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Two books, and less than a month to go before I'm caught up.

1) At Hell's Gate - Claude Anshin Thomas
Claude Anshin Thomas is a Vietnam veteran so scarred by his war experience he spent the decades after his discharge in a drug-induced haze, unable to form meaningful emotional bonds until a chance encounter led him to first Vietnamese and then Soto Zen Buddhism. His memoir recounting these experiences is spare--readers looking for beautiful prose or a detailed autobiography will not find it in this book. That said, as an itinerant monk vowed to a life of poverty, Thomas' way of life more closely follows the original teachings of the Buddha than do those of many other modern day teachers. It's a quick, interesting read, but probably not the first Buddhist memoir I'd recommend to a beginner.

2) The Lovers - Vendela Vida
According to the back cover copy, this short, spare novel deals with the protagonist's "struggle to escape the paralysis of grief" after her husband's untimely death, but the narrative actually casts a much wider net. The widowed protagonist grieves not just for the loss of a spouse, but for all the ways in which her life might have turned out differently, all the failed connections that come from the loss of innocence and youthful idealism and the concomitant loss of self-confidence they entail. Vida portrays these personal crises subtly and believably, and has a knack for showing readers aspects of her protagonist that the protagonist has yet to awaken to herself. Vida's portrayal of the benefits and downsides of solo travel--the inner peace and the smothering isolation--is true to form as well.

That isn't to say the novel doesn't stumble in places; secondary characters occasionally act in unbelievable ways in order expedite the plot or provide cheap thrills (that the owner of a luxury rental would leave his sex toys and amateur pornography lying around for guests to find both stretches disbelief and smacks of "boy, non-Westerners sure are kinky" exoticism). That said, Vida has penned a realistic portrait of the inner landscapes and conflicts of middle age.


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That will be all.

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January 2012

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