The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, Idries Shah

This collection of vignettes focuses on Mulla Nasrudin, "variously referred to as very stupid, improbably clever, the possessor of mystical secrets .... [an illustration of] the antics characteristic of the human mind." Although these shorts are sometimes used in Sufism for breakthroughs into "a higher wisdom," Idries Shah notes, "the Sufis concur with those who are not following a mystic way that everyone can do with the Nasrudin tales what people have done through the centuries -- enjoy them."

I found a wonderfully illustrated Picador edition at MacLeod's Books in Vancouver, BC, a used book shop well worth a stop if you're in the city. I sped through the book but dogeared several stories for rereading, for deeper contemplation.

In "Happiness is not where you seek it," Nasrudin steals a traveler's knapsack, ran ahead of him on the road, then left the bag in plain sight, for the traveler to rediscover; that he was disconsolate at losing his belongings made the joy in finding them again all the sweeter. "The value of the past" distills the teachings of a great many wise men to one word: carrots. And "The short cut" looks at what is gained and what is lost when one diverges from the well-trodden path; the way that Shah plays with words, and with one's sense of perspective, is disorienting but nonetheless rather refreshing.

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Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

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I'm not quite sure I understand the Gone Girl phenomenon. I mean, the book was good, but not ... phenomenal? Still, I raced through the literary thriller, and though a lot about what makes for healthy relationship dynamics (it should go without saying that framing your husband for murder does not make for a nurturing bond). Debate, please: "Unconditional love is an undisciplined love, and as we all have seen, undisciplined love is disastrous."

Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett

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It was serendipity that I read this after Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be?, but I couldn't have planned a better counterpoint to that book if I tried.

Like Heti, Patchett uses notes from life -- weaving Lucy Grealy's letters into her reminiscence of their friendship. It is heartbreaking (because, of course, Grealy's end is untimely), and it is hopeful: "It takes a certain amount of effort to be miserable," Patchett writes, "and another kind of effort to be happy." She chooses to try and be happy, and to build happiness into the lives of others. Watching the rises and falls, the ebbs and tides of a friendship over the years, is surprisingly poignant, and though I will not try to emulate their relationship -- that would be a folly, obviously -- there are many things to learn from Patchett's quiet wisdom. 

How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti

This book seems pretty polarizing; I fall into the "love it!" camp. (OK, there are some flaws, but on the whole, I was into it.)

The prologue is particularly strong, and if I had only read that, I would still be pretty happy. "How should a person be? For years and years I asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too. ... in everyone, there was something to envy. You can admire anyone for being themselves. ... [But how] could I know which [choice] would look best on me?"

It's been a year for questioning, and Heti's "novel from life" is a satisfying coda. What do I want? What's the one right thing I should do? How should I be?

At the end of the book, she tells the story of a gravedigger: a ditchdigger questions a gravedigger about where the man has chosen to dig:

'Right here is fine,' the gravedigger said. 'It's not the plot, it's the grave.'
The man shook his head and laughed. 'If I had your job, I'd always be asking myself which plot was best. I'd keep on switching! You'd have this whole land covered in small holes, two feet deep.'
The gravedigger nodded and smiled gently, imagining the scene---all those bodies piling up by the gates. He might have been this way, too, but long ago he realized his intelligence didn't extend so far---to know what was good from what was best---so he taught himself to dig well, and did."

It goes on a bit more, and it's lovely. Perhaps you should read it, too?