I'm happy to report that Perle Besserman & Manfred Steger's book, Crazy Clouds: Zen Radicals, Rebels & Reformers was a delight to read. Engagingly written, informative, and not (well, except for a tiny bit in the Epilogue) preachy, it provides a very useful window to its subject, that being various Zen teachers over the years.
I really liked the structure of this book. It moves, chapter by chapter, from the 8th century on up to the present day (well, the late 1980's at least), with each chapter focusing on one Zen teacher, and each chapter having more or less the same internal format ... a bit of history of the politics and religion of the era, a bio on the individual Zen master, and a discussion on his particular style of teaching and how it interfaced with the secular world and the religious tradition. This is subtly presented (i.e., the chapters aren't broken up into sections like this), but almost gives a sense that the book could have been a series of pamphlets on the eight teachers covered. These are, in order: P'ang Yun, Rinzai, Bassui, Ikkyu, Bankei, Hakuin, Nyogen Senzaki, and Soen. The last on this list, Nakagawa Soen Roshi, was known to Ms. Besserman (it's not clear if she was a student or not, or had simply spent time at one of his retreat centers), prior to his death in 1984.
I must admit that, while I have read a lot of Zen material over the years, I have never been able to make myself sit zazen. Even exposure to Richard Baker Roshi on various journeys (Richard is a good friend of one of my Shamanic teachers, and came along on some adventures I had in my 30's) was unable to get me over that "can't sit" thing. I do, however, really appreciate the cognitive aspects of Zen (if clouded by my busy mind), and it's always a treat to come across a book like this that lets me get in touch with some of this.
Again, Crazy Clouds is a collection of stories about the people who made Zen what it is, not a collection of the teachings (although there are certainly elements of those that shine through), so it's much more accessible than a book that is meant for Zen study, and I very highly recommend it. This is, understandably, still in print, so you should be able to find it locally (for $13), but you can get it used for less through Amazon, etc. If you have any interest in Zen, this is a book that you will appreciate having in your library!