Recent Reads: Four Brief Book Reviews

Are you searching for the next book to read? Looking to read about something different? This week, I’ve written brief book reviews about my four latest reads! Keep reading to discover something new:

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Matsuo Basho

In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.

Page 123

This is one is like embarking on a lyrical adventure through ancient mountains. Why have I not read more travel narratives? Quick, let me research the most beautifully composed literature about traveling!

While I enjoyed Basho’s travel sketches, I first have to give credit to the translator, Nobuyuki Yuasa, who wrote a lengthy introduction that provides insightful cultural and poetic context for this collection. (Don’t skip this part!) Translators are wordsmiths just the same.

As I said though, I really enjoyed reading this. Despite that Matsuo Basho lived almost 400 years ago, I was impressed how relatable his humanity was. More than anything it seemed like he just wanted to travel and write great poetry. Several of the pit stops along his journey were nerdy historical sites where, for example, a great haiku writer used to live, or a specific twin-trunked pine tree that a poet once wrote a haiku about. Basho is also, like the best of us, quite hard on himself. He placed a lot of pressure on himself to create poetry as skillfully as his idols, yet often, he was struggling from writer’s block. He writes, “During my three days’ stay in Yoshino, I had a chance to see the cherry blossoms at different hours of the day…. Overwhelmed by the scenes, however, I was not able to compose a single poem. My heart was heavy, for I remembered the famous poems of Sesshoko, Saigyo, Teishitsu and other ancient poets. In spite of the ambitiousness of my original purpose, I thus found the present journey utterly devoid of poetic success” (page 84).

There were also times when I laughed at how cold-hearted Basho was. In one instance, he came across a crying baby on his hike, and merely let it be. (Although I can’t entirely blame him for feeling as though that weren’t his problem, it does seem like a moral dilemma.) In a different part, a couple women approach him and ask him for help, and he refuses. I imagine that life was much tougher back then, and folks couldn’t afford to be as generous, but in both situations it seemed like helping the child and the women should have been more important than his soul-searching vacation. (Just sayin’…) Anyway, this was just a funny observation.

After reading this, I was inspired to write The Travel Sketches of N.T. Ed, which you can read here.

Other Kind of Similar Reading:
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
The Wisdom of Solitude by Jane Dobisz

The Other Shore by Thich Nhat Hanh

Our feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are all empty of their own separate nature and at the same time full of everything that exists.

Page 33

I haven’t yet read a book by Thich Nhat Hanh that has disappointed me, and I probably never will. If you’re interested in learning more about the Buddha dharma, or even just about mindfulness, Nhat Hanh is an extraordinary writer to introduce you to these subjects. He writes so lovingly and poetically that his literature in and of itself brings me peace, not to mention the insightful lessons he teaches.

The Other Shore is Nhat Hanh’s translation of The Heart Sutra and a thorough explanation of its meaning. In it, he explains how the previous accepted translation of The Heart Sutra was flawed because its inaccurate wording misrepresented the sutra’s true meaning. When students become too hung up on the words instead of the message, it leads them astray from fully grasping the essence of Buddhism.

The translation that he counter-proposes seems quite similar to the original, but Nhat Hanh takes great care to explain why this seemingly minuscule change makes a universe of difference. For most of the book, he explores the concept of “emptiness,” which he claims means “to be empty of something.” He illustrates how everything in our lives is empty of a separate self—everything that exists is a culmination of other parts of the universe. For example, a sugar molecule is made of three atoms, but none of the atoms are sweet by themselves. But when they come together, they form something quite sweet. The human body is made of water, muscles, cartilage, nerves, chemicals, cells, atoms (and so much more!), none of those things which we would separately point to and say, “That’s me! That’s my essence, right there. Found it! It’s my spleen!” But because all those different elements come together as “one,” here we are! “Me!” So while on the surface, I’m me and you’re you and the chair is the chair, when we look closer at everything, we see how it’s comprised of so many different elements and processes.

Nhat Hanh teaches us to see how everything in life is connected and why it’s important to look around with such a mindful perspective. I highly recommend this book for those interested in this topic!

Similar Reading:
The Heart of Buddha’s Teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh
Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck
The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff

Volcano by Yvonne Weekes

One sunny Sunday afternoon, I sat down and read this memoir in one fell swoop. I quite enjoyed this book because it’s a well-told firsthand account of a major event I had never learned about: the previously dormant Soufriere volcano becoming active in 1995. Located in Montserrat, an island in the Caribbean, the mountain’s gradual volcanic activity affected countless lives, including Yvonne Weekes. Although the eruption was not one single spectacle, but rather continuous smaller scaled activities, such as emitting ash and pyroclastic flows, the repercussions were far-reaching; as British scientists flocked to the island to monitor the volcano, the government relocated communities farther away from the volcano for their protection. However, the regions deemed as “safe” to live in were often overcrowded for this reason, and a variety of other factors made this lifestyle difficult, especially the waves of ash that would rain upon them.

Weekes’ writing is very accessible, and the book reads like she is sitting beside you, chatting about her life’s events. She does a great job at conveying the humanity of her community, both before and during the volcano’s eruption. Although not an inherently uplifting piece, it does highlight the perseverance of communities to stick together and how a small group of people can make a difference in their own way.

This book is a little dated, however, and so I was curious to know if Soufriere is still active. Wikipedia informed me that it is indeed still active, and reported that between 1995 and 2000, two-thirds of Montserrat’s population evacuated the island, and at one point, as few as 1,200 people remained. Twenty years later, the population has increased greatly, but the entire southern section of the island is still completely blocked off from access, though, due to the volcano.

If you enjoy memoirs and learning about volcanic events and crisis management, then I recommend this book! This one was lent to me by a friend, so I was happy to explore something outside of my usual!

Similar Reading:
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

The tiger did not succeed, but it was something, at least. He had been born in a box of hay in a gypsy circus, and had spent his life feeding on fat white columns of spine in the citadel cage. For the first time, the impulse that made him flex his claws in sleep, the compulsion that led him to drag his meat to the corner of the cage he occupied alone, was articulated into something other than frustration. Necessity drew him slowly out of his domesticated clumsiness. It strengthened and reinforced the building blocks of his nature, honed his languid, feline reflexes; and the long-lost Siberian instinct pulled him north, into the cold.

Page 95

At this precise moment, I am 137 pages into this book, and I am absolutely enchanted. In fact, I’m almost annoyed that I have to write this book review rather than continue reading it, which is how you KNOW it’s good—when my desire to actually just read it outweighs my desire to share my opinions about it.

Obreht’s writing is absolutely inspiring to me. Her skill for crafting sentences is extraordinary, and with each page I am utterly transported by her vivid imagery and gift for conveying the subtleties of life. Moreover, the story is still forming for me—I’m not yet quite sure what this book is getting at, so to speak. It’s complicated, and this complexity intrigues me and draws me in deeper.

The writing is exquisite, but it isn’t fluffy. This isn’t the kind of book I could read while pretending to pay attention to a Zoom conference call. Rather, this is the kind of book that I have to actively tune out all personal thoughts and background noise, and get lost in its words. But that is precisely the type of book I love and respect, and so if you are interested in medicinal practice, discovering the secrets left behind by someone dead, and/or The Jungle Book, I highly recommend this book to you. Now please excuse me so I can go finish reading it.

Similar Reading:
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

For more book reviews by Slanted Spines, check out this page!

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