"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Friday, December 31, 2010

Discovering the World (book reviews)

Here's a trio of books; they all look beautiful on a table, but they're great reading too. Maybe I'm celebrating voyaging into a new year, here at the end of an old one. I was happy to see that the first of these, Women of Discovery, has been generating some new buzz thanks to the Internet. I thought it was remarkable not just for its writing but in its design, which draws the reader into each story and time.

Women of Discovery: A Celebration of Intrepid Women Who Explored the World (2001)
by Milbry Polk and Mary Tiegreen. Introduction by Christine Amanpour.

"Celebration" is indeed the word for this exuberant assemblage of 84 amazing and outrageous individuals. Polk's vivid narratives capture the essence of each fascinating life and adventure, while Tiegreen's remarkable graphics create a sense of authenticity and immediacy, wrapping each account in a style that suits it perfectly. Readers feel they are witnesses to history thanks to well-chosen, first-person observations and ample visual contents such as contemporary maps, memorabilia, photos, and art.

The "women of discovery" include aristocrats and paupers, ancient Vikings and modern space scientists still in their prime. Some lives were more terrible than triumphant, but all "made comprehensible a part of the world that we didn't know, understand, or appreciate until they revealed it to us." The stories are loosely grouped into five freewheeling sections, each with a brief but thought-provoking introduction describing "Early Voyagers," "Intrepid Explorers," "Scientific Explorers," "Artist Explorers," and "Explorers on the Edge." Although a few of the names are well known (Maria Mitchell, Dian Fossey, Zora Neale Hurston), most will come as a complete surprise to readers, who will be wondering why they've never heard of these women before.

This beautiful book is a browser's dream, but it should be equally attractive to anyone looking for fascinating true stories, as well as for students who can use it as a rich source of interesting research subjects. The authors hope that this book will guide anyone "[setting] forth on his or her own voyage of discovery."
(adapted from my SLJ review)
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Pomegranate with blue morpho butterflies and Banded Sphinx Moth caterpillar
by Maria Sibylla Merian (from 2008 Getty exhibition)
This next book is a survey of global scientific expeditions over 300 years, and my favorite section is the one about the work of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), an amazing woman (check out that link - glad to see she's finally receiving some major recognition; maybe this book helped make that happen). Her art is remarkable, visionary, mind-blowing, yet scientifically accurate (she's said to have been the first to record whole life cycles of butterflies and she's also known for the quality of her botanical observtions). I've seen some of her art in the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC. , and these reproductions come very close. As with Women of Discovery, this book is a great read, and is still being discovered and read, thanks to word of mouth on the Internet:

Voyages of Discovery: Three Centuries of Natural History Exploration (1999) by Anthony Rice


This is a chronicle of major scientific expeditions in a time "when science and art worked in symbiosis." The text is generously illustrated with stunning reproductions, many published here for the first time, of the work of the natural-history artists--sometimes the scientists themselves--who documented the discoveries being made.

Beginning with Sir Hans Sloane's voyage to Jamaica in 1687 (which led eventually to the formation of the British Museum), succeeding chapters describe Dutch discoveries in Ceylon,* and offer extensive coverage of the remarkable independent voyage to Surinam by the artist and entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian.

The 18th century benefited from the lifework of the American John Bartram and the Pacific voyages of James Cook with Sir Joseph Banks and other scientists. In the 19th century, Australia and Amazonia were charted, and Charles Darwin sailed on the Beagle; the book concludes with the Challenger Expedition of 1872-1876, which studied the ocean itself for the first time.

The very readable text should be interesting not just to general readers but also to students of the sciences, history, geography, and art. Perhaps the book's greatest contribution is to showcase the work of the artists who, usually under very difficult circumstances, so brilliantly served science and opened Western eyes to new worlds in their times. No format but the printed page (and printing of this quality) can represent the original work so well. Through these examples the author demonstrates, in dramatic fashion, the process and the necessity of accurate observation in science, and makes the case that photography (for all the advantages it confers in some respects) should not be allowed entirely to supplant the traditional method of direct observation and drawing by scientists themselves.
(adapted from my SLJ review)

*(Note: here's an interesting post about similar work by the Dutch in Cochin. The medicinal information is still in use: http://sandyi.blogspot.com/2012/02/dutch-treasure-trove.html )

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 I was particularly keen on recommending this third book to teen readers, as you might guess from my SLJ review below, but like the other books here it's great reading for anyone.

Travels with the Fossil Hunters (2000). Edited by Peter J. Whybrow, with Foreword by David Attenborough

Twelve essays by British paleontologists--each more colorful, humorous, or exciting than the one before. Their work draws these men and women to places such as India, China, Latvia, Yemen, the Sahara, and the Antarctic. They are shot at in Sierra Leone, undergo rabies treatments in Pakistan, and have their work interrupted by police when a recently buried body is dug up instead of a Neandertal in the caves of Gibraltar.

The essayists give enough details of their quests to explain their presence in these places and keep science buffs entertained, while communicating their fascination with their work. Readers see them camping in the wilderness, making friends with people from other cultures, undergoing the rigors of travel in remote areas, and dealing with emergencies of many kinds. Heightening the impact of the stories is an abundance of beautiful, colorful photos of the places, the people, and the fossils. This isn't a reference book; there is not even an index. But for students interested in pursuing any science that might require them to go into the field, it offers a glimpse of the real life they might encounter in such a profession (after all the study, and beyond the quests for grants).

For general readers as well as those who seek out books on dinosaurs and other life-forms from Earth's past, this entertaining volume reveals the human face behind the science, and shows a world still rich with promise.
 (adapted from my SLJ review)

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Here's a quartet of books on women adventurers. And then there are the Mars people... explorers too.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Mary Shelley, Dr. Frankenstein, science and ethics revisited (book review)

Illustration by Theodor von Holst from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition
of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (Wikipedia)
Each year the column Dispatches From The Edge awards news stories and newsmakers that fall under the category of “Are you serious?” Here are 2010’s winners. These are the kind of stories that, if they aren't true, might as well be; people are that outrageous and just look at the mess the world is in. My favorite screwup in this particular collection (if favorite is the right word) is this one (to quote from the website):

The Mary Wollingstonecraft Shelly [sic] Award (the author of Frankenstein) goes to the University of California at Berkeley, MIT, and Cornell University for using Defense Department money to turn the beetle, Mecynorrhina torquata, into a cyborg. The beetle is fitted with an electronic backpack attached to the animal’s wing muscles, allowing scientists to control the beetle’s flight path.


The idea is to use the little beastie (actually, as beetles go, kind of a big beastie) to crawl or fly into areas where the “enemy” is. Once the “enemy” is identified, the military can target the area with bombs, rockets or artillery. This is a tad rough on the beetles.
According to researchers Michael Maharbiz and Hirotake Sato, the long-term goal is to “introduce synthetic interfaces and control loops” into other animals. “Working out the details in insects first will help us avoid mistakes and false starts in higher organisms, such as rats, mice, and ultimately people. And it allows us to postpone many of the deeper ethical questions about free will, among other things, that would become more pressing if this work took place on vertebrates.”
Geez, I wouldn't even do that to a franken-scientist, much less to a harmless, necessary beetle. Can you believe they said this ?! (it's definitely worth a double-take): 
“Working out the details in insects first ... allows us to postpone many of the deeper ethical questions ... that would become more pressing if this work took place on vertebrates.”
Wow. Out of the mouths of ethically-challenged scientists. In a way it's unfortunate that Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley [editors of Dispatches from the Edge, please take note; this name should be spelled correctly because it will long outlast you] should be perpetually associated with the ethical lapses of what people are calling Frankenscience; her own writing cautioned strongly against the very sort of horrors the prefix "Franken" now signals. She made the point about the doctor's mistake so well that it's still the iconic image for this kind of ethical lapse almost 200 years later; unfortunately, not enough people have grasped the point, yet.

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[Thanx and a tip o' the hat to Steve Bartholomew of Charged Barticle for alerting me to the Dispatches from the Edge story.]
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Richard Rothwell's portrait of Mary Shelley was shown at the Royal Academy in 1840, accompanied by lines from Percy Shelley's poem The Revolt of Islam calling her a "child of love and light". (Wikipedia)
Funnily enough this very morning I was going through some old papers and came across an op-ed piece I wrote for SLJ back in 1999, on the very subject of science and ethics. An editor had asked me to do an "Up for Discussion" column on books for teens that deal with questions of science and ethics after I wrote the following review of a 1998 biography of the writer we know as Mary Shelley.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (c. 1797)  (Wikipedia)

Before  I get to the review, though, I must digress a bit here to recognize that Mary Shelley's mother was the brilliant feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the revolutionary 1792 work Vindication of the Rights of Women. Mary Shelley's father was the philosopher William Godwin, who put his lofty intellectual ideals before any consideration of kindness or empathy. Or that's how he always strikes me, since one of his moral arguments, I seem to remember, is that if you have to choose between a Rembrandt or a cat (or was it an old lady?) to save in a fire, of course you must save the painting, because that (he held) was obviously the object of higher value. He wasn't, in short, a cuddly daddy and Mary Shelley never knew her mother, who died shortly after Mary's birth.

But back to the book review... Almost all of the books I reviewed in SLJ were of adult books that older teens who had grown beyond "YA" would like. On the other hand this biography was one of the few I reviewed that was intended for/marketed to younger readers (ages 8-12), but I think it would be of equal interest to adults. It certainly was to me. Mary Shelley's fascinating if disastrous life embodies a Romantic ideal that still plays an important part in our culture, inspiring women to take tremendous risks in the pursuit of what we most believe in. Often, at great personal cost.

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein's Creator (Barnard Biography Series) by Joan Kane Nichols

Teens should find the story of this romantic rebel who followed her ideals and dreams at an appalling personal cost to be compelling and surprisingly modern in many ways.

Shelley might at first seem an odd choice for an entry in a series devoted to "role models for young women today," since Nichols clearly outlines the rumors and scandals that have long surrounded the writer and her circle of literary friends who included Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. Yet she also shows the core of integrity and the basis of the ideals that underlay Mary Shelley's many dangerous choices, and reveals the strength of character that enabled her to spin literary gold from her life's darker side.

In showing the elements of Shelley's life that went into her unforgettable novel, elements of class and rebellion and art and poverty, Nichols paints a vivid picture of early 19th-century London and its people, and succeeds in bringing her subject to life for readers today.

Whether Shelley was (as the cover asserts) "the first science fiction writer" is debatable, but there is no question that Frankenstein has become our culture's quintessential morality tale about modern science. Countering common misconceptions often held by those who have never read the novel upon which so many subsequent works were based, Nichols argues convincingly that Shelley was not saying (as many now believe) that Frankenstein was wrong to have created his monster; rather, she was showing that the doctor's error was in not taking responsibility for it. This lesson is particularly timely as young adults enter a minefield of ethical dilemmas in science and technology.

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Here I must mention that a customer-reviewer on Amazon did what I had been tempted to do, but resisted, headlining his review "Author sparks life into long-dead writer." :-D

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So the SLJ editor suggested I might expand upon that last point -- that Shelley was saying that Dr. Frankenstein's real mistake was not in creating the monster, but in his not taking responsibility for it. If you read Frankenstein again (it's still a very compelling and highly readable yarn), you'll see this is true. (This project for SLJ also led to my collaborating with another librarian on a critical examination for SLJ of a rather large encyclopedia on science and ethics, for review as a reference book; can't remember if they used that, though.)

Anyway, I love being asked for my opinions on things I have absolutely no formal qualifications to have them on. Challenged to come up with some recommendations for teens, of books touching on matters of science and ethics, I was amazed at how little I found in the literature. And at how hard it was to steer clear of religion in this kind of discussion, because it seemed as if every definition and discussion of ethics ended up leading back to religion as the authority. (Similarly another book I reviewed, The Ethics of Star Trek, was really coming from a religious point of view - I touched on that one in an earlier post about books I reviewed while holding my nose.)

In the SLJ piece I steered clear of the religion/ethics problem as it wasn't in the purview of my assignment but here, finally, in my own blog, I can point it out; and just a decade later, questions of ethics ARE more often treated as a subject apart from traditional religious associations. Of course now it probably would be much easier to find leads on the subject, but the Internet wasn't the same, then, and for my recommendations I relied on my own reading, and on suggestions from fellow librarians, turned up through email queries.

Most of the books I ended up recommending in that piece were not actually written for younger readers, but they would appeal, I thought, to the right teens if they were steered to them. And of course they should still be of interest to their intended readership, adults. I'll add that article here later, if I can ever get my scanner working; when I looked it over, it still seemed timely. It appeared in the May 1999 issue of School Library Journal (SLJ), but I might have the only remaining copy.

corrected 12/31

Monday, December 20, 2010

Globish, Hinglish, and Love's Last Madness (book reviews)

I've just revised, expanded and updated an earlier post on this subject (see title) and you'll find it here.

That post refers to a new look for summer - and I see I have another new look now, for the winter season. And that I'm still struggling. On the blogging front, I've received my old (one year old) PC back now from HP, supposedly restored to its former level of functionality, and it's already acting up again, but maybe I'll get another good year out of it before it crashes again. I hope. I've missed being able to blog here. Have missed Blip.fm too. And all the rest.

cartoon found courtesy of cracked.com, a great zine
Wish I could afford/could have afforded a Mac in the first place a year ago, but I'm just another one of the downwardly mobile former middle class slammed by the end of life as we once knew it. I can forsee a time when I'll have to give up my computer altogether in order to put beans on the table. It was nice while it lasted...

Now to send out my handful of Xmas cards...

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Kathleen Hanna on the difference between zines and blogs (plus a note on Factsheet Five)

I was active in the zine culture in the Seventies (as a reader/supporter and sometimes a participant in several sorts of feminist, feminist science fiction, and media sci-fi zines), and again in the Eighties (Starman/scifi) and now I'm blogging (just for myself; any subject that interests me), so I appreciated this observation by Kathleen Hanna. As she says in this vid, print zines were very much of their time, and rooted there, whereas blogging loses that quality.



Yes, there was a creative, social and --frustrated archivist that I am, I'd have to add -- historical value in the very frantic and ephemeral nature of print zine writing and publishing. Still, as to blogging, I have to say it really is wonderful to be able to do all the stuff you can do online now -- link, add photos, illos and videos, change layout at will, and especially to go back and update and edit posts and other things later on - in short, to keep a topic of the present time, and not instantly out of date. It's no fun to be ephemeral when you've really worked on something. Blogging might be ephemeral too but it doesn't feel that way because you can refresh your work and make it new again at will--just as, here in this blog, I'm unearthing my old book reviews and making something new out of them, relevant to the present time. As a writer I love being in charge of my own publication this way - and I wouldn't go back to those days of laborious by-hand production, expensive distribution, and instant obsolescence for anything (emphasis all mine).

In the interview above (though not, I think, in this particular snippet) Hanna is talking about the feminist zines that nurtured her own work in the punk rock scene, and kept her going when people were dragging her off the stage--that was the Nineties--but there were all kinds of zines for decades; they were the social and political samizdat of the "free" world. Blogging has taken their place, and self-publishing has moved on to the variety of slick new publishing methods that the online world has made available to writers who can now work independently of mainstream publishing (which is dying a slow and painful death, I hope, by corporate strangulation).

I wonder where all those zines of past decades are now. Factsheet Five was an amazing mission, by one guy, Mike Gunderloy, to preserve that underground history of fanzine publishing, and he did a wonderfully inclusive job of reviewing and archiving any zines he received, without censorship or judgment. He gave me some very kind reviews for some of my zines, and it amazed me that he even looked at them, when he seemed to be getting them by the thousands. His archive of zines, which in my imagination must have taken up several warehouses by the time he was through with publishing, would be a treasure beyond anything in the Smithsonian, for social historians. To me he was a true hero. Does the archive still exist? Does anybody besides me know or even wonder where it is now? (Instant Wiki update! They're in the New York State Library in Albany. Whew!)

Naturally, I googled the question. I found a new electronic edition of Factsheet Five here but it doesn't say much about the original project. Note to self: investigate further! Its sister site is Alternative Press Review. It all sounds promising but I haven't taken the time really to check it out yet. I hope they're carrying on the good work - but seeing links online just isn't the same as holding that jam-packed, fascinating, soon-to-be superceded pulp-newsprint edition of the monthly Factsheet Five in my hands. Guess this makes me a fuddy-duddy.

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speaking of updating and linking, here's an earlier post having to do with ephemeral publications.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Life beyond earth... or at least not what we're used to (book reviews)

the life form in question
Update 6/2/11: radiation-eating bugs a mile underground, and possibilities of life on Mars.

original post:
NASA's much-hyped announcement today concerning having found an "alien" life form proved to be a bit of a disappointment, but at the same time NASA was making an important point. Sure, it's a fascinating discovery, and I wasn't really expecting ET (people are saying) but isn't this arsenic-based life form found here on Earth just another extremophile? Hasn't NASA heard of all the extreme forms of life that have been discovered in recent years, from sulfur-eating volcano dwellers to snottites? They all defy the old definitions of life. But this one is "peculiar" in yet another, important way:
"This organism has dual capability. It can grow with either phosphorous or arsenic. That makes it very peculiar, though it falls short of being some form of truly 'alien' life," commented Paul C. W. Davies of Arizona State University, a co-author of the report appearing in Thursday's online edition of the journal Science.
That's right, they grew right here, so they can't be called alien... Well, probably. And the point a lot of people seem to be missing, in the failure of NASA to produce a flying saucer, is that this is yet another significant piece of evidence against all the old beliefs about life originating only here. For those who still believe that.

I think this photo is from the press conference in question...
My cousin Val (a Marsophile who keeps up on space science better than I, and alerted me to the upcoming NASA annoucement in the first place) reports on the press conference, and nails the importance of the NASA discovery:

"I was watching the news conference on the NASA channel yesterday and what I got from it was that every other life form on earth, including extremeophiles, have phosphate as a backbone in their DNA helix except this one, which is the only DNA ever found that has arsenic rather than phosphate as a backbone in the double helix.  One of those on the panel was the head of the Mars Science Laboratory project who was extremely excited about the discovery, saying that it will change the way everyone will look for alien life from now on, including the MSL. 
"I enjoyed watching the young woman who discovered it, as she was not only so intelligent but also very animated and personable.  One of the older experts on the panel was trying to pontificate that more time was needed to study, etc. and she crushed him (all the others on the panel agreed that the science was good and was proven - NASA wouldn't have presented it as it did if it wasn't). 
"I'm excited about the discovery because I think it will open up a LOT of closed minds (like the finding of water on the moon, which was thought impossible until they actually found it).  Open them to all sorts of life possibilities such as silicon-based.  Who knows what will be discovered if they if they don't shut their minds to what they're seeing!"
 Yes, if only people wouldn't shut their minds to what they're seeing - there is so much of the new to see in our time, it's probably one of the best things about being on the planet right now. In my darker moods I feel as if the more amazing new things we learn, the more some people (especially those caught up in the strange mental traps of the various "great" religions) work to deny it and go backward.

As for truly "alien" life - that is, life that isn't from around here? As a science fiction reader since childhood, I don't know when I first heard of Fred Hoyle's theory of Panspermia; seems as if it's always been with me. It's the idea that the "seeds" of life might have come from somewhere else (carried through space on comets or something), landed here (and elsewhere) like broadcast seeds looking for fertile ground, and then evolved into whatever works here.  (I know, but the term was coined a long time ago, when most [mostly male] S&SF writers didn't even envision women space travellers; today's SF writers, including many of the males, might be just as likely to have thought to call the  concept "panovula." It does work better with the concept of seeds.) So really, what we call life in its new, greatly expanded variety of definitions, could be anywhere - and appear in a great many different versions, depending on location, location, location. Which only makes for common sense to anyone even vaguely aware of  how many planets/possible scenarios there are, out there in space.

I'm kind of making this up since, as I say, the idea's been in the back of my head for a long time, as a plausible idea. And then there is the rock from Mars, with probably "life" in it, that we found here. And here, in a recent  news story, the idea of pansperm/ovula gets another boost, as a possible bringer of life to Earth: http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2010/09/mystery-of-indias-red-rain-of-2001-points-to-extraterrestrial-origin.html

All of which reminded me of a couple of nonfiction books that I really enjoyed, when I read them to review for SLJ. They probably aren't too dated, and they were really fun to read. For anyone who went to school before, say, the 1990's, and hasn't kept up, they would be eye-openers even now...

Planetary Dreams: The Quest to Discover Life beyond Earth by Robert Shapiro (2000)
Recently, there have been several fine books reporting on the latest developments in the scientific quest to understand life. Here, Shapiro looks at the fascination these questions exert on the human imagination, and treats readers to many perspectives on life-its nature and origins, and the possibility of its existence on other worlds.

Through an entertaining exploration of ancient myths, the tabloid journalism of the 19th-century, and the pseudoscience of the 20th, and finally our own age's scientific explorations, he shows that dreams of life beyond Earth are as old as humanity itself and as new as today's headlines.

Shapiro recognizes not just the views of scientists, but also gives space and a fair (and thus inevitably rather crushing) hearing to the perspectives of religionists of various stripes (including, but not limited to, creationists). Through various devices, he makes vast concepts accessible; for instance, readers tour an imaginary museum of time and space, and sit in on a lively conversation that includes various scientists.

Arguing persuasively for support of future scientific efforts to look for life beyond our planet, the author evokes a sense of wonder worthy of science fiction. Though some readers might enjoy reading this book straight through, others will prefer to browse its colorfully titled sections. It is enlivened with good black-and-white and color illustrations drawn from biochemistry, space science, and fiction, and its extensive notes and index should make it useful for assignments.

Dark Life: Martian Nanobacteria, Rock-Eating Cave Bugs, and Other Extreme Organisms of Inner Earth and Outer Space (1999) by Michael Ray Taylor
Taylor first heard of "dark life" from scientists searching for it in the pristine environment of a newly discovered cave system. Nanobacteria had been unknown until very recently, when advances in electron microscopy finally revealed them to astonished human eyes. Now, many of the hidden places of the earth, previously thought to be "sterile," were seen to be teeming with strange and diverse creatures. Eventually Taylor crossed the line from journalist-observer to participant-advocate, when he joined the quest for these new "bugs" and the secrets they might reveal about the nature of life.

The story is compelling not just for the fascinating nature of the discoveries made, but also for the insider's view it offers of science as a working community. One likable young scientist, Anne Taunton, stands out among the many colorful players in this drama and makes the story particularly accessible to teens, as Taylor follows her career from high school graduation and on through college. As an undergraduate NASA intern, Taunton found herself at the center of the "Mars life" controversy. She gained new friends and mentors, faced strong personal and professional challenges with grace, and joined Taylor in making a significant discovery.

At heart, this book is a celebration of life--human, as well as theoretical.

Here's a NOVA program with author/explorer Michael Ray Tayor, about Lake Lechuguilla!

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As extromophiles go, you have to love snottites (above). For their name, if nothing else. (Didn't Charles Pellegrino discover and name them that?) There was a neat section on extremophiles living in caves, including snottites, in the BBC series Planet Earth, in the episodes on Caves. We just saw that recently here in our documentary series.

And here's a Nova episode to watch for, "A World Unseen," about extremophiles. This looks like a happy scientist -- Diane Northrup, who works with SLIME (Subsurface Life in Mineral Environments), a loose affiliation of cave scientists working on geomicrobiological interactions in caves.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Teachings of Rumi, Ethics for the New Millennium, and Ten Questions for the Dalai Lama (book and film reviews)

For some reason I'm thinking of books that came out at the turn of our current century, books that looked at pressing spiritual issues and dilemmas as seen at that time. It wasn't really that long ago, but events are moving fast. These two, that I reviewed in 1999, were ones I kept in my personal collection because I really loved them. I pulled them off the shelf and found they're as fresh now as then. Some spiritual issues, of course, are perennial - as are some of the techniques for addressing them.

The first review is my recommendation in the "Adult Books for Young Adults" column of SLJ, focusing on its appeal and usefulness for older teens reading at the adult level but of course the recommendation goes for adults as well.

The Teachings of Rumi by Andrew Harvey
A 13th-century Islamic mystic might seem an unlikely figure to be enjoying celebrity in the modern West, but Jelalludin Rumi has been receiving a good deal of attention lately. In his introduction, Harvey explains that "Rumi's work has an uncanny direct force of illumination; anyone approaching it with an open heart and mind, at whatever stage of his or her evolution, will derive from it inspiration, excitement, and help of the highest kind."

Working from original sources as well as a variety of translations, Harvey has gleaned from the vast body of Rumi's work an elegantly honed collection of poetry and prose, which he organizes into four sections ("The Call," "Be a Lover," "Ordeal," and "Union"). The result is a guide to the disciplines necessary to achieve, in a continuing process throughout life, an ever-evolving consciousness. As Harvey sees it, Rumi's path to ecstasy requires a "rigorous, even ferocious austerity" that can yield for the seeker a unique perspective on modern problems.

For teens venturing outside the lines of religious dogma, this book is a lucid and accessible introduction to Rumi's writings, while for those already somewhat familiar with Rumi through other sources, it offers a challenging method for deeper exploration.

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The second is by the Dalai Lama; this is my review for the same column and publication:

Ethics for the New Millennium (2000)
The Dalai Lama examines the world, its ills, and its coming changes in a disarmingly conversational style that engages readers. With a perspective that should appeal to teens weary of negativity, he offers an encouraging view of the future, arguing convincingly that we humans are better than we tend to believe.

Avoiding technical terms and dogma, he presents Buddhist values and ethics, chiefly the dynamic of compassion and a recognition of the "complex interlinking of relationships," in such a way that individuals from a variety of cultural or religious backgrounds can understand their application to modern dilemmas and personal choices. Chapters focus on concepts such as restraint, discernment, non-harming, and responsibility as they apply to far-ranging subjects including the environment, disarmament, religion, science, and education.

In a world in which many historical boundaries are becoming irrelevant, the Dalai Lama focuses upon the essential qualities of humanity that we all share and from which new forms of social organization can evolve. An important book for thoughtful teens to muse over now, and return to in the future.

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Ten Questions for the Dalai Lama (2006)

Which in turn led my thoughts to this documentary film. I first saw it at the Ashland Independent Film Festival, and again when we screened it for neighbors here at Mountain Meadows as a year-end holiday program. It was very well liked by all.

It kind of fits in here because it, too, is about a fellow seeking a path for living in a very perplexing world.

Netflix has it, or you can buy the dvd from the website linked above.