Two thousand nine was a banner year for good books, and 2010 is rapidly turning out the same way. Here are a few titles — and one series — that abundantly tickled my fancy in the first few months of this year.
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What do you get when you put Javier Marias, Tennessee Williams, Yukio Mishima, and Federico Garcia Lorca in a blender and shake 'em up? New Directions Pearls — it's a new series (which, in the interest of honesty, has to be admitted to incorporate some reissues of New Directions's Bibelot series, an earlier foray into small book publishing) that includes both new and tried and tested works by these great authors. Mishima's Patriotism is a gripping paean to the Japanese military tradition of honor. If you haven't read it, you should; it's a concise and achingly beautiful short course in the rigorous rights and wrongs of Mishima's thought and passion.
The Marias story, Bad Nature; or with Elvis in Mexico, is hands-down an incredible piece of writing. As with Patriotism, this little book is a startling and captivating introduction to this great writer's work. It offers the fictional story of an ill-fated foray by Elvis into the cantinas of Acapulco while there to make a film, and tells of his run-in with a motley crew of local mobsters with edge-of-your-seat results.
Both of the above are really single short stories in one volume, albeit fabulous ones. Tennessee Williams's Tales of Desire, though, is a full-fledged assemblage of stories by the 20th-century American dramatic virtuoso. While Williams is obviously best known for his plays, this little collection makes it very apparent that he was equally at home in the world of short fiction. These stories relentlessly probe forbidden desire and the ins and outs of gay life at mid-century; they are heartrendingly tender and generous in their depiction of the damaged souls one can find in the world.
My favorite Pearl, though, has to be Federico Garcia Lorca's In Search of Duende, which combines essays and poems to bare the heart of such quintessentially Spanish art forms as flamenco, gypsy music, and the bullfight. This is an incredible book, brilliant and stirring, its language incandescent and magical — all in all, an honest-to-God literary treat.
The Pearls are eminently collectible and affordably priced. And there are more in the hopper. Keep your eyes peeled for volumes by Jorge Luis Borges and Cesar Aira in the months to come.
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Last year, I interviewed one of the editors of HarperOne's new Green Bible for Powells.com. That was in the original, linen-bound edition. Now they've issued the book in paperback, and what a beautiful job they've done with it. It includes all the supplementary material of the original (including essays on Christian and Jewish environmentalism by Bishop N. T. Wright, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Brian McLaren, among others) and is packaged in a durable and attractive binding. The translation is the widely acclaimed New Revised Standard Version, which means that it's both gender inclusive and very true to the original Greek and Hebrew texts. The thing that makes it a "green" bible, though, is the use of green ink to highlight texts throughout that focus on environmental- or stewardship-oriented issues.
In her wonderful book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris quotes church father Gregory of Nazianzus:
"To all earth's creatures God has given the broad earth, the springs, the rivers and the forests, [giving] abundantly to all the basic needs of life, not as a private possession, not restricted by law, not divided by boundaries, but as common to all, amply and in rich measure."
The Bible is a rich resource for crafting a life in tune with all of creation. It's time to reclaim that tradition of social and environmental justice. This fine, lovely, and challenging book is a good place to start.
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A Complete Guide to the Buddhist Path by Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen is just what the title says: a 486-page book on Tibetan Buddhism. This accessible and lively work is comprised of a series of commentaries on a root text called "The Jewel Treasury of Advice" by Drigung Bhande Dharmaradza (1704-1754). Take it from me, it's an exhaustive treatise. There' a lengthy section for beginners, a section for those practicing meditation, and sections on both the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools of Buddhism, as well as other aspects of the Tibetan Buddhist path. The stanzas that the author chooses to comment on are pithy and intriguing, and his commentaries are warm and approachable, combining teaching stories with straightforward explication in a way that makes the whole heady thing seem... well, both understandable and attractive.
Many books on Tibetan Buddhism include lots of lofty language and arcane references. This book has some of that as well, but it also includes not one, but two glossaries! In fact, I haven't been able to find a single term I didn't understand that wasn't clarified in the glossary.
There are teachings on impermanence, on preparing for death, and on the profound role of ethics in training. Advice is given on meditation and on the right ways to deal with the rise and fall of conditions in our ever-changing world. Some points are emphasized over and over, but it doesn't become cloying as the teachings are offered with such good humor and kindness. Obviously, both Dharmaradza and Gyaltshen want only the best
for their readers.
This is a fabulous book, the kind of work that can easily become a companion on a life's journey. And this is exactly what the authors want the reader to take away: the necessity of transforming this text into a way of life. For, after all, if you don't practice it, what good will all this fine and accessible recitation of profound insight do? Absolutely none at all.