One silver lining of lockdown was that I started reading books again. Below are short reviews of a somewhat random collection, in case you’re looking for something to pick up.
This 2018 novel by Richard Powers follows a handful of people whose lives are brought together and shaped by trees. Gimmicky premise, but beautifully executed and after a while, an actual page turner. If you liked Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe or The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, you might like this one.
CONFESSIONS OF A YAKUZA
Memoir of a Japanese gangster. Book gained notice when Bob Dylan lifted about a dozen lines from it and sprinkled them (without attribution) through his 2001 album Love and Theft. The gangster’s narration is straightforward and self-effacing. His world is populated by riverboat gamblers, pickpockets, prostitutes, smugglers, coal miners, and corrupt police officers. Story includes a memorably harrowing account of the young narrator’s treatment for syphilis. On the positive side, great book title, and I want the snow-clogs the guy is wearing in the cover photo.
When I was growing up in the late 1970s, all I knew about Iran was that 50 Americans were being held hostage there. The graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi sheds light on daily life in Tehran before and after the Islamic revolution. Events are seen through the eyes of an adolescent girl from a wealthy, well-educated family. Quick, easy read, full of unexpected details and humor (well, and basic facts about Persian culture which I didn’t know). This book, in turn, got me interested in the Israeli TV shows Tehran and Fauda, set in contemporary Iran and the occupied territories of Israel, respectively. Since I couldn’t travel during lockdown, watching TV and reading books were the next best thing. Not that I was headed to Tehran or Gaza; there are limits to my curiosity. But now I know what it was like to be a 13-year-old Iranian girl after the imams took over in 1979.
Part memoir, part journalism, this book tells you what you probably already knew — factory farming of animals in the 21st century results in horrible lives for the animals, massive environmental problems for the rest of us. But the book conveys the info in a smart, dispassionate way. I guess my meat-eating habits were already hanging by a thread, but even just the first 30 pages of this book finished the job. Author is Jonathan Safran Foer.
THE FIRST AND LAST FREEDOM
Just when I was feeling all virtuous and self-satisfied about going vegan, the late Indian writer Jiddu Krishnamurti took the wind out of my sails. Not that he endorses meat eating, just that he deftly points out how we each build a sense of self through attachment to certain beliefs, ideas, or identification with a particular nation, school, family, religion, sports team, whatever. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s a natural impulse. But Krishnamurti reveals the extent to which misery and conflict result from these well-intentioned attachments and identifications. As an alternative, he prescribes a lifelong program of careful, alert, nonjudgmental observation of self, with the ultimate goal of laying the self aside. The ideas overlap somewhat with jnana yoga, which is sometimes described as the ‘way of the intellect,’ as opposed to karma yoga (path of action) or bhakti yoga (path of devotion). Krishnamurti says even if visionaries like Christ and the Buddha achieved personal enlightenment and transcendence, their ideas don’t seem to have put a noticeable dent in human conflict since then.
This is a Japanese novel from 1952 by Yasunari Kawabata, who would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I found this book on a sidewalk ledge one day while walking my dog. Book was just sitting there — a tiny, well-worn paperback. I picked it up, took it home, read it. Book is basically one long mood, in the same way that the French novel Bonjour Tristesse is a mood, or The Stranger by Camus. You learn a lot about Japanese tea ceremonies, their cultural importance, and different types of ancient tea ware. This sounds boring, but the author throws in some sex and a malignant, meddlesome old woman, and the whole thing moves along fine.
I NO LONGER STEAL FROM NATURE
This is a poem, not a novel. It was written about a thousand years ago by a blind Arab poet known as Al Ma’arri, who lived in what is now Syria. Sometimes I forget that people thousands of years ago weren’t always concerned 24/7 with staying alive or finding the next meal, or surviving childbirth. I was impressed a blind man in the the desert in the year 1020 wasn’t just vegetarian, but full-on vegan. It’s one thing to swear off meat, dairy, and honey in present-day L.A., quite another in 11th-century Syria. I don’t know who brought this blind guy his meals, but I imagine it could get pretty annoying. I liked the part of the poem about milk. It was basically the same thing which actor Joaquin Phoenix said in his speech at the Oscars last year. (At the time I thought, ‘What in the world is this guy talking about?’)
Here’s the poem:
You are diseased in understanding and religion.
Come to me, that you may hear something of sound truth.
Do not unjustly eat fish the water has given up,
And do not desire as food the flesh of slaughtered animals,
Or the white milk of mothers who intended its pure draught
for their young, not noble ladies.
And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking eggs;
for injustice is the worst of crimes.
And spare the honey which the bees get industriously
from the flowers of fragrant plants;
For they did not store it that it might belong to others,
Nor did they gather it for bounty and gifts.
I washed my hands of all this; and wish that I
Perceived my way before my hair went gray!
Me too, Al Ma’arri! I feel the same way.
Short science-fiction novel by Lois Lowry. I think it is read mostly by middle-school students, but on the heels of Thousand Cranes, I was looking for another tiny paperback I could stash in my back pocket. This one describes a community in which seasons, personal differences, even visual perception of color have been smoothed away and eradicated, in the interest of more predictable, less painful lives. It takes a while for the dystopic aspects to reveal themselves. At the beginning you’re thinking, ‘Okay, well there are actually some nice innovations here.’ And then, soon enough, you are not thinking that.
THE IMMORTALITY KEY
This work examines whether ancient Greek rites and early Christian eucharistic ceremonies included the use of psychedelic substances. That is, was the wine in those ceremonies more potion than wine, with various additives introduced to heighten effects? On the one hand, the subject is fascinating, and the evidence persuasive; on the other, the author makes the book too much about himself and keeps going back to buttress points he already proved. The book follows in the footsteps of the 1978 work The Road to Eleusis, which made the same argument but before scientific testing of ancient drinking vessels had confirmed traces of psychedelic compounds.
VACATIONLAND: TRUE STORIES FROM PAINFUL BEACHES
Sharp observational humor from writer/comedian/actor John Hodgman. It’s especially funny if you have ever lived or vacationed in Maine.