August 30, 2007

Book 50: Why Buddhism? Westerners in Search of Wisdom

Why Buddhism? Westerners in Search of Wisdom
Vicki Mackenzie

I'm not sure what the exact format of this book is. It seems like it should be a book of essays by various Westerners on what they find in Buddhism, but it's also a collection of interviews. The segments read like essays until held up to intense scrutiny, which reveals sudden changes of subject that still weave into the central narrative quite easily. No matter; Mackenzie has put together an interesting compilation that illustrates the particular appeal of Buddhism to certain particular individuals who, taken together, help explain why Buddhism is such an appealing choice for life philosophy in the West these days.

Because each person's story is unique, one would expect the book to hang loosely together and feel disjointed. This is not at all the case. I think that the central Buddhist principles of clear mindedness, kindness, and meditation create a flow of energy that passes through one story to the next. Though the basic story is quite similar throughout the individual stories, the message is consistent and clear: Buddhism offers peace and a chance to interact happily with one's surroundings. There were only a few times when an annoying bias and pushiness could be detected, and these were in a couple of Mackenzie's own introductions, which hit rather heavily on her belief that reincarnation is fundamental to Buddhism (one interviewee claims that it isn't necessary for a Buddhist outlook). The force behind her immature defense is startling, but thankfully it passes quickly and the reader can get on with the stories themselves.

Like other collections I've read, the real meat is in the stories themselves, not the fluffy commentaries that add cheap aesthetics to the stories where they themselves extol the virtue of simplicity. The book, however, mostly accomplishes its purpose. The stories do answer the question "Why Buddhism?", but often in a roundabout way that shifts focus from "why" to "how". Often, the explanation is merely, "It felt right," which is charming but which doesn't really satisfy the inquiring mind. Also slightly distressing is the focus on extraordinary people who have done great things with Buddhism, often becoming monks or nuns and running Buddhist centers. There isn't much about the lay practicioner in this book, which would perhaps be more helpful to Mackenzie's target audience. The book is, however, a good read for beginners in Buddhism who want a taste of what a Buddhist life in the West can be like, but I would hesitate to hold it up as an end-all, be-all description of why Buddhism is appealing. The real allure of this text is its commentary on Buddhism and Buddhist practice as they are and how they work, not why they are here. And that in itself gets to the heart of Buddhism.

Grade: A-

August 25, 2007

Book 49: The Foundations of Buddhism

The Foundations of Buddhism
Rupert Gethin

I was looking for a book to give me a general outline of Buddhism and its many forms, and this was the most promising prospect I could find. Overall, it disappointed me a bit, but I think that it is a valuable resource for the beginner nonetheless. Gethin sets out to provide a fairly comprehensive view of those things that unite the disparate forms of Buddhism throughout the world. He gets to the heart of the religion by retracing the story of Siddhartha Gautama and the works of his followers, both ancient and recent. At times, Gethin strays into academic parlance and goes name-dropping despite the book's focus on being readable to the casual reader, but this is only distracting and doesn't affect the rest of the text too horribly in and of itself.

This name-dropping is, however, a symptom of Gethin's underlying self-awareness as an academic. Gethin seems to forget that his target audience is entirely new to Buddhism and is probably Western anyway. The text is riddled, understandably, with very foreign terms that are poorly explained and keep showing up. Gethin doesn't do a good job of defining the difficult concepts in the first place, and when they keep showing up it is easy for the reader to get completely lost. It seemed to me that Gethin added a lot of terms and texts that were unnecessary to his purpose in explaining the general basis of Buddhism. My confusion about necessity only highlights Gethin's lack of focus; if these are the foundations of Buddhism, shouldn't Gethin's interest be in explaining them as clearly as possible?

Some sections make a lot of sense and are extremely helpful. The parts of the book dealing with basic Buddhist philosophy are readable and make sense. Gethin does a good job here of explaining the logic behind the beliefs, the chain of reasoning that leads to suffering as the ultimate cause of rebirth and desire as the ultimate cause of suffering. The tables Gethin provides in these sections actually help the reader see the categorizations of Buddism, and the reader leaves with a good idea of the fundamental ideas of the religion. Less instructive, however, are Gethin's sections on Buddhist cosmology and the types of Buddhism. Gethin devotes an entire chapter to the Mahayana without fully explaining what it is and how it differs from Theravada Buddhism (if it even does).

This book's chapters on the life of the Buddha and the general philosophies of Buddhism are excellent and are good for those seeking a general explanation of Buddhism. The other chapters of this book are sadly muddled and don't appear to do much good to the casual reader unfamiliar with Buddhism and curious about the different branches of it. Gethin occasionally strays into territory a bit too advanced for his puported introductory purposes and doesn't clear up the differences between types of Buddhism. This book is incredibly hit and miss and is useful but not indispensable for those looking for a quick introduction to Buddhism.

Grade: B

August 13, 2007

Book 48: Middlesex

Jeffrey Eugenides

This review is a little late because I finished the book while I was away in Wisconsin, but the book definitely lingers in my memory and I am extremely glad that I read it. At first, I was a little worried that the shifting focus between Cal's present life and the history of his grandparents (and, later, parents) would blur the story and make it seem irrelevant. This is before I realized that the family history is the point of the story- Cal is tracing his own history as we see it outlined before us. Cal's story is one of discovery, and the discovery of his history is just as important as his discovery of himself. More importantly, the immigrant-success story of his family shows the perfect American Dream...with one minor problem.

Cal is intersex or, rather, a hermaphrodite. Raised as a girl, Cal is now living as a man and is one of the most interesting and unique narrators I have come across. Cal rarely feels sorry for himself and doesn't tell his story with any motive to blame his family for passing along the recessive gene that creates him. Often, we get so wrapped up in the general history of the Stephanides family that we forget for a moment where it is inevitably leading, though Cal quickly inserts himself often enough to keep the story on track. The story is compelling even though its secrets are spilled incredibly early, and there is always enough momentum propelling the story forward. With the reader knowing the result, Eugenides provides the backstory, the creation myth of Cal in an interesting, genealogical fashion.

The writing in Middlesex does more than enough to amplify the story and the power of the book. Eugenides is incredibly talented and has a power with words that is seldom matched. Though it occasionally seems that Cal is trying too hard, the artsy twists and turns of the prose still work to delight and surprise. The description of birth that Cal gives is not only hilarious, but brilliantly articulated and revealing. The artistic tendencies of the prose accomplish the main work of the novel, to allow the reader to experience life in a completely new and foreign way. For those of us who can never experience life as both a genetic male and genetic female, Cal's description of life is enlightening without being condescending, interesting without being implausible.

This book is simply phenomenal, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Eugenides combines a compelling story with the Great American Myth and still provides enough twists to keep the reader hooked. The prose is beautiful and moving, well-suited to the epic nature of the book. I will be utterly shocked if Middlesex isn't handed down as a classic work of our generation. Middlesex is a superb retelling of the American experience and speaks volumes about gender issues and the way that we see ourselves without being condescending or preachy at all. It requires enough work on behalf of the reader to be enjoyable but never allows itself to stray into artful prose for its own sake. This book is the complete package and should not be overlooked by any discerning reader of modern literature.

Grade: A