Sunday, November 27, 2011

Living in harmony with the world and with each other

A review of John Philip Newell’s A New Harmony: The Spirit, The Earth, and The Human Soul. Jossey-Bass, 2011. Hardback, $19.95
John Philip Newell thinks in terms of the interconnectedness of all things,  from the most microscopic to the cosmic. There is nothing and no one that is unimportant. As Scottish poet Kenneth White so beautifully puts it, “My thanks for this handful of April days / for the white wind blowing / for the dark earth and the tangled grass / and the woman beside me walking.”
The feeling is one of utter connection with everything. It is where Newell began his journey many years ago as he began exploring the Celtic Christianity that once bloomed in the British Isles before it was nearly eradicated by the Roman Church with its top-down, otherworldly structure. 
For most of us raised, as I was, in Western religious and intellectual traditions, learning to see ourselves as connected with everything else that exists requires a radical shift in understanding and worldview. It means moving radically away from viewing our lives in individualistic/tribalistic terms and learning to see our lives as interconnected. “Our lives are part of the cosmos, and the cosmos is part of us. The life of humanity is not an appendix or an exception to the universe. It is a unique expression of the universe. And each of us carries the essence of the cosmos within it” (pages xi, xii). Quite a leap from the old Gospel song that goes “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through” in which nothing and no one has any significance and “reality” is “somewhere beyond the blue” where our “treasures” are “stored up” for us. I found this not only unsatisfying, I found it deeply depressing; ultimately, I rejected it and with it, spirituality.
The imperative of the gospel, as the Celtic Church saw it, is one of learning to follow the way of love in our relationship with the world, with one another, with all other beings, and with the cosmos. As Pelagius is quoted as saying: “If we look with God's eyes, nothing on earth is ugly." “The danger,” Newell maintains, “has been to take our eyes off the imperative to love” in the most radical of ways in which we recognize and celebrate our interrelatedness with every other human being, every other species, and the world and the cosmos of which we are a part. “To truly love one’s family is to love the essence of every family. To truly love one’s nation is to enter a ‘genuine dialogue’ with the heart of every nation” and “to truly love God is to look for the sacred in everything that has being” (page 123).
This is a book that you’ll read more than once.
A clear 5 star read.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

If you're a novice writer, presenter or speaker, this is a must-have book for you.

Review of Aneeta Sundararaj, “How To Tell a Great Story” Published by Bookshaker, July 2,  2011. 170 pages and Kindle
Whatever it is that you do, if you want to get your point across, tell a story. The reason is simple: stories connect, they anchor ideas and images and information in our minds like nothing else does. That is what makes a great novel, a great speech, an excellent business presentation effective is the way they link what they have to say to a compelling story. It is also what makes gossip and political attack TV ads so damaging. The power is in the story because stories make ideas come to life in ways that you and I can identify with.
If you’re a beginning speaker, presenter or sales person, then Aneeta Sundararaj’s book is one you’ll want to have as one of your valuable resources. If you’re a beginning writer, want to write articles for magazines, write short stories and/or a novel, “How To Tell as Great Story” is a must for you. I wish I’d had such a resource to consult when I started my writing career, but I didn’t. I did, however, have some excellent mentors who kept me focused on story-telling.
I give this book a clear 5 star rating
Available from,,, and  The Book Depository (

Friday, November 11, 2011

A memorable family saga of the 5 sons of Charlie Gisby

What’s in a Name? Brendan Gisby asks in the title of the Foreword to this interesting history family sage. “What’s in a name?” is a question that millions of people ask every day, often chasing down the origin of their own family name. It’s a question that intrigued one of my own ancestors, Benjamin Kendall Emerson, that he traced the history of his own family from the time they first arrived in Ipswich, Massachusetts. A great-aunt gave me the book he had privately published in 1900; my eldest son now has it. Out of curiosity, I just now looked it up online and discovered that it’s been reprinted by Kessenger Legacy Reprints and is available on So who knows where The Five Sons of Charlie Gisby will end up in years to come? Hopefully read and reread as often as I read that book about one branch of my family.
But even more interesting than the question “What’s in a name?” is the question who is there?, because this tells the stories of the people, where they were from, how they got there, what happened to them during their lives It’s an interesting adventure, and Brendan and his cousin Phil Gisby have written a most interesting history of their family.
If you enjoy reading family histories, if the name “Gisby” shows up somewhere in your family tree, or if you’re just curious, buy yourself a copy of this fine book. Brendan Gisby, by the way, is the author of several fine books, including a memoir of his father (The Bookie’s Runner) and The Island of Whispers, being his most recent.
A 5 star read.

Monday, November 7, 2011

"The Wandering Who? -- A Study of Jewish Identity Politics

Gilad Atzmon’s transformation from a typical Jewish Israeli kid to someone who began questioning the Israeli narrative began when he heard Charlie (“Bird”) Parker with Strings on a late night jazz program. “I was totally knocked down. The music was more organic, poetic, sentimental and wilder than anything I had ever heard before.” Parker was the beginning of Atzmon’s journey away from being a believer in the Zionist ideology and his “chauvinist, exclusivist tribe” to being one of its staunchest critics. What completed the change in his life was a visit to Ansar as a young Israeli soldier. Ansar was “a notorious Israeli internment camp in South Lebanon” in 1981 during the first Israel-Lebanon war. “I studied the detainees,” he writes; “They looked very different to the Palestinians in Jerusalem. The ones I saw in Ansar were angry. They were not defeated, they were freedom fighters and they were numerous. As we continued past the barbed wire I continued gazing at the inmates, and arrived at an unbearable truth: I was walking on the other side, in Israeli military uniform, and I was nothing but a ‘Nazi’.” (page 6)

What a shocker for this grandson of a former prominent commander in the right-wing Irgun terror organization, raised on the notion of Jewish righteousness and Arab duplicity, to finally awaken to the truth about his country. “At the time of the Oslo Accords in 1993, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I saw that Israeli ‘peacemaking’ was nothing but spin. Its purpose ... was to further secure the existence of the Jewish State at the expense of the Palestinians. For most Israelis, shalom doesn’t mean ‘peace’, it means security, and for Jews only.” Moving to London, he began work on a Master’s Degree in philosophy at the University of Essex, began his career as a jazz musician, and began digging deeply into modern Israel’s character for answers to his questions about its origins, its inhuman treatment of Palestine’s Arabs, and its contemptuous regard for international law. 

Central to Atzmon’s discourse is a discussion of what the word “Jew” stands for, a question that seems to him to be “taboo within Western discourse”. It is clear why. Begin to ask the question, and you are likely to get yourself accused of being an anti-Semite. And this is exactly what has happened to Atzmon. Though he presents a harsh criticism of Jewish politics and identity, there is not “a single reference to Jews as ethnicity or race” anywhere in the book. “In my writing, I differentiate between Jews (the people), Judaism (the religion) and Jewish-ness (The ideology).” If you’re “searching for blood or race-related interpretation of Zionism (you) will have to look for it in someone else’s book.” It certainly is not present here.

In Chapter One, Atzmon asks two simple-but-significant questions: Who are the Jews, and what do people mean who call themselves Jews? (page 16). “As far as self-perception (my emphasis) is concerned, those who call themselves Jews (can) be divided into three main categories: (1) Those who follow Judaism; (2) Those who regard themselves as human beings who happen to be of Jewish origin; and (3) Those who put their Jewish-ness over and above all other traits” (page 16).

Atzmon points out that it is this third category that is the core of Zionist ideology and the major cause of modern Israel’s problems. “You may be a Jew who dwells in England, a Jew who plays the violin or even a Jew against Zionism, but above all else you are a Jew” (page 17). Jewish-ness is “the fundamental characteristic of one’s being,” that stops “the Jew from assimilating or disappearing into the crowd.” “The Jew would always remain an alien” (page 17), one of the Chosen Ones in a sea of goyim, a people who must have their own homeland in which they can dwell in peace. It is from those who put their Jewish-ness before all else that Israel’s most enthusiastic supporters (like AIPAC, the America Israeli Public Affairs Committee) and spies (like Jonathan Pollard) come. In Israeli parlance, Jewish-ness is more than a tribal identifier, it is a political commitment (p. 20) that Atzmon calls “third category brotherhood” (p. 21). The Zionist movement’s greatest strength has been transforming “the Jewish tribal mode into a collective functioning system” (p. 21) that vigorously attacks all who stand in its way.

According to Zionist dogma, the Jews are the descendants of Israel’s original Jewish population exiled from their ancient homeland through conquest. But are they “one people”, the descendants of a common ancestor? Apparently not, as Israeli historian Shlomo Sand shows in his book The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso, 2009), a book that I have read and reviewed. As Atzmon explains on page 135, in the 19th century “intellectuals of Jewish origin in Germany ... took upon themselves the task of inventing a people ‘retrospectively’ out of a thirst to create a Jewish people” (p. 135), thus creating a raison d’etre for the creation of the modern Jewish State. Yet as Sand convincingly shows, the “Jewish people” are a conglomeration of peoples, the descendants of converts to Judaism, not an ancient people long separated from their homeland. What Atzmon does here with Sand’s help is pull the rug out from under the modern Jewish State by showing that the preamble to Israel’s Declaration of Independence -- "After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people remained faithful to it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom" -- is based on “mythistory”, not fact. Little wonder why Atzmon’s book has created a loud outcry about Atzmon’s book from Israel’s most ardent supporters.

Gilad Atzmon wrote his book out of a desire to probe deeply into the country in which he was born and raised. It is also a journey of self-examination and awakening. Why does Israel act the way it does? Why has it always treated Palestine’s Arabs with such contempt? Why are its laws written to benefit only its Jewish citizens, relegating all others to second class citizenship? Why does it engage in acts that are commonly viewed as barbaric and reminiscent of the behavior’s of Hitler’s SS and Gestapo? Why does it view itself as always needing security while denying the Palestinian people and its Arab neighbors that right? Why is it so blind to the reaction its behaviors cause? 

Atzmon’s discovery and questioning reminds me of my own awakening when, back in the summer of 1954, my best friend Claude explained to me what it meant to grow up African-American (the term used back then was American Negro) in my home town Seattle, Washington. I was devastated. It still brings tears to my eyes. How could anyone treat my friend like that -- so damage his feeling of self-worth and value? How could I be so totally unaware this was happening to people in my home town? The experience was transformational, totally changing my thinking on the subject of race.

The Wandering Who? is a valuable contribution to understanding how tribalistic thinking leads to narrow-mindedness and barbarism. Is his book controversial? Of course. A book that asks the kinds of questions Atzmon asks about Israel and its behavior is automatically labeled controversial by Israel’s apologists. Reading them is like listening to a group of abusive men loudly proclaim their innocence by finger-pointing at their accusers. I’m much more apt to listen to their accusers than I would if they’d shut up. But they don’t. A recent rant by Alan Dershowitz is a wonderful example of what I mean:  . 

If you’re looking for a good book about Israel and its modern history, I highly recommend The Wandering Who? It’s a solid 5-Star book.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A beautiful, profound book of poetry by one of the best

“Poetry slows us down, cherishes small details. A large disaster erases those details. We need poetry for nourishment and for noticing, for the way language and imagery reach comfortable into experience, holding and connecting it more successfully than any news channel we could name.” About her “Palestinian grandmother who lived till she was 106” she has this to say: “She wanted people to worship in whatever ways they felt comfortable. To respect one another, sit together around the fire cracking almonds and drinking tea, and never forget to laugh no matter what horrible things they had been through. What wisdom,” she asks, “did  she know that all these men can’t figure out?” (from the Introduction.)

In “Different ways to pray”, she writes
“There was the method of kneeling,
a fine method, if you lived in a country
where stones were smooth.
Women dreamed wistfully of
hidden corners where knee fit rock.
their prayers, weathered rib bones,
small calcium words uttered in sequence,
as if this shedding of syllables could
fuse them to the sky.
There were men who had been shepherds so long
they walked like sheep.
Under the olive trees, they raised their arms --
Hear us! We have pain on earth!
We have so much pain there is no place to store it!
 But the olives bobbed peacefully
in fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.
At night the men ate heartily, flat bread
    and white cheese,
and were happy in spite of the pain,
because there was also happiness.

In “Passing the refugee camp” she writes after describing how
“Yesterday the soldiers smashed
Lena’s sink and tub and tiles” and
“They whipped a father in front of his sons
ages 2 and 4” and later
“On the steps of the National Palace Hotel
soldiers peel oranges
throwing back their heads so the juice
runs down their throats” she asks
They know what sweetness lives within
How can they know this and forget
so many other things?”

It is difficult for me to pick poems in this wonderful book that are favorites, because so many of them are. Painful, beautiful, poignant, wonderful poems. In “All things not considered”, she has this to say:

“You cannot stitch the breath
back into this boy.
A brother and sister were playing with toys
when their room exploded.
In what language 
is this holy?
TheJewish boys killed in the cave
were skipping school, having an adventure.
Asel Asleh, Palestinian, believed in the field
beyond right and wrong where people
    come together
to talk. He kneeled to help someone else
stand up before he was shot.
If this is holy,
could we have some new religions please?”
In “Blood”, she writes:
I call my father, we talk around the news.
It is too much for him,
neither of his two languages can reach it.
I drive into the country to find sheep, cows,
to plead with the air.
Who calls anyone civilized?
Where can the crying heart graze?
What does a true Arab do now?

I first encountered Naomi Shihab Nye when I read one of her poems, “Kindness” that  haunted me until I found the book it was in and bought it. She is also the author of the young adult  novel “Habibi”, which I have also reviewed, and other novels and poetry collections. 

This is a book I keep nearby to read again and again and again. Go to your nearest bookstore and buy a copy. Get one from or The Book Depository. But get one,read them out loud and listen to the voices there. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Stories and poems about Northern Ireland by a master storyteller and poet

“Haunting Tales and Living Verse of Ulaid: Ghosts across our landscape”, by Colin T. Mercer. Night Publishing, October 2011. Kindle and paperback

Colin Mercer’s collection of poems and stories of Northern Ireland (“Ulaid”) is an absolute gem of a book. Some of the stories are laugh-out-loud funny, others poignant, others about ghosts and body snatchers in the 1700s, Viking raids still earlier; Ireland’s coastal waters, the heather, mountains, weather. I came away from the book feeling steeped in Ireland and the Irish, reminded of good friends who recently spent a month or so exploring the land of her ancestors.
There is so much loveliness in this book that it’s difficult to point to favorites. “Resurrection Men”, about body snatchers in the 1700s left me laughing out loud, as do several others, including “Catching the Train”, a poignant story that ends ... well, I won’t spoil it for you, but I’m still laughing.
There are stories about illness, mothers, grandmothers and losing one’s childhood innocence one day that recalled “the Troubles” and, for me, in “My Troubled Playground of 1976”, the tragedy of Gaza and the West Bank where children lose their innocence, and sometimes their lives.
Colin Mercer is a wonderful poet and storyteller. He is also the author of “For Irish Eyes” (2009), available in paperback from
“Ghosts across our landscape” is a book I will read again and again, savoring each reading like a good piece of chocolate or a fine wine.