So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Mary Roach

Spook provides a light-hearted look at the current status of research into the existence and survivability of the soul. Mary Roach calls it "a book for people who would like very much to believe in a soul and in an afterlife for it to hang around in, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith." At the end of the book, she admits that she began this project "from a state of near absolute ignorance." This is one of the book's most endearing features, since the reader gets a glimpse of how Ms. Roach goes about researching a topic.

The book does not end up with a definitive answer. If science had proof for or against the afterlife, it would have been big news. So this is an exploration of the current state of the research. The author claims that she does not approach the topic as a debunking skeptic, but she does throw in a lot of humorous asides in an attempt to amuse as well as explore.

Chapter One, "You Again," is about reincarnation. Ms. Roach goes to India for a week to visit Kirti S. Rawat, director of the International Center for Survival. Her purpose is to accompany him as he examines a claimed case of reincarnation. She meets the child, his family, and the family of the deceased man that the child claims to be. She also runs into cultural differences in a society where many people believe in reincarnation and don't need scientific proof.

The second chapter is a historic discussion on past research by people who believed there was a soul. Questions such as whether the soul came from the sperm or the ovum, or whether it entered the fetus at some point in its development are reviewed. Also looked at are those who searched for the exact bodily organ that contained soul.

"How to Weigh a Soul" is the third chapter. It explores the research done to see if the soul has weight. If so, can a drop in weight at death be proof of the existence of the soul leaving? The famous experiment by Duncan Macdougall that determined the soul weighs 21 grams is reviewed as well as other more recent attempts. The fourth chapter goes on to look at the attempts to photograph or capture an image of the soul as it leaves the body.

The next couple of chapters delve into the claims of mediums who say they can establish communication with departed spirits. Chapter 5 is a history of the attempts by mediums to produce ectoplasm, a physical manifestation of spirit energy. Chapter 6 then goes on to look at current research with gifted mediums at the VERITAS Research Program of the University of Arizona conducted by Gary Schwartz. This is followed by the author taking a Fundamentals of Mediumship course at Arthur Findlay College in England.

Chapter 8 "Can You Hear Me Now?" looks into attempts to use technology to establish communication with dead souls. EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) on tape recorders and radio static is the current trend, but Ms. Roach also looks into the history of this field.

Chapter 9 begins a section where Ms. Roach looks to see if physical phenomena, rather than spirits, may cause the feelings of contact with the beyond. First she visits Dr. Michael Persinger at the Consciousness Research Lab at Laurentian University in Sudbury Ontario. He is studying the ability of complex electromagnetic fields to produce hallucinations that might resemble contact with the dead. Chapter 10 looks into whether low frequency sound waves (10 - 20 hertz) could do the same thing. Ms. Roach visits Vic Tandy who teaches at Coventry University whose research is in this area.

Chapter 11 is my personal favorite. It deals with a 1925 North Carolina ghost who appeared to his son to tell him where to find the most recent version of his will. The case went to court and the new will was accepted by the family. Both the old and new wills were on file in the courthouse, and Ms. Roach brings in the president of the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners. Although the family decided to accept the new will, it turns out to be a poor quality forgery. Yet the story of family intrigue is so interesting that the chapter left me wanting someone to write more about this case.

The last chapter looks into what Mary Roach feels is the most promising of the current research to prove the existence of the soul. Based on the reports of people who have had Near Death Experiences (NDEs) who claim they felt themselves rising out of their bodies and looking down on the room they are in, this research places an object that can only be seen from the ceiling in rooms where people might possibly experience an NDE. Interviews are then conducted to see if they experienced an NDE and saw the object. This research is being conducted by Bruce Greyson at the University of Virginia.

The books ends with a 13 page bibliography that goes chapter by chapter through the resources Mary Roach used for the book. Some may criticize her for attempting to write such a book without being an expert in the field. I find that her newness to the topic gives her a fresh unbiased perspective. However, I feel that she attempts to cover her inexperience with humor that sometimes detracts from the work. If you can endure the jokes, the information provided is well presented.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Living House of Oz. Edward Einhorn with illustrations by Eric Shanower

The Living House of Oz is Edward Einhorn's second collaboration with Eric Shanower on an Oz novel. The first, Paradox in Oz, was critically aclaimed, and took Ozma, the fairy ruler of Oz, on a rollercoaster ride through time into an alternative Oz where good and evil characters were reversed.

The Living House of Oz has the classic structure of an Oz novel: a young child coming of age visits Oz and, through his adventures and interactions with the good people of Oz, he matures and overcomes a crisis. In this case Buddy and his sorceress mom have fled to Oz to find safety, but have to hide because his mother uses illegal magic to protect him from danger. When she is discovered and brought to Ozma, all Oz is threatened by her enemies.

Although the structure is traditional, Einhorn brings it new life with his examination of the two themes of Nature vs. Nurture and the Role of Law in a Just Society. Einhorn's delightfully eccentric characters, like the living hat stand called the Earl of Haberdashery and the tuneful flying piccolo Flutefly, lend the work a joyful and humorous presence that is brought to life by Shanower's beautiful illustrations. His color cover and endpapers and the black and white drawings throughout the book show that he is still the best living artist of Oz themes. Einhorn has shown himself to be a master of the genre by skillfully weaving in, not only themes from his previous novel, but also from two of L. Frank Baum's original series: The Emerald City of Oz and Glinda of Oz. Together Einhorn and Shanower are the best Oz Historians since the original team of Baum and Neill. They capture the essence of Oz as Baum and Neill imagined it and keep its timeless character, while presenting a sensibility that can be understood by a modern audience.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Red Tent. Anita Diamant

Based on the second half of Genesis in the Old Testament Bible, The Red Tent tells the story of Jacob, his four wives, 12 sons, and one daughter from the women's point of view. It is a fictional life story of Jacob's daughter Dinah, whose name only appears in the Bible 9 times, with 7 of those in chapter 34 of Genesis.

Told in the first person, Dinah starts with how Jacob came to her family and married her mother Leah and her aunt Rachel. The red tent of the title is the place to which the adult women retreat during the new moon when they are menstruating, and is the place where the women's traditions and stories are passed on. Month after month Dinah, and we the readers, slowly learn the structure of this early tribal culture that will eventually become the Jewish people.

Unlike the Genesis version, this is a strongly matriarchal story, and the activities and visions of Jacob and his 12 sons are just background to the childrearing, farming, cooking, spirituality, and crafts traditions of the women of this time. Especially strong are the birthing traditions because Dinah is portrayed as a midwife.

Anita Diamant does a wonderful job of revealing the culture and setting through the words of someone of the time. Dinah is telling the story and it is not until the very end that we discover her intended audience. This is a well-crafted glimpse into the struggles and joys of ancient tribal women of the Middle East.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Vox. Nicholson Baker

Back in 1993, before Internet erotic chatrooms, Jim and Abby meet through an erotic phone chat service and begin a conversation that becomes the text of this novel. Devoting a whole novel to one erotic phone call allows the author to develop his characters better than your average pay-by-the-minute erotic service would normally allow. Cost becomes no object to these two people a continent apart as they explore their fantasies with each other. While the conversation doesn't maintain a high level of stimulation throughout, there are exciting moments. Overall, a good light work with exciting episodes and a climactic ending.

Nog's Vision. Brian P. Hall

Nog's Vision is subtitled A Fantasy Journey into Laughter, Dreams & Self-Respect for Pricklies & Would Be Non-Pricklies Young & Old. It is a parable illustrated with line drawings by Donna Griffin that is suitable for all ages.

Into a world called Prickle City, where everyone is defined by their function, a laughing visionary dreamer named Nog is born. The people don't know what to do with this misfit until Nog shares his dreams with them. The dream transforms the people of Prickle City.

It is the author's hope that it will transform you too, Gentle Reader. So if you are seeking a positive vision of self esteem and inner worth, this may be the book for you. Make Nog's Vision your own.

Monday, July 03, 2006

In Cold Blood. Truman Capote

On November 15, 1959 Perry Smith and Dick Hickock broke into a rural Kansas farmhouse where they bound and gagged the four people they found there: Herb and Bonnie Clutter, and their teenage children Kenyon and Nancy. They took about $40, a small radio and a pair of binoculars. When they left, the Clutters were all dead of shotgun blasts to their heads.

In Cold Blood tells the story of the events leading up to the murder and those following it in a straightforward chronological manner. The Clutters were highly respected members of the small town of Holcombe and their deaths came as a big shock. The murderer's thought they left no clues and had committed a perfect crime. The book treats murdered and murderers with a similar respect for their basic humanity. Although a terrible crime was committed the author is able to present all sides of the story.

Truman Capote truly immersed himself in the community and in the lives of the criminals to provide as much detail as could be found. This is a classic work that is well crafted and thought provoking. Sadly, it also was the last major work of the author.

In Search of the Divine Mother: The Mystery of Mother Meera - Encountering a Contemporary Mystic. Martin Goodman

In Search of the Divine Mother by Martin Goodman is a very human attempt to understand the mystery of the incarnation of the Divine. Christians claim this mystery to explain how Jesus, a man born of woman, was also the Christ: God come to Earth to redeem humans of sin. The gospels of the New Testament are the Christian story of how this happened 2,000 years ago. Mr. Goodman took as his starting point Mother Meera, a woman born in 1960 in the Andhra Pradesh region of India who claims to be an avatar (or incarnation) of the Hindu goddess the Divine Mother.

The book is in three parts. In the first part, "A Journey into Devotion" we learn how Goodman and others receive "darshan" (being in the presence of God) from Mother Meera in her home in the small German village of Thalheim where she has lived since 1985. "Her darshan consists of a ritual, where she will touch a person's head, and then look into his eyes. During this process, she reportedly 'unties knots' in the person's subtle system and permeates him with light. She doesn't charge any money for doing so and she will not give lectures." -- WIKIPEDIA.

The second and main part of the book is called "The Life Story." Goodman was encouraged by Mother Meera and her followers to go to India and to write a book about her life. They gave him a list of contacts and he went. He interviewed these people and others who knew Mother Meera, Venkat Reddy, the uncle who discovered her, and Adilakshmi, her devoted friend and follower. Among those he interviewed were Mr. Reddy's family, whom he left to pursue his devotion to the child-god he had found among them. Here Goodman explores the question of how the Divine manifests itelf in the human. Does the human know of their divinity from birth? How does their divinity manifest itself on the material plane? How does a very human creature respond to their divine nature? How do others, who have no knowledge of the Divine, interpret the divine spark in someone they know? These are difficult questions that are not easily answered in the limited vocabulary of human discourse. Goodman makes a valiant attempt yet, as with all writing, we see more of the author than what he is trying to describe.

The third part "A Journey into Life" tells of his attempts to get his words published. Mother Meera and Adilakshmi ask him to delete his first draft and he complies. He struggles with his decision and, in anger, writes a second draft which is also never published. The book we have is a later draft and this last chapter is his attempt to come to terms with his contact with the Divine. He sums up by saying: "Mother Meera gives powerful spiritual transmission that helps people bud into the fullness of life.... I have met a power that comes from Mother Meera, and it has transformed my life. It did not come from her words but from within the silence of her public meetings. ... It is wonderful to know her through her silence alone." He sees her as "a superb channel" of the Divine, that the Divine energy flows through her human form to those who approach her. Yet he seems to be saying that she maintains human form and does not transcend it.

Goodman's devotion to Mother Meera helped him to come to terms with his own homosexuality, something that was also stated by her first biographer Andrew Harvey in his book Hidden Journey. Her unconditional love and silent acceptance were very healing to both men. When her 1997 book Answers Part 2 states that "Homosexuality is against the law of nature," both men are shaken from their devotion. Goodman states: "...since I know with certainty that Mother Meera is wrong in her condemnation of homosexuality, I cannot accept her word on anything else."

This is a wonderfully honest attempt to write about the human experience of the Divine. It will be insightful reading for any who are interested in spiritual growth.