Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A Review of Emily’s Ride to Courage, by Sarah Maury Swan (CreateSpace, 2017). ISBN: 978-1978170179 (paperback)

Eighteen months ago I reviewed Sarah Maury Swan’s Young Adult (YA) novel Terror’s Identity, which tells the story of family who has to move from their home and assume secret identities because of the father’s work fighting terrorism. The story was told through the point of view of the teenage son and it was quite the action-packed thriller.
Emily’s Ride to Courage—although it shares similarities with Terror’s Identity, such as the upheaval of a family because of a parent’s commitment to fighting evil in the world—is a much different book in tone and pace.
Emily is not only the title character, but our narrator. Readying for her seventh grade year, with all of the self-doubt, excess energy, and shifting emotions of a girl her age, Emily is dealing with the news that her mother, a doctor, is going to Afghanistan to serve in the medical corps. Because Emily’s father travels a great deal for work, Emily and her 14-year-old dance-obsessed sister Jen will be spending the summer with their grandfather, a man well set in his ways.
I bet you already see the conflicts that might come.
Emily’s narration is somewhere between a polished “what I did on my summer vacation” essay and a series of “dear diary” entries. This takes nothing away from the quality of the book. Swan has plenty of subtext and storytelling framework to keep the action moving forward, an ability she demonstrated in Terror’s Identity.
Swan, a long-time horse enthusiast, is writing about a subject that she obviously knows well. Having once been very close with a college-level equestrian and having an 18-year-old daughter who has been riding and caring for horses since she was 5, I was able to both apply what I have learned over the years to my experience with the story and talk with my daughter about some of the details of horse health and training that Swan includes in Emily’s Ride to Courage.
My daughter has also made me a fan of the Canadian mega-hit TV show Heartland, which takes place on a horse farm and features pre-teen and teenage girls that have similar journeys to self-knowledge and maturity by working with horses as Emily. The grandfather in Heartland is the archetype of the old grizzly with a heart of gold, and Emily’s grandfather shares those traits—a combination of wisdom and sensibility that is important in our fast-paced, “modern” world. I was lucky enough to have all four of my grandparents through early adulthood, and their advice and role-modeling was invaluable during my teenage years.
The trope of the lost pre-teen taking solace and confiding in an animal is a gem, and Swan uses it well. As Emily tries to deal with her grandfather’s expectations, opinions (which are borderline superstitions), and habits, her sister’s growing frustration with being stuck in the middle of nowhere without the comfort of her first love—dance—and then the news that their mother has gone missing, we really feel for her. She is truly doing the best she can under tough circumstances, and watching the arc of her development unfold through her narration will be empowering for YA readers.
On top of her familial challenges, Emily is trying to conquer two major fears—riding horses and math. Even as a nearly 50-year-old man, I sympathized with her on both counts. I’ve done better at the former than the latter.
Emily’s best friend in the story is a horse named Gemini. Together they become the heroes of the story—learning to trust one another, standing up for each other in low moments, and working together in the heart-racing climax.
Emily also has help from a girl her age named Kat. Swan uses Kat and her family to widen the world for Emily and Jen from the farm to the town at the midpoint of the book.
I am a fan of any book that empowers our youth—that reminds them through the art of storytelling that our passions drive and sustain us through the tough times, and the obstacles they present, if we are brave enough to face them, help us grow and add beauty and satisfaction to our lives that become increasingly valuable the older we get.
Emily’s mother is a welcome role model. In how many books, even ones aimed at YA, are the kids totally on their own, their parents creating more obstacles than they are helping their children navigate? With large amounts of service women and men still over seas and the threat of new wars constantly looming as we approach the close of the second decade of the twenty-first century, Emily’s Ride to Courage is an invaluable resource for the thousands of families affected by this reality.
I applaud Sarah Maury Swan for being so generous an author as to share her talent to make the world a more manageable place for her young readers.

Monday, September 18, 2017

“Postmodern Vampirism”: A Review of Grief for Heart (the fourth book in the Vincent du Maurier series)

 by K. P. Ambroziak (Published by the author, 2017). ISBN: 9781548745073

Vampires have gotten increasingly complex.
Sure, there was that blip with the Twilight series, where everything went a little backwards with the complexity and ferocity of the un-dead blood-sucker, but overall they have certainly changed with the times. The metaphors that drive human fascination with this particular breed of monster have morphed and expanded as technology and human relations have grown into their present state in the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
In my previous reviews of this elegantly penned series, I have touched on much of this—the addiction metaphors, the lab-created blood sources and tropes of the dangers of scientific advancement, the origins in Western European fears of blood pollution by Eastern Europeans, the sexual metaphors springing from the suppression of the Victorian and Edwardian eras—and I don’t want to take up space repeating it.
What I want to touch on here—what really drives Grief for Heart—are the sexual politics and socio-political hierarchies that Ambroziak’s universe has expanded to in this series, for they are as unsettling a commentary on modern “humanity” as I have ever read in a vampire novel.
Although vampires continue to inhabit the screen and especially TV (Preacher’s Cassidy and the ubiquitous vampires of Supernatural), they are more often than not lacking overall in substance. Even Anne Rice appears to have fallen on hard times with her twentieth Lestat book, where she uses an origin story about Atlantis to provide a play-space for her vampires that doesn’t work in the least.
If Anne Rice is out of touch with the times, even with her exploration of genetics and the rest, we have to look elsewhere for our fix. It’s the younger, more modern voices, like Ambroziak’s, that are the ones to see us through to the next phase of vampire tales.
Grief for Heart (building on its trio of predecessors), like the graphic novel-turned-AMC series Preacher, takes as its launching point the traditional vampiric issues of isolation and dis-connection. Being an immortal vampire is a lonely business, and family has now become the driving goal, and the vampires that populate Ambroziak’s world have taken on the problem with all the creativity their preternatural abilities allow.
What is so engaging is that, in the post-plague world of the du Maurier series, there is a complex hierarchy—one that incrementally grows with the books. By Grief for Heart we have traditional humans (many of whom survive by allying with a vampire who uses them for a continual blood supply); the Hematopes or “New Men,” who are genetically engineered; the vampires who have recollections of their past lives with increasing clarity; and the gods and goddesses who inhabit many of the vampires’ bodies and minds.
The socio-political issues at play in Grief for Heart are deep. Entire families are pledged to a single vampire, an apt metaphor for any kind of feudal lord or lady taking advantage of an indentured servitude with no freedom in sight. Additionally, for reasons both internal and external, the vampires also enjoy sexual liberties—as if the taking of blood were not enough (another analog for feudal slavery—including colonial America).
It is impossible to talk about vampire metaphors without getting to the core reasons why vampires continue to hold us in their thrall (pun intended): Addiction and Psychic Vampirism. Both are at play here—and what is most interesting is that the Addiction resides on both sides. The dynamics go well beyond species preservation and a sense of family honor. The humans like it—despite how viciously the vampires (and gods) treat them. So let’s add Abuse as a prevalent theme.
Don’t expect to like anyone in these books. And I don’t believe you need to. Rice’s characters are no longer likable… Lestat should have stayed dead rather than resurrecting into what he has become—a failing bureaucrat. And as much as Preacher’s Cassidy entertains with his one-liners and dark behavior, as much as we want to root for him to find some peace and solace, his depredations and degradations are wholly vampiric. That is, after all, the point. Addiction, Psychic Vampirism, Abuse—these are not to be made light of. Not ever.
Ambroziak’s writing is elegant and rich. There is a hypnotic lilt to her writing that functions like the vampire’s gaze, lulling us ever Inward. The storytelling is structurally sound, unfolding at a comfortable pace and allowing us to languish in the language. And the paying of IOUs and twists, turns, and reveals make it clear that this is not writing on the fly—these stories have been carefully plotted for maximum tension and effect, without being tawdry or merely monster thrill-rides.
Grief for Heart ends on a cliffhanger; I am interested in seeing where the story goes and what new secrets are revealed.
One thing more. Ambroziak managed to write a successful book in a named character series without that character ever appearing in it! Du Maurier is there by implication, of course—his shadow passes over and holds station in equal proportion as the story unfolds, and, through his force of will and cult of personality in the prior three books, it is enough to sate us until his return.

And I do look forward to him returning, to face the hell he’s wrought.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Review of Sarah Cave and Rupert M. Loydell’s Impossible Songs

(Cornwall, UK: Analogue Flashback Books, 2017).
Several months ago I reviewed Rupert M. Loydell’s twentieth collection of poetry, Dear Mary, which is a series of (far-ranging) meditations on the Virgin Mary and the circumstances of her miraculous conception. This follow-up, co-authored with Sarah Cave, is a series of “21 Annunciations,” using the same source-event, but presented in wholly different ways.
There is no indication of which poems are penned by which poet, or if they are all collaborations. This is interesting to me, because I recently reviewed another book of poetry, Blue, by Wesley St. Jo and Remé Grefalda that did not indicate which poet contributed where.
The annunciations in Impossible Songs are refracted through a wide array of prisms. “A Polar Bear Annunciation of Self” is a first-person poem from the polar bear’s point of view, interdicted with narrative from Barry Lopez, the environmental/humanitarian writer. This poem is followed by another with an Arctic theme. In the third stanza I was struck by an echo from the poem “Bright Flags” by Jim Morrison, wherein he says “There’s a belief by the/Children of Man which states/all will be well.” In the Cave/Loydell poem “Shadow Words,” the line is “she convinces herself/all will be will be well.” This would seem reviewer-centric if it were not for a poem several pages later, “The Impossible Song,” which quotes Morrison in its epigraph and then begins:
“The voice of the serpent/slid into my ear, creaking/leather and snakeskin/black boots aslant…”
and ends:
“dead in the bath,/a drowned angel/who lost his voice”
This poem is preceded by a poem “for Leonard Cohen” and followed by a poem called “An Annunciation of Christ’s Dark Matter” “after David Bowie.” This poem contains lines from “Ashes to Ashes” (“strung out in heaven’s high”) and other Bowie tunes and is darkly evocative, as Bowie so often was.
We now have as inspiration a triumvirate of dead songwriters who were all also poets. A few pages later there is a poem called “Tightrope Annunciation.” Perhaps this truly is tenuous and reviewer-centric but there is a song on Other Voices, the album recorded by the three remaining Doors after Morrison’s death, called “Tightrope Ride.”
Loydell is a painter as well as a poet, so it is no surprise that some of the annunciations are based on paintings, such as Edward Hopper’s Cape Cod Morning. The cover art is a study of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation.
“The Art of Silence” is three poems in one. The two columns can be read as individual poems or the lines can be read straight across to make one poem.
“The Deserted Garden” considers the first mother, Eve, who was pregnant, before Cain and Abel, with knowledge.
One of my favorite poems in Dear Mary is about annunciation as alien abduction. Impossible Songs contains a similarly themed poem titled “annunCIAtion,” which presents Mary’s experience as conspiracy theory. There are several theories therein of how she was impregnated (to which I add Roman centurion) and there is even a visit by the “men in black” (“secret agents or aliens”). Could the Pharisees and Sadducees been among their number? Or was it an infiltration?
“Notes on an Almost Annunciation” brings to mind Mary Lee Wile’s powerful novel Ancient Rage. While Mary and Jesus were made so much of, there was also Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her son John the Baptist, who suffered much the same but didn’t quite get the press.
For readers who, like me, find added value in an artist coming back to subject matter again and again over time, especially when it is a single line or other form of bread crumb, the final line of the final poem in Impossible Songs is “The God-duck wore his Mitre at an angle in church on Sunday.” This line echoes back to a chapbook edited by Loydell titled The Gospel According to Archbishop Makeshift.
Speaking of chapbooks, along with Impossible Songs I received several quarter-fold chapbooks. Two in particular bear mention in the context of this review. They are point–counterpoint collaborations between Loydell and Peter Gillies and are titled “The Angel Gabriel is not Your Friend/The Angel Gabriel could be Your Cousin” and “Fra Angelico is not Your Friend/Fra Angelico could be Your Cousin.”
As evidenced by these three works, Loydell is mining themes that resonate with our times, leading to collaborations with a talented array of fellow poets, allowing for a synergistic pulse of varied views. He and his fellow travelers ask difficult questions and offer open-ended answers through the time-tested holy triad of ethos, logos, and pathos.
The grey space of possibility is one that more artists should commit to create in.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

“Struggles in the Void”: A Review of Sharon Heath’s Tizita, The Fleur Trilogy, Book 2

(Deltona, FL: Thomas-Jacob Publishing, LLC, 2017), ISBN-13:  978-0-9979517-2-1

Four months ago I was introduced to Fleur Robins, with whom I fell instantly in love. Not romantically, understand, but as a father who wants to protect a curious and brilliant, although socially and emotionally challenged, young woman from the darkness in the world, while wanting her to bathe immersively and unabashedly in the light of it as well.
Perhaps it is the recent event of my only daughter’s eighteenth birthday, and her starting her senior year of high school as I write this. Perhaps it is the dancing whirl of contradictions that are her chosen isolation and digital world-traveling, her emotional and social strengths and weaknesses, her brilliance and naïveté and her own journey into the darkness and re-entrance into the light that make me invest so heavily in Fleur’s adventures.
This is to take nothing away from Sharon Heath, who writes with a power and honesty that draws me in and makes me laugh out loud and flinch in pain—often within the span of a page, or a paragraph.
In the interest of space, I encourage you to read my review of the first book, and, better yet—read the book itself.
Book 2 opens just past Fleur’s 21st birthday. Fleur’s quantum physics team at Caltech is hard at work on developing her Nobel Prize–winning theories and she is engaged to Assefa, a medical student at USC whose father has gone missing while trying to find the temple in Ethiopia where the fabled Ark of the Covenant is said to be kept. This is a much-changed Fleur and a much changed tone. Tizita [which is the “interplay of memory, loss, and longing” often conveyed in Ethiopian or Eritrean music or song”] is a hard book to get through. As the United States enters a pronounced phase of division over color, gender, and historical memory, all of these subjects and more send poor Fleur flapping and pinching into the void with rapidity and intensity. Her social and emotional challenges scream their depth during her sexual encounters, as they did in Book 1. As she worries over possible pregnancy and judges her admittedly questionable taste in men, I felt my tension rise.
Another difference between Books 1 and 2 are the added Assefa point-of-view chapters as he travels to and meets old friends and memory-demons in Ethiopia. Not only does this device give us insight into what he experiences while he is away, it also complicates the reader’s feelings toward Assefa. Because I care so much for Fleur, there were times that I actively disliked and wished him away. Even wished him ill. But because I knew the context of his life, through his back story and current experiences, it was incredibly hard, despite his negative actions. There is a valuable lesson here about why good storytelling just might save the world. I found myself at odds more than once with my out-sized reactions to Assefa’s actions and defending mentally the actions of others toward him. But then it was clear—it was a contest between my love of Fleur and my sympathy for him. I am sure this is exactly what Heath was going for. Kudos to her for succeeding.
Through her many adventures, including a trip to Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee institute in Gombe National Park to see her physics team’s former mascot, Hanuman, Fleur widens her worldview and learns that everyone truly has a void of their own. It is through that knowledge that she is able to forgive Assefa, others in her life, and perhaps even herself.
It is this macro/micro dynamic that drives Tizita—a natural progression given Fleur’s big-scope physics interests and her entrance into adulthood. Each macro event is linked to several micro ones. The assault against women and children in war-torn Ethiopia is sobering stuff. Thru the character of Makeda—the foil for Fleur and Assefa’s engagement—we see that there are all kinds of ways to change the world. Some are as simple as holding a dying child in its last moments on Earth, unflinchingly looking into its eyes to let him or her know they are loved.
Tizita asks the tough questions, calling upon the series’ engaging cast of support characters to serve as the moral “chorus” for Fleur’s philosophical navigation as well as doing some of the heavy lifting on their own. The complex character of physics professor Stanley Fiske is a good example, as is Fleur’s best friend’s Jewish boyfriend, Jacob. Their commentaries and self-assessments are facets to a diamond that shines with the biggest issues of our time.
Like Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings, the most vulnerable character in Heath’s artfully constructed world, Fleur herself, is our best chance for the (at least partial) salvation that comes with understanding after a struggle.
We cannot help but root for Fleur as we try to root for ourselves.

“Forever the Innovator”: A Review of Eileen R. Tabios’s Manhattan: An Archaeology

(Paloma Press, palomapress.net, 2017). ISBN: 978-2-365-87509-0
Innovation is not easy. Being innovative and prolific—well, that approaches the ultra rare. And that is why, year after year, I try to do at least one review of Eileen Tabios’s works. When the work spoke clearly as to how, I have attempted to be as innovative in my reviews as Tabios is in her art. A scroll through the 145 reviews currently on New Mystics Reviews (newmysticsreviews.blogspot.com) will show ten other reviews of Tabios’s work, some of which use lines from my other reviews or a poetic form to honor the range of inspirations and innovations Tabios has employed in her 40-plus collections, which have now been published in nine countries and in numerous languages.
Manhattan: An Archaeology, from the relatively new Paloma Press (they list only one other offering so far—Blue by St. Jo and Grefalda, which I reviewed last month), has a multi-page list of inspirations, ranging from Tabios’s own previously published works to those of other authors, YouTube videos, the paintings of Clyfford Still, and a trip to Provence the poet took with her husband.
The collection, which is divided into several sections, interdicted with graphic images, begins with The Artifacts, a poetic list of items that then appear in the poems that follow. Here we have the material archaeology of Things, which is only part of the picture. Because there is also the etheric archeology of Memories, to which the items tether. Why else are so many of us so compelled to collect? Looking around my writing room, each of the “artifacts”—drawings and photos, printed-out quotes, statuary, toys, books, animal totems, pottery and model cars—has a meaning and context beyond what the outsider sees (which is often perceived as “clutter”). And context can only be uncovered with words. Stories. And so it goes with Manhattan—it is a series of stories. Deeply personal. Candid. And as colorful as the graphic images that bridge its sections.
Within this collection are the elements that I love most about Tabios’s writing. There are abundant references to other authors, painters, dancers, thinkers, and creators from numerous media and fields. Are any of us purely original? What is the line between inspiration and imitation? Between plagiarism and homage? Can we steal from ourselves? Is re-use repetition? The older I get, the more I read and watch and learn, the more I ponder these questions. By naming names, we ensure that at least some of the credit is given where it’s due, understanding that the subconscious influences of everything we have seen, watched, and talked about are the submerged part of the iceberg as opposed to the section above the waterline.
Another element of Tabios’s writing, so elemental to archaeology, is her facility with lists. She has written entire collections that are lists—of items sent to relatives to and from the Philippines; of trash items on the curb post-Christmas; of communications from friends and relatives just-post-9/11. The Artifacts is a list. And lists are what Humans do. Genealogies are lists. Taxonomies and all forms of labeling are lists. Calendars and digital address books are lists. Even our social media posts are lists. The careful social archaeologist can discern much about Life and Change from digging down deep into the layers of these lists. Facebook has algorithms that will do it for you, whether it be how you have physically changed through the years, or the things about which you’ve written. And you know the corporate oligarchy is mining your lists in the form of the billions-of-dollars business of Big Data.
Another element is the honesty. I am taking a chance here even to broach the subject of honesty (or at the very least I need to provide some clarity) because Tabios and I have only communicated through brief emails over the many years that we have exchanged books and publishing opportunities. I am not equating honesty with Truth here. At least not Personal Truth, or Absolute Truth. As in, did all of the things that happen to the narrator(s) of these poems happen to Tabios? The section “Winter on Wall Street (A Novella-in-Verse)” cues us that there are other voices, other characters at play here. It doesn’t actually matter… because the emotional and experiential roots run deep. The poems would not be so ancient, strong, and lasting in their impact on the reader if they were not.
I want to focus briefly on the section that takes its inspiration from abstract expressionist Clyfford Still’s painting. This is ekphrasis as only a seasoned, adept artist like Tabios can do.  Not familiar at the onset with Still, I took the poems solely on their own. It was not until I started writing this review that I did an online search for the paintings that inspired the poems, expecting to find highly detailed, realistic still-lifes that suggested the places and circumstances in the poems. Similar to Rothko and Kandinsky, Still uses color and shape without traditional images. One can only try to imagine the process from painting to poem that passed through the mind, art, and hands of Tabios to create one from the other.
And this is what keeps me (and so many others) coming back to her work. Ever innovative. Ever able to draw in the reader, to expect of the reader an interpretive contribution in order to fully juice the battery of the work.
As long as she writes, I will review. Because each experience generates new inspirations and new commentary on the state of our arts. Given the use of our lists by Big Data, this particular creative act of Tabios’s might be nothing less than Revolutionary.


Friday, August 11, 2017

“The World within a Nutshell”: A Review of Blue by Wesley St. Jo and Remé Grefalda

(Paloma Press, 2017). ISBN: 978-1-365-84488-1
The true gift of poetry as an art form is its deft use of air. Of space. Of pauses and gaps into which the reader can pour him- or herself.
Blue takes these strengths of poetry and puts them to maximum use. With its glossy pages, blue and black ink, illustrations, and numerous typefaces, Blue looks like and reads with the speed of a children’s picture book, but don’t mistake the design for simplicity—Blue invites and rewards multiple readings, each with its own approach.
For instance, the first time I read the book, I took it in as a single poem, telling only one story. The second time, I used a panel with a quote by e.e. cummings as a dividing line between two acts—one that takes as its central character love of a human and the second love of God.
The third time I focused on each passage as delineated by its typeface. This third approach is like reading a book of Asian poetry or koans. Each passage is its own rich moment, an invitation to meditate upon its many meanings.
Although St. Jo and Grefalda are the co-authors (with St. Jo contributing the abundant and engaging illustrations), there is no delineation as to which passages were written by which poet. This adds to the overall mystery and allure of Blue. In truth, there are not just two voices, but many.
For the purpose of this review, I am going to say that the book is divided into two stories, Man and God. But this is my own interpretation—they are not labeled as such, nor does the e.e. cummings quote absolutely guarantee a division. In Man, the authors engage the trope of the world traveler, using Phileas Fogg and Passepartout in allusion, illustration, and in the latter’s case, by name. They also play on “Eyes of Blue,” which calls to mind the classic “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.” The authors’ use of “lose you to a song” in blue ink appears to reinforce this notion. The Man seems to be off in search of something, which the author(s) hope(s) will either bring him back, or that they will travel the world together “in Denim Blue.”
The e.e. cumming’s poem signals a switch to God: “I thank you God for most this amazing day … and a blue dream of sky…”
There is a subtle shift in tone (though the blue is still blue, as it were) in the section I call God. There are italicized passages that sound biblical, looming large and philosophical. Passages like: “You are/ Beloved,/He said./Perfect/As you are, He said.” While the author replies, “Sleep/Overtakes/Me,/I said./Rest/Frightens me,/I said.”
God does not give up, until the author says, after continued resistance, “So as/You will it, God
And in the final pages we come back to song (“damn you song”) and I wondered as I read and meditated, is it the same song from the start? But it is not: “i whistle out of tune/some nonsense i composed/with you in my heart” [note the small i, only appearing on the final page].
Read Blue as you choose. Perhaps the suggestions in this review will spark a path, but it’s best to ponder its images, meditate on its typefaces, and choose your own way through the blue.

A Review of Way of the Diviner, by William Douglas Horden

ISBN: 978-1536977110 (paperback)
Joey Madia
Half a dozen years ago, a package arrived in the mail from a publisher. As I made the half mile walk back from the mailbox toward my house on a hill on the far side of a West Virginia hollow, I pulled back the tab on the top of the mailer and out spilled The Toltec I-Ching, a beautifully illustrated new take on the venerable divining method of ancient China.
Sending an email to the publisher that afternoon, I said that I would put the book thoroughly through its paces as a self-help guide, as I was in the midst of making several important decisions, both professionally and personally. The Toltec I-Ching, my review of which is available at New Mystics Reviews, was more than helpful—it was life changing. Taking the complexity of the trigrams and hexagrams of the I-Ching and breaking them down into understandable explanations, Horden, along with his illustrator, allowed me to access insights that yielded immediate results on application. I recommended the book to others, and shared it with many visitors to my home who were also seeking some guidance.
Early last year I had the opportunity to review another of Horden’s books, In the Oneness of Time: The Education of a Diviner. I was struck by its nonlinear format and Horden’s ease of language with complex spiritual and cultural ideas. Horden is a very capable storyteller, with just the right mix of levity and brevity—in that sense, a true shaman.
Way of the Diviner is a companion volume to In the Oneness of Time. It is by no means a replication of the material of its predecessor. It is a peek behind the curtains while simultaneously offering a look down the road, from the best of all vantage points—Way of the Diviner is very much of and about the Now.
Using a combination of personal anecdotes, teachings from his three instructors, illustrations that he has created for his multi-volume series on I Ching divination, spiritual parables, synchronicity, alien abductions, channeling, and explorations of the I Ching and other systems for divination and transformation (“shaman, spirituality, alchemy, and immortality,” p. 2), Horden goes deeper into the ether than in any of the other books of his I have read (several more than mentioned here). You will also find passages that contribute to some of the leading work being produced in areas such as Angelology, Authenticity, and Dreamwork. There are also reproductions from some of the paintings from The Toltec I Ching and some of Horden’s stunning nature photography.
Honoring the nonlinear realities of time, Horden titles chapter 1 “Ending” and chapter 2 “Beginning.” He is coming at the complex questions inherent in divination from multiple angles, as any good teacher does, allowing the material to fall like seeds seeking fertile soil (meaning here the reader’s own background, interests, and need). The chapters unfold as they will, having been written in the moment without pre-planning—sometimes on a hillside in Mexico, other times in places about which we are not told the details. The movement is shamanistic—the text moving back and forth between the worlds of spirit and matter; dark and light; life and death.
It helps to have read the books I have already mentioned, or to be otherwise familiar with different spiritual systems and their relationships to shamanism and divination. Way of the Diviner is by no means a starter manual. Yet, with enough background and an open heart it is not impenetrably mysterious. Horden has an approach that flows effortlessly between Serious and Absurd, as he eloquently relates in chapter 11, “Enlightenment.”
I have had the pleasure and privilege to speak one-on-one with Horden on several occasions, often for many hours at a time, both in person and through Skype, and he is meticulous in his word choice in those situations as he no doubt must be behind the keyboard or with pen in hand. And yet he says, “I have been on this path for forty-five years now and am embarrassed that I still have so much to say” (p. 50) and “I thought about leaving this chapter on enlightenment completely blank. Perhaps it would’ve been more appropriate” (p. 56). This humility and care is rare in a teacher. It is a trait we need much more of.
The final chapters of the book unveil a series of advanced concepts, which Horden demystifies with abundant personal and spiritual examples and his considerable ability to use metaphor as a tool for teaching, distilling them down into phrases such as “Make of Yourself a Nest for the Phoenix” and “Sweeping Shadows without Raising Dust.”
Within these chapters are exercises for turning down the volume of the conscious mind so that we can attune with the One Mind. I have used these exercises for many months and they not only focus the mind during meditation and relaxation but help to quell the racing thoughts that I struggle with as both a writer/creative and as someone who grapples with anxiety. Horden calls these “Taking the reins in our hands instead of being dragged across the field.” They are nothing less.
Ever the consummate storyteller, Horden ends Way of the Diviner with a tale about an experience he had in Veracruz and, ever the humble student, the final section holds the ceremonial words of one of his teachers.
It seems for over a decade I have been ending a portion of my reviews with something like, “If you are looking for inspiration and direction in these troubled times…” As long as times are troubled—and that might just be the eternal way of things—authors like Horden and books like Way of the Diviner will be the balm to heal our wounds.

“Is Anything Ever Random?”: A Review of Random Road (A Geneva Chase Mystery)

 by Tom Kies (Scottsdale, AZ: Poisoned Pen Press). ISBN: 9781464208027 (paperback)

Arthur Conan Doyle. Agatha Christie. Edgar Allan Poe. Peter Straub. The Mystery genre is certainly daunting. With such a rich heritage built over so many decades, one has to applaud any new writer breaking into the genre. How do you honor the well-known (and often well-worn) tropes that make the genre what it is while also bringing something new?
Let’s face it—not bringing anything new to a pillar of a genre such as Mystery is like playing a song note for note as originally arranged and expecting your cover to be remembered.
With this skeptical opening in mind, I have to congratulate Tom Kies on not only honoring what makes a good mystery a good mystery—twists and turns, richly detailed locations, lots of likely suspects, an overall moral depravity and subtle condemnation of society, and of course a compelling detective—he manages to bring something new and attention-getting to the genre: the main character’s private life literally and figuratively competes with the mystery all the way through.
Having met Kies on a few occasions, and knowing him for the bearded, gregarious man he is, imagine my surprise when the first-person narrator, on page 2, says, “Sweat trailed slowly out from under my bra…”! All levity aside, Kies does a masterful job of bringing the highly damaged and at times unlikeable and every-bit-a-woman Geneva Chase to life.
Kies’s background is in journalism, so it is no surprise that Chase is a lead reporter at the fictional Sheffield Post, where she is in constant danger of losing her job because of her alcoholism. Ah yes… that trope: the alcoholic news reporter. But in all tropes there must be some truth. It is a relentless, high-pressure, deadline-driven, high-stakes game reporters play. I think of the stories of Hunter S Thompson and films like The Paper and the more recent Spotlight, and Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom and it is easy to believe that a good portion of the best reporters also have their demons.
So far so good. Kies has brought something new (and frankly risky) to the genre and is writing about a field that he knows well (which shows in Chase’s relationships with the managing editors and with the local police and in interviewing witnesses and “chasing” down leads). Although he now lives on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, Kies is from the north—New England and New York. Random Road takes place in an affluent area of Connecticut, and it is clear that Kies knows the people and the area from more than just research and a check of Google Earth. If you are like me and want to feel like you can see, smell, and taste the local atmosphere, especially in a mystery, you will not be disappointed.
I hesitate to bring too much to light in a review when it comes to a mystery. In many ways we are solidly in the genre—horrific murders, parallel crimes that breed numerous suspects, questions of class and wealth, a town on edge, a police force under pressure, and a cast of characters whose moral gauge tends to run to the barely there.
Within these tropes, Kies gives us much to keep us engaged. Geneva is a complex and interesting character—interesting because she is honest. Her life has been one of hard drinking, adultery, and endless bad decisions—and she knows it. When faced with the opportunity to do some good, she tries. Some she wins, some she loses. That is true to life.
Both the A and B stories—the solving of the murders and Geneva’s personal arc—are ripe with damaged people, on both sides of the law. Random Road delves into the dark underbelly of Appearance versus Reality. Almost everyone wears a mask. Almost everyone has been hurt or is in the process of hurting someone else. And Kies has developed the primary and secondary characters enough that we hear their stories and can understand, if not forgive, their aberrant behavior, because we can see its roots. No cartoony master criminals or out-of-nowhere sociopaths in Random Road. Just victims of their environment.
There is some irony in the novel being called Random Road (which is where Geneva’s primary love interest resides) because the novel has many coincidences. At first I questioned this as convenient to the author, but then I looked closer. It is a small community, where everyone knows one another and it is easy to see how paths would cross. Geneva is super-sharp to boot—she follows her nose (whenever it’s not in close proximity to a glass of vodka) and reads the signs, all in keeping true with her billing as an ace reporter.
And to be fair, coincidence is a necessary evil of the genre and tight storytelling in general.
Random Road is a powerful story of love, the danger of addiction, the harm of dysfunctional families, and the necessity of forgiveness as much as it is a tension-fueled crime drama. Kies accomplishes a lot in his first novel and in a genre inhabited by giants.

I hope there’s more to come.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

“Jung in Larger Context”: A Review of Toni Wolff & C. G. Jung: A Collaboration, by Nan Savage Healy

 (Los Angeles: Tiberius Press, 2017). ISBN: 978-0-9981128-0-0 (paperback)

In the interest of Disclosure, I served as the editor for this book. That said, and keeping in mind the relationship of editors like Maxwell Perkins with their writers (in his case, no less than Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and, somewhat synchronistically—to use Jung’s term—Thomas Wolfe), this should not preclude a fair review. Indeed, editors are reviewing books all the time. The difference is, they have the opportunity to provide different eyes to the author’s work before the fact, as opposed to reviewers, who do so after the fact (although I have done a number of pre-publication reviews that precipitated changes before publication).
But enough of that. I agreed to the editing contract for the same reason that I am now reviewing Toni Wolff & C. G. Jung—Nan Savage Healy’s detailed and insightful exploration of Jung’s unsung and nearly obliterated collaborator shines a powerful light on Jung, whom I, like others, practically deified as I have made my own journey through Jungian staples such as Archetypes, Dreams, the Shadow, and Myths.
I have reviewed many books by Jungian psychologists (e.g., Lawrence Staples and Erel Shalit) and have read many of Jung’s books. His work is an essential part of my own in Storytelling and I put him right up there with Joseph Campbell as one of the giants whose shoulders I stand upon.
An essential question that I have struggled with in the nearly three years that have elapsed since I first heard from Nan with a request to edit this book is this: Has my estimation of Jung decreased, increased, or stayed the same as I have learned about his relationship with Toni Wolff, who first met Jung as a patient and soon became a Lover, Muse, and Collaborator? I would say, after careful, continued reflection: all and none of the above.
My reasoning for this answer serves as the basis of this review, as I am sure that many of the reviews written by Jungian analysts and various historians and academics of Toni Wolff & C. G. Jung cover the nuts and bolts of the psychology and the finer points of who came up with what theory, who wrote which part of each book or essay, and who we really owe the credit to. This review is perhaps more personal, which may help this outstanding book to reach an audience segment it might otherwise miss.
Make no mistake—this is a work of deep academic excellence. The notes take up 52 pages, and the acknowledgments illuminate the depth and width of the resources—human and documentary—that Healy pursued to bring this book to fruition. She spoke with descendents of Wolff and Jung and went where the winds of inquiry took her. There is plenty of synchronicity at work, from her first stumbling upon an essay by Toni Wolff up through the book’s completion and I can tell you that I edited the book not once, but twice (and I understand considerable work was done after the fact while adding the 101 images that bring the words to life and give the reader a different kind of insight into Wolff and Jung), all the result of Healy’s commitment to tell Toni Wolff’s story as best as she can.
Toni Wolff’s story is very much inextricable from Jung’s, and from men’s in general. Coming from a wealthy household, college was not a proper option for her—and her lack of a degree was something she continually worked to overcome. After the death of her father and the subsequent responsibility she took for the family’s well-being and finances, she sought therapy from Jung (who took his own father’s death hard as well), and he instantly saw her genius. At the time she was a poet and very much in tune with her dreams. As she moved from patient to lover, muse, and collaborator, Toni abandoned poetry, focusing on the more concrete world of psychology. In fairness to Jung, he always regretted her leaving her poetry behind.
Fairness is a key strength of this book. It would be easy for Healy to put it all on Jung, to portray him as an unethical doctor who preyed on his female patients (there were others besides Toni), ignoring the dangers of Transference for his own selfish reasons. But she does not. Indeed, the primary reason Jung does not diminish as a thinker, writer, and artist in my estimation through this journey is because Nan Savage Healy Humanizes Jung, illuminating his Quests for answers in the deep void of symbolism and the subconscious, a Quest he inspired me to take nearly two decades ago.
In line with his Humanness is Jung’s recognition of the Shadow and the warring aspects of one’s personality. I have called my own warring halves Joe and Joey since college, a realization I came to intuitively in a moment of shamanic crisis—it was not until a decade later, listening to Michael York’s masterful reading of Memories, Dreams, Reflections that I began to understand what was at work through Jung’s own experiences. It truly changed my life. Since that time, I have worked through theatre, storytelling, shamanic studies, and voracious reading and diligent spiritual practice to get to know my Shadow and integrate the two halves of my personality. To this day, Treaties are broken and the war ensues again. Studying the Liber Novus and Black Books and undertaking similar projects of my own keeps the casualties down and treaties ever renegotiated. Toni Wolff & C. G. Jung has been invaluable to that process (see pp. 68 and 74–77).
The one area where I am most suspect of Jung’s motivations begins to be explored in depth in chapter 5, “Spiritual Wife.” Some of Toni’s most important contributions to psychology stem from an essay she wrote called “Structural Forms of the Feminine Psyche,” in which she outlines four structural forms for the “chief perspectives of women” (p. 90): Hetaira, Medial, Amazon, and Maternal. Space does not allow me to define and explicate them… and I could not do better than Healy in doing so. For my purposes here, it is enough to say that the Medial operates akin to a Muse for the creative man, while the Maternal is self-explanatory. Here is where it gets complex. Jung did not believe that one woman could be both his Muse and the head of his household—his wife Emma served in the role of the latter, raising their children and overseeing the home, while Toni served as the Medial. One might bleed this down into the vulgar Madonna and Whore, but that is impossible to do while absorbing Healy’s portrait of Toni.
Perhaps I am lucky (as was Joe Campbell with Jean Erdman, although they did not have children)—my own wife has been both for me (the Medial is a “prophetess and psychic seer,” p. 90; fittingly, my wife is a psychic medium) and so, for me, Jung’s thesis looks more like Convenience than Truth. This dual role in one woman, I should say in fairness, can at times be destructive when we consider Jackson Pollock’s muse and wife, Lee Krasner or Sylvia Plath to Ted Hughes, although destructive marriages for artists and poets are not all that unusual. In the case of Jung, Toni, and Emma, this triangle, which went on for decades, was awkward and painful for Emma and Toni both.
There is no doubt that Toni shepherded Jung through dark nights of the soul at her own peril. At one point, she was determined to marry him, a notion that Jung rejected out of hand. It could be said that this tumultuous relationship led Toni Wolff to pay the ultimate price: death by broken heart.
Toni Wolff & C. G. Jung, like a good analyst, operates on many levels. Healy covers the history of analytical psychology, from the main ideas to the Clubs and gathering places funded by wealthy American heiresses as well as illuminating the key phases of Jung’s career through the contributions of and disagreements with Toni Wolff. For instance, Toni had no use for Alchemy, and Jung took on another Medial in order to push that segment of his work forward.
The man who built towers like Bollingen out of stone as well as scientific and mythological towers out of sheer intellect and depth journeying was complex and suitably human for the tasks at hand. Toni Wolff was indispensible to the process. Nan Savage Healy mediates between the two with the effortless grace that only comes from years of committed toil.
We should all be thankful that she stumbled upon that essay by Wolff those many years ago.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

“Not Your Grandma’s Tao”: A Review of The Tao of Cool, by William Douglas Horden

(Ithaca, NY: Delok Publishing, 2017). ISBN: 978-1544629834 (paperback)

“You’re not cool, you’re chilly. And chilly ain’t never been cool.” [George Carlin, from one of his HBO specials]
You best get ready—this isn’t your (normal? regular?) traditional review. I am not even sure, after reading The Tao of Cool, that a review is even a COOL thing to do, nontraditional or not. Nothing about this book, which is [loosely] (as in, shares a common word in the title and the same number of chapter-poems) based on the Tao te Ching of Lao Tzu is presented in an expected way. For instance, the subtitle is on the back of the book, and reads: “Deconstructing the Tao Te Ching [:] from the Notebooks of Snafu Trismegistus [,] Bodhisattva of Universal Cool.”
Now, (normally) I would question such a statement. In one of my other lives as an academic editor, at least once a year I edit papers from a writer who promotes himself as a “thought leader.” That always makes me cringe. But, in this case, Bodhisattva of Universal Cool sort of elegantly, exactly sums it up.
As I sat down to read The Tao of Cool [perhaps it’s even better standing up… a problematic psoas muscle kept me from testing this idea], my academic side dutifully pulled my copy of the Tao Te Ching, translated by D. C. Lau. Turns out, synchroserendipitously, that I had read it exactly 13 years ago. Cool, I thought.
Perhaps not so much.
What is a deconstruction, anyway? I am not going to pull a definition from some online dictionary, because I am now cooler than that. I’ve done my share of deconstruction, which, to be of any value, involves some kind of re-construction. But isn’t that what authors (cool ones anyway) always do? Everything is through a lens, through experience, just like the actor.
And that seems to be the coolest, most hipikat [definition on p. 9 of the Introduction] way to engage with The Tao of Cool. The deconstruction came and went in the sublime Darkness of the writer’s toil—what we get between the covers is pure Light.
Horden pulls no punches in the Introduction. He tells it like he sees it. “It” being a, well, scathing survey of the politico-social landscape. He says that the book has taken “twenty years to ripen” (p. 5), which seems to be the requisite time for any novice to become a master—and it takes a master to produce a work like this. Perhaps the Introduction is a good litmus test to see if you are cool enough to withstand the barrage of wisdom that takes the uncool and melts it into oblivion. If you can’t get through the first 10 pages, read something else, as Horden says (better than I) on page 1.
I have to say, prior to reading the 81 chapters, I thought I was pretty cool. But when one reads, in chapter 6: “Only the profoundly Uncool talk about spirituality/religion/and the sacredness of everything” (p. 18) I had to question where I was on this particular scale. The more I progress, the less I talk, but talk I still do.
For those inclined to make a comparison between The Tao of Cool and Lao Tzu’s text, try chapter 10. Then, really, just put Lao Tzu away. Flipping back and forth, line by line, is the opposite of Cool.
Chapter 15 and some subsequent chapters brought to mind what the Beats were doing with words and mind-jazz decades ago (“The Uncool is muzak./The Cool is Jazz,” p. 88). Lines like “Dig./True hipkats are so far gone they’re already on their way back” (p. 27) recall Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Corso. If anyone was channeling hipikat outside of the actual jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, it was them. Difference is, the Beats were chasing story down a highway full of traps—they were ultimately consigned forever to a town called Uncoolsville when the rhythm-car spit-spit and blam-blammed amid their own frailties and distractions. Jim Morrison was on the right track for awhile as well, especially with his poetry: “The Cool is always having a near-death experience” (chapter 25) but he ultimately kept going. Same with Hunter S Thompson, who came to mind during my read of chapter 41. Before we judge any of these would be hipikats too harshly, however, it seems that especially Kerouac and his buddy Neil Cassady weren’t too far off the mark, as chapter 45 tells us: “Joyriding is better than anything else” (p. 57) and the whole group—especially in this case, Corso—got close considering “A healthy fascination with death is hipper/than an unhealthy fascination with life” (p. 62). Maybe Tom Waits is a hipikat. If he is, he’s too Cool to say.
If I have any hope of being Cool, even for a moment, I had better leave it here, and give Snafu Trismegistus, the Bodhisattva of Cool, the (nearly) last word:
“Setting your watch to geological time takes astronomical Cool” (p. 52).

Thursday, May 11, 2017

“The Reader as Mediator”: A Review of Rupert M. Loydell’s Dear Mary

 (Bristol, UK: Shearsman Books, 2017), ISBN-13: 978-1-84861-519-9
Dear Mary, Rupert M. Loydell’s twentieth collection of poetry, is a series of meditations on the Virgin Mary and the circumstances of her miraculous conception. True to form, Loydell, a painter as well as poet, approaches the mystery through the dual lens of words and images. And one does not have to be raised Catholic like myself to appreciate the large number of images available to us that take as their subject Mary’s receiving of the news from the angel Gabriel and her subsequent life as mother of the Savior, Jesus Christ.
Indeed, “the appearance/of the angel,” as Loydell says in the poem “A Process of Discovery”: “the event/the moment/as pregnant/as the Madonna” (18). With this encounter heavily weighted from the onset, Loydell explores the crafting of the image, as in “Colour by Numbers,” although he does not take the elitist angle of painting as something only for the highly trained—especially with religious matters as its subject—but something for everyone, something as simple as a color by numbers painting, which you can “take… to the next level” (26). This is more Bob Ross than Old Masters, and refreshingly so.
In the poem “Cimabue” he writes: “everything in Italy/is a love letter to God” (28) a statement that recalls to me the atmosphere and impact of the art in the Martin McDonagh film In Bruges. Even the lowest and bleakest of souls are not immune to such pervasive and powerful displays of Holy, Heavenly art. The next poem, “Hidden,” continues and expands this theme: “There are hidden angels/everywhere in Tuscany./If you find one keep quiet/and speak of it only to yourself/let meaning turn to whisper” (29).
Given that the Angel and Mary are the lead characters in Dear Mary’s narrative, we have to ask who or what serves as the Mediator between the Spirit and the Flesh. The very act of the Immaculate Conception (real or metaphorical) elevates Mary to near-Spirit, but she is still (and importantly) Flesh. Loydell’s poems and the vast array of paintings out in the world serve as Mediators, but the Reader must function as Mediator as well. I left the  Catholic Church at 21 to become the Mediator of my own experience, rather than relying on priests, nuns, and long-gone prophets.
“How to Say It” uses the Painter as Mediator: “He does not know how to say it,/how to talk about the moment/he has been asked to paint,/so he simply colours the story in” (39). Loydell leaves ample space in his poems for the Reader to do the same.
Let us not confuse “simple” for “easy” here. On some level, even the Writer “colours the story in” with a transcendent element beyond words, if the angels/Muses are kind and the artist remains open to the experience, as Mary was. Extending this metaphor, the Inspiration fills the artist’s vessel like the Savior fills Mary Mater’s womb.
From pages 51 to 59 is a multi-part poem titled “Shadow Tryptych” (“after Francis Bacon”), a rich tapestry of insight on the Vision and Voice of the artist. It sits at the exact midpoint of the collection and serves appropriately as the central Furnace and Core of Dear Mary.
A highlight of the collection is “Alien Abduction.” The nexus of angels/demons and aliens is inescapable to ponder, and Loydell’s well-informed but tongue-and-cheek take will get you smiling while you think.
“How Grey Became” takes us back to color, and keeps you thinking. Loydell writes: “The colour grey is preferred by people who are indecisive;/grey is also the colour of evasion and non-commitment.” He then goes on to say: “Grey is the colour of intellect, knowledge, and wisdom” (65). This latter interpretation is the one I tend to favor. It’s a proposition put forth even further in the Live song “The Beauty of Grey.” As I exist day after day mourning the death of Complexity, I wish there was more grey. More mix. More middle. Given that, perhaps both interpretations work.
“Out of the Picture” is about none other than Joseph. My namesake. The biblical character I have most pondered in my life. Loydell gives him a voice too long in coming. Talk about Complexity…
A more modern take on Mary and Gabriel is “Surveillance System Annunciation.” What if it all was recorded. Would it clarify or even further muddle?
The collection is bookended by two essential pieces.  First is the Preface by Dr. Jim Harris, who is the Teaching Curator at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford. I highly recommend taking the time to read it, even if it means reading it after the fact so that your own experiences of the poems are not colored by his insights, sound as they are. 
The collection ends with a Notes section, which illuminates the source material and inspiration for various poems (for instance, “Dear Mary” is assembled from the song lyrics of 11 musical artists and other texts).

Like Catholicism itself, the sources and inspirations that make up Dear Mary are myriad, and the Mystery is left to the Reader as Mediator to ponder.