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.