The continuation in a series of posts listing some of the books that made the rigorous process in determining which I take with me and the others that must wait in Utah until my wife and I come back for them.
6. A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon
Mark Haddon’s famous book is A Curious Incident with the Dog in the Night-time, which got a lot of press for its unique narrator – a boy with autism. However, my favorite novel by Mark Haddon is A Spot of Bother, detailing a traditional, conservative British family whose only daughter is marrying someone everyone in the family hates. Meanwhile, the son must determine whether he should bring his boyfriend (and scandalize the entire family, especially his parents, still in semi-denial) or not, the mother tries to mop up an affair, and the father slowly begins to go a little bit crazy, convinced he will die soon of horrible disease – but hopes he can hide it from everyone and contain it until after the wedding so that he doesn’t inconvenience anyone. It’s a great book on family and acceptance, but like Then We Came to the End, it’s got some graphic scenes and some good old fashioned Brit cussing, so if you’re easily offended, pass this one, too.
He didn’t have a problem with homosexuality per se. Men having sex with men. One could imagine, if one was in the business of imagining such things, that there were situations where it might happen, situations in which chaps were denied the normal outlets. Military camps. Long sea voyages. One didn’t want to dwell on the plumbing but one could almost see it as a sporting activity. Letting off steam. High spirits. Handshake and a hot shower afterward.
It was the thought of men purchasing furniture together that disturbed him. Men snuggling. More disconcerting, somehow, than shenanigans in public toilets. It gave him the unpleasant feeling that there was a weakness in the very fabric of the world. Like seeing a man hit a woman in the street. Or suddenly not being able to remember the bedroom you had as a child.
Still, things changed. Mobile phones. Thai restaurants. You had to remain elastic or you turned into an angry fossil railing at litter.
7. A Leaky Tent Is a Piece of Paradise edited by Bonnie Tsui
A collection of essays about nature written by writers no older than thirty, this collection puts a new spin on “nature writing,” where young writers products of the late 20th to early 21st century write about their ways of connecting with whatever nature remains around them. The title derives from a delightful essay of a young man who, broken hearted, decides to move into a tent like Thoreau to Walden to remove himself from his worldly woes and learns a little about himself. Another essay speaks about learning the lesson of growing up from a group of river rafting guides who refuse to do just that. Another author writes of her intense fear of lightning and her conflicting desire to venture around the world. Each essay is more than delightful and makes nature much more accessible again to one who’s grown up in the city all his life.
But more surprisingly, once I could hold my despair and run a hand along its saggy, tired edges, the woe didn’t seem so boundless. The tent gradually became not a symbol of doom, but a very real refuge, my own pod of stability and control in a world that felt beyond control. Wind and rain could lash the tent and I would stay warm and cozy – as long as I held the walls up and stayed in the middle and had a towel to mop up the mess. So many years later, things really haven’t changed.
8. Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson
I first heard about this book from my friend Kimberly, who majored in communication studies. This iconoclastic book defies what conventional wisdom teaches us – that popular culture makes us really, really dumb. Popular culture won’t get you to Harvard, Steven Johnson writes, but it is making the general population smarter overall. If you want to learn how video games and even reality TV shows are helping us become a more smarter generation, I highly recommend this book.
To get around these prejudices [against games], try this thought experiment. Imagine an alternate world identical to ours save one techno-historical change: video games were invented and popularized before books. In this parallel universe, kids have been playing games for centuries – and then these page-bound texts come along and suddenly they’re all the rage. What would the teachers, and the parents, and the cultural authorities have to say about this frenzy of reading? I suspect it would sound something like this:
Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying – which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements – books are simply a barren string of words on the page. Only a small portion of the brain devoted to processing written language is activated during reading, while games engage the full range of the sensory and motor cortices.
9. The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In by Paisley Rekdal
Born of a Chinese mother and a Norwegian father, Paisley Rekdal writes painfully honest essays about being of mixed heritage, and what it means to never truly fit in. The most powerful essays for me detail her trip to South Korea, teaching English on a Fullbright contract. Having visited South Korea just a couple summers before, I could understand the almost traumatic experience of facing your Asian heritage head on and feeling crushed by the culture that should (in your mind) accept you with open arms.
I’ve never seen romantic stationary in Korean. There must be some, I think to myself, and later paw through the notepads in my desk, the fresh packets sold at school supply shops. But the ones I can find are always in English, I see, or French or Latin. And suddenly it occurs to me that this is sad, but because these cards seem to be spoiling something about Korea…I don’t like the fact that, to me, these cards appear like lies imported from another culture, a cheap sentimentality that feeds off the educationally enforced separation of the sexes.
Though I have often accused Koreans of whitewashing the truth about themselves with ritualized politeness, with Joseph at Usok I suddenly do not find this much different from the romantic moves and singers America produces in huge volumes on a seemingly daily basis…Perhaps my students, seeing movies from my culture, buying stationary with my language, have been taught to believe this artificial sentimentality is all that really matters to us. And maybe that makes them sad, too.
10. Jewish Dharma: A Guide to the Practice of Judaism and Zen by Brenda Shoshanna, PhD
For the longest time (and still today), I wished I was Jewish. No joke; I always thought Hannukah was cooler than Christmas as a kid, and it wasn’t just the presents. For some reason, decorating a tree seemed silly – celebrating God’s miracles of oil extension by re-enacting it seemed more real. On my mission, I declared to my district leader and good friend that I would only marry a girl from the tribe of Judah. Sure enough, on news of my engagement, Wolfgramm asked me if I accomplished this goal. I had forgotten about that boast a long time ago, but eerily enough, my wife derived from the lineage of Judah.
On top of that, I’m Asian, and with that come a lot of Asian baggage, despite my American identity. I have a lot of attitudes and traditions my parents taught me stemming from Confucianism and Buddhism. In high school during my senior year, I took a World Religions class from Mr. Prufer, who was Zen Buddhist. During that critical year, I was very close to running away from home and joining a Buddhist monastery.
Fast forward to 2009, and I’m still a faithful, practicing Mormon, though much more mature in spirituality than I was five years ago as a senior in high school. At Sam Weller’s, this book catches my eye – a book about how to be a practicing Ju-Bu (Jewish-Buddhist)? And if there is such a thing as a Ju-Bu, could there be a Mo-Ju-Bu? I set to find out.
In a period of my life where my religious practice seemed stale and stagnant, this book breathed new life into it. The author writes about her life experiences, of being raised Jewish and finding Buddhism and trying to reconcile her two belief systems into one. Sincerely honest without rationalization or scripture wresting, Brenda Shoshanna demonstrates President Hinckley’s request that all religions bring what’s good in theirs, and see if we can add on to it. Perhaps, my version of Mormonism is less meet-and-greets, funeral potatoes, and college ward prayer meetings, and more meditating and mitzvot observing.
He [my Zen master] was right, but questions still haunted me. As zazen deepened, I could not avoid the persistent questions that rose up within – I thought about my family, my cousins, parents, sister, brother. Am I abandoning you, I wondered? Have I left my Jewish roots behind? Am I running away from who I truly am? What about all those who died to uphold the Torah? At certain times I felt that doing deep zazen, I was fulfilling the true Torah, actualizing all the commandments. Other times, dressed in my Zen robes, I felt as though I was trespassing, violating my deeper self.
…One day I said to him, “I feel I should go home.”
“Where is your true home?”
I breathed deeply for a moment.
“Your true home. Before you were born! Eshin, calm down. You have not done wrong. You are not doing wrong here.”
“According to my people I must go home.”
“Then stop coming.”
“Then sit more deeply, to the very bottom of the well. Finally, when you are ripe, you will see that we are all One.”