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The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth

3.63  ·  Rating details ·  572 ratings  ·  62 reviews
What was I doing standing up in front of everyone anyway? ... They had signed up for this lovely New Age weekend down in Florida -- what was going on with this Natalie Goldberg? I knew only a handful had read any of my books. How was I going to leap over this mess smoothly and talk about writing practice, where I was on solid ground? I mentioned the horses from the seminar ...more
Hardcover, 208 pages
Published August 17th 2004 by HarperOne
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Average rating 3.63  · 
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 ·  572 ratings  ·  62 reviews


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Lilian Nattel
Dec 21, 2010 rated it liked it
Natalie Goldberg is at her best as a teacher of both writing and zen and of writing as a spiritual discipline and practice. I first encountered her books around 20 years ago. Writing Down the Bones was all the rage in writing groups and of course, being contrary, I avoided it for a few years and then read both that one and Wild Mind (basically a re-run of Bones, but enjoyable). I found them invigorating, and loved the spiritual aspect, though her favourite methods didn’t work for me.

The Great Fa
...more
Sonya Feher
Apr 29, 2009 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: spiritual seekers, fans of Natalie Goldberg,
I read this after hearing Goldberg speak at a book signing recently. Someone said they'd read all of her books and she asked if the woman had read The Great Failure. The woman hadn't heard of it and neither had I, so I picked it up. It explores Goldberg's coming to terms with her father's mistreatment of her, revelations about her spiritual teacher Katagiri Roshi that come up after his death, and her continuing quest to find herself in the midst of the 10,000 things. She's honest without being c ...more
Rae
Jan 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
If you are in any way associated with Shambhala, please read this book. Read all her books but most especially read this one. Her clear honest voice is much needed in the face of confusion, secrecy, denial. There are no answers, but there are stories.
Kristin
Mar 16, 2010 rated it liked it
"The Great Failure" is autobiographical and written by a woman whose earlier book "Writing Down the Bones" (which I never read) inspired many people to start writing. The book is about two male role models - her father and her Zen teacher - both who she felt betrayed her. She tries to reconcile their affairs, their abuse, and the ways they compromised her trust with two people she loved and admired.

The book begins with her being held up at gunpoint in St. Paul, Minnesota, and continues into an u
...more
Ann Shannon
Nov 03, 2018 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: no one.
I love Natalie Goldberg. I cringe at giving anything written by her one star. I was eager to read The Great Failure when I stumbled across it. It was a huge disappointment. Perhaps the topic was simply too personal for her to write about in the intimate, engaging way I know she is imminently capable of, dealing as it does with the strange sexual undercurrents of her father's sexual attraction to her as a teenager, as well as her disillusionment with her Buddhist teacher and his sexual impropriet ...more
Rowe
Nov 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This might be the greatest, most mainstream book Natalie Goldberg has ever written. I learned three good things on page 80 that makes this book worth its cost, and here are two: continue under all circumstances and make positive effort for the good.
Dooug
Jan 18, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: buddhism, memoir
I haven't read many memoirs but this one I couldn't put down. Goldberg's writing flows smoothly in and out of stories and stories within stories. I think I really enjoyed this book because her unravelling of the echoes of her teacher's and parents' own human imperfections were in parallel to my own experience. As she put it, we "[inherit their strengths, but also carry their shadows]".

Nearing thirty years old, I've come to see my parents in a real light, and appreciate them as the accumulation
...more
Juliane Roell
I enjoyed this, but not as much as I enjoyed Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America. This book is long-winded in places and Goldberg gets caught up in judgements. In long passages she appears to be trying to change her feelings by thinking. A repeating motive is that she spends effort digging into past events. I kept wondering why she did this.
While it is interesting to follow her story and to relate to her struggles, in many times I wondered why she behaved as she did. Her descriptions of th
...more
Theryn Fleming
Jun 17, 2010 rated it it was ok
This is a brief memoir of Natalie’s relationships with her father and her Zen teacher and her coming to grips with them being human, i.e. flawed. Essentially, it is about her figuring out whether she is able to admire/love people even when she feels that they have disappointed/betrayed her by their actions (or inaction, in the case of her mother).

The Great Failure didn’t resonate with me in the same way as her earlier work did. I think if you’re going to write about how people have disappointed
...more
Mark Valentine
Apr 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
Great failure begins in relationships. First, with the bartender, Goldberg's father, Part I recounts the narrative of a convoluted relationship with an abusive yet loving father; that is, a broken relationship with a tormented man who was still loyal to his daughter. Second, with Roshi, the Zen monk under whom Goldberg studied as the ideal teacher and mentor, broke relationships around him by having affairs with his students. These two men hold a candle to Goldberg's search in the dark for meani ...more
Anne
Jul 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ebook, 2017
Like, apparently, so many others, I was captivated by the romance of Natalie Goldberg's zen center in _Long Quiet Highway_. This book is a companion to that one, written to all of us who might make the mistake of holding Katagiri Roshi as more than a man. In it Goldberg writes a parallel narrative of her two fathers -- her physical one and her spiritual one. At the time of _Long Quiet Highway_ she was just beginning to come to terms with the similarities of the two men and in the subsequent year ...more
Mizloo
Nov 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Really 4.6. A brilliant memoir, by a talented and disciplined writer. I'm struggling with why I didn't like it better. Goldberg is utterly free of hypocrisy, and clear about the paradoxes in her feelings for both her father and her teacher. Her very brief description of her failures within her marriage made me like her less than I had before reading it, and perhaps that's the problem - in me, looking at the choices she describes, rather than in her honesty in describing her actions.
D
Mar 12, 2017 rated it liked it
I worked my way slowly thru this book, which at first was more than I cared to know about Natalie, even though I'd loved Bones and Long Quiet Hwy. But glad I didn't give up... deep thought and no conclusions... but isn't that life? and the conclusion is only that things don't wrap up neatly in real life, but messages we need slither through the cracks. ("It's how the light gets in.")
Judith
Apr 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have been on a Natalie Goldberg reading binge.This is one of her more personal books. In it she deals with the relationship with her Father and her teacher, Katigari. Her discovery and final acceptance that neither one was perfect, did not live up to her idea of them but after all they were full fledged members of the mistake making human race. A good read.
Lesley
Aug 30, 2019 rated it liked it
Compelling memoir exploring universal themes of betrayal, family relationships, and finding meaning. It's all here ... Suffering, impermanence, no self. As someone who practices in the Theravada tradition, I enjoyed learning about the unique American Zen culture and Zen Buddhism more generally.
Tiziana Stupia
Jun 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Beautifully, elegantly and compassionately written. I especially recommend this book to anyone on the spiritual path who would like to understand why great teachers so often fall into the trap of sleeping with their students.
Elbrackeen Brackeen
Oct 26, 2018 rated it liked it
Heard her tell part of this story on the Upaya zen center podcast. Really wanted to know more. It was very good.
M.j. Radosevich
Aug 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
A quick read with plenty of pithy lines woven in her memoir. Enjoy her writing style. Anticipating several more...from my to read stack.
Kristin Lieber
Mar 16, 2010 rated it liked it
"The Great Failure" is autobiographical and written by a woman whose earlier book "Writing Down the Bones" (which I never read) inspired many people to start writing. The book is about two male role models - her father and her Zen teacher - both who she felt betrayed her. She tries to reconcile their affairs, their abuse, and the ways they compromised her trust with two people she loved and admired.

The book begins with her being held up at gunpoint in St. Paul, Minnesota, and continues into an u
...more
H
Feb 18, 2014 added it
Shelves: memoir
Eventually, as the teacher-student relationship matures, the student manifests these qualities herself and learns to stand on her own two feet. The projections are reclaimed. What we saw in him is also inside us. We close the gap between who we think the teacher is and who we think we are not. We become whole. (91)

After he [Te-shan] left Lung-t'an, he wandered for a long time, looking to be tested and sharpened. He already had left his place in northern China to wander among what he thought were
...more
Ashley Lauren
Jun 23, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I'm a memoir junkie and I was particularly interested in this book because I have so thoroughly enjoyed Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones. I was really curious if all of her great advice about writing translated into really good writing of her own. Despite the relatively low rating, I think it really did. Goldberg has such a way of writing that is both easy and open. Her sentences can be simple one moment and full of amazing images the next. She is so wonderfully honest in this book and I really ...more
Claudia Turner
Feb 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
I knew I would relate to this because I had read Goldberg before and enjoyed her style, I was interested in zen and writing and I was interested in the title. So I thought yes this would be good. But it was more than I expected because it had Taos and parts of New Mexico in it. I recently moved here so there was the Zen, the writing and introspection, facing family and fear and self-censorship and humor, but then there was Taos! A great joy.
Karima
Jan 12, 2014 rated it liked it


Natalie Goldberg has been a model of the writing life for so many of us. She is honest, no-nonsense and very intent on self-exploration and understanding. She has been a serious practitioner of Zen Buddhism for much of her adult life. This book explores her relationship with the two central male influences in her life.
The bartender is her father, Ben "Buddy" Goldberg. I totally got this guy. He reminded very much of my own father, a life-loving, gambling guy who ofttimes stepped out of/over bou
...more
Angela
Jul 29, 2010 rated it it was ok
"The Great Failure" was okay for me. An easy read for sure and interesting in some points. I feel that giving a review of the book and judging it goes against what the author Natalie Goldberg was preaching about and going against what she learned from her zen master Roshi. She writes on page 129 "A mind that rests at zero. No good or bad. No criticism, blame - also no praise. That is how we were trained by Roshi. In a world of bonuses, competition, fear of failure, yearning for applause, receivi ...more
Áine
Aug 10, 2012 rated it liked it
An important document of betrayal in American Zen. Aching with masculine loneliness and the pain that follows abuse of patriarchal privilege. An interesting parallel construction of the two father figures in her life: Katigiri Roshi, and her father, who fought on opposite sides of WWII. The strongest moments for me were the memoir anecdotes, vividly told, rather than the exposition of the meaning these men had for her. Still trying to put my finger on where it crossed the line into self-indulgen ...more
Scott
Aug 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
Natalie Goldberg's strength as an author is the strong, authentic voice of her narrator. She is able to connect with me as a reader. She is also good at storytelling itself, using a strong technique to create healthy, lively writing. Her books often contain truths about humanity and truths about individuals trying to become human. Of all the writers I've read, Goldberg is one of the best at portraying the human condition, and for that, I cherish her writing and am thankful that she shares her th ...more
George K. Ilsley
This book never managed to enter my head somehow. It failed to engage me, but it was not a great failure, it was a mediocre failure. Perhaps one needs to be a long time fan of Goldberg's to be interested in the material. This is the first thing I've read; somehow I've managed to escape reading "Writing Down the Bones".

So much about this writer, but so little was interesting. Her emotional reactions to events were imponderable -- why so upset about Roshi? I failed to see how it was so transgressi
...more
Shayda
Jul 30, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: essays
Really a memoir about betrayals -- betrayals of the author by two men whom she adored, her father and teacher; the author's own betrayal of the man she described as the love of her life. There's a lot of pain recounted here and at times this is not easy reading, so I understand why some of the Goodreaders' reviews describe the book as "ugly." I'm undecided as to how satisfying the resolution can be, though I suppose it has something to do with the relative values of truth and art. Goldberg is a ...more
Alison Perry
May 23, 2008 rated it it was ok
I mentally wrote the review for this book before I even finished Part I. What I had planned to say, "The Great Failure is aptly named. Of the few things that are right with this book, that is most significant." I wondered as I flipped through the pages, what was it that I once loved about this author, because for the life of me I couldn't see it in this book. Then she got me in Part II when discribing her father's death and I was simultainiously thrilled and surprised. But, she lost me just as s ...more
Jeanne
Jun 28, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Zen students, the sexually abused
Shelves: zen
For someone with my interests, an excellent book that deals with the subtleties of parent-child sexual abuse and neglect, as well as with Goldberg's own spiritual path in reconciling herself to her teacher's humanity. I decided to give this five stars instead of four because Goldberg's personal insight is so sensitive. It's very hard for someone who experienced sexual abuse to read about it without being torn up by it. Goldberg's own path of acceptance cast some light on my own family, as well a ...more
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Natalie Goldberg lived in Brooklyn until she was six, when her family moved out to Farmingdale, Long Island, where her father owned the bar the Aero Tavern. From a young age, Goldberg was mad for books and reading, and especially loved Carson McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Cafe , which she read in ninth grade. She thinks that single book led her eventually to put pen to paper when she was twe ...more

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