june 2014 books.

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
Karen Armstrong
The author recommends that a person read this whole book, and then go back and do the twelve steps. Each chapter is a step, and you're not supposed to advance to the next step until you've completed the ones before. Many of the steps involve performing Mettā meditation, which involves sending out loving thoughts to others.

Having finished the book, I am not sure whether I'm going to go back and actually do the steps. Not because I don't need or want to be a more compassionate person, but because I'm lazy. I need to read a book first about being a less lazy person, I guess.

I'll give a little summary of the twelve steps. Hopefully, I didn't completely misunderstand anything.
  1. Learn about compassion - Armstrong is a scholar of comparative religion, and she goes through the major world religions and shows how they all agree that we need to treat each other with compassion. We spend a lot of time worrying about where we disagree, sometimes on cosmically insignificant details. Yet we often fail at something that is central to many faiths.
  2. Look at your own world - examine the particular needs of your community.
  3. Compassion for yourself - "Love your neighbor as yourself" only works as an instruction if you love yourself first. It's likely you know someone who treats others badly because of their own insecurities. Don't be that guy.
  4. Empathy - learn to see the pain all around you. Seriously, it is everywhere. Everyone you see every day is suffering from a variety of things you know nothing about.
  5. Mindfulness - Observe the mind to notice its workings, particularly the logical fallacies that often dictate our behavior. As a note, this is kind of where I hit the wall. I was feeling pretty confident about going through the steps (Love myself, yeah!), but treating my mind as separate from my ego is particularly difficult for me.
  6. Action - Remember the small moments that someone went out of their way for you, and how much that affected you. Do the same, as much as possible.
  7. How little we know - Be aware and humble about the limits of our knowledge and understanding.
  8. How should we speak to one another - Be kind and ask questions. Listen. Do not demonize people who disagree with you.
  9. Concern for everybody - Overcome tribalism by accepting the stranger and the foreigner.
  10. Knowledge - She recommends picking a country for this practice and going into book report mode. Learn about the history to understand the modern context and help you become invested in people who you seemingly have nothing in common with.
  11. Recognition - See yourself in others. We are all just people.
  12. Love your enemies - She defines enemies as anyone who threatens you or your way of life. I had trouble thinking of any, but maybe I'm not looking at it right. Maybe I am lucky or delusional.

Now, go out and get your compassion on!

McKay's Bees
Thomas McMahon
This is embarrassing, but I read this book at the beginning of the month and do not remember much about it. It was okay? Sorta quiet and pondering. There were bees and some stuff about slavery. Sorry. I need to write down my thoughts right after finishing the book.

Wieland, or The Transformation: An American Tale
Charles Brockden Brown
Gah. I only read ten pages of the forty page introduction to this book, but I gathered through the effusive praise for the author that this book is one of the first American novels. All I can say is that first is not necessarily best. It is a good thing that other American authors came along later to justify this great experiment we call the United States. Maybe the other thirty pages of the introduction covered that.

Anyway. This book is narrated by Clara, a lady living outside a city in the woods before the American Revolution. She lives on a plot of family land where her brother also lives in a house with his wife and children. Previously, their father died under mysterious circumstances - having built himself a little temple to pray in, his was discovered there, burned to a crisp.

In the present, there have been mysterious voices. Clara hears a conversation occuring in her closet where two men are plotting to kill her. There is general spookiness, which was sorta fun, and then everything just went off the rails. I'm going to spoil it, because you're never going to read this book. In fact, I recommend that you don't. We find out that Clara's brother, having heard the voices, has killed off his wife and four children. Then it comes to pass that the voices were the product of a mysterious vagrant who had a knack for ventriloquy. However, he claims he did not tell the brother to kill his family, so that part is not resolved. Wikipedia says it is some kind of statement about religious fanaticism.

Okay, so the plot is spooky, and then goofily resolved. The writing is overwrought. Whole chapters of Clara fretting about what she is going to do, with her finally making a decision at the end. The next chapter involves her doing whatever she resolved. The chapter following will be more hang-wringing, possibly a dead faint or two that she will need to recover from.

House Made of Dawn

I did not enjoy this one either, but I think that is my defect. Either me or those Pulitzer people are wrong about this one.

A Native American returns to his reservation after fighting in World War II and finds that he no longer fits in that world. He gets into trouble, eventually moves to the city, but cannot find peace there either. Then he goes back to care for his dying grandfather, and he seems to be sorta finding himself again. That's really it. Momaday says the main character is a composite of many boys he knew from the reservation who were unable to find a place for themselves.

The writing is heavy on the description, and there are a lot of flashback and forths. A lot of work goes into setting a mood more than telling a story, and there are many little vignettes that don't move the plot at all. As a result, I had trouble paying attention, and I did a fair amount of skimming.

This book is credited for sparking the Native American Renaissance. I had not known there was one, but hey, good for them.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, or: how violence develops and where it can lead
Heinrich Böll
I liked this one. It starts with a lady turning herself in for murder, then goes back a week or so to show the course of events that led a somewhat prudish professional housekeeper to murder a journalist. The lady meets a man at a party and becomes thoroughly smitten. She takes him home and then helps him escape from the apartment building when it turns out the police are looking for him. That is the extent of their relationship.

The newspapers, however, say that the man is a murderer, and the lady is his longtime lover and accomplice. The paper hounds her, her dying mother, her employers, and her friends, then misquotes them all to indicate that Katharina is a scarlet woman and possibly a Communist. The book is sort of piecing together what happened by recounting statements from different people in the story. It's a little unclear who the "narrator" actually is, but it's a fun read.

Here is another spoiler, which you can skip, because I do actually recommend the book. At the end, we finally get back to the murder that Katharina confessed to in the first scene. She has invited the journalist over for an interview after he has dragged her name through the mud. He shows up and smugly asks if she would like to have sex with him, because she's such a slut, everyone knows it, it's in all the papers. ARGH. I...might have shot him, too.

Saint Francis of Assisi
G.K. Chesterton
Have we talked about Chesterton yet? No? Okay. Well, a few years back, I read The Man Who Was Thursday in one day, then spent a week asking everyone I'd ever met if they knew about Chesterton, then asking the sky why no one was telling anyone about Chesterton.

I am here to tell you about Chesterton. He was freaking great. I would start with Thursday, and not this book, unless you are just really into hagiography. Chesterton was an Christian apologist, which means he writes logical arguments for faith. His writing is just so reasonable, and his turns of phrase so nice that it's easy to go along with him. He describes Francis as a poet and troubadour for God, a man who is unafraid to be the fool because he has nothing to lose. Thus he is able to give away all his stuff, hang out with lepers, and still be happy that way.

One caveat - this book sorta shows its age, particularly with the treatment of Muslims. It was not the main point, so there wasn't a whole lot of discussion, but I got the feeling that if there had been, it would've made me sad.

The Picture of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde
This is a pretty spooky tale, with lots of zingers here and there, including the famous Wilde line, "there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." Oh, Oscar.

The story opens with the completion of a painting of a beautiful and charming young man named Dorian Gray. His new friend, who talks hedonism but seems to be all talk, puts the idea into Dorian's head that he needs to enjoy his youth while he can. Dorian has a crisis and prays that he will never age.

And then the prayer comes true. Instead, the Dorian in the picture changes, not just aging, but appearing more cruel and mean. Dorian realizes this and decides to embrace it, essentially making a Faustian bargain. He hides the painting, and then lives as if he is a beautiful and rich young man who can have whatever he wants. He becomes more corrupt and depraved, because when you can have or do anything, you'll press your limits.

I won't spoil it, because I bet you know how it ends. But it was an interesting exploration of youth and beauty and what each of us would do if we could.

And, for funsies, here is a Monty Python sketch, featuring Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.

The Sorrows of Young Werther
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
This book is a series of letters from Young Werther to his friend Wilhelm. And I tell you, that Young Werther is a sensitive fellow. A man with powerful feelings. He's gone to stay in the country and draw pictures. He meets and falls for the lovely Lotte, who is already engaged. Her fiance is away at first, and Lotte and Werther strike up a close friendship. He is in love, and so he writes about how she looked at him and how beautiful the trees are because she looked at them under the trees.

Ah, but then, her fiance comes back. The pain of seeing them together is too great, so he leaves to take up a job with an ambassador. He is able to mostly put aside thoughts of Lotte, but then he suffers some social embarrassment and returns to the country. However, he just cannot stand to see Lotte and her now-husband together, and his letters become all about how wretched he is and how the trees, once beautiful, are now tainted because they remind him of her.

Werther kills himself. Of course he does.

This book made Goethe famous. However, he later regretted publishing it, partly because it was heavily autobiographical and partly because even when he was an old man and had done much great work since, people still knew him for Werther. There were apparently even copycat suicides (sometimes called, no joke, the Werther effect).

Now, I am an old jaded woman, so mostly I was just annoyed by Werther. Dude, you knew she had a fiance. Dude, why did you go back there? Dude, put down the pistol. Actually, you know what, just do it and shut up already.

Here's some Werther for you: "I sometimes cannot understand how she can love another, how she dares love another, when I love nothing in this world so completely, so devotedly, as I love her, when I know only her, and have no other possession."

Yeah. I'm sorry the force of your love did not cause her to abandon her husband.

At the end of Goethe's live, he sort of gained a little perspective on his early work. While he seemed to also come to the conclusion that no one needs to whine that much, he said "It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him." I can remember being fourteen or so and thinking each pop song related directly to my life. Maybe that was the age I should've read this, but maybe it's best that I didn't.

W.G. Sebald
I really loved this. The narrator meets a man by chance named Austerlitz, who was sent away from Prague as a child when the Germans came. He went to live with a Welsh minister and his wife, both rather cold people, and was never being able to make real connections with people. Late in life, he begins to remember part of his past, and he goes in search for his family.

The style is interesting and engaging. There is the narrator, but much of the book is a story told by Austerlitz, their conversations being interrupted several times and then not picking up again for months or years. It's very conversational, with run-on sentences and paragraphs, and it's sometimes easy to forget who is speaking. There are also pictures, which are generally pretty grim, and go along with the story.

Lots of good images. It starts with musing about architecture, particularly fortresses. You build a castle to protect what's inside, yet the castle itself attracts plunderers. So you make the castle bigger and better, but then it takes forever to build and it still attracts attention to those who might wonder what is inside worth protecting. During the construction, the site predicts its own ruins.

Good stuff.

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