Book Round Up

I’ve been spending more time reading than writing lately, so in an effort to keep up my presence on this blog, I thought I’d share some of the books I’ve either listened to or actually read this past month. Almost all of them are self-help books related to Buddhism. I find it very relaxing to listen to audiobooks before falling asleep at night. I set the timer for an hour and listen until the words fade out of my consciousness.

Body and Mind Are One, a training in mindfulness, by Thich Naht Hanh. This book consists of a series of dharma talks Thich Naht Hanh has given at Plum Village, the monastery he founded in France. Thay, or teacher, as his students affectionately call him, has a gentle way of teaching mindfulness. He goes into detail about creating a sangha (community) where practitioners can communicate their hurts or delights with each other in a compassionate manner. I’d love to be a part of a sangha in the town where I live, but I don’t want to take the initiative to start one, at least not now when I’m in the middle of writing a travelogue of my pilgrimage. So I put Thay’s teachings into practice with my family and friends.

Bringing Home the Dharma by Jack Kornfield. Kornfield discusses his life experiences with Buddhist meditation, beginning with his life as a student of Asian studies at Dartmouth College and continuing as a novice monk in Thailand. He later explores the evolution of the dharma as it has manifested in the U.S., and includes a chapter about problems with sexual misconduct and abuse of power that has occurred in “almost all” Buddhist meditation centers in the U.S. I appreciate his honesty and his willingness to face the problems. Kornfield acknowledges the need to hold frank discussions about sex, alcohol abuse, hallucinogens, and anti-depressants and how they relate to practicing mindfulness mediation in the 21st century.

Rising Strong by Brené Brown. I first became aware of sociologist Brené Brown after listening to her interview with Krista Tippet on On Being, when she spoke about vulnerability and shame. Shame is such a strong force in our culture, and we are so willing to bend to its power. Who hasn’t made mistakes in her life? Who hasn’t wanted to cover her tracks when her cover is blown? In Rising Strong, Brene Brown bases much of her writing on a quote by Theodore Roosevelt that she has taken into her heart:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

Rising Strong teaches the reader to not make negative assumptions about another person’s reactions to us. Rather than judging others for what we perceive as negative qualities, she encourages the reader to instead assume that others are doing the best they can in a given situation.

Brown is very open and honest about her own failures, using them to illustrate how, when we find ourselves planted face down in the arena, we can find the courage to rise up. Brown’s book offers the reader a path toward learning from failure rather than retreating in shame or discouragement.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. I found this book on a forum for women travel writers, where it was suggested as an alternative to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. The discussion centered around an article titled “How Not to Be Elizabeth Gilbert,” and Boo’s work was offered as an alternative to Gilbert’s writing. Although I found the article about Gilbert to be mean spirited ( women writers don’t need to shame other women writers in order for their own voices to be heard and appreciated), I still appreciate learning about Katherine Boo’s writing from the discussion.

Boo’s book is  journalistic exploration of the slums located near the airport in Mumbai. I don’t consider books such as Eat, Pray, Love or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to be travel writing. They are memoirs whose stories are revealed while the women embark on a journey. Even though the  book I’m writing has more in common with Gilbert and Strayed’s concept of a travelogue/memoir, I was thoroughly impressed by Boo’s ability to get inside the minds of the children in the Annawadi slum.

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. I’ve been a fan of Mary Karr’s memoirs ever since reading Liars Club. What makes her writing unique is her ability to recreate the voice of her child self while at the same time punching up her prose to meet the expectations of a literary reader. In the Art of Memoir, Karr advises the reader to develop her own voice, relating that she herself spent at least a year writing her story before she found the way to channel her East Texas vernacular. She also advises the emerging memoirist to immerse the writing in carnality, in other words, to engage the five senses and put the reader in a scene, fairly basic writing tenets.  What I most liked about the book was Karr’s discussion of memoirs she teaches as well as the list of recommended memoirs she includes at the end of the book.

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