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The Man in the Empty Boat by Mark Salzman

The Man in the Empty Boat (edition 2012)

by Mark Salzman

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337338,203 (3.94)19
Title:The Man in the Empty Boat
Authors:Mark Salzman
Info:Open Road E-riginal (2012), Paperback, 160 pages

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The Man in the Empty Boat by Mark Salzman




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This book starts out purporting to be about an epiphany, but is is much more of a selective autobiography that mostly focuses on the trying parts of Salzman's life. In particular, we hear about the anxiety attacks that plagued him for months, and about the tragic death of his sister from an unknown infection. This part of the book, with its ups and downs, doctors giving hope and taking it away, all against the background of the two young daughters about to lose their mother, is almost too much to bear. More than once, I had to put the book down to keep the tears welling up in my eyes from becoming a flood. This is powerful stuff, and I wonder how the other members of Salzman's family feel about the detail with which he has presented it. It will certainly make you value your own loved ones and relationships more. As for the epiphany, it doesn't seem that significant, but the more you think about it, the more sense it makes. It presents a good way to cope with some of the absurdities and inconsistencies of human existence. Considering Salzman's talented, beautiful wife and his two daughters, we may wonder why he needed an epiphany in the first place. ( )
  datrappert | May 15, 2014 |
This is a outstanding book. I was so touched by the author's experiences. It made me want to go back and read all his other works. His descriptions of the emotions surrounding his sister's illness were remarkable. I could really feel it with him and his family. I will definitely recommend this book to everyone. It is important to be able to learn how others weather these storms. Similar crises will come to us if we are lucky enough to live that long. And it is always good to have a touchstone from which to find words of comfort when friends encounter troubles. This is that touchstone. I am grateful that this author was willing to share so completely. ( )
  njcur | Feb 13, 2014 |
This book I chose quite arbitrarily from Netgalley. Probably I was mainly triggered by the cover. This kind of drawings attract me. Therefore I had no idea where The man in the empty boat of Mark Salzman was going on when I started to read it.

It is a biography about a period in the life of the author where he has an writers block and his sister falls seriously ill. Very openly he tells about the anxiety he feels all the time. As his father used to have this as well, he knows it runs in the family. For Mark it´s so bad, that he gets anxiety attacks.

Although it is a tragic story, it is not difficult to read. And it is written in such a way that you just want to read on and find out what happens next. Touched by this style of writing I am looking fiction works by this author.

http://boekenwijs.blogspot.nl/2012/07/the-man-in-empty-boat.html ( )
  boekenwijs | Jul 29, 2012 |
What does a writer do when the muse abandons him? Sometimes, he turns to material closer to home; he mines it for meaning, and fashions it into a work of art. This is what Mark Salzman has done in The Man in the Empty Boat, an engaging, poignant, and wise memoir of his worst year.

In 2009 Salzman, author of a successful personal narrative about China and “niche-y novels” (as he puts it) “about weirdos with weird problems leading weird lives,” was working on a piece of historical fiction set in medieval Mongolia. He had spent the previous few years as a stay-at-home dad, caretaker to two young daughters, while his “more talented” documentary-filmmaker wife continued in her more talented course. Fatherhood was a joyful experience for Salzman, and he optimistically believed that staying at home would afford him the time and flexibility to write. It did not. His mind had turned to mush, and even when his daughters grew more independent, the story he had been crafting for some years simply wouldn’t gel. Radical literary surgery couldn’t save it either. As it happened, Salzman’s artistic impasse was the prelude to the year of disasters large and small that he documents in The Man in the Empty Boat.

Early on in the book, the author relates the two-thousand year old Taoist story from which the book takes its title. A man is not angered when his boat is struck by an empty one drifting on the river. If someone is in the other boat, however, the same man will shout and curse repeatedly, apparently believing that the collision is intentional. “If a man could make himself empty, and pass like that [empty boat] through the world,” goes the story, “who could harm him?”

Salzman’s memoir goes on to consider three jarring life “collisions” that occurred during the course of 2009. First were the debilitating panic attacks. The violent inner storms of nervous and biochemical energy that erupted within him that year were so intense that he thought he might be dying and made his way to the hospital’s emergency department. After receiving a diagnosis, he ironically found that the more determined his attempts to relax, the more intense and distressing were the panic attacks. His symptoms ultimately subsided only when he was able to regard them in the detached manner of a scientist conducting an experiment—that is, when he was able to empty himself enough to observe.

The sudden hospitalization and tragic death of Salzman’s younger sister, Rachel, an apparently physically healthy young wife and mother of two, is the second wrenching experience considered in the book. Rachel, too, Salzman learned, had been no stranger to intense bouts of anxiety. When he traveled to Connecticut to care for her young children during her illness, he found among her books works by Eastern thinkers and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Rachel had tellingly marked passages counseling against “quarreling with circumstances” and “rebellion against nature.”

The final, least successful, third part of the memoir concerns Salzman’s reluctant acceptance of a rescue dog into his home. Never a lover of dogs, he was resistant to his wife’s arguments that he would take to a dog just as he had taken to fatherhood. While full conversion never occurs, the dog’s passing wind one day (while Salzman is in the throes of angst-ridden rumination about the impermanence of life) does offer him an epiphany. The epiphany in turn provides him with the writerly opportunity to bring his book full circle to the Taoist story that the memoir begins with. Like the empty boat, the dog’s behavior is not purposeful. The dog’s moods, intentions, and actions are determined by circumstance—the sum of all past and present conditions affecting her, from biology, genetic inheritance, and conditioning, to current environment. Salzman’s annoyance with her, then, is ill advised. He goes on to show that the analogy can be extended. We humans, too, are acted upon impersonally. We owe feelings, thoughts, and actions to a web of causality, the strands of which we cannot fully control.

Throughout the memoir, Salzman links the events of 2009 to earlier life experiences. A conversation with a friend makes him muse on the limits of our ability to choose and fully control who we want to be. Parents, after all, pass on their genes, and their beliefs and actions play crucial roles in our early development. Salzman suggests that his upbringing by “faith-challenged” parents who turned to art for a sense of meaning along with his apparent genetic inheritance of anxiety and despair were certainly critical factors in the formation of his person. “If the Salzman family had a coat of arms,” he quips at one point, “it would be a shield with a face on it and the face would look worried.” Carefully selected anecdotes about funny, oddly poignant childhood and adolescent experiences point to Salzman’s having been what psychologist Jerome Kagan (in his studies of temperament in early childhood) might have identified as a “high reactive” type.

The Man in the Empty Boat is not a misery memoir. Just as self-irony appears to go some way toward lightening the burden of Salzman’s emotional inheritance, it also brings lightness and comic relief to the reader’s experience of what could have been a somber personal narrative. Humor abounds, and there is grace, compassion, and forgiveness, too. I never once felt I was given more information than I cared to have. There were no squalid details, no maudlin riffs, no blaming of parents or spouse. The only false notes I detected were in the sections concerning the rescue mutt. The lists of complaints against dogs’ loud, rude habits try just a little too hard to be humorous, and Salzman’s assertion that his life was in the end “changed forever by the sound of a dog farting” feels forced. But this a minor quibble easily forgiven when placed against a life lesson offered so warmly and sincerely. I appreciated the journey Salzman took me on in his memoir and the message about how I too might look at life when my own boat collides with another.
Highly recommended.

I thank NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an advance copy of this book. ( )
1 vote fountainoverflows | Apr 1, 2012 |
I'm a big fan of Salzman and was delighted to hear he finally had a new book coming out. I downloaded the audio version the day it came out. I'm not an eBook reader and didn't want to wait for a "print on demand" copy from my neighborhood Barnes and Noble, so I opted for the audio. I prefer memoirs in this format to be read by the author, but that not being the case here wasn't any great drawback.

The premise - or is it context - of the book, i.e. explaining to the reader why we've not heard from him in so long, was an interesting route to take. He made a story out of explaining why he had such a difficult time coming up with a story. I liked it. The memoir is presented as one capturing his "worst year", but really it covers many more years than that and while one year in particular is indeed truly wrenching, the frustration that comes with years of struggling to find his writing voice again comes through loud and clear.

He tells the tales of his life's circumstances with the same humorous voice he's used in his previous memoirs, though I found it lacked a little compared to the hilarious "Lost in Place". Perhaps the tone of the last chapters colors my perception on the earlier chapters. Maybe there was more humor in them. But the story of his sister's sudden illness and death, his struggles with panic attacks, his exhausting schedule going from family to family, coast to coast, and unmet deadlines during that "worst year" are told in such an honest, real way that I wanted it to end - not just for Salzman, but for me, the reader. It was hard to take, like standing helplessly by as a friend is pushed to a breaking point.

I found the last chapter a bit sappy, a bit preachy, and the story of the revelation through the dog's farting a little out of place, but I don't doubt that it's exactly what happened, given the author's personality. And considering all of the chapters that preceded this last, I cut him slack for slipping into a "the moral of the story is..." ending. I enjoyed the book and was happy to spend some hours with an "old friend". ( )
  bookem | Feb 21, 2012 |
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Anxiety has always been part of Mark Salzman's life. He was born into a family as nervous as rabbits, people with extra angst coded into their genes. As a young man he found solace through martial arts, meditation, tai chi, and rigorous writing schedules, but as he approaches midlife, he confronts a year of catastrophe. First, Salzman suffers a crippling case of writer's block; then a sudden family tragedy throws his life into chaos. Overwhelmed by terrifying panic attacks, the author begins a search for equanimity that ultimately leads to an epiphany from a most unexpected source.… (more)

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