Well, it's that time of year again. Let's see if I can recommend a few books to make your shopping easier...
First of all, let me bring to your attention Margo Berdeshevsky's haunting and lyrical collection of short stories, Beautiful Soon Enough. This is a strange and wonderful book. It shares the stories of 23 women as they navigate the shores and shoals of their lives, their triumphs and failures. It whispers, really; there's nothing clarion about Beautiful Soon Enough. It's elegant and understated, richly textured and deeply hypnotic. It's no surprise, really, that it won FC2's American Book Review/Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize.
Really, I should let this book, which brushes close to the beauty of poetry, speak for itself. Just a taste now, pulled at random from the text:
What she sees at once is the hump. The very old woman. Then a woman with a cascade of hair, her face buried in her reddened hands. Then, again, the older one. Who is methodically shredding her newspaper whose huge headline is mostly visible. Russia's Day of Knowledge. We are a country in the dark.
— A stranger came among us, he spoke, with tremendous strain in front of a very short pine box. She had no family, none present. When it was learned, one thin sister and the wine merchant came to bow their heads.
— A stranger, the brother said again, a voice like wire. She came to our door and who among us loved her?
She was interred with nods and without further fuss, stark winter squirrel.
This is a perfect choice for the devotee of the avant garde in literature, the person who loves Ducornet or Walser or anything experimental and deeply sensuous.
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Edward Sanders's new book, Let's Not Keep Fighting the Trojan War, is very different. This volume is ebullient and explosive, an irreverent and highly idiosyncratic ride through the recent years of our diminishing republic. (It's also very funny.) Sanders is a bard whose roots lie in the Beat movement, who caroused his way through the '60s and '70s, maintained relationships with such diverse poets as Frank O'Hara and Aeschylus (Sanders has spent a great deal of time with the classics), and sustained a militant antiwar witness in the face of the blossoming American empire.
These poems are, to say the least, rough and ready. There is nothing polished about them. One gets the impression that Sanders wrote his experience, dreams, and thoughts as directly as he perceived them. They are raw and cantankerous, yet filled with a mystic energy and power that helps lift his audience above what might, in a lesser visionary, be an impediment to good reading. This is poetic prophecy in the tradition of Blake and Ginsberg.
Frankly, I loved it. And, to be honest, while I had a hard time with some of the poems, many others utterly transported me, leaving me breathless and grateful in response. For the lover of Ginsberg or Kerouac, the visceral rebel, I can think of no better gift.
While we're at it, this book has been published in a uniform edition with a reissue of Sanders's 1987 American Book Award-winning Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century.
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This next book is a classic and a reprint — or, rather, two classics. New Directions published Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha in 1951. In 1936, they published Irving Babbitt's version of The Dhammapada, a key text in Theravada Buddhism. Now, they've reissued the two of them in a combined edition that is easy on both the eyes and the wallet.
Hesse's book probably needs no introduction. Loosely tied to Buddhist tradition, it follows the spiritual journey of young Siddhartha as he moves through various austerities and advanced yogic practices, meets the historical Buddha, and lives the life of a rich and successful householder. The ending is a surprise, and the book as a whole is a definite treat.
The Dhammapada is a superb outline, if a little dry at times, of the Buddha's teachings. It merits close and repeated reading, and is a wealth of insight into the way the world works and the role of the practitioner in that world. It's also a challenging book. Few will be the readers who come away from the combined onslaught of these two fabulous works unchanged!
From The Dhammapada:
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the wagon.
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.
This is a perfect book for the person who loved Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. It's a meaty combo, worth revisiting in this attractive edition down through the years.