New Books for July

Oh dear, I got a little out of hand in July, it would seem. My pile for this month is out-of-control. I think that in August I will have to cut right back on my purchases. Anyuay, here is my eclectic gathering of must-read books - make of it what you will. From the top:

  • Stylized is a history of Strunk & White's writer's bible The Elements of Style. How could I resist?
  • Obviously I was somewhat obsessive about angels this month, and bought a few books about them. The Whispers of Angels is the first.
  • I've been wanting Selina Hastings' The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham for a while now, but waited till it came out in B format. I am fascinated by Maugham, and I love Hastings' biographies, so am looking forward to this very much.
  • I read Ann Weiser Cornell's book The Power of Focusing over ten years ago, and felt drawn to look at it again in an effort to deal with my headaches and neck pain.
  • The Soul of Money because I am not really very good with money (as this pile of books will attest)
  • Joyful Wisdom was on the cover of Adyar Bookshop's new catalogue, and I just couldn't resist it. I'm a great believer in judging a book by its cover.
  • 3 more angel books.
  • When I went to hear Mataji at Vedanta Hall this month they were promoting this new book from India, Gita for Everyday Living, and I thought I'd take a look at it. At several times in my life I have been a quite serious student of the Bhagavad Gita, and am always interested in new takes.
  • A history of New Thought - mostly for my thesis
  • Ditto, but what a wonderful title
  • Last month I read Louis Sahagun's absolutely riveting biography of Manly Palmer Hall, Master of the Mysteries. I realised I'd never read Mr. Hall's magnum opus, The Secret Teachngs of All Ages.
  • I have enjoyed every single one of Christopher Hitchens' books, though I don't necessarily agree with them. So I had to get the much-hyped autobiography.
  • And I kept hearing everywhere about Angelology, a piece of literary fiction about angels - what a novelty! It sounds ever-so-intriguing.

Monday Blogcrawl

I have been swimming like crazy, but still haven't dropped a dress size - what's that all about? Pretty soon I'm going to have to start dieting, and if that happens, get out of my way - I'm never at my best when my blood sugar levels are low. Working like crazy on my PhD - am actually starting to produce stuff, which feels nice after about 18 months of solid research and rotting away in libraries. Hopefully I will start submitting a few conference papers soon. On my off moments, here are some blog entries that have distracted me:

Memories - Nan Tien Temple

I found an old photo album and came across this photograph sitting loose inside it.
I love it so much, and remember the occasion so well. It was the first weekend that Nan Tien Temple in Wollongong was open to the public, and my grandparents were visiting us, with my Great-Aunt Audrey. Both Aunty Audrey and Grandma have passed away now, and it makes me so happy to see them here. They loved that visit so much, and were so blown away by Nan Tien, which really was amazing - nothing like it had ever been seen in Australia.
The night before Aunty Audrey had tripped and hurt her leg, and said that she wouldn't be able to make the day trip with us. In the morning I was adamant that she come with us. After we'd spent some hours looking over the temple complex she turned to me and said, "Oh love, I am so glad you made me come - I wouldn't have wanted to miss this for the world."

Paul Capsis - Make Me a King

Glorious Australian singing legend Paul Capsis is just getting better and better. From the very first track of his new CD Make Me a King, Mr. Capsis won me over with a raspy, raw and utterly perfect rendition of the Nina Simone torch song Feelin' Good. The whole CD is perfect from beginning to end, taking the listener through an emotional roller-coaster of song, all favourites of Capsis, and arranged and re-told in a style that only he can pull off.

There is much of the cabaret in this collection, and more than a smattering of camp, from the ironic album title to the daring (and really beautiful) cover of Judy Garland's The Man That Got Away. I feel like I'm in a smoky cocktail lounge listening to Capsis win over his audience with his plaintive voice and slinky moves. And isn't he looking slinky on the cover? Too gorgeous for words - that alone would make me buy this CD.
Am I giving away too much when I confess that I remember when he was Paula Capsis, a diminutive but very sexy gender illusionist doing Diana Ross impersonations at the legendary Albury Hotel? Even then we knew he would be a star, and I have followed Mr. Capsis' career closely since then. Seeing him live really is something else, and I have never known anyone not to be bowled over by his sheer, raw talent - the same talent that is so much in evidence on this consistently terrific CD.
The highlights? Well, it's hard to pick a favourite on an album that is so complete, and seems almost a narrative of pain alternating with celebration. But I keep returning to his light and ever-so-slightly-bitter rendition of Billy Holiday's What's New, and the almost-reggae cover of the fabulous Irma Thomas gospel-blues song "Ruler of My Heart."
There's no doubt that Paul Capsis is Australian showbiz royalty by now, and I am desperate for him to return to the big screen (remember how he stole the show in his supporting role in Head On?). But until that day I can keep company with Mr. Capsis on my iPod as I listen to this glorious CD over and over again.

My Desk at Uni

We are meant to share desks in the postgrad room at uni, and we do.
But I'm afraid I simply can't resist doing a little decorating of the shared workspace.
Indeed, the whole corner that I share is really just a monument to my inordinate love of kitsch, and sometimes I pity the poor man who is there most of the time (truth be told, I prefer to work at home, or in the library). All he has ever contributed to the atmosphere of the space is a filthy coffee cup, some unidentifiable crumbs on the keyboard and a warm juice box that sat there for months.
I wonder how he feels as he looks up from his fascinating research and sees my little glow-in-the-dark buffalo.

And my miniature Bruce Lee.

And my extraordinarily poorly-made resin Kwan Yin from a Ho Chi Minh City supermarket?

I'm sure he's inspired.

Monday Blogcrawl

My list of things-to-do seems to constantly expand - it's actually become a book of things-to-do. Is this a uniquely modern malaise, or were people always feeling swamped with possibility. Anyway, this week is the beginning of my new health and fitness regimen, and I have only fallen off the wagon once today (I couldn't resist buying a Coke - my last ever!). Here are some blogs posts that might get you going on you rown list:

Garlanding Ganesh

This morning we went to the Hare Krishna Festival of Chariots in Liverpool.
It was a wonderfully chaotic and refreshingly disorganised affair, which hadn't even begun two hours after the advertised starting time. This was lucky, because there was a wonderful feeling in the park, everyone so happy and energetic, and beautifully dressed.
There were two floats - a large trailer carrying an image of Srila Prabhupada, the founding guru of the Hare Krishna organisation, and a car with a big statue of Lord Ganesh on its roof. Just before it left, a youndg man clambered up onto the car to decorate the image of Ganesh with a garland of plastic flowers.
It was such a wonderful moment.

Eliza Doolittle - Skinny Genes

Not sure how long this will stay up - don't know what Youtube is doing with its embeds these days.
But isn't this song adorable? An easy-listening combo of Adele, Lily Allen and Sandie Shaw.
According to Popbitch her mother was a Eurovision performer back in the day, and her grandmother groomed Baby Spice and Billie Piper.

Stephanie Dowrick - An Introduction

Australia's leading writer on matters of spirituality and personal transformation is without a doubt Stephanie Dowrick. Her lyrical and frequently literary books are also bestsellers, though they sometimes defy categorisation in any of the usual sub-genres of self-help. Drawing from a deep understaining of religion, mythology, psychology and literature, Dowrick's ouvre is pretty much all her own, and is these days increasingly imitated.
Dowrick emerged from a background in publishing, which probably goes some way to explaining the great commercial success of her books. There is no doubt she has a flair for marketing, publicity and promotion which has seen her emerge as one of Australia's leading media commentators. In London in the 70s Stephanie was the founder and first Managing Director of The Women's Press, proving her pedigree as a feminist. It is that aspect of her writing that particularly interests me academically. I think she was among the first in the self-help genre to really speak to an almost exclusively female readership, though never explicitly stating that the books were in any way intended for women only. I am interested in reading the books closely to find out in what ways (if any) feminist messages are encoded.
She later worked as a publisher at Allen & Unwin in Australia. This, too, would be an interesting avenue to explore, though I doubt I'll have the space in my thesis. Maggie Hamilton is another publishing industry executive who went on to write self-help books. And, perhaps obliquely, Rhonda Byrne was a successful television producer before she branched out into the field of personal transformation. It's certainly an interesting phenomenon, and I wonder if I could find parallels in America or the UK.
These days Stephanie Dowrick is one of the pioneers of thr burgeoning Interfaith movement, and noting the religious influences in her books would also be a fascinating endeavour. She has a background in Jungian psychology, and has been deeply influenced by Quaker thought. She also seems to have a clear understanding of both Buddhism and Sufism, which speaks to the extrodinary depth of her learning and her spiritual understanding.
I plan on bringing you a few little potted analyses of some of Stephanie Dowrick's books as I slowly piece together my PhD thesis. I hope you'll find them as interesting as I do.

Creative Media

At the end of last week, bravely struggling with a ghastly head cold, I attended the Association for the Study of Australian Literature's (ASAL for short) fascinating conference at the University of New South Wales. This was my first ASAL conference, and I found it stimulating and frequently challenging. I was also a little shy in the presence of so many brilliant academics - I'm afraid I was something of a wallflower.
The highlight for me was probably the Keynote lecture from Kate Lilley. As well as being a brilliant academic and poet, Kate is the daughter of legendary Australian writer Dorothy Hewett, who is one of my great literary heroes. After her brilliant, funny and moving lecture about her own relationship with her mother's literary estate, Kate Lilley has also become a hero. I will be chasing up her book of poetry, and also looking forward to her edited edition of Dorothy Hewett's poetry coming soon from UWA Publishing.
The most stimulating session (and one that inspired lots of ideas) was on Online Media and new ways of broadcasting (and archiving) literary content. The papers were presented by Anna Gibbs, Maria Angel and Sally Evans.

It was a fascinating exploration of what exactly new technology is doing to writing, and how writers, artists and performers are merging in a new medium, producing work which is quite new and constantly challenging to the literary establishment. As Prof. Gibbs pointed out, this kind of work is becoming increasingly important, and is ever-increasingly influencing the shape of printed work, and the ways that people "consume" literature. I was reminded of the theses of people like David Shields and Ander Monson, whose work work is very much inspired and shaped by the experience of surfing the net.
Another really interesting point made was about the continued ephemerality of this kind of on-line work. Technology changes rapidly, servers crash and close, and some really seminal stuff has already disappeared forever. This brings a whole new sense of urgency to the consumption of on-line texts (in whatever form) in a way that I would suggest is reminiscent of a much earlier age. When it comes to the internet, archiving is still not a priority.
Sally Evans presented us with the most incredible "map" of the internet, which was quite mind-blowing.

She was talking about the Hypermedia theories of George P. Landow and how each blogger now acts as the ultimate authority on their own life, acting as biographer and archivist of a particular technological self which is distinct from the "real." Or is it?
So many wonderful ideas - my brain is still buzzing.

Monday Blogcrawl

I was struck down with an awful headcold at the end of last week, so fif quite a lot of blog-crawling. Here are the highlights:

Vietnamese Food - Kentucky Fried Chicken

When I first started visiting Vietnam there was no Western-style fast food.
A couple of places around Pham Ngu Lao were making some really atrocious pizzas, and that was about it.
The first real fast-food place was the Filipino hamburger chain Jollibee. Then came the Korean chain Lotteria, and a local invention called Chicken City (which, translated into Vietnamese, sounded like a brothel). But one day in the late 90s KFC arrived, and the Vietnamese culinary landscape was changed forever.
KFC initially pitched itself as a high-end food option. A meal there cost the same as it would in Australia, which pretty much put it out of the reach of the average Vietnamese. The tactic obviously didn't work, however, and the prices soon tumbled. In the scheme of things, it is still an expensive meal-option, but now it's a consideration for a special night out, rather than just a hang-out for foreigners and overseas Vietnamese. KFC also had it pretty tough during the whole chicken flu scare. They managed to see it through by introducing prawn burgers and importing their chicken from Australia.
They do a swift trade in loyalty cards and discount vouchers among middle-class Vietnamese, and it has become the ultimate venue for children's birthday parties for wealthier families. They also deliver (in Saigon, at least), and my friend Kien always got a kick out of the fact that they knew his name and his regular order the moment they answered the phone. "Hay lam!" he'd remark, flush with the cleverness and modernity of it all. And I've gotta say, I love my chicken delivered.
My working class friends still see it as impossibly posh. I once invited a friend there for a quick snack, and he insisted we drive five kilometres back to his place so that he could get changed into something more appropriate. When he finally got his Original Recipe burger he was incapable of eating it, a combination of excitement, social tension and the fact that he found it quite unpalatable.
This is a pic of Kien taken from the balcony of my favourite Vietnamese KFC - overlooking Lake Hoan Kiem in the centre of Hanoi. A wonderfully romantic spot in which to eat overpriced fried chicken.

Vietnamese Food - Hu Tieu

Hu Tieu is one of the great pan-Asian foods. The thin rice noodles in a crisp, clear seafood broth can be found in almost any South-East Asian country, and is a quick and easy comfort food.
I believe that Hu Tieu is in fact a Southern Chinese dish, but it long ago was accepted into the daily diets of people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Every third street-stall you encounter will inevitably be selling some version of Hu Tieu.
The kind popular in Vietnam is Hu Tieu Nam Vang, Nam Vang being the old Vietnamese name for Phnom Penh. This would suggest that Cambodia is acknowledged as the source of the most delicious combination, which in this case is a couple of thin slices of pork, a prawn, a prawn cracker, some slices of liver, an intestine or two and the tiniest smattering of pork mince. This is served with a plate of greens, normally bean sprouts and chrysanthemum leaves. Some of the more famous Hu Tieu shops in Ho Chi Minh City are run by Cambodians, lending a real air of authenticity to the dish.
There is something quite delicious about the Hu Tieu stock, and it is a great favourite snack of the drunken and the partying. I think this is because it is light on the stomach and oddly unsatisfying - 10 or 15 minutes after a bowl of Hu Tieu one is invariably ravenously hungry once more.

Vietnamese Food - Cafe Sua Da

OK, so coffee isn't food, but you know what I mean.
I think there is nothing that defines a day in Vietnam more than the consumption of lots of glasses of cafe sua da. This is strong coffee drip-filtered over ice and then stirred into a healthy dollop of condensed milk. It is truly delicious, and a real heart-starter.
As I discuss in my book Destination Saigon, cafe sua da is not really considered the most macho way to take one's coffee. In Vietnam, real men take their coffee black over ice, with a healthy spoon or two of sugar added. Indeed, as you travel further North coffee with ice seems to become more and more effeminate. My friends in Hue forbade me to drink it, and when I ordered it in a rough Hanoi cafe the waiting staff cast aspersions on my sexuality.
But say what you like, I'm sticking to cafe sua da. Something about the combination of lots of caffeine and the incredible sugar rush of condensed milk does something for the soul, particularly on a hot day.

Vietnamese Food - Bo Ne

One of the really great cholesterol-rich treats in Vietnam is Bo Ne.
It is a kind of meat-lovers mixed grill, featuring a small piece of beefsteak, a fried egg and some grilled pate. There are some variations and additions, including a sausage and some fried nem (traditional Vietnamese cured pork), french fries and a big, garlicky rissole. For maximum weight-gain potential, it is served with as many fresh baguette as you can eat.
As you can imagine, it is considered quite a macho dish, and one of the pluses of eating it is that Bo Ne restaurants are often filled with bodybuilders keeping up their condition.
As far as I can see, Bo Ne is still just a Saigon thing - I have received several corrections on this front - apparently Bo Ne is injecting Vietnamese bodies with cholesterol all over the country!

Fat Girl

One of the really obscure sections in my personal library is books by and about fat people.
I'm not talking about diet and exercise books - these take up several shelves, and I am quite an expert there. No, I am talking about books that address directly the state of being fat - a surprisingly small sub-genre, when you consider the shape of most people in the English-speaking world.
I have just finished the late Judith Moore's harrowing little memoir Fat Girl, and think it is one of the best accounts of being fat that I have ever read.
Moore recounts a lonely and troubled childhood with a narcissistic mother and cruel grandmother, kept from contact with her famously overweight father. Moore is fat almost from birth, and becomes an object of hatred and contempt, a constant reminder to her mother of her hated father. She describes with great simplicity the bullying and rejection she experienced at the hands of other children.
The book describes a life as an outsider, convinced of her own ugliness, and divorced from any real sexuality or sensuality, feeling trapped in a body she hates. With a lesser writer this book could have been horribly self-indulgent, but Moore's measured prose, her wariness of being over-dramatic, renders it a sensitive, though painful, testament to anger and pain.
I loved the sections where she describes the time she spent with her gay Uncle Carl, the only adult who ever really showed the chubby child any kindness, and allowed her to be herself. Moore describes how at ease she managed to feel in the company of another human being who was himself an obvious outsider, and allowed her the dignity of being herself in a bewildering world where others scorned and despised her.
It's a beautifully written book, and truly compuslively readable. Some reviewers described it as angry, but for me the overhelming tone is one of sadness.

30 Writers who have Changed my Life

This is a bit of a meme that is going around at the moment, and I caught it here.
The idea really intrigued me, so here goes (in no particular order, obviously):

  1. Oscar Wilde
  2. Nancy Mitford
  3. E. F. Benson
  4. Thich Nhat Hanh
  5. Marianne Williamson
  6. Norman Lewis
  7. Paul Theroux
  8. Bill Bryson
  9. Carson McCullers
  10. Eudora Welty
  11. Sumner Locke Elliott
  12. Steele Rudd
  13. Andrew X. Pham
  14. Edmund White
  15. Yukio Mishima
  16. Osbert Sitwell
  17. Edith Sitwell
  18. Evelyn Waugh
  19. Martin Amis
  20. E. M. Forster
  21. Jackie Collins
  22. Enid Blyton
  23. Marcel Proust
  24. Christopher Isherwood
  25. Louise L. Hay
  26. Dr. Wayne W. Dyer
  27. Neal Drinnan
  28. Gabrielle Lord
  29. Christopher Hitchens
  30. Sacheverell Sitwell
  31. Andre Gide

Venerable Father

If you are involved with Buddhism for any period of time you learn all the really big names behind the "great wave" of Buddhism into the West. These were the Venerable Masters from various countries and traditions who accepted Western students (Americans, most strategically) and so became enormously influential in the world of what used to be called "Western Buddhism." Some of the legends are Seung Sahn Sunim, Kalu Rinpoche, Chogyam Trungpa and Katagiri Roshi.

One of the only really big masters from the Theravada tradition to be well-known in the West was Ajahn Chah, and I have just finished a quite lovely little memoir about him called Venerable Father.

Ajahn Chah

Ajahn Chah was a gruff, uneducated monk from Thailand's Northeast. Already an old man when hippy backpackers began to invade Thailand in the 1960s, he hesitantly accepted some of them as novice monks at his rough and no-frills rural monastery, and a legend - and worldwide Buddhist movement - began.

Belonging to the forest meditation tradition of Thai Buddhism, Ajahn Chah was not the kind of monk that would normally find celebrity in Thailand. Ugly, coarse-mannered and speaking a Laotian dialect, he was the type of country bumpkin religious practitioner that middle-class Thais made fun of. His great and sincere commitment to religious life, and his skill at teaching meditation, caused his early Western followers, however, to revere him, and eventually he established the first ever Buddhist monastery run only by Western monastics.

This meant Ajahn Chah became something of a celebrity in Thailand, and young Thais became suddenly interested in a style of Buddhism that had, for many years, been viewed with scorn. He is still revered there, and considered one of the greatest Dharma-masters of the 20th Century, along with his contemporary Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. The fact that one of his early Western students was Jack Kornfield also meant that the Ajahn became a well-known figure in the West.

Venerable Father is an affectionate look at the great man through the eyes of one of his American monks. Paul Breiter spent many years ordained as a monk at Ajahn Chah's monastery in Bung Wai, and later he served as his translator when he toured America. This book tells the story of his relationship with the Master, and is a warts-and-all look at a unique and long-lasting student-teacher relationship that spanned time, culture and temperament.

I was fascinated by its gossipy stories of monastery life, and its occasional casual references to Buddhist luminaries like Ajahn Sumedho, wo was just starting out his religious life (now he is revered as a saintly figure in Thailand).

It's a well-written and constantly fascinating insight into the frustrations and longings of a monk's life, and the difficulties and privations suffered by monastics in the Theravadin tradition. He also approaches points of Buddhist doctrine with a deft, light touch, and I found it stimulating and enlightening to read.

I don’t want to live a small life

Last night I was at Chester St. Uniting Church for a unique and inspiring evening, a reflection on poetry, life and the spirit delivered by Prof. Mark Burrows (and put on by Eremos). There was so much about his lecture that moved me, but he began proceedings with this poem, which I'd never heard before:

I don’t want to live a small life.

I don’t want to live a small life. Open your eyes,
open your hands. I have just come
from the berry fields, the sun

kissing me with its golden mouth all the way
(open your hands) and the wind-winged clouds
following along thinking perhaps I might

feed them, but no I carry these heart-shapes
only to you. Look how many small
but so sweet and maybe the last gift

I will bring to anyone in this
world of hope and risk, so do
Look at me. Open your life, open your hands.

An evening with Rilke

I used to work in a New Age bookshop, and one of the perennial sellers was Rainer Maria Rilke. We had a very small poetry section, and really all that sold was Rilke, Rumi, Tagore and Hafiz. As happens when one works in a bookshop, I never really investigated my customers' enthusiasm - you kind of become immune to it.
Fast forward a few years and I am now studying and writing full time, and I discover that Stephanie Dowrick - one of Australia's leading authors and an ordained Interfaith minister - has written a book about Rilke, based on her doctoral work on the poet.

I bought the book as soon as it was released, but other things (the release of my own book, primarily) have gotten in the way, and it was only a couple of days that I picked it up again and actually started to read it carefully. I was lost in Rilke's extraordinary world, a world that was poetic and deeply spiritual. I was intrigued and elated by Stephanie's book, and couldn't wait to get along last night to hear her talk about Herr Rilke at the Goethe Institute (forgive the crummy photo - I was sitting in the back row of a sold-out house!).

She shared the platform with visiting American theologian and translator of Rilke, Dr. Mark Burrows, and together they made up a charming and fascinating double act enthusing about Rilke, both coming from a ponounced spiritual perspective.

It was refreshing to hear poetry and literature interpreted in this way. Stephanie Dowrick claims that Burrows is the best translator of Rilke, and when they read the poems, Dr. Burrows gave them to us in German and Dr. Dowrick read them in English - a quite wonderful experience, even if I don't have any German. So I have found myself a Rilke enthusiast when I have always been one of those who is slightly suspicious of poetry.
In In the Company of Rilke, Stephanie Dowrick's exquisite book on the poet, poetry is explored as a spiritual expression, a clue not only to the poet's essence, but to the reader's.

Dowrick is much engaged with the complexities surrounding the act of translation (hear an interview about it here), and plumps for a translation of meaning over a technically perfect translation of words and forms. What she calls "nourish[ing] the sacred over the certain" can be extended to all matters and all parts of life's journey.

In a world that thrives on categorisation, the poet is free to interpret wildly and live more freely. Such a beautiful vision, and one which I wholeheartedly embrace. Yes, the whole thing is wildly romantic, and perhaps even impractical, but as Stephanie mentioned in her talk, when else can we allow our souls to become inflamed? Poetry is the perfect excuse to be ourselves.

The utterly charming Professor Mark Burrows - who I so wish could teach me theology - was also entirely in love with Rilke, and claimed for him - and for all poets - the right to fill us with a sense of the sacred. Not a sacred that is somewhere beyond us, but that dwells in the midst of us - and is waiting for us to stop and allow it to reveal itself.
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