(New Series) Biweekly Bookshelf: May 2020, Part 1

This blog is long overdue for an update, isn’t it? I hope to revive The Future is Unwritten with regular updates through an idea I’ve thought about for a while: a blog series about books called “Biweekly Bookshelf.” It’s a simple premise: I’ll try to make a post every two weeks with thoughts in every book I’ve read during that time. This will be similar in format to the Spook Month series I did last October, but focused on books (of any genre) rather than horror films. In each post, I’ll discuss books that I’ve already finished at the time of writing and books that are currently in progress. This means that “Completed” books will have my more conclusive thoughts while “In Progress” texts will have my thoughts on the book so far and can be concluded in the following post. I’m trying to keep a daily reading practice, so hopefully you’ll enjoy reading these posts with at least three or four new books to be discussed in each update.

Here’s my Biweekly Bookshelf for the first half of May.

 

catcher in rye

J.D. Sallinger, The Catcher in the Rye [1951] (Complete)

This is a re-read for me, but of a novel I haven’t read in a few years. I first read The Catcher in the Rye at eighteen years old. Naturally, a lot has changed in my perspective and life experience as I near twenty-five. With that seven-year gap in mind I revisited J.D. Sallinger’s controversial novel, perhaps the novel most polarizing to readers in different stages of life. For the unfamiliar, The Catcher in the Rye is a first-person story told by narrator Holden Caulfield, an angsty teen of the late 1940’s who flunks out of yet another boarding school for his failing grades. After some confrontational goodbyes, Caulfield leaves campus and wanders around New York City for a few days drinking, clubbing, and visiting old friends to avoid facing his parents before they get the news. The plot isn’t very imaginative, since the main focus is on following Caulfield’s stream of consciousness as he recalls angsty ventures in New York in retrospect. The love and hate for this novel is usually based on what readers think of the narrator’s personality. Some find his cynicism for social interaction and “phony” American culture to be relatable, while others think he’s a whiny loser with a stick up his ass. I found that my view of Holden Caulfield has changed in the years since I first read this book. Caulfield’s scorn for society plus his constant tangents about people’s habits and mannerisms that anger him can be pretty jarring. But honestly, it’s not too far from the cynicism I had in my late teens. The novel is a look at a troubled teen with poor self-esteem and antisocial ideations. His cynicism combined with issues of self-medicating and impulse control often get him into trouble. Caulfield is just a confused and angry kid who needs therapy and a gentle shove in a healthier direction, and I suppose such mental health guidance would be even more inaccessible and taboo in the 1940’s than in our current cultural moment. I didn’t enjoy this novel quite like I did years ago because I’ve managed to outgrow the cynicism that Caulfield is stuck in, but revisiting the story and seeing that change within myself is actually something that made the novel a worthwhile experience nonetheless.

 

 

buddhism for beginners

Thubten Chodron, Buddhism for Beginners [2001] (Complete)

My deepening interest in meditation and mindfulness practices has made me more curious about the Buddhist tradition, so I’ve read a few books that put the religion and philosophy into layman’s terms. One book I found is Thubten Chodron’s Buddhism for Beginners, an introductory text that flows much like a website’s “Frequently Asked Questions” page. Because of that format, I found the book concise and easy to digest. I noticed that Buddhism for Beginners discusses concepts like rebirth and “cyclic existence” much more than other introductory books I’ve read. These are aspects of Buddhist thought that I find myself more skeptical of, so it was nice to have them explained concisely by a practitioner who targets his book toward those curious or doubtful of Buddhism. The book is very short and addresses many common questions and misunderstandings about the Buddhist tradition, so I’d recommend it to those interested in reading a bit about Buddhism (I also recommend What the Buddha Taught by Theravadin Walpola Rahula, an intro to Buddhism that explains things more from the perspective of the Buddha’s life and his teachings in his own words).

 

 

hear the wind sing

Haruki Murakami, Hear the Wind Sing [1979] (Completed)

Murakami is an author I’ve put off reading for a long time. I’ve heard some of his novels praised by peers and online fans, but also heard some scorn by Japanese literature professors who don’t consider him a serious writer in the Japanese literary canon. Hear the Wind Sing is his first published novel, which seemed like a safe place to start with his work. In the foreword, the author says that his process of writing the novel was to construct his sentences in English first and then translate them back into his native Japanese, an unconventional way of trying to emulate the western authors who influenced him. Bearing that in mind as I read the novel, I came to understand why Murakami’s detractors would consider his work illegitimate as “Japanese literature.” Hear the Wind Sing deals with loneliness and social alienation through a narrator’s past relationships and constant bar visits. But the story is filled with references to western society and pop culture, such as the Kennedy assassination, Jesus Christ, and American musical artists. There isn’t much about the story that makes it seem based in Japan. In fact, if one were to remove the scarce references to Tokyo, train stations and Japanese currency and then present the book to a new reader with no mention of the author’s name, they probably wouldn’t guess that the story takes place in Japan. Setting that aside, I did enjoy the prose of this novel, with the narrator’s lonely contemplations and dry delivery of stories as wild as drunken vandalism. I doubt any author would hit upon their career-defining work with a first novel, so I’m curious to explore Murakami’s later work and see his prose in longer novels with a more developed craft.

 

 

death of you

Miguel Chen, The Death of You: A Book for Anyone Who Might Not Live Forever [2018] (Complete)

The Death of You is the second book by Miguel Chen, best known as the bassist for the punk rock band Teenage Bottlerocket. I became interested in reading Miguel’s books after seeing Teenage Bottlerocket live last year and talking with him after the show. It’s interesting to me that his time away from performing punk music is spent as a yoga and meditation instructor. At a glance, yoga and punk rock may seem like polar opposites. This book focuses uses spiritual practices to examine death, both in grieving others and coming to terms with one’s own mortality. In every other chapter Miguel gives a guided meditation, with practices like brainstorming one’s ideas of “heaven” and “hell” to feeling the sensations of one’s own death anxieties and bringing the lessons of that exercise into our present lives. A point of interest for many readers as fans of Miguel’s music is his personal stories about death, like the sudden loss of his mother and sister as a teenager and the tragic passing of bandmate Brandon Carlisle in 2015. But equally fascinating is the practices he gives to supplement each topic of death. I had an interesting experience with his ‘heaven and hell’ exercises and the Buddhist-influenced meditation on letting go of negative emotions toward others. I also want to try his meditation on acceptance of death when I have the time and headspace to tackle such a heavy subject. The book is very short at just over one-hundred pages. I breezed through it in just a few sittings because I was so immersed in Miguel’s personal stories and meditation practices. This is certainly not the only book on grief and mortality from a spiritual perspective; the end section even provides a list of recommend readings for those who want to explore such topics further. But I’m grateful that Miguel has written such a book because his position as a well-known punk musician gives him an audience that would probably never learn about meditation and mindfulness practices otherwise. I believe that anyone could benefit from daily meditation and mindfulness exercises, so those who could be brought into those practices with taco metaphors and frequent use of the word “dude” are lucky to have such books from Miguel Chen.

 

radical compassion

Tara Brach, Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN [2019] (In Progress)

Tara Brach is a therapist and meditation instructor who often draws from Buddhist thought to give aid to her clients. Last month I read her book Radical Acceptance and found its take on mindfulness practice for everyday situations to be interesting and helpful. The gist of her “radical acceptance” concept in that book is to practice awareness of one’s emotions and bodily sensations and use that awareness to stay more thoughtful and grounded in our interpersonal relationships and treatment of mental illness and trauma. Her recent book Radical Compassion deals with a similar exercise she calls RAIN, which uses the process of Recognize-Allow-Investigate-Nurture to help people work through negative emotions in both active meditation and everyday situations. Brach relates her RAIN exercise to her personal mental health journeys as well as clients of hers who used RAIN to lighten the burden of post-traumatic stress, workplace situations and familial conflict. Each chapter concludes with a guided meditation on the individual steps of the RAIN exercise and how it can be applied to various life situations. I like how she also provides a sort of FAQ to each meditation for those who may not understand the exercise or find it isn’t working for them yet. I’m a little under halfway finished with the book now. Like my reading of Radical Acceptance, I find this book to be informative and clear in its explanations, and I look forward to reading how its exercises can awaken in readers a greater sense of compassion – for ourselves and others.

 

dharma punx

Noah Levine, Dharma Punx: A Memoir [2003] (In Progress)

Before I discuss the content of this book, I’d like to note that I’m aware the author has faced allegations of sexual assault and misconduct from his clients and that he has since been barred from the organizations he founded. I decided to borrow the audiobook version of Dharma Punx from my library because I heard this book was a helpful memoir for past readers. I also thought the book could give me background on the organizations founded by the author, Dharma Punx and Refuge Recovery, which seem to do good work in helping members overcome issues like addiction and mental illness. Levine’s memoir tells his story as an angsty kid in the early years of the American punk scene, an era when the scene was known for its nihilistic outlook, substance abuse, violent live shows, and untimely deaths. An interesting part of Levine’s story is that his parents were devout practitioners of mindfulness and meditation exercises, but the he rejected that lifestyle for years until he found himself incarcerated and addicted to substances, in need of a new direction in life. So far, I’m only a few chapters beyond the author’s self-destructive teen years and just now getting into his early years exploring meditation and Buddhism. It’s interesting for me to read books like this by veterans (perhaps “survivors”) of the early punk scene and the lessons they took from that subculture into adulthood – another such book I’ve read is NOFX’s collective memoir The Hepatitis Bathtub. We’ll see in the next update what I make of this book as a whole and the synthesis of punk rock and Buddhism even if the author is now known to be…less than an excellent model of the religion he preaches.

 


 

Thanks for reading this first post of Biweekly Bookshelf. Another update will be posted by the end of May, concluding the “In Progress” texts and introducing others.

 

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