Guaranteed reading with intelligence

Guaranteed reading with intelligence
Guaranteed reading with intelligence

Friday, 28 June 2013

Unexpected Tales From The Ends Of The Earth

5 out of 5 stars

A Quality Of Life

We all want certainty because it gives us security, but as the philosopher Alan W. Watts has pointed out, both Buddhists and Taoist have concluded that life is inherently changing, and indeed we can even benefit by abandoning our fixed notions, our structures, our certainties and embrace the convolutions of life. (Watts. The Wisdom Of Insecurity, 1951)  If you enjoy a buzz in life Unexpected Tales is for you, but if you enjoy routine, or even want more stability, this book also has notions about life to offer you.

Life has a certain unexpected quality that can come upon us in many ways.  The Preface to this book points out that these stories come from a wide variety of geographic places and thus describe different cultures that we might find “unexpected”.  That is indeed true, though the various descriptions of uncertainty go beyond that.  Some of these stories are humorous, with an unexpected punch-line: we are astonished, delighted, revel in the surprise twist.  Some tales describe the sort of situation that we call ‘a turn up for the books’.  These are the sort of real life events where we end up saying, “Can you believe that?”  Some of the narratives are enigmas: we assume answers, but that is exactly what we don’t get.  Some of these yarns are quite philosophical: they express truths which we at first don’t see, don’t want to see, even hide from ourselves.

Society is depicted in various forms, but never with complete acceptance.  All of these authors ask questions, forcing us to evaluate where we stand.  In particular localities some of these tales would be considered quite revolutionary, in others, they would be more conventional, but not quite mainstream.  The philosopher Michel Foucault, and many others, have taught us to question all structures as possible devices to reinforce powerful minorities, and indeed many of the tales specifically examine the question of power and elites.

Female readers will be happy to find that there is an ample representation of positive female characters.  Certainly, as in life, some of the women portrayed are hurt and searching individuals, but others are strong, determined and even rebellious.  In the philosophical theories of Luce Irigarary and Julia Kristeva women are viewed as oppressed, but self-containing the possibility of considerable creativity, and indeed these tales reflect those views; however, even female powers systems are examined, particularly by Xarina.  Women also can be sell-outs to the system.

Members of repressed ethnicities are portrayed with considerable understanding in two stories.  These characters receive both criticism and positive acceptance.  They are viewed both from an outside standpoint (the point of view of others) and an inside perspective (self-analysis).

None of the many characters strike the reader as false; indeed, as readers we often recognise ourselves, even in those tales that are more bizarre.  While these tales are ‘unexpected’ they very much portray how ordinary people react in unusual circumstances.  That is to say these stories ring true psychologically.

As we have noted some of the tales are tongue-in-cheek; that is, slightly larger than life.   Many others are written in the ‘social realism’ style.  Tomov’s surrealistic vignettes are a prominent departure from the ‘normal’, though not from real life.

Money, power and success are central driving forces in our society and it is no surprise that this issue appears in various stories buy Candy Korman, Abby Fermont, Xarina and Martin Craig-Downer.  We see the lengths people will go to achieve: the tricks and sacrifices of personal value.  We are lead to wonder what real success is: money, reaching the top of the ladder, friendship?

The stupidity of bigotry, in various forms, features in the tales of Korman, Craig-Downer and Fermont.  This failing is examined in the actions of governments, but also in the rote thought patterns of individuals following the pat beliefs of their society.

Looking deeper into the workings of the human mind we see the quest for meaning in the works of Craig-Downer and Alexandur Tomov.  Can we find significance in work or do most of us need something deeper than that?  How can we escape from the sense of pointlessness and emptiness?

How could a book be written about people without at least touching on the subject of love?  Craig-Downer, Fermont, Xarina and Tomov indeed all have written tales that specifically detail and examine this basic human motivation.  We are enlightened by the authors as to how we come to miss love and botch it, how we fail to give it (though we imagine we do), how we come upon it and how we deeply need it.

In a world of ever increasing communication and travel we all must face the issue of cultural difference.  Fermont and Xarina each consider this topic in fairly lengthy tales. The third world certainly operates differently to the first (Western) world, but increasingly such global divisions are becoming obsolete.  People of third world background are living in our societies and we are at least visiting there.  How do we react and cope when we meet someone of very different values?  Is there, at least in theory, a ‘right’ way of doing things?  Will we eventually abandon these differences, or are they a result of particular circumstances that are not going to go away in a hurry? 

While all the authors are skilled at their art of short story writing, Alexandur Tomov clearly stands out as the best contributor.  He contributed 13 tales and so could be said to be the most prolific, though his stories are quite short.  Beyond that, however, his work has an informed insight into life with a surprising depth of vision.  He is, indeed, an interesting new author of some considerable talent and understanding.  At first glance Tomov’s stories seem repetitive.  There is the frequent dream motif, the recurrent trip to the future and the unexplained loss of memory.  On a closer reading, however, we see that most of the tales highlight particular points, giving special insight into particular facets of life and emphasizing new philosophical details.  This is the work of one mind and so of course there is an overall, coherent ideology.  Most notably Tomov is influenced by Existentialism.  Tomov’s tale Crime And Punishment, like Dostoevski’s novel of the same name, examines the question of moral decay arising specifically from the philosopher’s own reasoning.  William Barrett in his book Irrational Man: A Study In Existential Philosophy (c1958) identifies Fyodor Dostoevski as a proto-existentialist. In Tomov’s story The Squad the plot is set in the future, but the society depicted is very much reminiscent of the German Axis or the Soviet Block.   This story reminds us of  Max Frisch’s The Fire Raisers (1953) in which official state persecution is explored.  Tomov’s surreal plots, as indeed Frisch’s, are of course influenced by Albert Camus’ idea of the absurd. (The Myth Of Sisyphus And Other Essays, 1955)  As Jean-Paul Sartre demonstrated in Existentialism And Humanism (1946) that philosophy is not without its ethical implications and Tomov’s works certainly dig into the issue of moral decay.  Always, like the Existentialist, Tomov leads us to ask, “Do we truly need to live like this?”  Tomov, however, is not simply rehashing old ideas.  These are very much tales of the Twenty First Century.  The future implications of the ideas, first fully expressed in the post-World War 2 period, are very much examined.  Where is this relativism and absurdity leading us?  The philosopher is in some ways guilty of the ideas he releases, though of course much of the ‘damage’ comes from other’s misunderstandings, additions and misuse.  In this way Tomov, in the mode of Postmodernism, deconstructs Existentialism as much as he supports it.  Psychoanalysis is another minor influence on Tomov’s work.  More than once characters refer to “The Ego” as a seemingly rational explanation of ‘mad’ behaviours.  These explanations, however, are not to be trusted.   In A Too Confused Dream Tomov depicts a nightmare which could fit into the category of a Jungian archetypal, or ‘big’ dream (Ann Faraday. Dream Power: Berkley Books, 1980, p.124), but which is also reminiscent of Near-Death-Experiences (Raymond Moody. Life After Life, 1975).  Both these phenomena have a ‘life-changing,’ never-to-be-forgotten’ quality, as does the events of Tomov’s tale.

Tomov’s tales are darkly surreal, ironic and deeply philosophical (without being overly scholarly or boringly academic).  He raises questions about modern relativistic life, depicting our fears and hopes.  He does not always answer the questions he raises, thus avoiding ‘pat’ answers.  Memories of childhood offer only partial comfort at best.  Love is depicted as hopeful and helpful, but we are not given an abstract, absolute view of that ‘solution’.  Tomov’s love is very practical and mundane, not reaching much further than finding a friend, or better still a partner.  In line with Foucault’s thoughts (Madness And Civilization – A History Of Insanity In The Age Of Reason, 1990), and the theories of other anti-psychiatrists, psychology is often depicted as being used by ‘the establishment’ to write off very real feelings by seemingly logical explanations.  The seemingly intelligent ’answers’ when really considered turn out to be hollow and “absurd”, as indeed many of Tomov’s characters protest.  One criticism of Tomov’s tales is that women mainly appear only as very undeveloped characters: they remain shadow figures: they represent the unknown ‘Other,’ who we don’t know, but with whom we seek to unite.  Certainly these shadow women offer the potential for creativity and fulfilment, as the philosopher Julia Kristeva suggests, but only as adjuncts to men.  Indeed in the three of the four stories in which female characters are more developed (Eternal Love, From The Future and Crime And Punishment) women are represented in the stereotypical ‘prime hussy’ role: powerful and active, but of evil intent.  This is clearly an idea of the dominant patriarchal culture.  Also while partnerships are represented as a positive source of meaning, all of them are heterosexual: gay partnerships are completely absent from Tomov’s tales.  Over all of Tomov’s tales hangs a sense of meaninglessness and moral decay that results in a dreamlike, hazily futuristic, visionary judgement.

Of course it would be difficult to write a review of Unexpected Tales without some comparison with Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected: the humour, the “Oh my God! endings, and the reflection on the darker side of human nature are all analogous.  Dahl is of course a master of his art, though his tales are sometimes over long and in some ways repetitive.  Unexpected Tales holds up reasonably okay in many respects.  Coming from the minds of various authors, as Unexpected Tales does, we see different perspectives of the world and different writing styles.  If you enjoyed Dahl’s short stories you will certainly want more and this new book is a good choice.

Unexpected Tales is a book ideal for those who like to be surprised, who like the unusual and even at times surreal, who like to be challenged to think just a bit deeper.  Most of these stories are short and can be read within half an hour, and so the book is ideal for people on the go, for weekend reading, or for a brief read before bed.  The writing style is consistently good and none of the tales are at all boring.  The themes covered are varied and we have the benefit of reading different perspectives on each issue.  Different moods are captured, from the humorous to the chilling.  All in all this book is an excellent read which has something for many different readers, from those who want to be lightly entertained to those who are willing to think quite deeply.  This book certainly deserves a 5 out of 5 rating.

Friday, 21 June 2013

The Rosebush Murders by Ruth Shidlo

4 out of 5 stars 

The Thorny World Of Humanity

Danielle Hall is found dead in the peaceful grounds of an inner city park in Jerusalem.  She had been shot in the back of the head.  Investigation soon reveals that Danielle was a psychologist.  Could it be that a client has lost their cool?  Danielle was married to Mira Morenica and they have a daughter Shelia.  How will the family cope with this sudden and violent death?  D.I. Helen Mirkin finds that, despite her cool professionalism and objectivity, she cares for the survivors.   Helen must use all her skills, her logic and her intuition, to solve this case, even if just to give the Morenica-Hall family closure.

Ruth Shidlo’s first novel, The Rosebush Murders, is a fine police murder mystery.  While not quite of the ‘hard boiled’ style, this book is a no-nonsense account of a classic crime investigation case.  There is no histrionics here, but we follow the plot with interest as Shidlo step by step reveals the mystery of the murders.  At the same time Shidlo reveals to us bit by bit exactly who her character Helen Mirkin is.  Even more Shidlo digs into some of the questions of life that fascinate us all.

The novel follows a fairly standard structure.  In the first half we are given a complex of defuse plot threads that leave us asking, “What does this all mean?”  Life is of course often like this and any crime investigation is at first an open question.  Some of us like to think that we understand all about our life but philosophers, psychologists and scientists will tell us that things are not necessarily simple or obvious.  The second half of the novel moves more swiftly as the hunt nears its close.  Shidlo skilfully draws her themes and imagery neatly together to a satisfying conclusion.  One small criticism is that the first half is perhaps just a little too long.  Just before midway we begin to grow slightly tired, wondering where will all this lead?  The opening of the book has some very well written descriptions.  The long section describing Helen’s viewing of the corpse and crime scene is excellently written.  We get a real sense of the ugliness of the death.  Murder is of course a heavy subject and requires serious writing, however, Shidlo has included some moments of humor to lighten the mood.  Most of this humor comes as banter between Helen and her colleagues.  In Chapter 8, after a late night and restless sleep, Captain Adam Tamir, Helen’s boss, comments, “You look fresh as a lettuce.”  Police detectives need some release from the pressure of their work and so does the reader otherwise reading a novel like this would become a chore.  Shidlo has included the occasional ‘aha’ moment and surprise chapter ending which helps us keep turning the pages.

This novel is of the mystery genre; however, Shidlo supplies us with questions beyond the intrigue of the crime.  “Who is Helen Mirkin?” we wonder, and as the novel progresses we dig deeper into the character.  We get to know Helen as we get to know a friend.  On first impression we like her very human responses to the brutal murder and her compassion for the relatives, but then questions arise and we wonder what her life beyond work is, what her past is and what motivates her?  By the end of the book we certainly feel we have got to know Helen better.  Beyond this many characters in the novel have secrets.  We meet a series of people who are unknown to us, as they are to Helen, some leaving us with a good impression, some bad.  By the end of the book we have certainly got to know the criminals better.  It should be noted, however, that Helen is the only sympathetic character which Shidlo develops.  In this array of character sketches one more individual we can relate to, developed to some depth, would have been good for reader empathy.

Murder is an act of dominance and The Rosebush Murders primarily has the theme of power.  The philosopher Michel Foucault, and many others, have pointed out that much of society revolves around power and keeping people, organizations, classes and societal institutions in control.  This theme is developed in many different ways.  We see, for example, right from the Prologue onwards references to Fascism and the Nazis.  This group, with its aim of European domination, and perhaps even world domination, is the ultimate example in modern history of the thirst for power.  For this book, set in Israel, Fascism is of course a very potent example of the real and extreme effects of a desire for power.  Also much of the story revolves around City Hospital, Jerusalem’s prestigious and world famous establishment.  Here we see the world of bureaucracy which, as the sociologist Max Weber (Economy And Society: 1922) and the novelist Franz Kafka (The Trial: 1925) have pointed out, are very efficient and rational but can also lead to a “polar night of icy darkness” and an “iron cage” (Weber) which crushes the individual.  City Hospital is depicted as literally a very large, complex warren in which Helen fears getting lost.  The air is constantly stale.  In Chapter 15 we see a visit to, Dr. Lev, a cardiology specialist, who is surrounded by cold technology.  To get there Helen walks down “long, grey corridors” bathed in “ice-cold white neon lights” past machines that are “dinosaurs … [which] … had seen better days…”  The specialist, along with others at the hospital, is cold and distant.  Doctors in general are depicted as having power over life and death: they decide our fate.  Religion also appears as a social institution prying into our lives and pushing us about.  Terrorism also makes an appearance in the book.  In the nine days the book covers there are two encounters with suspected bombs.  Terrorism, nationalist and religious, is of course a fact of life in Israel and this is just how Shidlo depicts it.  Terrorism is murder on the large scale and the contemporary equivalent of Nazism: an extreme grab for power.

Religion is indeed so prominent in the book that it can be considered as a theme in its own right.  The ecclesia is meant to be a protection but Shidlo depict it more as a controller.  Certainly much of the music that Helen listens to, sings, and takes comfort and restoration from, is religious based.  In Chapter 38, while Helen rehearses her choir pieces, we read:

“I felt the prayer pour from me and at its conclusion felt somehow cleansed of the oppressive atmosphere of the hospital.”

But of course this is very much a personal, informal, unstructured, untheological experience.  This is not the religion of the synagogue, of orthodoxy.  In Chapter 8, in the context of a conversation about cancer, the Biblical notion of “sanctuary cities” is disparagingly mentioned as a metaphor.  The idea of criminals escaping to a safe city, beyond the grasp of the law, is of course objectionable to police and something objectionable about Judaism is implied.  By far the most important plot line in this theme is the scenario about the Morenica-Hall family wanting to bury their family member in a way free from the “despotism of the Orthodox Rabbinate…”  Here religion is seen as a kind of ‘fascism’ in the popular use of the term.

Death is central to the book, but this theme goes well beyond the plot line of murders.  Death is depicted as something we must come to terms with, something that is pervasive and inescapable.  In Chapter 14 Dr. Kate Jordan, head of the interns, comments:

“Makes you wonder what separates you from death, doesn’t it?  We take so much for granted…”

As we learn more about Helen we see how important the death of her own father is to her.

Interestingly H.E. Eysenck in his essay The Psychology Of Anti-Semitism (Uses And Abuses Of Psychology: Penguin Books, 1953) identifies “superstition … i.e. a belief in the mystical determinants of the individual’s fate …” and “power and toughness”  as statistically discernible features of Fascism.  He further notes of this group:

“There also seems to be relatively little enjoyment of sensuality or of passive pleasures such as affection, companionship, or art and music …” (p. 271)

And later:

“… art, music, literature, and philosophy … may be considered … interests [that] contribute substantially to greater resourcefulness, and to the comparative diversion from power and status …” (p. 277)

Power and religion (superstition) are, as we have seen, central themes in The Rosebush Murders.  Helen, the central character, seeks her friends to relax, is looking for a partner, looks at the art on the walls of the abodes of those she interviews, is interested in music and quotes literature.  She stands against those who would grab power.

Shidlo’s novel is definitely in the main part a no nonsense police drama, however, it also contains some imagery, which gives the book greater depth.  As we have seen music, choirs and opera are a part of the characterization.  Music also takes on a symbolic nature as a metaphor for life.  Music brings Helen great pleasure and relaxation and she uses it as an escape from the pressures of her work.  At the end of Chapter 6 we see Helen tuning her car radio to a jazz program while returning to the office after a difficult interview with Mira Morenica.  In Chapter 13 Helen unwinds from a tiring day with music.  Music communicates feeling and most composers would say that they hope to capture some quality of life.  Music can be joyous, help us to express sadness and even be dramatic and tense.  Nature also repeatedly is depicted as beautiful and relaxing.  It is contrasted with humanity and civilization.  In Chapter 3 Helen takes in the quiet beauty of the Morenica-Hall’s garden, but later in the chapter she drives passed the wrecked hulks of vehicles left over from the War of Independence.  Nature certainly is restoring to us but there is one or two hints of danger.  In Chapter 10 Shira, Danielle and Mira’s friend, comments on a “cute cat” she sees out of the police station window.  Helen responds, “It’s not easy to be a street cat.”  On a different tack police work is frequently compared to a psychologist’s job.  Helen must of course help the victim’s family cope with grief, but also detection itself requires a knowledge of human nature, reading facial expressions, searching below the surface for hidden facts, and a Freudian ‘free association’ of one thing with another.  In Chapter 11 Helen jokes with Dr. Sol, Danielle’s psychoanalyst and friend, about the similarity of their professions.  Helen comments, “In fact would you care to join the Psychological Service of the Police Force?”  Life is full of problems and in a way we are all in need of ‘the psychiatrist’s couch.’

Ruth Shidlo is a qualified psychologist and it is no surprise that this book is an accurate picture of life in that respect.  Shidlo recognizes that people are of diverse motivations, that they have secrets, that while not suffering from a diagnosed illness they can have “rescue fantasies” (Ch. 7).  Dreams as revelations of personal reactions, turmoil and thought feature fairly prominently.  (Ch. 7 & Ch. 41)  Dr. Ann Faraday’s Dream Power (1972) is a good source illustrating this approach to self-development.  Suicide is depicted, not as a real desire for death but as a cry for help and an attempt at communication.( Ch. 55)   (Robert E. Larson, ed.  Preparing To Listen: Contact Teleministries, c1978, p. 99)  Shidlo is of course also correct on the psychology of a killer.  (Martha Stout. The Sociopath Next Door: Broadway Books, 2005)

A lesbian couple are at the center of this murder mystery and GLBTIQ issues are thus quite prominent.  Queer people and their immediate families are generally depicted with respect.  In Chapter 3 Sheila shows Helen  a photo of her and her two mothers on holiday.  We read:

“Shelia was in the middle, looking happy and contained and proud.”

The word “proud” has of course come to have special meaning to LGBTIQ people, as in, for example, ‘pride marches’.  Danielle’s mother is completely accepting of the lesbian matching. (Ch. 10)  The problems which queer couples face is also mentioned, for example, the difficulties of donor parenting. (Ch. 56)  Bigotry occasionally rears its head.  In Chapter 12 Adam, on hearing that the lesbian couple are married comments, “Wonders never cease.”  In Chapter 33 a minor character brings on the bigoted, fantasy notion of a powerful heterosexual man “converting” a lesbian woman.  Shidlo also does not err in being overly favorable to LGBTIQ people.  In Chapter 24 Daniel blocks a gay couple from receiving IVF.  No special favoritism there.  None-the-less Shidlo notes the sociological fact that people, including LGBTIQ, have an affinity for others of similar background.  (C. Peter Wagner. Our Kind Of People: J. Knox Press, c1979)

The Rosebush Murders also has quite a good standing from a feminist perspective.  The book is full of successful professional women and femininity is depicted in all its many and varied forms.  In Chapter 50 we encounter a typical male chauvinist in the form of IVF researcher Alberto Silberman.  Once again women are not patronized by being overly favored either.  There are a number of unsympathetic female characters as well.

As we have already seen society is examined to a certain extent, particularly in terms of bureaucracy.  City Hospital is very much a wealthy establishment and an institution for the privileged.  (Ch. 23)  From a Marxist view the latter is no surprise.  Money means power, and power means elites.  When success is over-rewarded and over-valued others suffer.

Israel is a place of many ethnicities and national backgrounds as the diaspora have returned to it and consequently Shidlo’s novel represents a view of the world and its people beyond the narrow limits of nationalist literature. The disabled make a brief appearance in Chapter 14 in the form of Dr. Maurice Leibovici, the head the Outpatient Psychiatric Clinic.  Leibovici is successfully working in a prestigious job, but is a bit gruff.  The picture is positive but not over flattering.

Ruth Shidlo’s The Rosebush Murders is excellent for those interested in police work and murder mysteries.  While displaying the standard features of this type of novel, it also has more unusual themes such as power and religion.  The imagery of music, art and psychology gives the book further depth.  To varying degrees the book is successful in presenting psychological, LGBTIQ, Feminist and Marxist perspectives.  The novel is, however, most of all simply an entertaining read, excellent to relax with.  I am happy to rate this book as 4 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 14 June 2013

The Power, The Miracle and The Dream by Don De Lene

5 out of 5 stars

Hindered or helped by our minds

Hannah Lane is seven years old and lives in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.  She has terrible asthma and has learned to think of herself as not much good at most of what she sets out to do in life.  She does, however, have an active imagination and has been interested in fairies for quite some time.  She has a collection of fairy dolls which she plays with often.  Imagine her surprise, though, when one day she finds Brenda,  a fairy, in her garden.  Brenda is not so convinced that Hannah is without talent.  She sets about guiding Hannah to a wiser and happier life.  Hannah’s 11 year old brother Harvey thinks she is a little “crazy” (Book 1, Ch. 2) and that Brenda’s advice is a bit beyond belief.  Is Hannah crazy and will she ever really improve her life?

Particularly as children, but also through most of our life, we all have secret wishes and hidden dreams about the person we would like to be.  Remember that fantasy career you longed for but never went after?  We convince ourselves that we are not good enough to achieve these goals, that we are unrealistically aiming too high, and perhaps that we do not really deserve such fulfilment.  It is not unusual to reach 40 years and ask, “What happened?” and “Does what I have done really mean anything to me?”  If you are in this situation Don De Lene’s book is specifically for you.  The book is subtitled “a beginner’s guide to lasting happiness”’ and is filled with interesting, surprising and useful advice on how to achieve exactly that.  This book is part novel, part self-development manual and part spiritual philosophy.  Those who are “open-minded” (Book 1, Ch. 6) and have “a little willingness to believe” (Book1, Ch. 4) will benefit the most.  The book is aimed at children and youth, but adults can certainly enjoy it and benefit; indeed, perhaps more so.

De Lene’s book was originally written as a trilogy and is still divided into three books, however, the text very much hangs together as one unit, being very united in content development and plot progression: the ideas and the story progresses neatly from beginning to end.  At the end of each “Book” the reader may want to put the text aside for a short period in order to digest the content.  It is best, though, to pick the book up again soon as what first seem like simple ideas are elaborated and expanded later in the text.  Criticisms of De Lene’s ideas, for example, which at first may occur to the reader are often dealt with in the next “Book”.

Book 1 Hannah’s Power deals with the title character, and concentrates on the problem of the conflict between fear and happiness.  It introduces the idea of “the power in our own minds” (Bk. 1, Ch. 2) to handle every situation that arises in a positive way.  Harvey is the main character in Book 2 Harvey’s Miracle.  This section of the text takes a more complex look at the general subject of happiness.  It examines the problem in terms of the conflict between the “ego”, that is “the self-centered” part of ourselves (Bk. 2, Ch. 6), and the “Self” (Book 1, Ch. Ch. 13), a ‘higher’ part of ourselves referred to throughout the whole book as “the power”.  This section of the text concentrates very much on disbelief and counter arguments.  Book 3 Jonathan’s Dream once again takes Harvey as the main character and looks again at the basic question of happiness in the same terms as Book 2, that is ego/power.  This last book, though, very much examines the real life implications of the ideas, dramatizing how choosing one or the other side of our selves, can result in life taking a very different course.  This is the least ‘instructional’ part of the text and most narrative driven.

The characters in the novel are very likable and we immediately associate with them and wish the best for them.  Hannah does not have a good opinion of herself, but is cheerful and good natured.  Harvey is outwardly boisterous and has a level head.  He is by nature cautious and the reader likes him because he expresses many of our own questions and doubts about the personal development ideas contained in the book.  Brenda is both wise and funny.  In one incident her “garland of flowers” (Bk. 1, Ch. 4) repeatedly goes awry.  Caesar, a talking German Shepard and Harvey’s advisor, is both gentle and stern.  We like him, as we would like any pet, but we also respect the advice he gives.  Hannah and Harvey both very much have an arc of development and the novel leaves us with a feeling that we have truly gone somewhere.  Of course people are not necessarily exactly what we think they are and De Lene plays with the varying point of view of the novel to surprise us and keep us interested.

One point of criticism is that the plot of Book 1 is at times slightly unrealistic.  We expect Hannah to learn about life, but she learns just a little too well.  In one incident, for example, she goes from being the slowest runner in her class to suddenly beating all the girls.  Surely it is more likely that there would be an intermediate state, and perhaps it would be more believable if she simply improved rather than came first?  No doubt De Lene would accuse us of ego driven self-limiting doubt, but that is exactly what the book is about and these are the thoughts of his readers.  Perhaps children are more open to such ideas and so more likely to actually excel with them, and perhaps not.  Interestingly this sudden outstanding achievement is not the case with Harvey, for example with his bad spelling (Bk. 3, Ch.4), and indeed Books 1 & 2 do much to make up for the slightly exaggerated ethos of Book 1.  Plot wise Book 3 is certainly the most interesting and imaginative as the story takes a more surrealistic turn with alternate futures, shifts back and forth in time and  a slightly science fiction twist.  There is in this last book one truly ‘Oh my God’ moment to grip us and keep us turning the pages.  The whole book is set mainly in Australia; however, readers from other counties will not have any cultural difficulty or misunderstandings reading it.  This story could take place anywhere, at least in the European world.

As I have already said, the book is part self-development manual and De Lene has used various techniques to emphasise his ideas.  We see direct instruction from Brenda and Caesar, and repetition of this instruction with further elaboration.  We see important points written in italics. We see some of the instructive points illustrated by dramatic events.  In Book 1 Chapter 5, for example, Hannah acts out her ego driven fear by literally building a ‘fort’.  On occasions we also see more symbolic elements which illustrate on a more unconscious level.  The most obvious symbolic element is of course the idea of fairies who stand for the intuitive, ‘magic’ part of our mind.  Interestingly all the techniques I have just listed are used in hypnosis.  Milton H. Erickson, an eminently successful hypnotist, maintained that trance “is a common, everyday occurrence” that occurs, for example, when “reading” (Wikipedia.  Erickson recommended the use of “story” and “metaphor” (Wikipedia).  Christopher Hyatt and Calvin Iwema in their book Energized Hypnosis (New Falcon Publications, 2005), which is in essence a hypnotic induction script, use italics to add emphasis to critical wording.  De Lene, in his book, specifically recommends the hypnotic techniques of deep breathing and mantra like repeated phrases to induce personal change (Bk.1 Ch. 13 & following).

The core message of De Lene’s book is summed up in the words:

“Don’t resist life’s’ experiences.  Embrace them with the willingness to learn from them.” (Bk.1, Ch.1)

This is an essentially Eastern idea.  It is, for example, also the key notion in Chris Prentiss’ Zen And The Art Of Happiness (Power Press, c2006). Beyond this De Lene advises the reader to: (1) be aware of your personal circumstance, (2) remember that wrong thinking causes problems, and (3) ask the power within your mind (your higher self) to help you (Bk.1, Ch.4 & following).  Awareness is a key notion in Eastern personal development theory.  Awareness: the key to living balance by Osho (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001), for example, is one of many books on this approach to life.  Observation is of course also the first step in the scientific method.  Correcting wrong thoughts is the key notion of cognitive therapy (Albert Ellis. How To Keep People From Pushing Your Buttons: Citadel Press, c1994, Ch.1).  Martialling our natural, inner resources of relaxation and focused concentration, that is “the power within” (Stanley Fisher & James Ellison. Discovering The Power Of Self-Hypnosis: 2nd ed.: Newmarket Press, 2000, Ch. 1), is a central aim of hypnosis.  Carl Jung proposed that the human mind (including its resources) was comprised of more than what we are consciously aware of (M.-L. von Franz.  The Process Of Individuation, in Carl G. Jung, ed. Man And His Symbols: Doubleday, c1964, p. 161-163) and also maintained that there are parts of it that are independent, like personalities that can be addressed by our consciousness (Anthony Stevens. Jung: a very short introduction: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 13 & 17).

Of course De Lene’s book contains much more advice than what we have noted above.  What I have tried to indicate is that his ideas have a strong background in both spirituality and psychology.  To provide just one more example of the psychological accuracy of the book it should be noted that De Lene includes a good description of the physiological responses associated with “resistance” (Bk. 1, Ch. 6).  The wandering mind and sleepiness which Harvey feels in response to Caesar’s advice (which he does not want to believe) are close to “demifugue” which is essentially stress response, that is, an inbuilt capacity to ignore, to in essence ‘fly away’ from a problem in our mind (Martha Stout. The Myth Of Sanity: divided consciousness and the promise of awareness: Penguin, 2001, p. 35-36).  Stout gives specific examples of this exact sleepiness (Stout, Ch. 10).

Some readers may be a little worried by the ‘spiritual’ aspects of the book, however, it should be noted that De Lene takes a mainly practical, rather than religious approach to those facets.  It is true that Hindu reincarnation is mentioned, but this is not a necessary or key part of the main thesis.  Intuition, for example, is simply described as knowing something which is not really obvious from the 5 senses (Bk.1, Ch. 4) and “the power of knowing or understanding something immediately, without reasoning or being taught” (Bk. 1, Ch. 8).  As Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking (Penguin, 2005) points out, scientists have known about swift unconscious thought for quite some time.  Synchronicity is another apparently mystical idea which De Lene refers to, however, much of it is simply explained by the notion that things occur to a pattern and that elements of this patter repeat, so we experience similar events to those we have experienced before (Bk.1 Ch. 10).  As James Gleik describes in Chaos: Making A New Science (Penguin: rev. ed.: 2008) even chaotic events have a form of order and this order includes repeating patterns in a fractal like structure.

As has been mentioned this book is written primarily with children in mind, though that certainly is not the limit of the possible audience.   As a consequence De Lene makes simple statements without going into too complicated a discussion.  This may at first lead parents and adult readers to conclude that the book is misleading.  In Book 1 Chapter 6, for example, Hannah is encouraged by Brenda to do what she really wants, but we may well object that some people’s inner prompting are hardly the ‘right’ thing to do even when they think they are right.  Brenda’s advice to “follow your heart” (Bk.1, Ch. 9) seems naive.  The problem of evil is certainly very real in the world, even in children’s lives.  De Lene certainly realizes this and it is best to keep reading as deeper issues like this are dealt with later in the text.  Books 2 and 3 certainly detail the emotive ego-traps we can fall into, which we can mistake as our “heart” and which can lead us into deep trouble.

Of course De Lene’s novel contains much more than could possibly be summed up in this review.  The author has written a simple story which contains much, and which a child will discover in increasing degrees as they grow older.  A child of Hannah’s age, 7 years, may only read the first book, but an adolescent of 15 or 16 will gain much from the whole book.  As I have indicated adults, also, will certainly be entertained and learn much.  This is truly a multi-levelled book.

In The Power, The Miracle and The Dream De Lene has written a novel which is both (1) endearing and entertaining, and (2) deep and insightful.  While containing ‘spiritual’ elements it is not deeply religious.  The book has a strong background in both psychology and eastern philosophy, but these ideas are put to the reader in a very agreeable manner.  This is not at all a dry, scholarly tome.  At just 240 pages it is a quick read: ideal for children and excellent for busy adults.  De Lene’s novel was truly a delight to read and I am happy to rate it as 5 stars out of 5.

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