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Mainly Wallpaper

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Purple Faeries, The Undead, and Talking Rats

Reblogged from Mainly Wallpaper:
Immortal Lies - S.L. Gray

"Immortal Lies" by S. L. Gray has a cinematic quality; so much so that it often reads like a TV pilot in disguise. But it also works as a love story in disguise. Granted, not many love stories feature a vampire with cafe au lait skin, good shoulders, and a lithe 25-year-old body (though he is actually 86). The eternal youth is easily explained: he was Turned toward the vampire lifestyle back in 1953. Tybalt Jones (Ty for short), the narrator, cares about grammar, sex, good wine, and helping people, and has a purple girl friend with pointed ears, curly silver hair, and a fondness for milk. Her name is Violet (Vi for short).

 

The strong suit of this novel is how the plot unfolds. We're told just enough to keep us engaged in Ty's problems, which seem quite real, yet not so much that the resolution of those problems becomes predictable. The problems are dire, if not horrific.

 

They involve deadlines (literally), an avenging angel (Sylvia), a brooding werewolf (Brannock), an ultra-evil magician (Jameson Robuck), witches, gypsies and talking rats. All are denizens of St. Sebastian, a grim city where other-worldly types keep in touch through cell phones as well as instinct. This decaying urban setting is appropriately decadent and not further defined. Yet, for all the heaviness of the subject matter, the author writes with a knowing wink and provides her lead characters with plenty of banter which lightens the tone.

 

Amidst the banter she fits Chandleresque phrases: our hero, Ty, "...could go to sleep each morning guilt free on that account"; he worries that his evil adversary would "...smell fear on me like a bad cologne"; when Ty comes to an impasse, he plops into a chair and "...sat like a puppet with its strings cut"; during one of his innumerable spats with Vi, he "...bit back an apology I didn't owe and she didn't want to hear"; but when they make up, Ty realizes that "...as long as I had her, the where didn't matter."

 

It turns out that Vi is not just the girl friend along for the ride, but plays a decisive role. This gives the book a feminist thrust to go along with its inter-racial (inter-species?) grounding, and lifts it firmly into the mainstream of modern social concerns, despite a venerable backstory about the undead and their unusual feeding habits.

Like A Good Ride In An Amusement Park

Reblogged from Mainly Wallpaper:
The Villain & The Golden Apple - Ken Doggett

How would you react if you, in some future time and place, had lived 16 years in an off-brand commune and were told by the village elders that you were about to be taken away by a pure white hovercraft airship for "Education," which would last a few months, after which you would be transported back to the commune with all the knowledge that society deemed necessary? What would you feel as you saw the airship approaching directly overhead, ready to whisk you west to Sacramento? What if you saw "...the huge flight fans in the dark recesses beneath the craft where lurked all of its other enigmatic workings, hiding as evil would hide"? Would you meekly climb aboard?

 

Fortunately for us, the hero (or anti-hero?) of Ken Doggett's novella "The Villain" wants no part of this bleak future. Instead he opts to survive as an outlaw. Not that this is easy. Nor is it easily told. Doggett plops us into the middle of this story from the first line, then jumps back to the 5-year-old who grew into Villainy and forward in time to an older Villain. Yet, I enjoyed the time-travel and never worried about where we were going. Good science fiction is like a good ride in an amusement park. As long as the story is on track, you just hang on and try not to worry too much about what is happening around you.

 

Nor, after a while, did time itself seem to matter. Perhaps this feeling was a side-effect of the plot. One of the key "improvements" of this future society is the mastery of time as it relates to the human life span. But at what cost? And was the Villain right to make the choices he did? But this is no philosophical tract. Doggett's prose has just enough color and zest within just the right amount of structure to keep us wondering, engaged and caring about what happens to his main characters.

 

In "The Golden Apple," the other novella, Frank Madden, habitually unshaven and unkempt, longs to return to a lonely planet he's laid a claim on. Not out of nostalgia, but to get to work. For Frank is a miner by trade, and this story is more about gold than apples. Despite the old-school job of this old-school character, his problems are just as futuristic and compelling as those of the Villain. In fact, his predicament is larger, we might almost say cosmic. This requires that his solution be larger.

 

A sub-plot arises and leads to an enticing question: what are Martian women REALLY like? Frank finds out. As for solving his major problem, Frank's elegant solution will probably thrill engineers. I am about as far from being an engineer as Frank is from the planet Earth. Yet, Frank's solution sounds just plausible enough to ground this planetary yarn in logic, while allowing for the free rein and fresh perspective we expect from science fiction. The cover art is appropriately documentary yet mysterious (it is a close-up view of the dark center of a nebula in the constellation Orion made by the Hubble Space Telescope).

 

This small, modestly-priced collection was published in paperback and eBook as a tease for a much larger novel (Ship of Storms) featuring the Villain. It serves its purpose by showcasing Doggett's entertaining style while at the same time awakening a desire to know more about the Villain's methods of coping with his strange new world.

 

Sweet Intoxication

Reblogged from Mainly Wallpaper:
Pearlcasting - Lynn Matheson

A curvaceous 35-year old blond teacher (born in Edinburgh) and a hunky 15-year-old Air Force brat (raised in the Southern states of America) find each other in a third-rate boarding school in rural England. The love between Orla (teacher) and Elijah (boy) is genuine and the sex is hot. The premise may seem unlikely (not to mention unsavory, ill-advised and illegal) but nevertheless, "Pearlcasting" promises a compelling story, and delivers. The pink and glossy candy treats on its cover presage that within lies a story of sweet intoxication. But this novel is not just a hot read. It is also a carefully observed comedy of manners.

 

What is it about English boarding schools? Why are they such fertile ground for mordant wit? Listen to the dreary life at Northwold school: "The day began with Morning Service in the Hall. It was a non-descript room lined with dark wood which formed part of the 1930s boarding house, with long windows which wouldn't open, leading to a stuffy, overheated atmosphere. Occasionally one of the boys would faint from a combination of high temperature and boredom."

 

The humdrum existence of Orla, a mid-career female teacher in this all-male school, downtrodden and patronized, is affectingly brought to life. Orla had aspirations of joining management to make a difference, but has been passed over. Matheson sketches a member of the old boy's network: "He was supposedly named Humphrey Heathcote-Jones but Orla had a suspicion it was an assumed name. The pretension went with everything else about him. Today he was sporting a full tweed suit which he had to get specially made on account of his enormous girth. He was short, balding and wore tiny brown rimmed glasses. He was often to be found wandering around the grounds blowing a hunting horn or mowing down children in his ancient Jaguar."

 

Matheson's economical sentences are also compassionate: "The boarders were mostly a forlorn little bunch. They stuck closely to each other, huddling together as if a bitter wind was blowing them over." 

 

Yet one of these boarders is Elijah, who may have been forlorn his first day at this strange new school, but has since adapted. He lets his close-cropped hair grow out and becomes a star on the rugby field. He brings much into Orla's life: a mysterious past, a sweet nature, and an enormous amount of trouble. Suffice it to say that Orla, previously headed straight for spinsterhood, takes a sharp left turn and goes on a wild ride. I enjoyed the ride.

 

Fixing The Catholic Church

Reblogged from Mainly Wallpaper:
As It Was in the Beginning: The Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church - Robert McClory

 

"In the Beginning" is the most complete account I've read of what ails the Catholic church, where these pathologies come from, and why the solutions to them will be incorporated into the structure of the church -- eventually. McClory is able to show these processes and predict their implementation because of his unique perspective. He was a priest for many years. His training gave him perspective on what's gone wrong, and why. But the story of his clerical service, dating roughly from the 1940s to the 1970s, is not the strength of the book. The history of the Catholic church, stretching back two thousand years, is the real star of the show.

 

McClory is expert at providing an overview, then swooping in and highlighting significant trends every few hundred years. His interest is in the precedents for lay participation. He explains how these came about and suggests the benefits that will occur when they are revived. He shows clearly that lay participation was common in the early church, a point that even conservatives who uphold the hierarchy at every turn must concede. Indeed, the body of believers during the first century of Christendom, following the advice of the founder, did without priests, bishops and popes.

 

Some of the most interesting stretches of the book describe Gregory's reform pontificate (around 700 A.D.) and the theological basis of the conciliar movement (1000 A.D or so). Here McClory shows a deft scholarly hand at compressing and explaining much neglected theology and ecclesiastical development. You will not hear references to these things during a Sunday sermon, nor during a papal encyclical. These explanations disclose that lay participation is not a new nor a radical idea.

 

He explains why the monarchical trappings of the church, which repel so many, were first adopted. He also shows how these habits became fixed and, one is tempted to say, immutable. I say _tempted_ because McClory shows time and again that much of what we take to be immutable, fixed, and infallible in the church is anything but. The strongest lessons in the book show that the hierarchy of the church first resists, then argues with, and finally incorporates changes bubbling up from the lowest levels. McClory demonstrates that the 'sense of the faithful' (beliefs held by the vast majority of ordinary people) can be as important as papal pronouncements.

 

The official Catholic church has experienced an unprecedented wave of bad press over the last 12 years or so. These revelations have included horrific allegations, largely substantiated, that thousands of clergy have caused harm to thousands of children of the laity. McClory tells this tale, too. Yet, this is not a negative book. On the contrary, he shows that the real problem in the clerical ranks is not the love of sex, but the love of power. That doesn't excuse the injustices, but it does point to the causes and to likely solutions, which have to do with decentralization, transparency, and listening to the voices from below sooner and with greater fidelity.

 

For committed Catholics who love church teachings but hate the ossified structure which has gained such an apparent stranglehold on the church, this book could be a revelation. It may not prove that the church is worthwhile (that may require more faith than many can muster). However, McClory's book makes a powerful argument that the Catholic church could be far more worthwhile than it seems. His book all but demonstrates that the church, as bad as it may be, is not yet beyond hope. That is an achievement.

 

The book has a few flaws. Tighter editing would have improved readability by removing redundancies and trite phrases. The introduction spends too much time on the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov. While the digression is pertinent to the theme of problems in church management, it was also somewhat at odds with the main topic. The themes of the novel are many, and the inclusion of thought-provoking hypotheses and ethical debates pulled this reader's attention off of McClory's main theme. The resultant confusion could not have been what the author intended, particularly in an introduction.

 

The body of the book is not confused but proceeds in a straight line at a slow pace. It might fairly be called plodding. But, much historical writing is plodding, and building a case as strong as McClory's depends on covering a lot of ground. He has enhanced this dry church history by showing the effects of ideas, opinions and a wide cast of characters on that history. He has also included his own story and, in a quietly effective manner, his enduring faith in the viability of the Catholic religion. This is a view that few are qualified to provide, and fewer still would be capable of integrating into a two-thousand year history.

Purple Faeries, The Undead, and Talking Rats

Reblogged from Mainly Wallpaper:
Immortal Lies - S.L. Gray

"Immortal Lies" by S. L. Gray has a cinematic quality; so much so that it often reads like a TV pilot in disguise. But it also works as a love story in disguise. Granted, not many love stories feature a vampire with cafe au lait skin, good shoulders, and a lithe 25-year-old body (though he is actually 86). The eternal youth is easily explained: he was Turned toward the vampire lifestyle back in 1953. Tybalt Jones (Ty for short), the narrator, cares about grammar, sex, good wine, and helping people, and has a purple girl friend with pointed ears, curly silver hair, and a fondness for milk. Her name is Violet (Vi for short).

 

The strong suit of this novel is how the plot unfolds. We're told just enough to keep us engaged in Ty's problems, which seem quite real, yet not so much that the resolution of those problems becomes predictable. The problems are dire, if not horrific.

 

They involve deadlines (literally), an avenging angel (Sylvia), a brooding werewolf (Brannock), an ultra-evil magician (Jameson Robuck), witches, gypsies and talking rats. All are denizens of St. Sebastian, a grim city where other-worldly types keep in touch through cell phones as well as instinct. This decaying urban setting is appropriately decadent and not further defined. Yet, for all the heaviness of the subject matter, the author writes with a knowing wink and provides her lead characters with plenty of banter which lightens the tone.

 

Amidst the banter she fits Chandleresque phrases: our hero, Ty, "...could go to sleep each morning guilt free on that account"; he worries that his evil adversary would "...smell fear on me like a bad cologne"; when Ty comes to an impasse, he plops into a chair and "...sat like a puppet with its strings cut"; during one of his innumerable spats with Vi, he "...bit back an apology I didn't owe and she didn't want to hear"; but when they make up, Ty realizes that "...as long as I had her, the where didn't matter."

 

It turns out that Vi is not just the girl friend along for the ride, but plays a decisive role. This gives the book a feminist thrust to go along with its inter-racial (inter-species?) grounding, and lifts it firmly into the mainstream of modern social concerns, despite a venerable backstory about the undead and their unusual feeding habits.

"…feeding the world without wrecking it…"

Reblogged from Mainly Wallpaper:
The Nine Horizons - Mike Robbins

“The Nine Horizons: Travel In Sundry Places” is billed as a series of snapshots and lives up to this claim, offering nine sparkling vignettes of the author's experiences in Sudan, Quito in Ecuador, a rainforest (Ecuador again), Bhutan, Syria, Central Asia, Brazil, New York, and during an England to USA crossing.

 

His method of financing his travels is through “development”, a vaguely worded profession that consists of volunteer work for the UN, the EU, NGO's, and other do-gooder organizations. He started on this path in 1987 with the modest goal of getting out of a journalistic rut in London and once underway his interest escalated toward language studies. Ultimately, he took on the theory and practice of economic development at advanced levels.

 

His interest in hiking is usually presented as the highpoint of his travels in each country, possibly because it allowed him a literal overview of the country. In the structure of the book, recollections of his hiking serve a different purpose: they allow free space within which he teaches the diversity of these lands and about the integrity of the vastly different peoples and cultures he has helped and learned from. Make no mistake, if you read this book, you too will learn. Robbins is a master teacher and his methods are beguiling.

 

The first sentence: “You do not need to know much about me” contains few words, but they set the tone, which is both understated and supremely confident. Once immersed in the book, we understand why. His writing style appears to grow organically out of his journeys, for his recollections show that he took countries as he found them. He sought out central areas of the cities for solitary living quarters, for example, rather than settling for suburban comforts. He often arrived into and exited from a country with his worldly possessions crammed into a single knapsack, albeit the contents changed. In between times, he clambered up and down mountain trails with alacrity and agility (notwithstanding bashing a rib or two).

 

Robbins is a great travel writer but there are surely limits to what one can imply through clouds, and I fear that he reached the limit about half-way through the book. White, fluffy, fat, pale, wispy, foggy or otherwise, I was glad when the clouds (or the often incessant rain for that matter) cleared out and made way for more earth-bound matters. Other than this quirk, I enjoyed his descriptive verse, which accounts for the majority of the book. Long passages can be tiring, but fortunately he is also a master of the short sentence, and the results are never less than graceful. One might question what makes a man travel so persistently, but there is a discernible arc to the stories, and, ultimately, a satisfying resolution — which need not be revealed here.

 

Robbins seems occasionally to mistrust “progress” almost as much as some of the remote rainforest tribes he profiles. Can you blame him? His creed, if it were reduced to a few words, might sound something like “...feeding the world without wrecking it...” (page 194). Saving the world is a large problem, and I don't mean to give the impression that Robbins claims to know how. But, this book does show that he found the world and its inhabitants to be beautiful, which may be more important.

 

Only in the last few pages does Robbins' writing become more abstract as he draws a few lessons from his travels. These well-founded observations are perfectly pitched. Like many of the propeller-driven airplane rides just described, these observations bring the reader to a graceful touch-down after an exhilarating and enlightening flight.

It's interesting to note that “Nine Horizons” is only one of three books that Robbins published in early 2014. Having enjoyed this first one so much, it makes me happy to think of what lies ahead.

 

Swimming in Uncharted Waters

Reblogged from Mainly Wallpaper:
Perfectly Normal: A Mother's Memoir - Marcy Sheiner

“Perfectly Normal,” the story of the growing pains of a handicapped boy and the mother who loves him, packs a wallop. Ms. Sheiner writes with such clarity and passion that I got several lumps-in-throat along the way. Yet the compelling story of her son's struggles and her constantly evolving responses to those struggles is leavened with some detachment, a sharp observational eye, and humor.

 

Despite the concise prose and short length overall, much ground is covered. For this story is not only about Sheiner and her son, Daryl, but about the profound changes over the last 50 years in the diagnosis, treatment, understanding, and outcomes of the cruel medical condition formally known as hydrocephalus and commonly known as “water on the brain.” Toward the end of the book Sheiner begins to realize the pioneer role that Daryl and she played. In fact, he was one of the first to endure and survive a shunt operation.

 

Having grown up in the 60s as did Sheiner, I can vouch for her pitch-perfect recall about the steel rollers in women's hair, the salmon-colored seats in waiting rooms, and the smells of Toll House cookies that wafted through this ostensibly “perfectly normal” time. Under the surface, however, the era was ready to erupt into someting quite different. Sheiner's path was just as turbulent as the era, and she shares her personal growth toward consciousness and radicalism unstintingly. The personal story and the larger picture are tied together with great finesse.

 

Even if personal opinion should be allowed great latitude in a memoir, there appear to be a few too many villains in the piece. Nearly every main character comes in for harsh criticism, whether for failing to notice Sheiner's plight or for failing to do anything about it. This creates an uncomfortable sense that parts of the memoir may represent “payback time” for these perceived failings of her inner circle.

 

This is not to say that the author merely unloads her pain onto others, for she is equally unsparing toward herself. For example, on pg. 117: “...I, a middle-class American girl, suffered from malnutrition substantial enough to cause a birth defect in my child...” Sheiner bases this startling self-accusation on recent studies which have shown that a lack of folic acid (found in green leafy vegetables) is a primary cause of diseases of the central nervous system in newborns. Having “...lived primarily on chocolate chip cookies and Coca cola...” throughout her adolescence, and having continued this regime during her pregnancy, Sheiner has “...no trouble believing that Daryl's hydrocephalus resulted from my poor nutritional habits.” For what it's worth, this reader, who was raised with 8 sisters, many of whom had woeful eating habits not too different from those described by Sheiner, finds it difficult to believe that the author's eating habits were the certain cause of her son's condition.

 

Engagingly written and emotionally honest, this book pulls no punches. On the contrary, her presentation will land solid blows to the ignorance and complacency of many an AB (able-bodied) reader, if they are willing to learn from her hard-won experience. We are better off for Marcy Sheiner having written this book.

 

Good self-help, but as "manifesto" falls short.

Reblogged from Mainly Wallpaper:
A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose - Eckhart Tolle

"A New Earth" is a heady little book which purports to "show how transcending our ego-based state of consciousness is not only essential to our personal happiness, but also the key to ending conflict and suffering throughout the world." I would call this claim ambitious (and therefore egotistical) coming from any other man. But, because Mr. Tolle operates from the premise that he has harnessed his ego in the service of a greater good, that characterization would run counter to the spirit of the book, may seem unfair, and might even reveal me as one who has not transcended his ego.

 

I guess ultimately the question is: has Mr. Tolle correctly gauged the utility of the ego? I think it fair to say that he feels the ego has no utility, except that eradicating the ego at every turn allows us to come closer to our higher purpose - less ego, and more spirit, or, in his words, Consciousness, also known as Presence. Presence can be defined as "consciousness without thought." Indeed, Tolle seems to distrust thought almost as much as ego, which is odd for an author churning out 300-page treatises. How can this be accomplished except with a great deal of rigorous thought? Another oddity: his fixation on the banishment of the ego from all utility, except that of affirming its opposite (spirit) resembles a Catholic argument that Error has only one use -- that it helps to define and develop Truth. But Tolle is no Catholic, although he does use many of Jesus' quotes to good effect.

 

The problem that I have with his premise is that his rejection of the collective ego necessarily rejects a great deal of personal ego: the unique qualities that each of us bring into this world, and the special path that we follow because we were born in a particular place and time. I feel that all of these attributes should not be discounted as mere grains of sand on an infinite beach. Surely they must be part of a higher purpose, a personal destiny, which is also worthwhile. At the very least they should be celebrated as defining characteristics of who we are, and how we learn, and they often lead to the acquisition of habits that further refine who we are. We shape our habits, and then our habits shape us. And this process is not pernicious, but developmental.

 

To turn at every opportunity and attempt to jettison this individuality (that's what Mr. Tolle seems to be advocating) seems ungrateful at best and wrong-headed at worst. The ego is not only something to react against. It is also something to understand, come to terms with, learn from, and be grateful for. One need not be a disciple of Ayn Rand to feel that a strong ego is a good thing, on balance.

 

Yet Mr. Tolle finds no place in the world for the ego. Perhaps this explains why the thrust of the book is toward the otherworldly. For example, he observes on pg. 162 that "...when you realize that pain-bodies unconsciously seek more pain, that is to say, that they want something bad to happen, you will understand that many traffic accidents are caused by drivers whose pain-bodies are active at the time." Tolle's conception is that unconsciousness (overt identification with the ego) creates a negative energy field and an accumulation of pain (the so-called pain-body).

 

Okay, someone's off-kilter energy field or pain-body may be at work, but couldn't these accidents be more simply explained as a consequence of jackass drivers? Left untouched in this discussion of road rage is how Mr. Tolle or the highway patrol or a judge could possibly know when a pain-body is or is not active and therefore responsible for the accident. This may be why the book is found in the "spiritual" and not the "science" section of the bookstore.

 

On the positive side, Tolle has a crackerjack team of editors. I never found a typo in this 300-page book. His prose style is effective, if a bit odd. Once he starts, his batteries never run down. He forges constantly ahead with hundreds upon hundreds of small words, scarcely stopping to summarize or collect the argument. This style reminds me of a friend back in the early 70s who was equally adept at words and philosophical argument, though his words were longer. After indulging in a helping hand from the pharmaceutical industry he would hold forth on how a certain spinning wheel was within another spinning wheel, which was within yet another other spinning wheel. He never summarized, explained, or stopped talking. Tolle's treatise is somewhat like that, although to be fair he also unearths many fascinating examples of how we trip ourselves up when we pick the wrong objectives. There are also several stories containing pithy lessons from enlightened Easterners.

 

Verdict: as a self-help book, this is not bad, and better than most. Judged as a spiritual manifesto, will it really help save the earth and build a better world? I find that unlikely. It was published in 2005, and its predecessor "The Power of Now" was published 15 years ago. The last time I checked, the world seemed to be revolving as it usually does, egos, pain-bodies and all.

 

His fact-checkers let him down in the sections about religious intolerance (pg. 155-7). He states that "...it seems certain that during a three-hundred-year period between three and five million women were tortured and killed by the 'Holy Inquisition'..." Tolle goes on to equate the gravity of this persecution to the Jewish Holocaust during WWII. Without pause he next compares these twin tragedies to witch-burning, and explains why that phenomenon caught on: "What is it that suddenly made men feel threatened by the female?" he asks. He then answers himself: "The evolving ego in them. It knew it could gain full control of our planet only through the male form, and to do so, it had to render the female powerless. In time, the ego also took over most women, although it could never become as deeply entrenched in them as in men."

 

Where do I start? Popular history books most often cite from 30,000 to 50,000 for all burned at the stake during the 300 years of the Spanish Inquisition, and specialists come up with even lower numbers. There were other inquisitions, but the sum totals could not have been as high as Tolle claims, and they were not all or even mostly women. See Telchin (2004); and Pasachoff and Littman (2005). The slapdash comparison of the results of the various Inquisitions of the Catholic Church to the horrific extermination of millions of Jews during the Second World War is distasteful, to say the least. As for witch-hunts, certainly they were a real and regrettable phenomenon. Yet, while there were many witches burned at the stake in Europe and America, these numbers, too, have become inflated due to sloppy research, latter-day hysteria, and self-help authors stretching a point. Most professional researchers figure around 50,000 victims, with some few supporting lower figures of around 30,000, and some few who believe there were as many as 100,000 or so.

 

As for women having less ego than men: Mr. Tolle does not know the women I know.

Purple Faeries, The Undead, and Talking Rats

Immortal Lies - S.L. Gray

"Immortal Lies" by S. L. Gray has a cinematic quality; so much so that it often reads like a TV pilot in disguise. But it also works as a love story in disguise. Granted, not many love stories feature a vampire with cafe au lait skin, good shoulders, and a lithe 25-year-old body (though he is actually 86). The eternal youth is easily explained: he was Turned toward the vampire lifestyle back in 1953. Tybalt Jones (Ty for short), the narrator, cares about grammar, sex, good wine, and helping people, and has a purple girl friend with pointed ears, curly silver hair, and a fondness for milk. Her name is Violet (Vi for short).

 

The strong suit of this novel is how the plot unfolds. We're told just enough to keep us engaged in Ty's problems, which seem quite real, yet not so much that the resolution of those problems becomes predictable. The problems are dire, if not horrific.

 

They involve deadlines (literally), an avenging angel (Sylvia), a brooding werewolf (Brannock), an ultra-evil magician (Jameson Robuck), witches, gypsies and talking rats. All are denizens of St. Sebastian, a grim city where other-worldly types keep in touch through cell phones as well as instinct. This decaying urban setting is appropriately decadent and not further defined. Yet, for all the heaviness of the subject matter, the author writes with a knowing wink and provides her lead characters with plenty of banter which lightens the tone.

 

Amidst the banter she fits Chandleresque phrases: our hero, Ty, "...could go to sleep each morning guilt free on that account"; he worries that his evil adversary would "...smell fear on me like a bad cologne"; when Ty comes to an impasse, he plops into a chair and "...sat like a puppet with its strings cut"; during one of his innumerable spats with Vi, he "...bit back an apology I didn't owe and she didn't want to hear"; but when they make up, Ty realizes that "...as long as I had her, the where didn't matter."

 

It turns out that Vi is not just the girl friend along for the ride, but plays a decisive role. This gives the book a feminist thrust to go along with its inter-racial (inter-species?) grounding, and lifts it firmly into the mainstream of modern social concerns, despite a venerable backstory about the undead and their unusual feeding habits.

Fixing The Catholic Church

As It Was in the Beginning: The Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church - Robert McClory

 

"In the Beginning" is the most complete account I've read of what ails the Catholic church, where these pathologies come from, and why the solutions to them will be incorporated into the structure of the church -- eventually. McClory is able to show these processes and predict their implementation because of his unique perspective. He was a priest for many years. His training gave him perspective on what's gone wrong, and why. But the story of his clerical service, dating roughly from the 1940s to the 1970s, is not the strength of the book. The history of the Catholic church, stretching back two thousand years, is the real star of the show.

 

McClory is expert at providing an overview, then swooping in and highlighting significant trends every few hundred years. His interest is in the precedents for lay participation. He explains how these came about and suggests the benefits that will occur when they are revived. He shows clearly that lay participation was common in the early church, a point that even conservatives who uphold the hierarchy at every turn must concede. Indeed, the body of believers during the first century of Christendom, following the advice of the founder, did without priests, bishops and popes.

 

Some of the most interesting stretches of the book describe Gregory's reform pontificate (around 700 A.D.) and the theological basis of the conciliar movement (1000 A.D or so). Here McClory shows a deft scholarly hand at compressing and explaining much neglected theology and ecclesiastical development. You will not hear references to these things during a Sunday sermon, nor during a papal encyclical. These explanations disclose that lay participation is not a new nor a radical idea.

 

He explains why the monarchical trappings of the church, which repel so many, were first adopted. He also shows how these habits became fixed and, one is tempted to say, immutable. I say _tempted_ because McClory shows time and again that much of what we take to be immutable, fixed, and infallible in the church is anything but. The strongest lessons in the book show that the hierarchy of the church first resists, then argues with, and finally incorporates changes bubbling up from the lowest levels. McClory demonstrates that the 'sense of the faithful' (beliefs held by the vast majority of ordinary people) can be as important as papal pronouncements.

 

The official Catholic church has experienced an unprecedented wave of bad press over the last 12 years or so. These revelations have included horrific allegations, largely substantiated, that thousands of clergy have caused harm to thousands of children of the laity. McClory tells this tale, too. Yet, this is not a negative book. On the contrary, he shows that the real problem in the clerical ranks is not the love of sex, but the love of power. That doesn't excuse the injustices, but it does point to the causes and to likely solutions, which have to do with decentralization, transparency, and listening to the voices from below sooner and with greater fidelity.

 

For committed Catholics who love church teachings but hate the ossified structure which has gained such an apparent stranglehold on the church, this book could be a revelation. It may not prove that the church is worthwhile (that may require more faith than many can muster). However, McClory's book makes a powerful argument that the Catholic church could be far more worthwhile than it seems. His book all but demonstrates that the church, as bad as it may be, is not yet beyond hope. That is an achievement.

 

The book has a few flaws. Tighter editing would have improved readability by removing redundancies and trite phrases. The introduction spends too much time on the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov. While the digression is pertinent to the theme of problems in church management, it was also somewhat at odds with the main topic. The themes of the novel are many, and the inclusion of thought-provoking hypotheses and ethical debates pulled this reader's attention off of McClory's main theme. The resultant confusion could not have been what the author intended, particularly in an introduction.

 

The body of the book is not confused but proceeds in a straight line at a slow pace. It might fairly be called plodding. But, much historical writing is plodding, and building a case as strong as McClory's depends on covering a lot of ground. He has enhanced this dry church history by showing the effects of ideas, opinions and a wide cast of characters on that history. He has also included his own story and, in a quietly effective manner, his enduring faith in the viability of the Catholic religion. This is a view that few are qualified to provide, and fewer still would be capable of integrating into a two-thousand year history.

Sweet Intoxication

Pearlcasting - Lynn Matheson

A curvaceous 35-year old blond teacher (born in Edinburgh) and a hunky 15-year-old Air Force brat (raised in the Southern states of America) find each other in a third-rate boarding school in rural England. The love between Orla (teacher) and Elijah (boy) is genuine and the sex is hot. The premise may seem unlikely (not to mention unsavory, ill-advised and illegal) but nevertheless, "Pearlcasting" promises a compelling story, and delivers. The pink and glossy candy treats on its cover presage that within lies a story of sweet intoxication. But this novel is not just a hot read. It is also a carefully observed comedy of manners.

 

What is it about English boarding schools? Why are they such fertile ground for mordant wit? Listen to the dreary life at Northwold school: "The day began with Morning Service in the Hall. It was a non-descript room lined with dark wood which formed part of the 1930s boarding house, with long windows which wouldn't open, leading to a stuffy, overheated atmosphere. Occasionally one of the boys would faint from a combination of high temperature and boredom."

 

The humdrum existence of Orla, a mid-career female teacher in this all-male school, downtrodden and patronized, is affectingly brought to life. Orla had aspirations of joining management to make a difference, but has been passed over. Matheson sketches a member of the old boy's network: "He was supposedly named Humphrey Heathcote-Jones but Orla had a suspicion it was an assumed name. The pretension went with everything else about him. Today he was sporting a full tweed suit which he had to get specially made on account of his enormous girth. He was short, balding and wore tiny brown rimmed glasses. He was often to be found wandering around the grounds blowing a hunting horn or mowing down children in his ancient Jaguar."

 

Matheson's economical sentences are also compassionate: "The boarders were mostly a forlorn little bunch. They stuck closely to each other, huddling together as if a bitter wind was blowing them over." 

 

Yet one of these boarders is Elijah, who may have been forlorn his first day at this strange new school, but has since adapted. He lets his close-cropped hair grow out and becomes a star on the rugby field. He brings much into Orla's life: a mysterious past, a sweet nature, and an enormous amount of trouble. Suffice it to say that Orla, previously headed straight for spinsterhood, takes a sharp left turn and goes on a wild ride. I enjoyed the ride.

 

Like A Good Ride In An Amusement Park

The Villain & The Golden Apple - Ken Doggett

How would you react if you, in some future time and place, had lived 16 years in an off-brand commune and were told by the village elders that you were about to be taken away by a pure white hovercraft airship for "Education," which would last a few months, after which you would be transported back to the commune with all the knowledge that society deemed necessary? What would you feel as you saw the airship approaching directly overhead, ready to whisk you west to Sacramento? What if you saw "...the huge flight fans in the dark recesses beneath the craft where lurked all of its other enigmatic workings, hiding as evil would hide"? Would you meekly climb aboard?

 

Fortunately for us, the hero (or anti-hero?) of Ken Doggett's novella "The Villain" wants no part of this bleak future. Instead he opts to survive as an outlaw. Not that this is easy. Nor is it easily told. Doggett plops us into the middle of this story from the first line, then jumps back to the 5-year-old who grew into Villainy and forward in time to an older Villain. Yet, I enjoyed the time-travel and never worried about where we were going. Good science fiction is like a good ride in an amusement park. As long as the story is on track, you just hang on and try not to worry too much about what is happening around you.

 

Nor, after a while, did time itself seem to matter. Perhaps this feeling was a side-effect of the plot. One of the key "improvements" of this future society is the mastery of time as it relates to the human life span. But at what cost? And was the Villain right to make the choices he did? But this is no philosophical tract. Doggett's prose has just enough color and zest within just the right amount of structure to keep us wondering, engaged and caring about what happens to his main characters.

 

In "The Golden Apple," the other novella, Frank Madden, habitually unshaven and unkempt, longs to return to a lonely planet he's laid a claim on. Not out of nostalgia, but to get to work. For Frank is a miner by trade, and this story is more about gold than apples. Despite the old-school job of this old-school character, his problems are just as futuristic and compelling as those of the Villain. In fact, his predicament is larger, we might almost say cosmic. This requires that his solution be larger.

 

A sub-plot arises and leads to an enticing question: what are Martian women REALLY like? Frank finds out. As for solving his major problem, Frank's elegant solution will probably thrill engineers. I am about as far from being an engineer as Frank is from the planet Earth. Yet, Frank's solution sounds just plausible enough to ground this planetary yarn in logic, while allowing for the free rein and fresh perspective we expect from science fiction. The cover art is appropriately documentary yet mysterious (it is a close-up view of the dark center of a nebula in the constellation Orion made by the Hubble Space Telescope).

 

This small, modestly-priced collection was published in paperback and eBook as a tease for a much larger novel (Ship of Storms) featuring the Villain. It serves its purpose by showcasing Doggett's entertaining style while at the same time awakening a desire to know more about the Villain's methods of coping with his strange new world.

 

Swimming in Uncharted Waters

Perfectly Normal: A Mother's Memoir - Marcy Sheiner

“Perfectly Normal,” the story of the growing pains of a handicapped boy and the mother who loves him, packs a wallop. Ms. Sheiner writes with such clarity and passion that I got several lumps-in-throat along the way. Yet the compelling story of her son's struggles and her constantly evolving responses to those struggles is leavened with some detachment, a sharp observational eye, and humor.

 

Despite the concise prose and short length overall, much ground is covered. For this story is not only about Sheiner and her son, Daryl, but about the profound changes over the last 50 years in the diagnosis, treatment, understanding, and outcomes of the cruel medical condition formally known as hydrocephalus and commonly known as “water on the brain.” Toward the end of the book Sheiner begins to realize the pioneer role that Daryl and she played. In fact, he was one of the first to endure and survive a shunt operation.

 

Having grown up in the 60s as did Sheiner, I can vouch for her pitch-perfect recall about the steel rollers in women's hair, the salmon-colored seats in waiting rooms, and the smells of Toll House cookies that wafted through this ostensibly “perfectly normal” time. Under the surface, however, the era was ready to erupt into someting quite different. Sheiner's path was just as turbulent as the era, and she shares her personal growth toward consciousness and radicalism unstintingly. The personal story and the larger picture are tied together with great finesse.

 

Even if personal opinion should be allowed great latitude in a memoir, there appear to be a few too many villains in the piece. Nearly every main character comes in for harsh criticism, whether for failing to notice Sheiner's plight or for failing to do anything about it. This creates an uncomfortable sense that parts of the memoir may represent “payback time” for these perceived failings of her inner circle.

 

This is not to say that the author merely unloads her pain onto others, for she is equally unsparing toward herself. For example, on pg. 117: “...I, a middle-class American girl, suffered from malnutrition substantial enough to cause a birth defect in my child...” Sheiner bases this startling self-accusation on recent studies which have shown that a lack of folic acid (found in green leafy vegetables) is a primary cause of diseases of the central nervous system in newborns. Having “...lived primarily on chocolate chip cookies and Coca cola...” throughout her adolescence, and having continued this regime during her pregnancy, Sheiner has “...no trouble believing that Daryl's hydrocephalus resulted from my poor nutritional habits.” For what it's worth, this reader, who was raised with 8 sisters, many of whom had woeful eating habits not too different from those described by Sheiner, finds it difficult to believe that the author's eating habits were the certain cause of her son's condition.

 

Engagingly written and emotionally honest, this book pulls no punches. On the contrary, her presentation will land solid blows to the ignorance and complacency of many an AB (able-bodied) reader, if they are willing to learn from her hard-won experience. We are better off for Marcy Sheiner having written this book.

 

"…feeding the world without wrecking it…"

The Nine Horizons - Mike Robbins

“The Nine Horizons: Travel In Sundry Places” is billed as a series of snapshots and lives up to this claim, offering nine sparkling vignettes of the author's experiences in Sudan, Quito in Ecuador, a rainforest (Ecuador again), Bhutan, Syria, Central Asia, Brazil, New York, and during an England to USA crossing.

 

His method of financing his travels is through “development”, a vaguely worded profession that consists of volunteer work for the UN, the EU, NGO's, and other do-gooder organizations. He started on this path in 1987 with the modest goal of getting out of a journalistic rut in London and once underway his interest escalated toward language studies. Ultimately, he took on the theory and practice of economic development at advanced levels.

 

His interest in hiking is usually presented as the highpoint of his travels in each country, possibly because it allowed him a literal overview of the country. In the structure of the book, recollections of his hiking serve a different purpose: they allow free space within which he teaches the diversity of these lands and about the integrity of the vastly different peoples and cultures he has helped and learned from. Make no mistake, if you read this book, you too will learn. Robbins is a master teacher and his methods are beguiling.

 

The first sentence: “You do not need to know much about me” contains few words, but they set the tone, which is both understated and supremely confident. Once immersed in the book, we understand why. His writing style appears to grow organically out of his journeys, for his recollections show that he took countries as he found them. He sought out central areas of the cities for solitary living quarters, for example, rather than settling for suburban comforts. He often arrived into and exited from a country with his worldly possessions crammed into a single knapsack, albeit the contents changed. In between times, he clambered up and down mountain trails with alacrity and agility (notwithstanding bashing a rib or two).

 

Robbins is a great travel writer but there are surely limits to what one can imply through clouds, and I fear that he reached the limit about half-way through the book. White, fluffy, fat, pale, wispy, foggy or otherwise, I was glad when the clouds (or the often incessant rain for that matter) cleared out and made way for more earth-bound matters. Other than this quirk, I enjoyed his descriptive verse, which accounts for the majority of the book. Long passages can be tiring, but fortunately he is also a master of the short sentence, and the results are never less than graceful. One might question what makes a man travel so persistently, but there is a discernible arc to the stories, and, ultimately, a satisfying resolution — which need not be revealed here.

 

Robbins seems occasionally to mistrust “progress” almost as much as some of the remote rainforest tribes he profiles. Can you blame him? His creed, if it were reduced to a few words, might sound something like “...feeding the world without wrecking it...” (page 194). Saving the world is a large problem, and I don't mean to give the impression that Robbins claims to know how. But, this book does show that he found the world and its inhabitants to be beautiful, which may be more important.

 

Only in the last few pages does Robbins' writing become more abstract as he draws a few lessons from his travels. These well-founded observations are perfectly pitched. Like many of the propeller-driven airplane rides just described, these observations bring the reader to a graceful touch-down after an exhilarating and enlightening flight.

It's interesting to note that “Nine Horizons” is only one of three books that Robbins published in early 2014. Having enjoyed this first one so much, it makes me happy to think of what lies ahead.

 

Good self-help, but as "manifesto" falls short.

A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose - Eckhart Tolle

"A New Earth" is a heady little book which purports to "show how transcending our ego-based state of consciousness is not only essential to our personal happiness, but also the key to ending conflict and suffering throughout the world." I would call this claim ambitious (and therefore egotistical) coming from any other man. But, because Mr. Tolle operates from the premise that he has harnessed his ego in the service of a greater good, that characterization would run counter to the spirit of the book, may seem unfair, and might even reveal me as one who has not transcended his ego.

 

I guess ultimately the question is: has Mr. Tolle correctly gauged the utility of the ego? I think it fair to say that he feels the ego has no utility, except that eradicating the ego at every turn allows us to come closer to our higher purpose - less ego, and more spirit, or, in his words, Consciousness, also known as Presence. Presence can be defined as "consciousness without thought." Indeed, Tolle seems to distrust thought almost as much as ego, which is odd for an author churning out 300-page treatises. How can this be accomplished except with a great deal of rigorous thought? Another oddity: his fixation on the banishment of the ego from all utility, except that of affirming its opposite (spirit) resembles a Catholic argument that Error has only one use -- that it helps to define and develop Truth. But Tolle is no Catholic, although he does use many of Jesus' quotes to good effect.

 

The problem that I have with his premise is that his rejection of the collective ego necessarily rejects a great deal of personal ego: the unique qualities that each of us bring into this world, and the special path that we follow because we were born in a particular place and time. I feel that all of these attributes should not be discounted as mere grains of sand on an infinite beach. Surely they must be part of a higher purpose, a personal destiny, which is also worthwhile. At the very least they should be celebrated as defining characteristics of who we are, and how we learn, and they often lead to the acquisition of habits that further refine who we are. We shape our habits, and then our habits shape us. And this process is not pernicious, but developmental.

 

To turn at every opportunity and attempt to jettison this individuality (that's what Mr. Tolle seems to be advocating) seems ungrateful at best and wrong-headed at worst. The ego is not only something to react against. It is also something to understand, come to terms with, learn from, and be grateful for. One need not be a disciple of Ayn Rand to feel that a strong ego is a good thing, on balance.

 

Yet Mr. Tolle finds no place in the world for the ego. Perhaps this explains why the thrust of the book is toward the otherworldly. For example, he observes on pg. 162 that "...when you realize that pain-bodies unconsciously seek more pain, that is to say, that they want something bad to happen, you will understand that many traffic accidents are caused by drivers whose pain-bodies are active at the time." Tolle's conception is that unconsciousness (overt identification with the ego) creates a negative energy field and an accumulation of pain (the so-called pain-body).

 

Okay, someone's off-kilter energy field or pain-body may be at work, but couldn't these accidents be more simply explained as a consequence of jackass drivers? Left untouched in this discussion of road rage is how Mr. Tolle or the highway patrol or a judge could possibly know when a pain-body is or is not active and therefore responsible for the accident. This may be why the book is found in the "spiritual" and not the "science" section of the bookstore.

 

On the positive side, Tolle has a crackerjack team of editors. I never found a typo in this 300-page book. His prose style is effective, if a bit odd. Once he starts, his batteries never run down. He forges constantly ahead with hundreds upon hundreds of small words, scarcely stopping to summarize or collect the argument. This style reminds me of a friend back in the early 70s who was equally adept at words and philosophical argument, though his words were longer. After indulging in a helping hand from the pharmaceutical industry he would hold forth on how a certain spinning wheel was within another spinning wheel, which was within yet another other spinning wheel. He never summarized, explained, or stopped talking. Tolle's treatise is somewhat like that, although to be fair he also unearths many fascinating examples of how we trip ourselves up when we pick the wrong objectives. There are also several stories containing pithy lessons from enlightened Easterners.

 

Verdict: as a self-help book, this is not bad, and better than most. Judged as a spiritual manifesto, will it really help save the earth and build a better world? I find that unlikely. It was published in 2005, and its predecessor "The Power of Now" was published 15 years ago. The last time I checked, the world seemed to be revolving as it usually does, egos, pain-bodies and all.

 

His fact-checkers let him down in the sections about religious intolerance (pg. 155-7). He states that "...it seems certain that during a three-hundred-year period between three and five million women were tortured and killed by the 'Holy Inquisition'..." Tolle goes on to equate the gravity of this persecution to the Jewish Holocaust during WWII. Without pause he next compares these twin tragedies to witch-burning, and explains why that phenomenon caught on: "What is it that suddenly made men feel threatened by the female?" he asks. He then answers himself: "The evolving ego in them. It knew it could gain full control of our planet only through the male form, and to do so, it had to render the female powerless. In time, the ego also took over most women, although it could never become as deeply entrenched in them as in men."

 

Where do I start? Popular history books most often cite from 30,000 to 50,000 for all burned at the stake during the 300 years of the Spanish Inquisition, and specialists come up with even lower numbers. There were other inquisitions, but the sum totals could not have been as high as Tolle claims, and they were not all or even mostly women. See Telchin (2004); and Pasachoff and Littman (2005). The slapdash comparison of the results of the various Inquisitions of the Catholic Church to the horrific extermination of millions of Jews during the Second World War is distasteful, to say the least. As for witch-hunts, certainly they were a real and regrettable phenomenon. Yet, while there were many witches burned at the stake in Europe and America, these numbers, too, have become inflated due to sloppy research, latter-day hysteria, and self-help authors stretching a point. Most professional researchers figure around 50,000 victims, with some few supporting lower figures of around 30,000, and some few who believe there were as many as 100,000 or so.

 

As for women having less ego than men: Mr. Tolle does not know the women I know.

What I Learned At the White House: A Memoir

I've done about a half-dozen jobs at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., ranging from room installations to advice on taking down scenics and relocating them. This series tells how a paperhanger from Western Massachusetts got the call to work there, whether I was nervous or not, and what it was like.