Fantasy alive in the real world


Fantasies are central to several of the best books published in the last year. These works are not, of course, tried and tired swords-and-lords style epics, but rather books that tackle the imaginings that have made and molded the world in which we live.

Donald S. Lopez’s “The Tibetan Book of The Dead: A Biography” is an elegantly written and surpassingly subtle account of how selections from a cycle of Tibetan texts found their way into Western consciousness through the offices of an interpreter more steeped in the bloviations of the theosophists than in Buddhism as it’s actually practiced.

After reading Lopez’s book, one will look afresh at the countless volumes of unmoored wisdom so many in the West have taken to heart.

Moving from the ridiculous to the apocalyptic, Jim Shepard’s “Master of Miniatures” is based on the life of Eiji Tsuburaya, the special-effects man who made it possible for us to enjoy Godzilla destroying Tokyo, cinematic devastation that hit the screens not too long after the real thing had hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“Master of Miniatures” is just 51 pages long. A work as compact as this must succeed at sentence, rather than paragraph or chapter, level, and Shepard’s book does; it is a text rich with sentences carefully wrought, and luminous with details that radiate well beyond its covers, a miniature that is anything but.

Fantasies need not be ridiculous or dark. “Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009” reminds us that to bring a better world into being we must first — with humor, with wit, with passion, with anger — imagine it.

Much in the news of late, Ai Weiwei is a hero of our time. One hopes that 2012 will be dull enough that he can return to the quiet obscurity typically enjoyed by avant-garde artists.