camaraderie there, like, Hey, we're here together in the dark wood, can I pour you someof this bourbon, can you recommend a good book? Was the letter from Death Row another low branch across the path or was it the murky green light that filters in between branches? And what about your kids? They're happy enough, they're fine, you can hear them in the sunny clearing nearby and you can always go join them Sometimes you think it would be nice if we could widen these paths, make it easier for our kids when it's their turn in the dark wood But I think the best thing we can do is make sure they're equipped They can bring their own machetes, their own bourbon.” Effective memoirs are normally ‘confessions’ in Northrop Frye’s sense in the Anatomy of Criticism, wherein Frye argues that the confession developed from Augustine and Rousseau, using a “stream of consciousness technique” to opine on “some theoretical and intellectual interest in religion, politics, or art,” and always “inspired by a creative, and therefore fictional, impulse to select only those events and experiences in the writer's life that go to build up an integrated pattern” (op cit at 307 et seq.) The ostensible pattern in Gisleson’s confession is a year’s worth of essays that record the monthly meetings of a book club; the underlying pattern is “the core of the [Existential Crisis Reading Group] project: the necessity of others in our search to find meaning in ourselves” (239).The reading group doesn’t take up traditional existentialist writings, though the author makes useful reference to a tertiary resource, A Concise Dictionary of Existentialism; presenting this as the source certainly indicates an ‘authenticity’ in the authorial persona, which is perhaps the most important existentialist virtue The text demonstrates concern for this virtue elsewise, such as the critiques of parenting as a performance (137), selforiented theatrics regarding the death of another (184), and the writer’s own relationship to Catholicism (218) Otherwise, there’s a touch of Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ argument—itself of heideggerian pedigree—in the reflection that she had been “baffled by the figure of Pontius Pilate—he didn’t seem evil but he didn’t help either—but as I got older I recognized that he typified a certain dangerous species of adult, those who wield empty authority, the sorrybutmyhandsaretied bureaucrats” (82) (This is incidentally also the ‘bureaucratic libido’ described by Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism“the enjoyment that certain officials derive from this position of disavowed responsibility” (op cit at 49).)Similarly tangential to canon, Lispector, sometimes claimed for existentialism, is cited for the proposition “Perhaps love is to give one’s own solitude to others, for it is the very last thing we have to offer” (233) (but cf Rilke, also claimed for the movement at times: “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”) And French Nietzschean Bataille is cited for the proposition that the erotic act involves the attempt to destroy one’s personal, daytoday identity (the state of discontinuous existence in which we all live) in order to become closer to death (which is where we reenter continuity) Disrobing is a key part of this It helps destroy individuality, because our clothes are part of the symbolic order by which we define ourselves (92)—as applied to the station of the cross wherein Christ is stripped of garments God is dead, but only after some hard fucking (Kazantzakis and Saramago are correct after all—though that’s not exactly controversial: as Herbert Marcuse maybe said, ‘Hey everybody, we’re all gonna get laid’) There’s consideration of Sartre and de Beauvoir and Kierkegaard, and the book club read Koestler in his existentialist mode (his tragic/trifling analysis sticks with the author); I didn’t notice any recitations about Heidegger, for which silence we should be thankful Given the subject matter, I thought initially that the absence of Camus’ remarks on suicide from the Myth of Sisyphus is incongruous—but upon further reflection I realize the question that Camus considered—one’s own suicide—is not the question in which Gisleson is interested—the suicides of others That latter question draws considerable interrogation throughout the monthly essays, leading through the ethical background of“our failure of the one test god put before us (as Walker Percy put it), that of not enslaving other humans, was converted to the grand collective lie of charmed southern living we white children of a certain demographic grew up with, one that is impervious to the most liberal households, obscuring the monstrous reality of how and with whose blood our society was actually built and maintained (123)to the staggeringly honest introspective moment thatWe helped them; their deaths changed us I harbor a terrible guilty suspicion that the deaths of my sisters, their disappearance from the family structure, their removing themselves from it, made the rest of us who we are turning out to be, and maybe allowed us to do things we might not otherwise have ventured (163)This is no selfcentered camusian excogitation, but rather a responsible and committed confession regarding the effects of a horrifying set of transformative traumas, the core of the project aforesaid.After working through these things, inter alia, author ends the year “with renewed commitment to doubt” (250)—which skepticism militates in some ways against deciding the questions presented by existentialism, holding them in epoche; this as it happens might be structurally similar to Camus’ answer to the problem of one’s own suicide in the Myth of Sisyphus.Recommended for readers searching for pineapples of malign ferocity.