29 August 2014

Review of Ping Fu, Bend, Not Break

Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two WorldsBend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds by Ping Fu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ping Fu shares her harrowing journey from childhood through her beginning her own business and family. She experienced terrible things, and good things and she tells how these experiences shaped her worldview and her ability to bend without breaking.

There were parts of the book that were slow reading and lost my interest, but overall, the work was enjoyable and well worth the time it took to finish it.

Ping Fu is a courageous and strong woman who was able to aim for what she wanted (and it one case what she didn't think she wanted, but did) and to reach her goals.

If you're interested in entrepreneurship, women entrepreneurs, cultural differences between China and America, Chinese-Americans, or developing resilience in life (i.e. learning to "bend, not break"), you should enjoy this book. But, you won't know unless you read it for yourself....

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20 August 2014

Review of The Obstacle is the Way

The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Adversity to AdvantageThe Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage by Ryan Holiday
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book, even though it isn't super deep. It is not your typical self-help book. I like how Holiday pulled from so many different great thinkers and people who have done things even in the face of tremendous adversity.

Some books are great because they introduce you to other books. This is such a book. I was introduced to Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, which I am thoroughly enjoying; The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, which I will soon be thoroughly enjoying; among others. Also, I got a good taste of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations and the writings of Epictetus. Yeah, I know, I shoulda already read them a looong time ago, but I haven't, so leave me alone or I'm telling Mom!

If you are interested in Stoicism, or if you just seem to have an inordinate amount of hardship, this is a good introduction to the kind of thinking that can help you develop the toughness of mind to, like, conquer the world (if that is your desire); or, it can help you just to get through your normal daily pile of smelly stuff without getting too much on you.

My way of looking at the rocks and hard places that I regularly encounter has changed. When I was younger, I was more resilient; now that I'm older, I needed a little reminder that I can handle things if I have the right attitude.

If you're already perfect and resiliency is your superpower, then you can probably skip this book. If, however, you need a little refresher course on how to handle the small stuff that makes you sweat whether you want to or not, then you could do worse than giving Holiday's book a quick read.

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The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph
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11 August 2014

Review of The Bible Unearthed

The power of the biblical saga stems from its being a compelling and coherent narrative expression of the timeless themes of a people liberation, continuing resistance to oppression, and quest for social equality.  It eloquently expresses the deeply rooted sense of shared origins, experiences, and destiny that every human community needs in order to survive. 
(Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, 318)
If you’re looking for a book to bolster your beliefs in the absolutely 100% historical accuracy of the Bible, this is not that book.  That being said, the authors do respect the biblical narrative and the texts and realize their import in the lives of millions of people worldwide, calling it a “great national epic of liberation.”
… it is only when we recognize when and why the ideas, images, and events described in the Bible came to be so skillfully woven together that we can at last begin to appreciate the true genius and continuing power of this single most influential literary and spiritual creation in the history of humanity. (Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, 318)
This book gently, but firmly breaks down several major parts of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament for you Christians out there); Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman present archaeological and historical evidence that much of the Bible was written to help coalesce the nation after several years of exile.  The Christian New Testament is not covered in this book, and partly, I believe that after chopping at the foundations, the building built on those foundations will also suffer; but, mostly, I believe it’s because the authors are Jewish and not Christian: hence, the New Testament is not their Bible.

So, I guess you could say that The Bible Unearthed actually uncovers the facts and many of the events that in fact took place, many directly opposed to what we find written in the pages of the Bible.  So, I guess you could say The Bible Unearthed unearths what happened outside of the Bible as we know it, and gives us something closer to what actually took place.  It gives detailed information, including bibliography and index and a few maps and illustrations.

Where does Biblical Inerrancy fit in here?  Some believe the Bible is 100% accurate history, science, etc.  They attempt to strengthen their arguments and their belief by going to the Bible itself.  Others have tried to manipulate archaeological and historical finds to fit what the Bible says.  At the end of the day, you just have to believe that if we were created, then God would not have given us minds that could figure things out if he didn’t want us to figure them out.  Also, if the Bible is inspired by God, and God is all-knowing (yes, I know the fancy word is omniscient), then he woulda known a looooong time ago that some smartass would come along and show how all the things written in there are not 100% accurate.  Some of those who attempt to defend the Bible forget that if there God is as powerful as they say they believe he is, he is more than capable of taking care of it himself.
Does that mean they are false?  NO!  It means the Bible is made up of stories which are meant to lead people to live a better life.  It was written to show people how to love and how to behave in the world.  It’s not always pretty; much of the Hebrew Bible is blood, murder, and other awfulness that one wouldn’t expect to see in a book about a God who is love.
I’m not trying to attack anyone’s faith, and I don’t believe that is Finkelstein and Silberman’s desire, either.  In fact, my faith was strengthened because I realized that Christianity wouldn’t be here if the Jews hadn’t pulled together and written their Tanakh (I know some fancy words, I know!  Actually, that’s an acronym for the three sections of the Hebrew Bible: Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim: or The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings), and much of what I take for granted may never have happened.  I also realize that a lot of bloodshed wouldn’t have happened: i.e. the Crusades; the bloody Protestant/Catholic conflicts; the whole awful war going on in Israel and Palestine and that which is going on in the Middle East.

All the good and bad can be traced right back to that time when a group of Jewish exiles decided to put together a book for their nation, and then, use stories of their ancestors who obeyed and were blessed; and others who disobeyed and were cursed.  The blessings and the cursings all go back to those stories.  And, that is what they are: stories.

You cannot build a science on Genesis.  You cannot build a history on any of the “historical” books.  Yes, some of them have accurate depictions, but the timing is off.  The Exodus is a big one; as is the stories of the kings of both Judah and Israel. 

While this book does not cover the New Testament, I think Paul’s epistle to Timothy has probably come to mind and so, I will quote from verses 15 – 17 of the third chapter:
15 And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

You see?  It says there that all scripture is given by inspiration of God.  That’s the King James Version.  The English Standard Version says, in verse 16: “All Scripture is breathed out by God …”  New International Version says: “God-breathed.”  But, notice what these verses do not say.  They do not say that everything in the scripture is to be considered 100% accurate.  Does it have to say that?  Apparently some believe it does.  I for one have read the Bible many times and have never read in its pages anything remotely saying that it’s to be taken literally.  Rather, the more I read it, the more I believe it should be read literarily.
Basically, this guy's up here writing this review and saying that the Bible shouldn't be believed.  I am not saying that!  I’m saying that believe it the way it’s meant to be believed.  Use it for doctrine (a fancy word for the teachings of your particular belief system), for reproof (an antiquated word which means discipline), for correction, and for instruction in righteousness.  How can one do that with literature?  People do it all the time; in fact, it’s what we have all been doing for centuries. 

Realizing that something is not the way you have believed it can be difficult.  It can stun you, I know.  But, it can be liberating, too.  It can open completely new ways of thinking and understanding.  And, once your mind has been stretched to see something, it cannot un-see it, barring permanent amnesia. 
According to the entry on Biblical Inerrancy at the Religious Tolerance website:
Belief of biblical inerrancy in the U.S.:
On 2007-MAY-25, Gallup reported the results of a national poll on Biblical inerrancy. Those polled were asked which of three statements comes closest to describing their personal views about the Bible. The average of polls taken during MAY of 2005, 2006 and 2007 were:
  • 31% believe that "The Bible is the actual word of God, and is to be taken literally, word for word." This would imply acceptance of biblical inerrancy.
  • 47% believe that "The Bible is the inspired word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally."
  • 19% believe that "The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man."
  • 3% were uncertain or didn't answer.
  • Margin of error was ±3 percentage points.
An identical poll taken during 2011-MAY showed little change:
  • 30% believe that "The Bible is the actual word of God, and is to be taken literally, word for word."
  • 49% believe that "The Bible is the inspired word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally."
  • 17% believe that "The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man."
  • 4% were uncertain or didn't answer.

Only 30% of those asked believe that each and every word of the Bible is to be taken literally.  I’m in between the 17% and the 49%: I believe that the Bible is inspired, but that it is recorded by humans.  Harold Bloom argues, in his The Book of J, that possibly parts of the Hebrew Bible (those written by one scholars call the Jahwist) were possibly written by a woman.  I like to think that that could be true: I like to hope that it is.  For more on these ideas of the “documentary hypothesis,” read this

There is a humorous take on the idea of taking the Bible literally on the Religious Tolerance site.

I love this book.  I really have to buy myself a copy, so I can spend more time going through it and its sources.  If you’re interested in the history of the Levant, the nation of Israel, the Bible, or in archaeology, or in old texts, I think you will enjoy this book.  If you don’t, please don’t throw it at me,  it is a pretty hefty tome and might do some serious damage to my spectacles. 

04 August 2014

Review of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy

Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab TragedyScars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy by Shlomo Ben-Ami
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A thorough and well-written work on this tragic conflict, that even as I started reading this was in the media headlines, again.

Ben-Ami is Israeli, but his book is as objectively written as I have read. He doesn't give easy, pat answers to the problem; and, he doesn't try to pigeonhole the problem into this or that category. It's not all about religion; and it is also not all about politics.

He makes an effort to show how both sides have dropped the ball in the peace process, and makes no excuses for either: making it quite clear that both sides have done atrocious things to the other.

If you want to get up to date on what is happening in this critical geographical location and what has gone on before, this is an excellent place to begin.

I took a while for my first read through because I wanted the depth as well as the breadth of what was and is happening in this conflict.

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26 July 2014

Review of Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Stumbling on HappinessStumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an enjoyable book, at times laugh-aloud funny, but always serious. The topics he covers have been covered before, but I can't remember the last time I enjoyed reading about them so much.

Gilbert states that we often don't really know what makes us happy; that we often do things believing they will make us happy, but we misjudge because we base our future on the memories of our past. Often, those memories are unreliable. These thoughts aren't new, but the way Gilbert presents them is and it is worth the laughs you'll get to read them.

It did slow down a little toward the end, the density of the information building, but Gilbert does a good job of keeping it accessible and fun.

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Review of The Tools by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels

The Tools: Transform Your Problems into Courage, Confidence, and CreativityThe Tools: Transform Your Problems into Courage, Confidence, and Creativity by Phil Stutz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am working through The Tools: 5 Tools to Help You Find Courage, Creativity, and Willpower--and Inspire You to Live Life in Forward Motion a second time. Initially, I thought that a lot of what Barry Michels and Phil Stutz teach here seems very New-Agey. After thinking about the Tools, I see that the Tools have cognates in Buddhism (esp. Tibetan Buddhism as it has come to North America). Active Love can easily be related to the practice of Tonglen: giving and receiving. A person first must receive love before it can be given.

Okay, you can say: "That isn't real, you're not really giving anything to anyone." I have to agree with that. I'm reminded of Elizabeth Gilbert and the "sending light and love" idea she writes about in Eat, Pray, Love. Even if you don't believe that you are sending actual love to someone, that is not the point. The point is: You are practicing loving that person; if you love someone, you have a harder time being angry (or sad, vindictive, or any other negative emotional state) toward/about that person. I have used Active Love more than any of the other Tools in this book and I can say that it has made it easier for me to stop renting space to those people who have "done me wrong." We often give too much thought to those people we dislike. I have no idea why. But, if you're like me, i.e. sick of doing that, then you'll read this book and use these tools to STOP DOING THAT!!!

What these tools do (only if you use them and use them use them) is give YOU more control over what YOU focus on. And, that is what the last tool focuses on: how to keep yourself using the tools. The authors say that these are not magic pills that you can use only once and then forget. Like anything that really matters, you will have to work at making the changes you want to make in your life.

Barry Michels writes that he was skeptical about the Tools initially, too, but that as he kept using them he realized how much they were helping him. Yes, there may be a time of uncomfortable repetition, but eventually the lack of faith is overcome by belief; and any self help program requires some degree of faith (in my humble opinion).

The authors recommend really sticking to the program, really giving it your all; they recommend not trying them once and then, immediately jumping on to another program and then, to another. As the writers argue is what is often done in consumerist societies: always looking for a magic pill, whether it's weight-loss, money-making, time-management, or whatever.

I have had some success with these tools. Does that mean that you'll have success with them? I have no idea. As usual, all I can say is: read it and use them and see for yourself.

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The Tools: 5 Tools to Help You Find Courage, Creativity, and Willpower--and Inspire You to Live Life in Forward Motion

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18 July 2014

Early Review of Mitchell Bard's Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam's Against the Jews

Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam's War Against the JewsDeath to the Infidels: Radical Islam's War Against the Jews by Mitchell G. Bard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mitchell Bard's Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam's War Against the Jews, is an information packed history of the Israeli/Arab conflict. Bard makes the argument that Muslim states, particularly those who are radical will stop at nothing to see Jews wiped from the face of the Earth. I was gripped with the intensity with which the Israeli Jews fear for their lives.

The book is useful; I would have liked a few more sources, especially for those areas speaking against Israel's enemies. I know I can search online, but when I'm in the middle of a book, the last thing I want to do is to go online and get distracted while trying to find some piece of information that I expect to be in a book like this. Bard includes several sources, but there are a few places where he doesn't—and in those places they would do a lot to strengthen his side of the argument. As I pointed out, Bard includes a fair number of sources; a bibliography would facilitate the further study of these issues.

Bard argues that the conflict is at that bottom a religious one rather than a political one. It could be political using religion to carry our its ends. It wouldn't be the first time and that interpretation can be gathered from Bard's book.

I'm reminded while reading Death to the Infidels to try to look at both sides of the issue. When so much smoke and mirror propaganda and spin is being used by both sides of the issue, it's very difficult to know where to stand. From my view, which is not in the thick of it, I can see that both sides have done atrocious things to the other; that many people: soldiers, as well as non-military fighters, as well as civilians not involved in the fighting—innocent men, women, and children have died in this conflict that goes on for so long that media in the West stops covering because it's no longer news.

My heart breaks for the Israeli Jews who just want a homeland and it breaks for the Palestinians who want the same thing. It breaks for all those who are caught in the middle of this religio-political melee.

It's difficult to read/research both sides because each side has its own suffering and each side has its spin-doctors. I tend to agree with what Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness, “When pro-Israeli and pro-Arab viewers [of news] are shown identical samples of Middle East news coverage, both proponents claim that the fact clearly show that the press was biased against their side” (168). They also claim that the other side started it. Gilbert later writes: “Alas, the only thing these facts clearly show is that people tend to see what they want to see” (168, emphasis in original). Bard has made it easier to see the Jewish side, and the fear that keeps the Israelis from giving in to the demands of the Palestinians.

According to Bard, every time the Israelis have given an inch, the Palestinians have taken a mile and have continued to bring terror in the form of firing rockets and suicide bombings. He makes the point, however, that when Israel fires back in defense, they are reprimanded by other nations. It's also interesting that each side claims that the West, especially the U.S. is aiding the other side: the Palestinians say that the U.S. helps Israel; Israel says the U.S. helps Palestine. Books like Bard's are important; he's not afraid to go against the current “politically correct” flow and to tell it like he sees it. He pulls no punches in saying that those who want Israel's and especially the Jews' demise are not moderate and radical, but should rather be called radical and more radical. He quotes (with sources) several who call for the decimation/annihilation of the Jews even if it takes centuries. Because of the lengths to which these radicals are willing to go, Bard argues, Jews and Israel have a long, hard road ahead of the them.

Bard covers a lot of information in a short book, and all of it is important. Read this if you're interested in this heart-wrenching conflict that has cost so many lives and will cost many more before it's over, if it will /can ever be over. I for one hope (probably foolishly) that Bard is wrong, even a little. Alas, it's not very likely: just look at the new escalation that is in the news right now (18 July 2014).

NOTE: This book is due to be published in September 2014.

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13 July 2014

Review of Don Miguel Ruiz's The Four Agreements

The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal GrowthThe Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Growth by Miguel Ruiz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A simple, but not simplistic, twist on personal growth and self-help. Several times the author states that is takes a strong will to make and keep these four agreements. The beauty is that they are things that we should be doing anyway.

If you're interested in self-help, personal growth, or just plain, good wisdom, then I recommend this book. But, be careful: you may find yourself making some serious agreements with yourself that will change your life.

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04 July 2014

Review of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, SpyBonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overall, I enjoyed this biography. As I read/listened to it, I kept trying to connect it to what I know of Church history and history in general from this time. It was fascinating to learn new things about the Nazi party, such as: they started their own Church: Reichskirke (officially: The German Evangelical Church).

Metaxas shows the many sides of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and does an excellent job of bringing the young pastor's internal and external struggles to the reader. Many people played many roles in the stand against Hitler's Nazi party during those years in Germany; it's interesting to see what role those leaders in the Protestant Church (particularly Lutheran) played.

Bonhoeffer and many of his friends and colleagues were punished and killed for their role in the downfall of the Third Reich.

If you're interested in the Lutheran Church, Church History, History before/during WWII, or the role played by the Church during the Nazi Third Reich, this is an interesting place to begin looking at those various topics/subjects.

As always, you'll just have to read it to discover if you'll like it or not.

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31 May 2014

Review of Jorge Luis Borges's A Personal Anthology

A Personal AnthologyA Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of my favorite anthologies. I continue to re-read several of the stories, poems and essays. Borges was a master of the author-identity concept. Many authors attempt to spin an identity separate from the "real" them which is the identity they present to their public, to their readers.

Borges writes that he wants the works in this anthology to be representative of his work; he wants these works to speak for him.

I don't read Spanish, yet, so I can't say how close to the original these translations are, but they are wonderful to read and I imagine are very good.

If you're interested in identity in literature, Latin American literature, influence, or in literature in general, read this. I highly recommend anything by Borges, but like any literature, you have to read for yourself to truly to discover if you will enjoy it. And, with Borges, you should try to read a wide swath of his work, because it varies. That's what makes this a great choice for introduction to his work, it gives a taste of his fiction, poetry and essays (which, you may know are not always non-fiction).


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A Personal Anthology

25 May 2014

Early Review of Richard Jackson's Confessions of a Terrorist: A Novel

Confessions of a Terrorist: A NovelConfessions of a Terrorist: A Novel by Richard Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Advanced Reader's Copy Review:

The night I began reading Richard Jackson's Confessions of a Terrorist: A Novel, I didn't stop before finishing a third of it, it was difficult to put it down. Part of this is the style, it is written in the format of a Top Secret transcription of an audio or video recording of an interrogation of a MI5 agent and a terrorist/militant. There are no chapter breaks, so it's easy to just keep right on reading and the content makes it hard to simply close it and put it down.

Jackson, with this novel, seeks to shake up his readers' preconceptions and notions concerning those labeled as terrorists by the media. That seems to be one of his few aims: to show that those so quickly tagged as terrorists are human beings, having people they love, who love them; and who want people to hear them. Jackson writes: “I have rarely found artistic or media depictions of terrorists that seemed authentic or which corresponded to the completely normal, often intelligent, complex and committed people I had personally spoken to” (319). He presents the terrorist in this light; i.e. the opposite of the way they are usually presented in films and the media.

The author wants to put the readers in the room during the interrogation, to help them ask tough questions. Jackson lives up to his goal, stated on the jacket copy, to blur the line between the interrogator and the terrorist. There are passages that could catch readers nodding their heads in agreement and then, catch them feeling a twinge of guilt for doing so.

I read that it is in the style of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I agree with that in that it is a story that takes place in an intense conversation between two characters: one a Westerner, the other a suspected terrorist. There the similarity breaks down. Jackson's novel is presented as a trascript (as I've already stated), with anotations by those higher up the chain of command; annotations that the fictional authority writes to convince others to expunge parts of the recording and the transcription to cover their collective backsides. Jackson recommends those who are inclined, should try to find as much information as they can, and to talk to militants, if possible.

If you enjoyed The Reluctant Fundamentalist, or are interested in a different perspective view on the issue of terrorists and their behavior, I highly recommend this novel. The author writes, “A novel like this is a small step, but a necessary one, to tearing down the veil of ignorance which currently lies over most of what we currently say and do about terrorism” (322). He also includes a suggested reading list for those interested in knocking down that “veil of ignorance.” I plan to re-read this novel, and to work my way through Jackson's "Recommended Reading" list on terrorism and terrorists.

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Confessions of a Terrorist

04 May 2014

Review of Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church by Jonathan Wright

Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern ChurchHeretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church by Jonathan Wright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an informative book, well-written and with an easy to read style/voice. It's good enough that I plan to re-read it, hoping to get even more out of it. I'm very interested in Church/Christian History as a whole, but especially enjoy reading history from an objective perspective. I don't get the sense that I'm reading a particular brand of Christianity's history, or even a history with too much slant on it, i.e. it’s not making up my mind for me, but simply presenting information and allowing me to think and make conclusions for myself.

According to Wright without heresy, orthodoxy may never have been solidified. He writes, “Heresy certainly helped define orthodoxy, but it still required a bold leap to equate that orthodoxy with the only reputable version of Christianity” (82). This last statement is a thought I have often had, but have not been able to put into words as clearly as Wright does. Wright is not giving a prescription, here, but rather a description. Again, he lets the reader come to their own conclusions.

Wright presents representative arguments from all sides before, during and after the seemingly all-important councils. The arguments on the Trinity vs. Unitarian concepts; the god-nature vs. human nature of Jesus Christ. He discusses how the Holy Spirit slowly changed from an almost afterthought to one third of the Trinity. He gives information on the various heresies and the people who were accused of holding them and what happened to them. And, as Wright states, “we are reminded that the line between orthodoxy and heterodoxy was always very thin” (104). This is even more true today.

According to others (e.g. Ross Douthat) heresy is now almost the norm, having overcome the most staid and staunch orthodoxy. Wright takes a different thought, writing that “[i]t is hard to reach a firm conclusion. Was there really more heresy during the medieval era, or simply more attempts to seek it out and eradicate it?” (135). I tend to be between the two ideas, that there is heresy. I think it’s prominent because of modern knowledge (particularly scientific knowledge). In order to keep people interested, the leaders in churches have to avoid deep theological issues. In order for people to feel congruent, they have to hold unorthodox ideas. Some orthodox concepts are quite hard to jibe with what is experienced on a daily basis. I have a feeling that most of what we call Christianity, today, would have been considered heresy in the Middle Ages. Wright may agree. He writes, “There was no more conspicuous example of medieval Christianity’s inability to neatly define the borders between heresy and orthodoxy than the Beguines, who were welcomed, at first, by paeans of support and ended up being thrown into the flames” (142).

One good thing about the tolerance of/freedom of religion we enjoy, at least in most Western countries, few are dying for their unorthodox beliefs and thoughts. “It has recently been calculated that, across Europe in the sixteenth century, as many as five thousand people were legally executed for their supposedly heterodox religious beliefs” (Wright 181). That is progress, but others (again, Douthat) seem to bemoan this change. I’m probably reading to much into those ideas, but I prefer heresy to mass killings of supposed heretics.

Wright also presents the concept “In one of the more notable plus ca change moments of European history, the persecuted quickly became the persecutors” (187). This continued throughout church history.

I appreciate how Wright gives equal ink to both sides of the issue; he keeps a pretty objective voice throughout and makes it easy for the reader to come to their own conclusion. He also has a good scholarly apparatus: i.e. notes, bibliography, index.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it highly. If you are interested in history in general or Church/Christian history in particular, this is an excellent book to increase your knowledge of this subject.

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03 May 2014

Short Review of Heretics by Jonathan Wright

Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern ChurchHeretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church by Jonathan Wright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an informative book, well-written and with an easy to read style/voice. It's good enough that I plan to re-read it, hoping to get even more out of it. I'm very interested in Church/Christian History as a whole, but especially enjoy reading history from an objective-ish perspective. I don't get the sense that I'm reading a particular brand of Christianity's history, or even a history with too much slant on it.

I hope I can write more about this, later. But, for now, if you are interested in history in general or Church/Christian history in particular, I recommend this book.

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02 May 2014

Review of Living Beyond Terrorism by Zieva Dauber Konvisser

The first thing that I noticed and something that kept coming up is that the book is a testament to “the strength of the human spirit” (xxiii).  Another recurring thought is that of resilience.  I will attempt to write this review without giving away too much of the book.  There is just so much that touched me and I want to do the work justice.  It is an important book and I hope it gains a wide readership.  It’s a book about hope and healing, and that is for anyone. 

Konvisser has an wonderful writing voice; while her book is well-researched and scholarly, the style and the voice keeps it accessible for the lay reader.  In my humble opinion, she does an excellent job of writing a book for both audiences without skimping on either side.  She also includes representatives from several groups of people: Jewish-Israelis, Arab-Israelis, and others from other countries who have made Israel their home.  While presenting the stories of these people, she attempts to keep it about them and how they have coped with, and how their lives have changed since, the traumatic events of terrorist attacks; she attempts to keep the book from being political.  And, she does a pretty good job of that, too. (xxxiii)

Konvisser wants to make it clear, by letting these people tell their own stories, that these survivors are human beings, not merely numbers we hear on the evening news.  Real people with hopes, dreams, loves, worries, fears, and lives and people who love them and whom they love.  She writes: “By telling and retelling their stories, we celebrate their lives as people—as human beings—not simply as players in a larger story or as numbers.  By telling their stories we bear witness” (xxvii).  The book is an anthology of the stories of not victims but, survivors (this is an important distinction for them) of terrorist attacks: which include shootings, car bombings, and suicide bombings.  Konvisser considers this text, this work, as a tribute and a responsibility. 

It seems that those in this area of the globe, are experiencing something similar to the state of the United States before the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.  Violence obviously is not working, and maybe they should try non-violence.  This book could be helpful in establishing the dialogue that can bring these two groups of people closer to peace. There is a bulleted list of “Lessons Learned” in the preface, which according to the author was developed from all the stories of the survivors and of the bereaved.  I won’t include it here, but recommend the reader to not skip the preface and so miss this important part of the work.

It’s not just Jewish-Israelis who are the victims/survivors; the Arab people living in this area also suffer: some are killed, some maimed and many are treated like criminals just for being Arab and being in the area of a terrorist event.  So, their trauma is double maybe even tripled or quadrupled.  While most of the people’s stories talk about the post-traumatic stress that they suffered, they also depict post-traumatic growth.  This latter, the way I understand it, would be like a kind of awakening brought on by the trauma and the recovery from it.

Even in the midst of the terrible events and the subsequent recovery, most of the stories presented here show amazing amount of hope.  The survivors talk about people asking why they keep living there, to which they answer, “This is my house and my family…” In a sense, “How can I leave my home?”  These survivors realize what’s important: family, friends, sense of place and belonging, and not letting the terrorists win. (264)  The survivors also talk about increased gratitude, along with a fear of returning to the place of the attack. (266)  This realization of what’s important and gratitude are also recurring concepts in these stories.

For the Arabs, there was a distancing by Jewish colleagues and a feeling of being under suspicion. (21) This is unfortunate, because the survivors were just as much targets of the terrorist attacks as their Jewish counterparts.  After years, they still struggle to deal with the after-effects, trying to be strong. (23)

The take-home seems to be that even if we never have the misfortune of experiencing a terrorist attack, we can learn ways of thriving when we face other traumatic events, or loss. (262)  Somehow, the perpetrators and retaliators have to realize that the violence is not solving their issues.  It seems the terror works for a short time, but only a short time.  The survivors will not let the fear win, so the terrorism loses its venom.  As one survivor says, “I had a new chance, a new life, to be more or less whole” (41), and “In the beginning it has to destroy you in order for you to survive” (42). 

This is a book about surviving, and in many cases flourishing, even after being involved in some of the worst events a person can imagine: terrorist attack.  The atrocities take their toll, but the survivors, at least those who share their stories here, come out stronger and with a great appreciation of life. 

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in terrorism and dealing with it; trauma and healing after trauma; war and survival.  It has given me a new perspective on my own problems, making them seem almost non-existent in comparison.  However, neither Konvisser nor the story-telling survivors ever trivialize the trauma of others.  They demonstrate that it is significant and people can get through it.  I hope many readers find hope in this book, or at the very least, that they gain a new perspective on the world around them.

01 May 2014

Making a Life That Matters

Sometimes I wonder if my life simply matters because it is, or if I have to DO certain things: you know, achieve GREATNESS!!!: to make my life matter. 

I hold to the idea of a certain innate human importance: i.e. human beings matter simply because they are.  That’s not really what I’m talking about here; this isn’t one of the questions I’m asking of myself.

My question is more about life as it’s lived; the life situation (as Eckhart Tolle calls it).  You know: career, hobbies, exercise, learning, relationships.  What is really important?  What really matters?  Am I supposed to be happy with my life as it is, as many of the self-help gurus say?  Am I supposed to realize that I’m really deeply unhappy and so I have to DO all these special steps to find happiness?

When I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the first time, I immediately had an interpretation of the meaning of that book.  It was: The Road is about focusing on what’s important. 

Later, I arrived at more elaborate interpretations, but that initial focus on what’s important idea has stood the test of time.  For the man (in case you haven’t read it and plan to, I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum) who unnamed, the boy is “what’s important.”  Everything in the story deals with keeping that boy alive, or to die trying.

Since reading that novel, I have often thought about my own children and how important they are to me.  I’ve thought about the other members of my family and how they are also important to me.  I look at what I have (of course, if someone else had what I have they may not experience gratitude, but rather despair) and am grateful. 

So, what is really important?  Air to breathe.  Water to drink.  Food.  A roof over my head.  All of those things are nice to have, esp. the three basic needs: and those are also covered in McCarthy’s book. 
Ultimately, what is the most important thing?  It’s not really a thing at all.

I read a lot of literature and it is important to me.  I often get very informative answers from literature, and mind-saving info, too.  There have been a number of times that I have read a certain passage from a novel or play or poem and it has given me a new perspective on life.

Yet, literature is not the most important thing, either.  Although literature often contains a portrayal of it, or an attempt at it. 

The most important thing is love.  There, I said it.  I’m not talking only about love between a man and woman, because that is only one narrow aspect of love and is often misunderstood (that’s the stuff for a-whole-nother post).  I’m talking about love that is willing to give itself completely.  Sometimes the love between a man and woman is like that, but more often that kind of love is the love of a parent for a child.  A love that would die, fight, scrape, do whatever to make sure that child is safe and will grow to be the best human being he or she can be.  That’s the kind of love I saw that the man had for his son in The Road.

So, what does that have to do with a life that matters?  Everything.  Everything and more.

Socrates supposedly said that the unexamined life is not worth living.  That may be true, or it may not.  But, if we don’t examine our lives we will have a difficult time building one that matters.  That’s not to say that we have to run off to every self-help seminar, or buy every book and CD/DVD program at the local bookstore on 23 Steps to Super-Over-Mega-Achieving Every Single Goal in Your Stupendous Mind, or something.  What it means is that we take stock.  We really look at what we believe about the important things.  We then have to get down to the real thing: What is really important?

Now, we’re right back where we were up there ^.  The important thing is love.  It’s important that we rebel against the “natural” instincts and that we love, have compassion for our fellow human beings.  If we can get to the level/degree of the love a parent has for a child (those few exceptions notwithstanding), that’s great.  The thing is, we have to begin.  We have to begin wherever we happen to be.  It’s like that old film says: “Baby steps.” 

This isn’t a command. I have no authority for such things.  From me, it’s just a suggestion and a thought about what’s important.  Now, if you happen to be Christian, then, you do have a command to love… Sorry, I can’t be held responsible for that. 

Joking aside, how much better would our world be if everyone just began to love one another a little more than they do now?  Just try to picture it.  Just try to imagine it.

I hope this doesn’t sound preachy.  That was/is not my intention.  I’m merely thinking aloud, so to speak, and hope that you will think along with me on this important issue.

Over the years I have walked many different paths: some exclusive, some inclusive.  Now, my heart is heavy because I miss people from all the different walks of life I have been in and as I age on the outward plane, I grow to realize the truly important thing can also be an urgent thing.  The trick, I think, is to not let it become an overwhelming thing.  People are important and relationships with people we care about are important.  Love is the most important thing.  It is the better thing. 

Please remember to tell the people who you find important, how important they are to you and how much you appreciate them. 

Now, say, “Yes, mother!” and go do it. :-)


25 April 2014

Review of Thomas Harris' Hannibal

Hannibal (Hannibal Lecter, #3)Hannibal by Thomas Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I kept putting off reading this, because I was afraid of being disappointed after having seen the film. I was NOT disappointed! It was very difficult to put down, and even though I was familiar with the plot and everything from the film, I still found myself wondering how it was going to turn out.

My desire to read this at this moment came mostly from my current writing project. I need some creepy bad guys, and of all in literature, film, etc., Hannibal is one of the first to come to mind in a tie with Cormac McCarthy's creepy creation: Anton Chigur in No Country for Old Men.

Looking forward to reading the rest of the Hannibal Lecter novels and hope they are as much of a charge as this one was.

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Review of Robert Kurzban's Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite

Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular MindWhy Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind by Robert Kurzban
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an excellent book on the modular view of the mind. I particular enjoyed the chapters on deception and self-deception.

If you're interested in evolutionary psychology, this is a great book to start an investigation of the subject.

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19 April 2014

Review of Robert Wright's The Moral Animal

The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary PsychologyThe Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology by Robert Wright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was introduced to this book during a course on Buddhism and Modern Psychology. Wright covers a lot of ground in this well organized and tightly written book.

Wright doesn't hand down laws, saying "This is how it is," but rather leads with questions and tries to work out the answers based on Darwinian Natural Selection. This is not an easy task; so much is not available when examining the world from a purely materialistic point of view. When one is not allowed to give credit to supernatural, or even non-biological mental events, it really demands a serious and deep interrogation of the biological, chemical, and other physical causes of why people do the things they do. Wright uses several events from Darwin's life as examples, and in doing so makes both evolutionary psychology and Darwinian Natural Selection accessible to his readers.

If you're interested in morality, Darwin, evolutionary psychology, or why people do what they do, this is an excellent read.

If you're not interested in those topics, it's STILL and excellent read! I highly recommend it.

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18 April 2014

Review of Joshua Foer's Moonwalking With Einstein

Moonwalking With EinsteinMoonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Foer uses several examples of how these mnemonic techniques work, and compares/contrasts them to those few people who have unexplained super-memory because of brain damage or brain syndromes. He investigates and includes stories about several people who have such syndromes and are able to do amazing things with their memories, or in some cases, can't remember anything after a few seconds: i.e. they can't develop long-term memories.

Joshua Foer participates in the U.S. memory competition, being trained by one of the top Mental Athletes, as they are called.

Several mnemonic techniques are explained and shown through example. It may be a jump between some of these techniques and real-world application of them, but many can be used immediately in "the real world."

It was a fun read/listen, and if you're interested in the memory, memory competition, mnemonics, memory palaces, or anything like that, I recommend this book. Even if you've read Tony Buzan, Harry Lorayne, Gary Small, Cicero, and others' books on memory, this is a new view on an ancient topic.


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15 April 2014

Review of Michael Krasny's Spiritual Envy: And Agnostic's Quest

Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic's QuestSpiritual Envy: An Agnostic's Quest by Michael Krasny
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Krasny asks a book long question (that I shared to some extent), and asks the reader to join the question; he invites the reader to seek along with him. It's probably safe to say that not all agnostics feel the way he feels; but, questioning comes with the territory, I think. Krasny doesn't claim to know the answers. I really appreciate that in this time of such overpowering (sometimes almost nauseating) certainty: in both the believer and atheist camps. Certainty eludes me, as it eludes Krasny, and he isn't afraid to share his uncertainty and what he is doing in spite of it.

Lately, I've had some slight envy, similar to what Krasny writes about, and questions of how to be the best person I can be in this life I have. I don't believe religion is necessary for morality, but I can see how it has shaped morality, mores, and ethics in different societies and for individuals within those societies.

What I miss is the camaraderie that I enjoyed when I was a practicing Christian and that is the envy I have for those who are confident and solid in their faith. Occasionally, I envy the comfort that would come with certainty, but then I remember that if I were certain, I would not have the curiosity to keep my mental hunger fed.

If you are interested in how some agnostics think, this book can help you ask the kinds of questions to find your own way, without telling you how you should think or believe. Read it and see what you think.

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13 April 2014

Review of Thomas Merton's Echoing Silence

Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of WritingEchoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing by Thomas Merton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book, but didn't get a lot out of it as far as the "vocation of writing" is concerned. It is more memoir-ish, dealing with Merton's own vocation. And that leads to another concept: I think it has to do with his vocation to be a Catholic monk and a writer. Vocation in the narrower/earlier sense: i.e. a calling, rather than the more broader/more current sense of a career/job. And I really expected more about writing itself--as a skill/practice. There is some of that, but as you probably realize (and I missed) is that it deals more with being a Catholic monk, contemplative, and a writer in the world, in the context of readers and fellow-writers, etc.

That being said, there are a few ideas and concepts that are important across the board for writers from any lifestyle. So, that begs the question: is it worth reading to get those few nuggets that one may find in other books on writing? I guess that depends on the potential reader's interest.

If you're interested in Christian writing/writing as a Christian: yes
If you're interested in Thomas Merton's writing in general: yes
If you're interested in being a monk and a writer: definitely
If you are simply interested in becoming a writer: there's probably a better book out there, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't read this one....

The things I like most about this book is that it is a sort of anthology, with parts taken from several of Merton's books, so it's an introduction to his writing while trying to focus on the vocation of writing. There are a lot of good thoughts within the pieces included. Thoughts on life and on living, but that are (imho) not that pertinent to writing.

I recommend this book and hope you enjoy it as much as I did. But, if you're looking for a book on how to be a writer don't expect too much.

Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing

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11 April 2014

Review of Susan Cain's Quiet

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Excellent book. I think every parent, educator, .... actually, every human being should read this. If you are an introvert, it will help you understand yourself better. If you are an extrovert, it will show you ways to strengthen your relationships with introverts.

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09 April 2014

Review of Ellipses ... by Danel F. Griffin

EllipsesEllipses by Danel F. Griffin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a fantastic debut novel. It has travel, adventure, literature, the Marx brothers and philosophy for good measure. It's been a while since I read it, and until I get my books out of storage, I won't get a chance to re-read it, but I just realized that I never wrote a review back then.

Griffin has a fresh voice and an interesting writing style. There is one chapter that just keeps fighting it's way back into my remembrance, and when you read it, you'll know which I mean (that's right, no spoiler alert!)

The characters were well written and could have been friends of mine from my college days; the situation and action are believable and shows Griffin's love of film by being very cinematic, i.e. it was very easy to visualize the things happening in the scenes. And, it was difficult to put down.

The best advice I can give is: read it and see what you think.

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and Danel's second novel:
Spiral's Edge

31 March 2014

Review of Understanding the Mystery of the Cross

Understanding the Mystery of the Cross: We Died at a Tree; God Gave Us Life at a TreeUnderstanding the Mystery of the Cross: We Died at a Tree; God Gave Us Life at a Tree by Mike Beecham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a well-written book on a very important area of Christian theology; it's also a great contribution to Christian theological writing, overall. While the topic/teaching is deep, Beecham clearly expounds on the meaning of the Crucifixion, and what that means for the Christian in their everyday lives and in the idea of salvation.

Mike Beecham writes with clarity and authority, developing this teaching and making it accessible to any reader while maintaining orthodoxy. I hope to see more books from him in the future.

I would recommend this for anyone interested in an excellent explanation of the Crucifixion and what that means in overall Christian theology/doctrine and belief.

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Update! The book is available on Kindle, now!
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Understanding the Mystery of the Cross

23 March 2014

Love ... Really?

Hello, call me the fool.1   

Since the Bible says so, some would say: "God is love."2  That that's all fine and good for those who believe in the Bible. It's nice that they consider the god in the book to be love. My experience with both the Bible and its god is a little different. For me, there is more hatred than love portrayed there; but not only portrayed in the Bible, but taught in many churches. 

You might argue and say, "I have never heard anyone teach or preach hatred in my church." And I hope you never do.  But, if you do, run from there like your butt's on fire. No, the teaching is with actions; with little innuendos: "We're better than 'those people,' those atheists, those drug addicts, those alcoholics." That's what is said with body language and unconscious vocabulary. I know, because I was once like this myself (I have to say, in my defense, that it was not intentional--but, nevertheless, I was guilty).  Aloud, you may hear something like: "We love them; we accept them, even as Jesus accepted us." But then, listen

You'll probably hear something not unlike this: "We just have to tolerate them until they grow (i.e. learn to think and believe as we do)."  Or: "We love the sinner, but not the sin."  That is a sneaky form of prejudice; it gives us a way to avoid the very people we are supposedly supposed to love.  It's a prejudice to which most people, especially those who believe themselves to be "chosen," will not consciously or readily admit (I'm sad to have to admit, again, I know this first-hand).  You may say: "I'm not like that.  And neither is anyone else in my church.  We really do love people."  I hope you're not like that.  I hope you and all the people in your church really do love people (e.g. esp. the "unlovable").  If you are like that, you are rare and that is beautiful.  I appreciate you!

For those not in that minority, those who are more like I was, my question is: Is that really love? Can I love people without being around them and being willing to get my hands dirty?  I'm not saying it's necessary to engage in immoral behavior in order to show our love, but often what we do is: we completely avoid those whom we claim to love.  And behavior toward the "loved" ones is stand-offish and squeamish and doesn't quite come across as love, but rather as disgust....

The Bible teaches that we should love all, in action not only in word: 

Matthew 25.35-40; 42-46 (KJV):

35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. 
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:
43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
These are ideals to which anyone, Christian or not, can aspire.  If you're an unbeliever, just realize that you're doing this will not win you any brownie-points.  If you are a believer, then this should be the life you strive to live anyway, simply based on Jesus's teaching. 

To make this practical we can ask ourselves regularly: "Am I showing love to people around me; to strangers; to 'scary' people; to mean people; to people who will probably not love me in return; and not only when someone is watching me, and not hoping for a reward or a prize or even a simple pat on the back and an 'at-a-boy'?"

^1. Psalm 14.1
^2. 1 John 4:8, in case you're wondering. You're welcome.

22 March 2014

Review of Black Irish

Black IrishBlack Irish by Stephan Talty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a hard to put down, well-written novel. Talty introduces some well developed characters and background for them that is both interesting and fun to read. The back-story and historical research is nicely integrated.

There are few twists that were completely unexpected, which is not easy to do in this day and age, given all the murder/thriller/suspense novels, and stories and films and television shows....

Talty is an author to watch and I'm looking forward to reading more of his fiction and non-fiction. I can't believe I waited as long as I did to read this and when it was due at the library and I had to wait for someone else to read it, I was biting at the bit waiting for it! I finished it in a couple of days of so much reading I had sore eyes!

If you like mysteries/suspense/thrillers, I highly recommend this book.

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Black Irish: A Novel

21 March 2014

Review of Devil's Highway

Devil's HighwayDevil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So many in the US complain about illegal immigrants, while forgetting that their ancestors once came to this country uninvited. And most of those who come, now, really don't want to; they have family back home and many of them can't find jobs, because the American corporations have pulled out and left few jobs and those that are available are worse than minimum wage here. Sadly, many of those who try to come to the US die in their search for a better life for them and their families.

This exposes the selfishness that often comes with abundance that many US citizens enjoy. All of us can gain perspective by thinking about the ordeals our ancestors went through so that we could enjoy freedom of religion and the abundance available in this country. And, in truth, there are people in this country who are so far from that abundance that they can't even afford to see it on TV. It's not helping them to keep the immigrants out. They don't have access to the jobs the immigrants are out for. The world is screwed up enough without our complaining about people trying for a better life. Many who complain, however, try to lump all illegal aliens into one group: drug and human traffickers.

I'm reminded of the way German-Americans, Japanese-Americans were treated during WWII, and the way many people of Middle Eastern descent were treated (are still?) after 9/11. It's fear--xenophobia! And it is sad and disgusting. Especially when it is those who are simply trying to pursue happiness or a little less sadness, or even a little more to feed, clothe and house their family.

These immigrants often die in a horrible way, crossing Hell trying to reach the Promised Land which despises them for no other reason than they aren't from here.

Yes, the drugs and crime are often part of it--but, NEWS FLASH! drugs and crime have been part of the culture of the US for a loooong time and it does NOT depend on illegal immigration to keep going.

This book gives names to a few of the hundreds that try to find a better life, it gives the outsider a view into the lives of the kinds of people they are, how they live, how they want what everyone wants: happiness and the chance to take care of their families. I can't imagine anything closer to Hell on Earth than what all these desperate men endured and what lead to many of them to their deaths. Luis Alberto Urrea also shows how our jobs are not really in danger of being all taken away by illegal immigrants; he gives the whole thing context in which to come to our own ideas about border crossing and immigration.

If you are interested in what goes on on the Mexican-American border; in what often happens to the people who try to cross into a better life; or in ways all this is handled by our respective governments, and what that means for citizens of both countries; this is a good read to has a few answers, while at the same time putting a face on the brave and desperate people.

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The Devil's Highway: A True Story

11 March 2014

Review of The Words of My Perfect Teacher

The Words of My Perfect TeacherThe Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this out of curiosity more than out of a desire to live this way. Tibetan Buddhism is the most ritualistic and "religious" of the forms of Buddhism that I have looked at so far. And, a lot of the information in this book is meant to be used in conjunction with the oral transmission of a qualified teacher. Much of it seems require the learner/practitioner/student to live monastically, but apart from that the teaching on equalizing and exchanging, and on bodhicitta are worth the time to read, not only for Buddhists, but for anyone interested in living better in this violent world. Those chapters, which reinforced what I have learned on these subjects from other books, were very helpful in overcoming difficult emotions and thought processes. Those teachings have helped me look at the world and at other people differently. I am far from a Bodhisattva, and quite honestly, don't know whether that is a state that I could ever attain, but just attempting to cultivate a heart and mind of love and compassion will help make (at least my part of) the world a better place.

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The Words of My Perfect Teacher: A Complete Translation of a Classic Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism (Sacred Literature Trust Series)

07 March 2014

Thoughts on Vigilance Chapter of Dhammapada

“... the guard [their vigilance] as their greatest treasure.”
Dhammapada, vs. 26, trans. Eknath Easwaran

Diligence comes from the Latin verb diligere, meaning to love, to take delight in.  That isn’t the usual feeling I’ve had when thinking of diligence; my own thinking, and that of many people I have discussed this concept with, is of drudgery, hardship, sacrifice, etc…  But, thinking of diligence with its Latin etymology helps when it comes to cultivating Right Diligence (yes, that is one of the parts of the Noble Eight-Fold Path).  

It’s not a drudgery or a chore; it’s something delighted in.  This line of thought reminds me of Jesus’ “My yoke is easy, my burden in light” (Matt. 11.30).  In the Dhammapada chapter on vigilance, I see the connection between the two concepts: vigilance means to keep awake; diligence means to be careful and persistent, or assiduous.  They are brought together in earnestness (i.e. showing sincere and intense conviction).

The delight gives one conviction to stay awake.  This all leads to one guarding their conquest of the mind, of the four kinds of Mara1.  Without Right Diligence we will lack the earnestness to be vigilant.  

We awaken a little to realize that we need to awaken.  We have an instant of enlightenment to show us we are sitting in darkness.  This is beginner’s mind.  Without that “small” awakening we will not be aware that we are asleep.  Once we have that beginner’s mind we will delight in practice: we will fall in love with the Buddha we are to become.  Love will keep us on the path.  This is why last time I talked about love as being the only thing that will put an end to hatred.  Love is what gave the five “wise” virgins, of the Gospels, their wisdom, i.e. their vigilance.

If what you’re doing feels like a chore, a burden, a drudgery, then it will not be Right Diligence.  There must be and ease and a joy involved in the doing.  Verse 26 of the Dhammapada says, “... the wise guard it [vigilance, heedfulness] as their greatest treasure” (trans. Easwaran).  Treasure is something people love, otherwise it’s not treasure.  If you have trouble with your faith or practice, if they are bothersome, like something you don’t want to do but must, then those are not your treasure--they are your burden.

Think about it like this: people don’t love, don’t take great care, and don’t keep awake and guard a thing they don’t want.  They do those things for things they treasure--for treasure!  This is the reason Jesus said in Luke 12.34, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The thing is: how do you change this?  How do you change what feels like a burden into a treasure?  Sometimes, you can’t, and in that case you have to accept the situation.  

You know the saying, “One person’s trash is another’s treasure”?  It has merit.  It may help to get a new perspective.  Try this: Make two columns on a piece of paper.  Then, write how you truly feel about the concept/practice that you consider a burden/a mere duty.  Then, in the second column, write down a different feeling--one you would rather have, would prefer to have.  Try something like: “I would prefer to see _________ as a splendid treasure instead of as a burden.”  Questions are powerful, so you can ask yourself, several times a day, something like: “Why is this belief/practice/concept/_______ a treasure to me?”  Have fun with it.  “Why is this _______ ‘my precious’?”  ;-)

It may be necessary to find a new practice--one that has ease, joy, peace and happiness in it.  It’s important to walk the Middle Way, i.e. not too tight, not too loose, but perfectly tuned to make the beautiful music of your life.

Once we have experienced the “small” awakening, we need vigilance to keep awake in order that we can walk the path to liberation, to freedom, to cessation of suffering.  Carry the treasure of vigilance with love and earnestness, with ease and joy, within your heart everywhere you go, every day of your life, every precious moment.

Peace! :-)


1. The four kinds of Mara: unwholesome mental factors, the Five Skandhas, death, and distractions.  For more on this, see: Thich Nhat Hanh, Awakening the Heart, note 75.