Saturday, February 16, 2013

17 essays by women that everyone should read

Essayist, poet and feminist activist Adrienne Rich

 Universal Heart Book Club co-host Stephanie Dowrick shares a link from Flavorwire that takes you to a world of rich essay writing by women writers.

Are essays your "thing"? Or does the mere word "essay" (to try) bring back hideous memories of school, late night panic and the arid call to conformism?

I hope not, because for a surprising number of readers essays do bring a quite exquisite joy, especially when they persuade through the personal. Some of the articles on this blog are "essays": denser and more discursive or original in thought than a review or "article" conventionally is.

For many decades it's been a struggle for all but a few writers to get substantial essays published. Though that may be changing with the blossoming of on-line publishing initiatives such as Inside Story (where you will find a challenge to the ideology of "global thinking" in an exceptionally fine new essay from Jane Goodall, a valued contributor to this Book Club) or, indeed, this Universal Heart Book Club.  The huge work that goes into crafting a worthwhile essay is more often than not unrewarded financially (most on-line publishers can't pay in anything but good will and gratitude). And given that writers do need to eat something beyond their own words, that matters. But at least the depth of thinking and careful craft that an essay demands are getting some honouring - and some reading.

Writer and literary agent Virginia Lloyd recently pointed out - via Twitter - this stimulating list by Emily Temple on Flavorwire of essays by women writers that, the article claims, we should all read. Temple's list obviously reflects her own taste and opinions - the privilege of the essayist - but I like it. It includes Annie Dillard - my own favourite essayist (more on her another time) - and also Adrienne Rich, Zadie Smith, Joan Didion, Natalia Ginzburg, Jamaica Kincaid and Virginia Woolf, among other less well known names. The article is broken up with ads (easily ignored). More wonderfully, it offers links on to most but not all of the essays that are discussed. Those that I found and have already read were all worth careful attention. Those few that can't be immediately read, you may have to seek out for yourself.

And I'd love you to do more than that. Make suggestions here (in "Comments") of essays we should all read...and tell us why. Personal passion is often reason enough. The writing and reading world needs passionate readers as much as passionate writers. Perhaps even more.

 Zadie Smith, novelist and essayist
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Friday, February 15, 2013

Universal Heart Book Club Episode 6, February 2013

Welcome to the February 2013 video discussion from the Universal Heart Book Club!

Welcome! This month Stephanie Dowrick and Walter Mason - your Book Club hosts - are discussing two books that deal very differently with the realm of the personal. Walter brings you Gretchen Rubin's guide to finding joy in the domestic sphere, Happier at Home and Stephanie talks about Eben Alexander's personal journey beyond everyday consciousness, Proof of Heaven.  You will also find their written reviews of these two exceptional books on this website. And as usual we would welcome your comments and engagement either here or on Stephanie or Walter's Facebook pages.
(Please forgive our lack of welcome on video, or a fond farewell! Alas, while our usual director, Peter Kirkwood, remains on sabbatical, we are filming in a sincere but amateur way ourselves, with help of dear friend William Suganda keeping us in frame. We are restricted to the most basic editing and YouTube's 10-minute rule, but the essential content remains, we hope, as relevant and intriguing.)

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Stephanie Dowrick investigates Proof of Heaven

 Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon hit by infection - potentially deadly - to the brain. He didn't die. He came "back" to say he has seen and experienced new depths of "consciousness" and eternal life. 
Stephanie Dowrick investigates this exceptional story.

The very least thing you could say about Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven is that it is immensely intriguing. It is also fast-paced and sometimes revelatory. Does it prove “heaven”? Certainly not in the traditional, sentimentalized sense. And that’s not what Alexander sets out to do. Quite to the contrary, he is, to his core, a scientist, a highly experienced academic, former member of Harvard Medical Faculty, and – as significantly - an accomplished neurosurgeon felled by an overwhelming E.Coli infection of the brain. While in a coma, and with his neocortext non-functioning in any measurable or meaningful way, he experienced “the great and central mystery of the universe”. And he chose, in this book, to report on it to others.

The infection he suffered should have killed him. It did almost kill him. It should have left him with his faculties shattered. Instead, he survived seven days in a death’s-door coma, during which time he discovered that he, arguably like all of us, is more than a physical body.

In an interview with the New York Times Alexander is quoted as saying, “Our spirit is not dependent on the brain or body. It is eternal, and no one has one word of hard evidence that it isn’t.”

Is there a note of defensiveness in that remark? Probably, because of course in publishing this book and sharing these experiences publicly Alexander has laid himself bare before the millions of cynics who know what they know…and would regard it as crazy as well as futile to interrogate that “knowing” literally beyond anything they (or Dr Alexander) could imagine.

Dr Alexander, academic and neurosurgeon - and author
This book seems to me to be far more about consciousness than it is about “heaven”. “It was as if I were being born into a larger world,” Alexander writes. And it’s this “larger world” – worlds, really – that he wants readers also to glimpse or appreciate. From his experience, come three core messages: “You are loved and cherished. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.”

This last statement may confuse readers who see a great deal “wrong” in our world, but the presence of evil as well as good, and the free will that characterises human experience, are also intrinsic to Alexander's discoveries and this is no stranger than Dame Julian of Norwich’s famous lines, “All will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” 

Love, Alexander concludes, is the basis of everything, however far we may wander from it. He goes on: “Not much of a scientific insight? Well, I beg to differ. I’m back from that place, and nothing could convince me that this is not only the single most important emotional truth in the universe, but also the single most important scientific truth as well.”

Elsewhere, in one of the most tender paragraphs in this book he writes of love: “How do we get closer to [our] genuine spiritual self? By manifesting love and compassion. Why? Because love and compassion are…real. And they make up the very fabric of the spiritual realm.” On earth, I would add, as in “heaven”.

The transcendent, wholly inclusive vibration of love, and the existence of a reality far greater and more intense than any material, transitory reality could ever be, are messages familiar to all those who have read or studied within the mystical traditions. So it is worth noting that the pre-coma Alexander was not particularly religious or spiritual. In fact, his religion seems to have been his beloved science and he had been as quick as the next doctor to dismiss NDEs as sensations produced by the brain.

Yet in his own case – and this is what sets his experiences apart - the parts of the brain that produce dreams, thoughts, sensations, were ravaged by deathly infection. This whole series of experiences – some difficult, more of them blissful – could not have been driven by prior expectation on the writer’s part, and nor could his physical or cognitive survival.

My own response to this book is reservedly positive. I can recommend it to you - not on the basis that heaven needs “proving” but rather for all that it contributes to our understanding of what unlimited consciousness is or may be, as well as for its simple reiterations of the eternal messages of love.

I do, though, have one significant hesitation that may be entirely personal. Towards the close of the book I was more aware than I wished to be of the cultural framework within which Alexander was writing. This had led him to share some of his “back story” in a way that was honest and often touching but also led to a coincidence – or a coinciding of worlds – that felt more Hollywood than I found comfortable. I do not doubt this writer’s humility or honesty. (See him talking about this experience here.)I am aware too of the limitations that come even with symbolic language when one is describing transcendent experiences. But that critical coincidence left me less comfortable than I might otherwise have been.

More important than that, however, was my pleasure in Alexander’s newly found, first-hand confidence that we need not fear death. “I understood that I was part of the Divine and that nothing – absolutely nothing – could ever take that away,” he writes. “The (false) suspicion that we can somehow be separated from God is the root of every form of anxiety in the universe, and the cure for it…was the knowledge that nothing can tear us from God, ever.” 

For that insight alone, and for sharing it, bravo, Dr Alexander. Bravo.  

This link may also be of interest to readers of Proof of Heaven.
You can purchase this or any other book through our bookstore links (above right) and also support the Universal Heart Book Club.
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Walter Mason reads Gretchen Rubin's wonderful Happier at Home

Some of you will have read Gretchen Rubin’s previous book, the mega-selling The Happiness Project, a book that seemed to capture the public’s imagination in a major way. So much so that it’s still appearing on The New York Times Bestsellers’ list some years after its release. In that book, Rubin sought to pursue a year’s worth of happiness, consciously attending to things such as cultivating love, aiming higher and keeping a gratitude journal.

In her new book, Happier At Home, she embarks on a similar project, but this time concentrating purely on the domestic sphere. It is Rubin’s thesis that those things that we do and encounter every day contribute much more to our happiness than rarer and more pleasurable events. If we were to concentrate on making our everyday lives at home a source of our happiness, she says, then we would become infinitely happier. 

I absolutely adored this book, glorying in its unashamedly homely discourse and being constantly inspired by the ideas and projects that the author embarks upon. Whether it’s creating a shrine to nice smells (a silver platter filled with bottles of perfume) or exploring your local neighbourhood as though you were a tourist, Happier at Home is filled with so many practical tips and projects that you can emulate that, if you’re anything like me, you’ll have a notebook full of ideas when you’re only halfway through the book. 

Rubin’s slightly counter-cultural messages are refreshing: you can delight in staying at home and creating a wonderful family life; you don’t have to meditate if you feel you are not suited to it; and that constant simplification is not necessarily a path to happiness – sometimes possessions and things can make us feel really good. Her honesty and unpretentiousness take this book above the usual self-help offerings and are part of the reason, I think, for her extraordinary popularity. This is not a book that makes you feel guilty. Instead, it excites you and makes you aware of the possibilities for great happiness within your own sphere, however small. 

One of the really liberating techniques she has introduced me to is devoting just 15 minutes a day to doing the tasks that are really irksome - and that you have been putting off the longest. She is strict about this: she sets the timer for exactly 15 minutes, after which she puts it aside. What arises, however, is an immense sense of relief and achievement, and sometimes even a discovery of interest, utility and, yes, even happiness. Examples she uses are organising her digital photographs and reading the huge pile of printed-out journal articles that have accumulated over the years. 

Most of the pleasure of this book comes from recognising your own domestic situations and how you have been guilty of the same neglect and lack of attention. I cringed when she described the unused Sony Walkman (yes, the cassette-playing type) that somehow got put on top of some books on a shelf and which, she realises two years later, has been left sitting there for no reason at all.

Happier at Home is a terrific read, and Gretchen Rubin’s tone is casual, personal and constantly diverting. Though her own journey is recorded as a month-by-month program, I read the book with great  interest in just a couple of sittings, and derived a great deal from it. It would be even more fun to emulate her program, and deal with one topic for one whole month. It’s a beautiful book which would also make an excellent gift. I hope you will be as inspired by it as I was.

Reader activists! You can purchase this book - or any other - and also give vital support to the Universal Heart Book Club by using our bookstore links (above right).
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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Raising a back list from the dead

This could be your e-book he's reading!
 Once published, the shelf life - indeed, the legitimately "published life" - of many books is shockingly brief. In some cases, it's years. Far more often, it is months or even weeks. And countless books appear only in bookstores that have specifically ordered them in for a vigilant customer or the author's admirers or friends. 
But through its new "AUTHORS UNLIMITED" initiative, the Australian Society of Authors is offering new light in this previously bleak tunnel...and not for previously-published authors only. Stephanie Dowrick reports on and applauds this timely initiative.

Photo credit:
Join the ASA - published writer or not - and you will have the chance to put your work into a digital edition and make it available through the PORTFOLIO PAGE on the ASA website, and also to link it to any of the widely known and used retail sites that sell digital editions.
Sales bring a royalty of 80% of your modest price.
Sales' income is remitted monthly.
My eyes are watering as I type this...! I am a former publisher and know very well how risky formal publication is for the publishers as well as writers. None the less, the risk is greater for the writer, not least because it is spread over far fewer books. Traditional royalties are around 10% of RRP and income can come as late as nine months after books are sold. And it is sent to the grateful but possibly starving author twice-yearly at best.

Yes, with this new ASA initiative there are expenses, particularly to create an ePub file.  There are even more if you have your text only in a hard copy edition. Those costs seem modest, however. There may also be expenses in time and money to let potential readers know your ancient books have been made new. I would suggest a stylish professional for cover design also. And if the work has not been published previously, I would urge you to invest in careful professional editing. But this whole scheme certainly wakes up and develops new possibilities that did not exist in the pre-digital era.

Here is the vital link to get you started: Authors Unlimited.

Even very old books could be made new again!
Do report back on your publishing, writing and reading adventures. 
Let us know if there are similar initiatives in other countries.
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You also support the Universal Heart Book Club by using the book store links above right.  

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Rumi reminds us

You are the silent ruler of the heart.
You are the healer of the soul, and
the magician of being.
When your rain falls, 
we gather in your garden.
As it rains,
we dance.


 The soul's extravagance is infinite.
Spring after spring after spring.
We are your gardens, dying.
We are your gardens, blooming.


If you have not yet taken Sufi poet Rumi into your life, your heart, please don't waste another day. 
A wonderful place to start is in the company of Andrew Harvey's Teachings of Rumi. For less than $20, you would hold in your hand a book, teachings, insights that are beyond rubies.

Sharon Snir enjoys The Time Traveler's Wife

Writer, healer and teacher Sharon Snir shares one of her favourite recent reads with us.
Sharon's beautiful Little Book of Everyday Miracles was one of our end-of-year picks in 2012. More about Sharon at the end of this review.

Sharon writes: Being primarily a non-fiction reader I surprised myself by devouring The Time Traveler’s Wife with a voracious appetite in only three weeks. It would not have taken me so long had life not irritatingly imposed itself on me for, in truth, all I have wanted to do was read this wonderful, fascinating, fantasy that left me believing (well, almost) that Chrono- Impairment is a genuine genetic disease.

Writer Audrey Niffenegger
Audrey Niffenegger introduces us to a totally fantastic way of looking at time. Henry is the main protagonist, along with Claire.  They meet when she is six and he is thirty sixty under baffling and extraordinary circumstances  When Henry  travels  back in time he finds himself standing in the bushes completely naked, watching six year old Claire playing contentedly by herself. This situation is made even more bizarre by the fact that Henry and Claire have been married, in his present life, for six years. Henry’s rare condition, called Chrono-Impairment  causes him to be pulled into the past or the future without any volition on his part. 

The Time Traveler's Wife made me confront my personal attitude towards stealing, violence deception and addiction. I not only understood all the mitigating circumstances that forced Henry to resort to being an occasional criminal but I also cheered him on. I wanted him to be safe and warm and well fed and if he had to break every law there ever was to be these things, then so be it. Henry and Claire became my friends and I revelled in their wit, their silver-tongued repartee, their intelligence, their wisdom and their love.

Erica Bana and Rachel McAdams starred in the movie of this immensely popular book.
This most beautiful love story brings passion, lust, laughter and loss together like a rich and sensual tapestry. Henry and Claire’s love grows even through times of very large age differences. It blossoms beyond the boundaries of age. It flourishes beyond the limitations of time. Here are two people thrown together and ripped apart time after time who struggle to lead normal lives in spite of their circumstances. It is tale about waiting, and longing and learning to accept life as it rolls in. It is a saga about the impossible being possible.  

As I slipped silently into the narrative of Claire and Henry’s lives I found myself reading more and more slowly. I wanted them to stay in my life for as long as possible. But all good stories much come to an end. One the morning I finished the book I felt bereft. As if I had lost a friend. And I did something I have never done before. I took a leaf out of the book and went back in time and re-read the first few chapters again. It is one of those books.

Review by Sharon Snir
Sharon Snir is a writer, Gestalt therapist and healer who has written three books.  Sharon is founder and creator of a system of learning called The 12 Levels of Being, dedicated to developing an unconditional love for self and an understanding of the processes every human being undergoes in order to overcome life’s illusions.       
You can read more about Sharon at     

 Sharon Snir's The Little Book of Everyday Miracles is published by Allen & Unwin (2012). Sharon's beautifully touching book, Looking for Lionel, about living with her mother's dementia, is also published by Allen & Unwin. You can buy both these books - and of course, Time Traveler's Wife - and support our Book Club through our affiliate bookstore links (above right!). We welcome your comments, opinions, conversation, engagement!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Charlotte Wood on writerly reading

Charlotte Wood reflects on books, footnotes and writers writing about writing. 
Right now I’m reading a lot of books about writers and the writing process, partly for my own interest, partly as a sort of well from which to draw discussion for both my Writer’s Room Interviews magazine project and some guided conversations in a salon I’m running for new writers.

One I’m rather taken with is called Why I Write, edited by Will Blythe – it’s in print but hard to get. It has short pieces by American writers on this topic, from David Foster Wallace to Amy Hempel to Norman Mailer and Ann Patchett. I find it fascinating, in what might be called a spiritual way, to have the writing compulsion elegantly analysed by so many fine writers.

Patrick White Letters, edited by David Marr, is a book of enduring comfort and writerly fascination to me.

One of the things I like so much about letters, as opposed to biographies, is the layer of intimate domestic detail that gathers in them. In these letters Patrick is always moaning to someone about the burden of being chief cook and bottle washer, but he clearly loved food and cooking, as do I. He and Manoly [Lascaris, White's beloved, lifelong partner] were always cooking dinner for large groups of people, and Patrick often turned down invitations to restaurants, instead suggesting dinner at his home. Little culinary details are always creeping into the letters, and I love them. The first time I finished the Letters I felt a little mournful and quiet with respect, as one does on finishing a Great Book.

Near the end of his life White repeatedly intimated that the routines of domesticity and household love, in which lay his life Manoly, were the only important things he had achieved. “My success in life is my discovery of Manoly,” he wrote. “Nothing is of importance besides that. Books – shit!”

Not true, obviously, but I can see why he said it. Domesticity and love, after all, were the great subject matter of so much of his work. And Manoly was a great man.

Patrick White
The book is edited with enormous wit and compassion by David Marr. Until this book I never realised footnotes could be so riveting*; Marr makes a whole other story ripple lightly, quietly and steadfastly beneath Patrick’s operatic solo. It is one of literature’s treasures for me and I’ll return to it often.

My other favourite book of literary letters is The Element of Lavishness, which ranges through 40 years of correspondence between writers William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner. Anyone I’ve given this book to has fallen in love with it – it’s funny, moving, shocking and beautiful.

Sylvia Townsend Warner
*The other book in which the footnotes are as entrancing as the ‘main’ work, if not more so, is Martin Amis’s memoir, Experience. I’m not a fan of the Amis persona as played out publicly, but this is an absolutely stunning, poignant, playful yet truthful piece of literature and I can’t recommend it highly enough. 

Charlotte Wood

Charlotte Wood is an acclaimed Australian novelist and essayist, and she has just launched her own electronic literary magazine called The Writer's Room Interviews, which you can read more about (and subscribe to) here.
Charlotte is the author of, among many other books, Love & Hunger, which we reviewed in our first ever episode of the Universal Heart Book Club.

You will find the books that Charlotte suggests - and perhaps some of your own favourites - via the bookstore links (above right). Do use these links to support this Book Club - and know that we love to hear from you. (Easy to post comments using "Anonymous" if you don't have a google account.)