Sunday, September 29, 2019

Peace Is Every Step

Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness In Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh (1990)

This slim volume is basically a collection of short essays about finding peace, compassion, and harmony in everyday life by slowing down and living mindfully. It's divided into three sections. "Breathe! You Are Alive" is very much about the everyday: how to live in the moment and focus on the little things like breathing, walking, eating, or even doing the dishes. "Transformation and Healing" applies these principles to dealing with difficult emotions like anger and transforming them into more productive ones. It talks a lot about dealing with other people, such as parents or romantic partners, and emphasizes the importance of community. "Peace Is Every Step" takes this philosophy even farther outside of ourselves to look at world problems with a lens of kindness, compassion, peace and justice.

 At this point I've read a few things about mindfulness and about Buddhism and it's starting to get interesting to see how they complement or contradict each other. For instance, one thing that has stuck with me from The Wise Heart is noticing your feelings but realizing that they are not part of you, and will come and go like the weather. Here, in a piece called "Mindfulness of Anger" Nhat Hanh says "When we are angry, our anger is our very self. To suppress it or chase it away is to suppress or chase away our self." He compares it to garbage and compost: you can take something unwanted and transform it into something useful and nurturing. I'm not sure that the two perspectives are actually contradictory in terms of what Buddhism is about because the important thing, I think, is being aware of your emotions and recognizing that some of them are not helpful. Perhaps whether you wait for them to pass or transform them is not important.

He uses garbage in his writing a lot actually. Another passage I liked is about how if you want to live peacefully with a person you need to recognize the whole person. He says "We do not expect a person always to be a flower. We have to understand his or her garbage as well."

I also like how he talks about engaging with the world. Buddhism isn't all about staying inside your own head all the time, despite the emphasis on meditation. Meditation is to help with focus and clarity and should help you see the world. Once you see it, you need to act on what you see. And he sees us as all interdependent. In a passage entitled "Flowers and Garbage" (I told you he likes garbage!) he writes about prostitution and how we look down on prostitutes and how prostitutes may feel badly when they compare themselves to "good girls" from good family. Nhat Hanh says that the prostitute is the way she is because others are the way they are and asks "How can a 'good girl,' belonging to a good family, be proud? Because the 'good family's' way of life is the way it is, the prostitute has to live as a prostitute. No one among us has clean hands." The same is true with wealth and poverty.

He talks about war and peace and the environment. He talks about writing positive letters to our congressional representatives, letters they will want to read and not just throw away, and he acknowledges the need for understanding the constraints of doing their jobs. He talks about all the little ways that what we do every day affects the world; the way we speak to people, what we throw in the trash. He talks about looking at people who do bad things - like pirates who rape young girls - and considering what conditions in the world contributed to them becoming how they are; he thinks that if he had faced the same conditions in his life, perhaps he would also have ended up a pirate.

Thich Nhat Hanh is very well-known and popular for his views and his writing, and this book feels like one it would be good to own and turn to now and again to try and soak up more of his advice. It's the first book by Nhat Hanh that I've read but I am interested in reading more as I really like how he views the world, and the way he writes about it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Toil & Trouble

Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft edited by Jessica Spotswood and Tess Sharpe (2018)

I am feeling very pleased with myself about actually reading this book at a somewhat seasonal time! This is a teen anthology of stories about witchy girls, and there's a lot of diversity as I have come to expect from Jessica Spotswood's anthologies. They're a mix of contemporary and historical with characters of different backgrounds, but always strong females and a lot of sisterhood.

Of course I had a few favorites. "Afterbirth" by Andrea Cremer was a chilling tale about midwives in Puritan New England. A young apprentice assists with an unusual birth that turns tragic, and the midwife is held responsible. "The Heart In Her Hands" by Tess Sharpe is set in a world where a sort of magical tattoo appears on young women, telling them the first words that will be spoken to them by their soulmate. But Brenna already has a soulmate, a girl, and she refuses the boy who speaks the prophetic words to her. "The Truth About Queenie" by Brandy Colbert is about a young witch who wants to keep her powers secret; also secret is that she's in love with her best friend, Webb. When he brings home a girlfriend for her to meet, her hopes are crushed. This story made me want more, in a good way. There's enough here about Queenie and Webb's friendship, and Queenie's powers and her family, for a full-length novel and I would definitely read it. "The Legend of Stone Mary" by Robin Talley was a creepy small-town legend about a mysterious statue that is said to come to life under the right circumstances, and a teenaged girl who is a descendant of the subject of the statue.

Now I'm realizing I have too many favorites to relate them all in details, but others include "The One Who Stayed" by Nova Ren Suma, "Divine Are the Stars" by Zoraida Cordova, "Daughters of Baba Yaga" by Brenna Yovanoff, "The Well Witch" by Kate Hart, "Beware of Girls With Crooked Mouths," by Jessica Spotswood, and "Love Spell" by Anna-Marie McLemore. There were really only a few stories I wasn't really into, and in a couple of those cases I think I just shouldn't have started a story when I was already tired. It takes some focus to get into a new story and that's one of the difficulties of reading a short story collection.

All in all, I really enjoyed this collection and recommend it if you're looking for some witchy-themed fall reading!

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Testaments

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (2019)

Margaret Atwood's long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid's Tale is narrated by three women: Aunt Lydia, the daughter of a Commander, and a young woman in Canada. The events take place fifteen years after the first book and give us much more insight into parts of Gilead we didn't see before. We've gotten some of it from the show, but there is still more to discover here.

Aunt Lydia's chapters are written in secret and hidden in a book to be discovered at some later time. She speculates about whether she'll be dead then, or if their discovery will lead to her death or downfall because of her explosive secrets. Agnes Jemima is the Commander's daughter and if you watch the show you will recognize her as Offred/June's daughter, originally called Hannah. Her chapters are labeled Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A. Our third character's story is told through Transcript of Witness Testimony 369B, and she is a sixteen-year-old named Daisy, living in Canada with her parents Neil and Melanie, and in her opening story she is just learning, through a tragic event, that much of what she knew about herself is a lie. The stories of all three of these characters come to intersect in important ways that may change Gilead forever.

Even though I've been watching the show, there is a lot to learn here about Gilead. A Commander's daughter provides an enlightening perspective on how the privileged live and view their world. Although the show does follow some characters who have escaped to Canada, that's different than this viewpoint of a teenager for whom Gilead has been a neighbor her whole life, and has grown up hearing about Baby Nicole, baby of legend, stolen from Gilead and hidden in Canada. And of course Aunt Lydia's writings reveal a great deal about the inner workings of those who set up this society and keep it running, plus the details of how her life changed when the American government fell and how she became an Aunt.

Especially interesting to me is how the characters view the handmaids. In The Handmaid's Tale we have only 's Offred's perspective, and therefore believe that the handmaids are revered because they produce babies, the society's most precious commodity. Imagine my surprise when I began reading and heard the way people talked about the handmaids as sluts who are good for nothing else. Well! That was something I didn't expect from such a pious, baby-centric society. This novel was pretty eye-opening, to say the least.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, of course, so I'll just summarize my experience by saying that it was very satisfying. Throughout the show I have been dying to know just how evil Aunt Lydia is - there have been times that I could swear I see glimmers of a good person hidden in there, especially when she protects the handmaids or forces them to behave in ways that will be safer for them in the long run. But then she would do something awful and I would think that no, in fact, she is all for Gilead's way of life, a true believer. This book finally gives me the answers I have sought about her character. A fun discovery was that part of the book takes place on Campobello Island, which is a tiny Canadian island connected by a bridge to my hometown and where I spent a great deal of time when I was growing up.

Of course I can't help but think about the present atmosphere in the United States, with an authoritarian president, an election system that's not currently as free and fair as it should be, and the distinct possibility of political instability. Atwood has been very open about how everything in Gilead has existed somewhere at some time in the real world. As she says late in this novel "History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes." It left me with a lot to think about.

I had only read one review of this book before reading it because I knew I would read it no matter what - that review was from Kirkus and was predictably Kirkus-like (it said something to the effect that the book was good but unnecessary, whatever the heck that means.) Of course I thought it was great, and I am trying to figure out the trajectory of the show given that this takes place several years later and I don't know how many seasons they have planned. But no matter: I'm happy to have this story now!

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Red Sister

Red Sister (Book of the Ancestor #1) by Mark Lawrence (2017)

Eight-year-old Nona is set to hang for murder, but at the last minute she is saved by Abbess Glass, who takes her away to the Convent of Sweet Mercy. Here she is to train in fighting, poisons, and the faith of the Ancestor. However, the family of the man she tried (unsuccessfully) to kill have not forgotten her and will do anything to stop her.

In this world there are special bloodlines, and Nona is hunska, which means that she is extremely fast. Gerants are giants, including the man she tried to kill. Quantals and marjals are able to tap into various types of magic. At Sweet Mercy, Nona learns of a prophecy about a Chosen One with multiple of these bloodlines, and a Shield who is destined to protect the Chosen One.

This all takes place in what appears to be an extended ice age, only a small part of the world habitable. Past civilizations have been lost, but people have manipulated the sun (and/or moon? the details are fuzzy to me now) so it focuses and keeps the Corridor open and habitable. But the sun is dying so they know they don't have a ton of time left. It's a desperate time, many people are starving, and Nona is grateful for the luxuries she finds at Sweet Mercy: a soft bed, hot water, plenty of food at every meal.

At some point, each girl will decide on her focus: Red Sisters are fighters; Grey specialize in espionage, stealth, and poisons; Holy Sisters focus on the faith; and Mystic Witches are those gifted in magic. Each year of training focuses on one of these areas, and during this book Nona is in the Red Class where they learn fighting. There are three books in the series, but I don't know if it's complete.

I found the setting and story pretty fascinating. I'm always drawn to books set in cold climates, and I like stories about someone being taken from their crappy life and set off to train in a special school. It suddenly sounds a lot like Harry Potter, now that I describe it that way! I admired all the young women in this story for their strength, bravery, and loyalty to each other. It wasn't the easiest book to get through, taking me close to two weeks. I don't know if that's just because of how my life was in those two weeks, or if it's actually because of the book. It's fairly dense and doesn't move super fast, but I have no real criticisms about it. The world-building and plot were compelling, and there were passages I re-read because of the beauty and cleverness of the writing. Part of me does want to continue this series so I can find out what happens and learn more about this world, but right now I just need to read some shorter, easier books for a bit.

Red Sister was the final book for my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Everything Buddhism Book

The Everything Buddhism Book by Arnie Kozak (2010)

I started this while re-reading The Wise Heart, but luckily they're two very different books so I should be able to keep them straight. I've been meditating for a few years now (I mean, not continuously!) and I'm trying to integrate Buddhist principles into my life more because I'm really starting to think that guy was onto something. Somebody I follow on Twitter was getting suggestions for books to read about Buddhism and this was one that was mentioned.

This really is a little bit of everything about Buddhism. It covers Buddha's life, his teachings, the spread of Buddhism, different types of Buddhism, specific practices, art, and various other topics. Unsurprisingly, there were chapters that I found much more relevant to my interests than other chapters, some I found boring, and some that I didn't really understand. So I read parts of it more intently than other parts.

I've read other books that go over the basics of the philosophy (The Wise HeartBuddhism Without Beliefs) but at this point I still really need to be reminded so it was totally fine to read about that again. I also really liked reading about different types of meditation, art and architecture, tea ceremonies, social activism, and applying Buddhism to daily life. It really helped give me a broad, holistic view of how Buddhism applies to various facets of a person's life and the world. I tend to be pretty socially conscious so I was happy to read the chapter about how beneficial this philosophy can be in terms of environment issues, politics, leadership, and other aspects of social life. The chapter on karma and what it actually means was not only enlightening but very familiar. It's not a magical property whereby if you are mean to somebody you will later be struck by lightning; rather it's more like if you're mean to somebody, you're hurting your relationship with that person and that's going to be bad for you as well.

Chapters I struggled with were those that really delved into the nuances of the different schools of Buddhism, because I had a tough time thoroughly understanding it. Some of the history was also a bit dry for me, especially the overview of how Buddhism spread throughout Asia, with short chapters on each country covered. But it's good information and it made sense to be there.

It took me a while to get through this book, but I found it very helpful and also came away with lots of suggestions for further reading. I feel like a lot of this is going to fall out of my head almost immediately because I'm terrible at retaining information, but hopefully if I read enough on the subject it will really start to stick.

Monday, September 2, 2019


Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" by Zora Neale Hurston (2018)

In 1927, author Zora Neale Hurston interviewed the last person alive who was brought from Africa on a slave ship, but the story wasn't published until last year. Cudjo Lewis was 86 when Hurston interviewed him, and he had experienced a lot in his lifetime. His village was destroyed by another group of African who captured the survivors and held them prisoner until they were sold to white men and brought to America. Lewis then worked as a slave for 5 years or so until he was freed. Life continued to be a struggle for him and his family.

His story is only around 100 pages; the rest of the book contains multiple introductions, prefaces, an afterward, an appendix, glossary, notes, etc. I don't have very much to say about it. I learned a little more about the role other Africans played in the slave trade, at least in this particular instance. I didn't learn much more about slavery, which I had hoped to - I thought I would get more of a first-hand story about the experience but he didn't talk about it much at all.

Hurston let him tell his own story, and I understand and respect that decision. However, he just told the story in a very simple way and that's what we got. Most books show rather than tell, but this one was definitely telling which made it difficult to really get into the story and get much out of it. Even when Lewis told about the deaths of all his children and his wife, it didn't pack the emotional punch it could have had we gotten the opportunity to get to know them first. I hate to criticize this book for not being, essentially, a novel. I do think it's an important story and I'm glad that Hurston was able to capture it. It's an interesting story, but I just didn't get a whole lot out of it.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Red, White and Royal Blue

Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston (2019), narrated by Ramon de Ocampo

It's 2020 and the son of the first female U.S. President falls in love with the Prince of Wales. Alex Claremont-Diaz has long loathed Prince Henry, but when they get into a scuffle at a royal wedding and spectacularly knock over the wedding cake, it's a PR nightmare that can only be solved by a fake friendship. The two  young men must pretend to be good friends, but soon they find they are becoming actual friends, and then more.

There is no way I can do justice to this book. I can't convey how charming both Alex and Henry are, or how much I adored Alex's close friendship with his sister June and the VP's daughter, Nora. Or how much I loved the opportunity to live, even briefly, in a world in which a woman had won the 2016 presidential election and did not incite the rise of white nationalism. I was even able to laugh at the storyline that involved the compromise of a private email server.

Even once Alex and Henry figured out that they were attracted to each other, there were still hurdles. On Alex's end, that was his mother's bid for re-election and the potential scandal of his relationship with the Prince. On Henry's end, it was his role as potential heir to the throne, responsibility to provide more heirs, and the deeply conservative tradition of the royal family. It's a romance so you know they'll get through it, and there's a lot of fun in seeing how that will happen.

Ramon de Ocampo expertly narrated the story, infusing personality and heart and humor. Early on when their friendship was still fake, Alex added Henry to his phone contacts as HRH Prince Dickhead [poop emoji] and it was hilarious hearing that read during every text conversation, even after they fell in love. Alex never changed it and so the narrator continued reading texts that began with "HRH Prince Dickhead poop emoji" which cracked me up. There were so many little details like that.

The biggest problem with this book is the lack of a comma in the title after "White." Other than that, it's pretty much perfect. It is adorable and life-affirming and uplifting and funny and sweet. I picked it up because I heard so much about it and was looking for more books similar to those by Becky Albertalli - this was a great one to fill that need. Now I just need to find more like it!