Friday, March 18, 2016

A Review of In the Oneness of Time: The Education of a Diviner, by William Douglas Horden

A Review of In the Oneness of Time: The Education of a Diviner, by William Douglas Horden (Burdett, NY: Larson Publicans, 2015). ISBN: 978-1-936012-76-3 (paperback)
By Joey Madia
It is said that, when you are “following your bliss,” as Joseph Campbell would say, or walking the Good Red Road of Native American spirituality, the teachings you most need in the moment will find you. Six and a half years ago, this maxim was made manifest in a book co-authored by William Douglas Horden titled The Toltec I-Ching (also from Larson Publications). When it arrived in the mail with a request for review, I was in the midst of opening an arts education center that would house the social justice theatre company of which I am the founding artistic director. As with any big endeavor, there were endless meetings with political and community leaders, business groups, educators, potential donors, and prospective teachers and it seemed that everyone had a different idea of what the arts education center should be, including its interior design, programmatic content, and even hours of operation.
Looking for answers deep within, in order to honor (and protect) the mission of the theatre company and our other arts programs, I found The Toltec I-Ching to be an invaluable aid.
A great deal has happened with my arts mission since that time, including closing the center and leaving the state where it was founded, and changing the name of the theatre company, all in part to honor the messages gleaned from The Toltec I-Ching. In recent months, I have begun to lay the foundations in our current home to create new material for the company, hire administrative staff and passionate creatives, and set up classes and auditions. Not long after the process was begun, I received for review Horden’s newest book, In the Oneness of Time. It has proven to be just the guide I needed to find clarity and strength for this new journey.
Perhaps, upon reflection, it is more accurate to say this stage of a continuing journey, because this book is unlike any other I have read. It consists of two parts: the first is called Teachings and the second provides Commentary on the Teachings. The interesting thing is that the Teachings are each titled by year, but they are not sequential. At times they are grouped by loose themes, such as geography or stories about specific flora and fauna, although, with each turn of the page, I found my default need to analyze and categorize (to “make sense of”) the structure slipping away, and I increasingly took each Teaching as it came, as its own opportunity for engagement, contemplation, and meditation.
Horden’s Teachings vary widely in their content and also in their style (some report the facts, while others are a poetic prose that recalled to me William Blake), although all share a surface simplicity that belies their true depth, leaving the reader to explore as deeply as he or she will. I chose not to read the accompanying Commentary for each Teaching, instead reading all of the Teachings and then the Commentary section. This allowed me to do the good work of engagement, contemplation, and meditation “on my own” and then, when I felt it was helpful, revisit the Teachings after reading the Commentary for each.
I encourage you to explore the book however your intuition guides you. I plan on re-reading it yearly, taking a different approach each time. As I change, so shall the methods I use to glean the treasures of the Teachings and Commentary.
Although In the Oneness of Time covers many topics, its “spine” or “through-line” as a writer might say, is the bridging of the two Realities: the tonal (“ordinary consensual reality”) and the nagual (“the non-ordinary reality of shamans and mystics”). The methods of moving between them, and of entering the In-Between World, are the most resonant aspect of the book at this point in my focus and learning, and the Teachings reflect the exquisite balance I mentioned earlier that Horden’s writing styles maintain between these two realities. These dual perspectives consistently at work in our lives demonstrate the value of widening the overlap between the tonal and nagual, for this sweet spot of the In-Between World is the creation-space for Meaning and Healing—of ourselves, our immediate community, and our world.
Another aspect of the book that has high resonance for me (and why I think it is prominently compared to Carlos Castaneda’s books about the brujo Don Juan Matus) is the wisdom Horden’s teacher passes down about the nature of teaching and learning. Teaching takes time to be absorbed, before the student can go off and become a teacher him- or herself. Rushing the process creates a great deal of mis-learning that then translates into misunderstandings as opinion masquerading as wisdom is (inaccurately) passed on. This is akin to the idea of the 10,000 hours that one must put in to achieve mastery in any area; when Horden’s teacher, Master Khigh, says that he took a vow to wait thirty years before teaching, it reminded me of what the actor Eli Wallach said about learning the Sanford Meisner technique: it takes 25 years. Perhaps that is the time it takes for the ego to recede sufficiently to not mar the process.
Alongside such powerful books on the nature of living and dying such as Neil Donald Walsch’s Home with God: In a Life That Never Ends and Elaine Mansfield’s Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief, In the Oneness of Time provides comfort and clarity on the nature of the soul and its experiences on Earth and elsewhere. Horden’s experiences with life after death are highlights of the book.
For those interested in this material in a multi-media format, either when deciding whether or not the book is for them, or as value-added after/while reading the book, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fgd432XGX0w
In this age of divisiveness, Horden’s message of Communication and Communion is a blessing; it will no doubt illuminate many a reader’s path.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Review of Terror’s Identity, by Sarah Maury Swan

(published through Sable Books, 2015). ISBN: 978-0-9968036-3-2 (paperback)


Young audiences (YA) is a hot market. From Maze Runner to Hunger Games, Mortal Instruments to Divergent, stories that can hold interest, empower the reader, and provide a satisfying ending or intense cliffhanger are not only guaranteed to sell (and often secure a film deal) but they serve a much more important purpose: in the age of cyber-tech and video gaming (often the same thing), they keep traditional book-based storytelling alive.
Terror’s Identity, by Sarah Maury Swan, delivers the best of YA in all the right ways. From the very first page, the story of a sixteen-year-old boy’s navigation of a no-less-than life-threatening situation for him and his family kept me engaged and eager to find out what would happen next. The characters, both teenagers and adults, are believable in both their actions and dialogue, and the story itself is told with insistent pace and an elegant simplicity while the plot is rich, complex, and full of interesting clues and misdirection.
The main character, Aidan, is your typical high school kid—struggling to find his place, awkward with girls, into his pets and hot and cold with his family and keen to know about life. His father, however, works for an anti-terrorism unit—a situation that necessitates the family leaving their home in the middle of the night as the book opens as their house burns to the ground and their former life with it.
Have you ever been the new kid at school? Not an easy thing under the best of circumstances. Having started my first day of freshman year in a brand new town 2 hours from where I had grown up after a series of events that, although less dramatic than Aidan’s, were easily as traumatic, I immediately felt for him and his sister Maya as they tried to make the best of their thorny situation. Saying goodbye to the family pets, their father, and their names/identities all in the course of an action-packed night, Aidan (now Brent) and Maya (now Angie) struggle to fit in among queries about where they’ve come from by students and teachers, neither of which are always kind about it.
I particularly appreciated the trouble Aidan/Brent had keeping it all straight. From computer log-ins to lies about his father being dead to mistakes about the little details we don’t think about under normal circumstances, he finds himself almost outing the truth of his situation numerous times. This makes sense, given that teenagers are, by nature, curious about new people who come into their lives and there is nothing that takes more energy and focus than being consistent in your secrets and lies.
Another strength of Terror’s Identity is that Swan has approached Terrorism (a word that has always been a battleground of definition among scholars) with all the complexity that it deserves, which serves the story by keeping the reader guessing about who the true terrorists are—what should be safe harbors often are not and those we are conditioned to distrust turn out to be more like us than we know—and also sends a much needed message to young readers that nothing should be taken at face value when it comes to terrorism, whether it be religious, economic, or political. I also appreciated that the terrorists were so full of their own self-righteousness that they made plenty of mistakes along the way.
Structurally, the book has everything one would expect for the target audience and genre—short chapters that are briskly paced; a mid-point complication that sets up an even brisker pace toward the climax; and an accessibility of language and syntax. There are effective emotional moments and the books dwells on relationships without becoming saccharine.
I recommend this book for early teen to mid-teen reading groups in libraries and classrooms. According to the acknowledgments, the first eight chapters were critiqued by a class of students during the development process, which shows the author’s commitment to being authentic as possible without being a modern-world teenager herself.





Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Review of The Jack of Souls, by Stephen C. Merlino

 (Tortoise Rampant, 2014). ISBN: 978-0-9862674-1-3

Fantasy writing is in many ways akin to a Jackson Pollock painting—at first glance, it seems like a simple enough art form to execute. Swirl a stick, drip some paint, and let dry. Or, in the case of Fantasy, create some countries (include some islands) engaged in political intrigue; brew some cultural misunderstanding; have some opposing armies; throw in a few dragons and/or magic, a little bit of romance, just a dash of sex and rough language, and publish.
Here’s the problem with these ideas. Have you ever tried to replicate a Jackson Pollock? It’s not at all easy. It’s the same with Fantasy.
Just as Jackson Pollock combined uniquely individual instinct, symbolism, and technique to create canvases rich in meaning, a successful Fantasy novel takes the well-worn tropes of the genre and reconstitutes them through the (hopefully unique and powerful) vision and voice of the genre. Tolkien, Martin, Rowling—perhaps the Triad that will forever be the Standard by which all future Fantasy is judged—all created distinctive works within the confines of the genre.
Stephen C. Merlino’s The Jack of Souls fares well against the Standards of the Fantasy world. His set-ups, characters, and stakes combine to create a rich tapestry of details and plot points that keep the reader turning the pages, chapter after chapter. While starting with stock characters, such as the book’s (anti-)hero, Harric—a young vagabond with a mix of street skills and attitude—he quickly takes them to new places through a universe that mixes black magic, chivalry, and political maneuvering in ways similar to Game of Thrones, but with far different emphases.
Each chapter opens with a quote from a song or book that exists within the world (the Arkendian Isles) Merlino has created with such obvious love and care. This device anchors the action in a much larger, older environment of factional histories without bogging down the plot with Biblical lists of families and war chronicles—a strategy that makes Merlino’s book far more readable than any of Martin’s.
Another area where Merlino succeeds at least as well or even better than the Standards is in his use of magic, which is deeply integrated in the cultures he’s created and rarely used as a Deus ex Machina to get the author out of otherwise inescapable scenarios. This magic-to-Machina ratio is a sure tipoff as to the ability of a modern author to deliver something new and compelling to the reader of Fantasy, and Merlino comes out on the winning end of the equation.
Closely related to the magic is the darkness of many of the characters, including a priest. Pulling from such tropes as vampires, wraiths, and gargoyles, Merlino adds his own dark originals to create a tapestry of evil that goes deep instead of over the top—a device that allows his heroes to be plenty flawed and non-heroic at times, since, by comparison with the forces amassing against them, they are still the group we’d like to see win.
In the final analysis, it is clear that Merlino has practiced his craft and honed it to a fine point. The prose is exquisite and the plotting well-crafted and devoid of filler.

Book One of the Unseen Moon Series, The Jack of Souls is a winner of the 2014 PNWA and SWA Awards for Fantasy. There are two planned sequels:  The Knave of Souls and  The Prince of Souls.