Monday, August 27, 2007

Books I

Books I have read over the past few weeks:

The Snow Leopard (Peter Matthiessen): One year after the death of his wife, the author heads into the Anapurna mountains of Nepal in search of the elusive snow leopard. Along the route he has occasion to explore Nepal's awesome mountain peaks, a people as yet little touched by the outside world (this was the 1960s), and his mind and heart - in the process discovering new insights into his personal Buddhist faith and his relationship to the modern western world.

The descriptions of the people and places he encounters are lush and vivid, and the book is full of interesting historical and philosophical insights into Nepali and Tibetan Buddhism. I could not put the book down!

The Yiddish Policeman's Union (Michael Chabon): In the years following WW2, negotiations to form the state of Israel have collapsed, and the Jewish nation is in need of a home. The US decides to lease a portion of Alaska to the Jews for 50 years - a period that will soon end, leaving the entire community in confusion and fear over what to do and where to go. In the midst of this turmoil, a down at the heels police officer stumbles on a murder that quickly mushrooms into a conspiracy of global import.

I loved Kavelier & Clay, by the same author, and enjoyed this book immensely as well - Chabon is a master at writing involving dialog. However, TYPU is not as involving as K&C, perhaps because the historical context of the former is so much further from reality than the latter.

Snow (Orhan Pamuk): Ka travels to a small town in Turkey to report on a rash of suicides among women of the town, which is being roiled by controversy over a ban on wearing headscarves in schools and the potential for an Islamic party to take the reins of power in an upcoming election - and to find a Turkish wife. Over the three days the author is stranded in the town due to snowstorms, he writes 19 poems of stunning genius, and becomes embroiled in a violent coup mounted to forestall religious encroachment on secular politics.

If you have read and loved Dostoevsky, you will love Snow. The lyric portrayal of the lives of everyday people in an authoritarian state is addictive, and the wide scope of characters give you the feeling that you have met and know the entire town (also like a Russian novel). Meanwhile the frank discussions of Athiesm vs Theism and secular vs religious politics is fascinating.

Seven Years in Tibet (Heinrich Harrer): Caught at the genesis of a Himalayan climb by the onset of WW2, the author is interned in India. Although he is kept in relative comfort and treated well, he dreams of freedom in the mountains to the north, and soon escapes to Tibet. After two years of hardship in the mountains of the nation in the sky, he reaches Lhasa (the capital) and builds a rich life, eventually rising to become personal tutor to the young Dalai Lama XIV. This is all, however, destroyed in the end by the Chinese invasion of 1955 and the wholesale destruction of Tibetan culture that followed.

I liked this book a lot as a travelogue and for its amazing insights into the history of a mysterious land. However, it is not a work of art - if you have read Papillon you will be familiar with the straightforward, unadorned narration of the facts of a journey that is rewarding for the subject matter alone if not for its lyrical style.

The Art of Happiness (The Dalai Lama XIV & Howard Cutler): I am not yet done this interesting project, which explores Buddhist philosophy of living through the perspective of a western-trained psychiatrist. It is all based on the basic premise that the entire purpose of life is to find happiness, and that we are usually the prime obstacles to our own journey to happiness.

This is my first venture into the ideas of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, and leaves me interested in reading his writings uninterpreted by a western author. Basically, this is presented as a self-help book, and suffers the same weakness I find in many such tomes: it points out very obviously true aspects of our society and minds, and provides prescriptions for what needs to be changed that seem equally straightforward - but leaves me saying "I knew I had to work on that...but HOW?"

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