Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Plumed SerpentThe Plumed Serpent by D.H. Lawrence

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


D.H. Lawrence came from a day and age when writing was self discovery. It was a way to find out who you were, a way to open up new worlds within yourself. And the people loved reading about it. You grasped a sense of a writer's psyche, his mind, his emotions and soul.

Reading The Plumed Serpent you get all that and more. Lawrence is most famous for Lady Chatterley’s Lover but The Plumed Serpent is by far the superior novel. Always an autobiographical writer, The Plumed Serpent catches Lawrence in the midst of his famed "savage pilgrimage's" North American swing, specifically Mexico.

Well, let me tell you, Lawrence will put you there! You'll be sweaty and a bit dirty too. The flies will buzz and bite your ankles. The sun shining off the matador’s sword will blind you.

Simply put—it's an experience.

And, oh yeah, there's a story running through it too. A woman from Ireland, Kate Leslie, is exposed to the brutality of Mexican culture. The novel opens at a bullfight in Mexico City, and you need to remember that Lawrence is no ordinary writer. Catch this description of how a bull runs into the bullfighting ring for the first time:

He ran out, blindly, as if from the dark, probably thinking that now he was free. Then he stopped short, seeing he was not free, but surrounded in an unknown way. He was utterly at a loss.

Back to the story. Kate Leslie (the Irish woman) is repulsed by what she sees, but then she meets General Cipriano, a pure-bred Indian, and then eventually is introduced to his friend, Don Ramon, a political leader. Both men want to revive the old pagan ways (and this is where Lawrence, obsessed with sexuality and blood, comes in with his phallic power notions), and little by little Kate is drawn under their spell.

The book will impact you. It is powerful and yes, in a pagan, rudimentary, life-force way.

In this snippet Kate begins to realize General Cipriano' primeval appeal:

In the shadowy world where men were visionless, and winds of fury rose up from the earth, Cipriano was still a power. Once you entered his mystery the scale of all things changed, and he became a living male power, undefined, and unconfined. The smallness, the limitation ceased to exist.

The Plumed Serpent is pure Lawrence. It may be a bit strong for some, but for others, perhaps the majority, it will be a welcome literary wallop.





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Friday, July 18, 2014

The Quiet MindThe Quiet Mind by John R. Harvey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I love these books that nobody reviews (well, hardly anybody) or rates. There are some absolute treasures in The Quiet Mind. It is well worth picking up.

The book, however, is an uneven ride. It's written in anthology style—the majority of chapters written by the book's editor John Harvey—which is not my favorite format for a book. And some of the chapters are a little overly scientific, but it is well worth plodding through the not significant amount of that to get to the good stuff. (Because the good stuff is really good.)

In chapter five, titled "The Mind and Stress," John Harvey examines just that in a tight, understandable way.

There are basically two models of causation (of stress): The "It upsets me," and "I upset myself."

I've even come to call this the "T" factor. The "T" being the difference between "It" and "I."

So it works out to something like this: "It upsets me deeply that people litter." (That's the way I normally think anyway.) And, "I upset myself because people litter."

It's so simple and when we stop and think about that sort of thing consciously, we all say, "of course, I know that," but how many of us in our actual lives think thusly? No, most of us are winding ourselves up by how we think about things.

And Harvey examines that in depth, discussing self-talk filters and categories of self-talk. He writes of the devastating impact of repetitive self talk.

So, a friend betrays you. It hurts. It should hurt. But it's when you think of the betrayal over and over and over again that it becomes neurotic and unnecessarily emotionally painful. And some people carry these things throughout their lifetimes.

It's very clear that in order for you to suffer you have to keep the negative self-talk (and memories) going.

How about exaggerated negative self-talk. "I can't stand it!"

That's a big no-no. We can stand just about everything, and the problem is the body can't distinguish from real "horrible" situations that we legitimately "can't stand" and the overwhelming number of exaggerated thoughts about situations we can.

Harvey flows quite comfortably between eastern mysticism and straightforward psychology, and I think that's wise. Why not. If something's the truth, it's the truth. Who cares where it comes from. He writes:

Ultimately, in order to deal with the issue of false identification we must come face to face with the first klesha, ignorance of our true nature. This ignorance acts as the most fundamental cause of suffering and stress. Without knowledge of our true identity we continually become embroiled in the search to create and the struggle to maintain and protect false identities. Such identity, in turn, becomes the breeding ground for attachment and we then cling to the world of painful experience that we have created.

The book is big on meditation and could be considered a good primer for those interested in beginning to meditate. Harvey writes in a chapter called "Meditation and the Quiet Mind":

As both mind and body become quiet and we become absorbed in the object of meditation, our mental processes become simplified. We do not have the background static of past worries, future anxieties, and ongoing rumination to complicate the way we see, hear, and feel things. Consequently we tend to perceive the world directly and more realistically. When we witness we see things as they are without looking at them from the perspective of our mental and perceptual habits and free of the influence of automatic emotional reactions.

The Quiet Mind is an obscure book. Which means if you read it, you'll glean benefits that most of the world will miss—which will make you special!

I've checked. There are some "good" copies on Amazon for a penny (so four bucks after the $3.99 for s&h). Grab one and you won't be disappointed.



Read free flash fiction by me at http://www.greggbell.net/





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Friday, July 11, 2014

Kid Psycho (a student shoots up a middle school) (flash fiction)




New vice principal Ken Hayden heard gunshots echoing down Farnsworth Middle School’s hallway. Hayden had been on the job four days. He had a wife and a young baby. And a rattling of fear rolling through his gut. A secretary and Mr. Carmoza, the school custodian, ran into his office.

Carmoza said, “It’s the Edelstein kid. He’s—” He cringed as more shots rang out. He
straightened up. His voice broke as he said, “He’s shooting kids in the cafeteria.”

Hayden thought of the old adage about never knowing what you would do if a baby fell into a
well unless a baby fell into a well. Well, a baby just fell into a well. “Do you know, Mr. Carmoza, if he’s acting alone?”

“I think so,” Carmoza said, brushing the sweat off his forehead, his eyes darting toward
the door.

“Have the police been notified?”

The secretary nodded. “I just called them.”

“All right then.” Hayden looked toward the windows. “Those will open. Mr. Carmoza, take Miss
Hargrove and get away from the school as quickly as you can. ”

The pair ran to the windows and Carmoza raised one. He helped the secretary through, then stepped one leg out, then stopped. He looked back at Hayden. “What will you do?”

Hayden smiled wryly and nodded Carmoza out the window. “Go.”

He didn’t know what he was going to do. Who knew what to do in a situation like this? Everything in him told him to run like everyone else, but just a hundred feet from him kids were probably dying. He had no weapons. It made no sense. There was nothing he was going to be able to do.

He went anyway. Out the door and carefully into the hallway. A couple of kids ran crying past him. He took a deep breath and started down the hallway. More shots—he quickened his pace. God, he needed a weapon. He wanted a machine gun. Meanwhile, the madness raged in his head. The fear tearing it apart. Yet he kept walking toward the cafeteria doors.


He knew of the Edelstein kid. Everyone had warned him. The teachers, not so laughingly, referred to him as “kid psycho.” Hayden had heard of the dysfunction at the Edelstein home, of the incidents at school, the multiple suspensions. Edelstein was the sworn enemy of the school administration. Yes, Hayden had heard about everything, everything except about him having guns.

Thinking of Julie, his wife, and Kiki, his daughter, he pulled the cafeteria doors open.


Crying, screaming, food strewn all over the long cafeteria tables and floor—and pools of blood. A
light rain was falling from the gray sky outside the cafeteria windows. Hayden surmised the scene in a split-second, his senses ferociously drawing everything in. Edelstein, in a camouflage shirt
and pants and wearing a white headband, was in the far corner, near the doors to the auditorium. He was waving what looked to be a machine pistol—the clip hanging down from it—at the kids cowering under the tables. He fired a shot.


“Edelstein!”


Edelstein spun around, leveling the machine pistol at Hayden.


Hayden raised his hands and braced for a bullet. And was surprised there wasn’t one. After a
few seconds, only the sound of whimpering and crying to be heard, Hayden called out, “I’m the one you want. Now you’ve got me. Why don’t you let these kids go?”

Edelstein seemed confused by the question. Maybe he was confused by the break in the killing.


“I’m the one you want. Let them go.”

Edelstein took a quick look around, under the tables. He looked back at Hayden. “They’re all
going to hell. Just like you.” He raised the pistol at Hayden.


“What about you, Edelstein? You’re not going to hell, after what you’re doing?”

Again Edelstein seemed confused.

“These kids did nothing to you, Edelstein. Nothing. You’re the one who’s going to hell.”

Edelstein laughed. “Tell me something I don’t know.” His head jerked to the side as if he’d
been punched and the blood spurted. He was looking at Hayden as he fell.

Hayden looked quickly out the cafeteria windows, at the policeman in SWAT gear standing there, the high-powered rifle still pressed to his shoulder.





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The Winter of Our DiscontentThe Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


In my paperback version of The Winter of Our Discontent John Steinbeck's name is above the title. And rightly so. This is a book where the larger-than-life persona of the author supersedes the book itself. So this is one of those rare books that is great not only because of its content (or for you punsters out there—it's discontent) but because of its author.

And yet bottom line: the book is great.

By the time he sat down to write Winter, his last novel, Steinbeck's career as a writer was already established. He'd long ago written The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, and he said of the Winter formulating in his head: "I wanted to write something beautiful."

And so he did. The book is beautiful, stylistically as well as content-wise. Steinbeck was a great humanitarian, a great believer in humankind's goodness and Winter reflects that.

The story is about Ethan Allen Hawley. A man whose life is simply put—not working out. Ethan's parents have squandered the family fortune, and Ethan is forced to work as a grocery clerk. He's down so far he's wondering if he's out. Someone asks him: "What knocked you out, Ethan?"

Ethan replies: "Men don't get knocked out, or I mean they can fight back against the big things. What kills them is erosion: they get nudged into failure. They get slowly scared. I'm scared."

Ethan's determined, though, to battle back to living the high life, the life he "deserves," and if it takes being unethical to do so, he's damn well going to do it. And he does.

So how is this, seemingly depressing, book beautiful? Because even through the bleakness, Steinbeck's worldview comes through. Other characters attempt to dissuade Ethan from being unethical. Ethan claims that it doesn't matter how one attains wealth as long as they attain it. (Remind you of the 'get rich or die trying' mentality today?) Another character replies:

"I don't believe that. It doesn't hurt the money to get it that way but it hurts the one who gets it."

And add to that Steinbeck's brilliant insights.

"Failure is a state of mind. It's like one of those sand traps an ant lion digs. You keep sliding back. Takes one hell of a jump to get out of it. You've got to make that jump, Ethan. Once you get out, you'll find success is a state of mind, too."

In Steinbeck's Nobel Prize acceptance speech he said:

"The writer is dedicated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and emulation. I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature."

That sentiment is redolent throughout The Winter of Our Discontent. Steinbeck set out to write a beautiful book and he succeeded.







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Monday, July 7, 2014

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small DiscoveriesLittle Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries by Peter Sims

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Not much here. I heard about this book while listening to an audio book in my car. The title and the short description were intriguing to me and so I bought the book. Well, the book's not bad. It's a quick and easy read, but there's not much substance to it.

If you haven't heard or read or seen movies or... (fill in the blank) enough about Steve Jobs you might like this book. However, Steve Jobs took ENORMOUS bets at Pixar, spending countless millions for a minute or two animated video (that eventually led to "Toy Story" etc.). It was the guys who worked for him that took the little bets risks.

And then comedian Chris Rock is another well detailed case study. And get this (are you sitting down?): Rock tested his material in small clubs before doing a major run in Las Vegas. (The stuff that got laughs he kept. The stuff that didn't he booted. Genius!)

What this book really felt like was a slick marketing effort. (Seems to me massive tomes by the likes of Peter Drucker, although plodding at times contain many more seminal ideas than popularizers like Sims.) (It's always the case. The Albert Banduras (psychology) of the world do all the work, and the Wayne Dyers of the world make all the money off their hard work.)

Sims even details how he changed his title from Experimental Innovation: Turning Little Bets into Breakthroughs to the succinct Little Bets. Hey, it got me to buy it.

If you want to see how a slick marketing job is done with a house of cards this is a good case study. Otherwise go buy one of those Peter Drucker books and get the real deal.



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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver LifeWhy Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life by John McCain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Okay, say what you want about John McCain, but one thing stands out to me and that is he, surviving while being tortured as a POW for over five years, has the authority to speak on the subject of courage.

The book is slight. The hardcover is the size of a trade paperback, widely double spaced and only 209 pages. It at times has the feel of a war story journal (in a bad sense). But you read this book because it delivers on its title—it shows you why courage matters and how to get to a braver life.

McCain is wise. He has lived through much. This is no rah-rah right wing manifesto. For starters, he acknowledges the failure of his courage as a POW.

In prison, I was not always a match for my enemies. I was proud and angry. I thought I was tough, clever, and prepared to resist. But I found my courage wanting nevertheless.

He goes on to say a key element of courage is relying on others, on their strength.

He quotes Eleanor Roosevelt's (and has a nice pic of her): "You must do the think you think you cannot do." And he says that to get brave you must go through fearful situations. That facing the fear is a key to its dissipation.

...it's a familiarity with fear and inhibitions and learning that we can act in spite of them that build the kind of confidence that can give us courage.

And it's not all cowboy stuff. He asks, 'Who are the bold adventurers?' And answers:

Don't we see them as people driven by something close to an insatiable need to know something not known? And the answers they needed took courage to find.

But then there's the cowboy stuff too, and oh, it's good cowboy stuff.
He quotes Admiral Lord Nelson:

"No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy."

And Admiral Bull Halsey (if you're wondering, yes, it's the same Admiral Halsey referred to in Paul McCartney's "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" song):

"All problems, personal, national, or combat, become smaller if you don't dodge them. Touch a thistle timidly and it pricks you; grasp it boldly and its spines crumble. Carry the battle to the enemy. Lay your ship alongside his."

Honestly, I don't know if that's really such good advice, but it does make you want to have some backbone, doesn't it?

McCain reports on the Native American chief Manuelito who when he was younger was mocked by his friends for his bearing being so prideful and elegant. Manuelito responded:

"I walk like a chief now, so that when I become one, I will already know how to behave."

I really like that throughout this little book you get the idea that McCain really wants you to "get it." He really wants to help.

Near the end of the book he sums up his ideas:

Put one foot in front of the other and move toward the thing that scares you....Just move along quickly and things will likely turn out fine....If you do things you think you cannot do, you'll feel your resistance, your hope, your dignity, and your courage grow stronger every time you prove it. You will someday face harder choices that very well might require more courage. You're getting ready for them.

He finishes with the thought provoking:

So be brave. The rest is easy.





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Life Without Sebastian (a woman contemplates suicide after a breakup) (flash fiction)

The breakers rolled in off the Pacific like rowdy soldiers looking
for trouble. It was no day to be at the beach. It was no day to be
anywhere outside. But Carolyn Redfield felt she had nothing to lose,
or nothing else to lose anyway. It had been the longest day of her
life, and it promised to be an even longer night.

She walked right up to the water’s edge. There was something
even scary about that. As if a Great White shark might swoop in,
clench her in its jaws and whoosh her out to sea. At least it would
be something clenching her, she thought. Another breakup. This one
the worst of all of them. A gust of wind rushed in off the crashing
waves and splattered her face and hair with salt spray. That was why
she was out there—her life felt so deadened, and at least something
was happening out here in nature. Yes, it was dangerous, but at least
it was something. It was movement, power, life.

There was something beautiful about submitting yourself to the
ferocious power of nature. And one never knew. What might kill you
could instead end up redeeming you. People going over waterfalls,
surviving, their lives changed forever. People living through
hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, myriad natural disasters and coming
out different, changed, people. Nature was the ultimate uncertainty,
and the ultimate judge. It giveth and it taketh away.

Carolyn kicked off her shoes, just left them in the soggy sand.
Oh, she thought, such a sin that would be to Reverend Jones at the
Church of Christ in town. God didn’t she know how many people in
India didn’t even have shoes?

Maybe Reverend Jones ought to go to India and open a shoe store
instead of making people feel guilty here.

But she wasn’t thinking about him any more. Life just suddenly
seemed too precious. It was as if her sadness was clarifying her
mind, eradicating the fear, at least for the moment. Yeah, forget the
shoes, forget it all. She was free. Free.

Until the memory of Sebastian forced its way back in. Sebastian.
The one. The one she was finally going to make a life with.
Sebastian. The one she’d waited for. Sebastian. The one who’d
decided after eighteen and a half months of living together he wasn’t
“feeling the connection anymore.”

That was it. He wasn’t feeling the connection anymore. All the
love. All the hope. The dreams. Down the drain because he wasn’t
feeling the connection.

The wind rushed about her, her hair, wet, flying, slapping the
sides of her face. She waded out to her knees in the tumultuous,
foaming waves. She’d seen them. The Great White sharks and Killer
whales rushing right up the shore to pick off seals. She laughed.
Sebastian was afraid of the ocean. She’d thought it cute. She’d
thought everything about him was just right. She’d loved him. She
loved him.

The ocean was surprisingly cool for August. Maybe that was what
she needed—cool, cold refreshment. And renewal. A baptism for a new
start in life. She ventured out to her waist, the water pushing into
her with tremendous force, the breakers splashing up on to her
shoulders, flecking her face, the salt water burning her eyes. Could
a person baptize oneself? she wondered. At this point she didn’t
care what anybody else thought. At this point, holding her very life
in her hands, she was a religion unto herself.

The sand shifted under her feet, and the powerful current pulled at
her thighs. A wave rushed in and cooled her breasts. Yes, cool, cold
baptism is what she needed. Die to the old life with Sebastian and
rise to a new one without him.

She slipped and the current knocked her off her feet. Her head was
thrust back and she went under. But this wasn’t what she had had in
mind. Her baptism was to be kind and gentle and regenerative. But
then she realized that this was nature’s baptism. Nature, the
ultimate high priest. She kicked for the surface and thrust her head
up for a breath, but she could no longer feel the sandy bottom, and
the shore looked a ways off already. She could be in a riptide. It
could take her a mile out—she wouldn’t make it back. Would that
be so bad?

She swam toward the shore, waves pouring over her rhythmically,
submersing, tumbling her, forcing her to start over and over. The few
times the salt water cleared enough for her to see, she couldn’t be
sure if she was closer or further from shore. She was getting
exhausted. Swimming against the current in wet clothes was sucking
the life-energy from her body. She could give up—it would be so
easy. It would be a relief. Her baptism would be complete, would be
eternal.

But this wasn’t how she’d envisioned it. And she decided, yes,
nature had its say. But she would have her say too. She would keep
swimming, keep trying, even if it seemed hopeless. She kept moving.
She kept kicking her feet. And after a while, the shore seemed to be
getting closer. Indeed it was. Then a wave hurled her in to where she
was kneeling on the wet sand, the turbulent white water swirling all
around.

She felt lighter somehow as she stood to her feet and trudged up
the sand. She had given the great god of nature the opportunity to
take her out, and it had decided to spare her. Oh, her life might still be
hard now. One more disappointment might do her in. But one little
victory could turn the tide in the other direction too. You just
never knew. She slipped into her shoes. Sebastian. Sebastian who?




Read more free flash fiction by Gregg Bell at http://www.greggbell.net/