Review of Miami Morning by Poet David Selzer

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading MIAMI MORNING. Its title raised expectations which were more than satisfied. The work is rich in characters, themes and incidents – and reads well throughout.

Mary Clark juggles and interweaves – sometimes only mixed metaphors will do! – an impressive range of plot lines very skilfully. So skilfully, in fact, that it seemed, for example, quite natural – rather than contrived – that the main protagonist, Leila, should meet up again with Mark, a probable soul mate, by chance on a Cuban beach!

I like Leila – her concerns and interests, her eclectic friendships, her alternating self-worth – and was engaged by her throughout. Mary Clark describes the wide range of relationships Leila has with a wide range people very convincingly.

life-is-an-adventure-1The author’s descriptions of people, places and weathers are very evocative. Just as I know I’d like Leila, I know I’d like Miami, for example – urban, urbane, and both disturbingly and reassuringly tropical. The accounts of the high school students brought back (good and bad) memories of working with adolescent learners very vividly.

Read the full review of Miami Morning on Amazon

Please visit David Selzer’s website. I’ve been following it for several years and have always been delighted by the range and depth of subjects taken on, and by the high quality of his writing. This is one of the poems I’ve most enjoyed: The Reclining Gardener.

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

A Perceptive Review of Tally: An Intuitive Life

These words are from a review of Tally: An Intuitive Life by Marylee MacDonald, author of Montpelier Tomorrow.

When a young poet stumbles into the life of a Greenwich Village recluse, she meets a bearded old man living in a garret. Surrounded by manuscripts in which he has attempted to comprehend the meaning of life, PJ has entered a time of failing eyesight, physical frailty, and economic uncertainty. Quiet and observant, the young poet Erin, or “Eyes” as PJ soon calls her, begins to help him put his life in order.

“No one is ever conscious of what he is doing or why he is doing it,” PJ said, “even a person who is aware of everything he is doing and after pondering it, can perceive the reason or motivation for it.”

The above is just one of many sentences I underlined last February while I was doing a writing residency at the Vermont Studio Center for the Arts. Anyone who makes her or his life in the arts risks winding up like PJ, which is to say not wealthy, except in matters of the spirit.

“PJ’s long bony fingers swept over drifting stacks of books, papers, paintings, typewriter ribbons, photographs and found objets, all jumbled together, everything melting into some other form…’Dali would have had an idea of the melodramatic squalor in which I live,'” PJ told her.

PJ’s intellect and humor makes him an utterly fascinating subject. Some of his musings are brilliant; others, wildly off-the-wall.

To read the entire review, please click here.

Tally: An Intuitive Life, by Mary Clark, published by All Things That Matter Press, 2013.

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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.

The Human Act and Other Stories by Angela Lam

My review of The Human Act & Other Stories, by Angela Lam, All Things That Matter Press

Paperback Edition

These are real stories and as a writer, Angela Lam is the real thing. Set in California, the stories tell of women’s lives in urban-sprawl suburbia “too far from the beach, and too close to the desert.” Lonely and bored, they seek the company of anyone who will bring moments of friendship, passion or change to their lives. These women acknowledge the choices they have made and struggle to get back on track. “I had already chosen,” one says, “and my decision was not on a whim,” but “how lonely I was losing who I imagined myself to be.”

They overcome the negative twists and turns, some by choice, some by chance, of their lives by holding onto a hard inner core of hope for self-fulfillment, a light we all carry inside. They are always restless. Some jump at the opportunity to transform their lives and their relationships: “Dana falls in love with her future,” and in another story: “I was no longer married to Howard, just as I was no longer married to the What Ifs of the past.” Others hesitate: “I glanced away, afraid of my heart expanding, opening with possibilities.”

Rescue is a major theme, the act of rescuing, or being rescued. They can be simple acts of reaching out. These rescues appear to occur by coincidence, but are actually the culmination of choices made as a result of their longing and striving. At the same time, they have an element of pure luck about them. In the title story, “The Human Act,” Lam hits her stride. Here the story is told from the dog’s point of view, beginning with: “I see her feet first.” Marcus is a rescue, by the woman whose story he tells. She is a successful career woman with “a rambling, open field heart.” She brings in another stray, a man separated from his wife. During the emotionally abusive relationship that ensues, she struggles to keep her independent identity. Most of all, she is seeking a way out and the real affection she shares with her rescued dog helps lead the way.

Lam is adept at turns of phrase that catch both the physical and emotional and mental state of the characters and reinforce the themes. “A gulf of cold air swept down between us, rattling the leaves on the half-naked sycamores.” She uses all the senses. “Burnt chicken and ribs and charcoal saturated the thick gauzy air.” In the laundry room scenes, you can smell the detergent and hear the swoosh of the machines.

Among the stories are those of women in relationships with other women, or with their best friend’s husband or boyfriend. There is a fluidity of sexual attraction and its ties with an imagined future, a different identity, and ultimately, freedom. Many have had their chosen future disappear before their eyes at a young age: a father’s financial losses, or a husband’s career down-sized by an economic downturn. Marriage and children end college educations and potential careers. Others quit odd but oddly-fulfilling jobs to stay home with “baby and bubble baths.” These are women with few resources and little or no family support. However, nearly all have a woman friend who sticks with them through thick and thin. Some have a male friend who plays a support role but wishes for more.

The Human Act is an evocative, contemporary look at women’s lives. It’s a bracing, and sometimes abrasive, blast of fresh air, hot off the desert.

Mary Clark
Review posted on Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/568367540

A Time To Mow & Other Stories

There is austerity and mystery in A Time To Mow, by Zdravka Evtimova, where the pen is the scythe in the reaper’s hand. These modern gothic tales rage over a harsh land like storm winds with passion and desire.

Her warts-and-all characters, vivid imagery and use of metaphors, evoke a world reminiscent of Chaucer’s old England, mixed terribly with Brave New World. In a constrained society where options are few, women are the ones who assess the value of those around them, bring change and create relationships. Evtimova’s women have strong sex drives and rebellious spirits, but most live in rural, poor areas of Bulgaria where young men are either married or trapped by physical or social limitations. The old decaying villages and agricultural life are described in both grim and starkly beautiful detail. Contrasted with this arid land is the wild abandon of youth. This is exemplified by the title story, “A Time To Mow,” and later in several other stories where the author takes the motif to its extreme.

These young women have no role model to guide them in their womanhood, other than the older women whose relationships have often failed. The married women are either abandoned for another woman or widowed. Some of the women are in abusive relationships. How they respond to this leads to several twists in the stories. One of the most effective of these is told from the male point of view.

Although many of the women are fixated on finding a man, they do so with fierce integrity. They continuously evaluate their motivations and behavior with an honesty that is refreshing and allows them to move through life with youthful innocence.

Read more of my review at: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/632806349