Thursday, October 29, 2009

Long Quiet Highway

Waking Up In America
Natalie Goldberg

"People would rather read about how to become a writer than read the actual products of writing: poems, novels, short stories," says Natalie Goldberg in the opening chapter of this, her third and, I think best, memoir. Her first two bestsellers, Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, are disguised as how to books for aspiring writers, so she should know what she is talking about when she says this, laughing all the way to the bank. Perhaps reading about how to write is related to watching cooking shows on television while ordering takeout. The idea of cooking, the idea of writing are appealing. The hard work, not so much.

In Long Quiet Highway Goldberg goes into much more detail about her journey from her Long Island childhood to a career as a writing coach in New Mexico and as a student of Zen Buddhism in, of all places, Minneapolis. She talks about her writing practice and teaching methods without prescribing them and ties her methods in to her meditation practice and study with Dainin Katagiri Roshi at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.

There is a great contrast between Goldberg's exposition of the practice and the benefits of Zen meditation and the "ancient secrets" that Dan Brown describes in his novel The Lost Symbol. Granted, Brown's book is fiction and deals with the Judeo Christian tradition, yet when Goldberg describes her exploration of Judaism, she finds a direct similarity to what she was taught by Katagiri, not some kabbalistic mumbo jumbo. The inner peace and sense of belonging in the world, the rightness, that she discovers in the zendo, is the same thing that she finds in the ritual practices of Judaism. Neither is easy, though. Both take a lot of work.

Just do your practice for it's own sake, just be who you are with no expectation of reward, these are the lessons Goldberg brings to her book. The hard work, to her, is it's own reward. Getting up a four in the morning to walk six blocks to the Zen center in mid Minnesota winter and sit on a wood floor. This is her work and she learns to love it. Sitting down every day for several hours with a pen and a notebook and putting words down on the pages without pre-judgment is also her work. Somehow Goldberg makes books happen this way but you'll need to read the other two books to learn how.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Lost Symbol

Dan Brown

I'm probably the last person in the wold to write a review of the latest mega best seller by Dan Brown, who burst onto the scene with The Davinci Code in 2003. In The Lost Symbol, Brown brings back his professorial protagonist Robert Langdon once gain, to obfuscate a plethora of historic trivia and build yet another pyramid of innuendo.

The target of his misinformation this time is the Freemasons, a fraternal organization with a history dating back to the 17th century. There have been rumors about the rather theatrical rituals of Freemasonry, drinking wine (or blood some say) out of a skull and such, which Brown makes free use of. Brown is careful, though, to picture the Masons as the misunderstood good guys in The Lost Symbol. Perhaps he was sufficiently cowed by the reaction to his treatment of Opus Dei, a relatively innocent Roman Catholic fraternal organization, that Brown demonized in The Davinci Code.

I will cite one glaring example of Brown's misuse of historic information in pursuit of his plot. He claims that Thomas Jefferson, in assembling the "Jefferson Bible" was trying to preserve the "Ancient Wisdom" in the new testament, the references to supernatural powers that are alleged to be available to all of us if we study and practice. In fact Jefferson cut out of his new testament all of the miracles, anything, in fact, that was contrary to physical science as it was known in the late 18th century. His was an attempt to preserve the humanistic lessons of Jesus, for example the Sermon on the Mount. Jefferson redacted the water into wine, healing of lepers and raising the dead, the very things that Brown wishes to emphasize and implies that Jefferson was pursuing.

There have been hundreds of fraternal organizations, ranging from the Elks Club to the Klu Klux Klan, founded in the United States. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, membership in one or more of them was standard for middle class adult male Americans. Almost all of them have, or had, some secret initiation ritual. The Freemasons, being the oldest of them has the richest history of ritual and possibly the weirdest. The Masons claim to fame is that George Washington was a member. Washington was also a founding member of the Society of the Cincinnati, a club for Revolutionary War officers who all swore to return to civilian life and not pursue political power, modeling themselves on the Roman dictator Cincinnatus, who resigned and returned to his farm.

In The Lost Symbol Brown makes use of the "Ancient Wisdom" often touted in New Age literature, and discusses mystical powers of the mind to affect the physical world with pure thought. I often heard spooky whoo whoo music in my head while reading the book. Of course there is a mad evil villain who is trying to steal the Masons' secret rituals of supernatural power, which don't exist and a scientist studying "noetic science." Brown uses this idea of transcendent powers as a plot device yet it appears to me that he is a bit embarrassed by them. At no time does Brown exhibit the actual use of any transcendent powers in the story, although there were several opportunities for him to do so.

The CIA is there, too, flying around Washington DC in black helicopters, chasing Robert Langdon. The reader gets a virtual tour of the Capitol building, the library of Congress and some parts of the Smithsonian Institution. These are almost worth the price of admission themselves.

Dan Brown knows how to write a page turner, even though is language can be a bit florid at times and even embarrassingly awkward. Poor Tom Hanks, if he makes another movie from this book, will not have a love interest unless they give the story a bit of a rewrite. A rewrite might be a good thing.

Book Review Blog Carnival # 29

I posted the first Book Review Blog Carnival on this blog on September 28th last year. Since then there has been a carnival every other Sunday without fail. Today's carnival is hosted by a newcomer, Kitsch Slapped, a tastefully presented blog about bad taste.

The next edition, #30, will be hosted at the mother ship, the Book Review Blog Carnival blog. If you write book reviews on your blog you may submit a review to the carnival at our page at I'm also looking for hosts for next year. Email me at the address in the sidebar to the left if you would like to host a carnival.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Half Moon

Henry Hudson and the voyage that redrew the map of the New World
Douglas Hunter

Henry Hudson didn't take directions very well. He was hired by the Dutch East Indies Company to go look for the northeast passage, a route to the Pacific Ocean over the top of Russia. Instead he went west and discovered New York City. Hunter's book explores Hudson's reasons for going so far off course, traces the actual voyage as best as he could determine and talks about the consequences for the colonization of North America that stem from Hudson's discoveries.


Hudson had made two earlier voyages of exploration, both financed by English business interests. In 1607 and 1608 he went to Spitsbergen and Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean searching for a trans polar route and a northeast passage to the Pacific Ocean and the lucrative trade with China. In 1609 no English patronage was to be found for another expedition. Hudson wanted to find a northwest passage, north of Canada or a mid continental route, through North America. The Dutch East India Company was interested in finding a northeast route, which Hudson had already tried. He knew that sea ice made that route impossible but because the Dutch were willing to finance a voyage Hudson agreed to go. After a quick trip to the arctic Hudson turned his ship, the Half Moon, westward to look for a passage to China. He was in direct violation of his instructions from the Dutch, who wanted him to go northeast and report back to Holland immediately. In Half Moon Hunter speculates that Hudson may have been working as a double agent, exploring for England on Hollands dime.

Hunter incorporates what is known about exploration in the beginning of the 17th century into the story. Richard Hakluyt, the English geographer and supporter of new world exploration gave Hudson all the latest information about explorations on the North American coastline, including Giovanni da Verrazzano's brief visit to the mouth of the Hudson River in 1524. Hakluyt had pieced together reports from French, Spanish, Dutch and English explorers, fur traders and fisherman which seemed to indicate that a river on the east coast connected to one that reached the Pacific with only a short portage west of the Allegheny mountains. Of course he was wrong.

Half Moon makes connections between Sebastian Cabot, Jacques Cartier, Henry Hudson, Samuel de Champlain in the search for a mirage, a quick passage to Asia, and how their efforts led to the colonization of North America by Europeans. While they made voyages of discovery, others, some of them members of their crews, came to trade, farm or fish and built new nations in the process.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Book Review Blog Carnivals: Two for the price of one!

The 28th edition of the Book Review Blog Carnival was posted this morning at Books For Sale?. NathanKP has given us a lovely, clean, minimalist post, with 15 reviews from 15 various blogs.

I realized this afternoon that I never posted about the 27th carnival, which went up two weeks ago at At Home With Books. My apologies to Alyce, who worked very hard to build us a beautiful carnival and deserves recognition.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


A Woebegone Romance
Garrison Kiellor

I used to listen to A Prairie Home Companion and I even enjoyed hearing Mr. Kiellor talk, even though it was mostly lies, about Lake Woebegone and the people out there on the edge of the prairie. Those are my people he's talking about after all. I liked the show just fine except that somebody ought to tell Mr. Kiellor that he shouldn't sing. He's not a singer and no radio show is going to make him one, even if he is the one that runs the show.

I have tried to read some of Mr. Kiellor's books before but never succeeded in finishing one. This time I stuck it out because it is my duty to write a post about it. The book is made up mostly out of stuff taken right out of his Saturday night monologues, which is all right, I guess. He is getting double use out of a lot of it. I wonder if he gets paid twice when he uses the same material over like that. It doesn't really seem fair, does it? Anyway, Mr. Kiellor has sent a group of people from Lake Woebegone on a trip to Rome, the one in Italy, to glue a plasticized picture of a WWII hero, from Lake Woebegone, on his gravestone in the cemetery where he is buried, which is conveniently located in Rome.

One thing that Mr. Kiellor did was stick himself right into the book, like he was some kind of post modernist big shot, like my friend Mr. Barth or somebody, but he is about thirty years too late with that trick and it just makes him look like he's full of himself. The other people in the book, the one's from Lake Woebegone, see right through him, with his sneaky little notebook, writing down everything they say. They know that he is going to put them all in a book and make gobs more money out of them. They're not impressed, even if he did pay for their trip to Italy.

The romance part of the book is mostly about Margie Krebsbach and her husband Carl or sometime about Carl, who is a bit of a old duff and doesn't get very romantic, even if he is a German Catholic and not a Norwegian Lutheran, but there's also an Italian guy named Paulo. Father Wilmer even gets in a little romance for a paragraph or two. If you used to listen to A Prairie Home Companion then you might not know that Father Wilmer took over at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility after Father Emil retired, which was quite a few years ago. Well it looks like Father Wilmer is on his way out now, too, because he got hurt in a car accident and then, in the hospital he fell in love with his nurse and they've been seeing each other in secret, but anyway, that's neither here nor there.

There are some really bad poems that Mr. Keillor wrote, in the book too, which it didn't need at all. Somebody should tell Mr. Kiellor that he's not a poet, either. It takes more that a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota to make a poet out of someone. I know that he writes song parodies for his show all the time, but it's the music that carries them and he has some professional musicians to make it work, but he doesn't have any musicians to carry his poetry in this book.

Well I finished the book and I guess it's OK, but Mr. Kiellor is going to make some people back home in Lake Woebegone really mad when they find out what he's been saying about them - again.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Age of the Unthinkable

Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It
Joshua Cooper Ramo

Joshua Cooper Ramo is Managing Director of Kissinger Associates, which makes him a high priced consultant in the field of foreign relations. He's a Nixon to China kind of guy, speaking Mandarin and promoting the idea of talking to those funny furriners, even if they do eat strange food and speak in unintelligible gibberish. I'm sure he hangs out with Henry Kissinger. He has written two books about China and one about skydiving.

In this newest book Ramo discovers that the world doesn't always do what we expect and he proposes that we all get loose and flexible as the best way to deal with crisis. Ramo seems to think that this is something new. I tend to disagree with him. The problems du jour change but the surprises have kept on coming throughout history. Every time that our peerless leaders, whether they be Nixon or Napoleon, thought they had a handle on things, all hell has broken loose.

Ramo believes that the high degree of global interconnectedness we are experiencing today, in trade, communication and travel make the world more unstable instead of less. Viruses from afar can hitch rides on airplanes and travel thousands of miles in a few hours. Trouble in the U.S. mortgage markets cause a panic in Russia and China. A bunch of highly educated Saudi's, financed with millions in oil money, can wreak havoc in New York, London or Washington D.C. It would actually be more impressive if a gang of goatherds from the Afghan mountains could do that, but without the Saudis money that still isn't possible.

The pace of things has surely speeded up, but we haven't seen anything like the 1918 flu epidemic or the black death, for some time. (Knock on wood.) Genghis Khan made a pretty hash of things for the Chinese in his day and the South Sea Bubble is still the most egregious example of financial markets gone bad. Things have not really changed all that much.

I do rather like Ramo's proposed solutions. He has invented the term "deep security," which means paying attention to the basics, like ensuring meaningful work for people and giving them universal health care as a way of cushioning the effect of financial panics, employing diplomacy, to ensure that our enemies as well as our friends know what we (talking about the U.S. here) expect from them and what we are willing to do to get it. It may be a hard sell politically but I do think that aggressively fighting AIDS and engineering clean water supplies in sub Saharan Africa will, in the long run, lead to fewer wars, fewer pirates and fewer terrorists.

It took quite while, after chapters of scary scenarios, for Ramo to get to his point about "deep security," and even then, I found him a bit vague on details. Creating "deep security" is a lot of work. Even talking about it is. It's a lot easier to make up slogans like "bomb bomb Iran," which is why politicians do so much of that sort of thing.