Monday, August 5, 2013

Sharon Snir inspired by Juliet Batten's Spirited Ageing

 Little Book of Miracles' author Sharon Snir is, like Juliet Batten, both a writer and a psychotherapist - as well as being a wise and wonderful woman. We thought she would be the perfect reader/reviewer for Juliet's beautiful new book, Spirited Ageing. And so she is! Details of how to find the book follow Sharon's review.

Juliet Batten, wise author of Spirited Ageing
Spirited Ageing: Cultivating the Art of Renewal could not have arrived on my desk at a better time. My husband and I had just began the process of letting go of twenty-three years of "stuff" that we had accumulated in our family home through raising our five children. It was time to sell - but how do we do it?
         There were tears as I leafed through old letters and cards. We have over 200 albums of photos. What do we do with them?
          In the middle of all that, Juliet Batten’s wise and wonderful book arrived and I confess that instead of starting at the beginning I hungrily opened to the Contents, discovered "Part Two, Chapter Three: Possessions", and began voraciously to read every single word.
         Juliet took me by the hand and step by step helped me to disentangle my own identity from my possessions. “Identity becomes embedded in objects,” she writes. After years of living in the same home, collecting "treasures" from numerous trips and storing loved one's' gifts, it is so tempting to look around and say moving is all too hard. Where would I put all my things?

         Spirited Ageing is imbued with ideas that give one the courage and commitment to shed the past and open up to a present that is fresh and brimming full of potential. The process of releasing our attachment to things, according to Juliet, is “akin to spiritual practice".
        Spirited Aging arrived just as I am about to bid farewell to my fifties. “Preparing for ageing is as important as childbirth,” says Juliet, “yet most people enter into it without a clear intention."
         In many ways this book found me rather than me finding it - and rather than being amazed at its perfect timing I simply feel a warm sense of gratitude. Perhaps that’s part of ageing too? Spirited Ageing also arrived on the eve of the birth of my first grandchild.  I still have to re-read those words to believe I am truly a grandmother. But in "Chapter Four: Identity",  Juliet explores the freedom we can feel as we age, the struggles experienced in retirement, the cost of holding on and the gains of letting go.
         Although this is an easy book to read, that in no way does that diminish its great wisdom, understanding and insight. Embedded in almost every chapter are valuable and well-crafted exercises. I know. I did them. From practising a beautiful yoga pose called tadasana, to mindfulness, charting your passions and offering times to pause and reflect, Spirited Ageing brings a deeper understanding and appreciation of ourselves.
Sharon Snir, our reviewer
      The book is divided into four parts each containing three chapters. It is full of warm anecdotes, delightful stories, and delicious memorable quotes. We are adeptly guided to see ageing from a genuinely loving and spiritual perspective. We are expertly lead towards ageing as an act of spiritual growth. We are even skilfully steered towards exploring three well-known fears: dementia, pain and isolation. Having a mother with Alzheimer’s Disease for twenty years, I found every word Juliet Batten wrote on this topic steeped in compassion, kindness and, once again, wisdom. We are lovingly supported in ways we can relate to our aged parents, friends and, of course, to ourselves through soul awareness.
      I am very grateful to have read this book. It is one of those few possessions that will come with me wherever I choose to live. Indeed, I might just buy a couple more because it will make a wonderful gift for a friend or two!

You can purchase Spirited Ageing via this exclusive LINK. (The cost is about A$30, plus postage.) It should also be available via Amazon or Book Depository (links upper right). You can find out more about Juliet Batten via her own website LINK.  You can also visit the website of Sharon Snir, where you will find details of her books, meditations etc, and other supportive material - whatever your age or stage!    
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Nigel Featherstone offers us a writer's dozen

Novelist Nigel Featherstone has a writer's affection for books and here he talks about some of the books he most cherishes as well as where he first read them. (You can also read Walter Mason's review of Nigel's excellent recent novella, I'm Ready Now, here.) Let's hear about the books that have marked Nigel Featherstone's life's journey:
I’m surrounded by fire, year in and year out, day in and day out.  I’m not a smoker, nor am I some kind of professional fire-breather. I just live in an old house in an old country town. In summer, with bushland and paddocks just up the street, there’s the forever whiff of smoke. Some days when it’s bad, the sky is white with it, sirens rushing in this and that direction. In winter, to keep the house warm, there’s a fire in the living-room, another in the library, which really is a library, the shelves stacked and packed with books, novels mostly, though there are quite a few short story collections, and poetry collections too.

It’s the library I worry about most, because the fire, which is actually a Hordern & Sons coal-burner that I use for wood, is surrounded by the books – a stray spark and whoosh up it all goes.  So I’ve organised the books into categories: up high, as if I’m also worried about flood (in the past three years the river has flooded annually, though I’m alright in this regard – my house is high on a hill) are my favourite novels, the ones I’d risk life and limb to rescue.  There’s a full shelf of these favourites, so if I really was in the midst of an emergency and only had a few seconds to decide I’d have to make the choices of a lifetime.

As a trial run, as if this is a part of my Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan, I just ran from my writing room into the library and bundled up a baker’s – a writer’s – dozen.  Now, back in the writing room, piled on the desk, are thirteen books I’ve rescued in this mad drill.  Randolph Stowe’s The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, first published in 1965; I read it in Middle School, so somewhere in the ’80s.  All that West Australian landscape, and war, and family, and history, the sensuality of place, of desires both obvious and concealed.

Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945).  First, also in the ’80s, I watched – with my mother – the BBC serialisation of this story on the ABC and would soon become obsessed with the soundtrack.  But then I read the novel, and England, a country that was meant to mean something to me, opened up and I understood many things.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989), which is the perfect novel, because the voice is faultless.  And Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (1991), which I read while sun-baking on Cottesloe Beach during a short period when living in Perth – I’ve since grown restless with Winton, but this novel did reveal for me the terrific, sometimes terrifying possibilities of fiction.  Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, which was first published in The New Yorker on October 13, 1997, the very day I turned twenty-nine and at last – at long last – felt comfortable in my own skin.  This story: it’s a master-class in narrative technique, and in compassion.

Morris West’s Eminence (1998), which is the great what-if: what if the Pope-in-waiting was agnostic, perhaps even an atheist, and was also a very damaged man?  Despite these days not having a religious bone in my body, and listening to good music while walking the dog is as spiritual as I can get, Eminence is a novel that’s had an acute impact on me because of its boundless exploration and bravery.  The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin (1999).  Toibin is a literary hero of mine, and this book, I think, is a master-work: simplicity, when done right, is genius.  Speaking of genius, in my frantically rescued pile, is JM Coetzee’s Disgrace (also 1999).  This is a novel that I’d most likely choose if there could be only one; it’s strangely readable and deeply profound and, regrettably, it says as much about modern-day Australia as it does about the South Africa of the recent past.

Truman Capote

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965) and Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave (1995), two books that have completely and utterly devastated me, because, in their own but very different ways, have revealed the powers of men, as in the male of the species, the power to love and destroy what’s loved.  Speaking of men who know about power and destruction, towards the top of my pile is Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952).  For the past few years I’ve been dedicated to the writing of a series of novellas, and this, maybe, is the perfect novella – how on Earth to create a story like this?  The book’s miraculous.

Right there, at the top, however, is my pair of beloved Russians: Chekhov and Tolstoy; The Steppe and Other Stories, 1887-1891 (first published in 2001) and The Death of Ivan Ilyich (as translated by Rosemary Edmonds, first published in Penguin Classics in 1960).  If only I could write an opening sentence like this one, ‘It is dark now, and soon it will be night’ (from Chekhov’s ‘Gusev’), or a final sentence like this one, ‘He drew in a breath, stopped himself in the midst of a sigh, stretched out and died’ (from Tolstoy’s Ilyich).  I could retire from this whole writing palaver a very happy man indeed.

So this, then, is my life so far in reading. 

I’m a slow reader, and it both shocks and pains me when I realise that I know so little about literature.  How could any one brain know enough about this thing?  All that can be done is to keep reading, and keep writing, to stack and pack my library shelves with even more books, and keep an eye on the fire in my house so that the sparks are kept where they need to be: in the blackened belly of a Hordern & Sons coal-burner, and, in a literary kind of way, between the illuminating pages of novels.  One day, when I truly am done and dusted, and I have only one thought left amongst my blood and bones, I’ll think to myself: well, fancy that, all these lives I’ve known, and I couldn’t be luckier.
Nigel Featherstone’s most recent work is the novella I’m Ready Now, published by Blemish Books (2012). For more information, visit or
He lives in Goulburn, NSW. 
Nigel Featherstone
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Friday, August 2, 2013

Joyce Kornblatt reads Lesley Lebkowicz's bold, original "The Petrov Poems"

Dusya at Mascot, April 19, 1954
She sees lights flash over the crowd and
glint off the plane. People are screaming:
Let her stay. Why do they care so much
about her? The mass swells and jostles –
crashes its voice into her ears.
Buttons are snatched from her suit –

she loses a shoe. She must limp.

Beneath her bare foot the tarmac is rough.

The couriers lock her arms through their own.
They shove her along. They stink

through their clothes – sweat, fear,

rancid, sour. If only she could focus her mind
on one thing – her dead daughter’s fine hair or
a white cup, its tea warming her palm.

Is the very idea of a verse-novel exciting to you...or like being asked to read in a foreign language? We hope that many of you are adventurous readers because Joyce Kornblatt's review of Lesley Lebkowicz's new The Petrov Poems makes the idea as well as the content deeply enticing.
Petrov Poems is published by the newish, smallish, already-distinguished Pitt Street Poetry Press. Details follow Joyce's review. 

        Sometimes a fine poet rescues political scandal from the tabloids and the television soundbite. She reveals  the mythic power and psychological complexity in these public dramas.  From Homer’s ancient epics to [Canadian writer] Anne Carson’s contemporary re-tellings of Greek tragedy, these writers remind us of the complex human depths in the stories that media often reduce to mere surfaces.

Lesley Lebkowicz
        Canberra poet Lesley Lebkowicz has done just this with her wonderful verse-novel, The Petrov Poems.  In her spare and vivid voice, the married Soviet spies who defected to Australia in April 1954, emerge as haunted individuals shaped by forces they barely fathom. The choices they make, while consciously considered, also seem to be the result of an inexorable fate they cannot escape.  
     We suffer with them, the stolid Volodya and the stylish  Dusya, as the poems offer bright shards of insight into their lives.  ‘They had grown up in darkness,” we learn. Volodya ‘…had seen hundreds / shovelled into their graves,’  Dusya loses a brother and lover to the gulag, and ‘when her child died / her grief upended the world.’  The security they thought might be possible in the KGB proves to be a sham: 'Spies live under skies which offer no shelter.’
         Patriotism tested, loyalties scrambled, temptations impossible to resist:  Volodya succumbs to ASIO’s offer once he knows he cannot return home:  ‘…he carries his body / like a felon already condemned.’
"...the capacity for tenderness endures and redeems us"
           Dusya, too, reluctantly chooses the asylum that is also a punishment: her family remains in the Soviet Union where, she fears, they will pay for her choice.  Luckily, they survive—‘I have not killed my family,’ she consoles herself repeatedly.  In Dusya’s later years, her sister Tamara emigrates to Melbourne to be a companion to her soon-widowed sibling. And for Volodya, lost in the haze of dementia, ‘the past vanishes,’ his world reduced to a nursing home room while his wife ‘…cries in her loneliness.’  Supported by her sister, Dusya, the former spy and famous defector, understands that ‘everything to do with Tamara is precious,’ the blessings of ordinary life, relinquished for so long, at last bestowed. 
     In fewer than a hundred elegant pages, a spy drama yields its real treasure: beyond the machinations of nation-states, in spite of the the traumas of violence and loss, the capacity for tenderness endures and redeems us.  
      I loved The Petrov Poems for all the ways Lesley Lebkowicz inhabits the inner lives of Volodya and Dusya. She liberates them from stereotype and slogan.  Read this book and be reminded: every human heart is a masterpiece.

You can purchase this book in an e-version or as a paperback from Pitt Street Poetry. Readers in Sydney are also welcome to attend the Sydney launch on 15 August at Gleebooks, Glebe.

Joyce Kornblatt is one of our favourite reviewers. A novelist, essayist and teacher, she lives in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, after a lifetime teaching writing (and writing) in the USA.
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Jane Goodall reviews Creatively Maladjusted: The Wisdom Education Movement Manifesto

Theodore Richards, author of Creatively Maladjusted
Jane Goodall, an experienced teacher and academic at both secondary and tertiary levels, reviews Theodore Richards' newest bookCreatively Maladjusted: The Wisdom Education Movement Manifesto

Early in my career I spent some months as a casual teacher in Sydney’s inner west. Some of the schools in the area were quite rough, with high levels of student aggression and disaffection, and the challenge in these environments was especially acute for casual staff. One school in particular had a reputation as somewhere best avoided. Most of us on the casuals list learned to declare ourselves unavailable if we got a call from them, but I’ve never forgotten an encounter with a young teacher who took up the challenge and went there regularly.
                  I was curious to know how he managed. He shrugged. “I just sit down at the desk and get on with my work.” But didn’t he find he had a riot on his hands? “Sometimes.” He was smiling, in a relaxed sort of way. “Usually they get bored with that before long. Boredom’s their biggest problem.”
Yes, but… My mind was racing ahead, thinking of the lengths those kids had gone to on my last visit to let me know just how bored they were with my carefully prepared material. That, he admitted, had been his experience first time round. So the second time, he just brought some books and sat at the teacher’s desk reading, letting the chaos rage around him. After ten minutes or so, two of the girls approached him, sneering:

    ‘You’re not a very good teacher, are you?’
    ‘Why do you say that?’
    ‘Because you’re not teaching us anything.’
    ‘OK.’ He pulled two chairs up to his desk. ‘What would you like to learn?’

           And of course, by the end of the lesson, he had rings of chairs all around the desk, as more and more students decided to see what was going on.
           Looking back on this conversation, I have different questions from those that were in my mind at the time. What makes someone able to bring such a completely different strategy to the teaching situation? And now, in the midst of a national debate in Australia about the Gonski reforms, designed to address the problem of ‘under-performing students', why are policy-based solutions so cumbersome in comparison?

These are the kinds of questions that interest Theodore Richards and his colleagues in the Wisdom Education Movement. Creatively Maladjusted, as a manifesto for the movement, poses a whole range of quite fundamental questions about education, what it means, its traditions, principles and philosophies. Underlying the questions is an urgent sense that in failing to ask them, we have managed to get it all wrong. In his introduction, Richards quotes the Dalai Lama: ‘Education is in crisis the world over.’ The focus of this book, though, is on the problems with education in the Western world.
"A manifesto is what we need right now."

            I am wary of generalizations about ‘the Western world’ but Richards does acknowledge the need for some caution here. Far too often, he says, those who critique Modernity or the West indulge in a kind of anti-intellectualism. He is also aware of the temptation to set oneself up as the advocate of a right way against everyone else’s wrong way. Although I’m not sure that he entirely avoids this trap, his criticisms are founded in some genuine experience of alternative approaches. In his late teens, he began working for the Sue Duncan Children’s Centre on the south side of Chicago, a world away from the privileged milieu of the University of Chicago where he was still a student. After he graduated, he went to Zimbabwe to teach in an adult literacy program. His educational philosophy is also influenced by studies of traditional Tanzanian education, and by an ongoing program of training in the Chinese martial art of Bagua.
              The title of the book is taken from a statement by Martin Luther King Jr: ‘Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.’
               Since maladjustment is normally associated with destructive social tendencies, the combination of words is designed to make us think twice about both maladjustment and creativity. To be creatively maladjusted, says Theodore Richards, is to go against the grain but to do so in a spirit of generosity and imaginative freedom, spurred by the conviction that it is wrong to fit into a broken system. Richards sees modern Western education as a broken system, in which schools are driven by an obsession with testing. Teaching is all about the delivery of information, and the syllabus is derived from a mechanistic view of the world.  This kind of education results in what he calls ‘nature deficit disorder.’ There is too much dependence on technology, and little or no focus on the body as a learning vehicle.
              But he doesn’t acknowledge that there is a counter-tradition in Western education. Every so often, a prophetic voice emerges to declare the whole system broken, and to offer a powerful alternative vision. The eighteenth-century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau presented a radical back-to-nature model of education and upbringing in his novel Emil, first published in 1762.
             When English poet William Blake wrote ‘the tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction’ he was calling for the valuation of fiery passion over downtrodden conformity. Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times opens with a scene in which children are being drilled in facts, numbers and ‘ologies’ in a bare vault of a schoolroom.
               ‘Girl number 20’ is failed for being unable to define a horse, although she is a circus performer born to ride horses.
                And there are more recent examples: Pink Floyd’s movie The Wall, for example, with an animation sequence showing children being put through a sausage machine, while the voice-over shouts – ‘Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!’

Richards doesn’t refer to these. Nor does he credit the continuing influence of Rudolf Steiner and the Steiner (Waldorf) schools in providing an alternative model of education based on natural philosophy and representing many of the values he advocates. [To add another dimension to this vital discussion, the author correctly sees those influences as very weak in the United States and almost certainly elsewhere, including Australia and Europe. ED.] The possible weakness of this book is that it puts forward a sweeping and quite stereotyped view of contemporary education, and the alternative vision it presents relies too heavily on a rather vague notion of ‘creativity'. It’s worth remembering that this is now a buzz-word with the technology companies whose influence he dislikes. Richards' purpose, though, is to write a manifesto, and that means getting the essential principles across in an economical and assertive way. And perhaps a manifesto is what we need right now. One of the passions that drives this book is a conviction that education is being ruined by regimes of testing, born of a failure to realize the deeper values and purposes of human learning.

Richards writes: "If we seek to become educated only for ourselves – that is, for our personal wealth and prestige – then we have missed the opportunity for our knowledge to become wisdom. I am proposing that the only way to assess an educational system is to look at the direction in which our communities, our country, our planet, and our species are headed. If the test scores go up but we continue to destroy the Earth, are we succeeding?"

It’s a pretty compelling question, and gives a sense of urgency about the disconnection between the aims and objectives of so-called ‘achievement’ in education and the qualities that enhance our lives as natural beings.

                 The best parts of the book are those that are more personal, and testify to Richards' belief in a quiet, contemplative relationship between teacher and student. In the Preface, he tells a lovely story about taking his two-year-old daughter for a walk around the campus of the University of Chicago and having to discipline himself to stop and watch her while she pokes at the lily-pads on the pond.  Perhaps one of the hardest things for a teacher to learn is when to be passive, and simply allow space and time for human curiosity to come to the fore.

Danvers, Massachusetts: Hiraeth Press
ISBN 978-0-9889430-7-0

Dr Jane Goodall is a writer, literary critic and teacher, and a frequent contributor to the Universal Heart Book Club. Do share your views and comments with her and us below. (Use "anonymous" if you don't have a google email address - wade through the "captcha", remembering it is always two "words". Should be easy!)
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