My Top Five Book Picks for 2018

These books range from non-fiction to memoir to fiction. Each one had revelations for me, which were communicated in language far beyond my own abilities.

Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and The Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Milkweed Editions 2013

Kimmerer is a research biologist and an active member of the Citizen Potawatomi nation. She lives near, but not on, the Onondaga reservation in upstate New York, near Syracuse. She gives us “woven essays,” often in the form of stories about people she’s met, lived with, engaged with, and places she’s lived and visited. When I read this book, I came to understand the Native American view of the world (although I had previously thought I did); and more than understand, experience it. In the first chapter she says of sweetgrass: “Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.” From the meaning of sweetgrass, to the consideration of actions taken to the seventh generation, the practices of gratitude and thanksgiving, the operation of a gift economy, to the hope presented by the coming of the People of the Seventh Fire, this book held me in thrall. She tells the story of the Peacemaker who came to the Haudosaunee (Iroquois), and of the dispersal to reservations of her ancestors. Her grandfather was taken from his family to the infamous Carlisle school for re-education. He was forbidden to speak his own language. She writes of the loss of indigenous language, and her efforts to relearn Potawatomi. Throughout all she shows the resilience of Native Americans. Now they are beginning to reclaim their heritage. Her contribution is this book, which opens a new way of looking at the world to non-Native Americans. And she considers how long the immigrants from Europe have to live in a place before they become native, and what being native to a place entails. The writing in this book is among the best I’ve read in years. One of the most beautiful stories is of the salmon “coming home” in the Pacific Northwest. In all the role of the land, the trees and plants, is interwoven. I thoroughly recommend this book.

The Color of Water

The Color of Water: a Black man’s tribute to his white mother, by James McBride, Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 1996, 2006

McBride starts with: “As a boy I never knew where my mother was from – where she was born, who her parents were.” The most interesting part of this story is his discovery that his mother is Jewish by birth and upbringing, and that her family were immigrants who lived in a small southern town. The radical contrast of cultures is surreal, but the family dynamics are all too common. His mother left the family and converted to Christianity, which resulted in her being estranged from them. Alone after her husband’s death with multiple children to raise, she managed with fierce dedication, and occasional violence, as she’s only human and flawed, to see them all through to healthy and successful lives. As with his book of stories, Five-Carat Soul, which I’d read before this book, McBride’s language is edgy and poetic, and so is his social commentary. His writing has a pace and rhythm that comes from his other profession as a jazz musician. Most of all, this is a penetrating look at race and religion, and family and community, in America. A very memorable read.

Loving Day

Loving Day, by Mat Johnson, Spiegel and Grau, Random House, 2015

A biracial man returns from a decade in England to his old neighborhood in Germantown, Philadelphia. His father was white and his mother black, but he looks like a Celtic warrior. He is exposed to and has to deal with racial attitudes and behaviors every day of his life. The story begins with: “In the ghetto there is a mansion, and it is my father’s house.” The ghetto inhabitants see him as white, but he knows he’s black. “I will not be rejected. I want to run, but not to be run off.” Soon afterward, a wizened elderly Jewish man and a striking teenaged girl visit him. The elderly man tells him he is the girl’s grandfather. He learns that the girl is his daughter, the result of a short fling with a young woman years ago. For reasons I’ll leave out now, his new-found daughter comes to live with him in the ramshackle mansion. The scenes are often funny, and some are funny and sad at the same time. A biracial “Adam and Eve” couple’s ghosts, or reality, haunt the place. How he and his daughter, among the other biracial, transgender, and marginalized people, cope with the persistent prejudices, and how they convert their experiences into strong human bonds, is well worth reading. There are flaws in this book, involving some confusing paranormal scenes which seem out of place, but the disclosure of being human in the midst of the absurdity of racism, is unforgettable. I’m glad I read this book.

A God In Ruins

A God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson, Little, Brown & Co., 2015

This poignant and provocative story of England in World War II is told in a jumble of scenes, mixing together past, present and future in ways that confuse, or challenge the reader, but ultimately in this paradoxical way illuminate the characters’ lives and the book’s themes. Toward the end of the story, you learn why this mish-mash of time does not matter, and why it does matter. The author has worked hard to expose the waste and brutality of war, and leaves us with a vision of what was, what might have been, and what might be.

Without The Veil Between

Without The Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit, by Diane M. Denton, All Things That Matter Press, 2018

Now we’re in England, there’s Diane Denton’s luminous account of Anne Brontë’s short but productive life. The sisters’ books are populated with people who live large lives, with secret loves, deception, greed, passion, and loyalty. In this setting, quiet Anne makes her own way, exploring human relationships with a keen sense of morality and ethics. In a prescient way, she was ahead of her time in her thinking about the role of women, about freedom and equality. 

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From Vanity Fair to The Storyteller Speaks

Six Degrees of Separation

I learned of this meme on Janet Emson’s blog “From First Page to Last.

She spotted it “on the outstanding blogs of Susan at A Life in Books and Marina at Finding Time to Write.” She recommends visiting their blogs “for insightful reviews, bookish observations and original poetry. The meme was created by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.

Kate writes: “Annabel Smith and Emma Chapman began the 6 Degrees of Separation meme in 2014 (and I took over in 2016). The meme was inspired by Hungarian writer and poet Frigyes Karinthy. In his 1929 short story, Chains, Karinthy coined the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’. The phrase was popularised by a 1990 play written by John Guare, which was later made into a film starring Stockard Channing. Since then, the idea that everyone in the world is separated from everyone else by just six links has been explored in many ways . . .  And now it’s a meme for readers.

So, to the meme. On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.”

This month starts with:

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Two women are polar opposites in this classic British tale. Becky Sharp is ruthless, cunning, and manipulative, while her friend Amelia “Emmy” Sedley is friendly, compassionate, and not very sharp. The men in their lives range from bumbling to crude to narcissistic. The scene is set for Victorian drama.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

About the same time in Britain, a young woman is also writing about the same moral and ethical issues, involving marriage and economic inequality, as well as betrayal, debauchery, and compassion, forgiveness, and love. Her book, written mostly from a woman’s point of view, paints a brilliant picture of the societal suppression of women’s talents and independence. The narrative of the main character, Helen Graham, is remarkably modern in both style and worldview.

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

A hundred years later, in Naples, Italy, two women’s lives intertwine as children. Lila is imaginative, impulsive, and ambitious, while Elena is intuitive, observant, and much more cautious. The men in their lives are unpredictable, aggressive, or overly-sensitive. The scene is set for 1950s “modern” drama. As in Vanity Fair, economic success and marriage are the great prizes. But in My Brilliant Friend, education makes a difference, bringing the light of new possibilities to one of the women.

memoirs of a dutiful daughter

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir

Education begins early in Beauvoir’s life, in the form of self-education as she seeks books from every source. Her voracious curiosity about the fundamental questions of humanity knows no bounds, and she crosses boundaries that typically hinder or stop other women. Ambition drives her, as it does Becky Sharp and Lila Cerullo. However, Beauvoir is free in ways they were not, and she is a philosopher, challenging herself to think and act in moral and ethical ways. She is seeking a higher prize: wisdom.

Isabel Dalhousie Series

The Isabel Dalhousie Series by Alexander McCall Smith

Isabel Dalhousie edits a philosophy journal, and asks herself questions as to her motives and actions as she goes through her daily life. Marriage was not foremost on her mind. She is comfortably well-off, which leaves her somewhat alienated from most people around her. Through her own efforts she must reach out across the gap and engage in “real” life. Over the years she has gained a reputation for helping people with odd problems in their relationships. By listening and observing, and considering potential scenarios, she attempts to unveil the truth. The results are often askew, but still find their way to the target.

storyteller speaks

The Storyteller Speaks by Annika Perry

In the 21st century, women’s voices carry new tunes, visions and insights that enrich us as a species. In this collection of short stories, what is brought into view is our ability to choose integrity and kindness rather than uncaring mindsets and actions. Each story is a core sample of a moral issue. The characters are challenged by a tragic or potentially damaging event outside their control; in a moment, their lives are changed drastically, forever. But whether tragedy has come to them or they have made their own mistakes, they eventually recognize the situation through a severe exercise in honesty. Their honesty springs from valuing the best sense of who they can become (shades of Anne Brontë, Isabel Dalhousie, and Simone de Beauvoir). They often draw on enriching relationships with other people and humanizing traditions. Then they go beyond: to make amends. By taking this action, they rise to a new level of moral and ethical consciousness. These stories show how difficult it is to do this, and how liberating.

2018 Tribute to Veterans

Special for Veterans Day

Honoring veterans of all wars

This year you have the rare opportunity to obtain three historic war novels FREE.  Just click the links below and enjoy reading and learning about the  our veterans and the sacrifices that helped to maintain our freedoms.

Kicker (The Forgotten Front)   A WWII thriller about a family’s hardships on the home front and the Army airmen who flew unarmed missions over Japanese territory in China, Burma and India.  This ebook is available free November 9, 10 and 11 of 2018.

The Dandelion Clock  A wish to end all wishes. The war to end all wars. This WWI novel is available free November 10, 11 and 12 of 2018.

Touching the Wire  Auschwitz:1944 A Jewish nurse steps from a cattle wagon into the heart of a young doctor, but can he save her? 70yrs later, his granddaughter tries to keep the promise he made.  This WWII novel is available free…

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Living Consciously Alive

TALLYFRONTCan a person live an un-repressed life, a life of all possibilities, or is the price always madness, because the terror of reality, the fear of life and of death, as Ernest Becker said, are too much to bear without defense?

Some, like R. D. Laing, say therefore prefer madness; at least, respect the mad for their courage.

I wonder if that release into all possibilities has to be a leap into insanity?

If I develop my attributes – intellect, emotions, sexuality, “soul” – and have no center other than a fire of gases like the sun, can I live fully, freely, courageously? I feel in myself the strong desire, stronger than the fear of breaking down, death and pain, to go into the world in all of its alarming chaos and be transfixed by it, to experience it all with courage as well as fear.

Ernest Becker (Denial of Death) would say I have fabricated my own “symbolic transcendence” over “the darkness and the dread of the human condition.”

But isn’t there equally glory in the human condition, in nature, in oneself? And just as hard to take, for most people, because of the guilt of being happy, successful (at whose cost) and the fear of being betrayed by happiness into forgetting horror – then it suddenly happens. Still, the beauty is equal to the ugliness. I don’t believe people create, always or necessarily, to “mediate natural terror” and triumph over it.

What I mean is not transcendence, but instead as fully experiencing life as I can. These experiences may shatter me, they may improve me; surely they will transform me.

Is it possible to experience the world purely without being completely destroyed?

Reading Huxley’s Doors of Perception, I kept thinking: but I don’t take these drugs and I have these experiences. When I walked in New York, I was sometimes mesmerized by the blue sky above the city streets,. I walked for blocks looking up until I came to see the faded lemon-blue near the western horizon. In Riverside Park, I watched flotillas of ducks, saw how they converged with the river’s currents, bobbing into one another’s area, the rhythm or actually the lack of rhythm, a kind of staccato randomness, changing formations and no clear purpose, but the purpose was clear. Dove blue lights went on the George Washington Bridge and upriver the crusty castle of Riverside Church towered in failing light.

How easy it is for me to visualize, hear and remember the feel of things, how sensory oriented I have always been, the importance of color and how I find it hard to look away from the angles and line in architecture, street after street. I always look and listen, drinking in, as I pass Lincoln Center, walking or in a bus, those colorful “pastiches” of Klee’s, the fountain, the whole.

In art and in life, in our perpetual consciousness, there are layers of perception. Cezanne’s paintings show this gestalt visual memory. There is a synthesis of objects, events and people seen from different points of view, in different lights, from different angles, at different times.

Huxley was looking for a bio-chemical-neurological similarity between “schizos” and artists. Too much stimulation can frighten and overwhelm, or it can fascinate and enrich. The ability to have faith in one’s experience is important, as Laing said, to not care what others judge it to be, to ascertain its value yourself.

“Crazy” people and artists are not the same from my experience. The crazy people I knew were often people of limited or a false empathy. Some are emotionally crippled: the ideologue; the man who screams all night on the church steps.

Anyone who was still alive and battling was not crazy. They had courage and imagination, but were in trouble. They were people who needed to be re-stabilized. I knew that, because I was one of them.

I am leading a peculiar life outside the mainstream, not a crazy life but one arrived at through choosing to live, fully, to be what I am.

Huxley wrote of artists that they are “congenitally equipped to see all the time. His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful. A little of the knowledge belonging to Mind at Large oozes past the reducing valve of brain and ego, into his consciousness.”

This ability is inherent, however, in every person. Some choose to develop it, others to evade the reality of their own experience.

In my book Tally: An Intuitive Life, PJ said, “People find, if they ever do, that it ever so easy—and so difficult—to tap into one’s stream of consciousness. That’s what I mean by living consciously alive.”

“A Different Kind of Angel” by Paulette Mahurin

writerchristophfischer

I’m delighted to finally prewsent my own review of this marvellous book. I am a big fan of Paulette who has been on my blog plenty of times and yet, not often enough.

A different kind of Angel
by Paulette Mahurin
is particularly powerful as it is based on a true story. When a brave female journalist infiltrates a women’s asylum in 1887 she finds shocking malpractice and saves the lives of endless women who have been wrongfully institutionalized.
On the way Mahurin details the lives of several ‘inmates’, for many of whom the asylum was the culmination of already horrific lives. The main protagonist being a Jewish woman from Russia who was the sole survivor of her family of the Russian pogrom.
Told in dramatic voice and an affecting manner this is a gripping read that teaches much about history, humanity and the strength of the human spirit. Another…

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Vincent Ferrini,cosmic everyman poet

ferrininosmoke

Vincent Ferrini and the poet Charles Olson engaged in a love-hate tango for years. Vincent’s poetry was strong but nuanced, able to evoke both the physical and divine worlds with ease.

In 1981, I met Vincent at the Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s Church on West 46th Street. With his co-poet for the evening, Ed Kaplan, I waited on the sidewalk. Ed’s hair flared away, singed, crinkled like blown-out electrical wires. A breeze sprang up, blowing from the east off the ocean, as if from the rocky coasts and gray-green waves of Gloucester, Massachusetts, with its salt-strong sea-scent.

The Village Voice notice had read: “Vincent Ferrini, the Gloucester poet who weaves in and out of Charles Olson’s Maximus poems, arrives to give his first ever New York City reading. Author of Know Fish and 27 other volumes of poetry, Ferrini writes a strong and direct and lovely line.” 

The Voice said Ed Kaplan’s books, Pancratium and Zero Station, moved in an “Olsonesque verbal labyrinth assessing the nature of existence.”

Ed said, “He’ll be here any minute.”

We stamped our feet on the sidewalk in the still chill (with a note of first warmth) of late March.

Vincent Ferrini came quickly down the street in a walk-sprint like a sprite, full of enthusiasm. I had a vision of a bonfire on the beach, a beacon, a light that gathered people in. I laughed as he spoke: we were word-surfers.

On the flyer, Vincent Ferrini’s words:

do you think this moment
after reading this
you will be the same again

Ed smiled as Vincent gave me a copy of Know FishCornelius Eady and Shelley Messing came from WBAI and taped the reading, but later Cornelius told me the tape did not turn out well. These moments cannot be recreated, maybe they cannot be adequately recorded. 

A short time afterward, I gave Bob Holman of the Poetry Project at St. Marks the copy of Vincent Ferrini’s Know Fish. For several years Vincent and I stayed in touch. About three years later, he wrote to me: “Sleep with one eye open all of 1984.”

Vincent Ferrini on Wikipedia

Vincent Ferrini’s Obituary 2007 (includes critique of his poetry)

This is a link to two letters to me from Vincent Ferrini. 

In Search of Immortality, Book Review

In-Search-of-Immortality-by-Jaidev-DasguptaJaidev Dasgupta’s book on Indic thinking is an incredible work of scholarship and more, it shows a mind deeply engaged with the search for understanding. He has sorted out, arranged, and presented the ideas, original beliefs and speculations of the Rig Veda, the early and later Upanishads, and other works (including Buddhist and materialist) in a clear, insightful way. These ideas and world-views evolve from early absolutist pictures of creation and the meaning of existence, to more subtle and complex conceptions. The history of the people of the region, the past and current contexts of ideas and beliefs, and various interpretations of meanings, are juxtaposed in a way that gives them all due respect and range.

In each of the phases that took place in Indic views there are contradictory ideas, and in each of the changes in those views, transmutation, or refutation and rejection of previous ideas and ideals. Human thinking is continually forming new belief systems, world-views, and narratives. A “major shift,” he writes, “took place in later stages in how the creation was viewed. While the Vedas speak of the origin of the world, the late Upanishads also talk about the dissolution of the world.” Another change was the emergence of the law of Karma, which was probably driven by human desire to escape the absolutes of heaven and hell.

“Was there a new idea that led to the change in story between the Rig Veda and the late Upanishads? Before reaching the possible answer, let us see the difference between the two creation models. According to the Rig Veda, the universe once created could continue forever without dissolving, but in the Upanishads the world went through cycles of birth and death. In the first case with no dissolution of the world, time moved forward linearly, but in the second scenario, time moved in cycles, assuming that in both cases time started with the beginning of the creation.”

Among the many fascinating parts were those that dealt with creation stories, the codification of behavior in order to support the world, the change from ritualistic to other ways to achieve “right living” and union with the ultimate reality, being and non-being, immanence and transcendence, and the combination of two polarities in one state or being.

Another interesting passage is this: “There are good reasons for assuming an imperishable, unmanifested Being as the background for the world phenomena. First, it avoids the problems of explaining how the world came into existence from nothing. Indic thinkers believe that there has to be a prior causal base for the world to appear as an effect. It cannot just leap out of nowhere. Second, because of the inherent dynamism of the ground, the world can arise without any divine intervention. Otherwise, the existence of a god prior to creation has to be assumed. Third, Indic thinkers are skeptical about the reality of the world. Right from the Upanishads we find seers and sages troubled with its evanescence and vagaries. They need respite from its transitory nature. And Brahman is the perfect refuge for such troubled souls. Immortality is in demand.”

Dasgupta establishes connections between Indic and non-Indic world views and science, especially in the areas of time, causality, polarities and unity, moral behavior, and similarities in the way the human mind works. These connections are enhanced by the knowledge and experience the reader can also bring to it, which can form the kind of relationships among philosophies that make it invaluable as communication expands across the globe. I know I will be re-reading parts of this book as I go along through life.

In Search of Immortality, paperback, Amazon

“The Hummingbird: A Seduction” by Pattiann Rogers

Passionate appreciation of beginnings (of love)

BIRD-WATCHER'S DIARY

If I were a female hummingbird perched still
and quiet on an upper myrtle branch
in the spring afternoon, and if you were a male
alone in the whole heaven before me, having parted
yourself, for me, from cedar top and honeysuckle stem
and earth down, your body hovering in midair
far away from jewelweed, thistle, and bee-balm;

And if I watched how you fell, plummeting before me,
and how you rose again and fell, with such mastery
that I believed for a moment you were the sky,
and the red marked-bird diving inside your circumference
was just the physical revelation of the light’s
most perfect desire;

And if I saw your sweeping and sucking
performance of swirling egg and semen in the air,
the weaving, twisting vision of red petal
and nectar and soaring rump, the rush of your wing
in its grand confusion of arcing and splitting
created…

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Rented Surface

MYMonkey MIND

“She could see all of Ferenwood from here: the rolling hills, the endless explosion of color cascading down and across the lush landscape. Reds and blues: Maroon and ceruleans. Yellow and tangerine and violet and aquamarine. Every hue held a flavor, a heartbeat, a life. She took a deep breath and drew it all in.”
― Tahereh Mafi, Furthermore

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Spirituality and Rationality – the Liminal Space between Cultures

Voices from the Margins

Carol A. Hand

 I don’t often speak about the liminal space I occupy between Euro-American and Ojibwe beliefs about religion and spirituality. It was especially challenging to live between (Euro-American) academic notions of rationality, objectivity, and individuality and Ojibwe traditions of spirituality, inter-dependency, and other ways of knowing. I don’t often speak of my experiences for several crucial reasons. Frist, my position on the margins as a Native American has meant that people have asked me for spiritual advice because of the romantic stereotypes they held. They expected me to be wise and saintly. I’m not under the illusion that I have any advice to offer anyone on that dimension. Second, Ojibwe cultural traditions strongly discourage sharing one’s spiritual experiences with others. This makes sense on a number of levels. Third, as a Native American woman who has worked in Euro-American institutions that openly pathologize other ways of knowing, I…

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