Thursday, February 23, 2017

Buddhism Without Beliefs

Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor (1997)

Last year I read 10% Happier by Dan Harris, and the author included some recommended titles for people wanting to read more about meditation. I added "self-help/meditation" as a category for my 2017 Personal Reading Challenge and decided to read one of the titles recommended by Harris to fulfill that category.

Buddhism Without Beliefs is a very short book (115 pages) that is rather self-explanatory from the title. It's basically an introduction to Buddhism from a non-religious perspective. Batchelor presents the origins of Buddhism from the life of Siddhartha Gautama and his teachings and argues that he was never a mystic who claimed to have information about the universe or life after or death or any of the other things that would qualify his teachings as a religion. The book lays out some of his teachings, pointing out that they aren't things to believe in, but things to do. Short chapters cover various aspects of these teachings and provide some specific meditation instructions.

The only other thing I've read about Buddhism was also nonreligious (The Wise Heart) so I'm afraid I'm unsure what a religious version of Buddhism would look like. Batchelor goes into that a little bit here when he talks about the ways others have taught Buddhism, just to differentiate it from the way he sees it. But I am not at all a religious person, so I prefer to take the Buddha's teachings as a philosophy, a way to view and live in the world.

Despite how short it is, I found the book a bit difficult to get into. At the beginning there was a lot of abstract discussion, such as "In the cessation of craving, we touch that dimension of experience that is timeless: the playful, unimpeded contingency of things emerging from conditions only to become conditions for something else." Every sentence is pretty much like that, and I really need to be alert to read this sort of thing. But I got the gist of it, and the writing became more accessible to me later on.

I kind of feel like books about Buddhism and meditation should be read very slowly in order to contemplate it all fully. Unfortunately, that's not the way I read. I do take notes though, so I've gone back and re-read parts that resonated with me or that I wanted to remind myself of. It definitely covers some of the same ground as The Wise Heart, (i.e. feelings are fleeting, our unhappiness comes from craving what we do not have, etc.) but of course it always bears repeating and reminding. I just wish I could remember these things at times when I'm not reading a book about it. It would come in handy during my daily life, which I suppose is just reason to read more books like this.

I know there's a lot here but it felt unsubstantial and I couldn't remember much by the time I finished. This is no fault of the book, but of the way that I read and the sorts of books I enjoy. This is why nonfiction is a challenge to me. I do want to continue learning more about meditation though. If you have suggestions of other ways to do so (blogs? podcasts?) let me know in the comments!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Miss Jane

Miss Jane by Brad Watson (2016)

In Mississippi in 1915, Jane Chisolm was born with a genital abnormality that left her incontinent and unable to do what a woman was meant to do: get married and have children. She grows up knowing that she is different, her parents keeping her out of school and, therefore, away from other children. Jane doesn't make friends with other kids her own age, though she maintains a close relationship with the doctor who delivered her and continues to monitor medical developments in hopes of corrective surgery for her one day. Spanning Jane's entire life, this novel illustrates all the ways big and small that an accident of birth can affect someone.

Jane's father is a decent guy, but drinks too much of his own home brew. Her mother is unhappy and cold, and her older sister, Grace, just wants to get away from them all and live her own life in town. Jane is not surrounded by a warm, loving family but Dr. Thompson fulfills the role of a caring adult who does as much for her upbringing as any parent. He is so thoughtful and caring and open-minded, carefully choosing his words when giving her advice or breaking bad news to her. It was clear that he cared a lot for her and wanted her to live the best possible life. I loved Dr. Thompson.

Jane mostly shied away from getting to know anyone outside of her family. Her foray into the local school was short-lived due to the inconveniences and embarrassment of her incontinence. She wouldn't eat or drink anything until lunchtime, and then just a tiny bit to hold her over until dinner. She became very thin and still anxious about having an accident at school. Ultimately, it just wasn't worth it. She did make a friend once, a boy from a neighboring farm, but it was clear their feelings went beyond friendship and that relationship had to be nipped in the bud.

Mostly, Jane enjoyed living on her family's farm, helping out as much as she could while observing the beauty and harshness of the natural world all around her. She may have lacked eroticism in her own life, but she saw it everywhere else. Watson's descriptions of farm life and the natural world are worth the price of the book alone (though, admittedly, I got it for free from the library.) The lively, complex natural world comes alive beautifully in these pages and added vibrancy to a life that otherwise seemed a bit limited. I couldn't feel bad for Jane living in such a lush, wonderful world.

This novel is driven by character, not plot, and getting to know Jane throughout her life was a pleasure. She suffered hardships and loss, but she also experienced much that was pleasant and satisfying, and she was quite content with who she was. Miss Jane was a beautiful and satisfying reading experience, and one I highly recommend.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Sugar Changed the World

Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos (2010)

In this nonfiction book for teens, two authors who discovered they both had sugar in their family history attempt to tell the story of sugar - tracing its history and examining its relationship to slavery. The scope spans the globe and a very large portion of human history, condensing it all into just 125 pages, including photos and illustrations.

I've wanted to read this book for quite a while. It's been on the local high school summer reading list for several years, so there are always lots of copies at my library in the summer. My Not-So-Young Adult book group at work often enjoys non-fiction, so we finally picked it.

Although I was drawn in by the stories of sugar production and the lives of the slaves transported in order to work on the plantations, only parts of the book were as compelling as I had hoped. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same problems as many textbooks I had to read in school, which is that it often lays out principles and events in an abstract way that is very difficult, if not possible, to visualize.

For instance, geopolitical events were mentioned but not really explained, like "...the Roman Empire began to crumble," which is the sort of thing that used to drive me nuts as a kid (and, if I'm being honest, now) because what does that actually mean? What does it look like? There's a section late on in the book describing those who ruled the sugar colonies saying "...they often used the courts to maintain control, not to administer justice." As an adult who has learned a fair amount over the years, I can imagine what this might mean, but I think a teenager would maybe read this sentence and just sort of shrug and keep going. Other pieces of information were just left out. We learn about how thousands of people were brought from Africa to the Caribbean islands to work on the sugar plantations, but I really wanted to know who was there before the Europeans and the Africans. Were there natives, or were these islands uninhabited?

This was all frustrating, but at the same time I understand that the scope of this book was enormous and if everything I felt was missing was to be added, it would probably be 400 pages long and I'd never read it. Some omissions, however, were less excusable. There was a decent amount about indentured workers, but what that meant was never clearly explained. A simple, clear definition would have sufficed. The Haitian Revolution was described, but never named. If I read this as a kid and was later asked if I knew anything about the Haitian Revolution, I'd probably think that well, I read something about a revolution in Haiti, but was it THE revolution?

I had other minor quibbles with it as well. The authors set out to pull their own family histories into the story, but didn't follow through. In a couple of parts the text would promise that this is where Marc or Marina's family would come into the story, but then never mentioned them again. There was also some jumping around in time and geography that I thought was a little confusing. They presented sugar as being extremely central to things like the industrial revolution and the Louisiana Purchase (which they suggested should have been called the Sugar Purchase) and maybe it had an important role, but I wonder if it was really as central as they were making it out to be.

At the same time, I really like that the authors wrote about the history of slavery and abolition (and various other things) by focusing on the production of sugar. Sugar is something we're all familiar with and descriptions of its production and role are easily described and give us something concrete with which to surround all of these more abstract concepts. I think this book would be great in a classroom where there's lot of discussion and many of the concepts that are only touched upon could be more fully explained and discussed to help everyone understand the larger concept. Upon reading it, I'm very disappointed at its inclusion on the summer reading list, since that means it's meant to be read independently over the summer without any discussion or context.

My overall feeling was that the book was only ok. However, I'm guessing my view isn't a popular one, especially since this book has won awards including a Best Book of the Year Award from School Library Journal. I learned some things from it, but it wasn't the pleasurable or exciting read that I had hoped for.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Wild Rose

The Wild Rose by Jennifer Donnelly (2011)

The third and final book of the Tea Rose trilogy follows Seamus Finnegan, brother of the two subjects of the previous books, and Willa Alden, the daring adventurer and love of his life. Previously, they had been hiking Kilimanjaro together when Willa became badly injured. Seamus managed to get her to safety, but her leg could not be saved. Though Willa begged Seamus to let her die, he insisted the doctor operate, and Willa was so upset she didn't want to see him again. Except that she's just as madly in love with him as he is with her, so in this book they continue to come together and separate, come together and separate, like some sort of tidal movement.

The Great War is upon us now, which gives this book a slightly different tenor from the others. A large part of the novel is also set in Arabia, where Willa is traveling with her friend Tom Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia. There is a great deal of drama, anguish, and near death for both Seamus and Willa, as well as those around them. Things keep happening that seem like they will be kept apart forever, but based on the first two books I knew that was not a real possibility. The fun, though, is figuring out how they'll get around the seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Oh, and there's a whole subplot involving spies blackmailing others into helping them out.

The characters we got to know in the last two books are here again, too. Fiona and Joe have a whole batch of kids now, and India and Sid travel from California to London and are around for much of the story too. The family runs a hospital in England for soldiers returning to the war. Fiona and Joe's oldest daughter, Katie, has begun a political newspaper and hopes to follow in her father's footsteps by running for office. Oddly, a woman could run for office before she being old enough to vote during this time.

There's over 600 pages just packed with all these people (and more!) and their lives over the course of several years, but I read it in just 6 days. It's not only an immersive reading experience, but one that's very easy to jump right into every time I sat down with it. Sometimes it takes me a while to get into a book when I sit down with it, but every time I picked this up the very first words would draw me right in.

One of the things I like the most about this series is that it doesn't matter how long it's been since reading the last one. Each one is about different characters, and though characters from previous books are present and their stories still relevant, Donnelly gently reminds us of those stories without huge info dumps.

Through much of the book, I felt that it was probably my least favorite of the series because of the wartime setting. But there's a spy story here which, even though I'm not into spy stories, got really really good and by the end, I liked this one every bit as much as the others.

I can't believe these books haven't not yet been adapted for the screen. They'd make an excellent series, with each book providing enough story for a whole season. There's so much fodder here, what with all the relationship drama, secrets, war, travel, adventure, and dangerous villains. I really loved this series from beginning to end.

This is the third book I've finished for my 2017 Personal Reading Challenge, which normally would make me feel like I'm ahead of the game. However, since I added more to my reading challenge this year I'm only feeling like I'm not quite behind. The part of the challenge that involves specific titles is going fine, but the categories all feel very uncertain so I may need to buckle down soon and make some decisions about what books I want to read for each.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The One Hundred Nights of Hero

The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg (2016)

This inventive graphic novel begins with a creation story of Early Earth. From there, it becomes a tale about two men and a bet. A husband will be leaving his wife, Cherry, for 100 nights and when his friend doubts her loyalty and obedience, they make a bet: if he can seduce her while her husband is away, he will win her and her husband's castle. But he doesn't count on her cleverness or her devotion to her true love, a woman named Hero. Cherry knows if she doesn't submit to this guy he'll just take her by force, but when she requests they hear a story told by Hero before going to bed, he relents. Hero begins storytelling and one story leads to another and the man is captivated. So, of course, is the reader.

Like Scheherazade saving her own life by telling tales in One Thousand and One Nights, Hero tries to spare the life of her love, Cherry. But although I'm not very familiar with that story, I'm fairly certain this one is much more feminist. These stories are primarily about women protecting each other, usually from men, and many are about sisters.

I really enjoyed the art work a lot. Color is used sparingly but boldly, and I really liked the visual style of the writing. Small panels are interspersed with larger and full-page artwork that was quite striking.

I've not read anything else by this author, but she has apparently written other books that take place in Early Earth. The Goodreads description says it can be read as a standalone, though it doesn't say much else.

I probably wouldn't have picked up this book based on a description of the plot. As I said, I'm not terribly familiar with One Thousand and One Nights and I'm not especially drawn to it. But I read about this on a book blog somewhere and whatever the blogger said about it made me immediately request it from the library. When it came, I couldn't remember why I wanted it, but trusted it was for a good reason. It was!

If you like feminist retellings of classics in graphic novel form, you should definitely check this out!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Her Every Fear

Her Every Fear by Peter Swanson (2017)

Kate Priddy has always been anxious, but a few years ago a traumatic experience with an ex-boyfriend put her over the edge. She is finally ready to leave the safety of her parents' house and agrees to apartment-swap with a second cousin she's never met. He'll come to London for work and stay her flat; she'll travel to Boston and stay in his Beacon Hill apartment and take classes. But the day after she arrives, the next-door neighbor is found murdered. Did her cousin Corbin have something to do with it? And what of the kind but somewhat-creepy neighbor Alan, whose apartment gives him a perfect view through the murdered woman's windows? Kate doesn't know who to trust, and neither do we.

Everything about Kate's experiences were tinged with creepiness. Because she had been subject to violence in the past and was still haunted by it, she often doubted her instincts. She would hear a sound or find something out-of-place in the apartment and grow suspicious, but then assume she was just being paranoid. She also had compulsions whereby as soon as a thought entered her head - like when she found a key to Corbin's basement storage unit and wondered if it contained clues - she had to check on it. If she didn't, she would be convinced something dark was lurking there. The whole setup just added to it: she's staying in a cousin's apartment but has never met him, there's a cat that comes and goes throughout the building, sneaking into apartments whenever he feels like it, Alan Cherney across the way admits he used to watch the murdered woman through her window, and a mysterious man who claimed to be a good friend of the victim starts hanging around, chumming up to the building's residents. So many things add to the creepy atmosphere and the feelings of uncertainty experienced by more than just Kate.

I really want to talk about Corbin and his story, but I'll have to reserve that conversation to have with someone who's read the book because it's too good to spoil. Let's just say I had some conflicting feelings about this cleverly-crafted character.

This plot involved a lot of violence against women, the sort we sometimes hear about in the news. A man is spurned or humiliated by a woman and lashes out, maybe at that woman or just women in general (because we are all the same.) It's especially sickening because it's so real. But it goes even farther. There is more than one murder in this novel, and we get parts of the story from the perspective of a murderer and I found it incredibly disturbing. It was worth it in the end, but be warned if your tolerance for vileness has limits.

I was very tense the entire time I was reading this suspenseful story. Kate was a fantastic protagonist who I rooted for. I didn't know who else to trust. Alan seemed nice enough so I hoped that he was a good guy, despite being a little off. The whole premise of the story was great, and it was executed very well. If you can stand a lot of violence and creepiness, I highly recommend it. I'd also encourage you to check out Swanson's last novel, The Kind Worth Killing.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Compartment No. 6

Compartment No. 6 by Rosa Liksom (2011)

A young, unnamed Finnish woman leaves Moscow on a train heading for Mongolia. She is most unfortunately joined in her compartment by a boorish man who discusses women and sex openly and crudely. The woman is put off by him, but as time passes they slowly form an unlikely friendship of sorts.

Slowly over the course of the novel we learn about why the woman is taking this trip, what it is she's getting away from, and eventually feels ready to face. But at first we hear only her stated reason for travel, which is to see some petroglyphs, and learn that she has recently been in a relationship that maybe hasn't been going so well.

She hardly speaks at all during the novel. She doesn't have to, as her crude compartment partner talks a lot in between drinking vodka, which he chases with bites of raw onion. He tells a lot of stories, as do others she meets on her journey. But the woman is mostly silent, looking out the train windows at the landscapes and towns they pass.

These descriptions were, for me, the primary beauty of the novel. It all feels so real. For a while I've fantasized about doing just this - taking a train all across the vast expanse of Russia - and Liksom brought this experience vividly to life. The images of broken down equipment, maimed and dead animals, and the harsh landscapes were startling and beautiful. Adding to this tableau was the ever-present soundtrack of classical music by Russian composers being piped through the train.

The girl looked out of the icy, windblown rear window at Russia's wild beauty. A sparkling, violet-yellow cloud of snow covered the entire landscape as they passed, sometimes forming a wake of snow and flakes of ice that trailed behind them like a veil. A frosty field of thistles glittered and gazed darkly from the edge of the forest. Far off on the horizon a pink powdery smoke drifted, thick clouds broke up and flapped like a child's sheets in the sky.

Whenever I read such lovely writing in a translated work, it makes me wish I knew how it compared to the original. But, alas, I don't read Finnish so I'll trust that what I'm reading is true in tone and style to what the author created.

But it's not just 200 pages of a woman staring out of a train window while a man tells her stories of the debaucheries of his youth. There were stops along the way, the train breaking down or needing to stop for a couple of days so the engine could cool. During these times the woman went into the towns, even taking a hotel room now and again, meeting a few people and stocking up on provisions. This is the Soviet Union though, so these excursions meant standing in long lines and buying not necessarily what she needed, but what was available.

This novel is not plot-driven by any means. The bits of conversation or visits in various towns are broken up by long stretches of quiet descriptions of what the woman sees as she travels. I loved experiencing the journey vicariously through this young woman and I was, in turn, disgusted and amused by the man she was forced to share it with. If you too would like to take a train journey across Russia, you might well enjoy this novel.