THE DUDE AND THE ZEN MASTER by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman

dudeYou all know Jeff Bridges, right?  Well, not personally, of course, but you are aware of who he is, possibly best known for playing the Dude in The Big Lebowski.  He is also a musician, songwriter and photographer.  But did you know he is also co-founder of the End Hunger Network and is the national spokesperson for Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign?  Turns out he is also well versed in Buddhism.

Bernie Glassman founded the Zen community of New York, which later became Zen Peacemakers, and international order of social activists.  He was an aeronautical engineer who worked in the 1960s and 1970s on designing manned missions to Mars.  Wow.

If you have seen the movie, The Big Lebowski,  you may have noticed the somewhat Zen quality of the Dude, and in this book, Glassman and Bridges have a conversation about Buddhism and how the Dude can exemplify the tenets of Buddhism.   It is a pleasant, edifying discussion, and one of the themes they talk about is the kids’ round, Row, Row, Row Your Boat,  gently down the stream.  Merrily, merrily, and that Buddhism teaches us to be in the moment, not trying to row like a crazy person trying to get somewhere, to some ideal place we want to reach, because we are already there.  Go with the flow, row gently, enjoy the scenery, be merry.

Robert Johnson wrote that the word happiness comes from ‘to happen’.  Our happiness is what happens.

People talk about being seekers, searching for meaning, happiness, whatever.  I think of myself as a finder, because I find all these things right around me.

Each section is titled with some phrase from the movie.  The Dude abides.  The Dude Is Not In.  New Sh*t Has Come to Light.  You Know, Dude, I Myself Dabbled in Pacifism at One Point.  Not in ‘Nam, Of Course.  And many more.    And each gives them an opportunity to riff on the more metaphysical meanings, and how the Dude’s approach to life is so Zen-ish.

I expected another one of those celebrity me me me it’s all about me and the wonderfulness of me and even when I am pointing out my flaws, I show you just how cute and wonderful I am even in my flawed state kind of things, but it was nothing like that.  I found it to be interesting, and at times quite profound, showing us how we can attempt the walk we talk even as we live our regular non-Buddhist, non-monk lives.

The other thing I like about the Dude is that he doesn’t corner a rat.

You have to leave a way out.  In Zen, don’t they tell you to kill yourself?  I don’t mean that literally, but to kill your ego, kill your identity.  Isn’t that the way out in Zen?

Here’s something interesting:

A440 (Hz) is not just the frequency of the note A but is also the earth’s vibration.  Earth has a basic resonance, and that’s why A became the standard.  He [Chris Pelonis, acoustical designer  and musician] summarized it this way: “The region of 440 is by Supreme design and not arbitrary or coincidental.”

And

My actions are my only true belongings.  I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.  My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

And I leave you with:

Gate’, Gate’, Paragate’, Parasamgate’.  It’s a mantra at the end of the Heart Sutra.  Gone, gone, completely gone beyond.  It means gone to the other shore.  But again, the other shore is right under our feet, so it’s back to:  Row, row, row your boat.  Merrily.

Namaste.

 

GODS BEHAVING BADLY by Marie Phillips

gods Behaving BadlyDid you ever wonder whatever happened to  all those gods of bygone days?  Like Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Artemis, you know, THOSE gods?   Well, in Gods Behaving Badly, we finally learn what happened to them.  They are alive and semi-well and living in London.

But because nobody believes in them anymore, they have lost pretty much all of their powers.  They only have enough for the basics;  Apollo can still keep the sun rising, Aphrodite can still keep lust in bloom, Artemis still has control of the moon, etc.  But only that.

They now live crowded together in a tatty row house in London.  Apollo is working as a rock ‘n roll guitarist, Aphrodite is employed as a telephone sex worker, Artemis does dog walking, Dionysus has a dark and awful bar which does pretty well — he brews his own beer and it is a killer!  Hermes still works as a messenger, now on a motorcycle.

Two mortals, Neil and Alice, fall in love.  Alice goes to work as a house cleaner for the gods, not knowing that they are gods.  Apollo was shot by Eros and fell in love with Alice.  She rejects him, he gets P.O.d and gets his father, Zeus, senile and living in the attic, to strike her with a lightning bolt.  Poor Alice.  She then goes to the Underworld where Charon now carries the dead to the Underworld using the subway instead of the ferry.

Apollo, trying to show off, shuts off the sun, plunging the world into absolute blackness, and immediately falls into a coma because he has used all his waning powers for the trick.  His twin, Artemis, determines to go into the Underworld to persuade her sister, Persephone, and maybe even Hades himself, to help bring Apollo back to consciousness so he can bring back the sun.  She takes the grieving Neil with her, who wants to search for Alice and bring her back to live with the help of the gods.

Artemis finally has that aha! moment when she realizes that the gods have lost their power because nobody believes in them anymore, and arranges an event at Nelson’s Column which will bring back their belief.   Kinda like Tinkerbell, you know.  Clap if you want Tinkerbell to live!

All in all, it was a funny book, very clever, and need I tell you that the romantic couple ……   no.  I will not.  Read it yourself if you want to know if Alice is brought back to life.

Neil Gaiman deals with the gods issue in a darker, but fascinatingly shrewd way in his American Gods.   Gods Behaving Badly  doesn’t have much of a message, in the way that Gaiman’s book does, but it does have something to say about belief and the power of the collective consciousness, or collective unconsciousness, as it were.  It is just a fun story, dexterous and witty.

 

Ladies detective agencyA delight of a read, and as usual, I am late to the party, since this series began in 1998, and now has something like 15 books.

It stars Mma Precious Ramotswe, a traditionally-built young woman living in  Gaborone, the capital of Botswana.  Her mother died when she was very young, and she was raised by her father, a former miner in South Africa who left the mines, bought cattle and made a nice life for the two of them.  When he died, he left her enough money to buy a house and start a business.  And the business she wanted to start was a detective agency. 

The life and culture of Botswana and Africa are as much a part of the book as are the rather lightweight cases Mma Ramotswe takes on, but in spite of all that, it deals with infidelity, hornswaggling, power plays, rebellious teenagers, and kidnapping.

One of the delights of the book is Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, the local mechanic, who is always referred to by his full name, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and in fact refers to himself as Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni.  The voice and rhythm of the writing gives such an African feel, and  Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is part of that sense.  You can almost hear Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing in the background.

I love the independence of Mma Ramotswe, and her clearly superior intellect, as she negotiates her way through the layers of the society of Gaborone.

(Did you know that there is  actually a subgenre of anthropological detective fiction, in which the culture of its characters plays a major role in the story?  Me neither.  Think Tony Hillerman, et al.)  This series is not so much about crime and violence as it is small morality tales.  Really lovely.

I will definitely be reading some more of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

BEL CANTO by Ann Patchett

bel cantoBel canto is Italian for “beautiful singing”, and the phrase is often used to evoke a lost singing tradition.  And this absolutely gorgeous song of a book is a wonderfully rendered juxtaposition of violence and beauty.

It is set in an unnamed South or Central American country, but the book notes tell us that it is more or less Lima, Peru.  As with most stories set in these locales, it has a surreal flair that colors the tale.   It is all third person narrative,  and I will try to give you the bones of the story without giving anything away, because I really want you to read this.

It begins with Mr. Hosokawa, the founder of an extremely successful Japanese company, and his 53rd birthday.  Mr. Hosokawa has been enamored of opera all his days, and especially of the famed soprano diva Roxanne Cross.  The government of the unnamed third world country in an attempt to lure Mr. Hosokawa into investing heavily in the country, comes up with the idea of hosting a birthday party for him, to which they invited the celebrated soprano, at great cost.

Because, and only because, the soprano would be singing, Mr. Hosokawa, together with his interpreter/translator, Gen Watanabe, who speaks an astonishing number of languages, agrees to attend, along with a few other higher ups of his company.  It is to be held at the mansion of the Vice President, and the President would be there, as well as other ambassadors and foreign titans of industry.

After the meal, and after Roxanne Cross had sung, suddenly they were interrupted by  a group of terrorist guerillas, who had entered through the air conditioning duct work, expecting to take hostage the President of the country, to use as a bargaining chip to free the brother of one of the guerillas and other prisoners in the notoriously awful prisons, and to give a vague freedom to the people.

However, the Prez wasn’t there.  He begged off, but everyone in the country knew it was in order to watch his favorite tela novela (soap opera),  and he was at home.  What to do now?   They had no president, but had over a hundred people and didn’t know what to do about them all.  The head terrorist, suffering from a terrible case of shingles which threatened to take over his eye,  was undecided.  A knock on the door produces a Red Cross negotiator who convinces the terrorists to release the women and any ill men.

Those who are left include the interpreter, busy running from person to person, as there are Germans, Russians, Japanese, and of course, Mz. Cross who only speaks English, a young priest from the nearby parish, who refuses to leave,  and as it turns out, all of the soldiers of the guerilla group are just kids, teenagers, and two of them are girls!   While negotiations move apace, the soprano’s accompanist dies of a diabetic coma, because he didn’t want to tell the singer because he was in love with her.

As negotiations break down, with neither side willing to give in to the other’s demands, days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, until the inevitable finale.   During the time of hostage, they manage to negotiate a bunch of operatic sheet music from a local arts patron, and Roxanne goes back to singing three hours every morning to keep her voice.  The music and the singing softens their situation, and all are affected by it.

As you can see, the plot is an opera — one of those operatic implausible plots, with this one and that one falling in love with various members of the company.   It is all about the music, and the opera of life, and the denouement is the only ending possible.

Ms. Pratchett is the author of The Patron saint of Liars, and The Magician´s Assistant, among others.  I have her State of Wonder and Truth & Beauty in my reading queue.  I might actually live long enough to read them.

SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS by Marisha Pessl

2_physics_060706092159503_wideweb__324x499As you may be able to tell from the cover, this is not about Physics. It is actually about a high school girl, her doting but pompous, self-important professor father, an elite group of snotty kids in a private high school, a slightly mysterious and slightly wacky teacher of films who befriends these kids, and a possibly no-longer-existent rebel group akin to the Black Panthers, the SDS, etc. of the 60s, whose leader is now dead/or now underground/or never existed in the first place.

It is a real Swiss army knife of a novel, over 600 pages that are in turn intriguing, annoying, fascinating, tedious, captivating, boring, but always provocative.

It stars a teen girl, yet doesn’t quite have the feel of a YA work;  it is a coming of age tale, yet without the feel-good finale of an era all wrapped up nicely provoking nostalgia for a day gone by.  It contains a mystery, but one whose solution is guessed at yet never solved.

Blue Vandermeer (don’t you wish you had such a great name?  I do.)  is a kid whose mother died when she was 5.  Her father became an itinerant professor of political science, territorial conflict and revolution and rebellion.  They moved just about every semester, and Blue became a deep reader, and fond of movies.

Told in first person narrative, Blue comes across as a jaded, cynical observer of the passing scene, describing her father’s always very short-lived affairs with the native female population, and neatly pigeonholing the high school populations into characteristic slots.

In her senior year, dad decides to stay at one university long enough for Blue to have a complete senior year there before going on to Harvard, where with her grades and experiences she is sure to be accepted.

At the private school St. Galways, near Atlanta, she is taken up by Hannah Schneider, the somewhat bohemian teacher of film at the school.  Hannah  has already befriended the snotty group, and foists Blue onto them, which they dislike intensely.

In the spring, she insists they take a camping trip into the nearby Smoky Mountains, and after going off with Blue one night for a private conversation, disappears, and several hours later, Blue finds her hanging by an electric cord.   Suicide?  Murder?  Therein lies the mystery.

A lot of the tediousness of the book comes from it’s self-conscious style.  It is structured as a class syllabus, with chapter titles like: Othello, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, One Hundred Years of Solitude, etc, and the entire, yes the ENTIRE, manuscript is littered with annotated references to book or article titles, including authors, publishers and dates, that support a thought or an incident, all of the, of course fake. They appear so frequently that after a while, you just have to start skipping over them, because at first they are charming, then they are slightly humorous, but eventually they are just too awful.  Maybe it is supposed to be that way.  She tells us in her explanation for writing this accounting of her life that her father said to always include references and lots of visual aides, because there is always someone who insists on contradicting you.

I found the structure and this annotation just too too precious, and I don’t feel the chapter structure lent anything meaningful to the work, but it was a rollicking good tale nonetheless.   You know me, I am all about the story.

I found it to be a book that stays with you.   The intricate plotting, the interweaving of characters, just the whole preposterous notion of it all, keeps you thinking about it long after you put it down.

Oh, and thanks to Deb Atwood for the recommendation.  OK, maybe more of a challenge than a recommendation, since she asked if I had read it.  No, not only had I not read it, I never heard of it either.

And I never did quite figure out how the title applies.  Calamity Physics?  I’m probably just not smart enough to figure it out.

 

LIFE BELOW STAIRS by Alison Maloney

life below stairsI like reading about the downstairs folk, and have ever since Upstairs Downstairs was popular on TV.  But I never really gave much thought to the lives of those working downstairs.  Probably because I always aspired to an Upstairs life.  Yeah, like that’ll ever happen.

One of the nice fiction series on this theme was The Swallowcliffe Hall Trilogy, which seemed to rely heavily on fact and truth and not so much on the misty glorification of the servant class and their lovely lives that weren’t all that lovely.

Life Below Stairs is a factual compilation of the way of life for servants in the Edwardian age.   We learn that just one hundred years ago, service was the largest form of employment in the UK.

With millions of families living in stifling poverty in the Edwardian era, going into service was a sought-after alternative to near starvation, but it was no easy option.  From scullery maid to housekeeper and butler, the domestic servant was at the beck and call of their master and mistress every hour of the day.  Up with the lark and toiling well into the night, they were rewarded with meagre wages and sparse, comfort-free accommodation in the attic or basement.   While their employers dined on nine-course meals, costing up to six times a maid’s annual wage, employees were treated to the leftover cold cuts in the basement kitchen.

But the First World War was the end of what we might think of as the golden age of domestic service, as the men of the servant class went into the military, and the women left service to take up the much better paying jobs left behind by the men gone to war.

The book uses scraps of memoirs and diaries of servants of the time, and books written after their life in service had ended, for its wonderful detailed look at this institution, now nostalgia-filled and even glorified.  Well, yeah.  Wouldn’t you want a house full of servants to do your every bidding?  Yeah, me, too.

It is interesting to discover that Mrs Beeton, she of of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, written in 1861, in advising young people on seeking domestic employment in foreign parts, advises they go to Australia, because in America, service was looked down upon as a career.

Oooohkay, that’s why I couldn’t have a house filled with cheap servants.

Really nice book for you history buffs.

maids