Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Divine Matrix – Gregg Braden

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Gregg Braden’s The Divine Matrix: Bridging Time, Space, Miracles and Belief is several parts encouraging and several degrees of confusing. Braden takes physics as a starting point for an exploration of how reality is constructed from imagination. Quantum theory includes an energy field, referred to by some scientists as a matrix, and Braden borrows from scientific theory, mystic poetry, philosophy, anecdote and spiritual teachings to make his case.

His premise encompasses instantaneous healing, “seeing” across time and space, the nonverbal, non-contiguous communication between hearts, the demonstrable effect of the viewer upon the object or procedure viewed, the holographic nature of the universe, and how to rewrite the “code” of reality through imagination, emotion and intention. It’s pretty heady stuff and meant to be very empowering.

The “DNA phantom effect” is a phenomenon in which strands of DNA are shown to have an ongoing effect on the arrangement of photons, even when the DNA is removed from proximity. In other words, matter can affect matter through relationship, even at a distance. And a DNA sample, removed from a volunteer who was then isolated in another room and exposed to emotional stimuli, responded with electrical charges at the same instant that the emotions registered in the subject. Scientists were able to measure this response at several hundred feet but it still happened at several hundred miles. The experiment points to an energy field that exists to host an immediate and continual connection in living tissues. Or it might prove, as Braden surmises, that everything already exists in everything else—no separation.       

What this means for you is that your thoughts and emotions are not in the least ephemeral. They bring things and events into being. If that is correct, then you design and generate your own life. Your emotions have an effect on all around you and influence objects farther away than you realize. By controlling your mind and feelings, theoretically, you could create or change your world. That is an absolutely riveting possibility. It mirrors the “Law of Attraction” concepts popularized in numerous books and in films like The Secret and What the Bleep Do We Know? And it may well be that mystics like Rumi and nuclear physicists running the Hadron Collider have more in common than we perceive.   

The science, as promised, is presented in clear, easy-to-grasp language. Unfortunately, although there are annotations throughout the text for quoted scriptures and published studies, you have to be well-acquainted with the science or take it on faith that Braden’s interpretation of scientific discovery to back up his own theories is sound. While I’m not much in the mood for scientific papers and PhD dissertations these days, I am never quite comfortable taking science on faith. And I am only an armchair physicist and neophyte theologist, if that.

So I read with interest, agreed with many of the assumptions in the book, and closed it still considering the material to be assumptions, as far as I am capable of determining. Maybe some empirical experimentation is in order to test cause and effect before embracing the ideas about manifestation and matrices. I do think there’s something to The Divine Matrix—it makes intuitive sense–but I’ll have to read more physics and reflect on the spiritual teachings Braden cites to create my own synthesis.

The Divine Matrix: Bridging Time, Space, Miracles, and Belief   Gregg Braden | Hay House   2007

Ma Jiang and the Orange Ants – Barbara Ann Porte

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Ma Jiang and the Orange Ants is a sophisticated picture book, written by Barbara Ann Porte and beautifully illustrated by Annie Cannon. It tells the story of a young girl in a traditional peasant family long ago in China and how political circumstances at the time conspire to challenge her cleverness and courage.

Ma Jiang’s family makes a living by selling orange ants—the voracious insect eaters that protect the tender fruit of orange trees from pests. The ants are a kind of natural pesticide and they are fierce enough to bite people who climb to the tops of trees to cut down their nests. Jiang’s older brothers and father collect the ants, her mother weaves the fine rush bags to hold the nests and Jiang helps with selling the orange ants in the market.

But one day all the available men in the community are conscripted by the Emperor’s soldiers and marched off to build the Great Wall. This means disaster for the Ma family—both older brothers and father are gone, leaving only baby Bao, Jiang and her mother. There is no one to catch the ants. The baby is too little and the risky climbing is men’s work. Then an old beekeeper buys some of the rush mats and bags and pays in the only currency he has, honey. And while she is minding Bao, Jiang gets an idea.

How Jiang solves the income dilemma and saves her family from starvation is brilliant and bold. As they begin to prosper, the only sorrow is the continual absence of the conscripted brothers and father. Throughout the story, which is resolved in a very dramatic and satisfying conclusion, the conditions of life in ancient China are presented in a lovely text that is mellifluous when read aloud and would be an interesting challenge for a young reader. The pictures are exquisite—every page is a full scene, edge-to-edge, with plenty of information about the society Jiang lives in.

Ma Jiang and the Orange Ants is a good story, a constructive example of resourcefulness and responsibility, an excellent cultural primer and pure pleasure to read and examine. Children’s books can be small wonders of information and entertainment and this one is a tale to relish.

Ma Jiang & The Orange Ants   Barbara Ann Porte | Orchard Books   2000

Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera – Johanna Fiedler

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Molto Agitato is better than fiction. Johanna Fiedler captures the Byzantine politics, furiosos and giocosos of personnel, divas, donors—artists, administrators and audience members of every category—at the legendary Metropolitan Opera. Fiedler, who was the Met’s general press representative for more than a decade, makes it clear that the doughty musical behemoth is itself an opera to rival anything that marches across its famous stage.

It’s a terrific read. I loved it because my family has had an intimate relationship with the Met and the story is detailed and dishy enough for any opera voyeur to delight in, especially when you recognize many of the players. From the early rivalry with the Old Money Academy of Music, when nouveau riche New Yorkers (like Mrs. Vanderbilt) in the late 1800s couldn’t get a box, through the establishment of the Metropolitan Opera at 39th and Broadway in 1873 to accommodate all those arrivistes, fabulous sums, fabulous singers, fabulous sets and fabulous scheming have characterized all its acts.

The chronicle of every general manager—the title undergoes a number of alterations as the position is adapted and redefined over the years—rivals the tales of the star sopranos and top-draw tenors. Rudolf Bing gets his multiple chapters as does Joe Volpe but many less public and equally influential administrators take their moments in the white hot spotlight, too. The Met’s shocking 1980 murder case is part of the history as is the suicidal swan dive from the Family Circle during the intermission of a live televised broadcast. But triumphs of production design and brilliant casting are given their due—a number of those operas are still scheduled and some, the wildly popular and elaborate Zeffirellis like Tosca and La Boheme, are either still around or recently retired after decades of filling the house.

James Levine, the Met’s longtime and revered music director, is given credit for building one of the finest orchestras in the world even as his calculated rise to power gets a thorough recounting. If you love opera and are interested in what one of the world’s great opera companies looks like behind the scenes, Molto Agitato is a rewarding backstage tour. Fielder has doubtless been kind to her old employer—coups d’etat are seldom as bloodless as the ones in this Met history—but there is enough drama for a Wagner, a Puccini or a Verdi. Molto agitato is a musical direction meaning to play in a very restless or agitated style and, even in the silence of a book, the abrupt shifts and constant churn of the Metropolitan Opera come across loud and clear.

Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera   Johanna Fiedler | Doubleday   2001

Restoration – Olaf Olafsson

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Restoration, Olaf Olafsson’s novel about the perilous intersection of international art dealers, illicit loves and a hidden vault on a Tuscan estate during World War II, covers forgery, tragedy and broken promises—all badly in need of remorse and repair. Kristin is a young art school graduate with an uncanny talent for painstaking restoration of Renaissance art. Alice is a British expat in Italy’s upper crust, closed Anglo communities who breaks with her crowd to marry a native of Tuscany. Robert Marshall is a devious, self-absorbed, brilliant and globally respected art restorer and procurer who authenticates paintings by old masters. The Germans are collecting museum quality art as fast as they can find it and the risk of dabbling in that market is worth your life.

When Kristin despairs of her own talent and faces the fact that Marshall has used and betrayed her, she creates a “found” Caravaggio–with her own face–that fools the experts. Her intention is to humiliate Marshall but before she can reveal the truth, Marshall sells the nearly finished “restoration” to a highly placed Nazi collector and then prevails on Alice to hide it on her estate until it can be retrieved. Alice wants nothing to do with the painting but Marshall’s discovery of an affair that could wreck her troubled marriage gives him an unshakeable hold over her.

This is a wonderful set up for a taut, complex story with plenty of internal and external quandaries to be resolved as the Germans and the Allies close in on the estate. Kristin finds out the painting’s location and intends to destroy it but her train is bombed en route from Rome and her injury prevents a search for it. Alice is in mourning for her young son who dies of meningitis just before a group of orphans arrives at the estate in need of shelter. Her husband disappears abruptly and the horrors of war come to their Tuscan village. Hiding the painting is as dangerous as harboring partisans and no one is spared in the troop occupations and fierce battles that ensue.

Restoration is really well done—an absorbing read with interesting, intelligent and flawed characters, fascinating detail about art restoration and the clandestine trading and acquisition that typified war torn Europe, graphic recreations of local fighting and deadly strafing, portrayal of the intimate effects of battle on combatants and civilians, and believable maps of the terrain a heart wanders after it has been broken. Nothing can ever really be restored to its original state. Olafsson’s novel makes the case that the best we can do is muddle on, trying to find some beauty in the patched and damaged thing that is left to us, deferring to the art of illusion as a survival technique, to whatever extent we can.  

Restoration: A Novel   Olaf Olafsson | HarperCollins   2012

Soul Murder – Andrew Nugent

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Soul Murder by Andrew Nugent follows the typical plot outline of a murder mystery but doesn’t satisfy—either in characterization or style. The setting is an Irish boarding school, a castle repeatedly compared to Hogwarts in Harry Potter. That gets irritating quickly. The language is stilted in the manner of an old-fashioned potboiler but, Irish colloquialisms aside, there is too much contemporary reference to take this as a period piece.

It takes a long time to get going—a lot of detail about some illicit youthful outing that isn’t very interesting although it is germane to the first crime. The entire story is told, all personalities and plot developments described, nothing for the reader to experience or empathize with. A fifteen-year-old student central to the plot is consistently referred to as a “little guy,” which gives the impression that he is about 8 years old and not a contemporary of his peers. The Garda—the police—are very sloppy about interrogating people and securing scenes and suspects. Motives for murder range from pederasty to international terrorism and seem arbitrarily applied, not organic arising from a richly imagined world. And the resolution, delivered second-hand in the revelations of an old correspondence, is surprisingly prurient, given the exceedingly dry and superficial portrait of life in a boys’ boarding school—it just doesn’t feel earned.

So I have to conclude that this author and this book do not work for me at all. The writer, a Benedictine monk, has several works of fiction to his credit and the book jacket boasts positive reviews for earlier books. Maybe I just didn’t connect with this one. It seemed amateur to me, like a good first effort in need of a rigorous editor. Soul Murder doubtless has its audience but I am not an enthusiastic member.

Soul Murder   Andrew Nugent | Minotaur Books 2008

Cézanne’s Quarry – Barbara Corrado Pope

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When novice magistrate Bernard Martin is in charge of law and order in Aix-en-Provence over the sleepy summer holiday, he isn’t expecting much drama. But the fates are busy stirring things up in Barbara Corrado Pope’s Cézanne’s Quarry and a gruesome murder in the ancient quarry at the edge of the village profoundly disturbs the peace. A beautiful young emigre from Paris, Solange Vernet, has been savagely dispatched and Martin and the crude police inspector, Albert Franc, team up to solve the crime.

Solange has been living a rich life in Aix with a self-taught professor of Darwinism and geology whose lectures are not uniformly well-received. Her weekly salons have attracted nearly everyone of note, at least briefly, and the professor’s lectures have sharply divided attendees and by-the-book Christians. One famous resident who falls captive to the salon and its irresistible hostess is Paul Cézanne who paints daily en plein air in and around the quarry. Cézanne lives, impoverished, with his son and longtime mistress in close proximity to his prosperous family who regard him as something of a failure. Everyone in this tale has an ulterior motive and a hidden story and more than a few of those motives and stories are deadly.

I found the first two-thirds of the book lively enough and interesting, if a bit choppy in places. The magistrate is clearly wet behind the ears and very deliberate as he proceeds through witness interrogations and crime scene visits. His insecurities encourage the inspector to ride roughshod over the investigation and to push him around. Martin has fallen under Solange’s spell, as have the Darwin lecturer and the painter, although they enjoyed relationships with her while he admired her from afar. Then a young boy who may have delivered a last note to Solange turns up murdered and it is clear there is some complex plot behind the killings.

The resolution of this story is quite good—and it is memorable. I can say that because it wasn’t until I got to a key piece of evidence, nearly at the end of the book, that I realized I had read it before. Still can’t remember when but likely when the book first came out about four years ago. Odd. I usually catch on right away when I have managed to pick up something I’ve already read. Nothing of this book stuck with me until the very graphic eleventh-hour revelation. So I guess I have to say Cézanne’s Quarry is a decent read with some very original plot features—and that there isn’t anything especially arresting about most of it, although it’s not badly written at all. One observation I did make, even before I discovered I knew the book: the only truly compelling character for me was Solange but she first appears as a corpse and there isn’t enough of her alive throughout the rest of the story to flesh out the impression. Missed opportunity maybe. Her backstory was the most fascinating narrative and it was barely told.

Cezanne’s Quarry: A Mystery   Barbara Corrado Pope | Pegasus Books   2008

God’s Jury – Cullen Murphy

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Cullen Murphy’s God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World ranges from historic persecution to contemporary definitions of acceptable torture with chilling precision. Murphy has explored archives in the Vatican and WikiLeaks online, tracking the response of governments and the Church to heresy and unwanted immigrants, scanning today’s headlines for incidents of ethnic cleansing and redacted security reports for details of interrogations.

It is depressing but fascinating reading. From the grave of Galileo Galilei to Guantánamo, Cullen’s first-person reporting shines a light on events you are likely to know nothing, or too little, about. 1492 was a record year for the Spanish Inquisition. Ferdinand and Isabella ousted the Muslim leadership from the Alhambra, forcibly uniting all Spain under Catholicism. Shortly thereafter, they approved Columbus’ petition for an expedition—one that would spread the faith to a New World, with the now-entrenched practices of the Inquisition to follow. While Columbus was making landfall in the Indies, the monarchs expelled all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity from Spain. Those who stayed, conversos, were frequent targets of the Inquisition. Most of the events of that ignominious year are never taught in school.

The Inquisition was not one unified effort. It adapted itself to the countries where elaborate bureaucracies developed to manage it. Its shadow loomed over Europe and parts of the Americas from 1231 to 1826 and its legacy can be seen today in systems of state control, government spying, imprisonment without charges, habeas corpus or representation, military incursions into civilian populations—even Internet monitoring and censoring. God’s Jury is less a story than a warning. Every line that is crossed leads to the next line and there is seldom, if ever, any turning back. Suppressing scientific inquiry and discovery and burning people at the stake was pretty horrible. But so are extraordinary rendition and the relentless legal erosion of privacy.

The Inquisition had its Torquemadas and we have our McCarthys and our Abu Ghraibs. The mindset exists to accommodate alienation and interrogation. It was put in place to standardize and organize a pre-Modern world, to make it more efficient. As the prototype of contemporary bureaucracy, the Inquisition worked brilliantly. It failed utterly to contribute a shred of progress to enlightenment. Read dusty archives, today’s paper or Cullen Murphy’s book to see how far we haven’t come.   

God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World   Cullen Murphy | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  2012

The Ruins of the Heart – trans. Edmund Helminski

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Mevlána Jeláluddin Rúmi, the great Islamic mystic, was born in 1207 in Persia, present-day Afghanistan. His peregrinations eventually landed him in Konya, Turkey, where he stayed and developed the ecstatic contemplation of the Beloved that found expression in countless luminous poems and utterances. His poetry has been translated into Victorian verse and contemporary quatrains but, no matter the language, Rúmi’s message, delivered from the heart, touches the heart.

Edmund Helminski translates a few of Rúmi’s verses into contemporary idiom in the slim volume The Ruins of the Heart.

          In this house of mud and water

          my heart has fallen into ruins.

          Enter this house, my Love, or let me leave.

Rúmi was a highly educated philosopher dedicated to the sublime experience of pure love. His work was informed by Plato, the Koran, Aesop’s fables, the works of Jesus, Buddha and the whole rich tapestry of world spiritual utterances embodied in the Persian culture of his time. Perhaps that is the secret to his widespread appeal. His ideas have influenced Chaucer, Goethe and Emerson, according to Helminsky, and I have half a shelf of various translations of Rúmi by different contemporary scholars and poets.

But the other undeniable attraction is his utter abandonment to ecstasy. Rúmi intended to become love, to lose himself and his identity in bliss. For a time, the object of his rapture was the nomad Shams of  Tabriz. Shams became for him the incarnation of perfect love and, even after Shams was murdered, or disappeared, Rúmi’s poetry concretized his stunning experience of dissolution into bliss. Those words were never meant to track a love affair, they are a universal expression of love, longing and transcendence.

          This is love: to fly toward a secret sky,

          to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment.

          First, to let go of life.

          Finally, to take a step without feet.

          To regard this world as invisible,

          and to disregard what appears to the self.

          Heart, I said, what a gift it has been

          to enter this circle of lovers,

          to see beyond seeing itself…

The Inquisition had Europe in its blazing grip as Rúmi spun poetry and danced with deliberate abandon in Konya. Genghis Khan was pillaging and annexing all of the East. The codification of heresies, the auto-da-fé and torture were spelled out in the halls of the Vatican. Cathar towns and populations were exterminated. Mystics and metaphysicians were at work in Bhagdad, in Egypt, in Delhi. There was a great foment of ideas, benign and malign. And in its midst, a bard of uncommon and enduring talent.

We might actually study Rúmi now to learn what can exist in a realm without drones and Kalishnikovs and thinking so dull and muddy it breeds only misery and destruction. Rúmi’s world was real and fractured but his vision was lucid and enlightened.

          What shall I do, O Muslims?

          I do not recognize myself…

          I am neither Christian nor Jew,

          nor Magian, nor Muslim.

          I am not of the East, nor the West,

          not of the land, nor the sea.

          I am not from nature’s mine,

          nor from the circling stars…

          Oh Shams of Tabriz, I am so drunk in the world

          that except for revelry and intoxication

         I have no tale to tell.


The Ruins of the Heart   Jelaluddin Rumi (translator: Edmund Helminski) | Threshold Books   1981

Reprise: Beastly Things – Donna Leon

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I don’t typically read the same book twice—at least not for this book-a-day challenge–but this one has to go back to the library and I was curious about the lovely digressions that created a somewhat leisurely pace and a deeper portrait of my favorite Venice homicide detective. So I read Donna Leon’s Beastly Things again, looking for those moments, and they are not digressions at all.

The exchange between Police Commissario Guido Brunetti and the Vice-Questura’s executive assistant Signorina Elettra about unemployment and the soul rot that can accompany working with money reveals more of the delightful Elettra, gives a reminder of important elements of Brunetti’s background—his family connections—and prefigures disclosures about the motive for the murder. A conversation with his old pal, the medical examiner, establishes the fact that Brunetti is aging, if not exactly rushing headlong into decrepitude, and depicts the rich relationship of two humanitarians trying to deconstruct criminal behavior.

A bedtime story recounted by a murder victim’s widow is an exact parable for the victim’s life and the circumstances that led to violent death. Interludes with marvelous Paola, Brunetti’s college professor wife and the independent-minded daughter of a wealthy and influential Venetian family, sketch his warm home life, solid values and the contrast between his marriage and the fractured relationships of various people involved in the murder.

All the “digressions” fill in the palette of colorful characters and contemporary issues, like the choice to eat vegetarian and avoid meat, and they contain clues about the crime. It’s so well-done that the seams are invisible—no work for the reader because it is all taken care of by the writer. So, re-reading Beastly Things was very satisfying and even illuminating. I might revisit the first book in the series, Death at La Fenice , to track how Donna Leon’s treatment of Guido Brunetti and his Venice have evolved.

See related posts:

Beastly Things

Drawing Conclusions

The Expats – Chris Pavone

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‘Kate Moore’ is who she is now but she was Katherine—her maiden name was her professional name until Derek Moore announced that the family could move immediately from Washington DC to Luxembourg, if Kate was willing. She was more than willing—to shed the double life, the lies, the fear and the danger of her career and focus on her two little boys and a normal existence as an expat in Europe. Derek is a wonderful, faithful, beloved, slightly naive and only moderately successful technology nerd and he is Kate’s sanctuary in the brutal world of espionage and dirty dealing that she has never shared with him.

The Expats, an intricate plot that peels off layers like petals of an onion, is Chris Pavone’s imagined high-tech, high-finance, hell or high water suspense that pits Kate against nearly everybody she encounters. Derek works for a mystery bank with an undisclosed office, doing something in security he never quite manages to explain to Kate’s satisfaction. He begins to travel constantly and unexpectedly and comes home late every night. Kate is bored in the company of other expat mothers who spend their days housecleaning, dropping off and picking up children from school, ferrying the kids to play dates, shopping and cooking. She takes up tennis but feels like she’s losing her mind. Then a new American couple arrives in Luxembourg and begins to cultivate Kate’s friendship aggressively. And, of course, they are not what they seem.

The book is like a hall of mirrors. Kate sees shadows where there are shadows but misses some obvious suspicious behavior, even as her suspicions heighten. What is Derek up to? Who are her new friends? How will she survive fulltime motherhood and pick up endless toys without throwing them against the wall? Why is she compelled to revert to her clandestine modus operandi, spy on her own husband, buy a gun? Will the one major mistake she made in her field operative days finally catch up with her? How can she keep her family safe in the threatening atmosphere that gathers like murky fog around her?

It’s a good read. A little patchy in construction. A single-day journal alternates with the story of the move, the Luxembourg events, Kate’s memories of CIA assignments, and a lot of introspection. The single day takes place in Paris, where the Moores have moved after things unravel in Luxembourg, and provides the resolution to the plot. Eventually. Meanwhile, the layering of people, places and deceptions can be tricky to keep straight. Kate’s contempt for the mommy-role she sought and then finds to be a rough fit isn’t wholly credible. She is a hyper-intelligent woman who doesn’t play as clueless about how life works or what to expect. She adores her kids but she tires of them quickly. She’s in love with her husband and she trails him and searches his things. Everyone is really someone else. Kate misses conspicuous clues that the reader will catch immediately. As for spy thriller, maybe this is the way the CIA works—and maybe not—John le Carré it isn’t and I thought the set-ups were too simple and transparent. But it’s always nice to have a tough, smart heroine running the show so The Expats gets an overall thumbs-up.

The Expats: A Novel   Chris Pavone | Crown  2012