Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Review of New Dimensions of Being, by Nora Caron

 (2013, Homebound Publications, ISBN: 978-1-938846-11-3)

In 2009 I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing the first novel in the New Dimensions Trilogy, Journey to the Heart. Like her main character’s spiritual journey, Nora Caron’s journey as a writer is steadily developing, and I gleaned even more from the follow-up than I did from the original.

In Mexico for about a year, Lucina, a Canadian transplant trying to find herself and break from the dysfunctional habits that had so limited her life, is living with Teleo, the medicine man from Journey to the Heart, who is the son of the old wise woman, SeƱora Labotta.

Lucina, although progressing in her journey, is far from over her acerbic, sarcastic tendencies, and even in this new world of spirit and oneness, when in crisis [which is often] she falls back to the advice of her more traditionally based former therapist, Dr. Field.

Themes like spirit and matter, love and loss, and life and death course through the novel, and we meet several new characters who walk the razor’s edge between them. There is John, a rough-and-tumble holy man; Mathias, a good-looking stud unlucky in love; and his female counterpart, Maria—a former Hollywood actress who schools Lucina on a variety of matters of the heart, including the personality archetype of the Vampire (Caron herself is an actress and screenwriter who lives in Montreal with an office in Los Angeles).

As we join Lucina in the dark night of her soul, the guides and companions she encounters share a plethora of potent and profound spiritual wisdoms—from the prophecies of the Hopi and the Mayans, to the harnessing of the Sacred Feminine Energies, to the interpretation of dreams. Of great importance to our present state of being is the notion of time speeding up as humanity edges ever closer to a shift in consciousness, and Caron elucidates these ideas as well as writers and lecturers like James Redfield, Wayne Dyer, and Caroline Myss.

Lucina’s commitment is matched only by her self-doubt and now-and-again retreats into her former habits. All of us, no matter how long we have studied matters of Soul and Spirit, no matter how long we have walked upon our journey, can both empathize and derive a measure of comfort from this well-told tale of one woman’s journey into a “new dimension of being.”

This book, the second in a trilogy, ends with just enough of a cliffhanger to create anticipation for the third in the series, Jaguar Dreams, due out in June of this year.

I look forward to reading it. 

Some words about the author, because one senses that she and Lucina overlap in more than a few areas of life. A native of Montreal, Quebec, Nora’s education and passion include photography and film, as well as English literature, with an emphasis on the Renaissance and the great bard, William Shakespeare. She is fluent in French, English, Spanish, and German. She has also co-written a feature Western called Wyoming Sky through her production company, Oceandoll Productions.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Review of Three Poetry books by Jack Galmitz

 (available in paper format from the publishers or at Calameo.com as e-books)
By Joey Madia
As Founding Editor of www.newmystics.com, a literary and art site that hosts pages for nearly seventy authors and artists from around the world, I have the opportunity to give the creators of innovative and thought-provoking poetry a forum for their work.
As often happens, in cultivating the e-publisher/author relationship, I am asked to review additional work by the author not hosted at New Mystics. In the case of Jack Galmitz, when links to his e-books were provided, I visited Calameo.com and chose three titles—Objects, Yellow Light, and A Semblance—for review. There are several other titles from this author available there as well and you can find more of his writing at Scribd.
In our correspondence preparing for the launch of his New Mystics author page in February 2014, Galmitz said that his poetry is based on “the indeterminacy created by ambiguity—sometimes two words that are joined together when left alone on the page makes one realize there are many ways to take them and this leaves doubt and makes one look and be aware of what is there and this is the purpose I think of art.”
This philosophy brings to mind other authors whose works I have reviewed and New Mystics hosts, such as Ed Baker, Mark Sonnefeld, and Eileen Tabios. They ask much of the reader, and offer much in return.
The first book, Objects (Gean Tree Press, Aberdeen, Scotland, 2013), opens with a quote from John Cage, whose book Silence is a meditation on music, life, Zen, the classification and growing of mushrooms, and myriad other subjects. Objects is minimalist—there are most times no more than three or four words on a page, operating as sutras or koans. An example:
“an inchworm dangling arms”
and on the facing page:
“standing still”
To contemplate the arms of an inchworm, or the idea that it is “standing” is to extract the endless potential in half a dozen words and to face the fact that our perceptions—and one of their modes of expression: LANGUAGE—are all too rushed, shallow, and imprecise.
[An alternate reading, as suggested by the author, is to break the sentence into its different images and contemplate each separately: an inchworm and dangling arms; also, one might not run the two pages together, but keep them distinct]
Since I mentioned Cage, here is another for contemplation:
“house of concrete music.”
Another, “absorbing a book without words,” evokes childhood storybooks and the medium of film, where image is everything and words are subservient and hardly needed at all. A painting, a symphonic movement, a facial expression—all of these are books without words. All tell us stories if we are still enough to listen.
Yellow Light (yettobenamedfreepress.org, 2013).
A Yellow Light, according to the forward, refers here to the traffic light cautioning one to slow down, or to proceed with care. This is very much in line with my thoughts about how the poems in Objects operate.
One of the first poem-lines is “A brick wall raining.” What does this “mean” to you? I had the image of a wall being sledge-hammered or blown to bits in an explosion, but one might just as easily consider a brick wall and the fact that it is raining. You might then picture the wall with rain pouring down on it.
Or not.
That’s a lot of potential for just four words.
These poems operate as a language-symbol Rorschach, or, again, as in Objects, like a sutra, koan, or meditation.
Here are two others on which to meditate:
“crowds on the street performance art”
“walked by the dog”
Both of these, because of my gestalt, my work, my alignment with the Universe at this moment in time, are resonant. As a writer, director, storyteller, and actor, people as performance art, whatever the place or context, is a constant condition and a rich bounty for my perception.  As an artist with deep roots in social justice, the image of the dog walking the owner (or the tail of the dog wagging itself; or the image of the dog chasing its tail, as used by Jack Sarfatti to describe the ring singularity of black and white holes in space) is resonant and inspiring.
The poem-line “Crumpled paper music” became synchro-serendipitous as I crushed the paper with my notes for the previous section and heard the music it made as I read this phrase on the next piece of paper.
“seeing rabbits go to work”—are we the rabbits? If the rabbits are actual rabbits, and they are burrowing under a farmer’s fence for carrots, is it work to them at all?
There is a section toward the end of the book with all of the words typeset with their letter-sounds stretched out, as though the yellow light has become a deep, deep signal to slow the blood, the brain, the boundaries way, way down. It took some patience, some further investment to read them. It was well worth it.
The book ends with two prose poems. The first, “Like Lichen,” is one long sentence, again forcing the reader to slow down and proceed with caution, lest the meaning be misinterpreted or lost without the grammatical meaning-mapping that punctuation provides.
[there again goes the music of the crumpling paper]
The second prose piece, “The Strings to Heaven,” reads as a meditation on the relationship of humanity and techno-scientific “achievement.” One grew smaller, more naked, more isolated, as the other grew, as if the current trajectory demands that one or the other ultimately prevail—like in the nightmare tales of Asimov, Dick, and Wells.
The third book, A Semblance [read as “assemblance” if you’d like], begins: “Poems for the ordinary mind.”
Like the image of the traffic light in Yellow Light, this evokes a position of engagement in the reader at the onset. An ordinary mind—meaning: Don’t dig too deep? Take things at face value? Don’t seek connection, but engage with the words in the moment, in isolation, as they are? And what is a not-ordinary mind? An extraordinary mind?
I have chosen two poems from A Semblance to list here, free of commentary, and in closing:

The savior
showed up
the day after

Take off your shoes
Before you enter the house
It is courteous

[one final sound of the music of crumpling paper, to accompany the ending clack of the keys]

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Review of Seth Hammons’s The Silent Sound [Book Two of The Keys]

In September of 2012 I wrote a very positive review of the independently published debut novel in this series, Unheard Of. The sequel does not disappoint.
            Picking up where the first book left off, The Silent Sound finds the three main characters—Arco, Chastin, and Rachel—setting out to sea with two brothers named Zeke and Zender, a mysterious and doom-prone old fisherman, and a tough as nails female captain in the Imperial Navy after the islands are attacked by a sea-dwelling race of beings known as the demar.
            There is plenty of action and conflict among the ship’s disparate group of passengers, complicated by a pair of thought-talking music sticks named Maletalio—the unifying force among the three main characters and the holder of many of the secrets of the Keys.
            In the tried and true tradition of a fantasy series, Hammons extends his themes and his world in The Silent Sound, although the central conflict is still between the Imperial Iori, with their formal schooling, strong military, and reliance on Science and the workaday Brecks, a more pagan, peaceful class of farmers and artisans.
            Not only do we visit new places, like the difficult-to-navigate sea channel called Typhon’s Fangs and the once-center of music in the Breckish lands, Coda Misung, but we gain new insights into the history and motivations of Arco (the sailor-turned-drunk-turned hero).
            I also enjoyed the level of intrigue and magic in The Silent Sound. Hammons provides just enough to keep us engaged without resorting to gimmicks. Even more so than in the first book, these elements should hold great appeal for lovers of J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin.
            Hammons writes a tightly constructed, efficient narrative with an insistent pace and the syntax and rhythms of his dialogue gives a strong sense of the different cultures from which his characters come. It is clear from his descriptions that he knows this world well.
            Similar to the first book, there are well-executed “reveals” and plot turns and the ending makes the reader anxious to read the next book(s) in the series.           
As I did with Unheard Of, I heartily recommend The Silent Sound to readers in their early teens to adults. The beautifully rendered maps by Zeyan Zhang (who also did the cover) and a Glossary make it easy to keep track of the detailed world Hammons presents us with, and present opportunities for reading clubs to engage with the books and the timely, relevant social, economic, and politic questions they explore.


Saturday, January 4, 2014

All We Need is Love: A Review of P. S. Bartlett’s Fireflies

(Mythos [Imprint of GMTA Publishing, 2013, fifth anniversary edition), ISBN: 978-0-615754-28-4

We live in an age of flash. An age of CGI and ultra-action in our storytelling that breeds endless comic-book films with flimsy stories and one-dimensional heroes causing brain-jarring explosions.
            In many ways, publishing has followed suit, filling the stacks with dark visions of horror and title after title full of violence and sex attempting to keep afloat paper-thin story structure and one-dimensional heroes and heroines.
            So it is very refreshing to read a novel like P. S. Bartlett’s Fireflies. A novel that tells, simply and elegantly, the story of a family’s love. Now, don’t get me wrong—there is violence, and sex, and there is even a supernatural series of events involving a 6-year-old boy, Ennis, and his abilities to heal through the help of what is believed to be angels.
            But at the heart of this adventure, which takes place in 1881 in rural Pennsylvania, are the complex relationships of Irish immigrants Owen and Sarah Whelan and their seven children, several of whom are courting.
            Bartlett’s story structure is sound and evenly paced, and she handles the varying degrees of Irish brogue in the family with dexterity. There is just enough to give an authentic flavor to the dialogue without bogging the reader down.
            As in any small town, then and now, there are an abundance of secrets and a wide array of dark hearts and diseased characters. But they serve as obstacles and to raise the stakes rather than to merely shock and artificially drive the narrative.
            With an abundance of sub-plots, including periodic glimpses into the past lives and loves of Owen and Sarah, it is not completely clear who the central character is, although their daughter Teagan, with her aspirations to be a doctor like her father and brother and independent attitude certainly fits the bill.
            I mentioned that there is a supernatural element. The biggest surprise and therefore the greatest strength of Bartlett’s novel is that I found myself fully invested in the more magical, sacred elements of the story and I believed the ending explanation without question.
            Fireflies touches the heart without being saccharine or overblown in its belief in the boundless power of love. Sacrifice is a matter of family honor and community necessity. No one sets out to be a hero. The Whelans are by and large innocents, in the way the Waltons were. And speaking of classic television, for fans of Highway to Heaven, Touched by an Angel, and Ghost Whisperer [before it went off the rails and become about other things than the unwavering love of the husband and wife despite her abilities] you can’t do any better.
            More and more—whether it be my reaching my mid-40s or as an antidote for all of the flash and flimsiness of so much modern storytelling, I am compelled to tout the value of books like Bartlett’s.  Although I am Italian and not Irish, the synergy of the immigrant family making the most of their chances in America by sticking together and honoring fundamental family values speaks to me. I miss my grandparents and great-grandparents. I miss the big family gatherings where food was a central element and your place in the family was earned over time in minor but meaningful ways such as getting to sit at the “big people’s” table or being dealt a hand at the penny-ante poker games later in the evening.
            The Whelans spoke to me across time and nationality.
            My one wish is that an editor’s eye has the opportunity to look over the manuscript to clean up some of the typos. The cover, typesetting and overall design are appealing and professional and the writing is so strong that little things like a misspelled word or misplaced punctuation tend to stick out.

            If you are in the market for a simple tale well told, with well-drawn characters and a compelling story, then Fireflies will not disappoint you.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Plumbing the Depths: A Review of William Azuski’s Travels in Elysium

 (Iridescent Publishing, 2013), ISBN: 978-3-9524015-2-1
By Joey Madia
What is the nature of reality? What is the value in Metaphor? Is there a single Truth to human existence or are our truths as unique as the number of people who populate the planet, or stars in the sky?
William Azuski’s engaging array of characters tackle all of these questions and more in the metaphysical thriller Travels in Elysium. Akin to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and John Fowles’ The Magus, Travels is rich in geography and symbolism and invites frequent pauses (facilitated by its short chapters) for contemplation.
At 539 pages of small, densely packed type, the book is as physically daunting as those of Eco and Fowles and just as metaphorically rich in material. The descriptions of the Greek island and its people and culture are needfully concrete—they anchor the reader in a solid landscape from which the story and characters launch into spiritual, metaphysical, and atemporal realms. Without such detail the reader would risk becoming as lost in the ether as some of the characters find themselves.
I term the book a thriller because it operates as a classic mystery on many levels. Using a team of archaeologists as his metaphor for the human search for meaning in our past and present, Azuski brings the reader along multiple points in history and unravels the pasts of the various characters in ingenious ways.
At the heart of the mystery is the dig site, which functions under the direction of the driven and draconian Marcus James Huxley, a sort of Professor Challenger-esque explorer who may have just discovered Atlantis (with an Oracle of Delphi–based twist).
Placed at odds with this mentor-trixter figure is the hero-student of the story, the 22-year-old Nicholas, who seizes the Call to Adventure, journeying from the Ordinary World of his broken family history to the Special World of the island dig site, where he is tested by Huxley and numerous threshold guardians (speaking in Joseph Campbell’s terms of the Hero’s Journey). This use of the dyad replicates itself in terms of love, politics, philosophy, economics, professional rivalry, art, and even the nature of life and death involving a broad scope of characters, all overlapping in richly reinforcing ways.
The great strength of Travels in Elysium is that it is continually operating on multiple levels, to which I have already alluded. In historical terms, there are the ancient peoples of the island (victims of a volcanic eruption)—both indigenous and migrant; the current inhabitants of the island (caught in the midst of a war between the military junta and other forces); and the archaeologists—the interlopers who must deal with the latter in order to reach the former. And linking them all are the specters of Plato, the Oracle, and the Ferryman.
From the descriptions of the daily meals and the landscape to those of complex philosophical/spiritual systems, Azuski is constantly reinforcing his major themes on both the micro and macro levels and still manages to keep a spirited pace. The language is never needlessly dense (although it is beautifully rendered and ornate).
Will Travels in Elysium answer the many questions that its characters pose? For me, it offered possibilities without dogma or the definitive, which I found highly satisfying. It is another tool, another perspective, on the road of my own unique journey to, and in, Elysium. As detailed as it is, I found myself engaging with the story on a daily basis in different ways depending on whatever else I was reading, experiencing, and meditating on during that particular day. For instance, I was intrigued by a pervasive amount of references to the throat near the end of the book, correlating with research and practice I am doing on/with the 5th chakra (centerpiece of the artist’s voice and work). Rather than suggest that the author was specifically referencing the chakra system, I instead invite the reader to remain open in the heart and mind to see what mysteries are invited into one’s own soul by this thought-provoking story.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Review of David Karmi’s Survivor’s Game (2013, DK Montague, ISBN: 978-0-615-41295-6; davidkarmi.com)

Every now and again I am sent a book for review that breaks down the partitions that I have constructed to separate the various aspects of my professional life. David Karmi’s Survivor’s Game is one of those books. I am going to review this book specifically from the point of view of my role as an artistic director and as resident playwright for two theatre companies that specialize in social justice and story-based education for young audiences and as a writing teacher and the author of the novel Jester-Knight.
Survivor’s Game is specifically named to evoke popular adventure books for young readers like Hunger Games. From there one instantly thinks of the Harry Potter series, Chronicles of Narnia, and other best-selling series where young people come of age through life-threatening circumstances. These much-needed stories at the core of modern culture serve as essential rites of passage. The very popular George R.R. Martin series A Song of Fire and Ice (which just finished its third season on HBO as Game of Thrones) features several young characters, making it appealing to teen readers/viewers. My novel Jester-Knight has seen a similar trend.
There are also several video games, such as Skyrim, that use these genre devices.
As timeless and powerful as these stories are, they are fantasy. They happen in worlds completely or substantially different from our own. And although the authors strive to make their characters relatable and their worlds detailed and inviting to immerse into, there is always the recognition that “this isn’t real, and could never actually happen to me.”
Put Holocaust survivor David Karmi’s memoir in their hands, and they cannot use that “out.”
I am impressed with Mr. Karmi’s engaging narrative style. The book reads like a first-person novel. To borrow from scholars like Joseph Campbell and script and story advisors like Christopher Vogler, it is constructed like a classic Hero’s Journey, with an easily identifiable three-act model of Separation, Initiation, and Return. It begins in the Ordinary World, with a loving Jewish family with strong traditions culturally and religiously and quickly moves to the Call to Adventure as the Nazis gain power and young David’s family is deported from Hungary into Poland (Separation), where they are pulled apart at Auschwitz. From there (Initiation), David is taken to the Warsaw ghetto and on to Dachau and Landsberg in Germany, culminating in a death march to the Tyrol Mountains on the Italian border where the Allies finally free he and his fellow prisoners (Return).
It could have ended there. But upon David’s return to postwar life, he chose to not play it safe, but heeded at least two more Calls to Adventure. He first went to Palestine, fighting for the independence of the Jewish people (including enduring the use of gas by the British army to remove passengers from a transport ship [the British were siding with the Arab nations because of access to petroleum]) and then joining the Army in the new nation of Israel, where he met Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and served under future Prime Minister Ariel Shanon. He later went to America and built hundreds of homes in Brooklyn and elsewhere before turning to the construction of office buildings and condos.
David survives by using his wits and instincts and by knowing when to trust the advice of the mentors he encounters in the camps. He also demonstrates a fierce work ethic and the ability to not only earn money, but to employ it wisely to further his chances of success.
Survivor’s Game is filled with heroes and villains, threshold guardians and mentors, including a Wehrmacht lieutenant that arranges for David to be his orderly and personal messenger, eventually taking him to dinner with his family. It uses short chapters that serve like “episodes” and subtly employs narrative devices like foreshadowing and explores all of its major themes on micro and macro levels.
I defy any young reader to brush off the impact of what Karmi describes in the camps, whether it be the living and work conditions, the incessant death, the chilling irony of the sign that hung at the entrance of the concentration camps that read arbeit macht frei [work will make you free], or the SS officers that decided who lived and died by the direction in which they chose to point their thumb.
In the end, what resonates most clearly in Survivor’s Game is Karmi’s unwavering sense of hope and faith. He writes, “If you lost your belief or will to endure and suffer, you might as well have walked out toward the nearest fence and let the guards shoot you down.”
He also chooses to focus on Forgiveness instead of Revenge, an invaluable lesson for our immediacy-driven, cyber-times, and the violence that they bring.  
Survivor’s Game is a welcome addition to books like Diary of Anne Frank and Eli Wiesel’s Night and with its fresh approach and appealing narrative style, could be used in classrooms and as a discuss starter for community groups that work with teens.

Monday, June 17, 2013

A Review of Ronald Brown’s Memoirs of a Modern-Day Drifter

(2013, Bookstand Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-61863-517-4; http://www.bookstandpublishing.com/book_details/Memoirs_of_a_Modernday_Drifter)
By Joey Madia
[Disclaimer: Ronald Brown has studied creative writing with me for 3 years. I served as editor on this book from concept to final draft]
What it means to be a man has continually evolved in the past 70 or so years. In many ways, the Marlboro man image has lost its power—men who are too aggressive, too take-charge, too, well, manly, have come to be seen as an artifact of a less enlightened time. Robert Bly’s Iron John and the Fire in the Belly movement rose in the late eighties and early nineties as the old models of manhood began to crumble and the male of our species began to come untethered from many of the guiding principles that served my father’s and his father’s generations.
Don’t get me wrong—there’s a fine line between being a strong man and being an overly controlling, argumentative, and just plain violent and miserable SOB. Too much of anything—yelling, drinking, carousing, drifting—can be bad for a man; and his family.
These are the matters at the heart of Memoirs of a Modern-Day Drifter, a complex yet seamless hybrid of fact and fiction; a look at one hard-living man’s life in the coal camps of West Virginia, the jungles of Vietnam, the open miles of the Atlantic Ocean, the highways of the Midwest and Southwest; and his relentless search for stability and meaning.
Along the way, the drifter, named Danny, looks to drugs and alcohol, women, a myriad of jobs in countless places, the Church, and even short periods of criminal activity to forge a sense of self. He is a self-sabotager—a man burning miles by car, boat, motorcycle, and 18-wheeler in an at-times almost desperate attempt to outrun the shadow of his abusive father.
Danny (and by extension, Brown himself) is not shy about sharing his lowest moments—his descent into utter brutality while in Vietnam, his continued violence after, his broken relationships and lack of involvement in the lives of his two sons… Danny addresses two packages containing the manuscript to them on the last night of his life. The prologue and epilogue are their responses.
Through it all, the reader cannot help but feel for Danny. He is deeply damaged by spending his formative years with an abusive parent, and his time in Vietnam also makes an indelible impact. We feel an almost constant sense of loss as we follow his adventures. And his sense of humor and ultimate heroism go a long way in endearing him to us.
Brown—who is also a playwright—writes with a strong, compelling voice. His dialogue is life-like and engaging, and he presents us with a cast of characters that run the gamut from light to dark and back again.
Whether a drifter yourself, a man lost in the ever-changing models for what manhood can and should be, or the child of a man who was so busy fighting his demons he wasn’t there to help you fight your own, Memoirs of a Modern-Day Drifter will resonate with you. Although leading up to contemporary times, it is most powerfully a chronicle of the 1950s through the 1970s and what profound an effect they had on American society.
Brown has given us the very best of the memoir format—brutal honesty, the personal couched in the historical, plenty of high and low points, and a compass for gauging our own travels upon the road of modern life.
His life—and Danny’s—will increase in meaning with every copy read.