Famous Baby by Karen Rizzo

“Missy loved that poem [‘The Jabberwocky’].  She said it gave her hope, not understanding it, but loving the way it sounded.  Not understanding the thing you love, but loving it fiercely anyway…”

Mother-daughter relationships are known for misunderstandings.  It has been that way since, probably, the dawn of humanity.  Mothers and daughters argue, they disagree, they get under each other’s skin.  But they’re also known for being each other’s biggest fans, best friends, and the biggest source of support for each other.  As a daughter with a loving mother, I can attest to all of the above.  But I never disagreed with my mother quite to the extent that Abbie disagrees with her mother Ruth in Karen Rizzo’s Famous Baby.  This mother-daughter pair is one that could rival any other: Ruth and Abbie remind readers of the importance of communication with loved ones, and they illustrate to us that while  we don’t always understand those we love, we do still love them; and that’s what matters most.


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Heroes Die

Heroes Die by Matthew Stover


Chronicles of Riddick meets Dialogues. Frank Miller mated with Hume. Heroes Die is bursting with blood, sweat, and testosterone. It also has some nicely captured points on the nature of free will. Whether you’re looking for a nice exciting page-turner or you want to wrestle with one of life’s most important questions, this is an excellent book to read.

Heroes Die

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Lacy M. Johnson's "The Other Side"

The Other Side by Lacy M. Johnson

Lacy M. Johnson's "The Other Side"

If you turn on your TV right now, I expect that there will be at least a dozen shows depicting violence, murder, rape, homocidal psychopaths, and so on. Why? We are morbidly curious about the darkness, evil, the Shadow, whatever you want to call it. We wonder how people can be so cruel and comfort ourselves that we are not “that way”, that we are “safe.” We want so desperately to separate ourselves from that darkness and yet, we cannot look away.

I’ll admit, when I first started reading Lacy Johnson’s “The Other Side,” I had a bit of that hunger. Her memoir recounts the time when she was kidnapped by an abusive ex-boyfriend who intended to rape and kill her.  But like a good story, or at least the story you want, she escaped. When you see that description, you think, “Good thing she’s safe… now we’ll get the all the gory details first hand!” At least I did. The more I read, however, it became apparent that this story is not about that night. It’s about all the events that sandwiched that night and the road Johnson had to take to make sense of it all.

Throughout this book, she is putting a puzzle together as we travel with her through time, relationships, personal choices and the uncontrollable actions of others. She lets us see her pain, fear, numbness, confusion, small and large victories one jagged piece at a time. Her writing is raw, intimate and poetic. In the end, the picture she constructs is heavy and hard-won but not defeated, not finished.

Something that struck me throughout the book was a sense of emotional ambivalence Johnson experienced in regard to her kidnapper. This is a difficult concept to grasp, how we can hold on to two opposite feelings at the same time. Johnson disdained and feared her kidnapper, but had also loved him, had learned valuable lessons from him. She even says with some marked discomfort that he is one of the reasons she has become a writer. When asked by a therapist to make two separate lists, the good and bad things, about her kidnapper, she repeatedly says that she could not. These opposing feelings reside within her and she cannot pull them apart. There could be only one list.

That sentiment really spoke to me. We want to define people, events, ideas as “all good” or “all bad.” We are not comfortable wading through ambivalence, ambiguity, nuance. The truth of the matter is that life just isn’t that simple. Johnson gives us that  lesson through her analysis of her relationship with this man, this kidnapper, this rapist, this attempted murderer. Those labels were not his only characteristics, the only effect on her life.  I think that’s something worth remembering next time you’re watching Criminal Minds or CSI. Both good and evil are complex and they have a tendency to dip into each other more often than we’d like think.

The Joyous Cosmology by Alan Watts

I was in the UK sitting on my friend’s sofa at 5am listening to Tibetan Buddhist chanting when I came to the realisation that I am God. Naturally, the next thing I did was log in to Reddit (a website hailed as ‘The Front Page Of The Internet’) to share my revelation. I loaded up the philosophy page and posted the good news:

Hey guys. We are all God and we are all the Universe. By loving ourselves we’re actually loving the Universe. By loving each other, we’re really loving God (and each other, which is awesome).”

The response was swift. And brutal.

Why does the quality of this page always bomb after 9pm???”

After this, my post was deleted. I can only guess that I had broken the rule that prohibited ‘idle musings’ from being submitted, but in my mind there was nothing ‘idle’ about what I’d wanted to share. Quite the opposite in fact, I thought I’d hit upon some cardinal truth that was going to make life better for everybody.

I sat back in puzzlement and tried to figure out just what it was that prevented my fellow Redditors from embracing the easy elegance of the truth I’d just shared. And while I didn’t recognise it at the time, the answer should’ve been obvious to me. Those Redditors and I differed in one small but vitally important detail; they probably didn’t have significant quantities of LSA and THC soaring through their nervous systems at the time.

Occurring naturally in a variety of plants across the world LSA and THC are psychedelic chemicals which when consumed by human beings bring about changes in the way they feel, see and think about themselves and the world around them. Exploring the potential benefits of this kind of chemically-induced altered insight is what prompted Alan Watts to write his book The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness, a slender volume that takes all of a lazy Sunday afternoon to read and can best be described as half scientific report, half visionary memoir.

We see in this book Watts trying to follow in the footsteps of The Doors Of Perception, spurred on by his conviction that it was his duty ‘to encourage a positive, above-board, fearless and intelligent approach to what are now known as psychedelic chemicals.’ This conviction is robust and firmly fortified in a scientific rigour which Watts goes to great lengths to ensure the readers are aware of. He writes in his introduction that ‘if [drugs] are an affront to the dignity of the mind, the microscope is an affront to the dignity of the eye and the telephone to the dignity of the ear.’ Psychedelic drugs, as Watts sees them, are instruments which can be used to enhance our consciousness in the same way the telephone enhances our hearing.


Anticipating that too few people will be able to experiment with the drugs themselves (pointing a finger at the ‘fantastically punitive laws against marijuana’ in the USA), Watts has written his account with the intention of exemplifying the value of these ‘sacraments of the religion of science’ via recording the ways in which they enhanced his own consciousness. Because many of Watts’ audience were unlikely to have had similar experiences I keep thinking the attempt to record them must’ve been something like trying to explain colours to a blind person, or the nuances of a symphony to a deaf person – words just can’t cut it. This is all to say that Watts is writing about experiences which language is incapable of accurately imparting. Yet, even though we lack a specific vocabulary with which to explain the sensations and visions of psychedelic experiences (even more so to describe the subtle shifts in consciousness and awareness which occur), Watts fearlessly dives in to give it a try.

The narrative takes place in a single day and sees Watts engaging in ordinary activities (such as listening to music, walking through a garden and relaxing with friends) while under the influence of psychedelic chemicals. Through the filter of Watts’ tinctured state of mind the unremarkable events are experienced in a singularly remarkable way and the resulting text is dense with memorable one-liners, vivid imagery, benevolent humour and profound philosophical insight.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWatts writes ‘I begin to feel that the world is at once inside my head and outside it’ and we wonder at the nature of this odd sensation. Conveniently, one of my favourite quotes from the book provides us with further insight, ‘light is an inseparable trinity of sun, object and eye.’ This deceivingly simple sentence has bold implications. Namely the idea that our traditional understanding of reality – where we as individuals feel inexorably separate from what is outside our body – is total nonsense. Watts is recognising the fundamental truth that there can’t be the world of objects ‘out there’ without the ‘in here’ of bodily organs and a nervous system to experience it. The outer and inner are two sides of the same coin and as one implies the other they can never be separated. This leads us to the realisation that ourselves and our environment go together like front and back and are in fact all part of the same happening. Underneath the apparent dichotomy of ‘in’ and ‘out’ is the incontrovertible unity of ‘all’.

This touches on one of Watts’ core concerns which is the way in which the grammatical conventions of language prevent us from being able to feel our connectedness with everything. We are compelled from a young age to label the ‘in’ as distinct from the ‘out’ which naturally leads us to consider them as unrelated, separate things. Perhaps as a response to this imposition of language, Watts is often seen to be playfully stretching and testing its limits.

The Joyous Cosmology is no exception and sees Watts creatively redeploying language in a way that stays loyal to logic. He writes of his experience that the ‘tables are tabling, pots are potting, walls are walling, fixtures are fixturing.’ Here, I think Watts is trying to embody the essence of the things he’s looking at as opposed to simply listing them. He takes a bunch of common nouns (table, pot, wall, fixture) and makes continuous verbs from them (tabling, potting, walling, fixturing). Watts turns the label-name we give objects into presently occurring action. He doesn’t merely see an inanimate, inactive object with four legs made of wood, he sees a cosmic convergence of matter and energy expressing itself in the present moment as a table. And that’s what the present moment is, the fantastic, rolling coagulation of energy at the glorious climax of everything that ever happened. Through the lens of his altered consciousness Watts recognises the table as part of ‘a world of events instead of things’. And although the individual events are temporary and will one day disappear, Watts sees how they are all part of the same flow of life which will go on for eternity.

Pictured: the glorious, incomprehensible, fantastic culmination of everything that ever happened.

Pictured: the glorious, incomprehensible, fantastic culmination of everything that ever happened.

This vision of reality is summed up by Watts when he writes ‘instead of knowers and knowns there are simply knowings, and instead of doers and deeds there are simply doings.’ He perceives that the agent of the action and the action itself are in fact one and the same process; the illusion of duality gives way to the reality of unity. Watts undercuts grammatical convention in order to evolve our language into a tool which can free us from the ‘separative consciousness [that] normally ignores the world as an interrelated whole.’

An escape from this separative consciousness, I now realise, is what I had achieved that night sitting on the sofa when only words like ‘God’ and ‘Universe’ seemed powerful and all-encompassing enough to relay the enormity of what I had come to understand. Ultimately, those words had failed me because words simply can’t convey the profundity of the experience or the conviction of the insight. When I read in The Joyous Cosmology of Watts experiencing ‘the strange and unholy conviction that “I” am God’ my mind went straight back to that night on the sofa and I felt at once in the presence of a kindred spirit. As for the idea itself, I think it’s worth remembering the words of another eminent scientific enquirer, Albert Einstein, who said:

“If at first an idea isn’t absurd, there’s no hope for it.”

Einstein - providing profound outros since 1879

Einstein – making outros profound since 1879

Catastrophe Theory by Susan Yount and By Fire by Jessica Cuello

Self-defined as a two-woman operation, Hyacinth Girl Press (HPG) is micro-press that publishes up to six handmade poetry chapbooks per year. After being introduced to its editor, Margaret Bashaar at AWP 2014, Bashaar asked what kind of poetry I write, and in the haze of the AWP Bookfair, I completely failed at selling myself. Fortunately, Bashaar was much better at selling her press and convinced me to buy two of its chapbooks: Catastrophe Theory by Susan Yount (2012) and By Fire by Jessica Cuello (2013).

By Fire copy Catastrophe Theory

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The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy WeirIf the opening lines of The Martian by Andy Weir don’t don’t arrest your attention, I’m afraid it maybe time to stick you on the next ice flow and send you out to sea. “I’m pretty much f@cked. That’s my considered opinion. F@cked.” You wake up alone, injured and stranded on Mars. Your team has left you in an emergency evacuation and the next Ares team won’t be on Mars for another four years. “For the record, I didn’t die on Sol 6 . Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a national day of mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, ‘Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.’” Weir launches the narrative and his readers into a unique, smart, often hilarious survival story of a NASA astronaut marooned by his team on Mars. The pace of The Martian is fast — as fast as the wit of Mark Watney, the main character. But as humorous, smart and provoking as this novel is, it was easy to relate to in a pretty unexpected way. The novel is straightforward and harkens to the archetypal survival-against-all-odds plot, though it does it in a fresh, post-modern and educational fashion. While learning why NASA uses Sols on Mars but days on Earth and contemplating my eventual repatriation to the US after four years in Korea, I was completely occupied in the story and reflective of my own life experience. I can’t say that I’ve read too many books that can do both.

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The Small Rain by Madeleine L’Engle

My husband and I really like watching Castle, the murder mystery show. We enjoy its clever approach to crime solving, and we love its predictability. Not that we always know what’s coming, but we can tell if they’ve solved the case for sure or not depending on how far into the episode we are. If they find “the murderer” in the first 20 or 30 minutes, we know it’s not the real murderer, because they’ve got to fill the other half of the show with plot twists and complications before they can truly solve the case. So for the first half of the show we watch with this kind of banter: “Is that him? Nope, can’t be…too early.”photo-1

I had the same feeling when I read The Small Rain. Continue reading