Reading ideas for holiday gift lists

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Mark Dwyer, One View

Thanks for your blog on books you've read [Just wandering, Ken Trainor]. Since you asked for opinions, I have lately enjoyed these books-some newer, some older:

Introduction to Buddhism by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, 2008

Gyatso is a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master who writes about Mahayana Buddhism in a very soothing style. He is quick to note that one can be a Buddhist and still belong to another religion. Even if you don't end up practicing, this book is worth reading because Gyatso gives solid humanistic advice about becoming a better person. A representative passage is: "Recognizing the terrible and unnecessary sufferings that arise from anger, we should develop renunciation for them and then strive to abandon their cause ... by practicing patience." Easier said than done, but Gyatso assures us that practice makes perfect.

The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis, 2006

This novel is a spiritual yet humanistic look at the residents of a small Northeastern U.S. town near the Canadian border. Some of the characters we get to know are animals-dogs, cats and beavers. Others are admirable and interesting persons such as retirement home residents, the kind of folks from whom we don't hear enough. The Thin Place is a moving celebration of the natural world and its inhabitants that also possesses a sad underlying notion that humans affect the earth much more than we realize. The title of this book, it was later explained, refers to the border that separates worlds, or the layer dividing our own place from one that is deeper and unknown.

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, 2003

Already well known for writing Into the Wild and Into Thin Air prior to penning this book, Krakauer presents a startling and controversial history of the Mormons, showing the fierce determination and occasional violence of its members throughout the years. The practice of polygamy is examined, as are the various branches that split from the original and official Mormon Church. Throughout the book, Krakauer incrementally tells the story of two fundamentalist Mormon brothers who killed for their God, describing their bloody deeds around his historical portrait of Joseph Smith and his successors. The Mormon Church, of course, hated this book and argued that some points were incorrect, though Krakauer seems to have refuted their arguments. This book probably didn't do much to help the political aspirations of Mitt Romney.

American Pastoral by
Philip Roth, 1997

This is an intense novel about tumultuous American times and the effect such times can have on whole villages and, more specifically, on individuals and families. The story-set in Newark, N.J. and surroundings-focuses on a Jewish-American guy, nicknamed "the Swede," who in his youth was an all-star athlete idolized by the neighborhood kids. One of these kids, now an adult, is the narrator (though the book's voice belongs to other characters, as well). Swede passes up a career in sports to run his father's factory. And though he does this very well and realizes the American Dream, things take a nightmarish turn, and he realizes there are no guarantees and that a successful middle-class person can get hammered from all sides no matter how noble one's intentions. As usual, Roth's descriptions of persons and places are sharp, detailed, scary, and occasionally funny. Similar to Thomas Pynchon, Roth has the rare ability to hold the mirror up and scare the hell out of you.

The Lost Continent: Travels
in Small Town America by
Bill Bryson, 1989

As in so many of his books, here we find the expatriate, one-time British citizen Bryson on the road, exploring America and then giving his strong opinion about what he finds, his reactions being a mix of outrage, inspiration and hilarity. The book is divided into two parts-East and West-and Bryson covers 38 states in his mother's old Chevette, withholding his wrath for no one. Seniors, Shriners, Southerners-nobody he dislikes escapes his vitriol. Almost no writer would dare to write such a book in this current politically correct age, which makes the reader feel refreshed, if uncomfortable. But the harshest criticism is directed at the towns and cities that he deplores. Despite the subtitle, Bryson explores New York City, Las Vegas, and other not-so-small towns. In the end, he seems to conclude that, despite what Wolfe said, you can go home again, if only to borrow a car and reminisce for a while.

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