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What I've Wred*

*I am adopting the spelling of a friend, whose creative genius with things mechanical lends exciting artistry to his spelling and a long-needed distinction between past and present tenses of the verb read. Thanks for that, Mac.

Abbott, Margery Post, Quaker Views on Mysticism. Pendle Hill Pamphlet 375. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications, 2004. Quakerism was founded on the belief that all people are capable of experiencing a connection with the Divine. It was this characteristic of early Quakerism that earned it the label of a mystical religion. In Quaker Views on Mysticism, Abbott's subject is mystical experiences among modern-day Quakers. She discusses the main concerns of modern mysticism: fear of being thought crazy, discerning if the experience is truly of God, and fulfilling the purpose of Divine communications. She mentions corporate discernment processes, as well as ways an individual might judge their experience for themselves. "If some sort of religious experience leads us to believe we should do something not in accord with our testimonies, then perhaps we need to think again, come back again and again to this, look it up in the Scriptures," she writes.
Abbott stresses that the interaction between God and humanity is for a purpose, that is, to positively influence individuals and the community to adopt compassionate behaviors. "Meeting for Worship for Business is one place where we practice being mystics," she writes, reminding us that "Worshipful conduct of business brings us back to the core of what we are about as Friends, namely knowing that God can be present to us, that God can guide us, and that we can know wholeness and holiness."
Achebe, Chinua, Anthills of the Savannah. Edinburgh: Heinemann, 1988. Achebe has crafted a story of post-colonial African politics, as seen through the lives of three men, friends from childhood. Ikem becomes the editor of the country’s most important newspaper; Chris becomes the government’s “Commissar of Information,” and Sam ascends to the presidency through a military coup—the familiar sort, where the military government intends to establish stability and restore/establish democracy. This is my first reading of African literature, and I was rewarded with a thrilling story, a cultural education, spots of fine humor, and a morality tale that seeks more to describe a situation than resolve it. Ikem, the most idealistic of the three, is endangered because of his open opposition to the military government. Chris, who hopes to bring about change by working within the government, is the fulcrum of the see-saw, attempting to tone down Ikem and to influence Sam, now “His Excellency,” to travel the road of necessary reform. Sam, however, has become comfortable in his position of power. It is a scenario we have observed over and over, as one despot replaces another in the long road to democratic rule. Chinua Achebe is rightfully regarded as a novelist of the first order, beautifully blending a masterful writing style with the sights and sounds of modern Africa. (May 2010)
American Psychological Association, Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2010. Considering how many people are required to use this manual by their educational institution and/or peer-reviewed journal, it should have been better—much better! Comparing this Sixth Edition to its immediate predecessor, there are both pluses and minuses. I own the fifth printing (January 2011) that shows a copyright date of 2010. The first three printings are dated in 2009.
Changes I noticed include: (1) the chapter on student papers, new to the Fifth Edition, is disconinued in this edition; (2) The referral to the Chicago Manual as the authority for issues not covered has been discontinued; (3) previous endorsement of Courier as typeface of choice for manuscripts has been replaced with Times New Roman; (4) accommodation for audio, video and animation has been added as an online supplement to manuscripts and published journal articles; (5) a number of conventions created by computers are listed as acceptable or preferred.
I found three or four faulty formatting examples. For instance, section 6.09, "Citations Within Quotations" advises "Do not omit citations embedded within the original material you are quoting." This is clearly an instruction on how to cite secondary sources. The example is statistics published by the American Cancer Society in 2007. Two things are wrong here. First, there is no mention of the term secondary source (which is addressed a few pages later in section 6.17), and second, statistics published by an organization as large and visible as the American Cancer Society in a year as recent as 2007 should be readily available as a primary source. This is a very poor choice of examples. It bears repeating: Any occurrence of citations within quotations is, by definition, advice on using and reporting secondary sources. As such, brief commentary on primary versus secondary sources is indicated.
Another example to which I took exception was the sample cover letter for journal submissions, which begins, "I am enclosing a submission . . . entitled . . .." American English does not entitle articles, paintings, or books; it titles them.
In the section regarding the format for citing classical works, the instruction is to use standardized formats, but does not give the name of any source for standardized formats. A much-missed feature included in the previous edition is the extensive sample manuscript pages that illustrated use of headings and other important manuscript features.
Despite these deficiencies (and there are far too many of them for such an influential resource), there are a few things that I liked. In particular, the simplified headings structure is a welcome change. Chapters 3 and 4, "Writing Clearly and Concisely" and "The Mechanics of Style" are a good addition. These chapters address most (if not all) grammatical and stylistic challenges that a writer in the social sciences might encounter. I would even recommend that these writers (and particularly students) read these sections through at least once before writing their papers. This grammatical advice is a useful summary for anyone writing anything, though not so delightfully entertaining as reading Karen Elizabeth Gordon's manuals.
The many people who need the APA manual will buy it regardless of its shortcomings. In my list of the Ten Most Common Errors in APA Papers, No. 1 is failure to buy a copy of the APA manual. Fortunately for me (as an academic editor), many people who should own a copy, don't. Also fortunately for me, this Sixth Edition advises using the services of a copyediting service for anyone who is not accustomed to writing in English or who has found it difficult to get published. (June 2012)
Angelou, Maya, Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now. New York: Random House, 1993. More than wit, Angelou writes with warm good humor about events of the years it took her to get where she is. One doesn't have to adopt for oneself all Angelou's life conclusions to appreciate how she came to them. While all human beings are equal, some are more equal than others, as Orwell would say, and Maya Angelou's talent is definitely in the class of more equal. Major complaint: There just wasn't enough of it. (October 1994)
Angier, Natalie, Woman: An Intimate Geography. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. Angier is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a (U.S.) National Book Award finalist. I was drawn to this title by its good reviews and the promise that I would learn more about my own biology, a subject that has consumed much of my reading time over the past ten years. I was not disappointed. I found a great deal of information that was new to me and was constantly entertained in the process. Angier discusses the differences between men and women (yes, there is more to know), interesting odds and ends (e.g., a baby reptile will develop to be male or female depending on the temperature in the environment), the nature of female aggression, the physical side effects of promiscuity, and on and on and on. Angier writes with force and wit. What a pleasure to read really fine writing while absorbing the latest biological science findings about women and our bodies. (October 2005)
Arnold, Johann Christoph, Rich in Years, Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2013. This is a nice little book and nicely written. The advice for how to make the most of your twilight years is sound. It would make a very nice gift book for your Christian friends or family who are approaching retirement. Though the advice and shared wisdom can be generalized, its emphasis is strongly for the practicing Christian. For a more general outlook, I recommend Miller & Schachter-Shalomi From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older. It's been around for a number of years, and its depth and wisdom make it fine reading for someone of any (or no) faith and for people as young as 40 who are looking for meaning as life marches on (and also for younger people interested in the topic of aging). (January 2014)
Bailey, Allen, with Penelope Holt, Singing God's Work: The Inspirational Music, People and Stories of the Harlem Gospel Choir. Rye Brook, NY: York House Press, 2009. The internationally renown Harlem Gospel Choir is a popular tourist destination for many tourists from other countries. Allen Bailey, with the help of Penelope Holt, tells his story of how and why he founded the Choir. Bailey is in a position to do a lot of name dropping, and he does. Like a lot of other memoirs of this ilk, Bailey's narrative is a series of anecdotes, usually written in the typical amateur mode of "and then after that we went to the show, and then my brother came by to tell me our mother was ill, so we took a plane to New Haven." In other words, the writing is flat, though the material is rich. Bailey's memoir is not a page turner, but it is informative. (June 2009)
Bak Rasmussen, Ane Marie, A History of the Quaker Movement in Africa. London: British Academic Press, 1995. Much more than a meticulously documented history of the Quaker Movement in Kenya, Bak Rasmussen has given us an honest, sensitive and amazingly objective account of the conflict that frequently arises when a church experiences rapid growth, its infrastructure too immature to withstand the onslaught of new ideas that always accompany groups of new people, as well as the demands of older members whose minority voice finally becomes strong enough to make waves. Kathleen Staudt, author of the Introduction, posits what well may be considered a primary research question for a carefully crafted and executed case study: "How can we explain conflict among people who share a spiritual community?" (October 2009)
Banner, Lois W., In Full Flower: Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality. New York: Knopf, 1992. The one point that I found of particular interest was the waxing and waning of women's social and economic status with changes in sex ratio (the number of women in proportion to the number of men) and the economic effect women's control of property had on the lives of men. Women gained when their numbers were few relative to the numbers of men, and women’s control of property was restricted when it interfered with young men's abilities to make their marks in the world. There is a lot of information and valuable historical perspective on aging women, power, and sexuality in Banner's 400 pages; however, she vacillated between failure to develop some important points and overdiscussion of others. Isolated sections of the book (far too few) were quite good—good writing and good information with a balanced analysis. Banner chose a worthy topic, and she is a good writer. In Full Flower would have benefited from more attention to organization of the material and a more stringent editor. (May 1995)
Baron-Cohen, Simon, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. New York, Basic Books, 2011. The scientific definition for an evil person these days is someone who is lacking in empathy—that is to say, zero empathy. Simon Baron-Cohen describes empathy as a sort of double mindedness that allows us to think about ourselves and others at the same time, to be able to relate to the other’s emotional state and respond appropriately. Neuroscientists are in the process of building a body of research to answer questions about the nature of evil and how it relates to empathy. Nature or nurture? Are evil people born or made?
“The key idea is that we all lie somewhere on an empathy spectrum (from high to low). People said to be evil or cruel are simply at one extreme of the empathy spectrum,” writes Baron-Cohen. And, too, nearly everyone experiences periods of no empathy. “Alcohol, fatigue, and depression are just a few examples of states that can temporarily reduce empathy,” he tells us. Whether this state is permanent or temporary, when we are at the low end of the empathy scale, we become capable of dehumanizing other people.
Baron-Cohen states that, through various brain studies, researchers have come to a consensus that there are at least ten interconnected brain regions involved in empathy or its lack. There is an area for processing social information that can be used to compare someone else’s viewpoint to your own, an area that operates when judging someone else’s intentions, an area that processes disgust, an area that reacts when we are touched or we observe someone being touched, and on and on. There is even an area that measures our empathy when we observe emotional faces.
Both genetics and environment influence empathy, say researchers, with the scales tipped in the direction of genetics. There are some good news, though. There are aspects of empathy that can be learned, and, Baron-Cohen writes, “it is possible to develop a strong moral code even in the absence of empathy.” He also found that “in typical individuals and in people with autism,” oxytocin nasal inhalation spray boosts empathy.
The questionnaire used to measure Empathy Quotient (EQ) is in an appendix at the back of the book, just in case you want to check yourself out. And if all you want to know is how to avoid these unpleasant people, there is another appendix that lists their characteristics, with tips on how to spot them.
Baron-Cohen is a scientist, Professor of Developmental Psychology at Britain’s Cambridge University, and a world-renown expert on autism. (And, yes, he is related to that other Baron-Cohen; they are first cousins.) The Science of Evil is a fascinating read, but it is thick with scientific information. Anyone familiar with the vocabulary of neuroscience will find it a breeze. For the rest of us, be prepared to look up a fair number of words and reread passages, particularly in the first half of the book. (June 2012)
Barrow, John D., The Origin of the Universe. New York: Basic Books, 1994. From the Big Bang, to Hubble's Law (the farther away a star's light, the faster it is moving away from earth), to a universe that eternally adjusts to achieve balance, to Einstein's Relativity, to Friedmann's alternative universes, Penrose's singularity, to Penzias's and Wilson's background radiation, and on and on. Despite the inherent complexity of the topic, Barrow has briefly, clearly, and logically explained all the theories of the origin of our universe (at least the scientific ones). This is not easy subject matter for me, but this was not terribly difficult reading. But then, this is information that I really wanted to know, which greatly improves my comprehension. (May 2004)
Bataille, Georges (Alastair Hamilton, translator), Literature and Evil. London: Calder & Boyars, 1973. (Orig. pub. 1957 in French). Most writers define evil in terms of actions; Bataille defines it in terms of motive. “Sadism is Evil,” he writes. “If a man kills for a material advantage his crime only really becomes a purely evil deed if he actually enjoys committing it, independently of the advantage to be obtained from it.” I winced at the Machiavellian notion that deliberately hurting others to accomplish economic gain is not evil because the pleasure comes from accomplishing the goal and not from the hurtful act itself.
Bataille uses Wuthering Heights as the model for Evil in literature. (He always capitalizes Evil to great effect. Capitalized, it becomes bolder, stronger, more threatening. As reader, I react, unable to think of the concept in purely intellectual terms.) Emily Brontë’s dark story of a spurned lover who destroys his own life in the process of executing his revenge seems a classic tale of Good versus Evil and, quite literally, the wages of sin are death. Bataille looks beyond that, proposing that Brontë’s characters are an expression of her own rebellion against the strict Christianity of her home life—in other words, a way to morally embrace evil thoughts.
I found the text awkward, sometimes obtuse. I suspect that my problems lie in an awkward translation. This little book is a reduced-size facsimile of a nicely typed text, suggesting a bargain publishing job for a limited audience. (December 2011)
Bates, Ernest Sutherland (Ed.), The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature, 4th ed. London: William Heinemann Limited, n.d. [ca. 1935]. Bates made several changes to make the bible more readable. First, it is in larger print than most standard bibles and the markings for chapter and verse have been deleted. Thus, at the outset, the pages are more reader-friendly, not presented in two columns of tiny print. Additionally, though Bates has used the King James version for most books, he has chosen the "Revised Version" for Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Two other helpful changes have come to my attention as I've read: Much of the text about the building of temples and genealogies of various characters has been omitted, allowing a smoother and more meaningful transition from one portion of text to the next; and duplicate psalms have also been omitted. Each book is preceded with a short essay that notes authorship, placement in history, and sometimes social aspects of the period. I am finding these changes helpful, as I work my way through my first entire reading of the Old Testament. Why read it anyway? As the first book ever printed, it continues to influence literature in obvious and subtle ways alike. And the other obvious reason: When someone says, It's in the bible, I will at least have some notion of whether or not that's so, as well as the wherewithal to place it in context and make my own conclusions with regard to interpretation. (September 2007)
Bayles, David, & Ted Orland, Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1993. With pearls of wisdom gleaned from the writings of such as Conrad and Hippocrates, the authors offer artists (and would-be artists) advice and encouragement to follow a calling that is too frequently thought to be more appropriately a hobby. Though the reader addressed is one who aspires to art as a profession, much of what Bayles and Orland offer is as applicable to any undertaking: "Artmaking [dentistry, plumbing, financial analysis, tree surgery] involves skills that can be learned. . . . Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work" (p. 3). Liberal doses of unpleasant reality are well balanced with insight and reassurance. Art and Fear is the sort of little book that one might keep about for an occasional dose of comfort and motivation. (November 1996)
Beard, Rebecca, Everyman's Search. Bala-Cynwyd, Pennsylvania: Merrybrook Press, 1950. See Beard as Mystic.
Beard, Rebecca, Everyman's Goal: The Expanded Consciousness. Wells, Vermont: Merrybrook Press, 1951. See Beard as Mystic.
Beard, Rebecca, Everyman's Mission: The Development of the Christ-Self. Wells, Vermont: Merrybrook Press, 1952. See Beard as Mystic.
Becks-Malorny, Ulrike.Wassily Kandinsky: 1866-1944, The Journey to Abstraction. Cologne: Benedikt-Taschen, 1994.. Photographs, color plates, and a readable text navigate the reader through Kandinsky's life as he matured into one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. Becks-Malorny offers all the biographical details one would need to see that Kandinsky was as passionately committed to his work as a theoretician and art educator as he was to his painting. The text includes an analysis of Kandinsky's theories of color and form. The large number of color plates and reproductions of his drawings help the viewer explore Kandinsky's process. (December 1996)
Beiler, Jonas, with Shawn Smucker. Think No Evil: Inside the Story of the Amish Schoolhouse Shooting...And Beyond. New York: Howard Books, 2009. The nation—and much of the world—was shocked in October 2006 when headlines screamed the news of the shooting deaths of ten little Amish girls in their one-room schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. A day later, when the news got out that the Amish parents had visited the family of the shooter to offer forgiveness and reconciliation, the shock was even greater and the news spread even farther. How could such a horrendous act of violence against innocent children be forgiven?
Jonas Beiler grew up in an Amish community. As a teenager, he chose to leave because of his incurable love of automobiles. Think No Evil is Beiler’s memoir of the shootings and the events that followed. Writer Shawn Smucker, whose mother grew up Amish, was Beiler’s professional guide in the writing. At the time of the events about which they write, both men were living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where the shootings took place. It was more than an Amish tragedy; it was a tragedy for everyone who lived in the area.
Beiler and his brother had operated an auto parts business until his brother’s accidental death. It was this death, as well as the death of his three-year-old daughter and a crisis in his marriage, that eventually motivated Beiler to found a counseling center. His status in the community as a counselor gained him access to the crime scene when others, even the parents of dying children, were kept behind the crime scene’s yellow plastic tape.
Beiler’s story is a very personal one. He begins by describing the community where he lives as an “English” (the Amish term for non-Amish) and where many of his friends descend from families who have occupied the area for more than two hundred years—as far back as the earliest settlements, before America’s United States had come into existence. Amish farmers in the area sell their produce and crafts—exquisite quilts, beautifully fashioned furniture, home-baked goods, and more—at weekend markets, festivals, and by the roadside. Sometimes roadside stands are not attended. Buyers choose their produce and leave their payment in a box.
It is in this atmosphere of trust and diligence that the unthinkable occurred.
There is no way to describe the scene Beiler witnessed without a sense of horror—the sight of ten little girls, blood-covered and lying on the grass outside the schoolhouse, as the first two EMTs arrive and begin their work to save whom they can and urgently move on to the next when it’s too late or looks to be too hopeless. Beiler, though, tells it with compassion and quiet dignity. He does not exploit the terrible anguish of the situation, and never ventures into the seamy journalistic language of shock and terror to prey upon his reader’s emotions.
The shooter was a local man. Charlie Roberts drove the milk truck that called on Amish farms to collect their day’s production to be taken to the dairy for bottling. They knew his face. They knew he had a wife and children who lived in the area. They knew he attended a local church. Nothing about it made sense.
Beiler describes the wakes, the funerals, the Amish meetings with the Roberts family to share in their loss. He describes the tearing down of the schoolhouse where the shootings took place and the building of a new one, farther from the road, hidden safely behind trees. He tells us how things were a year later, about the picnic where he saw the five young girls who survived the shootings, how one of them who was expected to die now lives on in a wheelchair.
When he completes his telling of the tale, Beiler attempts to answer the question that everyone has been asking, “How can they forgive?” and the question that he and others asked themselves, “What can we learn to help us more gracefully carry our own burdens?”
His answers begin with a history of the Amish, their founding 500 years ago in Germany, their settlements in the New World, the forming and honing of their commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation. He tells of his own challenges—the deaths of his brother and daughter, the affair that nearly destroyed his marriage—and how they were overcome with the help of caring therapists and the practice of forgiveness.
Whether you simply want to know the inside story of the Amish schoolhouse shootings, or you want to understand more deeply the practice of forgiveness that Beiler addresses in his last two chapters, this is a fine personal memoir of an event that captured the attention of millions across the globe—not because of its senseless brutality, but because of the nearly impossible-to-believe forgiveness extended by the victims.
“The Amish will be the first to tell you they’re not perfect,” Beiler writes, “but they do a lot of things right. Forgiveness is one of them.” That is the story he set out to write, he tells us, “how ordinary human beings ease their own pain by forgiving those who have hurt them.” (January 2012)
Belenky, Mary Field, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, & Jill Mattuck Tarule, Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. New York: Basic Books, 1986. Epistemology is the study of the manner in which people acquire knowledge. Belenky, et al. conducted 135 interviews to investigate the way women acquire and convey their knowledge of the world. They identify five epistemological categories, or "ways of knowing," intimately connected to their experiences of authority: (1) silence, in which women perceive themselves as essentially mindless and without any authority of their own; (2) received knowledge, in which women perceive themselves able to receive and reproduce knowledge from external authorities, but unable to develop knowledge; (3) subjective knowledge, in which women depend entirely on their inner knowing or intuition in the development of knowledge, spurning contributions from any outside source; (4) procedural knowledge, in which women learn and apply procedures for getting and communicating knowledge; and (5) constructed knowledge, in which women perceive themselves as "creators of knowledge, and value both subjective and objective strategies for knowing" (p. 15). The authors conclude their treatise with an examination of the effect of family interaction and educational environment on the development of the five identified epistemological positions. Generally, but not exclusively, Belenky, et al. found, as did other researchers they cite, that women approach life from a position of relationship and connection to those around them, while men tend to operate from a position of separation and autonomy. This is a very important addition to the body of work on gender differences which demonstrate that women are finding their way in a world tailored for the masculine way of being. (June 1995)
Biddle, Jennifer Loureide, Breasts, Bodies, Canvas: Central Desert Art as Experience. Sydney: UNSW Press, n.d. [ca. 2010]. Biddle begins with anecdotes about her time with Central Australia's Indigenous women. As many before her, working with indigenous populations throughout the globe, she experiences frustration while trying to educate these artists about the value of their work and how to sell it to maximum advantage. And as many before her, she slowly learns that the ways of the culture in which she immerses herself prohibits elements of what she attempts to teach as good business practice. The women use this kartiya [white woman] in their midst as a tool that allows them to honor their culture while conducting business with the Whitefellas. It reminds me of a friend who lives near a Conservative Jewish synagogue. On certain holy days, when Jews are not allowed to touch light switches and certain other modern paraphernalia, the congregation recruits him to turn on exterior lighting and other routine tasks that the modern world demands in defiance of their centuries-old practice. Biddle learned, she writes, "that the amount of money received, the price paid, is not so much the issue. Selling is." Anthropologist Biddle's text is academic, bridging two disciplines: art and anthropology. Her interest, she says, is in affect: what the art does, not what it means. Having myself spent a short time among a small group of Indigenous women in a remote settlement, Biddle's book has a special personal meaning to me. Beyond that, I believe art historians, anthropologists, and feminists throughout the globe will find her work intensely interesting. As well, this book is a visual feast of black-and-white photographs and color plates. (March 2010)
Biggers, John, Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962. (2nd paperback printing, 1996). In 1957, widely respected African-American artist, John Biggers, set off with his wife, Hazel, to see the people of Africa, to set foot on the continent where his ancestors lived for many generations before they were transported to America to a life of slavery. It was a spiritual journey of sorts for Biggers. At the close of his memoir, he states: "At the beginning of our tour I had experienced the discomfort, the uneasiness that an outsider always feels. I did not know from which tribal culture my forefathers were torn; I did not possess linguistic ability for communication. I soon realized, however, that having to identify with all Africans could be an asset instead of a liability, for the future of Africa depends to a great extent on dissolving intertribal dissensions. I also realized that I was probably a composite of all West African tribes anyway, because economic and sociological pressures in America during past centuries had eliminated the many tribal factions and had solidified the Negro into a common group." Biggers was one of a select group of black educators who came together at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas to establish a place of learning for black youth, at a time when black educators, no matter how lofty their qualifications, could only find work at black institutions. His life and his art reflect a turning point in American racist policies. The new Texas Southern University was a creation of the separate-but-equal stance of the justice system of that time, which immediately preceded the powerful civil rights movement of the 1960s and beyond. The text for Ananse, though a memoir of his trip to Africa, over and again reflects the facts of racism in his life. The thoughtful text is only 31 pages. The remainder of the book is devoted to 82 reproductions of the conte-crayon drawings that Biggers made while he was in Africa. His talent and skill are evident. The power of the drawings make me grateful that he did not choose to record his experience photographically. (March 2009)
Blackburn, Julia, Old Man Goya. London: Jonathan Cape, 2002. Blackburn has concocted an interesting combination of personal memoir and biography. Her recollections of a book of Goya's art that her artist mother owned is the bridge between the author's personal memories and her biographical notes on Goya's life. In addition to the usual document searchs, she traveled to the places where Goya lived and worked. The result is that much of what she has to say about Goya, his life, and his work is written in the first person, as she reflects on what she discovers. I was drawn to this book because of having read a previous Goya biography that included his complete known oeuvre. Blackburn's effort was a slow read for me at the outset, but about half way through, I engaged totally. From that point onwards, I enormously enjoyed her artistry, her ability to paint with words. A special treat is the peek into the creative process of biographical fiction. Where facts offer only a tease of events, Blackburn invites us to imagine with her what may have quite logically happened. The combination of her present and past with the known and imagined pasts inhabited by Goya is an effective device—unique among the books I have read. The book is profusely illustrated with black and white photographs of Goya's copper plates. It's an interesting effect, yet I would rather have seen photographs of the many paintings she discusses in the course of her narrative. (July 2008)
Blume, Judy, Blubber. London: Piccolo Books, 1981. (Orig. pub. 1974). Jill is in the fifth grade; she's a good student who talks too much and at the wrong time in class. She's working hard to break her nail-biting habit, and she deplores her younger brother's annoying habit of constantly quoting from the Guinness Book of Records. At school, she follows the lead of the class bully in repeatedly humiliating a chubby classmate, nicknaming her Blubber. Jill and her best friend, Tracy, put rotten eggs in a neighbor's mail box at Halloween because they think he's an old grouch.
Children's books are typically morality tales; that's why we know at the outset that Jill is going to triumph in her struggle with nail-biting, that she is going to develop a loving appreciation of her brother, she will realize the harm of her bullying and apologize and become friends with her besieged classmate, and that she and Tracy will discover their grouchy neighbor is a kind old man who still grieves for the loss of his beloved wife. But that's not what happens.
Maybe it's because Judy Blume's story formula imitates reality, or maybe it's because this story is reality (based on a true incident in her daughter's fifth-grade class), but the story does not unfold as the expected morality tale. Jill does free herself from her unhealthy relationship with Wendy, the class bully, but she chews off all her fingernails in the process. She and Tracy do have to make amends to their grouchy neighbor, and in the process Jill's father discovers that the neighbor really is a mean-spirited child hater. And Jill and the rest of her classmates eventually do stop harassing Linda ("Blubber"), but no one apologizes to the girl who seems always to be wearing a kick-me sign.
Blume's characters take some getting used to—a mother who sneaks cigarettes while she's trying to stop smoking, a father who yells at the top of his lungs to get obedience, and children who are allowed to use bad language at home, with the off-hand warning that they need to use good sense about using it in public. So maybe the moral in Blume's books is that something is always going wrong and something is always going right, life goes on, and we usually learn something from our mistakes. Whatever her message, children of all ages have been flocking to her books since the first one was published in 1969. (November 2009)
Boehme, Jakob (translated and edited by Michael L. Birkel and Jeff Bach), Genius of the Transcendent: Mystical Writings of Jakob Boehme. Boston & London: Shambhala, 2010. Jakob Boehme (1575-1624) was a German mystic who was censured by his Lutheran Church for his unique interpretations of biblical text. A shoemaker by trade, he had his first "inner illumination" or insight at the age of twenty-five, but did not commit anything to writing until his second experience twelve years later. He wrote in a letter, "I saw and knew more in one quarter of an hour than if I had spent many years at a university." Later, in his first book, he wrote (after a bout of "melancholy"), "After a number of violent storms, my spirit broke through the gates of hell into the innermost birth of the Godhead, where it was embraced with love as a bridegroom embraces his beloved bride." During the ensuing years, Boehme wrote volumes about his spiritual insights, drawing a circle of admirers from among the German intelligensia, as well as threats from the church. Boehme's writings are dense and often-difficult-to-understand. If someone just wants a general understanding of Boehme's work, I highly recommend Pendle Hill Pamphlet 214, Jacob Boehme: Insights Into the Challenge of Evil. (October 2012)
Bolen, Jean Shinoda, M.D., Crossing to Avalon. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 1994. Three meaningful themes emerge in this account of one woman's midlife passage: the struggle for authenticity, the importance of naming experiences and sharing life stories, and the merging of masculine and feminine energies. It is empowering to read an account that implies, "This is my personal experience, and this is how I believe it reflects the experience of others." In liberating herself, Bolen seeks to liberate others, all the while encouraging women to share their thoughts and feelings, give words to their experiences so that no one need be alone. She shares the story of the disintegration of her marriage, and with surprisingly little detail manages to evoke feelings of recognition and understanding. She shares the story of her friend celebrating her menopause with separation from her husband and yielding her reproductive system to advanced cervical cancer that had invaded her lymph system, not yet knowing if she would be in the 50% who would survive for five years. There is a small cast of characters, yet without discussing menopause or hot flashes, Bolen describes a process that is common to many women at midlife. Not only is her journey one of hard-won insight, it is also a description of a real-life pilgrimage to sacred places. Her pilgrimage experience creates an archetype for menopausal women. Standing barefoot on the High Altar at Glastonbury, she experiences the merging of God and Goddess—the divine flow of masculine and feminine. A year later she looks back and knows that at that moment she was experiencing her last bleed—it was her moment of menopause. Her integration of the Grail story creates a work that should be just as meaningful to men as women, particularly the last half of the book. Powerful, comforting, loving. Each time I finish a book, I think of someone I know that would benefit from reading it. Crossing to Avalon goes on my list for "Everyone Over 40 and Nearly Everyone Else." (March 1995)
Bolen, Jean Shinoda, M.D., The Tao of Psychology: Synchronicity and the Self. New York: Harper & Row, 1982. Quantum physics has defined a basic unit of matter that makes up all things, both organic and inorganic, which is pure energy. The same unit of energy that is a part of your body today may, only days before, have been a part of a bird flying over Beijing or an Ethiopian villager. This "new" knowledge from modern physics sounds very much like the Tao—in Eastern philosophies, the "unifying principle in the universe to which everything in the world relates" (p. 3). The tao (lowercase) is the life path that is in harmony with the universe, the "path with heart" (p. xii). Jung believed that all people and all animate and inanimate objects are linked through a collective unconscious. Synchronicity, he said, was a connecting principle that manifests through "meaningful coincidences" (p. 6). Bolen proposes that synchronicity is the Tao of psychology; it relates the individual to the totality. She makes good use of anecdotes to explain Jung's layers of consciousness, the Jungian analytical tools of amplification and active imagination, and the difference between causality and synchronicity. Bolen has a gift for making clear Jungian concepts that seem obtuse or hazy in the hands of other writers. (June 1995)
Bolz-Weber, Nadia, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. New York: Jericho Books, 2013. Nadia Bolz-Weber left the Christian church of her childhood when, as she describes it, she "was able to recognize the difference between what people said (all sex outside of heterosexual marriage is forbidden) and what they did (clandestine affairs with each other) and the difference between what they taught (women were inferior and subordinate to men) and the reality I experienced in the world (then why am I smarter than my Sunday school teacher?), I knew that I had to get out."
Once "out," she experimented with lifestyles and philosophies radically foreign to her pre-adolescent self. Stepping out of the traditional Christian mold, she spent time with goddess worship, communal living, recreational drugs, and drug- and alcohol-fueled free love. Hanging out in comedy clubs, where she tried her hand as a stand-up comedian, she saw "the biblical stories of antiheroes . . . beloved prostitutes and rough fishermen" in the demeanor of what she called her "own community of underside dwellers."
"How different from that cast of characters could a manic-depressive alcoholic comic be?" she asks.
Her experiment with communal living brought her into a caring community of drug and alcohol abusers, who shared a screw-the-establishment philosophy, and there, she writes, she learned that "a community based on the idea that everyone hates rules is, in the end, just as disappointing and oppressive as a community based on the ability to follow rules." And in the end, she didn't really like the person of her druggie self, who would invite and initiate sex with people of all genders, even if they were her best friend's boyfriend. It wasn't her bisexual encounters that disturbed her, but rather her ethical shortcomings in her personal relationships.
She foreswore drugs and alcohol, fell in love with a Lutheran seminary student, found in the Lutheran liturgy a spiritual connection that enlivened her connection to God, and a vision of her calling began to take form. She completed seminary training and was ordained as a Lutheran minister. And when she entered recovery from her addictions, she didn't leave all those other broken people from her comedy club days behind. She built a church for them, a church that prospers more in spirit than in collection-basket receipts. (Though these days, I understand, her renown has brought a burgeoning congregation and financial security for her church.)
Just as has the story of her past, Bolz-Weber's tattoos and earthy street language have become tools in her ministry to let the world know that God is for everybody. Having created a church for outsiders, she had to overcome her own prejudice when she discovered her message was attracting people whose appearance could seemingly fit into any traditional, conservative church
. . . save for their open minds that would not bear to be imprisoned there.
Pastrix tells the tale of how one human being, searching for Spirit, dove into the seamy side of life and emerged transformed—not denying the life she left behind, but carrying its useful remnants into a life as wife, mother, and pastor of a Lutheran Church. The big surprise for people like me, who knew nothing about her or her work, is that Bolz-Weber has produced a clever, witty, painfully honest and beautifully written memoir. Any lover of memoir or great writing or the true message of Jesus (man or myth) will find Pastrix to be a real page turner . . . as long as you have a healthy tolerance for classic profanity, disarmingly punctuated with F bombs. Atheist lovers of good Literature are no exception. (February 2016)
Bradley, Marion Zimmer, The House Between the Worlds. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980. Marion Zimmer Bradley creates a Department of Parapsychology on the campus of UC Berkeley as the starting point for her story of parallel worlds. Just as in our nonfictional world, Bradley’s parapsychologists struggle to gain acceptance in an academic environment that treats them like peddlers of fantasy. Their chosen test for ESP is a subject’s ability to name a card that is being held by another person, who is nearby but not visible to them.
The main character, Cameron Fenton, volunteers to participate in an experiment utilizing the (fictitious) drug antaril, which is reported to increase ESP. While all participants seem to have increased ESP under the drug’s influence, Fenton and at least one other research subject walk out of their bodies and into other worlds inhabited by fairies, gnomes, and the ghastly ironfolk who live for the opportunity to rape females of any race and consume alive entire horses in a matter of minutes. Fenton becomes involved in war and political intrigue when, after returning home, he feels compelled to go to the aid of the fairy-like beings he meets in his otherworldly travels.
Bradley was a lifelong seeker of truth and wisdom, and a sharp observer of human nature. Her speculative fantasy fiction explores possibilities, and through the mouths of her characters, she delivers thoughtful commentaries on the human condition—sometimes condemning, sometimes hopeful.
The House Between the Worlds was first published in 1980. Is she using Jennifer, Guardian of the World Gate, to deliver her view of the Vietnam War?
We must not interfere. If we interfere in a small thing, we will interfere in great ones. Power is addictive. We don’t have the right to step in and protect, anymore than we have the right to step in and punish. We do not interfere. All of Pentarn’s evil came from the fact that he thought he could interfere.
Is she then an isolationist?
If we step in to try and change it, we don’t know what we may be doing to the balance somewhere else. The only safe thing is to guard our own Gates, make sure no one comes through here.
The superb writing that Bradley exhibited in The Mists of Avalon is not evident here or in any of her other books, but she is ever and always a superb storyteller. The House Between the Worlds is a fast-paced, engrossing read. (February 2013)
Brierley, Saroo, with Larry Buttrose. A Long Way Home. New York: Putnam, 2014. When five-year-old Saroo's brother left him at a train station and told him to wait there while he went into the town to get food, his station in life changed drastically. It would be 25 years before Saroo learned the reason his brother never returned was that he had been hit by a train. Authorities misunderstood the village name he gave them and were unable to locate his family. Thus a small boy born into terrible poverty in India was adopted into a privileged white Australian family, where he was loved, educated, and supported, both physically and emotionally. His memories of his early childhood in India were not unhappy. He remembered being hungry, but he also remembered a sense of love and security from his mother, two brothers, and the baby sister who had been his responsibility when his mother and brothers were out working. This nicely written autobiography does not read like a novel, though it is certainly the stuff of adventure. Even though the reader knows in advance that Saroo eventually finds his family in India through years of Internet searching, a feeling of anticipation begins to build about half way through the book, making it difficult to put it down until the moment he looks into the face of his birth mother. What a feel-good read! (May 2014)
Brinton, Howard H., Guide to Quaker Practice. Pendle Hill Pamphlet No. 20. Reprint with new introduction. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications, 1973. (Orig. pub. 1955) Brinton has done an amazing job of describing Quaker practice in only 64 pages. Brinton’s aim is not to describe Quaker beliefs, but rather Quaker practice—the structure and conduct of the Quaker meeting as a functioning community. Included are descriptions of programmed and unprogrammed meetings, spoken and unspoken rules of vocal ministry, the function and duties of elders, the usually accepted rules of conduct in Meeting for Worship for Business, queries, education, social testimonies and more. Though first published in 1955, Brinton’s descriptions continue to hold true for most Quaker meetings. This is an excellent resource for both experienced Quakers and those who are new attenders.
For those interested in learning about Quakerism but are not attending worship, there are better resources. One of my favorites is Geoffrey Hubbard’s Quaker by Convincement, which includes a history of Quakerism, as well as changes in Quaker practice since its inception during the English Civil War (1642-1651). This one is out of print, so check betterworld.com for used copies—or check with your closest Quaker library. There are shorter, less thorough treatments for those with curiosity about Quaker beliefs. One (that is also more current) is The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction by Pink Dandelion. I have not read this one, but Dandelion is an internationally recognized scholar of religious philosophy both inside and outside Quakerism. The most easily accessed sources are online. A good starting point is quakerinfo.org, which both gives information about the various branches of Quakerism and has referring links to various Quaker websites. (December 2007)
Bryson, Bill, In a Sunburned Country. New York: Broadway Books, 2000. Bryson is one of the most entertaining writers in the English language. His name on a title guarantees you'll learn something you didn't know before you read it and you'll laugh out loud at many points along the way. Considering the current relationship between Australia and the United States, certain segments are historically quite interesting: "Australia was slightly more important to us in 1997 than bananas, but not nearly as important as ice cream." There are many interesting things to be said about Australia ("Of the world's ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures—the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish—are the most lethal of their type in the world."), and Bryson says them well. His description of listening to a cricket match on his car radio compares well with a Sunday morning radio broadcast of a Quaker meeting. He thought the radio was broken until the teams returned from afternoon tea. In retrospect, Bryson isn't one of the most entertaining writers in the English language; he is the most entertaining writer in the English language. (March 2004)
Burbank, Luther, The Training of the Human Plant. New York: The Century Co., 1909. Taking on subjects that continue to be debated nearly a hundred years later, Burbank boldly asserts, "environment is the architect of heredity . . . acquired characters are transmitted and . . . all characters which are transmitted have been acquired." With enthusiasm, he looks forward to "the opportunity now presented in the United States for observing and, if we are wise, aiding in what I think it fair to say is the grandest opportunity ever presented of developing the finest race the world has ever known out of the vast mingling of races brought here by immigration." Burbank equates education with cloistered classrooms and little noses stuck all day in big books, thus concluding that early education impairs a child's nervous system. "No boy or girl should see the inside of a school-house until at least ten years old," he adamantly declares. And then, impatient with the notion that delinquency builds character, he scolds, "The most dangerous man in the community is the one who would pollute the stream of a child's life. Whoever was responsible for the saying that 'boys will be boys' and a young man 'must sow his wild oats' was perhaps guilty of a crime." In charmingly outdated language, he espouses viewpoints that continue to have their champions in our modern society, so much more hectic today than the ambitious, overbusy Americans whom he criticizes in his early twentieth-century world. He reminds us of universal and timeless truths that are rediscovered with each generation of parents, teachers, and psychologists: "You can never bring up a child to its best estate without love"; "Teach the child self-respect . . . No self-respecting man was ever a grafter"; "Do not be cross with the child; you cannot afford it. . . . We cannot treat a plant tenderly one day and harshly the next; they cannot stand it." (October, 1997)
Cahalan, Susannah, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2013. This is the memoir of an illness. Susannah Cahalan sank into a severe psychotic state, most of which entirely escapes her memory. With the help of the memories of her family, friends, coworkers, and medical team, she reconstructs the suspenseful unfolding drama of finding a diagnosis and then a treatment. Her story is a page-turner as we watch the entire sequence of events unfold, one test at a time, and the two-steps-forward, one-step-back progress of her recovery.
Cahalan fell victim to a little-known brain disease with the tongue-tangling name of anti-NMDA-receptor autoimmune encephalitis. Her first doctor diagnosed her with alcohol withdrawal and accused her parents of denial when they refused to accept the diagnosis. Fortunately, her next neurologist was certain that alcohol was not involved in her illness before he ran out of ideas and passed her on to yet another neurologist who became the hero of the tale.
Cahalan's story would make a whopping good suspense film, a true-to-life Dr. House search-for-the-truth, where time is of the essence. Her doctors knew that delay could mean death or a lifetime of profound disability.
Her gratitude to those who fought so long and hard to save her life and restore her quality of life has given her new focus. In addition to her book, which contains enough scientific information to be of use to physicians, she has established a foundation to underwrite the cost of the required high-level care (the kind of care she received) for those diagnosed. She is determined to make a difference for others who have been or may be condemned to death or locked away in a mental hospital as a result of a misdiagnosis. (January 2015)
Cameron, Julia, The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. New York: The Putnam Publishing Group, 1992. Cameron has created a powerful 12-week workbook program for unleashing creativity—not just for creating painting and poetry, but for becoming the conscious creators of our own lives. Many people work it alone (and often take longer than the 12 weeks Cameron lays out), but Artist's Way groups have formed throughout the world to make it a shared experience. For those who are frightened, intimidated, or simply turned off by the words "God" and "spirituality," you will be more comfortable with some other approach to feeding your creativity dragon. (April 1995)
Cameron, Julia, Floor Sample: A Creative Memoir. New York: Penguin, 2006. At first blush, it looks as if Julia Cameron told the unvarnished truth about herself and let her husbands off the hook. But in the balance of things, it seems more that she gave the devil his due. Her first husband, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, was having an affair with actress Liza Minnelli at the demise of their marriage. Shame on Scorsese. But it wasn’t the affair that doomed the marriage, says Cameron, it was her alcohol and drug addictions. Several times during the years following their divorce, Scorsese came to Cameron’s aid, once covering the bill for an expensive stay in a London hospital. The argument could be made that he only did it because of the daughter they both adored. It was still a really, really nice thing to do.
Second husband Mark Bryan continues to reap financial benefit from the workshops that he and Cameron developed based on her bestselling The Artist’s Way. The divorce decree permanently protects Bryan’s financial interests in the work they did while they were married. That’s not as predatory as it may seem. It was Bryan’s vision and support that pushed Cameron along as she wrote The Artist’s Way, which is now nearing four million copies in print worldwide. She does not hesitate to give him credit for his contribution to her success, nor does she hesitate to chastise his hurtful behavior during their painful split and divorce.
Practicing what she preaches, Cameron’s daily morning pages, plus three pages of daily writing, has resulted in the publication of more than thirty books. Floor Sample is a page-turner, with a little bit of Hollywood insider, a lot about the challenges of an alcoholic’s sobriety, and the harrowing life of someone living always on the brink of inherited madness. Interwoven is the story of becoming an artist, step by step, with fierce focus and hard-won success.
Art is a process, she tells us, and for those among us who have the will to follow that process—over and over and over again—the rewards are there for the taking, both in the world of the mundane and the world of the spirit. (December 2012)
Camp, Charles, American Foodways: What, When, Why and How We Eat in America. Little Rock, AR: August House, 1989. New York: The Putnam Publishing Group, 1992. The American Folklore Society established their Foodways Section in 1977. Concurrently, Charles Camp was writing his dissertation on the America Eats program of the WPA and suggested that emphasis be on food events, not the food itself. Written for the folklore professional, Camp's topic is easily accessible to the average adult reader. It is interesting to read how food structures the social life of nearly all cultures. I wouldn't recommend the book as a fun read, but I'd certainly recommend it to anyone who is involved in an academic study of food as it relates to culture. (November 1997)
Carr-Gregg, Michael, The Princess Bitchface Syndrome: Surviving adolescent girls. Camberwell, Victoria, Australia: Penguin, 2006.The Princess Bitchface Syndrome addresses itself to parents of teenage girls, who are their old sweet selves one moment, and demanding, emotional harpies the next. Carr-Gregg stresses the importance of setting boundaries and having rules. He provides sound advice on walking the fine line between teaching responsibility and giving away parental authority. Don't be fooled by the sensational title. This is a serious and valuable book that should be read by the parents of teenage girls in all first-world nations. "By the time girls turn 13 they look like they're ready for anything. But they're not," warns Carr-Gregg. We are reminded that the brain center where decisions are made is not entirely mature and competent until age 25. Author of a number of advice books for parents and founder of Can-Teen, a support group for teen cancer patients, child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg is most celebrated among his peers for his work and research with teenagers with cancer. He is a popular expert guest on a number of television and radio programs. (June 2007)
Castro, Elizabeth, HTML, XHTML & CSS. 6th ed. Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press, 2007. This is the second Castro HTML manual that I've used. I can't compare it to any others because I haven't used or even looked at any others. I've found both editions to be clear and easy to use. The index has never failed to point me in the right direction, and every question I've had has been answered. I built my website as an exercise to learn HTML code and continue to use HTML to maintain it. (July 2008)
Chappell, Tom, The Soul of a Business: Managing For Profit and the Common Good. New York: Bantam Books, 1993. I have purchased and given away at least three copies of this book. In 1974 Tom and Kate Chappell borrowed $5,000 to start a business creating and marketing the kind of personal care products that they wanted for themselves—additive free, chemical free, environmentally friendly. The Soul of a Business is Tom Chappell's story of how he integrated his values into his business practice and still enjoyed substantial profit. His tale is both inspiring and informative, idealistic and practical. In his own words:
My message is simple: Beliefs drive strategy. Your ethics can form the
foundation of smart analysis and clear thinking. Your personal values can
be integrated with managing for all the traditional goals of business—
making money, expanded market share, increased profits, retained
earnings, and sales growth. Not only can your personal beliefs be brought
to work, they can work for you. You can be a hard-assed competitor
and still run a business with soul.
Chappell is not talking theory. Instead of going to Harvard Business School to learn to grow his business, he went to Harvard Divinity School to address a question that was interfering with his peace of mind: "Could I stick to my respect for humanity and nature and still make a successful company even more successful?" Chappell says he found his answers "in the writings of the great philosophers, Immanuel Kant, Jonathan Edwards, and Martin Buber."
Chappell's part-time sabbatical convinced him he could grow his soul and the soul of his business and continue to expand and grow profits. And that's what he did. (October 1997)
Post Script 2008: There is a sort of sad ending to this story that's not covered in this 1993 book. In 2006, Colgate Palmolive acquired 84 percent of Tom's of Maine at a cost of $100 million. The Chappell's retained 16 percent. Company policies are protected under the terms of the sale, but a glance at the labels of Tom's products currently on store shelves reveals that product formulas have changed. The Tom's website shows that these new ingredients are natural, despite scary names like zinc citrate trihydrate, capric triglyceride, monosodium phosphate, and propylene glycol. Not all natural products are fit to go in my mouth. Bat guano is natural, crude oil is natural, uranium is natural, and I don't want those things in my body. Everything has a natural source; it's screwing around with it that earns it the name synthetic (and not all synthetics are harmful). Note the effort that is devoted to make everything sound so natural in Tom's list of ingredients, e.g., Poloxamer 407 "Processed from natural gas and oil." I'd like to believe that the Chappell's were able to harness corporate greed with their sale documents, but I'm not wholly convinced.
Despite where Tom's of Maine is today, under the auspices of Colgate-Palmolive, Chappell's book about how his mid-life crisis (that's my label, not his) was resolved by making socially responsible business his life's work is still a good read—and good sound business advice.
Charpentier, Louis, The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral. New York: Avon Books, 1975. Gothic architecture appeared quite suddenly, "without preamble," Charpentier writes, as he begins to unfold his theory of the mystical origins of the famous Chartres Cathedral in France.
Mysteries from the old religion mix with mysteries from the new. The cathedral is built on an ancient, pre-Christian sacred site. Each year on the summer solstice, the sun illuminates a certain flagstone in the transept. In the center of its stone floor is a labyrinth. In a grotto, beneath the church, by an ancient well, is found the Black Virgin, the statue of a woman with a child seated on her knee, that was purportedly sculpted by Druids before Jesus's birth.
No one has yet solved the mystery of how the colors of the stained glass windows were accomplished or their particular unique luminosity. "They are a product of high science," claims Charpentier, "a product of alchemy."
Charpentier proposes that the Knights Templar may have transported the Ark of the Covenant to a hiding place in Chartres Cathedral. He even suggests the possibility that a copy was made and hidden in Egypt.
When other, larger cities ran short of funds to complete their great cathedrals (there were eighty such Gothic structures under construction simultaneously, twenty of them in France), Chartres moved forward. Again, Charpentier points to the Knights Templar. They were the ones, he posits, who financed its completion.
To gain most benefit from Charpentier's theories and insights, having a friendly interest in mathematics is essential. How else can you get through many of his revelations?
The "Cubit of Chartres" is 0.738 meters. All measurements are made
of it and even the thickness of the octagonal pillars. . . . [0.738 is] the
hundred thousandth part of the degree of the parallel of latitude of
The cathedral's builders were not merely architects or master masons, according to Charpentier. Of necessity, they would have had an incredible store of scientific and mathematical knowledge. Ancient underground caverns, the great pyramids of Egypt, the Temple of Solomon, the Holy Grail, the Philosopher's Stone—they all figure in the mystery of Chartres Cathedral, writes Charpentier. (October 1999)
Child, Julia, with Alex Prud'homme, My Life in France. New York: Knopf, 2006. It all began with a new bride wanting to learn to cook and progressed to owning a share in a cooking school, writing classic cookbooks that will be in print for many years, and becoming a television celebrity. During her last years, Julia Child and her husband's grandnephew, Alex Prud'homme, met frequently to record her memories. The heart of the narrative is her first years in France, where she arrived in 1948 as a newly wed whose cooking repertoire was comprised of a bad job of boiling water. The serious home cook, who has dabbled in a variety of cuisines (and most certainly French), may reap the most enjoyment, yet her story is intensely interesting, on a personal and public level, and very well written. There were moments when I wished I had a French dictionary at my side, but those moments weren't frequent enough to spoil a good read.
Considering her age at the time of the writing, Prud'homme most certainly would have been responsible for the organization and undoubtedly did the bulk of the writing. But his contribution and his great aunt's voice are seamlessly interwoven. As I read, I could hear her warbling, high-pitched voice and was reminded of her wit from her television cooking shows.
I read the last page with a smile, shut the book, and felt as satisfied as if I had just finished making her recipe for Cream of Mushroom Soup and found it to be perfect in every respect. I got the feeling that Julia looked back on her life with that same sense of satisfaction. She doesn't apologize for her privileged background, and she doesn't complain about being a somewhat homely, well-educated, quite bright, six-foot-two-inch woman who didn't marry until she was well into her thirties and never had the children she and her husband wished for. She mentions her sadness at not being able to share a close relationship, or even a viewpoint, with her father, but she doesn't wallow in it. She incorporates names, but never drops them. She is unpretentious, natural, and disarmingly honest.
So many people look back with harrowing tales of disappointment and unhappiness; Julia gave us her joys and successes to share. I liked her before I knew anything about her life; now I like her a lot more. (February 2008)
Clayton, Joseph, Saint Anselm: A Critical Biography. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1933. Bargain books sometimes lead me into areas I had never intended to inhabit. Such is the case of the life of Saint Anselm that I picked up in a garage sale for 50 cents—of no interest to me primarily because I had no idea who he was. How critical the biography really is, I have no way to judge, but it's a ripper of a yarn, despite its academic language and litany of dates and places. According to a quick casting of the Internet, Anselmo d'Aosta was a Benedictine monk, Archbishop of Canterbury and brilliant philosopher and theologian, best known for his "ontological argument for the existence of God." While I do not intend to make light of these accomplishments, if Father Clayton is to be believed, Anselm was all these things AND the inspiration for (and source of) the doctrine of separation of church and state. The story as it is told by Clayton would make a magnificent film, surpassing in drama Burton's and O'Toole's A Man for All Seasons. Anselm was appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093 during the reign of William II (who was determined to maintain supremacy over the Church) and continued as Archbishop into the reign of Henry I (who also was determined to maintain supremacy over the Church). According to Clayton, Anselm was old and tired and unwilling to leave his life as a thinker of deep thoughts and world-famous academic at the Abbey of Bec. The king thought him too old and wrapped up in his books to be any serious threat to his royal plans to plunder the see of Canterbury, and the Pope thought him too old and loyal to undertake anything so unseemly as defy papal authority. But Anselm, Clayton says, fooled them both. He spent his 16 years as Bishop of Canterbury fighting both kings and pope to keep the Church independent, neither the master nor servant of any monarch. Through court battles, banishments, threats and rages, Anselm bested them all, in the name of God, in the name of separation of church and state. Whether he was truly this simple, extraordinarily strong man of God or a savvy politician manipulating himself into a position of power, as some writers argue, Anselm rocks. (August 2000)
Clayton, Meg Waite, The Wednesday Sisters. New York: Ballantine, 2009. (Orig. pub. 2008). Five young mothers meet by the swings at their local park, form a writing group, and thirty-five years later they attend the funeral of one among them and remember their years of friendship and mutual support. Against the backdrop of the 1960s/1970s era of social change, Meg Waite Clayton has crafted a lovely story of female friendship and the lives of families, as some go through divorce and others struggle through the day-to-day challenges of long marriages. This is a good read, though I would not compare it to the Ya-Ya sisters as some have. At the end of my paperback copy is “A Conversation Between Meg Waite Clayton and Brenda Rickman Vantrease.” Vantrease, author of The Mercy Seller, was a member of Clayton’s real-life version of the Wednesday sisters and a continuing friend and critic, even though they are now separated by thousands of miles. As a writer who aspires to fiction, I was entranced with Clayton’s account of her many edits of her manuscript before she felt ready to offer it for publication. She reminds me that writing is work. Also at the end of this edition is a list of the books that individual members of the Wednesday Sisters labeled their “model books,” with a text by Clayton discussing each choice. I got as much pleasure reading this section as I did reading the novel. Maybe more. My reading is dominated by nonfiction. Possibly that’s why I’ve struggled so with writing fiction. Read what you want to write, they say. (November 2011)
Clift, Charmian, Mermaid Singing. North Ryde, New South Wales, Australia: Collins/Angus & Robertson, 1958. Charmian Clift welcomes me into a colorful Old World community, where a man could not marry until his sister was married, where an entire family slept together on a sleeping shelf, where poverty was the rule and simplicity the key to life, where men and women led nearly separate lives.
For centuries the men of Kalymnos had been sponge divers. For as long as six months out of the year, the men were at sea, harvesting the sponges that (with the exception of a few small shops, taverns, and coffee houses) were the only means of income for the community. At home, women reared children, prayed, and waited for their men to come home from the sea—and every year men died or returned crippled by decompression sickness.
Though the world of Kalymnos seemed to be about men’s work, Clift describes a society where women were considered mysterious and powerful: women owned the property; men were their servants, expected only to be virile and hardworking. Here, the notion of dowry stems not from a woman contributing her share, but rather a woman’s family gifting her with the means to establish herself as the center of a new, young family. The goal of all men was to attract the eye of a likely woman who would find them worthy.
Clift is a superb writer. Her memories from the year she and her young family spent on the Greek island of Kalymnos in the mid 1950s is engaging and packed with careful detail of daily life in a small community whose primary rituals of weddings, funerals, and christenings had changed little for centuries. Mermaid Singing is as suitable for an anthropologist as it is for the avid travel reader or fan of memoir. Clift is known in her native Australia as an essayist of unmatched talent. The same may be said for her memoirs. I have no doubt her fiction will be as satisfying. (July 2012)
Clift, Charmian, and George Johnston, The Sea and the Stone. Indianapolis, New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1955.In a restaurant in Crete, Australian Morgan Leigh casually mentions that he is in Greece looking for something to write about. “Go to Kalymnos,” says an American stranger. “Everywhere is changing, but most places you can’t see it. Too many things moving at once, too much clutter, everything too gummed up with too many things. But you can see it in Kalymnos. Past, present . . . All there right in front of your eyes. The world changing.”
Thus Australian writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift introduce three of their main characters in their novel, The Sea and the Stone—Australian Morgan Leigh, the American Telfs who befriends him, and the Greek island Kalymnos that is in the throes of change caused by the decline in its sponge-diving industry. Morgan Leigh becomes the observer for us. He wraps himself in the unique Kalymnian culture, learning about it but never really stepping inside it. He always is what he is—a witness to a culture’s passage into another era, a study of an economy in transition.
I found The Sea and the Stone to be a bit slow to engage my interest and often frustrating with its history and geography lessons holding up the progress of the story. I’ve read other work by each of these authors individually, and think I recognize their individual contributions to this joint effort. Johnston is a stunning writer; he is among a choice few with a decidedly unique gift for description. Clift, too, is superb in her own way. I am not so dazzled by her descriptions, which never smother the story, but only paint a backdrop.
The story here is strong enough that wading through the descriptions (which I attribute to Johnston) can feel more like a hindrance than the writer’s delight that they are. It is tempting to attribute Clift with only the story, but that would definitely be selling her short. I’ve read her memoir of Kalymnos, Mermaid Singing, and she can bring life to landscapes and lifescapes as few can. Perhaps that is what distinguishes the two: the one gets lost in the landscape; the other balances story and backdrop seamlessly.
Clift and Johnston have brought us a tale of society in transition, the power of culture in the lives of people who have lived the same way for hundreds or thousands of years, the natural human resistance to the inevitability of change, the noblesse oblige of a wealthy business aristocracy, the importance of meaningful work, and of relationships that are simply a product of time and place. There’s more—a rich assortment of the eternal truths of human experience.
The promise of the experience of change contained in Telf’s advice to Morgan, “Go to Kalymnos,” is fulfilled, even though one of the themes may be said to be “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” In the end, I’m glad I read it, slow-moving, rabbit-trail descriptions and all. I’m surprised that I can find so many little scabs to pick, when I have been left with a deeply satisfied feeling. Not a single character is wooden or one dimensional. They all live and breathe. (December 2012)
Clinton, Bill, My Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Before reading the first page, my view of Clinton was one of begrudging admiration for a record of improving the lives of human beings—begrudging because I viewed him as a wily, womanizing politician who never failed to indulge his personal proclivities for base pleasure (a blanket view that I have cynically and indiscriminately extended to politicians generally for most of my adult life). My reaction, after the first few pages, was that Clinton simply isn't the engaging writer that Jimmy Carter is. "Plodding but very decent" was the comment Clinton's university professor wrote on his student essay. That's a valid summary of Clinton's writing style, yet it falls short of describing the book's underlying charisma. One hundred pages into the 900 pages of text, I gave into a fascination with the complex nature of the presidency, how he came to it, and how he chose to fulfill its duties.
Having watched the two major Clinton book-tour interviews that were broadcast on Australian television, I saw that he writes the way he speaks, with an introspective sort of enthusiasm, not wanting to leave out any detail or fail to mention the names of people he feels deserve recognition. It is both name dropping and reverse name dropping, as he creates a historical record of connections.
Clinton's natural gift for politics and understanding of its rightful position of importance in the evolution of human consciousness exposed to me my own woeful lack of political grace and what losses can be suffered for failing to accept its validity in a life well lived. He offers an insider's view of politics in both its most positive and most negative manifestations, while painting a portrait, layer upon hidden layer, of a man who was born with the drive for a public life. I could not fail to be impressed with his political genius and accomplishments in the world of peace negotiations and awed by the daily parade of major and minor decisions that face a head of state.
The prodigious adversity of Clinton's eight years in the White House was the making of the man, the making of a legend, and may well be the ultimate undoing of the forces who opposed him with highly personal, self-gratifying animosity. He has emerged, in the eyes of most of the world, a personal and public success, a model of the flawed but persistent integrity of a Good Man, due in no small part to the likes of Ken Starr and others who paraded the self-indulgent lust of a middle-aged man for dreamy-eyed girls in blue dresses as a camouflage to their own coming into rut for high position and dreams of victory for their General-Bullmoose political policies. Had the path been smoother, the man may not have been so great or so good.
As a pleasure read, the book is too long, has too many names and dates, and reads a bit like an academic paper—a "plodding but very decent" one. That having been said, Clinton has done a fine job of documenting his view of history while keeping it within the reach of the average reader. It is difficult to imagine that his successful combination of historical record and view into the personal, day-to-day experience of being President of the United States could have been accomplished in fewer pages. Nonetheless, as no doubt many other readers did, I daintily skimmed the surface of much of the minutiae, knowing that I could return at some later time, consult the index, and reread key passages. Yes, an index. A glorious index!
This is not just a document for future scholars of the Clinton presidency; he offers views of all the major political figures of his time, from snapshots to mini-series. Scholars of the personal and public lives of many of the important political figures of the latter half of the twentieth century will find Clinton's observations a valuable addition to their other resources. Typical of his succinct political summaries was his statement that McClellan "thought politics was about money and power" and Fulbright "thought politics was about the power of ideas"—one among many of his personal viewpoints offered, but isn't that what all historical analyses are?
I began the book with a one-dimensional view of an American politician (all of whom I have seen as cast in the Huey Long mold) and completed the book seeing his presidency as an expression of natural political genius and a personal struggle for a high level of integrity, played out against a backdrop of flawless humanity as manifested in a typically flawed life. I have abandoned my pride in my ineptitude as a political animal and now aspire to improve my skills in this formerly despised arena of human interaction. (March 2005)
Clow, Barbara Hand, Liquid Light of Sex: Understanding Your Key Life Passages. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company Publishing, 1991. An astrological theory of key life passages marked by (and specifically caused by) transits of Saturn, Uranus, and newly discovered Chiron to their places in our birth charts, based on work by respected British astronomer Percy Seymour. (February 1995)
Coelho, Paulo (translated by Alan R. Clarke), The Alchemist: A Fable about Following Your Dream. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. (Originally O Alquimista [in Portuguese]. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Rocco Ltd., 1988.) Some time after I had written about Marlo Morgan’s Mutant Message Downunder in 1993 and interviewed James Redfield nearly a year later about Celestine Prophecy, I began to hear people say that The Alchemist was better than either of them. I certainly had no doubt that it would be better written; both Mutant Message and Celestine Prophecy were among history’s most poorly written bestsellers. What they have in common with other badly written literary successes is a romping good adventure story. Morgan’s tale, first self-published as a true story, was later picked up by a major publisher as a novel, though Morgan continued to publicly declare it to be true. (Australians find Mutant Message outlandish and offensive.) In his interview, Redfield claimed he had first written a nonfiction account of personal experience, but found it so boring that he decided to rewrite it as a fictional adventure story.
Coelho makes no such claims. He has written a simple story with simple truths. It is structured as a young man’s quest to realize a gypsy’s interpretation of his recurring dream. She tells him to travel to Egypt, where he will find a great treasure. There’s a little Law of Attraction (the universe will provide what you deeply desire) and a nice dose of “follow your dream and the money (treasure) will follow.” He meets an alchemist who becomes his guru, advising that self-knowledge is the secret to a treasure more valuable than gold. Along the way, he meets others who contribute bits of wisdom—a good old-fashioned quest allegory.
When I finished the book, I was a little disappointed; there was nothing new here. As many spiritual-message books, I think the impact is determined by each individual’s life condition at the particular moment of reading. Young readers who find these ideas new and revelatory may find Coelho’s story a turning point in their lives; those who have heard it all before (and perhaps lived it, in whole or in part) may welcome the reminder of these basic truths. In the final analysis, for me, it’s a nice little book with a good message. NB: In placing Morgan and Redfield side by side, I do not mean to cast aspersions on Redfield, who has always been honest about his book (and subsequent books) being fiction. Morgan is a fraud. (November 1995 / July 2012)
Comick, Tamika, with Loretta Norris, Bandaged Wounds. Houston, TX: T.C. Publishing, 2013. Based on a true story, Bandaged Wounds is the engrossing tale of a family damaged by drug abuse, poverty, and incest. When sisters Tennille and Nadia last saw one another, they were both children. When Nadia and their eight other siblings left California for Texas with their drug-addicted parents, Tennille stayed behind and was adopted into a secure, loving family. Now, united fifteen years later, the two sisters spend a week remembering their past: the first few years of their lives with loving, attentive parents and the ensuing decay of their family as their parents, crumbling under the economic and emotional burden of raising a family of ten children, become drug addicts.
As Nadia and Tennille become reacquainted, two of their brothers, who have sunk into criminal life, die; their drug-addicted mother becomes pregnant (father unknown); and Nadia is faced with the challenge of mending her broken marriage. Their lives are a mixture of love and disappointment, success and failure, redemption and forgiveness.
Bandaged Wounds is a page-turner, despite its shortcomings—and they are legion. The language is stilted, awkward, amateurish, and liberally sprinkled with misused words and phrases. That the reader can even make it past the first page is testament to Loretta Norris's gift as a storyteller. And, unlike most beginning novelists, she seems to have a knack for writing dialog that is appropriate and interesting (though badly written). With these two major must-haves in her writing kit, Norris's future as a writer is promising. (October 2013)
Cooper, Philip, Cubism. London: Phaidon, 1995. Cubism was a phase in the development of perhaps every major artist contemporary to the periods immediately preceding and immediately following World War I. Picasso and Braque, working closely together in Paris between 1906 and 1908, are credited as the creators of this style. Cubism was the major step toward Abstractionist painting that came to dominate twentieth-century art, preceded only by Cézanne, whom Picasso credited as its inspiration. With 48 full-page color reproductions of important Cubist paintings with accompanying discussion, and an additional 36 illustrations in black and white, Cubism is a useful history and summary of Cubism and the artists who practiced it. (December 1996)
Cornell, Judith, Drawing the Light from Within: Keys to Awaken Your Creative Power. New York: Prentice Hall, 1990. Judith Cornell's well-structured course offers a satisfying combination of basics and exercises that serve to stimulate and encourage individual creativity. With a Ph.D. in art and philosophy, artist-writer-educator Cornell has combined her fields of interest in constructing an art study suitable for beginners, but with something to contribute also for those whose study of art may be more advanced. The book's exercises guide the student through the basics of composition, painting, drawing, and creating with color pencils. Cornell's aim, however, goes beyond teaching the basics of art. The structure of the exercises include meditation techniques designed to enhance creativity. Emphasis is placed on learning to use values from light to dark to create compositions that vibrate with light. (April 1995)
Crawford, Walt, The Librarian’s Guide to Micro Publishing: Helping Patrons and Communities Use Free and Low-Cost Publishing Tools to Tell Their Stories. Medford, NJ: Information Today, 2012. What a fantastic resource! The title should be Everyone’s Guide to Micro Publishing with Notes to Librarians. Walt Crawford gives step-by-step instructions for producing paperback and hardback books in small quantities—just one, if that’s all you need—at amazingly low prices (under $9 for a paperback, about $18 for a hardback, and $75 for a full-color coffee table book on luxury stock). Don’t laugh at that last one. I produced one of those books for a birthday gift. The price tag was $300!
Crawford’s primary tools are Microsoft Word and other commonly used programs. But if you don’t have these programs and you don’t want to buy them, he also includes instructions for using free software available on the Internet. A very valuable feature of the book is the detailed instructions for using Lulu and Amazon’s CreateSpace to produce your book-on-demand, including point-by-point comparisons of the two that will help you decide which of them is best for your project. (Did you know that Lulu and CreateSpace will take orders and send out books for you?) The advice for libraries that want to become community or academic publishers will hold for anyone who wants to become their own small press. Whether your aim is to produce a book of family stories or to test the market for your how-to book on underwater basketweaving, you will want this book. Not one useless word in it.
Unfortunately, the book is priced for libraries who will take advantage of its offer of copyright-free photocopying of certain chapters. Even at $49.50 (ouch!), I recommend it to the individual seeking to produce a few copies of a book (or at least one at a time, as needed). As well as great instructions, you get templates for producing a professional-looking book. P.S. Amazon shows the names of several booksellers that sell for about half the list price. (June 2012)
Cunxin, Li, Mao's Last Dancer. Camberwell, Victoria, Australia: Viking, 2003. From beginning to end, this is an engrossing read. The pace is gentle and pleasing in the opening chapters, where Cunxin relates the story of his childhood, when everything was in short supply except siblings, cousins, and familial love. Like any good nonfiction thriller, even though the outcome is already known, the suspense propels the reader rapidly from one page to the next during the telling of his detention in the Chinese Embassy in Houston. It's always a bit intriguing to peep into the life of someone who has hob-nobbed with the rich and famous, but Cunxin has much more than that to offer. Rich descriptions of Chairman Mao's China, both in the poorest sections of the remote countryside and in the relatively more affluent cities, put forth a glimpse into the lives of the people who lived inside a system that has long been a mystery to Western readers. Cunxin builds a bridge between the idealists who embraced the communism that was touted as the cure for hunger, injustice, and inequality and the people on the other side of the world who viewed the great experiment as a one-dimensional threat to democracy. He has successfully revealed the humanity on both sides. (June 2008)
Curle, Adam, Tools for Transformation: A Personal Study. Stroud, UK: Hawthorn Press, 1990. Adam Curle was a Quaker mediator for thirty years, a job that paid no salary, though his no-frills travel expenses were customarily covered by the parties requesting the mediation. Tools for Transformation is memoir only to the extent that his experiences serve as examples for his message: how to live a peaceful life—as an individual, a community, a nation. In his retirement, Curle has taken up the study of Buddhism, which he has usefully employed in his outline of constructive change that can transform our world into a less violent landscape. As the back cover states, he "blends the influences of contemporary depth psychology, modern physics, Buddhism and Quaker practice." This is a fine volume for nudging along personal growth, as well as an inspiring text for group discussion. (December 2007)
Cutler, Winnifred B., Hysterectomy: Before & After. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Cutler offers a readable, informative, and very comprehensive reference work, citing 1,000 scientific journal articles and based on the author's review of 3,000 articles that appeared in peer-reviewed journals. Cutler's work will stand up over time. As it ages, the reader may want to include more recent literature, but Cutler will find a place on the bookshelf for many years to come. (October 1994)
De Angeli, Marguerite, Thee, Hannah! Kingswood, Surrey, England: The World's Work, 1962. (Orig. pub. New York: Doubleday, 1940). The youngest of five children in a Philadelphia Quaker family just before the American Civil War, nine-year-old Hannah is impatient with the requirements of her Quaker faith. She longs to trade in her gray velvet bonnet for a gaily decorated one, such as that worn by her best friend, Cecily. As well she longs for Cecily's hooped skirts and gaily colored dresses. Her discontent with her lot in life as a Quaker gets her in a scrape or two, until she has an experience that causes her to see her Quaker limitations in a new light. Any child who has longed to "be like the others" will relate to Hannah's situation. De Angeli is a master at her craft as a children's author. No wonder this classic children's book has been in continuous print since its first publication in 1940. Nothing about the story betrays its age; it is truly a timeless tale. Children four and over will enjoy hearing the story, and the eight-to-eleven group will take pleasure in reading it to themselves. (May 2007)
De Hartog, Jan, The Peaceable Kingdom: The Children of the Light 1652-1653. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1972. This is the first in a series of novels fictionalizing the early history of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Written by Tony Award-winning playwright and bestselling novelist Jan de Hartog, this first volume begins the year George Fox, one of the founders of the Society (and often called the father of Quakerism), meets Margaret Fell, wife of the influential Judge Thomas Fell. It's all a matter of history: George Fox convinces Margaret Fell of the virtue in his way of interpreting the words of Jesus, and she immediately sets about walking the walk and talking the talk. In accordance with Fox's teachings, she makes the first steps towards erasing the social boundaries between mistress and servant and begins her work in English prisons—educating, clothing, and feeding imprisoned children, those imprisoned for their own sins and those imprisoned with their debtor parents.
De Hartog humanizes these historical characters. He allows Margaret Fell (who in real life married George Fox a few years after her husband's death) to develop a crush on the young Fox that could endanger her marriage. His characters have social lives, spiritual lives, political lives, and, most convincingly, love lives. De Hartog won his Tony for The Four Poster, a play about married life, and he was married three times, rearing two children in each of these marriages. Perhaps that is why he does such a convincing job of describing husband-wife interactions in a realistic way. In short, the author has brought musty historical characters to life, enhancing their saintliness with real-life humanity.
In a Historical Note at the end of the book, De Hartog fills in the events of the personal lives of these characters, as they unfolded in the years following the ending of his story, and the events during the ensuing one hundred years that led to William Penn's founding of his Quaker colony in America. As he interprets the facts of history, George Fox may have attracted followers with his charismatic sermons, but it was Margaret Fell who organized them into a religious and political movement. Without her, those early convinced to Fox's way of thinking would have disappeared into one of the many other groups who rebelled against the state church and the state during the period of the English Civil War. De Hartog's decision to have Margaret Fell as his main character and George Fox as a secondary character, who writes a few letters and drops in on rare occasions, is quite illustrative of this opinion. (April 2009)
Dé Ishtar, Zohl. Holding Yawulyu: White Culture and Black Women's Law. North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2005. Yawulyu is Women's Law. It is half of the Aboriginal Tao, the rules for living a proper life among the Indigenous peoples of Balgo, a small community in a remote region of the Great Sandy Desert of northern Western Australia. The other half of their Way would be, of course, Men's Law. For Indigenous Australians, anima and animus, male and female are not two energies that dwell in each individual, but two energies that dwell in the community, embodied in male and female bodies. The totality of their lives is lived in two separate and equal parallel communities, men's business and women's business, that meet in the conjugal bed and other specified rituals of community life.
Zohl dé Ishtar lived among the Senior Law Women of Balgo for two years. What began as a sociological research project, complete with tape recorders, notebooks, and a laptop, became a life-changing experience, during which dé Ishtar learned as much (if not more) about government bureaucracies, political expediency, and human greed as she did about the cultural life of Aboriginal women in Australia's Red Centre.
As a memoirist, dé Ishtar is a skilled and entertaining writer, casually drawing the reader into her daily life in a dusty, sunburned landscape. Her discoveries of self, a characteristic of the best writers in this genre, have the texture of honest revelation. "The biggest problem I confronted was, to my horror, my own racism," she writes. "It hides in the propensity of many well-meaning Whites to romanticise Indigenous culture." Most readers will be white; most readers will recognize themselves in dé Ishtar's insights into her own hidden bigotries. It becomes a relief to let go of romantic, manufactured guilt over having debilitated a mythical race of spiritual masters.
This does not mean that nothing has been lost, that white civilization has no blood on its hands, no guilty stain on its phallic towers of economic progress. What it means is that the noble savage is just another human being like you and I. It is our fellow being, our neighbor, our sister and brother who have been decimated in a futile effort to satisfy the modern addiction to bigger, better, and more. It was not genocide; it was fratricide.
Dé Ishtar was appointed as Culture Woman, taken into confidence, and allowed to participate in ritual. Much of what she learned will never be written or passed on at scientific meetings. In committing to the experience, she agreed to the secrecy that was integral to some of the traditional practices to which she was made privy. In becoming a part of their community—eating with them, sleeping with them, singing and dancing with them—she became a participant and a witness to their frustrations at being unable to gain the ear of governmental agencies whose duty it was to listen to their needs and respond.
The only thing more shocking than the history of government-sanctioned abuse was the useless, resource-draining bureaucracy that victimized Australia's Indigenous population, while existing only for its own benefit—making some rich and simply affording others a government job.
Holding Yawulyu, is a memoir, an important sociological and anthropological discourse on Australian Aboriginal women's business, a history of Kapululangu, the Women's Cultural Centre in Balgo, an historical account of the white government's changing Aboriginal policies, and Zohl dé Ishtar's doctoral dissertation. (March 2009)
de Lacey, Lynda, Australia's Greatest Inventions. Wollombi, NSW, Australia: Exisle Publishing, 2007. This is one of the twelve books that comprise Exisle's Little Red Book series of essays on Australian history. The author does a fine job of condensing a large body of information into less than a hundred pages, covering everything from mechanical devices to medical research to agricultural innovation, and on and on. There are some surprises for Americans (at least for this one), such as the pick-up truck (a ute in Australia), the use of penicillin as an antibiotic drug, commercial refrigeration and the feature film, to name a few. Trivia buffs would have a ball with this. (January 2010)
Delany, Sarah L. & A. Elizabeth Delany, with Amy Hill Hearth, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years. New York: Dell, 1994. (Original work published 1993). The second half of life for Sadie and Bessie Delany may well have begun when their mother died. That was when Sadie was 67 and Bessie, 65. Now 105 and 103, the Delany sisters are alive and well and living in their home in Mount Vernon, New York. From emancipation until the 1940s, educated Negroes were in such small numbers that they were all acquainted with one another. The sisters remember meeting George Washington Carver, W. E. B. DuBois, Adam Clayton Powell (Jr. and Sr.), Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and a continuing list of the famous and the educated among the nation's first four generations of freed Negroes. Good health has been Sadie's profession and hobby since graduating from Saint Augustine's School in Raleigh, North Carolina with a certificate to teach domestic science. Sadie eventually earned a Master's degree in Education, and Bessie became a dentist. The Delanys enjoyed everything that contributes to a good life (except wealth, which has no doubt come about as a result of the success of their book). The ten Delany children remained close throughout their lives and followed their parents' example of public service and living a dignified life. A rich spiritual life and living honestly and well seem to have contributed to the longevity of these remarkable women. (January 1995)
Department of Education, Western Australia & Edith Cowan University, Ways of Being, Ways of Talk. Perth, WA: Department of Education, Western Australia, 2002. This package contains four 15- to 20-minute videos and a 144-page book. The most valuable component is the background papers for each of the videos, which reveal a carefully researched and expertly written text on Aboriginal English, how it came into being and how it is used in contemporary Australian society. Anyone interested in linguistics, solutions to racism, the story of a people struggling to preserve their culture, imaginative and tested educational programs for multi-cultural public education, or any combination of these topics will find this package interesting, informative, and of immense practical use. To get the most from this package, I would recommend watching a video, reading its background paper, then watching it again. Whether you are a linguistic researcher, an educator, a participant in a multi-cultural community, or just an interested bystander, the text is cogent and engaging. A serious flaw is that the entire text is in 8- or 9-point, lightly leaded type against a beige background. Parts are in brown ink, which is even more difficult to read. The graphic presentation, including attractive art work, is stunning; the readability is atrocious. It is as if there was no expectation that anyone would want to read the excellent text. (January 2008)
Dexter, Fred, Nuts to Butts to Wiggle Worms. Houston: Inadvertent Press, 1994. Frederick Fenwick "Fred" Dexter Jr. (1906-1995) completed his master's degree in architecture in 1930, during the depths of the Great Depression. With no jobs available for a bright guy with a good education, Fred decided it was as good a time as any to tour the world and see all the architectural wonders he had studied in the classroom.
After hitchhiking from Houston to Galveston, Fred walked on board a ship and announced that he wanted to sign on as crew. He went from ship to ship, being tossed ashore, until he found a bos'n willing to take him on. With a combination of ship's crew employment and train travel, Fred made it around the world in a bit more than two years.
His ingenuity did not rest after marriage. After inventing the automatic pecan sheller and watching someone else reap the economic rewards, Fred made himself familiar with patent laws. Thereafter, all his inventions were patented before the world set eyes on them.
Watching his wife grapple with diaper-pinning on his three daughters, Fred invented what he called the B-29 diaper, the shape that disposable diapers adopted and continue to use today. He sold his diaper factories in the U.S. and Australia shortly before disposable diapers decimated the cloth diaper industry.
Fred Dexter wrote two books, both memoirs: Nuts to Butts to Wiggle Worms (1994) and Think It and You Can Do It (1992). He planned on self-publishing and printing a few thousand copies (the most economical run) in paperback. When his son-in-law told him he'd help him haul them in a wheel barrow to the City Dump, Fred decided he would just publish his stories the way he would like to see them, on fine paper in a beautiful hardback binding. There were about 50 copies of his first book, 30 or so copies of his second book, and 7 copies of a special edition with both books bound together. The first two were bound in black imitation leather. The special Aggie edition, intended for his fellow alumnae from Texas A & M University, was bound in red. Each book was numbered by hand and signed by Fred. Hopefully these delightful memoirs will one day find their way onto the Internet to be enjoyed by fans of the art of family history. (June 1994)
Doress-Worters, Paula B., & Diana Laskin Siegal (Eds.), The New Ourselves, Growing Older: Women Aging with Knowledge and Power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. One of the series of books on women's health sponsored by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, this is their first publication specifically targeted at older women. As has been their habit, the articles are well balanced and current, relating the latest in research and treatments. The obvious headline topics such as breast cancer, menopause, and heart disease are included, as well as more general topics, such as the excellent piece on genes and disease by Ruth Hubbard, co-author of Exploding the Gene Myth. This book and its companion, The New Our Bodies, Ourselves, are two very good places to start when looking at women's health issues. (February 1995)
Doughty, Louise, A Novel In A Year. London: Simon & Schuster, 2007. I have to admit that I made no attempt to write a novel in a year. I did once write a novel in 30 days during National Novel Writing Month at nanowrimo.org. It was a disaster. Here Doughty offers writing advice and writing exercises as well as a structured schedule for accomplishing the one-year goal. I enjoyed the read and harvested a lot of ideas for writing exercises for my own writing group. (March 2009)
Downing,Christine, Psyche's Sisters: ReImagining the Meaning of Sisterhood. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988. This is a pretty thorough survey of the information on female sibling relationships to be found in fairy tales, Greek myth, Sumerian and Egyptian myth, depth psychology, and contemporary and historical feminist psychology. It is liberating to read someone else's unabashedly personal search for the meaning of her relationship with her sister, not hesitating to criticize existing material based on her need to see it from the perspective of a late-life lesbian with five children and a younger sister with whom she has never had a satisfactory relationship. I, in turn, am critical of her narrow viewpoint, but applaud the prodigious effort in bringing together everything that could be found on sisterhood from sources that would yield archetypal images. It was illuminating to know that Freud was a firstborn and derived his theories from his personal process and that Adler was a secondborn and, likewise, developed his birth-order theories based on his personal experiences. I was bored throughout much of the Greek myth storytelling because it was more about talking about the stories than telling them—rather like someone telling about a movie. I never grasped the connection between sisterhood and death that Downing subscribes to and said that Freud subscribed to. The chapters on depth psychology and feminist psychology I found good reading, relying as they did on the experiences of real people, rather than archetypes. Being frozen in a very painful symbiosis with my own sister, I practiced transference during the first half of the book, knowing full well that I was reading the excuses of an elder sister. As I progressed through the pages and forgave Downing for her birth order, the information became more interesting. Downing proposed that she would show how her survey of sisterhood thought applied to the larger sisterhood of all women. She never quite succeeded in that effort, as her own very personal struggle permeated every page through the final entry. (November 1994)
Edwards, Betty, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1979. "The purpose of this book is not to teach you to express yourself, but instead to provide you with the skills which will release you from stereotypic expression," declares Edwards (20). Just as Updike taught me to look at a painting and see everything in it, Edwards taught me to look at what I sought to draw. Citing research on differences in right brain and left brain function, Edwards bases her teaching method on the premise "that developing a new way of seeing by tapping the spatial functions of the right hemisphere of your brain can help you learn to draw" (2). The exercises presented are designed to train the student to process visual information through the right brain, the side that sees things as they are, rather than the left brain, where human beings store symbols for what they see. The results of working with Edwards's exercises were surprising and satisfying for me. By following the book's instructions, reasonable, realistic representations of people and objects began to emerge from my pencil. (January 1997)
Eldredge, Charles C., Georgia O'Keeffe: American and Modern. Introd. Elizabeth Glassman and Raymond B. Kelly III. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1993. For me, there can never be too many books of Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings, arguably the most important of American artists. The present offering is the catalog for an international exhibition that was shown in England, Mexico, and Japan. From her first important showing at Alfred Steiglitz's 291 Gallery in New York in 1916, O'Keeffe has been recognized as uniquely American. In 1926, French painter Brancusi said of her work, "There is no imitation of Europe here; it is a force, a liberating free force" (qtd. in Eldredge 25). Eldredge offers an interesting, readable, brief biography of the artist and a thoughtful, coherent discussion of the paintings in the exhibit, most of which are reproduced as full-page color plates. (December 1996)
Esquivel, Laura, Translated by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen, Like Water for Chocolate. Moorebank, NSW, Australia: Black Swan, 1993. (Original Spanish-language edition published 1989; first English translation published 1993 in Great Britain as Like Water for Hot Chocolate.) I have been a worshipful fan of the film version of this story for so long that I struggle to discuss it without reference to its celluloid counterpart. The book is a faithful reproduction of the twelve-part magazine series, "a novel in monthly installments with recipes, romances and home remedies." Captivated by their mutual consuming passion, the story's main characters, Tita and Pedro, are prevented from marrying by a family tradition that binds the youngest daughter to a life of servitude to her mother. Esquivel mixes reality and fantasy, allowing real life to express in surreal episodes. Tita's neverending grief at being separated from Pedro becomes a crocheted bedspread that trails for miles; household tensions become a whirling chicken fight that bores into the earth until the chickens disappear. And for the reader, these are credible events, as credible as the human emotions that create them. Esquivel allows her characters just enough complexity to maintain interest, but not so much as to distract the reader with worries about who is wearing the white hat. The conclusion is as satisfying as the beginning is tantalizing. And in between, the story is nothing short of foreplay. Both book and film are revels in sensuality. In an era of explicit sexuality, Esquivel has proved again that suggestion is by far the more powerful seducer. The genius of the film is revealed in its astounding ability to visually translate Esquivel's rich imagery. It won't matter if you see the movie first or read the book first. But do partake of them both—and often. (August 2004)
Faber, Frederick William (Gilbert Kilpack, Ed.), Self-Deceit: A Comedy on Lies; a Way of Overcoming Them. Pendle Hill Pamphlet 50. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications, 1949. Frederick William Faber (1814-1863), best known as the author of "Faith of Our Fathers" and other hymns, was an Anglican vicar who converted to Catholicism and entered the priesthood. Through the medium of his Christian faith, Faber offers a timeless philosophy on the difficulty of self-knowledge and the search for truth. The subtitle, "A Comedy of Lies," is appropriate. Faber repeatedly makes his point with a hint of tongue-in-cheek. "An honest humorous sense of ridicule is a great help to holiness," he writes. "Perhaps nature does not contribute a greater help to grace than this."
"We must also remember that this cure of self-deceit is not a thing which can be done once for all, and then be over. It is a lifelong work," he warns. And cautions that we must "show extreme patience and good-humored contentment with little victories and modest successes." (December 2007)
Fénéon, Félix, Novels in Three Lines. New York Review Books, 2007. Fénéon was a brilliant French intellectual, an anarchist activist, a writer of considerable talent but no reputation to speak of, and a promoter of French painters, writers, and liberal thinkers. In 1906, Fénéon was employed by the French daily Le Matin. During that year, he wrote 1,220 fait-divers—"sundry events," short news items that occupied a very few newspaper columns. Fénéon's fait-divers were uniquely and cleverly written, coming to be known as "novels in three lines." This collection of all but 154 of his fait-divers is pure fun and a bit of literary genius. (December 2012)
Filardi, Christine M., and Wayne Geltman, Home Cooking for Your Dog: 75 Holistic Recipes for a Healthier Dog. New York: Abrams. This is a very practical and well written cookbook for those of us who are seeking a more natural diet for our dogs. After years of an expensive prescription food, my beloved pooch has been diagnosed with chronic hepatitis of unknown origin. My immediate thought was to try to track down toxins, and in the process, I discovered documented claims that commercial pet foods (regardless of their price or claims of nutritional superiority) may very well be the "unknown origin." Filardi and Geltman have done a fine job of providing basic nutritional information and more recipes for my Mollie's meals than I'm ever likely to try. At the top of my list are the cookie treats and chew snacks made from sweet potato. Home Cooking for Your Dog, along with Filardi's and Geltman's cookbook, along with Solisti-Mattelon's and Mattelon's The Holistic Animal Handbook are my new guiding lights, along with a friend who has ventured into these holistic waters with considerable success. Not unlike human medical schools, it seems that veterinary schools do not teach nutrition, and many veterinarians do not hesitate to refer their problem cases to people such as veterinary nurtitionist Kate Solisti-Mattelon. No doubt that saves them from having to personally direct pet owners away from the commercial pet foods on display in their clinics. (August 2017)
Fisher, M. F. K., Sister Age. Boston: Little Brown, 1993. Fisher is exploring aging, not from the standpoint of one who is facing it, but from the view of a woman in her 70s. This collection of stories is a mix of fact and fiction, short stories and short essays from her personal experience. Having read about but not having read any of Fisher's previous books, I looked forward to this reading. Her original metaphors tickle my writer's fancy: "her firm, rounded old face as impassive as a postcard of Krishna" and "as untroubled as a dot of plankton." In 1936 in Zurich Fisher bought an old oil painting of a woman she dubbed Sister Age. "I was going to write about growing old. . . . I was going to learn from the picture. . . . I planned to think and study about the art of aging for several years, and then tell how to learn and practice it." This volume, written when she was in her 70s, is the only effort she ever made to fulfill that ambition. She makes no direct statement about aging except in her Afterword, and there the valiantly borne disappointment is clearly stated: "Our housing is to blame," she said from her loneliness and separation from her children and grandchildren, blaming high-rises, cost of large homes, and the socioeconomic events that caused these phenomena for old people living alone, not being touched, not basking in the daily light of children's smiles. Fisher's stories delight and baffle from time to time, and her view of old age as a lonely time when one has to halfheartedly figure out what to do with one's time and search for ways to spend one's resources travel from page to lonely page. It was rather like a black comedy without a punch line. (August 1995)
Fitch, Noël Riley, Anaïs: The Erotic Life of Anaïs Nin. Boston: Little Brown, 1993. A scholarly biography need not be boring, and one written of the life of Ana$#235;s Nin cannot be. Fitch's work is creditably balanced in an attempt to sort fact from fiction in Nin's writings. Though some consider her a pathological liar, Nin considered herself simply the creator of her own life. Her Diaries, the most widely known of her writings, suffered, some believe, from her extensive editing. Though Nin claimed the editing was for the purpose of protecting the many players in her life, there is evidence that much of it was simply so that she could be remembered as she wished to be. Sculptor Isamu Noguchi was among her New York circle of friends. Writer Henry Miller, who turned to painting as his sole means of artistic expression in his later years, was her lover in youth and dear friend in age. These were only two among perhaps hundreds of important figures of her time in literature, art, and psychotherapy, whom she counted as friends and acquaintances and who give a broad appeal to a study of her life. Artists, writers, and those in the various fields of psychology and psychiatry can be informed by the way she lived her life and the people she drew into it. (March 1996)
Forsyth, Kate, Dragonclaw: Book One of The Witches of Eileanan. Sydney: Random House Australia, 1997. Forsyth's characters are well drawn and the stage is well set for a battle between good and evil in a land where the king has been tricked into banishing or executing the witches who had always been a force for good in his kingdom. Forsyth's mythical creatures are interesting and believable. I am not a fan of fantasy sci fi (though I admit my addiction to Marian Zimmer Bradley and Harry Potter), but I was nonetheless drawn into this classical tale of intrigue, deception, abusive power, and unlikely allies created by a common danger. Forsyth is, quite simply, a very good writer. Dragonclaw: Book One is not a stand-alone novel, however. The ending was as jarring as if it had ended in the middle of a sentence. In other words, it was no ending at all. I am unwilling to seek out the other books in this series (because I have so many books already waiting on my bookshelf), but I do not hesitate to recommend it to anyone who loves a good dragon tale. (February 2005)
Frank, Judith, All I Love and Know. William Morrow Paperbacks, reprint edition, 2015. Daniel Rosen and Matthew Greene have settled into the life of a thirty-something couple living in a comfortable New England suburb, where many of the parents of the children attending the local school are lesbian couples and a few are gay men. Their lives are similar to those of straight couples in similar circumstances: Daniel's mother Lydia, even after four years, continues to wish her Jewish son had never taken up with this new goyfriend. She has fond and approving memories of his previous relationship, who was not quite so tall, not quite so handsome, not quite so . . . goy. It had been difficult enough to accept Daniel's "gayness," his sharp contrast to his twin brother Joel—an important journalist in Israel, more manly, more ebullient, and with his Jewish wife Ilana, a provider of two grandchildren.
All these judgments and worries are made small by an unimagined disaster: Joel and his wife Ilana are victims of a suicide bombing, making orphans of their eight-year-old daughter Gal and one-year-old son Noam. Two sets of grandparents, each having just lost a child, soon have another shock when the wills are read and they learn that Joel and Ilana have designated Joel's gay twin, Daniel, to be the children's guardian. It was not such a great surprise for Daniel or Matthew. Joel and Ilana had discussed it with Daniel before executing their wills, and Daniel had discussed it with Matthew. At the time, there was no apprehension on Matthew's part; he loved Daniel. But that was before the romantic notion became tragic fact. The grandparents who had been preparing for a cautiously friendly conversation about which of them would be best suited to care for the children are confronted with a new, unanticipated reality. Joel's parents struggle to make peace with the fact; Ilana's parents hire a lawyer.
Author Judith Frank does a creditable job of presenting the difficulties faced by a couple learning to parent two grieving children, as they push against the walls of their childless lives to make room. Each in their own way meet the challenges. Daniel negotiates the legal snares of a will that is subject to the laws of two countries, while balancing parenting with work and visits from a social worker whose job it is to judge his right to maintain custody—all shadowed by the fear of society's prejudicial preference for families headed by a married straight couple.
While Matthew is sidelined during these struggles that are Daniel's alone, he and the children create strong bonds as he makes lunches, ferries them to school and childcare, and becomes Gal's go-to parent for sharing her insecurities about a new school, the shift from Hebrew to English, and missing her old school pals in Israel. Not surprisingly, Matthew and Daniel are slowly losing touch with one another, until their relationship seems held together only by a memory thread of the love that once bound them. And everything in Matthew's life is in Daniel's name—the children, the house . . . and Daniel.
Frank's narrative is historically anchored in the events and attitudes of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It opens with a Palestinian suicide bomber delivering his death load in an Israeli coffee shop and culminates in a civil-rights-triumph celebration as Massachusetts begins issuing its first marriage licenses to gay citizens. In between, we hear the hectic story of Israel, a new country established on the heels of World War II to create a home for Europe's Jewish refugees. As many of Israel's young people set their sights on building a strong Jewish homeland, forgetful or ignorant of the Palestinian sacrifices to make way for the sudden post-war influx of foreigners, the original post-war settlers—survivors of Hitler's death camps—feel shamed and forgotten. Or so believes Frank's character Malka, the Israeli grandmother of the orphaned children. Malka is herself a survivor of the Nazi death camps and suffers periodic disabling PTSD attacks. The young, she claims, are loath to associate themselves with the age-old Jewish identity with victimhood. They have new Jewish heroes: the young Israeli soldiers who forfeit their lives in the continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict—a sibling rivalry reminiscent of the long conflict in Ireland. "We are everything they don't want to be," Malka says. "Victims. Weaklings."
It's not the picture of Israel that has been often presented in America, nor likely the picture imagined by the original post-war settlers. It is a view of a typically ambitious government, an ancient pattern: the Israelis clearing out Palestinians the way the British cleared out the native populations of Australia and Tierra del Fuego, the way European immigrants and their descendants cleared out Native Americans, as if toppling trees to make way for farms. And all the while the new generation of settlers in a new country live pleasant lives separated only a few miles or kilometers from the living hell of those they have displaced.
The characters and events are not children of Judith Frank's imagination. Much in All I Love and Know comes from a place deep within her personal experience. Five years after her father's depression-induced suicide, her mother plucked the family from their Chicago roots and moved with her son and twin daughters to Israel. Frank's own experience of mourning the death of a parent—followed by suffering culture shock and language blindness in a foreign country—are evident in her character Gal. It was not until graduate school in the U.S., though, that Frank met her first gay person and finally named that elusive something about herself that was so different from her twin: she was a lesbian. Like her character Daniel, she has a straight twin who lives in Israel and is married to an Israeli.
Though her sister remained in Israel, both her brother and mother eventually returned to the U.S. Back in Chicago, Frank's mother became friends with a young activist rabbi who had taken up the cause of justice for Palestinians. In Israel, so involved in her career as a social worker and expert in early childhood development, she simply had not noticed the condition of the Palestinians and knew little about the history of their plight. In 2010, though restricted to a wheel chair, she traveled with a group of American Jews to meet with Palestinian activists, staying in the homes of refugee families in Palestinian refugee camps. Frank describes her mother's changed view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a late-life "seachange" in attitude.
Frank is committed to authoring literature for the gay community. She resisted when her publisher first suggested that she seek a wider readership. But, she says, her partner kept pushing her to write for a straight audience: "Aunt Anne in Kansas City"—"straight, well educated and open minded"—not the usual reader of gay books. We owe a debt of literary gratitude to Judith Frank's partner, and her agent and publisher, for their parts in placing this beautiful story in the hands of a readership that extends into and beyond the LGBT community. If the story had been written by a straight author, perhaps I could say that a major theme of the novel is that gay people suffer the same relationship challenges as straight, that gay parents suffer all the same challenges as straight parents. While that is true, it's more a fact than a theme—the way Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is a girl or Tom Sawyer is a boy. It's not about the gender, it's about the journey.
Some reviewers have accused Frank of tackling too much: coming out, AIDS fear, gay marriage and parenthood, children dealing with parents' death, the unique relationship of twins when one is gay and the other straight, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the continuing problems of Holocaust survivors and the people who live with them. Any one of these diverse threads would easily serve as the focus in a meaty piece of fiction, yet interwoven, they are indicative of the way people live. We each have unique circumstances (both physically and socially rooted) that become a part of who we are and how we live, one thing being the focus today, another more important the next. It is not for nothing that we often describe truth to be stranger than fiction. Rather than choosing a simplified, single focus, Frank has courageously crafted lives of true-life complexity for her characters.
All I Love and Know is a timeless story of families shattered by sudden death and the heavy toll grief can wreak on a loving relationship. Judith Frank is a fine writer who gives us much to know and love . . . unless you'd rather hate, and there's material aplenty for those with that inclination: a Jewish lesbian who supports gay marriage and justice for Palestinian civilians. Now that's placing yourself next to a pile of rocks surrounded by people with a ready hand to throw. (August 2015)
Friedan, Betty, The Fountain of Age. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1993. If book sales are any indication, this last of Betty Friedan's books has not had as great an impact as her Feminine Mystique. That is a shame. This volume is far more thoughtful and packed with far more information and insight. Perhaps it just isn't time for the aging revolution. Or perhaps, between those too young to connect and the aging population in denial, there just aren't enough people to listen. This is a superb discussion of issues, problems, and solutions. (February 1995)
Fry, A. Ruth, John Bellers 1654-1725: Quaker, Economist and Social Reformer. London, Toronto, Melbourne and Sydney: Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1935. Having learned that Quaker businessmen have thrived over the past four centuries, presumably because of their reputations for fairness, I was drawn to read about an early Quaker who is known as an economist and social reformer. Though Italian Jurist Cesare Bonessano de Beccaria (1738-1794) has been attributed with the idea of abolishing the death penalty, his 1764 essay was published nearly forty years after the death of John Bellers, who worked throughout his lifetime to convince the British parliament that the death penalty was inhumane and ineffective. Himself a gentleman of property and inherited wealth, Bellers believed that, rather than "level down" the wealthy, society should "level up" the poor. He worked throughout his life to institute programs that would educate the poor and give them skills to earn a decent living. Among his other ideas was "a European Senate to keep the peace." Bellers did not claim that this early description of a United Nations organization was original to him. He refers to King Henry IV, who proposed a European union in 1620. (January 2007)
Furlong, Monica, Flight of the Kingfisher: A Journey Among the Kukatja Aborigines. London: Flamingo, 1997. Monica Furlong has done an exceptional job of accurately describing the people and conditions in Balgo (Wirrumanu), Australia’s most remote Aboriginal community. For the last four years that I lived in Australia, I was privileged to have been counted among the friends of Margaret Bumblebee (Yintjurra Naparula), Senior Law Woman (Elder) and noted artist. We communicated as one grandmother to another, neither of us having an easy time of understanding the other. And she gave me my name, Yurrungarli Nangala, “my mother’s mother, the youngest one,” she said. With other kartiya (white women), in 2009 I was invited to participate in Law Camp, dancing with, eating with, and listening to the stories told by Balgo’s women Elders.
Furlong has taken me one step further. In retrospect, she has enriched my experience with her careful research and reporting about the culture and spiritual beliefs of the indigenous Australians who have chosen to live isolated from white Australia’s cities and towns. She has answered for me questions I didn’t know to ask, as well as filling in so many of the gaps in my knowledge.
There are other books, but I doubt any of them are a match for Furlong’s Flight of the Kingfisher for accuracy and a sincere effort to compassionately understand these people who belong to the land where their ancestors have lived for 60,000 years or more. With her easygoing, straightforward prose and skills of a professional writer of the first order, I feel the heat of the summer sun, the taste of the red dirt stirred by a whiff of wind, the sound of the women laughing as they greet one another in a native tongue or the Aboriginal English they use to communicate with other language groups. Furlong has brought all this to life, offering me the opportunity to return for a visit any time I wish. (December 2012)
García Márquez, Gabriel, The General in His Labyrinth. London: Penguin, 1991. (Orig. pub. in Spanish, 1989; English, 1990). I didn't bother to read the back-cover blurb before I started reading, and I didn't know until I completed the book that I had just read a fictional account of the last days of Simón Bolivar, "the extraordinary general who pushed the Spanish out of South America and whose dream of independence made him a hero in five countries." This is not simply historical fiction. García Márquez studied the facts and carefully included them as he re-imagined the thoughts, conversations, and everyday events in the life of one of history's most dedicated and ambitious idealists. Bolivar's dream of a united South America was never realized. Yet, with the move towards union reflected in the European Union, that has evolved since the fall of the Soviet Union (the only country in modern times to challenge the United States's position as the world's most influential power), it is not beyond imagining that his vision might yet come true. García Márquez is a masterful writer, a painter of word pictures that bring his story to life. History or fiction, The General in His Labyrinth is reading pleasure. (January 2009)
Gassier, Pierre, Juliet Wilson, & François Lachenal, Goya: Life and Work. 1971. Pref. Enrique Lafuente Ferrari. Cologne: Benedikt Taschen, 1994. This oversized volume represents a prodigious effort, requiring years of research and the help of museums, collectors, historians, historical and literary experts, art dealers, and auctioneers from throughout the world. In its 400 pages, there are 48 color plates, 200 black-and-white reproductions, and 1,900 catalog illustrations, representing the entire known artistic output of Francisco Goya (1748-1828). Goya was a technically competent painter who emerged as a master after losing his hearing in a near-death illness at the age of 47. The authors describe him as "a 'quantic' artist: one who advances by sudden leaps rather than through the steady evolution of his artistic gifts" (10-11). Coming to artistic maturity in a Spain that celebrated mediocrity in art, "Goya had had no influence either on his period or on his immediate successors" (225). The major portion of his body of work is in drawings and etchings, which form a damning social commentary on the times in which he lived, a time of bloody wars, Napoleonic occupation, and the Spanish Inquisition. It is rare to have the opportunity to view an artist's entire works in one volume, and it is well worth the effort to carefully examine each of the small (approximately 1½"x2") catalog illustrations. (February 1997)
Gemmell, Nikki, Why You Are Australian: A Letter to My Children. Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2009. I tell the folks in my creative writing group to write the stories of their lives as if they are writing a letter to someone. That's what Nikki Gemmell does in this memoir. The title is from the fact, she says, that she chose Australian citizenship for her children rather than British, even though they were born in London. (I won't go into my questions about why they aren't dual citizens.) This is a love song to Gemmell's Australian childhood, a time of sun, surf, bare feet, and an Australia remote from the rest of Anglo civilization. This is a lovely book that my Australian daughter-in-law enjoyed very much. I was less enchanted, but it's such a quick read, I'd recommend it to anyone who hankers to get a feel for Australian home life. (April 2010)
Gibran, Kahlil, Twenty Drawings. 1919. Introd. Alice Raphael. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1974. Raphael's beautifully written introduction to this collection of twenty of Gibran's drawings offers insight and history on the spiritual in art and reflects her participation in a circle of artists who celebrated the dawning of a new century with the creation of modern art. Hers is a worthwhile addition to the drawings that could have easily stood on their own. She calls the viewer's attention to the sculptural qualities of Gibran's work: "in sculpture there are no accessories of background, no gradations of color values to attract the eye and deflect the mind from thought" (10). Rodin and Gibran were good friends at the time these drawings were executed, and many of them have the appearance of a study for sculpture. Rodin called Gibran's drawings poetry, and the viewer can but agree. The direction of the plates is inconsistent, so that one has to search the drawing for the artist's signature to make certain of the intended direction. Yet in these cases, it is clear the drawing can be viewed from two or more directions, as if viewing an abstract work where assigning any side as top seems to hold as much virtue as assigning another. In some drawings, there are pencil lines of figures, seemingly abandoned in the process of composition, and their presence only increases the depth of emotion contained in the finished drawing. Rodin's assessment is embraced by the viewer: Gibran's drawings are indeed poetry for the eyes. (November 1996)
Gillman, Harvey, Consider the Blackbird: Reflections on Spirituality and Language. London: Quaker Books, 2007. Consider the Blackbird is a masterful blend of philosophy, history, and personal memoir—both thoughtful personal story and careful academic treatise. In a very few pages, Gillman delivers a satisfying discussion of topics that have each been the subject of much larger books, including a short introduction to post-modernism, the problems in defining and redefining God, and a surprisingly fresh look at God and science. He recounts how the G word has been replaced with Spirit or Life (among others) and expands the definition of neighbor to include all humankind. With ease, Gillman moves smoothly from the personal to the universal and back again. (April 2008)
Gilpin, Mariellen, Ed., Discovering God as Companion. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2007. In 1994, a group of American Quakers began publishing a quarterly newsletter that they named What Canst Thou Say? Everyone associated with the publication—writers, editors, and publisher—were, and continue to be, volunteers. Each of them had a personal mystical experience that demanded telling, and they sought out others who, too, had revelatory stories to share.
In celebration of their tenth anniversary, the group Published God as Companion, a collection of 65 stories and poems that were previously published in the newsletter. The writers give their experiences of turning to God, discovering God, rediscovering God, and even being discovered by God. These true tales represent our most joyful moments —moments of discovery, moments of epiphany, moments of profound gratitude or grateful relief. Demaris Wehr offers the perfect prayer: a heartfelt, deeply sincere "Dear God, help me." Rita Varley shares her experience of feeling a connection build as she prays for a stranger. Marti Matthews joyously relates her discovery of flossing as a spiritual practice.
Those among us who are tender and weepy by nature, or transiting through one of those times in life when tears and sympathy are easily aroused, will find adequate cause to exercise those delicate emotions. Allison Randall, a survivor of sexual abuse, tells us that a little wooden angel, with a knothole where the heart would be, reminds her that she "might still be of use to God." A grown daughter remembers her horribly abusive childhood at the hands of her mother, who now lies dying, and heals them both as she is guided to hold her mother and croon her into the arms of God. Your heartstrings are not wantonly jerked. Each of these writers relates an experience of Spirit that left them stronger and more whole.
Discovering God as Companion is a devotional, a hymnal, a spiritual memoir, a reminder of the mystical presence of God in the lives of people we know. Read it and be inspired, be comforted, experience goodness, experience God, the Spirit, Oneness, the Force, Universal Energy—Love. Feel supported in your own mystical experiences; be inspired to share them. (September 2008)
Gilpin, Mariellen, Earl Smith, and Judy Lump, Eds., Intimacy with God: Real Life Stories from What Canst Thou Say? Caye Caulker, Belize: Producciones de la Hamaca, 2015. Intimacy with God is an anthology of stories previously published in the online Quaker newsletter What Canst Thou Say? in celebration of its second decade of sharing the stories and poems of those who have had mystical experiences. Just as the first anthology, Discovering God as Companion, this collection easily lends itself to use as a devotional. It is difficult to read through page after page without pausing to reflect . . . and often to re-read. Each contribution appears as a small morsel, but each is a full meal that needs to be digested. At any moment you may unwittingly stumble upon a trigger that releases a thought or concern that you have been carrying. These are stories that speak to anyone who has felt the presence of the Divine. (October 2015)
Glenmullen, Joseph, Prozac Backlash. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. (Orig. pub. 2000). Glenmullen responds spiritedly and sometimes angrily to the popularity of Peter Kramer's Listening to Prozac, which Glenmullen describes as an endorsement of Prozac as a safe, effective treatment for mild depressive illness, as well as a helpful cure for shyness and nail biting. After carefully reading Kramer, I think that Glenmullen's judgment is a bit harsh and overstated; however, he has done a fine job of researching and presenting the serious side effects of antidepressant drugs, as well as presenting evidence of the effective use of non-drug therapies.
The list of side effects is nothing to sniff at: possible neurological disorders (whole-body tics, permanent in up to fifty percent of users), withdrawal symptoms in fifty percent of users, sexual dysfunction in sixty percent of users, dependence, chemical lobotomy (destruction of nerve endings), return of symptoms while still taking the drug in thirty-four percent of users, and precipitated suicidal & violent behavior in some users. The most startling aspect of these symptoms is that they were not included in the literature given to doctors by drug companies and that most patients were never given the option of an informed decision. Glenmullen points out that some doctors will add more drugs to a patient's regimen to suppress side effects, rather than discontinuing or lowering the doseage of the offending medication.
I recall my sister being given Prozac as an antidote to "teacher burnout." When she reported to her psychologist that she had been suffering delusions (people banging on her windows and walking around in her attic), she was given a prescription for a higher doseage. Instead of filling the prescription, she stopped the medication on her own and sought ways to moderate stress.
Despite my own inclination to condemn use of anti-depressants, I admit that some people's lives have been saved by their use. The problem is not the use of these drugs, but the overuse of them. Drug manufacturers have misrepresented effectiveness and side effects in order to sell more drugs. Glenmullen points out how psychiatrists began to network and share experiences with one another to determine the proper use of these drugs. Long after psychiatric journals began publishing the experiences of psychiatrists and their patients, drug companies continued their denial, and family practice doctors continued to prescribe these drugs based on the information provided to them by drug manufacturers. The drugs were marketed directly to HMOs with the promise that their one-dose-fits-all safety was a way for HMOs to eliminate the need for the more expensive psychiatric treatments.
The fact that just about everyone has a personal story to tell of themselves or friends or family members who have used antidepressants, testifies to the enormously widespread use of a family of drugs whose long-term effects are still not completely understood. Reader reviews of both Prozac Backlash and Listening to Prozac on Amazon.com are a littany of such experiences. (June 2003)
Goldberg, Natalie, Writing Down the Bones. Boston & London: Shambhala, 1986. I wred this for the second time as I prepared for my first experience as facilitator for a writing class. In the process, I became aware that no better guide for a new writing group exists. Her advice is timeless. At each turn of a page I was reminded why this little volume has never been out of print since its 1986 publication. With frequent reference to her experiences as a student of Zen, Goldberg writes a little about her process as a writer and a teacher of writing and a lot about creative exercises to awaken the muse. She compares the daily practice of writing to the daily practice of running, something that you do whether you feel like it or not. If you practice as Goldberg instructs, you will, over time, develop your own writing rituals. In the meantime, Goldberg's instruction and exercises will grease the wheels, clear the cogs, and seduce the imagination to yield its naked creativity. (April 2001)
Gonzalez-Crussi, F., Three Forms of Sudden Death: And Other Reflections on the Grandeur and Misery of the Body. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. This is the second collection of essays by this physician-writer that I have read. Lewis Thomas, another physician, is still my favorite essayist; yet Gonzalez-Crussi is a good writer by any measure, and equally as entertaining, insightful, and informative. In the final analysis, I suppose, both of them qualify for that sparsely populated category of brilliant writers who both write with rare elegance and contribute mightily to good thinking. The collection's title is taken from the title of one of the essays, in which we learn that the chief function of the Chief Medical Examiner is to investigate "unnatural death," which must be categorized into one of only three possibilities: suicide, homicide, or accident. We are told of a case of three vagrants found dead in the New York City subway system, each with a carbonized penis. The Medical Examiner concluded that the three, who had been drinking together, had lined up at the edge of the platform to urinate. As the salt-laden liquid hit the track, the electricity that moves the subway went upstream in the urine to obliterate three penises and electrocute their owners. Thus is the first form of sudden death, by lightning or other electrocution. The second is asphyxiation. With our breathing dependent totally on a clear windpipe, Gonzalez-Crussi reminds us, "an olive, a cherry, or a small pebble may kill us." He takes us through the dangers of choking and sleep apnea before moving on to the third form of sudden death, "unknown causes." While Three Forms of Sudden Death is a catchy title, it is not the most entertaining nor the most informative of the ten essays. We are treated to a scientific discussion of cannibalism, complete with a consideration of ritual cannibalism versus nutritional cannibalism. In another essay, he proposes a modern version of alchemy: "the transmutation of excrement into certificates of deposit." Even in jest, his philosophical reflections hold the ring of truth. I opened this volume with expectations of being as entertained with humor and medical fact as I was with his On the Nature of Things Erotic, and I was not disappointed. (December 2006)
Gonzalez-Crussi, On the Nature of Things Erotic. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. Gonzalez-Crussi writes beautifully and imparts knowledge with wit and charm. The list of essay titles just about says everything that needs to be said about the content: Eros Ambiguous, or the Obscure Object of Desire; On Male Jealousy; The Remedies of Love; The Divine Marquis; Some Views on Women, Past and Present; The Conditions for Seduction, According to an Old Chinese Text; Views on the Erotic; On Secrecy in Love. (June 2004)
Gordon, Elizabeth F. Walk With Us: Triplet Boys, Their Teen Parents, & Two White Women Who Tagged Along. Roselle, NJ: Crandall, Dostie & Douglass, 2007. For anyone who wants to understand cultural differences, who wants to understand the roots of poverty, ignorance and bigotry, Elizabeth Gordon has given us a window into that world. She shares her acquired wisdom (and continuing feeling of insufficiency) with palpable honesty and elegant metaphor. She sees second graders "whirled away like leaves in a gust to decorate the playground with their happy cries." She describes her young charge as "caught by accident under the bell jar of her misery" and, later, as "a nail head under the hammer of minimum wage." She is a writer who thinks visually and paints with her pen.
The blurb on the back cover of Walk With Us and the subtitle, Triplet Boys, Their Teen Parents, & Two White Women Who Tagged Along, did not prepare me for the world in which Elizabeth Gordon immersed me. For nearly 50 pages, I colored my comprehension with the hidden impression that I was reading the story of a couple of middle-class do-gooders who were proving that homosexuals can be as socially conscious as heterosexuals (a credit to their gender, my inner bigot whispered), while happily bringing ghetto-living have-nots into the illuminated world of haves.
And then the raw reality of it finally penetrated my shield of self-congratulatory liberal smugness. The gender of two privileged whites is beside the point, though perhaps their backgrounds are not. They represent two classic caricatures of white society—the middle-class, well-fed American from a prosperous family and the working-class, first-in-the-family-to-have-a-college-degree American from a stretched-thin family plagued with alcoholism and abuse.
Elizabeth and her partner Kaki plunge themselves into a culture about which they know nothing. This is not a simple tale. It is not the story of someone given the gift of enough to eat or a college education and living happily ever after.
Tahija is fifteen years old, pregnant with triplets, drifting from one relative's home to the next while her mother completes a stay in drug rehab. Her friends and relatives live in subsidized housing, where someone can be evicted by having a guest who stays longer than a few days. Enter Elizabeth and Kaki, who create a safe haven for Tahija, including a room of her own, a nursery for the babies and a healthy, balanced diet. It is Tahija's seventeen-year-old boyfriend, Lamarr (father of her babies), who makes the connection through Kaki, whom he met while attending an AVP (Alternatives to Violence Project) workshop that she was leading.
In the course of their association with the young black couple, Elizabeth and Kaki get a first-hand appreciation of a world where people expect to spend more time standing in queue for services than receiving services, where people expect to be treated with bored disregard, where people expect to be defined by what they don't have and can't do. Like most family groups bound together by mutual need and caring, the serendipitous family of two middle-aged white women, two black teenagers and three growing babies explodes into pieces of hurt and misunderstanding, suffers the pain of humility learned, then reassembles in a form more supportive of the people they have become through the experience. Gordon quotes Hannah Arendt: "The only power we can have over the past is forgiveness."
One of the themes that color this narrative is that long-term racism does not remain one-sided, but bifurcates into a two-way mistrust, creating a balance that erects a wall between human beings. These seven people lay themselves bare to show us how this works and point us in a better direction. I had expected a story about the difficulties of being lesbian and the problems of cultural differences. I was blind-sided by a story of love and hope and excruciating, debilitating racism. Elizabeth Gordon has produced a classic work about the personal face of racism. It should be required reading in every secondary and tertiary classroom that touches on the subject. The website for the book is http://www.walkwithus.info (December 2007)
Gover, Robert, One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding. New York: Grove Press, 1980. (Orig. pub. 1962). I read One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding in the 1960s and thought it enormously funny and daring. My present reading reminds me of my re-reading, in my forties, of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye . . . and wondering why I ever thought it was so great, except maybe because I was eighteen the first time. I’m not sure why one of these reminds me of the other. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield most likely came from a richer family, was brighter and more maladjusted, and would never have done anything so social as join a fraternity. Gover’s James Cartwright Holland (Jimmy) is one-dimensional by comparison. So maybe all they have in common is being white male teenagers. (I’m beginning to like the idea of Holden Caulfield meeting up with Kitten. But that would be another book.)
Gover’s Kitten is a fourteen-year-old black prostitute, just entering her adolescence in a world that demands she mature at rocket speed. Nineteen-year-old Jimmy, on the verge of exiting adolescence, is cradled in the amniotic fluid of his college fraternity, where practicing for manhood means drinking hard and trying to get laid. Jimmy is part straight man, part buffoon; he is smug, self-righteous, judgmental. His depth can be measured by a one-ml eye dropper. He is the stereotypical overprivileged, shallow, arrogant white European male, the archetypal WASP.
Gover’s sympathetic portrayal of the young, black prostitute contrasts with his slightly jaundiced depiction of a white, middle-class college sophomore. Despite the imbalance (or maybe because of it), the literary device of giving each character alternating chapters to describe their personal view of the action is what creates the comedy. And it is funny. The one hundred dollar misunderstanding comes about when Jimmy, who thinks pounding faster and harder is the way to wowing his sexual partners, believes that Kitten has taken a shine to him, that his manly talent has captured the fancy (maybe even the heart) of a “professional.”
The first time I read it, it was hilarious. This go-round it’s just funny and an interesting product of its time in history. The difference is likely my greater distance in age from Jimmie and Kitten, as well as changes in society. Although, if what one of my male friends says is true, it is still the goal of many a lothario to get free sex from a prostitute who finds him too good to resist. (January 2013)
Greer, Germaine, The Change: Women, Aging and the Menopause. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. No stone is left unturned. Greer found something to say about the medicalization of menopause that was not in other books. What is considered state of the art in Britain, France, Australia, and the United States is somewhat different from country to country. Drugs and treatments available in one country are unavailable in others. The pet drug in each country is one produced by a drug company headquartered in that country. The United States, of course, comes out as champion in the medicalization of menopause. Greer did not hesitate to put forth her pet theories in the midst of statistics and reports of double-blind studies. She is very much present in her writing, and the book greatly benefits. Greer believes the second half of life is about becoming spiritual, and the second half of her book is her testimonial of her midlife passage, liberally sprinkled with testimonials from diaries and novels dating back to the 1700s. The reader experiences her passage, from the first chapters with her feminism in full view as she lambasts the medicalization of menopause to the final chapters when she describes her joy on being on the other side of fifty: "Before, I felt less on greater provocation; I lay in the arms of young men who loved me and felt less bliss than I do now. What I felt then was hope, fear, jealousy, desire, passion, a mixture of real pain, and real and fake pleasure, a mash of conflicting feelings, anything but this deep still joy. I needed my lovers too much to experience much joy in our travailed relationships. I was too much at their mercy to feel much in the way of tenderness; I can feel as much in a tiny compass now when I see a butterfly still damp and crinkled from the chrysalis taking a first flutter among the brambles." For those among us who approach our climacteric "alone," Greer makes clear that the relationship with the self can be the most joyous and satisfying of all relationships. (December 1994)
Grenville, Kate, The Secret River. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2006. (Orig. pub. 2005). Kate Grenville obviously did her historical homework in undertaking this engrossing (and gut-wrenching) yarn of a British convict who builds a new life after being transported to Australia in lieu of a death sentence. Agriculture was the chief aim of British colonialism, and more than trees had to be cleared away to make the vast Australian farms and cattle stations possible. The native population, too, had to be either "civilized" or exterminated. I don't know whether there is a literature category called novel noir, but that's how I would categorize Grenville's effort. In the end, her hero is neither hero nor villain, but falls in that vast category of Everyman, driven by a detached self-interest. Short listed for the Man Booker Prize, The Secret River is alternately exhilarating and sobering, a very fine historical novel. (January 2008)
Habel, Norman C., The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible: The Book of Job. London: Cambridge University Press, 1975. This is my first experience with a "bible commentary." It happened to catch my eye at the library at a time when I was undertaking my first complete read-through of the Old Testament. It was quite helpful here and there. I was particularly interested in the sections that discussed the history of wisdom literature as a genre and its characteristics in various cultures at various times. If you are reading the bible for divination, letting it drop open at any spot to find your message from the universe, these sorts of study aids may be quite beside the point. But if, like me, you have undertaken to discover first hand what the bible sez (rather than what they sez it sez), footnotes, commentaries, and histories are useful. I always find it of interest to see how the various texts have evolved over the centuries and how one editor or another added passages here and there to emphasize a message or even alter it to make it more contemporary to their times (or germane to their purposes). There may be better commentaries out there; I wouldn't know. I trusted my little bit of biblical education to Cambridge's academic reputation. (May 2007)
Hall, Calvin S., A Primer of Freudian Psychology. New York: Penguin, 1979. (Original work published 1954). As would be expected, the Ego, Superego, and Id are prominent players in Professor Hall's summation of Freudian theory. A less well known facet of Freudian principles, the role of psychic energy in the development of personality, is prominently featured; Hall labels this Freud's most brilliant discovery. Though it is a slim volume, the information is dense. The entire body of Freud's work that Hall is summarizing was published in several thousand pages. To attempt to take notes is tantamount to copying by hand nearly every word in the book; to attempt to highlight the more important passages would result in the entire text colored in yellow highlighter. In short, the book itself is a well-organized, clearly presented set of notes on Freudian theory. (January 1995)
Hallinan, Joseph T., Kidding Ourselves: The Hidden Power of Self-Deception. New York: Crown, 2014. Hallinan has reviewed a large body of research whose goal, apparently, was to study human self-deception, or illusion. I remember reading a book published in the 1970s that asserted that the moment a research topic is chosen, the researcher's bias has already influenced the outcome. That doesn't mean we throw out the baby with the bath water; it does mean that we must be open to conclusions other than the ones put forth by the researchers and the various reviewers of their research. That is to say, my bias leans towards another set of conclusions.
After 200 plus pages of research illustrating the human propensity to regularly succumb to illusions rather than face the certainty of reality, Hallinan asserts this habit has a biological basis and is necessary for our survival. Self-delusion, Hallinan concludes, is the vehicle for hope and optimism, two essentials for a happy life. We who refuse to accept reality in favor of deluded optimism are happier, healthier, and more productive.
In his first few pages, Hallinan introduces the early work of Mesmer, a German physician who introduced "animal magnetism," the exchange of natural energy, as the silver bullet to cure the physical ails of humankind. Living in France at the time, Mesmer descended into obscurity shortly after an investigative commission, appointed by the French king and headed by Benjamin Franklin, issued a report labeling him a fraud and his "magnetism" a hoax. Members of the commission were nonetheless impressed with the amazing results that "imagination" could produce. Hallinan quotes Bailly, an astronomer who was a member of the commission: "Whereas magnetism appears nonexistent to us, we were struck by the power of two of our most astonishing faculties: imitation and imagination. Here are the seeds of a new science, that of the influence of the spiritual over the physical."
That is the whole of Hallinan's nod to the we-create-our-own-reality school of thinking before he falls back on the more conservative among the possible scientific conclusions—not so much dismissing the power of the conscious mind, as simply ignoring it. This would have been a very different book, however, if he had included studies from the large body of research that supports the notion of the power of the human mind to shape reality. There is Dossey's 1980s research where participants prayed over petri dishes of bacteria, and the organisms receiving the prayer treatment thrived in comparison to those not receiving prayer. In his bestselling Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, Deepak Chopra, an endocrinologist who developed a practice that blended Western medicine and the precepts of ancient Ayurvedic medicine, cited a number of studies that illustrate the power of the mind to transfer information in ways that would have previously seemed improbable. One study, in particular, stands out in my mind. Researchers scraped cells from a volunteer's mouth and transported them to a distant laboratory, several states away. When the volunteer ate something, his distant cells salivated.
From the common belief that we influence outcomes with our thought comes the popular saying, "Be careful what you wish for, for you will surely get it." Generations of philosophers have proposed that we create our own reality. What proponents of this school of thought consider the unplumbed depths of the power of the human mind is labeled "the power of illusion" by Hallinan and the researchers he cites. I propose that it is the bias of the researchers that brings them to the conclusion that depressed people are more in touch with reality than optimistic people. Perhaps they are influenced by the fact that bad things continue to happen, despite the best efforts of good people—or a deeply embedded belief that "life's a bitch and then you die."
Though I fault some of his conclusions, I do not fault Hallinan's presentation or his writing gift. He is among those writing geniuses whose prose are transparent; we benefit from his ability to tell the story without noticing that he's there. And I don't criticize the research projects that are the subject of his reporting. There is food for thought here. I was particularly intrigued with the section on the herding instinct ("jumping on the band wagon" could be another phrase for that) and mass hysteria, which helped me begin to understand why people will vote against their own best interests. And I found particularly interesting his discussion of power and powerlessness and how it affects people's behavior. Most people in positions of power live in a near-constant state of delusion about how the rest of the world sees them, writes Hallinan, believing that most people admire, respect, and perhaps even worship them, tied in with the illusion that they can do anything without getting caught. Indeed, as a generality, he reports, people who involve themselves in risky behavior don't believe they will be one of the majority who will suffer the consequences.
If my own experience counts (and for me, it does), I disagree on this point. When I've had to pay the piper, I knew the risks and decided to take them—though admittedly I didn't give it all that much careful, intelligent thought—and it doesn't even have to be a matter of statistical risk; it can be an absolute inevitability. It's the Scarlett O'Hara syndrome: tomorrow is another day, a variation on "if it feels good, do it," a victory of the pleasure principle over the fear of exposure. Not mentioned, and likely important, is the thrill factor. Whether it is stripping off to go skinny dipping at night or shoplifting a candy bar or diving from a rocky cliff or seducing your neighbor's wife, there is always the underlying excitement that can only come from taking a known risk. What's exciting about knowing you're not going to get caught?
On another note, citing Gail Sheehy's 1976 bestseller Passages, as one of the many books that use data from a Harvard study, pushed one of my buttons. Hallinan is not required to mention it, but Sheehy did not credit her source, leading her readers to conclude the data were hers. She continues to receive recognition and income from her fraud, and the only price she had to pay was a settlement payment to the man who actually did the work. And here we have another cause for risky behavior, the possibility that, even if caught, it will all blow over—a proposition that is supported by time itself.
I particularly take exception to Hallinan using Bernie Madoff as an example of someone so deluded with his own power that he did not believe he would be caught. That's a faulty analysis, since Madoff himself repeatedly stated that there were many times when he thought he had been caught, and he couldn't believe he hadn't been caught sooner. The whole subject is far more complex than a generalized hardwired propensity to delusion. Madoff is probably sitting in his cell right now, lost in the intoxication of his power: he brought the world to its knees. But it is worth mentioning that he had help from many people who were living under the very real delusion that looking the other way or being lazy about their job responsibilities was not a big deal.
Despite my criticism of the book's conclusions, it's full of good stuff, and I'm glad I read it. (July 2014)
Hall, Sarah Harkey, Surviving on the Texas Frontier: Personal Recollections of Life in Nineteenth-Century Texas. Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 1996. In 1905, 48-year-old Sarah Harkey Hall set down her memories as a gift to her children. "My first recollection is of fear of Indians; sitting up at night listening to the whistle of the Comanches all around and shivering with fear and trembling," she writes. Sarah Hall was the fifth of thirteen children. She was 12 when her mother died in childbirth. Her father died from a lingering illness (cancer?) three weeks later. Though their parents left the children well off, with a well-kept, productive farm and cash in the bank, they were too young to manage properly and soon were struggling to eat. Sarah's older sisters married and moved away. Her older brother, who took responsibility for the family, had to travel to find work, leaving the young Sarah to tend her younger siblings. This is not a romantic tale of courage that conquered every obstacle. It is a tale of the brutality of life on the American frontier, where children were often orphaned and frequently left to fend for themselves, where childhood often ended before the child became a teen. San Saba, Texas had a school house, but it was in use only three months out of the year, when the traveling school master arrived. Sarah went when she could, learning more from her sheer thirst for knowledge than from instruction. The glamour of the shoot-'em-up West is shown for what it was, as Sarah loses three brothers to senseless gun fights. Sarah Harkey Hall is a better-than-average writer and her story, told without self-pity, is a page turner. (January 2010)
Hazlewood, Nick, Savage: The Life and Times of Jemmy Button. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2000. In 1830, an English sea captain bought a young boy from a group of Indians, natives of Tierra del Fuego, islands located off the southern tip of South America. At least that’s what Captain FitzRoy claimed. The Indians say Orundellico, given the name Jemmy Button by his English captors-cum-benefactors, was kidnapped.
Savage is the story of the first Fuegian to learn English and the white Europeans who sought to serve God by “civilizing” him. Along the way, we meet the young Charles Darwin, who was on the second voyage of FitzRoy’s Beagle, England’s King William IV (nicknamed “Silly Billy”) and Queen Adelaide, as well as a host of lords, missionaries, and an assortment of well-meaning ninnies.
Nick Hazlewood continues the story past the death of Jemmy Button, into the next century, when the exploitation of Tierra del Fuego results in the virtual demise of its indigenous inhabitants. Settlers considered the locals to be pests that stood in the way of their economic success; they were hunted down and shot, in the same vein as a fox in the hen house or a coyote among sheep.
Hazlewood has done a fine job of research and does a creditable job of spinning his yarn. Each port of call, each mission station, each village or city is meticulously described as it must have appeared at the time. These descriptions, along with his character-driven account of events, lend a you-are-there air to his narrative. (September 2012)
Heilbrun, Carolyn G., The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty. New York, Ballantine, 1997. In her youth, Heilbrun was one of those who imagined that life after seventy would be so burdened with physical and mental difficulty that life would not be worth living. Even as she entered her sixties, she continued to harbor the plan that she had set out in her twenties—to commit suicide on her seventieth birthday. In addition to the physical limitations that she anticipated in her sixties, she experienced a new joy in living, a sort of joy that had been impossible at any time in her younger years. Buying and furnishing her "own house" and discovering the pleasures of email and rediscovery of old friends through the power of the Internet were two of the things that made her change her mind about offing herself at seventy. In The Last Gift of Time, Heilbrun, now in her seventies, looks back on the unexpected delights of her seventh decade and looks forward to discovering what's in store in her seventies—and maybe beyond. Heilbrun's writing has been finely honed over her long career, and that makes the reading of her discoveries a pleasant task for readers of all ages who take pleasure in fine writing. (April 2009)
Hicks, Esther and Jerry, Manifest Your Desires: 365 Ways to Make Your Dreams a Reality. Hay House Australia, 2008. All of the Hicks's books deliver essentially the same message, to quote their Wikipedia entry, "that people create their own reality through their thoughts, that emotions are constantly guiding people toward where they want to go, and that life is supposed to be fun." At the core of their message is the Law of Attraction, what many consider a physical law as real as the Law of Gravity. Simplistically, the Law of Attraction states that our thoughts draw certain events to us: negative thoughts attract negative events and positive thoughts attract positive events. The Hicks's books contain exercises to aid the reader in making positive thinking a habit. Manifest Your Desires: 365 Ways to Make Your Dreams a Reality is a year's worth of exercises and reminders gleaned from their other books. It's not only a good summary, but a wonderful way to be reminded that joyful thoughts can be cultivated. To get the most from it, you should read at least one of their other books. My favorites are The Law of Attraction and Ask and It Is Given, but any one of them will give you sufficient basis to benefit from this inspiring little thought-a-day book. Whether or not you believe in the Law of Attraction, a daily reminder to be happy is a nice way to start your day. (October 2013)
Hicks, Esther and Jerry, Ask and It Is Given. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2004. If you've read The Secret (or seen the video by the same name), you will find this book's message very familiar. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the Hicks's version instead of Byrnes's The Secret, yet I would not go so far as to say it completely replaces the video. I find they make a good complement to one another. That having been said, I was disappointed to read that Byrnes is not the spiritual person she represents herself to be in her book and video. But rather, she is simply a savvy, somewhat unethical entrepreneur, who put together a great program at just the right time.
Articles have appeared in the press about how Byrnes told her creative partners in the endeavor that a hand shake was as good as a contract among spiritually aware people who shared a common vision to share a wonderful "secret" with the world. When Byrnes's plan to disenfranchise her business partners became evident, the Hickses pulled out, causing a second edition to be produced, in which someone else narrates the sections previously spoken by Esther Hicks. Hicks is quoted as saying that she wouldn't sue because it involved too much negative energy. At least one other featured speaker stated that the notoriety he gained from appearing was sufficient compensation.
Unfortunately, the behind-the-scenes creative people didn't gain anything for their less-visible roles in the production. They needed to be paid for their work, and Byrnes used the handshake contract as a loophole for not paying them. When lawsuits were filed (in the U.S. where she moved when she became wealthy from the proceeds of the DVD and book), she filed counterclaims in various states across the U.S., causing enormous expense to her former partners, who had to hire legal teams in each of those states. Further, an article in a Sydney newspaper stated she had done something similar to a previous business partner, who was forced to accept an unfavorable compromise, because she was unable to afford the necessary legal battle to get her fair share.
Now. After having spent so many words calling attention to Rhonda Byrnes's deficiencies of character, I want to declare that any one of the Hicks's books is money well spent. Ask and It Is Given clearly sets down the steps that can be taken to get what you want—in your health, your relationships, and your bank account. (December 2008)
Hicks, Esther and Jerry, Sara and the Foreverness of Friends of a Feather. San Antonio, TX: Abraham-Hicks Publications, 1995. One day after school, young Sara takes her favorite route home through a wooded area. She spots a very large owl and nearly leaps from her skin when it speaks to her. She names her new friend Solomon, and he becomes her teacher and adviser in her attempts to learn how to use the Law of Attraction (the same thing as the Power of Positive Thinking upgraded to a natural law). Sara learns how to think differently about mischievous brothers, school bullies, and other challenges that keep her from seeing her life more positively. This story-telling approach, intended for children, is a very good vehicle for understanding the concept that you draw to yourself what you think about. This device is equally effective for adults. I found its straightforward, simple illustrations contained a depth of understanding that the more cerebral adult texts had not achieved. I recommend the Hicks's Sara series to adults for their own reading, not in place of the adult texts but in addition to them. Each satisfies a different level of understanding. The Hickses have written many books, all aimed at reinforcing the lessons of the Law of Attraction. It's not a difficult concept to understand, but it is difficult to integrate this new way of thinking. Read them all, as you progressively become more accustomed to thinking in positive terms. (April 2010)
Høeg, Peter (trans. Barbara Haveland), The Woman & the Ape. London: Harvill Press, 1996. (Orig. pub. in Danish, Copenhagen: Munksgaard/Rosinante, 1996). Wow! Think Yann Martel's Life of Pi, Shepherd Mead's The Great Ball of Wax, and Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child and its sequel, Ben, In His World, then throw in a dash of Planet of the Apes. Reminiscent of many of Doris Lessing’s stories, where she begins in this world, then moves skillfully and imperceptibly into the twilight world of speculative fiction, Høeg convincingly grounded me in a mundane present (albeit it a very privileged one) before easing me, in rapid succession, from poor-little-rich-girl-trapped-in-her-bed-of-roses to thriller to science fiction teetering on the edge of speculative fiction. With only a few pages to go, the plot satisfyingly resolves and fades into the sunset with a pleasantly tentative happily-ever-after. The roller coaster has slowed before coming to a complete stop, yet I shut the book still breathless and slightly titillated from the ride. Høeg has created characters that are just three dimensional enough to get by. This is not a criticism. Madelene, Erasmus, Adam and all the rest are types, maybe archetypes; the story seems to demand that to maintain a grip on the reader's emotions and to create a foil for its inherent humor. With this busy, rich plot, Høeg still manages luxurious, descriptive passages of London's cityscape and pithy comment on politics and the general silliness of human beings. The latter is somewhat the point of his tale. This would make a great romp of a film. (March 2008)
Hosseini, Khaled, The Kite Runner. London, New York and Berlin: Bloomsbury, 2007. (Orig. pub. 2003). Hosseini tells his tale in the first person, and from the beginning, I accepted it as memoir, though I knew it to be a novel. It's not that I have any reason to believe it is autobiographical, but rather that the narration is so real, so poignant, so painful. I wanted the protagonist, Amir, to be a better person than he was—a more courageous child, a more courageous adult, the sort of person that everyone believed his father to be. Less than half-way through the reading, I had to know what Amir would do, who he would become. I finished the book that night by reading through the night, dropping the finished book on my nightstand at five in the morning. I turned the reading of this engrossing and emotionally gripping story into as painful an event as the very life of Amir and his best friend, Hassan. The story may not be autobiography, but it is clear that Hosseini is writing from experience of his homeland, Afghanistan, a country that he knew as a child and that he watched destroyed as an adult. As well as a morality tale, The Kite Runner is an anthropological treatise, a first-hand account of what it is to lose the country you love and try to remake your life in a foreign land, what it is like when no one knows (or cares) who you were back there where you were somebody, what it is like to see your once-rich-and-powerful relatives now pump gas in service stations or work as clerks on the night shift in convenience stores. There is a lot to learn from this story, and in the learning you open yourself to be emotionally marked, as are the thousands upon thousands of immigrants who reach America or England or Germany or Australia as refugees stripped of their past and dumped into an unknown, fragile future. (January 2009)
Huffman, Max E., Revelations of the Holy: An Autobiography. Lulu.com, 2010. PDF e-book. "This book was originally written to be a heritage gift for my family. With their encouragement, the manuscript has been revised and reprinted for extended readership and Quaker historical records," writes Max Huffman. There are a number of factors that make Huffman's memoirs a worthy read, but first, I want to mention the reasons for the hesitation that almost caused me to overlook this book. I am a Liberal Quaker; Max Huffman is an Evangelical Quaker.
Though both these branches of Quakerism claim George Fox as their founder, each has grown Fox's philosophy in different directions. In some respects, Evangelical Quakerism has much more in common with other Christian Evangelical sects than it does with other branches of Quakerism. Liberal Quakers are among the Quaker groups who have meetinghouses, and Evangelical Quakers are among the Quaker groups who meet in traditional church structures.
Most members of a Liberal Quaker meeting identify as Christians; however, a core belief is that many paths lead to God and each is equally valid, stemming from George Fox's declaration that "there is that of God" in every person. A Liberal meeting may have members who identify as Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and even nontheist; there will be members who are biblical scholars and those who have never read the bible. Liberal Quakers are primarily involved in saving the world through social action, such as creating educational programs that teach nonviolence and other skills that promote peaceful communities.
Evangelical Quakers also share George Fox's belief that the light of God burns in every human being. Their membership is exclusively Christian, and they are primarily involved in saving the world through influencing people to accept Jesus Christ as their savior. This is a good place to mention that there are about 300,000 Quakers in the world, and the majority of them are products of Evangelical missions in foreign countries.
There are other differences in style of worship and church governance, but my point is that Evangelical Quakers hold beliefs and practices that I have avoided since some time in my college years, when I began my gradual withdrawal from my traditional Christian background and turned towards a lifelong search for a spiritual shoe that fit—which I found a decade ago in a Quaker meetinghouse in Perth, Western Australia.
Oddly enough, it is my experience with Liberal Quakerism that led me to be more accepting of the conservative Christian sects that I have avoided for the past fifty years. And it was my Quaker-inspired attempt to reach out to people I don't understand (as the bare-bones beginning to world peace) that led me to select Huffman's autobiography from among a list of Quaker topics on Lulu.com. After all, I can walk among "them" on a page without the worry of being accosted to accept their beliefs.
I found Huffman's account of his life a good read. I particularly enjoyed his account of his childhood in rural Indiana. He began his work as a minister while still a teenager and chose to improve the performance of his calling through education, eventually achieving his Ph.D. His entire text is imbued with the halo of his deeply held Christian beliefs and his intimate relationship with his Maker. His determination to be honest is evident. Details that easily could have been omitted are tackled head on, beginning with his parents getting married as teenagers, because their young hormones defied their Christian upbringing. Those were the days when pregnancy dictated a quick wedding. The importance of sexual intimacy in his own marriage is mentioned several times, the last being when he underwent prostatectomy in his sixties and began to worry that his wife might stray because he was no longer able to fulfill his husbandly duties.
This is a wonderful account of a marriage, a family, and a career. Theirs was not a stern, prohibitive, religious household. Their religion was their source of strength in tough times and joy in good times—and never a club to beat anyone into submission. Though his elder son admits to problems with being a pastor's son, the experience did not taint his life with self-destructive rebellion. There has so far been only one divorce in three generations—a granddaughter whose husband "found someone else."
Huffman's story is suitable as research material for a novel character, as a historical description of a segment of America at a certain time and place, or simply as a good read for people like me who are just curious about how other people live and think. Huffman is a sufficient writer with better-than-average writing skills. The absence of awkward sentence structure, poor grammar, and other such common flaws in self-published memoirs makes for a smooth read. The conservative Christian viewpoint may or may not be your cup of tea, but Huffman's life has had all the usual ups and downs, and he has come out the other end a happy camper. He has mastered the art of happiness, which adds to the pleasure of the read. As a post script, as I finished reading the last few pages, it occurred to me that saving the world is a big enough job to accommodate a lot of different approaches. What I find unsuitable for me may be just what the next person needs to bring them around to a more peaceful way of looking at the world. I consider my viewpoint the far more advanced thinking. But what if I'm wrong? (July 2014)
Hurston, Zora Neale, Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. (Orig. pub. 1937) Janie grew up with Nanny, her grandmother, in a little house in the backyard of the white folks that Nanny worked for. She was born there, too, but her mother, Nanny’s daughter, was gone long before she had memory. She didn’t know who her daddy was and mostly didn’t wonder about these people who left her behind as if she was nothing. She played with Mrs. Washburn’s four grandchildren, never feeling there was any difference between them and her, between Nanny and Mrs. Washburn. She was six years old before she knew she was colored. And that’s how she was all her life, not really seeing that she was anything different or special, no better nor worse than anyone else—just Janie with dreams of being loved.
Published in 1937, Zora Neale Hurston’s classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is about Janie’s dream and the life she led waiting for it to happen. Hurston’s characters are her contemporaries—people she met along the way, people she interviewed about the Great Okeechobee Hurricane that took the lives of nearly 3,000 people, a third of them black migrant workers, maybe even members of her own family.
Hurston’s monumental talent for drawing vivid portraits with the mud and clay of her well-chosen words may be unmatched in American literature. But it’s not just people she creates so well; her landscapes, too, are mud real. Her sun and moon and stars shine in your eyes, and her night air kisses your face. You are there.
Her writing is poetry. Like Janie, it pretends to simplicity, but (like Janie) it’s no such thing. Hurston’s morning sun makes “a red foolishness,” and you want to run outdoors quickly to see the glory of those “red daggers” before it sets out for the day’s business “dressed all in white.” And you will remember your adolescent awakenings as Janie, “through pollinated air,” sees “a glorious being coming up the road”—shiftless Johnny Taylor, “beglamored” by the “golden dust of pollen” in the eyes of a girl living the spring of her sixteenth year. So maybe your adolescence wasn’t like that, but seduced by Hurston’s rich language, you will remember it that way.
If she were to write that each day the store’s porch filled up with people swapping stories, it would be a sketch. Hurston delivers the painting, thick with color and texture: “Every morning the world flung itself over and exposed the town to the sun. . . . When the people sat around on the porch and passed around the pictures of their thoughts for the others to look at and see, it was nice. The fact that the thought pictures were always crayon enlargements of life made it even nicer to listen to.”
Zora Neale Hurston’s claim that she wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven weeks while on a research trip to Haiti is believable. First, because why would she make that up? And second, it has none of the earmarks of a crafted work. It indeed seems sprung whole from her head, like Athena from the head of Zeus . . . then wrapped in her pericardium.
Many people complain of the difficulty of reading dialect. Hurston’s unique way of writing dialect makes it a bit easier. Not easy, just a bit easier. If you want it to be even easier, read it out loud. Such words shouldn’t be kept in the dark of silence anyway. (December 2011)
Irvine, William B., On Desire: Why We Want What We Want. Oxford University Press, 2006. On Desire is the result of philosophy professor William Irvine’s academic study of desire. The first two thirds is a summary of his and others’ research results. The remaining third is a survey of philosophical and religious views on the nature of desire, including the many and various recommendations for taming desire to maximize its positive contributions to our lives and minimize its potential for enormous destruction.
Briefly, Irvine posits that Nature commands us to survive and produce and from this arises the parent of all our desires, what he calls our biological incentive system, or BIS. “Our evolutionary master,” he reminds us “is indifferent to whether we have happy, meaningful lives. He will care only if our misery and sense of futility hinder his pursuit of his own goal that we survive and reproduce.”
Irvine’s analysis of humankind’s perpetual struggle with desire is illustrated with stories of Buddha, Merton, Thoreau, and Amish Farmers. As well, he offers less well-known social experiments, such as New York’s Oneida Community founded in 1848 and dedicated to the proposition that sufficient quantities of non-exclusive sex would defuse the destructive power of sexual desire. These examples not only illustrate Irvine’s arguments but also make for livelier reading after plowing through 170 pages of drier, more academic discourse.
“We ‘evolutionary slaves’,” he writes, “can form a personal plan for living and superimpose it over the plan imposed on us by our evolutionary master. If we do this, we will no longer simply be doing his bidding; we will instead be taking our life and doing something with it, something we find meaningful. We will thereby be conferring meaning on our life, to the extent that it is possible to do so.”
Though satisfaction is the key to a happy, meaningful life, Irvine points out, it is anathema to our BIS, our biological system that requires us to infinitely want and to replace each satisfied desire with yet another desire. Irvine proposes that the answer is to turn our desire towards wanting what we have. Though this is hardly unique advice (as he has shown in his sections on the religious and philosophical answers to desire’s destructive potential), he has succeeded in creating a new academic theory of desire.
There is a lot of food for thought here, even if you speedily mumble your way through the dry parts and slow to absorb the more accessible and entertaining bits. I learned a little more about classical philosophy—the advices of the Epicureans and the Stoics (not what you might think) and that Seneca, who touted poverty as the shortest route to happiness, was a wealthy man who never directed a single personal desire towards that elevated state.
The writing is uneven and particularly wanting in the first 100 pages, reading as if several separate journal articles were tossed together with awkward bridging sentences. Despite its stylistic shortcomings, though, Irvine’s On Desire answered a lot of my practical questions on desire and led the way towards answers to my philosophical questions. Perhaps its greatest usefulness is in carefully mapping out why wanting what I already have makes sense. Irvine is not preaching, but rather presenting fact and theory that bring me to that ancient conclusion so well stated by the philosopher Epicurus: “Nothing satisfies the man who is not satisfied with a little.” (August 2013)
Janov, Arthur, Life Before Birth: The Hidden Script That Rules Our Lives. Chicago: NTI Upstream, 2011. Janov’s Primal Therapy, the darling of the New Age Movement in the 1970s, was embraced by meaning-of-life chasers (including such as John Lennon, James Earl Jones and other celebrities) and scoffed at by his professional colleagues (with not just a little name-calling on both sides). Now, 44 years after his first client screamed and writhed his way to mental health—and several books later—Janov again writes about the fruits of his several thousand case studies.
The first half of Life Before Birth reads like a third draft with three more drafts to go. It suffers from repetition—Janov’s need to restate every few pages that our prenatal experience is the most important predictor of our future behavior. And every third or fourth time that he mentions that, he feels compelled to repeat that primal therapy is the answer to mental-health problems—not a band aid, but a cure, the therapy that will replace all other therapies.
The second half of the book is more organized and an easier read. It is also populated with the true-to-life examples that bring these sorts of books alive to the reader with a limited knowledge of biology, biochemistry, and scientific lingo.
Format criticism aside, the stats are impressive. For each of the thousands of therapy sessions over the past 44 years, Janov and his colleagues have recorded vital signs (temperature, pulse, respiration, and blood pressure) before and after each therapy session. They report that, somewhere around the end of the first year of therapy, the vitals begin to show improvement, and with a few more years of therapy the improvement becomes remarkable.
Improvement after a year and more is hardly the “quick fix” that Janov’s early critics claimed he was promising. He did, though, promise 100% success. No such brash claims appear in this recent work, though he continues to defend his therapeutic method as the only one with potential to cure mental illness. Others, he claims (and he particularly picks on behavioral therapies), simply teach people successful ways to tolerate their discomfort and bury their negative feelings.
His criticism of all talk therapies is that they “address the wrong brain.” Focus on the “left frontal, thinking brain” is self limiting, he says. Without addressing wordless regions in the right brain, where feelings are stored, no true progress can be made.
Our lives are imprinted with our experiences from the moment of conception, he explains. Our mothers’ moods and thoughts generate biochemical reactions within her body that are transmitted to us in the womb. If mother is anxious, distressed, unhappy, we are too. It all makes perfectly good sense. The tough part is learning to identify the chemicals, the brain patterns, and the resulting behaviors from prenatal life through life in the outside world and all the way to our death beds.
Janov has developed a sense of it through 44 years of practice and a lot of observation. What he knows intuitively from his experience is harder to prove with hard science—but he has made some headway in that regard. After all this hard work, though, he must still say, “All of this is still very much theoretical work.”
Life Before Birth is intended for nonprofessionals, but necessarily dips its toes into some heavy scientific and medical jargon. It is relatively easy to mumble your way through the big words here and there, and a lot of meaning can be extracted without understanding all the biology and biochemistry that he carefully explains. But without these explanatory facts, his claims would be casual conjecture.
Janov relates many of the studies that support his own research, some of which have been made possible by new technologies in brain scanning. For me, these are some of the more interesting aspects of the book. I do believe that Janov’s primal therapy is a good addition to the mental-health professional’s tool kit, but I am less convinced that it will or should replace all other therapies, mainly, perhaps, because people will continue to seek out processes that they find appealing and comforting. Many, many people would rather live a life covered with bandages than undergo major surgery.
Two important points were not addressed. Even if Janov’s therapy proves to be the only one that cures mental illness (and some chronic physical ones as well), it would not be available to most people: hundreds of hours of therapy at a cost of many thousands of dollars is hardly a global solution.
Janov closes with a list of cautions for prospective mothers, the things they can do to provide their child, in utero, with the best possible opportunity for a long and healthy life. This leads to the second point, the notion that providing the best possible prenatal environment for future generations goes beyond the actions of individual mothers. There are prenatal-care programs for women who cannot afford private medical care. How can these community initiatives be augmented? What can the community as a whole do to support the health of future generations?
Though so terribly plodding in spots (particularly at the beginning), Life Before Birth is a worthwhile read filled with good information and food for thought. (February 2012)
Johnson, Fred K., Right Hemisphere Stroke: A Victim Reflects on Rehabilitative Medicine. Detroit. MI: Wayne State University Press, 1990. Right Hemisphere Stroke is an amazing surprise. Johnson has approached his topic with humor, intelligence, and good writing skills. The result is a sometimes-funny, always-informative, and touching memoir about the stroke he suffered when he was 38 years old. I read it to get some specific information about strokes. I didn't find the information for which I was searching, but happily read on, learning answers to questions I hadn't thought to ask. For instance, I found out stroke victims often suffer personality change. Johnson was lucky; his personality shifted from someone who cared little for others to a kinder, more affable person. This was only one of the benefits for his family. His wife now has a more considerate, attentive lover: "I could not plop over Judy in the traditional missionary manner; I had to entice her to come to me. Our sex now had a good deal of give and take rather than a one-sided domination."
Of equal interest is how Johnson learned to function as a part of a hospital environment that seemed designed more to fulfill job descriptions than to meet patient needs. Yes, it would seem that meeting patient needs is the essential framework of medical workers' job descriptions, but there arises a perverse difference between the medical establishment's perception of the patients' needs and the needs perceived by the patients themselves. The doctors, nurses, therapists and diverse hospital staff are focused on getting the patient as close to recovery as possible (or, as Johnson found out, as close as they can get before the insurance runs out). Johnson learned to navigate the system both honestly and superficially, as the occasion demanded. In one instance, he observed that patients who were perceived as "religious" or "a family man" got more compassionate treatment, and so he put a framed photo of his son on his dresser top alongside a Gideon bible. Having the time to study his surroundings, he was thus able to construct ways to maximize the benefits of his hospitalization. Sometimes, this was as simple (yet excruciatingly difficult) as putting up with an unpleasant roommate in order to be labeled "a good patient."
The unexplainable continues to fascinate me and pique my curiosity about the brain. I have an abiding interest in the spiritual episodes experienced during and after stroke by many sufferers, a topic Johnson touches upon lightly and with apology to "scientific" minds. The power of emotional memory is another of my interests, and in this regard, Johnson offers his ever-so-interesting version of anniversary disease: Each year on the anniversary of his stroke, he suffers transient ischemic attacks (TIAs).
Johnson begins by saying "there are only two kinds of strokes, those that kill you and those that don't" and ends by quoting his wife's words of comfort to their son who longed for a happy ending: "We have yet to live our ending." (April 2005)
Johnston, George, My Brother Jack. London & Glasgow: Collins Fontana, 1967 (Orig. pub. 1964). The story begins at the closing of World War I and ends at the culmination of World War II. The years in between furnish the backdrop against which two Australian working-class brothers grow into adolescence, young manhood, and the early years of maturity that are marked by marriage, children, and ageing parents. Though masterfully drawn as authentic Australian characters in an authentic Australian landscape, Dave, Jack, their parents, and their wives are true to archetypes that exist in every human culture.
After a childhood of games, fights, and mischief, Jack wholeheartedly romps through his hormonally driven skirt-chasing phase, then leaps into adulthood, brashly taking on the mantle of manhood, which means patriotic service to his country, responsibility to his family, and creation of the next generation of human beings. Jack is Everyman.
Dave occupies a sort of middle-management fringe that nature can afford because Jack is tending his never-ending job so well. Dave is pushed from behind by civilization's need for progress and pulled forward by Jack, who needs him to be better than he is. Each of them is driven by eternal forces, Jack the man of action and Dave the man whose decisions are almost always non-decisions that move him inexorably forward without feeling responsibility for where he's been or where he's going.
The tale is told in the first person by Dave, with such incredible self-scrutiny and painful insight into the foibles and weaknesses of a clever, gifted writer that the reader feels compelled to accept it as a true autobiography. But it most likely isn't, at least not in its entirety. The gift of a novel is that the writer can tell the entire, bald truth and hide behind the fiction of it. A secondary benefit that feeds the novelist's creative soul is that events can be changed that didn't turn out right in real life or maybe seemed too mundane to be worthy of printed expression. Life is stranger than fiction, and fiction is more honest.
Johnston is a superb writer, and My Brother Jack is on my Top Ten List of Things That Make Me Glad I Trekked to Australia—right up there with the magpie's morning song, the stark white bark of giant gum trees, fine red-orange sand, the haunting sound of the didjeridoo, and the aura of people who have been here so long that they are inseparable from the earth.
On the back cover of my fragile, yellowing 1971 paperback copy is an excerpt from a review published in the London Illustrated News in which the reviewer concludes, "I truly believe this to be one of the greatest books written this century." Well said. (March 2008)
Johnston, George, Clean Straw for Nothing. London & Sydney: Collins, 1969. Clean Straw for Nothing is the second novel in George Johnston’s largely autobiographical Meredith trilogy. The first in the series, My Brother Jack, was Johnston’s first commercial success as a novelist. Fifteen years before its publication, he had relinquished a successful and secure career as a journalist to devote himself full time to writing books. His success came at the end of his life—a life cut short by tuberculosis, which he contracted while living in Greece. He returned to Australia in 1964 with his wife and four children. That same year, he won Australia’s Miles Franklin Literary Award for My Brother Jack. He finally succumbed to his illness in 1970 at the age of 58, a year after both his wife’s suicide and his second Miles Franklin Award—this time for Clean Straw for Nothing. The third novel in his Meredith trilogy, A Cartload of Clay, was published incomplete in 1971.
My Brother Jack is in my personal Top Twenty—maybe even Top Ten, if I give it careful thought. And that’s why I am so disappointed with Clean Straw for Nothing. It is the same truly fine writing, but it takes more than delicious prose to make a story. The novel is riddled with problems, the most prominent being the confusing jumps forward and backward in time. David Meredith, the story’s protagonist, is also the narrator—sometimes, that is. Occasionally, the narration lapses into third-person.
While I was puzzling through my conflicting thoughts about the novel’s random shufflings of time (not flashbacks), I encountered an Internet essay about William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. I learned that Burroughs was a heroin addict, and under the influence, he undertook a daring literary adventure. He cut his manuscript into chunks and haphazardly rearranged them. Some of the chunks cut a sentence in half, its completion settling itself in a nonsense connection with entirely different subject matter. This insight into Burroughs’s work accomplished two things for me. First, I took Naked Lunch off my list of books to read. Next, I sensed a clue to what Johnston had done.
Johnston knew his illness was rapidly siphoning away his life, and he had yet to begin the third installment in his Meredith trilogy. By his own admission, through the journaling of his character David Meredith, he was struggling with his writing: “The trouble is that the kaleidoscope does not shake well any more. Perhaps something has gone wrong with it. . . . There are brief periods when it still comes up with perfectly clear, bright pictures, lucid little geometries, and at other times one can achieve only a kind of fragmentation of particles, a splintering, all the coloured bits flying in all directions.”
Johnston took his collection of “lucid little geometries” and pieced them into a book. The gerrymandering of past, present and time zones—masquerading as literary experiment—create a fog that draws a veil across the jagged edges of vignettes that don’t quite fit together. Clean Straw for Nothing is a collage of journal entries, snippets from an unfinished novel, notes (maybe even letters) from a European vacation, and ruminations on a life as jumbled as the novel.
There are two redeeming values in the book. First, the writing, detail that engages the senses, passages so rich you will savor them slowly:
In a hospital ward, Meredith realized, there was no such thing as silence; there was always someone stirring, groaning, coughing, muttering, moving, the starchy stiff whisper of the night nurses’ uniforms behind the jabbing flashlight beams, the metallic click of equipment, the soft slow hiss of oxygen. From outside, too. The muted moan of the city’s night traffic, more stridently punctuated along the road beside the hospital, nocturnal shuntings in the adjacent railway yards, the running clangour of buffers, soft pantings of locomotives interspersed with quick shuddering snorts like animals in pain, and from a point far away, always the same point and at the same time, the nostalgic faint mournful cry of train whistles fading north towards Newcastle. (p. 126)
The novel’s second redeeming value is the insight into the lives of George Johnston and his wife Charmian Clift, significant figures in Australian literature, as well as in the international arts community of their day. In his prefatory Author’s Note to Clean Straw, Johnston cautions the reader that this is a work of fiction; yet biographers, acquaintances and old friends take it to be closely autobiographical.
What continues to haunt me about the book is how absent are Cressida Morley’s and David Meredith’s (Clift’s and Johnston’s) children—a bare few paragraphs here and there. The emphasis is on the relationship between the two and their place in their circle of friends. Clift’s suicide note suggests she is responding to a spousal act of emotional cruelty—another episode in a twenty-year narrative of clashing emotions? Johnston writes his fictional life with scant mention of his children, and his wife commits suicide in a drunken stupor, with no mention at all. As autobiography, this exclusion of the children may reflect a sad reality in their lives. As a novel, the functional invisibility of the protagonist’s children is a flaw in character development.
I think Clean Straw is a case of far too many “coloured bits flying in all directions” for a sick man to bring together. Johnston’s lengthy, elegant descriptions reduce conversation and actions to still lifes. He describes them without engaging them. Dialogue is far too sparse. A series of disjointed passages of brilliant prose simply aren’t enough. Good enough for a memoir perhaps, but a novel needs a plot and good storytelling. Clean Straw for Nothing has neither. (May 2012)
Johnston, George, A Cartload of Clay. London & Sydney: Collins, 1971. This final of Johnston’s Meredity trilogy is not as brilliant as the first, My Brother Jack, nor as scattered as the second, Clean Straw for Nothing. Johnston died before A Cartload of Clay was published. Clean Straw reads as if thrown together from notes and partially complete chapters; Cartload reads as incomplete. My Brother Jack may well qualify as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century. Other than a handful of short stories, these are the only Johnston works I have read.
The historic value of Cartload is twofold: first, as a likely biographical account of his reaction to his wife’s suicide and his own impending death and, second, as a beautifully written account of the changing face of 1970s Mosman, the Sydney suburb where Johnston lived out his last days.
Johnston’s metaphors are rich and unique, a good enough reason to read even his most lacking pieces, particularly if you are an aspiring writer seeking out silent teachers in the works of other writers. Unfortunately, My Brother Jack was his only success at storytelling. I consider Cartload of Clay somewhat of a post script to the other two—not a work that stands on its own, but a needed completion to the story begun by the first two books. My Brother Jack belongs to world literature. Johnston’s other writings belong to his fans, his biographer and, not least, to his countrymen. (June 2012)
Johnston, George, and Charmian Clift, Strong Man from Piraeus and Other Stories. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin Books Australia, 1986. Australians George Johnston and Charmian Clift were husband and wife, as well as writing partners. They published a few joint-effort novels, but Clift’s role in the partnership was primarily as muse and sounding board for her husband’s efforts. This collection, selected by Johnston biographer Garry Kinnane, includes seven stories penned by Johnston and four written by Clift.
Johnston emerged as a journalist of international reputation during his World War II stint as a war correspondent for an Australian newspaper. As a novelist, his success was limited until the publication of My Brother Jack, for which he won Australia’s highest literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award. My Brother Jack and two subsequent novels, Clean Straw for Nothing (which also won the Miles Franklin) and A Cart Load of Clay, comprise his largely autobiographical trilogy about David Meredith, an Australian journalist-turned-novelist.
Clift’s early short stories and novels were reportedly well received in the U.S. and Britain, but not widely circulated in Australia. By the time she met and married Johnston, who was eleven years her senior, she was an established writing professional. After Johnston and Clift returned to Australia with their family after years abroad, living in England and Greece, Clift became a popular columnist with the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s Herald. Despite her own writing successes, she never entirely emerged from her husband’s shadow, and she ended their long, troubled marriage with her suicide in 1969. A year later, Johnston died from the tuberculosis that had made him an invalid the last few years of his life.
Johnston’s stories in the collection include a passage that was apparently intended as a part of his final David Meredith novel, a day when the character (no doubt describing Johnston’s own experience) anticipates his doctor telling him that he is near death’s door. Five of the remaining pieces are peopled with Greek characters embedded in stories of Greek life on the island of Hydra. The remaining story, my favorite, describes a group of ex-pat writers and artists who are drawn together as the only foreigners on the island.
Clift’s contributions to this collection include a story of a little girl who wants to fly, a portrait of a bored wife, a piece of memoir from her years in Greece, and a tale of a husband and wife separated so often by his work that they don’t know one another. Clift’s stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Her writing is concise and entertaining, and she is imaginative in her descriptions, without encumbering her stories with long, unnecessary descriptive passages.
While the same cannot be said for Johnston, his imagery is perhaps the most powerful I have ever read: “The black rods of the reinforcing steel writhed out of the concrete pillars like huge worms trying to release themselves and escape into the pools below” and “the sky was a swinging glitter of stars like powdered ice.” As the Meredith piece dragged on and on, I became too weary of the pace to enjoy the fine writing. In the final story in the collection, the story of the Greek island’s ex-pat community, the story moves at a pleasing pace, arriving at its effective end without meandering through the back alleys of exquisite descriptive prose.
If I were to compare the two, I would have to say that Johnston is the stronger writer and Clift is the stronger storyteller. In balance, she would have to be the better writer overall. However, when Johnston is good, he is masterful. It must be remembered that these stories were published posthumously; by their very nature they were leftovers or left-behinds, either rejected or never submitted. That considered, it is a creditable collection by two fine writers. (June 2012)
K., K. K., The Quaker Bonnet: A Child Story. London: Headley Brothers, [1915]. This is a charming story about Edna, a six-year-old country girl who enters the unwelcoming world of a well-to-do urban spinster. When her brothers, Bob and Harry, come down with Scarlet Fever, Edna and her five other siblings are sent away to live with various relatives until the period of danger has passed. Edna is sent to Aunt Deborah, her great aunt who lives in London. Aunt Deborah's infrequent visits to Edna's rural home has left the lasting impression of a severe, brittle, and disapproving woman, quick to criticize Edna's mother for her relaxed attitude towards her children's upbringing. Making a lasting impression, too, on all the children, is Aunt Deborah's gray silk bonnet, the sort worn by old-fashioned Quakers back in the time when all Quaker ladies wore gray and all Quaker men wore black. The children don't like the bonnet because people turn and stare when Aunt Deborah walks with them in their village.
Edna learns that the Quaker bonnet, in the eyes of London society, identifies her great aunt with all the good works and good reputation of generations of Quakers. Even Queen Victoria from her carriage gives a nod in recognition as she passes the gray-clad woman walking in the park with her great niece. As she learns to respect and admire the bonnet, and what it represents, her child's forthrightness and penetrating questions cause Aunt Deborah to question if her own behavior is worthy of the reputation she wears on her head.
The writer, who claims her authorship only with the mysterious initials K. K. K., tells the story as something that happened in that time "thirty years ago" when things were not so modern. There is no publication date, but the single illustration opposite the title page bears the date 1914, suggesting the setting is London of about 1885. Since the time period would likely have been within the living memory of the author, descriptions of dress, manners, and the London landscape offer a first-hand view of the period. Edna's favorite place in the city is a high-end toy shop, and there are child-enticing descriptions of expensive toys of the era. Notable is the aunt's position in society as a Quaker woman of means. Aunt Deborah educates Edna about the wealthy Quaker version of simplicity: a few very expensive gray silk gowns that are expected to prove their sensibility by lasting a very long time.
The message is not embedded in Edna's discoveries, but in Aunt Deborah's. The young reader is reminded that they must establish themselves with their own worthy behavior, not slide through life on the reputation that precedes them by the position into which they were born.
There is just enough conflict and surprise here to counter the predictable happily-ever-after ending. It appears to have been written with the 11-to-14-year-old reader in mind, certainly more appealing to girls than boys.
A word of caution: There are a few references to some of the children's favorite dolls being "sailor boys and niggers"—a not-so-appealing, but certainly telling, artifact of the times. (April 2009)
Kallir, Otto, Grandma Moses. New York: Abrams, 1975. Anna Mary Robertson Moses, dubbed Grandma Moses by the New York Herald Tribune in its review of her first show at Kallir's gallery, is the best-known of America's self-taught artists. Art collector Louis Caldor saw Moses's paintings for the first time at Easter, 1938, in the window at the Woman's Exchange in Thomas's Drugstore in Hoosick Falls, New York. From that moment, he worked to gain recognition for her work. He succeeded in getting three of her pieces accepted for a show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1939 and in attracting the attention of gallery owner Otto Kallir, who gave her a one-person show in 1940 in his new New York gallery. This volume benefits from Kallir's first-hand acquaintance with Moses and her work. It is through his efforts that we have access to a catalog of 1,600 works created over a 30-year period. Kallir makes an important point about American self-taught artists:
In contrast to Europe, no art schools had existed in America until
well into the nineteenth century. People who painted had to find
their own technical and artistic means of expression. (p. 65)
The paintings Moses began creating in her late seventies "when housework became too strenuous for her" (p. 19) are the body of work that is known, but, like many other self-taught artists, she had been creating art since childhood. We are fortunate that she lived past the one hundred one mark, allowing her to share with the future a vast body of work embodying her memories of rural life in the eastern United States. (February 1997)
Kaminsky, Ilya and Katherine Towler (Eds.), A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith. North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2012. I have not been an avid reader of poetry; I recognized only one of the names in this collection: Grace Paley. What drew me to the book was to find out what Paley, a writer I have long admired, has to say about faith. I moved through the words of six poets to arrive at Paley’s contribution. By this time, I was engrossed, entranced, inspired, and engaged.
Ilya Kaminsky (a Russian Jewish poet) and Katherine Towler (an American novelist and daughter of an Episcopal priest) interviewed nineteen award-winning American poets, some in person, others by correspondence. They tailored the responses to essay format with a conversational tone, a device that puts you, the reader, sitting across the table, having the conversation.
Carolyn Forché, a poet and teacher of literature and writing at Georgetown University, is the first of the nineteen to speak. Forché grew up in a Catholic household in a Catholic neighborhood. She “knew one Protestant girl” and “saw one Jewish girl once, walking down the road.” She began her exploration into the outside world in her last year of high school, when she began reading the works of Protestant religious thinkers. It was the beginning of her life as a seeker.
“I would splash and play in the fields of spiritual thought,” Forché says, “read the Zen sutras and then jump off a cliff into the arms of something about the Dharma, and then go back to reading the Bible, and then have a certain dalliance with Judaic thought.” Forché built on her childhood religious upbringing and became a self-described syncretist. And along the way, she became an activist for human rights.
Forché is representative of the experiences of these nineteen poets. As the others, she is a seeker, and in her case, built her spirituality from the wisdom of many different cultures, finding in each the similarities, not the differences. And like these other poets, her writing reflects a deep longing for social justice and an end to wars and violence. All like Forché, in one way or another, define their writing as a search for meaning. “We are meaning-making animals,” remarks poet Jane Hirschfield. Gregory Orr, the last voice in the collection, says that early in his poetry-making he believed that existence was meaningless and that he created meaning with his poetry in order to sustain himself.
From Forché to the other eighteen, the descriptions of faith travel in both directions—from scarce to profound. There are nineteen definitions of God, nineteen definitions of faith, and a dozen or so definitions of prayer. G. C. Waldrep writes of finding his spiritual home in a Mennonite community. Julius Lester, son of a Methodist minister, writes of learning that his maternal great grandmother, a former slave, had married a Jewish immigrant from Germany. The years-long process of exploring this connection culminated in his conversion to Judaism. Grace Paley and Alicia Ostriker began life in socialist atheist Jewish families. Some of the poets came from backgrounds of Christianity by habit, others a strict Christianity steeped in the Bible.
Buddhist, Native American, Wiccan, the various shades of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all represented, often culminating, like Forché, in a personal fusion of religious traditions. Dunya Mikhail says poetry is her religion.
Each interview is followed by a poem written by the interview subject. Mikhail writes ironically of war that “contributes to the industry / of artificial limbs, / provides food for flies, / adds pages to the history books / achieves equality / between killer and killed, / teaches lovers to write letters . . . builds new houses for orphans, / invigorates the coffin makers.” Paley describes becoming the woman she wanted to be, “at last a woman / in the old style sitting / stout thighs apart under / a big skirt grandchild sliding / on off my lap a pleasant / summer perspiration,” an old woman who looks at her husband and says, “I am suddenly exhausted by my desire / to kiss his sweet explaining lips.” And Ostriker sings the essence of God in all things: “To be blessed / said the dog / is to have a pinch / of God / inside you / and all the other dogs / can smell it.”
These are not just seekers after God or faith, but seekers after truth, justice, and community. A God in the House is a book to be mined for thought and inspiration. For me, it is more than a collection of thought; it is a devotional. It comforts, disturbs, inspires, and makes me feel less alone in the world, knowing there are others who strive to live in peace and hope for that “better world.” (May 2012)
Kandinsky, Wassily, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. 1914. Trans. M.T.H. Sadler. Pref. Richard Stratton. New York: Dover, 1977. Kandinsky spent a lifetime painting in search of the spiritual. His body of work was his philosophical opus, provoked initially by the prodigious philosophical works of Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, in which she introduced the Western world—and Kandinsky—to Eastern philosophies. Kandinsky believed that art had a duty to be spiritual in nature, an expression of "inner need," as he came to call it. He called "art for art's sake" a "vain squandering of artistic power" (p. 3). Concerning the Spiritual in Art was both his call to artists to meet their obligation to humanity and his attempt to define and explain color and form in its relation to expressing the message of the soul. (October 1996)
Keyes, Ken Jr., The Hundredth Monkey. St. Mary, KY: Vision Books, 1981. Keyes recounts the observations of monkey behavior that resulted in the "hundredth monkey" theory of awareness and encourages readers to concentrate their awareness on the need to eliminate nuclear weapons. The first half of the book is about the statistics of harm caused by nuclear weapons and nuclear power; the second half is an appeal for people to consciously change their attitudes to bring about universal disarmament and eventually world peace. This is a fine book—simple in format, powerful in content—that appeals both to one's reason and emotions. (January 2008)
Kimmel, James P. Jr., The Trial of Fallen Angels. New York: Amy Einhorn Books, 2012. The Trial of Fallen Angels is part science fiction, part speculative fiction, but mostly parable. The main character (and narrator), Brek Cuttler, is a young attorney who dies in an automobile accident and finds herself in a unique version of heaven, where she is assigned the role of defense attorney for souls scheduled for their Last Judgment. There is no Appeals Court, but many souls return to the Courtroom over and over, presumably until they get it right.
Brek is an idealist, a seeker after Justice with a capital J. Early in the narrative, she is advised, “There is only one question to be answered during the Final Judgment of every human soul, and it is the same question that concerned God before the Great Flood: what does justice demand?” This sets the scene for the primary moral of the story.
Kimmel makes fast and loose with Scripture, including an imaginative re-telling of the Old Testament creation story. But unlike some 1950s bibles, which substitute the editor’s personal beliefs for any legitimate translated version of the text, Kimmel seems to be saying, “Why not look at it this way?” The results are interesting and thought-provoking.
The Trial of Fallen Angels invites us to ruminate any number of weighty philosophical issues. For starters: “You cannot experience that which is Love until you first know that which is Not Love. Therefore must you separate yourself from Love and enter the realm of Fear and Evil.” There’s also the proposition that human beings are co-creators with God and that a violent act inspired by jealousy or fear is a search for justice. Kimmel explores, as well, the roles of justice and forgiveness in shaping our characters and our society, the burden of responsibility for one’s choices, and finally: Is justice just revenge in a nice dress?
For the most part, Kimmel gets it right—not too preachy, a fair amount of page-turning suspense, and an enormous bite of deep thought. The story did not immediately engage me; I was restless for the action to begin. For me, that occurred some 100 pages in, when Nero’s soul is presented to the Court. I was not prepared for such a complex philosophical challenge, and, until late in the book, I remained the victim of my first impression—that The Trial of Angels was a simplistic New-Age imagining of heaven with a transparent moral. The way it revisited my thoughts over the following weeks brought me to the realization that this is the sort of book that will survive many readings, with each reading revealing another layer of meaning. (November 2012)
King, Gilbert, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. New York: Harper Perennial, 2013. Rarely does a carefully crafted and meticulously researched history read as if it were a novel, and that is precisely what Gilbert King has accomplished in his account of the years Thurgood Marshall spent as an attorney on the staff of the NAACP's legal team. The centerpiece of the narrative is the investigation and prosecution of a rape in Lake County, Florida, in July, 1949. In what appears to have been an attempt to punish a young black man for failing to be properly subservient to a white man, a 17-year-old white woman filed a spurious police report, claiming that four black men had beat her husband, then kidnapped and raped her.
By the time a retrial, ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court, was in progress in early 1952, two of the accused had been killed by law officers and one was in prison serving a life sentence. As Thurgood Marshall explained to his client, Charles Greenlee, the fact that he had not been sentenced to death meant the jury believed he was innocent, and that was as close to justice as a black man could expect in Lake County, Florida. On that advice, Greenlee chose to serve his time and hope for a future reduction of his sentence. The brilliance of the defense in the retrial of Walter Irvin in 1952 was to no avail; he was again found guilty and sentenced to death.
Greenlee was granted parole in 1960, married, had children, and built a successful HVAC maintenance business. Irvin's sentence was eventually commuted, and he was paroled in 1968, provided he never returned to Lake County. A year later, Irvin sought and won the approval of his parole officer to attend his uncle's funeral in Lake County, where he was subsequently found dead in his car "of natural causes."
Wrapped around the central tale and woven throughout the narrative are the stories of the other carefully crafted, history-changing cases that the NAACP's legal team tried under the aegis of Special Counsel Thurgood Marshall. Rarely expecting to win a case, they depended on courtroom strategy and carefully written briefs that would yield successes on appeal. Their goal was to build a body of case law that would support individuals in future suits who sought to assert their moral rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and they succeeded. Their hard-fought successes at the U.S. Supreme Court transformed civil rights from words in the Constitution to realistic expectation and, as the subtitle suggests, "the Dawn of a New America."
King uses an interesting device for his source notes, which appear at the end of the book, where quotations in the text are listed by page number. The reading is smoother without the superscript numbers appearing throughout the text, and for those who like to read source notes in the course of their reading, they are as accessible as if they had been handled more traditionally. There are also an epilogue and index. In later editions, such as the recent paperback that I read, there are three additional sections: A Conversation with Gilbert King (a brief and worthwhile interview with the author), The Last Word (the text of letters King received from readers who were moved by the book), and Questions for Discussion (for book clubs). Having breathlessly finished the last word of the text, I was not ready to part with the story, just as if I had been reading a thrilling novel. I wanted to know what happened to the characters, and I needed a conversation to digest what I'd read. These last sections provided that opportunity. (June 2014)
Klaw, Margaret, Keeping It Civil: The Case of the Pre-nup and the Porsche & Other True Accounts from the Files of a Family Lawyer. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013. Klaw is a family law attorney who has produced a thoughtful, interesting memoir of her law practice. She discusses some of her cases as a way to give the reader an idea of the scope of a family law practice. The way she works to make her law practice a good place for working mothers is refreshing. Her final chapter, which she has devoted to the issue of working mothers is thought-provoking. Back in the day, women attended college to become school teachers so that they would have something to fall back on if their husbands died. With the prevalence these days of divorce, Klaw asks women to become educated, choose a career and keep at least a toe in it while you raise your families. The odds are increasingly that you will be a single mother struggling with rearing your children alone on a tight budget. Though she, herself, has enjoyed a happy and supportive marriage for more than 20 years, that has not been the case for so many of her clients. (October, 2013)
Klee, Paul, On Modern Art. 1924. Trans. Paul Findlay 1947. Introd. Herbert Read. London: Faber and Faber, 1966. Paul Klee was Kandinsky's neighbor during the years they both taught at the Bauhaus. They shared more than the basement that connected their duplex apartments; they shared a belief in art as a spiritual pursuit. This slim volume is the text of a lecture Klee delivered in 1924 on the occasion of the opening of a museum exhibit of modern art. It is both an educational lecture on color and form and an explanation of modern art that largely escapes being a defense. Klee's discourse is not simply an historical piece. It is as valid today as it was when he delivered it seventy-two years ago. (November 1996)
Knight, Stephen, The Selling of the Australian Mind: From First Fleet to Third Mercedes. Port Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: William Heinemann, 1990. These 14 essays are Stephen Knight's salute to his adopted homeland, a peek into parts of the Australian culture that can't be found in guide books or popular films. Knight had been in Australia for 27 years when these pieces were published, and they reflect his very personal view of Australia and his experience of discovering the hidden corners of a culture that only appeared to be the same as that of the Britain of his earlier years.
A professor of English in one of Australia's tertiary educational institutions, Knight is a fine writer and a fine wit. The back cover describes his work as "brisk and pithy," and that it is. With irony, angst, and even affection, Knight tells us of the perpetual need to renovate found among young urban professionals in Sydney and Melbourne, the politics of dinner parties, Australians and their restaurants, and much more about Australian urban life. It would take more than 14 stories to expose the unique qualities of Australian culture, but Stephen Knight has contributed to my education, telling of that part of Australia that has nothing to do with sport, the beach, the Opera House or the great Outback. As important as those things are to Australian life, they simply aren't all of it. (December 2008)
Kramer, Peter D., Listening to Prozac. New York: Penguin, 1997. New ed. with Afterword. (Orig. pub. 1994). Prior to reading Kramer's now-classic ruminations on Prozac and its sibling drugs, I read Joseph Glenmullen's Prozac Backlash, a damning response to Kramer's work. Glenmullen is convincing and well documented (and speaks to my own prejudices); therefore, I was prepared to despise Kramer. I didn't. And I don't. Granted, Kramer does not spend much time on the undesirable side effects of Prozac and other antidepressant drugs, but it's almost beside the point, since his emphasis tends towards philosophical and ethical efficacy, rather than medical efficacy. Kramer does not pretend to be doing anything other than laying bare some very challenging questions. He prescribed Prozac as an antidepressant and discovered that it was altering personalities—not in the far more negative way that was later found in cases of uncharacteristic violence, but in ways that patients perceived as positive. Formerly shy people were far more outgoing. Kramer raises an important question: Is it ethical to withhold a treatment for painful shyness when the physician has no reason to diagnose depression? Dozens of (to me) frightening facts are reported; for instance, for the past fifty years it has been commonplace to make a diagnosis after observing drug side effects. In other words, now that we know that Prozac can cure shyness in some people, shyness is now a diagnosis that needs a cure. Particularly interesting and insightful is Kramer's observation that certain personality characteristics are valued (or de-valued) in various cultural scenarios, which change over time as well as from one group to another. Speaking of his client who overcame shyness as a side effect of her anti-depressant medication, he writes, "If we see Tess's transformation as a victory, it's because of a change in mores, because we value the assertive woman and shake our heads over the long-suffering self-sacrificer. Perhaps medication now risks playing a role that psychotherapy was accused of playing in the past: it allows a person to achieve happiness through conformity to contemporary norms." Kramer also cited a quite intriguing series of monkey studies, where researchers found that the Alpha male (tribal leader) had higher levels of serotonin than other males in the tribe. Also, when an Alpha male was defeated in a challenge to his leadership, his serotonin levels took an immediate dive. The researchers arbitrarily gave serotonin to male monkeys to see if it influenced the balance of power in the tribe. They found that, if the Alpha male had been removed, the serotonin-enhanced monkey quickly became the new leader. However, in the presence of a reigning Alpha male, the serotonin-enhanced monkey was unable to rise further than first lieutenant. Citing study after study of various components of brain chemistry, Kramer brings me to question the whole notion of personality as being an integral characteristic of the individual human being. More and more I become confused about how much of me is me and how much is a chemical soup that controls my emotions and behaviors. Glenmullen's book is the most constructive, in terms of revealing effective treatments for depression, yet I still recommend Kramer for his thoughtful evaluation of the possibilities represented by these drugs and his unabashed admission of the philosophical issues and ethical questions involved. (June 2004)
Kundera, Milan, translated by Michael Henry Heim, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Penguin Books, 1981. Included with this edition is “A Talk with the Author,” a summary of two conversations between Kundera and Philip Roth. Of particular interest to me is Kundera’s comment that reveals the meaning of the title:
The unity of a book need not stem from the plot, but can be provided by the theme. In my latest book, there are two such themes: laughter and forgetting. (p. 232)
As experimental novels go, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is relatively successful and better than most. He interacts with his characters—now agreeing, now disagreeing. It is as if he had not written them at all.
Kundera begins with forgetting—a commentary on the recent history of his native Czechoslovakia and his most powerful statement on forgetting:
The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai Desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten. (p. 3)
Laughter, too, embodies a universal truth for Kundera:
Whereas the Devil’s laughter pointed up the meaninglessness of things, the angel’s shout rejoiced in how rationally organized, well conceived, beautiful, good, and sensible everything on earth was. . . . People nowadays do not even realize that one and the same external phenomenon embraces two completely contradictory internal attitudes. There are two kinds of laughter, and we lack the words to distinguish them. (p. 63)
Acts of sex are so frequent in Kundera’s narration that sex becomes as much a character as the characters who perform it. In the way that some writers may habitually bring their characters together over drinks at the pub, Kundera brings his characters together in coitus. This may be characteristic of all his work. I’ve only read one other of his novels, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which sex was most assuredly the main character. This realization is thought-provoking. Kundera’s sex character is neither titillating nor disgusting; s/he is just another player in the drama.
Kundera skillfully executes the novel-within-the-novel, and I forget I have been gently pushed into a fictional world within a fictional world. Still in a sphere of writers and artists living under the thumb of a repressive regime, I now inhabit the fractured world of Tamina, a young widow who struggles to reconcile life without her husband. A New York Times review suitably describes Laughter and Forgetting as “part fairy tale.” Kundera’s Tamina moves easily in and out of reality taking me with her, never quite sure if I am in a world of imagination or a commune of lost souls. Tamina's flash of insight into her compulsion to travel from place to place in search of bits and pieces of physical evidence of her husband's existence reads as if Kundera, a refugee from a country he loved but no longer found habitable, is learning something about himself:
. . . her husband was still alive in her grief, just lost, that's all, and it was her job to look for him! Search the whole world over! Yes, yes! Now she understood. Finally! We will never remember anything by sitting in one place waiting for the memories to come back to us of their own accord! Memories are scattered all over the world. We must travel if we want to find them and flush them from their hiding places!
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is of that genre of literature that invites the reader to come back again and again to see what more there is to be discovered. The nonfiction qualities of this book—Kundera’s description of the crushing disappointment of a revolution that only replaced one despot for another—are as intriguing to me as the fictional aspects. (March 2012)
Kundera, Milan, The Art of the Novel. New York: Perennial Classics, 2003. Rev. ed. This is a compendium of seven pieces that Kundera states "were written, published, or spoken before an audience between 1979 and 1985." "The sole raison d'ètre of a novel," he quotes Hermann Broch, "is to discover what only the novel can discover." Just having completed the first draft of my first completed novel (my drawers are lined with half-finished attempts), I eagerly read in anticipation of discovering the rules of writing The Great Novel. Not surprisingly, the rules are vague and sketchy. One of Kundera's favorite rule-breaking devices is something I am fond of—the rabbit trail, a blatant detour from the action of the story so that the author can indulge an itch to explore some political or psychological or spiritual thought that came to mind while a character is brushing his teeth or walking to work or making love. Kundera does not just discuss his own work and what motivates him, but delves also into comparative literature commentary. He looks at Cervantes, Flaubert, Rabelais, Sterne, and Diderot, among others. Kundera's mini course in the history and structure of the novel is engrossing, illuminating and thought-provoking—worth reading a few more times. (March 2009)
Lamott, Anne, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Lamott makes me want to stand up and cheer. "Yes!" I shout for her words of encouragement, advice, painful truth. Like the best of us, her painful truths become opportunities for comedic self-deprecation. Admitting to visions of schadenfreude during her moments of literary jealousy, she quotes a Clive James poem: "The book of my enemy has been remaindered." Admitting to a tendency towards fragility to criticism, she advises that if someone you admire has refused to read your work, "pretend to be friendly, so she won't think less of you than she already does. Then you can move into a trailer park near your therapist's house until you're well enough again to ask someone else." My favorite bit of advice relates to the problem of using real-life characters in your fiction. In addition to making your character a composite and disguising personal characteristics, she recommends that you "throw in the teenie little penis and anti-Semitic leanings," and the model for your character is quite unlikely to come forward. Not only entertaining, Lamott's Bird by Bird is packed with sound advice on writing and many wise tidbits about life. Treat yourself to an uplifting read. (September 2013)
Lee, John R., M.D., Natural Progesterone: The Multiple Roles of a Remarkable Hormone. Sebastopol, CA: BLL Publishing, 1993. Lee offers a clear explanation of the workings of a woman's endocrine system, particularly as it relates to menstrual cycles, the climacteric, and pregnancy. There are a number of gems of information here: food and herb sources of progesterone, progesterone as a builder of bone (while estrogen simply slows loss), how the artificial progesterone used in the United States is made from natural progesterone, and more. While natural progesterone has no side effects and has been well researched, it is no longer in vogue. Why? It's not patentable! Drug companies buy natural progesterone (primarily made from Mexican wild yam) and alter it to form a patentable drug. This synthetic form, called progestin, has numerous side effects and is thought to negate the healthy heart effect of estrogen. Since drug companies are the primary sponsors for seminars, which give doctors the continuing education credits required to keep their licenses, most doctors are never even aware that the natural progesterone that was beginning to be valued in the 1960s disappeared from the scene as drug companies altered it to gain profitable patents. Lee also discusses healthy lifestyle and supplements as an important part of a healthy midlife for women. Lee is an entertaining writer, as well as offering a thorough and well-documented discussion of the value of progesterone in balancing the hormonal systems of hysterectomized and midlife women. So add an over-the-counter progesterone skin cream to your shopping list and give your bones a treat. (April 1994)
Lessing, Doris, Briefing for a Descent into Hell. New York: Vintage Books, 1981. (Orig. pub. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971). This is another of Lessing's surrealist commentaries on society and, in particular, mental illness. Even though mental illness is a favorite topic that appears in most of her novels, I think this is the only one that explores the dust in the corners of a single psychotic episode. This was not easy reading for me. I could not remain interested in the long meanderings through the landscape of the disturbed mind. If it had not been for a few brief verbatims from physician's notes early in the book, I would not have had a curiosity sturdy enough to plow through ten or twelve pages each night. Towards the end, each time the protagonist wandered the tunnels of his illusions, I read only every other paragraph. About halfway through, my interest was finally piqued, and I began to care about the characters and wanted to know how their lives turned out beyond The End.
Having now read some ten plus of Lessing's novels, plus two volumes of her autobiography, I wonder about her descriptions of the human mind lost in a world of delusion and illusion. She had an apparently long affair with a married psychiatrist in London and explored her own psyche in psychotherapy. I wonder about the extent of her personal experience and the borrowed experiences from her associations. (December 2005)
Lessing, Doris, Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994. The writing in Lessing's autobiographies is not so different from the writing in her fiction. Her attention to detail in both the emotional lives of her characters, as well as in their physical environments, is here. It becomes evident that the five novels in her Children of Violence series is heavily autobiographical. Deserting her husband and children to become a social activist, marrying a German refugee to save him from an African concentration camp, having another child (almost as something to do with her time) are all fleshed out here, so near (but not identical) to the experiences of her fictional character, Martha. The novels, however, project into the future, predicting what could happen in a thoughtless society that does not mend its ways. I often see Lessing as being blind to her own motives, but that does not mean that she is kind to herself. Like her "feminist" masterpiece, The Golden Notebook, which she claims was never about feminism, perhaps her memoirs are exactly what she says they are, and not what the reader imagines them to be. Lessing's autobiographies are as engrossing as her fiction. (October 1999)
Lessing, Doris, The Fifth Child. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. Lessing's Harriet is a young woman of principle who has maintained her virginity to age 25. Her ease in accomplishing this astonishing feat, in a society that assigns no value to chastity, is not due to unattractiveness, prodigious moral fiber, or even great physical struggle. Without using the trite phrase, "waiting for the right man to come along," Lessing gives us Harriet, who retains her virginity more than guards it, as she waits for Mr. Right: "She had not thought of herself as a virgin, if this meant a physiological condition to be defended, but rather as something like a present wrapped up in layers of deliciously pretty paper, to be given, with discretion, to the right person."
Harriet's "right person" does come along, and Harriet and David, two peas in a pod, begin their lives together. Harriet's widowed mother becomes the unpaid housekeeper for their growing family, David's wealthy father and stepmother become financier for their larger-than-modern-life domestic undertaking, and David's mother and stepfather add a typically English, tweedy, Oxfordian note of practical disapproval to complete the cast of characters who make it possible for the two to fulfill their merged dreams of a large house bursting with joy, children, and family.
Lessing could have stopped here, simply leaving us with this commentary about what size village it takes to raise children when educated, middle-class people breed indiscriminately and deliberately in a world that has too many mouths to feed. But of course she doesn't. This is Lessing. The plot must not only thicken, it must take a surrealistic turn.
Harriet and David stop short of their goal of at least six children with Ben, their fifth. Lessing's work is always social commentary, and Ben's failure in school offers the opportunity for her comment on a modern education system that is ill equipped to deal with so many of our modern children: "As everyone knows, all these schools have a layer, like a sediment, of the uneducable, the unassimilable, the hopeless, who move up the school from class to class, waiting for the happy moment when they can leave. And, more often than not, they are truants, to the relief of their teachers." Lessing leaves us with a Harriet resigned to that which she cannot control and, as Ben leaves home, relieved that she no longer has a daily visual reminder that it was her and David's lovemaking, her body that produced this being that disrupted the dream of their perfect household.
Lessing's writing is not lyrical. It is adequate in its most perfect form: solid, detailed, original, and achieving an amazing balance between simply adequate and over-the-top. Like the plots of so many of her novels, her language is bare and realistic, without being sparse, and constructed of common terms arranged in original ways to draw vivid portraits of the times and places and people who inhabit her stories. Harriet is the central character in this tale, but a grand surprise is in store. Twelve years later, Lessing produces the sequel, Ben, In the World, and readers get to hear Ben's side of the story. (August 2003)
Lessing, Doris, Ben, In the World. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. Lessing’s The Fifth Child ends with Harriet wondering what will become of Ben, her fifth child, when he stops coming home from his forays with his gang. She looks forward to it with dread, guilt, and relief.
Ben, In the World begins several years later. An old woman sees him lonely, hungry, and frightened in a grocery store. She takes him home and feeds him. She is the first of a small group of people who help him adapt in a world that he was born into, but which he most assuredly does not belong to. His mother thought him to be some sort of throwback; the old woman thought he might be “a kind of yeti.”
Ben knows he is not like anyone else and yearns to find others like himself. His dependence on others to help him survive, makes him vulnerable to being used, rather than valued. At last he finds someone who will help him in his search to find out who he is, where he might have come from.
Many of Lessing’s stories tend to begin in a place of ordinariness and weave their way into surrealism so casually that the impossible seems quite realistic. It’s her own brand of speculative fiction. I was surprised to find Ben classified as horror. I think it’s rather more like Sinclair Lewis on peyote. I yearn to see this pair of books as a film. (July 2006)
Lessing, Doris, Stories. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978. This is a collection of all Lessing's short fiction up to 1978, excluding those with an African setting. As a Lessing fan, I continue to be interested in everything she writes, yet her published work is very uneven, particularly with regard to stories and essays. Some of these pieces are short descriptions of the sort one might find in a journal or perhaps the fruit of writing exercises similar to the thirty-minute dailies recommended by Natalie Goldberg. "The Temptation of Jack Orkney" was as sharp a piece of observation as one will find, even among Lessing's other finest writing, and her scenarios of heterosexual lust, with particular attention to love triangles ("The Other Woman" and "A Man and Two Women"), is so acutely and painfully accurate that readers re-live the experience (even if they never had it). There are perhaps a half dozen stories that demand to be read, yet despite the fine writing and keen observation to be found here and there in this collection, my favorite Lessing story remains "The Black Madonna." (January 2007)
Lessing, Doris, The Summer Before the Dark. New York: Vintage Books, 1983. (Original work published 1973). A classic from one of Britain's best-known women writers, The Summer Before the Dark is a midlife wife's tale. "You are young, and then you are middle-aged, but it is hard to tell the moment of passage from one state to the next. Then you are old, but you hardly know when it happened." Thus Lessing opens her novel, announcing that her character, Kate Brown, will be the exception. Lessing has created a character who bridges the midlife transition in a single summer, from typical upper-middle-class British housewifery to corporate executive to older-woman-younger-man romance to denouncing the hair color that masks her age. By the end of Kate Brown's summer, she is not entirely certain who she is, but quite clear on who she is not. Lessing is recognized as one of the important writers in the English language, and the body of literature on midlife women is enriched by her genius and wisdom. (January 1995)
Lessing, Doris, African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe. 1st U.S. ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Lessing offers first a brief history of Southern Rhodesia, her childhood home, where her British parents attempted to build a life as farmers. She thinks back to that childhood: "I remember as a child hearing farmers remark, with the cynical good nature that is the mark of a certain kind of bad conscience: 'One of these days they are all going to rise and drive us into the sea.' This admission clearly belonged in a different part of the brain from that where dwelled the complacencies of Empire." When she returned in 1982, after an absence of more than 25 years (for many years having been declared a Prohibited Immigrant), the name had been changed to Zimbabwe, and the white man's empire was no longer in power. She returns again in 1988, 1989, and 1992, each time talking to people, mostly the indigenous population, recording their hopes and disappointments for their country, making note of the black-led government that slowly becomes their captor rather than their savior. Considering the present-day plight in Zimbabwe, Lessing has created an important archive in the history of the everyday lives of a people still struggling for their freedom, having involuntarily traded their slavery under white rule for slavery under black rule. (December 2004)
Lester, Yami, Yami: The Autobiography of Yami Lester. Alice Springs, NT, Australia: Institute for Aboriginal Development Publications, 1993. Yami's birth father was white, but he grew up with his mother's people, Australian Aboriginals who built a life around the work they found on the remote Australian cattle stations of central Australia. Yami's people were in the desert when atomic testing released enough radioactive material to kill some of his relatives and damage his own eyesight (which he eventually lost altogether). His memoirs are a fascinating recounting of the day-to-day life of an Aboriginal youth as he learned his trade as a horseman and cattle drover in the great Australian outback. The last half of the book deals with his becoming a rather famous social activist after losing his sight, being sent to a school for the blind and learning to speak English and read Braille. (February 2007)
Liberman, Jacob, Take Off Your Glasses and See: A Mind/Body Approach to Expanding Your Eyesight and Insight. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1995. ". . . I've found that our eyesight is simply a reflection of our view of reality. So when the mind begins to see more clearly, the eyes also begin to see more clearly—and that shift can be instantaneous." Get ready for a very different view of improving your vision. Without surgery, without eyeglasses or contact lenses or magnifying glasses, Liberman proposes that you can naturally improve your vision, even if you're nearly blind. In fact, he even recounts the story of a blind man who sees. In the Appendices, Liberman lists "behavioral optometrists" and "natural vision improvement practitioners" by state and country. Mind and vision are inseparable, he argues, and therefore the first step to healing your vision is to delve into the contents of your mind. I found this a fascinating read. (June 2004)
Lieb, Josh, I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want To Be Your Class President. Razorbill Books, 2009. Oliver Watson is 12 years old, in the seventh grade, and overweight. This is his story, told by him. If it’s true what Einstein said, that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” then Oliver has a great deal of what is more important. He plays dumb at school, he says, so that no one will know that he is actually an evil genius, a billionaire, the hidden power behind the wealthiest man in town. From his headquarters in a blimp, he manipulates his teachers and parents with an unlimited budget for bribery and dirty tricks, and with the aid of his front man and a goon whose primary job is intimidation.
I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil reads like Lieb’s memoir of how it could have been back then if he had only had, then, the brain he has now. Early on I saw that many of Oliver’s metaphors are a bit above the radar of even the most precocious seventh-grade nerd, when he describes his dog as “a pudgy dewdrop of brindled fur and baby teeth, smiling happily at the world from a cold and barren cage.” Half way through, I stopped to check if I was mistaken about this being a book published as “young adult fiction.” Oliver’s vocabulary, grasp of politics and business, not to mention his rather advanced knowledge of literature, is less believable than his batman-like hideaway built into the lockers outside study hall.
In the end, I judged that the many sly inside jokes for brainy adults are well enough balanced with the quantity of pubescent body-function jokes. Just as is true with many cartoons, the format and basically simple story line are sufficient to engage the target audience, who most likely breezed past the adult content with nary a notice.
As so many young men (and even old ones) before him, Oliver’s deepest desire is to win his father’s approval. It is this longing that inspires him to run for class president. He spares nothing in his effort to succeed. He threatens, cajoles and bribes—even accepts the help of the school’s meanest girl.
Until nearly the end, I bought into the notion that I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil is just another wipe-your-boogers-under-your-seat-and-fart-at-every-opportunity glee-fest for adolescent boys, with bits of adult-in-the-know humor thrown in here and there. Thus the ending was a complete surprise. The hints at depth given throughout the book were realized just when I thought it was too late for it to be anything other than what it had most obviously been for 284 pages. It now qualifies for a second read and a pass-on to people-watchers of all ages.
I’ve saved the worst for last. I hated the block format of the book, the use of spaces between paragraphs instead of indents. I kept thinking I would find some reason, but in the end all I could see was convenience and laziness—or spite. My first impression was that the publisher took the economical way out by publishing directly from the author’s manuscript, which was in email/block letter format. The only other reason I can fathom is that maybe Lieb’s father is the editor of an important literary magazine, or a copy editor for a text book publisher, or just something of an old-school grammar nut, and Lieb did it to get even with the old man. (March 2012)
Liem, Ann, Jacob Boehme: Insights into the Challenge of Evil. Pendle Hill Pamphlet No. 214. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications, 1977. Author Ann Liem’s interest in German mystic Jakob Boehme (1575-1624) is the striking similarity of Boehme’s life and teachings to that of George Fox (1624-1691), founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Just as Boehme suffered censure and criticism from the Lutheran Church during his lifetime, Fox was persecuted by the Church of England for his teachings. Both were propelled forward in their work by guiding visions.
Boehme’s writings on the nature of God and the creation of the universe often conflicted with Lutheran teachings, and his insights about good and evil and the road to salvation were both original and far removed from the thinking of his time. God created all things as an expression of pure joy, he wrote:
God did not create for the purpose of perfecting Himself, but to reveal Himself to Himself in joy and magnificence. This joy did not start with the creation of this world, but has been from all eternity, a subjective state in God.
Just as theoretical physicists propose that our universe eternally adjusts to achieve balance, Boehme wrote that our existence depends on paired opposites that create the tension necessary to the creative process—male and female, hot and cold, dark and light, good and evil, and on and on. Thus evil is essential to our universe and embodied in all human beings.
Boehme does not abandon humanity to a destiny of eternal suffering at the hands of evil, but rather emphasizes that each of us can exercise our free will to choose between good and evil. “For there is nothing so evil, but hath a good in it, whereby it may rule and be predominant over the evil,” he writes. He refers to a return to God, which will happen when all souls have been saved (made good by their own choosing). This has the ring of the Buddhist philosophy that souls reincarnate time and time again in an effort to achieve perfection. Boehme’s universe has no chosen people, no one predestined to achieve unity with God, nor any magic number of souls who will ascend.
Liem has done a fine job of distilling and simplifying Boehme’s writings, which are dense and repetitive. Though free access to a complete collection of his work is available on the Internet for anyone courageous enough to tackle it, Liem’s 36-page pamphlet is a good introduction. (May 2012)
Liles, Maurine Walpole, Rebecca of Blossom Prairie: Grandmother of a Vice-President. Austin, TX, USA: Eakin Press, 1990. I saved this book from the giveaway pile when my brother was preparing his farm for sale. I saved it because it was about Texas history, and I have been researching my own Texas roots for over twenty years. As it turns out, none of my relatives (that I know of) appear in its pages. The Rebecca of the title is Rebecca Walpole Garner, whose grandson, John Nance Garner IV, was Vice President of the United States from 1933 to 1941. Little Rebecca met General Andrew Jackson, before he became president, while he was visiting her father, a story that must have been handed down in the family with great relish. When Rebecca's husband dies in 1847, she conceives a plan to sell the farm and join a wagon train to Texas. Four years later, with four children in tow and without the help of a man, her plan comes to fruition. Liles obviously researched the details of life in 1851 and the perils of the route taken by hundreds of wagon trains from Tennessee through Alabama and Arkansas to Texas (and some to Oklahoma, then Indian Territory). She describes cooking utensils of the era, cooking on an open fire, firearms that were used for hunting and protection, and other details that mark the era. The general story is true, but Liles has fictionalized it in order to add interest, as well as to create opportunities to educate young readers of the dangers their ancestors faced long before there were automobiles and highways. Liles's writing is typical of the genre, with the pen of the school teacher in evidence. The children for whom this is written are unlikely to notice that. This is a very creditable account of American pioneer life and the push west that began in the mid nineteenth century. The targeted audience appears to be ages 10 through 12, but precocious readers as young as 8 could easily tackle it. Adults with an interest in the subject matter will find it a quick and interesting read. (September 2011)
Linde, Paul R. Of Spirits and Madness: An American Psychiatrist in Africa. New York, et al.: McGraw-Hill, 2001. Linde is a psychiatrist whose wife is a pediatrician. It was her dream to work in Africa that brought him to the experience that is the subject of this memoir. Originally intending to spend his Africa years writing, Linde happened into a job as a staff psychiatrist in a government hospital for the mentally ill. Within the first few pages, I learn that treatment is often governed by budget, rather than by the welfare of the patient (not so unlike its contemporaries in the United States and other first-world societies, where the more effective drug with fewer side effects is often available but not within reach of the poor or those depending on HMOs for their healthcare). Linde's personal life is in the shadows here. His emphasis, and where the light shines, is on a rich African culture, where psychiatrists expect (and sometimes recommend) that their patients consult native healers. Linde is not the sort of psychiatrist with a couch in his office, and he is neither trained for, nor interested in talk therapy. His skill and training are with psychiatric drugs. As one of only ten or twelve psychiatrists in the country, Linde's expertise as an emergency-room psychiatrist fit the bill perfectly for his Zimbabwean post. Time was at a premium, and the competent and well-respected nurses ran the hospital, as well as filled in for absent doctors. Linde took advantage of his single year at the Harare Psychiatric Unit to learn about local African culture and African attitudes towards healing and spirituality. He displays considerable respect for the Africans with whom he worked, as well as those he treated. Linde is a good writer, and a fine writer-in-the-making. His parade of case histories, interspersed with information about drugs, psychiatry, and the practice of the "art of medicine" is never dull. (May 2007)
Lipsey, Roger. An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art. Boston: Shambhala, 1989. Lipsey describes the social and political scene that surrounded each of the major styles in art that emerged in the twentieth century and describes the art forms and thinking of many of the well-known artists within each movement—Cézanne's relentless pursuit of the essence of nature, Kandinsky's definitions of the spiritual quality of color and form, the poetry of structure in Cubism, Dada and Duchamp in reaction to World War I, the Russian Avant-Garde and Malevich's Suprematism as integral to the Revolution of 1917, and the domination of abstract art after World War II. Lipsey's theme is that "Twentieth-century art embodied a stronger and wiser spirituality than we have fully acknowledged" (p. 5), and his choice of artists is governed not by the degree of their fame, but by the degree to which they succeeded in embodying a contemporary spirituality. Modern art is a statement of philosophy that differs from previous eras, Lipsey posits, in part because "twentieth-century artists have for the most part worked individually and without formal adherence to religious or spiritual traditions" (p. 11). Lipsey's careful and thoughtful exploration of the spiritual in twentieth-century art has enormously enlarged my ability to see abstract art and benefit from the experience. (December 1994)
Lodge, David. Thinks . . .. London: Penguin Books, 2002. (Orig. pub. London: Secker and Warburg, 2001). About half way through the book, one of Lodge's characters discusses "the novel as a thought experiment." That is the perfect genre for Thinks . . .. Lodge has an intriguing combination of three viewpoints. He writes in the first person for each of his main characters, one male and one female, then changes to the third-person perspective from time to time. At a point in the book where I am expecting loose ends to begin coming together, Lodge abruptly abandons his deep conversations on consciousness and introduces a series of new subplots, simultaneously introducing a new pace and sensibility. With so few pages left to resolve his many-pronged plot, Lodge crashes through the wall to his finish line. Thinks . . . should become a classic among experimental novels. Lodge has combined three viewpoints and two genres in a short novel, with a very interesting result. My greatest criticism would be that I was too aware of these shifts in viewpoint, pace, and interest as I was reading. Instead of becoming lost in the characters and action, I frequently found myself muttering, "Isn't that an interesting way to handle that." Perhaps a second (or third, or fourth) read might be needed to sort out my ambivalence. Lodge's "thought experiment" is a remarkable exercise, and although I question its entertainment value, I am certain of its considerable value as a topic of conversation. I think it's one of those rare books that, with the wry wit of the right screen play and direction, would be much better as a film. (November 2005)
London, Jack. Three Novels: The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea-Wolf, Forty Short Stories. New York: Portland House, 1998. (This collection originally published 1980. All Jack London's writings, including those reprinted in this volume, were published in or before 1916.) I found London's writing uneven—not too surprising, since he often stated that he wrote only to produce an income, which means that he was more interested in getting it done in a hurry than reaching any level of perfection. His storytelling, however, makes up for any shortcomings in his writing. This collection of three of his most famous novels and forty of his short stories is representative of his skill in creating page turners that made him the first writer of fiction to make a fortune from his writing.
London enrolled in high school at the age of nineteen, having decided that education must be the key to establishing the kind of prosperous life he envisioned. Prior to this, as a school dropout, he had sampled a broad range of professions that required little to no formal education: working long hours in a cannery, buying a boat with borrowed money to become an oyster pirate, working for the California Fish Patrol after his boat required more repairs than was worthwhile, signing on as a sailor on a commercial voyage to Japan, and finally becoming a hobo. This last occupation earned him 30 days in a Buffalo, New York, jail.
During high school and a short stint as a college student, he did his studying in the familiar environment of a neighborhood saloon. Though his year in the Klondike, at age 21, had failed to yield enough gold to guarantee he would not have to return to low-wage jobs, his experiences during that year became the substance of his fiction that began to yield the wealth that he craved. By 1900, at the age of 24, he had accomplished his goal to make a good living as a writer. With the publication of The Call of the Wild in 1905, he was well on his way to becoming the world's highest paid author.
In The Call of the Wild, a pampered pet must adjust to life in the wild, and in White Fang, London reverses the plot with a wild dog that becomes domesticated. Somehow, the greater hero in my mind is the spoiled Buck, who becomes a master of his adopted wilderness, even though the born-wild White Fang is assigned heroic acts as a defender of his master's household. In both these classic dog tales, London writes in the first person as a dog, convincingly assuming the physical and mental presence of his canine characters. He skillfully invites readers to inhabit these dog bodies, see through their eyes, hunger when they hunger, feast when they end a hunt with a successful kill, and puzzle through the expectations of the humans whom they encounter.
London's duet of dog stories is suitable for children of any age, as well as an exciting read for their elders. The same can't be said of The Sea-Wolf. Though there is action enough in this tale of life at sea to earn the label of adventure tale, it is as much a psychological thriller. As I read, I found myself envisioning it as a 1950s technicolor movie, along the lines of Treasure Island or The Buccaneer. And now I learn it was made into a 1941 film with Edward G. Robinson. Both the black-and-white format and the choice of Robinson as the brutal Captain Wolf Larsen suggest that the film is more focused on the psychological aspects of the story.
London's dogs were not great lotharios. Their lives were the lives of great adventurers with little time for romance, but his gentleman protagonist in The Sea-Wolf is human, and like London himself, was in need of female companionship. Thus London provides him with a beautiful, intelligent woman plucked from the sea, whom he courts in proper Victorian fashion.
The short stories are reprints of four collections that London published, plus two more from his extensive Klondike writings that fueled his successful foray into writing for magazines, a format just coming into its own as London's career was taking off. Several of his favorite characters people many of his frozen-north stories, sometimes as a central character, sometimes as a casual drop-in. Some of the stories are little more than character studies or clippings from daily life; others are morality tales, action sequences that culminate in a meaningful end. (February 2016)
London, Jack. Martin Eden. The Bodley Head Jack London, vol. 3, edited and introduced by Arthur Calder-Marshall. London: The Bodley Head, 1965. (Originally published 1909). A working sailor, fresh from a sea voyage, young Martin Eden comes to the rescue of a stranger in a barroom brawl. Fisticuffs is one of Martin's developed talents, and the hard work of a sailor has left him particularly well fit to practice it. The stranger is Arthur Morse, a son of one of San Francisco's prominent families. Martin is invited to dinner to meet the grateful family. This is the event that charts an entirely new course for his life.
Finding himself in an "upper class" home, Martin drinks in the beauty of it, with real oil paintings on the walls and shelves of books. And then he meets Arthur's sister, Ruth, with her "wide, spiritual blue eyes, and a wealth of golden hair." It is love at first sight and he is determined to raise himself to her level, win her love and make her his wife. Ruth is intrigued with this rough young man and decides she will undertake his gentrification as a personal project.
After another tour of sea duty, Martin finds a tailor and buys a good bespoke black suit and applies himself fiercely to his education, working his way through piles of books from the free library. In much less time than it would take for him to complete his grammar school education and enter high school, Martin's long hours of study yield the result he had hoped for. He finds himself the intellectual equal of Ruth's fine friends—indeed the superior of all except one university professor. He looks about himself and wonders what these ninnies have done with their fine educations.
I found this later effort of Jack London slow going at the outset, but stuck with it until I became involved in the narrative and began to look forward to progressing through the story. There was quite definitely a surprise ending. I won't discuss that here, in the event that you know as little about the book as I did when I undertook to read it. But I puzzled about why London had chosen his ending. And so I researched his life story and read book reviews. Not surprisingly, London's stated goal in writing the book was not one that scholars have accepted. Once turned loose on the world, a work of art inherits whatever meaning its consumers assign, and London's work is no exception.
Intended message aside, Martin Eden is autobiographical, and even prophetic. London did educate himself, did spend years as the starving artist, writing and stacking up an enormous stack of rejection slips, and did quite suddenly become an extraordinarily successful and popular writer, the most financially rewarded author in the history of publishing up to that time. And like Martin Eden, fame, social acceptance, and immense wealth did not bring the life he had imagined.
I would not rate Martin Eden in my top ten fiction list—or even in my top 100. I've not given up on London, though. I have just begun reading his famous dog novels and a collection of his short stories. London himself thought Martin Eden was his finest work, though many fans of his adventure stories are disappointed. Perhaps the philosophical discourse he so loved is just not their cup of tea. (May 2015)
Longaker, Christine, Facing Death and Finding Hope: A Guide to the Emotional and Spiritual Care of the Dying. New York: Doubleday, 1997. Twenty years ago, Longaker lost her husband to an incurable disease at the age of 25. In the ensuing years she has become internationally known for her pioneering work in the hospice movement. Though she writes from a Buddhist perspective, the advice offered can be adapted to any spiritual tradition. Facing Death and Finding Hope is an excellent guide for hospice volunteers and professionals, yet is well suited for anyone who has questions about how to deal with a dying loved one—or even how to face one's own death. (December 1997) [Click here to read an interview with Christine Longaker].
Lovejoy, Diane, Cat Lady Chronicles. Milan, Italy: Officina Libraria, 2012. Diane Lovejoy’s Cat Lady Chronicles would make a lovely gift for any cat lover. The illustrated-board cover features an exquisite Japanese woodblock of a black-and-white cat skulking behind a tomato plant. Inside are 31 color plates of paintings, prints, drawings, and photographs of cats and their people, all from museum collections.
However, this is not simply a picture book, but a lovely little memoir. We all have those moments that transform our lives, and for Lovejoy, one of those moments was when a cat adopted her. Married with no children, dedicated to her professional life as a publications director for a major art museum, and an orderly person, Lovejoy writes, “My steady routines were thrown for a loop when, twelve years ago, I found an emaciated feline in our backyard.” From there, we find how she and her husband became co-residents with ten cats and how they have managed to keep their census at ten, even though family, friends, and neighbors—and assorted free-ranging kitties—consider them the go-to place to shelter abandoned or otherwise homeless cats.
Everyone with pets knows how they can organize, disorganize, and permanently alter your life. Lovejoy, who had been a quiet, self-contained person all her life is no different. “I was relating better to people because of my ability to relate to cats,” she writes.
Tips on being a dedicated cat owner—from whimsical to practical—are scattered throughout the text, bordered with a paw-print design. Though I found these interesting and informative, their placement distracted from the narrative. I would have found them more beneficially placed as a collection in an appendix or otherwise separate section at the back of the memoir text.
While Cat Lady Chronicles is well written and quite appealing, its excitement score isn’t high enough to help me over the bumps of a couple of editorial choices. Over the past 20 years or so, comma usage has evolved to a minimalist, use-it-as-you-need-it art. By this measuring stick, Lovejoy’s text is rampant with overused commas—not incorrectly used, just unnecessarily used. This tried-and-true, conservative approach to commas is in sharp contrast to runaway ofs, used in a manner only recently accepted in American writing. I’m afraid I’m one of those who hasn’t embraced the new trend. Pages are littered with “outside of,” “inside of” and—horror of all horrors—“off of.”
And oh yes, those lovely cat drawings throughout the book are actual portraits of Lucius, Lydia, Leo, Linus, L.B., Alvar, Lillie, T.J., Perkins and Miss Tommie. (November 2012)
Mace, John, Ph.D., How to Turn Upsets into Energy. Ringwood, Victoria, Australia: Brolga Publishing, 2000. I first became intrigued with Mace's work when I happened upon his website while researching anxiety and panic attacks. I later met him and bought his book at a local health and wellness expo. Mace, who is a Clinical Member of the Australian Counsellors Association, claims that his methods eliminate stress, depression, and addiction, rather than simply offering tools for management. He has trained a number of other therapists in his technique, including at least one American psychiatrist. His little book left me with one very powerful and useful image: He claims upset is caused by not getting one's way and compares it to two fire hoses turned on full blast and facing one another square on. Instead of meeting the blast (the invitation to anger, fear, distress, etc.) head on, Mace suggests simply moving your hose to the side so that there is no meeting of the powerful energies. A new way of expressing the old advice, "Just let it go!" Mace is interesting for several other reasons, too. For one, he is in his eighties and has the appearance of a healthy sixty-something. For another, he has written two other unrelated books: Teach Yourself Beginner Arabic Script and Teach Yourself Modern Persian. (January 2004)
Maclachlan, Lewis, Intelligent Prayer. London: James Clark, 1946. Maclachlan was a Presbyterian minister, whose most popular book, Intelligent Prayer, was continuously in print from 1946 to at least 1965. It is well written, well organized, and inspirational—everything a book on prayer ought to be. In addition, it is practical. Sections titled "Prayer is Controlled Thinking," "The Power of Thought," and particularly, "Prayer Is Obedience to Natural Law" are strikingly similar to New Age teachings on the Law of Attraction. Prayer, states Maclachlan, is "an art to be learnt," and he ably sets forth step-by-step methods for accomplishing your goals through prayer. I recommend this little tome to Christians and others who value prayer—not just to learn the art of effective prayer, but also to read some profoundly comforting and sensible answers to some common questions: Is Trouble Sent by God? Does God Punish Us? Do We Get Our Deserts? and Is Prayer Selfish? There are plenty of used copies available from Internet booksellers. Check betterworld.com first. Their prices are not only the best (with international free shipping), but their profits internationally benefit libraries and literacy programs. (December 2008)
Maclagan, David, Creation Myths. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1977 (Orig. pub. 1979). A discussion of myth, its definitions and manifestations, is the backdrop to the history and re-telling of creation stories from many different cultures. Richly illustrated with mostly black-and-white illustrations (but a nice selection of nineteen in color), this would be a stunning book as a full-size, hardcover coffee-table book. The text is as rich and interesting as the illustrations. Though listed as a 1979 paperback reprint of the 1977 original, it appears to be a more recent reprint, as I purchased it as a new book in about 2000. (August 2004)
Macmurray, John, Search for Reality in Religion (Swarthmore Lecture 1965). London: George Allen & Unwin, 1979 (Orig. pub. 1965). Scottish philosopher John Macmurray took membership in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in his seventies. When the Society invited him to deliver the annual Swarthmore Lecture, a British Quaker tradition since 1907, he writes, "On reflection, it seemed to me that I could serve this occasion best by setting myself to understand the processes and the pressures which led me, at the end of my public life, to seek the fellowship of the Society of Friends. In a real sense, this was the conclusion of a lifetime of religious reflection, which had been itself a search for reality in religion." Having just begun my own seventh decade, I find myself in much the same condition as Macmurray when he delivered his 1965 address. I, too, have come to the Quakers after a lifetime of religious reflection. Thus, as a seeker, I was very interested to read what one of the twentieth century's outstanding philosophers had to say about his search that culminated in the same religious community as my own. (May 2010)
Martel, Yann, Life of Pi. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2003. (Orig. pub. Canada: Knopf, 2002) Entwined with this engrossingly fantastic tale of a teenage boy lost at sea after a shipwreck are encyclopedic descriptions of captive animals and sea life. I am an information junkie. I love to listen to a good yarn. And I am addicted to meaning-of-life nuances in ordinary (and extraordinary) settings. The Daily Telegraph labeled Martel's story "a hilarious novel, full of clever tricks," the Daily Mail called it "an uplifting story," and The New York Times Book Review called it "a subtle and sophisticated fable about belief." I suppose all of these things are true. And if I read it again (and I will, as it demands I must), I am certain I will find dozens of other labels for it. As I finished the book, I wrote in my notes, "When the bare facts are impossible to live with, create a story that is." The idea that Pi may have experienced alternate realities is simply a hint at the end of the story. Did he tell his story in code, as it happened, or in the only form his mind could allow? I don't know how much was Martel's intention and how much derives from the way it touches the personal experience of every reader, a characteristic of all great literature. When the artist completes a work, ownership is transferred to the viewer, who may (and will) make of it many things never seen by the artist. (July 2007)
Martel, Yann, Beatrice and Virgil. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010. (Orig. pub. 2008)
I picked up this short novel with the expectation of becoming immediately enchanted, as I had been with Life of Pi. The memory of that first experience of Martel’s writing kept me going as I trudged through the first hundred pages or so of Beatrice and Virgil. And then some sense of the meaning of it began to permeate my reluctant attention. All at once, at the end, I got it. I had my aha! My wow! My sigh of satisfaction. It had all been worth it, that trudging.
There are stories nested within stories in Martel’s little narrative. At the core is a play about a donkey and a monkey, whose close bonds grew through a shared experience of torture and inhumanity at the hands of a group of cruel boys. Wrapped around this tale is the story of the mysterious taxidermist, Henry, the author of the play, who has in his shop the true-to-life stuffed versions of a howler monkey (Virgil) seated on the back of a donkey (Beatrice).
Wrapped around the story of the taxidermist is the story of Martel’s protagonist (also Henry), a writer who has had one enormously successful book. Henry the Writer has written another book, this one about the Holocaust, an essay and a novel under one cover; his publishers don’t like it, and he’s frustrated and irritated.
The final (outside) layer is the Holocaust; it could also be said to be the pit that dwells inside the core. So there we have it—the hard, dark pit of the Holocaust wrapped with four layers of consciousness: the tale of Beatrice and Virgil wrapped in the life of Henry the Taxidermist, wrapped in the life of Henry the Writer, wrapped in a personal urgent need to bring attention to the Holocaust in a new and different way.
There are similarities between Martel’s two novels, the most obvious being anthropomorphism, employing animals as human stand-ins. Another similarity is that Pi’s story of his months at sea after a ship wreck is a way of thinking about an event that is otherwise unthinkable to him, just as Henry the Taxidermist couches himself as a naughty boy taunting a donkey and a monkey, so that he can think about an event that is otherwise unthinkable. On the one hand, there is Pi offering an insurance investigator an optional story about the tiger and the raft, a story that he leaves to be accepted or rejected in favor of the original story. On the other hand, there is Henry the Writer revealing the truth about the taxidermist’s play, leaving the reader no choice but to reject the surface allegory and accept the dark truth of the pit.
Maybe it’s a fault of the novel that I trudged through the set-up, or maybe it’s a fault of the reader. This is one of those books that bears reading again. A work of substance, whether a book or a film, reveals new layers, bits of seemingly insignificant detail that become significant with each revisitation. I feel this will be true of Beatrice and Virgil.
I read the long section in the front of the paperback titled “Praise for Beatrice and Virgil.” I think the reading of these reviews colored my experience, perhaps even created my restlessness that made the first 100 pages such a plodding effort. But then again, if I had approached the story with no spoiler, perhaps I may have simply been puzzled with it, impatient with it—and then I may have written a review like the one that appeared in the New York Times, which I found to be lacking in insight—among other things.
The Times reviewer, as did others, fell into the comparison pit and never crawled out. Expecting another fascinating tale with a surprise ending, these reviewers were not prepared for the straightforward ending that left the reader with no doubt about what had transpired.
I was so viscerally touched at the conclusion that I find myself intolerant of the critical reviews that I have read, wanting to shake the reviewers and shout in their faces, “You didn’t get it!” Reviews are mixed. Sounds like a classic. (August 2011)
Martz, Sandra H. (Ed.), When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple: An Anthology of Short Stories and Poetry (2nd ed.). Watsonville, CA: Papier-mache Press, 1991. With a few exceptions, these vignettes of aging are from the viewpoint of young relatives of aging women. The title is a line from "Warning," a poem by Jenny Joseph. Joseph proposes that one of the benefits of aging is doing as one pleases, and what will please her is not just wearing purple, but spitting where she chooses and picking other people's flowers. My mother, herself at the age that Joseph yearns for, found this so offensive that she refused to look at any other part of the book. There are a few pieces that are particularly nice, including Sarah Barnhill's "Near Places, Far Places," in which a woman entering midlife begins to connect with her mother's values. The volume is riddled with the kind of typographical errors that would have easily yielded to a computer spellcheck, or even a cursory proofing (particularly irritating when this is a second edition). Though pleasing enough, I am of the opinion that the book is selling as well as it is on the strength of its titillating title—a testimony to the hunger for information of an aging population. (November 1994)
Massie, Bob, A Song in the Night. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2012. A Song in the Night is about many things, but the one thing that weaves its way through all the changes in geography, career, and health is Bob Massie’s passion for social justice. Massie was born with classic hemophilia. It was 1956, and hemophilia was a disease that was incurable, barely manageable, and the foreteller of an early death. During the years of intermittent and frequent hospitalizations, the little boy with “the dream of the crippled Superman” had time to both ponder his plight and the opportunity to notice that there were others far more needy than he.
This theme of Massie’s “pursuit of lasting justice” so dominated the narrative that it sometimes took on the feeling of a trumpet for a cause. At any moment I expected to see solicitation for donations. But it never happened. What did happen, though, was that I got an education about how a democracy starts from scratch, how bottom-line corporations are convinced to adopt environmentally friendly policies, and how an outward-lived life gives a very sick human being enough strength to tackle multiple careers and become an international participant in projects for a better world.
A Song in the Night is sometimes memoir, sometimes morality tale, sometimes sermon, and often awkward. His writing is more than adequate, yet there are some shaggy edges in his narrative. I occasionally got lost when he moved from one point in time to another with only a bit of extra space as warning. These transitions badly needed a meanwhile-back-at-the-ranch bridge. Too, I sometimes grew weary of his pontificating. But in the end, I was grateful for his sermons and pleas for a better society, as he told me, “It matters what we choose to believe in.”
It seems so right that someone who beat all the odds just to exist would sell us on the idea that the odds of achieving a just society are simply not that enormous—dream, work, succeed and fail, then dream some more, work some more, succeed some more, fail some more, as we move forward.
There is so much about this book to criticize. Why do I give it 5 Stars? Because as I read the last word and close the book, I am 5 Stars into awe. It is, after all—just as Massie’s life—worth the struggle to get to that last page. His story is a reminder that life is a miraculous mystery—not magical, but filled with unknowns. (July 2012)
Masters, William H., M.D., & Virginia E. Johnson, Human Sexual Response. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1966. I admit to reading only two chapters of this classic account of sex research: Chapter 8, "The Uterus: Physiologic and Clinical Considerations," and Chapter 9, "The Female Orgasm." In a nutshell: "The primary requirement in objective identification of female orgasm is the knowledge that it is a total-body response with marked variation in reactive intensity and timing sequence." (That's what I was trying to say, honey!) An impressive blow-by-blow description of orgasmic response involving not only the reproductive organs, but the total-body musculature, breasts, skin, and cardiorespiratory systems is followed by a brief discussion of psychosocial factors, which the authors say will be covered in another book. It was interesting that Masters and Johnson think to point out that arousal of the male is necessary to achieving pregnancy, while no satisfaction of any sort is necessary on the part of the female. They also note that faking orgasm may be a woman's way of ensuring male excitement to ejaculation. They proceed to declare that their work establishes female orgasmic physiology, thus allowing "an undeniable opportunity to develop realistically her own sexual response levels." The authors make it clear that the female reproductive system is far more complex than the male and that a woman has a broader range of choices. It makes one wonder to what extent ancient woman may have made her own bed, so to speak, in order to gain cooperation for purposes of reproduction and protection. Scary! It is worth reminding that these two researchers observed sexual behavior in their research laboratory using human volunteers, a fact that was the subject of outrage in some corners of the religious community. Married to others at the outset of their research, Masters and Johnson divorced their respective spouses and married one another by the time of its completion. (May 1994)
Mawer, Simon, Mendel's Dwarf. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1999 (Orig. pub. 1998). Dr. Benjamin Lambert is a celebrated geneticist and a distant relative of Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian monk whose garden experiments with peas became the foundation for modern genetics. Lambert’s specialty is the study of achondroplasia, an inherited condition that manifests as dwarfism, a condition from which he, himself, suffers. Intertwined with the story of Lambert’s illicit affair with a married librarian is a fictional imagining of the personal life of Mendel, complete with a parallel imagined affair with a married woman. From test tube to living room, Mawer’s tale is richly embellished with scientific facts about genetics and true-to-life details of the lives of little people.
As Lambert seeks a “cure” to the genetic happenstance that marks his greatest struggle with himself, it becomes clear that Mawer is also laying bare any number of ethical issues, the most obvious being the wisdom of mucking about with genes in a manner that suggests the possibility of genetically designed human beings. There are also issues of self-hatred, marital infidelity, and on and on—the stuff of life. This is an exciting read, with interesting twists of fate mingled with moments of delicious suspense. Mawer’s exceptionally fine writing is the added bonus. (March 1999)
Mawer, Simon, The Gospel of Judas. London: Little, Brown and Company, 2000. Father Leo Newman is an expert on ancient biblical texts. When he is asked to examine and verify the authenticity of an ancient papyrus that purports to be the earliest of writings about Jesus ever discovered, he falls into a dark pit of doubt as his scientific assessment makes clear that this long-lost gospel of Judas contradicts everything he has believed and taught. The Gospel of Judas is about a crisis in faith, about what happens when someone discovers that their life, both public and private, has been based on a false assumption.
This is the second of Simon Mawer's novels that I've read. In each, there is a subtle thread of suspense that lends the air of a thriller, but without gun fire and chase scenes. In each, his protagonist is an intellectual, an international expert in his field. In each, the story hinges on an improbable love affair. And in each, there is an ending that startles the reader into uncomfortable conjecture about what could have followed. His endings are beginnings—much as in real life. We are left neither with the horror of a certain disaster nor the comfort of an implied happily-ever-after. The star in each of these novels is his writing, his magnificent use of language. (June 2013)
May, Rollo, Love and Will (1st ed.). New York: W. W. Norton, 1969. This is another of those "classics" that have long been on my list of things-to-read. A few months ago, it fell into my hands and declared its time had come. Maybe it's because it's only been around for 39 years, or maybe it's because I'm a woman of a certain age, but I found May's insights as timely today as they were when the book was written. Perhaps May's words in his Foreword best describe the theme: "I have long believed that love and will are interdependent and belong together. Both are conjunctive processes of being—a reaching out to influence others, molding, forming, creating the consciousness of the other. But this is only possible, in an inner sense, if one opens oneself at the same time to the influence of the other. And will without love becomes manipulation—of which the age just preceding the First World War is replete with examples. Love without will in our own day becomes sentimental and experimental." I didn't find one superfluous word in May's 300+ pages. Possibly because his ideas complemented so well the reading I'd been doing on the Law of Attraction, the notion that we attract people and things and circumstances into our lives with our thoughts, emotions, and yearnings. I'm in love with this book! (December 2008)
McCourt, Frank, Angela's Ashes. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. "People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years." Thus McCourt prepares us to read the experience of his life, from his earliest memory as a three-year-old caring for his younger brother to the age of nineteen when his ship sails through and past New York harbor to dock overnight at Poughkeepsie, where he attends an onshore party as the guest of the ship's captain and a passenger priest. Gratefully but somewhat guiltily compromised by their hostess, McCourt knows the priest suspects what has happened: "He already wrote down my mother's name and address and now I'm afraid he'll write and say your fine son spent his first night in America in a bedroom in Poughkeepsie romping with a woman whose husband was away shooting deer for a bit of relaxation after doing his bit for America in the war and isn't this a fine way to treat the men who fought for their country." And this is how he tells his story—in rambling, runaway sentences, using minimal punctuation and never quotation marks. It works. I'm sitting in the pub with Frank McCourt, having a brew and listening to his life story. The pain and pathos leaks through his matter-of-fact narrative, occasionally showing itself full frontal, as it does when he collapses into the lap of a priest and sobs out the history of his fourteen years on earth—the deaths of his brothers and sister, the drunkenness of his father, the brokenness of his mother and every other terrible thing that ever happened to him and, mostly, that he fears he has sent an innocent girl to eternal damnation because she died before she got a chance to confess their afternoons of adolescent carnal pleasures. This last, of course, is told at the end of the evening, when we're both deep in our sauce and prepared to weep eternally for each other's sorrows. We have one more for the road, and I learn that his typically dysfunctional family is suffused with life-saving love, that the unrelenting hunger and poverty of his childhood was frequently interrupted with moments of childish joy, impish fun, and raucous laughter. McCourt's candor gives this memoir its fictional quality. Surely no one is willing to so scrupulously lay bare the truth about themselves; surely only the fly on the wall would dare tell it all with such honesty. My bit of words here contain more sentimentality than McCourt's own writing.(May 2007)
McLaren, Brian D., Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007. McLaren's view of Jesus is as a do-er, not a thinker of theological argument designed to make everyone else wrong. The author identifies himself as "a follower of God in the way of Jesus," thus acknowledging there are other paths to God. I needed to know that to continue reading. I'm one of the many who flinch at the word Jesus. Like any other word that is used repeatedly to exploit, derogate, or condemn, a lot of thinking people have gone on to another vocabulary of spirituality in place of the abused Christian lexicon. McLaren is a good writer, and in several of the chapters on the history of society's problems with environment and social justice, he made little reference to the J word or to the Christian Church, and I became lost in his thoughtful, well-documented analyses. He has covered the issues and offered solutions as good as the best among social-conscience writers. McLaren believes that the great teacher's words have been misunderstood and misused by many Christians. His Jesus is a tree-hugging liberal who preaches and practices social justice (except for a bad moment with a poor fig tree). McLaren does not assert that the worship of Jesus is the answer to the world's problems, but he does assert that Jesus's teachings, as he interprets the scriptures, are the answer. Whereas I and others may squirm a bit at the J word, this book is needed by the Christian community, and I hope it gains a wide and open-minded readership there. From a Christian standpoint, I should think, this is very exciting reading. (February 2009)
McMurtry, Larry, Lonesome Dove. New York: Pocket Books, 1986. (Originally published 1985). If you have just got around to reading this classic novel as I have, don't read any reviews, and certainly not the Cliff Notes. Yes, Cliff Notes. McMurtry hasn't just given us a rip-snortin' adventure yarn, he has created the sort of classic that finds its way into classrooms often enough that there are Cliff Notes.
There are several things about this story that engaged me. One of them is that I descend from Texas pioneers, and though born in California, I grew up in Texas and have lived forty-nine of my seventy-five years in the Lone Star state. The other is that the feeling of the story, as well as the details, are consistent with what I have read in nonfiction accounts of the brutal and uncertain years of Texas settlement. I found myself, in particular, flashing back to scenes from Surviving on the Texas Frontier, Sarah Harkey Hall's memoir of growing up a couple of farms away from my great grandparents in San Saba County, Texas. She has memories of the constant fear of Indian attack, of being left alone to rear her younger brothers and sisters when her parents died, and of two brothers being killed in alcohol-fueled gun fights as a result of petty squabbles.
McMurty is an old Texan, too, and that's where his considerable literary gifts have been expended time and again. It is fitting that he writes about a man's world, because that's what the Texas of the era was. It is the world of the cowboy, where a man's only contact with women was in the brothels of towns along the cattle-drive trails. It was a world of violent death at the hands of hardened outlaws, dispossessed Indians, and any number and variety of wandering psychopaths.
McMurtry is a master of character development. He draws vivid portraits with his pen, revealing hidden weaknesses in the strongest of men and hidden strength in the weakest. Nothing is predictable, certainly not the emerging theme that women are the lifeblood of the story. As feminist physician Christiane Northrup once wrote, men seek things worth dying for and women seek things worth living for. Nowhere could this have been more evident than in the American West of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where most men fought in three wars during their lifetimes and spent the time in between creating their version of civilization with a gun in one hand and the reins of their plow horse in the other.
It is difficult to reach the end of any book that has dominated my life and disturbed my sleep for such an extended period of time, and I knew no ending could possibly justify the disappointment I was bound to feel, but . . . I was not prepared for a non-ending. It just stopped. McMurtry was tired of writing it, I decided. Or if not tired, just committed to stopping . . . and so he stopped. Yet it was enough that he had pulled us into the lives of his characters and let us ride along with them for awhile. (June 2015)
Mehdi, Sharon, The Great Silent Grandmother Gathering. London: Michael Joseph, 2005. Mehdi's little tome is thirty-eight very small pages with generous thirteen-point type. In other words, this is a short story. "On a buffety, blustery, early summer day, when the news was bad and the sky turned yellow, a strange thing happened in the town where I live." That's how it starts, and if I tell you more, I'm in danger of this little review being longer than the little book, which, incidentally, deserves its own cover, its own place in the sun, not trapped with other stories to detract from it. The publishers say it's "a story for anyone who thinks she can't save the world." When I told Peter, who lent the book to me, that I would be putting a little review on my website, he said I would also need to put a silent space for thinking about it. So here it is. (October 2008)
Miller, John, Australia's Writers and Poets. Wollombi, NSW, Australia: Exisle Publishing, 2007. I can't compare this little volume to others on the topic, because I haven't read any others. Miller opens with an essay on Aboriginal literature, then proceeds chronologically with Australian literature as a whole, from Colonial times to the time of the present volume's publication. The text is well written, informative, and full of titles that I have added to my list of prospective reading material. I do wonder at Miller's exclusion of George Johnston, the author of My Brother Jack, one of the few Australian novels I have read and one which I have added to my Top Ten List. I considered for a moment that Johnston is simply not as good or as important as the authors Miller included, which would mean I really have a treat in store for me as I work my way through the Australian authors he chooses to discuss. Though I do anticipate a lot of good reading from titles mentioned, I cannot conclude that Johnston was not a worthy or important Australian author. Though assessments of his early work are less than enthusiastic, the critical success of My Brother Jack cannot be denied. It won the prestigious Miles Franklin Award in Australia and was described by a reviewer in the Illustrated London News as "one of the greatest books written this century." I'm not going to worry further about this omission or any others that might have occurred. Miller's necessarily brief survey of Australian literature has succeeded in telling me a great deal more about the Australian literary tradition than I knew before I read it. And I was impressed enough with its ambition that I have ordered all the other titles in Exisle Publishing's "Little Red Books" series on Australia. (April 2009)
Milroy, Jill, The Art of Sally Morgan. Ringwood, VIC, Australia: Viking, 1996. This is my favorite sort of art book. Other than Milroy's few hundred words of introduction, the only text to accompany the full-page color plates of Morgan's paintings (her work from 1986 through 1995) is the usual title and size information. A trained artist, Sally Morgan's work is influenced by both outsider Aboriginal art and her personal search for her Aboriginal roots. Her style is her own, never to be confused with anyone else's. Colors are bright, bold, and exciting. A few of her 1993 canvasses are mindful of Kandinsky's later work (probably unintentionally), an intriguing style to which she did not return. It's been more than ten years since this collection was published. I'm hungry for another splash of Morganalia to sooth my summer evenings, pleasurably smoothing the oversized pages, drinking in the color-soaked images. (December 2007)
Minutaglio, Bill & W. Michael Smith, Mollie Ivins: A Rebel Life. New York: Public Affairs, 2009. Just as Franklin Roosevelt before her, Molly Ivins was accused of "betraying" her "class" when she looked beyond the blinders of her social privilege to the needs of the vast masses of underprivileged humanity. Growing up in a wealthy family in oil-rich Houston, Texas, she was very tall, very beautiful, and lived up to the reputation of red-haired women. She was blessed with a lion's share of personality and audacity. She defied her roots to become one of the most influential liberal journalists in America. Her short, brilliant bursts of insight were hilarious and painfully spot on. Shortly before Ivins's death, in her typical caustic fashion, she condemned American immigration policy: "We've already tried greed and stupidity; it's time to try something else"—a statement that could just as easily apply to any number of other contemporary issues. Minutaglio and Smith have done their research, and it shows. As a bonus, their fine writing, with its own brand of wit and irony, makes Mollie Ivins's life the page-turner that it ought to be. Where are you Hollywood? What a great film her life story would make. Put a red wig on Charlize Theron and get on with it! (March 2010)
Moody, Harry R., Ph.D. & David Carroll, The Five Stages of the Soul. London, Sydney, Auckland, Johannesburg: Rider, 1998 (orig. New York: Doubleday, 1997). Moody and Carroll assert that there are five stages of spiritual passage that are similar to Daniel Levinson's life "trigger points" that usher in each new phase of life at specific chronological markers (e.g., early adult, adult, midlife, middle adult). Moody and Carroll, however, seek to show that, though the spiritual stages can be described and will occur in a certain order, there is no specific chronology, but rather life-event triggers that launch each spiritual stage. A quantity of illustrative personal stories enrich the narrative. Although I began my reading of this book thinking it quite ordinary, it became richer as it progressed. And I feel richer for having read it. It is a quite nice treatment of the subject, gracefully combining popular and scholarly writing. (July 2003)
Moore, Bruce, Speaking Our Language: The Story of Australian English. Australia and New Zealand: Oxford University Press, 2008. Moore traces the history of Australian English from the first prisoner immigrants to the Western European immigrants to the Eastern European immigrants, and finally the ending of the White Australia policy in 1972 and the embracing of multiculturalism. Moore utilizes extensive end notes and includes an index to unique Australian words. He also includes a section on how pidgin English used by Aboriginal Australians became a true language, bridging the communication gap among the many tribal groups that suddenly found themselves living together (similar to the relocating of diverse Native American tribes in the nineteenth century). I strongly recommend this book to anyone who will be in Australia longer than a month or two (or even you short termers who are interested in language). It’s not just information, it’s fun to read. (October 2011)
Morgan, John, The Life and Times of William Buckley. Edited and Introduced by Tim Flannery. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: The Text Publishing Company, 2002 (Orig. work published Hobart, Tasmania, Australia: Archibald Macdougall, 1852.) As the reproduced original title page informs, William Buckley was "thirty-two years a wanderer amongst the Aborigines of the then unexplored country round Port Phillip." Buckley was an escaped British convict, but when he emerged from the bush, the white settlers were so intrigued with his long survival among the "savages" that he was not sent to jail. He spent the remainder of his life trying to get a better life and more rights for the First Australians. Morgan was a journalist, and there is some suspicion that he embellished parts of the story to make it more appealing to readers. It nonetheless has considerable value. Buckley describes tools, clothing, animals encountered and hunted, as well as cultural practices. Buckley is the only white person known to have lived for such a very long time among Australian Aborigines while totally cut off from white society, and he experienced their communal life previous to their first contacts with white settlers. (May 2008)
Mundy, Linus, Elf-help for Overcoming Depression. St. Meinrad, IN: Abbey Press, 1998. I've been gifting copies of another Abbey Press Elf book, Forgiveness Therapy for years, yet I was still surprised at how spot on Elf-help for Overcoming Depression is. This is not a do-it-yourself manual for overcoming depression. Tip No. 3 states, "Information is your best weapon against depression. Learn all you can about its causes, types, treatments." No. 6 is "Because depression frequently has physical causes and effects, to really 'cheer up' or 'snap out of it' often requires medical assistance. Turn to the experts who can help you treat it and defeat it." These are two of the 38 tips, each occupying a page in this tiny (4x6") book with a black line-drawing illustration on its facing page. Whether reading at a sitting or using it as a daily meditation, its words are well-written comfort—even if you're just feeling a little blue. (November 2011)
Niffenegger, Audrey, The Time Traveler's Wife. London: Vintage Books, 2005. (Orig. pub. 2004). What a ride! This is a brilliant combination of mystery, science fiction, and romance. I had trouble getting acclimated to the overlapping time travel, but was helped over the hump by the title, which prepared me for the science-fiction aspects of the story. Niffenegger never gets lost in her intricate plot, and there are no loose threads at the end. The science in science fiction is satisfied (only fictionally), the mystery is resolved, and, in the closing words, it is the romance that wins the day. Niffenegger expertly and eloquently dances between ordinary reality and the suggestion of realities we are yet to know. This was, for me, a deeply satisfying read. (March 2009)
Obama, Barack, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004. In the Preface to this 2004 edition of Obama's 1995 memoir, he admits to an "urge to cut the book fifty pages or so." Me, too. I wished the book was one hundred pages shorter, yet I wouldn't know what to leave out. Though the pace definitely slowed from the middle onwards, I appreciated the opportunity to read every word of it. Perhaps it seemed slow because of my sense of urgency to know everything I can find out about this enigmatic and charismatic new personality who looks to be the Democratic Party's next presidential nominee. Or maybe it's because I'm anxious to move onto Obama's second book, The Audacity of Hope. Whatever the reason, I'm tempted to say the book is just too long, but there is not a single word I could wish I hadn't read. Obama is a skilled and graceful writer. I look forward to the other books that will surely sprout from his pen in the coming years. (July 2008)
Obama, Barack, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006. Obama talks about what's wrong with America and what he thinks it will take to fix it. His tone is indeed strong with hope, a hope for which the American people are hungry. This is the book that launched a popular clamor to claim Barack Obama as the country's next leader. Its popularity also resulted in the re-release of his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, which originally drew almost no readership. With both books on the bestseller list, people want to hear more, see more and know more about Barack Obama. His first two books not only paid off his and his wife's student loans left over from their Harvard Law School days, but it made them millionaires. (August 2008)
Oé, Kenzaburo, A Healing Family. Tokyo, NY, London: 1996. (Orig. pub. 1995 as Kaifukyu suru kazoku) The first of Kenzaburo Oé's three children was born profoundly handicapped, with his brain outside his skull. From that day forward, the theme of the handicapped son was integral to Oé's fiction. A Healing Family is autobiographical, the story of Oé's family and how it became, as he calls it, "a handicapped family." Without regret or complaint, he tells how his handicapped son, Hikari, was the center of the family and the central character in the lives of each of its members. And each seems to regard this fact as a stroke of good fortune. Oé writes his own story the way he writes his fiction8212;lacking in sentiment and infused with compassion for the human condition. (April 2011)
Oé, Kenzaburo, Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!. Trans. by John Nathan. New York: Grove/Atlantic, 2002 (orig. pub. 1983 in Japan as Atarashii hito yo mezamayo). This is my fifth Oé novel, and I am always surprised at how one theme manifests in myriad fascinating plots. However, I am not surprised that he was the Nobel laureate in literature for 1994. Oé's writing is dominated by his decidedly masculine presence, but never loses itself in it. His descriptive language is eloquent without becoming mired in flocks of adverbs and adjectives (thanks also to a fine translation). In each of the novels I've read, a parent faces the challenges of a handicapped son, just as has Oé in real life. But in each of his fictitious works, the handicap varies and never duplicates his son's challenges nor the challenges of the characters in his other books. Rouse Up is a closer parallel to Oé's own experience than any of his other novels. It is decidedly autobiographical. No doubt he has used the novel format to cause some things to have a more satisfactory outcome than they may have had in real life. For instance, according to the Afterword written by translator John Nathan, Oé gives the fictional son a more robust ability to express himself than his real-life son. As Nathan describes it: "he is able to express himself in words, conveying wit and tenderness and compassion and his own brand of reductive wisdom about the world as he experiences it." Oé's real-life son, Hikari, has the gift of music. Though profoundly brain damaged, he has made his man's mark in the world as a celebrated composer. In an interview, speaking of Hikari's healing music, Oé commented, "My son's music is a model of my literature. I want to do the same thing." (See Oé's 1999 interview.) Rouse Up is about fathers and sons, about the elation and disappointments of parenthood, about the joys and burdens of responsibility. Every son's father will find himself there. And, ultimately, like Hikari's music and Kenzaburo's prose, the journey is about healing. (December 2007)
Oé, Kenzaburo, Somersault. Trans. by John Nathan. New York: Grove Press, 2003 (orig. pub. 1999 in Japan as Chugaeriaby Kodansha). "For people who feel the need for a savior deeply, on a personal and societal level, isn't even a phony savior better than none?" This is one of the several questions Oé explores through his characters in this contemporary fictional account of the building of a New Age super church. The essential doctrines of the Church of the New Man, founded by two old friends, Patron and Guide, are the impending end of the world and the urgent need for repentance. Oé doesn't bother to fill in the details. It isn't necessary. He writes about a basic need for personal meaning, a need to be in a community with meaningful goals, a need to love and be loved, and a need for a savior figure or hero who relieves us of the personal responsibility to write the rules that govern our lives.
This is not a cautionary tale, but it may be judged to be a social commentary. As is true of Oé's other books, he is a nonjudgmental observer of human interaction. His characters represent people we know, people we read about in the newspaper, people we see on the evening news. He gives us cross-cultural personalities. They have jobs, families, aspirations, and disappointments.
The main character, Kizu, is a university professor in his late fifties who is retiring in anticipation of his death. Between diagnosis and death, he embarks upon a new life, which begins when he falls in love with a young man. Oé's explicit description of the first love-making between a heretofore heterosexual, middle-class man and his young male paramour is neither lascivious nor coy, neither clinical nor sentimental. These same elements are found when he writes of heterosexual sex. He has an amazing ability to write sex that is interesting, introspective, and detailed—and never emotional. It simply is what it is. Just the way his characters are who they are.
There are several elements that I recognize from the three or four other Oé novels I have read—his nonjudgment (even when his character finds his wife having sex with another man), his acceptance of sex as a de facto aspect of humanity to be observed, his distinctly male viewpoint (his maleness permeates every word), and the motif of a mentally challenged son. In his earlier writing the flawed son is a primary element in his male protagonist's struggle. In Somersault, the son appears late in the book, with a single mother rather than a conflicted father, and plays a key role in resolving the plot.
As a whole, the book seems too long. The plot begins to unfold on page 266. That's 265 pages of descriptive preparation, of history, of setting up characters. That's just too long. But truthfully, I'm not certain what needed to be left out. If I compare that many pages to hours of looking at baby photos and watching someone's vacation movies, it's clearly too many. But without it, would I have known these people well enough to become involved in their journey that unfolds in the last 300 pages?
Every stray fragment of plot is tidy by the time I reached the final sentence: "For us, a church is a place where deeds of the soul are done." It's worth mentioning that Somersault shares an underlying theme with another of Oé's novels that I recently read, Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! It is another insight of aging: There are a new population of young out there, and ready or not, we have to turn the world over to them. (April 2007)
Paley, Grace, Grace Paley: The Collected Stories. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994. Nearly every book I've read on aging women has included a reference to Grace Paley's "The Long Distance Runner." Here it is, along with 43 other stories Paley has written since the beginning of her writing career. Anticipating an anthology of stories, the Paley-ignorant reader is bewildered, awed, and delighted in turns as Paley's darkly metaphorical tales reveal her clever humor and, ultimately, her unflagging hope for humanity. Using common language with an uncommon twist, Paley's descriptions cause the reader to laugh with familiarity: "The table was the enameled table common to our class, easy to clean, with wooden undercorners for indigent and old cockroaches that couldn't make it to the kitchen sink" (p. 250). "The Long Distance Runner" is a powerful allegory about menopause, that mystical time in a woman's life when so much more is happening than the simple cessation of menstrual flow. Paley attributes her success as a writer to the wonderful luck of the birth of the women's movement, which coincided with the publication of her first stories. (February 1995)
Pearsall, Paul, The Heart's Code: Tapping the Wisdom and Power of Our Heart Energy. New York: Broadway Books, 1998. When psychologist, Dr. Paul Pearsall, had a heart transplant, he was unprepared and entirely surprised when he developed unusual preferences and habits that were associated with his donor. The Heart's Code is Pearsall's memoir of his experience, as well as an introduction to his later work with cellular memory. (See http://www.paulpearsall.com/info/press/3.html) (February 2000)
Picoult, Jodi, Sing You Home. New York, et al.: Washington Square Press, 2011. As a wannabe novelist, I am fascinated how Picoult’s painstaking research is woven into the narrative about a woman whose life is driven by a desire to become a mother. In less skillful and adventurous hands, it would have been simply that: a tale of a personal voyage to motherhood. Instead, Picoult draws us into the world of a music therapist at work, the clash of values when a gay person comes out, a courtroom drama about the rights of a fetus, and much more. She never resorts to the easy way, to simply saying, for instance, that Zoe’s and Max’s IVF attempts were met with failure and the failures took a toll on their marriage. That would certainly have made it a shorter book—and maybe readers would have been no more the wiser. But Picoult doesn’t take the easy way, and we follow the young couple through the details of the procedure—the medical facts, as well as the emotional ups and downs. We even follow the husband into the tiny bathroom, where he must fill a cup with his juice of life, fearful that too little will reflect on him and too much will be worse.
Drawing a picture of conflict between conservative Christian activists and gay rights activists, Picoult never takes a cheap shot, never makes one side unerringly right and the other the face of the devil. Each portrait is sympathetically drawn. The only cardboard, stereotypical character is a lawyer, who even manipulates his client in the service of victory, a victory that is being sought solely for personal aggrandizement. Judging from the number of legal experts Picoult consulted, this guy (or someone like him) exists in real life.
To make Picoult’s yarn even more lifelike, the hardback comes with a CD of the original music that her character Zoe composes. (Paperback readers can download the music from the Internet at no cost.) I find two flaws in the work, the first negligible (and a little embarrassing to even mention), the second a gnawing dissatisfaction that is forgivable when balanced with the enormous accomplishments of the work.
The first is the very thing that gives the writing so much authenticity: the researched detail. I can see the writer’s mind at work, carefully choosing the woof of fact to bring texture to the warp of plot. I would rather it had been more hidden. Admittedly, I was looking for it. The second was the unexplained outcome for a character who was so skillfully written that, at the end, she was (for me) a giant question mark in the center of an otherwise well-drawn ending. I miss her. I worry about her. I want to look her up on the Internet and find out what happened to her. Maybe I’ll find her in another Picoult novel down the road. In all, a stupendous effort! (November 2011)
Pierpaoli, Walter, M.D., Ph.D., & William Regelson, M.D., with Carol Coleman, The Melatonin Miracle. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Melatonin, a neurohormone produced by the pineal gland, was the darling of the fit-for-life set when this book was first published. For less than $10 a month melatonin promised to lower cholesterol, shrink cancerous tumors, restore a flagging sex life, and guarantee a good night's sleep. The authors were well-known aging researchers who fed melatonin to laboratory mice with amazing results: a 30 percent increase in lifespan (equal to 25 human years) and complete freedom from illness and disease throughout their lives. Pierpaoli's story of how he came to relate the pineal gland and melatonin to the reversal of aging that he noted in his laboratory animals during early experiments is intriguing reading. Regelson and Pierpaoli said they wrote the book to draw attention to melatonin's potential as treatment for disease states, as well as for its apparent ability to confer disease-free life. With enough demand from the public, the authors had hoped to attract a share of the limited federal research funds for clinical trials in human beings. Melatonin aspired to be a completely safe, nontoxic, effective treatment for cancer and AIDS. (March 1995)
Punshon, John, Portrait in Grey: A Short History of the Quakers. London: Quaker Home Service, 1986. Rev. ed. I've read one other of Punshon's books and find him a solid writer, very readable and careful with his details. Quaker history is the history of the English Civil War, the influence of William Penn's Quaker colony on the new American government, and the rise and fall of the various versions of European and American Protestantism. With a reputation for dedication, skill in peace negotiations, and fair dealings, Quakers have exercised far more influence in international affairs than their numbers (only about 300,000 worldwide) would suggest. Punshon does an admirable job of condensing over 350 years into less than 300 pages. A reader who is interested in learning about the background of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) will find Punshon's version accessible and reasonably complete. It is not a thrilling read, but adept enough to hold the interest of someone who is interested in its topic. (February 2008)
Quaker Quest, Twelve Quakers and Evil. Quaker Quest Pamphlet 4. London: Quaker Quest, 2007. Here are twelve individual views of evil, as seen through the eyes of twelve British Quakers. All contributions are well thought out and well written. Just as in a conversation with any group of Quakers, there is much to stimulate thought. Among the varied opinions and beliefs, there are two views held by all twelve contributors: (1) there is light and dark, good and evil in all human beings; and (2) evil in one’s person and in one’s society must be confronted and combated. “Drag it into the light,” one wrote. (April 2012)
Quinn, Susan, A Mind of Her Own: The Life of Karen Horney. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1988. (Original work published 1987). There are two particularly interesting points of focus in Quinn's book, the more obvious being the development of Horney's work as the first feminist psychiatrist (and Freudian psychoanalyst) at a time when psychoanalysis was not acceptable to the new specialty of psychiatry (that itself had only just become acceptable to neurology by declaring itself to be a specialty of brain diseases). The second theme, a natural concomitant of the first, is the revelation that Europe at the dawn of the twentieth century—the time and place where Horney was coming of age and beginning her study of medicine—was, contrary to my previous impression, rather sexually open (at least among the intelligentsia) and a time of great advances in women's rights. Her life, from her first diary entries in 1898 at age 13 to her death in 1952, was a struggle to dissect herself to achieve self-understanding. Her earliest work was a slight divergence from pure Freudian theory; her later work was a true Horneyan theory, derived less from the brilliant organization of Freud and more from her life experience as a woman and a human being. From the beginning, Horney measured the validity of Freud's theories against her own experience, concluding that the female experience was worthy of its own body of theoretical work. Quinn has allowed Horney to be human, painstakingly documenting her genius, as well as her chaotic personal life that clearly furnished much of the material for developing her own psychoanalytic theory. (November 1994)
Rahman, Aishah, Chewed Water: A Memoir. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2001. Aishah Rahman’s story begins in her infancy, when her mother, infected with tuberculosis, goes into a sanitarium and must place her in a foster home. It ends when, at 18, she stands in a courtroom, giving up her own son, a bastard borne of a bastard, whispering in his ear her blessings and hopes that he will land with a good family. In between, we learn of the Harlem of the 1940s and 1950s, where the neighborhood is divided between black West Indians and black Americans, the latter isolating themselves in groups according to their native states: Georgia, Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama. Rahman is a sublime writer, and her narrative of surviving a childhood of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a foster mother is honest and compelling. (December, 2012)
Rayner, Mark A., The Fridgularity. Canada: Monkeyjoy Press, 2012. The Fridgularity imagines the spontaneous emergence of an independent artificial intelligence that dubs itself Zathir. The computer display on a refrigerator in the kitchen of Blake Givens, a Canadian web designer, is the rabbithole from which Zathir emerges to connect with the human world.
Rayner spins a good yarn, and I’m happy I persisted to the end of this slightly too-long comedic romp. His plot is well thought out and nicely executed. I like his characters. I probably like them better than he does. And I really liked this book. But I wanted it to be better.
The editor in me began picking things apart from the first page. Unlike most books, the first sentence is indented. And all paragraph indents are a good 3/8 inch, way too deep for my critical eye. This caused me to stop, check the publisher, and mutter, “This must be a self-published book.” I make it to page 3 (the fridge has been talking since page 1), and I study the cover. It’s a nice cover—a colorful likeness of a 1950s humpback fridge. I’m looking for the computer screen. It’s not there. Every time I put the book down and see the cover, I question its relevance. Did the artist read the book? Or maybe he’s never seen an internet fridge.
By page 8, I am squirming at the not-so-subtle pot shots Rayner takes at some of his characters. He’s asking us to take sides, telling us who the good guys are. Why should this bother me when I pretty much agree with him? Well it bothers me because I have this ideal of an author of fiction as a nonjudgmental fly on the wall, reporting what he sees. It’s okay for the characters to judge each other, but I flinch when the author does the judging. Rayner is a character in his own novel. That’s too opaque for me.
From subtle irony to outrageous slap stick, Rayner goes for the gag on every page. He usually succeeds, but not always to the benefit of his piece of writing. Over and over, Rayner’s wit talks over the heads of the characters. Often commentary or character description would be much better as character dialogue. It is funny. It’s also self-conscious, delivered with the impact of a stand-up comedian trying to get nonstop laughs in a five-minute monologue.
In brief, this is a good read, but it could have been so much better. He had some serious points to make and they either got lost among the gags or became awkward speeches. As good as The Fridgularity is, it reads like the third draft of a manscript that will ultimately require six drafts. It’s the cake that was baked too hot and too fast and comes out gummy in the middle (but it still tastes good). If Rayner should catch the eye of a major press and fall into the hands of a fine editor, he may begin producing the kind of writing of which he is capable. As long as he keeps writing, he will get better. I just want that to happen faster. (November 2012)
Read, Cathy, Preventing Breast Cancer: Politics of an Epidemic. London: HarperCollins, 1995. Dr. Read has assembled all the facts and fallacies of breast cancer in a fascinating, if chilling, read. Lifestyle factors and an environment bombarded with potent, life-altering chemicals seem to be the causes for breast cancer that science has not yet been able to prove. Read concludes that social change is the most potent preventative to the rising breast cancer rates worldwide. Many of the risk factors for breast cancer are related to delayed childbearing as women get their educations and establish in careers. Among other startling suggestions, Read proposes that society offer more support to women so that they may begin having children at an earlier age. With public and work-site facilities for breastfeeding, guaranteed educational opportunities for young mothers, and help with childcare, women would be able to begin their families at a younger age. (December 1994)
Resman, Michael, A Contemporary Mysticism: Support on the Spiritual Path. Rochester, MN: Zumbro River Press, 2015. "We harm our own spiritual life, and the lives of others, when we insist that God is only this, or only that. It's understandable that humans want to control God, but it's not only impossible, it's destructive." This is one of the gems of universal wisdom that Michael Resman shares. After twenty years of living as a mystic, Resman has written a sort of handbook—a little book of advice—for those who have had mystical experiences (a knowing experience of the Eternal) and are wondering, "What's next?"
Resman comes from a religious tradition of seekers who believe that the personal experience of the Divine is more useful than receiving instruction from those who have read about it—a sort of If-You-Meet-the-Buddha-on-the-Road-Kill-Him approach to spiritual growth. He writes, "As a Quaker, it is my sincere desire that you don't believe a word I say. Instead, I hope you take bits and pieces presented here into your mind, heart and soul to discover your own truth."
For the most part, Resman's advice is universally sound, with considerable emphasis on the importance of cultivating humility. And like many who yearn to live altruistically meaningful lives, he often worries that his motives are not sufficiently pure. There is a satisfaction at doing good that seems to contradict the altruistic nature of a charitable act. Humility keeps you safe, he repeatedly insists, for "there are siren songs inveigling us to wander off into all sorts of self-deceptions" and "it can be heady stuff to see what others have not seen."
Resman's first mystical experience twenty years ago was his jumping-off point, from being the average socially aware American to becoming a full-time devotee of God. Where once he got up each morning and went to his work as a pediatric occupational therapist, he now gets up each morning and goes to his work as a conscious servant of his God.
I don't mean that being socially aware is average, but in the company that Resman keeps—the Religious Society of Friends, more popularly known as Quakers—being socially aware is the common denominator among a diverse group, who in modern times, run the gamut from evangelical Christians to nontheists. Resman is among those Quakers who consider themselves Christian, and he is comfortable with the G word as representing his experience of the Numinous. Thus Resman's transformation to mystic was another step along a continuum, a path that demanded that he live his Christianity through emulating Christ—not simply a sin-confessing believer, but an embodiment of the spiritual ethic that is the heart and soul of all the world's great religions.
If you're one of those people who have had mystical experiences that you are afraid to discuss with anyone—or you entrusted your experience to someone who recommended (or even arranged) exorcism or a stay in a mental health facility—you may find that Resman's matter-of-fact approach to nourishing your gift and putting it to work in the world is truly a support-group-in-a-book. (June 2015)
Ridley, Matt, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. New York: Harper Collins, 2000 (Orig. pub. in Great Britain by Fourth Estate, 1999). Each chapter features the characteristics of one of the 23 pair of human chromosomes, not attempting to give an exhaustive review, but rather to give a taste of some of the things that are known about it. Ridley is a great science writer for the untutored-but-interested reader. He has a gift for breaking down a complex subject into bite-size pieces. This book deserves its bestseller status. (May 2008)
Rountree, Cathleen, On Women Turning 50: Celebrating Mid-Life Discoveries. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993. This is a collection of interviews of famous and not-so-famous women who have navigated their fiftieth birthdays. The women as individuals may be described as admirable, fascinating, witty, and even awesome (check out Dolores Huerta who has spent most of her adult life as a full-time human rights activist, living in poverty or near-poverty, while giving birth to 11 children—most of whom are now college graduates—and periodically catering to the demands of one of her three husbands). A more interesting aspect of this collection is what these women have in common. They each find this time in their lives more free, more focused on making a contribution to society, less focused on physical appearance and pleasing others, and less concerned (if not unconcerned) with having men in their lives. Tabra Tunoa, jewelry designer and manufacturer, said, "You waste a lot of time in your thirties trying to look twenty and in your forties trying to look thirty"—one comment from among several in the interviews which imply that the forties are for clearing up the vestiges of denial of age, and the fifties are for embracing its gifts. Said Gloria Steinem, "I learned that to be defiant about age may be better than despair—it's energizing—but it is not progress." Rountree has done a fine job of asking the right questions, eliciting illuminating answers, and photographing 18 women who are worth hearing from. (March 1995)
Rowling, J. K., Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003. Rowling's imaginative genius is delightful and amazing. Throughout this long series, she has been consistent with her characters and the smallest details of their magical world. This is the fifth in the series and a continuation of the Harry Potter saga. If you have not read any of this series, do not start here. The first book is the best of the lot, and the rest are a continuation of the story. I was very aware in the first few pages of this volume that there would be a lot missed and misunderstood if the reader had not read at least the first in the series. I have loved them all and will read them through to her promised seven volumes. (September 2004)
Rowntree, Joseph S. The Sincere Desire: A Study in Prayer. London: Headley Bros., 1907. I discovered this little book in the library of West Australia Regional Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). I was seeking precursors to late twentieth-century and early twenty-first century writers who espouse mind-over-matter methods of materializing the things and conditions that we desire in our lives. This was a segment of my study of desire, which I believe to be the engine that drives all creation—no matter what definition of creation is under discussion. What has come to be called the Law of Attraction, the writings of Esther and Jerry Hicks in the 1990s, Norman Vincent Peale's 1950s classic The Power of Positive Thinking, and Lewis Maclachlan's Intelligent Prayer published in the 1940s—and don't forget Napoleon Hill—all speak to the notion that our thoughts can be focused to produce desired results. Rowntree's short treatise, too, addresses these ponderings, both in its text and in its title. But rather than describing prayer as itself being the expression of desire that sets creation into motion, he places its value in its role as a bridge to God. "The sense of the love and of the support of God, calms the wild trouble and excitement of the soul, steadies the nerves through the steadying of the mind," he writes. And thus, he believes, it "releases our intelligence." Then, he proposes, "Our intellect is awake and ready, our experience is fit for use; and a soul and body in this quest and quick condition often conquers disease both in ourselves and others by the careful and intelligent use of the powers and opportunities which nature affords us for cure. We are quicker in this temper to find out the causes and the remedies of the disease. We are at peace within, and for that reason we are intelligent without, in action and in precaution." Rowntree's views on prayer, though couched in traditional religious terms, are in keeping with the more liberal religious view that God's miracles are an unfolding of the laws of nature—not an interruption of the normal flow of life, but rather fortuitous events in keeping with natural law. Rowntree is a Quaker, and his views reflect the purpose of the Quaker Meeting as practiced in unprogrammed (silent) meetings. The silence is not meditation in the usual sense, but rather an attempt to align the human mind with the mind of God, thus influencing worshippers to live more God-like in their daily lives. Talking to God and listening to God, Rowntree says, builds our brain power. His short treatise is a worthy addition to the literature of prayer. (December 2008)
Sacks, Oliver, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. London: Picador, 1986. (Orig. pub. 1985). My sister long ago recommended this book, and its title has stuck with me through the years. Finally, at a used-book sale for charity, it fell into my hands. I learn that the author is the very person characterized by Robin Williams in the movie, Awakenings. In fact, one of the essays relates the circumstances that are re-enacted in the film. The 24 essays are case histories of Sacks's patients, some of the most interesting and unusual from among the many he has encountered as a neurologist. The man who mistook his wife for a hat had a diagnosis of visual agnosia, he saw things inaccurately. He might pat a fire hydrant, thinking it the head of a child, or try to put his wife's head on his own head because, to him, she looked like a hat. We meet Christina, whose reaction to antibiotics was to develop a rare neuritis that caused her to feel disconnected from her body; she was no longer able to feel its presence and had to use mirrors to feed and dress herself. Ninety-year-old Natasha had what she had labeled "Cupid's Disease," after the inappropriate thoughts that kept running through her mind. Her condition was a neurosyphilis that had finally made itself known after seventy years. Treatment cured the medical condition, but it did nothing to alter the brain damage that had already occurred. Natasha was stuck with feeling giddy, young, and extravagantly euphoric for the rest of her life. The other 21 essays are just as intriguing, each of them exposing another fascinating aspect of our brains and how they can alter our realities. (December 2008)
Sams, Jamie, The 13 Original Clan Mothers. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993. Through the experiences of the 13 Original Clan Mothers, the reader is guided through life's lessons. Writing of the purpose of being a woman, Sams gingerly walks the feminist precipice between woman as a reproductive machine and woman as a meaningful contributor to society. She magically does not lose her balance, successfully making the case for women fulfilling a personal and cosmic biological role as creators, with men assigned the role of helpmate and protector. It becomes painfully clear that the tasks that men and women have traditionally performed have not been so much at fault as the value placed on them by society and the individuals contained within it. Sams is a competent writer with a gift for description. Unlike many current spiritual bestsellers, the reader does not have to overcome the distraction of faulty writing in order to receive her powerful message. (February 1995)
Santmyer, Helen Hooven, . . . And Ladies of the Club. New York: G P Putnam's Sons, 1984. (Orig. pub. Ohio State University Press, 1982). Santmyer finished this novel shortly before she died. Incapacitated from advanced age and living in a nursing home, she dictated the final chapters to a volunteer, who wrote them out by hand. I am indebted to Santmyer's persistence in completing this work she began fifty years before and to the volunteer who made it possible. The publishers were rushing to press, trying to get the book published before the author's death. Their haste is evident in the several typographical errors that dot nearly every page in the book. Nonetheless the story and fine writing shine through. The story begins with the events of 17 June 1868 in an Ohio town, when and where fourteen young women graduate from the Waynesboro Female College. The lives of these and other women in the Waynesboro community are followed until the 1932 death of the last member of their social group, the founders of the Waynesboro Woman's Club, a literary society intended to challenge and develop the minds of its members. With great ease, Santmyer draws the reader into the daily lives and politics of middle-class Middle America from the viewpoint of its women. I rank this as one of the most important books I've read, certainly one of my 25 top favorites. As a history lesson, it is easy to digest, and as an account of the human condition, it is poignant and engaging. (1996)
Santmyer, Helen Hooven, Farewell, Summer. New York: Harper & Rowe, 1988. This is a different sort of coming-of-age story. Eleven-year-old Elizabeth Lane vicariously earns a bit of worldly wisdom through her sometimes surreptitious observance of her cousin as he falls in love with a girl from a wealthy family, whose father has already chosen a husband for her. Told from Elizabeth's viewpoint, it was her emotions and her lessons learned that I experienced. Santmyer is such a consummate craftsperson with her writing, and her life's work as an English professor is happily in evidence. Though certainly not the master work of her earlier published novel, . . . And Ladies of the Club, this short novel is a deceptively easy read. It seemed an hors d'ouevre, until two days after completing it, I realized I was still full with the experience of having read it. (March 2007)
Schacter-Shalomi, Zalman, & Ronald S. Miller, From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older. New York: Warner Books, 1995. What is the purpose of life lived long past the reproductive years? Using their concepts of "elderhood" and "the art of life completion," Schacter-Shalomi and Miller survey the societal changes that they believe are synchronistic events that give meaning and purpose to the burgeoning population of elders in American society and other developed countries. An increasing number of writers share these men's belief that the aged are needed to guide humanity in its values, to influence the young to make changes that consider the distant future as well as the present. Rabbi Schacter-Shalomi has spent his adult life studying numerous spiritual disciplines. He believes that the present easy access to ancient spiritual teachings that were once passed secretly from one generation of adepts to the next is for the purpose of allowing large populations to prepare themselves for their contribution to humanity as wise elders. The major theme of this work could be said to be the art of living and dying with meaning. Going beyond the usual observations of the characteristics of our rapidly aging population, Schacter-Shalomi and Miller have offered sound advice on how an individual can find purpose in life beyond reproduction and career. They even offer specific "Exercises for Sages in Training." (March 1995)
Sebold, Alice, The Lovely Bones. London: Picador, 2003. Alice Sebold has crafted a mesmerizing story with four-dimensional characters—yes, four. Sebold has gone beyond the usual three—unless you're thinking of the three dimensions of body, mind, and soul. The main character is dead; her spirit not only narrates the story, but participates. What begins as an apparent crime thriller with an occult twist becomes a story about life after death—for the departed and her survivors—and the ripple effect of a death event on family and community. It is a surprise ending—not startling, but unexpected. The resolution I looked forward to never happens. That doesn't mean that Sebold left me hanging, it means she resolved what I dismissed at the outset as unresolvable and left me too pleasantly satisfied with the result to care about those other loose ends that were undoubtedly intentional. And so what! I was oddly comforted by the message that life is unfair, and the only defense is to adjust expectations and keep living. This is Sebold's first novel. I was aware of a certain adolescent gangliness about the writing, yet it suited the narrative, and little succeeded in interfering with my reading once I began. Not since my first Harry Potter have I postponed everything I could in order to finish a book. I didn't manage one sitting, but I did accomplish it in one day. What an odd and entirely delightful blend of psychological drama and suspense, interspersed with the sort of romance that makes a female heart glad. From start to finish, a completely original piece of work. (January 2008)
Shapiro, Robert, The Human Blueprint: The Race to Unlock the Secrets of Our Genetic Script. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991. Touching on early beliefs about heredity and Mendel's careful experiments with garden peas, Shapiro quickly moves to a blow-by-blow description of the discovery of the structure of DNA and the various individuals and laboratories who were involved in the search for the carrier of our genetic information. He delves just far enough into the private lives of the scientists to bring them to life as human beings. From Mendel's experiments with garden peas to Watson's and Crick's discovery of the double helix, Shapiro carries us to the threshhold of mapping the human genome. Shapiro's text is as relevant today, when the mapping of the human genome is complete, as it was in 1991 when his book was published. The history is still the same and the science leading up to the human genome map is as valid as it was then. Without a good background in science, I sometimes found it a bit hard going, but Shapiro's clear prose carried me through on the back of my intense interest in his topic. (December 2007)
Sheehy, Gail, New Passages. New York: Random House, 1995. Sheehy offers an interesting categorization of life stages in the context of American life as she has known it and lived it. She uses excerpts from the hundreds of interviews she conducted throughout the United States while preparing this book to prove her theory. Her stages have catchy labels: Tryout Twenties, Turbulent Thirties, Flourishing Forties, Flaming Fifties, Serene Sixties. Sheehy's attempt to make meaning of the mature years is most likely to become an artifact of its era, unable to cross cultures or time. Her passages depend too heavily on life as it is being lived in the 1990s in the United States of America. With the work of Erikson and Jung on developmental aging already on the book shelf and thoughtful contributions by such as Friedan, Schacter-Shalomi and Miller, and others, Sheehy's contribution is disappointing. (March 1995)
Shields, Charles J., And So It Goes, Kurt Vonnegut: A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 2011. Shields's sorrowful account of a writer who outlived his inspiration without ever outrunning his demons, makes for compelling, if often grim, reading. Vonnegut is presented as an Eeyore sort of character, who is pushed through life by those who surround him. His happiest moments were those that had him in control: convincing Jane, his long-time love, to marry him; selling his first story; and initiating a mid-life affair that lasted for over 30 years, through the end of his first marriage and into his second.
From the beginning, life had been foisted on him. His older brother Bernard had happily taunted him that he was a mistake, an unwanted pregnancy—knowledge no doubt gleaned from his parents' loud and frequent arguments. His once-wealthy family lost their fortune during the Great Depression, and his mother, who knew nothing about rearing children or running a household without servants and a bottomless budget, never recovered from the shock of losing the wealth and social status that had been hers from birth. Though his siblings were encouraged to pursue their chosen interests (Bernard was a science prodigy and sister Alice displayed native talent as a visual artist), young Kurt's desire to pursue writing was not just discouraged, but was ignored. He was pushed into pursuing a degree in science at Cornell. He did not do well.
In January 1943 Vonnegut withdrew from school and enlisted in the Army to join the conflict that he later called "a war that had to be fought." While he was home on leave before shipping out for the European front, his mother committed suicide. It was Mother's Day. Months later, after only three days near the front in what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge, his regiment was ordered to surrender. Vonnegut, along with those others who survived the march to the POW camp, barely enough food to survive, and senselessly brutal treatment, spent the balance of World War II as a prisoner of war.
He saw fellow captives die when Allied planes, believing they had located a German supply train, bombed the cars carrying American POWs. He stood by while fellow prisoners died from sickness and starvation, and witnessed the execution of a starving prisoner who had taken a jar of pickles from a deserted German home. He was a member of the POW work details that pulled thousands of German civilian bodies from the rubble of bombed-out Dresden—day after day, alternating between hiding in the bowels of a slaughterhouse, while bombs battered the city, and emerging to haul more bodies to mass graves.
His work is consistently autobiographical and always very funny. I suppose that should have been the tip-off that he didn't practice the loving kindness that his books preached It is usual that funny people make fun of what they find painful, and that's certainly what Vonnegut did. His chosen genre of speculative fiction allowed him to tell his tales of woe by picking at the scabs with a sharp dark wit, all the while searching for hopeful solutions to the world's injustice and misery.
Vonnegut died at 84 from injuries sustained during an accidental fall at home. It was none too soon for him. He had been through with life long before it was through with him. His later years seemed full of complaints about his childhood, his father, and his older brother. He was close to his sister Alice and, later, to his daughter Edith, forming only awkward relationships with his sons and the nephews he took in when his sister died from cancer only days after her husband died in a freak train wreck. Shields writes that Vonnegut was miserable in his second marriage but repeatedly returned from their frequent separations, preferring the social busyness of his life in New York society, engineered by his wife, to a life of quiet solitude. He seemed to think that happiness was just an illusion to be occasionally tasted.
Shields writes that Vonnegut thought the perfect short story was Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Bierce's protagonist, a civil war soldier, is about to be hanged when the rope miraculously breaks and he is dropped into the water and makes his escape. After a frantic dash for freedom he arrives at his house. As his wife reaches to embrace him, the escape is revealed to be an illusion that occupied his mind in the split second between the moment he is dropped and the moment his neck snaps. Shields proposes that Vonnegut and Bierce, both veterans of major wars, may have been suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
With or without a natural inclination for gloomy resignation, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. did not have a happy childhood and began adulthood in a nightmarish experience where heroism was measured by the ability to survive. This knowledge is a cushion for my disappointment in finding that he betrayed friendships, dumped responsibility for the family on his wife, and was generally "a very difficult person" with those to whom he was closest. I stack my sins against his and find the number of failings humanly similar. And I am grateful that somewhere inside all that constant low-level misery beat the heart of a champion for humanity. Maybe that's why he tolerated such a miserable existence, he really believed that everyone else was miserable, too. (January 2015)
Sinclair, Billy Wayne & Jodie Sinclair, A Life in the Balance: The Billy Wayne Sinclair Story. New York: Arcade, 2000. When I accepted the job to retype a prison memoir for computer input, I was completely unprepared for the story that unfolded as my fingers flew over the keyboard. I think the Publishers Weekly review was right on target. Sinclair has spent 35 years in the toughest prison in the country. Just as anyone who has lived in a community for that many years, he has seen people, events, and history come and go. With a powerful commitment to not becoming an animal, he carved out a life of service and dedication, both to redeem himself for his crime and to create a meaningful existence where none seemed to exist for so many. Graphic (but not gratuitous) violence spills throughout much of the first half of the book. The characters are vivid and sometimes inspiring—Swede who was on death row and gave him classics to read, and the lifer who died trying to save young prisoners from the inevitable rape that awaited them at Angola. This is a worthy read. (January 2001) Update (January 2012): Sinclair was paroled in 2006. He and his wife have written another book, Capital Punishment: An Indictment by a Death-Row Survivor, which was published in 2009.
Skinner, M. L., The Fifth Sparrow. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1972. Molly Skinner was a daughter of one of Perth's (Western Australia) founding fathers descended from the British aristocracy that realized England (and the entire United Kingdom, for that matter) was not nearly big enough to hold the egos and ambitions of the upper classes who had most benefited from the improved infant mortality rates. Molly was multi-talented and made a scanty, but respectable living as a nurse, sometimes owning her own "nursing home," which was the designation of small private hospitals in the early 1900s in Australia (and presumably in all countries influenced by European medical practices).
She was a gifted writer who caught the eye of D. H. Lawrence when he and his wife traveled to Australia and stayed in the equivalent of a bed and breakfast that she operated with a capital partner in southwestern Australia, some distance south of Perth. He was so taken with her potential that he took her uneven, disjointed novel and created bridges of thought to link passages, adding two chapters in the process to give it what he considered a respectably literary ending. It was titled The Boy in the Bush and was published in the U.S., England, and Germany (in translation), showing D. H. Lawrence and M. L. Skinner as authors. She had some really lovely correspondence with Lawrence, which is included in the latter part of the memoir. She ends with Lawrence's death, thus leaving out a third of her life span, since she died in 1955 and Lawrence died in 1930.
Lawrence persisted, from the time he met her (a dowdy woman, with intense blue eyes, approaching the age of fifty) until his death, in encouraging her to produce more writing. Though she thought of herself as a writer (and had since a teenager), The Boy in the Bush and an early textbook on midwifery were the only commercially successful publications she produced, and apparently two of the only three worth reading. She would allow herself to become immersed in the activities of producing the necessary living and drift for years in daily activities without writing a word. A couple of well-known young Australian writers, who were her friends in her later years, tackled the problem of constructing her disjointed memories into a readable (and, for me, hard to put down) account of the first 53 years of her life, which was not published until 1972. (January 2003)
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, On the Future of Art: Essays by Arnold J. Toynbee, Louis I. Kahn, Annette Michelson, B.F. Skinner, James Seawright, J.W. Burnham, and Herbert Marcuse. New York: Viking, 1970. The essays in this collection by noted figures in the United States of the 1960s and 1970s are examples of a continuing attempt to use words to grasp the meaning of modern art forms and styles—to get a handle, so to speak, on that which was created because there were no words to express it. While historically important as a reflection of the thinking at the time they were written, some of the essays are artifacts of thought. Skinner's essay, for example, sought a way to popularize art by a system of reinforcement. The result was cold, uninteresting, and silly. The true value of the collection lies in its successful communication of the opposing viewpoints concerning modern art that were extant in the late 1960s. (March 1997)
Speare, Elizabeth George, The Witch of Blackbird Pond. New York: Dell, 1987. (Orig. pub. 1958). The year is 1687. Kit Tyler is 16 when she is orphaned and leaves her home in the Caribbean to live with an uncle in Connecticut colony. She finds Connecticut cold, dreary, and colorless; even worse is her humorless uncle, the stern head of a narrowly religious family. Kit yearns for her old life of sun-filled days, colorful surroundings, and personal freedom. In the depth of her loneliness, she makes friends with an old woman whom the town has labeled a witch.
Speare is well known for her historically accurate, award-winning novels for children. I first heard of The Witch of Blackbird Pond from a fifth-grade teacher who assigned it to her class. Thus I was surprised that the heroine is a teenager and that romance plays a major role in the story. The historical value of the story and the moral values it endorses are good material for a fifth-grade mind, and a good 10-year-old reader wouldn’t have a problem with its vocabulary; yet I wonder that a fifth grader would be that interested in a young woman running away from the prospect of marrying an old man, then finding herself in love in less than a year—s time. I would think children 12 and older would find it more appealing than would a 10 year old.
It is a quick read, and, as an adult reader, I found it a satisfying page-turner. (October 2012)
Stevens, Anthony, On Jung. London: Penguin Books, 1991. (Original work published 1990). The reader is treated to both a concise statement of Carl Gustav Jung's theories of life-stage development and a parallel narrative of Jung's experiences as he moved through each of these stages. Jung was the son of a clergyman and grandson of a physician who established a home for mentally retarded children and attempted to establish a psychiatry chair at the university in Basel, Switzerland. His maternal grandfather was a spiritualist "who held regular conversations with his first wife after her death" (p. 5) and his second wife (Jung's grandmother) was a clairvoyant from a family of clairvoyants. Growing up in such an atmosphere, where matters of the spirit were daily fare and things that go bump in the night were an accepted part of life, it seems quite natural that Jung had a lifelong interest in the paranormal. Stevens traces the idea of the unconscious from its conception (which he believed to be around 1700) to the earliest investigations by Freud in the 1890s. The split between Freud and Jung (essentially spirituality versus sexuality) is described as having a profoundly shattering effect on Jung, as it had on others ejected from the Freudian camp for their failure to endorse, without question, Freud's theories that all neuroses is based in sexual development. (Two of these ex-Freudians actually committed suicide after being spurned by Freud). Stevens's unique method of combining a primer of Jung life-stage theory with a biography of Jung is an effective introduction to the man and his work. (February 1995)
Stevenson, Bryan, Just Mercy. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014. When I read Gilbert King's Devil in the Grove, I thought I was reading of a shameful era that died a natural death at the advent of the American civil rights movement. And then I read Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy and learned that racially based brutality and injustice is alive and well in modern America.
When Stevenson, as a young law student, served an internship with a nonprofit legal firm that specialized in capital-punishment cases, he discovered his reason for being: to serve the underserved–the poor, the abused, the outcast. After receiving his law degree he returned to that same Atlanta law firm, where he worked for several years before founding Equal Justice Initiative, a pro bono law practice in Montgomery, Alabama.
Just as Thurgood Marshall (the champion for justice featured in King's book) took aim at cases that would change the future of justice for black America, Stevenson has targeted cases that would change the justice system's treatment of people who are incarcerated because they are poor or black or both. Beginning with death-row cases, where he often found himself racing to beat the executioner's schedule, he also took up the cause of children who were tried as adults and sent to prison for life.
Stevenson has had one advantage that Marshall did not: his hope for the future is based on successes that have borne fruit in the present. Marshall took cases that he knew could never be won, but his strategy was to build case law for a future beyond his lifetime: his hope was built on an essential belief in the structure of the American justice system. He anticipated that the work he had begun would be continued by great legal minds, such as Stevenson's, that would be devoted to recalibrating Justice's scales.
The only fault I find in Just Mercy is Stevenson's device of alternating chapters about the story of Walter McMillian (a black man who received the death penalty for a murder that absolutely everyone knew he hadn't committed) with chapters about an assortment of other cases. Though similar to King's blending of the case of Walter Irvin (his focus in Devil in the Grove) with other of Marshall's cases, Stevenson does not manage his transitions with the same smooth expertise that King accomplishes. The interruption of the primary story about the tribulations of Walter McMillian is always a jolt, and the introduction of new, unrelated material feels disjointed. I found myself rushing through these catch-all chapters to get to the next installment in the McMillian story. This flaw, nonetheless, does little to distract from the heart-wrenching truths about American justice that emerge.
Stevenson eventually succeeded in getting Walter McMillian off death row, then released from prison–something of a mirror of Marshall's success with Walter Irvin, with one very important exception: after his release, Irvin was found in his car, dead "from natural causes," an explanation that was never accepted by the community and never investigated by authorities. Stevenson is able to give a happy ending to Walter McMillian's story:
Walter genuinely forgave the people who unfairly accused him, the people who convicted him, and the people who had judged him unworthy of mercy. And in the end, it was just mercy toward others that allowed him to recover a life worth celebrating, a life that rediscovered the love and freedom that all humans desire, a life that overcame death and condemnation until it was time to die on God's schedule. (p. 314 in the Advance Reader's Edition)
As is so often the case, it is not the imperfect system that is at fault so much as the imperfect human beings who create it and work within it–sometimes corrupt, sometimes blind to the harm to their communities created by their own prejudices, and sometimes both. Reminding us of Jesus's admonition, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," Stevenson's proposed solution is more compassion, more forgiveness, more mercy, more acceptance of our own "brokenness," as he calls it.
When I'm reading, I sometimes copy phrases or sentences that catch my eye, that seem to deserve more attention, and I post them on the wall around my computer. As I finish this review, I'm looking at a sentence from Just Mercy: ". . . embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy." Except when I typed my notes, I omitted the "h" in "show." I keep returning to that fortuitous and hopefully prophetic typo: "a corresponding need to sow mercy." That's what Stevenson has accomplished in his book and in his life: he has sown mercy in the minds of thousands of readers.
This is an important book. It offends, shocks, angers, and disturbs–yet as I turned the final page, I felt hope, the kind of hope that keeps people like Bryan Stevenson at their work of making us all better human beings. (January 2015)
Stewart, James B., Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America—From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff. New York: Penguin, 2011. James Stewart’s collection of four true stories about perjury, dishonesty and bald-faced lies reads like a fast-paced mystery novel. His first subject is Martha Stewart, who was convicted in March 2004 of charges related to an insider-trading scandal. Martha came into unsolicited “inside” information, and in a knee-jerk reaction, immediately sold her stock in ImClone Systems. Sounds reasonable, except that’s called insider trading, and it’s illegal. Her real troubles, though, began when she lied about the circumstances of the sale and then stuck to her story, even after investigators repeatedly gave her opportunities to recant. In the end, she made a business decision: she would rather serve a prison sentence than admit to a wrongdoing that would disappoint her fans.
It’s a common enough tactic. As long as wrongdoers insist on their innocence, there are always people who will believe the claim, regardless of how convincing the evidence. I have to admit, my immediate reaction was one of sympathy. At first blush, it seems like something that could happen to any of us—an unthinking reaction to an attack on our property. Would I have had the discipline to forego taking action on such a tip? The irony of the situation is that Martha only saved $46,000 by her illegal action—less than the cost of her defense, I would think, and hardly worth the millions she must have lost in business income by being sidetracked.
The subject of James Stewart’s second tale is Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who stuck to his lie, even after others began to shift their save-ass stories to align with the facts that were coming to light. No, he wasn’t the only one to lie; he was just the only one to refuse to revise his lie as bits and pieces of truth emerged. The Big Lie became the star of an investigation that began in 2003 as an inquiry into a serious matter of national security: who had leaked the name of a CIA operative to the press? At the completion of the investigation, no fewer than three big names admitted to inadvertently dropping Victoria Plame’s name in conversations with journalists. Only Scooter Libby never admitted his error, even after being faced with the incontrovertible evidence. Not only did he fail to admit what he had done, his fabrications in lieu of truth were easily disproved—and he did not waiver even then. Among those who revealed Plame’s identity, the only person who paid the high price was Libby, and he was prosecuted for perjury, not for revealing Plame’s identity.
The last two narratives of well-known prevaricators cover Barry Bonds (who lied under oath during an investigation of steroid use) and the infamous Bernie Madoff, who is credited with bringing the world to its knees with the pyramid scheme to end all pyramid schemes. Bonds apparently suffers from an overprivileged childhood and a case of incredible arrogance. Madoff reads like a classic sociopath.
The most interesting revelation to me about the Madoff investigation is that the assembly-line mentality of the young SEC lawyers, working on their careers instead of investigating their cases, resulted in the Madoff scam catapulting from $20 billion to $65 billion before he was stopped. Each and every one of the investigators believed Madoff was lying, but guessed it was about nothing of consequence, as if the lying in and of itself was of no consequence. If we pass the buck upline, we find an SEC who hired attorneys not by their knowledge of how the market works but by the grades they made in law school. None of the SEC attorneys involved in the Madoff investigation understood the fundamentals of stock trading. One positive outcome, if any can be found, is that the SEC now trains its attorneys in stock-trading basics.
Stewart caps off his storytelling with a commentary on the theme of his subtitle: “How False Statements Are Undermining America.” Early on, he speaks his opinion through the words of the prosecuting attorney in the Martha Stewart case: “The laws that are being enforced in this case are designed to make sure that investigators can fairly evaluate facts based on the truth. That is the point. It is important. And those laws must be enforced to keep the integrity of government investigations.”
I’m less than a quarter way through the book, and I have forgotten it is about truth.
In the case of Martha Stewart, the author’s account seems to be conclusive, mainly because three people—the stockbroker’s assistant, Martha Stewart’s best friend and one of her employees—could not bring themselves to lie under oath. In the case of Scooter Libby, it is unlikely that all of the lies and all of the liars will ever be uncovered. At the time, it was widely believed that the White House had foisted a lie on the American people to further justify the war in Iraq, and then outed Victoria Plame to get even with her husband for exposing the truth . . . and to send a message to anyone else who may have been in a position to come up against the administration’s agenda. No proof of these allegations has ever been found. Reporting without comment, the facts leave open the possibility that both the president and the vice president perjured themselves. James Stewart gives this possibility a wide berth, never so much as suggesting it. Perhaps it was the complete lack of mention that for the first time caused me to consider it. Bush’s memoir quotes Vice President Cheney as saying, “I can’t believe you’re going to leave a soldier on the battlefield.” To some, this constitutes a hint that Libby lied out of loyalty and perhaps even a personal belief that the truth would harm the country. Ever the professional, the author never hints at any of these possibilities, offering only the available facts.
Not surprisingly, most people will go to great lengths to hide their sins against society. Somehow, breaking the law is seen as a rebellious act against an oppressive parent or mysterious “them,” the authority that squeezes the joy out of life. Too few of us are keenly aware that violating a law is an act of aggression against our friends, neighbors and country.
Author James Stewart calls upon defense attorneys to follow the law and code of ethics, to stop turning a blind eye when their clients lie under oath. “A society that depends only on prosecutors and the judicial system to curb perjury will never succeed,” Stewart warns. He calls for —moral outrage” that demands nothing short of the truth.
Is it true, as ferociously declared by Jack Nicholson’s character in the film A Few Good Men, that we just “can’t handle the truth”? In a society reared on tattle-tale tit, that rewards those who never cry “foul,” can we be as good as we ought to be when faced with the exposure of our lapses in integrity? Stewart asks us to avoid the outlaw mentality that encourages lies to protect friends, family or clients. “To elevate loyalty over truth is to revert to the rule of the tribe or class, where power and brute force decide all conflicts,” he writes. (July 2012)
Stout, Martha, The Myth of Sanity: Divided Consciousness and the Promise of Awareness (Tales of Multiple Personality in Everyday Life). NY: Penguin, 2002. (Orig. pub. Viking Penguin, 2001) As a clinical psychologist, Stout draws upon twenty years experience with trauma survivors to explain, in clear, easy-to-understand prose, the spectrum of dissociative disorders—from the everyday experience of being completely absorbed in a movie to the most well-known of the dissociative disorders, dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder (MPD). Her story-telling approach, using individual cases and composite characters, has the air of a good novel. What sort of dissociative events have you experienced? Is there someone in your life who never seems to remember something they said just yesterday, just an hour ago? Stout is helpful and hopeful to those who suffer and those who know someone who suffers from any of the various dissociative disorders. Awareness and self-responsibility, she writes, are the first steps to a return to normalcy, even for victims of the more extreme dissociative disorders. (February 2011)
Stout, Martha, The Sociopath Next Door. New York: Broadway Books, 2005. I picked up The Sociopath Next Door because I so admired Martha Stout’s The Myth of Sanity. Myth was a helpful, hopeful book, reminding us that all of us have moments of dissociation, when we drift off into another world (in a movie, perhaps), and that we are not so very different from those who are diagnosed with DID (dissociative identity disorder, formerly multiple personality disorder). Though every bit as readable, informative, and generally helpful, Sociopath is not so hopeful. “1 in 25 ordinary Americans secretly has no conscience and can do anything at all without feeling guilty,” the cover warns. That’s the definition of a sociopath, Stout explains, someone who has no conscience. Sociopaths are consummate liars and usually charming, she says, spending their lives trying to blend in, to look like they give a damn. After describing the various faces of sociopathy, using case studies as she did in Myth, Stout offers a list of ways to spot a sociopath and advises the only way to deal with them is to avoid them altogether. Stout’s description is so eerily like someone I know, someone her family and friends often describe as “evil,” that I launched into a reading frenzy on evil. Simon Baron-Cohen in The Science of Evil and William Irvine in On Desire share Stout’s advice to simply steer clear of sociopaths (or at least minimize contact if you’ve got one in the family). What emerges, though, in these latter two books based on the authors’ own research, is that there may be hope for the future. Though psychotherapy is useless with sociopaths—a fact upon which all three authors agree—there may actually be a way to train sociopaths to be “good.” It’s a societal goal right up there with world peace. It may take a long time, but it’s worth the effort. (March 2012)
Stowe, Harriet Beecher, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Dover Thrift Editions. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2005. (Originally published in Boston by John P. Jewett & Company and in Cleveland, Ohio by Jewett, Proctor & Worthington, 1852). It is reported that when President Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he said, “So you’re the little lady who caused this big war.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin may not have caused the war, but it certainly stirred anti-slavery sentiments internationally. I first read it more than 30 years ago and remembered it only as a great story, a real page turner. Recently, while researching the concept of evil, there were two things that repeatedly appeared in my reading: the Holocaust and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A re-reading was in order.
Even though she furnished adequate proof that her characters were drawn from real life [see The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1854)], Stowe’s emotional presentation, typical of novels of the period, was distracting to me until, again, I was drawn into the story: a kind slaveowner finds himself in financial straits and must sell property to keep from losing everything. Rather than part with acreage, he sells his most valuable slave, Uncle Tom, along with Harry, the young son of his wife’s chamber maid Eliza. Thus, Tom is separated from his wife and children, and Eliza runs away in the night with little Harry.
A key character is St. Clare, Uncle Tom’s new master, who assuages his guilt at being a slaveowner by indulging his human property and foregoing the whippings that are common among his peers. Indeed, he metes out no discipline at all. St. Clare’s petulant wife is capricious in her treatment of her servants. Their child Eva is a younger, Western version of Siddhartha. When her father attempts to shield her from the truth, she protests: “You want me to live so happy, and never to have pain,—never suffer anything,—not even hear a sad story when other poor creatures have nothing but pain and sorrow, all their lives,—it seems selfish.”
Stowe uses her characters to deliver her orations on the causes and evils of slavery and how good people behave badly when society seems to demand it of them; or as St. Clare says, “It’s pretty generally understood that men don’t aspire after the absolute right, but only to do about as well as the rest of the world.”
St. Clare, too, reflects Stowe’s thoughts on the profit motive behind slavery:
On this abstract question of slavery there can, as I think, be but one opinion. Planters, who have money to make by it,—clergymen, who have planters to please,—politicians, who want to rule by it,—may warp and bend language and ethics to a degree that shall astonish the world at their ingenuity; they can press nature and the Bible, and nobody knows what else, into the service. (p. 189)
Mr. Shelby’s speeches present the case of the genteel, kind slaveowner; Mrs. Shelby’s speeches provide the practicing Christian viewpoint; and Uncle Tom and George Harris speak of the experience of being treated as a piece of property rather than a man. Other characters reflect the sentiments of the many voices that weigh in on the complex nature of slavery as an economic necessity.
Thus the story I read years ago as an exciting bit of fiction, I now review as a powerful political statement. Knowing now, that even the individual characters, as well as the events, were literally taken from real life, the story has deeper meaning. I was struck by how often some speech or wisp of philosophy seemed hauntingly relevant to today’s society, where the closing of factories and downsizing of businesses do not send workers to the block to be sold, but rather leave them in a limbo, like freed slaves without the tools to make it in this new emerging society.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher, The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin; Presenting the Original Facts and Documents Upon Which the Story is Founded, Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work. New York: Arno Press and The New York Times, 1968, a volume in their series, The American Negro: His History and Literature. (Originally published by John P. Jewett and Company in Boston and Jewett, Proctor, and Worthington in Cleveland, Ohio, 1854.) Pro-slavery forces, at the time of its publication in 1852, accused Uncle Tom’s Cabin of gross exaggeration of situations that rarely occurred. I had read that Uncle Tom, Stowe’s devotedly Christian hero, represents Christ and that the wickedly brutal slaveowner Simon Legree represents Satan. I thus approached this reading as a search for archetypes in all the characters. I did, indeed, find many a “type” among Stowe’s characters. I was surprised, then, when I began reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to find that her characters were modeled after people she learned about during her research for the novel that she hoped would touch the hearts and consciences of people who weren’t paying that much attention to the issue.
The Key is more than 500 pages of letters, reports, witness accounts, first-person accounts (including slave narratives), newspaper advertisements (slaves for sale and notices of runaway slaves), legal documents, and other sorts of documentation. There are more pages of document verbatims than there are Stowe’s comments on them.
When I first realized that I was about to read 500 plus pages of dreary reporting, I thought it would be sufficient to simply mention the content and go on to other reading. But I was at once captured by the documents Stowe used to draw the character of Haley, the slave trader to whom Mr. Shelby sells two of his slaves when he finds himself hopelessly in debt. It is a negotiated trade: Haley gets Shelby’s top hand, Uncle Tom, and Harry, the handsome child of Mrs. Shelby’s chamber maid, in exchange for settling the debt. From letters of the day, written by one businessman to another, and from a courtroom transcript of a slavetrader’s testimony, Stowe drew her character of Haley.
From there, I read on—documents that inspired the characters of Mr. And Mrs. Shelby, George Harris, Eliza, Uncle Tom, Miss Ophelia, the St. Clares, Simon Legree, and the Quakers who sheltered Eliza, George, and Harry as they made their way to Canada. Stowe claims she worked just as hard at finding the “good” among the pro-slavery forces as she did in locating the bad. Her documentation upholds her claim. Time and again, her fictional world used incidents from the real world, even to the extent to put into the mouths of her characters the exact words and phrases used by the people she studied.
Though Uncle Tom’s Cabin easily stands alone as a testimony to the evils of slavery, I recommend without reservation the reading of The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I would even consider it essential reading if you, too, as I did, assume that Harriet Beecher Stowe used a broad pen to draw her characters larger than life in order to make her point. There actually was a slave woman who jumped from ice patch to ice patch across the Ohio River in her desperation to escape her pursuers. (September 2012)
Stringer, Lee, Grand Central Winter: Stories from the Street. New York, Toronto, London: Seven Stories Press, 1998. Lee Stringer suffered the death of his business partner and then his brother—the first a bump in the road, the second a mind-numbing grief that led him to heavy drinking, then crack cocaine. Nine months after being introduced to crack, he had smoked up one hundred thousand dollars and was on the street. He felt relief at not having to worry about rent; his daily goal was to sell enough cans or newspapers to feed his addiction and get a meal, in that order. Everything else was secondary.
Two things, in particular, grabbed my attention, causing me to enter into his life as it was, accepting him and his friends just as they were. The first is his total lack of sentimentality in telling his story; the second is that he has been drug-free for years.
Stringer writes about the politics of homelessness, why some things work and others don’t, about the all-or-nothing addictive personality, and the morality and humanity of addicts. Along the way he drops a few kernels of wisdom: “I do not know anyone who considers himself a hardworking, moral, churchgoing, nonaddicted American who would go to the lengths to which recovering addicts and alcoholics go for the sake of spiritual growth. The urgency is just not there. . . . As they say in the rooms of AA, religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell, spirituality is for those who have already been there.”
Stringer is a writer by gift and a philosopher by experience. He had no formal education for either, but driven by life events and native intelligence, he qualifies as both. (December 2012)
Suzaki, Kiyoshi, Results from the Heart. New York, London, Tokyo, Sydney, Singapore: The Free Press, 2002. I've long been interested in methods of introducing soul-satisfying ethics into everyday business activities. That's what motivated me to buy and give away several copies of Tom Chappell's The Soul of a Business. In the case of Suzaki's book, I was drawn, first, by the banner at the top of the front cover that reads "Foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama" and, second, by the subheading "How Mini-Company Management Captures Everyone's Talents and Helps Them Find Meaning and Purpose at Work." Chappell's book is a recounting of his personal journey in building a business that reflects his values (Tom's of Maine personal hygiene products). Suzaki's book is a management manual, called by one reviewer a "Tao of Work," that outlines how to put his methods into operation in a business of any size. As a successful international management consultant, there is nothing impractical in Suzaki's approach. As slim a volume as it is, he has included everything a business would need to know to replicate his proven management techniques that produce a satisfied workforce and a responsible corporate citizen. Not a small task for such a small book. (June 2003)
Sykes, Bryan, The Seven Daughters of Eve. London: Corgi Books, 2002. (Original work published 2001) Sykes offers a readable account of his struggles to understand mitochrondrial DNA and his greater struggle to get his work accepted by his peers. Sykes is informative without succumbing to scientific dryness and succeeds in conveying his excitement and urgency as he completes each step in proving his theories about the ancestors of modern Europeans. In order for a scientist to keep her or his funding, he explains, it is necessary to publish research findings on a regular basis, preferably beating others to the punch. So, in addition to the usual ego involvements, competing and being the first to scramble to the finish line is necessary for professional survival. Sykes allowed these rivalries due notice, as they related to his work, without dwelling on them to the detriment of his main story. It's an interesting tale, intriguing at its root, with the connotation that all of modern humanity, all of genus homo sapiens, are descended from a single woman, whose daughters and chosen consorts have populated our entire planet in a brief 80,000 years. In his Acknowledgments, Sykes recognizes the work of others in his field who have contributed equally to the current accepted science. I would rather that information had been included in his first chapter where it would be more widely read, where the reader would, at the outset, understand that Sykes is one of a dozen or more scientists contributing to the DNA knowledge base that has made the "Out of Africa" theory the most widely accepted theory of modern mankind's beginnings. But then it's his book and his chance to toot his horn. (July 2005)
Thomas, G. Ernest, Six 20th Century Mystics. Nashville, TN: The Upper Room, 1955. Author Thomas has created six brief biographies of "20th century mystics," with the emphasis on their spiritual practices. Included are Rufus Jones, a Quaker and a professor of philosophy; Albert Schweitzer, theologian, philosopher, physician and medical missionary; Glenn Clark, professor of literature, athletic coach and author of books on prayer; Peter Marshall, Presbyterian minister and twice chaplain of the U.S. Senate; Frank C. Laubach, a Congregational Christian missionary who developed a literacy program that has taught more than 60 million people to read in their own language; and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who was executed by the Nazis in 1946 for his anti-Nazi activism, including participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
What I had hoped to find was a clearcut definition of a mystic, but instead I found a description of six men who are generally accepted as examples of Christian mystics. With the exception of Bonhoeffer, they each followed a daily practice. Executed at age 39, Bonhoeffer's daily communion with Spirit was not structured by schedule or habit, or even a yearning to grow closer to the Divine; the only companion in his prison cell was his God.
As would be expected, prayer was the cornerstone of the relationships these men had with the Divine Presence. Another common thread was surrender: each spoke of his surrender to God's will and the experience of a call to service. All began their communion with Spirit in childhood, and all sought to know God experientially. Laubach was the only among them who seemed to strain to establish his divine connection. He experimented with various methods of reminding himself to align his will with God's will, and his efforts were rewarded. Approaching the age of 50, he wrote in his journal:
How infinitely richer this direct first hand grasping of God himself is, than the old method which I used and recommended for years, the reading of endless devotional books. Almost it seems to me now that the very Bible cannot be read as a substitute for meeting God soul to soul and face to face. (p. 41)
The author says of Laubach that "He convinced those who knew him that he was on intimate terms with God" (p. 49). And perhaps that is the definition of a mystic, however subjective it may be: one we are convinced is on intimate terms with God. To self-identify as a mystic, then, would be someone who is convinced that s/he is on intimate terms with God. There are no external means of verifying the status. Only God knows. (July 2014)
Thomas, Lewis, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. New York: Viking, 1974. A physician and medical educator of some repute, Thomas proves beyond a doubt that he is a writer of lyrical proportions. His Lives informs as it reveals his personal musings on the origin and meaning of life. Ours is a world of community, he convinces us, the community of all living things, "accountable," he writes, "by the high probability that we derived, originally, from some single cell, fertilized in a bolt of lightning as the earth cooled. . . . the resemblance of the enzymes of grasses to those of whales is a family resemblance" (3). From Theodor's experiments, in which the smaller of two individuals of the same species voluntarily begins to disintegrate, to the communal lives of ants, locusts, and termites, Thomas invites us to relate the lives of simpler creatures to our own lives. He sees art, particularly music, as an integral part of our biological being, mindful of Kandinsky and many other artists who saw color as musical notes. Reminiscent of the aboriginal creation tale that tells of the world being sung into being, Thomas sees creation as having been orchestrated by a grand musical score. Like all great artists, he entices us to look at life in new and different ways. This National Book Award winner is timeless in its subtle theme of humanity's search for meaning. (October 1996)
Thurber, James, Further Fables for Our Time. Mitcham, VIC, Australia: Penguin Books, 1960. (Orig. pub. 1956). Ah the joys of an estate sale when the departed was a discriminating reader! One of the gems I picked up at just such a sale was Thurber's second book of fables. James Thurber was one of the brightest spots in the literary milieu of the 1950s, when I became old enough to discover his witty, self-illustrated short pieces. He began writing in the 1920s and continued until his death in 1961. His fables, two to three pages in length, are all designed to entertain rather than illuminate, and they each succeed. I won't stop at recommending this slim volume; read anything Thurber you can find. (December 2007)
Thurber, James, The 13 Clocks. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950. A beautiful princess is under a spell in a gloomy castle, far, far away on a lonely hiil. Of course, the prince rescues the princess, but not before Thurber takes us on a journey through dark corners and secret stairways peopled with original Thurbian monsters and creepy crawlies. With periodic lapses into near-Seussian verse and twists and turns and glib, quick-witted, distinctly Thurbian dialog, the reader of any age will happily turn page after page of a quick-paced, one-hour read. Adults will enjoy the characteristic Thurber; children will enjoy the unique characters in a familiar blend of good and evil, heroes and villains, magic and reason. It is a lively combination of magic and reason that resolves the plight of the bewitched princess. (January 2008)
Toole, John Kennedy, The Neon Bible. New York: Grove Press, 1989. The Neon Bible opens with seventeen-year-old David two or three hours into his very first train ride—begun just as the sun was beginning to set—and ends the next morning as the sun's "up full." In between, David tells his life story, beginning when he was three and got a toy train for Christmas, before his father lost his job and they had to move into the rickety old house at the top of the hill outside town.
David lives one of those lives that just slowly moves from bad to worse, too slowly for him to lose hope or even notice that things are as bad as they are. As things turn out, the best thing that ever happened to any of them was when Aunt Mae came to live with them, though no one thought so at the time. That's about all I can say without spoiling the read.
John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces is in my Top Ten Favorite Books. The Neon Bible isn't quite that good, but it's one of those books that gets better as you think about it. It has qualities of Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, probably because they both are narrated in the first-person by a teenage boy. And it has qualities of To Kill a Mockingbird, mainly, I think, because Toole's teenage boy often sounds about the same age as Harper Lee's Scout.
Toole was sixteen years old when he wrote The Neon Bible. At thirty-one, about the age that Salinger was when he published Catcher in the Rye, Toole committed suicide. Though he suffered depression, his devoted mother was convinced that it was the failure of A Confederacy of Dunces to find a publisher that was responsible for his death. It was his mother's persistence, and the help of celebrated novelist Walker Percy, that finally resulted in its publication by Louisiana State University Press eleven years after his death. And in 1981, Toole's master work received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
The Neon Bible and A Confederacy of Dunces are two very different books, each quite brilliant in its own way. Toole dismissed his early work as "immature," which it is—and also why it is so good. As the fruit of an immature mind, it is incredibly honest.
Uitz, Erika, The Legend of Good Women: The Liberation of Women in Medieval Cities. Wakefield, Rhode Island and London: Moyer Bell, 1994. (Original work published 1988 as Die Frau in der Mittelalterlichen Stadt). Through a careful examination of documents (letters, wills, deeds, contracts, and other public documents) Uitz traces the growth of new urban centers in Europe in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. The lifeblood and reason for being for these towns and cities was commerce. Their life came into being and depended on the new trade routes that opened during this era. The demand for trade goods resulted in the growth of craft guilds that governed the lives of craftsmen and their families. The guilds, in turn, were governed by the town burghers—similar to present-day city councils, but far more powerful in dictating the details of the lives of town citizens. Women's lives were radically changed by the economic demands of production for export. Both the need for women's labor in creating goods and conducting business and the partnership aspect that grew within marriages because of this need resulted in widespread changes in law that allowed women to own property, conduct business, and participate in the decisions about their lives. Though it could not be said, from the evidence offered by Uitz, that women were treated as equals, the economic characteristics of the middle ages created the first opportunities in modern history for women to experience some degree of independence and begin the centuries-long process of escaping chatteldom. This is a carefully crafted academic study, allowing readers the kind of solid documentation that will make this work a classic reference. (December 1994)
University of Michigan (Ed.), Aging in the Modern World: A Book of Readings. Ann Arbor: Author, 1957. This compilation of writings on personal experiences with aging spans the centuries from early Greece to 1950s America. I have a few favorites. Writing in 16th-century Italy, one man looks back on his life from the perspective of a man in his 70s, concluding that he was 43 when he "began to get his breath." Life became easier for him at that point (though never easy, according to his account). In a short piece, author D. H. Lawrence writes of his passion for "making pictures" at 40, when he abandoned his longtime hobby of copying famous paintings and began painting his own compositions. And what collection would be complete without a social scientist who denied that midlife crisis existed? (March 1995)
Updike, John, Just Looking. New York: Knopf, 1989. What do great writers do when they're not writing books? Updike is among those financially successful in their own lifetimes who wrote for whatever magazine would pay well for their work, and happily, in the case of Updike, that included many essays on art. Without apology, venom, or regret, he tells it like he sees it—chastising Renoir for not being quite as great as Monet and Degas and unself-consciously, yet fondly, labeling a Diebenkorn Abstract Expressionist painting as "an expensive variety of wallpaper" (p. 80). Updike is teaching us, by example, how to view a painting. In Richard Estes's Telephone Booths the viewer may see a well-executed, realistic painting of people in telephone booths, a common urban sight. Updike sees "The sun is shining on a car hood. A fat woman is striding past a mannequin. Merchants are proclaiming their names and wares in visual shouts reduced to isolated letters" (p. 21). He offers us models of contemplative essays. Just Looking is richly illustrated with full-color plates of the paintings discussed. Through Updike's words, the masters become our familiars, and we care that they painted—and what they painted. Updike's knowledge indeed seems to come from a lifetime of "just looking," and he sees with an eye that the uneducated art observer can understand. He is accessible. He offers a way to view art that allows us to appreciate what we initially could not understand—and to dislike it if we must. (November 1996)
Vanderbilt, Arthur T. II, Fortune's Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt. New York, William Morrow, 1989. Cornelius Vanderbilt was an unpleasant young man, who grew to become an exceedingly unpleasant old man. At 16, he borrowed $100 from his mother and bought a ferryboat that he operated on New York Bay. He worked hard, and in his first year of business made $1,000 at 18 cents a trip. It was a year later, during the War of 1812 that the British blockade of New York Harbor gave him an opportunity to rapidly increase his fortune. He won a contract with the military to carry provisions to military garrisons; he even brought food down the Hudson River and sold it to the starving people of the city. With his profits, he bought two more boats. With this beginning, the Commodore, as he was nicknamed, had amassed a fortune of $40 million by 1862, the year before he acquired his first railroad. At his death in 1877 his estimated worth was $100 million.
The author, a descendant of the Commodore, opens all the closet doors and rattles all the skeletons in this true tale of how four generations of Vanderbilts first built, then consumed the massive Vanderbilt fortune. Famed fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt and her half sister inherited equal shares of a $5-million trust when their father, a self-confessed ne’re-do-well, died. Though Vanderbilt’s narrative treats this as the last of the Commodore’s wealth, it’s worth noting that Gloria Vanderbilt, now 88 years old, has grown her $2.5-million inheritance to a respectable $200 million.
Fortune’s Children reads like a beautifully crafted novel, perfectly paced and filled with fascinating characters. Arthur Vanderbilt II is an accomplished writer, and his family memoir is a monumental accomplishment. (July 2012)
Villaseñor, Victor, Rain of Gold. New York: Laurel, 1991. There is no good without evil, no light without dark, and no love without hatred and fear, the sages say, and Villaseñor’s family memoir is replete with all of these in the extreme. Generations of his family lived in the Mexico of revolution, from Hidalgo’s call for independence in 1820 until the last bloody overthrow of a sitting president in 1920. His mixed-race ancestors attempted to make a living off the land, but never succeeded in being remote enough to escape the ravages of rag-tag soldiers from both sides of the conflict.
Villaseñor’s grandmother, Doña Marguerita, emerges as the star of his tale—a tiny, toothless, brittle little Indian woman. Each day, in the early morning while she sits in her outhouse with her cup of coffee and cigarette, she exchanges gossip with the Virgin Mary. Sometimes occasions arise that call for a special visit to the church, where the Holy Mother steps down from her pedestal and joins Doña Marguerita for a heart-to-heart.
Villaseñor’s father, Salvadore, was Doña Marguerita’s last born, miraculously past her expected age of fertility. She expects Salvadore to be better than her other sons and frequently delivers long rants, imparting her wisdom or punishing his shortcomings. Her favorite topics are love, forgiveness, bigotry, and racism.
Every family in America should have such a grandmother. “I tell you, this hate has got to stop right now! Here! Inside your soul!” she berates him. “And you’ve got to grab hold of your tanates and grow bigger than your personal disappointments, or the devil has won before you even begin!”
From twenty years of recorded interviews with members of both his father’s and mother’s families, Villaseñor weaves a magnificently adventurous story of how his family survived the harrowing journey north into the U.S. to escape the neverending violence of war. It is a story of two families, but in the process of the telling, a portrait of a people emerges—the Mexican immigrants who forged a new culture as Mexican Americans. For this reason alone, Villaseñor’s colorful family memoir is worth the read. (September 2012)
Villaseñor, Victor, Thirteen Senses. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. Thirteen Senses is Victor Villaseñor’s second installment in his family history. The first, Rain of Gold, ended with his parents’ 1929 wedding; the second covers the wedding and all that proceeds. This volume continues the unfolding of family wisdom, as told by its women—most particularly, Doña Marguerita, Villaseñor’s paternal grandmother.
Midst exploding stills and other dangers of life as a 1920s bootlegger, Villaseñor’s father, Salvadore, repeats the teachings of his Indian mother. In this continuation of his life story, Villaseñor reveals that Doña Marguerita was a curandera, a native healer. It seems an odd thing to have omitted from his first book, in which Doña Marguerita also plays a major role. This and a few other seeming inconsistencies cause me to suspect that his grandmother may not be the source of all the wisdom that he seeks to impart. And in the end, it doesn’t make any difference. He offers a worthwhile teaching, while spinning a rip-snorting yarn of living on the edge of the law during the era when California’s barrios were first being formed and a new culture was being created from the melding of the ways of Old Mexico and gringo America.
Villaseñor reveals the secret of why many men lie—because they can’t have things the way they need them to be if they tell the truth. This is the conundrum of Salvadore when faced with the choice of telling his fiancée the truth about the source of his wealth (as his mother advises) or denying that he is a bootlegger, a lie to ensure that Lupe will not call off the wedding. He chooses the lie. The truth can wait, he reasons, until the marriage is consummated and she dares not to leave him. Lupe is consoled with her mother’s advice: “No man can ever break a woman’s heart, if she has entrusted her heart—not to the man—but to her home.” This ancient rule of motherhood is a revelation to a modern woman who grew up in a world of romantic love and divorces fueled by disappointment. “So always know, mi hijita,” Lupe’s mother tells her, “that you are una lluvia de oro, a rain of gold, sent by God to do your work for the survival of all humankind. We are the power, we women are el eje, the center, the hub de nuestras familias, and in this knowledge, then our hearts are INDESTRUCTIBLE!”
Villaseñor is a great storyteller and a sharp witness to human foibles. Thirteen Senses is a family history, an introduction to Mexican American culture, and a sojourn into the world of a mystic. (October 2012)
Vipont, Elfrida, Quakerism: A Faith To Live By. London: Bannisdale Press, 1965. Elfrida Vipont is one of the pen names of Elfrida Vipont Brown (1902-1992), who also sometimes used her married name, Foulds. She was a popular award-winning British writer of children’s fiction and also wrote adult nonfiction on Quaker topics. In Quakerism: A Faith To Live By, Vipont gives a whirlwind survey of Quaker history through 16 short biographies of key figures in the development of Quaker thought and practice. Beginning with George Fox (1624-1691), generally considered founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and Margaret Fell (1614-1702), whom many consider the architect of the early Quaker organization, she counts down the years to American philosopher and mystic Rufus Jones (1863-1948). This is a good collection for someone who wants to get a quick impression of who the Quakers are, or for someone who is just beginning their study of Quakerism. Vipont’s usual fine writing is in evidence, offering an entertaining and educational read. (August 2007)
Vipont, Elfrida, Sparks Among the Stubble. London: Oxford University Press, 1950. This collection of short stories based on the lives of early Quakers is intended for readers 10-14; however, it is suitable for reading aloud to younger children. There are nine stories—five of them essentially fact with some speculative, fictionalized detail and four that are loosely based on the original stories. The last story, "Precious Seed," is the gem of the collection, telling the story of George Edmondson, who traveled to Russia with Quaker horticulturalist Daniel Wheeler. At the request of Tsar Alexander of Russia, Wheeler was sent to drain the swampy land around St. Petersburg and reclaim the land for agricultural purposes. Longer than the others, Edmondson's story has all the elements of a great adventure novel: true love that stands the test of time, foreign travel and a series of coincidences that work to bring the tale to a happy end. In all cases, the moral of the story (that made each story popular with Quaker parents) is in evidence, but skillfully woven into the story. Any parent who wishes to make his/her children aware of issues of social justice will find these stories useful as teaching stories, as well as great adventures. (September 2007)
Vonnegut, Kurt, Breakfast of Champions. New York: Delacourt, 1973. Breakfast of Champions was written on the occasion of Vonnegut's fiftieth birthday. He chose this auspicious occasion to revisit the life of one of his characters who appeared in earlier novels—Kilgore Trout, an obscure science fiction writer, whom Vonnegut now allows to become rich and famous, despite Trout's total lack of interest in fame and fortune. Vonnegut's beautiful phrases are few and far between. His ironic truths are delivered in short, straightforward sentences—a sometimes gentle, sometimes not so gentle confrontation. Vonnegut is in a class all by himself. Unlike other satirists, he shows a genuine affection for his characters, reflecting what must be a great love for the human race—despite its foibles that he so expertly identifies. His black comedy is rendered with a sensitivity that elicits tender feelings and fondness for his characters, who are neither heroes nor villains, but people like ourselves who have stubbed their toes walking life's path. His comic irreverence always serves to let us know ourselves better, and he leaves no sacred cow unsullied. About the discovery of America in 1492, he says, "Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them" (10). Breakfast of Champions is among Vonnegut's finest writings, something of a summary of his first fifty years of experience as a human being. (March 1997)
Vonnegut, Kurt & Lee Stringer, moderated by Ross Klavan, Like Shaking Hands with God: A Conversation About Writing. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999. This small, slim volume is a transcription of two public-performance conversations between much-loved perennial bestselling author Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer, author of bestselling Grand Central Winter. I have two favorite Vonnegutisms from these conversations. The first is "practicing any art . . . is not a way to make money or become famous. It's a way to make your soul grow." And second, "music is the proof of the existence of God." Oh, what the hell. I'll throw in another one. He quotes from his book Timequake: "We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different!"
Lee Stringer was living on the streets of New York and strung out on cocaine when he began writing. Thanks to a successful stint in a drug-treatment program, he was clean when he wrote Grand Central Winter: Stories from the Street, which became a bestseller. It is a memoir of his years on the streets. That Stringer is a writer of rare talent seems to be unanimous among critics, readers, and other writers. Vonnegut wrote the foreword to Stringer's book, which is most likely why he joined Stringer for the conversations that comprise this text.
Reviews of Stringer's book frequently mention that he is not writing social commentary or a plea for the homeless, but rather it is a memoir of a turning point in one man's life. He never writes about "the homeless," his reviewers write, but about the individuals he knew during his years on the street.
Struggling writers hungry for any morsel of advice from someone who's "made it" will find a word or two of encouragement. Or if you are a Vonnegut collector, no doubt you'd be happy to have this little book on your shelf. Otherwise, why not pick up Grand Central Winter instead and find out why Vonnegut says that Stringer is a better writer than he is. (November 2011)
Wallis, Velma, Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. (Original work published 1993). There are multilayered lessons of life in this Athabascan Indian legend which traditionally passes from mother to daughter. During a time of hunger and limited resources, two old women are left behind to perish when their tribe finds they no longer have the strength and resources to serve the old, as had always been their custom. Calling on the skills learned in a lifetime and their strong will to live, the two old women survive—and even thrive. Returning two years later, the tribe, still suffering from lack and want, are elated to find them alive, but the women do not trust them. The old women learned to "use it or lose it," that humility is a friend, and that work is the substance of life. Tribal members learned that listening to and valuing the old ones was a greater sign of respect than attempting to take care of their every physical need and that the old are not burdens for they hold much knowledge that aids survival. Both the women and their tribe concluded that fear moves people to very uncivilized acts. The final lesson, as the legend closes with a happy ending, is the value of forgiveness. (January 1995)
Walther, Ingo F., Pablo Picasso 1881-1973: Genius of the Century. Cologne: Benedikt Taschen, 1986. A study of twentieth-century art is impossible without the inclusion of Pablo Ruiz, who began using his mother's name, Picasso, as his signature at the age of 13, when his art teacher father handed the young artist his palette and never again painted. The text in this volume of Benedikt Taschen's series on important artists is not gracefully executed. The reader feels distinctly that English is not the author's native tongue and certain elements of carelessness in the writing suggest that Walther was more concerned with the manuscript deadline than scholarship. Picasso's own words, appearing as blocked quotes in the margins, are not dated, nor sources given. The reader is not able to chronologically trace the change in philosophy reflected in his words. This was particularly irritating when the great artist contradicts himself, as was evident in three of the quotations:
Paintings are nothing but research and experiment. I never paint
a picture as a work of art. Everything is research. I keep researching,
and in this constant enquiry there is a logical development. (p. 51)
I have never burdened myself with searching. I paint what I see,
sometimes in one form, sometimes in another. I do not brood, nor do
I experiment. When I feel I want to say something, I say it in such a
way as I feel I ought to. (p. 57)
The different styles I have been using in my art must not be seen as an
evolution . . . I have never had time for the idea of searching . . . I have
never made radically different experiments . . . Different themes
inevitably require different methods of expression. This does not imply
either evolution or progress, but it is a matter of following the idea one
wants to express and the way in which one wants to express it. (p. 72)
Walther's poorly disguised gut reaction of disgust and shock in describing some of Picasso's work is a monument to the reaction many must have felt (and apparently continue to feel) in viewing some of the artist's paintings. Walther uses words such as "horror," "grotesque," "misshapen," and "ugly," at one point writing, "Picasso wanted to destroy absolutely everything" (p. 37). Aside from the book's technical problems (including an inordinate number of typographical errors), the facts of biography are presented, and an abundance of full-color plates and numerous black-and-white photographs and reproductions of Picasso's drawings are made available to the viewer. (November 1994)
Wardlaw, Alvia J, The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room. Forew. Peter C. Marzio. Introd. Jeanne Zeidler. Essays by Maya Angelou, Edmund Barry Gaither, Alison de Lima Green, and Robert Farris Thompson. New York and Houston: Abrams and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1995. John Biggers came to artistic maturity in an academic setting far from the art centers of New York. Indeed, he was repulsed by the New York art scene that had so summarily dismissed black art when he had participated in a MOMA black student art exhibit while a Hampton Institute student. Perhaps his avoidance of the centers of art commerce were as responsible for the late acceptance of his genius as was the segregationist mindset in the United States during Biggers's early career. He holds B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in art education from Penn State. His work as an educator was as important to him, if not more important, than creating a body of work. As well as producing important paintings, drawings, and sculpture, Biggers is one of this country's most important muralists, creating more than twenty major murals in fifty years. As Biggers's official biographer, Wardlaw had the advantage of extensive personal interviews with the artist and members of his family. Wardlaw's emotional reaction to her subject is evident, yet the analytical tone of typical art history writing seems out of place in a life such as Biggers's, dramatic in both content and context. Wardlaw draws a clear portrait of African-American life in the black section of a sharply segregated Gastonia, North Carolina, where Biggers grew up in the 1930s, and the rich family and community life of rural black America of the time. The other essays, written by noted scholars, are more polished in style, tracing the history of Biggers's artistic career through a careful study and analysis of his body of work. (January 1997)
Weaver, Rix, The Old Wise Woman: A Study of Active Imagination. Boston & London: Shambhala, 1973. Active Imagination is a Jungian psychotherapeutic technique which utilizes artistic expression as a means to access subconscious material. Weaver states that it "is not valuable for its artistic quality, but for its symbolism, which, taken into account with the conscious situation, gives deeper and wider meaning to life" (p. 1). Weaver uses her personal interactions in fantasy with "The Old Wise Woman" to illustrate the progression and value of Active Imagination. Her exploration of her dream material included creative writing (creating a fairy tale that told her more about the figures in her dream) and sculpture, making the figures from her dream come alive in clay. The importance of Weaver's work for herself, and as a model for Jungian therapists, is in its efficacy in aiding therapy clients to reach and understand the symbolism of their dream material. Jung's theories are based on the idea that becoming more conscious of our hidden motivations is our life work, and Active Imagination is one of the tools a therapist may use to help a client become "consciously involved" with the archetypes and symbols from their unconscious. (February 1995)
Weil, Andrew, Spontaneous Healing: How to Discover and Enhance Your Body's Natural Ability to Maintain and Heal Itself. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. A comprehensive analysis of the value of various alternative medical treatments is included, along with the book's main topic: how to capitalize on your body's built-in disease-fighting system. Weil outlines a system for achieving maximum health. What distinguishes his work from that of others is that what he proposes seems achievable. With a bachelor's degree in botany and an M.D. from Harvard Medical School, Weil's credibility is enhanced. For those who are disillusioned with establishment medicine, his open-mindedness and healthy critique of both disease-oriented modern medical practice and prevention-oriented alternative therapies is a breath of fresh air. The information is good, the writing is clear, and Weil has contributed a very important book to the body of literature on medical consumerism. (March 1995)
West, Stanley with Paula Dranov, The Hysterectomy Hoax. New York: Doubleday, 1994. This book is designed to help a woman ask the right questions, the most important of which is "What are my alternatives to hysterectomy?" No doubt having a female ghost writer, recognized on the front cover as one would expect from a sensitive person such as West appears to be, helped make this a clear and interesting read for the women to whom it is targeted. Everything one would want to know is included—that is, everything that is available to know. West is not vague in discussing areas of ignorance for the medical community. From the workings of the female organs to the myriad of ills that may befall them to the treatments that are available, everything is presented. At the end of each chapter discussing specific dis-eases of the female organs, West has included a list of specific questions to ask a prospective surgeon. To aid the woman who fears questioning the big daddy in a white coat, West reviews research on doctor-patient communication and gives sound advice on communicating effectively and fairly and expecting the same fair treatment from the physician. Among the many books on the market today, I would place this first for the woman weighing her options when hysterectomy has been advised or considered. (January 1995)
Wilton, Elizabeth, A Ridiculous Idea. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1967. When 16-year-old Sarah Haydon announces to her relatives that she is going to Australia to join her father, and that she's taking her four younger brothers and sisters with her, they all agree that it is "a ridiculous idea." But young Sarah gets her way. When the children arrive in Australia, they find their father's homestead, but their father is not there. He is away on business. He does not know that his wife has died or that his children await him. Helped by the young man who is tending the farm and neighbouring farm families, the children experience a series of adventures as they come to terms with their new lives. As the months pass, the children realize that their father has been gone far too long and that he may not return. This is a carefully researched and skillfully written work of historical fiction for young readers from the age of about 10 to the age of about 14, and perhaps a bit older. (November 2008)
Windle, Janice Woods, Hill Country. Atlanta, GA: Longstreet, 1998. Weaving fact with fancy (to fill in the details), Janice Woods Windle builds page-turning fiction from family records. Her family were the first settlers in Texas's Hill Country, the central Texas highlands west of Austin. Photographs of the people whose fictionalized biographies are featured appear at the beginning of each chapter, reminding the reader that history is intertwined with fiction. My own family is mentioned on a page or two, incidentally neighbors of Windle's family, which influences my interest. Most history buffs, though, will enjoy reading about the young Lyndon Johnson and how events during his college days in San Marcos, Texas, birthed his political career. (February 2010)
Windle, Janice Woods, True Women. New York: Ivy Books, 1995 (Orig. pub. 1993). True Women is Windle's second novel, and like the first, Hill Country, it is based on the lives of her Texas ancestors. As the title suggests, Windle tells her family history through the eyes of its women. She begins with five-year-old Euphemia Texas Ashby watching a procession of "the widows of the Alamo" pass through her settlement after the terrible defeat of the Texians at the Alamo mission. Euphemia and her older married sister, Sarah, are among those who must flee their homes to escape the advancing Mexican army. With all the men at war, the women and children left behind frantically bolt for the safety of the U.S. border. After the defeat of the troops led by Mexican General Santa Anna, they return home to looted, sometimes burned homesteads.
Euphemia (one of Windle's maternal great great grandmothers) grows to maturity on the Texas frontier, learning how to shoot and ride, and marries William King. Their son, Henry King, weds Bettie Moss, another character whose event-filled life is dramatized by Windle. In parallel fashion, Windle relates the fictionalized lives of the Lawshe and Woods women on her father's side of the family, until Ashbys, Kings, Lawshes, and Woods become neighbors in Seguin, Texas.
Just as the finest historical novels do, True Women embodies a history lesson, giving some insight into the motives and emotions behind the events of the time. A recurring theme in the lives of Windle's women is war. In addition to the Texas War of Independence and the Civil War, there is the continually escalating Indian wars. In every generation of her family, men go to war, sometimes more than once; some come home maimed, others don't come home at all. Wars fought on home soil may come to an end with the 1875 surrender of Quanah Parker's Comanches, but the era of great overseas conflicts begin. The first war not fought on native soil by Windle's Texas ancestors is World War I, closely followed by World War II. Observed through the eyes of these women, war appears as a young man's obsession, an opportunity to flex the first muscles of their manhood.
Windle's writing has improved by leaps and bounds since her first novel. She writes powerful description and often shows a wry wit, as when Bettie Moss King decides to vote for Roosevelt: "Maybe Roosevelt and John Nance Garner would bring prosperity back from wherever it had been hidden by Hoover." And when populist Jacob Coxey declares his candidacy for president, Annie declares she cannot vote for someone endorsed by the American Martian Society.
True Women is a lengthy read that might have benefitted from less extraneous detail, undoubtedly an artifact of Windle's amazingly prodigious research. It would be alright if I didn't learn that the word typhoid comes from Typhon, the name of a fire-breathing monster from Greek mythology, and poor Dr. Peter Woods would be saved from so awkwardly inserting this bit of trivia into his conversation.
Windle's women are smart, strong, courageous, persistent, and principled. She leaves us with the uneasy thought that war is how men occupy themselves while women do the work of life. She reminds us that human beings recycle their mistakes and that we have a long way to go; and that working for that inch of progress makes life worthwhile (at least we need to think so). She doesn't write philosophically; she just writes about the real lives of real people who gave us the society into which we were born. A real treat for fans of historic fiction or tales of the Wild West. (January 2013)
Wollstonecraft, Mary & Clare Morgan (Ed.), A Vindication of the Rights of Men and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Cologne: Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft, 1998. (Orig. pub. 1790 & 1792) Nearly two hundred years before the forceful flowering of feminism in Western countries, Mary Wollstonecraft penned two important essays (both in the form of letters of protest to the writings of male thinkers of the time), the first setting forth her protest against social injustices of her time, and the second declaring the intellectual equality of women and setting forth in detail the actions needed to correct the unfair status of women. The complete text of both Vindications are included in this edition. Often Wollstonecraft alluded to matters that were not clearly stated, but were known to readers of the time. This is where the detailed end notes are wonderfully helpful. For instance, Wollstonecraft states "Hume observes ..." and the editor's note reads: "David Hume, (1711-76). Scottish philosopher and historian who argued that the perceptions of the mind were essentially impressions from sensations, emotions and ideas." For the casual reader (if there is such a thing), these notes are essential to a full understanding of Wollstonecraft's arguments within the context of her time. It is of interest to note that she did not manage her personal romantic affairs as wisely as her essays suggest she would have liked. She had one daughter out of wedlock and died giving birth to another after her marriage to William Godwin. This second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, married political radical and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Even as the daughter of the two most famous radicals of the time and as the wife of another, Mary Shelley became, in the long term, more famous than any of them as the author of the novel Frankenstein. (April 2003)
Woolfe, Sue, The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady. Crawley, Western Australia: University of Western Australia Press, 2007. Intermingled with her research into the origins of creativity, Woolfe recounts her several-year struggle with extracting her novel, The Secret Cure, from piles of handwritten notes and diary entries. Novel writers of any ilk, published and unpublished, will likely find this a good read. The facts reported by neuroscientists, the impressions (and confessions) shared by a number of writers who participated in the research, and Woolfe's personal insights are intriguing and informative. She makes reference to Isabel Allende, which seems particularly suitable, since Allende's style of starting a story without knowing where it is going is quite similar to Woolfe's own style of working. A bonus for new writers is Woolfe's synopsis of The Secret Cure given as an appendix at the end of the book. Every publisher wants a synopsis of your book; here's a good example. (June 2008)
Woolman, John, A Plea for the Poor. Pendle Hill Pamphlet No. 357. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Press, 2001 (Orig. pub. 1793). Born in 1720, John Woolman is, more frequently than any other, dubbed the Quaker saint. He practiced what he preached, and it was rarely an easy or popular path that he chose. Published in 1793, A Plea for the Poor was his treatise on the causes of poverty, a gently chastising tract addressed to the wealthy. Poverty, he wrote, is caused by wasteful consumption, and the antidote is to lead a simpler life.
He addressed the evils of slavery as an example of an institution that exploits one class to support the luxurious lifestyle of another. Woolman was one of the first among Quakers to condemn the practice and became quite unpopular among those of his Quaker brethren who depended on slavery to operate their plantations. But by 1830, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) were requiring their membership to free their slaves; their activist stance as abolitionists was underway.
In typical Quaker fashion, Woolman addressed the subject of slavery thoughtfully and tactfully: "When the ancestors of these people were imported from Africa, some I believe bought them with intent to treat them kindly as slaves. They bought them as though those violent men had a right to sell them, but I believe without weightily considering the nature and tendency of such a bargain, and thus building on an unrighteous foundation, a veil was gradually drawn over a practice very grievous and afflicting to great numbers of the Gentiles." (September 2012)
Yalom, Marilyn, A History of the Wife. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. Look at the title! How could a once-married career divorcée resist? Yalom has carefully documented marriage customs over the centuries, with an emphasis on how women have variously been enslaved, freed, honored, dishonored, exploited and protected by their roles in marriage. Her emphasis is on Western traditions. She predicts that "it is unlikely that the nuclear family consisting of a married couple and their children, which peaked numerically for blacks in 1950 and for whites in 1960, will return to its former hegemonic position in American society" (p. 397). Not only has the meaning of being a wife changed radically since 1950, Yalom concludes, but so has the meaning of family. Society is now in the early stages of recreating a model that has been in use for thousands of years. This is a carefully researched and competently written academic work that is presented in a reader-friendly, informative manner. (October 2007)
Yarmolinsky, Jane Vonnegut, Angels Without Wings: A Courageous Family's Triumph over Tragedy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. In June of 1958, Jane Yarmolinsky suffered a prolonged period of insomnia, marked by a series of dreams about refugees coming to her house. In September of that year, in a startling sequence of events, Jane's household—which had heretofore included one husband, one wife, three children, one dog, one cat, and one bird—swelled with the impromptu addition of four more children, two more dogs, one more cat, one more bird, and a turtle. Were these the refugees she had dreamed about?
The four children, all boys, had been orphaned when their mother, Jane's sister-in-law, died of cancer thirty-six hours after their father perished in a freak train accident. Jane and husband Carl barely considered any option other than taking over the care of his sister's children. As Jane described it, "twelve days after the train wreck . . . three carloads of boys, dogs, prized personal possessions, and what memories were left began moving in the direction of Barnstable, where I was doing my best to make room for it all."
The first half of Jane's catalog of memories is a description of those twelve days and the following months during which the details of a new family structure were worked out. The second half of her narrative devotes a chapter to each child—concentrated individual attention that could never have been possible in the untidy atmosphere of a household that included seven children and a multitude of pets and school friends. Only in retrospect does she have the luxury of time to thoughtfully don the skin of each child, in turn. It is a remarkable exercise.
Jane assigned pseudonyms to each family member in an attempt to protect privacy. It seems a useless effort, since her husband, to whom she assigned the name Carl, was novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. At the time she was completing her memoir, Jane was racing against her anticipated death from cancer. She did not live to see it in print. If she had, it is doubtful that she would have approved her name appearing as Jane Vonnegut Yarmolinsky, a designation presumably designed to enhance the book's marketability, but certainly not in service to anonymity.
I am a fan of memoir, and I read with interest both the critically lauded and the humblest of efforts. It was my reading of Charles Shields's Kurt Vonnegut biography, And So It Goes, that motivated me to seek out more information on the man and his work, an exercise that resulted in my discovering Jane's memories of their domestic lives. Even allowing that Jane's memoir was specifically about the children, I was struck by the back-seat role the children played in Shields's version of Kurt's life. It reminded me of the writings of George Johnston and Charmian Clift, two Australian writers who married and had four children together.
Charmian's writing, particularly her nonfiction, is a story of the lives of children and the circle of adults, mostly female, who revolve around them. In George's work—the autobiographical novels that ensconced him in the literary hall of fame—the children are barely present. Charmian Clift had a long and successful career as a writer. Though not so elegant a writer as her husband, she was nonetheless a very good writer and a much better storyteller than her more celebrated husband. Jane Yarmolinsky was a fine writer who simply put other things first. She writes:
Had I been capable of generalizing amid all the confusion, I might have come
to a conclusion that in fact it took me another twenty-seven years to formulate:
the really important things happen in absolutely no time at all, like the conception
of life, like death, like falling in love. So why do we worry so much about having
no time? What started as a lament that I had so little ended in the surprising
acknowledgment that I had all the time I needed for what really mattered. (p. 73)
"So what is there to say when you know you don't have much time left?" Jane asks towards the end of this touching and beautifully written memoir. She has, in fact, some very wise and wonderful things to say, and it's well worth the time it takes to read her final words. (March 2016)
Yelen, Alice Rae, Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present. Essays by William Ferris, Susan Larsen, Jane Livingston, and Lowery Stokes Sims. New Orleans: New Orleans Museum of Art, 1993. Since the 1950s, the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) has had regularly scheduled exhibitions of self-taught artists; NOMA began an active program of acquisition of their works in the 1960s. Exhibits have included such celebrated artists as Grandma Moses (1952), Clementine Hunter (1955, 1973, 1985), and Sister Gertrude Morgan (1973, 1988). The present volume is the catalog of an exhibition and national tour organized by NOMA, featuring 270 works by eighty artists from thirteen southern states. The full-page color plates are accompanied with Yelen's text describing each work, often offering the artists' own words to describe their pieces. These artists, for the most part, are not concerned with issues of preservation or conservation in their selection of materials. Their relationship to their materials is organic. Several of the artists paint in mud, a practice they continued even after interested patrons and gallery owners supplied them with proper paints. Many of the artists depended on their natural and found materials to give direction and inspiration for their creations. Sculptor Charlie Lucas said:
I think the metal talks to me more when I'm scrounging around
looking for it, rather than when I'm looking for a specific piece.
. . . the piece will tell me exactly what it is, what I want. (p. 56)
Most self-taught artists, says Yelen, begin their art late in life, usually after retirement. They often create as a directive from God, His angels, or from visions in dreams; they feel a spiritual connection to their work. Said Thornton Dial, Sr.:
Anything you pick up, somebody know about. You picking up
the spirit of somebody . . . Leaves fall off a tree got a spirit in them.
Cows, dirt, rocks, the whole world, all that stuff carry on life . . .
That's what recycle is all about. When God died, he rose again. (p. 57)
The essays are well written and informative, but the art itself speaks most eloquently. Short biographies with accompanying photographs of the artists are arranged in alphabetical order at the end of the book. The difficult job of presenting so many artists is accomplished gracefully and efficiently. (March 1997)
Young, Margaret Binns, Functional Poverty. Pendle Hill Pamphlet 6. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications, 1939. Young suggests that limiting possessions and refusing to isolate ourselves in "padded cells of privilege" and "ghettos of privilege" is the path to creating economic equality by accepting responsibility for our individual contributions to inequality. She writes: "as long as our brother and our sister lie starved and beaten, our mere acceptance of ease, abundance, and safety, builds a wall between us and them so that we cannot collaborate in our common task, and builds a dam against the flowing sources of power and strength."
Having begun her treatise with a sermon, she devotes the bulk of her message to concrete suggestions, primarily based on the notion of a community where all share their labor and resources, beginning with such projects as co-ops, community centers, and community gardens. Gardening, she opines, would not only restore the self-worth of the "unemployable," but also bring economic relief into their homes. Too, she stresses the importance of unions as communities of workers, and pleads with pacifists to involve themselves in helping unions become more pacifist and useful as workers' representatives.
What we all need to conquer, she writes is the luxury that destroys some and the fear induced by not enough that haunts and disables others. Her answer is a sense of community that extends, both spiritually and physically, beyond the borders of our nuclear families and circle of chosen close friends. December 2008)
Zweig, Connie (Ed.), To Be a Woman: The Birth of the Conscious Feminine. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1990. A good collection of contemporary writings on woman's place in American society, both descriptions of the problems and proffered solutions. Of particular interest to the midlife woman are Elizabeth Strahan's piece that proposed rituals to celebrate menopause and Marion Woodman's essay on mother, virgin, and crone as archetypes in the Jungian tradition. (December 1994)
Zusak, Markus, The Book Thief. Sydney: Picador, 2005. I didn't see any reviews or comments on this book before I read it. I didn't even read the back-cover blurb. I'm glad. I came into it completely unaware of the plot or characters or setting. Set in World War II Germany, this is the story of a German gentile family who hide a Jew in their home to save him from being sent to a death camp. I really don't want to say more than that. The unfolding of the story is too breathtaking to be spoiled. (August 2008)
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