Friday, December 14, 2012

Universal Heart Book Club Episode 5, December 2012

 Welcome to the fifth video discussion from the Universal Heart Book Club.

This month is our first effort without our beloved cameraman, who is away on sabbatical. We hope you indulge us as we experiment in this new technical area all on our own. As it's the holiday season, we thought we'd change the format somwhat and bring you six titles that we think would make perfect gifts, or perfect reads to take away with you - whether it's on holiday or simply to the reading corners of your own home.

First up, Walter discusses Belinda Castles' wonderfully rich novel Hannah & Emil, followed by Sharon Snir's exquisitely inspirational The Little Book of Everyday Miracles, finishing up with Stephanie Dowrick's own children's book The Moon Shines Out of the Dark.

Stephanie tells us about Mark S. Burrows' exceptional new translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's Prayers of a Young Poet, reviewed below, a fascinating novel by Indian-Australian writer Bem Le Hunte, set partly among the Jewish communities of India, called There, Where the Pepper Grows, and Barbara Kingsolver's much-awaited new novel Flight Behaviour - Stephanie's "Book of the Year" (see her review below).

You will also find our written reviews of some of these books below, as well as a range of other very fine articles. As you read the books we feature, please freely share your views in our comments sections. Those conversations are essential to this being the "book club" we envision.You can buy any book through our bookstore links above right.  Oh, and a very happy Christmas!!

Barbara Kingsolver's brilliant Flight Behavior

Barbara Kingsolver

 Stephanie Dowrick, writer and co-host of the Universal Heart Book Club, names Flight Behavior as her "Book of the Year"

It's a big thing to claim any novel, any book as a "book of the year". This year I have read some wonderful new books, some of which I have reviewed and highly praised here, and I have returned eagerly to others. But after a slow start - picking it up and putting it down again more than once (the moment for reading simply wasn't right) - my book of the year is, without doubt, Barbara Kingsolver's quite exceptional Flight Behavior.

Kingsolver is a writer I have long admired and learned from. Her Poisonwood Bible is one of my all-time favourites, but I liked her clever, widely praised The Lacuna somewhat less, and was a little cautious approaching this one - her eighth. I need not have been. As the novel opens we meet Dellarobia Turnbow, a young, highly intelligent but poorly educated working-class mother whose Tennessee life and dull, predictable marriage are feeling increasingly constrictive, even unbearable. She loves her children. She mourns the baby she lost at only 18, but the poverty and lack of choice that is her reality and that of everyone around her is increasingly hard for her to tolerate.

In search of distraction, change or even meaning she is prepared to risk her safety and marriage for a fling with a man even younger than herself. She feels like a victim of her own self-created obsession, common sense long gone. Yet on the way up the wooded mountain behind her husband's family farm, wearing second-hand boots that were not made for these harsh conditions (any more than Dellarobia seems to be), she comes across an extraordinary sight, a vision of millions of monarch butterflies.

These butterflies are described in a glorious, never-never-boring detail in Kingsolver's novel, and they and their fate become so central to the novel that they are a character in themselves. But that first glimpse of them seems surreal to Dellarobia. They shock her. They literally turn her in her tracks. They change her mind and, very soon, their presence - and its cause and consequences - will also change her life. 

If the changes in Dellarobia's life seem momentous, then the climate changes that have driven the butterflies from their usual home in Mexico to southern Appalachia are momentous on a global scale. And that's one reason why I am so passionate about this novel. It is highly polemical. It truly matters. It is also utterly readable, engaging, sometimes very funny, and often almost unbearably sad.

Kingsolver was a scientist before she became a novelist. Now she is both. She wants us to understand the consequences of humanity's perverse ignorance and greed in our treatment, our appalling treatment of the planet on which we - and countless other species including monarch butterflies - entirely depend. But she wants us to see this and understand it through characters who care increasingly, and about whom we will also care increasingly. (We do. We do.) She wants us to understand their ignorance - and our own - and also understand that it is not an end point. Or it need not be.

There are many characters to grab and compel your attention here, from the initially unlikeable Hester, Dellarobia's mother-in-law; her well-meaning, passive husband, Cub; her glorious children, Preston and Cordelia; to the scientists, and especially the deeply engaging Obama-like Dr Ovid Byron who sets up his observation posts at the Turnbow farm to witness what may be the demise of a species that he has spent a lifetime studying.  We are also dragged into the agonies of indecision as Bear Turnbow, Hester's husband and Cub's dad, wrestles with his care for his family land and his desperate financial need to tear down the very trees where the butterflies have landed and sell their family inheritance off to loggers.
The unmissable Flight Behavior/Behaviour
Late in the novel we learn that in their native Mexican habitats it was believed that each butterfly represents a dead baby's soul, taking flight in the form of this insect of astonishing beauty. There is huge "soul" in this novel; massive themes deftly, subtly and with consummate skills leading us to echo and witness the questions that truly matter: “What was the use of saving a world that had no soul left in it. Continents without butterflies, seas without coral reef…What if all human effort amounted basically to saving a place for ourselves to park?”

Barbara Kingsolver has clearly been questioned often about whether fiction can, should be, is "entitled to be", political or polemical. Her answer: "Fiction has enormous power. It’s funny—people talk about political fiction or apolitical fiction. That’s nonsense. I think all fiction has a point of view, and all fiction has the power to create empathy for the theoretical stranger. It has the power to bring the reader inside the mind of another person. Only fiction can do that. Journalism can’t do that. Journalism describes from the outside. Photography describes from the outside, but in fiction, really, you put down your life. You enter the mind of another person and you inherit her children and her financial problems and all these things, you inhabit them for a while. That’s an audacious to do to another person. So I try to use that power as well as I can."

As a life-long passionate, needy reader, I believe Kingsolver has used that power brilliantly. I love the novel. I love its characters. I care about the issues. I am better informed for having read it; I am also moved, touched, and deeply, deeply inspired.

Read more:

You can buy Flight Behavior through our bookstore links above right. This supports the Universal Heart Network and Book Club through a small % returned to us. Please share your enthusiasms, comments, ideas here. We love to hear from you!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Walter Mason reads Sharon Snir's inspirational The Little Book of Everyday Miracles

This is one of those books that I adore, a collection of short and inspiring stories that leave me with a constant smile on my face. At several points while reading The Little Book of Everyday Miracles I simply had to put the book aside to laugh, to cry or to simply reflect on the truth of that story's message.

It's a book about miracles: recognising them, allowing them, and causing them to happen in the complex busy-ness that most of us immerse ourselves in. My own copy of the book is dog-eared, simply too many sections that delighted and inspired me, and I can only give you a little taste here of how wonderful and special this book is.

I need to start out by telling you it is a perfect gift book, I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't be thrilled and delighted to receive this collection of anecdotes and spiritual lessons. I have made it my Christmas book, purchasing several copies to give to friends and colleagues, wanting to spread the light (and the miracles) that it creates.

Right at the beginning author Sharon Snir tells us that miracles are important because they stay with us for a lifetime, and that in remembering them we can re-enthuse ourselves. I am personally convinced that what this world lacks at presesent is a healthy dose of the miraculous, and that we have privileged cynicism, negativity and contempt for wonder to our enormous detriment. The stories in Sharon's book lead us back once more into the pursuit and cherishing of miraculous memories and key lifetime events:
"Just thinking about a certain miracle connects you back in time to that magical happening and once more you are filled with the wonder and joy of that miraculous moment."
Sharon, a prominent Australian psychotherapist and healer, is herself a channel of miraculous deeds and events. Sometimes, however, they don't come in a shape or form that we might immediately identify as wonderful. Sometimes we need to see the miracle in loss, in defeat and even illness. Sharon even discovers a life lesson after a parrot poops in her mouth!

Sharon Snir
Her previous book, Looking for Lionel, is one of the gentlest and most honest accounts of living with a parent's dementia that I have ever encountered, and Sharon's capacity for gravitas and meditative reflection means that this book never veers into the schmaltzy or sanctimonious. Instead she invites us to cultivate miracles in our lives, celebrate the miracles of others and see the miraculous qualities of the small and seemingly mundane

A beautiful, beautiful book that you will turn to again and again.

You can buy Sharon's or any other book through our bookstore links, above right. This supports the Universal Heart Book Club and Network via a small % returned to us. And we would love you to share comments also.

Walter Mason reads Belinda Castles' historical novel Hannah & Emil

It's so rare for me to read a lovely, rollicking, romantic historical novel, and so I found the days I spent reading Vogel Award-winning novelist Belinda Castles new book an absolute treat.

Hannah & Emil is Belinda's fictionalised account of the true story of her grandparents' incredible romance. Hannah, an English Jewish woman, falls in love with Emil, a German trade unionist and anti-Nazi freedom fighter who escapes Germany only to be imprisoned as an enemy alien and ultimately shipped to Australia. The intrepid Hannah follws him here, and Belinda Castles captures perfectly this unusual and fraught relationship as it progresses over the decades.

It is a beautifully written book and an engrossing story.

Castles' writing is always filled with a sense of loss. It is not only the obvious losses of wartime, with the tremendous trauma that accompanies the loss of family, friends and national belonging. There is also throughout the book a nostalgic longing for those things of our lives that we may have put aside, but which, in a quiet moment we suddenly remember. Hannah, for example, thinks of a childhood friend, wondering:

"Where is Boris? Sometimes I fancy I see him in the  face of some Homburg-hatted relic tottering out onto the heath and I peer into the face beneath the brim, heart racing, but it is never him."

Her characters are brilliantly evoked, and I felt a great deal of empathy for them in the various stages of their lives. Hannah's almost idyllic childhood, in particular, is created with a richness and an eye for nuance and subtlety that is rare and difficult when writing about childhood. The precocious, intelligent child seems at odds with her contemporaries, her bookishness and capacity for language - later to become her lifeline - setting her apart from the rest:

"It was hot and the boys tipped back on their chairs,  the girls with the fashionable hairstyles and nicer shoes showed each other notes, believing themselves clever, unobserved. Imbecilic, I thought, not that they would know what that meant."

Castles' Emil, based so closely on her own grandfather, is a man perpetually trapped and tormented. Locked away in an internment camp in rural Australia, he despises the other refugees with their diverse political affiliations and their propensity to a nostalgia that he cannot allow himself. While they wax lyrical about a lost world of their mother's pfeffernusse (yes, I had to Google that one too), he dwells on a less romanttic world of his own family's loss and victimisation, and his own dour efforts to fit in to a new, Anglo, culture that holds him in suspicion.

This is such an interesting and evocative exercise in fiction. I quickly forgot the factual roots of the story, so lost did I become in Belinda's masterful story-telling. If you are looking for a big, beautiful novel that will take you through the quiet moments of Christmas, I thoroughly recommend Hannah & Emil.

You can buy Belinda's or any other book through our bookstore links, above right. This supports the Universal Heart Book Club and Network via a small % returned to us. Remember, we would love you to share comments also!

Belinda Castles on the boy in the photograph

Belinda Castles tells us here about the real-life family members who inspired her exquisite novel about love, war and loss, Hannah & Emil. This is such a special insight into what has inspired the creation of a novel:

The story of my grandparents, Heinz and Fay, is really a collection of many stories, as is true for all lives, but particularly those marked by war and displacement. When I began to research and write a novel about them (Hannah and Emil), I had to decide which stories I thought were defining, which episodes would suggest to readers what it might have been like to experience all the difficulties that they lived through.

Heinz, a political opponent of the Nazis, escaped from Germany in 1933, fleeing tragedy and danger. In Brussels he met Fay, a translator working for the trade union movement. They settled in England, her home, and ran a youth hostel until 1940, when Heinz was arrested as an enemy alien, sent to Australia and interned at Hay Camp in the Riverina.

Fay, a person of relentless drive, used British Labour Party and trade union contacts to follow him across U-boat infested waters. She finally had him freed for war work in April 1942, almost two years after his internment, and they married in Melbourne, having two sons and returning to England after the war.

One of the elements of their story that has always intrigued me is that Heinz left behind a son in Germany, whom he never mentioned to his Australian boys. They learned of him only when Heinz died. This boy, they discovered, fought for the Hitler Youth Army in the last months of the war. My grandmother Fay was Jewish, a fact also revealed only after Heinz’s death, and these family secrets have always seemed somehow twin poles of the family’s experience of that war.

I came across this photograph while researching the book.

Here is the German son, sitting on his father’s shoulders, a haunting kind of evidence of a boy that became a secret. I wondered what awful gap he had left in my grandfather’s life amid the continual loss and exile. And here is another photograph from the same sequence, which I believe was taken near Winchester, where my grandparents ran their hostel in the 1930s.

This one, remarkably, shows the boy with his mother between my grandparents. So here is Heinz, his ex-wife, their son and his English lover Fay. They all are together, somehow, before history rolled relentlessly on, right over the top of them.

Fiction gave me the possibility of imagining what brought them all together, and what might have driven them apart again. For me, the boy, in our family but missing from it, was the secret that kept me writing, that made me want to know, in the strange way that stories allow us to, what it was like for the people who belong to us, but who lived lives so far removed from our own.

Novelist Belinda Castles won the Vogel Award for her first book, The River Baptists, and has a Doctorate in Creative Arts from the University of Western Sydney's prestigious Writing & Society Research GroupHannh & Emil was released in August 2012 and is published by Allen & Unwin.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Rilke's Prayers of a Young Poet "as he intended them"

I don't want to know where You are;
speak to me from every place.

Rainer Maria Rilke is one of the leading poets of the 20th-century, and one of the great visionary poets of any age. This landmark publication of Rainer Maria Rilke, Prayers of a Young Poet, offers Rilke's complete prayer-poems - written in the persona of an icon-painting monk - "as he intended them". The translator is Mark S. Burrows, who also shares his profound, empathic and highly poetic response to Rilke's work in a substantial introduction.
Prayers of a Young Poet is reviewed here, as a letter to Mark Burrows, by Doug Purnell, a writer, former academic and Uniting Church minister and now full-time visual artist.

I'm living just as the century departs.
One feels the wind from a large leaf
that God and you and I had written on,
which turns above by hands no one knows.

One feels the radiance of a new page
on which everything could still come to be.

A letter to Mark Burrows from Doug Purnell, on reading Prayers of a Young Poet.

The book came....beautiful and profound...lovely to hold and touch. Then I read your intro and you touch something profound about what it is to be human. You value, through Rilke’s work, the ambiguities, the uncertainties, the "not-knowingness" that Rilke’s poetry values, names, holds up and uses to open the divine. Your introductory essay I read and then have kept returning to. You use your knowledge of Rilke to encourage a journey into the deep, into uncertainty and the ambiguity of life. You invite us into and to live, "the open". You give me a sense of God who is both vast and always becoming and can never be dogmatically known.

You are a gifted poet and your translation of Rilke sings his song in ways most accessible and engaging for me: no mean feat.

And now, I am sitting by a small stream, Tumbarumba Creek, in the high country of New South Wales, a place once known for its timber mills.  I went to bed with the sun and woke a while after the sun had risen.  I fried some bacon, tomato and an egg for breakfast.  Drank coffee while eating home-made marmalade on toast. Then I have sat quietly by the stream reading your book. 

I studied poetry for three years at university. In those days (though I didn’t know it then) it was the closest the university had to offering an opportunity to reflect on the arts, on the creative process.  Certainly there were no courses in the fine arts. I am sure that studying poetry helped me in ministry and I preached often, and more often as the years went by, on or from the Psalms. It was the poetry, the imagery, the metaphor, the ambiguity, the possibility. Ideas about life and God were not tied down.  I haven’t read much poetry other than that since my university days.
Beautiful and profound...lovely to hold and touch.
This morning I sit by the stream, your book open, reading your translations of Rilke’s poems.  I scribble notes on each poem.  Thoughts break open. I am intrigued. Rilke assumes a question that I have long struggled with in the church: is God transcendent, somehow breaking in from the outside, or is God immanent, present in all and emerging from within?  I have lived with an immanent God. Prayer has been more difficult with an immanent God because I cannot ask God to step in and do things, or to change things.

Rilke speaks to God as a lover would.  Rilke tells God how much he loves. Rilke describes the character of God: not out there, not sculpted in rock, not idealised; rather like a lover might describe his beloved with enchantment and possibility and openness.  It might sound absurd: I have been taught over and over to say, “God loves me”. It is much more difficult for me to say, “I love God”, or to say that slowly and thoughtfully, as a lover might.

 Rilke speaks to God as a lover, and always with a personal address: "You".

In each poem I find lines that I underline, emphasize, write notes around. This made possible because of the Rilke’s thought and because of your poetic voice. You have taken ideas in one language and translated them to another in such ways that they sing, that the song comes alive.  I am savouring words, words sung to life, and ideas.

There I’d have dared to squander You,
You, unbounded present!

An interesting thought: are we willing to squander God? Then later, an intriguing line:
“…don’t squander your blood in blind passion!” I wonder how this line, this idea relates to the crucifixion story. How is it different for God to squander God’s blood and for me so small before the vastness of God to squander God?

(Somewhere in my reflection, I think of my children. When I nurtured them in life I wanted to share with them Christian community and the profound truths that come within the Christian narrative.  I wanted to share with them what it is when I read this poetry. I struggle to find words for the next bit.  I know that they respect that I find something important in both - the community, and its narrative - I am not sure that they could name what it is. I think at the same time they have decided, not that they don’t want it, rather that they don’t need it. Rilke is not lamenting the attitude of others, nor is he lamenting the action of God. He is speaking from his solitude, from the depths that he has entered and with the openness of one who is present in the midst of life.)

You aren’t after enjoyment but rather joy.”  I’d never consciously thought they could be different, and the way they are written here, they are.

Mark, I sit here beside the stream. The gentlest of breezes sways the long fronds on the willow tree.  The birds sing their song.  No soloists, somehow an orchestra. A duck dives in the stream. Earlier she had come down in midstream on the current, then stopped, turned to face upstream and paddled sideways out of the flow.  I can imagine you enjoying the quiet of this place and this moment as I do.

I am heading down into Victoria to spend some days camping with friends and to help another friend celebrate being seventy. My neck was restored to life after four or five sessions with the physio, and I took off early so that I could have a couple of nights along the way camping on my own.  Enjoying the solitude.  What a good decision that was.  I have left my camper trailer attached to the car...a way of ensuring that I don’t drive today. Anything I do today will be on foot. Perhaps I can find a vanilla slice in the local bakery.  A treat while camping.


I’ve been for a good walk. I found the bakery and they sold the very best vanilla slice. I asked for it to be cut in half to keep half for later.  I consumed it in one go.  Then I read one of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet[published in a separate volume]. He wrote there: “Do not be bewildered by surfaces. In the depths everything becomes law.” That thought consumed me. 

So many people tell me confidently that when they look at a painting it is the surfaces alluded to that matters to them. I sit here by the creek and choose not to be bewildered by the surfaces. I do not want to represent the surface. The longer I sit here the more likely I am to see beyond the surface. The more likely I am to reach for forms of expression that are more than about surface.

So, I began painting. Hoping that nobody came to look, because they would be compelled to tell me that “It doesn’t look like that," and, that their aunty or grandmother is an artist.  My mind jumps to Emily Gnawarrye or Peter Newry, and how long they walked the land before they painted anything. Their paintings are not bewildered by the surface.  They convey so much more about the land and life.


I have read more of your book. I find myself reading some poems and then revisiting your preface and introduction. You, through Rilke, describe the life that has always been mine. I do not know how I came upon it, but I did.  Back in the 70's and early 80's I worked in a therapeutic community in a psychiatric hospital.  I became intrigued that when I helped people resolve key events in their lives, so often with tears and deep catharsis, I'd come along the next week and ask how they were feeling.  I guess I was looking for the grand affirmation. It wasn't like that. They'd say, "I feel nothing."  I'd ask "Would you like/be willing to explore the ‘nothing’?"  A pattern emerged over time. 

In the nothing, in the void people found life-giving images: water in wilderness, flowers in the desert, light in darkness, order in chaos, life in death; all, it seemed to me, were also Biblical images. Around that time I made a series of paintings that had Jesus falling from the cross into the abyss.   (These were painted in 1985 I think.  They were destroyed in 2003 when I photographed some of them).
One of Doug Purnell's "destroyed" paintings
Another image comes to mind.  When Moses looks across the River Jordan to the Promised Land he tells the people that they have to cross the river to enter the new land and he says to them, "You can choose life or you can choose death, and I say to you, choose life."

I don't have answers, only questions.  As I live the questions the answers begin to emerge in the patterns. I like the sense you pick up in Rilke, that I have not become something or someone; I am always in the process of becoming. Creation comes from a willingness to enter the uncertainty and instability of the void with openness.  It is paradoxical. This frightening place that I think might destroy me actually gives me life. Rilke writes and you translate:

 I love the dark hours of my being,
for they deepen my senses,
in them as in old letters I find
my daily life already lived
in pious words so soft and subdued.

From them I've come to know that I have room
for a second life, timeless and wide.

As I continue to paint the faces I wonder, intrigued by the truth of the lines:

But You grow into the uncertainty
that lies within the shadow of your face.

And then to wonder how I give voice - or face - to God who is "daily blessing".

I come home from the soaring
in which I’d lost myself.
I was song, and God the rhyme
still rustles in my ear.
I’ll become quiet and simple again,
and my voice  will be still,
my face bowed
for a better prayer.
I was far off in the place where angels dwell,
High up where light dissolves into the void—
But God darkens in the deep.

I know now that the way forward is in tiny increments, the discipline of returning again and again to the same subject and going deeper, for "God darkens in the deep".
Mark S. Burrows
Mark S. Burrows is a poet, a Rilke scholar, a scholar of medieval Christianity, and a contributor to this Universal Heart Book Club. He also most skilfully and beautifully translated some of the finest of the near-100 poems in Stephanie Dowrick's widely praised spiritual biography/commentary on Rilke: In the Company of Rilke. Now Mark Burrows offers, in Prayers of a Young Poet (Paraclete Press, 2012), Rilke's first prayer-poems in the form the poet intended.
To find out more about Mark S. Burrows and his work, you can visit his website. Burrows' Prayers of a Young Poet (Paraclete Press, 2012). To find Prayers of a Young Poet specifically, please use this link. All purchases made via this website support the Universal Heart Book Club. We welcome your comments also! 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Rise up, readers!

 Writers depend absolutely on readers - but reading activism can't be left to writers!

Reading is only half the story...!
"Reader activism" may not be a term familiar to you all. But this Universal Heart Book Club is certainly part of a much-needed trend towards greater engagement with writers and writing by readers. Without such activism - more on that below - we risk serious writers becoming an endangered species. Not only that, publishing houses, on which writers must at least partly depend, will become more conservative, more guarded and even more under threat than they currently are. That's because it's the original, adventurous writing, or writing that speaks to the soul and heart, or writing that brings academic diligence to wider audiences that will fall away. Few committed readers want to face a future in which the greatest book excitement is generated by a ghosted memoir of a sports star, a new vampire title or another 150 shades of grey.

When this Book Club was in the planning stages I (Stephanie Dowrick) was particularly keen to work with Walter Mason on it for a range of reasons. In the forefront was my confidence that Walter - with his fast mind and generous heart - is a true reader activist: he supports the writing he cares about; he blogs and tweets in support of it - more than any other writer I know; he turns up to talks; he gives talks; he names his enthusiasms; he generates enthusiasm. This is no small thing. All too few writers apparently see the benefits in supporting other writers' work. And this is a loss for us all.

But while writers depend absolutely on readers, reading activism can't be left to writers. Readers who want to be able to luxuriate in a genuine sense of choice, and who care about writing that is neither pop nor predictable, need to make sure that their enthusiasm translates into action.

The marketing budget for most writers - even when published by mainstream publishing houses - is virtually non-existent. "Marketing" has to happen on the ground - by readers who care. So! Write reviews on your favourite bookstore websites or those most often visited. On Amazon, for example, this makes a difference in the way a writer's books appear as "recommendeds". Use GoodReads like the passionate publicist you can now be. Let authors know that you are supporting them - as reader activist Peta Kelly does. Send out links to friends, sharing news of book blogs such as this one - or a particular review or article that's inspired you. Send them far and wide. Buy new, not second hand (no royalty for the author). Don't lend too generously; buy books for others - and for yourself. Most of all, value your vital part in any writer's success - or survival. Time matters as much as money. Use social media. Make your views known, and make them count.

The problem is not whether people are buying books via e-readers, rather than as traditional books: royalties come to writers from both directions. Problems come when people stop making books a genuine priority - and lose the sustained depth and pleasure that only books can bring.

Two writer-reader activists will further inspire you: Virginia Lloyd and Walter Mason.

 And please don't hesitate to add your comments. We want to hear them!

Virginia Lloyd, writer and reader activist
Australian-born, New York-dwelling Virginia Lloyd writes:

The best tool for spreading your enthusiasm for a book or a particular writer is an old one. It was with us long before the Internet. But it’s the principle on which Facebook, Twitter and GoodReads are based. It is word of mouth. Authors and publishers know that word of mouth is the Holy Grail of selling books. No amount of advertising and publicity can equal the value of a personal recommendation. Here are a few suggestions to ensure that your “word of mouth” activism as a reader will help the authors you love.

--If somebody lends you a copy of a book she loved, buy a copy to give to another friend.
--If you can’t afford to buy a new book, borrow it from your library. If a book you want to read is constantly on hold, ask your library to order another copy. Australian authors receive a small annual payment related to the number of copies of their books held in libraries, so every copy does help.
--If an author you enjoy asks you to join her email list, don’t hesitate. Email lists are the best way authors have of communicating with their readers and letting them know of events, media interviews and that next book. You can also let your own friends know there’s a new book coming, making yourself look very knowledgeable in the process!
--Attend literary events featuring authors you’ve enjoyed reading. Invite a friend along. Ask the author a question. She won’t bite – she will be relieved that someone has asked a question.
--If you’ve just finished a book you loved, let your online community know about it. Sometimes a passing reference in a Facebook post is all it takes to convince a reader to finally buy that book she keeps hearing about.

These days word of mouth can spread faster with social media tools, but it’s the way we share our enthusiasms that will really support an author’s efforts to be noticed. Be bold in sharing your informed opinion. Be specific in saying what you liked about a book. Be generous in taking an extra minute to post a link to the author’s website or a photo of the book.

We all know that wonderful feeling when we’re reading a book we can’t put down, or that pang of grief when we reach the end of a story that moves or delights us.  These experiences are what readers hunger for, so I encourage you to use word of mouth in familiar and new ways to help authors and share your reading passions.

You can find Virginia Lloyd via her blog, or on Twitter: @vlloyd. You will also find details there of her quite exceptional memoir: The Young Widow's Book of Home Improvement - which can of course be purchased via the bookstore links on this website.

And now, writer, reader activist and Universal Heart Book Club co-host, Walter Mason

Reader activist Walter Mason
I always think that readers should be more like fans of pop music or sports teams – or even video games. Bookish types seem too bound by their own shyness, introversion and sense of propriety to really make a fuss of their enthusiasms, but the time has come to wave your literary flag and let the world know that you like books and think that reading is important.

Here are some things I’d like to see readers do more of:
·         Cultivate heroes: So often a particular author or book – or sometimes even a whole genre – has had a tremendous impact on our lives. But, perhaps because of the quiet nature of the reading act, we rarely publicise the level of this impact. There are very few posters of authors on teenage bedroom walls, though mine should have been adorned with Oscar Wilde, Hermann Hesse and Nancy Mitford. Cultivate literary heroes, join literary societies and spread the word in cyberspace. I find people’s literary obsessions fascinating and wish people could be more forthcoming about them.
·         Tweet, facebook, pinterest, tumblr and blog books: It is heartening that the social media space does seem to be observably literary in nature. But I’d still love to see more people writing about the books and authors that excite them. The key here is amateur reviews – they are remarkably rare, but are enormously important. May they blossom.
·         Go to book and author-related events: libraries, bookshops and other community spaces often host events where authors speak and read and people can meet and talk about books. Gatherings like these represent an immense contribution to the cultural capital of any community, and are well worth supporting. Go out of your way to attend these whenever possible and show the world you’re interested.
·         Make the effort: doing any of these things requires that little bit of extra effort. Until now reading has been a reasonably passive pastime, but I would like to see readers make a more conscientious and intentional effort to share their passions and to help build and strengthen a culture of literacy. Joining a reading group, using your local library, tweeting about your favourite author or blogs, including this one, sending links in emails to friends, making your favourite writers' success very much "YOUR business" – all of these things require action,  but the effort pays off in fun, the sense of belonging to a community and the very real elevation of the collective wisdom of humanity.

This is your Book Club. Join the Universal Heart Network! Try out as much reader activism as you wish here! Comment, write, share your views. Buy books through our links - that supports us with a small % of book sales. Tweet, email or use Facebook to promote writers and writing that you believe matters.  You are hearing from us; we would love to hear from you.

Meet Peta Kelly: a reader activist

Book heaven
Universal Book Club co-host Stephanie Dowrick asked Perth reader, Peta Kelly, to write for us on her personal "reader activism" , not least because we could not help but notice how actively she seeks out and responds to ideas, books, Stephanie's interfaith talks and videos - and how generous and upfront she is in her appreciation. That appreciation is contagious. Her reader activism is inspirational. We would have a different reading and writing world if there more Peta Kellys!  
Here's her article. 
Reading activist Peta Kelly
 I tend to see activating readers through the eyes of a teacher-librarian and I believe that, as a group, we teacher-librarians do it rather well. However, it has been six years now since I left the school library that I literally helped build from the ground up, including the collections and holdings and the library loans system and teaching programs. Sadly, not many of the teaching staff actually got what it was that teacher-librarians could provide them. I tried many ways of reaching them and generally I was an under-used resource. However, with the children and their parents I was a heavily used resource - and very happily so.

Psychology beckoned, so off to university I went at fifty. It seems you can take the librarian out of the library but you can’t take the librarian out of the person! I missed my role of spruiking books and piquing reluctant readers' palates. I began to morph and really got into buying books for myself, first on how to get through a divorce and later on topics I would once never have considered, such as math, physics and statistics for dummies (from the famous "Dummies" series), the latter to support my course work.
Entering the Castle, one of Peta Kelly's favourites.
I had an undercover interest in clairvoyance through Hay House American author, Sonia Choquette, and also in spiritualism as I was trying to learn to drive my deepening clairvoyance. Meanwhile, my deepening spirituality led me to St Teresa of Avila, The Cloud of Unknowing, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Brian Weiss, Stephanie Dowrick [writer, and co-host of this Universal Heart Book Club] Caroline Myss - and many, many others. I also reacquainted myself with the philosophers I had studied only a few years earlier in the philosophy course I started at Notre Dame in Fremantle, West Australia.  And when I found out last year that I had joined the ranks of those with cervical cancer I also was given and bought books on healing, health and spirituality. In that amazing synchronistic way of life, I met so many people who are also in treatment or recovering (funnily enough, not at the radiology clinic or hospital) and often was able to share books or titles with them. 

Stand-out books for me in this most recent time include Caroline Myss's Entering the Castle which reminded me that my relationship with God is through this corporeal self, and my wounds needed to be forgiven. Everyday Kindness by Stephanie Dowrick I bought as kindness for myself when I was told I had cancer and needed to see the goodness and kindness in life as my reality began to whirl. My daughter Pippa bought me Stephanie's Intimacy and Solitude Self Therapy Book, post radiation therapy. There is so much in this book that helped me find my feet/self/soul again. It is for me a book of a hopeful futures.

I've clung to these beloved books in times of intensity. Now these same books can be read in newer, clearer light, giving me another view to encourage me to live the life I aspire to.

A book that Peta Kelly found particularly helpful.
My personal library grows in leaps and bounds. So does my passion for reading and buying books for myself, my friends and family, usually on topics I know that they need or would enjoy. Stephanie Dowrick’s books are in many of my friends' libraries, often loaned, rarely returned, so repurchased for myself.  I would also have many discussions about what I was reading - or just had read - sharing and encouraging, and more often than not my friends would purchase those books and share their finds with me. I never got around to joining a local book club, even after many attempts: too time and money poor. But I would suggest it to anyone looking to grow their passion for reading. And what better way to share that passion than in the company of like-minded?

I did, however, subscribe to the Universal Heart Book Club. It's free, and some of the books I already had in my own library. Now I hang out for each new video discussion and the written reviews by very talented people. Sounds like I am again spruiking!  Well in fact, I am. Where do you get such treasure for free?

As I am only on a student income, I would rather buy a book than go on a holiday. And I love the libraries available to me at tertiary level, especially the University of Western Australia's Reid library where I worked just before I got married in the early 1980s. One day, when I finally graduate, I will travel to the places that my books reveal to me.

Often people ask me what is out there in the bookshops that's appropriate for themselves or their children, and as I am in book shops regularly - browsing the shelves like a hungry shark - I am happy to tell them. I am always spruiking my favourite Perth bookshops: the BookCaffe in Mosman Park, the Lane Book Shop in Claremont, the Coop Bookshop at UWA and, of course, Dymocks. Just recently I have begun to purchase my books and CDs online at Stephanie’s [Collins/Seek, Sydney] Bookshop and am thrilled that they arrive in really good condition and within six days. I usually order on a Thursday and they arrive here in Perth by Wednesday, and they notify me of the process at each stage. It is so exciting anticipating them, and then receiving through the mail like the old days of snail mail.

Recently I suggested to a lady who was interested in promoting and sharing her love of reading that there are programs in schools for grandparents to assist with reading sessions in primary schools. Or that she could join the "Adopt a Grandparent" program. Whenever you reveal a passion people will gravitate to you and an opportunity arises to share that passion. If you need information or a book title ask a librarian. Man, I love my passion and my life!

Peta Kelly can be found on twitter with the very appropriate twitter nom de plume: @petalovesbooks. You will also find her comments and encouragement on these pages as well as on the Facebook pages she supports, including those of Stephanie Dowrick and co-host Walter Mason.  And if you are inspired by Peta to buy more books - for yourself or others - note that you can buy any books through our bookstore book links (above right).

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Notable books in 2012: yours and mine

Writer and Universal Heart Book Club co-host Stephanie Dowrick

Stephanie Dowrick, writer and co-host of the Universal Heart Book Club, shares a favourite list of "Notable books" and also asks for your favourites - from any year.

One of the (many) greatest things about reading is that we can literally read across time. Your favourite author could be currently 25, or have been born 2500 years ago. With quality translations available, we are also not bound by language or culture and in fact I never fail to feel the awe of the time-and-place travelling that reading allows, simply by sitting still and turning pages.  (You may be reading on a screen; you are still turning pages!)

The books we love most usually meet a need that perhaps we didn't even know we had. They also often have a timeless quality to them, even when they are firmly rooted in or reflective of a particular time. They improve with age; or perhaps we - as readers - improve with age. Most of us have a few precious, beloved books we've read and re-read at different stages of our lives. And perhaps we have appreciated increasingly what those writers are giving us in a direct sharing from their inner world to our own.

Has this been a rich, adventurous "year of reading" for you?  I do hope so. It's been a year of lots of reading…and writing…for me. Plus the establishment of this Universal Heart Book Club with my friend and fellow reading activist, Walter Mason.

"Ancient" can be very fresh
We would love to hear what books have moved, entertained or enlightened you most this year. We would always welcome your suggestions about which books we should be recommending or highlighting among the almost countless possibilities. One of the ways I most enjoy this Book Club design is that you are not limited to any one month's reviews; the prompts across the bottom of each of our posts so easily take you deeper into the archives where more treasures are to be found. Don't overlook Mark S. Burrows' review of Christian Bobin's writing, Jane Goodall's wonderful writing on Hare with Amber Eyes, Joyce Kornblatt on her writing book favourites - including my own perennial favourite: Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, Ros Bradley's review of what I regard as the political novel of the year, Drusilla Modjeska's The Mountain, and the utterly endearing Buddhaland Brooklyn reviewed by Walter Mason. Walter also named Michelle de Kretser's brilliant, absorbing Questions of Travel as his "book of the year". And I am naming Barbara Kingsolver's new novel Flight Behavior - my "book of the year"! I also have her earlier Poisonwood Bible as one of my top-10-for-all-time novels. Richard Holloway's Leaving Alexandria was my memoir of this year. It will "weather" well, just as its author has.

We will keep informing you of books worth seeking. Meanwhile, I find it tremendously stimulating to look at other people's choices of "notable books". Here's a link to the 2012 list of "notable books" from the highly resourced (and variously opinionated) Sunday Book Review of the New York Times.  Our family has had several Hawaii holidays since the dollar exchange made that possible and one of my greatest joys is to be there on a Sunday, and to wander - with the delicious feeling of "all the time in the world" - into the nearest Starbucks to buy a soy coffee, a cream cheese bagel and the latest, fat Sunday edition…with hours of reading promised. And some terrific pointers for greater reading depth ahead.

That list may be a useful prompt for you - or you might disagree with it entirely and want to make your own! And don't forget: your ideas, comments and opinions will be welcomed by all those coming to these pages in the days and months ahead. Comments welcome!

You can support the Book Club by buying any book ("notable" or not!) via the book store links above right. All sales support this Book Club through a small % returned to us.

Maggie Hamilton on connecting with the mist

Author and teacher Maggie Hamilton (pic from
Author Maggie Hamilton shares with us two of her most special books. Maggie has inspired many of her friends to read so many wonderful books over the years, so we are delighted that she has shared two of the best with us.
I don’t know about you, but I love mist. It’s utterly enchanting. As the everyday world softens and disappears I often experience a huge sense of relief. For me it’s a bit like wiping the slate clean. Naturally everyone has their own responses to the mist. One of the most profound observations of mist is Frank MacEowen’s The Mist-Filled Path: Celtic Wisdom for Exiles, Wanderers and Seekers. As you read Frank MacEowen’s exquisite book suddenly life is imbued with a whole new set of possibilities. You glimpse another way of being. At the heart of this book is a strong sense of how many of us in the west live in a permanent state of exile – or as Frank puts it ‘they become exiled from the holy realm of the inner worlds’.

As Frank MacEowen explores the Celts’ connection with nature, he reminds of the very shape and feel of the contemporary sense of exile. ‘I sometimes think that when we experience soul loss or soul exile it is as if we have had our ancient citizenry revoked,’ he reflects. ‘We no longer have diplomatic status to travel freely in the inner sanctum of our deepest levels of knowing about the world around us.’ How then do we rekindle the fire of our spirit?

So what does the mist offer us? According to Frank MacEowen the mist is ‘the threshold, the guardian of the in-between where vision is received. Within the mist of liminal time and space we are able to planet the seeds of a new life’. One of the bridges to this sacred experience of life is through our deepest longings. According to Frank MacEowen, our longing is something to trust, as it takes us to a far more profound space than can be accessed by our desires. Longing, he explains, has ‘an ancient allegiance to the evolution of our souls’. There are so many wonderful insights in this book, it’s not one you want to hurry, because you don’t want to miss a single observation. Some books we read once. Others we return to again and again, and this is true of The Mist-Filled Path.

While we’re on the subject of special books, I must also mention Carol Schaeffer’s Grandmothers Counsel The World: Women Elders Offer Their Vision For the Planet. This book landed in my lap left of field, and it too touched my soul. Here thirteen indigenous women elders from five continents tackle the big issues the planet is facing. While this may sound a bit depressing, reading the book is a deep human experience, imbued with a great deal of wisdom. In my experience there are too few women who inhabit a place of genuine power. In reading the lives and observations of each of these remarkable women, I was struck by the often very painful lives these women elders have had. All to frequently they have suffered a lot of abuse and deprivation. Their personal accounts are worlds way from the neatly polished images we’re constantly presented with of how successful women are ‘meant to be’. What sets these women apart is that they’re not defined by their past wounds, their souls have been fertilised by them. The Grandmother's Council will be in Byron just before Christmas and in New Zealand in February.

Writer and social researcher Maggie Hamilton gives regular talks and workshops; writes for magazines; is a keen observer of social trends; and an outspoken critic of the commercialisation of childhood and teen life. Her books have been published in Australia, New Zealand, Holland, Italy, the Arab States, Lithuania, Korea, China and Brazil, and include What's Happening to Our Girls? and  What's Happening to Our Boys? Her latest book, Secret Girls’ Business, is a fun, funky empowering book for teenage girls.
See Walter Mason making one of the recipes from Secret Girls' Business here.

Frank MacEowen, The Mist-Filled Path: Celtic Wisdom for Exiles, Wanderers and Seekers, New World Library, Novato California, 2002. ISBN 1-57731-211-2

Carol Schaeffer, Grandmothers Counsel The World: Women Elders Offer Their Vision For the Planet, Trumpeter, Boston 2006. ISBN 978-1-59030-293-4

Friday, November 16, 2012

Universal Heart Book Club Episode 4, November 2012

 Welcome to the fourth video discussion from the Universal Heart Book Club.

This month we discuss two new and really intriguing novels that both deal with idea of travel and the consequences of shifting populations: Michelle de Kretser's breathtaking Questions of Travel and Emily Maguire's terrific novel set in Vietnam, Fishing for Tigers

You will also find our written reviews of these books below, as well as a range of other very fine articles.

As you read the books we feature, please share your views in our comments section. Those conversations are essential to this being the "book club" we envision. Many thanks to Peter Kirkwood for the marvellous job he has done filming this conversation and bringing it to you.

Walter Mason reads Emily Maguire's Vietnam novel Fishing for Tigers

In this enchanting new novel Australian author Emily Maguire captures perfectly the shiftlessness and loneliness of expatriate life. Fishing forTigers is her account of love and lust among a group of foreigners living in Hanoi, a group of people marooned in a poor and insular city, not out of any passion for its people or culture, but because:

" was the only place they'd found where they could get away with being who they were. The only place with five-star hotel bars, anyway."

Monastery attached to One Pillar Pagoda, Hanoi (Photo by Walter Mason)

The novel's protagonist, Mischa, begins a passionate but morally questionable affair with Cal, an eighteen year old Vietnamese adoptee, a young man who only knows life as an Australian and who comes to see his putative homeland through the eyes of the wounded Mischa.

They stumble through a schizophrenic Vietnamese culture, a place torn between the worlds of tradition, Socialism and rampant consumerism. Cal, posing as the cynical and super cool hipster, is astonished when he visits the ancient Confucian university of Van Mieu and discovers its statues have been restored thanks to the donations of a credit card company:

"A communist government sponsored by American Express. Classic."

Van Mieu (Temple of Literature), Hanoi (Photo by Walter Mason)

Together the lovers hide, betray and titillate each other, and Maguire's novel is filled with an electric eroticism as well as a trenchant social criticism. The character Mischa is never clearly one thing or another. She is alternately victim and exploiter, sympathiser and traitor. The moral complexities of Maguire's characters make this a thrilling book, and one that offers no easy answers.

Emily Maguire has said that this book emerged out of her own fascination with the city of Hanoi, a city which has enchanted many other Western visitors but has not been written about as much as it should. And Hanoi's claustrophobic intensity is beautifully and perfectly evoked in the book, along with the effect it has on the novel's characters as they drink, sleep and curse their way around an uncertain life in a city that really has no need for them. The confused and messy sex lives of expatriate communities has never been so intimately charted, either, and be prepared for some surprising revelations as the novel proceeds.

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi (Photo by Walter Mason)

And Maguire plays with an interesting post-colonial dynamic, opening up a tremendous can of worms by dealing, not only with interracial relationships, but with inter-generational ones. The depth of exploitation, or its absence and pose, is batted around tantalisingly in this book, though Maguire is too smart to ever attempt a definitive answer. The freedom to indulge in pleasure, and the way that living abroad affords this freedom, convinces Mischa that:

“ my mind was my own and my life was what I decided it should be.”

But of course, events prove that not to be the case.

This is an extraordinary novel, one that will interest anyone who has ever visited Vietnam or who has considered, just for a moment, packing it all in and moving to a distant land. Fishing for Tigers is a very modern dissection of lust, identity and belonging, and I have come away a firm fan of Emily Maguire’s work.

Van Mieu, Hanoi (Photo by Walter Mason)

Fishing for Tigers is available through our bookstore affiliates (top right) on this blog. We also welcome your comments and opinions!