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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

The Book of Mormon and Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

In The Book of Mormon, eager-beaver boy Mormons aspire to save humanity by spreading their truth to "unwoke" people across the globe. In the performance I saw on Friday, actor Steven Ashfield (not the actor in this recording), playing "Elder McKinley, the tap-dancing, light-switch-turning Mormon district leader in Uganda" (see profile) leads the cast in a rollicking number called "Turn It Off," lauding the wisdom of violently "crushing" any homosexual and other feelings. The audience roared with laughter — a recognition of the universal futility of experiencing anything approximating "good" by self-crushing.

During intermission, as I gazed over the packed house from my seat near the front of the orchestra, I couldn't help but hear the loud cell phone conversation of a woman a few rows back: "I just don't find it funny," she said irately. "And I really dislike the actor playing the queer. His mannerisms are annoying, and there's a lot of things they don't get right. It just isn't funny." The conversation was all the more interesting because a few minutes earlier, several people sitting next to me had been complaining about the lack of cell service in the theater. But that aside, I began to wonder about her and her need to pronounce her displeasure. And I've thought about her more in the ensuing days. Read More 
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Indecent on Broadway and The Postman Always Rings Twice

Much as we like to fancy ourselves superior to sheep and cows, we really have a lot in common: we are a herd species. We have leaders and followers, and to spook us requires a well-placed surprise that the "influencer" members pick up, and ka-boom, stampede. To control us, merely convince the same influencers, and we follow en masse. It's the key to many things — for instance, politics. But first the entertainment. (To get a point across, I've noticed that good shepherds open with enticement.)

I just saw a matinee of Pulitzer-winner Paula Vogel's play Indecent, a timely story about our herd propensity. In 1907, a young playwright named Sholem Asch wrote a play called God of Vengeance which was frightening to his Jewish colleagues because it exposed Jews as flawed people. "You can't show this," they rail at him. Nevertheless, the play is put on, is a big hit, tours throughout Europe and eventually lands in New York . . . where it is censored for an uptown production. What is cut out is a love scene between two women. Subsequently, it becomes a play about a Jew who runs a whore house, abuses his lesbian daughter, and disrespects the Torah. And the show is shut down and the cast jailed.

The New York herd was spooked — something had to be done, somebody subdued, trampled, shut up.

The reason that I think this play is important — particularly in our time when political correctness has become a divisive topic — is that it movingly expresses the value of (and price paid for) speaking truth, no matter who may get offended by it or who may use it to bolster arguments for bigotry. In my opinion, this is the tightrope negotiated by all artists who are working to express something bigger than they are. If you really say it, somebody is going to be infuriated.  Read More 
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Lincoln in the Bardo, a Bodhisattva Story?

First some definitions:

In Buddhism, bodisattvas are people who are enlightened but stay with us suffering mortals to help, even absorb our pain, in order to aid us on our individual journeys to enlightenment (oneness with All That Is).

And bardos are an intermediate state of existence between two lives.


It took a day to hit, but when it did, the recognition of Abraham Lincoln in Georges Saunders's wonderful novel Lincoln in the Bardo as a bodhisattva made me feel like laughing and crying at the same time.

What an imaginative, unusual, and nicely bawdy book, but I'm not sure you would be drawn to it if you have no background in Eastern traditions or predilection for, or merely willingness to suspend disbelief about, the notion that life exists beyond what we experience in our bodies or that in more ethereal realms thoughts create reality and that energy can move like great literal ocean waves, causing experiences and communications between the realms.  Read More 
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Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff

Like many other people, I've been stymied by the fact that facts no longer seem to matter: you can have two photographs of crowds side by side, and someone can call the smaller gathering the larger one with impunity; you can claim to have done more than anybody in history and in fact have done next to nothing; there can exist historical footage quoting you as saying one thing . . . and then the opposite, and you can claim to believe whichever film is more convenient according to the moment. As a friend recently said, "What do you do when it's clearly raining outside and it's now perfectly acceptable to look at it and say, 'It's not raining'?"

Here's what I've done: I've begun to learn a new language and a neuroscientific explanation of all of the above.

Although it is only 168 pages and subtitled "The essential progressive guide for the issues that define our future . . .," in Don't Think of an Elephant (revised and re-released in 2014 by Chelsea Green Publishing), cognitive scientist George Lakoff has written an opus, not a quick-fix, sound-bite-loaded little guide. Often it suffers from too much detail, but I give it much praise for the sections that explain the brain science of why facts don't matter to many voters and they will vote against their own interests. And the last chapter, "How to Respond to Conservatives," is worth the cost of the book. Read More 
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A Gentleman in Moscow and Hypocrisy in Historical Accuracy

"At no other time in history," said Amor Towles, author of A Gentleman in Moscow (which I've swooned over) and Rules of Civility (which I will read very soon), "at no other time have fiction writers been held to a higher standard of truth than people who run for political office."

Big laugh! We were a packed audience at a talk Towles was giving at the National Arts Club located on Gramercy Park South, one of the most elegant addresses in New York City and a fitting venue for a writer as elegant as Towles in his perfectly fitted brown pin-stripe suit. He continued: "Someone running for the highest office in the land can say anything, the most outrageous lies, and be excused, yet if I get an address wrong in a novel, I receive a million irate emails."

Another laugh. Read More 

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Libraries for Life

The first thing I ever wrote and published was a review of Tell Me Another Morning by Zdena Berger. I found this autobiographical Holocaust novel while browsing in my local public library when I was 13 or 16; the time is hazy. I would hang out in the quiet of this small-town oasis, explore, and for a little while feel like who I really was. There was a newsletter booklet on the librarian's desk and it said they'd publish reviews, so I wrote one. Although I read Tell Me Another Morning 53 or 50 years ago, I still remember it. It was a story about surviving by listening to stories.

I was catapulted into this memory by yesterday's The Hill report:

As National Library Week begins April 9, the Trump administration and Republican Party have launched an unprecedented attack on the institution by submitting a zero budget request for the Institute for Library and Museum Services.


Libraries are important and I am appalled that the government of the country that people run to, the "land of the free," would defund them. Libraries are part of our national infrastructure. They allow people who have nothing to have access to everything. (Just take a look at this list of a few famous people, including Lincoln, who educated themselves with merely a library card.) Libraries allow those who are interested to learn the horrors of not resisting when humans act inhumanly (Yes, Sean Spicer, Hitler really did use chemical weapons on his people). Read More 

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Our Revolution—Education, not Blame

It's been decades since I've faced racial and ethnic hatred up close, but when these things happen, they scar you. Hence, my fear at the proliferation of swastikas following our 2016 presidential election. I don't like feeling this kind of fear, and education helps lower my heart rate as I stay engaged. I read Bernie Sanders's Our Revolution because I needed educating, and if that is your goal, this is the book—whether you are a Bernie true believer, a Clinton supporter, or a Trump voter whose motivation was to take a sledge hammer to a system that is not working and is ignoring millions of people.

The first section of this book is a methodical educational walk through recent politics—absolutely excellent, clear-eyed, and optimistic (particularly the Burlington story which comes near the beginning of the book), no matter who you voted for! If you can ignore your particular biases, you will receive an education in oligarchy, which has been the direction of U.S. politics for a long, long time—whoever has money gets their way.

The political power of the oligarchs goes well beyond their campaign contributions and ability to influence elections. As a result of their ownership of media, think tanks, university chairs, and political front groups, they influence American public opinion and domestic and foreign policy in ways that few realize. (190)


The second section of this book is a manifesto about what exists now and how to create something else for all of us who want fairness, the ability to make a living, safety, and acknowledgement. There is a lot of detail, heavy facts—so much knowledge that I wondered how Sanders can contain it without having his head explode as mine kept threatening to do. But education is not easy. And it can be pretty scary to learn the why and how of oligarchy. At times, I felt panicked and overwhelmed. But I would rather feel those things than not know. There are reasons behind Sanders's campaign talking points about the top 2% owning all the wealth being a bad idea, about why raising the minimum wage is a good thing and how it can be done, and the section on reforming Wall Street is an alarming "Paul Revere"-type equal-opportunity indictment of Democrats and Republicans that left me gasping. Read More 

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Different Seasons by Stephen King

Masterful writing and storytelling.

I've stayed away from Stephen King's books because I do not like being scared and I was under the impression that he wrote horror. He does. But in this book of four novellas, the horror is rooted in the normal human being's shadow (to use Jung's nomenclature). And the fact that it is exposed and played out through such exquisite writing makes it all the more horrifying. And the beauty of the writing makes the ugliness more ugly and also tolerable.

Sometimes a writer who is writing for a deep personal reason (and not all writers do) will expose his motivation. For me, King's M.O. came in this quote from the novella called Apt Pupil about an all-American sociopathic boy who gets involved with a Nazi, living incognito, in his small town:

The things that happened in those camps still have power enough to make the stomach flutter with nausea. . . . maybe there is something about what the Germans did that exercises a deadly fascination over us—something that opens the catacombs of the imagination. Maybe part of our dread and horror comes from a secret knowledge that under the right—or wrong—set of circumstances, we ourselves would be willing to build such places and staff them. Black serendipity. Maybe we know that under the right set of circumstances the things that live in the catacombs would be glad to crawl out. (250)

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3 Riveting Naked-People Novels by Herman Koch

In an NPR interview, the internationally best-selling Dutch author Herman Koch was asked about reader reaction to his first English-translated novel, The Dinner, a disturbing story about people doing despicable things and enabling their children to get away with horrifying crimes. In reply, Koch said, "It goes from people saying, 'Well, this seemed a nice man in the beginning, but in the end he is not,' to put it mildly. And there is another part of the readers who say, 'Finally, a character in a book who actually does what we are all thinking.' This is the other extreme. Sometimes I noticed that in southern countries, they see it more like a social criticism. And in Holland and in northern countries, they see it more as the storyline, or the actual question of: How far would you go to protect the ones you love?" I live in the USA, which I guess qualifies as a southern country, and I certainly fall into the latter category.

Herman Koch has remarkable writer's gifts: X-ray vision for the hidden thoughts and inner workings of everyone from an old man to a teenage girl, perfect pitch for dialogue, and such command of structure and plot that my persnickety editor's mind disappears and I read with a fan's full abandon, confident that I can give myself totally to the unfolding story. Here are three briefs about his novels:

Dear Mr. M
The plot of Koch's newest book (Hogarth, Sept. 6, 2016) is complex with so many subtle turns and such heart-pounding tension in the last hundred pages that I literally could not put it down. Suffice it to say there are a group of school kids in Holland. There is a teacher. There is a writer. And they all weave together in a kind of murder mystery—but ignore what I just said because this is not a typical mystery. It's not a typical anything. It is an exposition of the inner workings of humans at their worst and a bleak philosophical treatise about good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, the nobility of action vs. inaction, the vicissitudes of power to create balance, loss of innocence and the nature of existence that is so well done that, even though my own philosophy about the final nature-of-life topic is quite different, having just finished reading, all I can do is bounce from couch to computer, yelling "Yay! Bravo!" The book is riveting, entertaining, and magnificently rendered.

In Dear Mr. M, an anonymous letter writer says to the author (M) he is stalking that M has a kind of obscene expression: "You're not looking at the reader, no, you're challenging him to look at you—to keep looking at you. It's like one of those contests to see who'll avert their eyes first; a contest the reader always loses." I suspect Herman Koch, too, does this. Not once during his virtual gaze that permeates the story does he blink. But neither did I. I was too enthralled, drawn by an ineffable magnetic force into his meticulously honest creation exposing how we really are.  Read More 
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3 Literary Novels that Reinvent Language

For years I’ve been told that my writing is “not safe.” I take this as a compliment. But it’s also the cause for problems: How does an agent sell such work? How can one communicate about it to readers? After much teeth gnashing, my literary agent finally figured out how to place my work in a genre: “You don’t sound like anyone else,” she pronounced. That was my genre—not like anyone else. “Yes,” I said ecstatically. “Yes, and that’s my favorite kind of book to read: writers with original voices.”

Who but Alice Walker could have ever written The Color Purple? John Kennedy Toole, who committed suicide in despair and whose mother finally published A Confederacy of Dunces, was one of a kind. And more recently Emma Donoghue’s Room, which is written in a child’s language all its own, was such a hit it has been turned into a popular Hollywood movie. But, except for the rare writer who achieves fame with something out of left field (Haruki Murakami, for instance) and becomes his own "brand," these books are not the rule. Most popular books fit into a standard genre: women’s fiction, young adult, mystery, etc. I like these books too, but the books I love, the ones that get inside me and change me, are those that are written, and had to be written, by writers who used their original voices. Here are three such books:

The Summer That Melted Everything (St. Martin’s Press, July 26, 2016) by Tiffany McDaniel

Imagine the best Southern writers of many eras, plus a serving of a script by Shirley Jackson produced in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, with a touch of futuristic Kurt Vonnegut seasoning, all cooked with an imagination that belongs only to Tiffany McDaniel.

The setting is the fictional small town of Breathed, Ohio, during the abnormally hot summer of 1984. The story is told by a man called Fielding Bliss (son of the town’s prosecutor, Autopsy Bliss)—from his point of view in a future none of us have yet lived.

At Autopsy’s invitation, because he cannot live with being certain and wrong, he invites the devil to Breathed; surely the devil will be someone he is certain about and right. A boy shows up claiming to be the devil. And all hell breaks loose.

This is a poetic parable about how, in fear, driven by our herd instinct, in the high heat of unexamined beliefs, we humans easily and instantly allow common sense to be melted away. It is about our species—beings who have not been accepted as they are, disappointed in themselves, similarly rejecting themselves and then others. Paradise Lost. (Each chapter begins with an epigraph from the Milton poem.)

This book has an epic quality. The writing is unusual. Is life an ongoing tragedy? This story is one to live with and contemplate. And the mystery of how a debut book can be this mature is solved in this interview; it's the "fifth or sixth" book McDaniel has written! Read More 
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Reflections on “Hold Still” by Sally Mann

Earthy, fierce, sensual, and elegant—that is the nature of this person, the gorgeous writing, and also, it seems, the nature of the American South, as expressed by photographer Sally Mann in her stunning autobiography. Just like the cover which shows a child “holding still” mid-jump, surrounded by sky, the writing manages to simultaneously move and hold you.

Sally Mann and I are the same age, we occupied the same territory for a time (same class at Bennington), but I don’t recall knowing her. If I did meet her, I’m sure I took one look at the ferocious expression in her eyes—illustrated in some of the many photographs in this book and acknowledged by her—and I would have given her a wide berth. She describes herself as a “feral child.” Funny, because I’ve used the same words to describe myself at that time. But where she was fearless, I was afraid of anything and everything. Where she moved forward with jet propulsion, I free fell. But I think now we would be friends.

She is honest, self-aware, and naked about her personality proclivities:

“. . . I have always been susceptible to some form of opportunistic sorrow—of the deepest, most soul-wrenching, step-off-the-cliff variety.” (203)

In a world filled with people (and media) who move seamlessly from true grief to exaggerated, self-feeding “opportunistic sorrow,” I think this is the first time I’ve ever read it admitted and so well named, and it made me cheer.  Read More 

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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

Ever since I ran my fingers through my mother's cremation remains, just before sending them sailing into the ocean, I've wanted to know what happened to her body in the gap between the moment I kissed her still-warm face goodbye in the ICU and her transformation into emulsified bone matter. Although I'm not in any rush for it and I really loathe losing anyone I love, I am not turned off by death. It's inevitable and I'm very curious. I realize this is an idiosyncratic thing, but I've found that when someone I love dies, I instantly distinguish the dead body as an object quite different from the being who moments ago inhabited it and lose interest in the container; to my senses, it's suddenly like a well-worn shirt. I also rather enjoy the Buddhist exercise of imagining my own disintegration. So I dove into Caitlin Doughty's book, appreciating it for the treasure that it is: answers!  Read More 

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Artists Fail . . . It's What We Do

I just read a wonderful essay by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner about his many years of failure prior to success. And one of the quotes that especially got to me was this one:
. . . the most stinging responses I heard were along the lines of, "This is one of the most beautiful, well-executed, exciting things I’ve ever read, but I’m afraid that we just don’t do this kind of show." Those comments made me feel as if I were alone in the universe.
I honestly don't think I've ever read that particular loneliness articulated: when somebody actually sees and appreciates you and then they reject you.

In the documentary A Sense of the Sacred, a portrait of Jungian Helen Luke, the revered analyst and author talks about the difficulty of individuating via a path that has never been taken: “If you go a way that is not a conventional way, you have no right to think that on that account you are absolved from the duty of sharing your truth that you have experienced, no matter if it is totally rejected. There may be one person here or there that may be affected—that’s what we base our lives on.”

Both of these statements catapulted me back in my own history:

In 1986, after performing a workshop of the one-woman play that I’d written called Darleen Dances—about a girl who is trying to rock ’n’ roll dance her way into the Guinness Book of Records in order to feel as if she’s mattered by the time she gets “old and decrepit and eventually dead”—I was delighted when the phone started ringing with queries about producing the play.  Read More 
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Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

This is bawdy, spontaneous, poetic writing.

Eugene Henderson, an overblown, twice-married, millionaire pig farmer and violin player is having an existential crisis.

I want, I want, I want, I want, I want!

This is the geshrei that drives fifty-five-year-old Henderson into and through a spiritual quest in Africa. He doesn’t know what he wants, just that “everybody is working, making, digging, bulldozing, trucking, loading, and so on . . .” until it is a form of madness. (I think he would be right at home in our time when value is quantified by how many “likes” we’ve accrued.)

Henderson the Rain King is a quest as complicated as any Haruki Murakami tale, but the protagonist is a bloated, bungling American—a man with “the Midas touch in reverse.” In Africa, his first stop is a village of people whose beloved cattle are dying of thirst because the water reserve is occupied by frogs. On one hand, Henderson wants to rescue everybody; on the other, he longs to be rescued:

This was a beautiful, strange, special place, and I was moved by it. I believed the queen could straighten me out if she wanted to; as if, any minute now, she might open her hand and show me the thing, the source, the germ—the cipher. The mystery, you know. I was absolutely convinced she must have it. The earth is a huge ball which nothing holds up in space except its own motion and magnetism, and we conscious things who occupy it believe we have to move too, in our own space. We can’t allow ourselves to lie down and not do our share and imitate the greater entity. You see, this is our attitude. But now look at Willatale, the Bittah [highly evolved] woman; she had given up such notions, there was no anxious care in her, and she was sustained. Why, nothing bad happened! On the contrary, it all seemed good! Look how happy she was, grinning with her flat nose and gap teeth, the mother-of-pearl eye and the good eye, and look at her white head! It comforted me just to see her, and I felt that I might learn to be sustained too if I followed her example. (74)

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Best Funny Books about Difficult Women

After publishing The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, a funny novel about a 4'11", 237 pound woman with a habit of lying, burgling, and incinerating houses--a woman desperate to be seen and accepted for her talent and inner beauty--I became a little desperate to read funny novels about other difficult women. There are not a lot of them. But here's what I found.  Read More 

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