The Rose Hotel—a Memoir of Secrets, Loss, and Love from Iran to America

By Rahimeh Andalibian

National Geographic, Washington DC | 2015

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

Long has been my interest in all the countries of the Middle East, and slim now is my chance to visit; but nothing short of going blind can keep me from reading about them. Among them Iran holds a special place—the land of the ancient Persians, Cyrus the Great, kings with exotic names—Cambyses, Darius, Artaxerxes.

In the 4th Century BC, Persia was conquered by Alexander the Great. The religion that held sway in Persia was Zoroastrianism, until it was conquered by the Muslims in the 7th Century AD and became Islamic. Most Persians today are Shiite Muslims. The Persians are known to be a people of delicate artistic ability, as shown in their miniatures and rugs, a great love of foods like pomegranates, honeyed pastries, nuts and spices, and a regal bearing, reminiscent of their heritage.

In recent times, in 1979, the Shah was deposed and the exiled Khomeini returned and set up a conservative Islamic government, ruled mostly by the mullahs. In the 1980s, provoked by Saddam Hussein, Iran went to war against Iraq, a war that cost Iran thousands of its young men. Americans will recall the American hostage situation in 1980, which dragged out for over 300 days before our people were finally rescued. The relationship between Iran and the United States has since been, at best, tenuous.

I live in Los Angeles, and so I’m aware that there’s a large community of Iranians living here. Most of stores in the fabric district are owned and operated by Jewish Iranians. This elicits my curiosity. Why have so many Iranians immigrated here in recent years?

For this reason, I checked out from the magnificent, downtown Los Angeles public library and read The Rose Hotel by Rahimeh Andalibian.

Reading it was an eye opener. For one, Ms. Andalibian was born into such a well-to-do family that during the time when the Shah still ruled. Her family owned the Rose Hotel in Mashhad, a hotel where the strict Islamic laws were observed by her devoted father, Baba, and his guests.

When the Revolution of 1979 occurred, the Shah was deposed and the exiled Khomeini came to power, one would think things would be better for devout Iranians who had come to despise the Shah’s extravagant excesses and his brutal secret police, the Savak.

But, such was not the case, as the Andalibian family was soon to find.
Rahimeh was the only girl among the five children, the oldest of whom was Abdollah. The entire family loved, even idolized, this young man, yet for reasons not made entirely clear he was abducted by Khomeini’s police and executed—at the tender age of 15!

The sorrow from this nearly rent the family apart; it affected their lives for the next 30 years! This was by far the worst thing that happened, but was not the only thing, as the government also usurped the family’s fortune. They lost the hotel and were forced to flee from Iran, first to London and then to America.

Here’s what Baba has to say about what has happened to Iran:

“Tehran is not home anymore, azizam. Iran is not our home either. I don’t know where home will be—maybe somewhere in between these two world. But Iran is not an option.” Baba’s voice softened as he walked a step closer to Maman. “The government is still terrorizing people. Any good ayatollah, professor, or filmmaker is either dead, in prison, or under house arrest. Look what they did to Ayatollah Shariatmadari. He stopped the Shah from killing Khomeini in 1963; a man of peace, a visionary who believed in keeping clerics away from government positions, is under house arrest until he dies. There’s no way to tell a good ayatollah from an evil one anymore. All the women wear chadors so you can’t tell a call girl from a good woman. The pretense, the backing stabbing. People there have changed. Everything is different, zan.”

I loved reading this book because it gave me insight into their Persian psyche—Baba’s love of and commitment to Islam, the strength and resilience of the family, their business acumen and expansiveness, their love of family, their willingness to learn the ways of their new country, even though they were vastly different from those in Iran.

The family is made up Baba, Maman, Abdollah, Hadi, Zain, Rahimeh and Iman.

After Abdollah death, Baba and Maman kept the truth of what happened to him from the children, telling them he had gone to study in America. Not knowing the truth kept them from proper grieving for their lost brother and affected them in drastic ways: All of them underwent divorces, Zain became an alcoholic and addict; Hadi overspent and underwent bankruptcies. Even Rahimeh, the sole member of the family to receive a college education and established herself in business as a therapist, divorced a man she married in defiance of her father.

When she and Maman returned to Iran some 20 years later, here is what they found:

“Tehran now made London and the United States seem like distant dreams. But everything seemed odd and out of kilter, diminished in every way. The cars were old, covered with dents and scratches; they had broken taillights, and fenders were held on with duct tape. The city was much smaller than I remembered, and posters of Khomeini and Khamemei were plastered on every wall next to pictures of dead men ‘martyred’ in the Iran-Iraq war. On the streets, the people looked tired and worn by decades of despair, loss, heartbreak, and economic paralysis. I had returned but to a dirtied, wilted Iran. It was as if a heavy layer of dust had buried everything I remembered.”

Eventually Rahimeh is able to get her entire family into therapy and finally the parents acknowledge the truth of what happened to Abdollah. “One of the result of not talking about things is the powerlessness we feel, literally being left in the dark, the helplessness of not being able to put the past behind us, the guilt we experienced…” After 30 years, they were finally able to speak openly about him.

Rahimah says of her father.

“Had he been born in another era, before the cultural and religious revolution took hold of Iran, perhaps he would not have been caught on the wrong side of a regime that turned out to be brutal and corrupt. In the chaos of a punishing war and changing times, his devout Muslim faith failed to save his son and led him to make grievous errors. He had alienated the very children he tried to protect, but there was never any doubt about the love between Baba and his children.”

I was moved by this memoir. I would highly recommend it to anyone who has interest in the Middle East. The Rose Hotel is a universal story of healing and rebirth. I was sorry when it ended because I got used to hearing about the family and wanted to keep hearing about them.

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Vampire in Love; stories by Enrique Vila-Matas

By Enrique Vila-Matas

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

New Directions, New York | $16.95 | 248 pages

Reviewed by Jan Alexander

Summon all Six Senses

An outdoor café is an ideal setting to read Enrique Vila-Matas’ stories; you can imagine the writer himself happening by and making you a character in the untranslatable sound-and-light show that must run through his head. The café where I began reading Vampire in Love was in New York’s Hudson Valley, and a chalkboard sign beckoned customers by asking, “Do you need more coffee? Do you hear colors? Switch to decaf.”

Or, keep pouring down the caffeine, and maybe you’ll begin to understand the gauzy boundaries between the senses in this amazing Spanish Catalan writer’s paean-to-post-Modernism and myriad literary-greats, a melding-of-genres meta-fiction. Vila-Matas, born in Barcelona in 1948, has written 20-some odd novels and has collected at least a dozen international literary prizes over the course of his career, but only in the past decade has his work begun to appear in English, largely through the efforts of New Directions Publishing.

The truth is, I didn’t read Vampire in Love in the café. I just passed the sign and thought I should be reading it. Then I noticed a man who looked a lot like Vila-Matas walking by.  I followed him around a corner—until he turned and admonished, “I’m just impersonating the author.”

That’s what it’s like to read Vila-Matas. A narrator who is the author often follows a character to chase down that person’s story, and the narrator gets cagey about who he is and what is really happened. In playing the narrator he seems ever conscious of the mantle he’s borrowed from others, notably Jorge Luis Borges, who blurred genre boundaries and deployed elaborate literary hoaxes to interrogate literature as we knew it, and Roberto Bolaño, who idolized Borges and used detective characters to cast a jaded eye on the literary world. Vila-Matas often has someone spying on his characters, including the narrator/author and is aware that his presence will upend them.

“I am a pursuer of other people’s lives, a kind of lazy detective, a storyteller,” one such narrator explains in “The Hour of the Tired and Weary,” a story in which the color palette is all vivid, film-noirish shades of gray that seep into your bones like damp weather. Vila-Matas describes the time of day, twilight, as “the crepuscular hour when even the shadows grow weary.”  Indeed, while his characters consume a lot of coffee, and a lot of whiskey and amphetamines, what fuels them more than substances is a kind of synesthesia. That is, his stories are full of a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second pathway.  Life and art wind together in a crepuscular way, as do life and death.  

Take the story “Rosa Schwarzer Comes Back to Life,” about a 50-year-old Dusseldorf museum guard whose very name walks the line between a painting she calls “Monsieur Pink” and Paul Klee’s “The Black Prince.” The latter painting calls to Rosa with an Orientalist-style fantasy of tom toms and “the land of suicides.” Ultimately she swallows a cyanide capsule and enters the canvas, where the prince and his subjects “from the countless huts bathed by an ocean of crystalline waters” welcome her in evening dress—but Rosa decides unreality is just as unpleasant as reality and performs a reverse suicide that sends her spiraling back to her monochrome life, her adventure unnoticed by her cheating husband and inattentive sons.

Yet, Klee’s “The Black Prince,” in spite of the African-inspired motifs in the prince’s accessories, is a fairly minimalist composition. No huts or crystalline waters, just a black background, color blocks for facial features: in short, art as a sensory pathway. Vila-Matas owes a debt to Klee and all of the Dadaists—in fact he’s been down that road with his novel A Brief History of Portable Literature, first published in 1985 and an instant cult classic among Spanish readers.

The novel invents a secret society called the Shandies that included Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O’Keeffe, Aleister Crowley, and Jacques Rigaut, whose suicide the other society members view as a perfect work of art. Vila-Matas also echoes what Picasso said while he was dabbling in Dada, that art is a lie that makes our dreams come true. So, if the boundaries between life and art are hazy, perhaps life is also a lie, unreality as much a burden as reality, death as absurd as life.

Frequently, Vila-Matas has his characters contemplate suicide, but relief from life eludes them. In A Brief History he deploys the Swiss novelist and poet Blaise Cendrars as a mouthpiece for this judgement: “There would be nothing worse than killing yourself and making a fool of yourself, and, to top it all off, not even knowing you’d done that.”

Famous writers and artists often appear in Vila-Matas’s fiction. When he was a young writer he lived in Paris for two years, in an attic that Marguerite Duras had once rented. In the story “Sea Swell” the narrator is a young amphetamine-popping, would-be writer—that is, he might write if he weren’t taking so many pills that he’s become non-verbal. The narrator tells the story of a night when, newly arrived in Paris, his friend Andrés took him to Duras’s apartment for dinner. Sonia Orwell is there too, and Duras is preparing a scrumptious dinner of baby squid “leaping and dancing about in the frying pan,” with a cigarette in her mouth that gets fried to a crisp. But even before dinner is ready, Andrés highjacks the story with a demonstration of both the artist’s license to lie and the banality of suicide.

For many English-language readers Vampire in Love will provide the first chance to read Vila-Matas’s short stories en masse. The stories are a retrospective of his career, and a thoughtful editor seems to have arranged them by accessibility—ie. the most fully realized works come at the beginning.  The result seems rather generous; Vila-Matas sharing his musings, or at least a carefully curated selection of them. If this were an art retrospective the large, splashy canvases would occupy the entry hall, then you’d wander into a smaller space filled with rougher sketches. There’s a writer’s workshop feel to the story “An Idle Soul”, in which the narrator claims to be the mosquito net over a couple’s bed. Vila-Matas could have scrapped everything in that story but the memorable final line: “They say the imagination is a place where it’s always raining.”

The title story, “The Vampire in Love” is about a Thomas Mann-like misfit, an ugly man stalking a beautiful choirboy and contemplating suicide, a story that offers a kaleidoscopic tribute to being alive, yet is a tad doctrinaire in its Vila-Matas checkpoints: the author passing the vampire in the street, the gun that sends the vampire reeling into a less-than-spectacular finale.  

But don’t avoid the backspace; the experiments that fall flat only illuminate those in which Vila-Matas probes the archeology of a writer’s thoughts and digs out treasures. A writer must have invented memories, no? That’s the title of one of his stories, a series of loosely conjoined vignettes recalling a bar in the Azores frequented by whalers and things a lot of writers may or may not have said. There is “I’m Not Going to Read Any More E-mails”, about the messages a writer, who likes the sound of his own thoughts, might send to friends without reading theirs, resulting in such observations as: “Conceited critics only improve when they have a bit of a suntan,” and, “I never read anything for fear of reading something good.”

And the appropriate signature piece, “Vok’s Successsors,” about a writer contemplating, who will, by dint of legal documents, inherit his mind. It starts with a man following the narrator, who is himself the heir of a great writer named Vilém Vok. If, as Borges wrote in an essay on Kafka, “Every writer creates his own precursors,” Vila-Matas is playing with the idea that a writer can also designate those who will follow his inspiration. Not incidentally, Vilém Vok is a pseudonym he’s used in the past – and he has told interviewers that a younger writer once did follow him and offer to write his books for him.

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Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation

By Nicholas Guyatt

Basic | $29.99 | 403 pages

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

In light of the current political climate, the search is on for the origins of prejudice and racial segregation in the history of our republic. Where does this blight come from in our American democracy? Does the concept of Jim Crow hold the answer for the need for white privilege and entitlement? Can the rationale and reason for black oppression be explained in the notion of “separate but equal?”

The separation of the races, Nicholas Guyatt suggests in his astonishing book, Bind Us Apart, didn’t start with the Civil War or the cotton economy. He moves us back to the Founding Fathers, those liberal reformers and their dissent against the British Crown, and their thirst for religious freedom and their cry against taxation without representation.

Needless to say, the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights embraced equality but with one drawback: that of granting basic freedoms to the Native Americans and African-Americans. Although Thomas Jefferson, as president, had signed a bill banning the country’s active participation in international slave trade, he still owned slaves on Monticello and saw integration as not the solution of bondage of the dark men and women. Some of his peers thought the slaves should be freed and taken to the wilderness of the western states, but Jefferson put off any action on the problem, saying antislavery was “an enterprise for the young.”

Whereas Jefferson’s notion of “all men are created equal” disturbed the framers, the idea of ending human chattel evaporated in a mist against the practical solution of abolition. The whites feared what a liberated mass of blacks could do. Would anyone be safe? Would they remember the past injustices suffered by them? Slavery was the cruel barrier that held them in check. Some endorsed a newly-advanced theory of “colonialization,” an idea that gained momentum during the era between the Revolutionary era and the Civil War. One of the brightest lights among the Washington elite, James Madison, promoted the American Colonialization Society, an organization to remedy slavery by collecting freed slaves and shipping them back to Africa.

In the end, only 20,000 were settled in Liberia, as an all-black colony under federal protection.

To counter the threat against freed slaves, writer David Walker penned in his 1829 Appeal To The Colored Citizens Of The World: “This country is as much as ours as it is the whites. Whether they will admit it now or not, they will see and believe it by and by.”

Liberal meant something different back then. In early America, it meant you were an enlightened white person, manifesting “a Christian benevolence to others” and rejecting “the temptations of prejudice,” according to Guyatt, a history professor at the University of Cambridge. However, liberals saw blacks as marked by the scourge of slavery and Native Americans as too savage to be integrated in intermarriage with whites. They promoted huge groups of Indians to be removed west of the Mississippi so the refugees could enjoy “their natural rights” and attain some semblance of economic achievement.

The antislavery struggle, with the ideas of William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, frightened some moderates of the abolitionist movements because of the social consequences of emancipation. During Abraham Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglass in 1858, the rival of Honest Abe scared the citizenry with the threat of a race-blind society. “If you Black Republicans think the Negro ought to be on a social equality with your wives and daughters, you have a perfect right to do,” Douglass warned. The future president said that slavery should be ended by “systems of gradual emancipation,” preferring the freedom of all slaves and sending them to Liberia.

After the rise of the North in the battle between the States, some Christian thinkers wondered if the biological curse of Africans was the most damning strike against the cause of equality. Many thought they lacked a soul and could never be elevated to the humanity of whites.

Both white Americans and some of their European counterparts viewed the segregation of the races as the reasonable solution to slavery. Even the educated enlightened were staunch segregationists with supposed progressive ideas, did not think the entrenched system of intolerance and racism would end and the bright promises of Reconstruction was doomed to fail.

In the end, they were correct in their assessment. The campaign to “civilize” Indians and blacks fizzled before it really started. President Andrew Jackson’s policy of Indian removal sent a signal that the tribes would benefit from being away from a hostile white presence. The tribes will never forget the harsh Trail of Tears, where many of their number perished.

Guyatt’s view of early America’s reformers and their view of racial politics show the contradiction at the heart of the national conscience. This country, “retains an instinct for racial separation that manifests itself even among those who foreswear racist beliefs,” Guyatt writes. “You can see it in the beating or killing of African Americans who end up in the “wrong” neighborhood, or in the chronic problem of housing discrimination in major cities, or in the struggles against poverty facing Native and African American communities across the country.”

America, Guyatt concludes, has a long way to go in the fight against the ingrained problems of prejudice and racism. Unfortunately, it was in our DNA from the start of our collective history.

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BELOW AVERAGE: A Life Way Under the Bar

By Lianne Stokes

Heliotrope Books | 2016 | 172 pages

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

Ask yourself this: How many books have you read that are laugh-out-loud funny?

If anyone asked me that question, I’d immediately cite J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (which is funny and heartrending at the same time), and quickly I’d add Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.  But soon enough, I’d falter.  Right off the bat, I cannot think of one dozen laugh-out-loud funny books.  It seems to me that there’s a reason for this.

By and large, in the world of books there is a prejudice against laughter that’s similar to the bias in the realms of TV and films.  Drama is considered the coin of the realm, and comedy is almost always categorized as a less impressive mode.  And yet, to paraphrase Jerry Lewis, a thousand actors can play Hamlet – but there could be only one Little Tramp, because there was only one Charlie Chaplin. 

In the case of Lianne Stokes and her spirited debut memoir Below Average: A Life Way Under the Bar, there’s a rollicking narrative that’s just as funny and heartrending as The Catcher in the Rye, minus Holden’s predilection for profanity.

From its clever title to its anecdotal overview of growing up shy, awkward, and often out-of-step in the age of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, MTV and AOL, the transition out of the 1990s and into the 21st century, this memoir by Lianne Stokes might qualify as the autobiography of a generation.  That is to say, she represents the generation of younger white American women who emerged after the Sex and the City phenomenon, but before Girls and the world according to Lena Dunham.

Below Average has hit a nerve with the media because it’s easy to highlight one of its narrative motifs. In short, the author waited until she was 30 before losing her virginity. She did not delay such a plunge due to religious orthodoxy. Nor did she stay chaste so long because of oppressive parents or a straitlaced upbringing.

What happened was more idiosyncratic and far funnier. Simply put, Lianne Stokes spent her first 30 years being utterly befuddled by human behaviors, bewildered by boys, and quasi-disoriented by the mating games she witnessed everywhere from high school to TV internships.

During her teens, and throughout her twenties, whether she was observing the vagaries of classmates in the throes of romantic distress or so-called grown-ups carrying on like hormonal goats amid the production of Spin City and Days of Our Lives, the author was perennially flummoxed by the ways of men and Eros.

However, this is more than a humorous recollection of someone in the capital of America’s sex-drenched culture (Stokes was born in Nyack, New York, attended Syracuse University, and made her way to Manhattan after college). It is also a memoir that repeatedly illustrates the absurdity of ambition, especially in the world of entertainment and performance.

And yet, before recounting the lapses, the faux pas, and the endless ironies and idiocies that she witnessed in the dating world and as an active participant in the professional milieu of stage, TV, and advertising, the author charts her life’s journey with a tone and a cadence that make turning her pages effortless.

For example, she recalls an awakening that occurred before she was 10 years old.
“I began masturbating at nine.  It was a random Tuesday in September when I was hanging upside down from the wooden bars on the swing set in my backyard.  As the backs of my knees clung to the oak bar, I felt a radical sensation in my privates. It coursed through my pelvis sending a feeling of euphoria to my brain.”

Nonetheless, as the child of an eccentric, OCD-laden Vietnam Vet for a father and a dynamo of a Sicilian mother who provided “no birds’ and the bees’ chatter in my house at all,” the author would spend all of her young life learning by fumbling.

She remembers it this way: “Each day I’d return to that swing set and I just couldn’t get that magical feeling back. So I decided to explore new objects. I went inside and sat on the geometric-print, brown-and-orange sofa and turned on Diff’rent Strokes.  ‘Where are you’ I said looking in between my legs. That’s when I resumed my position, hanging my head off the ledge of the couch. I began scissoring the air. “Lianne!  Stop it!’ my mother said, looming over me in disgust. I hadn’t been touching myself, as that simple method hadn’t occurred to me, but the image of my nine-year-old legs opening and closing, making a not-so-innocent snow angel, was enough for her. I was still wearing My Little Pony panties, so my sexuality was something she wasn’t ready to face.”

Fast-forward more than a decade, and the author’s control of her material and its tempo is always evident. For a while, she was a dental assistant. Hence, this: “My lunch break at the dentist’s office was great for my figure because looking at enflamed gums all day made me want to do anything but eat.” Soon after that, her internship on Spin City began.

Inevitably, after she witnessed the temperamental lunacies and ambitious follies that went hand in hand with Days of Our Lives and Spin City, she boldly stepped up.

“I finally got the courage to start doing stand-up,” she recalls, which was “something I’d always wanted to do. Comedy was saving me from feeling inadequate about not being close to a promotion at work. Humor had always been my escape, and for the first time I felt like I was facing my fear and trying to do something big with my life. I wanted the stability of my small paycheck, of course, but with every show I did and every laugh I got, my advertising ambitions became less genuine.”

And the weeks, months, and years roll by.  Indeed, her life’s journey is a reminder that for untold millions, the teen years are a maze and one’s twenties are a mixed bag of ambitions. But in the case of Lianne Stokes, her unique journey of a life without sex until the age of 30 sets her apart from the vast majority.

The great good news is that her story never palls (as many great comedians have testified, there’s often a sag in the middle of comic narratives), and when her book zeros in on her manifest determination to once and for all surrender her “V-card,” the integrity of her book is not compromised.  Intelligence, wit, and irony abound.

Below Average: A Life Way Under the Bar is more than a laugh-out-loud funny book.  It’s a reminder that a certain type of gifted writer can make us laugh, wince, reflect, and perhaps most of all be grateful that memoirs can be read.

(M. J. Moore is a frequent contributor to Neworld Review)

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Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publisher, Editors and Literary Agent

By Jeff Herman

New World Library | 2017 | 661 pages

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

More Meat Than I Thought

I have often turned to Jeff Herman’s continuing updated guide to book publishers, editors and literary agents. When I first started writing, years ago, I turned to it in seeking an agent. His book lists hundreds of agents, most of who, as expected, live in New York City.

When I started Neworld Review in 2007, Herman’s book was really a Godsend, because I was able to used it to contact publishers, editors and publicity departments at “a numerically tiny oligarchy of multinational, trillion-dollar conglomerates,” independent presses and university presses. This provided me with a ready stream of book and publishing information that allowed me to stay up to date with the latest trends in the publishing industry.

What was also invaluable was Herman’s advice to new writers about how to avoid some of the scams that permeate the industry, as predators exploit would-be authors, authors that would do almost anything to get published.

“Bogus agents make money in countless ways,” he writes, “other than by doing what real agents do. Bogus agents tend not to ever sell works to traditional publishers and don’t operate on the basic of earning commissions. Instead, they may offer amazing promises and an itemized menu of non-agent services, like simply reading your works for a fee… If someone says she will be your agent and if you pay her money, then she isn’t a bona fide agent.”

But the best point he made about the current state of the publishing industry reliance on agents as the gatekeepers was in his introduction: “In the beginning, my primary motive for doing this book was to give writers valuable information that was cloaked from them by habit, if not volition. It seemed that the screening process was unduly influenced by factors entirely separate from merit. Those who were fortunate enough to be from certain communities, to have attended certain schools, or to have the right connections were more likely to get published. If access to the process wasn’t fairly distributed, it followed that the opportunities were rigged. Clearly, cultural constraints are harmful for society, whether imposed by a government or by inbred subcultures.”

Enough said. Make of Jeff Herman’ comments what you will, but I think he is on to something. Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents is highly recommended by me for would be authors.

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By Julia Cameron

New York : TarcherPerigee, | 2016 | 304 pages

Reviewed by Emily Rosen, M.A., M.S.

It’s  almost twenty-five years later, and the JULIA CAMERON  industry continues to flourish. With a title like this: “It’s Never Too Late To Begin Again,”  its appeal reaches out to people way over 30 who figure they could “do” life better.

To justify my use of the word “industry,”:  Cameron has created  workbooks, prayer books, date books, meditations, movies, musicals,  memoirs, fiction, poetry, plays, etc, so numerous as to discourage listing – making Joyce Carol Oates look like a slacker.

If you don’t know Julia Cameron, be sure not to admit it in circles dedicated to self improvement, creativity, artistic expression, dogged self-discipline, the writing life and spirituality. Her original treatise, “The Artist’s Way,”  published in 1992 is the landmark bible for subjects dealing with all of the above. Those for whom its content nurtured  major life improvement, remain in worshipful gratitude to this woman, born in 1948 and briefly  (1976-1977) married to Martin Scorscese.

If you’ve come this far, it’s only fair that I report on her latest, the subtitle of which is “Discovering Creativity and Meaning at Midlife and Beyond.” a rehash with additives of the original ARTIST’S WAY – successfully geared to an older population of enthusiastic wannabees. (folks who “wanna” have the most meaningful, creative, overall satisfying  life possible)

For readers not yet familiar with Cameron’s signature technique, her “Morning Pages,” assignment has been assiduously followed by her acolytes since the concept was first brought to light in THE ARTIST’S WAY. Her followers joyfully  (or sometimes “not-so” ) put a writing instrument (definitely NOT a computer)  to three   8 ½ by 11 “pages” daily as part of their awakening routine following the toothbrushing, face washing, and whatever other dreary-eyed ablutions in which they are engaged. This is the “Pitcher’s Pen” of warm-up writing and is rightfully hailed by its many fans as freeing, inspiring, revealing, and effective as a valuable kind of introspective connection with self. The words need not make sense—they can be jots, notes, fragments, run-on sentences, stories, feelings, thoughts, a grammarian’s nightmare –  just as long as the writing experience is representative of the writer at that moment in time. To many, it has become an addictive activity. 

Additionally,  in this book, Cameron has added three more “basic tools.”  (tasks) for discovering “meaning,”  all of  which require the reader’s willingness  -- nay, eagerness! -- to comply: the writing of Memoir. “a weekly guided process of triggering memories and visiting life in several year increments;”    Artist Dates, “a once weekly, solo expedition to explore something fun;” and  Walking,  “a twenty minute solo walk, twice weekly, without a dog, friend or cell phone, ”    activities which , if practiced  in earnest, can certainly put one on a path to a spiritual high, especially for individuals on the so-called back nine of their lives.  Speaking of which, some of the less than enthusiastic comments  about the book are from mid-lifers, and “sandwich generation” folks  who feel unrepresented when they are thrown into the same bucket as retirees and seniors.                                                                                                        

The book is divided into what is tantamount to a curriculum for a twelve week course – each week focusing on random themes that enhance creativity and the exultation of life, i.e. – wonder, freedom, connection, purpose, honesty, humility, resilience, joy, motion, vitality, adventure and faith. Each chapter includes several tasks, a weekly checkup of the reader’s adherence to the program and  anecdotal material, much of the latter of which seems to serve to bulk up its 264 pages. We get it, Julia.

So for those “embarking on their second act,” this is Cameron’s answer to “What next?” even as it answers her own “what next?” oeuvre of products for sale. Cynical? Perhaps. That can be attributed to my being awash in self help books, many of which actually DO serve their purpose. Frankly, I’m for anything that works for the many and diverse “you”s of this world. Cameron’s steady and enduring message  and specific tools for taking responsibility for one’s own creative stride towards self fulfilment is a noble and positive message put “out there” for the universe to accept.

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The Hike

By Drew Magary

Viking | 2016 | $26.00 | 278 pages

Reviewed by Michael Carey

Drew Magary’s second novel, The Hike, is The Odyssey on hallucinogens. Realistically, The Odyssey is The Odyssey on hallucinogens, but Magary’s tale takes one man’s struggle to return to his family to new places in the imagination.

Ben arrives early for a business meeting at a hotel in the Poconos. With time to spare, he goes for a little hike, but the path has other plans for him. Ben finds himself in a world outside of time and space, a world that threatens his life and challenges every fiber of his resolve. In this strange new realm, Ben will face the past that was and the past that could have been, all the while struggling to avoid danger and make it home to his wife and kids.

The Hike starts slow but gains speed like a train pulling out of the station, soon to be on the verge of flying off the tracks. Readers will quickly draw conclusions, most of which will not be entirely right, and find themselves wondering how can Magary bring this ride to a fulfilling conclusion. I know I did, but The Hike delivers an action packed, bizarre thriller that makes us question what is important and a conclusion that leaves us with a satisfied smile. The writing flows smoothly between chapters, compelling readers to continue. The strangeness of the adventure boosts readers’ curiosity as to what could possibly come next and how will Ben handle it. When asked about the book, readers may pause, smile, try to explain the odd adventure Ben finds himself on, and express just how weird it all seems, but they won’t deny they are enjoying it.

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