Review: The Immortalists

This novel attracted my attention because it has good reviews.  It also has about five pages of glowing blurbs; how can I go wrong?

The Immortalists was written by Chloe Benjamin, who also wrote The Anatomy of Dreams, which received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award.  She is a gradate of Vassar College (which was a happy hunting ground for dates when I was at university) and she received her MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin.

Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists is set in 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side.  Four Gold children, aged between seven and thirteen, are looking for a travelling psychic who can tell them the date of their individual deaths.  The first to die, on the forecast date, is Simon, the youngest, in his early twenties, of AIDS in San Francisco.  Klara, two years older than Simon, and a magician, who not only wants to entertain her audience with her magic and her death-defying feats, but wants the audience to believe in magic, dies on schedule of an apparent suicide in Las Vegas.  Klara’s older brother, Daniel, a doctor, becomes involved with a policeman who is investigating the psychic in connection with Simon’s and Klara’s deaths.  He is shot by the policeman as he tries to kill the psychic, whom he has tracked down; he, too, dies at the appointed time.  This leaves only Varya, who is expected to die at age eighty-eight.  Varya is involved in experimental work with primates to prove that lifespan can be increased by severely limiting the intake of particular foods, but at the cost of a comfortable life.  Varya leaves the experiment and the novel ends with Varya, at least thirty years before her appointed death, accompanied by her mother, Gertie, and Klara’s daughter, Ruby, while Ruby puts on a memorable magic show.

Ms Benjamin does a good job in persuading the reader to suspend disbelief regarding the reality of the psychic: we are not surprised when the first three siblings die, nor are we surprised that the police would be investigating.  What I particularly liked about this novel are the emotional connections between the siblings: love, regret and sorrow.  The character of Simon is extremely well drawn: his sense of urgency to experience his homosexuality at the expense of self preservation is clear.  Klara is also a unique character for her fascination with and commitment to magic.

For me, Daniel and Varga are not as clearly defined.  For example, what drives Daniel to confront the old woman mystic with a gun, and what drives Varga to be so preoccupied with her stringent diet when she has little to show for it except longevity.  I am also not clear as to why and how Klara chose suicide, or the character and motivation of Eddie, the policeman.  There is a valid attempt to suffuse the novel with an air of mystery and magic: a very difficult task, which I think is only partially successful.

This is a unique story with potentially very interesting, diverse characters; it has mystery and emotional content; it has great promise.  I’m afraid the editor let the author down slightly.

Famous Writing Quotes

The Reedsy blog has 170 quotations on writing from famous writers.  Here are some of my favourites:

  •  “You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.” — Annie Proulx
  • “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” — Samuel Johnson
  • “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” — Stephen King
  • “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” — Natalie Goldberg
  • “Sometimes the ideas just come to me. Other times I have to sweat and almost bleed to make ideas come. It’s a mysterious process, but I hope I never find out exactly how it works. I like a mystery, as you may have noticed.” — J.K. Rowling
  •  “Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.” — Meg Rosoff
  • “There are some books that refuse to be written. They stand their ground year after year and will not be persuaded. It isn’t because the book is not there and worth being written — it is only because the right form of the story does not present itself. There is only one right form for a story and, if you fail to find that form, the story will not tell itself.” — Mark Twain
  • “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.” — Ray Bradbury
  • “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” — William Faulkner
  •  “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” — John Steinbeck
  • “I don’t wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.” — Pearl S. Buck
  • “I would advise any beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read them — without a thought about publication — and only in the last draft to consider how the work will look from the outside.” — Anne Tyler
  • “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” ― Octavia E. Butler
  •  “It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.” — Virginia Woolf
  • “When your story is ready for a rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” — Stephen King
  • “People say, ‘What advice do you have for people who want to be writers?’ I say, they don’t really need advice, they know they want to be writers, and they’re gonna do it. Those people who know that they really want to do this and are cut out for it, they know it.” — R.L. Stine
  • “Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare has perhaps 20 players. I have 10 or so, and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them.” — Gore Vidal

Review: The Choice

My wife read this book – an autobiography of an Auschwitz survivor – and recommended it so highly that I had to read it.  Dr Edith Eger, the author, was born Editke Elefant in Kosice, Slovakia (then part of Hungary) on 29 September 1927.  In early 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary and forced Edith, her two sisters, Magda and Clara, her mother and father into the Kosice ghetto.  In May, 1944, when Edith was 16, she, her mother, father, and sister, Magda, were loaded onto cattle cars and sent to Auschwitz, where her mother and father were murdered; Clara, a violinist, is away from home at a concert, and survived the war with a false identity.

Edith Eger

Edith is made to dance by the infamous Dr Mengele.  Together, Edith and Magda endure the terror, famine, forced labour,and extreme hardship of Auschwitz; in late 1944, they are moved by train to Germany where they work as slave labourers in factories.  They are moved again to Austria.  Of the two thousand prisoners who were forced on a death march to Gunskirchen, the sisters are two of only one hundred who survive.  Edith was discovered in a pile of the dead, more dead than alive, by a US soldier in May 1945.  The sisters are nursed back to health and travel to Prague, where they are reunited with Clara.

They return to Kosice, and find their old house which has been occupied and looted.  Edith meets Bela Eger, a wealthy Jew, who has survived the war as an anti-Nazi, and they are married.  Many Hungarians feel threatened by the Communist take-over of Hungary and cast about for a safer refuge.  Clara emigrates to Australia, Magda chooses the US and Bela has made arrangements to start a business in Israel.  At the last moment Edith decides to take her baby daughter to America, and Bela goes, too, first to Brooklyn, then Baltimore and El Paso.  They face low wages, poor accommodation and discrimination.   Bela finds work as and accountant, and Edith gets her masters and doctorate degrees, becoming a clinical psychologist.   She has three children and now lives in La Jolla, California.

There are poignant descriptions of Edith’s journey to Hitler’s castle in the Bavarian mountains where she slept in Goebble’s bed, of her return to Auschwitz, and of her counselling sessions, particularly with soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

The title of the book, The Choice, is derived from Edith’s belief that we cannot change the external events in our lives; we can only choose how we respond to them.  She and Magda chose to survive against all odds.  She also highlights a piece of advice from her mother: “They can never take away what you put in your mind.”

Perhaps the most important passage in the book occurs on page 307: Edith is recalling that on entering Auschwitz, Dr Mengele asked her, “Is she your mother or sister?”  She replied, “Mother,” and learned later that this choice effectively condemned her mother to death, as all those over 40 or under 14 were executed.  She says, “Could I have saved my mother?  Maybe.  And I will live all the rest of my life with that possibility.  And I can castigate myself for having made the wrong choice.  That is my prerogative.  Or I can accept that the more important choice is not the one that I made when I was hungry and terrified, when we were surrounded by dogs and guns and uncertainty, when I was sixteen; it’s the one I make now.  The choice to accept myself as I am; human, imperfect.”

This is a timeless book, well-written, that speaks constructively about life, death, humanity and uncertainty.

Doing Whatever It Takes

There is an article by Sandra Wendel which appeared in the December 2017 issue of the IBPA Independent magazine.  Ms Wendel is an experienced book editor who specializes in helping authors write, polish, and publish their manuscripts; she gives the following example of “doing whatever it takes” as an editor.  Her website is https://www.sandrawendel.com/.

 

Sandra - headshot 082918.JPG

Sandra Wendel

“After working his way up through the ranks in narcotics and homicide, putting plenty of bad guys in prison, and retiring from exemplary work on the Omaha Police Department, detective Brian Bogdanoff sat down to write a story.”  (A true story of two bad guys who stole tons of marijuana from three Mexican drug minions, shot the three and burned their bodies along the roadside near Omaha.)

“Brian and I met in a book-writing class I was teaching at the community college. The manuscript he brought me read like a police report with words like “vehicles,” “perpetrators,” and “victims.” So I invited him to my home office, sat him down, and we began.

“He had written:

As I spoke with each of them separately, I could see nobody wanted to talk yet, so I made it very clear to Preston and Gaylan that I was a homicide detective, not a narcotics officer, and this case that brought me to them was just getting started.

As if he were on the hot seat in an interrogation room, I grilled him: “What did Gaylan look like?” “What was he doing?” “What exactly did he say?” “And then what did you say?” “Describe the room—how big, furniture, what?”


Here’s the revision of the same passage:


Gaylan was first. If someone was going to talk, I thought it would be Gaylan.

I walked into a fourth-floor interview room of the Criminal Investigation Bureau at downtown police headquarters. Gaylan was sitting at the same table where he’d been sitting for nine hours while we were searching his house, the recording studio, the lawn service, the remaining storage units, and his secondary houses.

His head was down, he looked up at me and said, “What’s up, man?”

He’s a big guy, twenty-four years old, and was tired from sitting in a ten-by-ten room all day. He wasn’t handcuffed, but there was a guard outside the door.

“You got big problems.” I opened the conversation. “I got a receipt and inventory of all the stuff we recovered today, and it doesn’t look good.” I handed him a list of the property seized.

“I’m a homicide cop, and that’s what this is all about, so you might be in your best position right now to tell me what you know,” I said. “If someone else wants to talk first, they’ll get all the good things that come with it.” And he chose not to talk.

I gave the same spiel to Preston. He had the same attitude. He wasn’t talking.

Roscoe and I then walked Gaylan to the jail elevator and rode it to the basement of the police station. We put our guns in the gun locker and walked him into jail. He was booked in for his marijuana charges and taken to his concrete ten-by-ten cell in solitary confinement, which on the street has earned the name Bedrock.

We did the same procedure for Preston.

“And the story came out, excruciating detail by detail, so readers could go inside the mind of this talented detective and follow his story from crime scene to courtroom, gasping when blood was found under the carpet of a home, unbeknownst even to the current residents. Readers followed the thread of a note found in the pocket of one of the burned bodies to the hotel where the cartel guys stayed.

“We described more key scenes with fresh detail and dialogue. And then we went to the crime scenes themselves where I took photos of the roadside burn site where religious artifacts had still been left presumably by grieving family five years later; to the yellow house where the gangbangers shot the Mexicans and loaded their bodies into a pickup that left a dripping blood trail down the street; to the neighborhood where the bangers lived that didn’t feel safe even at two in the afternoon with an armed police officer giving the guided tour.

“We gathered yet more detail, so I could add pertinent facts and observations. That’s what an editor does.”

Three Bodies Burning by Brian Bogdanoff

The moral of this article is that it takes a different mentality to be a good homicide detective, than the mentality of a writer who can make the detective’s story come alive in the mind of the reader.

Review: Washington Black

I went through the short list of candidates for this year’s Man Booker prize, and I selected Washington Black by Esi Edugyan as one I wanted to read.

Esi Edugyan was born in 1978 to immigrants from Ghana and raised in Calgary, Alberta.  She studied creative writing at the University of Victoria and received a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars.  Her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne was published at the age of 24, and despite favourable reviews of it, she had difficulty finding a publisher for her second manuscript.  She was a writer-in-residence in Stuttgart, Germany, where she found inspiration for Half Blood Blues, which was published in 2011 and short listed for the Man Booker.  She has since written a book of non-fiction, Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home, and Washington Black, which was published in September 2018.  She currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia with her husband, the novelist and poet, Steven Price and their two children.

Esi Edugyan

Washington Black is set initially on a sugar plantation in Barbados in the 1830’s.  An eleven-year-old field slave, Washington Black, is selected by the younger brother of the plantation manager,, Erasmus Wilde, to be the younger man, Titch’s servant.  While Erasmus is the irascible slave driver, Titch is a scientist with abolitionist sentiments, and he needs Washington to help him launch a prototypical lighter than air ship, the Cloud-cutter.   While preparations for the launch are underway, the Wilde brothers’ cousin, Philip, arrives on the plantation.  Philip brings news that his cousins’ father has died, and that their mother requires Erasmus to return to England, while Titch should take over the plantation, an assignment which he definitely does not want.  Philip commits suicide in the presence of Washington, so that the boy becomes a suspect of murder.  Titch and Washington depart hastily in the Cloud-cutter, but the craft is downed in a storm at sea and they are rescued by a ship which takes them to Norfolk, Virginia, where they find passage into Hudson’s Bay, Canada, where Titch’s father, an arctic explorer is supposed to have died.  But he hasn’t died, until later.  Titch disappears and Washington travels to Nova Scotia where he finds work and a Mr Goff, a marine biologist and his daughter Tanna, who becomes his love interest.  Washington travels to London to help the Goffs set up a pioneering aquarium.  Washington has Titch on his mind and he tracks him down in Morocco.

There is something surreal about this tale of achieving adulthood in the midst of tenuous relationships while travelling through a strange and hostile world.  All of the characters, with the possible exceptions of Washington and Tanna, are lost souls: people who have no chance of realising their human potential.   It is not clear to me what Ms Edugyan is hoping I will take away from her novel, except that being black is a life handicap and a being a slave is intolerable.  While the story in intriguing, I found my credibility being stretched now and then.  For example, Washington is uneducated except for some reading lessons from Titch, yet he designs a grand, state of the art aquarium, and aspires to have his name mentioned by the Royal Academy. Ms Edugyan’s writing is interesting, but occasionally it slips away from her as when she describes one character: “His was a small, square face in which the bones sat high and prominent, and the gesture seemed to thrust his skull to the very surface of his brow.”  I had the impression that the skull is just below the surface of the brow in any case.

Washington Black will appeal to those who enjoy the rousing adventures of an ex-slave.

Four Ways to Launch a Scene

There is a helpful article in the October issue of The Florida Writer with the above title.  It was written by Jordan Rosenfeld.  Her website says that, “Jordan holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars and a B.A. in Liberal Studies from the Hutchins School.  She is a former resident of Petaluma, California . . . who is an author, editor and freelance writer.”  She has written three suspense novels, five writing guides and has appeared in: The Atlantic, GOOD, New York Times, New York Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Scientific American, Writer’s Digest, and many more.

Jordan Rosenfeld

She said: “Any story or novel is, in essence, a series of scenes strung together like beads on a wire, with a narrative summary adding texture and colour in between.  You want to start each scene by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Where are my characters in the plot?  Where did I leave them in the last scene and what are they doing now?
  • What is the most important piece of information that needs to be revealed in this scene?
  • What is my protagonist’s goal for this scene?
  • How will that goal be achieved or thwarted?

Character Launches

“It is generally a good idea to get your characters on the page sooner rather than later. . . . If your character isn’t present by the second paragraph of any given scene, you’re in danger of losing the reader. . . . A scene feels purposeful when you give the character that stars in it an intention, or goal to pursue. . . . Scene intentions ought to be intricately tied to the plot, i.e., your character’s goal – and the unfolding of that goal through actions, discoveries, and explorations your character undertakes that drive the story continually forward.

Action Launches

“Many writers believe that they must explain every bit of action that is going on right from the start of a scene, but narrative summary defeats action. . . . Keep in mind the key elements of action: time and momentum. . . . The key to creating strong momentum is to start an action without explaining anything. . . . Here’s how to create an action launch:

  • Get straight to the action
  • Hook the reader with big or surprising actions
  • Be sure that the action is true to your character
  • Act first, think later.  ‘Elizabeth slapped the prince.  When his face turned pink, horror filled her.  What have I done? she thought’

Narrative Launches

“Writers often try to include a narrative summary, such as descriptions of the history of a place or the backstory of characters, right at the launch of a scene, believing that the reader will not be patient enough to allow actions and dialogue to tell the story. . . . When delivered in large doses, narrative summary is a distraction and an interruption.  Yet a scene launch is one of the  easiest places to use a judicious amount of narrative summary . . . so long as you don’t hold the reader captive too long.  Take the opening of an early scene in Gina Frangello’s novel Every Kind of Wanting:  ‘You think you know our story, Nick, but that would imply that I was capable of honesty.  You think our stories are some joint thing, a common narrative on which we, the co-conspirator would agree, but you don’t know anything yet.’  This is almost entirely narrative summary . . . However, we do get the sense of a complicated tale about to unfold, one with secrets and lies – the best kind of story.  Narrative launches should be reserved for the following occasions:

  • When a narrative summary can save time
  • When information needs to be conveyed before an action
  • When a character’s thoughts or intentions cannot be revealed in action

Setting Launches

“Sometimes setting details – like a jungle on fire,or moonlight sparkling on a lake – are so important to plot or character development that visual setting must be included in launch of a scene. . . . Here’s how to create an effective scenic launch:

  • Use specific visual details
  • Allow scenery to set the scene
  • Use scenery to reflect a character’s feelings
  • Show the impact of the setting on the character”

“Don’t Call It ‘Chick Lit'”

There was an article in the 20th October issue of The Daily Telegraph, written by Camilla Tominey, titled: Don’t refer to women’s fiction as chic lit, says author’.  “Books should not be referred to as ‘chick lit’ because more women than men read novels – and it should be men’s fiction that is the ‘sub-category’, the author of Big Little Lies has said.  Liane Moriarty, who sold the rights to the book to Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon for a blockbuster TV series, said women’s fiction should never be treated as a sub-genre because women read more than men.”

Ms Moriarty’s page on Goodreads says: “Liane Moriarty is the Australian author of six internationally best-selling novels, Three Wishes, The Last Anniversary, What Alice Forgot, The Hypnotist’s Love Story and the number 1 New York Times bestsellers, The Husband’s Secret and Big Little Lies.  Her breakout novel The Husband’s Secret sold over three million copies worldwide, was a number 1 UK bestseller, an Amazon Best Book of 2013 and has been translated into over 40 languages. It spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list. CBS Films has acquired the film rights.  With the launch of Big Little Lies, Liane became the first Australian author to have a novel debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. An HBO series based on Big Little Lies is currently in production, starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. . . . Liane lives in Sydney with her husband, son and daughter. Her new novel, Truly Madly Guilty, will be released in July 2016.”

Actually, the first series of Big Little Lies completed in April of last year, and a second series was announced in December. Ms Moriarty has since written Three Perfect Strangers.

Liane Moriarty

Most of the rest of the Telegraph article deals with Ms Moriarty’s excitement in meeting Nicole Kidman, reaching an agreement on the sale of rights, and of her creation a a character to be played by Meryl Streep, whose real name is Mary-Louise, we are informed.

But to return to the main point of the article, I certainly have some sympathy for the name given to what Wikipedia calls ‘genre fiction which consists of heroine-centered narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of their individual protagonists”, because ‘chick lit’ has become a somewhat pejorative term.  Wikipedia goes on to say, “While chick lit has been very popular with readers, critics largely disapproved of the genre. Reviewer Alex Kuczynski, writing for The New York Times condemned Helen Fielding’s novel, in particular, writing ‘Bridget is such a sorry spectacle, wallowing in her man-crazed helplessness, that her foolishness cannot be excused.’ Writer Doris Lessing deemed the genre “instantly forgettable” while Beryl Bainbridge called the genre ‘a froth sort of thing’.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, there are literary agencies which specialise in chick lit, though they don’t specifically say so; their focus is immediately clear from the covers and titles of their authors.  Chick lit is big business!

It seems to me that if Ms Moriarty doesn’t like her work to be called chick lit, she should change her subject matter and style or she should invent a new name for her genre – something like ‘Good Women’s’.   It certainly doesn’t classify at Literary Fiction.

To argue, in effect, that the chick lit genre should be deleted because women read more fiction than men – while it is true that women read more – doesn’t make sense.  How are we going to distinguish serious female writers like Kate Atkinson from writers like Helen Fielding?

Review: Midnight’s Children

Having finished the books I brought with me to Sicily, I went to the local bookstore which has a small selection of English language books, but I found nothing that intrigued me.  Looking on the bookshelves in the house, where guests occasionally leave books, I found Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.  Mitigating against reading it were its length (647 pages), and its author (I’ve read The Satanic Verses and admired it, but didn’t particularly enjoy it).  The main factor in favour of reading it is that it is twice the winner of the Booker of Bookers: the best Booker Prize winner in the last 25 years and 40 years.

First Edition

The story, written in 1981, deals with the recent colonial past of the Indian subcontinent, its independence and its partition into two states: India and Pakistan.  The narrator is Saleem Sinai who was born at midnight, the precise moment of India’s independence, and who is telling the story to his future wife, Padma.  Saleem is born with a huge, dripping nose with exceptional olfactory powers, such that he is able to read thoughts and identify intentions.  He learns that all the children born at the moment of independence are gifted with extraordinary powers, and he forms a Midnight Children’s Conference to try to influence events, including political developments and subcontinental wars.    In particular, allegorical style is used to critique the governance of Indira Gandhi during the ‘Emergency’ period.  Mrs Gandhi brought a suit against Rushdie, not for his slating of her administration, but for a single sentence criticising her family relationships; this sentence has been removed from current editions.  As well as the Conference, the tale involves Saleem’s extended family: mother, father, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles and his infant son.  The style of the book is magical realism, not conforming to any particular genre, it is factual, comical, suspenseful, magical, surreal, historical and mythic.

In his introduction to the 2006 edition, Rushdie says, “In the West, people tended to read Midnight’s Children as a fantasy, while in India, people thought of it as pretty realistic, almost a history book.”  Though I have traveled to India three times, and know something of its history and culture, I read the book primarily as a fantasy, which is a shame: I feel I have missed an important dimension of the book.  It must be said that Salman Rushdie is an extraordinary story-teller: he has great imagination and invention, and sometimes I felt that he has invented himself into a corner – how can he get out of this one?- only to read a clever, smooth and sensible transition out.  His command of language is breath-taking, leaving one with the clearest possible image of what is happening.  Occasionally, though, I felt left out by his use of Hindi (or other native) words and expressions which are undoubtedly appropriate.  There were also times when I felt that his excursions into descriptive fantasy were too lengthy, and yet, long as it is, I wanted to read on.

So, for me Midnight’s Children is a literary masterpiece, and there is much to learn from Rushdie’s skill as a writer and a story-teller.  But did I enjoy it?  Not particularly, having missed too much of it,

Review: Living Buddha, Living Christ

My wife read this book by Thich Nhat Hanh, and when I ran out of handy books (we’re on holiday), I decided to read it.  The subtitle is “A revered meditation master explores two of the world’s great contemplative traditions.”

The author is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, born in 1926; he is active in the peace movement, promoting non-violent solutions to conflict.  He has written more than 100 books, including over 40 in English.  He is fluent in French, Chinese, Japanese, Sanskrit, Pali, English and Vietnamese.  He is based in Plum Village in Dordogne in the south of France, and has established Buddhist facilities in Vietnam, France, USA, Germany.  He is a Zen Master of Buddhism and a teacher of mindfulness (meditation).

Thich Nhat Hanh

This book does a very credible job bringing the teaching of Jesus Christ in line with the teaching of Buddha.  If these two men were to meet, one can suppose that they would have gotten along well.  More on this below.  Contact with the Holy Spirit is suggested to place one in a similar state of near nirvana to Buddhist mindfulness or meditation.  In fact there are references to the benefits of mindfulness on nearly every page, and although Thich Nhat Hanh is a master teacher of Buddhist mindfulness, and he has written books on the subject, there is no prescription for reaching near nirvana.

(When I was much younger, the company I worked for put its sales people on a course in meditation taught be a man named Jeff Coats.  The reason for the course was that sales people needed to have a constructive escape from the stress of selling.  I can recall reaching a meditative state only once, but it was quite sublime.)

The author takes issue with the Roman Catholic church on its implied position that it is the only true religion.  He makes the point that this can lean to real conflict and it inhibits constructive dialogue.  I agree.

While the ethos of Christianity and Buddhism may be similar, there are two important points on which the two diverge,  Buddhists do not believe in an immortal soul; Buddha taught that the soul, like the body is constantly evolving and therefore impermanent.

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “A good theologian is one who says almost nothing about God, even though the word ‘theology’ means ‘discourse about God’.  It is risky to talk about God.  The notion of God might be an obstacle for us to touch God as love, wisdom and mindfulness.” and “The Buddha was not against God.  He was only against notions of God that are mere mental constructions and do not correspond to reality, notions that prevent us from developing ourselves and touching ultimate reality.”  It seems to me that there are several problems with this.  Christians believe that Jesus, as part of the Trinity, is God, and He is not a ‘mental construction’.  Thich Nhat Hanh seems to accept the reality of the Holy Spirit, also part of the Trinity; is the Spirit a ‘mental construction’?  In the last sentence quoted above, the author uses the word ‘reality’ twice, without being clear about what ‘reality’ he is referring to.

When I imagine a meeting between Jesus and Buddha, I don’t think it would be entirely friendly.  In my scenario, Jesus chastises Buddha for being a ‘man of little faith’.

For this reason, I found Living Buddha, Living Christ to be a book of little value: it focuses on relatively minor similarities while ignoring the important differences.

Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay was interviewed by Stephen Sackur on BBC’s Hard Talk a few weeks ago.  At the time, I was impressed by this man who lifted himself from ignorant child immigrant to intellectual star in the most adverse circumstances imaginable.

Lemn Sissay

Sissay’s mother, an immigrant from Ethiopia and pregnant with him, arrived in England in 1966.  He was born in Wigan, Lancashire in 1967.  The social worker responsible for his mother renamed him ‘Norman’ and gave him to foster parents with the suggestion that they should consider it an adoption, while his mother went to Bracknell to finish her studies.  She refused to sign the adoption papers, saying that she wanted her son back when she was more settled.  Social services ignored this.

Sissay’s adoptive parents, being strongly religious, wanted to rename him Mark after the Christian evangelist and give him their surname: Greenwood.  They were very strict parents, but kind in their way.  When Sissay reached the age of 12, he became somewhat difficult to manage.  The Greenwoods, who by then had three children of their own, decided he was possessed by the devil, turned him over to social services, and announced that they wanted nothing more to do with him.

From the age of 12 to 18, Sissay was held in four childrens’ homes where he was physically, emotionally and racially abused.  When he left the care system, he was given a flat with no bed; the head of social services said he should be taught a lesson, but what was the lesson?  Sissay asked to see his files from social services; he had no family, no papers and no photos.  His life history was contained in those files.  He was given only two documents.  One showed that his real name was Lemn Sissay.  The second was a letter his mother had written to the social worker when Sissay was one, pleading for his return.

He continued to request his files.  In 2015, after being told that the files were in remote storage and had been lost, he was given his files and an apology by Wigan Council.

In 1988, after a long search, he met his birth mother in Gambia where she was working for the UN.

At the age of 17, Sissay used his unemployment money to self publish a pamphlet of poetry .  He released his first book of poetry in 1988 at the age of 21 and he has been a full-time writer since the age of 24, performing internationally.  He has written eight books, and eleven plays, four for BBC radio, many featuring his maltreatment as a child.

In 2009, he was made an honorary doctor of letters by the University of Huddersfield and the following year he was appointed an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire).

In June 2015 he was elected Chancellor of the University of Manchester for a term of seven years.  In January 2016, Sissay wrote an article for The Guardian in which he said, “How a society treats those children who have no one to look after them is a measure of how civilised it is. It is scandalous that a prime minister should have to admit, as David Cameron did last autumn, that the care system ‘shames our country’ and that Ofsted should report that there are more councils judged as ‘inadequate’ than ‘good’ for their children’s services.”

Simon Hattenstone, a journalist with The Guardian, said, “Sissay is an old friend of mine. He is one of the funniest and warmest people I know, extraordinarily animated with a life-affirming laugh. He is also one of the most damaged people I know, suffering paralysing depression that forces him to withdraw into himself and disappear for months at a time, sometimes longer.”

During the Hard Talk interview, Sissay made the following observations which I think are memorable:

  • Our families are the repositories of our histories and therefor of our memory.  Without family we are amnesiac.
  • Forgiveness of the injuries we have suffered leads to healing of those injuries.
  • “Define me by my healing not by my suffering.”
  • “Forgiveness lets you live in the present.”