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Pondering the Soul of the World

It’s no secret that The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is one of my favorite books. I’m leading the discussion in my book club this month, and The Alchemist is the book we’re discussing. I feel fortunate, but overwhelmed at the same time.

I’ve re-read the book during the past week to get ready for the book club discussion. Reader’s Guides are readily available for The Alchemist. The tenth anniversary edition, which I have, contains one after the epilogue. Its discussion topics seem so obvious to me. There is so much more to this book than those canned study guide questions point out.

For instance, there are two different types of alchemy: scientific alchemy and spiritual alchemy. While the gold that scientific alchemy yields is tempting, Coelho’s beautiful fable teaches us that the spiritual aspect of alchemy is the important one. The tale of Santiago the shepherd boy underscores that without achieving the Master Work of spiritual alchemy, no one can attain the Magnum Opus of scientific alchemy.  The discussion of both types of alchemy is a discussion of the book itself, as well as a philosophical discussion that may never end.

Santiago’s quest for his Personal Legend is full of lessons. Santiago’s wisdom, and the wisdom of the people he meets in his travels, must have been sound bites that Coelho collected for years then wove seamlessly into this tale. All of Coelho’s books seem that way, though. But the wisdom and joy of The Alchemist makes it the only one of Coelho’s books that literally makes me cry.

Each time I’ve read this book I’ve cried, and each time I’ve cried at the same point. For me, (spoiler alert) the climax of the book comes twice. The first is not when Santiago finds the physical treasure of his dream, but when he first lays eyes on what fabulous wonders men can achieve.  Yes, this is when I cry, and I’m crying with the profound joy the book has given me.

At the moment when Santiago thinks he should find his treasure, he is attacked by several refugees from the tribal wars he has dodged all across the Sahara. One attacker announces that it is stupid to cross a desert to look for buried treasure  just because of a recurring dream. The attacker doesn’t know it, but Santiago has done exactly that, and is at the point of realizing that dream when he is beaten bloody and left nearly dead by these attackers. As outside observers we readers laugh, knowing that whether or not Santiago finds his material wealth in the desert, his journeys have resulted in a spiritual wealth beyond most people’s imagining. He has learned that if he wants to, he can become the wind.

Coelho uses phrases and terms of his own making, but they are philosophical terms necessary to understanding the spiritual alchemy he presents in his book. The Soul of the World, the hand that wrote all, the Language of the World, and one’s Personal Legend are concepts Coelho deftly teaches us with this story of a shepherd’s quest, undertaken because of a recurring dream. Without initially understanding those terms, though, we struggle along with Santiago to grasp the concepts of spiritual alchemy.

Fear hampers our quests for our Personal Legends. The fear presents itself in different ways. First, it is a fear of leaving the familiar comforts of what we know to go in pursuit of a dream. But when we take those first few tentative steps toward our dream, beginner’s luck encourages us to keep pursuing the dream. Eventually, though, our initial success creates another fear within us. We have achieved so much. No, it’s not what we set out to achieve, but it is enough. We can die happy because we got this far and we are comfortable. But, if we listen to our hearts, we know that this temptation to settle for less than our Personal Legend is really a fear: a fear that we have had so much success that we are bound to fail soon.

The fear of failure prevents many people from realizing their Personal Legends. Settling for “good enough,” these people stop listening to their hearts and listen instead to the comforts of having come this far and achieved this much. They feel blessed to have done so much; to try to do more tempts fate, does it not?

Yes, it does.

That’s part of the pursuit of the Personal Legend, though. We aren’t rewarded with the realization of that legend unless we show that we have truly learned the lessons along the way to achieving it. Proving that we’ve learned the lessons means we have to be challenged, and the challenges aren’t supposed to be easy. If we want something enough, if our goal is our dream, and our dream is our Personal Legend, the path gets harder, not easier, the closer we get. Nevertheless, if we step carefully and read the omens sent to us, we will achieve success. We will recognize and live our Personal Legends.

I’m making four presentations to make on this book this month. In each, I want to examine a portion of the story, and a portion of the philosophy of spiritual alchemy. I don’t know if I can limit myself to just four!

I’ve come up with a list of omens Santiago notices in his adventures. Some of them have layers of meaning. I want to talk about them.

Throughout the book, Coelho sprinkled concepts from the three religions springing from the loins of Abraham. I want to talk about each, yet I know that those in my audience who know me not to be a follower of this religious tradition will want time to challenge me on my interpretation, and will want to offer their own. There must be time for that.

There are mystical elements that defy being categorized with something else, so must be treated separately.

Each major character, plus a couple of minor ones, have wisdom to share. I want to examine their profound observations – ALL of them!

Then there are the literary aspects of the book. Coelho’s writing style, the format of the story, foreshadowing and other literary devices, character development . . . I’m babbling already and I haven’t even begun my presentation.

And then there is alchemy, both scientific and spiritual, to tackle. To be fair to each, they should be dealt with separately, then addressed together so as to underscore the similarities. There are specific alchemists mentioned in the book whose biographies might be interesting to my audience, yet I fear boring the masses with my enthusiasm.

But wait: Santiago’s strengths were his courage to do what he wanted, and his enthusiasm in the process. Is this an omen?


June 2, 2008 Posted by | Book Reviews, Philosophy, Religion | 2 Comments

The Laughing Sutra: A Book Report



Let me tell you about a story I just read. It is enlightening, and I am compelled to share it with you. The book is called The Laughing Sutra, by Mark Salzman.

This is a book report, not a book review. I am telling you about the entire book, not just a tantalizing bit to get you to read the story. Skip the bit between the spoiler warning and the end of spoiler indicators below if you want to read the book without knowing what happens.

Knowing how it happens won’t necessarily spoil the book. In fact, I knew all along how it would end. The path to the end was a joyful, fun experience, though. I am not going to tell you of all of the adventures experienced by Hsun-Ching and Sun Wu K’ung. That part you really will need to experience for yourself.

The Laughing Sutra is a story about loyalty and learning. It is a story about companionship and the clash of cultures. It covers the period from just before Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution to the mid-1970’s.

The book opens in the early 1960’s with a solitary monk who calls himself Wei-Ching, “Guardian of the Scriptures,” who is painstakingly copying ancient Buddhist scrolls. Wei-Ching seeks enlightenment, and therefore seeks more scrolls to add to his library. He hears of a mysterious scroll called “The Laughing Sutra.” He is told that “[t]he Laughing Sutra is a scroll so precious that whoever understood its message would instantly perceive his Buddha-nature and … achieve immortality” along with his enlightenment. Wei-Ching is determined to find this scroll. He prepares for a trip to America to recover it from the man who has it.

As he is leaving, a mysterious, hairy man in ancient armor appears at the temple with a shivering boy with the long earlobes of wise men. The boy is Kuo Sheng-hui, whose name means “Flourishing Knowledge,” but the old monk does not know that because the boy is mute due to the trauma of being thrown over a waterfall by an attacker. The boy cannot remember anything of his former life. Time goes by and the monk becomes attached to the boy. He has abandoned his plans to go to America to find The Laughing Sutra so that he can care for the child.

The old monk reads the sutras to the mute boy, who does not seem interested. However, when he reads the boy a story about a monk traveling from China to India to find valuable Buddhist scrolls, the boy finally listens. The traveler in the story, Hsuan-Tsang, was accompanied by Sun Wu K’ung, a Monkey King who protected him with supernatural powers and martial arts. The story is interrupted by a storm, and the boy finally speaks to ask what happens next to the Monkey King, who the monk learns is the boy’s favorite character.

Wei-Ching believes that because of his advanced age he will not be able to make the journey to America himself to locate the Laughing Sutra, so he sees the timing of the boy’s recovery as a good omen. Perhaps the boy will go to America and seek the scroll in his place. Wei-Ching renames the boy Hsun-Ching, “Seeker of the Sutras.”

The boy proves to have a remarkable mind, an almost photographic memory. He learns to read Chinese, then English. He reads the ancient Chinese scrolls but finds them boring. Wei-Ching decides that his pupil should have better books to learn English, so they make a journey to a city.

Once in the city the boy encounters food such he has never before experienced. He asks his master, “I thought Buddhist monks never eat meat or drink, but tonight we had fish, ham and liquor. What will happen to us now?”

Wise Wei-Ching, in typical Chinese fashion, justifies the excesses. Indicating the impious chef and owner of the restaurant where they have enjoyed their meal, Wei-Ching explains, “It is true that one should not eat meat or drink liquor. But it is even more true that a Buddhist monk should be compassionate. That man needed to prepare us a good meal, to redeem himself for ignoring religion during his life. If we had refused, we would have prevented him from carrying out a pious act and gaining merit. So you see, we soiled ourselves temporarily, that he might be cleansed.”

The boy and the man live comfortably together even as the boy ages slowly and the old man ages quickly. Then, one terrible day in 1966, teenage members of the Red Guard stumble upon the temple, burn the precious scrolls, and brutalize the old monk. They threaten the old man’s life unless the boy joins them. Reluctantly Hsun-Ching goes with the Red Guard, but when Mao’s army stops the marauding of the Red Guard, the boy is quick to surrender. He is misidentified as the leader of the group of Red Guards and is sent to a reeducation work camp so that he can learn the true meaning of Chairman Mao’s message.

When an emaciated friend dies of encephalitis at the age of twelve in the work camp, prayers are prohibited. Nevertheless, Hsun-Ching sits by the grave and ponders the meaning of each word of the prayers he and Wei-Ching used to recite. He comes to the conclusion, “If there were really a Buddha, or a Goddess of Mercy, this couldn’t have happened.”

After ten years, Hsun-Ching is finally released from the work camp. He returns to the temple to find that Wei-Ching is still alive, but very feeble. The temple is in terrible shape, never having been repaired since a decade before when the Red Guards burned parts of it. Hsun-Ching, who is now twenty years old, plants a garden and tends to his old master.

The subject of the Laughing Sutra is raised, and Hsun-Ching decides to retrieve the scroll from America for his foster father. He feels that because ten years were taken from him in the work camps, his education was interrupted and he lost his faith. If he attempts to obtain the scroll for Wei-Ching, his life won’t be so much of a waste.

Wei-Ching suggests that Hsun-Ching travel to America with the man in the ancient armor who saved him all those years ago. He tells the boy where to find the strange man, and Hsun-Ching goes to the waterfall and finds him living alone in a cave.

The man tells Hsun-Ching to call him “Colonel Sun,” which seems appropriate given his brilliant yellow eyes. Hsun-Ching has to explain the communist revolution to Colonel Sun, and explains that Chairman Mao is dead and the Gang of Four have been smashed, but that China is still communist, which is supposed to be better than capitalist America. The Colonel snorts derisively and remarks that it is good, then, that the scroll is in America, because “we can just buy it from the owner instead of having to steal it from some nut who doesn’t believe in money.”


On the journey to the border of China and Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching learns from Colonel Sun that he is at least two thousand years old, and that the ancient armor he wears belonged to Emperor Shih Huang Ti, the founder of the Ch’in Dynasty in 221 B.C., and creator of the famous army of terra cotta soldiers. Once inside Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching learns that the colonel is at least 700 years older than that when the colonel gives him a bar of ancient gold to sell to raise money to buy them appropriate food and clothing.

In Hong Kong, Colonel Sun tells a story about traveling with a monk across a desert to find scrolls, and the lie he told that saved their lives. Hsun-Ching recognizes the story, and realizes that Colonel Sun is Sun Wu k’ung, the Monkey King from the book that helped him to speak after his trauma.

Separated from Colonel Sun in Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching is attacked by thieves and stabbed. Colonel Sun arrives and chases the thieves away, but Hsun-Ching passes out from his injury. He awakes in a ready to go back to China. He does not want people to be hurt in his quest for the Laughing Sutra. Colonel Sun convinces him not to give up the quest, then reveals that they are on a ship headed for America. Colonel Sun has made a deal with the captain of the ship that he will teach him martial arts, then will fight in a bar fight in San Francisco to pay for their passage to America. The Laughing Sutra is supposed to be in a museum in San Francisco.

Arriving at the museum in San Francisco, Hsun-Ching learns that the scroll has been given to the Dharma Institute, a place where Buddhism is studied by wealthy people. The lovely assistant curator helps him get an appointment with the director of the institute, but it is Friday afternoon and he cannot see the man until Monday morning. They part, and Hsun-Ching goes to find Colonel Sun at the bar where he is supposed to fight.

Something is wrong when he arrives at the bar. Boxing night has been moved to Tuesday, and dwarf tossing is now the feat for Friday night entertainment. Disgusted with the idea of throwing such a small man, Colonel Sun suggests throwing a full-sized man, and when he throws the captain of the ship that brought them to America over twenty-five feet, a huge bar brawl breaks out. Naturally, the police are summoned. The pair also lose their way back to China, since the ship’s captain no longer wants to have anything to do with Colonel Sun.

Taking the winnings from the bets at the bar, the two find a hotel. Colonel Sun is nearly incapacitated with pain. Because he has lost his temper and fought so far from home, he explains, he is weakened. He believes he will get stronger, though, and the next day they explore San Francisco, meet the stoned proprietor of a soup kitchen, and attend a modern art exhibition, spending the next night in the bus the soup kitchen operator lives in.

The next day the lovely assistant curator, who has befriended Hsun-Ching, takes them to the aquarium where they see an orca show. Believing the animal trainer to be a mighty warrior to dominate a sea monster in such a way, Colonel Sun insisted upon meeting him, then sent his spirit to speak to the man warrior to warrior. The animal trainer, however, turns blue and begins choking. Colonel Sun is disgusted at the lack of foundation the man’s mind has.

That night they eat at the soup kitchen and Colonel Sun meets an elderly Chinese man who tells him a tale of prejudice and bureaucratic hell that prevented the man from being reunited with his wife, who had to remain in China. The man, who sent all of his earnings to his wife in China, is homeless and poor and his eyesight is failing. Colonel Sun sees a strength in him, though, and admires the man’s courage and perseverance in the face of the adversity he has endured.

The next morning Hsun-Ching and Colonel Sun return to the Dharma Institute to retrieve the Laughing Sutra. They are almost turned away, but the director of the institute, believing them to be Tibetan, finally welcomes them. However, the director tricks Hsun-Ching into admitting he is not Tibetan, and then evicts both the Chinese men without allowing them to see the Laughing Sutra.

Hsun-Ching despairs, and tells Colonel Sun that he has decided to stay in America and not return to China. Colonel Sun takes his leave of Hsun-Ching at that point, because he came on the journey to help the young man get the scroll. America has no soul, only appearance, he says, refusing Hsun-Ching’s pleas for him to stay in America, too.

Hsun-Ching sneaks back into the Dharma Institute and hides in the men’s room until he hears the front door being locked. He creeps out, but is dismayed to hear footsteps and the sound of heavy things being moved. Finally he goes to the storage room and sees that it is Colonel Sun who is making all the racket. They find the scroll of the Laughing Sutra.

As they are leaving they set off a burglar alarm, though. The police come, but see only one of the Chinese men. The colonel tells the younger man to stay hidden and to escape when he has the attention of the police. Terrified, Hsun-Ching sees Colonel Sun shot by the police and throw himself into the ocean, swimming until he disappears under the waves far from land.

Hsun-Ching barely reaches the ship before it leaves, and as he attempts to get back into China he is arrested and the scroll is taken from him. He is put through much interrogation and is told that in order for Wei-Ching to be allowed to read the Laughing Sutra, he must say publicly that he found the West to be a decadent place and that he wanted nothing more than to return to China when he attempted to run away. He agrees.

Granted permission to read the scroll himself, Hsun-Ching finds most of it incomprehensible, The monk with whom Colonel Sun had gone to India to obtain the scroll had added a colophon to the very end, summarizing it. Essentially, the Laughing Sutra explains that the desire for enlightenment is really no different from desire for more worldly things. Understanding this “unity of desire,” understanding that the desire for enlightenment is no different that desire for wealth or possessions, is what makes the person seeking enlightenment laugh, and what makes the achievement of true enlightenment possible. A person seeking enlightenment for the sake of achieving it, and not coming to enlightenment naturally, will not understand the Laughing Sutra.

Determined that Wei-Ching will not have the damning words of the ancient monk to disappoint him, Hsun-Ching cuts the colophon off the end of the scroll before giving it to his foster father. The dying old man reads the scroll in his hospital bed, but turns to the young man sadly. He explains that the scroll is full of superstitious nonsense. But then he begins to laugh. “It is as the Buddha said all along: Enlightenment cannot be found in books. It must be experienced directly! Foolish as I was, I did not take him at his word. But now I do! I am free!” Wei-Ching has understood the point of the Laughing Sutra.

Colonel Sun, who was saved from the policeman’s bullet by one of the gold bars he always carried, has also returned to China and has accompanies the young man as he spreads Wei-Ching’s ashes a few weeks later. The old man had only a couple of weeks left to enjoy his enlightenment. Within a few month, Hsun-Ching is offered a job because of his superior English-speaking skills and relations with America are normalized. He receives a letter from the lovely assistant curator at the American museum telling him that she is coming to visit. Perhaps Hsun-Ching’s life got better from this point.


The book contains many pearls of wisdom. It is funny, sad, poignant, and wise. Here are a few gems from its pages:

Wei-Ching, to himself, before meeting the boy: “Buddhist literature often reminds us that true knowledge cannot be found in books. If that is so, why is there any Buddhist literature at all?….When asked this question, an enlightened master once said, ‘If I see the moon, but you do not, I will point at it. First you will watch my finger to see where it goes. Eventually, however, you must take your eyes off my finger and find the moon for yourself.’ So it is with the sutras. The point you toward truth but must not be confused with truth itself.”

“Bad action produces bad karma,” the boy Hsun-Ching remarks when he sees the body of the Red Guard leader who had attacked an old man lying in the street of a city.

When Hsun-Ching objects to Colonel Sun’s statement that they may have to kill border guards to get out of China, Colonel Sun declares, “I’m not saying we should kill innocent people! I’m telling you that, regardless of your intentions, you’re about to start something that may get you into trouble. You must be prepared to defend yourself if you’re threatened!…You want to leave China to do an old man a favor, to make his life’s dream come true, but those men are prepared to shoot you down if you try, and they think they have a right to do it! Well, I’m telling you they don’t! They have no more right to do that than a criminal does to stab you for your money.”

When Colonel Sun disarms and vanquishes attacking policemen by basically staring them down, Hsun-Ching is amazed. “I cannot explain why it works,” the colonel explains. “If you fear nothing, not even death itself, then you grow strong. You can look at a man with an intent to cut through him, and he will feel crushed by your gaze.

Colonel Sun to a disbelieving Hsun-Ching: “Be courteous and stop telling me who I can or cannot be.”

Colonel Sun: “War is a terrible fact of life, but if it is inescapable, then you must approach it as an art. Otherwise, defeat is certain.”

Colonel Sun: “You can’t live without suffering losses now and then, that’s just a fact. But you can’t lose spirit over it. It should strengthen your resolve!”

Colonel Sun: “Anything you do out of loyalty or friendship looks foolish when you add up the expenses. …[but] stick to it and don’t worry about the costs.”

Hsun-Ching: “Loyalty is something we do for other people.”

Colonel Sun: “When you make a promise, you carry it out, regardless of how foolish it may seem.”

The wisdom of The Laughing Sutra is more than just what we eventually learn the scroll itself has to say. The wisdom of the book by Mark Salzman teaches us that loyalty has its price as well as its reward. It also teaches us never to go to a foreign country without first getting the proper currency.

October 1, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Philosophy, Religion | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Children’s Literature for Adults

Madeleine L’Engle is Dead.

I saw the headline in the online edition of the New York Times yesterday, and a wave of nostalgia washed over me. Meg Murray, the protagonist in L’Engle’s classic, Newberry Award winning series, is one of my favorite literary characters from childhood. I wanted to be her. I probably was her: nerdy, intelligent, sarcastic, a diamond (or at least a white topaz) beneath the rough adolescent exterior of too-thick glasses and a mother who didn’t pay attention to children’s fashion.

When Jack was old enough to read A Wrinkle in Time, I handed him the tattered, oversized paperback I had read so many times myself. He looked at it with a sneer. I sighed. It really was falling apart. I had actually taped a few pages back into it as I reread it before deciding that, yes, it was time for him to learn about fewmets and tesseracts.

Barnes and Noble carried the entire series in hardcover. I bought them. Besides looking really swell on the shelf in their matching dust jackets, I knew that these books would never get outdated. Jack’s children will read them, and maybe his grandchildren. Their grandmother- and great-grandmother-to-be has read them again as an adult and finds no reason not to keep them on the shelf. These are not the kind of children’s books that are outgrown and packed away for a future generation. Like our hardcover Narnia books in their cardboard display box, Madeleine L’Engle’s books are meant to be seen and read regardless of my age or Jack’s.

There are a lot of children’s books that are really, really good even for adults. It seems that the “phenomenon” of Harry Potter surprised some of my adult friends, as well as adults all over the world. Books written for and about adolescents don’t have to be sophomoric. Those that aren’t, that are well written and tell a good story, have universal appeal even if they are sold from the children’s section of the bookstore.

There is a trend to make movies of such books these days. Holes, by Louis Sachar, had a great box office return. The classic story of a teenager punished excessively for something he didn’t do, evil jailers with evil agendas, bullies, friendship, loyalty, and karma had just the right amount of symbolism, philosophy and mysticism to appeal to adult book clubs.

Eragon did poorly at the box office, but that should be no reflection on the book. In the tradition of S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders), Eragon was written by 16 year old Christopher Paolini, who followed it with Eldest. The third book in the trilogy is due to be published within the next year. Paolini is an amazing writer, and I expect to see him producing prolific amounts of real literature as his writing becomes more seasoned. Yes, adults who like science fiction, especially those of us who like dragons, will love Paolini’s books.

In the world of Eragon and Eldest, there are no more dragonriders, because the evil king, who has the only dragon left in the world, declared war on them and killed them all. When a dragon’s egg appears mysteriously in the mountains where Eragon, a teenage boy, is hunting, he takes it home. He thinks it is nothing more than an interesting stone until it hatches. Suddenly Eragon is bound to Sapphira, the young dragon hatchling, and the two embark on adventures that are destined to change their world, and hopefully depose the wicked king and bring back dragons and dragonriders. Elves, dwarves, battles fought on the backs of fierce fire-breathing dragons: it’s all there. Personally, I can’t think of anything more I need in a dragon book!

Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, is being put on celluloid. The Golden Compass, based on the first book in the series, is due to be released in December. I hope it does justice to the book. As always, I fear for the bastardization of the story. Pullman is a British author. In the UK, the first book in the trilogy was released as Northern Lights. For whatever reason the title of the book was changed to The Golden Compass when it was published in the US.

His Dark Materials have been called the antithesis of Narnia. Parallel universes serve as the backdrop for this series, and demons replace the souls which exist outside the bodies of their humans. Children are being kidnapped and used in horrible experiments with the element “dust” which the religious authority believes to be proof of original sin. The themes in the book pull at religion, authority, and justice without insulting any true existing form of religion. The church in Pullman’s books is perverted from the Christianity in our universe. These books challenge the reader think about authority and faith in different ways. I doubt the movie will be able to convey these themes. I will wait to see.

The Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud hasn’t yet been brought to the silver screen, and hopefully it won’t be. In case you couldn’t tell form my comments already, I just hate it when movies ruin the fantastic books they claim to based upon. (I know, I know- they’re making a movie, not making the book. Still, I think the movie makers ought to be true to the story, dammit.) In the first Bartimaeus book, The Amulet of Samarkand, a boy with innate magical ability is fostered to a magician who neglects him. The boy is determined to learn magic anyway, so he studies on his own. He calls up a demon just because he can, and naturally all hell breaks loose. Bartimaeus is a sarcastic, secretly good-hearted demon, though, and quite a character. Together the boy and the demon expose corruption among the magicians, managing to topple the government of England in the process. Magical duels, subterfuge, roving gangs, other demons with other agendas, exploding buildings, daring rescues from inaccessible towers… sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Cornelia Funke is to German speaking kids what J.K. Rowling is to their English speaking contemporaries. Her first book to be translated into English was The Thief Lord, and it was all the rage among Jack’s 4th grade peers. Since it was a thick book (like Harry Potter), I picked it up. What a story! Think of Oliver Twist and a teenage Fagan doing their work in the labyrinthine canals of Venice. It’s dark, the water is scary, and someone is chasing our orphaned heros… Funke’s next book to be translated into English was probably better than The Thief Lord, though. In Inkheart, a character from a book is called into real existence when Meggie’s father reads aloud. Unfortunately, Meggie’s dad dooms her mother to becoming a character in the book. Someone has to replace the one that was removed, after all! The challenge is to get Meggie’s mom back out of the book, and to put the characters who have escaped back intro the books. Two minor characters, Dustfinger and Basta, really stand out as examples of how a writer creates a fantastic, fully dimensional character.

When Jack reads something and then presses it one me to read, I do it. He reads what I tell him to, as well. This means I’ve introduced him to other books about kids his age that were written for adults, and he’s introduced me to children’s books that ought to be read by more adults.

Jack and I have always shared books. When he was in kindergarten, I’d climb into bed with him and we’d read a chapter or two from whatever book I had chosen. We read the entire Narnia series aloud that year. We also read the first three Harry Potter books that way. I think Jack became a stronger reader because he would follow along in the books as I read them aloud, giggling when he caught me skipping words or saying something that wasn’t actually written. By the third grade he was reading adult level books on his own.

I asked him about books to mention in this blog, and he told me, “Most children’s books are terrible. It’s the same stories over and over again. Kid finds something magic, kid goes on quest, kid meets girl, kid and girl become friends during the quest, kid and girl almost don’t complete the quest, but then find that the thing they need to complete the quest is inside them the whole time, like it’s ‘love’ or something.” Jack liked and likes the books that are original, that have more complexity.

Jim Butcher, the author of the wonderful Harry Dresden, Wizard mysteries, has started a series about people who can call up the elements to do their bidding. Air, water, earth, metal, wood, and fire are at the beck and call of talented individuals in this post-Roman Empire alternate world. The main characters start as teenagers in the first two books, and by the third they begin to come of age. They fight deadly giant insects who possess people making them zombies, go to war against a race of wolf-like creatures, and they get involved in diplomatic maneuvering among nobility with powerful magic. I’m really looking forward to the fourth book in the Codex Alera.

Ender’s Game is a fantastic book to give to any kid who likes video games. Orson Scott Card’s Ender series is probably his best known work, although he is a prolific writer of several genres. The Ender series is pure science fiction. A six year old boy, Ender Wiggin, is sent to battle school where he spends countless hours playing battle-type video games. Although he is initially segregated from the other students, Ender’s status as a strategic battle prodigy earns him the respect of the other students to whom he teaches tactics after regular school hours. Ender deals with bullies among his peers as well as an adult military command that puts him in charge of battle groups over his objection. Spoiler: When it is finally revealed to Ender that every battle he has fought on the video screen has been a real battle against real enemies, he falls into a catatonic state for several days. He has destroyed an entire race of aliens, including their home planet. The books that follow all address xenophobia and mental illness in creative ways. The series should be a classic for adults and kids alike.

Card also wrote an alternate history series with a teenage boy as his primary protagonist. In Seventh Son, the first book in the Tales of Alvin Maker, Alvin is known to be a man of incredible talent. He has a “knack” for making things – out of virtually nothing. His almost god-like powers change the world, and in later books characters from history interact with Alvin and have their own “knacks.” Tecumseh, William Henry Harrison, and the Indian Prophet Tenska-Tewa make their appearances, and Tippecanoe isn’t quite the same.

My philosophy has been to give Jack books that are about kids his own age, and a little older. When I read a story of a teenager who goes on the quest, or is thrust into a position of having to use his wits to survive, I give it to him. Frank Herbert’s Dune is a good one for teenagers because a teenager is suddenly thrust into a position of authority and responsibility, and must act creatively and desperately to save himself. Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shanarra is the classic quest book that Jack complained of, but its complexity is sufficient to keep not only Jack but plenty of others entertained through a long series of books. Likewise, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is about adolescents who are prophesied to save the world and fight against the veritable gods of their reality.

I recently read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Maybe it is a bit of science fiction when a man is chronologically challenged, but when he materializes naked at the age of forty-three in front of his six year old future wife, things get interesting. The wife grows chronologically through the book, but never knows whether she will meet her husband in his future or his past.

A girl is identified by a homeless man to be the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary in The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn by Janis Hollowell. Although her mother tries to protect her from the headiness that comes with being suddenly invested with the power to heal and the power to bless, Francesca’s aunt is more avaricious and sees the potential for making a profit off the situation. As Francesca herself matures, so do her powers. Book clubs loved this selection, because of the possibility of a mass psychosis that either caused or resulted from Francesca’s powers.

I know my list is weighted heavily toward science fiction and fantasy because Jack and I both love the genre. There are other books out there about kids, though, that are great. I’d love to hear what others have read.

September 8, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Children, Children's Stories, Conversations With Children, Science Fiction/Fantasy | Leave a comment

Iditarod Trail, 1925: The Serum Run (Part III)


Leonhard Seppala and His Lead Dog, Togo


Getting the diphtheria antitoxin to Nome the fastest way possible was paramount. The lives of scores of people, if not the whole town, depended on it.

The original plan for dog sleds was for two teams to meet in the middle. One team would set out from the end of the railroad at Nenana, and the other would set out from Nome. They would meet in the middle, at Nulato, and the Nome team would return with the serum.

The logical choice for the team to make the round trip between Nome and the halfway point was Leonhard Seppala and his team of Siberian Huskies, led by Togo. Togo was 12 years old, which was somewhat elderly, but he had been Seppala’s lead dog for tens of thousands of miles across the Alaskan Interior. Seppala himself held records for races like the All-Alaska Sweepstakes. He had trusted Togo with his life more than once.

Togo had not originally seemed like lead-dog material. In fact, Seppala tried to sell him twice, but Togo kept finding his way back to Seppala’s kennels. When he was just eight months old, Togo had escaped the kennel and followed Seppala. Seppala couldn’t turn back to return Togo, so he let the pup run with the team. Togo finished that trip in the harness next to the lead dog, and Seppala realized that Togo had great potential.

Alaska’s territorial governor was familiar with Seppala’s speed records across the frozen expanse of Northern Alaska’s interior, but thought that the fastest way to get the serum to Nome was by a relay involving more teams – thus, no team would be driving exhausted, the dogs would at their fastest and freshest, and the serum would get to Nome where it was desperately needed that much faster. The governor sent a telegram to the US Postal Inspector in Nenana, who would have the closest official contact with the mushers. The Postal Inspector contacted the Northern Commercial Company, which actually hired the drivers of the dog sleds. The company notified drivers all along the route to be ready for a relay. They wouldn’t be getting paid for this run. It was a mission of mercy.

Twenty teams of men and dogs took part in the relay. Athabaskan Indians (native to the Alaskan interior), Eskimos (native to the Alaskan coasts), and US Postal Service mushers all participated.

Dogs and men are believed to have arrived in Alaska together, walking across the Bering Land Bridge. Although the people native to Alaska hunted other animals, the dog was their only domesticated species. Dog fur kept Eskimos warm, dog meat filled their bellies when there was no other source of food. Dogs were used for hunting, as beasts of burden, and as guides through the confusing white terrain. It is believed that the Eskimos first came up with the idea of hitching dogs to sleds. The Athabaskans of the interior did not use sled dogs until after white men came to Alaska.

Twenty-four hours after the crate of diphtheria antitoxin serum left Anchorage, Alaska, the temperature in Nenana, Alaska, at the end of the railroad, was fifty degrees below zero. Traditionally, when the temperature reached -38 degrees Fahrenheit, so cold that mercury froze in thermometers, neither man nor beast went out. Wild Bill Shannon set out from Nenana with his team of Malamutes in that searing cold for a fifty-two mile run over very rough terrain. Normally the 52 miles between Nenana and Tolovana, where the next team in the relay waited, took two days with an overnight stop in Minto.

The train from Anchorage arrived at 9:00 p.m. January 27, 1925. Despite being cautioned by the Nenana Postal Inspector to wait until morning to start the run to Tovolo, Shannon insisted upon leaving immediately. “People are dying,” he said. His attitude was the attitude of every driver in the relay.

The trail normally used by the dog sleds had been churned up by horses in the days before, so Shannon turned his team to run on the frozen surface of the Tanana River. The air over the river was even colder, and the danger of water breaking through the ice was ever-present. As time wore on, Shannon had a harder time warming his feet and hands. He began losing his focus. Suddenly Blackie, his lead Malamute, swerved, taking the sled in a new direction. Shannon nearly lost his grip on the sled and looked around in surprise at Blackie’s move. He saw a black hole in the ice – an area of open water that the team had narrowly missed. Thanks to Blackie’s canine perceptions and quick thinking, disaster had been averted. It would not be the only time along this relay that the serum was nearly lost. But for the wit and courage of the lead dogs, the serum would never make it to Nome.

The temperature continued to drop through the Arctic night. Shannon felt his extremities freezing and knew he had to take steps to get the blood circulating in his body. So, he took steps. He got off the sled and literally ran alongside the team. This helped for only a short time, and soon Shannon realized he was in real danger of hypothermia. By the time he reached Minto, the halfway point between Nenana and Tolovana, the outside temperature was -62 degrees. Four dogs had bloody muzzles from breathing the icy air, and Shannon’s face was black with frostbite.

After four hours of warming himself by the stove in Minto, Shannon set out for the remaining 22 miles of the run to Tolovana. He had to leave three of his dogs behind because they were too weakened by pulmonary hemorrhaging caused by the cold to continue. A fourth dog looked questionable, but Shannon decided to take him. If necessary, that dog could be unhitched from the team and ride the rest of the way to Tolovana. Shannon made it to Tolovana by 11:00 a.m. on January 28. It was -56 degrees Farhenheit when he turned the precious cargo over to Edgar Kallands, the next driver in the relay.

In Nome that same morning, Leonhard Seppala set out. He had 315 miles to travel to get to the halfway point at Nulato, then 315 miles back to Nome with the serum. On the way he had to traverse the questionable pack ice of Norton Sound. The Sound might be completely frozen or it might have ice floes that would kill him and his team. the shortest distance between Nulato and Nome lay directly across the Sound, though.

In the meantime, the number of confirmed cases of diphtheria in Nome were increasing by the hour. Although both the white and native populations obeyed the quarantine, the strain was extremely virulent and and probably infected the population well before the quarantine had been ordered. The diphtheria bacterium could live for weeks outside its human host on something as benign as a toy. The children of the area had all attended Christmas celebrations and had been in school and church prior to the quarantine.

Nome’s mayor contacted the territorial governor again, begging for relief by airplane. A little more serum, enough to treat perhaps five people, had been located in Juneau and was being sent by rail to Nenana to await the next mail run. It wouldn’t be enough.

Next: more dogs, and a nation holds its collective breath …

July 31, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Children, Death, Health, History | Leave a comment

Iditarod Trail, 1925: The Serum Run (Part II)


Diphtheria has now been largely eradicated in developed countries. In the US, for example, preschool children typically receive multiple doses of the DPT vaccine, which immunizes them against diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), and tetanus. Children who are not immunized, especially those who are in close proximity to other non-immunized children, are most prone to the disease, even in places where it was previously under control. For example, after the fall of the Soviet Union a lapse in enforcement of the immunization programs resulted in outbreaks in several its former states. In 1924, though, the children of Nome had not been immunized against diphtheria. Indeed, the vaccine had only been successfully tested the previous year for the first time. Antibiotics were not available to treat the disease until after World War II.

Prior to 1891, a child with diphtheria could be expected to die within a few days of falling ill. Diphtheria was a dreadful disease, highly contagious and had a mortality rate of nearly one hundred percent. Children are the most vulnerable targets of this bacterium, although it can infect and kill adults, too. In a single outbreak between 1735 and 1740 diphtheria killed as many as 80% of the children under 10 years of age in some New England towns.

In the 1880s a method of intubation was discovered that prevented victims from suffocating, but this method did not stop the toxic effects of the bacteria. The mortality rate fell to 75%, which was small comfort when the disease attacked a community.

In the 1890s, however, a Prussian physician, Emil von Behring, developed an antitoxin that did not kill the bacteria, but neutralized the toxic poisons that the bacteria releases into the body. The first Nobel Prize in Medicine went to Dr. von Behring for this discovery and the development of this serum therapy for diphtheria. It was this serum Nome so desperately needed.

Six of Nome’s children had died of diphtheria by January 22, 1925, the day the telegram was sent pleading for serum. Two days later, two more children had died, Welch had confirmed diphtheria in 20 children, and 50 more were at risk of contracting the disease because of exposure to sick siblings.

The only ground-based link to the rest of the world during the winter is the Iditarod Trail, an established mail route used by the mushers and their teams of dogs. The trail stretches 938 miles from Seward on the southern coast of Alaska, across several mountain ranges and the vast tundra of the Alaskan interior before reaching Nome, situated on an icy port just two degrees south of the Arctic Circle. Because the cockpits of airplanes were open in 1925, the only way mail and supplies could get to Nome was the dog sled.

Nome, Alaska, sits at the top of the world. In January, the coldest month of the year, temperatures hover in single digits much of the time. In late January 1925, though, a series of winter storms were blasting across northern Alaska, pushing temperatures 30, 40 and 50 degrees below zero. It was through these strong winds and driving snows, and through the perpetual twilight of the Arctic winter, that the dogs and their mushers would have to transport the serum.

It was decided that the serum would travel by train to Nenana, as far as the tracks could take it. A teams of dogs would meet the train and take the serum to Nulato, approximately half the distance between Nenana and Nome. Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian musher based in Nome, would take delivery of the serum and transport it back to Nome. Seppala and his dogs were famous for having won races across the Alaskan interior, and it seemed logical that he should hurry the serum to Nome.

Now that there was a plan for transporting the serum, Dr. Welch waited to hear that sufficient serum had been located and could be sent to Nome. In the meantime, as more children and adults developed the gray membrane of diphtheria, Dr. Welch began administering the expired serum that he had on hand. Possibly the confirmed case that worried Dr. Welch the most was that of Nome’s school superintendent, who was also a teacher. Every child in the Nome area would have been exposed to diphtheria through him. Dr. Welch hoped that the million units of serum he had requested would be enough to treat the entire population.

News finally came that 1.1 million units of the serum had been located at hospitals along the west coast of the US, but it would take until January 31 for the serum to arrive in Seattle to begin the trek to Nome. The serum was gathered and began its trek north. Having confirmed diphtheria on January 20, Dr. Welch knew that if no serum arrived until well into February, it would be too late for many of the children of Nome.

A few days later, 300,000 units of serum were located at a railway hospital in Anchorage. It wasn’t enough to save the town, but it was a start. Anchorage’s supply of serum would reach Nome long before the serum being sent from Seattle. The serum was packed in as much cushioning as possible to protect it from the jarring of the sled. The doctor in Anchorage pinned a note to the blanket surrounding the crate of serum instructing the mushers to warm the serum for fifteen minutes at each stop along the trail. He delivered the crate to the railroad and sent it north to Nenana. The serum would arrive in Nenana on January 27, a week after little Billy Barnett had died of diphtheria.

Next: the dogs…..

July 29, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Children, Death, Health, History | Leave a comment

Iditarod Trail, 1925: The Serum Run

It’s almost August in Arkansas. That means it’s hot and the air is so heavy and stands so still I can lift a chunk of it in one hand and cut it with a knife.

How can someone who hates hot weather keep cool? She gets creative. In addition to tall glasses of sweet iced tea, sun dresses, and air conditioning cranked so low you could hang meat from my ceiling, I decided to pull out an old favorite: a book about dog sledding that I read a few years ago. There’s nothing like the thought of the Iditarod to put ice in one’s blood, now is there?

This isn’t a book review, although if you want to read more about the serum run the book I read is an excellent choice.

Pull up your chairs and settle in. Let me tell you a story about what really, truly happened one long wintry night in Alaska – where winter nights last for months.


Map of the Serum Run, January 1925, from The Cruelest Miles


Map of the January 1925 Serum Run along the Iditaraod Trail from The Cruelest Miles




Prior to reading The Cruelest Miles, a fabulous book by Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury about the legendary inspiration for the annual Iditarod dog sled race, my own knowledge about the Serum Run came from the news reports of the Iditarod, most of which I ignored, and my son’s old videotape of the animated feature, Balto, which I watched and listened to ad nauseum when he was a little guy. Although I suspected that the children’s movie had taken liberties with the facts, I was compelled to buy the book because of it as much as by the chance to read another vignette from American history. And yes, the movie did take generous liberties with the facts. Apparently, so did the creators of the statue of Balto that sits at the Children’s Zoo in Central Park in New York City.

The 674 mile trek was endured by brave Alaskan dog-sledders to stop the Nome diphtheria outbreak in the dead of winter, 1925. The Salisburys’ book is altogether readable and informative not only about the desperate race against the disease, but also about dog-sledding, Alaskan topography and climate, the personalities and temperaments of the sled dogs themselves, and of the score of determined men who accepted the challenge to risk their own lives to save a town of dying children at the top of the world almost 100 years ago.

Suspense gripped the entire world during each leg of the desperate race to get the diphtheria anti-toxin to Nome in time to save the town. The book intersperses fascinating facts and asides which leave the reader hungry for more, but not impatient with the interruptions of the dramatic unfolding of events. The story has great flavor because of the fullness of its telling. As each team of dauntless dogs is hitched to their sled, the anti-toxin’s epic journey is punctuated with the unfolding crisis back in Nome.

When an Eskimo family brought one of their four children to him in the fall of 1925, Nome’s local doctor, Curtis Welch, did not immediately suspect diphtheria, nor did he realize that he was seeing an epidemic in its infancy. He believed at first that he was dealing with tonsillitis, inflammation of the tonsils and throat caused by a virus or bacteria. None of the other children in the family were ill, and the parents reported no other instances of sore throats back in their village. Since diphtheria is highly contagious, it was unlikely that only one child would be affected, and in the decades he had been practicing medicine in Alaska’s northwest, no cases of diphtheria had been diagnosed. The Eskimo child died the next morning, though. Although Welch first concluded the cause of death to be from tonsillitis, which was rare. After the cases of diphtheria began making themselves known, though, Welch changed the death certificate to reflect diphtheria as the child’s cause of death.

That fall and winter Welch noticed an unusually high frequency of tonsillitis and sore throats. On Christmas Eve, he saw a seven-year-old girl with a severely sore throat. Her Eskimo mother would not permit him to examine her fully without the child’s Norwegian father present, and the father had left the area on business. The little girl died four days later. This was now the second death from tonsillitis. Deaths from tonsillitis did occur, but even in days before antibiotics they were extremely rare. When news came that four other native children had died after suffering from sore throats, Welch began to suspect that something was amiss.

Diphtheria is an airborne bacteria that thrives in the moist membranes of the throat and nose and releases a powerful toxin that makes its victims tired and apathetic. In two to five days, other, more deadly symptoms would appear: a slight fever and red ulcers at the back of the throat and in the mouth. As the bacteria multiplied and more of the toxin was released, the ulcers thickened and expanded, forming a tough, crusty, almost leathery membrane made up of dead cells, blood clots, and dead skin. The membrane colonized ever larger portions of the mouth and the throat, until it had nowhere left to go and advanced down the windpipe, slowly suffocating the victim. [The Cruelest Miles, p. 36]

On January 20, a three year old boy, Billy Barnett, displayed the characteristic gray membrane of diphtheria. Dr. Welch was no longer just guessing. Since the diphtheria antitoxin his hospital had on hand had expired, and the fresh antitoxin he had ordered during the summer of 1924 did not arrive before the Bering Sea froze completely that fall, Dr. Welch had no choice but to watch the tiny boy die. Then the day after Billy Barnett’s death, an Eskimo girl with obvious diphtheria died.

Dr. Welch was aware of the significance of the problem. During the influenza pandemic of 1918, the native population had attempted to flee the disease and instead spread it further. If a panic occurred, the disease would not be limited just to Nome’s population of about 1500. Diphtheria is highly contagious and the bacteria was capable of living for weeks outside a human host. Panicked flight would guarantee the spread of the epidemic faster and farther, and containing it, especially during northwest Alaska’s brutal winter, would be impossible.

The town council met and were informed of the dire circumstances. Nome had been devastated by the flu pandemic six years before, losing more than half its population. Of 300 orphans created by the flu pandemic in Alaska, 90 of them were in Nome. The men were well aware of the seriousness of the situation.

The decision was made to quarantine the town and to prohibit any group gatherings. Children, the ones most likely to be affected by the disease, would not be permitted to leave their homes at all. Two urgent telegraphs were sent. One went to the US Public Health Service in Washington, DC. The other was an all-points bulletin for the entire of Alaska.

Nome’s medical care team was quickly overwhelmed by sick children exhibiting the same symptoms. Not only was a deadly epidemic spreading rapidly through the town and neighboring villages, but Dr. Welch’s medical facility, the best in the region, was cut off from the rest of the world by pack ice and the harsh arctic winter. While this might be good inasmuch as a quarantine was concerned, no one would survive the epidemic to tell about it unless a delivery of antitoxin got to Nome fast.

Keep in mind, now: it’s the dead of winter two degrees below the arctic circle. The sea is frozen. There was no rail service within 700 miles of Nome. Even today there are no roads in or out of Nome, and in 1925 truck transport over such a distance, without roads, was completely out of the question.The only available airplane was a World War I model with an open cockpit – this was 1925 – which would have been almost certain suicide for the pilot in the dead of the North Alaskan winter.

The only way to get the serum to Nome was by dog sled, if serum could even be found.

To be continued…

July 28, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Children, Death, Environment, Health, History, Movies | 4 Comments

Isabelle Allende’s El Zorro: A Book Review




I confess I have superhero ambitions. I am attracted to anyone having the fashion sense and BMI to pull off wearing tights and a cape in public and I want to be just like them when I grow up. The consummate altruism that comes along with the costume is an ideal I can only hope to achieve.

I regret that usually I must look to heroes of a more mundane nature for most of my inspiration. When Isabel Allende wrote El Zorro, I knew I had to read it. Impatiently I waited for it to come out in paperback. Seeing it paraded in front of me constantly over the next few months, I broke down and bought it in hardcover, an honor normally reserved for books I plan to read over and over. It turns out that the investment was prudent. I recently reread this wonderful story. It was just as good the second time around.

The author herself is almost as interesting as her characters. Like El Zorro Diego de la Vega, Allende has noble roots. Her father was Chile’s ambassador to Peru and her cousin was Salvador Allende, the Chilean President deposed by Augusto Pinochet’s CIA-backed coup of September 11, 1973. Like Diego, she was essentially exiled to Spain as a young adult. Perhaps it was inevitable that she would write the story of the Fox.

As the daughter, cousin, and stepdaughter of diplomats, Allende traveled the world, sometimes leaving her foreign home precipitously when political or family crises demanded it. Her stepfather was a Chilean diplomat in Lebanon at the time of the Suez Canal crisis; her family fled to Venezuela when Pinochet deposed President Allende.

Educated in Europe, Lebanon, and South America Allende’s professional career began in journalism. Prior to the coup, she approached the Nobel winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda for an interview. He declined, saying she had too much imagination to be a journalist, and told her to write books. With encouragement like that, how could she not?

Her unique creativity revealed itself first in children’s stories and plays she wrote, then, after the coup while she was in exile, in the novels she authored. She has sixteen published books, and a seventeenth is due to be published in the fall. Even in translation, Allende writes beautifully. Although she lives in California, she writes in her native Spanish.

El Zorro explores the creation of not just a folk hero, but of the boy, Diego de la Vega, who grew up to become el Zorro. Spanning two continents and four decades, there is never a lull in the story. The swordplay is really cool, too.

Zorro’s parents meet at a Spanish Mission. His father, Alejandro de la Vega, is the brilliant young officer charged with the mission’s defense. His mother, Toypurnia, is the daughter of White Owl, a shaman and healer of the Gabrieleno tribe, and a Spanish sailor who deserted his ship and lived among the Indians.

Toypurnia is injured in an attack she leads on the San Gabriel mission. When the Spaniards discover that she is a woman, she is given medical treatment. Alejandro de la Vega is fascinated by her and often tends to her himself. She and Alejandro fall in love and rather than allow her to be executed as a captured enemy, Alejandro maneuvers Toypurnia into the protection of Doña Eulalia de Callís, the wife of the governor of Alta California, who, as a condition of Toypurnia’s pardon, turns her into a “Christian Spanish lady” newly christened “Regina María de la Inmaculada Concepción.” Alejandro and Toypurnia are married and inherit a grand estate when Doña Eulalia and her husband, Governor Pedro Fages, decide to return to Spain.

When Toypurnia seems to have failing health during her pregnancy with Diego, an unmarried pregnant Catholic Indian woman is sent from the San Gabriel Mission to be her servant. The two women give birth the same day, but since Toypurnia’s health continues to decline the servant nurses both Diego and her own son, Bernardo. Diego and Bernardo come to be more than milk brothers, though. They are the best of friends and when Bernardo’s mother is killed during a pirate raid on the family’s compound, they are raised as true brothers. Bernardo is so traumatized by seeing his mother murdered by the marauders, though, that he becomes mute.

Bernardo is the perfect foil for Diego’s personality. He is smart, strong, silent, sturdy, and unassailably loyal to his brother. Diego, on the other hand, is small, mischievous, brilliant, witty, and the instigator of most of the trouble the boys find.

Diego’s Indian grandmother, White Owl, exerts as much influence on the course of the boys’ lives as do the Spaniards who raise them. She takes the boys on shamanistic journeys of survival and character development. On a survival vision quest Bernardo finds his spirit animal, the horse Tornado, and Diego finds his totem, the fox. “Like the fox, you will discover what cannot be seen in the dark, you will disguise yourself, and you will hide by day and act by night,” his grandmother explains after the vision quest.

Diego is sent to Barcelona, to the home of his father’s best friend, to be educated. Naturally Bernardo accompanies him, ostensibly as a servant but in actuality Bernardo is educated the same as Diego. The Spanish household accepts the boys without reservation. He and Bernardo reach their adult growth there. As political intrigues permeate the Barcelona, Diego and Bernardo find themselves getting involved to preserve their own reputations as well as those of their patron. El Zorro, a masked and mustachioed liberator of political captives, is born due to the necessity of acting in secret.

The political climate in Barcelona becomes dire and Diego and Bernardo are entrusted with the safety of his patron’s beautiful daughters. They escape back to America, encountering the famous pirates Pierre and Jean Lafitte in the process. Their return to Alta California does not improve their circumstances. The political climate there is at least as bad as it was in Barcelona. El Zorro has a need to continue to act. The Zorro we are all familiar with becomes the legend we love.

Allende’s El Zorro embodies the melding of many different aspects of society into one conflicted and heroic personality. El Zorro becomes a legend because he has no choice given his integrity his complex background. Loyalties that should be divided find a simple resolution simply by doing what is right. Diego is of three worlds: Indian, Californio, and Spain. El Zorro cannot fail because of his wit and his friends and family.

The elements that make el Zorro a hero and a legend are the elements that create any true legend: mystery, physical prowess, masterful wit, and above all else, honor.

July 21, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews | 1 Comment

Ishmael, Part II

Ishmael, Part II magnify

I appreciate the comments on the first installment of my blog on Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. The second installment on this book is the more interesting, in my opinion. Why? Because it explains part of the mythology of our culture by retelling two important stories we all know. Both are stories from the Book of Genesis.

Although I may draw the ire of Bible literalists when I say this, I think the explanations Quinn gives of the Fall of Man (Adam’s banishment from Eden) and of the story of Cain and Abel make supreme allegorical sense. The explanations opened doors in my mind.

All of us are familiar with the story of the Fall. God tells Adam that he can eat from any tree in Eden except the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam eats from it so God banishes him from the Garden. (I am deliberately leaving out Eve and her role because the word “Adam” means “mankind, ” and mankind is what Ishmael is concerned with.) Most of us are taught that this act of disobedience was something God could not tolerate. When Adam ate the fruit of the tree he realized he was naked and was ashamed. Hello, instantaneous cultural mores!

Ishmael explains the story from a slightly different perspective: that of the gods. The fruit of the tree gave knowledge of good and evil, but it did not impart the wisdom of how to use that knowledge in the long term. Knowing that something is good in the moment does not mean that that same thing will be good in the future. Also, what is good for one may be evil for another. Mankind is too selfish to make that distinction: if something is good for Man now, then that is Man’s choice. If it results in later harm, well, Man will choose to deal with the consequences later. Just like someone commented on yesterday’s blog, humans want instant gratification.

The example Ishmael gives is of predator and prey. If the lion kills the gazelle, it is good for the lion and the lion lives to hunt another day but it is bad for the gazelle, which dies. If the lion misses the kill, it is bad for the lion because the lion starves to death, but it is good for the gazelle which lives for another day. By controlling his ecology and his world, Man has assumed the mantle of choosing which lives and which dies in this scenario. Although man has the gods’ knowledge of good and evil, Man does not have the gods’ wisdom to choose correctly every time. Man’s poor choices result in an ecological imbalance.

The knowledge of good and evil is therefore something entirely situational for Man. Man only chooses what is good for him at the time. Man does not choose what is good for the world at all times. He cannot. Man’s arrogance and his mistaken belief that he has both the power and the wisdom of the gods is his own undoing. It will cause his own destruction.

The second Genesis tale Ishmael relates is what we know as the First Murder. The sons of Adam, Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a herder, both make sacrifices to their god. Cain is jealous because the god prefers Abel’s sacrifice, and kills him. Cain is banished from society as a result and carries a mark that identifies him as evil.

Ishmael tells the man that although the Hebrews preserved the story of the brothers, it was a Semite story to begin with. The Semites were a culture that predated the Hebrews and the Arabs. The Semites lived on the Arabian peninsula and in the fertile crescent of the Tigris-Euphrates valley. As Leavers, they took only what they needed and left the rest alone. The were hunter-gatherers and later nomadic herders. In years of plenty, humans and other animal and plant species flourished. In years of famine, the numbers of all species diminished. They would flourish again when food became plentiful.

Agriculture is believed to have begun in the Fertile Crescent. When Man began farming, animals were no longer allowed to graze on farmland. The farmers produced much more food than they needed, and times of famine became less frequent. The species that had lived where the farmers were cultivating land moved elsewhere. As more land was put under cultivation, the farmers, now a Taker society reshaping the world to suit themselves, pushed the nomadic Leavers from their lands. The story of Cain murdering Abel is the story of the northern Taker Semitic tribes murdering the southern nomadic Semitic Leaver tribes to make room for more agriculture. It is a story of war.

The gods prefer Abel’s way of life, which allows all living things to flourish in good times and which means all living things suffer equally during lean times. Cain is banished from living in the hands of the gods because he has assumed the mantle of the gods by reforming the world to his own purposes. The mark that identifies him as evil is his arrogance and continuing destruction of the very planet he needs to maintain in order to survive.

Basically, Ishmael explains, Takers believe that the world belongs to Man, whereas Leavers believe that Man belongs to the world. Takers see themselves as running the world. Leavers allow the gods to run the world. The gods, of course, prefer Leavers, and Leavers are sustainable. Takers are not, and will eventually destroy themselves along with their world in contradiction to the gods’ intentions.

In his final lesson with Ishmael, the man asks for a program to save the world. Ishmael tells him,

“The story of Genesis must be undone. First, Cain must stop murdering Abel. This is essential if you’re to survive. The Leavers are the endangered species most critical to the world- not because they’re humans but because they alone can show the destroyers of the world that there is no one right way to live. And then, of course, you must spit out the fruit of the forbidden tree. You must absolutely and forever relinquish the idea that you know who should live and who should die on this planet.”

“Yes, I see all that, but that’s a program for mankind to follow, that’s not a program for me. What do I do?”

“What you do is to teach a hundred what I’ve taught you, and inspire each of them to teach a hundred. That’s how it’s always done.”

“Yes, but . . . is it enough?”

Ishmael frowned. “Of course it’s not enough. But if you begin anywhere else, there’s no hope at all. You can’t say, ‘We’re going to change the way people behave toward the world, but we’re not going to change the way they think about the world or the way they think about divine intentions in the world or the was they think about the destiny of man.’ As long as the people of your culture are convinced that the world belongs to them and that their divinely-appointed destiny is to conquer and rule it, then they are of course going to go on acting the way they’ve been acting for the past ten thousand years. They’re going to go on treating the world as if it were a piece of human property and they’re going to go on conquering it as if it were an adversary. You can’t change these things with laws. You must change people’s minds. And you can’t just root out a harmful complex of ideas and leave a void behind; you have to give people something that is as meaningful as what they’ve lost – something that makes better sense than the old horror of Man Supreme, wiping out everything on this planet that doesn’t serve his needs directly or indirectly.”

I shook my head. “What you’re saying is that someone has to stand up and become to the world today what Saint Paul was to the Roman Empire.”

“Yes, basically. Is that so daunting?”

I laughed. “Daunting isn’t nearly strong enough. To call it daunting is like calling the Atlantic damp.”

“Is it really so impossible in an age when a stand-up comic on television reaches more people than Paul did in his entire lifetime?”
The above quotation is taken from Daniel Quinn: Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit (Bantam, NY (1992)), pp 248-249.

April 24, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Environment, History, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science | 1 Comment

Ishmael – Part I

Ishmael - Part I magnify

Yesterday’s Earth Day post drew some interesting comments and left a burning question in my mind. If “going green” isn’t enough to slow the global climate change and stave off apocalypse, what can we do?

I want to tell you about a novel I read recently. Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, explains why human beings are such poor stewards of our planet. We have destroyed our world because we believe ourselves to be gods. We change our surroundings to suit us and we kill anything that gets in our way.

Quinn is a radical Neo-Tribalist, and he lays out the philosophy and the reasons for Neo-Tribalism in a Socratic dialogue between a telepathic gorilla and a man. Neo-Tribalism is a theory based on the writings of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (the “Noble Savage” guy) and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (the god of structural anthropology), among others. The idea is that modern culture will result in annihilation of the human race. Overpopulation and abuse of resources, coupled with the idea that mankind has a right to use up the planet as it sees fit is what modern man does, and is it not sustainable. We will survive only if as a species we return to a hunter-gatherer existence, living in harmony with the planet and the other species on it.

Quinn’s novel Ishmael contains more than ecological philosophy, though. It is a dialogue between man and ape. It is social philosophy. It is religion. It is profound. It shifts paradigms. It moves the cheese. This book has changed lives.

The human protagonist in Ishmael responds to a newspaper ad: “Teacher Seeks Pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in Person.” When he applies for the pupil position, the man must grapple with the surreal discovery that the teacher is a telepathic silver-back gorilla who calls himself Ishmael.

Finally, in answer to Ishmael’s question of why he seeks a teacher, the man admits that he wants to understand “how things came to be this way.” The man feels that something is wrong with the world, that there is a Great Lie being told, but he can neither identify what is wrong nor identify the lie.

Ishmael begins teaching the man about his own species and his own cultural biases. First, the man must understand that many of the things he believes to be true are part of a mythology. The most important myth to recognize is the myth that the world was made for Man to do with as he pleases.

Ishmael divides mankind generally into two groups: Takers and Leavers. Takers are those who take from the world and from the other creatures around them. Takers take all they want, which is more than what they need. They believe the myth that the world exists for their kind, and they brook no argument otherwise. We are Takers.

Leavers are the people we call primitive. They do not farm, they do not take more from the world than they need to survive. They are hunters and gatherers. Very few Leavers continue to exist, because the Takers plant the Myth wherever they go and convert the Leavers to Takers.

Once the man understands that the notion that humans are the pinnacle of creation is a myth, he is better equipped to understand “how things came to be this way.”The great lie is that man can do as he pleases to change the earth. The lie is based on the myth.

Ishmael’s student comes to understand that Man, in his guise of Taker, is the only creature on the planet to believe the myth and the lie. Other species compete within the ecosystem; man changes the ecosystem to suit himself without regard to the consequences for other creatures or even, ultimately, for himself. Leavers and the rest of the species on the planet compete for survival, but they do not “wage war” against the planet or other species to do so. Takers wage constant war against the earth and against the species Takers perceive to be competition. The competition may be the way a river flows, the existence of an insect, or plants Takers consider to be weeds in their gardens.

To live sustainably, Quinn argues, “you may not hunt down competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food.” By killing our competition (the pests that invade our crops, the wolves that hunt our sheep, the swamps where we want to build our cities, the Leavers whose way of life is alien to ours) we Takers wage war against the world.

Think about this. Tomorrow I’ll tell you more about this amazing book and its philosophy.

April 23, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Environment, History, Philosophy, Politics, Religion | Leave a comment


The other day someone noticed one of my feeds that seemed uber-apropos for a self-proclaimed Wench who runs a Virgin Training School: “Jeremiah and the Lustful She-Camel” screamed the headline from Slate Magazine.

Oh, my, but there are volumes of possibilities in that headline! I’ve written a silly story about it that has very little to do with the actual article. You can read it in a moment, but first I’d like to talk a bit about the article and the series that begat it, as well as some books I recommend to anyone interested.

The article is part of David Plotz’s series Blogging the Bible: What’s Really in the Good Book. Plotz is a faithful Jew who, like many of us who have attended services in the religion assigned to us by virtue of our birth, reached adulthood believing that he knew what the Bible taught and what the stories were. In the article in question he examines the Book of Jeremiah and comments on how Jeremiah spends a good deal of time early in his sermons talking about sex – or at least comparing people’s bad behavior to sexual misconduct. He describes them at one point as “running about like a lustful she-camel.”

In the introduction to his series on the Bible, Plotz explains that at a bat mitzvah for a friend’s daughter, he picked up a copy of the Bible and idly flipped to Genesis Chapter 34 and began reading. What he saw startled him and started him on a new quest to discover the book he assumed he knew fairly well. He is now blogging a book of the Bible at a time and reexamining what the book says. It’s an exercise I have immensely enjoyed following. I highly recommend the series to anyone interested in religion.

Like Plotz, when I find myself unwillingly stuck at a religious ceremony, which is pretty much anytime I find myself at a religious ceremony, I pick up the Bible and idly flip through it. Almost without exception I find something that appalls me about this so-called benevolent God we are taught about, or about the teachings of his Son as explained by Peter or Paul, both of whom I think corrupted the message beyond recognition.

Chapter 34 of Genesis is the subject of a marvelous contemporary literary midrash by Anita Diamant called The Red Tent. When I read it several years ago, Diamant’s interpretation and extrapolation of the story of Dinah, half-sister of Joseph (he of the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) sent me on a quest to discover more of these wonderful novels.

I’m a voracious reader, but the sheer number of midrashim I devoured over the next few months impressed even me. I felt as though there were finally people out there – other, sensitive, questioning, intelligent, appalled people – whose language I could finally understand and to whose thoughts and responses to Biblical stories I could finally relate.

I still read every contemporary literary midrash I come across. I like them. I like the fact that heroes like King David are shown to be petty and mean, like in Queenmaker, by India Edgehill. That’s how he impressed me in the first place. That and arrogant, of course. The same author has written about the relationship between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in Wisdom’s Daughter.

I like that Abraham comes across pretty much as a schizophrenic dolt, as in Orson Scott Card’s Sarah.

That’s right, the brilliant and prolific Orson Scott Card has written three midrashim so far. He is the Hugo Award winning author of Ender’s Game fame, the start of a classic science fiction series that brilliantly combines interspecies space battles and computer video games. This is the same Orson Scott Card who wrote the fabulous alternate history/fantasy series the Tales of Alvin Maker. Alvin, the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, whose “knack” for “making” makes him almost god-like, has interactions with actual historical figures from the time period including Chief Tecumseh and his brother, the Shawnee Prophet Tenskwatawa, Napoleon Bonaparte (exiled in this alternate history to Detroit for his crimes against Europe), and my own distant cousin and President-for-a-White-Hot-Minute William Henry Harrison, he of Tippecanoe fame. Card has written lots more that is absolutely wonderful, but I’ll let those of you who don’t know his work email me for more information if you’re really curious.

Card has written midrashim about Rebekah, wife of Isaac and mother of the twins Esau and Jacob, and Rachel and Leah, the wives of Jacob and mothers of Joseph and Dinah and the twelve tribes of Israel. I sincerely hope he writes more. I really enjoy his work and it delights me no end that he has delved into another genre I love.

Marek Halter, a Polish writer whose family narrowly escaped the Warsaw Ghetto during German’s occupation, has written the Canaan Trilogy which includes another book about Abraham’s wife Sarah, Zipporah, the wife of Moses, and Lilah, the sister of the Prophet Ezra. Halter also has written several other books about the Jewish people including The Book of Abraham, which is not about the father of the Judeo-Christian-Islam traditions, but about a man who lived after the time of Jesus in Jerusalem when the Romans sacked it in 70 C.E.

More books in the genre include Rebecca Kohn’s The Gilded Chamber: A Novel of Queen Esther; Brenda Ray’s The Midwife’s Song: A Story of Moses’ Birth; In the Shadow of the Ark, by Anne Provoost; and Lion’s Honey: The Myth of Samson, by David Grossman. A very funny but poignant look at the missing years in the life of Jesus is the subject of Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, a novel Guy, High Priest of Meatloaf recently turned me on to. I’m here to tell you, if a High Priest of anything advises you to read something about religion, you should.

The books I’ve listed here are just a few of the contemporary literary midrashim that exist. If you’ve read something in this genre that I haven’t listed, please leave me a comment about it. I’m always looking for more.

And please, don’t anyone tell me I’m going to hell for not believing what they tell us in church, temple or mosque, or for not accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. Save it for someone who is more impressionable than I am and who hasn’t embarked on an exploration of religion to find out more about it.

Enough of the seriousness. On, now, to my own quasi-midrash: Jeremiah and the Lustful She-Camel. It is not a polite story.

January 13, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humor, Religion, Virgin Training School, Writing | Leave a comment

Book Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Book Review - Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell magnify

What if magic was real, and enjoyed a long tradition? And what if magicians only studied magical history and not magical practice? Then, what if someone discovered the practice of magic again, and brought it back?

This hefty tome by Susanna Clarke explores those ideas, as well as the arrogance and failings of hubris.  It’s not a classic good vs. evil story, which is really what I expected when I bought this book at an airport (for the 800 pages of light reading).  It’s conflict of the establishment against progress, of innovation versus convention, of the young and the old both grasping for a valid place in the world.

It takes place in early 19th century England, primarily in London although there are forays to the countryside as well as to the French battlefield when Napoleon becomes a nuisance.  The author wrote in what she deemed the period style, but it was much more easily readable than, say, even Victorian (shudder) literature.  She was quite liberal with commas, which certainly lent a degree of credulity to the period writing style.  She also used footnotes throughout the book, and if I were the sort of person annoyed by footnotes, I suppose they would have annoyed me.  But since I’m the sort of person who uses a second bookmark to keep up with even endnotes, and I kind of enjoy flipping back and forth (it burns more calories)I found the footnotes to be a humorous way to give the reader “background” without sacrificing the pace of the story.

The pace of any story that takes 800 pages to tell will occasionally drag.  I really didn’t find that to be the case with this book, though, until very near the end, when poor Jonathan Strange spent entirely too much time in Italy and not nearly enough time arguing with Mr. Norrell.  I liked their conflicts.

I gave the book to my mom to read.  I figured with her science fiction/fantasy inclinations she’d really enjoy it.  Shows how much I know!  She struggled through it to please me, but the last 100 pages never got read.  How she could have left the story before it was resolved, I will never understand!  But she got bogged down in Venice and just had to extricate herself before she suffocated, I think.   Oh, well.  Thanks, Mom, for trying.  Now I really wish I knew someone else who had read the book so I could talk about it without giving away the many significant plot twists!

August 3, 2006 Posted by | Book Reviews | Leave a comment