We conclude our 'Eat Pray Love' special in China and Japan. Why are we anywhere? Scroll down for an explanation.
But first, my total bad: When we visited Italy, I left out one of my favorites --- and, I hope, soon to be one of yours. It's Gustiamo, importer of Italian tomatoes, olive oil, coffee and pasta and so much more. Let me made amends by pushing them front and center. (You'll thank me.)
Gustiamo Artisanal Foods
When you consider that you don't have to buy a plane ticket, these Tiffany-quality foods almost become a bargain. And they're not really food --- they're something greater, something different, a peak experience for your senses. Like the Sant' Eustachio coffee, straight from the Rome espresso bar that's generally regarded as the best in Italy. Like tomatoes the size of cherries that explode with flavor. Like dried pasta passed through bronze dies which "give the pasta a rough texture that allows the sauce to cling to it." Gustiamo packs its treasures so carefully they charge $7.75 for shipping ($2 for each additional item, maximum shipping charge for 7 and more items is $19.75)--- but for this "Eat Pray Love" special, there is no charge for shipping on all orders over $40 that start at HeadButler.com. [If you order, your confirmation will indicate there are shipping charges. Don't get upset: Gustiamo will deduct the shipping charges when they process the order, and you won't be charged for anything until the order ships.]
Now we skip Bali --- a tourist destination, not that there's anything wrong with that --- in favor of two important Asian cultures.
The Shun Lee Cookbook
Good Chinese cooking is as satisfying as it is healthful. It's ecologically correct: heavy on vegetables and proteins like tofu, skimpy on meat and fish. And, in those proportions, it's as kind to your wallet as it is to your heart and gut. The thing is, we don't know how to cook it. Three cheers, then, to Michael Tong, whose Shun Lee restaurants have delighted New Yorkers and the city's visitors for three decades. In his cookbook, he hasn't exactly reproduced the recipes he uses in his restaurants. He's done something more useful --- in modifying his recipes for home cooks, he's explained the basic principles of Chinese cooking.
The Good Earth
Pearl S. Buck's page-turner of a novel won the Pulitzer Prize. And the Nobel. "The Good Earth" was even annointed by Oprah. It's a love story, and a passionate one at that, but the love is named right in the title --- this is a novel about one man's romance with the earth. Wang Lung is a simple peasant, young in the late 19th century but living much as his ancestors did. As China modernizes and his life "improves," his relationships --- with his wife, his kids, his mistresses --- must also change. For the better?
A documentary --- or a horror movie? Edward Burtynsky likes big subjects, and there's none bigger than China, an agrarian country transforming itself, at warp speed, into an industrial powerhouse. That means: a factory that produces 20 million flat-irons a year. The third largest aluminum recycling yard in the world. A dam so big --- the largest ever conceived, by 50% --- that 1.1 million people had to disassemble their homes and evacuate 13 villages so the thing could be built. And a chilling opening scene: a 7-minute tracking shot of workers.
My Neighbor Totoro
No matter how old you are, no matter sophisticated you may think you are, this is a fantastic film experience, an 86-minute swath of animated gorgeousness with a message as beautiful as its images. And the trick of it is.....there's no trick. This is a movie rooted in the very ordinary. Well, not quite. There are dust sprites. A Cat Bus. And, of course, the charming Totoro.
This novel --- a plot point in the final season of "Lost" --- begins in a hospital room, where Isobe's cancer-ridden wife is preparing herself for death. It's a bitter moment: Isobe never really noticed her while she was alive, and revealing his feelings now is impossible for him. Approaching death, though, the bland woman who obediently made his dinner and cleaned his clothes finds her voice. And her pronouncements are stunning. "The tree [outside her hospital room] spoke," she tells her husband. "It said that life never ends." And more: "I'll be reborn somewhere in the this world. Look for me.... promise...." And he's off.....
Harumi Kurihara is almost unknown in America, but in Japan, she's a household name --- literally. Like: 52 shops in department stores. Like: 12 cafes and restaurants. Like: books and books. Just don't think of her as "the Martha Stewart of Japan." Her most recent book was created for Western home cooks. It capitalizes on our attraction for Japanese food --- its lightness, its scant use of meat, fat and dairy products, its smaller portions, its creative use of vegetables. Even better, it's not for purists. This is a cookbook for housewives, both literal and metaphorical. That is, it's for busy people who have little time to cook but who are too proud, cost-conscious and health-minded to order take-out.
In Japan, there's no job lower than washing corpses and putting them in coffins. This was, as Shinmon Aoki wryly tells us, not his dream job. He had dropped out of college, opened a coffee shop and pub, and soon found himself running a hangout for poets and artists. A well-known novelist encouraged him to write; he got his first story published in a classy magazine. Soon he was neglecting his business --- he filed for bankruptcy as his wife was giving birth. There wasn't even money for baby food. So when he saw a want ad --- "for ceremonies to start a new life" --- he jumped at the job. Only when he started work did he see the stack of coffins. As memoir, this book is fascinating. As philosophy, it's refreshing. As spirituality, it's lovely and reassuring.
Reiki: A Comprehensive Guide
If someone told me I could have a healing experience without the practitioner even touching me, I'd look for the exit. But I have been treated -- both at a distance and hands on --- by Pamela Miles, probably the foremost Reiki master in America. And I have felt a difference after you couldn't chalk up to a "placebo effect." What is Reiki? Here's another surprise. It's not ancient. It originated with Mikao Usui, most likely in 1922. That year, he went to a Japanese sacred site to fast and meditate. He got a bonus: subtle vibrations above his head. He felt healed. More, he felt he had the power to heal. And, in short order, he taught 2,000 Japanese how to use this power.
Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki
Shunryu Suzuki was once asked to summarize Buddhism in a sentence. The audience laughed at the impossibility of that challenge. But the Zen master had a ready answer. "Easy," he said. "Everything changes." Easy was the way he was. Or seemed to be. He didn't tell neophytes they needed to learn much before setting out on the Zen path. "In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities," he explained. "In the expert's mind, there are few." And, later, he was equally committed to the importance of whatever you were feeling, in the moment you were feeling it. There were no hard and fast truths. For him, the secret of Zen was: "Not always so." Which is just another way to say "Everything changes." A fascinating,mind-splitting book.
To Shine One Corner of the World: Moments with Shunryu Suzuki
This slim volume gives us the flavor of this revered teacher through stories that portray his wisdom, humor, and grounded spirituality. A sample: "Each of you is perfect the way you are," Suzuki said in an impromptu talk one day while his students were meditating, "and you can use a little improvement." Another: A woman told Suzuki she found it difficult to mix Zen practice with the demands of being a housewife. "I feel I'm trying to climb a ladder. But for every step upward, I slip backward two steps." "Forget the ladder," Suzuki told her. "In Zen everything is right here on the ground."
Pure Heart Enlightened Mind
Maura O'Halloran went to the Toshoji Temple in Tokyo in 1979 for training under its distinguished teacher, Go Roshi. It's an impossible discipline: 20 hours of sitting at a time, begging in freezing weather, endless chores . She loved it. By 1982, she was enlightened. Maura was the last person on earth to brag about her accomplishments, but it's quite clear --- she reached a level of feeling and thinking that a great many of us would give a lot to have. "Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind" is a collection of Maura's journals and letters. They give an amazing insight into the process of Zen training. But that's not the reason to read this book. The real attraction is that it speaks to the most essential spiritual concerns --- it slices a layer of dullness from your brain and helps you see clearly.
Katsura was built as a residence for Prince Hachijo no Miya Toshihito (1579-1629). But "residence" doesn't convey the high esthetic quality of this retreat. It looks as if the buildings have been set in an exquisite natural park. In fact, there is nothing natural about Katsura --- everything about the place is as carefully staged as a play. Streams were re-routed, landscapes shaped. Tea houses that look almost raw in their simplicity are made from the rarest of timber. Here's how extreme the planning went: Most palaces face south, but Katsura faces southeast. Why? So residents and their privileged guests could enjoy a better view of the rising moon. This is one totally integrated fairyland.
Elizabeth Gilbert, at 31, jets around the globe, writing travel pieces for GQ. She's published three books, all well-received. She's got a loving husband, a city apartment and a country retreat, money in the bank, lots of friends.
But at 3 AM, she's on the bathroom floor of her country house, sobbing.
So what's her problem?
"I don't want this house. I don't want a baby. I don't want to be married."
Soon she's divorced, and with the help of a publishing contract to write a book about a year she has not yet lived, she's off to Italy, India and Bali. She finds pleasure in food, wisdom from a guru, love from a man. She writes her book, Eat Pray Love, and it sells 7 million copies. And now it's a movie, starring Julia Roberts.
But first it's three days -- 72 consecutive hours -- of products on the Home Shopping Network.
In a video on HSN, Elizabeth Gilbert describes India as "the central hinge" of her book, it was "the most important thing I have ever done in my entire life." There, she explains, she got The Answer: "Everything you're looking for is inside you."
What an opportunity for HSN.
Imagine taking Gilbert's hard-won wisdom and using it as a springboard to help women, if only for 72 hours, feel a shred of what she learned.
Imagine offering books that enrich life, herbs and teas that promote health, food so delicious that gluttony is unthinkable, music that heals the soul, movies that spark the imagination.
HSN might have taken us...higher.
Instead, it's hawking marginally more exotic versions of stuff no one particularly needs.
It's reinforcing its business priorities with its usual message: "Shop your way to happiness."
It's taking Gilbert's book and standing it on its head, reducing her life-changing experience to "the Eat Pray Love lifestyle."
In India, Gilbert studied Siddha Yoga at the ashram of Swami Chidvilasananda, who is generally known as Gurumayi. Fifteen years ago, when Gurumayi was in residence at her New York ashram, my wife and I would spend the occasional Sunday chanting with her. Gurumayi is a powerful singer. She has a sense of humor. And she can inspire; I, for one, was touched when she said, "When you aim for the highest things, only the highest things happen."
At HeadButler.com, that is close to a mission statement. Yes, I have "buy" links all over my site and I'm delighted to see our daughter's education fund grow when readers one-click, but commerce is the smallest reason for HeadButler.com. I try to feature only the best books, music, movies and products because I want, in my small way, to counter the grotesque materialism and selfishness that makes so much of our lives a kind of hell.
So I'm going to do three days of the programming that Home Shopping Network missed. We'll start in Italy. Then we'll make some changes to Gilbert's itinerary, moving on to Tibet as well as India, then trading Bali in for two cultures with greater importance for Americans: China and Japan.
Shall we be off?
Elizabeth Gilbert went to Italy to eat, so let's follow her lead...
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking: Marcella Hazan's cookbook is to Italy what Julia Child is to France --- the clear, easy way to Northern Italian "home cooking." Of these 704 pages, few have more than 10 ingredients. And yet the results are dazzling.
Trattoria: Simple and Robust Fare Inspired by the Small Family Restaurants of Italy: Patricia Wells is the den mother of French bistro cooking. Here she shares her affection for small, informal restaurants, beginning with a large selection of antipasti, then moving on to grilled vegetables and hearty soups. When she reaches pasta, there are 17 recipes -- and that's just the dried pasta. (I give you a recipe for Penne Arrabiatta.)
Italian Easy: Recipes from the London River Cafe: "Easy food doesn't have to mean unsophisticated food," these authors say. At their chic restaurant in London and in these pages, they're all about great ingredients, simply prepared. I offer a sample recipe: Chicken with Nutmeg. Just 6 ingredients.
Da Silvano Cookbook: Simple Secrets from New York 's Favorite Italian Restaurant: Da Silvano is one of the great restaurants of New York. Has been for 25 years. The recipe I give you -- Pasta al Limone -- will give you some idea why.
Italian Family Dining: Edward Giobbi is generally credited as the inventor of Pasta Primavera. (I give you the recipe.) Now, with his daughter, he has created an Italian cookbook with an emphasis on vegetables.
The Arthur Avenue Cookbook: Recipes and Memories from the Real Little Italy: Little Italy in Lower Manhattan is an open air food mall in summer, but the party doesn't make the food tastier. I much prefer going up to the Bronx for old-fashioned restaurants with waiters in tuxedos, markets stocked with food from the old country, and even a guy rolling cigars. This book offers a tour --- and recipes.
Two Meatballs in the Italian Kitchen: Pino Luongo almost single-handedly brought Tuscan cooking to New York. Mark Strausman cooked for him before spreading the gospel. Here they debate their differing approaches, offer dueling recipes, and just generally have fun in the kitchen. I offer the recipe for Mark Strausman's simmered meatballs in tomato sauce.
Mediterranean Summer: A Season on France's Cote d'Azur and Italy's Costa Bella: David Shalleck spent a summer cooking for Italian billionaires on their $8 million yacht. A lovely, sunny adventure. With some straightforward recipes.
Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic: How did "a thousand years of civic self-government" come to an end? Why did the Romans tire of virtue and lose themselves in circuses and spectacles? How did "the first republic ever to rise to a position of world power" lose its way? Those are the big questions this wonderfully readable book asks. In addition to the answers, there are terrific stories. You'll meet Sergius Orata, who invented the heated swimming pool and made fortunes when Rome's wealthiest citizens discovered they couldn't live without them. You'll learn how Roman babies were toughened up, how badly slaves were treated, how the art market boomed. You'll shake your head as Lucullus has a tunnel drilled through a mountain, so he can keep fresh seawater flowing into his fishponds. But is that more jaw-dropping than Julius Caesar building a villa and, as soon as it was finished, ordering it torn down?
Italianissimo: The Quintessential Guide to What Italians Do Best: A list of 50 categories, each with a two-page spread: smart text, full-page photo. Like a luxury magazine, only on a single subject: the glory of the Italian spirit. Balsamic Vinegar. Il Caffé (Italians never order cappuccino after dinner.) Il Capodanno: why red underwear is a hot item in December. (It wards off the evil eye.) Gesti Italiani: a guide to hand gestures. La Gondola: did you know it takes 500 hours and 7 types of wood to make one? Pizza: Why was the original called marinara? In honor of hungry fishermen, who craved it when they came ashore. And a beloved car, the Fiat 500. Fun and informative.
Marcus of Umbria: What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl about Love: Justine van der Leun is a young American writer who traded New York for a tiny town (population: 200) in Italy. There she found love, lost it and replaced it with an abandoned English pointer. Marcus becomes her friend and teacher. Dog lovers will lap this book up.
The Comfort of Strangers: Colin and Mary. Longtime lovers, not married. In Venice for a month. This is a pleasant vacation for them -- they're each other's comfortable shoes. Then they get lost and meet Robert. And you discover how Ian ("Atonement") McEwan can write really chilling, creepy fiction.
Paolo Conte: The pianist is smoking a cigarette -- unfiltered, at that. He wears a tuxedo, but he's got the face of a stevedore. His wrinkles are badges: love affairs without end, decades of siding with losers, a lifetime of nightclubs and half-drunk glasses of grappa. His voice...does he have a voice? Does Tom Waits? Leonard Cohen? Meet a European legend.
"A Venetian Coronation": In 1595, there was a new Doge, Marino Grimani, and on the morning of April 27, there was a Coronation Mass in his honor at San Marco. It was quite the event. Giovanni Gabrieli, an organist at San Marco, composed a festival piece that featured trumpets, sackbutts, violin, viola, drums and two organs. To that he added sixteen singers. And then he did something novel -- he positioned the singers and players in as many as eight locations in San Marco.The effect was like (okay, this is a bad example, but you'll get the idea) hearing Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" played at midnight at a planetarium's light show. Or a musical tennis match, with people turning their heads to follow the music. Memorable, even in Venice.
Allegri Misere: The "Miserere" was the glory of Gregorio Allegri (1582 - 1652), known mostly as a singer in the Papal Chapel. For this one work, written in 1638, he joins the immortals --- not only is it clearly an exquisite piece, but one of the 17th century Popes decided it should be played only on Wednesday and Good Friday of Holy Week, and only in the Sistine Chapel. No one dared to copy it --- the penalty was excommunication. Mozart "liberated" it. Listen and learn why.
"Vespers of the Blessed Virgin," (Vespro Della Beata Vergine) Claudio Monteverdi: Quick, name two great pieces of choral music that were created as job applications. "The B Minor Mass" by Bach? Yes. The other? These Vespers, which Monteverdi sent to the Pope in 1610, hoping to get a plum job in Rome. Only Bach got a job --- but anyone who could write this music wouldn't feel inferior.
"Gloria": A famous composer and choirmaster dies poor and out of fashion, and his music is largely forgotten for two centuries. Then, in the 1920s, 300 concertos, 18 operas and 100 vocal-instrumental pieces turn up, among them the "Gloria". Eventually every restaurant and Four Seasons Hotel is playing Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" --- but the "Gloria" is better.
"Sacred Music": Stravinsky mocked Vivaldi's concertos --- the same piece, he said, written 400 times. But no one mocks Vivaldi's choral music. It has balance and thrust and personality; it's never less than pleasant. Vivaldi had only female voices to work with, and he showed them off. Bass parts were taken up an octave; sopranos were pitched to the heavens. Excess is stripped away. Vivaldi takes traditional themes --- he'd been trained as a priest --- and weaves them into beauty.
"The Conformist": What kind of man gets himself in such a pickle that, on his honeymoon, he's given a gun and asked to kill a professor he's always admired? That is the question presented to us at the beginning of "The Conformist," as Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) sits in a Paris hotel room, waiting for the call that will tell him it's time to kill the professor. The answer -- told in a series of flashbacks, and, on occasion, flashbacks within flashbacks -- makes for what I consider Bernardo Bertolucci's best film and one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences of your life.
Some kids memorize batting averages, others read adventure stories about the Dalai Lama. I did both. Eventually, I came to read about Tibetan Buddhism. I never did the practice. As a sage has pointed out, "Americans would rather read about Heaven than go there."
Lately, I'm once again interested in the lives of gurus. This time around, I'm also paying attention to teachings that can be expressed with comparative simplicity. And I use the music of this region --- Buddhist, Hindu, and the Sufi chants of Islam --- to clear my head and ground me.
INDIA & TIBET
Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi: Millions begin here. Good reason: It's an adventure story. Boy seeks God. Cuts school to sit at the feet of gurus. Witnesses miracles. Finds his teacher. Joy follows. Great photos, too. I especially like the one of the woman who lived on sunlight and the rich man meditating in bliss.
The Life of Milarepa: Bad boy, bad boy, whatcha gonna do? In the case of Milarepa, Tibet's 11th century saint, learn black magic. Fly over the fields of relatives, ruining their crops. Cast spells, killing 33. But then he repents --- and what a spiritual transformation! He apprentices himself to a master who constructs grueling texts. Locks himself in a cave. Eats nettles; his chest hair turns green. When he dies, the sky is filled with angels. Angels!
Thich Nhat Hahn: This Vietnamese Buddhist is one great Christian. That is to say, he's about the practice of love --- not the doctrine. As a young monk, he was thrown out of his country for trying to broker peace. Just as well --- he's spent his life simplifying Buddhism for too-busy Westerners. Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment. Got that? Then you don't need the books. (Hint: You need the books.) Essential Writings is a good place for the serious-minded to start. Christians who want to see if this guy is compatible with what they believe might read Living Buddha, Living Christ. Present Moment Wonderful Moment is Buddhism in a hurry. Fragrant Palm Leaves is a lovely 1962-1966 journal that spans Vietnam and New York. We gave Teachings on Love to the guests at our wedding. Nuff said.
Pema Chodron: One of the most highly regarded teachers of Tibetan Buddhism is an American divorcee. She has a light touch when appropriate. What I love is that she also has a heavy one --- she wants you meditating, and if you're in pain, she thinks you ought to run toward it like your hair was on fire. Start with her best-known book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Then, because she keeps telling you to "be where you are," you might read The Wisdom of No Escape.
Muhammad Yunus: This micro-banker won the Nobel Prize, but it's hard to think of him as an economist. His big insight --- that the poor, especially poor women --- will pay you back really is nothing less than a spiritual insight. As his book, 'Banker to the Poor,' makes clear.
Sky Burial: A Chinese woman marries. Her husband, a medical student, is sent to Tibet with the Chinese Army. Three months after his marriage, he'd dead. Which sets his wife looking for him. And looking. And looking. This short but epic novel is based on a true story.
My Bombay Kitchen: Some of this is beyond me. But then... Parsi crudités, a selection of off-the-beaten track vegetables (jicama) and fruits (green mango crescents), accompanied by bowls of salt and cayenne pepper and lime wedges. Carrot and coriander soup, served hold or cold. Lamb shanks spiced with a ginger-garlic paste, cumin seeds and red chiles. Irish stew (yes, Irish stew). Cashew cream chicken, with its "thick, creamy" gravy. Caramelized fried rice. And a cauliflower custard.
Ravi Shankar & George Harrison: Growing up, Ravi Shankar was all I knew of Indian music. Then George Harrison discovered the sitar --- and chanting. ("What you're trying to do," George explained, "is just trying to remember God, God, God, God, God, as often as possible.") This lovely CD is an inspiring primer.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: In his too-short life, he just might have been the greatest singer in the world --- and I'm the least person who thinks this. Scorcese tapped him to work with Peter Gabriel for 'Last Temptation of Christ,' and his music for 'Dead Man Walking' gives me chills just to remember. Think of this Sufi singer as a bluesman: call and response. I haven't heard most of his CDs --- there are more than 100 --- but I keep coming back to 'Devotional & Love Songs.'
Krishna Das: A Long Island kid ("Jewish on my parents' side") meets Ram Das. Light bulbs flash. Chanting begins. This time out, he's added some Western instruments, rock flair, and some nifty jumps to music you know well. Watch the videos and you'll get the picture --- the big picture.
Martin Wolff: A HeadButler.com reader is also a chanter. And a fine one.
[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]
Every Friday, HuffPost's Culture Shift newsletter helps you figure out which books you should read, art you should check out, movies you should watch and music should listen to. Learn more