THERE’S ALWAYS a stack of books on the bedside table, threatening to topple over and kill me in my sleep. If so, I’ll die happy. Right now I’m immersed in three wonderful new dharma books and four works of fiction—I’ll list them in a minute. First, I have to tell how Daphne Beal’s novel In the Land of No Right Angles (Anchor, 2008, $13.95 paper) leapt from the pile and kept me up all night, two nights ago.
Beal had me from the first: “It started out as a little adventure, or an adventure tagged onto an adventure. I was twenty and about to go trekking in the central hill region of Nepal…” ‘Uh-oh,’ I thought, as I read that the heroine, Alex, is about to take a detour to deliver a message from a Western male friend to a pretty young woman in a village. The young Nepali woman ends up fascinating Alex—and the reader. Soon, the three characters are in Kathmandu together, physically, emotionally, and culturally entwined. Basically, the story never lets up, even after Alex leaves Nepal.
I love fiction like this. Alex’s firstperson narrative voice is straightforward, rising to modest poetic heights when needed yet never subtracting attention from the drama among the characters. Their emotional (and sexual) triangle twists and turns upon the mysteries of friendship across cultures. How can two women be friends when their range of choices is completely different? Is Alex ruining Maya’s life or helping her? Who’s exploiting whom? Having lived, worked, and traveled overseas, I was queasy with recognition as I read all this. Still, it is fun to visit people I know, represented in fictional form. Anyone who’s spent time in Kathmandu will happily cringe at the benighted seekers partying hard and living in old Rana palaces once occupied by the former ruling family. There’s even a recognizable version of the late Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche.
Admittedly, I’ve always been a sucker for Peace Corps novels. In the Land of No Right Angles is a rarer species—a junior-year-abroad novel, yet one that deliberately sets out to rough up the prepackaged, entitled experience that has become our century’s version of a Peace Corps stint. The Peace Corps, moreover, has produced some of the finest American writing, books by Paul Theroux, Norman Rush, Tony D’Souza, the late Maria Thomas, Roland Merullo, Melanie Sumner, and Bob Shacochis.
Having devoured No Right Angles, I happily return to my stack of dharma books and the three remaining works of fiction, coincidentally all written by magicians: The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian (Grove Press, 2007, $14.95 paper); Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (Vintage, 1989, $14.95 paper); and Dangerous Laughter, short stories by Steven Millhauser (Vintage, 2009, $14.95 paper). One of the Millhauser stories, “History of a Disturbance,” first published in The New Yorker, is about a husband who stops speaking to his wife because he realizes the limitations of language. To be honest, some of the other stories didn’t measure up: the visual and verbal brilliance of the writing wasn’t balanced by human feeling.
As for the dharma books, I am tempted to call The Buddha’s Teachings on Prosperity by Bhikkhu Basnagoda Rahula (Wisdom Publications, 2008, $16.95 paper) a shocker. With meticulous research, Rahula turns around many of our received notions about what the Buddha recommends for lay life. He wants us to have a good time! The Sound of Silence: The Selected Teachings of Ajahn Sumedho (Wisdom Publications, 2007, $16.95 paper) is a mind-to-mind transmission—it’s impossible to read more than a few pages before one’s thinking mind gets stopped in its tracks. Touching Enlightenment by Reginald Ray (Sounds True, 2008, $24.95 cloth) manages to say something new about body awareness, a practice many of us have engaged in for years. This book is full of nuances, and it asks to be practiced, page by page, so it’s not a quick read, either. Which is comforting, especially for one who likes to be protected by an inexhaustible wall of delight on the nightstand.
Contributing editor Kate Lila Wheeler lives in Massachusetts and is hoping to finish her third book of fiction, “Holy Woman,” this year. A former Buddhist nun, she teached meditation around the country.
Image © David M. Gu
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