Saturday, December 14, 2013

Stephanie Dowrick applauds two exceptional artists: Michael Leunig and Tina Fiveash

Michael Leunig is surely one of Australia's most influential artists. He reminds us repeatedly of our collective and individual vulnerabilities, defences, needs and neediness. He also reminds us of what personal and social healing we are "not looking", not seeing, not acknowledging. This is not less powerful because he does it in such a quietly subversive way, sometimes making us laugh, sometimes just wryly acknowledging the truth of what he draws and paints. 

Leunig's apparently naive painting, cartooning, sculpture and drawing style suits his "message" or purpose exceptionally well. He speaks to us (the adults we are presumed to be but seldom are) as a child might: with all the innocence and clear-seeing of a child unafraid to say that the Emperor truly has no clothes.
Leunig also speaks to us through that timeless archetype of holy, bold - courageous - innocence: the "holy fool". I love it that he has chosen Holy Fool as the title of his new book. It's a lavish production (my photos barely do justice) showcasing more than 240 Leunig artworks. Much more than a coffee table book, it offers testimony to what matters most: whether or not we can "afford" to bring gentle, delighted appreciation to this life we share...or whether we can possibly afford not to.
For so many years "content" has had an uneasy place in art; even discussing it has become absurdly difficult. Leunig places content where it belongs: in that most intimate, potent and rich relationship between artist and viewer. Through his work, this artist freely speaks. And we listen.
The visual arts have been a passion of mine throughout my adult lifetime. At The Women's Press in London - where I was Managing Director from 1978-1983 - we were literally the first in the world to bring to public attention in a sustained way through a number of books and all the discussion that flowed from them how shamefully women artists had been neglected in the "art world" - and how much there was to be reclaimed not historically only but also in how we see and understand women artists' work.

In the decades since, gender equity in the arts has improved a great deal. Nonetheless, many immensely talented innovative, expressive artists - women and men - still struggle to find an audience and anything remotely like a living wage for their highly accomplished work. Our response to that needs to be active - and intelligently protective. Where we can, we should use whatever funds we have to buy what is original, handmade, meaningful. Many people find it easy to buy the latest "triumph" from Apple; far less easy to spend the same money or less on an artwork that will never have a use-by date or need an upgrade. In supporting art, we support a world that values art and those who make it.

"Twin Spirit" by Tina Fiveash. (Please do NOT use this on the web or in any other way without her permission.)
I don't know whether the work of artist Tina Fiveash is yet fully appreciated, but until her work is in all our major galleries and collections I would say it isn't appreciated enough! I caught up with her - and discovered her work - when I was invited to open a most exceptional exhibition called Sacred, held in Canberra recently. Curated by Benita Tunks, all the work was of the highest standard. Tina's work is particularly accessible - which takes nothing from its intelligence and depth. You can hear here a recording (up now on YouTube) of my brief, deeply felt comments about her work at that most affecting exhibition.

Discovering a new artist is such a joy! You can visit Tina's website; follow her "Bell Tower" project; or contact her about buying her work. What a glorious gift that would be for yourself or for someone you most tenderly love.

Artist Tina Fiveash

Dr Stephanie Dowrick co-hosts the Universal Heart Book Club and is the author of many books, including Seeking the Sacred and In the Company of Rilke. She has a life-long interest in the expressive and visual as well as the writing arts, and in the "sacred."

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Walter Mason recommends his most inspiring books of the year

Walter writes: Books are always the perfect gift. Every year I decide on a particular title as my "Christmas book" and give away multiple copies. I am not going to let on what that title is for this year, for obvious reasons. But instead I want to list a few of the books that got me most inspired this year. I guarantee that any of these titles will change your life if you read them. So here they are, in no particular order. (Post-free details for ordering follow!)

Do the Work by Steven Pressfield - A tiny book that is filled with inspiration. Pressfield is the legendary author of The War of Art, and this little book is a kind of distillation of his philosophy for creative people: just do the work, and stop giving yourself excuses. Exactly the kind of kick up the pants we sometimes need.

Lost at Sea by Jon Ronson - The delightful, quirky and unstoppably curious Jon Ronson is one of my favourite writers, and this collection of his essays and journalism is so odd that it stands out as some of the most fascinating reading of this, or any other, year. If you haven't discovered Ronson yet, this book is the perfect introduction.

Queen Lucia by E F Benson - Please indulge me. I know it's a bit cheeky to recommend an Edwardian comic novel on a list of "must reads" but I pick this book up every year (read my essay on Benson and why he is a genius here) and this year it delighted me so, so much that I  thought I might never have to read another novel again. He reminds me why I want to be a writer.

The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin - This is the one I recommend in all my classes and workshops. Godin is a received genius, and this book really turns the attention to the very real creativity of everyday lives. Godin says that it's all about "making art." Do what you want to do, what you need to do. Whatever it is, the important thing is that you do it, not talk about it. A brilliant read.

Mary-Lou Stephens
Sex, Drugs and Meditation by Mary-Lou Stephens - Perfection. I stumbled upon this book quite by accident and then, by some kind of psychic miracle, was put in contact with the author. Mary-Lou's account of fame, drug addiction and recovery through meditation is one of the best memoirs I have read in years. Humble, witty and so very, very true. All I wanted was for this book never to end.

The Secret of Life Wellness by Inna Segal - A reviewer described me this year as "a man in poor health," an assumption made from reading my new book, Destination Cambodia. This shocked me rather, as I see myself as someone in rude good health. But then I picked up Inna Segal's fascinating new book and realised that I needed to take my health, and my body, much more seriously. If 2014 is your year of getting fit, this book makes the perfect theoretical start. So fascinating. It really is about how to bring your soul into alignment with your body.

Heaven on Earth by my Universal Heart Bookclub co-host Stephanie Dowrick - Do you want to bring more reflection, more quiet and more prayer into your life? Stephanie's new book is an excellent place to start. I have picked this book up every day since I received it and it will serve anybody as a continual aid to, and inspiration for, prayer. I especially appreciate the excellent practical sections on how to cultivate a prayer life and just why we should be praying more. An inspired and inspiring book. You can view my recent interview with Stephanie about this book via this LINK. (SD: And you can view my interview with Walter about his wonderful Destination Cambodia at this LINK! I am definitely putting Walter's book in several lucky people's Christmas stockings.)

POST-FREE Book BUYING? You can buy any of these books - or any others - and also support the Universal Heart Bookclub via THIS LINK. It takes you first to Stephanie's books and you can then type in any title (or author's name) you are seeking. We also welcome your comments!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Walter Mason reads Sister Jayanti's God's Healing Power

Walter Mason writes: Strengthening awareness. Using my senses positively. Finding out who I really am. These are all themes and ideas which have stayed with me after reading and working with Sister Jayanti’s gentle, inspiring and quite practical meditation manual, God’s Healing Power.

Sister Jayanti is a senior teacher in the Brahma Kumaris spiritual tradition, and I recently had the pleasure of hearing her speak and, along with a thousand or so others, meditating with her. That talk had a profound impact on me, and you can read more about it here.

Sister Jayanti teaching in Sydney
Before leaving that talk I bought a copy of God’s Healing Power, having heard it so warmly endorsed by interfaith minister and writer Stephanie Dowrick in her introduction to Sister Jayanti that night. I even braved the crowd and lined up to have it signed, and Sister, in the Brahma Kumaris fashion, looked me straight in the eye, and I experienced the most incredible feeling of love and connection.

Happily, reading this book has afforded me that same feeling of connection and even, occasionally, excitement. It is meditation book that will appeal to even the most restless soul. We are all inclined to moments of meditation, Sister Jayanti reminds us: “Consciously or not, we all experience meditative states from time to time.” In a culture obsessed with acquisition and the meeting of material needs, this book reminds us to nourish or souls, just as we nourish our bodies with food. And for soul nourishment, meditation is the very best food.

What I love about Sister Jayanti’s approach is her lightness of touch, and her recognition of different temperaments and different needs along the spiritual journey. Many people respond negatively when faced with the idea of meditation (hours sitting on the floor? Not for me!), and many more seethe when faced with the G word used in this book’s title. Even for these people, there are ways in to meditative awareness that would suit their particular state of mind. Nature is an example she uses. Being in nature and becoming conscious of its beauty is an excellent way of discovering the possibilities of meditative awareness. I love this idea because I think it is one our Victorian forebears, with their great lover of flowers and scenes and the idea of the sublime, intuitively grasped. My own grandfather, a lifelong atheist, often makes the claim that the bush is his church.

Sister Jayanti teaches the method of Raja Yoga, which she says is about “becoming self-sovereign, master of the mind and senses. It teaches that there is a natural royalty in us...” The whole point of meditation, she says, is to become aware of the spiritual truth of ourselves, and that once we begin tapping into this spiritual truth we realise the incredible degree of connectedness between ourselves and all the other elements of the universe. Gently reminding us all that there is a kind of supreme truth at the heart of us, Sister Jayanti’s approach occasionally reminds me of that other great master, Thich Nhat Hanh, especially in his work on interbeing and interconnectedness.

The value of regular time spent alone is made clear when Sister Jayanti writes: “When I become introspective, see myself as a being of light, become aware of the Supreme Light, and allow myself to become absorbed in that light, truth returns to my own being.” It is a truth that also illuminates this book’s pages, making me aware of the wondrousness of my own source. This growing awareness will also be reflected in our body, health and wellbeing, Sister Jayanti reminds us.

This book could easily be used as a meditation guide over a period of months – that is how I plan to work with it. It is divided into four sections: The Soul; God; Relationships; and The Destination. Reading Sister Jayanti’s divinely sourced wisdom I am helped to remember the importance of listening, really listening, to the wisdom of this universe. And what is meditation, if it is not deeply listening, listening to our bodies our feelings and thoughts and, just possibly, that spark beyond it all which we have no good name for? We have in our spiritual makeup a capacity for deep, divine listening, and ultimately I am reminded of the exquisite call through the Psalms (Psalm 46) to “Be still and know that I am God.”
You can purchase this beautiful book, and many deeply serene meditation commentaries by B.K. Jayanti, from Eternity Ink.
You can purchase, post free, Walter Mason's new book, Destination Cambodia, via this link.

Stephanie Dowrick unwraps some fiction for Christmas


Stephanie Dowrick writes: I adore reading intelligent, absorbing fiction at any time of the year. But there is something about the Christmas period and the days that follow that are particularly inviting of that glorious pleasure of losing oneself in a world created by a talented (and hardworking) writer. The hard work of course never shows, when it's done well. And by that I mean, when the writer successfully draws you into the very heart of the world she or he has imaginatively created - and you enter as a willing visitor into their spell-binding reality.

On the recent writing retreat I led in Japan I took with me for evening reading British writer Sarah Dunant's novel Sacred Hearts. Set in 16th-century Italy, and largely in the confined space of a single (though fairly vast) convent, it is an exceptional portrait of the lives of highly intelligent, ambitious, talented women whose choices in life may appear exceptionally constrained, by contemporary standards. And yet - and Dunant's story-telling skills are exceptionally skillful in conveying this - we also see how and why convent life also offered some extraordinary opportunities for independence and safety at a time when marriage and childbirth frequently cost women their freedom, health and even their lives. You can find a longer review at this link. But if you are interested in women's history, religion and religious cultures, Italy, the Renaissance and music and healing...what a wonderful range of topics!...then know that here they unfold through story-telling that is memorable and deeply satisfying.
Perhaps Elizabeth Gilbert will go through life associated with her massive best-selling memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. Clearly, though, she takes fiction immensely serious and her long debut novel, The Signature of All Things, is immensely ambitious as well as utterly engaging. It, too, is an historical novel and also reflects intensely on women's lives and opportunities. It opens with a new century: 1800, and moves not only through the interior lives of its characters but also "travels" externally: from England to Australia, USA, Tahiti, the Netherlands. Gilbert has reflected publicly on how much she relished doing the research the novel (and her ambitions for it) required. This doesn't sit heavily; it adds greatly to the reader's pleasure. An interview with this immensely accomplished writer can be accessed via this link.

Sanjida O'Connell is a writer new to me, but I picked up The Naked Name of Love in part because it is about a journey across the intensely demanding lands of Mongolia, taken in 1865 - as Darwinian theories are beginning to challenge widely-held assumptions and beliefs - by a Buddhist monk, a courageous, selfless local horseman and guide, and an English Jesuit botanist in search of rare plant specimens and especially a breathtakingly beautiful white lily. It was only when I began to read this quite wonderfully engaging novel that I discovered its author had in part based it on the life and passions of Teilhard de Chardin whom I have always deeply admired. I don't believe she intends us to take this too literally; in fact, she does not. But questions of faith, science, commitment, loyalty, and the differences between people culturally and religiously as well as what binds them, are most intriguingly and intelligently drawn out here. At the heart of the novel, too, is an entirely plausible love affair; the reader cannot help but feel for and with the heart-wrenching decisions that face Joseph, the priest, and Namuunaa, an heroic, extraordinarily competent young woman, perhaps a shaman. The dangers of monastic life are extreme in different ways for the Buddhist monks. Life is so tough in this time and place, yet many of the relationships appear to be remarkably tender and loyal, and are most tenderly drawn. It's a story of real strength and beauty. Many readers will additionally love the excitement of the botanical finds and the intense relationships between animals and humans.

I didn't set out to recommend historical novels exclusively for this holiday season and beyond, but the last of this very special group of novels is also set in the past, and also conjures that past with bewitching sensuality and sensitivity for the lives of the people she is evoking. Claire Scobie, author of The Pagoda Tree, is an English-Australian writer who is vastly experienced as a journalist and as a travel writer. This is her first novel but like Elizabeth Gilbert she brings to this new venture a deep intelligence and writing confidence. The time is late 18th-century; the place is Tanjore, India; the characters are, variously, the colonizing English and the devadasi, the women who are - at least somewhat - doubly colonized: by the power of the British and also by the expectations of their caste, destiny and religion. The power and place of dance in Hindu ritual is central here, most skilfully revealing what it means to the women themselves to "carry" the dance and all that it well as the ways in which even their exquisite talents and dedication cannot save them from forces outside themselves. Courage is vivid here, in the characters and in the writing. I can imagine many of you giving or receiving this beautiful novel and doing so with confidence and joy.  
Want to purchase these books postage free? (You can follow the individual link to purchase any other books also - and a small, welcome % returns to us to support these pages. Thank you!) Just click on the titles that follow:
Sacred Hearts
The Signature of All Things
The Naked Name of Love
The Pagoda Tree

Dr Stephanie Dowrick's latest book is Heaven on Earth: Timeless Prayers of Wisdom and Love, a book not only of sublime prayers, but also a highly accessible guide on how to pray.  In 2014 Stephanie Dowrick will be teaching the WRITERS' WORKSHOP for the Faber Academy in Sydney.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Understanding Shiva

Walter Mason writes: "Reading Claire Scobie’s exquisite new novel The Pagoda Tree has sent me back to a range of books to help me hone up my knowledge of Hinduism, particularly the worship of Shiva, which is a large part of Claire’s simply fascinating book."
Purchasing details follow.

The Pagoda Tree tells the story of the Devadasi, temple dancers consecrated to Shiva and devoted to a life of ritual dance and worship, serving as wives of the deity. At a young age these women were tattooed with the trident symbol of Shiva, and they danced in ancient recreations of the various lives and stories of this most important deity. Much of Claire’s book is set in the large Shiva temple at Tanjore, a real place devoted to the worship of the Shiva Lingam, the phallic rendering of a particular aspect of Shiva.

The first book I picked up in my quest for knowledge  was Namita Gokhale’s simply brilliant The Book of Shiva, an excellent introduction to the stories and mythology attached to Shiva, and the various ways in which he is worshipped.

Reading it I was reminded that Shiva is the father of Ganesha, the hugely popular elephant-headed deity who, as remover of obstacles, serves as a focal point for the worship of so many people. Ganesha has played an important symbolic purpose in my life, and I have written about him in both my books. A small shrine to Ganesha was in the corner of my room in Phnom Penh when I wrote Destination Cambodia, and there is a small and beautifully-kept park in that same city that hosts a little-visited statue of Ganesha of great modernist beauty.

Gokhale’s lovely and very informative little book also told the story of Shiva’s great sacrifice in drinking the poison of the world – he was the only celestial to have done so. This is why he is traditionally depicted with a blue throat – the skin changed colour in reaction to the poison he consumed out of a sense of duty.

The next book I went to was Daughters of the Goddess author Linda Johnsen’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism. Say what you like about the title, this is for me one of the most indispensible religious guides I have ever purchased, and I must pick it up a dozen times a year. Clearly and carefully laid out, I think it the very best introduction to Hinduism for the lay person, and it is an invaluable reference book. She talks about the images of Shiva Nataraja, the exquisite form of Shiva dancing in a circle of flame. This is an image I have in my own home (and which, incidentally, I have glimpsed in the study of Claire Scobie herself).  A Southern Indian image, Johnsen says it represents “the end of the present cycle of time when Shiva will annihilate the universe, reabsorbing all existence into his pure awareness.”

Shiva Nataraja
Shiva’s vehicle is the bull Nandi, as Ajit Mookerjee reminds us in his exquisitely illustrated book Kali: The Feminine Force. This figure of Nandi is something the traveller will regularly encounter in Bali, and in the outer courtyards of the temples at Angkor in Cambodia. It was Nandi who defeated the god Indra’s elephant mount, reminds Paul B. Courtright in his exhaustive and constantly fascinating book Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings. The head of this elephant became the head of Ganesha, Shiva’s own son.

Shiva represents so many contradictory forces and is the perfect symbol of the inexplicable Godhead. As Ram Dass explains in his fantastic commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, Paths to God, Shiva is the final thing that Arjuna faces in his tremendous spiritual battle. For in Shiva’s form all is destroyed, all lives, and all is created.

Keen to read or listen?
You can purchase Claire Scobie's The Pagoda Tree postage FREE from this link: BUY
You can purchase Ram Dass' Paths to God postage FREE from this link: BUY
You can purchase Namita Gokhale's The Book of Shiva postage FREE from this link: BUY
(You can buy any other books you are seeking also by continuing on "via" those links. A small % of the sale will return to us and support this Book Club. Thank you for that.) 
You can also hear Stephanie Dowrick read a most exquisite passage from the Bhagavad Gita on her magnificent new meditation/sacred music CD, Heavenly, co-created with musician Kim Cunio. Heavenly is available by mail order from BLUE.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Dorothy McRae-McMahon provides a blueprint for meaningful rituals in our lives

 Co-host of the Universal Heart Book Club, Walter Mason, offers a warm view of Rituals.

Recently I was called upon to do a house blessing for some dear friends. I accepted because they are just about the kindest and sweetest men on earth, but I was instantly plunged into worry and performance anxiety - how on earth would I create a meaningful house blessing ceremony for a mixed Buddhist-Catholic couple? I eventually let myself be led by my own instincts (I am, after all, a natural-born blesser), the requests of the couple and my own knowledge of Buddhist blessing rituals. My final, and most invaluable, aid was Dorothy McRae-McMahon's exquisite book of Rituals for Life, Love & Loss.

The Rev. McRae-McMahon has long been a hero of mine, and I have seen her speak many times. Each time she has given witness to a life filled with bravery, faith and a great love for human culture in all of its wonderful diversity. Long the minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, Australia's most liberal congregation (she has been retired now for many years), McRae-McMahon rose to national prominence when she came out as a Lesbian in the late 1990s. This was a move of monumental courage and it had an immense symbolic impact on the lives of gay and lesbian people across Australia.

Dorothy McRae-McMahon - photo Dallas Kilponen for SMH
Her gentleness, empathy and interest in inclusive spirituality are the instincts that inform this collection of blessing words and ceremonies for all the stages of life. As well as the fantastic ideas for a house blessing, which I can wholeheartedly endorse, she provides many other solutions for marking the importance and sacredness of such occasions as marriage, the birth of a child and milestone birthdays. In an age in which we give short shrift to ceremony and ritual, this book reminds us just how important, and age old, is the impulse to acknowledge certain moments in life as especially important and worthy of some kind of commemoration.

Poetic and practical, Rituals for Life, Love & Loss is filled with prayers, meditations and ways to celebrate together that move a situation from the humdrum into the realm of sacred observance. Using some of Dorothy McRae-McMahon's ideas you can bring a great deal of love and joy into moments where we can sometimes feel uncomfortable, such as when we feel the need to forgive ourselves, or when we recognise the end of a marriage.

Her ceremony for sending a loved one into care, for example, is a reminder of just how quick we are to condemn these highly emotionally-charged experiences to the realms of the quotidian, or to be endured with grim-faced necessity. Instead, McRae-McMahon recommends gathering loved ones and friends together in a group to light candles and to share memories of the life journey of the person about to to move somewhere that can be highly stigmatised and feared. All the parties involved are recommended to share an affirmation that says: "This is not an end to our caring and compassion and commitment."

Using this book can change lives, and I have witnessed the Rev. McRae-McMahon's rituals used in all kinds of potentially difficult situations to great effect. It speaks to the human need to honour our times of importance and transition, both positive and joyful and more challenging. It is an inspiration, a textbook and a truly useful guide to creating meaningful moments of reflection and honouring. I urge you to put it to use in your own life.
You can purchase Rituals using this direct link to QBD (free postage) - our local affiliate bookstore.  All your direct purchases will support our Book Club. We also welcome your comments below!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Read globally. Buy locally. It matters!

"Dearest, I can't wait to send you the book I have this minute finished. If only..."
Stephanie Dowrick surveys the world of contemporary book buying and its complex but unavoidable effects on what is being read - and written. 

One of the many glorious things about being a keen reader is that the entire world can inform and shape your library. You can extend your reading vision across geographical, cultural and temporal borders effortlessly: and so you should.  But the writing/reading outlook is not entirely rosy.  During the last few years - and it really is only in the last five years or so - smaller local book markets (like Australia and New Zealand) have been badly affected by two new facts of writing and publishing life. This has real consequences for readers as well as writers; for our public conversations as well as for our private reflections.


First: fewer people are reading. Or, should I say, fewer people are reading seriously. "Fast books" proliferate just as ubiquitously as "fast food" does. Those are the books that are instantly recognizable as effortless entertainment. That they are generally formulaic, sensational and instantly forgotten doesn't harm them. Booksellers who may not be passionate book-lovers (and that's sometimes the case) can market them easily and are grateful for quick sales. Publishers are also grateful for them; that's understandable, too. The "book" that sold most in Australia last year was by Jamie Oliver. A fine cook he is, but a writer...? Maybe not. Books that require more care and thought in their publishing, marketing, selling - as well as in their writing - are plainly struggling. If you, the writer, are not following a formula, and if your subject matter does not promise instant entertainment, cure or gratification, your book will likely struggle.

That's bad for readers and it's disastrous for writers. It's bad for readers because the books that they may come to love most, to learn most from, to be most reliably transported by...will become harder to find. It's bad for writers because the physical, emotional and financial costs of writing something worth two, three, five years of one's life are becoming dangerously excessive. Yes, writers write for love; they must also live and perhaps support others also. Small advances on royalty earnings have shrunk to new lows; writers who once made moderately fair sums from their writing are increasingly supporting their writing with other work - when they can find it. This shrinking of support for serious writers and writing affects our public culture: the places where we share ideas, explode the old and invite in the new. It also affects the way we think about ourselves, and life itself.

"Let's spend all our money on books this week...What could be more delightful?"
The second way in which writers, publishers and bookshops have been adversely affected is the proliferation of on-line booksellers focusing on price, regardless of what their bargains "cost" writers, publishers and high street bookshops. In Australia, on this very day, it is possible to buy from global on-line companies with which our local high street bookstores cannot and will not ever be able to compete. It is entirely possible that local bookshops will eventually disappear - unless we continue to value them as places of pleasure and discovery in ways that on-line buying never can be.

The situation becomes more complicated still for writers because, increasingly, local on-line bookstores are by-passing traditional copyright and territory protection and sourcing books from US wholesalers who, in turn, purchase them from the US publishers at a discount so high that virtually nothing is returned to the publisher and truly "next-to-nothing" is returned to the writer.

Those marvelously "cheap" imported editions earn the writer a pittance, if anything at all. Perhaps more worryingly still (although writers' poverty is pretty worrying), those cheap imports then make the local edition appear expensive - and what keen reader is going to stop and compare the size of the markets from which the books originated, or wonder whether one edition returns a fair 10% to the book's author...while the other might return less than 2%, if anything at all...and even that up to 15 months after the book was purchased? This normalization of sourcing from "elsewhere" subverts all our established expectations of copyright, territory and fairness: and despite extensive submissions from local publishers and writers' organizations, one government after another remains completely indifferent.

But perhaps you are readers who DO care. When I have spoken about this to local readers, they are often astonished. Few readers, however thoughtful, realize just how disastrously the apparently wonderfully cheap pricing of imported books is impacting on local writers. Your bargain; our cost. And even if a writer doesn't have his or her work published in (and them imported from) the US - where, let me assure you, most writers' advances wouldn't buy a banker's lunch - their books are also affected because small print runs make locally produced books seem expensive...less attractive, therefore...and the wheel turns. Or fails to.

Books bring balance as well as irresistible excitement (Dimitri Otis Images)
If you are reading this article somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, my only request to you is: cherish your high street or your local mall bookstore, while you have one. Cherish the discoveries you can make there. Be reckless when it comes to trying new writers as well as those you already love. Yes, of course you will sometimes buy from A****n, but let the day not come when that is, when they are, your only choice.


I am often asked whether e-readers are a problem. The short answer is no. It does NOT hurt local writers if their books are sold as e-books; on the contrary. The royalties paid on e-books are fair. But it does affect bookstores...and the delicate dance of interdependence between writers, publishers and  bookstores. A month or two ago I had to find a new on-line Australian bookstore with which I could establish an affiliate relationship, both or my own website and for this one. I need to be able to offer on-line buying; it's a fact of life and also a way to support this otherwise totally unsupported (financially speaking) Book Club. I chose QBD precisely because they do not heavily promote and stock imported editions of books by local writers. That loyalty to local writing and writers matters to me; I wanted it also to matter for you. They also post out free - despite exorbitant costs - and they maintain a significant number of high street bookstores also; it seemed and seems very promising.

In my suburb of Sydney we have two local bookstores; within fifteen minutes drive or bus I can reach several more, including a couple of Sydney's best. But I am exceptionally lucky. Many towns of a reasonable size now have no bookshops at all.

My rule of thumb is to buy local books locally and, where possible, imported books also. I do buy from QBD on-line, as well as my local and nearby bookstores. I don't buy imported editions of Australian or NZ writers' books; that is, for me, where a line is drawn. I do source older books, books by dead or very successful US or UK writers, from the global booksellers sometimes; but I don't feel great about even that. The first time I went into a genuinely magnificent bookstore was when I was about eleven years old, or maybe 12. It was Roy Parsons' Bookshop on Lambton Quay in Wellington, and I thought it was glorious, sophisticated, arty, stylish: all the adjectives I barely comprehended then but already craved.

"Real" bookshops, publishers willing still to publish "real" books, and writers willing still to write them, all depend on readers continuing their love-affair with the magic of the book. When it costs a dollar or two more to buy a book locally, or (from a reputable on-line seller) a slightly more expensive local edition rather than an imported one, think of it as an investment in pricelessness.  Think of it as an investment in wonder, awe, discovery, delight.

Buy more, not less: writing will depend on it, on you, on all of us. And it matters.
Dr Stephanie Dowrick is co-host of the Universal Heart Book Club and the author of more than 14 books. She is published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and in the United States by Tarcher/Penguin. She was previously a publisher and has always been a reader. Do share your thoughts on how reading and writing can be better supported in these complex times. We always love to hear from you.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Universal Heart Book Club Episode 13 - Walter Mason interviews Stephanie Dowrick about her latest book 'Heaven on Earth'

Walter Mason interviews co-host Dr Stephanie Dowrick about her latest book Heaven on Earth:

You can purchase your own beautiful hardcover copy of Heaven on Earth via this link. You can buy any book you find here or elsewhere via our Bookstore links, above right. That brings back a small, vital % to support this Book Club. We would also love you to share your comments via the box immediately below.

Stephanie Dowrick shares the blessings of prayer in Heaven on Earth

Walter Mason reviews Stephanie Dowrick's Heaven on Earth
Prayer has always been an instinctual act for me. It is one of my earliest memories, and I even learned to do it in secret as a young boy when I discovered that it wasn't, perhaps, as socially acceptable at school as it was at my grandmother's house. And as I grew up I became increasingly sceptical about prayer and frustrated at its results - or lack thereof. And so I stopped, though frequently throughout my young adulthood I felt that great primal need to pray. But I resisted, and it took me years to come back to it and begin to study it.

Now I have a rich and blessed prayer life and books about prayer take up several shelves in my personal library. I am always interested to hear what the devout and the mystical have to say about this most mysterious act of devotion, but I am frequently frustrated because the manuals of prayer are so overtly sectarian, pushing one or another religious path that, more often than not, leaves me feeling as though I just don't measure up.

Stephanie Dowrick’s exquisite new book, Heaven on Earth, is the perfect foil to this narrow focus. It concentrates on the power and possibility of prayer taking into account all of the world's spiritual traditions, and even encompassing the potential of prayer to assist those who have no religious beliefs at all. It is a literate, inclusive and tremendously wise collection of some of the most moving and inspiring prayers and words about prayer, and I know I will use it for the rest of my life.

Stephanie, herself a fervent practitioner of prayer and exponent of its effects on people, says that in praying we are opened to inspiration and awakening. “Just praying,” she writes, “we become who and what we were born to be.” In a world that is increasingly busy and where we are increasingly drawn into distraction and endless chatter, this book reminds us that the age-old conventions of prayer are deeply therapeutic and soul-soothing. The very routine of prayer, and the conscious memorization of particular words of prayer is, Stephanie suggests, a source of very real comfort to the person willing to give this time.

In praying we comfort ourselves but we also offer the blessings of love, compassion and gratitude to all of the people we encounter. The act of blessing is itself an outwardly-focused prayer that is of immense value in a culture which elevates cynicism, and where people consistently close themselves to some of the deeper possibilities that prayer can remind us of.

The book is filled with passages of prayer from many of the world’s spiritual greats, organised thematically. It makes for inspirational browsing, occasional reading and a tremendous aid to prayer. It also provides many and varied possibilities for a way in to the mysteries of prayer. In a piece by the modern mystic Evelyn Underhill that Stephanie quotes in the book, we are urged not to seek perfection in prayer and so put it off till we are ourselves saintly. Instead, we owe it to ourselves to find a practice that suit us and our situation right now, however silly that may appear to other people in our lives.

This is what makes Heaven on Earth so valuable a resource and the reading of it such a thrill and wonder. We are reminded once more of the tremendous diversity of spiritual life, of the 84,000 Dharma Doors the Buddha spoke of. There is something in this book that will appeal to even the hardest of hearts and reading it from cover to cover I was reminded that I need not feel any shame about prayer or living the spiritual life. Stephanie tells us that we don’t have to justify our prayer life to anyone – it is between us and that which we pray to. It is the ultimate moment of privacy and sacred confidentiality. It is when we can be most utterly vulnerable and most perfectly human.

As well as many of the spiritual masters through the ages, Heaven on Earth contains some exquisite prayers written by Stephanie Dowrick herself. The first section of the book, Stephanie's own explication of prayer, is also one of the most remarkable and inspiring pieces on living the spiritual life that I have ever read and bears constant re-reading all on its own.

Ultimately this is a book that filled me with hope and reminded me, via Lao Tzu’s advice, to cherish this world full of goodness, kindness and love. And, in the words of Stephanie Dowrick, each day when I pray I can ask simply to:

“Let me seek goodness. And find it.”

Many of you will be interested to go to this article by Stephanie Dowrick on writing Heaven on Earth. You can purchase your own beautiful hardcover copy of Heaven on Earth via this link. You can buy any book you find here or elsewhere via our Bookstore links, above right. That brings back a small, vital % to support this Book Club. We would also love you to share your comments via the box immediately below.

Universal Heart Book Club Episode 12 - Stephanie Dowrick interviews Walter Mason about his new book 'Destination Cambodia'

This month we have done something special and quite fun.
By some wonderful accident Universal Heart Book Club co-hosts Stephanie Dowrick and Walter Mason each have new books released at the same time.

So we decided to review each other's book and then to interview each other about the book and the experience of writing it.  First up is Stephanie's review of Walter's new release Destination Cambodia and, below, her interview with him.

If you have enjoyed this interview we would love it if you could share the link with your friends on Facebook, Twitter or anywhere else on social media. Your efforts support ours! You can buy Walter's wonderful book Destination Cambodia (FREE postage) via THIS LINK. Your comments - below - also always cherished by us.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Walter Mason wins again with Destination Cambodia

 Dr Stephanie Dowrick reviews - glowingly - Walter Mason's new, wholly successful travel book, Destination Cambodia.

At its best, travel writing is a glorious excuse to study human nature at close quarters, but from the outside in. When the culture or country that's being written about is sufficiently "foreign" to the likely readers, travel writing offers both the writer and his or her readers a kind of permission to stare intimately and not necessarily politely! What we are wanting, I suspect, is to discover what's specific, odd and admirable about a particular culture while also reassuring ourselves that however diverse we are within our vast human family, we also share some very recognizable passions, needs, emotions and values.

Monocultures - relatively speaking - make for the best travel writing. And "exotic" still pulls most of us in. Cambodia wins on both counts and in making that country his focus, Walter Mason has once again demonstrated his rare breadth as a writer. Readers of his earlier Destination Saigon will know that he is a master of noticing: small events that most of us would pass by or forget within hours become utterly memorable, often riotously funny but as often genuinely touching anecdotes in Walter's hands. He is a very funny writer - I laughed out loud many times - but he is also a compassionate one. What's more, he has an instinctive cultural fluency that means his books go way beyond entertainment, as delightful as that is. He never reduces complex human beings to mere ciphers on his pages. Each is allowed their vulnerability, depth and contradictions.

Outdoor Buddhist shrine, Cambodia
Walter likes to be surprised, and likes to surprise his readers also. He is fascinated by people and clearly they are more than fascinated by him; they trust him.  They trust him in part because of his quite exceptional familiarity with Asian life and diverse cultures, including languages. They also trust him because he is innately trustworthy. That's a quality that can't be bought or sold. And it means that the stories people share with him are worth hearing.

This is a writer, too, who is constantly aware of what he is receiving from the people he's living among and intimately alongside. And not from the people only: also from their culture including their religious and spiritual practices. He is amused by, occasionally appalled by and mostly intrigued by the rampant superstitions that run through life at every level. He's open to something far more subtle, though. Very late in the book, when he has left Cambodia and is in that quite different nearby country, Thailand, he writes: "After months in Cambodia, and a great deal of time spent in solitude, I found I had cultivated a type of silence that had never really been mine before.... I was accustomed to being almost invisible in Phnom Penh."

A shrine to the Lersi Hermit
As a large man who makes his size - and the disarmingly frank (rude?!) Asian responses to it - a particularly comedic feature of his travel reporting, this "invisibility" has a particular poignancy. He goes on: "For these past months in Cambodia I had learned to mask any extreme feelings, to return to myself for answers, comfort and solace instead of seeking explanations outside."

Walter Mason on location in Cambodia
This also means he refuses easy "explanations" or analysis of the extreme paradoxes within the culture of Cambodia itself. Here is a nation of mainly Buddhists who are capable of great sweetness, hospitality and almost super-human endurance, yet the years of the Khmer Rouge were as cruelly gruesome as any nation has had to bear. Walter gives many examples of the repugnant  commodification of Cambodia's "horrific past" - including the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - yet it is in Cambodia he learns to "bless what is - not what should be, or what I wanted to be".

There continues to be a great deal of hardship in countless Cambodian lives. "Gambling and drinking [are] the overweening sins of Cambodia..." There are also many - far too many - who have grown to adulthood without parents: their parents are dead, lost or were forced to abandon them. Despite those hardships or perhaps because of them, "Cambodians are constantly romantic about most things," and Walter frequently found himself the focus of their fascinated questions about his own twenty-some years' partnership, as well as about his freedom to travel.

This last point is stark. Walter is free to travel in Cambodia and bring his experience of that country back to us in his marvelous book. His Cambodian friends, though, are not free to travel. Poverty is one impediment; so is the unavailability of tourist visas to countries like our own Australia, except for the extremely rich. No trust there.

A little like Cambodia itself, Destination Cambodia can be read at many levels. This book is witty, clever, and vastly entertaining. But I also admire its author's humility and patience. A man who has studied and lived in several Asian countries, who speaks at least three or four Asian languages well or "passably", who is deeply interested in Eastern spirituality in its diverse forms, is well-equipped to resist making any Asian country, or its people, a mere passing parade. He is also quick to resist any false homogenization of Asia in Western eyes: some of his most acute observations arise out of showing how different Cambodia is from its neighbours, as well as where there is perhaps more common ground than they - or we - might immediately recognize.

Do you need me to say buy Destination Cambodia, read it, love it?! If you do, then I will. Buy it! Read it. Love it! And let us know in the comments box below what you enjoyed most. We always love to hear from you - and especially on this. You can buy your books with FREE POSTAGE using the bookstore link, above right. This is one to buy in multiple copies: for yourself, and for all the armchair travelers in your life.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A reader's glowing report on Choosing Happiness

Universal Heart Book Club co-host Dr Stephanie Dowrick writes: 

Like most writers, I absolutely love seeing well-worn editions of my books. Often at readings or workshops people will show me books that are heavily marked, sometimes with a note of apology in their voice. But I am invariably thrilled! I write the books to be used, argued with, wept over, laughed with out loud, hugged...and read again. There is nothing passive about writing, nor about good readers and good reading.

That means when Sarah Artist told me that she had literally rubbed off the gold on her original edition of Choosing Happiness to reveal the green beneath, I asked her to send me a copy so that I could share it on Facebook. And encourage others, too, to engage with any of my books with even less inhibition. This is how Sarah replied: 'I promised you today that I'd post a picture of my book onto your facebook site, however I'm not sure I can do that - I can't find the facility. Anyway, I'll repeat my expression of gratitude. I have several of your books but Choosing Happiness has been a sanity-saver over many years. It has supported me through many of life's changes and challenges, and has hopefully made me a more resilient and good humoured person - and, of course, happier.

You may not know that when the gold rubs off, it's patchy at first and then when more rubs off it's pea-green and smooth underneath :-) Thankyou, and peace be with you. Sarah.'

Thank you, too, Sarah. And do please post your comments below if you want to share some stories about your own loved, worn and treasured books. We'd be delighted to hear.

Use the comments box immediately below, choosing "anonymous" for ease if you don't have a google email address. Sorry about "captcha"; without it we can be spammed. Just note, two "collections" of words, letters with a space between. Oh and do buy the books you discover here! You can no longer find the gold edition of Choosing Happiness in Australia, alas. You can, however, find the exact same contents in the later (also very handsome) edition of Choosing Happiness. This link takes you to our new affiliate bookstore where you can buy this or any other book, benefit us as well as yourself, and enjoy free postage!  Here's to happiness. And thank you again to Sarah.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sophie Masson launches a new children's picture book publishing house.

Sophie Masson is one of Australia's most enterprising literary entrepreneurs
Followers of our Universal Heart Club might remember Sophie Masson's guest post some months ago about producing her own e-book titles under the 'imprint' of e-publisher, Sixteen Press. Now Sophie writes below about another independent publishing adventure. We are delighted to support it! And you will be fascinated by the determination Sophie and her friends have shown to bring this beautiful first book from their new press into the world.
Also see below an invitation to their Sydney launch on 9 October 2013.

Sophie writes: This adventure is rather different from my earlier e-publishing because not only is it in the print world but also I'm working in partnership with two other creator friends, illustrator David Allan and author/artist/designer/dollmaker Fiona McDonald.

With them, I've founded Australia's newest children's picture book publishing house, Christmas Press, which is not a self-publishing enterprise as such, though our first title, Two Trickster Tales from Russia, features my words, David's illustrations and Fiona's design. Though this first book features us, we’re interested in more than publishing our work. We want to take in the talents of many gifted creators and are already in negotiations with two well-known authors for our next two titles to be produced next year.

Christmas Press is a small press, which will specialize in picture books for children which feature traditional stories from many lands, retold by well-known authors and stunningly illustrated in a classic style, beautifully designed, and printed in Australia. Why Christmas Press as a name? Well, we wanted to have the feeling of our books being special, like a gift you'd get under the Christmas tree. But our motto, 'Picture books to cherish every day', also tells you that these books aren't just for special occasions!

Two Trickster Tales from Russia includes the lively Russian folktales, Masha and the Bear and The Rooster with the Golden Crest, which I've retold.  It is the first book for new illustrator David Allan, and his gorgeous pictures are inspired by classic Russian illustration. Future titles will feature illustrations in styles reminiscent of the countries the stories come from.

We'd actually toyed with the idea of Christmas Press for some time, wanting to work on illustrated book projects together. But we didn't act on it it until a project we'd presented to several publishers - my retelling of Masha and the Bear, with David's gorgeous pictures —was knocked back for the third time with a regretful note along the lines of, "Really love this, but it's too classic—not commercial enough in Australia, can't make the figures work." That was the spur.

We knew there was a market for classic beauty, rich colours, traditional tales. Why just take the rejection and slink sadly away, or go against instinct by trying to turn our book into something it wasn't? We could do it ourselves, and have a lot more fun too! We decided to add another story I'd retold, The Rooster with the Golden Crest (which had already been published in The School Magazine). We also decided at this point on the focus for our list: retold traditional stories from many lands, each book featuring two gloriously-illustrated stories. It's an approach that seems to be working!

Though the book was a lot of work—especially for David, the illustrator—it was surprisingly easy to work through the process, first of concept, then layout, then design, over many fun working meetings (we all live in the same town). Using the In Design program took a little bit of learning but was soon mastered by Fiona and David, and the printers, Heaneys Performers in Print on the Gold Coast, couldn't have been more helpful. The printing costs were also partly funded by a crowdfunding campaign, which received fantastic support. And that enthusiastic response continues, with support from other creators, booksellers, librarians, and readers, both kids and adults. People love the book, just as much as we do! Quite serendipitously, too, our commercial timing seems good, because Australia's new English curriculum highlights traditional tales from around the world, and teachers are buying copies of our book for their classes.

We're handling distribution ourselves at present: direct-selling into bookshops, libraries, schools and to individuals, both from face to face contact and from our website. The book is widely stocked by  bookshops and more are expected to join the list. The first print run is already selling briskly—we've already had international orders! We are also selling gorgeous limited edition prints of the illustrations, plus a variety of merchandise such as postcards, bookmarks etc. And in more exciting news, an audiobook edition, which will include music and sound effects, will be released in time for Christmas, through another brand-new enterprise, Sounds Like Books, this time the brainchild of my two sons, video producer Xavier and music producer Bevis Masson-Leach.

Sounds Like Books produces both book trailers and audio books for authors, and welcomes commissions—see  We're handling publicity and promotion in-house too, with Fiona's daughter, writer, editor and events manager, Beattie Alvarez, creating a popular Facebook page as well as getting the word out generally. It's such a pleasure to be working with friends and family who are also fellow creators—and to feel that our labour of love is striking so many echoes in the hearts of other people.

PS: Sydney readers are invited to join Sophie and friends in celebrating the release of their book, at an event on October 9. See here:
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Walter Mason on inner peace

What a treat! Here is your Universal Heart Book Club co-host, Walter Mason,
speaking so honestly and with such typical good humour about that most vital issue: peace in our hearts and lives. Do share your thoughts and comments below.

Walter writes: I was always rather keen on peace. I remember spending hours at a peace rally and then an extra 20 minutes at the end having a screaming argument with a man who’d parked us in. And blissing out at a candlelight vigil only to spend the bus ride home running through an angry and stinging argument in my head – and argument, incidentally, that never actually occurred. It’s just that I was furious with the person and wanted to get some burning put downs and one liners out in my own personal mental space.

I was a member of Amnesty and I’d roll my eyes and sigh audibly in frustration at the person in front of me taking too long to extract money at the ATM. I could argue peace for hours, and I often did, but my mind and heart were far from peaceful. And one day it occurred to me that perhaps the outer expressions of a desire for peace might also find some kind of more personal expression. I think it was shortly after I punched a laptop computer because the disc drive wouldn’t open quickly enough.

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us that: “As we cultivate peace and happiness in ourselves, we also nourish peace and happiness in those we love.” As a grumpy, impatient, judgemental and unforgiving person I was not contributing my own personal quotient of peace to the world; far from it. I expected others to behave peacefully in grand circumstances but, when faced with small things, I figured it was ok to let off a little steam occasionally. Except it wasn’t occasionally. It was a way of life, an habitual response that defined who I was and how others saw me.

Thich Nhat Hanh
So I decided to change. And of course, it was Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings that helped me to make this change, principally his moast-loved book Peace is Every Step. I remember reading while touring the Buddhist ruins of Sukhothai in Thailand, a beautifully peaceful spot. I would sit down at the feet of  a vast standing Buddha and be shaken to the core by Thich Nhat Hanh's simplicity and profound truth.

I must make the effort to be peace: to nourish peace and happiness in myself so that I may be a source of those qualities for others. You might be sad to hear that I have yet to approach perfection with this. Only yesterday I found myself bickering and finding fault with someone I loved, choosing to create a huge fuss over, wait for esky that  hadn’t been cleaned properly. Have you noticed that it’s always the big things that cause these blow ups? I chose to make two people miserable over something that didn’t matter at all.

The academic and popular exponent of meditation Herbert Benson urges people to stop trying so hard when it comes to cultivating inner peace. Sometimes the strain of trying to be peaceful can get us all hot and bothered, even angry. Instead, Benson says we simply need to sit with the word: "”  and see where it takes us. We have to make room for peace in our lives – it has to be allowed in. We cannot force it. Benson's book The Break-Out Principle is another that has had a profound effect on me, encouraging me to believe that I can change my mental patterns through meditation to reflect a more peaceful state of being.

Some people say that by making the decision to create a peaceful life at the most basic, small, level you are abrogating responsibility. I think that, on the contrary, acknowledging your role in being a peaceful person is essential to the creation of a peaceful society. It is, in fact, the complete acceptance of responsibility. If we are to love one another, it had better start with me.

That is why it is good, sometimes, to come out of the closet as someone who is to be held to higher standards of personal peacefulness. If you are hanging that peace sign on your rear view mirror you’d better expect to be scolded if you start screaming at the person who cut you off in constant traffic. Spiritual cultivation must take place in public as well as in private. We prove the measure of our peacefulness in the way we communicate with others, the way we treat those closest to us as well as those furthest away from us in the geographic or ideological divide.

I believe there is a place within us of pure peace. No matter how tormented our lives are, no matter how violent or adverse our conditions, there is a place of refuge always available to us, and it is in our hearts. In theistic traditions this is soul consciousness: awareness of the divine within. In Mahayana Buddhism it is called Buddha Nature, and Ram Dass writes that spiritual people greet one another they "honor the place of love, of light, of truth, of peace." Ram Dass is himself a great exemplar of honest peacefulness in teaching and being, and my late-life dicovery of him and his writing has been a true delight. For peacemakers I can particularly recommend one of his more recent books, Be Love Now

Choosing the spiritual life and the spiritual approach to peace is not solipsism and it is not resignation. That great Catholic convert and monk Thomas Merton referred to the spiritual life as “a matter of keeping awake.” The cultivation of personal peace makes us more alert to life’s injustices, not less. We realise that we can no longer abandon things or leave them to chance – we recognise our own important place in the scheme of things and we embrace it with enthusiasm and joy. To learn more about how Buddhism, and encounters with Buddhist monks, changed Thomas Merton's outlook, I would recommend a fascinating book called Merton & Buddhism, part of the Fons Vitae Merton Series.

As for me? I seek to be truly awake, not just to the faults of others but to my own contribution to discord. Better still, and far more truthfully, I seek to be truly awake to myself: a being and evolving instrument of harmony, happiness and peace.

Walter Mason's newest book is Destination Cambodia. You can enjoy seeing Walter give this talk which was recorded at the monthly interfaith, spiritually inclusive services held each month at Pitt Street (264) Uniting Church, Sydney. These are led by Dr Stephanie Dowrick and everyone is welcome. Third Sundays, 3pm.  To purchase any of the books Walter mentions, or any others, please consider using our bookstore links. And your comments are always welcome.