Near Great Books of

Living, Dreaming, Dying:
Practical Wisdom from
The Tibetan Book
Of the Dead

Rob Nairn
Living, Dreaming, Dying is the Real McCoy. It may sound a bit kookie to some of us, but try to explain to a Buddhist nun in Laos the concept of a bird flying down to impregnate the Holy Mother, or the high Holy Feast of the Circumcision.

Nairn is a fine stylist, a master of the direct. He is comfortable with religious literature, Eastern and Western, and some of the visionaries of psychotherapy. His quotes run the gamut from William Shakespeare to The Mahabarata, from Carl Jung to T. S. Eliot and Mitch Albom, from the late Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to the masters such as Sogyal Rinpoche, Ringu Tulku and Ringo Starr (I just threw in that last to see if you were paying attention).

For the first time, Nairn's book has explained to my satisfaction, as no other Buddhism text does, the profound interconnection between how we are living our lives right now and how our kindnesses, angers, loves, and fears will affect us before, during, and after death. Quite noisy, sometimes arrogant, often preening chickens coming home to roost, as it were, on our coffins.

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Observations on the History and Habitat
of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants

Robert Sullivan
Sullivan is a sage, elegant and funny writer, and Rats works because he injects himself into the tale, picking out a dark and smelly alley in the lower East Side so he and his night-vision specs can hang out with rats. He on his humble camp-stool make this place his evening study for two years, gets to meet with various and sundry rat-like characters, including a wino who can call the rats up from their burrows at will.

It is Sullivan's very presence that turns this from dry narrative to charming study: he essays to visit rat conferences in Milwaukee and Chicago. He tries to meet the master of "Rodent Control," one Bobby Corrigan (he is put off). He goes to a rat awareness press conference put on by mayor John Norquist who is under some pressure due to a sex harassment charge. The author says, "Myself, I was merely interested in talking to the mayor about rat control." Sullivan reports that he wanted to "slip into Pfister's antique-looking bar and order a beer and wait for someone to ask me what I was doing in town so I could say, 'Rats.'"

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The Adventure
of English

The Biography of a Language
Melvyn Bragg
Bragg is no dull linguist. He can and does write with verve and understanding. He is in love with the language, and its strange history, and he manages to capture so many of the heights (and depths) of English, and its survival --- viewing it in terms of an extended guerrilla war.

To prove, for example, its rural base, he takes us to one of the great songs of late medieval England,

    Sumer is icumen in
    Lhude sing, cuccu.
    Groweth sed and bloweth med
    And springeth the wude nu.
    Sing cuccu.
    Awe bleteth after lomb
    Lhouth after calve cu
    Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
    Murie sing cuccu!
    Cuccu, cuccu
    Wel singe thou cuccu
    Ne swik thou naver nu.

We get to follow the language from its lowly beginnings, originating with the West Germanic-speaking invaders of 500 A.D. We go with it through times of what one of my students called "The Venereal Bede," through King Æthelred and monk Ælfric and Archbishop Wulfstan, going into hiding during the time of the Normans and finally emerging into the light with, of all things, the coming of the plague of 1350.

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Family Reunion:
Poems about Parenting
Grown Children

Sondra Zeidenstein, Editor
(Chicory Blue)
If you are planning to have any children in the next twenty-five years ... don't. Unless you are looking forward to fifty years (or more) in which you get to deal with alcoholism, anorexia, sullenness, blame (you!), sickness, lack of appreciation, inability to communicate, self-destructive behavior, late-night telephone calls, crying jags, grandchildren with life-threatening illnesses, and endless money-begs.

    She wants to hang herself from the rafters, she says
    to me at the top of the stairs...

Those are the opening lines of Joan Swift's poem "Ties," while Cortney Davis tells us about being in the airport café:

    How's work? I'll ask my son, trying to catch up.
    He'll concentrate on his plate. I'll pick up the bill.

Raymond Carver reports, "Oh, son, in those days I wanted you dead/a hundred --- no a thousand --- different times." And his daughter?

    You're a beautiful drunk, daughter.
    But you're a drunk. I can't say you're breaking
    my heart. I don't have a heart when it comes
    to this booze thing.

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A Tale of
Love and Darkness
A Memoir
Amos Oz
Nicholas de Lange,

A Tale of Love and Darkness is just that: a tale filled with wonderful pictures of family, isolated lives, heart-rending stories, lived as always with great exit lines. This is his learned, always busy Uncle Joseph:

    Now run along my dear, and do not steal any more of my time, as all the world does, having no thought for the minutes and hours that are my only treasure, and that are seeping away.

And throughout, there is Oz's gentle, writerly wit. He tells us that he never was much of a scholar, never "had any talent for research," one "whose mind always turns cloudy at the sight of a footnote. My father's books are rich in footnotes..." he continues. This statement appears in a footnote.

We've always had an affection for Oz since we stumbled across his short and very funny novel The Same Sea. The autobiography is not as unified, compact, and deft. But it has the virtue of being rendered in bite-sized pieces, perfect for picking up and leaving and picking up again.

I've been spending the last month doing just that. I've arrived just past page 300. I plan to spend at least another month or two wandering through this one.

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Holding the Lotus to the Rock
The Autobiography of Sokei-an,
America's First Zen Master

Michael Hotz, Editor
(Four Walls Eight Windows)
For the first twenty years, he tells us, he "greatly benefited from Buddhism." In the second twenty years, he says, "I have been ungaining everything I have learned."
    In conclusion, I should say I have gained nothing ... I went through such terrific agony studying this Zen. I lost everything I had, and I gained nothing. I am satisfied.
These last three words, piled atop everything that goes before, the tail on the donkey. It all goes to make Sokei-an a boot; what he gets down on the page encompasses the very essence of crazy wisdom, the wisdom that sets him above many of the other foreign-born masters, giving us the secure knowledge ... of the absurdity of it all.

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Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Jordan Stump

(Dalkey Archive)
In the notes I made as I was making my leisurely way through Television, I wondered "Why is this all so interesting?" We are dealing with a massive procrastinator preparing to write a long and supremely stupid study of some dinky event from 1550. We get to follow him through the streets of Berlin, meeting with other people who are pothering around with their own minuscule projects. "Why is it I can't put this one down?" I ask myself. This is no Alan Furst novel, not even a page turner like Geisha or Buddha-Da or even an Alan King blockbuster.

Maybe it's the ridiculous details: a computer mouse, he finds, when seeking something to do with his project --- "From among the dozen or so vaguely bluish folders that appeared before me in the electronic window I'd opened, I selected the file titled The Paintbrush and opened it with two more quick strokes of my finger over the mouse's clitoris, expertly teasing its little ductile zone."

It is possibly the gratuitous (but maybe not too gratuitous) introduction of TV and computer and security screens everywhere. Or working the computers at the Pompidou Library, he finds that Titian was also known as "Tiziano Vecellio" --- (that is, T.V.) Then he discovers that to access Titian, one has to type in "TIT" into the computer. Then there is the day his friend's psychoanalyst goes on vacation, so he goes into the doctor's office and sits and listens to the clients and no one knows the difference.

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The American People
In World War II

David M. Kennedy
Here it all is. The facts? Right there. The ambiance? Not to be missed? The writing? Damn near poetical.

Like the thousands of islands in the Pacific, we find Kennedy's insights strewn merrily along the 480 pages of this masterwork.
  • Prince Bismarck said that the supreme geopolitical fact of the modern era "is that the Americans speak English."
  • The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor may well have presaged their defeat in 1945. Why? There was no follow-up to destroy the all-important repair and fuel facilities, American aircraft carriers were elsewhere --- the Pacific War came to be, above all, a war between aircraft carriers --- and the strategic impact "was doubtful" avers Kennedy. The attack emboldened the Chinese and the English and enraged the American people who had previously been mostly in favor of "no foreign entanglements."
  • Boeing's B-17, touted as "The Flying Fortress," was a disaster. Fliers suffered from frostbite and suffocation from frozen detritus in their oxygen mask tubes. They were vulnerable to Luftwaffe head-on attacks. Mid-air collisions between the planes claimed "nearly as many airmen's lives (approximately 36,000) as did combat (approximately 49,000)."
  • Wartime contracts were a bonanza to large American corporations. "More than two-thirds of prime military contracts went to just one hundred firms. The 33 largest corporations accounted for half of all military contracting."

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Langrishe, Go Down
Aidan Higgins
(Dalkey Archives)
Higgins is a breathtaking writer. I could think of no more unlikely material with which to mold an interesting novel --- but not only does she pull it off --- we find ourselves right there in that cramped bed with Otto and Imogen (and the fleas). We learn to love them and then, after awhile, begin to fall into despair (as they do) as the funny, encyclopædic brainy Otto and the now-flowering Imogen become, unlike her various sisters (and, apparently, mum and dear dead dad) quite a passion-pot. Then it all begins to fall apart.

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Where Stuff Comes From:
How Toasters, Toilets, Cars, Computers,
and Many Other Things Come to
Be As They Are

Harvey Molotch
In the same way that Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalogue was apolitical (he made use of extensive government and military information as much as "counter-culture" writers, so Molotch defines himself as a "political atheist." He is only concerned with what he calls "lash-ups" --- where things come together. That, for instance, the width of railroad tracks in the United States goes back to the width of Roman roads --- being the width of the posteriors of two horses, bound side-by-side to pull chariots during the time of the Empire.

It is this apolitical fact-yolking that gives us an almost æsthetic pleasure.

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The Voice of the Poet
Allen Ginsberg
Random House Audio
Ginsberg reads eleven poems on this CD. The best are Howl, A Supermarket in California --- ("Where are we going, Walt Whitman? ... Which way does your beard point tonight?") --- and the beautiful and winsome late-in-life Personals Ad from 1987. Ginsberg never lost his touch, neither in his writing, nor in his life. His public self was his persona, but that never stopped him from being Allen Ginsberg. He was not only a man of wit, he had a daring: once on a visit to Cuba, he demanded that Che Guevara dance around a maypole with him.

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Red Gold
Alan Furst
There is the adventure of it all --- knowing that because of the way the [secret police] work (and the author makes sure that we know what they represent) we suspect that Casson will be, by all rights, murdered before the end of the book. But a worthy author can't murder a worthy character, especially one we have come to have a certain affection for, n'est çe pas? How does Furst solve that problem?

    He woke early the next morning and opened the window, watching the night fade from the Paris sky. The rain had stopped, a few black puddles in the cobbled square, and the air smelled like spring. He heard someone in the corridor, then a light knock on the door.
    "Yes?" he said.

And that's the last line of the book.

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The Double
José Saramago
We have spoken with affection of Saramago before in our review of The Cave and, as well, citing it as one of the Ten Best Books of 2004.

We opined,

    Saramago got a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, and as far as I am concerned he should have gotten at the same time the Nobel Prize for Psychology and another one, the Wise Prize, for Knowledge of the Workings of the Heart & Soul...
    ... plus, and in addition, any other prizes around --- the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Prix Fixe de France and whatever other bookish prizes they have hanging around --- to give to those who through some sterling ability that you and I will never ever be able to comprehend can take a story and words and characters and twist them around and down inside you with such force that they belong to you ... no ... they become you.

I suspect that Saramago's forte is the shaggy dog story, one that goes on (and on) with enough wit and style and verve to make one want it to last forever, and it is not just because of mots that pop up: "Chaos is order waiting to be deciphered," or "All great truths are basically trivial." No: it's the story line and falling in love with the characters and all of them being so salty and funny that you want to jump right in and become part of it.

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Separate Journeys:
Short Stories
By Contemporary
Indian Women

Geeta Dharmarajan
(University of South Carolina)
In the case of Separate Journeys, we began dead center with Kamala Das' story of the hijra --- "hermaphrodites and eunuchs resting on charpoys or squatting under breadfruit trees." An old woman with a face "suggesting lunacy" appears. At the gate is Rambhau who has yellow teeth "like tombstones."

"Who is this old woman?" he asks.

"I have sworn not to return home without finding my daughter," she says.

"What's the use of looking for your daughter in a hijra-colony? Only the likes of us live here."

"She is a hijra," says the old woman.

    "She was born seventeen years after I got married. I had to go on a pilgrimage to several shrines before I could conceive. But when she arrived, she was a hijra. God made her that way. But her face was like the full moon. I named her Poonam. She had a birthmark shaped like a conch on her cheek. My astrologer told me that the birthmark was very auspicious. It would make the family very wealthy, he said ... but my mother-in-law could not forgive me for delivering such a baby. My husband hated the child. Then you people stole her when she was asleep in her cradle."

    "You are wrong," said Rambhau. "We do not steal babies. We buy them, paying handsomely. We have a rigid code of ethics, mother."

Even a short story takes a while to get into. But here we have, from the get-go, a colony of hermaphrodites and eunuchs, a once-barren mother seeking a daughter who may have been stolen (or sold), born with an auspicious mark on her cheek. She falls into dialogue with the hijra, who, the author tells us early on, "hate miserliness. If anyone annoys them, they lift their skirts and exhibit their pitiable genitalia."

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The Mystique
Of Enlightenment:

The Radical Ideas of
U. G. Krishnamurti

Uppaluri Gopala Krishnamurti
Krishnamurti can't stand the guru stuff. He is the anarcho-syndicalist of the mystical world, the Kropotkin of the New Age, the Bakunin of all that touchy-feely nonsense.

A breath of fresh air? No, more: he's a hurricane of no-nonsense, a firestorm of indifference to this bliss crap.

If you think you are on The Way, read him. You have everything to gain, nothing to lose but your arrogance. The only thing you can win is the chance to forget your pretense of Being on the Path.

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The Mercy Seat:
Collected & New Poems,
1967 - 2001

Norman Dubie
(Copper Canyon
American Poetry)
This particular volume lay around on my desk for a few months while I picked it up, pawed through it, put it down, picked it up again, wondered at the startling images, wanting to write it up, but hesitating, knowing, as all of us must know sometime, that we would be hard-pressed to get something like this down, to make it comprehensible to ourselves, to others. Dubie's images can be so fresh as to force one to go through it again, just to see how he pulls it off; and once savored, reminding one of the best of haiku:
    The birches stand in their beggar's row
    Each poor tree
    Has had its wrists nearly
    Torn from the clear sleeves of bone.
    These icy trees
    Are hanging by their thumbs
    Under a sun
    That will begin to heal them soon...
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