Tuesday, December 16, 2014

GIFT suggestions from the WRITERS' WORKSHOP

Stephanie Dowrick offered a new course in 2014 for the Faber Writing Academy in Sydney called "The Writers' Workshop". It was so successful that the class extended...and is now continuing independently and highly productively. (Stephanie will take a new Writers' Workshop in 2015, 20 April- 20 June.) Nine writers - including Stephanie - are offering suggestions here of truly terrific books they will give - or would like to receive - and not at Christmas only. Book gifts are welcome at any time. We know you will enjoy these prompts. And, when it comes to books, lavish gifts for "self" are totally acceptable!  (Wherever possible we have given you POSTAGE FREE purchase links.)

Juliette O'Brien
Just one book that I’d like to give for Christmas? I can’t and won’t stop there. Harold Bloom’s The Best Poems of the English Language for a friend of my father’s who lost his wife. Simon Schama’s colourful history of the French revolution, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, for my non-fiction-loving papa. Romulus My Father, by Raimond Gaita, for close friends who seem receptive to my emphatic recommendations. And, for myself, Bryce Courtenay’s The Silver Moon: Reflections on Life, Death and Writing. Oh, how I love to give books for Christmas. It’s a precious present that reveals more about the relationship between giver and receiver than most things that money can buy. But how generous is it of me to take such delight? I meander through the bookstore and glance surreptitiously left and right, before opening a book - any book - from its centre. I lift it to my nose and draw in a deep breath. I buy it, and become a little high as dopamine surges into my brain's reward centre. It is a gloriously selfish exercise to buy books as gifts. Why would anyone give just one?

April Murdoch of the Faber Writing Academy (Sydney) 
The book I’d most like to give this Christmas is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I loved this book so much that I want to share the pleasure it gave me with as many people as possible! The book was published earlier this year to critical acclaim – and shortlisted for the Booker Prize – and for me it lived up to the hype. I can’t tell you much about what happens without giving away a major plot twist but I can tell you that it’s about sibling loyalty, memory, parental deception, animal rights and more. It’s highly original, a total page-turner and I laughed (a lot) as well as cried. The ending was breathtaking. Other writers share my opinion. Khaled Hosseini called it ‘Gripping and surreptitiously intelligent’ and Ruth Ozeki said, ‘I wept, woke up the next morning, reread the ending, and cried all over again.’ It was definitely one of my favourite books of the year.
[It was also one of Stephanie Dowrick's absolute favourites this year - clever and poigant.]

Penelope Ransby
My pick both to give or to receive, so I could re-read (and re-read again), is The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel, published 2014.
 This is a collection of short stories with the eye-catching title being just one of them. Hilary Mantel is as superb at creating interesting and plausible characters in the space of a short story as she is in a major novel. Setting and location are vividly created. Sometimes the plot is almost incidental. The characters gradually evolve for the reader so that what happens seems entirely natural even though it is totally outside the reader's experience.

There is a wide and eclectic range of locations and occasions. One of the best stories is about a writer visiting a drab depressing English town. Another is about a couple on holiday in Greece, another about an expatriate corporate wife living in Saudi Arabia - and yet another is set in a prestigious Harley Street medical practice. The title story has a middle-aged woman living alone and a young man she assumes to be a plumber. And the punchline to the title story is brilliant.
A "must-read" for aspiring writers wanting to see how an accomplished story-teller creates unusual but believable characters.

 Jenny Levy
I would dearly like to give as a present the latest book I’ve read: The Color of Water. It’s subtitled "A black man’s tribute to his white mother" and is a beautiful memoir. The author, James McBride, gently unfolds his mother’s story, using her voice, while at the same time he layers his own tale. I can’t help but think the author is in search of longing, and in the first instance believed it could be found in his mothers lineage; she was originally an Orthodox Jew. His sense of self is revealed through discovering his mother over the eight-year process of writing the book. He reminds us the gift of mothering is a woman's imperfection. He demonstrates racial categories are designed to both separate and create belonging. And, with subtle care, he lets us know the answer is greater than us all.

Sarah Menary
The book I’d most like to give this Christmas is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (first published in 1948 and available today at all major online retailers, including via this postage free LINK). My father gave it to me when I was thirteen and he had been given it when he was a teenager himself. I still love reading it now. It’s an idiosyncratic coming-of age-story. It was Dodie Smith’s first book after being a successful playwright and she struggled for nine years to finish it to her satisfaction. All that struggling produced a unique book. I admire the fine detail which makes the reader live in the story, the authenticity of the protagonist Cassandra and her contrasting sister; the comedy scene involving them, their inherited fur coats and a train carriage (which always makes me chuckle when I remember it), and the vivid depiction of 1930s London and East Anglia before the war changed so much. This book would appeal to anyone who is over twelve years old and a bit romantic in nature (in terms of the Romantic poets). It has one of the most quoted first lines ever written: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."

Sheridan Rogers
The book I’d like to give for Christmas - or at any time - to my heart friends is The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell, a book I pulled from my bookshelf this year and re-read avidly after visiting Duino Castle in Italy, the inspiration for his magnificent Duino Elegies.
Rilke’s poetry communicates to me at a visceral level.  Even if, at times, I don’t fully understand the meaning of a poem, I am often swept up and transported elsewhere by the music of his poetry.
 Great art often communicates before it is understood and this is very true for me with Rilke. Often it’s as though he’s speaking to me, and to me alone, whispering in my ear.

Yes – the springtimes needed you. Often a star
 was waiting for you to notice it.  A wave rolled towards you 
out of the distant past, or as you walked
 under an open window, a violin
 yielded itself to your hearing. All this was mission. 
But could you accomplish it? - The First Elegy
“Look at how he bores into us,” says Robert Hass in his insightful introduction. “That solitary voice seems to be speaking to the solitary walker in each of us who is moved by springtimes, stars, oceans, the sound of music... Then, with another question, he brings us to his intimacy with our deeper hunger...the huge nakedness and poverty of human longing.”

Rilke’s is not an easy path, but one truly well worth traveling.

Wendy Ashton
My recommendation for holiday reading is A Tale for the Time Being     
by Ruth Ozeki.  It was "un-put-downable" for me, at the same time being very beautifully written.  It was published by Text in 2013 and nominated for the Booker Prize 2013 (short list).  Ruth Ozeki is a
Japanese American writer who lives on an island off  the coast of western  Canada.  It is clearly a mixture of reality and fiction. The narrative moves between a teenage character in Japan and Ruth on her island.  It is 432 pages, but doesn't seem the least bit long.

Katy Morgan
The book I'd like to give is Love Over Hate: Finding Life by the Wayside.  It is written by Graham Long, the pastor of The Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross, Sydney.  'Part-memoir, part-philosophical journey, Love Over Hate is Graham's gift to humanity - a book about life's foibles and the joy of living.'  One Saturday morning in October my book club met at The Wayside Chapel cafe to discuss Love Over Hate.  Graham Long happened to pop into the cafe and proceeded to join our discussion and give us a tour of the Chapel. He is a master storyteller: very witty, wise and real. I have not been so moved by a book or a person in a long time. Long's stories made me laugh out loud as well as weep. In a community of suffering people living on the fringes, Long is a light as well as a source of comfort and grace. I admire his passion, generosity, love for others and courage despite his own journey through suffering following the death of his son James in 2009.  Love Over Hate is a "must read", especially suited to those who wrestle with the big questions about life and faith and are inspired to live a life of love in a suffering world.  

Stephanie Dowrick
I'm going to give multiple copies of a very thoughtful prayer/poetry anthology that's gloriously enriching to give not just at Christmas but at any time. It's the work of Ivan M Granger who hosts a wonderful spiritual poetry email list and website called Poetry Chaikhana. The link is poetry-chaikhana.com. I have enjoyed his emails for years and am hugely grateful for the insights and treasures they have brought me. His new book is The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World. What makes Ivan's work so special are the commentaries that accompany the poetry selections: he is a humble, insightful, very genuine universal spiritual teacher (who would probably think of himself more as "guide" than "teacher"). It's a very special book. And to receive? I plan to read two exceptionally highly praised Australian novels: Joan London's The Golden Age and Richard Flanagan's Booker-prize winning The Narrow Road to the Far North.

We do urge you to support your local bookstores - or support this BOOK CLUB by using our links (above right). Local bookstores are an endangered species. It is up to us to ensure that they will continue. And that writers can keep writing! Your comments below are always welcome. Or you can comment on Stephanie Dowrick's public Facebook page.

Walter Mason suggests some fantastic fiction

 Book Club co-host and writer Walter Mason suggests some short and long fiction: perfect gifts, but perfect also to be bought at any time for your own or others' reading pleasure.

For some reason I have found myself reading lots of fiction in 2014, more than I have for years and years. Perhaps it's the times, and perhaps it's the fact that so much really exceptional fiction is coming out of Australia recently. Some of the books I mention below have been big releases and award winners. Others have been more obscure. All are well worth reading, and would make perfect gifts for the other bookish people in your life.

Felicty Castagna, The Incredible Here and Now
This book won the 2014 Prime Minister's Literature Award for Young Adult Fiction, and it is incredibly deserving of such recognition. Castagna is a young writer whose fiction engages with contemporary themes of place, identity and cultural belonging. Largely set in Sydney's Western suburbs, The Incredible Here and Now is a collection of stories that describe an intensely real world that is instantly recognisable to anyone who knows the place. Castagna's characters are alive with their sense of displacement and youthful unease, and exist in a haphazard world of unglamorous accidents and relationships that expose much larger truths. I was just blown away by the virtuosity and originality of this book, and how well it captures life for young people in the early part of the 21st century. It is an excellent gift for the young adult reader in your life, and they will be totally absorbed in its resonance.

The Incredible Here and Now is published by the artisanal publishing house Giramondo, so I'd like to mention here another of their fiction releases that captured my attention this year. Nicholas Jose's Bapo is the latest release from one of Australia's most interesting writers on Asia. Jose has enjoyed an illustrious literary career, characterised by his energetic pursuit of literary interest rather than career or commerce. His books are always deeply personal and eccentric forays into bookish obsessions (and I must mention here his simply brilliant family memoir Black Sheep), and Bapo is no different. It is a collection of short stories based around themes of luck, Australia and China. Each is an absolute gem, and the whole book is a belletristic delight.

Laura Jean McKay's Holiday in Cambodia was always going to attract my attention, having published my own book about that most fascinating country. McKay's engagement comes in the form of stories set in Cambodia, describing aspects of its culture and history largely through the eyes of visitors, all there for their own, complicated reasons. The travel-as-short-fiction genre seems to be an entirely Australian invention, having been done previously (and brilliantly) by the aforementioned Felicity Castagna. McKay is a thrilling writer, her gentle humour and subtly deep meditations on Asia, poverty and Western narratives about those things constantly engaging. Deeply original and thought provoking, a must for anyone who has travelled to Asia.

Short fiction seems to be making a real comeback, perhaps the result of our speeded-up lifestyles and the lack of time we all complain about. This year I was enthralled by a collection of short stories that wasn't simply another anthology. Cracking the Spine, edited by Julie Chevalier and Bronwyn Mehan, is a collection of absorbing stories, but each story is followed by a short exegesis by that story’s author explaining how and why they wrote the story, and what inspired them. This is a brilliant idea, and makes for terrific reading, especially for other writers.

This anthology was published by the small Australian press Spineless Wonders, who also published this year a really intriguing collection of fiction about the future called The World to Come. Each of the stories is incredibly diverse, and engages with the idea of tomorrow in many different ways. I loved it, and loved the story-a-day adventure I decided to pursue. These books have re-invigorated my taste for short fiction, which I will be reading a lot more of in 2015 (I hope!).

Speaking of beautiful small things, I lost my heart to Hoa Pham's novella The Other Shore, a perfect little book about spirits, politics and Vietnam which was one of the Seizure magazine's Viva La Novella award finalists. Hoa is a Melbourne writer and this haunting look at embodied spirituality and its real-life repercussions is utterly perfect. More people should know about it.  

The novella, too, is having its moment, and perhaps the most unexpected fruit of this renaissance is Michelle De Kretser's latest release, a novella and ghost story called Springtime. I was lucky enough to have a long chat with Michelle about the book, and she said that it sprang forth almost fully-formed and demanded its own, eccentric, size. It is a wonderful and seductive read, and is very handsomely published in a gorgeous hardcover with colour plates. A perfect gift, and just the sort of thing to read before bed on hot summer nights.

In 2014 I have re-discovered the escapist charm of Jane Austen, who I haven't read since the early 1990s and was trapped in Taipei with nothing else to read but her complete works (glorious rainy days!). The main reason I have picked her novels up again is the influence of Sydney literary historian Susannah Fullerton, a Janeite of the highest degree whose enthusiasm is catching. I have wickedly enjoyed Alexander McCall Smith's update of Emma, released just in time for the 200th anniversary of that great novel in 2015. Of course it's silly, but it's so much fun, and McCall Smith can enchant like no other writer. Wonderful beach reading, though it might infuriate those who are too much in love with the original.

Finally I'd like to recommend a quirky, gently funny and really quite touching novel from Australian writer and film producer Mark Lamprell, The Full Ridiculous. Based loosely on real life, it is the bittersweet account of family life (and torment) after a major accident. I shared the stage with Mark at the 2014 Sydney Writers' Festival, and saw that he embodied the bumbling good nature of his characters. The Full Ridiculous should to be read by every Australian over the Christmas break, as it gives us all some perspective on our blessings and great gifts, and encourages not to be so picky with our loved ones.

We would love you to comment - below. Also love you to use the bookstore links - above right - if you are intending to buy these or any other books on line. That returns a tiny % of the sale price to us: our sole support for what we hope is a Book Club that supports worthwhile books and the readers who seek them.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Stephanie Dowrick suggests memorable memoirs

Any fine memoirs among them?

 Book Club co-host and writer Stephanie Dowrick suggests some memoir reading: perfect gifts, but perfect also to be bought at any time for your own or others' reading pleasure.

Frankly, and after decades of intense writing over several genres, I'm in awe of writers brave enough to tackle "memoir" as their chosen literary form. When it's well done, the outcome will be as gripping and rich as any novel could be. Perhaps more so, because rather than creating an imagined "real world", the writer is sharing one. Complications arise, though, because that "real world" - that continuing, dynamic, ever-changing world - is invariably shared with others and while the writer is absolutely entitled to his or her memories and interpretations, these won't always be pleasing to others. We each experience what we call "the world" in an emotionally-driven and highly subjective way: the singularity of that is amply demonstrated by memoir writers. We read similarly, too, judging other people's lives, insights, interpretations through the filter of our own lives. When we are jolted to reconsider some of our assumptions in a deep or lasting way, that's a good thing. It brings us more deeply into the human family, with all that we share and in all the ways that we differ. It can also alert us to our own presumptions and prejudices. It can give us a new sense of proportion about what we ourselves, perhaps quite unselfconsciously, over- or under-value. And, not least, isn't there something marvelous about entering someone's life and experience in the depth that only excellent writing allows? We get to share secrets, intimacies, heart-breaks and heart-mending in ways that even closest conversations can rarely express. Memoir is sustained conversation: deep, observant, intimate. And when it works, that is exhilarating. Here are my picks of this year's memoirs. I do hope you will seek out these books, enjoy them, give them, request them from your library and make them better known. The books deserve that. So do the writers.

David Leser, To Begin to Know: Walking in the Shadow of My Father
This is is a memoir by a brilliantly talented journalist and interviewer. The project - more than a book - has had a most fascinating history in that it began as an intimate biography of David Leser's father, the distinguished German-born, international publisher Bernard Leser (of Conde Nast fame). However, as the project grew – and stalled –  over an entire decade David discovered that this was perhaps meant to be a book about himself as a son of Bernard, but no less about his emerging, changing, developing, complex "self": himself as writer, husband, father, unconventional Jew, and genuine investigator of the often-troubling, often-magnificent human condition. And investigate he does. I was interviewed some years ago by David.
It was a memorable experience and, in my case, wholly positive. So I know him at first-hand to be a deeply curious writer in a profession where that essential quality is often lacking. The central question of what we, as readers, have a right to know (or believe that we can know) about other people, either through the eyes of a journalist/biographer or through a writer's own eyes, is ceaselessly fascinating. Leser allows that question to emerge as part of his memoir. (Leser means, in German, “reader”. But the English echo of “laser” is just as apt. Here, Leser spares himself even less than he did in his many famous written portraits.) On virtually every page, he is exceptionally frank. But it felt very much to me as though he was in search of truth, on his own behalf certainly, but also for readers' sake. He is also exceptionally intelligent: willing to change his mind and to have his mind changed. The intensity of this memoir is very nicely relieved by a sense of humour that hovers even in his least-confident, darkest times. And let me rush to assure you that this allows for greater insight and truth, rather than the more usual use of humour as a sidestepping of deep and real feeling. Heart and mind are fully present in this book.  As the humane and appropriately rich portrait of an adult son in and emerging from "the shadow" of a much-loved, greatly talented father, it is totally successful. Playwright David Williamson called it "revelatory". I found it absolutely absorbing.

Mandy Sayer is a successful novelist but has made memoir her primary form of writing. This is where she truly has created a "place of her own". She is quite exceptionally gifted in her vividly detailed, highly sensual recall of events and the emotions that accompanied them, as well as in her expression - and containment - of those memories. Her latest book is called The Poet’s Wife:A Memoir of a Marriage and in it she herself demonstrates a highly poetic, subtle and insightful sensibility, as well as a strong command of story-telling. This is in so many ways an immensely accomplished book. It is as gripping as any novel could be but its subject matter - revealing Sayer's vulnerability - must surely have taken every ounce of her skill and tenacity. What Sayer is recording here is a complex marriage to an extremely complex man: American poet, Pulitzer prize-winning Yusef Komunyakaa. When  the two met Yusuf was almost twice Mandy's age. He was and is black; she was and is white. The differences between them were so many – race, age, nationality and culture just the most obvious. But what they shared, and what emerges most hopefully through this book, is that each was in the process of becoming the writer they needed to be. Each had also emerged from incredibly demanding, unpromising beginnings. 
But this is not primarily a tale of literary triumph. What emerges here is the raw emotional abuse experienced by Mandy as her husband repeatedly withdrew his love, fidelity, even his affection. We may wonder why she tolerated this for what seems to be far too long. But her life had always been one of great uncertainty, demanding matching courage, and the intimacy of a memoir as rich as this one brings into question all kinds of presumptions. Reading it though, it felt good to me to know that this highly intelligent woman who has led such a courageous and unpredictable life is now living in far happier circumstances then those she describes here. And I certainly don't want you to have the impression that this book is entirely bleak. Far from it. There are many richly loving moments and certainly great evidence of a commitment to writing and to all that writing can bring and allow that is dynamic and encouraging.
We would love you to comment - below. Also love you to use the bookstore links - above right - if you are intending to buy these or any other books on line. That returns a tiny % of the sale price to us: our sole support for what we hope is a Book Club that supports worthwhile books and the readers who seek them.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A minimum of 500 books: Wayne Dyer on libraries, reading and self-education

"I'm merely acting on my inner vision to prepare myself for university study."

When Wayne Dyer was a young man in the US Navy he soon realised that the regimented life was not for him. Despite extremely difficult childhood circumstances (an absent, alcoholic father, a broken family and abandonment in an orphanage), Dyer managed to conceive a passion for self-improvement and this really blossomed when he was stationed at a US Navy base in Guam. Here there was not all that much to do, and he had access to a humble but helpful library. He decided to make the most of his circumstances and, instead of drinking and carousing like his buddies, he would set about reading as much as he possibly could. He determined to read a "minimum of 500 books" while he was in Guam, and to record the titles he read and his impressions of them. He filled his little room up with books, and the books almost became talismans, symbols of a greater and more meaningful life he was beginning to imagine for himself. Describing this new self-conception he writes: I see myself as a teacher, a college professor, and I am acting on that inner vision every day.

Dr. Wayne W. Dyer
Dyer's love of books is constantly explored in his engaging and very inspiring memoir I Can See Clearly Now. From his childhood discovery of Thoreau's Walden, through his absorption in To Kill a Mockingbird while avoiding duties on a navy ship to his late-life study of the Tao Te Ching, Dyer's autobiography is, like so many bookish people's, easily marked by important books he has read and how he has incorporated them into his life.

Pages from the Tao Te Ching

Dyer's beautifully romantic vision of the universe is always the merest step away from magical (an analysis I don't think he would object to), and the place of books and writers in his life reflect these magical possibilities. In the late 70s he meets Dr. Victor Frankl and reads his immensely influential book Man's Search for Meaning. Of this experience he writes:

When I first read the accounts of Dr. Frankl's maltreatment at Auschwitz, Dachau, and Theresienstadt in Bohemia, the suffering overwhelmed the words I was reading, and I knew I would one day visit those hideous places. In some mysterious way I felt I would meet this man who spoke so persuasively about the innate capacity humans have to transcend evil and to discover meaning, when madness screams out from every angle.    

Dr. Victor Frankl

Despite repeated re-readings of Ken Keyes' landmark 1970s book Handbook to Higher Consciousness, Dyer hadn't known about that author's disability (he was a quadriplegic). After hosting Keyes in a visit to his home, Dyer writes how his outlook was fundamentally changed (and it is to Dyer's credit that he is so open to learning from other people and acknowledging their influence):

After Penny and Ken drove away, I took some notes on what we discussed. I detailed four keys to higher awareness that came out of our intense and inspiring conversation that evening. I made a mental note to include these four keys on my lectures, and maybe one day write about them. They were: banish the doubt, cultivate the witness, sgut down the inner dialogue and free the higher self from the ego. I spent the next decade making these ideas the centerpiece of my presentations.

Part of Dyer's great charm, and a clue to his incredible success and prolific output, is his ability to put to use everything he reads and hears. Nothing is wasted in Dyer's universe, it is all in service to his art and to his sense of purpose. He recognises that books lead the way out of his dificult past, and remain the key to his future happiness. I Can See Clearly Now is a wonderful read, and offers a great reading list in personal development. It is memoir as self-help, a grand tradition that dates back to Benjamin Franklin. See if you can make the most of it.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Walter Mason reads Gary Lachman's superb biography of Madame Blavatsky

“While questions about whether or not HPB [Helena Petrovna Blavatsky] was ever in Tibet, ever met the “real” Masters, ever learned Senzar, and dozens of others will no doubt trouble all who take her seriously, in the end what is important now are the writings she left behind, and what we can understand about her life.” 

One of the greatest characters of the Nineteenth Century was Madame Blavatsky. Not only that, I will
always assert that she was one of the most influential. Derided in her time as a fraud and a crank, her interests, enthusiasms and visions of the world went on to shape generations of religious seekers. She was a hippy, a New Ager and a self-help freak long before those things existed. She is one of my great heroines, and Gary Lachman’s excellent biography of her is one I think everyone would enjoy reading.

The problem with writing about Blavatsky is that you will, almost from the first page, be insulting someone. She remains a polarising figure, and Lachman (also known as Gary Valentine, bassist from the legendary pop band Blondie) does his level best to tread a kind of middle ground. His admiration for Blavatsky is palpable, but he also records fairly those parts of her story that are more open to criticism. On balance I think he is probably a little too reverent, and plays down some of the outrageous campery of Blavatsky’s Victorian mysticism. But Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality is still a fun read, and will be a revelation to anyone who has yet to discover more of Blavatsky’s life.

H. P. Blavatsky was, of course, the founder of the Theosophical Society and the author of two tremendous compendiums of esoterica: the enormous Isis Unveiled and the even more enormous The Secret Doctrine. Both books are almost unreadable now (though Lachman is enthusiastic about them, while still conceding that they are best read in short bites for inspiration and stimulation), but in their day they were literary sensations, engaging the criticism and comment of some of the greatest intellectuals and thinkers of the time.

Blavatsky was herself a mysterious Russian émigré, a chain-smoking, world-travelling prophetess who exerted a tremendous charisma and eventually attracted into her orbit an American journalist and Civil War hero, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. Together they formed the Theosophical Society, which would go on to become one of the most influential and energetic religious movements of the late nineteenth century (and, incidentally, a very important and powerful group in Sydney up until the late 1930s).

Madame Blavatsky

Lachman tells us of the problems with Blavatsky’s “Buddhism” in a globalised age in which we now have a very real understanding of Tibetan Buddhism and can see little of it in Blavatsky’s work. And while the early Theosophists posited themselves as Buddhists, Blavatsky herself was too much of a spiritual tourist to linger for too long with this appellation. Though she and Olcott took refuge as Buddhists in a formal ceremony in Ceylon, Blavatsky always saw her teachings as wider-ranging and more mystical. Olcott, however, became quite a serious Buddhist, designed the Buddhist flag that is used today and is still revered in Sri Lanka as one of the great revivers of the Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition.

Lachman writes:
“Although HPB’s “Buddhism” was sui generis, the Gelugpa school, which demands strict celibacy, is the form of Tibetan Buddhism with which her own practice is most often related, and one occasion a Buddhist scholar is said to have remarked that HPB was a reincarnation of Tsong Khapa himself.”
Blavatsky’s personal magnetism was never in doubt, and throughout her life she attracted fervent followers and disciples, in spite of her eccentric appearance and habits and her inclination to bossiness and impatience. The book describes how she would make fun of less-than-intelligent visitors in their hearing, and would dismiss voluble acolytes as “flapdoodles.” She didn’t suffer fools gladly and was wounded when the popular press cast her as a fraud and intriguer – sometimes even a Russian spy. Her magical powers, aided and abetted by the mysterious Masters she spoke of, became legendary:
“…once, while camping in the desert, she expressed the wish for a café au lait, made in the fashion of the Café de la Paix in Paris. Serapis Bey (or possibly his “son,” Tuitit Bey, another Master) drew some water from their supply and handed the cup to HPB. It was steaming hot café, just as she ordered it.”
She also managed to materialise letters, cups, telegrams and all manner of things. Such phenomena attracted the wrong sort of attention, and eventually the Theosophical Society – and Blavatsky in particular – were investigated and found fraudulent. This caused Blavatsky a great deal of heartache, and still remains a controversial fact to this day. Some have claimed to have resurrected her and her reputation by examining the original investigation and found it wanting. Others don’t accept this revision.

Lachman reminds us that, although she is forever associated with the great mania for Spiritualism in the Victorian era and is often mistakenly referred to as a Spiritualist, Blavatsky was in fact hostile to mediumship and spirit channelling and condemned the Spiritualist movement. Lachman says that HPB saw the practise of working with spirit guides as unsophisticated and even dangerous:

“For Blavatsky, who had learned to master her own powers in Tibet, this was an abdication of one’s own freedom and responsibility, a kind of psychic slavery, especially as the spirits involved were often of a low type, the “larvae” of the astral realm, as she called them, borrowing from Bulwer-Lytton.” 

Madame Blavatsky with her friend and collaborator Col. Olcott

Nonetheless, Blavatsky’s claimed occult capacities were impressive, and her followers were all in awe of her superior powers in this regard. Almost nothing that she did – be it dressing, eating or engaging socially – was normal, and she seemed blessed with an innate theatricality that would turn anyone into a legend. In the course of composing her own enormous books, thick as they were with references, quotations and throwaway asides and citations of important literary works, she was often completely un-troubled by any kind of reference library. All she needed was her pencil, her paper and her psychic powers:
“Yet if her sheer volume of words was impressive, even more so was Blavatsky’s apparent ability to quote long passages from works neither she nor the professor possessed, and which Corson suspected were not even available in America at the time. Blavatsky explained that she saw the passages “on another plane of objective existence” and simply wrote them down – if need be, translating them from whatever language they were in into English” 
This biography is superb, and immense fun from beginning to end. Reading it, you are constantly reminded how hugely influential Blavatsky has been on our own time, and pleased at her sheer outrageousness and joie de vivre. Reading Gary Lachman’s book left me aching for more lives lived with such daring, such drama and such pleasure.

Read Gary Lachman in the Huffington Post writing about why Jung is important.
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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

P. M. Newton on writing, Buddhism and trauma

This is an edited version of the talk Australian crime novelist P. M. Newton gave at the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference in 2014. The theme of the conference was Worlds Within, and Newton was one of four novelist invited to respond to the theme. P. M. Newton is an award-winning novelist whose novels set in South-Western Sydney have been widely acclaimed. More about her after the essay:

To talk about the Worlds Within in respect of your writing is one of those invitations that probably should come with the warning, ‘beyond here there be dragons’ – because the more I thought about it, the stranger and more layered those worlds seemed to become.

Snippets of other people’s words about their worlds started pinging around, hints at their worlds within were lodged in my brain, their sources and their contexts long forgotten. Phrases like “My name is Legion: for we are many” eventually sent me scrambling to nail down its source, only to find it was a new testament description of a exorcism, and this was how the afflicted one – probably someone with multiple personality disorder – had introduced himself.

The idea of writing (and re-writing and re-drafting and editing and re-editing) is probably not a bad analogy to a lengthy exorcism of the multiple personalities one creates, nurtures and introduces to the world in the course of writing a novel.

Then my brain, flipped through its random access memory and came up with, “I am large, I contain multitudes” which flickered back into my consciousness – confused somewhat with the first quote – I’d imagined them to be from the same source, to be different expressions of the same thing. But this was Walt Whitman’s conception of the self and identity in all its rich and varied contradictions.

It was starting to get a bit noisy – because almost simultaneously as I was re-hearing the bible and mixing it up with Whitman, a Crowded House earworm from 'Four Seasons in One Day', took root - which I now share with you and defy you to shake loose ….

Worlds above and worlds below

Along – importantly - with the line that follows it

The sun shines on the black clouds hanging over the domain

And it’s those black clouds that I recognised. Because belatedly I realise that they have been hanging very much over my writing, particularly the process of writing my last book, Beams Falling, and I think they’re still out there, hovering on the horizon, ready to roll on over me, and over the next one, whatever it may be.

It would be easy to imagine that this sense of imminent darkness is because of the genre I write in – crime fiction. It’s a genre that’s produced and consumed for the most part as entertainment – but for me, it’s a serious topic. I’m actually more confused when it isn’t dealt with as such.

After all, the subject mater is usually violent death, murder. The ultimate exercise of power over another – the power of taking a life; power which is often deeply rooted in other forms of power and powerlessness that are historical, cultural, social, political in nature.

And each murder, each one, is a unique tragedy. And the ripples of grief extend out from the victim, changing lives forever. A grief that is, at its heart, insoluble – because as American crime author George Pelecanos so beautifully put it -

‘There is no solving murders, you know. Not unless the dead are going to rise up out of the earth. Once somebody is killed, it's forever for their loved ones and their family and the community. “

I did not set out to be a fiction writer. When I left the police it was to find a better life, a happier life, a new world in fact: to travel, to take photos, to write about music, to study Buddhism.

When I did start to write fiction it was in a kind of mad catharsis triggered by a triple murder when I was living in Dharamsala – three Tibetan monks were stabbed to death one night about 100 yards away from where I was living; their murderers - five other monks who were engaged in an internecine war over esoteric questions about deity worship. 

A world within Tibetan Buddhism that I hadn’t known existed suddenly ruptured into my world and it felt somehow that all the darkness I’d experienced in 13 years in the police world - and thought I had quietly sealed up while I wrote about West African music and studied Buddhist philosophy – that world was back and felt real and I can’t tell you why, but it felt like the only way to try and understand this world of violent murderous monks was to fictionalise it and relocate it back to Australia – to build a new world and to create a character who would come and investigate it on my behalf.

The story I wrote as a result of that was unfinished, I didn’t know what I was doing, but the character I created, my Detective Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly, remains with me today and is the central figure in my two novels. It was, I suppose, unavoidable that I ended up bringing to my writing my own experience as a copper, most of it spent as a detective.

Crime novels are generally about the world of cops - and I bring to it my personal understanding of that world. And that is, that it’s not just one world, it’s worlds within worlds, the cops – the longer you stay in, the further you go, the more those worlds, the layers between those worlds unpeel and you penetrate deeper. You join the cops and you join a new world. At first it’s the world of the uniform cop, but then, like me, there’s another world, the world of the detectives, then if you are good at that there’s another layer, the world of the squads – and within each of the worlds there are layers and layers of secrets.

P.M. Newton as a police officer
As a cop, I always felt like an insider /outsider. To the world you’re a cop. End of story. But within that world, you’re a woman, and in the 80s and early 90s, that made you somewhat suspect – there were layers of the world you could not penetrate. And that’s the core aspect of my character, Ned, an Australian Vietnamese young woman, starting out in the cops in the early 1990s, a new detective, slowly moving through the worlds within, but always slightly outside them as well, doubly suspicious to her colleagues as a woman and a non-Anglo Australian.

She comes out of the first book, The Old School, wounded, emotionally, physically and mentally. The second book, Beams Falling, picks up immediately after those events and deals with her movement through new worlds – physically it’s a new place, Cabramatta, early 1993. The world of the ra choi, Vietnamese kids who went out to play joined street gangs to sell drugs, the kids of refugees, leaving homes and families scarred by war.

But emotionally this book was about the world of trauma, the world of the traumatised, those damaged by violence – Ned by the violence of her work, the community by the refugee experience, by conflict, by war, by drugs.

It meant researching and wading into the reality of PTSD, the symptoms of which include hyper- vigilance, emotional numbing, paranoia, inability to form new relationships or maintain old ones, hair trigger anger, fear, panic attacks, blackouts, flashbacks – it meant creating something described by therapists as “trauma world” because that’s where my characters were living.

People suffering from trauma are caught between trauma world – where being suspicious of everyone makes perfect sense because everyone is a threat, where being hyper vigilant is the only way to survive - and the “real world” where you exhaust yourself with mood swings, you alienate everyone around you, you don’t trust others or yourself, you’re incapable of love or being loved, and you pose a risk to yourself and others.

Which brings me back to those opening lines that I remembered when I saw the title of this conference

“My name is Legion: for we are many.”

“I am large, I contain multitudes”

When it’s going well a book is like a kind of madness – the voices in your head, of characters, imaginary friends, foes, threats, enemies, victims, betrayers, all those worlds within that you create and that before you even put them on the page begin to colonise you and as they become more convincing, you live there, in their world, with them.

Trauma world was for me the world within Beams Falling. It was hard to create it, to get it to a liveable stage, and then when it was, it became hard to live in it, and almost impossible to live outside it. During my research into trauma world I discovered that patients suffering PTSD are asked to write or read their trauma narratives, and then to re-write, re-read, and re-listen to it again and again in the hope that the re-exposure will eventually give them distance, so that they no longer live in trauma world. It struck me how very like novel writing this is. We all know what that last pass at page proof stage feels like, yeah?

According to behavioural therapy experts, “traumatized individuals crave metaphor and imagery . . . to make sense of their worlds.”

Is this not what we are trying to do when we write novels?

I’ll finish with a quote from the poet Alicia Ostriker that for me encapsulates why we pursue this special madness of creating a world within, living in it, and trying to write it down so that others may also experience it -

A metaphor gives us at least a fighting chance of saying something real.
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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh on Mindfulness and its essence for non-violent living

With this article we continue our efforts to bring you the life-saving choices offered by a non-violent view and commitment. This is, indeed, the essential work of a "universal heart". Thich Nhat Hanh is known to many of you as a profound spiritual teacher of "Engaged Buddhism" that extends its broad, generous vision to include all. I (Stephanie Dowrick) believe him to be a vital teacher for these times. Below, we include some words from Thich Nhat Hanh, first shared by Trevor Carolan, of Shambhala Sun, and then some more recent words from this beautiful peacemaker himself. We cannot urge you strongly enough also to find his books, and follow - literally - in his footsteps of mindful, peace-giving living.  Could anything matter more?

"Non-violence does not mean non-action. It means we act with love and compassion, living in such a way that a future will be possible for our children and their children."

A small man garbed in the drab brown robes of his Order, Thich Nhat Hanh spoke quietly, plaintively, in good English with occasional French inflections. His words and speech were restful, like a balm to the ears and conscience. Most everything about Thich Nhat Hanh was marked by calmness, a soft yin-ness that goes beyond simple stillness. When he spoke, it was with great mindfulness—a word, an action to which he is especially devoted.

Thich Nhat Hanh began with a story. "One day I was practising mindful movement in a wood with the people of our community," he said softly. "Everyday we practice this, walking slowly, mindfully, to enjoy every step; then we sit down.

"One day, I suddenly realized that the tree standing in front of me allowed my movement to be possible. I saw very clearly that I was able to breathe in because of its presence in front of me. It was standing there for me, and I was breathing in and out for the tree. I saw this connection very profoundly.

"In my tradition we speak of 'interbeing.' We cannot 'be' by ourself alone; we must be with everything else," he continued. "So, for example, we 'inter-are' with a tree: if it is not there, we are not there either.

"In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha advises us to consider four notions: the notions of self, of humanity, of living beings, and of life span. He also advises that the practice of removing these notions from mind is not difficult; anyone can do it."

And later:

"Intellect alone is not enough to guide us. To shape the future of the twenty-first century, we need something else. 

Without peace and happiness we cannot take care of ourselves; we cannot take care of other species and we cannot take care of the world.

"That is why it is important for us to live in such a way that every moment we are there deeply with our true presence, always alive and nourishing the insight of Interbeing.

"To me, mindfulness is very much like the Holy Spirit. All of us have the seed of the Holy Spirit in us; the capacity of healing, transforming and loving. Where there is suffering, mindfulness responds with the energy of compassion and understanding. Compassion is where the rivers of Christianity and Buddhism meet.

"In the Christian and Jewish traditions, we learn to live in the presence of God," he affirmed. "Our Buddhist equivalent is the practice of cultivating mindfulness, of living deeply every moment with the energy of the Holy Spirit. If we change our daily lives—the way we think, speak and act—we begin to change the world.

"This is what I discussed with Dr. Martin Luther King many years ago; that the practice of mindfulness is not just for hours of silent meditation, but for every moment of the day. Other teachers, like St. Basil, have said it is possible to pray as we work, and in Vietnam, we invented 'Engaged Buddhism' so we could continue our contemplative life in the midst of helping the victims of war. We worked to relieve the suffering while trying to maintain our own mindfulness.

The young Thich Nhat Hanh with Dr Martin Luther King

"So to conclude, the practice of looking deeply does not mean being inactive. We become very active with our understanding. Non-violence does not mean non-action. It means we act with love and compassion, living in such a way that a future will be possible for our children and their children. "

And now, more words from Thich Nhat Hanh

"Many years ago when I visited Italy, I met a Catholic priest who organized a
public talk for me. We had time to talk with each other, and I asked him this
question: 'My friend, what is the Holy Spirit to you?' And he said that the Holy
Spirit is the energy of God, sent by God to us. I thought that expression is
beautiful, and as a Buddhist practitioner I can accept it very easily.

 "The Holy Spirit is the kind of energy that helps you to be compassionate, to
be healed of your ill being. I think Catholics and Protestants would agree about
that: the Holy Spirit is the agent of healing, of transformation, of joy, of
being there.

"In Buddhist circles, we say very much the same thing to describe mindfulness.
To us, mindfulness is the energy that can help us to be there, in the here and
the now. Mindfulness helps us to be alive, and since we are there, we are
capable of touching life deeply, of understanding, of accepting, of loving. If
we continue to develop that energy of understanding and loving, then we will get
the healing and transformation that we need. That is why the Holy Spirit is
exactly what we call the energy of mindfulness.

"I can say that a Buddha or a bodhisattva is someone who is made of the energy
of mindfulness. Each of us has a seed of mindfulness within ourselves. If we
practice walking, sitting, smiling, breathing, eating, doing things every day
with mindfulness, we help that seed of mindfulness in us to grow, and it will
generate that energy of mindfulness that helps us to be alive, fully present in
the here and the now, helping us to understand, to accept, forgive, and to love,
to be healed. That is why it is correct to say that the energy of mindfulness is
the energy of a Buddha, of a bodhisattva.

 "We have that energy in ourselves, and if we know how to practice, we can
generate that energy from within. To me, the expressions 'Holy Spirit' and
'Mindfulness' both point to the same thing—something that is very concrete, that
is available us in the here and the now, and not just an idea, a notion."

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Madeleine's flower, blooming in the sweet air of deep appreciation.