Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Ultimate Happiness Prescription – Deepak Chopra

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The Ultimate Happiness Prescription was the thinnest book on the stack so it bumped the 400, 500 and 900+ page monsters aside. Deepak Chopra rides to the rescue on a day hijacked by too much real life. Good message for the frazzled, in any case. The book explores spiritual and neurological dispositions toward emotional equanimity and follows each of seven keys (Deepak Chopra likes to write self-help books in lists of seven) with some simple steps to move your happiness set point up on the scale.

It’s quite sensible, not very woo-woo at all. Body awareness provides clues to how you really feel about events, circumstances and decisions. Chopra examines the interrelatedness of matter, the energy field consisting of the entire universe and you in it, as he tells you to pay attention to what you feel and where in the body you feel it. Stress affects certain areas, anger and fear others—by bringing awareness to physical feelings you can mitigate and even heal what might be making you unhappy, or unwell.

There’s a very good section on being present in the moment. Nothing new about the teaching—it is thousands of years old—but it is a powerful catalyst for change. The point is that happiness can only exist in the moment because the past is over and the future does not yet exist. That seems obvious but we cart around so much baggage that we seldom devote full awareness and appreciation to the present. Chopra recommends a mindfulness practice to increase present-moment awareness. He emphasizes the benefits of meditation as well.

I tend to like Chopra’s audio and video lectures more than his books. Those events seem to treat subjects in greater depth than the slim, nicely laid-out books. But The Ultimate Happiness Prescription is worth the relatively short amount of time it takes to read it and probably worth a few re-reads, too. The activities Chopra suggests and the points he makes apply to every type of self-improvement effort. In the end, he delivers an introduction to the quest for enlightenment—not some exalted mystical state but a better, saner, more intelligent and, well, happier way to live in this world.

The Ultimate Happiness Prescription: 7 Keys to Joy and Enlightenment   Deepak Chopra | Harmony Books 2009

Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui – Karen Kingston

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It’s been a year of releasing things to make room for whatever brave new world is pushing up from this 21st century compost heap. Just now I am hauling boxes of books to the used bookseller and donating the overflow to the library. So hard to let go of a book. But we are overwhelmed by hardcovers, paperbacks, museum catalogs, picture books–and we need the space.

One yellowing paperback that gets to stay is Karen Kingston’s Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui. I’ve blogged about her books before. She works from the premise that clutter is a reflection of the inner you–uh oh–and that there are reasons that go beyond mere traffic flow and hygiene to become clutter-free. It’s a very basic primer, setting out the simplest principles of Feng Shui and exploring the reasons how and why clutter happens–and what you should do about it.

One interesting idea is that unfinished projects, even when neatly stowed, are clutter because they block the energy flow in your life. That afghan half-completed and folded neatly in the craft box? Clutter. Organized shoeboxes of photographs waiting for the day they slip into an album? Clutter. Paper clutter is a biggie and other people’s clutter can be fatal. It’s a huge mistake to take in the family leavings–Aunt Theoora’s carved walnut dining set and gilt-edged china are clutter in your attic. If you have a serious problem with stuff bequeathed to you that piles up–and up and up–you could create unhealthy conditions in your home and even block fire exits.

But the typical clutter is more modest–a closet crammed with clothes that might fit again someday or just need a zipper fixed or a new hem. Kitchen cabinets house seldom- or never-used appliances–when was the last time you made air-popped popcorn or homemade waffles? Charming collectibles can be clutter–porcelain kittens are cute but they take time to dust and proliferate all over shelves and tabletops. Email should be use-and-lose, not save-to-deal-with-later; ditto snail mail.

Kingston offers some pain-free, or almost pain-free, ways to get started clearing out your clutter. She tells you how to do a simple space clearing to get the energy moving and motivate you to get out the trash bags. Space clearing, a spiritual practice, is best done after you lose the clutter but it can jump-start things for the habitual procrastinator. A single junk drawer could be the opening sortie–you might feel so virtuous that you immediately tackle the garage.

And while you’re at it, Kingston says not to overlook your body and your mind. A daily meditation practice can interrupt the useless chatter and worry loop that occupies your mind most of the time. A detox and a cleaner diet will help your body to get rid of the junk you dumped in there. I love to imagine the sleek, pared down surroundings of the annoyingly healthy person at the conclusion of all this admirable Feng Shui–boundless energy sparkling over everything. Just as soon as I get these last few boxes of books out of here, and dust all the bookshleves, reorganize the remaining books, reshelve all the books on the window seat, the chest, the floor…

Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui   Karen Kingston | Broadway Books 1999

Related post:

Creating Sacred Space with Feng Shui 

The House of Silk – Anthony Horowitz

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Anthony Horowitz inhabits the memories and pen of Dr.Watson in his Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk. It seems very Holmesian to me, although I would have to have recently imbibed a number of Arthur Conan Doyle’s originals to pick it apart on style.

In this story, embargoed for a century by Watson whose first-person voice relates the whole affair, Holmes is approached by an art dealer with a lethal problem. The wild goose chases that ensue are mostly fatal ones and the first crime is compounded by so many more that an entirely new level of depravity is uncovered.

The destruction of irreplaceable masterpieces leads to the decimation of a marauding Irish gang in America, the murder of a Boston Brahmin, a dead man in a cheap London hotel, a family coming undone in one of London’s fancier enclaves, many fascinating excursions through the mind of the great sleuth, and the brutal death of two children. Holmes is implicated, falsely and fairly, in puzzling homicides and he is framed and imprisoned for murder after walking deliberately into a trap.

Things get pretty wild. It’s entertaining. Some important plot points are so similar to the underlying evil in other murder mysteries I’ve read on this book-a-day hamster-wheel that I guessed what was going on earlier than I might have otherwise. But that shouldn’t spoil it for anyone. The House of Silk pays homage to Holmes and Conan Doyle quite elegantly. Horowitz was approved by the estate to write this book, probably on the strength of his other best selling mystery work. Holmes would likely find little fault with it.

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel   Anthony Horowitz | Little, Brown and Company  2011

The String Bean – Edmond Séchan

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I first encountered The String Bean (Le Haricot) as a film and loved it. The mostly black and white French movie by Edmond Séchan, who also created the text for the book, has music but no dialog. It is the story of an old Parisian seamstress who lives alone, many floors up a winding staircase in a dark, shabby building. She is wizened and bent but her spirit is full of color and life.

Each day, after she makes glittering, pearl-encrusted evening bags for sale to elegant shops and has her sparse and simple meal, she puts on her hat and goes out to the public gardens. Wandering the Tuileries—scenes that are in color–the old woman dreams of the lush gardens of her childhood. On the way home, she makes a stop to window-gaze at a florist’s, full of gorgeous blooms she could never afford. One day, she finds an old clay pot with a dead plant that someone has tossed in the trash. She takes the pot home.

Once she has removed the dead plant with her only fork, she carefully pokes a bean into the soil and waters it. Then she sets the pot on her window ledge where it will get the few rays of sun to reach her apartment every day. She tries to protect the seedling from predatory pigeons and neighbors shaking out dusty rugs; she stakes the new leaves so the stem will grow tall. But the pigeons are too many and the sun is too weak for her plant to survive. She pulls a chair out to the hall, where a patch of brighter sun from a skylight will fall on the plant, and sets the pot on the seat.

It isn’t enough. The bean plant wilts and grows pale. So she decides to clandestinely transfer it to a boxwood border surrounding the Tuileries flower gardens. She will lose her daily companion but the bean plant will get plenty of sun and water to flower and grow. What happens next is both heartbreaking and hopeful. The photographs and straightforward text of the book are evocative and powerful, just as the film is.

The tale is an allegory for life and hope that is deceptively simple. As a book, The String Bean could certainly be handed to a kid but the emotions and the underlying concepts are very big—it might take some guidance or some maturity for the story to be appreciated. I’m happy to have experienced both the film and the book. You might have to search for a copy of either but the hunt would be worth it.    

The String Bean   Edmond Séchan | Doubleday  1982

Dorchester Terrace – Anne Perry

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Thomas Pitt has been promoted to head of the Special Branch and there are some questions—a few in his own mind—about whether he is up to the task. Pitt is a brilliant detective but his new role as Commander requires diplomacy, tact, social graces and an instinct for intrigue. In addition, he will hold the fate of many people in his hands—his decisions will be life and death in circumstances that are often ambiguous.

When he learns of suspicious questions about train crossings from Dover to London and then discovers that a Habsburg is scheduled to take that route on a visit to Kensington Palace, he may or may not be onto the early stages of a disastrous political plot. The Foreign Secretary is contemptuous and other complications create awkward situations that frustrate Pitt and may endanger scores of innocent civilians.

Add to this stew a once fabulous elderly revolutionary, a woman whose valiant and colorful exploits were matched only by the roster of her illustrious lovers during a time of unrest and rebellion in the Austrian Empire. Serafina Montserrat was legendary but now she is frail and forgetful, terrified that her ramblings may reveal secrets that can still incite murder and international mayhem. Serafina lives on Dorchester Terrace, confined to bed and the ministrations of a resentful niece, a faithful servant and visits from old friends and acquaintances—until she dies of a massive overdose of laudanum.

Anne Perry’s Dorchester Terrace reignited my interest in Thomas and Charlotte Pitt. The elevated venue in which the Pitts now solve mysteries is more interesting than the former more mundane puzzles I’ve read with the two sleuths. So I suppose I will once again pull this Anne Perry series off the shelf when I come across a few—Perry is a convincing writer with an obsessive tendency to weave detailed history in and out of her stories. The history in this book, a fictional foreshadowing of the events that triggered World War I, is fascinating and at least as interesting as the plot.    

Dorchester Terrace: A Charlotte and Thomas Pitt Novel   Anne Perry | Ballantine  2012

The Bookstore in the Basement

The Upper West Side has a hidden second-hand bookstore that appears and disappears like Howl’s Moving Castle and holds a continually replenishing trove of treasures beyond counting. Twice a month, usually on a Wednesday and a Saturday, although on no fixed schedule, its doors open to the public for a few glorious hours of bargain-price bibliomania.

Pick a category–you’ll find a shelf or a section of titles: fiction, science fiction, fantasy, science, sociology, philosophy, psychology, gender studies, travel, technology, medicine, mysteries, space, poetry, foreign languages, art, photography, self-help, religion. There are CDs and DVDs, even a custom oak bookcase and viewing pedestal for a complete Oxford English Dictionary.  And the children’s books range from classics to current favorites with plenty of I Can Read books for beginner book addicts.

Children’s books, classics to contemporary

The secret stash of books totals about 40,000 volumes each sale, although you probably won’t find multiple copies of any title at one time. Regulars know to bring a sturdy canvas satchel and cash–temptation always overwhelms good sense and an armload of books is heavy to haul home. So, if you are dedicated to the acquisition of delicious books and happen to be in the vicinity of the St. Agnes Library on Amsterdam between 81-82nd, check out the flyer on the door to find the next shop-op in the basement (Wednesday, May 30 from 1:00 – 5:00). There are no overstuffed chairs and bookstore cats to add atmosphere but you could always repair to a nearby pub to peruse your intemperate purchases and use some of the money you saved for a pint or two. Literary New York, paradise for savvy book junkies.


Secrets of the Talking Jaguar – Martin Prechtel

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The Mayan culture has a rich tradition of shamanism that is as wild and wily as any indigenous spiritual way. In Secrets of the Talking Jaguar, Martin Prechtel, a Puebla Indian who hitchhiked to Guatemala and landed in Santiago de Atitlan, relates his own initiation into Tzutujil shamanism by an irascible ninety-year-old wise man nicknamed Chiv. Nicolas Chiviliu Tacaxoy was a famous shaman in the Tzutujil tradition and he believed Martin had been sent to him to train.

It’s really quite a good story—Chiv, the initiating shaman was a respected elder in the village, a powerful healer and sage. Prechtel was a mess, an Indian kid disenfranchised by the simultaneous marginalization and forced assimilation of his tribal culture, set adrift by the early death of his mother, penniless, open to adventure and drifting below the border in Oaxaca and then in the Mayan Highlands. But his visionary justification for all the rough adventures that befell him served him well enough. He had the gift of seeing what happened as portents and milestones on a pilgrimage, his own journey to discover who he was.

Daily life in the colorful village is brutally hard and beautifully symbolic. Ritual is shot through with grace, miracles abound, the gods and the people live in an intimate alliance that must be renewed continually with celebrations, ceremony, contributions and veneration. Prechtel learns deep qualities of attentiveness and mental toughness. He undergoes difficult trials to prepare him to hold the teachings and the power of a sacred lineage. He drinks a lot of local moonshine and learns to listen for the true voices of the rain, the spirits and the wind.

I knew Santiago for some of the time Prechtel studied with his master and lived there as a respected shaman although I had no knowledge of him. I was an outsider without the curiosity or courage to penetrate the closed traditional society and there was no ancient shaman to invite me in. I saw—and feared–the army post at the edge of town, the unease at the assassination of the mission’s Catholic priest and the anticipated reprisals, and the unsmiling faces and breathtaking embroidery of the women in the market. I could sense much of what Prechtel laments about the destruction of the villagers’ culture and vivid spiritual life but he fills in the facts.

The world he stepped into in the 1970s as a guitar-toting vagabond no longer exists. The beliefs he was entrusted with, the skills he was carefully taught, the sacred Village Heart, the medicine bundle of objects that would help him to invoke the power of the gods, all accompanied him into exile—back home to New Mexico. But before he was forced to leave, he trained with a wickedly funny trickster and gave his own heart to the place and its people. As a traveler, I could only glimpse the outside edges of what was forfeit to a modern, uncomprehending world. Martin Prechtel captures the old truths in the pages of a book, keeping them safe for the day when they might emerge into the light of the Highlands once again.    

Secrets of the Talking Jaguar   Martin Prechtel | Penguin Putnam

Bitterblue – Kristin Cashore

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The Queen of Monsea is eighteen years old and she has been trying to sort truth from lies since she was thrust onto the throne at age ten. Lies are the currency of her kingdom, a blighted, twisted, shifting land tortured into madness by her father, a man with a horrible gift for controlling people’s minds.

Bitterblue is the eponymous heroine of Kristin Cashore’s latest volume in the Graceling series. Bitterblue tells the story of her desperate attempts to sort truth from treachery, friend from foe, wisdom from the insanity that grips her kingdom. Closest to her daily and least explicable are her advisors, a small group of men who keep her plied with paperwork and never have a direct answer for any of her questions. Her true friends, gracelings who each have an odd and powerful talent, come and go, offering comfort and counsel, fighting for the rights of people in corrupt kingdoms, removing evil monarchs in the seven kingdoms from their thrones, and guarding Bitterblue from the deadly assaults that dog her every move.

She sneaks out of the castle at night, disguising herself to roam the city and discover what kind of people she rules. In her travels, she is nearly discovered, often endangered and falls in with some clandestine printers, a rakish Robin Hood, and a surreptitious literacy teacher. Some force is keeping the population in the kingdom illiterate and uneducated, although her advisors tell her the castle and kingdom is 90 percent literate. Someone else is killing the truthseekers, the people who search for what really happened during the murdered king’s reign of terror and collect evidence for remuneration and reparation.

Bitterblue’s inner circle, courts, guards and nearly everyone she deals with are not to be trusted and many are actively working to undermine her. The book is dizzy with uncertainty for as long as it takes Blue to begin sorting through the lies, half-truths and rewritten history. It is disorienting to read—the experience of the heroine is the reader’s as well. And the dawning clarity, even as it comes as a relief, reveals the perverse horrors of the real history of Monsea under Bitterblue’s vile father. Even the palace friend who helped Blue and her mother to escape the king before he could practice his sick atrocities on the child has layers of guilt and loathsome memories that devour him.

Blue deciphers a bewilderinging code her mother has embroidered into bed linens and carved into a keepsake chest. The disjointed information the messages impart can never be clarified–her mother was killed by her father as she sacrificed herself so that Blue could escape. But Blue’s persistence and her friends help her to dig for the truth, an unlikely friendship begun in deception evolves through betrayal into a lasting bond. There is not a boring passage in the book.

Bitterblue is a YA fantasy but I begin to think that is a convenience of marketing and shelving. A really good fantasy is suitable for adults and teens—it’s a story that engages and entertains and shouldn’t be pigeonholed. I like Cashore’s work and her worlds. Bitterblue is a strong story to match the others in the series. With any luck, Cashore will continue it.

Bitterblue (Graceling)   Kristin Cashore | Dial Books   2012

The Return of the Feminine and the World Soul – Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

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Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee is a teacher in the Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya Sufi Order and the author of several books on global consciousness and the concept of oneness. The Return of the Feminine and the World Soul is a collection of talks and teachings that expound on his thinking. I picked it up after hearing him speak in a conference with the shaman Sandra Ingerman. It’s unusual to hear a spiritual teacher so wholly committed to the concept that the patriarchal repression for millennia of matriarchal or feminine energy got us into this planetary mess we experience today. Vaughan-Lee believes we must rediscover and honor the feminine if the world is to heal itself and we are to survive.

He makes a compelling argument that the deep knowledge of creation is embodied in woman and that energy is the key to transforming our existence. His beliefs imbue the planet with a life and consciousness and he invokes teachings about the anima mundi or world soul and the lumen dei or divine light and how the material presence of the one is not inferior to the transcendence of the other.

It’s very interesting and might read at first as complicated to an initiate. But the chapters explain and revisit Vaughan-Lee’s arguments so you can grasp his meaning from various perspectives. This is both a strength and a failing of the book. I would recommend reading it over time rather than in one big gulp. Read in a single setting, it feels unnecessarily repetitive. Contemplated in a more leisurely study, The Return of the Feminine and the World Soul, is a lucid primer to another way of looking at the problems we have created on this planet and the ways in which we might fix them.

I borrowed the book from the library but it will go on my acquisitions list because I think I’ll want to revisit it more than once. I’m always resistant to male explanations of why women have the responsibility to repair the damage, but Vaughan-Lee’s writing does seem reasoned and sincere and there is a wisdom to be gained from it. The Return of the Feminine…is a book to underline and to work with. Many of the passages are powerful and beautiful and I will use them to inspire my intuitive inclusion of these ideas in my own fiction.

The Return of the Feminine and the World Soul   Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee | The Golden Sufi Center   2009

La Historia de los Colores – Subcomandante Marcos

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I bought the t-shirt in Palenque. The market there had all the typicos that catch tourists’ eyes but I spied a souvenir shirt with a black and white photograph of a masked guerrilla fighter on it and the caption Subcomandante Marcos. I knew who he was—at least I knew what could be known about him. Marcos was a legendary insurgent leader who might have been a college professor or a university grad student or some other lettered and middle class Mexican. But he had gone underground, taken to the wilderness in the mountains of Chiapas and become the spokesman for the Zapatista guerrilla forces against the Mexican government in the cause of rights for the indigenous people.

Very romantic story but the issues were real and the lives of the people in Chiapas could have used some economic and social justice. I hiked through the jungle for hours with a Lacandon boy as guide to visit the remarkable murals in the ruins of Bonampak. I wandered over the beautiful feminine ruins at Palenque and shared some local rice and beans and brew with fellow travelers. I got shin splints, mosquito bites, astonishing views and great photographs—all research for a novel and soul food for my adventurer’s heart. And when I got home to Manhattan, I wore the t-shirt.

I wore it for a few years; it complemented my pinko hippie credentials nicely. I stopped wearing it after 9-11 when I got funny looks and realized that the masked photograph looked a little bit like Bin Laden. But by then I had unearthed La Historia de los Colores at the Strand bookstore and I read it to my very young kid in Spanish. The book, by Subcomandante Marcos, is a bilingual retelling of a Mayan legend about how colors came to be in a black and white and gray world. The Story of Colors has lush art by Domitila Dominguez on thick coated stock—it’s a pleasure to handle. Today, I re-read it in English.

Probably just as well I read the Spanish to the four-year-old as the legend is very Mayan—the gods are constantly picking fights and bitching about things when they aren’t discovering red in the color of blood and making love so they could become tired and fall asleep. Once they’ve found enough colors, they have a sort of paintball fight at the top of a ceiba tree and get colors all over everything. Boys. In the end, after an interesting evolution of the handful of colors the gods turn up, they grab a macaw and stretch its skimpy gray feathers long enough to hold all the hues and entrust the colors to the bird for safekeeping.

So that’s how the macaw turned into a crayon box and how the world came alive in reds, greens, blues and yellows. For fun, my copy has an errata sheet tucked into it that explains that the National Endowment for the Arts withdrew committed funding for the book. Was the funding failure due to the bad-boy author or the copulation of the colors to give us all those rainbow shades? Congressional pressure, no doubt. Uptight idiots—who elects these people? Not me. I just keep subversive literature around my house where even children can find it. <G> Good book.

The Story of Colors / La Historia de los Colores: A Bilingual Folktale from the Jungles of Chiapas (English and Spanish Edition)    Subcomandante Marcos | Cinco Puntos Press   1996