Reviews

“It was never really about eating pizza in Italy or meditating in India or falling in love in Bali. It wasn’t about travel or spirituality or divorce. No, Eat Pray Love was about what happens when one human being realizes that her life doesn’t have to look like this anymore…”
Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It (Introduction)

Ten years after its publication, Eat Pray Love remains one of the great sensations of the 21st century. Elizabeth Gilbert’s blockbuster memoir of feeding her life’s hunger and unraveling the complex distance between fear and soul is a book that captivated readers worldwide and inspired a legion of fans. Each of us who opened the book were invited to join Liz in her quest for fullness as she sought to better understand the rhythm of her own soul.

We journeyed with her from a debilitating heartbreak to an overseas adventure that was filled with wit, sorrow, and compassion. In Italy, we found the pleasures of life – that perfect pizza that was worth a trip across Napoli’s most lethal intersection – even as we cried with Liz on the bathroom floor, mourning the loss of what was safe even though it didn’t serve us. In India, we met the unforgettable Richard from Texas and learned the hard-won lesson of valuing our unique experience. We wrestled with stillness and with our fears of what might lie on the other side of silence. We braved the malevolent ocean of all the things we didn’t know, and we came out weatherworn, but having glimpsed peace, as in Liz’s experience of transcendence in meditation. And in Indonesia, we reconnected with our passion under the strangely wonderful and unpredictable guidance of medicine man Ketut. We met Wayan, a colorful source of friendship, and her inspiring daughter Tutti; and we met Felipe, the unlikely Brazilian soul mate (whom we all probably imagined to look like Javier Bardem well before the film adaptation came into being).

What makes Liz Gilbert’s public account of her personal journey resonate with such an extremely diverse audience is a puzzle which even Liz herself has given up trying to solve, but she suspects, as I do, that the broad appeal of Eat Pray Love has less to do with eating, praying, and loving and everything to do with a 21st century reintroduction to the concept of self-realization. It’s an awakening to the idea that adventure and soul-stirring surprises still wait for us in our increasingly predictable digital age; that we can actually say no to feeling stuck in a life being lived half-heartedly and take the leap of faith to pursue our greatest happiness. In many ways, Eat Pray Love speaks of permission to say yes to ourselves. Yes to our pleasure, our peace, and our passion, not as we’ve been told it should look – marriage, parenthood, career success – but as it is defined by the quiet, beautiful voice of the authentic soul.

My favorite line of Eat, Pray, Love is Liz’s advice that “you must participate relentlessly in the manifestation of your own blessings.” I think the book’s greatest appeal is that it offers itself as an invitation to bring that idea into your own way of living – to get creative and dream up how a life full of manifested blessings might look, and then to take the radical action of choosing that life, and choosing to see it even in the moments that inevitably take us to our knees.

In celebration of a decade of inspiration comes Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It, an anthology of forty-seven stories from men and women across the world who have been motivated by Liz’s journey to say yes to their own souls. There are stories of spirituality, loss, hunger, adventure, love, divorce, motherhood, and identity; what connects them is the very indefinable thing that makes Eat Pray Love so special. Each story is the case of a person, feeling lost in some area of their life, finding that their soul is offering them the answer to the question they didn’t know how to ask.

It’s my belief that much of what separates Eat Pray Love from so many other self-discovery memoirs is Liz’s narrative voice, the honesty and vulnerability and humor with which she approaches the story. Her combination of deep insight and luminous hopefulness holds a certain charm for many readers; to see her speak in person is a way of experiencing how her essence is truly a spark of joy meeting compassion. The writers, artists, dreamers, creatives, and magic-makers who shared their stories in Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It are clearly not just students of that wonderful book, but of the special pull in Liz’s writing style; each in turn offers their hard-won truth in poignant and colorful prose that in total creates the effect of sitting down to coffee and an intimate conversation with nearly fifty vibrant souls.

For this and many other reasons, reading the widely different experiences of each contributor is a rather extraordinary adventure of its own. The different accounts show how people were motivated not to step directly into the path of Liz’s footprints, but to see their lives in a new perspective under the light of Liz’s story. One woman wrestles with her role as a mother; a man leaves seminary in pursuit of God’s place in his life as a gay man; a woman’s heartbreak leads her to embark on the adventure of a childhood promise. The stories here are about something more fluid than the three categorical topics of Eat Pray Love – they’re about the human hunger for connection to God or to others through the ultimate connection to oneself. And it’s that captivating spirit that makes the stories in Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It so remarkable, even necessary. In many ways, here is food for the soul for anyone who longs for the excitement of connection, of wonder, of hope.

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“Society wants you to speed up, to produce, to seek material wealth. In a system that requires never-ending growth (at the cost of limited natural resources), to slow down seems anti-progress in nature. Who are you if you are not trying to ‘get somewhere’? Who are you if you are not actively working toward something? As a wanderer, you’re not subject to the narrative forced on you by society. You do not fall prey to trends that have nothing to do with your talents and desires. You do not strive to conform, but instead follow the life that springs from inside. You walk your own path. In this sense, you’re truly free.”
from Keri Smith’s The Wander Society

Walt Whitman wrote to “dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem.” Henry David Thoreau wrote of his wish to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.” Such profound thinkers, whose ideas feel utterly radical in our technology-driven, fast-paced society, are the totem figures of The Wander Society, a secret “anti-“society and the mysterious subject of Keri Smith’s new book. The Wander Society is the brainchild of no-one-knows-whom, stumbled upon by Smith through clues left in an old Walt Whitman volume: a sideways lightning bolt, a Latin slogan, the vague and enchanting words, “W.W. will show you the way.”

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“The more we follow our intuitive urges, the more we are inhabiting the life we are meant to lead, the life that will fulfill our innermost desires.”

Something of an uncollected collective, The Wander Society offers itself as a solitary meeting place, a point of universal connection for anyone inspired to pursue a life of simplicity, fulfillment, and knowledge. With such suggested members throughout history as Virginia Woolf, Søren Kierkegaard, and Thich Nhat Hanh, the society mandates only a capacity for curiosity and a reverence for the natural world in order to join. The result of one’s wandering – whether exploring the world around us, foraging through woods and taking new notice of city streets, maybe even venturing into the wilds of the self – is to touch on a transcendent connectedness to life, an enlightenment of sorts that was best described by Thoreau when he expressed his wish to “not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” This is echoed on a somewhat more soul-searching note by Mary Oliver in her poem When Death Comes: “When it’s over, I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement.”

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“How little do we need to lead a life that feeds our soul? What if we altered our value system so that priority was placed on soul-enhancing endeavors such as skill building, self-sufficiency, exploration, research, mind-expanding tasks? Imagine how different our society would be if we placed priority on these things instead of wealth creation, technology, and material acquisition.”
from Keri Smith’s The Wander Society

Still, The Wander Society remains a mystery wrapped in a riddle and peppered with enigmas: wanderers announce their anonymous presence by leaving vaguely direct evidence in the public places where they’ve wandered. A sideways lightning bolt scratched into a telephone pole; a sticker of the beloved W.W.; a box of pamphlets, zines, and newspapers printed by members of the society; a wander badge; one of many coded symbols known only to fellow wanderers; perhaps even a few illuminating scribbles in an old volume of poetry. Many of these things are explained in Smith’s book through how-tos and indexes; also available to aspiring wanderers are a selection of assignments that will take the reader out into the natural world with the objective of creating – painting, journaling, recording, photographing, or otherwise documenting what new things they discover there.

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“Wanderers believe in the ability to exist and flourish wherever they are, using what they have.”

While Smith gathers what she has discovered of the invisible Wander Society, the unanswerable questions of “who” and “why” begin to lose their importance. Planted, instead, is the seed of an inspiring and creative way of life: one tied not to technology and societal norms, but rather married to the more romantic notions of morality, curiosity, and discovery. Ideals that feel as though they have slipped unnoticed off the surface of our culture as our collective awareness has abandoned them. As such, the precepts of The Wander Society begin to create in its members a sense of nostalgia for a time one never lived, a lifestyle at once simpler and infinitely more abundant.

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Smith’s book is a manifesto of sorts, for the daydreamers and the soulful creatives – the wanderers of the world – and in this compendium of curiosities she offers readers challenges and opportunities to expand their awareness, to find both creative play and soul-work in the simple art of walking, of seeing the world through newer and younger and more joyful eyes, of “encouraging our own wild nature”, of wandering through their city or town or even their own imagination. The wanderers are everywhere, they say; and everywhere is precisely their destination.

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WIN A COPY

The kind folks at Penguin are offering a copy of The Wander Society to one US-based reader – and you might even find a W.W. sticker or two. For more of a glimpse inside the book, check out editor Meg Leder’s piece on the Penguin blog.
Good luck!

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Mercer Street by John A. Heldt

by Casee Marie on March 17, 2016

in Fiction, Reviews

“Then she remembered that love was blind. It was Helen Keller, hooded, in a dark room. It was a condition that rendered people incapable of seeing more than they wanted to see.”
John A. Heldt, Mercer Street

The second book in John Heldt’s American Journey series finds three generations of twenty-first century women on an adventure to pre-WWII New Jersey in a search for closure, clarity, and childhood innocence. Novelist Susan Peterson is still trying to find calm amid the chaos following her husband’s unexpected death, grappling with the reality of his infidelity while trying to hold the world together for her daughter, Amanda. When Susan’s mother, Elizabeth, accompanies the Peterson women on a California adventure, none of them expect that Elizabeth’s curiosity over time-travel lecturer Professor Geoffrey Bell will grant them all the chance of a lifetime. With nothing to lose, the trio embark from 2016 California to 1939 California, and from there across the country to Princeton, New Jersey and a rented house on Mercer Street where Elizabeth comes face-to-face with her immigrant parents and their infant daughter Lizzie. With the world’s best hindsight to her advantage, an elderly Elizabeth relishes the chance to spend more time with her parents and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a meaningful connection with her younger self. Meanwhile, Susan finds love and fulfillment in working with a handsome naval admiral as Amanda finds herself crossed in love – and maybe danger – with a dashing German whose family is keeping a secret.

Wonderfully capturing the calm before the storm of World War II, Mercer Street is another beautiful novel from author John Heldt, whose remarkable talent allows him to transform time-travel from a plot device into the foundation of a substantial and unforgettable story. With terrific pacing and comfortable narratives, Heldt takes his novels outside the bounds of genre fiction and into uncharted territory as he combines romance, suspense, and observations on human nature. Mercer Street is not unlike previous novels from Heldt in its ability to carry profound insight in even its more lighthearted passages, making for an experience that will please both escapist fiction lovers and more contemplative readers alike. The era and the characters in Mercer Street suit this scheme well. Through Amanda’s love interest, Kurt, Heldt explores the vulnerability of a young German as he clings to his powerful sense of morality in the shadow of Nazi Germany’s uprising; through Elizabeth, the grace of an elderly woman’s reconnection to her younger self as she literally relives moments of her life too old to be remembered; and through Susan, a woman’s search for her own strength as one love life takes shape even as another is still to be mourned. While each character and their personal experiences manage to take root for the reader, perhaps the most arresting is that of Elizabeth as she seems to get to the very heart of the human experience. It’s hard not to be affected by the imagery Heldt creates through Elizabeth’s first meeting her younger self, and then the fostering of an undeniable connection that grows so strongly between one’s present and past selves.

One of the other great strengths of Mercer Street, as with so many of Heldt’s novels, is the intrepid research that goes into the groundwork of its story. The energy of the time, when so much was unforeseeable, is captured in detail while unexpected figures from history take their turns gracing the pages in a series of cameos that will delight enthusiasts of the era. For his first novel set on the east coast Heldt has chosen a place as unforgettable as the time, with Princeton coming to life in both the simplest narrative illustrations and in Elizabeth’s poetic recollections of the world she once knew. It all comes together as the story whirls through its many manageable layers, at once comfortable to read and quite steeped in meaning, as it works up to its unexpected ending. With all the charisma, humor, and wisdom of the author’s previous novels – and with perhaps an even richer cinematic quality – Mercer Street is another winning and unmissable read from a truly well-skilled writer.

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“The most significant gifts are often the ones most easily overlooked. Small everyday blessings: words, health, muse, laughter, memories, books, family, friends, second chances, warm fireplaces, and all the footprints scattered through our days.”
Sue Monk Kidd, Firstlight

Before becoming an international sensation and household name at the age of fifty-four with the publication of her first novel, Sue Monk Kidd was a writer of personal spiritual nonfiction. And earlier yet, writing was not her primary career at all. A longtime nurse, Kidd began her writing career by surprise when a piece she submitted to a contest was published by Guideposts, an interfaith publication founded in the 1940s. She went on to write for the magazine for twelve more years; thus began a superstar bestseller’s unexpected journey. From there, Kidd went on to write and publish an array of personal nonfiction, from pieces in magazines and eventually three memoirs on spirituality before she would ultimately publish The Secret Life of Bees. Her 2006 book Firstlight gathers together these early writings from her Guideposts years and other publications as well.

“Discovering our personal stories is a spiritual quest. Without such stories we cannot be fully human, for without them we are unable to articulate or even understand our deepest experiences.”

– Sue Monk Kidd, Firstlight

When approached with the idea of gathering her early inspirational writings together, Kidd was highly uncertain. “It seemed likely that the writing I’d done in my literary pubescence would possess a natural greenness,” she writes; “less maturity in my voice, technique, style, and language.” She wonders, “Did I want to revisit what seemed like less seasoned times?” But revisiting the creations we put into the world helps us to ground ourselves and disconnect from ego in profound ways. “Opening myself to the creation of this book,” she says, “became an unexpected act of reclamation.”

At the core of this collection is the warmth of compassion and the energetic honesty of the imagination. Although the writings vary in length, some a page or two and others a mere paragraph, they feel as though their selection was done with great consideration and a hope that they would serve to inspire readers in even the smallest of ways. And they do inspire: from the heart-rending journey to acceptance after a routine surgery renders her husband nearly and indefinitely mute to her scare with cancer, and her experience of caring for a cancer patient in her time as a nurse. Kidd writes with touching empathy as she recalls her moments of weakness, how spiritual – even physical – strength came in unexpected ways. She writes about her childhood, her marriage, her travel; all are separated into thirteen themes that range from “awareness” and “compassion” to “severe grace” and “the sacred ordinary”. She chronicles in a voice fit for one friend to another of her desire to be available to others, to be present for her children, and in one particularly remarkable passage she writes with a sort of earnest grace her soul’s longing for spiritual reverence.

“The truth is that there is a ‘monk’ who lives in me, an archetypal monk whom I must honor and allow to be. This monk craves the depths of solitude and silence for creation. She is the part of me that wants to come out in cataphatic celebration – dancing, writing, and painting my spiritual journey. She is also the part of me that wants to enter the apophatic darkness of nothing. I love the monk that lives in me very much.”
Sue Monk Kidd, Firstlight

The writings in this collection are untitled save for the chapter’s themes, giving readers the freedom to read as much or as little as they want in a sitting; allowing their minds to work over, discover, and rediscover the treasures of insight tucked into Kidd’s accessible and poignant writing style. One of the jewels of this early writing is the chance to see a writer at her most open-hearted. Perhaps never is a writer more actively, willingly vulnerable than in their early years, before they realized they were being vulnerable in the first place. And in Firstlight, Kidd’s vulnerability carries an emotional charge that one finds quite inspirational in itself.

“I am compelled to uncover my own hidden and unconscious notions about whom I will open my heart to and to whom I prefer to keep it shuttered. I discover that while I’m making progress emptying myself and making my availability more mindful, I have a whole secret ledger of restrictions concerning who’s deserving of it. There are some folks, I realize, so idealogically and politically different from me I have no real intention of being available to them. ‘Welcome all,’ Mechtild wrote. ‘All.’”
Sue Monk Kidd, Firstlight

Some of my favorite passages in the book are the author’s stories of what she learned in times when she was in service, whether as a nurse or working in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Often she sends the message that when one sets about to be of help, they ultimately find themselves gifted with help they didn’t know they needed. Her availability to others and her openness to learn, to allow new perspectives and insights to touch her, is one of her most admirable qualities. Her gift to her reader is to share some of her incessant wonderment – be it at the world, society, the beautiful sides of love and human nature, or the confounding lucidity of grace. As such, she instructs us all by passing along the way grace has instructed her life, and she does so in a voice of unfaltering compassion.

“Deep availability requires a hospitality that receives people as they are; without necessarily seeking to cure, fix, or repair their problems. When you practice mindful availability, you are simply there with your heart flung open.”
Sue Monk Kidd, Firstlight

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The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

January 5, 2016

“Me? I was never good at hatred. I felt it. I knew it. But it did not live inside me the way it lived inside them. Maybe things would have turned out better if it had. If I had been better at hatred.” Chris Bohjalian, The Guest Room Throughout his career, Chris Bohjalian has taken […]

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Snow Deer and Cocoa Cheer by Joanne DeMaio

December 21, 2015

      To Wes, the moment becomes almost magical as she looks up at her tree again. The only sound – if it’s a sound at all – is the hush of the December night. Joanne DeMaio, Snow Deer and Cocoa Cheer Returning her readers to the idyllic New England world of her novels, […]

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Drop the Storyline: Pema Chodron on Learning to Stay with Difficult Emotions

December 11, 2015

“Deep down in the human spirit there is a reservoir of courage. It’s always available, always waiting to be discovered.” So writes Pema Chodron in the epilogue of her book, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears, a collection of wisdom gained from her Buddhist teachers. It is, as Pema is known […]

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Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie

November 20, 2015

One of the clerical undertakings that Sidney least enjoyed was the abstinence of Lent. The rejection of alcohol between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday had always been a tradition amongst the clergy of Cambridge but Sidney noticed that it neither improved their spirituality nor their patience. In fact, it made some of them positively murderous. […]

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