Book Seven: Transforming Problems into Happiness

Transforming Problems into Happiness, Lama Zopa Rinpoche

I've read this book before, many years ago when I suddenly became interested in Buddhism. I picked it up again in desperation because we suddenly found ourselves in conflict with one of our neighbors and it turned me into a wildly unhappy person for a few days. I hate conflict, I hate feeling unliked, and I especially hate the kind of person it turns me into--defensive, determined to be right at any cost, angry and vindictive. Blargh.

So, this is a nice little book to put one's mind at ease. Basically, everything exists in your mind. So, if you can turn negative things and experiences into good things just by allowing your brain to believe they are good, you are on the right track. I like it. So, I can look at my neighbors and think, "Thank you for bringing this problem into my life! Now I can learn something from it and that makes me a better person." Or, more specifically according to Buddhism you are creating good karma so that you can ultimately escape samsara and experience enlightenment. I suppose they lose me there a bit. I'm not a Buddhist and don't pretend to be. While I think the basic tenets are lovely and can make you a better person, I don't necessarily buy into the whole enlightenment-karma-samsara dealie. But I guess that's where most religions get you. They reel you in with indisputable platitudes about being good and doing unto others and keeping a clear mind and transforming problems into happiness, and then suddenly you find yourself nodding and agreeing when they say things like "so Jesus is the son of God" or "Joseph Smith is the true prophet since he got those golden plates from the angel Moroni" or "the way to escape past negative karma is by creating good karma" or whatever.

Still, this book at least helped me feel better and escape the terrible thoughts in my head for a few days. Thanks, Buddhism!

Book Six: Cutting for Stone

Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese

This is a lovely little book. Oh wait, did I say little? I meant, this is a lovely nearly 700 page book. But still. It's pretty lovely. There are some amazingly drawn characters--characters I'd love to know personally--in an epic story that starts by chronicling the life of an east Indian nun who makes her way to Addis Ababa to work in a hospital, where she later becomes pregnant and dies after giving birth to twins, while the suspected father, a doctor at the hospital, runs away after she dies. The story is told through the eyes of one of those twins as he and his brother, raised by two doctors at the hospital, also become doctors. Since Verghese is a doctor himself, there is a huge amount of medical detail, something which I found fascinating.

I definitely enjoyed the actual experience of reading this, though my main issue with it is that it reeks of sentimentality. Especially the end. I'm okay with a bit of it here and there, but I hate feeling like I'm being manipulated by a story. And in this one everything comes together just way too nicely.

Book Five: A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

Yay! Such a good book! So good! Did I mention it's good? Funny thing, though: I got nearly half way through before I realized I had read an excerpt from the book in the New Yorker a couple of years ago (the chapter called "Safari"). I don't read a lot of fiction in the New Yorker, but I do recall being very into that story. You know, the kind that you can't stop thinking about even weeks later. It stands on its own as a short story, but within the structure of the book it says so much. I suppose the way all the chapters of this novel do.

I just loved how the interconnected stories jump in time and place, aging or de-aging characters and shifting perspectives, and yet each person is so very recognizable when you get to meet them again. That's due to the very clever crafting by Ms. Egan, in making such vivid people who you feel like you actual know. And what's even better is the way that as new characters are introduced, you don't just get to know them, but their relationships with the characters you have already met make them feel even clearer and more well-defined.

I admit, was taken aback by the ending. I'm not sure I liked the vision of the future that was painted, but the more I think on it, the less it bothers me. In fact, it just makes more sense. It's been a while since I've read a contemporary novel that I loved this much.

Book Four: Thirteen Reasons Why

Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher

Oh man, I am so far behind with writing about what I've been reading, I hardly remember what these books are about anymore. I do know that I read this one super fast, that it was compelling, but it also left a bad taste in my mouth. The idea is that Clay, the narrator, gets a package in the mail that contains cassette tapes from a girl from his school, Hannah, who killed herself a few weeks ago. The tapes are addressed to the 13 people she feels had a hand in her deciding to commit suicide. The story unfolds as Clay listens to the tapes, learns about how all these people are to blame in Hannah's death, and waits to hear his story (not sure how he could be at fault, since he feels he really liked Hannah and did nothing wrong). You can see where this could get a little icky.

I suppose it's an effective book in that its target YA audience might benefit from the message: that you should be aware of how your offhanded treatment of classmates might hurt them more than you can imagine. But, on the other hand, Hannah is not entirely innocent in this story. That's where the ickiness comes in. I know some YA fiction can be pretty simplistic, but I hate to think that things have to dumbed down that much to make an impact on younger readers. I'm sure teenagers are probably smarter than we think they are and can handle some unpleasant things. Right? Sure.