Sunday, August 19, 2012

Jungle Beasts, Bundles of Joy, and a Blueprint for Humanity

There is just something about coming out from a dip in the water to lounge poolside and read a good book on a sunny day (yes, slathered with sunscreen and eyes protected with sunglasses and a hat).  And summer reading doesn’t have to be light as a feather; it can also light the way for inner and outer journeys. 

I’ve long followed certain authors but not particular publishers, until a couple of years ago.  Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog was my first Europa Editions book and I adored it.  Since then at the library whenever I see one of their distinctive covers with the pelican logo I pick it up and check it out, regardless of whether the topic or author is something I’d normally find of interest.  Sometimes it’s another beautifully translated work, like Barbery’s first book, Gourmet Rhapsody.  Other times are books in the original English.

Most recently I was completely captivated by their Audrey Schulman title, Three Weeks in December.  If you liked Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, you’ll love Three Weeks in December.  The scene shifts between times and places, a technique I usually find tiresome but not at all here.  In late 19th century British East Africa, engineer Jeremy is posted to oversee construction of a railroad, but that work becomes overshadowed by lions stalking the workers at night.  In present day Rwanda, ethnobiologist Max looks for a potentially lifesaving vine, but her life there is more about her relationship with the threatened gorillas amidst whom she lives, and how her Asperger’s serves her in that relationship.  Both stories are suspenseful and engaging, the characters well developed, and Three Weeks in December is one of those books you wish would never end.

Another summer read that lived up to my high expectations was Anne Lamott’s  (with Sam Lamott) Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son (Riverhead Books).  Like her brilliant Operating Instructions, the story of her son’s first year, her latest is brutally honest, warm, hilarious, and spiritual.  Lamott did not expect to become a grandmother at just a “ripe” 55, when her son was not yet 20.  Some of the most beautiful moments of the book are when this mother watches her “wild son…now taking tender care of his own newborn, a miniature who is both unique and reflective.”

Lamott does not question her sanity this time around, but struggles with her overwhelming love for little Jax and the fear that her son’s challenging relationship with Jax’s mother could keep him from her.  She is also an eloquent observer, as always, of life’s foibles and miracles, of her own days and those of the people around her. “With your own child, you’re fixated on the foreground, trying to keep the child safe and alive,” she muses. “But with a grandchild, you can be in softer focus, you can see beyond the anxious foreground.” While she does still spend some time in that anxious foreground, “quiet, peaceful joy” is the place where she and Jax rest most often, in their complicated family, in Lamott’s caring community.

Amidst much other reading both fiction and nonfiction, I was lifted up by the Dalai Lama’s Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), coming 10 years after his luminous Ethics for a New Millennium. While he still comes from a place of deep commitment to his Buddhist tradition, he wants the reader to shed the concern about this religion or that and cut to the core of our being as humans, which is compassion and action upon it.  He reminds us of the power of one individual to make a difference, and of the extraordinary things that can happen when committed individuals ban together to do so. 

The Dalai Lama walks readers through ways to cultivate a mental practice, meditation, to help us walk a calmer, more patient path through life, for “Our inner lives are something we ignore at our own peril.” He urges a secular system of ethics grounded in compassion, an “education of the heart” as part of formal education: he is “hopeful that a time will come when we can take it for granted, that children will learn, as part of their school curriculum, the indispensability of inner values such as love, compassion, justice, and forgiveness.”

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