Tag Archives: stories

Thoughts on “The Queen of the South” by Arturo Perez-Reverte

I found this book a while ago while visiting a university campus for an event. There was a display of books for the taking, asking a mere 25 cents each donation, so I picked this and a few others and left my dollar. I had decided to grab this one because I had read The Club Dumas by Perez-Reverte years ago and loved it, so I figured I would check this one out. It sat on my shelf for a while, but I finally started reading it. It took me a while to finish because of all the other stuff that’s been happening, but I finally completed it and am ready to share some thoughts.

The book is classified as an “intellectual thriller” and it’s about a woman who becomes involved in the drug trade and works her way up to a position of power. There’s a lot of intrigue, as well as some twists, which makes it an interesting read.

There are some psychological themes that are explored in the book, and I thought about focusing my blog post on those, but then I opted to write about another theme that is near and dear to my heart: books and reading.

While doing a stint in prison, Teresa, the protagonist, starts reading, which has a profound impact on her life.

“Books are doors that lead out into the street,” Patricia would tell her. “You learn from them, educate yourself, travel, dream, live other lives, multiply your own life a thousand times. Where can you get more for your money, Mexicanita? And they also keep all sorts of bad things at bay: ghosts, loneliness, shit like that. Sometimes I wonder how you people that don’t read figure out how to live your lives.”

(pp. 163 – 4)

While I believe that there are life lessons that you cannot learn from a book, I also believe that the knowledge and experience shared through books are indispensable when navigating life’s winding roads.

Reading, she’d learned in prison, especially novels, allowed her to inhabit her mind in a new way—as though by blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction, she might witness her own life as if it were happening to somebody else. Besides teaching her things, reading helped her to think differently, or think better, because on the page, others did it for her. Although it was also true that with novels you could apply your point of view to every situation or character. Even to the voice that told the story: sometimes it would be that of the narrator, either with a name or anonymous, and sometimes it would be your own. She had discovered with surprise and pleasure that as she turned each page, the book was written, as though for the first time, all over again.

(p. 189)

While I don’t know if I believe that reading blurs the “boundaries between reality and fiction,” I think that reading acts as a mirror, that books reflect our human experiences and allow us to examine them from a new perspective. Additionally, we all bring our own experiences to what we read, and therefore, books and poems take on different meanings for different readers based upon their individual histories. But, like Teresa, I often project myself into stories that I read, and that feeling is what resonated strongly for me when I read this paragraph.

I’ve heard it said that everyone has a book within them, waiting to be told. Essentially, we all have a hidden story, a personal tale, so to speak. This is a realization that Teresa has later in the book.

Then he poured more vodka, until the bottle was empty, and it occurred to Teresa that every human being has a hidden story, and that if you are quiet enough and patient enough you could finally hear it. And that that was good, a lesson that was important to learn. A lesson that was useful, above all.

(p. 244)

This is definitely true. If you listen and allow people the space to become comfortable, they will eventually share their story with you.

While I personally feel that The Club Dumas is a better book, this one is definitely worth reading. I also hear that there is a TV series based on this book. I may have to check that out.

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“Death” by Neil Gaiman

I actually finished reading this book a few weeks ago, but I’ve been in the process of moving so the book got packed and I have also been way too busy to sit down and write up a post. But, alas, I’m settled in, so here we go.

This book is an offshoot of Gaiman’s classic Sandman saga. Death is Dream’s sister, depicted as a somewhat hipster woman with a touch of goth. I’d seen this on the shelves, but hadn’t bothered to buy it since I (wrongly) assumed it was nothing more that vignettes from Sandman that featured Death. While there were a few of those, most of what is in the compilation is stuff I had not read before. Anyway, I had donated a nice filing cabinet to the local comic store prior to my move, and as a show of gratitude, the owner offered me a book, so I chose this one.

As always, Gaiman’s writing is brilliant and evocative. And the rich storytelling is augmented by the rich artwork, which makes this book something worthy of a re-read.

One of the areas where Gaiman’s knowledge excels is in mythology, so it’s not surprising that he does a little bit of myth exploration in this book.

Mythologies take longer to die than people believe. They linger on in a kind of dream country that affects all of you.

(p. 55)

This is true. The thing about myths is that they enter into the subconscious, as well as the collective. Once embedded there, they may “die” in the sense that they fade from our ordinary state of consciousness, but it still lies hidden beneath the surface, affecting our thoughts, beliefs, and actions in ways we are not usually aware of.

Possibly my favorite passage in the book is when Death explains life to a person. I found the whole thing symbolic, that it is only through an understanding of a thing’s opposite that you can fully understand the thing itself.

Well. I think some of it is probably contrasts. Light and shadow. If you never had the bad times, how would you know you had the good times? But some of it is just: if you’re going to be human, then there are a whole load of things that come with it. Eyes, a heart, days and life. It’s the moments that illuminate it, though. The times you don’t see when you’re having them… They make the rest of it matter.

(p. 217)

While it would certainly help to have read at least some of the Sandman saga before reading this, it is by no means necessary. I think anyone can pick up this book and get something out of it. Highly recommended, as is everything Gaiman wrote, in my humble opinion.

Cheers!

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“The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman

Life is very crazy for me right now. Lots of changes happening. For that reason, I am just going to write a very short post about this book.

This was the selection for our book club. The person who selected it works in healthcare, and it is definitely an important work for people who are responsible for delivering care to individuals and families.

The book chronicles the events concerning a Hmong family and their daughter who suffered from seizures, and the challenges they faced trying to navigate the healthcare system in the United States.

Everyone in the US is painfully aware of how difficult it is dealing with hospitals, insurance companies, prescriptions, and government bureaucracy. Try to imagine how much more difficult it would be if there was a language barrier that prevented you from communicating with healthcare providers, or from understanding the instructions for care that the providers gave you. And as this book shows, those challenges are compounded by cultural differences.

“The language barrier was the most obvious problem, but not the most important. The biggest problem was the cultural barrier. There is a tremendous difference between dealing with the Hmong and dealing with anyone else. An infinite difference.” Dan Murphy said. “The Hmong simply didn’t have the same concepts that I did. For instance, you can’t tell them that somebody is diabetic because their pancreas doesn’t work. They don’t have a word for pancreas. They don’t have an idea for pancreas. Most of them had no concept that the organs they saw in animals were the same as in humans, because they didn’t open people up when they died, they buried them intact. They knew there was a heart, because they could feel the heartbeat, but beyond that—well, even lungs were kind of a difficult thing to get into. How would you intuit the existence of lungs if you had never seen them?”

(p. 69)

Overall, I found the book interesting, but it did drag at points for me, mainly because the author digs deep into the cultural history of the Hmong. And while I understand the importance of the cultural and historical context, it just became a little tedious for me at points.

Anyway, it’s a good book and if you are interested in medical history or social sciences, definitely worth reading. Cheers!

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“The Laws of Spirit” by Dan Millman

New age books can be hit or miss. This one has been on the shelves for a long time. Someone had given it to my wife as a gift. Anyway, I was looking to read something spiritual and this was nice and short, so I gave it a quick read. I have to say, it was better than I had expected.

The book adheres to the tried and tested format of the seeker meeting the sage, and they have an ensuing conversation where the sage has the answers to life’s questions. It’s kind of hackneyed, to say the least, but is saved by the fact that the chapters are very short and focused. Each chapter averages about eight pages in length. Also, Millman gets right to the point and does not wander off on tangents, which is appreciated.

As with most books of this nature, you get out of it what you bring to it. For those starting on a spiritual path, many of the concepts may be new, fresh perspectives. For me, it was more a refresher, which I confess I regularly need. It’s easy for me to get caught up in life and forget the fundamental principles I have learned.

The first passage I want to share from this book that resonated with me is about how all religions are one, that they essentially all teach the same spiritual principles, just using different languages and symbolism.

“You don’t have to believe in the sun to delight in the warmth of the morning light. It is simply obvious. That is how I know God. And as to my religion,” she continued, gazing into the distance as if remembering times past, “I’ve sat in the shining temples of the Israelites and under the glorious spires of the mosques of Islam; I’ve knelt in the great cathedrals and bathed in the light of Christendom; I’ve sat in sweat lodges and passed the pipe, lived as a shaman on the African plains, meditated in Buddhist temples, and inhaled the sweet aroma of incense on the banks of the Ganges. And everywhere, I’ve found the same Spirit in all religions—a Divine Will that transcends time, belief, and culture—revealing the universal laws that are the treasure of God.”

(p. 6)

And just as all religions are one, all spiritual paths ultimately lead to the same destination, you just learn different lessons based upon the path you choose.

“You lead for a while,” said the sage.

“But I don’t know where we’re going.”

She looked at me and smiled. “An interesting belief, Traveler, but I think you’ve always known where you were going, whether or not you were aware of it. So, which path will you choose?”

“Does it make any difference?”

“Ultimately? Not at all,” she replied. “In the end, all paths lead to the same destination. But one of these paths may lead into a green valley, another to a rocky peak, and the third into a dark woods. You can’t be sure where each trail leads; still, you must make a choice.”

(p. 18)

This life is filled with challenges, on individual levels as well as globally. But it is important to remember that these are just challenges, and that ultimately, things will balance out if we but persevere.

As the sage finished speaking, the rain stopped. Stepping out from under some trees into the warm sunlight, I felt an extraordinary sense of calm and well-being. In that moment, I knew that despite the challenges and tests confronting humanity, our world was in the hands of Spirit, unfolding, like a flower, toward the Light.

(p. 56)

As I mentioned earlier, this is a very short book, just over 100 pages, but there is a fair amount of insight inside, presented in clear and easy-to-understand language. It’s definitely worth a read, in my humble opinion.

Thanks for stopping by.

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Thoughts on “The Power” by Naomi Alderman

One great thing about being in a book club is getting to read books that would have otherwise not been on my radar. This is one such book. I don’t think I would ever have read it if it wasn’t the selection for this month.

The story is dark sci-fi, about a future world where women have physically evolved so that they are able to generate electrical energy within their bodies. This new power causes a paradigm shift where women become the dominant gender. But as we all know, power corrupts, and the women become abusive in the same way that men are abusive in a patriarchal society.

Social change almost always happens at a grassroots level.

“There is a scent of something in the air, a smell like rainfall after a long drought. First one person, then five, then five hundred, then villages, then cities, then states. Bud to bud and leaf to leaf. Something new is happening. The scale of the thing has increased.”

(p. 108)

A great metaphor for social change is the wave. Waves begin small, as ripples, like the beginnings of a grassroots movement. But then the wave grows until it becomes a powerful force, obliterating the old paradigm.

“It was like being part of a wave of water,” she says. “A wave of spray from the ocean feels powerful, but it is only there for a moment, the sun dries the puddles and the water is gone. The only wave that changes anything is the tsunami. You have to tear down the houses and destroy the land if you want to be sure no one will forget you.”

(p. 148)

Changing a power structure is never easy. Like an old tree, its roots and branches spread out and become entwined in society in ways that are not always obvious.

She sees it all in that instant, the shape of the tree of power. Root to tip, branching and re-branching. Of course, the old tree still stands. There is only one way, and that is to blast it entirely to pieces.

(p. 364)

And often, it is only when historians look back on events, can we get a perspective on how the power structure shifted and what events might have contributed to the shift.

When historians talk of this moment they talk about “tensions” and “global instability.” They posit the “resurgence of old structures” and the “inflexibility of existing belief patterns.” Power has her ways. She acts on people, and people act on her.

(p. 370)

This book makes me think about the power structures in the world today: political, social, economic, etc. As change seems to occur faster and faster in our high-tech world, I cannot help but wonder just how much longer our current hierarchies of power will last. Sometimes I feel that the tsunami is racing toward our shore. I suppose I can only wait and watch.

Thanks for stopping by.

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Thoughts on “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho

I had always heard good things about this book, so when I saw it on sale at the bookstore, I grabbed a copy and moved it up to the top of the pile. I actually read most of it while traveling to California. On one of the flights, a woman next to me commented that this was her favorite book of all time. As Coelho would say, “It was an omen.”

The book is short, and a deceptively easy read. While it is not a difficult text, it is rich in imagery and spiritual insight. So my problem is, there is so much here, I’m not sure what to write about in a short blog post. I guess I’ll offer a couple examples that illustrate some of the central themes in the book.

Early in the story, the importance of dreams is established.

“You came so that you could learn about your dreams,” said the old woman. “And dreams are the language of God. When he speaks in our language, I can interpret what he has said. But when he speaks the language of the soul, it is only you who can understand. But, whichever it is, I’m going to charge you for the consultation.”

(p. 15)

If dreams are the language of God and the soul, then that is the way that the human psyche can communicate with the ineffable. Interpreting the messages that come in the form of dreams is always a challenge, because of the symbolic nature of the communication. But through contemplation and deep meditation, we can get a sense of what the dreams are trying to convey to us.

Another theme that stood out for me is how the divine is manifest in the material world.

“The wise men understood that this natural world is only an image and a copy of paradise. The existence of this world is simply a guarantee that there exists a world that is perfect. God created the world so that, through the visible objects, men could understand his spiritual teachings and the marvels of his wisdom. That’s what I mean by action.”

(p. 131)

When I am out in nature, that is the time I am most aware of the divine presence in the world. On my recent trip to California, as I stood among the redwoods and gazed at their magnificence, I was overcome with awe at the grandeur of God in nature. Even a blade of grass, when you slow down and look at it closely, you can see perfection and beauty within. For me, that is my strongest connection with the divine.

One of my favorite archetypal symbols is the quest, which is presented nicely in this book.

“Every second of the search is an encounter with God,” the boy told his heart. “When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous, because I’ve know that every hour was a part was a part of the dream that I would find it. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible for a shepherd to achieve.”

(p. 135)

For me, this conveys the most important truth about a quest: It is not the achievement of a goal that is important, it is what you learn and experience along the way. The joy and wonder is in the journey, not in the acquisition.

This post truly only scratches the surface of this book. There are so many wonderful passages and ideas and insights to explore and contemplate. This book has earned its place beside The Prophet on my shelf, as one of those books that I will read again and again.

Thanks for stopping by, and if you have read this book, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Thoughts on “Strangers Drowning” by Larissa MacFarquhar

This is the latest book that I read for the book club to which I belong. It’s a look at people who dedicate themselves to doing the most good that they can possibly do, often sacrificing their own happiness and well-being, as well as that of their families, for the sake of assisting complete strangers. MacFarquhar refers to this type of people as do-gooders.

She begins the book with her definition of a do-gooder.

This book is about a human character who arouses conflicting emotions: the do-gooder. I don’t mean a part-time, normal do-gooder—someone who has a worthy job, or volunteers at a charity, and returns to an ordinary family life in the evenings. I mean a person who sets out to live as ethical a life as possible. I mean a person who’s drawn to moral goodness for its own sake. I mean someone who pushes himself to moral extremity, who commits himself wholly, beyond what seems reasonable. I mean the kind of do-gooder who makes people uneasy.

(p. 3)

So why would a person who wants only to do good in the world make others uncomfortable? That’s a legitimate question, which MacFarquhar also addresses early in the book.

One reason may be guilt: nobody likes to be reminded, even implicitly, of his own selfishness. Another is irritation: nobody likes to be told, even implicitly, how he should live his life, or be reproached for how he is living it. And nobody likes to be the recipient of charity. But that’s not the whole story.

(p. 6)

The rest of the book explores the personal stories of various altruistic do-gooders—their motivations, challenges, and so forth. They are all really interesting, and many are inspiring, but when MacFarquhar examined social workers, it hit a little close to home for me.

At first the social worker may become too emotionally involved with his clients, so that when they fail he suffers, both because they are unhappy and because their failure is his failure, too. It’s hard to spend his days confronting devastating problems that he cannot fix—the misery and helplessness rub off on him.

Gradually, he learns to be more detached. He realizes that he needs to be tough, and to develop a thick skin. But if he becomes too detached, he stops caring about his clients at all.

(p. 163)

Many years ago, when I decided to go to college in my late 20s as a non-traditional student, I intended to go into counseling. As I started taking my basic required classes, I also took on a part-time job as a mental health technician in the chemical dependency ward at a local hospital. I had a strong desire to help people, and the primary residents in this program were pregnant teenage girls addicted to crack cocaine, so there was no shortage of suffering individuals to whom I could offer help. But the turning point for me was when one young woman completed the 28-day program, was released, went to a crack house, and got shot in the stomach. Her baby died inside of her. I had gotten to know this person fairly well during her four weeks there, and I was devastated. The pain and sadness were so intense, I realized that I could not do this job with the level of detachment needed to be effective, and maintain my levels of compassion and empathy for others. I decided then and there that I would need to pursue a different career path.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Not only is it thought provoking, it is very well written. It challenged me to look at how much I am doing for the overall good of the world, and how much more I could possibly do.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading challenging stuff.

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