Being great again?

A few months back, I was over at Barnes & Noble and found a couple of things on a 75%-off clearance table, this being one of them. It's a pity that I have so far not found a platform (that I've been able/willing to afford) for reading e-books, as this, due to its vintage, is available free in various digital formats (heck, there are collections of all nine of the author's books in Kindle editions on Amazon for their minimum 99¢ charge), but I have yet to encounter an e-book that wasn't an uncomfortable slog to get through, generally taking 10x the time of reading a “dead tree” book … so it was nice to pick up this slim volume for under two bucks.

Wallace D. Wattles is one of the “sources” for the whole “The Secret” / “Law of Attraction” genre. He lived from 1860-1911, and wrote his most influential books in his last years. This one, The Science of Being Great, says it was originally published in 1911, although Wikipedia has it coming out (with the other books in the “Science of” trilogy … one of which I reviewed a number of years ago) in 1910.

To be honest, my number one take-away from this book was what a remarkably different world Wattles lived in to what we do more than a century later. The basic assumptions of the author's world view are almost as alien as those of Marcus Aurelius, writing nearly two millennia previously. The America that Wattles writes about (and bases a lot of his philosophy on) is nearly unrecognizable today … this was a country that had yet to churn through two world wars, a time when automobiles were still a novelty (largely due to there being very few paved roads until the 1920's) and where the airplane had only recently been shown as a possibility by the Wright brothers … and an America that was vastly more homogeneous, with the Black migration from the slave states just beginning (in 1910, Blacks only made up 2% of the population of Chicago, only a third of the current Asian population of the city!).

Now, I'll admit that much of my resistance to what Wattles has in here could be based on my general curmudgeonly bitter cynicism (and the whole “God thing” he's pitching), but I really feel that he's writing for a world that is lamentably dead and gone. However, there are quite a lot of things here which are less context-dependent than the rest, and I'll be focusing on these. This is from the first (short – most are only a few pages, given that the book's brief 73 pages are broken into 22 chapters) chapter:

      Nothing was ever in any man that is not in you; no man ever had more spiritual or mental power than you can attain, or did greater things than you can accomplish. You can become what you want to be.
As bad as I feel about resorting to this, I think the current book might be one of those where my readers would benefit from my typing up the chapter listings … since the material here is not in a particular “narrative arc” this would serve as at least a matrix for me to introduce cherry-picked quotations (there being quite a number of my little bookmarks stuck in here). So …

            Any Person May Become Great
            Heredity and Opportunity
            The Source of Power
            The Mind of God
            The Social Point of View
            The Individual Point of View
            Hurry and Habit
            Action at Home
            Action Abroad
            Some Further Explanations
            More About Thought
            Jesus' Idea of Greatness
            A View of Evolution
            Serving God
            A Mental Exercise
            A Summary of the Science of Being Great

One of the downsides of a book being over a century old when I get my hands on it (as noted in other reviews) is that people mentioned in the text – which the author evidently assumes are known to his readers – are only understandable at the end of a Google search … in the “Heredity and Opportunity” chapter Wattles has a long paragraph naming folks who rose from disadvantaged beginnings to achieve great things, but the only one described there that was immediately recognizable was Abraham Lincoln … in any event he notes:“In each of these cases we see a Principle of Power in the man that lifts him above all opposition and adversity.”. Although not mentioned in this context, I found it interesting that Napoleon Bonaparte is frequently cited both here and similar books of the era, despite having died nearly a century before. Obviously, the cultural memory of Napoleon has not faded, but the influence of the man as a “type” seems to have drained away.

One of the key concepts in this is that everything is perfect as it is, within the context of the stage of its development. I would like to use Wattles own words here, but the section that I'm considering would require block-quoting over a page, which in a 73-page book seems to be pushing the limits of “fair use”. He, however, preceding this section, has a point that is in all-caps as its own paragraph, which seems to be the only item so emphasized, so I'm guessing it's worth passing along (if without the full capitalization):

      This must be your point of view: That the world and all it contains is perfect, though not completed.
He goes on to explain the idea of things being a “partial expression”, thus incomplete, and in doing so compares J.P. Morgan to “strange animals of the age of reptiles”, and thereby “perfect after his kind” (Wattles was an early Socialist, so no doubt had opinions not kindly towards the “robber barons”). He then starts to address what he expects to be objections to this “perfection”, including child labor and “exploitation of men and women in filthy and unsanitary factories” … saying that those workers “only want more of the things that make for animal enjoyment, and so industry remains in the savage, brutal, animal stage” he seems to believe that the workers will eventually “desire more in the way of a higher, purer, more harmonious life” which will result in industry being raised above that plane …

But it is perfect now upon its plane; behold it is all very good.
He goes on to recommend how one needs to see the facts of reality from “the highest viewpoint” (although this might be the source of the “no soup for you” aspect of The Secret):

“All's right with the world. Nothing can possibly be wrong but my personal attitude, and I will make that right.”
For somebody who keeps getting into the Jesus stuff, he does have some fairly, uh, heretical statements cropping up at times, I especially liked this one: “Do not give your time and strength to the support of obsolete institutions, religious or otherwise; do not be bound by creeds in which you do not believe. Be free.” … which is nearly Crowley-esque in its sentiments (and I do hate the idea that A.C. might have been cribbing from Wattles, but the timings make that at least a possibility). While differing in attitude, the following, part of how the author is defining his concept of “consecration”, might also have come from Thelema:

You cannot be ruled from below if you are to be great; you must rule from above. Therefore you cannot be governed by physical impulses; you must bring your body into subjection to the mind; but your mind, without principle, may lead you into selfishness and immoral ways; you must put the mind into subjection to the soul, and your soul is limited by the boundaries of your knowledge; you must put it into subjection to that Oversoul which needs no searching of the understanding but before whose eyes all things are spread. That constitutes consecration.
This sort of seeds the “Realization” chapter, which has recommendations based on that last level of subjection, where one is “learning to read the thoughts of God”, frankly (and no doubt this is the cynical me reacting here), I found much in this section simply a recommendation to solipsism and credulity (he says if you “feel” something is going to be happening, follow that “with perfect faith” “no matter how unlikely it may seem” – which could be taken to be the full recipe for the “new age” movement!).

He gets into some, what seems to me to be “technical”, stuff regarding thought, at first going into (at the end of the “habit” chapter) how to use mental exercises to repeat certain thoughts until they are “the only way you think of yourself”. In the “thought” chapter he says:

      Thinking is the hardest and most exhausting of all labor: and hence many people shrink from it. God has so formed us that we are continuously impelled to thought; we must either think or engage in some activity to escape thought. The headlong, continuous chase for pleasure in which most people spend all their leisure time is only an effort to escape thought. If they are alone, or if they have nothing amusing to take their attention, as a novel to read or a show to see, they must think; and to escape from thinking they resort to novels, shows, and all the endless devices of the purveyors of amusement; Most people spend the greater part of their leisure time running away from thought, hence they are where they are. We never move forward until we begin to think.
And, mind you, this was written in the very early days of film, and well before commercial radio, TV, the Internet, or the smartphone – one can only imagine how little thinking gets done these days!

Needless to say, I'm skipping out on a lot of the details here, to at least be able to convey the conceptual broad strokes. The following are from a couple of paragraphs in the “Action Abroad” chapter, which I thought hung together well, so I'm skipping about a page between them:

Do not try to do great things until you are ready to go about them in a great way. If you undertake to deal with great matters in a small way – that is, from a low viewpoint or with incomplete consecration and wavering faith and courage – you will fail. Do not be in a hurry to get to the great things. Doing great things will not make you great, but becoming great will certainly lead you to the doing of great things.

Do not go hunting for big things to do. Live a great life where you are, and in the daily work you have to do, and greater works will surely find you out. Big things will come to you, asking to be done.
That is, of course, all well and good, but a few lines later Wattles is off into: “Every man and woman is perfect. Let your manner be that of a god addressing other gods.” … and even into some things deeper down that hole. He then offers a bit to reinforce the “perfect” idea, saying that “mistaken religious teachers” have promulgated a view that the world is bad, and getting worse, with discords and inharmoniousness intensifying towards an ending, while he insists that the world is good, and getting better, with those negative elements (in a comparison to a steamer ship) simply being “incidental to our own imperfect steering”. He closes out the book with a bit of “covering bases”, bringing in a half-dozen or so others' quotes on thinking, going into a thing on Jesus, and on evolution (I guess those camps were already in conflict back then), a program for doing mental exercises, and then closing up with reprinting an essay by Emerson on “the Oversoul”.

While there was enough stuff in The Science of Being Great to keep my attention, it was (as noted up top) full of things that had me muttering “yeah, maybe in your world”, but I'm crotchety like that, and somebody less cranky about positivity would likely not be bothered in the least by the stuff that I was finding irritating. Again, this is available in digital forms for nothing to very little, and new copies of this slim volume can be had for a penny plus $3.99 shipping. It's an interesting enough read, with material that is certainly echoed in later philosophies/fads, and might even stand on its own as a “process” … but this is definitely a “your mileage may vary” nod.

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Digging it ...

This is a book that I picked up at a “discount outlet” a few months back, when a friend let me know that the store was doing a special book sale (5 hardcovers or 10 paperbacks for a dollar), and I hopped on the El and got over there (actually, that might be very well be where I got a book, previously reviewed, for which I could not recall the source), only to find the pickings rather slim. This, however, is quite a gem!

I have a number of books by Michael D. Coe in my library, natural due to my long-time fascination with the Maya (his area of expertise), so finding his Final Report: An Archaeologist Excavates His Past in that setting was somewhat serendipitous. Needless to say, this is quite different from his other books, as this is his autobiography, sort of summing up his life (although he's still extant), which came out a decade ago (a note on the book itself: it doesn't have any signs, other than the slightest wear to the corners of the dust jacket, of having been read or even handled much, so would certainly be in the “like new” category). As I've been finding is the case in a lot of autobiographies of figures I thought “I knew”, I had a bit of a surprise here – I have another volume, a guide book to Tikal, by another Coe that had come out in the 60's, which significantly preceded most of the titles by Michael D. Coe in my library, and I'd always assumed that that was his father, and that Michael D. had grown up in the archaeology biz (possibly in the 50's). While the name of that Coe was the same as Coe's father, it was actually his brother, who, as it turns out, was also an archaeologist (and, oddly, gets only scant mentions here).

And, rather than growing up with a trowel in his hand, it would be closer to say it was a silver spoon in his mouth, his family having benefited from the “robber baron” era (I believe it was his grandfather who actually managed to profit on the Depression), and by the time Michael D. Coe arrived, they had houses and estates in various parts of the country, and he hobnobbed with the likes of Gloria Vanderbilt in his childhood.

To be perfectly honest, I spent much of this book gripped by pure, naked envy, both of his wealth and resources, and his career in archaeology. There's not much I could have done about the former (although I got a whiff of that from my Mother's close friendship with one of the Rockefeller granddaughters in my early years), but had very much wished for the latter. It's interesting how those sorts of things seem to be at the whims of fate, as in this book he muses what might have happened if a particular teacher had not been on leave, resulting in him getting into a different class that led him into anthropological studies, and my having assorted events happen that channeled me away from a life digging in ruins.

Because of my misconception of his biography, I was somewhat surprised to find that he was born in 1929 – so much of his youth was spent in what is very much “another world” just in basic culture, even without the upper-crust aspects. He, at an early age, was sent off to boarding school. He notes that he had pretty much taught himself to read, having paid attention as his mother was teaching his brother (3 years his senior) to read – there appears to have been a significant amount of sibling rivalry in this relationship. But, I'm getting ahead of myself somewhat here.

His family did not have “old money”, as his great-grandfather had brought over his young family, coming out of a situation that appears to have been the upper level of servants in an “Upstairs Downstairs” sort of environment in England. The initial chapters dig around in his forebearers' past, including a photo of a church graveyard on the upper reaches of the Thames in Bisham, Berskshire where a couple of generations are laid to rest. There's quite a bit on how his family got established here, resulting in substantial estates by the time of his grandfather (although much of the money came by marriage to a daughter of H.H. “Hell Hound” Rogers, a competitor with the likes of J.P. Morgan and J.D. Rockefeller). As one might expect, Coe was shuttled off to the most exclusive schools of the time … of which he has mixed recall … with some aspects being positive, and some not so much. Interestingly, it was winning an annual prize in the “Sacred Studies” program (the school was very “churchy”) that started him down his eventual path – the award was a book which featured some bible verse translated into over 1,000 languages, but also included “a thumb-nail sketch of each tribe or people who spoke that language, and in the native orthography”. This led him into questioning a lot of things, and eventually getting his hands on Sir James Fraser's famed Golden Bough which:

argued that all of my cherished beliefs about Christmas, Easter, and even the death and resurrection of Christ could all be explained as cultural responses to universal concerns, that Christianity was not fundamentally different from any other religious system, such as those of Classical times and even so-called primitive peoples.
He continues …

Taking Fraser in conjunction with the Darwinism that I had absorbed in biology, by the time I graduated SPS, I had become a complete agnostic and skeptic, and have remained so throughout my life.
He ended up going to Harvard, initially to get a “gentleman's C” in English literature, and was well on his way to coasting through when his family went on a vacation to the Yucatan, staying at the famed (and still-operating) Mayaland Lodge at Chichen Itza.

To me it was a revelation to roam the Castillo, the great Toltec-Maya pyramid; the round Caracol, Chichen's observatory; the Sacred Cenote; the so-called Nunnery with its mysterious inscriptions; and all the other buildings and reliefs. I knew little or nothing about the ancient Maya, but I burned to find out about them. When I returned to Harvard, I would … major in Maya archaeology!
Unfortunately, there wasn't such a major available, but he was guided into anthropology, and had to really apply himself his last two years to get caught up with that major and get his grades up enough to look plausible for moving into an advance degree.

Coe and his brother returned to the Yucatan in the summer between his junior and senior years to work on an excavation (and have some rather bizarre experiences with the locals and assorted resident expats), giving him some initial experience in the field. He ended up having what was likely (given that he was still scrambling to get his GPA up to snuff) a stroke of luck, as a major course that he had in his senior year was being taught by a visiting professor from University of Chicago, and – in something otherwise unheard of at Harvard – was giving an “open book” exam. Coe and a study partner, taking the prof at his word on this (with much of the rest of the class not believing in the possibility), bought comprehensive notes with them, and received A's (while many of their classmates ended up with C's).

Having graduated with honors, he was able to skip the graduation ceremony and head off on a European vacation, staying with his Uncle, and going on a driving trip with him and the writer Evelyn Waugh. I found the following of interest (geopolitically, at least):

It was 25 June, 1950, and we were sitting in a Stornoway pub quietly sipping our pints when the news came over the radio above the bar: the North Korean army had just invaded South Korea across the 38th Parallel. Stalin, Mao, and Kim Il Sung had gambled that the U.S. and its allies would do nothing about it. As I found out later from persons in a position to know, if President Truman had not committed American ground troops four days later, Stalin had fully intended to invade Western Europe. Mao already had all of China except Taiwan and some nondescript offshore islands on his hands.
Coe had been young enough to miss WW2, but was heading to graduate school when this hit. His father, who had spent some time at Annapolis, encouraged him to join the Navy, but a medical issue led to his failing the physical. However, soon after, he was tapped (as was frequently the case in top universities in that era) for a job in intelligence. Coe is nothing but positive about his time with the CIA (which had him stationed in Taiwan and some of those “nondescript islands” off the Chinese coast). Most of what he did seemed to be assessing and funneling information as it leaked out of the mainland, but what I found most interesting here was the way “secrecy” was obsessively maintained, both state-side, when he was being trained (there were whole government offices that were nothing but fronts for this), and the supposed import-export business he was working for in Asia. There were some fascinating “fly on the wall” bits of formal dinners with local notables (including General Chiang Kai-shek, as well as Mme. Chiang, who was instrumental in the intelligence program), but, aside from his connecting with some famed archaeologists who had escaped to Taiwan, not a lot that bears on his eventual career. After three years in “the Agency”, he eventually heads home, but takes a leisurely path through southeast Asia, which includes a visit to Angkor Wat … which enchants him, and leads him to eventually returning and producing a book on the site (ironically, in his 1954 visit he was within ear-shot of guerrilla action on the outskirts of the region, and when he returned in 1993 similar fighting could be heard as the UN-supported government was still dealing with hard-core remnants of the Khmer Rouge). On his return trip he also spends time in India and in Rome, the latter totally engaging him. He has some interesting stories of his family (an Aunt had married an Italian diplomat some decades before the war), and how they only barely survived the conflict (among other things, his Norse surname of “Coe” was frequently misconstrued as being a variant on “Cohen”, resulting in being sometimes targeted with official or casual antisemitism).

Almost immediately upon his return to Harvard, he is introduced to his eventual wife (whom, as a “blonde, blue-eyed Radcliffe student”, he was instantly smitten with), Sophie Dobzhansky, daughter of famed evolutionary biologist, Theodosius Dobzhansky, who had escaped Stalin's USSR to settle in at Columbia University. They seem to be an ideal couple, and her Russian roots come in quite handy at a number of points, especially in their 1989 visit to Leningrad to meet with noted linguist Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov, who had spent decades being dismissed by the archaeological orthodoxy for his “decoding” of the Mayan hieroglyphics (to which Coe devotes a book).

The bulk of the rest of Final Report is on assorted reminiscences of his career … which, while interesting in the full sweep of it, is general enough (or, perhaps from too personal a stance) to not have a lot of individual things screaming to get highlighted here. There were a few things that did catch my eye a bit, however. One was an early position at the University of Tennessee following his digging at the La Victoria site on Guatemala's Pacific coast (which he spent years in follow-up research on the materials obtained there). While he welcomed the Tennessee job (as it allowed for said work), he also got assigned to do “archaeological salvage” in the Cumberland Basin, soon to be flooded behind a new dam. There were thousands of Native American sites through the region, plus post-colonial ruins, and very little time to access these. Plus, the local environment was very much (a fact that he specifically notes) like what was encountered in the movie Deliverance. As an archaeologist who was very systematic on setting out dig grids, etc. in his other work, Coe was dismayed to find himself sometimes having to resort to bulldozing a later site to get down to an earlier cultural level.

Coe eventually gets a position at Yale, and is able to return to Guatemala (in Ocós, on the Mexican border), and eventually to San Lorenzo Teochtitlan (between Veracruz and Tabasco on Mexico's gulf coast) to do more work on the Olmec. While the narrative here is very engaging to “an armchair archaeologist” such as myself, it is very much on the nitty-gritty of dealing with locals, with the government, with logistics (especially notable in terms of the food – some weird stuff got served up to them!), the weather, etc., and I can well imagine that this would be just so much blah-blah-blah to many. Oh, and speaking of "weird stuff", at two separate points in the narrative (I don't recall which sites were involved), he all but makes a "UFO report", one featuring a daylight sighting, and one of a very strange light encountered at night … not exactly what I was expecting in the general flow of this!

However, one has to remember that this is an autobiography and so is about the author's life experience rather than particularly about the elements that are encountered in the course of living that life. This especially comes into play in a chapter pretty much dedicated to the author's family finding a “country house”, which could have been, I suspect, effectively covered from the reader's perspective in a few paragraphs. The book puts a magnifying glass on things that are of personal concern for Coe, and, perhaps, glosses over things that the antiquities fan might be specifically looking for.

The penultimate story here is of the above-noted trip to Russia, and the author's involvement with the whole debate over the Maya glyphs/language. Having previously read Coe's book on the subject, I found this quite illuminating (there had been significant shifts towards Knorosov's work in the 14 years separating that publication and this). It then deals with his retirement (and Sophie's death, and his efforts to finish the book that she had been working on), his return to Angkor Wat, and a number of other bits and pieces. Given that Final Report is 10 years old at this point (and Coe is still alive), I'm sure there's quite a bit that's happened that's not covered here (perhaps there will be a second edition at some point).

As I admitted to up top, there is quite a bit here that had me simmering with envy … as Coe's life has many elements that I wished for mine … which also means that I was approaching the material here with a lot more focused interest than others might be bringing to it. Did I like it? Yes! Will you like it? Well, that's something for you to gauge, I guess. Oddly (for a book that came out a decade ago), this is going for full-price via the on-line big boys, which leads me to think that it might still be available in the brick-and-mortar bookstores. Also, the new/used guys, while having copies, don't have them for particularly cheap, which makes me wonder if this has slipped into the “textbook” channel, although I have a hard time figuring what sort of a class would use this for a main book. Anyway, I liked it, if you have an interest in archaeology (or the Gilded Age) you might too, and it's out there to be had if this sounds like something you might want to read.

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Holy Bubble-Blowing Black Holes, Batman!

This was a relatively recent dollar store find (about six weeks back), but I was sort of looking for a science book to get into, and that category has gotten somewhat lean in my to-be-read piles, so this leapt to the front of the line. While being a “popular” science book, Caleb Scharf's Gravity's Engines: How Bubble-Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos is not exactly a light read (OMG, I came very close to making an inadvertent black hole joke there), as it is filled with a whole lot of fairly complex information on cosmological discoveries, much of which was at least reasonably new to me (this came out in 2012, so the material should be fairly up-to-date – as much as one can expect from any technology book).

I don't know if this is a compliment or a fault, but when I picked this up to do the review, I was having a hard time “off the top of my head” recalling the specifics. The “broad strokes” I got, but the book, in my mind, sort of existed as a unified whole. This, on one hand, means that everything in here “hung together” well, but it might also mean that this got sufficiently technical to have lost me on the details. Fortunately, I do have a few of my little bookmarks scattered through it to point me back to what I felt were the notable parts.

Now, this is full of very complicated concepts that Scharf attempts to present in terms that will make sense to “the average reader” … one of the images he uses is of a sack containing “a representative portion” of the universe. This not only lets him introduce the idea of generalizing from “a fair sample” of data points, but allows him to talk about stuff “streaming out of” said sack. A significant amount of this are photons …

They come in all flavors, from extremely low-frequency radio waves, where a single crest-to-crest distance may span kilometers, to microwaves, infrared, visible, and ultraviolet frequencies, and on to the realm of X-rays and gamma rays. One of the most pervasive types of photons is the kind that originated in the very young universe ...
This serves to introduce the “cosmic microwave background” photons – which are present in our local neck of the universe at about 410 per cubic centimeter, meaning that the immediate (within one light-year of the Sun) neighborhood has about 1057 (more than a trillion trillion trillion trillion, and that's a lot) of them zipping around at any given time. That leads him to discussing neutrinos, which react so little with normal matter that you might have a collision between a neutrino and a sub-atomic particle comprising some part of your body maybe only once or twice in your lifetime – despite there being somewhere around 65 billion of them streaming out of the sun and passing through “every square centimeter of your skin” every second.

From here he discusses other matter, then briefly touches on Dark Matter (somewhat “in passing”, since we currently know next to nothing about it), and on to gravity, and how things seem to be structured in the universe in general. Now, I have to confess that I have no bookmarks through most of the middle of the text, so I'm going to be flipping through to give you a sense of what's in there. I do want to stress, however, that this wasn't due to it being boring or uninformative, but possibly being “too much” data flow for me to be able to say “oh, hey, let's highlight this”, or the like. One thing that did catch my attention was his “borrowing” of some of Doug Adams' imagery (in the form of a falling whale to illustrate tidal forces, and a likewise fatally descending bowl of petunias) which he only obliquely cites in an endnote. This opens up discussion of Einstein's “field equation”, and Karl Schwarzschild's solution to that (and the resulting concept of the “Schwarzschild Radius” of a given spherical mass and the idea of the “event horizon”), which then leads into a look at gravitational contexts, including an interesting chart showing the relations of mass, size, and speed (or “terminal velocity”), where an object hitting the Sun will achieve 0.2% of the speed of light, but a black hole of the same mass would have objects coming in at the speed of light. Oh, and how the gurgling of water going down a drain has its equivalent in emissions from a black hole … yes, he explains how that works, but I can't even begin to relate that here.

Scharf goes into the history of x-ray research, from its earliest forms through programs of increasing complexity, leading up to the current generation of x-ray imaging satellites. It seems that x-rays are the preferred means to look at the environs of black holes, and especially phenomena that are hugely distant (and hence vastly old) and visible in ridiculously small areas of the sky. There are some fascinating images of objects remarkably far away (one at a 600,000,000 light-years remove), imaged in x-ray, microwave, radio, and occasionally visible light … although I think these would be improved had there been more “comparative” images (Scharf often describes what the visible light image would look like, but its up to the reader to fill in the picture around the “inner elements” exposed by x-ray, etc., capture).

The author also goes into a good deal of the sub-atomic particle physics that comes into play in some of the reactions posited for these most violent areas of the universe. Given that the stresses, speeds, temperatures, etc., etc., etc., can reach their utmost extremes in these zones, the behavior of all forms of matter are taken to their ultimate limits, and produce extraordinary effects. Again, there is such a “firehose” of material here, it's pretty useless for me to try to excerpt it, as it might take pages of blockquotes to get to where I feel I'm making it clear (which is, I guess what this book is for!).

The early history of the universe is contemplated, with surmises presented as to early galaxy formation, as well as outlines of the basic types of galaxies, the massive number of stars involved in these, their assorted sizes, etc. At most points the author tries to offer up examples that can help the reader “wrap their head around” these difficult concepts (like comparing the fluid dynamics of water coming out of a garden hose to how jets of material can shoot out hundreds of light-years from celestial objects), while (kindly?) skipping most of the math. He is constantly trying to put these things in terms that at least suggest to the reader how they relate to “knowable” stuff, such as:

While a supermassive black hole can occupy a volume similar to that encompassed by the orbit of Neptune, a big cluster of galaxies can occupy a region some 30 million light-years across. The black hole is only 0.00000000001 times the size of the cluster. That's the size of the period at the end of this sentence compared to one-third of the distance to the Moon.
Frankly, one of the main take-aways for me with the whole book was the extreme nature of all this … the hugeness, the distances, the time involved, the masses (a supermassive black hole can have a mass 12 billion times that of the Sun), the warping of space-time (which can be twisted into something akin to a tornado in some settings), etc. ...which is really difficult to fully appreciate or even effectively contemplate!

Of course, one of the factors here is that so much of this is based on “best guesses”, it's amazing that we're able to get the data that the scientists are working with, but they're having to have some of the most expensive technology ever invented by man devoting hours and hours and hours of readings to just get enough photons on a chip to be able to suggest what's going on (as most of these targets are incredibly distant and fill the most infinitesimally small portion of the sky). An example of this is here:

The most distant quasars exist in a very young universe, barely a billion years old. As we've seen, quasars are products of the appetite of the biggest and best-provisioned black holes. Surrounded by accreting matter, they pump out a prodigious amount of energy. But the age of these systems raises a fundamental question. These supermassive black holes must have formed contemporaneously with the first generations of stars in the universe. This is a great puzzle, because the way we think black holes form in today's universe is from the catastrophic collapse of massive stellar remains. Once the mass of a spent stellar core or an object like a neutron star exceeds a certain threshold, there is only one way for it to go: down and in. There is no known pressure force that can resist the shrinking of such an object to inside its event horizon. But this produces a baby black hole only a few times the mass of our Sun. Even if it eats matter at the rate required to power something like a quasar, that amounts to only a few Sun's worth of material a year. With a continual food supply, it would still take hundreds of millions of years to reach supermassive scales. So where could those first giant chasms have possibly come from? {he does offer up a few possibilities here}
One thing, on a more human scale, that I don't believe that I'd previously heard of was the “Galaxy Zoo” project which used “crowdsourcing” to help categorize 500 million astrophysical objects detected by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. This site ( started about a decade ago, and at the time of this book's writing (in 2012), over 150,000 people had helped classify 50 million of those objects (each of which was getting 20 different classification hits to assure accuracy).

There's so much stuff in here … things like the most massive black holes in spiral galaxies are about the same size as the least massive black holes in elliptical galaxies … or that our galaxy, the spiral Milky Way, is quite large for its type and is termed a “green valley” galaxy which is in the middle zone between the “red” of the ellipticals and the “blue” of some other spirals (plus having very “active” black holes at their centers) … which leads the author to speculate on some “anthropic” concepts in relation of our existing where we do,

Anyway, Gravity's Engines is a fascinating read … and if you have an interest in cosmology, astronomy, physics, etc., you should definitely consider picking up a copy. As I noted at the top, I got the hardcover of this at the dollar store, and it looks like it was one of those “right store on the right day” finds (with the books coming in from their likely source of Walmart clearing their shelves), as it's still available as a hardcover, paperback, and ebook from the on-line big boys (so is likely to be able to be found a your local brick & mortar that handles science books). And, even having hit the after-market, it's still going for a few bucks in the new/used channel. If you like science, you'll probably like this one a lot.

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a pervasive phenomenon ...

This one had a “meant to get into my hands” vibe for its route into my library. A month or so back, the author was being featured as a speaker at the DBSA meeting I attend down here, and he'd brought a few books with him, which he handed out to those of us who had gotten there early. I sort of connected with the author, as he grew up in a family business, had been in publishing (in fact, his family's business was publishing – the educational publishers Follett), and had struggled with depression. Naturally, Mark Litzsinger's Out of the Shadows: A Journey of Recovery From Depression is a look at that struggle. One of the things that he focused on in his presentation, which was only a small component of the book, was that, after various go-rounds with psychopharmacology and working with some of the top doctors at Rush and related hospitals, he ended up getting “cured” though ECT – electroshock. This therapy still has that “One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest” vibe to it in popular culture … but it appears that it's having (in its current, much less destructive mode) a significant resurgence, and the author had a really remarkable set of results which he claims had him operating on cognitively higher levels than he'd ever experienced before:

Within a year of starting ECT treatments, I was operating on a different, better level. Not only was I well, but I was thinking more clearly and interested in many more things. My mind was questioning, I could synthesize information very quickly, and come to deductions about personal and business decisions like never before. … After the treatments, I broadened my learning and interests to encompass new areas in life, including politics, world affairs, travel, culture, and entrepreneurship.
… which rather uncomfortably reminded me of John Travolta's character in the film Phenomenon! Speaking of pop culture connections, I was very surprised (given his obvious enthusiasm for the procedure) that Litzsinger had never even heard of The Ramones' song Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment, which is the only other 100% positive look at ECT that I've encountered.

The author is, clearly not (nor does he represent himself as such) an expert on mental health, but he's published this as something of a “public service” (including having all proceeds from it go to Rush's Psychiatry department) … he notes:

One of the goals of this book is to make depression seem normal. That might sound strange if you have depression, but I want to normalize the disease in a way that people – those who have it, those with family members who have it, and the public at large – view it as a relatively “normal” disease, one that can be beaten like cancer.
… and, elsewhere:

– increasing your knowledge and understanding of how depression impacts patients and family members, how the past has shaped current treatment methods, and what the future holds for those who suffer from this disease will provide a firm foundation from which to go forward. The goal of this book is to do just that – to give patients, family members, doctors, and others who wish to learn more a blueprint of the disease's history and treatments, as well as offer hope for a future in recovery.
I go into this here to provide some context for the caveats I'm going to throw out in following. I really wish that I liked this book better than I did. I get the sense that Litzsinger set himself a goal of doing a lot of research, and then brought in a writer (the co-credited Sarah Hamaker) to make a book out of it. There is certainly a lot of material cited (there are nearly 250 end notes for about 140 pages of text), but the book is structured very much like my college research papers … quote after quote strung together with just enough contextifying copy to keep it moving in the right direction. While this certainly lends a sense of “authority” to the material, it inherently creates a situation of very uneven tone in the text, with quoted elements showing up in the middle of paragraphs, or even in the midst of sentences. Of course, given the typical format of my reviews, this is something of “the pot calling the kettle black”, and the book would certainly be a choppy mess if all of those quoted passages showed up as blockquotes, but it makes the reading a less coherent experience than if these cobbled-together parts had been paraphrased and integrated into the narrative flow. Just sayin' …

I only had a handful of bookmarks in here, and most of those were pointing me at sections of the book to refer back to … one bit, however, stood out in the early parts of this, and that's:

… Depression affects the personal identity and social communication of the person suffering from it, which in turn can create difficulties in getting help, contribute to social isolation, and lead to distress. “It can lead to feelings of guilt, anger, and anxiety, and is a pervasive phenomenon …”
As someone who deals with depression, that quote is certainly on-target. This comes from the section on the stigma of the disease. I suppose it would be useful to take a look at the structure of the book … it is in four Parts, “The Disease”, “The Doctors”, “The Treatment”, and “The Recovery”, with “Disease” having four chapters, a history of depression, the chapter on its stigma, and a chapter each on its impact on patients and their families, and the “Doctors” having three chapters, one each on doctors, patients, and their families in relation to doctors and depression. The main part of the book is Part III, on treatment, with nine chapters: treatments in the 20th century, treatments in the 21st century, shock therapy, talk therapy, animal therapy, exercise, nutrition, and chapters on patients and families. The last Part looks again at patients and families, but in relation to recovery. The book wraps up with some very helpful bits, a resources section (including further reading suggestions), and a bibliography (which, admittedly, is mostly research papers).

Needless to say, the above represents quite a lot of material, which is to a greater or lesser extent interwoven with the author's own story, making it somewhat challenging to cherry-pick examples. One thing that I do think was very well done here is a feature of the “families” sections, which presents lists of action points (and paragraphs explaining them) this is from the “Families and Depression Treatment” chapter:

                  Realize depression is serious.
                  Know it's not personal.
                  Recognize the symptoms.
                  Encourage treatment.
                  Accept your limitations.
                  Get screened yourself.
                  Have patience.
                  Don't ignore suicide threats.
                  Keep the person involved.

A similar (albeit “wordier”) list is in the “Families and Recovery” chapter, which has at least one item that I felt was very important:

Remember that hopelessness, disinterest, anxiety, and anger are all depression symptoms.
Given that this sounds like my typical day … it would be great if everybody could keep in mind that the depressed person is not necessarily trying to be a pain in their backsides, or a major drag to the common mood!

The book wraps up with a “Conclusion” chapter that has some very interesting statistics (although the first two seem to be at odds), most shockingly are the figures of “suicide deaths related to depression” in 2013 – 41,149, and the “estimated yearly cost of depression in the United States due to health care and lost productivity at work” - eighty billion dollars (admittedly, this latter figure is from an article in the Huffington Post rather than from the CDC, like the suicide stat).

As noted, I had issues with Out of the Shadows, most as detailed above, although some might be due to my having read a decent amount in this field, and I might have been having a “yeah, yeah, yeah, tell me something that I don't know” curmudgeon reaction that others (approaching this stuff less data-burdened) wouldn't experience. The author is certainly targeting a wide audience (“the public at large”) with this, but I really feel that the optimal reader is a family member of somebody suffering from depression, as this would give them a substantial chunk of information, crafted to “normalize” the perception of the disease.

This is less than a year old at this point, so one might expect it to be available through your local book vendor … except that it doesn't have “a publisher”, with Litzsinger being listed as the publisher with no contact information … it doesn't seem to be a CreateSpace production (which would have bookstore sales available), so I guess the author must have tapped his family contacts to have this printed. It is available from Amazon (although not through, and that looks like it might be the only way to get your hands on it, should this be something you'd find of interest.

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Secrets, yes ... not so much eavesdropping, though ...

This is another of those culinary-themed books that I lucked into at the Dollar Store down by my daughter's college in Urbana. As I've noted before (and, I suppose, it's just part of the mystery of books coming into that particular after-market), I have no idea why there were a half a dozen appealing food-industry books there on that day, but there they were, and I was not going to pass up walking out of there with something around $150 worth of reading for a measly five bucks!

Aside from the cookbooks obtained in that haul, this was the last of these that I've gotten around to reading … not that I was avoiding it or anything (this ain't G.E.B. for instance), it just took a bit longer to “fit into” what was appealing for me to read. Frankly, this may have gotten moved up the to-be-read queue due to a slight oddity that I found over on Amazon regarding it. I will, on occasion, take a peek at the ratings over there to see what I might be getting myself into (after all, the purchase decision process at the Dollar Store is a very basic “does this look like it's worth a buck?”). Typically, there will be something of a consensus, at least as to what end of the five star scale a book ends up, but this … this was different. At first glance, it looks like the 96 people who had rated it fell evenly across the star options … and even in specifics, it's pretty close, ranging from a low of 17% giving it 2 stars, to a high of 23% giving it 5. I have been known to go to a movie “just to see what a Tribune 5-star rating looks like” (as they rarely grant more than 3), and I was fascinated to see what might have created this very odd even distribution of ratings.

That said, Phoebe Damrosch's Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter was a quite enjoyable read. I don't typically do star ratings on books (as, in non-fiction, there are so many variables … a book might be highly informative but written horribly, or be engaging yet poorly designed, etc., etc., etc. … that it makes it difficult for me to come up with a single number), but I'd guess I'd be pretty much like the Tribune's movie reviews – unless it has totally blown me away, it's not getting five stars – so I'm guessing this would have been in my rankings somewhere in the 3-4 star range.

The longer I'm exposed to the publishing biz, the more I'm aware of how the title/subtitle of a work is more likely in the hands of the marketing department than the author/editors … which goes a long way to explaining how aggravated I often get in expecting one thing from a book, yet ending up with something, in the words of Monty Python, “completely different” {kindly indulge me in a bit of a more wandering aside than I'm given to … I recently had feedback from an author, whose book – which I'd complained about not reading for years because of its title – had originally been called "Propinquity" (the name I'd have given it), but had been re-titled with a 20-word title/subtitle which had “sales in the title for SEO reasons” … sheesh!}. Frankly, in that spread of star ratings over on Amazon (yes, I peeked at some of the reviews), many of the folks giving it lower ratings were evidently really anticipating some juicy “Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter” as promised in the subtitle.

Honestly, aside from some a handful of restaurant reviewers, chefs, and restaurateurs, I don't recall any name-dropping here, which seems to have been a deliberate choice, as she notes that she only “altered a few names and incriminating details” amid “the truth according to my memory”, so this is hardly a “plate and tell” (to possibly coin a phrase) tale. The book is both more mundane, and ultimately informative than that … it is a none-too-uncommon tale of somebody coming out of school with an English major and looking for a means of surviving in the world. Damrosch admits:

I suppose I could have found a job in publishing like a good English major, but as far as I was concerned, offices were dusty, stagnant, and badly lit.
She had several jobs, including an awesome-sounding one as a nanny for a very wealthy family, but wasn't inspired to stay with any of them for an extended length of time. When out of a job at one point, her ex-boyfriend suggested she apply at the small neighborhood cafe where he worked … which she did, initially for a busboy position, but quickly (she goes into details on the ethnic sorting of restaurant staff), as a college-educated white female, ended up in other places on the organizational chart.

I don't have many of my little bookmarks in here, but two are up front in her description of her early years in food service, which I felt stood out as bright red flags pointing out that “this is an English major's story”, this describing a co-worker:

This guy was a rare case: an actor who loved the restaurant business and was taking a break from performing to devote himself to waiting tables. Unfortunately, you can take the actor out of the performance, but you can't take the performance out of the actor, and watching this guy explain the menu as if he were Henry V on St. Crispin's Day sent me fleeing from the dining room on many an occasion.
Trust me, if you're an English major (or theater junky) that's hilarious. Equally so, in a bit about her trying to do some highly complicated recipes out of her eventual employer's cookbook (The French Laundry Cookbook by Chef Thomas Keller, creator of The French Laundry restaurant in California, and Per Se in New York), there's this:

The book recommends working on the open door of your oven, to keep the batter warm enough to work with. So I knelt before the open oven, realizing that despite years of English classes, I could not recall a single poem by Sylvia Plath.
It does seem to be something of a stroke of luck that the author managed to land a gig as part of the pre-launch staff for Keller's new Per Se, as it sounds that this was “well beyond her pay grade” in terms of her experience. She had, however, developed a fixation on Chef Keller and his cuisine, and had, at a restaurant she'd worked at after a return from France (yes, I am skipping quite a bit of detail), waited on him at one point, only to have been flummoxed by the query of one of the party as to what kind of persimmons were being featured in one dish on the menu … Keller was very driven to have quite specifically sourced ingredients, and it probably helped to have Damrosch aware of that when she boned up for he interview (a process which included getting, and poring over, the aforementioned cookbook, which came in handy when she was able to recite details about the Chef's California flagship).

The meat of the book, however, is the intimate details of the operation of a four-star top-tier restaurant … from the “rules” (of which there were dozens, with such minutia covered as #4 - “no scented products” or #20 “guide guests to the washrooms”) … an interesting aspect here is that many of these are reproduced as blockquotes throughout the text. Another design element that I found engaging was the “A TIP” sections that come at the ends of chapters, which basically address the dining public with suggestions of what to do or not do at a restaurant … one of these got a bookmark from me: “If you want to change the majority of the components in a dish, you might consider choosing something else.”,, which just screams arising from much frustration. Of course, this material comes from the function of Per Se, which had dinner checks that were in the hundreds if not thousands of dollars, which is certainly not “everywhere” … but the details, and attention to detail are pretty remarkable. What's also remarkable, is that they end up with that maximum review right off the bat.

One of the sub-themes here (there are several that I'm not going into, including an on-going relationship with one of the author's co-workers, and the emotional complications involved in that) is the process of getting that rating from The New York Times and their new restaurant critic, Frank Bruni. It is amazing how important those stars are for these upper echelon eateries, and so the whole cat-and-mouse game (the reviewers really want to be as anonymous as possible to be able to get a “fair reading” of the dining experience – with some going to great, and sometimes ridiculous, lengths to avoid being recognized) is very much a “blood sport” in the industry.

I had really hoped to have peppered this review with snippets of the details, but there is so much in here (both in terms of the workings of a super-deluxe restaurant and on the food stories interwoven through the book, from the specifics of some of the suppliers to the meals had by the author in other contexts) that I found it impractical. Also, as mentioned, I've skipped a lot of the “personal” story with the author's background, and relationships. This is not an inconsequential aspect to the book (which ends with the telling of a dinner that she and her beau “André” had at Per Se some time after both of them had left there to pursue other opportunities, including four pages of the menus that each of them had on that occasion).

Again, I was quite engaged with Service Included, but I'm a “foodie” who was fortunate in the early years of my career to be in a position where I got to eat in places like Per Se (although it came along much later), so it was a fascinated look “behind the curtain”. Needless to say, if you are uninterested in food, and the upper reaches of the culinary world particularly, this is likely to be less an entertaining read for you. Without the “food porn” (or “voyeuristic” peeks into the restaurant) aspects, this does devolve into a fairly mundane story: “English major works as waiter in New York”, so if you're not viscerally responsive to the description of dishes with a hundred bucks of truffles in them, you might not get as much enjoyment out of reading this as I did.

This is still in print in a paperback edition, so could be obtained from your local brick & mortar book vendor. As noted, I got a copy of the hardcover in the Dollar Store (not terribly long ago, so it is possible that some copies might still be kicking around that channel), but the on-line big boys have “like new” used copies for as little as a penny plus shipping … if you're into the high-end restaurant world (even if just vicariously), you'll probably like this.

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Pardon my ...

Here's another book that came my way via the “Early Reviewer” program … and in this case, it's actually early, with a publication date still a couple of weeks off at this writing. This was a pretty classic case of my requesting a book (the process of the LTER program is that each month there's a list of books that publishers have made available, and you “request” ones you think you'd like to read/review … I typically have 3-5 “requests” in each month, and it's up to the “Almighty Algorithm” – picture a Deep Thought for books – to make the best match for a title to a user's LT collection) that “looked interesting” but I didn't have a burning desire to read. It's a bit more focused than the serendipity of the dollar store, but not much. I go into the preceding to sort of plead my case on not really interfacing with Andy Molinsky, Ph.D.'s Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge and Build Confidence particularly well. I have one lonely little slip of paper in this, and, frankly, when I dragged it out for reviewing, I had nearly zero recall of anything from it. Flipping through the book did bring bits back to mind, but also suggested to me why this didn't particularly stick with me … it's heavy on the “people stories” (à la: “Annie knew that if she wanted to succeed at her job – especially in a male-dominated industry like finance, she had to learn to stand up for herself.”), which are rarely the way to get information into my head. However, there is quite a lot of valuable (and once it's dredged out of the “story” context, actionable) material here, so I'm going to try to flog that out for you in the following.

Now, my first thought for doing this would be to simply reproduce the Part, Chapter, and section headings from the book, which would provide a pretty cogent walk-through of what's in here – but that would sort of just be reverse-engineering Molinsky's book outline … which seems like not making a sufficient effort to convey the essence of the book. The author sets things up in the introduction:

In an ideal world, no one would have to reach beyond their comfort zone to succeed at work, and all the tasks and responsibilities we need to perform would fit perfectly with our personalities. …
But unfortunately, this is not usually the case. Conflict-avoidant managers often need to embrace conflict – or at least learn to tolerate it. Timid entrepreneurs need to be able to pitch and promote themselves and their ideas … introverts need to network … self-conscious executives need to deliver speeches … and people pleasers need to deliver bad news. You get the idea.
{ellipses in the second paragraph in the original}
As one might suspect, those descriptions are based on people profiled in the book (whether or not they're “real” people – the stories are heavy on personal reaction and low on detail), which didn't really work for me, as I found the more “abstract” or theoretical material here far more useful, such as:

We often feel overwhelmed – sometimes even hopeless – when having to act outside our comfort zones. But the reality is that we face a set of very predictable and identifiable set of challenges – and we can overcome these challenges … This book will explain why it's so hard to act outside your comfort zone and help you develop the courage and ability to flex your behavior with success.
He identifies these challenges as The Authenticity Challenge, “which occurs when acting outside your comfort zone feels fake, foreign, and false” or “the feeling "This isn't me at all" and the distress that results from that feeling”, The Likeability Challenge, which “occurs when, as a result of the behavioral stretch you have to make, you fear others won't like you” or “the sense that doing this will "make people not like me," and the worry that results from that perception”, The Competence Challenge, which “occurs when you feel you don't actually have the skills or knowledge to perform the new task successfully” or “the feeling of "I'm not good at this behavior and it's obvious to others," along with corresponding feelings of embarrassment and, perhaps, shame”, The Resentment Challenge, which “happens when you feel frustrated and annoyed that you have to adapt behavior in the first place” or “the strong sense that you "shouldn't be doing this behavior" in the first place, and the frustration and anger that results from that feeling”, and The Morality Challenge, “the feeling – logical or illogical – that when stretching your behavior, you will feel inappropriate or perhaps even unethical” or “the feeling that the behavior isn't something you "should be doing," and the anxiety and guilt that can result from that sense”. There is a section for each of these with stories about people facing the various challenges in business settings, and then a part where he goes over the emotions involved (this is a real good example of an author doing the “tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them” template).

The second chapter is “Our Amazing Capacity to Avoid”, which sketches out four typical “tactics” of avoidance: Tactic #1: Full-On Avoidance, Tactic #2: Do the Task, but Only Partway – and Not So Well, Tactic #3: Procrastinate, and Tactic #4: Pass the Buck … which lead into what he calls “A Vicious Cycle of Avoidance”. This is sketched out with a “story” of being afraid of snakes, but not something I'm going to be able to extract a coherent statement on, short of scanning the snake-less flow chart.

This brings us to Part II – How to Successfully Reach Outside Your Comfort Zone, which presents “three critical resources for behavior flexing”. These are: “Conviction: The Critical Importance of Having a Deep Sense of Purpose”, “Customization: Finding Your Own Personal Way of Performing the Task” (which includes “customize the words you use”, “customize your body language”, “customize the timing”, “use props”, and “customize the context”), and “Clarity: The Power of Honest Perspective”. Interestingly, this latter chapter has a great deal of very direct and applicable material – it also largely “steps away” (that's one of the sections, heh) from having the information totally embedded in the “people stories”. This is the place which got my bookmark, in the section “Refer to Yourself in the Third Person”, which reports on research that indicates:

When we engage in "self-talk," especially in stressful and difficult situations, we gain confidence and clarity simply from the slight psychological detachment of referring to ourselves in the third person.
The effect of “these slight changes in perspective and language” goes right down to the brainwave … with test subjects who used the 3rd person having brain scans more like control cases than those using “first-person personal pronouns”.

The rest of Part II is sort of rah-rah stuff on “The Surprising Benefits of Taking a Leap”, with a couple of “discoveries” leading into a “positive cycle” that mirrors the flow chart of the earlier “vicious cycle”. Again, the info here is all interwoven in these stories, to the extent that I find it hard to even begin to extract it (do you want pages of trying to explain who the characters are, what their situations are, what they're feeling, yadda, yadda, yadda? If so, I guess you should read the book).

Part III is “How to Make Your New Behavior Stick”, and the first chapter is “Building Resilience”. This has three “Resources” #1: A Thoughtful and Effective Practice Routine (with three sections of interesting ideas, unfortunately buried in “stories”), #2: A Mind-set That Supports Learning and Experimentation (with two sub-sections), and #3: A Healthy Support System. The second chapter here is “The Myths and Realities” which addresses five “myths” and counters them with what the author holds are “realities”.

The book gets somewhat redeemed in Part IV, “Practical Tools”, which has assessments and forms to pull out your own particulars related to the various elements in the book. Obviously, I would have vastly preferred a book that had plainly laid out the concepts involved and then moved into this “Applying Reach to Your Own Life” part than having to go through the endless “who cares?” reactions that I was having while plowing through all the “Lily did this, Lucy did that, Linda felt this other stuff” bulk of the book. But, admittedly, I'm a curmudgeonly misanthrope with a tin ear for “teaching stories”, and I suspect that at least 90% of other potential readers would find this substantially less frustrating than I did.

As mentioned, Reach isn't out quite yet, so if this sounds like something you'd be amenable to (hey, some people actually enjoy reading fiction, and this half way there – “takes all types to fill the freeway”, I guess), you could either order from the on-line big boys, or show up at your local brick & mortar book vendor looking for this when it's due on 1/24. For me, it had a lot of interesting concepts that were being totally obscured by the “stories about people whom I couldn't care less about” format … a real shame, as a straight-forward book about this topic could be both fascinating and more useful that this one.

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In some other world ...

This book came to me via the Early Reviewer program over at … whose “Almighty Algorithm” determined (fairly predictably) that my library was a good match for it. Frankly, this is something that I'm surprised that I hadn't picked up at some time previously, as I've read a number of the author's books over the years. However, I was a bit perplexed at how/why this ended up in the LTER program, which is theoretically targeted to allow publishers to get some pre-release buzz for upcoming titles. Thich Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation was written in 1975, the current translation dates to 1987, and it's still in print in a 1996 hardcover and 1999 paperback. This, however, is bring marketed as a “gift edition”, although it's not got any of the enhancements (deckled edges, bookmark ribbon, deluxe binding, etc.) that such designation brings to mind. According to the flap on the dustcover (it is a hardcover) “This gift edition features Thich Nhat Hanh's inspiring calligraphy, photographs from his travels around the world, and a revised afterword.”, so I guess that's it. I feel a bit churlish being somewhat underwhelmed by the 8 pages of B&W photos and the “fortune cookie” calligraphy (example: “breathe you are alive”) that precedes each chapter here, but when I read “gift edition” I was expecting something more (oh, something like this), and I have to wonder what the thinking was on releasing a second hardcover edition (at the same cover price as the existing one) of this. I mean, it would be one thing if this was, say, the 50th anniversary of its initial publication or something, but, apparently, no. This, of course, has nothing substantive to do with the book itself … and it's certainly a nice little book, that I'm happy to have a copy of in my collection!

If I had one notable “take-away” from reading The Miracle of Mindfulness it was something of an “aha!” moment with one of the things the author presents here … something which I'd recently encountered in my DBT work which has exercises about manifesting a “half-smile” (and which, honestly, I thought was total B.S.), the details of which are almost lifted word-for-word from this book. Given that this initially came out over a decade before DBT was evolved out of CBT, it's pretty obvious to me that that was blatantly cribbed from Thich Nhat Hanh … and it certainly makes more sense in a book that includes such hard-to-get-into-a-real-schedule items as a “slow motion bath” than it does (at least to my thinking) in a therapy situation. Interestingly (to me), all my little bookmarks show up in the sections before the introduction of the half-smile (and bath) stuff … I guess the author sort of lost me there.

I suppose a secondary take-away relates to some of the above … a lot of what is covered/suggested here would be a lot easier or practical for those living at a retreat center. While there are certainly elements that could be wedged into a busy Western urban day, a lot of whats in here just sound “pie in the sky, by and by” to me … but I've never been the “peaceful reflection” kind of guy, and, unless I'm really being diligent with my inner “monkey mind”, I find most attempts at meditation (although not those in an organized setting, where they are the activity, and not something delaying anticipated activities) very difficult to fully engage with. That, I suppose, is a caveat to keep in mind when I'm kvetching about stuff in this!

The book starts out oddly, with the author talking about visiting with friends, and asking about their children, etc., then relating stories about other associates and things they'd done. Now, as any regular readers of these reviews will appreciate – I simply do not get “teaching stories” – whatever mental circuitry that's necessary to extract meaningful stuff out of those, I'm evidently lacking ... so I'll cede the possibility that there might be some significant material being imparted in these tales, but I don't see it. Fortunately, the author does frequently “cut to the chase” rather than leaving the reader to infer his intent. One place I marked here was in the middle of an story about traveling with a guy by the name of Jim, who had volunteered to do the dishes, TNH challenges him on if he knows how to wash dishes – which Jim, predictably, bristles at. TNH tells him:

“There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.”
He goes on to say that if we are thinking of the cup of tea that we'll be having after finishing up the dishes, “we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes”, and he further suggests that we'll not be present for the tea either, thinking of other things. He goes on to chastise Jim for not being mindful in eating a tangerine, and is obviously not a fan of mentally multi-tasking (and obviously has all the time in the world – as his instructions for eating that tangerine would likely make a 2-minute “feeding project” into a half-hour of “thoughtful chewing”). I hate to be so bitchy about this (and I'm obviously being “reactive” about the mindfulness stuff – which is why I need to read things like this), but when TNH tells students that an hour of meditation a day is “nowhere near enough”, and I have a hard time getting organized to be able to try to sit for 5-10 minutes, there's obviously a disconnect between my universe and his.

I had another marker in the section where he starts addressing the breath, this starts with an odd parable then gets into a technical spiel that also kind of lost me:

Our breath is the bridge from our body to our mind, the element which reconciles our body and mind and which makes possible the one-ness of body and mind. Breath is aligned to both body and mind and it alone is the tool which can bring them both together, illuminating both and bringing both peace and calm.
He does move from this into discussing how breath is simply a tool of mindfulness, and then returns again to the dishes:

When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. Just as when you're drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life. When you're using the toilet {yes, seriously}, let that be the most important thing in your life. … Each act must be carried out in mindfulness. Each act is a rite, a ceremony. Raising the cup of tea to your mouth is a rite. ...
He goes from here into a couple of chapters discussing practical (in a retreat center setting) issues around meditation practice, that managed to avoid getting any bookmarks from me, and then turns to more philosophical topics:

      While you sit in meditation, after having taken hold of your mind, you can direct your concentration to contemplate on the interdependent nature of certain objects. This meditation is not a discursive reflection on a philosophy of interdependence. It is a penetration of mind into mind itself, using one's concentrative power to reveal the real nature of the object being contemplated.
      Recall a simple and ancient truth: the subject of knowledge cannot exist independently from the object of knowledge. … When the object of knowledge (the something) is not present, there can be no subject of knowledge. The practitioner meditates on mind and, by so doing, is able to see the interdependence of the subject of knowledge and the object of knowledge. ...
I found the next bit quite fascinating, as these are very close to what I'd come up with for “labeling” (and dismissing) mental traffic in those infrequent (and brief) times when I've been able to get myself to sit for meditation … these are what TNH presents as the “five aggregates”:

      Every object of the mind is itself mind. In Buddhism, we call the objects of the mind the dharmas. Dharmas are usually grouped into five categories:
                  1. bodily and physical forms
                  2. feelings
                  3. perceptions
                  4. mental functionings
                  5. consciousness
He goes from this into looking at some classic Buddhist concepts around “suffering”, birth and death, etc. These are followed up by some classic stories that then dove-tail into material about “service” (which is a theme for a lot of the material about his various travels and associates), and into a long section of “Exercises in Mindfulness” (where the half-smile stuff is). The last third of the book is a piece about Thich Nhat Hanh, which I'm guessing is by the dish-washing and tangerine-eating “Jim” (Jim Forest), followed by a number of Buddhist Sutras (relating to mindfulness), followed by a fairly detailed timeline of TNH's life.

I'm somewhat irritated with myself that I didn't interface with The Miracle of Mindfulness in a more constructive manner, but that's no doubt on my current “work on myself” creating a lot of points where I was “reactive” (if not “Mr. Crankypants”). I'm guessing that most folks (or at least most folks who are interested in delving into a Buddhist meditative tradition) will find this quite a pleasant and informative read. As noted up top, this is available variously, with this “gift edition” just coming out a couple of months back, and other editions still in print. Oddly, given that this has been kicking around for a long time in a number of forms, there don't seem to be any particularly cheap options out there (well, the on-line big boys currently have the paperback at 44% off, which makes it competitive with the used guys) … so you're on your own on that. And, again, I probably enjoyed reading this more than my digging into it sounds like!

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"everyday is silent and grey"

I'm not exactly sure how Morrissey's Autobiography got on my radar … it evidently took a few years (this came out in 2013, and I only ordered it this past fall), but somewhere I read something that was singing its praises, and, being a fairly long-term Morrissey fan (and having recently indulged in another rock autobiography by a guy of similar vintage, which I enjoyed), I snagged a copy. While this is a remarkable book, it could well be three (or four) books, and might benefit by at least being internally divided (this runs on for 450 pages with only a rare extra space between paragraphs, let alone any chapters or clearly delineated sections) along those lines.

When I started in on this, I was blown away. Morrissey was sort of “channeling James Joyce” and producing prose of richness, complexity, art and wit that had me raving about it and thinking that this was going to be featured on English departments' curriculums in the very near future. The first couple of hundred pages takes the story from his family's roots, his childhood, on through the early years of The Smiths and are an enchanting piece of writing. Tellingly, all the little bookmarks I put in here are from that part of the book. To give you a sense of what was so appealing here, the following is the very start of the book, a small part of a paragraph that runs four and half pages:

My childhood is streets upon streets upon streets upon streets. Streets to define you and streets to confine you, with no sign of motorway, freeway, or highway. Somewhere beyond hides the treat of the countryside, for hour-less days when rains and reins life, permitting us to be amongst people who live surrounded by space and are irked by our faces. Until then we live in forgotten Victorian knife-plunging Manchester, where everything lies where ever it was left over one hundred years ago. The safe streets are dimly lit, the others not lit at all, but both represent a danger that you're asking for should you find yourself out there once the curtains have closed for tea. ...
While telling the story of his youth and school years, it is generally like this … perhaps having the task of recreating the past being an opening for literary flourish. Part of me wishes this went for the rest of the book. However, when the story turns to the demise of The Smiths, and into a vastly ugly court case where former band members are trying (ultimately, successfully) to essentially re-write the agreements of many years previous, the tone of the writing also changes, and those are very difficult parts to read. The last part of the book is also less lyrical, with a long wander through shows here, shows there, places Morrissey lived, people Morrissey hung out with, and random details on the reception of his solo albums. Now, I suppose that hard-core Morrissey fans would eat up the latter part, but it, and the claustrophobic, panic-inducing, press of the industry/court phases, makes one wish those first couple of hundred pages were a thing unto themselves.

Speaking of fan info … I'm guessing that others knew this before it got in here, but I was surprised to read the origin of Morrissey's nickname “Moz” … which I had sort of assumed had been something that had “organically” arose out of The Smiths' fandom or the press, but it's a bit different:

... My own name is by now synonymous with the word ‘miserable’ in the press, so Johnny {Marr} putters with ‘misery’ and playfully arrives at ‘misery mozzery’, which truncates to Moz, and I am classified ever after. ...
As I only have a small smattering of my bookmarks pointing back to particular sections, and they're all up front, I guess I'll deal with them now, and get into the rest of the book after. Now, another “comment” here (not really intended as a criticism), the flow of his early years, while having random contextifying data, are not particularly linear, or anchored to ages, dates, or events, so it's often fairly hard to pin down how old he was in things he's covering. In a section discussing various acts and albums of which he's enamored, he mentions “It is considered odd that a boy so young should care so much.”, which leads into the following:

... Here and there my eyes and ears are caught only by the solo singers; town-crying to all people at all times, television troubadours minus jingle-jangled nodding musicians. The song bears witness, the body weaves, and there are no camera cuts to blandly smiling session-players when all we want to see is the sculpted singer – alone, carrying all, sub-plot and sub-text, the physical autobiography; simultaneously, subjectively and objectively at the same time. There is no way out for the solo singer; introduction, statement, conclusion, quick death – all conveyed in the pop sonnet, with no winking glance over to guitarists in order to ease the setting. There are visions of divine things … I still don't know what it's all about, but like the science of signs, I am called to, because the song is the art of using language as persuasion, and with that allowance and hope, I want to cry. I am caught and I am devoted to a fault. Snobbery jumps in. If I can sing, I am free, and no legislation can stop me. ...
The next section is easier to pin down, as he cites the date of his first concert (T.Rex in 1972, when he would have been 13), and this bit relates to a number of acts and songs he's discussing:

It seemed to me that it was only within British pop music that almost anything could happen. Every other mode of expression seemed fixed and predictable and slow. … Marc Bolan's lyrics are steeped in the quietly insane world of the gothic English novel, and are too deeply eccentric to survive any explanation. On earlier records, Bolan sounds as if singing in Olde English – incomprehensible to the modern ear. Yes, but the Bible speaks of ‘a whole earth of one language’, and this is something that only pop singers can manage. …
At one point he gets into discussing the poetry of a number of writers (possibly idiosyncratically English, as I only recognized a few of the names), and drifts into this rather florid exposition (which is presented leading up to the purchase of an instrument … albeit a drum kit):

… The will surrenders to the resolve and dignity of the written word, and I, the gentle self, step forward, pattering up the ramp, one half of an incomplete person, knowing with certainty that I cannot live – yet wondering if I could possibly write? Slight and weary and full of angularity, my heart is never unbroken, but I am unable to call out. I have a sudden urge to write something down, but this time they are words that must take a lead. Unless I an combine poetry with recorded noise, have I any right to be? Yet, let it begin, for who is to say what you should or shouldn't do? In fact, everyone tries to knot your desires lest your success highlight their own failure. Better, it is thought, that we all swill in the same bucket, just making do. But I have no intention of surviving for eighteen years in order that I might be strangled to death in my nineteenth. I will never be lacking if the clash of sounds collide, with refinement and logic bursting from a cone of manful blast. Here, from the weeds, the situation worsens since each abiding art-form lacks one essential ingredient – and that ingredient is the small and bowed passionate I. Since there is no living being as recipient of my whispers, and since there are no certainties that one shall ever appear, then the off-balance distortion of my everyday feeling must edge into the un-cooperative world somehow.
A somebody who has written a vast lot of poetry in certain phases of my life, Morrissey's phrase: “the off-balance distortion of my everyday feeling” certainly echoes in my core. Given the length of the above quote, I am hesitant to add another, but one of the questions that arose while reading the descriptions of the music business, and especially as it related to The Smiths, was “why is it that all bands seem to end up getting screwed?”, and Morrissey has a scathing dissection of this (long after the fact, of course), which runs from page 170 to 172 … far too long for this space, so let me dust off some more ellipses and at least dole out the high points:

We signed virtually anything without looking. … The specifics of finance and the gluttonous snakes-and-ladders legalities were deliberately complicated snares that all pop artists are expected to understand immediately. … The basic rule, though, is to keep the musician in the dark at all costs, so that the musician might call upon the lawyer repeatedly. … A vast industry of music lawyers and managers and accountants therefore flourish unchecked due to the musician's lack of business grasp. … pop stars come and go with lightning speed, while the fraternity of managers and lawyers remain in place forevermore ...
Etc., etc., etc. … it is quite a rant, and somewhat reminiscent of a song he penned regarding the later court case. This takes me both to the last of my bookmarks, and the point where the tone changes. The Smiths were classically clueless on the business angles, and basically got ripped off at every point, including when they got lured away from their initial record company. One interesting thing in here was the later near-remorse (perhaps just bitterness) of Factory Records (home of Joy Division, etc.) head Anthony H. Wilson who seemed to rather hate The Smiths for his having not signed them early on, with at least one letter from him to Morrissey reproduced in its entirety. Unfortunately, communications with The Smiths' original label, Rough Trade, and its head Geoff Travis, were rarely much more civil, and many of these missives are quoted here.

These are hard to read, because, despite the band making some iconic albums at the time, they are evidently being bled at every turn. Plus, they seem (at least in Morrissey's telling) to be much hated in the press, and faced with radio programmers who seemingly outright refused to play their records (despite having reasonably robust sales). I guess if Morrissey wasn't depressed before all this, one can't fault him for being morose because of it all. However, worse stuff was on the horizon. One of the initial band members, drummer Michael Joyce, had attempted (through “an array of legal firms”, most of whom soon dropped his case) to try to retroactively increase his stake in the band, now nearly a decade past its end. He eventually managed to get a trial and a very sympathetic judge and prosecutor (or, perhaps, just ones hostile to Morrissey). Now, I have no information on this trial outside of what Morrissey writes, so it's his version, and he is certainly painting himself as the victim of a fraudulent claim pushed through an incompetent court, but who knows. The tale told in this part of the book (which was hardly a pleasant read), suggests that Joyce' claim had no backing, that “corporately” the band was Morrissey and Marr (the latter was only peripherally involved in the trial – although one assumes he had the same financial stake in it – lending credence to the idea that this was an effort to “get” Morrissey), and that the other band members had been operating under an agreement which were paid them a 10% cut with no interest in any additional monies. The judge invoked some rulings from 1890, and agreed that Joyce, although having no documentation, a long string of legal firms that opted out of representing him, and a story that changed repeatedly, had been an “equal partner” in The Smiths, and so due 25% of those (long-gone) funds. On top of how the deck was stacked against Morrissey, his lawyers faded off and passed the case down to less-seasoned (and informed) representation at the last minute. The details presented in this part of the book are horrific (if what Morrissey is writing is, indeed, correct – and I have no grounds to doubt him – any sane person would have thrown Joyce's case out with even a cursory look at the specifics), and the writing is far less poetic, and seethes with the author's justified frustration.

I guess later success, however, is its best revenge, and once he gets past the trial, most of the remainder of the book deals with his solo career. While this was still not smooth sailing, it has obviously been a lot more lucrative than The Smiths ended up being. While interesting in a music-magazine sort of mode, this is full of way more information than I really needed to know: concerts, tours, festivals, events, and the famous people he interacted with. Needless to say, this latter element is in full swing when he moved to Los Angeles, even featuring a picture of Nancy Sinatra posing with a Morrissey poster (why?). I hate to say it, but that last section is more “Tiger Beat” than Dubliners, but that, I suspect, is “just me”, and that the sort of detail in there is likely to appeal to a lot of people.

Again, I was disappointed that the whole of Autobiography wasn't the literary delight of the first third, but it's Morrissey going through his life experiences, and the icky bits with the industry, with the media, with the lawsuits, and the rest are part of that. While the writing isn't as special in the latter parts of the book, it never devolves down into the “newspaper reporting” voice that frequently shows up in biographies. If the whole was like the start, I'd be telling you that you absolutely had to get a copy, but as it is, I'd suggest that you should at least consider it. Needless to say, it would help if you were a Smiths/Morrissey fan.

It appears that the hardcover is out of print at this point (although you can get “new” copies from the new/used guys for as little as the assorted grades of “used”), but there's a paperback available, which has a good likelihood of being on the shelf at your local surviving brick-and-mortar book store. This is an interesting read throughout, with parts of it being brilliant … so it could well be worth your while to make the effort (it is 450 pages) to give it a read!

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"not mandatory"

Well, that's interesting … I just took a peek at my collection over on and discovered that I'd only previously read one of Bill O'Reilly's books … I was under the impression I'd been through more (probably it's my familiarity with him via TV that was suggesting that). I went looking because I was trying to dig up something serve as a basis form some “compare & contrast” cogitation with his 2013 release (and fairly recent dollar store find) that I just finished, Keep It Pithy: Useful Observations in a Tough World. The reason I was looking for some context is that, by the time I got done reading this, I couldn't figure out why this book existed. Honestly, the general impression I took away from this was that it was the text equivalent of one of those “contractual obligation” releases that bands sometimes spew out to expedite moving from one label to another. There was no indication here that O'Reilly is in the process of switching publishers, but this had that sort of “mailing it in” vibe that albums tend to have in those situations.

In the introduction, the author sort of sets the book up (and he notes “this book is not mandatory”, and that it is something of “a literary highlight reel”) with the following:

      Over the past twenty years, I have written millions of words. “Bloviating” doesn't even begin to cover it. Eleven bestsellers, thousands of newspaper columns, a daily talking points memo on television, and so on. On my tombstone I want these words inscribed: “He finally stopped talking.”
      Many publishers have asked me to simply reprint my past stuff. I've always said no. That's because some of what I've written is obsolete. Dated. Not relevant to anything anymore. That happens because life passes quickly and season change, to say the least. What was fascinating five years ago may be very boring right now. … But some of what I've put down on paper is worth another look ...
That gives you the basic sense of what's going on here … he (or his publishing aide, Charles Flowers) cherry picked bits and pieces out of his writings (generally a paragraph or so, sometimes a couple of pages), which he then intermittently comments on (and typically only a sentence or two when he does. The book starts out with material from his book Culture Warrior from 2006, which he considers “prophetic” on a lot of levels in sketching out what befell this country under Obama (who was a “vote present” do-nothing Senator embarrassing the state of Illinois {don't blame me, I voted for “the black guy”, Alan Keyes, for that seat!} at the time), with a “told ya so!” overtone. Of course, giving the timing of the book, much of what's in here focuses on the Klinton years, and the media/left dog pack that hounded the Bush administration.

The book attempts at some organization … it's in three sections, with 3-5 chapters each, “State of the Union”, “State of Yourself”, and “Keeping it Pithy” … but even with the chapters focusing on a particular group of topics, the over-all feel here is of random bits pulled together simply to get a book out (O'Reilly mentions that they'd “selected some of my best stuff and have presented it in a way that is designed to help your life”, and that latter point seems to be the purpose here, O'Reilly magnanimously seeking to “impart some guidance” to his readers … although I don't quite see who would be particularly enlightened by the mish-mash of material here).

Some of the topics covered (flipping through the contents listing) are the “progressive agenda”, “European socialism”, minority issues, “religion under attack”, terror, materialism, Hollywood, liberal control of education, activist judges, media and leftist movements in cahoots, traditional values, his interactions with the “rich and powerful”, and assorted other hot buttons.

I was somewhat surprised to find that I had inserted zero of my little bookmarks in this, indicating that there wasn't anything that jumped out at me as being particularly, well, “pithy”, which is sadly somewhat damning in a collection that purports to be his “best stuff”. Frankly, this book would be ideal if I were setting up a Social Media program for O'Reilly, as it's chock-full of little snippets that would make swell Twitter or Facebook posts … a walk through this, and I'd have two years worth of an “editorial calendar” good-to-go (if being somewhat “dated” – one could always sprinkle in “opinion of the day” as it came up to keep things fresh). However, that's the sort of challenge I feel that I'm facing in trying to summarize the book in a way that would produce a satisfactory “review” … it's all so random (if amassed into “themed” sections), and none of it stood out as something that was sufficiently notable to yank out as a blockquote. Well, with at least one exception … in the final chapter he gets into some details of his “No Spin Zone” concept, and briefly presents it as a “philosophy” of sorts. I hate to indulge in a four-paragraph grab here, but since I'm not sharing anything else, I figured that we'll all (you, me, and O'Reilly) be OK with it:

      A personal No Spin Zone will save you time, money, and frustration. It will allow you to make value judgements base upon hard facts and evidence. And – provided that you keep an open mind and examine all credible data – you'll be comfortable with your conclusions on most matters.
      Here's the key that unlocks the Zone: the ability to be rigorous with yourself in always challenging your initial thoughts and conclusions. The Zone is no place for zealots, lemmings, or weak-minded followers. It is a state of mind that demands the discipline of clear thinking and the flexibility to change that thinking should the evidence dictate. Summing up, the No Spin Zone is not an easy place to be.
      Why? Because it's far easier to let others form your opinions. You then don't have to exercise your brain cells and the crowd will readily accept you. Politicians, commentators, and others vying to fill your head space are eager to supply you with particular points of view. And increasingly, many Americans are buying into viewpoints that crush independent thinking. Why think when media talking heads and newspaper columnists will do that for you? After all, aren't these people “experts”?
      Well, no, they are not. At least most of them aren't. There are no experts when it comes to making personal decisions. That's your own private domain. Sure, nobody is right all the time and you won't be either. We are all occasionally defeated on the field of logic. But take your shot at forming your own personal philosophy. It's actually fun and satisfying to develop a code of behavior and clear thinking pattern. Don't let pinheads, even smart pinheads, do your thinking for you.
Speaking of a “code of behavior”, O'Reilly presents what seems to be his (it's just in there as its own section) early on in the book:

            1. Work hard.
            2. Keep a clear head. …
            3. Don't compromise when you know you're right.
            4. Give most people the benefit of the doubt.
            5. Don't fear authority.
            6. And definitely have a good time.

… not a bad list when you think about it. One thing that I do have a significant problem with in the book is his use of “S-P” as shorthand for the people he opposes, which stands for Secular-Progressive. As anybody who has read my blogging over the past decade and a half will know, I strongly identify with the label “Secular”, and feel that most religion-driven people, movements, and organizations (they're all ISIS to some degree!) are as dangerous to the great enlightenment experiment that is the United States as are the Communist/Socialist/“Progressive” forces that are plainly seeking to destroy it. It is one of my great frustrations in life that folks that I would wholeheartedly agree with on most points (O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, etc.) end up at some point going completely off the rails and start getting their marching orders from “the fairies in the back of the garden” (or some Bronze Age middle-eastern sheep herders' equivalent delusions).

Anyway, I guess I'd be hard-pressed to give Keep It Pithy much of a recommendation. I suppose if you were looking for an “O'Reilly sampler”, this might be of use to you, but it's pretty much just that. This does appear to still be in print, despite it drifting into the dollar store channel, and the online big boys are currently offering the hardcover at 39% off of the cover price … but you can snag a “like new” copy from the new/used guys for as little as a penny plus shipping, so if you don't stumble over this on the dollar store shelves, that would be your best bet for picking this up, were you to be so inclined.

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Awesome book ...

As folks who have been reading my reviews over the past dozen or so years will recall, I spent a chunk of the 80's and 90's studying shamanism in various cultural settings, and so have a bunch of “filters” for books on the subject that tend to lead me to somewhat caustic assessments of way too many of these. So, it's a real pleasure when I run into titles which I can wholeheartedly recommend (see this and this for examples), and the current book is one of this sort. Heck (and those keeping track of how many books these days come my way via the dollar store will realize how extreme this is), I actually bought a second copy at retail (well, Amazon's discounted retail) to give to a shaman friend who I felt had to read this. Frankly, I'm amazed this took six years to get on my radar (it came out in 2010), but I'm glad it did.

Of course, I was quite positive about this book's predecessor, so I was predisposed to be open to Don Miguel Ruiz & Don Jose Ruiz' The Fifth Agreement: A Practical Guide to Self-Mastery. Interestingly, this is co-authored by Jose, the son of Miguel who has been pioneering the “Toltec Wisdom” niche, and I wonder how much of this book emerges from that influence. It certainly is different in a lot of ways from The Four Agreements, the concepts of which are re-framed in the first half of this book. Here are a couple of bits setting up both the initial four and the fifth:

... the Four Agreements slowly help you to recover your authentic self. With practice, these four simple agreements take you to what you really are, not what you pretend to be, and this is exactly where you want to be: what you really are. … The fifth agreement is ultimately about seeing your whole reality with they eyes of truth without words. The result of practicing the fifth agreement is the complete acceptance of yourself just the way you are, and the complete acceptance of everybody else just the way they are.
At this point I need to indulge in some mental churning … bear with me. The comment I want to make about this volume is that it reminds me quite a bit of “Fourth Way” (Gurdjieff/Ouspensky/Bennett/etc.) material – which is a compliment – but this, somewhat ironically, brings to mind a bit of snark I'd read about Castaneda's writing (which seems to be the origin point of a lot of the “Toltec” concepts), that it was just “Gurdjieff in a serape”. Obviously, Castaneda was presenting his vision in the context of fictionalized narratives, and not as “systems” per se (although there is a very good book which attempts to extract something of a system out of Castaneda's various writings), so wasn't so much a similar thing, but dynamically frequently walked the same pathways. The Fifth Agreement, as opposed to Castaneda, does seem to be intended to be a “system”, building from the first four, and moving into some really advanced ground.

I suppose here would be as good a place as any to “cut to the chase” as far as what the 5th is … and this is likely to be a shocker to anyone used to “fluff bunny” new age twaddle … it reads: “Be Skeptical, But Learn To Listen”, with the further commentary:

Don't believe yourself or anybody else. Use the power of doubt to question everything you hear: Is it really the truth? Listen to the intent behind words, and you will understand the real message.
The book gets into some deep stuff … talking about awareness and language in a way that drives all the way back to the womb, and how our perception of reality is really a perception of our words for reality and not reality itself. At one point the authors state: Toltec is a Nahuatl word meaning artist.” … I have no way to judge the veracity of that claim (within the scope of effort I'm willing to devote to getting this review done), but it feeds into another over-arching conception here:

All humans are artists, all of us. Every symbol, every word, is a little piece of art. … thanks to our programming, our greatest masterpiece of art is the use of a language to create an entire virtual reality within our mind. The virtual reality we create could be a clear reflection of the truth, or it could be completely distorted. Either way, it's art. Our creation could be our personal heaven, or it could be our personal hell. It doesn't matter; it's art.
This is interesting, but it gets more intense:

Humans are born with awareness; we are born to perceive the truth, but we accumulate knowledge, and we learn to deny what we perceive. We practice not being aware, and we master not being aware. The word is pure magic, and we learn to use our magic against ourselves, against creation, against our own kind.
And then it gets a bit more technical:

If we can understand what the human mind is, and what the human mind does, we can begin to separate reality from virtual reality, or pure perception, which is truth, from symbology, which is art. Self-mastery is all about awareness, and it begins with self-awareness. First to be aware of what is real, and then to be aware of what is virtual, which means what we believe about what is real.
… and all that heavy content is sketched out in the first 25 pages!

The rest of the first half of the book (which is split into two sections, Part I – The Power of Symbols, and Part II – The Power of Doubt), then walks the reader through the original Four Agreements (plus an additional chapter), re-stated to set in the new context. I don't want to delve too deeply into this material, but figured it might be useful to at least note the chapter titles (especially if you don't recall the Four Agreements): “The Story of You – The First Agreement: Be Impeccable with Your Word”, “Every Mind Is a World – The Second Agreement: Don't Take Anything Personally”, “Truth or Fiction: The Third Agreement: Don't Make Assumptions”, (the extra chapter, “The Power of Belief – The Symbol of Santa Claus”), and “Practice Makes the Master – The Fourth Agreement: Always Do Your Best”. Those headings give you a general idea of how the re-framing goes in relation to the first book. There are a number of terms familiar from the Castaneda material, like form and dream, along with more general terms like “belief” and “faith” that are used in specific ways here. I was really tempted to grab a few paragraphs of this (notably from pages 76-77 from the “Belief” chapter), but everything sort of builds on the surrounding info, and it would have had to have been a big honking blockquote to get across what I would have hoped to convey, so this is one point where I'm just going to say “buy the book already!”.

The second half of the book was what really blew me away. It starts with the introduction of the Fifth Agreement (which is, as noted above: “Be Skeptical, But Learn To Listen”) which extends the preceding material into direct action, à la:

Once you realize that hardly anything you know through symbols is true, then be skeptical has a much bigger meaning. Be skeptical is masterful because it uses the power of doubt to discern the truth. Whenever you hear a message from yourself, or from another artist, simply ask: Is it truth, or is it not truth? Is it reality or is it a virtual reality? The doubt takes you behind the symbols, and makes you responsible for every message you deliver and receive. … if faith is believing without a doubt, and doubt is not believing, be skeptical. Don't believe.
This is all pretty heady … and then the book makes a total jump. One of those Castaneda concepts is “attention” (I have contemplated writing a book on the various, and sometimes interpenetrating, concepts of “attention”, from the “Toltec” to the “Fourth Way” to the “attention economy” contexts … hey, in Judy Tenuta's line: “it could happen”), and it suddenly is the “payoff” of the book, with three progressively more “advanced” chapters, featuring “The Dream of the {First/Second/Third} Attention”. This starts off in the Eden myth:

The Tree of Knowledge is just a reflection of the Tree of Life. We already know that knowledge is created with symbols, and that symbols aren't real. When we eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the symbols become a virtual reality that talks to us as the voice of knowledge, and we live in that reality believing that it's real, which means without awareness, of course.
      It's obvious that humans ate the fruit of the Tree of Death. … there are billions of humans walking around in this world who are dead, but they don't know they are dead. Yes, their bodies are alive, but they are dreaming without any awareness that they are dreaming, and this is what the Toltec call the dream of the first attention
This chapter continues to pretty much take apart all religious belief as “all the lies that come with the whole Tree of Knowledge” … which moves to belief in general:

The symbols are competing for control of our attention, and in one way or another they're changing all the time; they're taking turns possessing us. There are thousands of symbols that want to take their place in our head and control us … those symbols are alive, and that life comes from us because we believe.
The way to get out of being “dead” (or be “resurrected”)? Awareness … “When you recover awareness, you resurrect and come back to life.” … which leads on to the dream of the second attention. Another familiar Castaneda term comes in here, integrity, which is the drive that launches “the war of the gods”:

It's a war between the authentic self and what we call the tyrant, the big judge, the book of law, the belief system. It's a war between ideas, between opinions, between beliefs. … We give our power to these symbols, we take them to the realm of the gods and we sacrifice our lives in the name of these gods.
The authors talk of “human sacrifice” here, which they define as originating “because we believe in so many superstitions and distortions in our knowledge”, with the actual war happening inside our heads, that expresses itself outside ourselves in various lethal conflicts … even in conflict with ourselves in endless self-punishment of past failings. The chapter goes into detail of how to use the five agreements as tools to win that war:

Once you recover awareness of what you are, the war in your head is over. It's obvious that you are the one who creates all the symbols. … The war is over because your faith is not invested in lies. Even though lies still exist, you no longer believe.
The next chapter, on the dream of the third attention (or that of the masters) is a bit esoteric, but the basis is:

In the dream of the third attention, you finally have the awareness of what you are, but not with words. … The highest point you can reach is when you go beyond symbols and become one with life …
Some concepts come in here, “presence” and intent ...

Look at your own hand. Move your fingers. The force that moves your fingers is what the Toltec call intent … Intent is the only living being that exists, and it's that force that is moving everything. You are not the fingers. You are the force that is moving them.
This gets pretty far out there (arguably in an Atman/Brahman mode), connecting the individual with all motion, with light, universes within universes, and on to soul. Again, this is pretty extreme stuff here, and I'd probably not be doing it or you a service to try to summarize it. Also, the following chapters, being based on these “dreams”, will likewise be hard to convey … but they are “Becoming a Seer”, and “The Three Languages” (which are “1-2-3”, “A-B-C”, and “Do-Re-Mi”) which has a key question: “What kind of messenger are you?”. This all may seem, in my outlining it, so much “woo-woo”, but I assure you (especially from the standpoint of having studied this stuff a long time) it all works together into a very congruent whole … and I highly recommend it.

In fact, The Fifth Agreement is likely to get another behavior out of me that almost never happens with any book … I intend to block out some time to re-read it, and I suspect that I may even re-re-read it at some later date. I don't know when the last time I was so taken by a book (maybe Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous), so that's high praise indeed.

Of course, there is a certain caveat lurking in all the above … I've read all the Castaneda books, I've read almost all the “Fourth Way” books, I've read a lot of Shamanic material, and have been boots-on-the-ground (entheogens in the head?) working with assorted Shamanic teachers … so MY context on this book is very likely to not be shared with many, and I can see where somebody without that background, coming to this cold, might be very tempted to reject it out of hand. I do think this is something that ought to be read by “all and sundry”, however.

This is sufficiently popular that it will no doubt be available at your local book store, at its quite reasonable cover price … the online big boys, however, have it at a substantial discount which makes getting it via that channel pretty much a wash with what used copies (when shipping's added) would set you back. This isn't just a bit of New Age fluff, but a coherent system based on a very convincing philosophical approach. Good stuff … go get a copy!

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