Sunday, December 5, 2010

Body, Mind & Spirit Books: Life with McDuff by McFadden, Judy: Better World Books

Body, Mind & Spirit Books: Life with McDuff by McFadden, Judy: Better World Books

Angelic Encounters in Canine Kind

Author: Judy McFadden
Title: Life with McDuff: Lessons Learned from a Therapy Dog
Publisher: Summit Mountain Publishing
ISBN: 0-982455-40-2

Every person who reads Life with McDuff by Judy McFadden is likely to have an incident to which they relate on a personal level. One of the moments that I most enjoyed was McDuff’s reluctance to get back into the car after a therapy session at Project PRIDE’s Opportunity Village—almost as though he were saying: “This is MY post. You, as an inferior human being, might be inclined to abscond from your post, but I REFUSE!” Another was where McDuff managed to get a severely disabled youngster to smile for the very first time by doing what cats and dogs do best—giving him a thorough licking over, in a way that was “soft, deliberate, focused, and much slower” than usual.

No matter whether you think of yourself as a hardened professional or as a bunny [or dog] hugger, you are likely to revel in Life with McDuff. This tale of redemptive and unconditional love that only a dog can give will most probably have you laughing and crying in turn. Although McFadden claims not to be a writer per se, her story of a therapy dog and its legacy is riveting from start to finish, and is so well written that the author disproves her own statement. And not only do McFadden and her trusty canine companion minister with true compassion to the needs of others, but she has also won an award from the Angel Animal Network for her acknowledgement of the presence of such beings in her life.

Life with McDuff becomes increasingly more focused on McFadden’s altruistic endeavors as one progresses through the book. In the first half, though, she tends to focus more on her own background, during which she is made increasingly aware of the needs of others. It is when she is subjected to an incident of extreme domestic violence that she first experiences the presence of a brilliant white light that she recognizes as her guardian angel, who, she believes, protected her from certain death on that fateful day. But, even before then, McDuff had come into her life—one of the feistiest Scottish terriers that you are ever likely to encounter. He was destined to become her “teacher, companion, and a source of emotional support through the most trying years” of her life.

A delightful and heart-warming book, Life with McDuff is unputdownable and inspirational. Not only does McFadden reveal the ups and downs of life with a therapy dog (the downs largely being due to McDuff’s defiant and determined nature—he was most definitely a dog who did NOT do tricks), but also gives insight into the functioning and importance of Therapy Dogs International and the AKC Canine Good Citizen® programs. This is definitely a book well worth purchasing and recommending to all your friends—it’s an ideal gift for Christmas time, or, in fact, for any time of the year.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cool collection of anarchic flash fiction from Faulkner award winner

Briefs: Stories for the Palm of the Mind / by John Edgar Wideman. [S.l.]: Lulu, c. 2010.

Fittingly enough, John Edgar Wideman has twice won the Faulkner award for fiction. William Faulkner, you will recall, is famous for, among other noteworthy works, As I Lay Dying, a stream-of-consciousness novel which investigates the psychology of a “subnormal” family. In similar vein, Wideman explores the psyche of the protagonists in his latest collection of what has been described as “hip-hop Zen”. The settings for his stories range from Darfur to Manhattan, and from Pittsburgh to Paris.

The titles of these short stories certainly do not tell “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. An innocuous title such as “Manhole” heads up a tale of racism and violence in “the biggest, baddest apple in the world” (a.k.a. New York, natch). Many of his stories contain characters who are physically challenged, such as “Witness”, which is related from the perspective of an onlooker who, though emotionally aware of, and responsive to, what he perceives in his surroundings, is, nevertheless, physically bound to the confines of a wheelchair. Many of his characters are also emotionally constrained in their outlook on the world – each story is the narrator’s own vision of the world around him or her, telling what he or she sees as through the eye of a single-lens camera.

His empathetic (though his protagonist denies, in “Wall” that a writer can have such empathy, but is limited to his own focus on the world) portrayal of such characters reveals that, apart from his political awareness, to which he has given voice in sundry articles on such leading figures as Malcolm X, Wideman is keenly aware of social issues as well. His awareness of the plight and sensitivities of others is, in fact, the mainstay of Briefs: Stories for the Palm of the Mind.

An outstanding characteristic of Wideman’s style is his use of sentence structure, which ranges from his widespread use of enjambment (“Bereaved” consists of a single sentence of ten lines, for example) to short explosive fragments (such as “My, my, Miss May. Oh-blah-dee. Watch out, girl.” in “Party”). The bitter cynicism of “Oh Shit” is counterpoised against the sensitive portrayal of grief in “Witness”: “Art worth a shit these days comes from bums not worth a shit but their shit sells for incredible money and then the shit-faced bums got the nerve to treat everybody like shit.” counterpoised against “Forgive me, Jesus, but look like they grief dancing, like the sidewalk too cold or too hot they had to jump around not to burn up.”

Miniscule as these stories may be, being small enough to hold on “the palm of the mind,” they are yet capable of packing a powerful punch – all the more so for the seething maelstrom of insidious inner-city living that they portray. The voice of the physically challenged rings out from these pages, as does the unconquerable spirit of the socially dispossessed. A collection that will definitely hold more appeal for the open-minded than for the staid and placid reader, Briefs: Stories for the Palm of the Mind holds anarchic potential for those who enjoy slam dunking their fiction. Cool, bro, cool! [Reviewer for]

Saturday, September 19, 2009

100 Places – A Cornucopia of Italian Delights

100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go / Susan van Allen. 2009. Palo Alto, CA: Travelers’ Tales.

This cornucopia of Italian delights titillates the senses and entices the imagination. Occasionally fringing on the irreverent (who else but Susan van Allen would dream of calling the Blessed Virgin Mary the BMV, for instance – only kidding, grrll!), and bordering on the erotic (as in Susan’s description of The Capitoline Venus attempting to cover her “Cupid’s cloister”), Susan’s selective guide to Italian beauty and beauties scampers through both urban and rural landscape with exuberant glee.

Ranging from the divine to the decadent, Susan’s romp through the Italian past and present has one hankering for more. The Divine: Goddesses, Saints, and the Blessed Virgin Mary takes one from the Campidoglio, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill to the Temple of Segesta in Sicily, by way of the artistic splendors of Florence, Tuscany, Venice, Padua, Naples, Campania and Palermo. In each, she focuses on the female, the envisioned and the immortal, as portrayed in key works of art. Instructive and elucidating, she entices one with succulent morsels of information about the work and the artist involved. Suggesting the best times at which to visit all the museums and galleries that she recommends, Susan also gives handy tips on how to plan one’s jaunts for the day, including visits to nearby parks and restaurants. She even manages to sneak in extra tidbits of recommended reading, not to mention a novice’s guide to mythology and Mary’s rites of passage.

A little bit of history, a little bit of art… The second section of Susan’s 100 Places romps through the spacious ville, palazzo and an apartment, starting once more in Rome and ending in Sicily – an added bonus to her racy pace is the systematic way in which she unravels the labyrinthine. Her sense of enthrallment with her surroundings is intoxicating, as she seduces us into imagining the scenes of revelry and mayhem that permeated the past.

Susan van Allen appears not only to appreciate the intimacy of the boudoir, but also the graceful and cultivated structuring of the outdoors. Finding la dolce vita in the harmonious blend of greenery, sculpture, and fountains that typifies the finest in Italian landscape gardening, she explores gardens originating in the Renaissance and Baroque periods – not without a timely reminder that most gardens close down November to March, so best check ahead to avoid disappointment.

Susan then extends her delight in the outdoors to an overview of the finest of Italian beaches, while, on the way, introducing one to the niceties of beach etiquette regarding such key points (;)) as topless bathing and clubbing. Mmm, and after indulging in all those sun-drenched days, what next but to explore the most refreshing and soothing of beauty treatments offered by leading spas (contact details provided)…

The culinary delights of Italy await you next, as Susan encourages you to “pursue your passion for tasting by heading to the country and visiting a [woman-owned] winery” and to “indulge your tastebuds as you tune into delicious daily rhythms” of eating out at an urban caffè. Gelato, chocolate and wine are never too far from an Italian lover’s mind…

…and which woman does not love to shop…shoes, leather and paper ware, ceramics, jewelry, fragrances, lingerie, embroidery and lace…not to speak of shopping in Milan or at the antique markets, Susan explores them all.

Just in case you think that van Allen only indulges the feminine instinct of womankind, in her next section she counters by yielding to the wild buccaneering instinct that’s hidden deep within us all. In her section on active adventures, she introduces us to biking, hiking, skiing, boating, yoga and Pilates, Italian style.

Having worked up a sufficiently good appetite through adventuring abroad (pun intended), Susan brings us home with a flourish in her section on cooking classes. She equates taking a cooking class in Italy with “getting a backstage pass to the country’s soul”.

After cooking with Susan in Rome, Tuscany, Parma–Emilia-Romagna, Ravello, Campania and Calabria (don’t you just revel in rolling those names off your tongue?), you can learn any one of a vast range of Italian crafts and culture before being entertained at an array of cultural and sporting venues. Then, rounding it all off, she advocates reading about, and developing your own memories in, Italy.

100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go concludes with handy tips for Italian travel (though the entire work churns with such ideas…) and packing, a calendar (or should I say colander?) of holy days, and a detailed index. By this stage, if you are not fully replete and with your dates for your next Italian jaunt at least penciled in on your schedule, may the BVM come to your aid, sister…

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Opening the Way to the Woman in Us All: Ennobling Stories of Female Heroism

Tell Me a Story 3: Women of Wonder / stories by Amy Friedman; music by Laura Hall; directed by Lori Ada Jaroslaw; illustrated by Jillian Gilliland. $18.95.

A love of animals and an appreciation of the many different cultures of the world permeate this audio collection of folktales and legends. Each story is encapsulated within a piece of folk music typical of the country in which the story originates. Both inspiring and comforting, this CD is a worthwhile investment both for younger children and for those who are just starting to learn English for the first time. Each story radiates enchantment, which can be even further enhanced by going online to the website of this women’s collective ( to check out the whimsically illustrated stories. All the stories can all be printed out and read while one listens to the soundtrack by the renowned gospel musician Laura Hall.

The quirky uniqueness of each tale, marked by a strong sense of humor and compassion, is supported by the strong cast of characters that fill these tales with an awareness of the remarkable endurance of the human spirit in the face of adversity. After an overture that sets the tone for the telling of these stories, each tale is dramatized in turn by a different raconteur of stage and screen – all women, for this CD is a celebration of the woman in us all. ‘The Cleverest Tune’, a British folktale read by Bryce Dallas Howard, describes the capacity of a young girl to fill her home with joy and music on the death of her much-loved father. ‘The Goddess and the Ogre’, a Cambodian legend read by Jessica DiCicco, tells of the enterprising Manimekhala, the goddess of water, who is able to outwit the fearsome ogre Ream Eyso with the help of a wise hermit, who longs for nothing more than “to spread knowledge to everyone who wished to learn”.

‘Whisker of the Lioness’, an Ethiopian tale read by Margot Rose, shows how a daughter’s longing for her mother’s love drives her to overcome her fear of the mother of all beasts of prey, allowing her to gain insight into how to start loving again. ‘The Lady and the Judge’, a Turkish folktale read by Wendy Hammers, reveals how crossing social and class boundaries empowers the wife of a pasha to help a distressed and exploited dustman. ‘Reindeer Maiden’, a Siberian legend read by Yvette Freeman, tells how, by transforming herself into a “shimmering oil lamp”, the Reindeer Maiden is able to elude her ardent suitor, the Moon, and retain her precious freedom. My favorite, ‘Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind’ (recall ‘Annie Get Your Gun’?), an American tall tale read by Paula Poundstone, ends off the collection – the tale of a true frontier gal who captures her man, Davy Crockett, no less!

This collection of legends and (tall) tales will keep you and your children riveted to the CD player! Don’t forget to make the most of their website too…

Contemplating the Contemplative: A Guide Book to Accommodation in the Religious Houses of Europe

Good Night & God Bless: A Guide to Convent and Monastery Accommodation in Europe. Volume One. Austria, Czech Republic, Italy / Trish Clark. Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2009. ISBN 978-1587680533. $49.98.

The index to this guide to convents, monasteries, open houses and spiritual retreats of Austria, the Czech Republic and Italy gives one but the barest outline of the wealth of contents of Good Night & God Bless. Apart from answering the usual questions of where, what and how much, a sense of cultural and historical awareness permeates the text. Want to know where Empress Elizabeth was assassinated, where to seek out the most awe-inspiring classical music or liveliest disco, or where to buy locally grown organic fruit and herbal teas? Look no further than Good Night & God Bless: A Guide to Convent and Monastery Accommodation in Europe.

A neat pocket guide to the best alternative tourism routes through three major European countries, this logically structured work is a soothing panacea to the overwhelming plethora of travel books that pulsate off the shelves in ever increasing numbers. Presenting her work in pleasingly demarcated paragraphs, Trish Clark describes the accommodation, ranging from the relatively simple to the discretely luxurious, provided by religious houses that have found the need to become financially viable amid the increasing commercialism of the 21st century.

A brief introduction to each country and region, including a map and a few color photographs of the most distinctive sites, is followed by a few pages on each of the leading open houses. Trish describes exactly what a tourist is likely to experience while staying there. Venturing beyond a brief overview of the services and specialties provided, she explores the surroundings of each open house in turn, suggesting which places of interest, food and drink and sporting and cultural events the prospective traveler might most enjoy.

For those of a more contemplative frame of mind, Trish describes the spiritual retreats and pilgrimages that can be undertaken in Austria, Italy and the Czech Republic. She also provides the contact details for additional accommodation, so that the array of potentially spiritually uplifting accommodation is reasonably extensive.

Good Night & God Bless: A Guide to Convent and Monastery Accommodation in Europe is the ideal guide for those seeking more than the conventional tourist fare – make the most of your next trip to Europe by contemplating the contemplative and return home refreshed and spiritually restored. Volume Two of Good Night & God Bless, which covers the accommodation provided in the religious houses of France, Ireland and the United Kingdom, is due out in January 2010. Personally, I can’t wait!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Fear Not the Feared

Rose, Donna Mae. The Way Back: Inside the Mind of a Multiple Personality Disorder. Denver, Col.: Outskirts Press, Inc., c2007. ISBN-10: 1-4327-0605-5.
ISBN-13: 978-1-4327-0605-0.

Urging her readers to believe that they, too, can overcome, Donna Mae Rose shows how she regathered her Wholeness, after experiencing a lifetime of deep trauma that shattered the core of her being. Opening with a counseling session between herself and Dr Boyd, the author, a psychiatric technician, tells us of the close and caring relationship that she had with her mother all her life, the great fear that she had of her violent-tempered, mentally and physically abusive father, and the generally loving relationships that she had with her six siblings from an early age. Her father used to take out his frustrations from his job, in which he felt trapped due to the Depression, on his small children and insecure, frightened wife. Donna’s graphic account of her father’s sexual abuse and rape, that Donna felt scarred her psychologically for life, is realistically portrayed.

The Way Back amounts to a verbatim account of Donna’s counseling sessions with Dr. Boyd. Told in direct speech, the sessions flow naturally and are easy to follow. Donna’s ostensible reason for her counseling sessions with Dr. Boyd was her marital problems with her husband, Bill. However, she later reveals that she had had a nervous breakdown eighteen years before, since when she had spent much time as an outpatient of a mental hospital, having been diagnosed as a schizophrenic. She describes how her loss of train of thought halfway through her second session with Dr. Boyd, and her awareness of an apparent six-month memory loss, leads Dr. Boyd to inform her that he believes that she has multiple personality disorder. He concludes that such trance-like episodes are moments of self-hypnosis, which help her to calm down.

By externalizing her innermost anxieties and fears in the form of black bugs and red ants, Donna was able to cope with and adapt to her situation while she was growing up. Donna’s interpretation of the image of the spider, which first appeared on the ceiling of the room while she was being raped, as her eight different personalities is core to an understanding of this text. Gradually, while undergoing therapy, her other personalities emerge: self-confident and caring Joyce Jordan, the only personality given a last name; promiscuous, enraged Wanda; courageous Carol, who provides a means by which she can protect her innocence; suicidal Mary; childlike Edith Rose, who is capable of expressing attachment; vivacious, outgoing Susie; sanctimonious Beth; Laura, protector of the place where all the other personalities stayed until Donna Mae started to receive counseling from Dr. Boyd; Mildred, who protects Donna when she enters consciousness; spiritually supportive Edgar, who protects Donna from the suicidal tendencies of Mary; and John, who was created to keep Edgar company. Through her acknowledgement and growing understanding of her different personalities, Donna Mae is able to reconcile herself to their existence and to integrate them gradually into her core personality.

This autobiographical account is of particular relevance to anyone who has had to endure childhood trauma and abuse, as well as to anyone who has been diagnosed as schizophrenic or who works with those suffering from dissociate hysteria. Her appreciative portrayal of Dr. Boyd as a compassionate listener might reassure a reader who feels intimidated by the possibility of consulting a psychiatrist that the best in this field are highly accessible and supportive. The Way Back: Inside the Mind of a Multiple Personality Disorder is a tribute to his healing skills.

Pawmarked with Meaning

Link, Tim. Wagging Tales: Every Animal Has a Tale. Austin, TX: Emerald Book Company, c2009. ISBN: 978-1-934572-14-6. $16.95.

Starting with the title page, we know exactly what this collection of tales is about: ‘Conversations with Our Animal Friends’. And conversations are what these tales are, as Tim Link, a renowned animal behaviorist, actually talks with animals, finding out exactly what is troubling them. They also talk back – not quite in the same way as does Dr. Dolittle’s menagerie, as these are all true tales, but in a way that is laced (pawmarked?) with meaning.

Each of the more than thirty tales in Wagging Tales relates Tim’s encounter with one or more animals, ranging from the more usual cats and dogs to a far from conventional praying mantis. Developed over the space of forty years, Tim’s telepathic insights into the different animals that people this work are based on his keen and careful observation of the way in which they behave.

Although we are told that the pictures of animals that precede all of the tales are not necessarily of the actual animals with which the author worked, illustrating the book in this way brings the collection alive. Wagging Tales is filled with the essence of the animals with which Tim has heartfelt discussions about images, smells, tastes, words or feelings that bother them – his role as mediator between owner and pet is pivotal to the text.

Wagging Tales should appeal to all caring youngsters, as well as make relaxing reading for all animal lovers. Tim punctuates the tales with some sage advice on how to look after animals as well. His kindness towards animals radiates throughout the tales, warming the spirit of the text. Written to elicit a generous and loving approach towards all animals, this book should find a welcome home on every child’s nightstand.