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Category: Book Reviews

Why I love Tom Bombadil

Why I love Tom Bombadil: He sings and he walks through nature and he’s connected to where he is and who he is and he welcomes travelers and he’s kind to the person he lives with and when people need him he shows up for them. Plus all his dialogue is in metered lines. He’s the bomb*.


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BOOK REVIEW: Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind by Maura Soshin O’Halloran

I came across this book at Bookmans in Tucson during our apartment-hunting trip a couple weeks ago. I’d never heard of the book or of Soshin O’Halloran, but I’m an admirer of books about the lives of Buddhist monastics and other practitioners. Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind is a collection of diary entries and letters published after O’Halloran’s death in a car accident at the age of 27. She was on a tour of Asia following three years as a Buddhist nun in Japan. It’s a lovely book; honest and forthright and brimming with zeal for her newfound Buddhist practice. At times the focus on kensho (englightenment) was a little much for me, but that’s because the flavor of Buddhism I practice doesn’t emphasize that aspect of Zen to the extent that Soshin’s did. It’s a worthwhile book, made bittersweet in the knowledge that she died just weeks after receiving transmission and being given permission to teach.

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BOOK REVIEW: What We’re Fighting For Now Is Each Other by Wen Stephenson

This is easily one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. Multiple times throughout this story of the climate crisis and the people fighting it, I had to set the book down and process what it made me feel. By the end it was as if a fire had been lit in my chest; a flame fueled by rage, a need for justice, a sense of crisis, and an overwhelming feeling of love. We need this book, but more importantly, we need to follow the lessons contained within it. I’ve been an organizer, often professionally, for my entire adult life. I’ve spent most of that time doing labor and anti-war organizing. In recent years I’ve been feeling a need to shift the focus of both my organizing and my broadcasting/podcasting work. What We’re Fighting For Now Is Each Other helped me sharpen that focus and prepare for the next phase of my life’s work. Highly, highly recommended. You can follow Wen Stephenson on Twitter.

[I need to thank climate justice writer Mary Annaïse Heglar for introducing me to this book via this essay. You can also follow Mary on Twitter.]

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Book Review: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha! by Bodhipaksa

I Can't Believe It's Not Buddha!: What Fake Buddha Quotes Can Teach Us About BuddhismI Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha!: What Fake Buddha Quotes Can Teach Us About Buddhism by Bodhipaksa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fun and fast read that is a real boon to anyone hoping to (a) figure out when things attributed to the Buddha are wrong, and (b) learn more about what the Buddha actually said (knowing, of course, that the first couple hundred years relied on oral transmission). Recommended.

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Book Review: Uppity by Bill White

Uppity: My Untold Story About The Games People PlayUppity: My Untold Story About The Games People Play by Bill White
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A real page turner that highlights some of the lesser-covered parts of the game of baseball. While the racism that has plagued the game is certainly no secret, White’s first-hand account as a player, broadcaster and president of the National League puts a personal, human face on the changes baseball has made, and the distance it has yet to travel. This book was written by someone who is very confident, and who certainly seems to feel he rarely if ever made a mistake, but at the same time he made it through a four-decade career in a tough business as a black man, so some protective ego isn’t surprising. All in all, well worth reading.

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Brad Warner on Zen Buddhism as a communal practice

I finished Brad Warner’s Don’t Be A Jerk today for the second time, in preparation for reading his follow-up, It Came From Beyond Zen! Don’t Be A Jerk is described as a “radical but reverent paraphrasing of Dogen’s Treasury of the True Dharma Eye.” That pretty much sums it up. Warner goes through chapters from Dogen’s 800-year-old Zen classic and tries to put them into accessible modern language while not diluting their meaning or impact. You can hear me interview him about this book in the video below:

I thoroughly enjoyed Warner’s paraphrasing of Dogen, but on my second reading I found myself most moved by the final chapter, “Dogen’s Zen In The Twenty-First Century,” in which Warner not only brings Dogen into the present, but also movingly depicts his own current view of Zen after several decades of practice. Rather than paraphrase Warner’s writing, I thought I’d just quote him. (I’ve skipped some bits. Missing bits are replaced by an ellipsis. Also note that “zazen” is seated silent meditation.)

“To me Zen is communal practice of individual deep inquiry. … Throughout human history people have been concerned about the deeper meaning of existence. They wanted to understand who and what they actually were and how they fit into the world. … Among those seekers, there is a certain class of people who try to understand the human condition by sitting very quietly and simply observing themselves in action (even sitting still for long periods is a kind of action; try it sometime if you have any doubts). … Buddhism started not when Shakyamuni had his great revelation by himself. Lots of people had done that before. It began when he made his first efforts to transform that into a communal practice. Although you can – and I think you should – do zazen by yourself, that larger thing we call Zen Buddhism is not something you do by yourself. You can do zazen by yourself. You do Zen Buddhism with other people.”

I think that’s one of the most beautiful summations of Zen Buddhism I’ve read. As someone whose practice has primarily been solitary, it also served as the kick in the pants I needed to find some other folks to sit with. Read the book. You won’t be disappointed.

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What I read in March


March was nothing if not eclectic. I read a book about how the Pittsburgh Pirates used data analysis to turn around the team’s fortunes; a collection of samurai manga; and a book about Dogen’s Shobogenzo, one of the seminal texts of Zen Buddhist philosophy.

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What I Read In February


In February I finished the Harry Potter series for the second time. It was even better the second time around. I also read a great book about the making of They Might Be Giants’ Flood, and the first volume of an omnibus series collecting the samurai epic Lone Wolf & Cub. And the one book in the image above with no cover is a book of Unitarian Q&As.

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Your favorite music, movies and books


I turned to Twitter (follow me) and Facebook (friend me) many times this year for ideas about things to read, listen to and watch. Then I compiled those suggestions here. And now I’ve compiled the compilations. Enjoy!

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Your favorite fantasy series


Yesterday I posted the following message on Facebook and Twitter:

I’ve read Tolkein, Narnia, His Dark Materials, Harry Potter, Chronicles of Amber, among others. What’s another good series?

Many, many people responded with their favorites. I don’t consider myself particularly well read in the fantasy genre, so I was very surprised by how many of their suggestions I’d already read. Admittedly, most of that reading dates back to my teenage years in the 80s. I’ve put an asterisk next to the suggestions I’ve read. Here’s the list, minus the suggestions that aren’t in the “fantasy series” genre:

  • Incarnations of Immortality* by Piers Anthony (suggested by Martin Porter)
  • The Belgariad by David Eddings (suggested by Maiben Beard)
  • The O Trilogy by Maurice Gee (suggested by Carmen Staaf)
  • The Dark Tower* by Stephen King (suggested by JC Sanford)
  • Divergent by Veronica Roth (suggested by Caitlin Wynn)
  • Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (suggested by Aaron Parks and Nou Dadoun)
  • A Song of Ice and Fire* by George R.R. Martin (suggested by Caitlin Wynn and Josh Poole)
  • Earthsea* by Ursula K. Le Guin (suggested by Dan Loomis)
  • Wildwood by Colin Meloy (suggested by Nou Dadoun)
  • The Chronicles of Prydain* by Lloyd Alexander (suggested by Dale Favier)
  • The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan (suggested by Noah Smith)
  • Kushiel’s Legacy by Jacqueline Carey (suggested by Maiben Beard)

The Lost Library of Harry Potter


Everybody knows the classic books in the Harry Potter series. But have you read these more obscure titles?

Discovered by Jason Crane

  • Harry Potter and the Podiatrist’s Office
  • Harry Potter and the Enlarged Prostate
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Sucrets
  • Harry Potter and the Secret of Whittaker Chambers
  • Doctor Harry Potter and the Legend Of Zelda Trek Wars 2: Judgement Another Day
  • Harry Potter and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Harry Potter and the Bunnymen
  • Harry Potter and the Endoplasmic Reticulum
  • Harry Potter and the Roadside Assistants
  • Harry Potter and the Argonauts
  • Harry Potter and the Book We Had To Retitle Because Americans Are Stupid
  • Harry Potter and That Scene From Ghost That His Last Name Reminds Me Of
  • Harry Potter, and the Oxford Comma
  • …and Harry Potter as The Beaver

Discovered by Jack Wright

  • Harry Potter and Potter Stewart
  • Harry Potter and the Myocardial Infarction
  • Harry Potter and Harry Reasoner
  • Harry Potter and the unicellular organism
  • Harry Potter and the American Indian Dance Company
  • Harry Potter and 101st Airborne Division
  • Discovered by Dmitri Matheny

    • Harry Potter, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich
    • Harry Potter and the Not Ready For Prime Time Players
    • Harry Potter and the Corbomite Maneuver
    • Harry Potter and the Hot Club of Godric’s Hollow

    Discovered by Steve Provizer

    • Harry Potter plays Benge exclusively
    • Harry Potter and John Osborne look back in anger
    • Harry Potter and Mr. Moto meet Frankenstein
    • Harry Potter and the Sons of the Pioneers
    • Harry Potter, Harry Morgan and Radar
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    Review: The Cocktail Party by T.S. Eliot

    I picked up T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party on the side of a city street, one of a stack of books being thrown out by someone with a taste for poetry and Eastern religions, to judge by the other books. I gave it a quick scan and discovered it was a play, so I didn’t shelve it with my other poetry books. It made its way to the basement and I forgot it existed.

    Then yesterday, there it was, in the dining room, somehow having made the trip back from the basement and into a place of prominence. I don’t know how this one book was spared in the frenzy of moving and packing and loading and donating, but it was. I read it this evening and was completely captivated by it.

    The play is difficult to describe. It’s set in London and begins at a cocktail party. There is almost no physical action in the play. Rather, it’s a series of conversations between a half-dozen or so people, all of whom are having various sorts of existential crises. There is one shift of setting and many surprising connections are made between the various characters.

    This can hardly be called a review, can it? Suffice to say the play’s stark rendering of people’s life choices was very moving and appealing to me, particularly at this moment in my life. I think I may try to get some folks together to read this play at some point. And in the meantime, I recommend it to you.


    Review: While We’ve Still Got Feet by David Budbill

    David Budbill isn’t a hermit or a recluse or a misanthrope, although he chose four decades ago to move to a mountain and write poems and play the flute. The thing is, unlike the image that immediately conjures, Budbill still seems gregarious and connected and invested in friends and family. Oh, and he moved to the mountain with his wife.

    While We’ve Still Got Feet (Copper Canyon Press, 2005) is a joyous collection of poems informed by the work of Chinese and Japanese recluse-poets and by Budbill’s own distilled observations. The poems are clear and often arresting, filled with wry humor and a refreshing matter-of-factness.

    Budbill, who also publishes the overtly political and progressive e-newsletter The Judevine Mountain Emailite, sprinkles the occasional political commentary into his poetry. Of course, looked at from another perspective, his entire existence is a political act and a commentary on the system of consumption and greed that has grown up here on the same soil that provides the foundation for Budbill’s mountain home. Here is one example of Budbill’s combination of humor and insight:


    It’s Now or Never

    Eat, drink, and be merry, for
    tomorrow you will surely die.

    Get together with your friends.
    Enjoy the pleasures of the flesh.

    I’m pretty sure this is all we get.
    I can’t be absolutely certain, but

    of all the people I have known who
    have passed over to the other side

    not one has sent back any news.


    At its heart, Budbill’s poetry is a clear expression of his vision of life, a vision to which he has remained true despite what I can only imagine are temptations to move back where things are “easier.” Budill is no recluse, no hermit — but he is a striking example of having the courage of one’s convictions, and the kindness to share those convictions with others.

    Highly recommended.


    Review: Map of the Folded World by John Gallaher

    In the realm of wrong answers, someone
    always has the radio on.

    — from “I Will Sing the Monster to Sleep, & He Will Need Me”

    I’ve been watching the middle seasons of Stargate SG-1 again. If you’ve never seen the show, the premise is that there are Stargates that allow instant travel between planets. You step into one on your world and step out into some completely other landscape.

    To get around the problem of having to invent new languages for every race of alien encountered, the producers cut the knot this way: They explained that a particular race of evil aliens had captured many humans from earth and sprinkled them throughout the galaxy to use as slaves. So most of the folks you encounter are human. And most of them speak English, albeit with some interesting variations in dialect. And no, that last bit doesn’t make any sense, but it sure is easier than having to learn Klingon.

    Which brings me to John Gallaher’s Map of the Folded World (University of Akron Press, 2009). Gallaher has managed to create a language all his own using English words. Reading his poems, I felt like I’d arrived on some other world where the linguistic building blocks were familiar, but the physics of assembling them was completely different, surprising, otherworldly.

    Map of the Folded World gathers momentum as it goes, and traveling through it I was quickly swept up into Gallaher’s deft use of language, not really needing to know what something meant so much as to hear how Gallaher had opened up the possibilities of the words by putting them next to one another in surprising ways:

    I don’t feel it’s helpful to quote sections of his poems (although I started the interview with my favorite line from the book) because his poems are so dependent on being whole. To remove any piece for study under the microscope would be to miss the point. Gallaher is sculpting, constructing, imagining, transporting the words. Similarly, although I’m sure these poems would be captivating individually, Map of the Folded World is a book. It is held together by the strength of Gallaher’s imagination and by the cascading wash of the language. By the time I reached the end, I felt almost as though I could speak the language; as though I could understand what some of the natives were saying, and maybe even try to carry on a rudimentary conversation of my own.

    I love clear, narrative poetry. For me, this is not that. What it is, instead, is something equally valuable and maybe more rare — a transformative experience that comes about through nothing but the careful placement of word blocks on a landscape of Gallaher’s own devising.

    Highly recommended.

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    BOOK REVIEW: The Strain

    I have a soft spot for good vampire books. I love the original Dracula, particularly it’s fast-paced epistolary style. I also enjoyed the first few books in Anne Rice’s original series. And I’m sure that if I started Twilight or any of the other currently popular brooding-emo-vamp series, I’d guiltily enjoy those, too.

    But Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan have written a larger, more intense book than the current crop of tween sensations. This is a vampire novel that strikes deep at the heart of our modern fears of terrorism and biological weaponry. The protagonists have all the technology of the modern-day disease fighter at their disposal, pitted against an ancient — but intelligently updated — foe.

    For me, The Strain is just what vampire books are supposed to be. It is fast-paced. It’s villains are sometimes cunning, sometimes brutish. It’s heroes are flawed but basically good. And the odds are heavily stacked against them.

    If I have one complaint, it is that volumes two and three in this trilogy are not to be released until 2010 and 2011. What a pain in the neck. (See what I did there?)

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