Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Charming Quirks of Others

The Charming Quirks of Others, the latest book in the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexander McCall Smith, isn’t so much a book one reads as a book one savors. Think more of taking a long, warm bath or feeling the sun on your face on a cold February day. While my local library categorizes the book as a mystery, it is more about the mystery that is life. The book doesn’t have a lot of plot, but it is filled with character. It is a dramatic change of pace from the books that I have been reading lately—Science fiction & fantasy and fast paced mysteries.

The following quote will help you to better understand Isabel:
She looked up at the ceiling. One of the drawbacks to being a philosopher was that you become aware of what you should not do, and this took from you so many opportunities to savour the human pleasure of revenge or greed or sheer fanaticizing.
This next quote is a good example of the tone and flavor of the book:

We like predictability, she thought, and we are always satisfied when people behave as we think they will. It makes us feel…well, powerful; the world is not as complex a place as some might think—at least not complex for us.
Yet another side of Isabel:
loving anything with all your heart always brings understanding, in time.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Cow In the Parking Lot

Ican imagine the Sixth Sense version of Haley Joel Osment saying “I see angry people” and giving a look of horror for the camera. I see angry people everywhere: on the television, in public places campaigning, on the internet, on the magazine rack in the grocery store, even in the mirror. Such rampant anger can’t be good for society, and it certainly isn’t good for people’s health.

Evidently I am not alone in my experience. This week I read The Cow in the Parking Lot—A Zen Approach to Overcoming Anger by Leonard Scheff and Susan Edmiston. Most intrapersonal change begins with awareness. The authors suggest we begin by observing when we are angry and then start looking at what unfulfilled needs might be triggering the anger. Using the Zen approach, they describe anger as an addiction and as a habitual way of dealing with life. This little book is packed with good advice.

Where does the cow fit in? The book begins with a story of someone waiting patiently for a particular parking spot and then, at the last second, someone in another car taking their spot. Grrrr!! Now imagine instead a cow taking the spot instead of the car. Huh? Different experience, eh?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

To Fetch A Thief

This is my week for reading doggy drama, first The City, now To Fetch A Thief, the third novel in the Chet and Bernie Mystery series written by Spencer Quinn. Like the previous two books, Chet, the dog narrates the story. The effect is unique, sometimes humorous, but not corny. The plot is a serious mystery, just told from a unique perspective. For example, whereas we humans identify others in terms of names or faces, Chet perceives everyone, both human and critter, in terms of scents. His top priority is always being loyal to Bernie. On the other hand, being good usually takes a back seat to such doggy pursuits as Chet marking his territory, snagging a piece of leather to chew on or romancing a She dog in the mood. Chet’s literal interpretation of idioms adds to the humor of the novels.

I am not sure the novels technically fit all the criteria for “Dude Lit,” but they are definitely aimed at the male point of view. Bernie is a rugged PI, concerned about catching and punishing the bad guys, while still concerned about those who are less fortunate and need his help, in this novel his ex-wife, a gay clown, a kidnapped elephant, and a manicurist who lives in a trailer park. Bernie both gets beaten up and beats up. And, well, dogs and dudes just go together.

The latest novel did not disappoint me. Far from it, I am more aware of Quinn’s wonderful writing style. I admire the way that he can affect my emotions with just a few well placed sentences. And, of course, who can resist Chet?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The City

When I grow up—even if I don’t ever quite grow up—I want to write like Clifford D. Simak. In the middle of reading a lot of 2010 and 2009 novels, I digressed to his 1952 novel The City. The book is timeless, though somewhat folksy. In it Simak writes about one of my favorite themes, evolution. How could humans evolve? How could individuals adapt to the extreme environment of another planet and how would that adaptation change the species as a whole? Given a different start would humans evolve differently and be less warlike? What would happen if everyone could suddenly understand each other’s point of view? If dogs and ants were given a little help, could they evolve more rapidly? How would they be different from humans? How might robots evolve if left alone? The book is mostly sentimental, but has enough science to make it intellectually interesting. Best of all, it makes me think.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Temeraire Series

The Temeraire Series, written by Naomi Novik, is alternative history that premises what would have happened if dragons had been present during the Napoleonic Wars. Somewhere between book 1, His Majesty’s Dragon, and book 6, Tongues of Serpents, I metamorphosed from a causal reader to a fan. I don’t remember the first day I began to think “I wonder…” but this is probably the biggest clue to the start. “I wonder what Temeraire would have thought of this.” this thing that just happened to me in real life. This weekend as I was reading the latest book, which takes place in Australia, I thought: “I wonder what is happening to little Perscitia (a scholarly little dragon who doesn’t like to fight) back in Britain. I hope she is happy. I wonder what is happening to Admiral Roland, too. Will we ever find out what happens to Emily? Will she be a good captain?” I had to reel myself back in when I was wondering whether I could find a Perscitia costume to wear to Tai Chi this weekend, although dragons are very thematic to martial arts.

The Temeraire series hooked me in emotionally because of the characters, especially the bond between captain and dragon. It is about as close to unconditionally love that one can find. The series hooked me in intellectually because it tackles interesting and sometimes difficult topics: ethics, loyalty and duty, genocide, slavery, Imperialism. I am not a great history fan, but it has made that period come alive for me. In some small way, I feel like I have been a part of it, if only in my imagination.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

First Be Aware

Change comes, not by struggling to change or by fighting or by disciplining oneself, but by becoming aware of what we are feeling and how we habitually act.

From The Cow In The Parking Lot by Leonard Scheff and Susan Edmiston

Friday, October 22, 2010

Of Jung, Spock, and Revolution

Experiential and Participatory, those are some of the words that describe how we have changed in the last 40+ years, continuing on with some of my thoughts from my last blog entry, Stand On Zanzibar. We are no longer satisfied to passively watch an entertainer. We are less concerned about finding the right teacher or guru.

In the world of entertainment we want to have an active role. At the very least we want to choose when we watch a television program or vote for the winner of a reality TV series. Many of us want and expect our entertainment to come from multiple platforms. We want more than a book or a TV program; we want a larger experience. [Last night I finished Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik, and one of my first thoughts was “I wonder which dragon I am" and made a mental note to see if there was a personality quiz on-line.] We twitter, blog, Facebook, YouTube. If we can’t be discovered by a talent scout, we put our art out on the internet and let the “public decide.” We write fan fiction, create avatars, roleplay our favorite characters. It used to be only a bunch of nerds wearing Mr. Spock ears; now a larger percent of us want to be immersed in our entertainment.

The authority figure role has also diminished over the last 40 years. Instead of a staff of paid encyclopedia writers, people from all over share their knowledge on sites like Wikipedia. We ask questions in internet groups. We share recipes and helpful hints on websites. We are more likely to actively seek out the answers ourselves from multiple sources, rather than looking to one expert and, we are more likely to want to make the final decision ourselves.

I am reading Jung on Active Imagination by Joan Chodorow. Carl Jung drew mandalas almost every morning in 1918 through 1919. Finally one day he realized: “One could not go beyond the center. The Center is goal and everything is directed toward that center,…the self is the principle and archetype of orientation and meaning.” This profound idea helped change psychology. But the point is that Jung actively participated in the process. He needed to experience hundreds of mandalas to reach his conclusion. He was an unusual man. Now, more and more people want to interact with life experientially, whether directly or virtually, to find their wisdom.

I hear friends and family lamenting about how few people attend Sunday services. Many churches are filled with old congregates. Part of the situation is that traditional churches are working on the old model. Younger people want an experiential religion. They are less likely to want someone with impressive credentials standing in front of them. Yet, I also hear of churches bucking the trend and creating new experiences for their members, some taking full advantage of social media.

Part of the revolution of the last forty years is where we put ourselves. We are no longer playing follow the leader. We are putting ourselves in the center of our world and then creating the picture of our lives by reaching out to the larger world around us. The idea is not so different from Jung and his mandalas.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Stand On Zanzibar

What will the world be like in 40+ years? In the mid-1960’s John Brunner must have asked himself that question before he wrote the 1969 Hugo Winning novel Stand On Zanzibar, which takes place in 2010. In his book the draft is still going on, pot and other hallucinogens are as widely used as cigarettes were in the 60’s, people pop tranquilizers all the times, sabotage is an everyday occurrence, styles are polychromatic, whales are extinct, people no longer use gas powered cars, television is holographic, and eugenics is one of the driving issues in the world. (Brunner also has a president named Obomi.) Brunner basically expanded on the hippy dippy world of the 1960’s.

The 500 pages of the book were not my cup of tea, but I did enjoy some aspects. Brunner billed the book as a “non-novel.” In spots, he has pages of dialogue without identifying the speaker or without adding any description. In other spots he has sections of a television broadcast. There are additional “non-novel” techniques sprinkled throughout the book. I see how some of this way of thinking may have been a precursor to TV shows like Lost and even multi-platform storytelling.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

What one ought to learn is how to extract patterns! ....You don’t have to know everything. You simply need to know where to find it when necessary.

Children are a pipeline into the posthumous future. So are books, works of art, notoriety and sundry other alternatives.
Governments don’t change things,” she said, “Only time does that.”
You have many years to live—do the things you will be proud to remember when you’re old"
I continue to make a dent in my goal to read all the Hugo Winning novels.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Habits of Thinking

From my perspective, one of the biggest contributors to the problems that the United States is facing is that most people are stuck in old ways of thinking. This is not such a good thing in a world that is rapidly changing and requires new paradigms. Reading and watching science fiction, taking Tai Chi, and reading bloggers like Seth Grodin encourage me to think in new ways. Here is a wonderful quote from Infinite Possibilities, written by Mike Dooley:

Thinking is similar to any physical task we perform. We get used to doing it in certain ways; we have our comfort zones, our routines, and our habits.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Humorous Interlude

I just finished a three novel humorous interlude between reading Hugo winning novels. Sometimes a woman can only take so much dystopian entertainment.

Two of the novels I read were fun mysteries by Betty Webb: The Anteater of Death and The Koala of Death. What’s not to love…cute critters, wacky characters, a well meaning but meddling mother, and even a few poignant moments. The bad part is that so far there are only two novels in the series. Is it time to sign Betty Webb up for the coffee of the month club yet?

The other novel in my break was They Walked Like Men written by Clifford D. Simak and published in 1962. This is not another touching Simak novel; this is wonderful silliness. In it aliens are slowly buying up the earth, one property at a time. Of course the only person who realizes it is an intrepid newspaper reporter. He saves the world with more cute critters.

All 500+ pages of Stand on Zanzibar is waiting for me by my reading lamp. So far, in the first 25 pages, I have found no cute critters and definitely no silliness. I don’t expect either.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Take Chances

If your life is ever going to change for the better, you’ll have to take chances. You’ll have to get out of your rut, meet new people, explore new ideas and move along unfamiliar pathways. In a way the risks of self growth involve going into the unknown, into an unfamiliar land where the language is different and customs are different and you have to learn your way around.

Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, Learning to Love Yourself

Friday, October 1, 2010

Evolution II

Evolution wasn’t something that may or may not have happened once, at the beginning of time. Our planet, the life and people on it, continually evolve. As we grind though each issue and theme, the work and art we create embody these experiences for the rest of the world. Our creations help us evolve, but our lives and our work help others evolve, too.

We’re not just here to live our lives and to create our art. We’re part of the art being created.

Stop Being Mean to Yourself by Melody Beattie