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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

What If Altruism is Our True Nature? Review: Not Forgetting the Whale by John Ironmonger

Scientists tell us we are programmed to be drawn to round baby faces; dopamine is released in our brains and we feel protective instincts. Likewise, when we see somebody struggling or hurt, there is an instinct to help.

The word "perversion" derives from the Latin perversionem and is defined as "action of turning aside from truth, corruption, distortion."

So, looking at our present government policy of taking children away from their parents, locking them in cages, and neglecting them, one can deduce that we have a policy of perversion. In response to being directed to commit perverted acts, some of us refuse and blow the whistle, and others become full-fledged perverts. On a recent 60 Minutes interview, Nazi war criminal prosecutor Ben Ferencz says that "War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars and all decent people." It turns people against themselves—their inborn altruism—turning them into perverts.

The election of the Trump administration has brought us into all-out war with and for our national soul.

John Ironmonger's 2015 novel Not Forgetting the Whale begs the question of what is natural—self-preservation or generosity and sacrifice, and the story swept me away and ultimately reaffirmed my belief in our innate altruism.

In this smart and compelling parable we learn about dependencies, supply chains, connections between everything, and how things happen according to streams of supply and need. We debate the possible end of civilization as we know it due to our human self-interest vs. an optimistically imagined natural impulse for generosity and sacrifice. All this forms the matrix of this story about a naked man and a beached whale, both of whom wash up on the shore of the off-the-grid village of St. Piran in the southwest corner of England.

The writing and storytelling are wonderful. The profound issues start artfully and become more heavy-handed as the book progresses. But I am interested in these subjects so I was consistently intrigued, sometimes pausing to contemplate the big issues of what causes everything to happen and how to redirect the train of actions leading to catastrophic events. There is a mythical quality to the tale, and the sometimes-sentimentality or intellectual debates about our nature worked! I was completely engaged and couldn’t put the book down. Read More 

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Benefits of Becoming — Much More than a Memoir

A page and a half into the preface of this book, I found my heart pounding, as if syncing up with an all-consuming life force. It consumed me, made me tear up, and I had to stop reading to type the previous sentence.

Every writer has an energy. Some write from a shallow pool, and I really don't care about those books. Others, not that many, write from an ocean — a place much bigger than their everyday self — and it's called Love. Becoming has an almost palpable pulse as strong as the ocean tide.

There is something for everyone through this pulse:

    • If you are an inveterate skeptic, or an order devotee, or someone who has been torn apart by seemingly opposite obligations and doubts about being good enough, Michelle Obama speaks for you.

 

    • If you're black or brown, you'll probably nod a lot with recognition.

 

    • If you're white, same thing, even as you relate to unfairness you've never faced; Obama's openness, vulnerability, and warmth make her experience feel as if it is your own — no small trick.

 

    • If you have ever felt in over your head, with more responsibility than you can handle, yet simultaneously in awe of the situation, your experience will both resonate with and be dwarfed by this story.


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The Overstory by Richard Powers

What keeps us humans from seeing the obvious—our smallness and our place on this planet in the context of all that is—and responding rationally? And why do some people see it even though everybody around them does not? These are the questions at the heart of Richard Powers's powerful new novel The Overstory as he attempts to tell us "something [we] need to hear."

 

This is a book for right now—a time when we face the possibility of the extinction of democracy and the extinction of human life as the planet screams and we ignore it, placing our addiction to consumerism above the right to life of trees and subsequently all living things (including us) who are connected to the lives of trees.

 

In The Overstory, Powers gives trees, our closest plant relative with whom we share most of our DNA, a voice, a voice that is praying for us to change our ways and let Life live.

 

Maybe we'll listen; maybe we won't. But for me there is one small consolation: if we don't listen, if we kill ourselves and our environment, life will not end. In the wonderful PBS documentary, Radioactive Wolves of Chernobyl, we get a glimpse into such a future, where twenty-five years after the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, scientists have found life flourishing—"a sort of post-atomic Eden, populated by beaver and bison, horses and birds, fish and falcons, and ruled by wolves."

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A Higher Loyalty by James Comey

James Comey is a very good writer, storyteller, and teacher, so on a literary level (except for one odd plot order choice—the highly dramatic John Ashcroft hospital showdown between Comey and Bush representatives—which I suspect has to do with the need to insert a ton of detailed background information), this book works.

Comey is a man who is in love with the law and justice and has a loathing of bullies. He is a student and practitioner of ethical leadership—which is really the topic of this book. He is a deeply reflective person. Yes, he tries to make himself look good by talking about his noble motives, but, unless he practiced introspection, he could not relay his introspective self-interrogations about his motives and whether something is ego-driven or directed for the higher good. If he were not compelled to know what's honest, he would not have told the story of the time he was the very thing he loathes—a horrible bully. I relate to this introspective inquiry because I do it myself—constantly, relentlessly—and I'm amazed so many other people don't. But I shouldn't be surprised. As Comey writes, "It is painful to stare openly at ourselves, but it is the only way to change the future. (137)" One can only know this pain by experiencing it, so I believe he is committed to this. Also like me, Comey has had a lifelong struggle with his tendency to think he's right—overconfidence—and he has had to learn to check his opinions with others, let in belief-disputing information, and monitor his tendency to be impulsive and arrogant. He freely admits all this, and he sees and admires Obama's enlightened ability to believe in himself yet remain humble enough to learn from others "which doesn't often exist alongside overconfidence. (155)"

I like this guy. I really, really like him. We are made from a lot of the same stuff.  Read More 
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White Houses by Amy Bloom: Truth-telling through Fiction

Whitewashing, denial, gaslighting, saying black is white, Mad Hatter's Tea Party, 1984 doublespeak—all descriptors of our present condition with a President of the United States who seems to decide what's true with the casualness of a four-year-old playing an "invent-as-you-go" game. But although current events seem extreme, they are not without precedents. After all, we have long denied the facts of America's founding (see What Doris Kearns Goodwin Omitted blog), and we comfort ourselves with all sorts of blatantly untrue Bad Stories (per author Steve Almond).

In her new novel White Houses, Amy Bloom has lovingly exploded the lies of historians about Eleanor Roosevelt and renowned journalist Lorena Hickok, and oh, how exciting it was last night to sit in an audience at The Roosevelt House (where Roosevelt and Hickok first met) and listen to a discussion between Bloom and Blanche Wiesen Cook, historian and author of the Eleanor Roosevelt biography that inspired Bloom's novel. Read More 

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Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond Offers Clarity

This book is staggeringly good. I was familiar with Steve Almond from his short stories, but this is straight journalism at its best (which he teaches at Harvard). (It is clear from Almond's thought processes and messages to students, presented in this volume, that he is a great teacher and seasoned journalist.)

In reviewing, there is a tendency to break down books about politics into bullet-point messages, and I hesitate to do that because it would misrepresent Bad Stories as something much smaller than it is.

So what is it?

Because of Almond's conversational writing style, it is easily readable and offers up documented mind-blowing insights like hors d'oeuvres. Hence, Bad Stories is a huge, readable 237-page revelation of profound insights gleaned from connecting dots that we-the-people largely prefer not to see.  Read More 
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What's After #MeToo? Send in the Clowns! Read Paul Beatty's The Sellout

Timing is important. There is a time for rage and a time for laughter, and right now rage reigns—as it should. After centuries of suppression, critical mass has been reached, the #MeToo movement has exploded, and male bodies are flying. Time magazine has put it on its cover. It's about time!

Like any other human woman, I have a litany of stories of men abusing their power. I admire the women who have spoken up. I quickly learned that would not work for me: Although I'm a clown, I couldn't laugh. As a child, I wasn't believed; as an adult, there was nobody to speak up to because the abuser was the boss. My M.O. was to cut and run, resulting in what might be politely referred to as an "attachment disorder" and "an eclectic" work résumé.

But I do believe there is another way, and eventually the clowns will have their microphones.

I recently read a "holy cow"-popping, rib-crackingly funny book that gave me a clue about how that might be.

In Paul Beatty's Man Booker-prize-winning, esoteric-reference-riddled novel The Sellout, an outsider black man "leans in" (thank you, Cheryl S.) to prejudices, actually reestablishing segregated schools and slave trade in his small California town of Dickens.  Read More 
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Sacrifice Is Critical in the Age of #MeToo

It's not complicated: "No" means no. "No, I don't want to do that." "No, stop that." "No, I don't think that is funny."

Persistent advances—kissing, groping, or worse—after somebody has made their "No" clear is bullying or assault. End of story.

Good guys can do this. They can get their photos snapped doing it. And rather than defend them as good guys and attack the victims for being "coached" by your opposition, realize they were doing something a woman had clearly rejected.

Talented guys can do this: brilliant actors and directors who have long-dirty reputations in closed industry circles, yet they've gotten away with it and their predation escalates.

Presidents can do this, and they appear to be Teflon-covered.  Read More 
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What Happened by Hillary Clinton

What really happened? What always happens: Politics, like life, is not fair. Nobody tells the whole truth. Everybody thinks they're right and excoriates everybody who doesn't agree with them. And the best we can do with this mess is try to listen to everybody with an open mind, make the best choices we can—knowing that none of them are perfect, and when we are in peril, choose whatever compromise most assures life.

I voted for Bernie Sanders in the presidential primaries, and his book, Our Revolution, was the first I read about the election.

The second related book I read more recently, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, and it was like an infusion of sanity.

What Happened by Hillary Clinton feels like the third in a medicinal trilogy. It is healing to read a funny (the specifics of the phone and email stuff are laugh-out-loud funny!), articulate, sane person admit her flaws, take responsibility for most of them, introspectively process what happened, learn, and consider new policies and future actions in a more open way because of it. Read More 
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The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump by 27 Shrinks

I've been waiting for this book—the words of highly trained mental health professionals who are brave enough to risk backlash from their own associations by putting the safety of all people ahead of their rules to say nothing about individuals they have not treated. In a meticulously written foreword, one of the authors makes the case that "duty to warn" people whose well-being is in danger trumps the "Goldwater Rule" about silence. (There is an entire section of chapters on the ethics of speaking out—far too much to reduce into a review byte.) We are all in danger from this individual we have installed in the highest office in the land, and I consider the 27 authors of this step-by-step analysis of Trump's severe psychological impairments to be whistle blowers.

But what are the political affiliations of the contributors and are they biased? This is immediately addressed: it doesn't matter. The content is pedagogy not politics: the nature of psychological disorders. They are described in all their variations; they are all recognizable as played out by this president—the proofs are provided; and their dire results are delineated, well researched, and broad. And the final chapter regarding recommended immediate action to assess presidential fitness now and in the future—grounded in Section Four of the Twenty-fifth Amendment issues of "a written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office"—are required to be nonpartisan in nature.


Personality Disorders

Extreme Present Hedonism—impulsiveness of thought and therefore action with no awareness of consequences; propensity to dehumanize others in order to feel superior.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder—superiority, exaggeration of talents, emotional, dramatic, lacking compassion and empathy (inability to recognize other people's feelings), low self-esteem.

Bully Personality—physical, verbal, prejudicial, relational, cyber, sexual.

Possibility of a neurological disorder—based on delineated observations.
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