Monday, May 26, 2014

Stash and Smash by Cindy Shepard


Stash and Smash: Use Your Stash . . . Be Creative . . . Have Fun! Turn Everyday Objects from Life into Art Journals! by Cindy Shepard says it has 120+ Great Ideas right on the cover and, although I haven’t counted how many are actually contained in the pages of this very short book, there may very well be that many. I’m not sure only because I saw some redundancy in some of the projects. Still, this book is filled with colorful inspiration, many different projects of varying degrees of difficulty. 

Actually, one would have to assume some of the projects are easier than others because there aren’t many instructions. For those who need specific measurements and detailed step-by-step instructions, this is going to be a problem. Not an insurmountable one. The author has some videos on youtube where she shows a few of the clever tricks and things she presents in the book. (She also has a facebook page, a pinterest page, and even a g+ profile.) 

For instance, the first two page spread includes 11 different ideas to get you started. Collecting phrases and images, using yarns and fibers, binder clips personalized with the help of scrap paper, and such. Later, she shares how to make a simple toilet paper roll book (a less complicated version of a project I’ve seen online) that uses a screw and nut to hold the pages together.

Yes, that probably should be nut and bolt, not screw. There are other careless mistakes like that and the quality of the layout is sometimes questionable, with page numbers being obscure to illegibility because of the images beneath. And Shepard’s personal interests come forth on pages devoted to zentangle and steampunk (which didn’t evoke steampunk very much, in my opinion). 

Still, I think there’s enough here to say with full confidence that anyone is bound to find something that will inspire creativity. Is the book worth the list price of $16.99? No. You can find it for less on amazon. I’d say it’s worth the lower list price on amazon than on the publisher’s own website. My granddaughter and I will be making a toilet paper roll later this summer. I was thinking she could use to collect her favorite words or memories, things she has learned, or will learn in 1st grade. 

I recommend this book to anyone who has become enamored with smash books. Haven’t started one yet? The many ideas of this book may be a bit overwhelming. If you get this book and feel it’s too daunting, set it aside and just play with your smash book for a while. A few months or a year later, pick it up again. I’m confident you’ll be less overwhelmed and as delighted as I was. As I am. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris is a very short, somewhat acerbic treatise in support of atheism.  The author’s reason for writing the book is because of the response he received from a previous book he’d published.  According to the “Note to the Reader,” Harris received hostile communications, the most vicious coming from Christians.  This was the impetus for his writing this book, a response to the many warnings and arguments these “well-meaning” readers sent to him after reading his book The End of Faith.

I can’t say I found the book to be a strong argument against Christianity or religion in general.  Instead, I found the author’s arrogance and condescension off-putting.  If I were a Christian, none of his arguments would have been especially convincing.  He makes sweeping generalizations and even manages to come off sounding as fundamentally self-righteous as any Tea Party conservative, praising God while denouncing the homosexual agenda.  Christians are manipulative, ignorant, or more interested in perpetuating a lie than in seeing the obvious truth. 

If I were unsure of what I believed or why I believed as I did, this book would not encourage me to consider atheism as a viable option.  Instead, I think I would have found myself annoyed by Harris’ tone.  This is the first New Atheist book I’ve read although not the first I tried to read.  Previously, I left Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion unread because he used the term “Jewish agenda” and have no patience for anyone who tacks “agenda” onto anything in their rhetoric in anything but an ironic context.  (Yes, I used it in this post specifically to be ironic.)  Harris managed not to be so immediately offensive.  It does not surprise me that many Christians wrote to him; what surprises me is that he bothered to write this book at all.  He clearly didn’t think it would be a tool for conversion.  One can only assume he meant it to be amusing to other atheists, and few others.

More interesting to me is his contention that he received thousands of communications telling him he is wrong and that the most vociferous came from Christians.  He assumes they were conservative Christians and that any reasonable liberal-minded Christian reading his book will recognize how they are as guilty of heinous choices as the religious zealot who is willing to die for a belief.  Raising a child to believe in God—whether one calls him Jehovah, YHWH, Allah, or by any other name—is tantamount to brainwashing and turning a blind eye to the neo-conservative political movement, rooted as it is in fundamental Christianity, is on par with Germans becoming allow Hitler’s regime.

The irony is that Harris himself comes across as fundamental as any Christian I’ve ever heard. He knows what he knows and thinks anyone who disagrees with him and his ilk are fools.  Perhaps he’s right.  However, because of his tone, there’s little to no hope that anyone who disagrees with him will care enough to actually consider what he has to say. However, I think that there is an obvious audience for this book—the new atheist who is angry with the faith of his/her fathers, whatever form it may take, who is facing conflict from his/her former community of believers.  So often those who have to defend something in which they are not quite assured, they come off as defensive and angry.  Maybe that is the real problem.  For all his certainty, Harris sounds strident and unconvinced, even unconvincing, as a result. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

A Beginner's Guide to Meditation edited by Rod Meade Sperry


A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation:  Practical Advice and Inspiration from Contemporary Buddhist Teachers edited by Rod Meade Sperry is a collection of essays, most of them quite short, from several familiar and some not-as-familiar names in Buddhism.  Although the title suggests this anthology is for the beginner, I think it is ideally suited not to the true beginner, to someone who has never tried meditation, so much as it is ideal for those who have tried to meditate an maybe not experienced much success or those who are meditating but are unsure if they are doing it quite right.

Hint:  If you are doing anything, you’re doing it right.

Part One introduces mindfulness meditation, focusing on the breath, with essays from Sharon Salzberg, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Clark Strand.  You may have never heard of that last writer but I love his book Seeds From a Birch Tree.  There is an invitation in this first part to practice meditation for only 2 weeks and Norman Fischer defrays the usual excuses why it can’t be done.  By the end of the first part, the reader who has tried and failed will be inspired to try again while the one who is practicing will be reassured that the most essential part of meditation practice is simply showing up.

Part Two redirects the reader only slightly, exploring how attention in meditation can be used to benefit the practice.  Sylvia Boorstein and Jack Kornfield as well as the perhaps less familiar Noah Levine and Gen Lamrimpa talk about metta meditation and insight meditation (a great Q&A style piece by Sayadaw U Pandita) alongside another from Thich Nhat Hanh on walking meditation.  Each subject is given a cursory introduction so a reader wanting to learn more will hopefully be inspired to find other resources that will take them further. 

Hint:  Thich Nhat Hanh has an entire book on walking meditation that includes a DVD & CD on walking meditation which is quite good!

Part Three focuses on the practical—sitting zazen on a zafu.  Anyone who’s read Natalie Goldberg probably recognizes these words but you don’t have to know which is what to benefit from this section.  There are articles on koan practice from James Ishmael Ford and John Tarrant along with a wonderful except from Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Part Four gets to the nitty-gritty of some of the challenges of an ongoing meditation practice, the importance of perseverance, as well as taking the practice deeper still using lojong slogans (the essay is from Judy Lief and I just finished reading Pema Chödrön’s book Start Where You Are so, as you see, a curious reader who wants more than an essay can easily find other resources to explore after finishing this book). 

Part Five talks about meditation retreats, meditating in a sangha, and reminds the reader to just do it.  Some may be surprised to see a section from Cyndi Lee and David Nichtern on yoga and meditation but the Buddha practiced yoga before finding enlightenment and the two are innately complementary to one another.  The concluding piece from Pema Chödrön is a perfect closing to what is a wonderful collection, one that lends itself to being a permanent collection to anyone’s library.

The editor has culled powerful pieces from Shambhala publications.  The essays are organized to build upon one another very clearly while others almost seem to bookend one another.  There is a tightness implied within a collection that nonetheless manages to flow from one idea to the next.  If this collection doesn’t inspire the non-practitioner to meditate, I can’t imagine one that could do it.  For someone who is already meditating regularly and perhaps wanting to take the practice to the next level, I’m confident this book will have ideas to move the practice into a more experiential one, whether through the moving meditation of walking/yoga or through the use of koans and slogans.  I would be genuinely surprised if even a longtime practitioner didn’t come away with some new insight and inspiration.  Altogether, a wonderful resource.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Further Out Than You Thought by Michaela Carter


Further Out Than You Thought by Michaela Carter is a novel about a young woman who, upon finding out she’s pregnant, faces the decision of a lifetime.  Will she stay with her charming boyfriend and raise their child together, will she rid herself of the fetus, will she dare to disturb her universe, or will she find a compromise?  I don’t know what my expectations were for this novel.  The blurb lured me enough to request a review copy and, you’ll have to forgive me but, I’m about to gush with unimpeded enthusiasm. 

I fell in love with this novel, if not the characters.  I read an article a while back about “coming-of-age” novels no longer being limited to the sexual awakening of teenagers and has begun to branch out into young adults moving from youthful irresponsibility to more mature decision making, growing up from being self-indulgent to self-aware. In that sense, this novel is a bildungsroman, as hinted to in the blurb itself. 

Gwen lives “in the Neverland that is Los Angeles,” the reader is told, and we quickly meet her in her alter-ego as Stevie, a dancer in a strip club.  The novel is rife with literary allusions, from the more obvious Peter Pan and Wizard of Oz to the more subtle.  I caught one to The Great Gatsby that the author herself says was unintentional (via Twitter) and followed along with the obvious T S Eliot allusions (The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock and Wasteland although I think there was another unintentional nod to Little Giddings).  This novel is tightly written, wasting no moment, no metaphor, and the reader feels the claustrophobia of Gwen’s life almost immediately.

I couldn’t help but think this book would make an excellent one for a book group discussion.  Look for the symbolic relevance of red used throughout as Gwen repeatedly returns to the womb of her memories, reframing herself as she revisits her past.  Also notice water and fire because everything in this novel is simmering and steeping, especially the protagonist. 

While I may wish I knew more about how Leo and Gwen grew to love one another, I didn’t need to know all of the details.  I was able to fill-in-the-blanks.  And I fully expected to rip into the cliché of the flamboyant gay best friend only to find myself falling in love with Count Valiant.  The novel is character driven and, for this reason, I could easily see it working effectively as a film, something small, indie, and gritty that would move with Gwen as she herself moves through her choices to the final fulfilling conclusion.

The author teaches writing at Yavapai College and, if this novel is any indication, I would gladly take writing lessons from Michaela Carter any day!  I know I could learn a lot from her.  As a reader, I found this book intriguing.  As a writer, I found it inspiring.  And as a woman I found it to be ideal—candid and compassionate towards all of the characters even at their worst moments.  My only regret is that we did not get to see inside the protagonist’s graduate school experience.  Perhaps in the next novel, with the same or a new protagonist, we’ll get to see that.  I know I’m eager for Carter’s next novel (and envy her writing students the luxury of learning from her).
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