One of the reasons I found myself so engrossed in this memoir of a woman’s year of travel through Italy, India and Indonesia is because Liz Gilbert is...moreOne of the reasons I found myself so engrossed in this memoir of a woman’s year of travel through Italy, India and Indonesia is because Liz Gilbert is a very funny person. Though she is writing about a deeply personal and often internal journey, she does so with enough intelligence and self-depreciating wit that the book is a true pleasure to read. Within just a few pages, I found myself so engaged by her vivacious personality I wished I knew her personally.
I had mixed feelings about the middle section of the book, in which she spends four months at the ashram of her Indian guru. Being painfully aware of the hazards of guru relationships, reading about someone who is very into a guru can be difficult for me. To her credit, when she describes her spiritual explorations and the time she spent at the ashram, she remains focused more on her own process of growth and the people she meets in the ashram than on the guru herself. Ms. Gilbert has the capacity to find powerful stories to tell no matter where she is, so this book is always interesting. I just hope that at some point she decides to go back to India and write about all the other fascinating things she didn’t get to see by staying at the ashram the whole time.
This book about one woman’s intimate involvement with Carlos Castaneda and members of his inner circle affected me on a very personal level, as one of...moreThis book about one woman’s intimate involvement with Carlos Castaneda and members of his inner circle affected me on a very personal level, as one of the spiritual groups I was involved with borrowed heavily from the teachings of Carlos and his female colleagues. Reading Amy’s account of the dysfunction and cruelty within that group, as well as discovering information that discredited many things that I had believed as fact, caused a crumbling of a large chunk of my world view that felt a lot like finding out there is no Santa Claus.
Amy handles her subject confidently and there are parts of this book that are truly gripping. It might not be as compelling to someone with less familiarity with Carlos’s work, as some scenes have repetitive themes. But I would strongly recommend it to anyone who was moved by the work of Castaneda and his female companions. (less)
Suzanne Segal was living a secular life in France when she experienced an abrupt shift out of ordinary consciousness and into a state of no-self. Thou...moreSuzanne Segal was living a secular life in France when she experienced an abrupt shift out of ordinary consciousness and into a state of no-self. Though six years prior to this event she had studied extensively with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, she did not understand what had happened to her until she found her experience described in a Buddhist text well over a decade later.
Segal’s book is fascinating both as an intimate description of what it feels like to live without identification with a sense of “I,” and also as a compelling example of just how profoundly our beliefs affect our experience and interpretation of that experience. According to the modern psychiatry Segal sought help from for years, she was experiencing a serious personality disorder. But according to long-standing Advaita and Buddhist traditions, she had achieved a state that people struggle towards for lifetimes. Being able to view her experience from both perspectives is enlightening in more ways than one.
There are a lot of things to recommend this memoir about the two years the author spent trying out various forms of mainstream self-help. Niesslein's...moreThere are a lot of things to recommend this memoir about the two years the author spent trying out various forms of mainstream self-help. Niesslein's tales of trying to follow the advice of the sort of luminaries one finds on the Oprah show is full of insight and humor. Her chapter on attempting to improve her already decent marriage with the help of Drs. Laura and Phil is particularly funny, and I found her commentary on trying to be a better parent very moving. Other sections of the book don’t flow quite as well: her chapter on attempting to follow the personal finance advice of gurus David Bach and Suze Orman reflects the dullness of the subject, and the continual summaries she provides of the books whose wisdom she is attempting to implement slows things down at times. Overall, though, I would recommend this book to anyone who has been seduced by the grandiose promises made on the back of self-help books. The author has some very sharp observations about how many of these programs not only fell short of their promises, but were actually detrimental to her overall well-being. (less)
Sartor’s memoir is composed of actual entries from the diaries she kept between the ages of twelve and seventeen. On the surface, this glimpse into th...moreSartor’s memoir is composed of actual entries from the diaries she kept between the ages of twelve and seventeen. On the surface, this glimpse into the psyche of a struggling teenager is at times funny and heartbreaking. But it is also a fabulous book for meditators. I walked away from it with a profound understanding of not only the universality of human experience (or at least, the teenage American female human experience) but also a visceral understanding of the highly transient nature of our thoughts, feelings and beliefs.
As memoirs go, this story of a recent Columbia grad who ends up starring as a Western hussy in China's most popular soap opera is a fascinating one. I...moreAs memoirs go, this story of a recent Columbia grad who ends up starring as a Western hussy in China's most popular soap opera is a fascinating one. I learned a lot about what modern day life in China is like from this book. It was particlarly shocking for me to read that some people there don't keep journals out of fear what they write might be used against them by the government. Still, the tone did get a little academic for me at times and I wish the author had included more of her own personal joureny within her very compelling observations about modern China.(less)
This is an utterly fascinating book on so many levels it’s hard to count. As a memoir, this chronicle of Hirsi’s journey from the good daughter of a M...moreThis is an utterly fascinating book on so many levels it’s hard to count. As a memoir, this chronicle of Hirsi’s journey from the good daughter of a Muslim Somali family to her current role as an outspoken critic of Islam who lives under 24-hour armed guard is gripping. The stories of trauma she endured as a child—from violent abuse to life under an oppressive dictator to the horrors of war viewed firsthand—are not easy to read, but I couldn’t put the book down as I sought to discover how she survived to become the person she is. But it is when Hirsi flees her arranged marriage and seeks asylum in The Netherlands that this book actually changed the way I think. Hirsi details with amazing precision the collapse of her Islamic belief system when she discovered that the “infidel” West was a far kinder and gentler place than the one she grew up in. Being able to look at my own society through her eyes dramatically shifted my perception of the freedoms and lifestyle I have as a woman in the West, something I had only intellectually appreciated before. Hirsi’s decision to use her own newfound freedoms to fight for the rights of abused Muslim women in the face of repeated death threats makes her a true hero in my mind. (less)
David Thibodeau was a young LA musician when a chance meeting with the charismatic David Koresh led to his involvement with the Branch Davidian commun...moreDavid Thibodeau was a young LA musician when a chance meeting with the charismatic David Koresh led to his involvement with the Branch Davidian community outside Waco, Texas. This book is a well-written, articulate account of his life within that community and the events leading to the tragic 1993 inferno that claimed the lives of all but nine of the members.
Thibodeau honors his community by putting a human face on a group of people who have been badly demonized by the media. The author does a decent job of explaining the group’s appeal, but he is also unflinchingly honest in his descriptions the darker sides of the group. He appears, however, to remain a true believer in his path. While he does address the discomfort he felt that Koresh chose to engage in such behaviors as having sex with underage girls in the community, he falls short of asking the hard questions that observing such behavior in a spiritual leader should require someone to ask.
It’s easy to get distracted from those tougher questions, however, by the chilling depiction of the government siege against the Branch Davidians. While it was clear that Koresh himself had broken some laws, it is equally clear from this account that the government’s heavy-handed approach to the situation contributed to the horrific deaths of many people who were entirely innocent of any crime other than believing in something unorthodox. Thibodeau’s account of the facts surrounding the siege, the fire, and the resulting investigation is deeply, deeply disturbing, and is crucial reading for anyone who is concerned about the state of civil rights in the US. (less)
While slightly disjointed at times, this is a fascinating memoir. Bedford's portrait of France's expat literary world in the buildup to WWII was the m...moreWhile slightly disjointed at times, this is a fascinating memoir. Bedford's portrait of France's expat literary world in the buildup to WWII was the most interesting part of the book for me, but I found her discussion of her development as a writer quite interesting as well.(less)
Daniel Drennan has written this collection of essays in a style flavored by run-on sentences, paragraphs that cover multiple pages and liberal use of...moreDaniel Drennan has written this collection of essays in a style flavored by run-on sentences, paragraphs that cover multiple pages and liberal use of italics. Those who enjoy the author's stream-of-consciousness voice and quirky observations will be hard pressed to find a funnier book about life in the madhouse that is New York City. One of my favorite sections concerns Drennan's time as an employee at the infamous Strand Bookstore, where he dealt with, among other things, well-heeled customers purchasing books according to the color palette assigned by an interior decorator. (less)
Diana Mukpo was a rebellious teenager when she first began studying with Chögyam Trungpa, a Buddhist Rinpoche who had escaped Tibet in 1959 and began...moreDiana Mukpo was a rebellious teenager when she first began studying with Chögyam Trungpa, a Buddhist Rinpoche who had escaped Tibet in 1959 and began teaching in England several years later. She was just sixteen when they defied both her family and his community to marry.
Dragon Thunder is Diana's memoir about her 17 years as the wife of one of the most influential Buddhist teachers in America. The book is written in straight narrative that lacks the literary flourishes common to modern memoirs, but the events of her life are interesting enough that I did find her story engaging.
Though Diana does discuss Trungpa's teachings in the sense of describing how he worked to integrate Tibetan wisdom in to American culture, there is no detailed outline of the finer points of Tibetan Buddhism. The story is told from her perspective and as such spends a fair amount of time relating tales of things like the time their two year old son bit the head off of a scared Buddha and her attempts to live a life independent of the sangha by developing her own career in dressage.
As Trungpa's wife, lover, friend and student, Diana offers a fascinating perspective on him that no one else can provide. But I found myself disturbed by her extremely detached discussion of some of his more controversial behaviors. Although she acknowledges that Trungpa slept many of his female students and talks about how upsetting that was for her at first, her justification of his actions seemed forced to me. I found it worrisome that she never addressed the problems inherent in a teacher encouraging his students to practice guru devotion while having sex with those same students.
Many people consider Trungpa to be a prime example of a "crazy wisdom" teacher, a being so enlightened and compassionate that this sort of unconventional behavior is acceptable because it is solely for the benefits of his students. Despite Diana's perspective on the matter, I remained unconvinced that the heavy drinking that killed him at 48 was anything more than alcoholism, and his physical mistreatment of some students was anything more than abuse.
The book did make it very clear, however, that Trungpa was an enormously powerful teacher who left an enduring stamp on Buddhist culture in America. Though I never studied Trungpa's teachings in depth, I am a graduate of the university he founded in an attempt to integrate the best of Eastern wisdom with Western scholarship. My Naropa education was enormously valuable to me, and though the school has grown well beyond its controversial founder, it remains guided by his vision. So I suppose this makes it a classic example of the fact that spiritual teachers, no matter how controversial, rarely leave a legacy that can be judged in black and white. (less)