A Man Called Ove: A Review

A Man Called OveIn A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman writes about people who are at odds with modern rules, and he does so by ignoring, even flaunting, modern rules of writing. And it was glorious! Wonderful! He portrays people who don’t fit into society as it is presently constructed, so it makes sense he tears up the rules when writing about them. In this way he can tell the story of the old-fashioned Ove, for whom the rules are an undue burden, and the immigrant Parveneh, who recognizes the rules but for whom reality is a very flexible thing.

What are these rules of writing? Let me name a few. First, there’s the prohibition against using similes and metaphors. How did this start? From what I can tell, George Orwell said, don’t use similes. Now this has become orthodoxy. Backman deals with this by exchanging the word “like” with “as if” and “as though.” These phrases animate the simile and are usually effective. There was a point, though, in the beginning, when the as ifs and as thoughs sounded as if a thousand flies were buzzing in my ears. On occasion, these were much too lengthy and sounded contrived. But I give him credit for his determination in giving the reader both similes and metaphors.

The other rules all writers will recognize. Don’t use “ly” words. Don’t use words other than said, such as exclaim, shriek, and god forbid, wail and protest. Laugh is not a synonym for say. Don’t use it instead of say or said. Backman does all these unabashedly. But wait, there’s more. He changes tense for no apparent reason. He addresses the reader. He uses phrases. When he references tech devices, cars, and other mechanical instruments, he doesn’t concern himself with endless explaining of what they are. Oh, and he uses exclamation points! Even when the character is screaming. Love it! What? What’s happening? Just this: Backman runs over the lines, kicks the box around, and lets us care about the people in his stories.

Is the book perfect? No. The storyline is repetitive. A Man Called Ove could be called A Man Called Over and Over Again. Each chapter is a retelling of the same issues, but not always with much movement forward in the story. He relies on thematic sayings and symbolic scenes which are borderline preachy. But it doesn’t matter because it’s so much fun to read.

I ask you, what is that called? That’s Called Good Writing.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont: A Review

Mrs Palfrey

The truth about aging is a subject we want to avoid. Elizabeth Taylor confronts the truth with sensitivity and honesty, stripping away the platitudes about the golden years and showing us the reality of life for an older person in contemporary Western society. The individual is rendered meaningless the more they are removed from the family group, and even when included there’s a sense of alienation. In spare sentences without false emotion, Taylor gives us a heart-wrenching picture of Mrs. Palfrey, a woman doing her best to keep her dignity. The writing has a vibrant eloquence, and was a joy to read.

Taylor deftly portrays Mrs. Palfrey as tough in a British stiff-upper-lip way. She refuses to be isolated, and seeks friendship, with mixed results, as others her age are totted off to nursing homes or live in their daydreams. Her one success is the relationship with a young man who goes along with the lie that he is her grandson. He does this in exchange for the material he finds for a book he’s writing, but not entirely one suspects, as his own relationships are unstable. She goes along as well since refuting it would cause more consternation and she’s able to at least have a relationship. It’s her refusal to go quietly that causes her to fall, quite literally. Is it better to sit and wait for death, or to die rushing to meet someone, to do something? This is a question all who live to a ripe old age will ask themselves.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont on Amazon Kindle

Book Review: Stalingrad—The Loneliest Death

StalingradThis is my review of Christoph Fromm’s book, Stalingrad—The Loneliest Death, about the battle of Stalingrad in World War II, told from the point of view of German soldiers.

This powerful story rips the façade of honor and glory from war while meticulously exposing its true nature. Fromm’s book is a no-holds-barred dissection of the machinations of megalomaniacs, the complicity of ordinary citizens, the myths of war, and the lies we hold dear at a terrible cost.

In the beginning, the young German Leutnant Hans von Wetzland and his small band of soldiers believe this attack will follow the time-honored rules of warfare. Very soon, though, they discover that atrocities are being committed against Russians, including civilians. Because the Germans have committed these atrocities, they’ve destroyed any expectation of being treated humanely by the Russians, who respond with equal savagery. As the grim reality of Stalingrad sinks in, the soldiers find any advances or moments of peace are quickly followed by brutal retaliation or fatal mistakes by their own side.

Fromm vividly depicts the moral challenges each soldier in this group faces. He also shows that people with greedy and evil, as well as those with generous and good intent and actions, meet similar fates in the hell of war. Having human feelings can lead to fatal results, but also offer the only way out, although it’s a slim chance of survival. The images of freezing weather, hunger, illness, small acts of kindness, egregious acts of evil, hand-to-hand combat, and the senselessness of it all, are told from multiple points of view within this group, and are unforgettable.

While describing the horrors of war, Fromm delivers much beautiful and effective writing: “Shells and bullets tore to shreds not only the body, but the senses and the spirit, too.” And: “Figures swayed in the glow, as if in slow motion, as if some sadistic deity were holding back the passage of time for his own pleasure.” And: “Everyone had their own way of weeping.” There is also humor, bitter and obstinately humane. These far outweigh repetitious descriptions and unlikely chance meetings, as well as occasional grammatical errors.

After months of struggle against lack of food, clothing, and shelter, and merciless slaughter on both sides, the soldiers begin to realize things have gone terribly wrong. They discover officers who are corrupt, selfishly pragmatic, or incompetent. Their previously held beliefs break down beneath the weight of betrayal and unbridled brutality. A turning point comes with the realization they have been abandoned by Hitler. As an army in defeat, they are to expect no support from their leader. Instead, they are being sent to their deaths.

One soldier, Gross, who is attuned to the irony of the situation, says, “You thought Hitler was clearing out just Jews and Bolsheviks? Wrong. The Führer does the whole job. Now it’s the German soldier’s turn, and next it’s the German people!”

When the soldiers comprehend that all is lost, they rebel, and try to survive as best they can. Some rant about Hitler and the generals. Others realize they have been duped by propaganda. But many knew full well what they were going along with. Some are disgusted by their Hauptmann who still believes in the myths of war, or chooses to do so in order to salvage some sense of meaning. Young von Wetzland mutters, “It’s all been a lie.” All “his life it was untruths he had loved, and the more he knew them to be untruths, the more he loved them; and he loved them with a lust that could not be satisfied…” One by one each soldier reaches his breaking point.

As Fromm writes, “The calculations came in hundreds, thousands, the noughts multiplying; the horror of the death count would stretch the ability of those left behind to imagine and to feel pity, would stretch them to destruction as had the shells the bodies. How could anyone determine the fitting degree of mourning for more than a million dead, men who had perished for just one ruined city, when the ordeal for just one man alone was impossible to measure?”

This is war without mercy or honor, where courage, sacrifice, and morality count for nothing, as every action fails to improve the situation, leads to more destruction, and finally, loss of hope. In short, this is warfare on a grand scale which exposes its inanity. Anyone who is concerned with the survival of humanity as we glide into the future—whether unheedful or willingly supportive of the real motivations and consequences of war—should read this book.

Amazon Review                                                          Facebook Page: World War II True Stories


I received a copy of this book from the author. This is a voluntary review. While I’m not an avid reader of war novels, I am interested in the causes and outcomes of World War II, which I think are still relevant today.

The Inflatable Buddha: A Review

The title in Hungarian is Tövispuszta, the name of a fictional village near Budapest. The descriptions of what happened to people living under fascism and then Soviet communism are stark and illuminating. It’s a cautionary tale as we move into the 21st Century with its manifestations of a dystopian world.

This book is much more than a history lesson. It’s a story of how our allegiances and alliances, set against our grounding in what we experience in daily reality, including personal relationships and sense of community, plays out in modern times. This is the story of three boys, Pál, István, and Dávid, as they grow to adulthood and old age. Each one comes from a different social and economic background, and has beliefs formed by experience in their particular families as well as in the village. In each life humor and love occur along with hints of madness and sorrow. They are swept up in the turbulent socio-economic and political changes of the early and mid-20th century. They have to make decisions they determine best for them, their families, their country, and ultimately what they hope is on the side of the greater good. Each one has a moral and ethical sense, which tempered or informed by a survival instinct, is at the heart of their major decisions. And sometimes they make choices that put their freedom and their lives in danger. At the same time these exact same choices are necessary to give them a chance to survive, with or without integrity.

Several women play large and equally interesting roles. Elza is adopted by a Jewish family after found wandering in Budapest and taken to their home in Tövispuszta. She is passionate and independent. Then there is Lucky Gizi, another wonderful character, steadfast and resourceful. She is both lucky, and unlucky, to be married to István’s father. These and other female characters give the story much greater depth.

Kepes takes the characters through the decades of change. World War I “had left people hungry, defeat had left them bitter, and the disintegration of Hungary had humiliated them.” Word of worker and peasant power came with soldiers returning from the Russian front. Inequality between the landed gentry and peasant farmers threatened to blow up into armed conflict. By the 1930s, with Russian communism on one side, and German fascism on the other, Hungarians struggled with a choice of futures. By allying with Germany, some Hungarians believed their country could take back territories ceded to Czechoslovakia after World War 1. Other Hungarians were attracted to communism as a hoped-for improved form of socio-political arrangement. People in the small village took different sides. Some simply tried to survive. Kepes makes it clear that no one—the educated or uneducated, idealistic or pragmatic, rich or poor—escaped harm in the ensuing conflicts.

Another current was anti-Semitism. The Jewish people were blamed by the Nazis for tainting the strong native character of Europeans. Even though, as the author shows with ironic amusement, Hungarian families had tangled ethnic and racial roots, this prejudice became part of the nationalistic movement. The mass killing and deportation of Jews is told in the context of the characters’ lives in chilling detail.

The book has its flaws, but it shines in those episodes where the personal stories take center stage. Some of the most moving stories are about the Jewish family in Tövispuszta. The father’s abiding faith in human compassion is powerful. Although it doesn’t save his life, he faces reality with courage and makes his life positive, so much so that one of the boys, now a young man, is moved to punish his killers and publicly honor his memory. There’s a twist at the end in the tale of one of the other boys, in which his choices are re-evaluated by his family and country, but I don’t want to give too much of the story away.

The Germans and the Hungarian Arrow-Cross were brutal, but the Soviet-backed communist leaders practiced a pervasive and corrosive control of people’s lives. People were imprisoned and tortured for having said the wrong thing or spoken to the wrong person. Then years later they were released and re-instated to their jobs and position, only to have it later taken away again. Under both systems, children were removed from families, names were changed. No one was safe. Personal control and responsibility, and the sense of community, were under siege. Who could be trusted?

While I was reading I wondered at the concerns of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Hannah Arendt. Can evil be institutionalized and made the norm? Apparently it can, to a certain degree and only with popular complicity, for months, even years. Even then its destructiveness is terrifying, though it must be endured as part of the daily reality. Anyone who has experienced brutality knows it’s not banal. Then, sometimes sporadically at first, but always eventually, evil breaks out of efforts to contain and distribute it. But in those moments when it terrifies most, it begins to lose its power. To read this book is to remember those who have gone before in this struggle, and to see how they responded. While cruelty and oppression have often won the day, we can also see the perseverance of people toward what Sartre said is the most fundamental aspect of being human: freedom.

My Review of Dogbone Soup

dogbone-soupThis is a wonderfully engaging and thought-provoking story. Bette Stevens’ young boy growing up in poverty in 1960s America, reminds me of another child, adrift on a raft on a mighty river, and the issues illuminated by that author of social stigma, individual resilience, and integrity. Huckleberry Finn is also poor and an outsider, and yet becomes a symbol for the equality of all humanity, and the finer spirit in all of us, in Mark Twain’s hands. I felt a similar quality in Stevens’ distinctive book.

Stevens’ skill with dialect also makes this book unique. She doesn’t overdo it, but lets it flow like spring water, or rain in the forest. Her descriptions take you into the scene and the characters’ minds. I felt I was in the family’s cabin, fishing by the river, riding a bike into town, being bullied and ostracized, and ashamed of a parent’s bad behavior. This book is a rare treat. I highly recommend it.

See the review on Amazon

Book Review: Echoes of Narcissus in the Gardens of Delight by Jo Robinson

From the beginning, Jo Robinson’s world of fantasy and harsh psychological realities in Echoes of Narcissus in the Gardens of Delight held me in thrall. This is a story of an interior life, as Donna, the main character, struggles to break free. She is trapped in a loveless and emotionally abusive marriage by a narcissistic husband. For many years she has poured her love and hope into her garden. And it is in her search for seeds for her garden that she meets Elvira, an extraordinary woman, who shares her interest. These gardens flow from the spirits of the women into land-shaping, and life-shaping, manifestations. They are touchstones, as the story evolves, for many lives. Elvira visits Donna, which very few others have managed to do, and sees Donna’s fantastic garden. Elvira has an impressive garden of her own, in town, with a café catering to people who are in transition from divorce, job loss, or death of a loved one. One of the ways they heal is by working with elderly people who live alone.

51p+WiVpzAL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Donna begins to connect with Elvira and her friends, and gradually reveal to them what she has been creating for so long in the icehouse of her isolation. But her husband has other ideas. Will she succeed? Her story is a testament to the resourcefulness and tenacity of the human spirit in its drive for freedom, and the greatest human act and experience of freedom, which is love.

Reaching, A Riveting Memoir

Reaching, a Memoir, by Grace Peterson, All Things That Matter Press

In rational tones the author takes you on a boat ride into the netherworld of a life coming apart at the seams. Piece by piece the “ties that bind” are broken, so that even in a secure marriage with a man who loves her, she is ripe for the final break. Her childhood years are devoid of love, and at times frightening. Her only solace is in the outdoors, along a river and in the gardens of a relative. She is reaching — reaching always for connection. The only good friend she has, when she is a teenager, dies in a tragic accident. So she feels the earth shaking under her feet. That is how the story begins, with a wonderful description of an earthquake. These verbal pyrotechnics occur throughout the story, peppering the rational view with lyricism and a kind of hope, the hope that humor and perspective brings.

After the birth of another child, she goes deeper into the misery, and becomes part of a religious cult. The journey is full of twists and turns, of being stuck on the wrong side of the river, and trying with all her intelligence to make it seem right. Reaching shows how easy it is for a damaged person, or one who is in a weakened state of depression or illness, to be brainwashed and persuaded to hand over power to another person or group. She is given the promise of “healing” by a self-appointed pastor, supposedly of the Christian faith. For years she follows his dictates, to the point of being held under water in the river. This is followed by a slow dawning that she is not being helped by this man; instead, her own identity begins to re-emerge, and with it a sense of self-worth. She is able to get back on the boat and return to her life, as a wife and mother, and lover of gardens. Her diagnosis in the end makes perfect sense, but you’ll have the read the book for that!

This book should be read by anyone who is following a “faith-healer” or senses indoctrination in a guise of grief or other counseling into any form of religious fundamentalism. It is a cautionary tale.

Reaching is available on Amazon/Kindle and Barnesandnoble/Nook and Audible

Book Review: Increasing Intuitional Intelligence

This is my review of the book, Increasing Intuitional Intelligence, by Robert W. Sterling and Martha Char Love

The 1970s were a time of foment and ferment in psychology. Many believed that the “thinking brain” played the most crucial role in human development, and questioned the existence of instinct. This focus on the cortical garden became the predominant model. Some, however, took another path, going deep into the weeds of instinct, emotion, intuition, and the collective unconscious. Among these were Robert W. Sterling and Martha Char Love.

Today, scientists are beginning to corroborate the path less taken. They have found that learning is genetically passed down through generations. Neuroscientists are now able to better study how our brain works and are finding that conscious actions have been preceded by an unconscious or non-conscious process. Our behavior begins long before we are aware of what the action will be. The work of psychologist Colwyn Trevarthen demonstrates the instinctual ability in infants to relate to others and share emotional responses. Jaak Panksepp, researcher in affective and social neurosciences, has shown the primary role of instinct, the subcortical nervous system and emotions in animals.

In clear and thoughtful language, Sterling and Love show how the Enteric Nervous System, the “gut brain” begins operation at birth and directs the development of the Central Nervous System or “upper thinking brain.” These two “brains” each contribute to the learning process and knowledge base of the individual. The “gut brain” or “second brain” or Hara gives us important information about our interior Self. The upper thinking brain is the sensory brain and gives us information about the world outside the Self. They develop through interaction with other people and the world.

To read the rest of this review, please go to The Gift of Intuition

Have You Applied Your Ethics Today?

Alexander McCall Smith’s Famous Female Characters

We can think and act ethically in various ways. In his two series featuring female characters, Alexander McCall Smith illustrates this. One approach, in the Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries series, is to “stop and think” before acting. This creates an interruption in the flow of events. The other, in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, involves a continuous evaluation and adjustment which can become almost seamless.

There are problems with the “stop and think” ethics, as McCall Smith notes. Isabel Dalhousie often makes the right decision for the wrong reasons. This happens because she doesn’t, and can’t know all the information about another person and the particular situation they’re in. In the last book of the series, she doesn’t have an important piece of information, but the person, Jane, she’s helping does. Jane learns that her supposed father is infertile. The other part that Isabel has not taken into account is Jane’s psychological processes. All Isabel knows is what Jane told her: she wants to find her father. Isabel doesn’t put herself into the other’s shoes, that is, an act of consciousness, and so she doesn’t imagine other possibilities. Now, this is not always true; sometimes she imagines other scenarios, but these are based on a reworking of the facts and perhaps a few psychological clues. These imaginings are usually far-fetched, almost artificially-induced, one might say, rather than organic (nurtured without artificial methods). So she is caught unaware of Jane’s acceptance of the “false” father and her re-focus on her mother. In time, this may not be enough for Jane, as McCall Smith hints. David Hume said that philosophical statements, ideas, theories would be best linked to psychological processes. This is what Isabel is missing, what she struggles with. In fact, she struggles with empathy.

Isabel’s quick, unexamined assessment of others has led her to be uncharitable. When she learns to “stop and think” it keeps her from jumping to conclusions, based on assumptions. She learns to question her assumptions. She grants, cerebrally, that others have a point of view and that their reasoning may be plausible. This helps her begin to develop a sense of what might be going on with other people. It’s a poor substitute for empathy, or compassion, but in her case leads toward developing these capacities.

There’s another way to become more just and charitable toward oneself and others. McCall Smith comes closer to this with Mma Ramotswe in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Mma Ramotswe is alert to, aware of, what is going on within herself and with the people around her. She is continuously evaluating and re-evaluating her thoughts, feelings, actions and their consequences, and information gained from her relationships. She is naturally empathetic, but has learned to use her reasoning ability to temper her emotions and perceptions. She monitors her subliminal stream of consciousness, as well as her conscious thoughts. With her the process of stop and think is not one of interruption. Her reflection and evaluation, and then adjustment, is ongoing, and integrated into the flow. It appears to be natural, or intuitive.

What causes this difference in the two characters? David Turnbull (No Dangerous Thoughts) points out that Isabel is alienated from other people. Isabel is “part of the privileged wealthy class who don’t have to work to make a living. Part of her problem is that it doesn’t come naturally to her to live ethically and her musings about that are part of her effort to overcome her basic alienation.”Mma Ramotswe, however, is “very attuned to the people around her.” Her thoughts are not only ethical, but often spiritual.

Mma Ramotswe grew up in a village, and goes out in the world to deal with people every day. She has suffered through an abusive relationship and the death of a child, both events that could have left her alienated, but her father’s compassion enables her to re-establish her self-respect and purpose again. Mma Ramotswe is integrated in her own life, while Isabel is not — or not yet, because she is striving for the integration of love, community, work, and purpose that  make life worth living.

Human Beings are Rogue Agents of Change

What if we are all in a dream, and it is just a phase, a phase that must not be interrupted, but allowed to run its course, or the promise will be unfulfilled? That’s the idea that informs Waking God, Book 1, by Philip F. Harris and Brian L. Doe, All Things That Matter Press. The main characters, Andrew and Mara, carry the godseed that can bring forth a new Being equal to or even greater than its Creator. “They shall be as gods, for that is their design. The dormant gene shall emerge.”

Harris and Doe give flesh and blood to this theme. Andrew, a professor, is on a quest: “To discover the unified secret, both lost and perhaps conspiratorially hidden, that lay behind man’s spiritual existence. If he could close the circle, science and religion would once again merge.”

Not only is there a conspiracy to keep Man from knowing, there is this impetus behind all scientific and spiritual search:

“If you knew the reason for everything as it happened, you would stagnate. Man is not yet all-knowing. If he were, there would be no purpose for any of this. Not having all the answers at one’s fingertips puts us on the path of discovery. It is how we evolve.”

“While physicists were exploring a more real world theory of a unified universe, Andrew felt that such a hypothesis would never truly answer all of life’s greatest questions. Intuitively, he knew that quarks, neutrinos, packets of photons, vibrating strings of energy, dark matter were but half of the “grand equation. …What was different, [Andrew] often queried, between the transcendental notion that an event in one part of the universe rippled throughout all of reality, and the current quantum string theory?”

In the search for “the unified secret,” all the cards in the deck are reshuffled. What has been promulgated as “good” is revealed to be an attempt to prevent human beings from waking from the dream-state and discovering their true potential. God is undefined, appearing to be an aloof and mystical causal agent (reminiscent of the Holy Ghost). While many of the traditions, organizations and symbols are Christian in this book, there are episodes where other spiritual traditions and religions come into the story.

If there is a divide between Man and God, what side would the angels be on? It turns out their loyalty would be divided, and a battle has been playing out since ancient times. What gives human beings hope that they will wake from the dream-state is the force of consciousness

Of interest to me is the notion that every human being is an agent of change. We are, I believe, not only agents of change, but rogue agents, a disrupting force in the universe. As disruptive causal agents, our influences and interactions can become disruptive causes in themselves. So the interactions may initiate series (are they chains?) of actions and reactions. We push the known limits of being and becoming. Some say this is to become more like our creator, attracted by unity; others that we will realize our full potential and become the equal of or greater than our creator.

Why would the god-principle create a force that could, once it wakes up, challenge all other forces or agents and even become dominant? One possible answer is that it would be natural for a causal agent to create more than harmonious effects or results (the Garden of Eden, for instance), but other causal agents (Adam and Eve). The god-principle, as the creator of all causal agents, is the greatest of them. But can this god-principle be subject to being overtaken by its own creations?

Our role in the universe may be to keep being and becoming alive, both by creating and developing and by breaking patterns or rearranging them, even to the extent of destroying (changing matter and energy in one form to another distinct form), or making chaotic what has become too stable. These are precipitating events, another theme of Waking God.

All the while, we view ourselves as rational beings, with a desire for order. Camus said rebellion, which is disruptive, was at base a call for unity, the most positive form of order.

In our quest to fully develop our potential, at some point, we will reach a level where transformation to a higher form takes place. In a sense our current condition is a dream state; we are not truly awake to what we are becoming, or could become.

It is this vision that Waking God explores.