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Snake Lake Hardcover – November 1, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Political drama in exotic Nepal is intruded upon by personal psychodrama in this feckless memoir. Journalist Greenwald (Shopping for Buddhas) spent the spring of 1990 reporting from Kathmandu as opposition to Nepal's repressive monarchy boiled over into violence. The setting offered Greenwald political adrenaline, lush atmospherics, romance and spirituality as he began a torrid affair with an expat photojournalist and took instruction from a Buddhist sage. (Sample teaching: " âÇÿthe cause of samsara, of rebirth and suffering, is ego.' ") But the meltdown of his depressed brother Jordan drags him away just as the Nepalese revolution is heating up--and shunts the memoir into an odd portrait of American neurosis. Jordan is a mannered, haughty figure, a brilliant linguist who disdains popular culture, speaks in antique diction--"No man; no beast; no creature of the sea is as wretched as I"--and infuriates people by mimicking them; his hidden sexual dysfunction is the uninvolving mystery at the book's heart. Greenwald tells the story in novelistic style, with reams of verbatim dialogue, but the narrative's moving parts clash instead of resonating; they are like random detours on the author's rather callow spiritual journey. (Nov.) (c)
Copyright © PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
Raised in the Bronx and outside Boston, adventurous journalist Greenwald has “felt more at peace in Nepal than anywhere else.” There he fell in love; acquired a mentor, the lama Chokyi Nyima; and witnessed the beginning of the 1990 revolution. Greenwald was learning about the worship of snake gods, or nagas; the critical mass needed to overturn a corrupt government; the complexities of attraction; what it means to be a journalist; and how meditation and prayer shape experience when he became seriously alarmed about his troubled brother, Jordan, and realized that family and home can be every bit as mysterious as a foreign land. From his struggle to learn about the dharma to the tale of guilt and exile confided by photojournalist Grace, his getting trampled when soldiers attack demonstrators, and the kaleidoscopic whirl of Katmandu, Greenwald has a gift for electrifying descriptions of the profound intricacy of the world and the mind. His portrait of his erudite, inscrutable, and doomed brother and keenly illuminating memoir of place, spirit, love, and brotherhood are unforgettable. --Donna Seaman --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Mr. Greenwald deftly minces the meat of the dish - the death of his brother - with the garlicky experience of slowly losing one's closest family member to a vampiric and unfathomable demon. Then he takes exquisite care in selecting the right ingredients and spices - the heated mustard oil (the 1990 People's Movement in Nepal) that binds the dish together, the fenugreek seeds of hopes of Nepali democracy browning on the hot mustard oil, the gingery Grace, the understated and underrated chili-like fiery determination within the narrator himself that carries the entire dish, the salt of the earth people he meets, and the turmeric-like healing properties embodied by Chokyi Nyima, the Tibetan lama. Best of all, Mr. Greenwald garnishes all of this with something green, something hopeful, something that remains in your spiritual palate even after you close the book: Buddhist equanimity in the face of philosophic existential threats. The green onions of Tibetan Buddhism are liberally sprinkled all over the dish. They provide a much-needed balance to the equation.
The result of all this is a masterpiece. The book captures the social and cultural realms of two very different places, halfway across the globe from each other. And yet it brings the binding force of humanity to the table. Humanity. With all its foibles, with all its glory. I am equally impressed by Mr. Greenwald's technical skills as a writer as by the way he shows his own vulnerable self, his willingness to share his humanity. Our lives, to be cliché about it, is as funny as it is sad. There's wit and charm in it all but there's also dread and despair. Mr. Greenwald captures both and does a great job weaving them into a fine tapestry, although I must confess that at times the artwork seems more like a tableau vivant, as if Mr. Greenwald is merely capturing a carefully crafted image where costumed actors are forced to play their parts. But that's to be expected in a memoir, especially one that has to bring such disparate experiences together in a meaningful way.
The reason why I stretch the analogy, i.e., Snake Lake as the dish described above, is because of Kathmandu. The titular "lake" in the book is a small pond of sorts in Kathmandu. Mr. Greenwald makes much of this pond and the myth behind its existence. The pond morphs into a lake. The snakes grow into mythical proportions. The metaphor becomes an allegory. And he does this so deftly and elegantly that one wonders if he was born and raised in Nepal. All of this clearly shows that Kathmandu, and by that extension Nepal, is very dear to Mr. Greenwald. In Newari culture, which is the bedrock of Kathmandu culture, there's a famous and nutritious dish called Kachila that somehow manages to take raw water buffalo meat and mix it with the right type and amount of spices. That dish is and has been a source of great sustenance to countless people who have farmed the Kathmandu valley for ages and assuaged the wrath of many a fickle snakes, many a rulers. Mr. Greenwald's book, to bite and swallow (or constrict?) the analogy to death, manages to take raw emotions - his own - and deftly cover them up with spicy and distracting anecdotes. The reader is left wondering. Wondering if there can ever be any other way to serve an experience as raw as losing one's brother to suicide while witnessing the brewing of a historical revolution.
Snake Lake is a full-bodied and earthy memoir that tackles a brawny topic with delicate wit and charm. It is rich and yet is tender. A lesser writer would probably have served a broth full of bromide salts.
- A Nepali Writer
Reading about the goings-on's in Kathmandu, I grabbed my map and followed Mr. Greenwald and friends around the city as he told of his adventures. I yelled at him when I felt he should have done things different in his love life. I was at the Yak and Yeti when the revolution was being covered and I too picnicked with Coal and Clarice in the road on bandath.
Thanks to Jeff for transporting me back to the place I love and showing me that even if I was grieving the loss of a loved one, that it could have been so much worse for my mom and me.
I feel the Snake Lake was an excellent read for any armchair traveler.