October 11, 2008

Book Reviews: Alan Watts, Song For Night, Eva Wong, Grist.org, Soul-Full Eating, Food Not Lawns, John Daido Loori, Organic Inc., Joseph Campbell, Vastu, The Green Self-Build Book (Chelsea), The Sauna, Happy for No Reason, The Power of Unreasonable People.

I used to think I wanted to be a writer. One time, a professor of mine said, you wanna be a writer, read lots of books. It’ll help you spell. It’ll help strange but perfect words rise out of the mists of mind, just when they’re needed. It’ll help you write tight, concrete yet flowing sentences.

And, of course, if you don’t want to be a writer, there’s nothin’ better than reading a good book for growing your brain, widening your vision, strengthening your character or deepening your resolve.

And if all that sounds like so much bla-dee-bla, well, there’s nothing better than a cup of tea and a couch and a book, except maybe watching Sanjuro or Breathless or Curb Yer Enthusiasm with fresh popcorn on a cool night under warm covers, curled up with yer puppy and someone you don’t mind kissing once every little while. But that’s another story. ~ed.-in-chief

Song for Night by Chris Abani > VIA HEATHER MUELLER If I could steal another writer’s talents for one day, Chris Abani would be my target of choice. In his novella about a child soldier in Africa, Abani holds nothing back when describing the brutality of war (and he would know—he was imprisoned and tortured in Nigeria for his writing). But his language is delicate, his descriptions brilliant and he somehow succeeds in conveying the nostalgia and innocence of childhood against a backdrop of violence—the book is heartbreaking and exhilarating. Published by indie Brooklynites, Akashic Books.

Tales of the Dancing Dragon: Stories of the Tao by Eva Wong > VIA WAYLON LEWIS There was a time when China was the center of the world’s wisdom: when, in the world’s imagination, Taoist sages drank pu-erh in high rock mountain vistas. Then Mao came along and killed more than Hitler and Stalin (combined), outlawed religion and forcibly erased (or tried to) thousands upon thousands of years of tradition. In with the Red Book, out with the Heavenly Dragon. This little book, by Eva Wong of Feng Shui fame, is chockfull of legends, and reminds us of a China we can love—a China full of legends of emperors and sages. Told to her by her grandmother as a child, Eva Wong relates these stories not merely for the fun of it (the stories are reminiscent of movies such as Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger)—in the process we also find ourselves learning the lessons and challenges of the Tao. Virgin Paper from unknown sources.

Wake Up and Smell the Planet from Grist.org > VIA CAROLINE TREADWAY One of the biggest green web sites in the world, Grist.org’s characteristically wacky, myth-shattering advice fills this handy little guide with easy, eco-savvy clues to living a better life. Yes, better. It will also make you thinner, hotter and smarter. Let Grist lead you through the maze of dogma. And if you don’t care, just bike to work once a week, it adds up. Great gift.

Soul-Full Eating by Maureen Whitehouse > VIA KATYA SLIVINSKAYA For me, food has always been more about joy than health, so I was happy as I turned the pages of this hefty read to find much talk about the enrichment of the soul. Although the gentle, far-from-preachy voice of the author takes us through the many food paradigms of the diet world (finally!), acknowledging its myriad confusing contradictions, the term “nutrition book” would be a misnomer for this one. Its scope is much broader, linking the way we eat to as many avenues of life as you can think of. Everything about Soul-Full Eating is comforting, which makes it a good one to keep around rather than reading once and tossing.

Food Not Lawns by H.C. Flores > VIA MARISA WARE Instead of just consuming water and growing grass, the average American lawn could yield several hundred pounds of food per year. This would not only reduce our manufactured dependencies and boost our sustainability, but also offer ways to build community and reconnect with our land and ourselves. Flores teaches how to build fertile soil, raise food and build healthier neighborhoods, whether you are working with a half-acre or a tiny plot in the midst of a city. Printed on recycled paper.

Teachings of the Earth: Zen and the Environment by John Daido Loori > VIA TODD MAYVILLE Loori, a well-loved Zen teacher, connects his tradition of mind-training with Whitman, Thoreau and other Western writers. Elegantly and simply written, Loori uses “the teachings of the insentient” to show us that if we are truly committed to our meditation practice, then the protection of the earth is one of our most basic, and most important, duties.

Organic, Inc. by Samuel Fromartz > VIA BRENDAN HASKINS Cutting through the marketing hyperbole that often surrounds natural foods, Fromartz (a business journalist) investigates the economic realities of the industry that has grown up around the organic movement. The book combines interviews with farmers, government regulators and heads of corporations—including Steve Demos, founder of Boulder-based White Wave—to illuminate the dynamics surrounding the food we eat. A balanced presentation of the debate about the future direction of organic food, this book provides essential context for those who wish to be more conscious consumers.

The Mythic Dimension by Joseph Campbell > VIA CAROLINE TREADWAY Budding and seasoned scholars alike will salivate over Campbell’s cerebral adventures in this posthumous collection of essays covering everything from Aphrodite to Zarathustra. But Campbell isn’t just for nerds; he singlehandedly made mythology cool via Bill Moyers. These essays give a taste of Campbell’s genius, shedding light on love, “om” and everything in between. (What else is there?) Campbell is like crack—cool, smart, mythological crack. The value of his work cannot be overstated.

Vastu: Transcendental Home Design in Harmony with Nature by Sherri Silverman > VIA KATYA SLIVINSKAYA I’ve long liked to torture my non-homeowner self by leafing through copies of Dwell magazine. So upon seeing yet another interior design title, I challenged myself to find at least three helpful changes that I could manage in my cozy (small) apartment. And I must admit that—although there’s something about this book’s new-agey bent that I would love to hate—I found some great advice for purifying the air, organizing clutter and straightening out the artwork situation in my humble space. My favorite is the Kahlil Gibran quote, “Forget not that the earth delights in your bare feet and the winds want to play with your hair,” featured in section four, which somehow takes the edge off of my lack of funds for a soothing koi pond and reminds me that enriching my space is not as shallow as all that.

Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life by Alan Watts > VIA TODD MAYVILLE I’d heard of Alan Watts before, but hadn’t read any of his works until now, and I’ve realized he’s nothing short of amazing. He makes the integration of Western and Eastern thought comprehensible without shortchanging either. This book is a collection of teachings and talks that he gave during the 1960s, and serves as an excellent primer to Watts’ work, yet I’m sure that those who are familiar with Watts will not be disappointed.

The Green Self-Build Book by Jon Broome > VIA CAROLINE TREADWAY Eco-dream-home 101 Brit-style. Jon Broome takes the reader through his personal journey in green building, complete with ‘70s-esque photos. He discusses the pros and cons of unconventional materials including hemp, cob and turf versus brick and concrete—two huge greenhouse gas producers. His methods address insulation, waste reduction, water harvesting and conservation alongside highly technical design concepts. Stay in control of your green dream, even if you’re not an architect. From complex details to simple concepts, this book will have you building eco-ly away in no time! Printed on 75% recycled paper, 25% Forest Stewardship Accredited paper.

The Sauna by Rob Roy > VIA KATYA SLIVINSKAYA One of my quirky joys is picking up random non-fiction for the sake of learning something new, and I immediately got a distinct “cult-classic” feel from the cover of this baby. But I have to admit that I enjoyed the introduction—replete with a brief history of the sauna in its many incarnations—much more than I did the manual part, which is most of it. I suppose I wanted it to read like a love story, a literary serenade to the sauna. But I bet anyone with industrious inclination and a tool belt would have the exact opposite preferences.

Happy for No Reason by Marci Shimoff > VIA MARISA WARE The popular phenomenon of the self-help industry has made me immediately suspicious of any book that claims it can change your life or show you the way to true happiness. Shimoff (co-author of Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul) walks the fine line between cheesy and genuine, ricocheting from contrite feel-good advice to profound practices rooted in simplicity and appreciation. It’s unlikely to rock your paradigm, but this book might just offer a few nuggets of wisdom that will help you “be happy from the inside, out.”

The Power of Unreasonable People by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan > VIA TODD MAYVILLE Sometimes being a talented business-person doesn’t mean being a talented writer. This book explains the rise of socially driven industries in terms that a conventional business person will dig, while admitting that many of these socially conscious businesses don’t fit the “old school” mold. If you are looking for a “traditional” business book loaded with “business-ese,” it is well written. For the average person looking for inspiration and discussion on how social entrepreneurs are changing the way business does business, however, this book probably wouldn’t be a good choice. Still, it’s encouraging that a mainstream business policy powerhouse like Harvard is paying attention to a new, less selfish model of making hay.


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