German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) might have written less pessimistically about the human condition had his Oedipal complex panned out...

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“The Schopenhauer Cure”

by Irvin D. Yalom

Harper Collins, 358 pp., $24.95

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German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) might have written less pessimistically about the human condition had his Oedipal complex panned out, even by proxy. Instead, Schopenhauer seemed genetically programmed to mope; to abhor and suspect every fertile female; and to insult anyone who took umbrage with his impassioned points of view on life, sex and death. Including his mother.

“A happy life is impossible,” said Schopenhauer. “The best that a man can attain is a heroic life.”

But wait. Irvin D. Yalom’s novel “The Schopenhauer Cure” may be steeped in Schopenhauer’s morose brilliance and transmissible negativism, but that’s just half the story. Jumping forward to the present:

Psychiatrist Julius Hertzfeld has melanoma, and death will claim him within a year. Trained to emote, Julius announces his ticking clock to family, friends, colleagues and private patients. Most difficult is sharing the morbid countdown with his group-therapy patients, for Julius has come to love not the group as its individual patients but the group dynamic.

Julius desires to make everything right before dying, so he contacts a former patient whom he’d failed to heal. The rub comes when it turns out that ex-patient, Philip Slate, has not only overcome sexual predation, he is now studying to become a therapist like Julius. Julius strikes a deal with Philip, agreeing to supervise Philip’s academic internship if Philip joins Julius’ therapy group as a patient.

Enter Arthur Schopenhauer in the persona of Philip Slate. As Philip introduces the negativist philosopher’s epistemology to the group’s members, the group dynamic changes radically. Now Pam must deal with her sexual history, Tony with his inferiority complex, Stuart with his pediatrician’s mask, Bonnie with her self-abnegation and Gill, alas, with his wife.

Yalom, a psychiatrist and author of a best-selling textbook on group psychotherapy, has fashioned a slick braid: strands of Schopenhauer’s troubled biography, a twirl of philosophical apologia from Epictetus to Nietzsche, and real-time psychotherapy sessions in which the reader feels voyeuristic, titillated and occasionally bored.

Yalom’s braid doesn’t hold together because the reader inevitably regrets jumping from one fascinating story to the next and back again. And yet, in its unraveling, the sending up of Hertzfeld reveals Schopenhauer’s relevance today and Yalom’s brilliance as a storyteller.

Were Schopenhauer alive to opine, he might remark somewhat glibly that Hertzfeld expected too much from the act of dying.

Reviewed by Skye K. Moody,

Special to The Seattle Times

“Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today”

by Alan Huffman

Gotham, 352 pp., $15

In the early 1800s, Prospect Hill was a thriving Mississippi plantation owned by Isaac Ross. But all that changed when Ross died in 1836. His will stipulated that the plantation slaves should be set free, that the property be sold and the proceeds used to pay for the slaves’ immigration to the new African country of Liberia.

In his compelling book, “Mississippi in Africa,” just out in paperback, author Alan Huffman follows the story from the Antebellum South to today’s war-weary Liberia, where some of the Prospect Hill descendants still live.

It took a court battle and 13 years before the former slaves finally could go to Liberia, which had been established in the early 1820s as a new homeland for freed American slaves. They faced disease, privation and animosity from local tribes. Similar conflicts between indigenous people and settlers simmered throughout the country. Eventually, the newcomers were able to surmount their challenges and rise to elite roles in society and government, generally oppressing those who weren’t “Americos.”

By the 1990s, hatred between the two groups erupted into a brutal civil war that caused many of the slave descendants to seek refuge in the United States.

Using scant available resources (records of slaves and ex-slaves in the South were poorly kept), Huffman has done an admirable job of piecing together the history. But his most gripping writing is about Liberia, which he captures with stunned realism.

Struck by the kindness of the Liberian people, he asks a new acquaintance how they could have been capable of such unspeakable cruelty during the civil war. “I know what you are saying,” responds his friend. “People so warm, so friendly. I’ve thought about it a lot. Liberians killing one another. It all comes down to one thing: Everybody want to be the boss.”

Reviewed by Donna Marchetti,

The Cleveland Plain Dealer