Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Peace is Every Step

I have been experiencing a teensy bit of stress lately and asked a friend that seems to have it together to recommend a good source for chilling out. She recommended two books - Peace is Every Step, by Thich Nhat Hanh and Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living by Pema Chodron.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and apparently very well respected in the Buddhist community, as far as I could tell from the approving comments of my few Buddhist friends. Peace is Every Step was very helpful in reducing my stress level. Nhat Hanh's all about breathing deeply and repeating meditative phrases to stay in the moment, like:
Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.

and, if you're more stressed out or angry, you might say:
Breathing in, I know that anger is here.
Breathing out, I know that the anger is me.
Breathing in, I know that anger is unpleasant.
Breathing out, I know this feeling will pass.
Breathing in, I am calm.
Breathing out, I am strong enough to take care of this anger.

That became frequently helpful, alas to say, many times recently. Repeatedly.

There are some Buddhist practices that I really identify with, and others I wish I could identify with more (but it doesn't seem to be in my nature!) Nhat Hanh, for example, encourages readers to try to understand why "people that cause suffering" might be suffering themselves. I think that's all well and good to a certain point, but I think I'm not a big enough person to do that consistently. He compares anger to a compost pile out of which beautiful things might grow: "When anger is born in us, we can be aware that anger is an energy in us, and we can accept that energy in order to transform it into another kind of energy." OK, but how about cursing and crying and slamming doors and watching tv until all our troubles seem to disappear?

I kid. Sort of. Actually, this book really inspired me (to be a better person!) and I think I should read it a few times more. Although, the jerk in me thinks it's very nice for a monk to propose these things because he's surrounded by a bunch of other monks who are super nice and always practicing mindfulness and whatnot, while the rest of us are mostly surrounded by complete A-holes. Amirite?

I most mention, however, when this book helped me deal with something that was really upsetting me - I had just gone to a funeral of a beloved family friend, and someone in that family had also just had a baby. Grieving and celebrating, welcoming life and saying goodbye all at once was causing me some overload. I couldn't process my emotions. Then, on the way home, I was reading this book and he ends with a poem called Call Me by My True Names, which goes, in part:
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all
walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Innocent Blood

Lately I've developed a affection for British crime novels written by the ladies (Sayers, James) and picked up Innocent Blood somewhere, probably for a quarter or free... I think I need to officially declare that Sayers shall heretofore be my go-to-lady-British-crime-novelist because James has done me wrong too many times.

Innocent Blood is kind of ridiculous. It's about a young woman, Philippa, who's adopted, and she finds out that her birth mother is in prison for murder. But, for various reasons, this doesn't really bother her, even though her birth mother and father were convicted of raping and murdering a child. So, when her mom gets out of prison, they rent a flat together and get to know each other, vaguely. Meanwhile, the father of the murdered child is trying to find the birth mother and kill her.

I found the whole thing unbelievable and the characters really under-developed. In the end (here come some spoilers...), it turns out the birth mother was greatly abused as a child herself (not surprisingly) and what James seems to be half-heartedly pursuing was the idea that violence and disregard for others is a result of nature. In the end, I mean, like the last two pages, Philippa ends up having sex with her adopted dad, which I just thought was a punch in the face after reading the damn thing and I was quite furious:
What, she wondered, had it meant exactly, that gentle, tender, surprisingly uncomplicated coupling; an affirmation, a curiosity satisfied, a test successfully passed, an obstacle ceremoniously moved out of the way so that they could again take up their roles of father and daughter, the excitement of incest without its legal prohibition.

See? That's exactly what I mean about unbelievable characters - nobody has sex with their adopted dad and calls it uncomplicated.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Mockingjay - Spoilers!

I almost walked over to my friend's house and broke in to steal something in the middle of the night. That item? Her copy of Mockingjay. I'd just finished Catching Fire, and I needed that book. I couldn't think about anything else.

Like the other two books in the trilogy, I read the final installment in less than 2 days and really couldn't be distracted to do anything else until I was done. It's a really phenomenal series and absolutely gripping! I'm actually relieved I didn't discover them until they were all out, or I would have been in agony waiting for them to be released!

I'm going to get into specifics, so stop now if you intend to read this in the future...

As you may recall, at the end of Catching Fire, Kitness has just been snatched out of the arena and discovered that Peeta is in the hands of the Capital. At the beginning of Mockingjay, we learn that the revolution is in full swing and Katniss, her mom and sister, Gale and many others are living in District 13, underground. The rebels want Katniss to be the symbol of the revolution, The Mockingjay. She finally consents, after making some conditions. She does inspire the districts with her bravado and hatred for the Capital's practices. I think that bit of the books is interesting because (although I often forget) these are YA books with a largely un-confident female protagonist, who has to prove to herself, or have others point out, that she really is a remarkable and inspiring person. While she may otherwise have little in common with teenage girl readers of the books, it's quite likely that they'll have lack-of-confidence in common.

I enjoyed reading about the underground caverns that make up district 13. How they got their daily schedule temporarily tattooed on their arms, what they ate, what they wore, what their rooms were like. The rebels understood as well as the Capital how important the message of the revolution is - Katniss is instructed to make propos (propoganda messages) to be aired across the districts, while President Snow creates his own propos, using an ever-beaten down Peeta as his tool.

Because Katniss is so overwhelmed by the thought that Peeta is being tortured to effect her, the Rebels free him and others from the Capital, but Peeta's been "hijacked" to believe that she's the enemy and tries to kill her. I thought that was a really clever plot devise even though I found it kind of devastating because I was so wrapped up in the story.

This inspires Katniss and others to topple the Capital, so she, Gale, Finnick and some others (followed by a camera crew) go off to fight. They discover that the Capital has been rigged, much like the Games, with all kinds of crazy traps, and lots of folks on their team get killed. Isn't it interesting when you love someone in a book and when they get killed or die, you've got to recover a little? This book reminded me a lot of the last Harry Potter book (also about a war, also were beloved characters are killed) but Suzanne Collins' book struck a more universal note with me. Ultimately Katniss becomes the sort of moral barometer of the war. She feels the weight of each person she's killed, has caused to be killed, or even sees die. Her friend Gale is the opposite - he looks at the war strategically and logistically and it ultimately drives a wedge between them.

I love how the book ends with Katniss and Peeta creating a book together of everyone who died in their lives, the games, and the revolution:
The page begins with the person's picture. A photo if we can find it. If not, a sketch or painting by Peeta. Then in my most careful handwriting, come all the details it would be a crime to forget. Lady licking Prim's cheek. My father's laugh. Peeta's father with the cookies. The color of Finnick's eyes. What Cinna could do with a length of silk. Boggs reprogramming the Holo. Rue poised on her toes, arms slightly extended, like a bird about to take flight. On and on. We seal the pages with salt water and promises to live well to make their deaths count.

In Mockingjay, Collins illustrates the futility of war, while complicating the fact with the need for revolution. I think it's a really thought-provoking series that leads the reader to contemplate the complicity and responsibility of citizens relationships to their governments. I'm going to enjoy rereading these books many times.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Catching Fire - Spoilers!

I do not like buying hardcover books, but I was drawn to the bookstore mere moments after finishing The Hunger Games where I stood holding and cursing an obnoxiously priced Catching Fire. $18.95? Really?

But, I had to have it. I was addicted, but good. And, for the next 48 hrs or so, I did little else but read it.

In this book, Katniss and Peeta are forced to go on a victory tour through the districts, where they uphold the appearance of their faux romance. Which is sort of real. And Katniss is so confused! And Peeta sleeps in her train compartment! But I don't think they have sex or anything! Anyway, they refuse to play into the Capital's hand and are gracious to the families of the dead tributes in District 2 and get themselves into trouble. They cause so many problems that another Hunger Games is declared and former winners have to play in it! OMG! That was very upsetting. For me and for Katniss.

I got so wrapped up in these books and characters that it was really pretty sad for me when people died or got hurt. I haven't felt real sadness for a dead fictional character since Charlotte's Web. When Cinna got beat up in front of Katniss just before she went into the arena... oh! That was brutal! And some of the new characters are just so fun - the saucy Finnick with a heart of gold, the abrasive Johanna who says, "They can't hurt me. I'm not like the rest of you. There's no one left I love."

My only complain about the plot contrivances is that a lot of Katniss's confusion (how does Peeta really feel about her, why are all the other tributes sacrificing themselves in the arena) could easily be solved by a little chat, but... she's a teenager, I get it. But, these books are so addictive, and not in a bad Twilight-way, a great Harry-Potter-kind-of-way. I think you know what happened after I finished this one...