Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for June, 2012

The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life

Posted by nliakos on June 27, 2012

by Jean-François Revel and Matthieu Ricard (Schocken, 1998, translated by John Canti) (originally published as Le Moine et le Philosophe: Le Bouddhisme Aujourd’hui by NiL éditions, 1997)

Jean-François Revel is a writer and editor in Paris; his son, Matthieu Ricard (they never explain how the son’s last name is different from the father’s) is a Buddhist monk in Nepal. The book is a transcription of conversations between the two. I expected more of a two-way dialogue, but it is actually more like the father interviewing the son about Tibetan Buddhism (if they had not changed the subtitle, I would have figured that out).

I found Revel rather aggressive at first. He seemed to be trying to get Ricard to admit to some faults in Buddhism, trying first one way and then another to discredit it. For example, in one chapter he asks his son if “a real synthesis….something more than a mutual tolerance” is possible between Buddhism and the West. Ricard responds that some Westerners are using Buddhist techniques in an effort to understand their own religion better. Revel calls that “syncretism–mixing up bits borrowed here and there from different doctrines” and sniffs, “hardly the most elevated form of thought!”  I’m not sure what the difference between synthesis and syncretism is, but I guess they must be kind of similar. It wasn’t clear to me what Revel found distasteful about Ricard’s response, exactly.

Revel also keeps harping on the question of whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy. He concludes that it’s a philosophy, and then he returns to the question as if he can’t accept that. He is constantly comparing Buddhist thought or practice to this or that Western philosopher, either ancient or modern. So I did, after all, learn something about the history of Western thought.

Revel is an atheist and a believer in the power of science to improve people’s lives, but he readily admits that while science and technology can improve people’s quality of life, they do nothing to increase the amount of happiness in the world or decrease the amount of suffering, which is the goal of Buddhism. As I read, it occurred to me that in fact, science and technology are responsible for making our lives worse in many ways: they enable us to kill more efficiently and more horrifically; they are the source of deadly pollution and habitat destruction; they help us to destroy whole populations of other living beings (think: coastal redwoods, fish, tigers, snail darters, etc.); and even in helping us to live longer, they are responsible for the overcrowding of the Earth. No one is happier in his or her human relationships because of some new technology or scientific discovery–as convenient or as interesting as they are. It is a mistake to think that a longer, healthier life is necessarily going to be a happier life.

In the end, Ricard has not budged from his position, but Revel has “become more appreciative of Buddhism as a system of wisdom…. Buddhism fills a gap left vacant by the desertion of Western philosophy in the area of ethics and the art of living.”

I did not understand every detail, but it was interesting and I did learn a lot, not only about Tibetan Buddhism but also about the history of Western thought.

Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and Other Invisible Illnesses: The Comprehensive Guide

Posted by nliakos on June 15, 2012

by Katrina Berne (Hunter House, 2002)

Probably a bit out of date by 2012.  This is indeed comprehensive and at times quite technical (as with the drug lists, the chapter “Psychoneuroimmunology: and others).  There’s quite a bit of repetition, and as CFS and FM do overlap a lot–in fact, many people think they are different faces of one illness–the reader sometimes has the impression of reading the same thing over and over. Sometimes there was just too much information to take in. I was taking notes, but I became overwhelmed and just kind of gave up toward the end. This is a good book to own and use as a reference. As a library book that you read and then return, not so useful.

Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

The Time Traveler’s Wife

Posted by nliakos on June 12, 2012

by Audrey Niffenegger (Harvest/Harcourt 2003)

This was my second reading of The Time Traveler’s Wife, but I seem not to have blogged about it, so here goes.

It’s an amazing thing about fiction–how it can take an unbelievable premise (time travel) and make the reader believe in it. (Think of Harry Potter!) We willingly suspend disbelief and become entangled in the story, which seems so real, even when we know it isn’t. This is the love story of Clare Abshire DeTamble, the eponymous wife, and Henry DeTamble, who travels willy-nilly through time (his and hers), first encountering Clare as a six-year-old but not recognizing her when he meets her at twenty because his visits to her childhood self have not yet occurred for him. If you are confused, that’s because it’s really confusing. The chapters are all marked with the dates and Henry’s and Clare’s respective ages, but it’s still bewildering, and I don’t know how Niffenegger kept it all straight in her own mind while she was writing it!

What this is more than anything, though, is a love story: the story of Clare and Henry and how their love for each other transcends time and space. In this respect it reminds me of Robert Nathan’s Portrait of Jennie, although that love story was cut much shorter than this one; still, Clare and Henry’s story makes me cry every time I read it or see the movie. (I just watched it for the second time on Mother’s Day, courtesy of Vicki; that was why I had the urge to re-read the book.)

I suppose that time travel isn’t for everyone, but it has always intrigued me. Besides Portrait of Jennie and Kindred (by Octavia Butler), I’ve enjoyed the movies Kate and Leopold, Back to the Future, and Midnight in Paris. Still, I was astonished to find this very extensive list of time travel movies on Wikipedia; so I guess the concept is more popular than I suspected!

I loved The Time Traveler’s Wife, and even on the second reading, found it difficult to put down.

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Albert Nobbes

Posted by nliakos on June 12, 2012

by George Moore (in Celibate Lives by George Moore, originally published 1927 by J. C. Medley; Chatto & Windus 1968)

I recently saw the film Albert Nobbes, starring Glenn Close as a woman living her life as a male waiter in a 19th-century Dublin hotel. I was intrigued by the idea that in an era when single women probably had few opportunities to earn an honest living, this may have been more common than we imagine. I decided to read the novella on which the play and film were based.

It wasn’t easy to find it! I thought I might get it as a free e-Book (no) or at the public library (no!). I finally found a copy at the University of Maryland’s McKeldin Library. There are five novellas in the collection. I have read only “Albert Nobbes.”  The story is very similar to the film with certain changes to the plot; for example, in the movie, Albert goes to Hubert’s home and meets his (her) wife, whereas in the novella, Albert never sees Hubert again after the night they spend sharing Albert’s room and both their stories; s/he is left to wonder about Hubert’s marriage, and how/when Hubert revealed his/her sex to his/her wife until the end of the story. Albert’s death comes about differently in the novella, as well. However, the essence of the story was clearly there in the film.

I found it difficult to follow the narrative and dialogue, as both were enmeshed in the same long paragraphs without the benefit of quotation marks or line breaks to indicate who was saying what, or whether they were speaking aloud or just thinking. Modern readers are not accustomed to this kind of text, so it is a bit off-putting.

I haven’t decided whether I will read the other stories in the book yet.

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