Part biography of one of the most influential philosophers of 19th century, part memoir, Hiking with Nietzsche is an exploration, of Nietzsche’s work and life, his relationships, thoughts and his search for meaning. It is, also, the author’s self-exploration and a thorough insight into his own life, his marriage, fatherhood and himself. John Kaag followed in Nietzsche’s footsteps, like Mann, Adorno, Jung, Levi, Hesse and many other of his pilgrims did, on the hills of Sils – Maria in Switzerland, where he wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra. And, he did it twice. First time as a nineteen-year-old young man, almost killing himself on the verge of anorexia and the second 18 years later visiting the same place with his wife and young daughter, retracing the same steps and paths but coming to different conclusions and contemplating different questions.
The single false note in this exuberant, moving, and endlessly fascinating book is the title: Letters from Max also includes letters from Sarah, and not only letters. Both writers contribute poems, songs, dialogues, dreams, thoughts, fears, and jokes. They engage, challenge, and support each other on any number of topics, from soup to the afterlife, Buddhism to writing, children to the nature of listening. This collection packs a tremendous emotional and intellectual punch. Ritvo’s cancer was steadily gaining on him throughout the period he and Ruhl corresponded (during which he nonetheless graduated from Yale, earned an MFA at Columbia, got married, published a chapbook and a book), and this adds great poignancy to the already moving account of a vital friendship. The depth of affection these two people felt for each other comes through clearly; it lives and breathes in their writing, and is inextricably bound up in their wide-ranging and passionate curiosity. While this collection is an intimate portrait of courage on both sides (it surely takes as much courage to lose a valued friend as it does to endure the relentless, debilitating rounds of radiation and chemo Ritvo did), it’s also a spirited writing workshop and philosophical debate. Nearly every page offers something irresistibly quotable, whether for its wisdom, its language, or its spirit: “when we ask about the afterlife, we’re conquering death,” Ritvo declares. And, “pain is just panic sitting still a moment.” Ruhl, inspired by Max to resume writing the poetry she gave up for plays, celebrates his life and work by asking “What is love, if not boundless imagination?/ What is imagination, if not boundless love?” The voices here are so warm and vital they embrace the reader as they do each other, and there’s a sad silence when you finish the book.
A genre that I’ve recently grown to love and look for is the “successful and funny women writing about their successful and funny lives” genre. I enjoyed reading the tales of Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling but nothing filled my heart quite like the witty and relatable stories of Lauren Graham in Talking as Fast as I Can, which I’ve admittedly read more than once. From her beginnings as a D.C. local, to her college years on stage and her performances as the endearing Lorelei Gilmore and the rebellious Sarah Braverman, Graham opens the door to her life in a way that will make fans love her more than they already do. But back off she’s mine, okay?