20 June, 2021

Eight Books I Spent My Spring Reading

Haruki Murakami has written very fine, very bizarre works of short- and long-form fiction, of which I've read over half. I feel confident in saying that I know his work well. So when my mother made a birthday gift of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (translated by Jay Rubin), from my Amazon wish list, I thought that I knew roughly what I was in for. More than 600 pages later, I realized how wrong I'd been. For my taste, the story of Toru Okada, an aimless thirty-something protagonist (like almost all of Murakami's narrators), and his search for, first, his cat, then his wife, meandered along, in stilted prose, for far too long before arriving at its propulsive ending. Part of me wants to blame the translation, the language of which feels stilted and out-of-date. The story never cohered for me. I found myself wondering if other readers agreed, so I had it googled. As it turns out, a majority of his fans call The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle their favorite Murakami book. I'm baffled as to why; it's easily my least.

For no reason but to be nice, a fellow book-lover named Kristy H. sent me several titles. I dove straight into Junot Díaz's story collection This Is How You Lose Her. I first read several of its stories in The New Yorker, about a decade ago. These tragic, profane monologues about love and loss confirm that Díaz is a writer with a unique voice, a prodigious talent deserving of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize he won for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (which I also read – and relished).

Kristy also sent the classic Margaret Atwood novel The Handmaid's Tale. This was a reread, too. The narrative of a woman subjugated and half-brainwashed by an oppressive religious regime in what used to be the United States was worth revisiting. Last time, I'd been seventeen or so, and the book seemed like more of a warning against the perils of theocracy; this time, possibly because of post-#MeToo awareness, its central horror seemed more the mistreatment of women. Either way, Atwood was at the absolute top of her game when she wrote The Handmaid's Tale. I don't know if I'd want to watch the TV series, though. The novel's ending seems too perfect a thing to change for the sake of reaching a different audience.

On the opposite side of the spectrum sits Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's infamous tome, The Illuminatus! Trilogy. It had a lot going for it – the recommendations of not one but two friends, enthusiastic blurbs from reviewers, and a longstanding reputation as a cult classic. But a lot of the book, a fantastical tale of conspiracy and absurdity aswim with references and concerns that were probably foremost on the minds of its readers in the late '70s (the JFK assassination, Watergate, the Black Power movement). These bugbears have since lost dramatic punch. Or, maybe, I'm just not as easily amused as I used to be by absurdity and dirty jokes for their own sake. In either event, I wish The Illuminatus! Trilogy hadn't taken up space on my Amazon wish list for as long as it did.

The last book in "the Kristy Trove," Haruki Murakami's The Elephant Vanishes (translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin), contains a better brand of weirdness. Its first story, "The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women," is actually an excerpt from the novel I started this quarter reading. (The excerpt, standing alone, is much more enjoyable.) I usually enjoy Murakami's short fiction quite a bit, and this great collection was no exception. Thank you for these months of good reading, Kristy! I really appreciate them.

At various points along the way, I had my nose in dharma teachings. Because of popular misunderstandings about enlightenment (as the term is used in Buddhism) most people, especially in the West, are surprised and a little confused by the Zen tenet that we are – every single one of us – already enlightened, pure and complete, lacking nothing. Our enlightenment is just asleep, lulled into its inactive state by a world of phenomena and conditioning. In his Essentials of Transmitting the Mind-Dharma, the ninth-century Zen master Huangbo Xiyun reminds us again and again that there's nothing we have to do, nothing we need to attain, in order to cultivate our enlightenment. We already have what we need, right here, right now.

Commenting on this, the Korean Zen master Subul Sunim writes, "After having an 'experience' through your meditation practice, there is nothing you need to do but pass the time by going along with the flow of causes and conditions." The book I'm quoting from is A Bird in Flight Leaves No Trace, translated by Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Seong-Uk Kim, a collection of commentaries (originally delivered as lectures) on the text by Huangbo mentioned above. I read just one account in A Bird in Flight each day, every time I locked down for the 11 o'clock count, then sat with it awhile, letting my mind orbit what it just took in.

Since I was usually in a receptive state after reading Sunim, noontimes often found me picking up Timothy Donnelly's latest collection, The Problem of the Many, and reading one or two of his poems in that particular mindset. This book came as a gift from Emily C., a delightful mid-spring surprise. (Thank you, Emily.) I love the voice that Donnelly writes with – by turns academic and plainspoken, mating in his poems the highbrow and the low-, to breathtaking effect. (I described his work as "breathtaking" before, when I wrote this May blog post in response to "Bled." It's true here, too) His newest collection seems less emotionally fraught, and less personal, than The Cloud Corporation, which I loved. But poems like "Diet Mountain Dew" and "Chemical Life" offer similar syntactic and linguistic delights without weighing as heavy on readers as many of those earlier poems did. Nevertheless, from here, too, points an accusing finger, drawing attention to our shirked responsibilities as stewards of history, of our race, of the environment, and referring back, again and again, to a hope that we flawed humans aren't a lost cause, and to a belief that all that exists is connected. The opening poem's final lines (following references to the Ridley Scott prequel Prometheus, a snake in Texas, and Baudrillard's America) phrase it well: "let particles of us entangle / knowingly with those of a gold encyclopedia / in the ruins of Vienna or an ear of teosinte across /an open border, a common source of being, before I / die – let us be, let being be, continuous, continuous."

The simply titled Look and See by Myokyo-ni is made up of twenty-five Buddhist teaching stories, with a commentary on each. The author, a Zen master from Austria, studied for more than a decade in Japan before becoming a nun and assuming the position of abbess at a British monastery. She practiced in the Rinzai tradition, which places particular emphasis on discipline. This, coupled with certain biographical facts, could be responsible for the old-fashioned writing style here. The stories are certainly ancient. Some, like "The Blind Men and the Elephant," are even familiar to Westerners. All have an invaluable lesson to impart.

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