Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Walter Mason reads Love & Hunger

I selected Love & Hunger by Charlotte Wood as my first pick for our newly launched Universal Heart Book Club. It's a beautiful collection of essays and recipes about food, family, finding a sense of community and ways of expressing our inner being through cooking.

In a culture where we have largely forgotten ways of expressing our love for the people in our lives, Charlotte has managed to remind us that food, one of the most traditional expressions of love, still has a place, and might indeed be the perfect solution for  those of us who are shy and tongue-twisted when it comes to emotion.

Charlotte Wood is an acclaimed Australian novelist, someone whose work I have read and followed over many years. When I discovered she was working on a book about food I couldn't wait to see what she would make of this increasingly popular subject. I never expected to be so thoroughly moved and inspired by it, however. She writes with utter simplicity and without the pretension that seems to so easily attach to discussions of food and eating.

We live in a society that has elevated food to a semi-divine status, and our screens are filled with celebrity chefs and suburban hopefuls willing to humiliate themselves on TV in order to stake a claim as Masterchef. Never has so much food been so lushly prepared with such detail right before our very eyes, and it seems that everyone now is "plating" their evening meal. Love & Hunger is the ultimate counter to all this. Charlotte Wood encourages the reader to leave things lopsided and occasionally flawed, so long as they are delicious and prepared with love and attention.We can be imperfect in our preparation of food and yet still offer it as a gesture of love.

It is a book, too, about effort. In an age devoted to speed and instant gratification, many of us (and here I hold my hand up) have abandoned the trouble of cooking our own food, let alone preparing it for others. Charlotte Wood reminds us that the simple but consistent effort of preparing food for others is by itself a profoundly spiritual act. It's the slowness of cooking we have left behind, and we chafe against the lack of any  guarantees when it comes to preparing even deceptively simple dishes. And as Charlotte points out, never have more wannabe cooks been defeated than in the face of a chicken roast, that greatest of Sunday dinners prepared by generations of home cooks. We have forgotten how to prepare food easily and offer it unselfconsciously. Love & Hunger helps us to remember some of this.

I know that after reading it I am keen to get brining my meats, preparing my own pastry, cooking cold pork pies and just seeking to express my love for food less through its consumption and more through its careful and loving preparation.

Perfectly structured, very nicely written and constantly fascinating, I think that anyone who loves food will enjoy Love & Hunger.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Stephanie Dowrick reads The Woman Who Changed Her Brain

 "What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow. Our life is the creation of our mind."
The Dhammapada

Canadian neuroscience pioneer and teacher, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, is The Woman Who Changed Her Brain. She is also the woman who has helped countless other people to change their brains for the better. Or, more accurately, to identify the areas of their brains that are not functioning as well as they should and certainly could – and to do something about it.

The “something about it” consists of highly focused assessments disclosing where an individual’s particular “traffic jams in the brain” physically originate, followed by a series of targeted exercises that clearly demand an awesome level of patience and commitment. However, in story after story in this book we witness the joy and liberation that people feel when they are no longer limited by their old “deficits” or learning disabilities, and the emotional agonies and often self-loathing that so often accompanied them.

This is exciting and radical reading. The deficits or learning disabilities  Arrowsmith-Young describes go way beyond the best known. Those are probably in the crucial areas of writing, reading and spelling. When those areas of the brain don’t “work” as they should, people can quickly be labelled as stupid, even when they are highly intelligent and making superhuman efforts.

And there's more. For example, we learn here of kind, thoughtful people who literally cannot identify or memorise faces, even of those they know well. Others cannot judge when it is safe to cross a road, or what it might mean to conjure up a mental image or even a fairly reliable memory, or what “before” and “after” actually signify.

Reading this book, I quickly understood some of my own deficits better: why – like countless others – my own abilities and even possibilities have been markedly uneven. As a little child I was quickly able to learn and do some things, yet struggled and continue to struggle in other areas. (Reading and writing were always fine; maths, far less so; technical instruction booklets a nightmare; spatial and 3-dimensional problems, hopeless.)

But “hopeless” is not a word in Arrowsmith-Young’s lexicon, although she was painfully, horribly familiar with it for many years.  The memoir aspects of this book are deeply moving and the author emerges as a woman of great courage as well as a highly driven (and motivating) curiosity. However, she’s a reticent writer and that’s not where she wants readers to linger.

Her emphasis is on the discoveries she has made, continues to make, and wants to share. These are discoveries not just about overcoming neurological deficits but also, and even more remarkably, about how the brain itself functions (or fails to).

Almost the best of this good news is that once the brain is changed for the better, it stays changed. You don’t slide back to the same level of disability. In fact, positive changes increase with time. What was once confusing is no longer confusing. “The changed brain stays changed.”

Our knowledge of the brain is still in infancy stages. Norman Doidge, author of the arguably even more remarkable book, The Brain that Changes Itself, reminds us in his glowing Foreword that it’s only 30 years since neuroscience (and those of us amateurs hanging out for greater insights) discovered that the brain is plastic, can change - and can be “changed”.  Doidge describes Arrowsmith, when he first met her, as a “bold, ingenious, tormented, driven, deeply empathic pioneer”. He also regrets how few children and adults have access to effective programs for disabilities that can be entirely overcome. (So much of what passes for learning disability support simply adds significant stress and brings poor results.)

Because conventional remedial help even for the best-known learning difficulties is so patchy and often so ineffective, my greatest and perhaps only real reservation about the book is that the exercises that allow for these brilliant changes are sketchily described. I understand this, because without a careful assessment, self-prescribing could be a waste of time and result in a dashing of hopes. Nonetheless, I would have welcomed a more precise picture than is given.

For those who want to pursue the Arrowsmith principles, a visit to one of her Canadian schools may be a choice. Usefully, Doidge in his Foreword also mentions Howard Eaton’s apparently more practical book, Brain School. (In a separate post below, I list some other worthwhile “brain” books, including Doidge’s own.)

Most of us would probably agree that how we think, what we choose to think about and where we give our attention are vital to questions of choice and of consciousness. “With our thoughts we make the world,” are words from 2600 years ago, recorded in the Buddhist classic text, The Dhammapada.

The content of our thinking – and our self- and other perceptions - lead us directly to the most central issues of meaning, purpose and identity. Yet it seems that as long as our perceptions and choices are limited by our neurophysiology - and even by a limited understanding of the brain that generates them - good will and insight cannot be fully realised.

Dr Stephanie Dowrick is a trained psychotherapist as well as a writer and retreat leader. She is the founder of the Universal Heart Network and co-host of the Universal Heart Book Club.

You can buy these and any books via our affiliate bookstores upper right.

Jane Goodall is reading...

Reading Thich Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness increasingly slowly Jane Goodall finds that "a whole universe will open out from each of those pages".

I’m always interested in where people like to read. Perhaps they have a favorite place in the house – a table by the window, a fireside chair, a couch with many cushions. Children sometimes make themselves a private den for reading, where they can hide away under a canopy of blankets while traveling in the realms of fantasy. 
 Reading is a very private experience, but there are some people who like to read in public places, out and about in the world. I love to spend a day in the city, cruising the streets and stopping every couple of hours for a prolonged reading break. I find a café table, or take a bus ride, or I might sit on a bench under a tree, and read a chapter or two before continuing the ramble. This way, the worlds of the book and the city become intertwined. Moods and atmospheres leak from one into the other, creating a sometimes intoxicating blend.
A couple of weeks ago I made a trip to Melbourne, and visited Readings bookshop to choose a book to be my companion. I came out with two: Cultural Amnesia, a collection of essays by Clive James, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness. As I think about it now, it was a most odd pairing.
The Clive James volume was heavy, nearly 800 pages of dense writing about his own reading adventures, full of curious anecdotes and witty digressions. In every twisting sentence I could hear that dry and slightly drawling voice with its permanent edge of sarcasm, perfectly in charge of the delivery.
Over a lunch of bruschetta in an Italian bar, I read four chapters at a sitting. It was like sharing a table with the most compelling conversationalist, who made me laugh out loud at his jokes (no doubt to the puzzlement of those at the table next to me), but I was also drawn into the more serious questions that run through the book. How do writers fare in times of violence? How do they measure up to the challenge of political oppression?
Whilst I was in the thrall of Clive James and all the other voices he conjures from his vast mental archives, Thich Naht Hanh sat lightly in the bag at my side. It wasn’t until I boarded the plane on my way home that I opened the smooth little book bearing his name. Barely a hundred pages long, and with small blocks of print set between wide margins, it signaled a kind of spaciousness before I even began to read.
I have been reading it ever since, a little more slowly each day, for I’ve learned that if you read slowly enough, a whole universe will open out from each of those pages. 
When Stephanie Dowrick [who hosts the Universal Heart Network] told me that she is a deep admirer of Thich Nhat Hanh that made immediate sense to me. There is so much in the Universal Heart philosophy and Stephanie’s website that is resonant of the way this great Buddhist teacher takes us through the ever widening spheres of body, heart and mind. I’m honored to be part of the new Universal Heart book club, and look forward to the many posts that will follow.

 Jane Goodall is a former academic, now a novelist and literary critic with a special interest in drama and the power of language.

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia: notes in the margin of my time. London, Picador 2012.  ISBN 978-0-330-48175-5.
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness. London, Rider, 1987. ISBN 978-1-84-604106-8.

Walter Mason on more "food books"

More "food" books? 

If Love & Hunger interests you, you may also be interested in:

Gay Bilson Plenty
David Thompson Thai Food
Alice Thomas Ellis Fish, Flesh and Good Red Herring
Eric Schlosser Fast Food Nation
Amy Sedaris I Like You

Stephanie Dowrick on more "brain books"

More "brain" books?

If The Woman Who Changed Her Brain interests you, you may also be interested in:

Oliver Sacks  The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
Norman Doidge  The Brain that Changes Itself
Ian McGilchrist The Master and His Emissary
Daniel G. Amen  Change Your Brain, Change Your Life (this is fantastic for understanding mood disorders)
Daniel J. Siegel The Whole-Brain Child (new light on tantrums..for example!)

Charlotte Wood on Love & Hunger

We asked Charlotte Wood to tell us how people have reacted to her book Love & Hunger, which is Walter's first selection for the Universal Heart Book Club. This is what she had to say:

The process of writing a book, as every author knows, is an experience lived at one remove from life. Even if you have discussed the ideas with writing friends or a publisher, then with editors and so on, none of you knows what will happen when the book is finally sent out into the world.

I have been surprised and delighted by readers’ responses to Love & Hunger – not least because it’s a book that fits between genres. Not quite a memoir, not quite a cookbook, it’s hard to see where it might go on the bookshop shelf. Happily though, booksellers of all kinds have embraced it, and it is reaching readers, many of whom have written me beautiful letters and emails since it was published in May.

My original idea for the book was that it would be entirely about “cooking for the hard times”, as one radio interviewer phrased it. I thought of writing a very practical, impersonal book of recipes – simple, warming nourishment to make for people when they’re ailing, or grieving, or broken-hearted. But as I wrote, the book grew both wider in scope and far more personal than I expected.

It became a discussion of everything I knew and loved and wondered and discovered – and that I am still learning - about cooking and what it means in my life, symbolically, emotionally, intellectually.

Charlotte Wood's own Chicken Brodo

Cooking for the hard times remains an important part of the book – one of its four sections is called ‘Consolations’, and it is one that many people have responded to most warmly, with its chapters on the solace of soup, on cooking during chemotherapy, comfort food, and my own experiences of the beautiful gestures of my family’s neighbours and friends through the sickness and deaths of our parents, made through food. I refuse to ignore life’s sadnesses and losses, because I think that is when some of the most profound moments of human existence take place. And I think one of the reasons people have responded to this part of the book particularly is that in wider society there is often a kind of relentless insistence on “being positive” at times like this – when in fact sometimes what is required is an acknowledgement that fear and grief is justified, and nothing can help but love. And delivering a chicken pie to someone in grief or distress can often say more about the presence of this kind of love than any words.

At the same time, I hope Love & Hunger is, most of all, a quietly joyful book.

Once I found the voice for the book I discovered that this kind of writing gave me a freedom to be extremely personal, yet outward-looking, to the people and times and places that have made my life what it is. There are none of the constraints of fiction, which depends so crucially on matters of craft and a sort of tightrope walk in the imagination - and also on a deep and often lonely solitude for the duration of its creation. By contrast, the whole time I was writing Love & Hunger I felt a great ease and warmth, as if I were writing a series of letters to my friends.

Some of the most affecting responses for me have been from people who say the book has given them a kind of nourishment for the spirit. So many readers have told me they had felt inadequate in the kitchen before reading Love & Hunger, but now feel it has given them a way in to cooking, and to a confidence that moves far beyond the mere making of food – that through my book they have found a way of connecting with other people, and, for some, even a kind of self-acceptance.

One of the most touching examples of this was the comment on my blog left by ‘Nadia’:

“For the older women in my family, food has always been the enemy. It has been nice reading about how it can be used to connect with others. In recent years I have been moving towards this philosophy, after starting out being terrified of cooking (it might go wrong, etc. Double stress if guests were invited). I definitely have not been a great host creating a warm atmosphere as you describe – after a few awkward attempts after first leaving home, I had stopped entertaining as it was too stressful. I have progressively become a more confident cook and reading your book has solidified the kind of relationship I want to have with my friends and family and how this can be aided by giving the gift of food …  Reading you makes me think of being a real person in the kitchen and in life.”

For more on Love & Hunger visit the website: http://www.loveandhunger.com

Saturday, July 7, 2012

About Walter Mason

Walter is a travel writer and speaker with a special interest in spirituality.
Born in 1970 in rural North Queensland, Walter spent some years doing correspondence school on a remote tin mine. On returning to “town” he devoted his life to singing, acting and the arts, and was constantly performing from the age of 12 – 17.

His academic career has included studying theatre, Chinese and 6 months at the Ho Chi Minh Social Sciences University in Vietnam studying the Vietnamese language. He is currently completing his PhD on the history of self-help literature in Australia.

Walter's travel memoir Destination Saigon was named by the Sydney Morning Herald one of the ten best travel books of 2010. He is currently working on a book about Cambodia.

About Stephanie Dowrick

* Writer * spiritual leader * speaker * founder Universal Heart Network * co-host of Universal Heart Book Club

Stephanie Dowrick, PhD, has been writing, teaching and talking about books and writing for a "lifetime". Founder of The Universal Heart Network, in an earlier life founder of The Women's Press in London, and the author of more than a dozen widely influential books, she has made a hugely significant contribution to our shared psychological and spiritual development, and to our individual and collective wellbeing. 

Her particular skill is in anticipating and responding to the key social, spiritual and psychological questions of our time. Her acclaimed books include Intimacy and Solitude *  The Universal Heart *Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love * Choosing Happiness * Creative Journal Writing * The Almost-Perfect Marriage * In the Company of Rilke * Seeking the Sacred * Everyday Kindness.

Stephanie has also written two novels, and a great deal about creativity including Creative Journal Writing and her recent highly acclaimed book on the modernist visionary poet Rainer Maria Rilke, In the Company of Rilke. Her most recent books include Seeking the Sacred, called by Claire Scobie in the Sydney Morning Herald, “A chalice of wisdom”, and Everyday Kindness.

Central to Stephanie's work is her teaching and spiritual leadership. Since 2006 she has offered regular spiritually inclusive services at Pitt Street (264) Uniting Church in Sydney (3rd Sundays, 3pm) and for more than 20 years has been leading spiritual retreats, including - since 2001 - at Mana Retreat Centre, New Zealand.

Beyond this blog, you can find her on www.stephaniedowrick.com or on her "Official Stephanie Dowrick" Facebook page where she offers regular inspiration. You are also welcome to join the Universal Heart Network, founded in 2000, and flourishing since.

Facebook "Official Stephanie Dowrick"
Web Stephanie Dowrick
Register for Universal Heart Network
Short spiritual talks from Stephanie Dowrick  interfaithinsydney 

About the Universal Heart Book Club

Walter Mason & Stephanie Dowrick
The Universal Heart Book Club is a brand new on-line global book club for people who care passionately about books - and the values that best support us. It's hosted by two Australian-based writers, Stephanie Dowrick - writer, reading activist, founder of the Universal Heart Network - and travel writer, reviewer and blogger, Walter Mason.

We are two people who share a lifetime passion for writing, reading and conversation. We both work as writers. Stephanie has been a publisher previously (and was founder of the London publishing house, The Women's Press) and Walter a bookseller. We know the book world - and love it. But we also have some stimulating differences in age and life experiences. That variety is only part of what will make your regular visits to these pages a rich experience.

How you can enjoy the Universal Heart Book Club

Each month we are bringing you a video discussion of two books that have particularly captured our attention. We will also post reviews and articles separately - to expand the range of books and ideas that could interest you. Our goal is to help you to discover books worth your time and attention. We are inviting other writers also to review, comment and give fascinating background to the books they are reading - or have written. Those articles are fresh, insightful and we have been delighted by the enthusiasm of people generous enough to write for these pages.

Our "bookstore links" let you immediately purchase any book that captures your interest - wherever you are in the world as you read this. Those sales return a vital small % to the Book Club - whatever book(s) you purchase.

You will also support us - and engage more actively - with your comments and observations. These will add to this global conversation. Don't hesitate to engage and share your views as you read the books we've selected. Walter has added a post on "How to post a comment". Enjoy!