I’ve recently started reading at least one work of literature from each country I visit, and I picked this book up in Nepal as a first take on that country through the lens of literature. I couldn’t be happier with my selection. This book provided exactly what I was looking for in such a book, and more. What I want from such a book is insight into culture, lifestyle, and politico-historical context that can be difficult to witness through travel. Traveling a new country is like dating a new person; one doesn’t see the rough edges for some time. (Usually the relationship – in either case — is over before one sees into the murky depths.)
Over the course of eight stories, Upadhyay not only gives one insight into the nature of life for a variety of Nepalis (e.g. rich, poor, and middle class as well as young / progressive v.) older / conservative), he also shows the life of a hippie ex-pat gone native as well as presenting the worldview of a Nepali abroad (i.e. in America for college.) Where this book exceeded my expectations was in the skilfulness of tension-building employed in the stories. Often a book that achieves the aforementioned objectives does so in a way that is flat on story because it takes the character-centric orientation common in literary fiction. These stories are gripping as well as insightful, and don’t abandon story for character. It dances a beautiful line in that regard.
The first of eight stories tells of the trials and tribulations of an editor of a hard-hitting journalistic magazine, and the dual challenges she faces in taking on a corrupt regime while at the same time she has a friend who is going through a messy breakup. However the editor juggles these competing demands, we know she won’t escape some guilt of failing someone important to her.
The second story is about a rich boy whose life is tormented by the fact that his mother abandoned him and his father and moved on to form a new family. The boy takes to impersonating a beggar, secretly hoping his mother will see him and will be shocked into change. The story is also about the young man’s wake up call to the fact that he’ll never have the killer instincts bred by necessity into those less fortunate that are arrayed against him.
The third story is about “the Sharmas,” a dysfunctional Nepali nuclear family in which the mother is pure shrew, the father is trying fumblingly to have an affair, the son is a dim-wit, and the daughter is dating a young man who everybody seems to think is out of her league.
The fourth story is about a girl in the early 1980’s Kathmandu who goes from the drug-addled life of a Freak Street hippie to going full native. Here we see what draws the foreigner to Nepal and to Nepalese people, as well as how attempts to escape into another culture can be as troubled as attempts to escape into drug-induced euphoria.
The fifth story is by far the longest and might be classed as a novella. It’s about a young man who becomes obsessed with an African girl that he rescues in Kathmandu. The piece has a very dream-like quality to it, and through much of the story one is left unclear as to what is real and what is the product of the lead’s mind. In fact, the title “Dreaming of Ghana” suggests this imagined state of affairs.
The sixth story is the shortest, and – as its title suggests – it’s about an “Affair before the Earthquake.” The story evokes the emotion of world events that cleanly bisect our lives.
The eponymously titled penultimate chapter follows a wealthy and powerful woman who is “disappeared” by a corrupt authoritarian regime when she tries to look into the similar disappearance of her son. It’s a fascinating tale about a prominent real estate developer who is disabused of the notion that she is too powerful to be man-handled by the State. We see her transformation as a prisoner as the wind is taken out of her sails until one wonders whether she would ever be able to cope in her old life after being cowed by prison life.
The last story, like the fourth, turns things upside-down a bit. In it we find a Nepali student abroad who finds himself out in the cold because of his strong views on race. He discovers he’s at odds with the other foreign students because he thinks they should be more outraged about the bias displayed against them. He identifies with the plight of blacks, but they don’t see him as one of them.
This is an intense little collection of stories and I’d highly recommend it. The stories are well-crafted and keep the reader intrigued.
This book is an examination of fifteen classic Zen koans selected by John Tarrant, founder of the Pacific Zen Institute (PZI.) Koans are statements or stories that are designed to help students of Zen Buddhism escape their usual ways of thinking because the absurdity of koans cannot be meaningfully answered with the usual approach based in logic and reason. Even if the concept isn’t familiar, readers are sure to have heard the famous koan: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” [Though one may have missed the value as a tool of the mind, and dismissed the koan as a sage’s attempt to be abstruse and esoteric.]
Each chapter addresses one koan in great detail. First, the koan is presented in a simple fashion. It should be pointed out that some of these koans are a single line and others are as long as several paragraphs. Next, there is a sort of introduction to the concept or point being addressed in the koan. Tarrant knows the value of story, and this frequently involves a narrative approach. Next, there is a section describing the koan in more detail than in which it was first introduced. Here the author elaborates and provides background. The final section of each chapter is about “working with the koan” and offers a bit of insight into how to start considering the lesson of each koan.
I enjoyed this book. It’s a good selection of koans that cover a wide range of styles and approaches. As I mentioned the author uses stories and anecdotes – both historical and contemporary – to help get his point across. The titular use of a particularly absurd koan “punchline,” gives one a taste of the author’s willingness to engage in the whimsical.
I’d highly recommend this book for those who are seeking to better understand koans, either as students of Zen or as individuals interested in the workings of the mind more generally.
This novel intersperses two story lines, the connection between which only becomes clear near the book’s end. The first story arc is set in a realistic world in which a few futuristic and bizarre science fiction elements intrude on an otherwise ordinary Tokyo scenescape. Let’s face it, Tokyo is one of those cities that it’s easy to believe hides some unexpected truths inside its gargantuan sprawl.
In the first story (i.e. the odd-numbered chapters), a Calcutec (i.e. the narrator) is hired by a mysterious elderly scientist who’s running an independent laboratory. Calcutecs are individuals who’ve been trained to use their subconscious for data encryption and storage. As the offense / defense of data encryption has become a contact sport in this world, the narrator isn’t initially surprised when he gains some unwanted attention from nefarious types, but gradually he comes to discover that nothing is as it seems.
The second story arc plays out in a surreal dream world. In this world, the lead (also a “narrator”) is a dream reader who spends his nights taking in old dreams from the skulls of the beasts who reside in the countryside nearby and which die off in massive numbers each winter. All and all, this narrators life is relatively calm and tranquil, though he does suffer some anxiety over the fact that he’s been separated from his shadow, and that said shadow seems to be dying off.
For a story that plays out in the surreal imagery of the subconscious mind and which hinges on the esoteric world of the brain, it’s incredibly readable and easily followed. This is trippy reading, but it’s not difficult to follow. If you enjoy movies like “Inception,” “Source Code,” “Memento,” or “The Machinist,” this book will be right up your alley.
I’d highly recommend this book for those who enjoy mind-bending fiction.
5.) On Love and Barley by Matsuo Basho [Japanese]: One doesn’t get better haiku [and other traditional Japanese poetry forms] than Basho.
4.) The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur [Indian-Canadian]: This isn’t the expected fair for an “around the world” post as it’s not blatantly infused with setting / geography, but culture does factor in prominently.
3.) Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman [American]: Not only does Whitman explore the many dimensions of America, he also references other cultures and locales. [There was a fascination with the East brewing in Whitman’s day.]
2.) Octavio Paz / Selected Poems by Octavio Paz [Mexican]: Paz was a diplomat as well as a Nobel Laureate, and his poems include many references to India (where he was posted) as well as Mexico.
1.) The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran [Lebanese-American]: Featuring an intriguing melange of advice in poetic form.
NOTE: It’s not as global a list as I’d like. I’d love to hear what works others might include in the list. I don’t think poetry gets translated as much as fiction and so it’s a bit of a challenge. It’s much easier to find examples of novels & short story collections from far-flung corners of the world.
walking in the street
after the sun has set
No porch lights
No torch lights
No box-lit sign for the butcher
No neon sign for the barber
just the dim hypnotic flicker of screens
like swimming a benighted sea
knowing other life teems unseen
sometimes a face drifts into view
and you pivot to avoid collision
or maybe just drift vaguely past
one word rattles in you brain:
Taken in April of 2018 on the trail to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC.)