hhbooks's blog

To Keep the Sun Alive, Reviewed

Throughout To Keep the Sun Alive, a new release by debut novelist, Rabeah Ghaffari, stories from the long history of Iran are exchanged between family members and neighbors. The tales are of power struggles between the weak and the strong, and most often in these stories the weak triumph over the strong. The tales are demonstrative, issuing either a threat or lesson to the listener. Though the tales do not always serve the same purpose in the narrative, they all represent a dichotomy between story and mortality. Stories live on, people do not. 

Dinner with Regina Porter, author of The Travelers

What a treat.  While in Albuquerque, I've had the opportunity to break bread with Regina Porter, author of The Travelers, one of the most highly anticipated books of the season--her debut novel.  What a delight. Her warmth and thoughtful, generous  conversation was such a treat in a culture that celebrates rapid fire platitudes.   The book is so beautifully written.  She hooked me with the opening paragraph:   


Just arrived in Albuquerque for the American Booksellers Association big conference--all the publishers, their authors, and the books we can't wait to read.  Should be a great week--particularly eager to hear Margaret Atwood.

Mary Oliver has passed

I am saddened by Mary Oliver's death.  Everyone dies.  Given her age, I should not be surprised.  But I am.  Mary Oliver's poetry, her piercing essays, and her inspring thoughts on creativity and the artist, made the spinning uncertainty of this universe something at which to marvel.  Our world and all its messiness is to be cherished and embraced.  I feel like I have lost a friend--one whom I never met.  


Outline, by Rachel Cusk

A powerful, insightful, beautifully written novel in which Rachel Cusk probes the nature of self.   She goes deeper and deeper in the course of ten compelling conversations(each chapter is a conversation)as she attempts to expunge and replace the no longer servicable facets of her identity(spouse, writer, professer, mother,) with building blocks she mines like resources from others she determines are worth incorporating into a newly minted self.  The first book of a trilogy, Outline provides a compelling look at the formation of character an

Book Review of "We Are Not Ourselves"

From the opening pages of Matthew Thomas’s debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves, a sprawling multi generational family saga, the forces that profoundly shape Eileen Tumulty, the character around whom the story is centered, are manifest.  The roots of her complicated relationship to the world and to herself unfold before us. Page by page. Day by day. Event by event.  

Eileen endures a fraught childhood, spent largely in a Queens tenement taking care of her family’s home and her alcoholic parents--a larger than life father, with a gambling problem, and a timorous, shrinking mother, slowly decaying as she retreats further and further from the world.  

We witness the reverberating lessons learned, and the smoldering aspirations, the daemons operating below the surface, that drive Eileen.  She has big dreams:  a better life.  Eileen craves an opportunity to dramatically recalibrate who she is.  She is painfully aware of the shackling nature of social stratification: determining who you are, and who you are not; where you are from, and from where you are not; where you should live, and where you should not.  

Eileen desperately wants to be free of the DNA that binds her--longing to shake up the hand which she was dealt.

Eileen’s childhood was a consuming maelstrom: unending drama, unpredictability, and chaos.  As an adult, she seeks harmony and forward movement.  She needs order.  Eileen sets out to build a life over which she exerts absolute control:  She envisions every detail that will bring her the life she wants to live: her family, their economic trajectory, their neighborhood, and the way they are perceived by the world.

Eileen works hard. She becomes a nurse, often detached and clinical in her approach.  She marries Ed, a brilliant, handsome, young scientist.  Ed will deliver her to the promised land. She positions Connell, Ed and Eileen’s only child, within a promising social network.  The course is set: a brilliant, sure-to-advance husband, and a capable son, one who will attend the right schools and have the right friends.  

As a child, Eileen wanted: she will not want as an adult.  As a child, Eileen was neglected: as an adult, she will attend assiduously to all things family.  As a child, Eileen experienced scarcity: as an adult, she will save, and they will have more.  As a child, Eileen’s social station was muddled and unclear..  As an adult, she will make sure they proceed correctly, ensuring they are perceived favorably by others.

The three of them, the Leary’s, will work hard and proceed according to plan.  Together, with Ed’s piercing intellect, Eileen’s irrepressible drive, and Connell’s enhanced social standing, they will strategically assemble the building blocks of a “better life”.  She will be the architect of the perfect milieu for herself, for Ed, and for  Connell.  The perfect family living the perfect life, preparing to cross the great divide.

And then Eileen’s life does what lives invariably do--it fails to cooperate. Eileen’s carefully drawn template is brushed aside.  Their  lives twist and morph and steer toward an unknown future.

The dominant themes change.  The external props once clear and thought stable  are elusive. They no longer provide cover.  The unanticipated takes hold.    

Ed changes.  He no longer accepts what Eileen wants.  He no longer wants to advance professionally.  He doesn’t care about maintaining the correct social relationships.  He does not aspire to make more money--but he certainly wants to spend less.  Ed begins to act in ways that initially disarm, then frighten, and finally anger Eileen.  Her carefully nurtured dream of prosperity and economic security is threatened.   Ed appears to completely unravel.  He shuts out Eileen and Connell, and withdraws into his own world. He is puzzling and bizarre and not interested in explaining why he has become almost monstrous.

Finally, we learn that Ed has Alzheimer's. Although clearly devastating, at least his diagnosis provides a label.  Through this lens, Eileen can try to understand and fight a known enemy.  She can also allow herself to love.

Eileen is a fighter.  This is what she does best. Her love and her commitment to Ed now matter more than a fur coat and a house in Bronxville.  She makes hard choices and sacrifices rooted in newly mined values.   Her renewal is magnificently rendered-- underscoring growth,  fortitude and exceptional compassion.   Eileen’s core beliefs about how one lives one’s life transform and deepen.  

Matthew Thomas has written a riveting, sweeping,masterpiece. We Are Not Ourselves elegantly captures a time and chronicles beautifully the Leary’s journey.  Life came at Eileen with all her fury, unpredictably changing direction.  Eileen pushed back-- moving forward  bravely and honestly.  She accepted and fought the challenges encountered and, quietly, lived a meaningful, inspiring life.  


“You can observe a lot by watching”

-Yogi Berra




Joy in looking and comprehending is nature's most beautiful gift” 

-Albert Einstein




One of life’s basic principles is that we are, to a large degree, the product of our choices. Our epistemology is self-determined. The tenor of our days lays the course for our lives.  And the depth of the moments that become our days are profoundly shaped by our awareness--how mindfully we experience what is happening all around us.

In On Looking: A Walker’s Guide To The Art of Observation, Alexandra Horowitz, professor of  psychology, animal behavior, and canine cognition at Columbia University, and author of the New York Times’ bestseller, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know,  turns her attention to  the cognitive processes of the human brain.  Horowitz examines how and why we perceive the world as we do: what we see, why we see it, and, as important, what we don’t see.  She attends to our inattention.



While we walk to work, ride the bus, stop for a coffee, talk on the phone, text a colleague, or chat on a street corner, what are we missing?  Evidently, quite a bit.  Much of our time  spent “doing”, traveling back and forth, coming and going, goes largely unremembered.  We are often doing little more than sleep-walking through those parts of our day that fall outside our focus.  



We are efficient because we  ignore that which we determine irrelevant--concentrating instead on what we consider important.  This is not unintentional.  By so doing, we  judiciously allocate and preserve our precious mental resources. We bank our wattage  until we think we’ll really need it.  We accomplish much,  while cognizant of very little that does not serve our identified end. Mental focus, a tool that delivers so much in our uber goal-oriented culture, is also why we miss the poetry and nuance all around us. 



Painfully aware of the blinders that shape her experiences, and inspired by the sensory engagement that animates her dogs’ meandering walks around her block, Horowitz wants to see the world for the first time--again and again. She wants to experience the morning walks around the block as fully and completely as her dogs. She wants to follow her interests on a walk rather than a route.  She wants to free her senses and see more than simply what she expected to see.



How does one know what one is missing? Horowitz  develops a plan: she will walk around a block with eleven different experts who will expose her blind spots.  The  experts range from an architect, to an artist, to a geologist, to an engineer, to a sound designer, to a physician, to a blind person,to her toddler son, to, of course, her dog, Finn. 

Horowitz experts were people trained in different areas with various scopes of expertise and knowledge.  The guiding thought was that while on these walks, the experts would share what they saw and experienced.  Her walks would in turn be informed and oriented by their expert eyes. She would be“an investigator of the ordinary” and, ideally, the familiar would be rendered unfamiliar.



Horowitz set  the stage by taking a walk by herself  and describing what she sees.  She then walks with her eleven experts and begins to see what she’d never seen, smell the unsmelled, hear the unheard, interact with  people  historically ignored, and more fully appreciate the fabric of an experience she never knew existed.  



From all of this, Horowitz  learns to stop generalizing and connecting too quickly the dots.  She cultivates curiosity and wonder and appreciates how powerfully knowledge orients the experts’ seeing.  Horowitz describes with graphic eloquence the world that she is re-experiencing, all the while insightfully connecting much of what is going on to established cognitive theory.  



Alexandra Horowitz’s eleven walks provided an opportunity to experience new ways of understanding the world   Her perspective  broadened and her capacity to connect deepened,  she became keenly aware that her conscious experience is likely only a fraction of what’s available.



This experiment was primarily about understanding the richness of unintentional moments; moments that often fall outside our calibrations.  It was about “valuing the ordinary” as a meaningful determinant of one’s self.  It was about embracing the reality that different people  often process the same situation differently.  



Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking documents a unique framework within which she realizes how narrowly we interpret our world and how singular our experiences can be.  Her acute awareness that one’s perspective  is richer and more comprehensive  when one attempts to  see the world through the eyes of others is healthy.   For all of us, this is a valuable lesson worth learning, one from which much good can spring.



Other noteworthy books on understanding why we experience the world as we do:



About Looking, by John Berger

About Looking explores our role as observers to reveal new layers of meaning in what we see. Berger quietly – but fundamentally- alters the vision of anyone who reads his work. (Publisher Marketing)



Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, by Daniel Dennett 

Intuition Pumps offers intrepid thinkers--in all walks of life--delicious opportunities to explore their pet ideas with new powers.(Publisher Marketing)



Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, by Leonard Mlodinow  

An examination of how the unconscious mind shapes our experience of the world and how, for instance, we often misperceive our relationships with family, friends, and business associates, misunderstand the reasons for our investment decisions, and misremember important events.(Publisher marketing)



Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average, by Joseph Hallian  the same qualities that make us efficient also make us error prone. We learn to move rapidly through the world, quickly recognizing patterns--but overlooking details. Which is why thirteen-year-old boys discover errors that NASA scientistsmiss--and why you can't find the beer in your refrigerator.  Hallinan sets out to explore the captivating science of human error--how we think, see, remember, and forget, and how this sets us up for wholly irresistible mistakes.