Laura and Emma by Kate Greathead, New York, Simon Schuster, 2018

This is a quietly curious book. It takes place in the New York City of Park Avenue and old money. Money so old it has become the structure of a universe where the answers to the problems and passions of life have all been systematized into well-worn paths that no longer need to be agonized over, just followed. Laura and her brother Nicholas are trust fund babies. Generational family connections provide them, unquestioningly, with top level job choices, schooling, residences, all in secured assurance.

You may think that it would be a little boring, so matter-of-factly do all the characters play their roles but the writing, arranged episodically, prevents that. You are drawn into the lives of Laura and the daughter she conceives, the result of a brief encounter in her family home with an imposter she never sees again. There is a sensibility about her, and hence about Emma, that is comforting, demanding little from the reader, but nonetheless, insisting itself into the consciousness.

Her interaction with the world she inhabits is difficult to categorize, a disconnect as if she has not quite manifested. She lives in a penthouse on the upper westside of Manhattan overlooking a neighborhood her friends consider dangerous, where she buys her groceries and learns the name of the homeless man on the corner. She volunteers at a women’s shelter and amuses her friends by wearing an unvarying uniform of turtleneck, skirt, and boots, rejecting unnecessary consumption out of concern for the planet yet goes regularly to have her eyelashes dyed. She takes a job because she thinks she should work but she doesn’t hesitate to rely on her status to determine her own hours and number of vacation weeks at full pay. You learn these things about her offhandedly, without detail, yet you can feel Laura almost as if you were slipping into her insular existence, her essence silently wrapping around you as you keep reading.

I recommend you experience this for yourself, particularly about what happens next, that we are not told, and I predict that Laura will stay with you, just out of reach, after you close the book, wondering.


At the Existentialist Café, Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell, Other Press, New York 2016

When Philosophy meets up with the actualities of life that are happening on your doorstep, what happens? Bakewell takes existential philosophy out of the theoretical and abstract and breathes life into it with stories of the challenges, arguments, loves, and bitter fallings-out amid the world changing crises of the times that the most well-known expounders experienced.

Heidegger, Sartre and Beauvoir, Camus, Merleau-Ponty and others are fleshed out with the colors of the events that formed the stage they played their scenes on in Paris, Berlin, and wherever else they were driven at times to flee.  The passionate questions they asked and the unsettling answers they variously found helped shape a generation of thought that sent echoes still vibrating now in the 21st century.

Not your grandfather’s philosophy textbook but a book that offers fertile ground for understanding that ideas of life come from people who have done some living outside of the ivory towers their works may end up in. What answers would we find today for what it means to be free, is human nature variable or fixed, how does morality mesh with loyalty, what does it mean to live authentically?

A few interesting questions for our own times, this is the way philosophy should be taught, in my humble opinion. Bakewell has given us an ideal primer.

Heretics The Wondrous and Dangerous Beginnings of Modern Philosophy

Heretics The Wondrous and Dangerous Beginnings of Modern Philosophy by Steven Nadler and Ben Nadler, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford 2017

If anything might entice you to explore the philosophical development of the 17th century this book would do the job. People whose names might be only vaguely familiar, like Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Newton, and others, and about whose specific views we may not be quite clear, suddenly come alive. This is a graphically illustrated telling of why and how they challenged the accepted wisdom of their time. The story that is told is also about how dangerous thinking ‘outside the box’ has been at times in our human history.

In many ways Nadler and Nadler have given us a teaser.  While describing the arguments, disagreements, and risks that these thinkers involved themselves with we are drawn into taking sides and arguing back. We react to the various theses and find our own reasoning process activated.  This is the slippery slope that lands us in the philosophical soup of exploring our own views on religion, government, spirituality, ethics, the nature of reality and everything else we think we believe.  Actually, not a bad place to be – an environment that invites and encourages questions and the very value of questioning itself. In the words of Socrates “An unexamined life is not worth living.”  If you like the idea of thinking for yourself let this book tickle you into doing it.

A Brief Tour of Higher Consciousness

A Brief Tour of Higher Consciousness by Itzhak Bentov, Destiny Books, Vermont, 2000

Some time or other you may have come across a book that provoked and teased you into looking closer at some habit of thinking you had or to examine things you hadn’t spent much time thinking about at all. Itzhak Bentov’s A Brief Tour of Higher Consciousness is just such a one for me. A small paperback book, about 5”by 8”, 112 pages with a scattering of drawings, it purports to introduce the reader to the structure of the cosmos, singular and/or plural, as well as including the evolution of consciousness along the way.

The author, with whom I was not familiar, is presented as a scientist, an inventor of bio-medical instrumentation and an early exponent of consciousness studies among other things. Introductory notes about him in the book are enticing.

     “In his search for the cosmic connection, Ben offers us a delightfully ingenious cosmic comedy on the nature and structure of ultimates. Here are traveler’s tales such as you rarely find- metaphysical jaunts from one end of the universe to the other.” page xvii, Jean Houston, Ph.D.

I settled in to be entertained. I didn’t expect to be challenged. Relaxed enough about the idea that the thoughts of all human beings were connected and in turn affected the universe, and about the vibrational nature of manifest creation, after all, Einstein had already told us that everything is energy vibrating at different rates, I got stalled and turned off by phrases like interference patterns, reference beams and coherent light. I had skeptical reactions to the notions of devas and luminous Alephs. But I soldiered on, prodded by agreeing with the notion of an ever-expanding cosmos, liking his “egg” analogy, and being somewhat impressed by the high regard his earlier and longer work, Stalking the Wild Pendulum, seemed to engender among apparently intelligent people of some repute.

So – I googled some phrases I wasn’t familiar with, coming across ideas from physics that were as wild as some of what I had read in Bentov’s work, and went back and read it again. Halfway through I stopped and ordered a copy of his earlier and longer work, and after finishing the second read, got on the computer to look for an online course in cosmology.

If you are willing to look into the apparently absurd and follow the thread of logic shining through it you may have a surprising experience reading A Brief Tour of Higher Consciousness and end up studying the latest in cosmology with an MIT professor, free, online as I have just signed up for. There’s nothing like curiosity to keep life interesting.  Find out what Wikipedia has to say about Itzhak.

What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics

What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics by Adam Becker, Basic Books, New York, 2018

From wandering around the cosmos [see my earlier adventure with Bentov], I somehow ended up trying to understand what quantum physics was talking about.  Not quite as much of a disconnect as you might imagine seeing that particle physicists began expanding their interests into cosmology in the 1970s in search of new grand unified theories, something that had long been their holy grail.

First googling the term “quantum”, [Wikipedia: In physics, a quantum is the minimum amount of any physical entity involved in an interaction.], I was fortunate in putting my hands on the recently published work of Adam Becker.  Anyone interested in, or even slightly curious about, the fundamental nature of the physical world we inhabit will likely benefit from and enjoy the storytelling style of Becker, as I did, following the tale of how this world’s most currently eminent scientists have bickered about what is really real for almost a century now.  From the debates between Danish physicist Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein to Schrodinger’s cat to Hugh Everett’s suggestion that all is explained by the theory of parallel universes, we are introduced to a science of physics that challenges the imagination.

In the midst of this, while the reader is given a sampling of the studies being engaged in, Becker demonstrates how the socio-political environment within which the work is being attempted has influenced the structure of the research being done. Science, after all, works within the world in which we all live and only occasionally breaks free to expand our thinking. This is a telling that goes beyond equations into a very human history of how we stumble sometimes towards new learning and the forces that may help or hinder us.

I recommend this as an entertaining and educational trip to the least possible speck of what is considered (by some) to be real to find out that it won’t stand still long enough for us to understand it, measure it, or agree about what it is.  Somehow, I find it reassuring that the mystery is still there.  Find out more about Adam and physics Adam Becker.

The Little French Bistro

The Little French Bistro by Nina George, Crown, New York 2017 translated by Simon Pare

I came away from reading this book with the taste of magical realism in my mouth. I don’t know if it would fall into an academically decided category of this nature but it surely hints at it for me.
A 60-year-old woman on holiday with her husband despairs of her marriage and determines to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge in Paris.
She is rescued by a homeless man who she thinks is Death.
She steals a small painted tile from a nursing station and walks out unnoticed to find the locale of the scene portrayed that includes a small boat with the name Mariann, her name but missing the ’e’.
She is told how to read the land and the sea by a young nun in a graveyard.
She is led to shelter by a cat.
I don’t want to spoil the almost mythical rhythm of the story by describing how she comes to earn the term ‘sea whisperer’,but I will say that the engaging descriptive nature of the writing draws the reader into the very personal reality of Marianne. This is a world we are familiar with, but with a different vibratory thread running through it. It is a wonder to share with her the journey from drowning in the tragic to living in the magic “at the end of the world.” Definitely want to read Nina George’s earlier works.  Find out more about Nina, the bistro and what else she has written at Nina George. 

The Best Cook in the World

The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Mamma’s Table by Rick Bragg, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2018

I have always enjoyed cookbooks that told stories and stories that involved recipes.  I’m not quite sure which one this is except it’s one of the best.  Rick Bragg is a consummate storyteller and with his tales from his “Momma’s table” he introduces us to some serious lessons in downhome southern cooking.  But more than that, even as much as this book deals with food, it is the incredible richness in the telling of Margaret and the mountains of food she cooked, the people she cooked it for, and how she came to learn the secret of “cooking with iron” from childhood up that gifts the reader with the history and heart of a people, a culture, and a philosophy of life grown from necessity and love.

The cooking history starts with a young man going up into the Georgia mountains near the Tennessee line to fetch his daddy home to teach his 16-year-old bride how to cook because he was about to starve to death. Jimmie Jim, the father, our author’s great grandfather, had been hiding out from the law for years. Hearing that nobody missed the stranger who had been passing through years before and there was no ‘paper’ on him, the old mountain man came back to teach Ava, a hard-headed Pentecostal teenager, how to feed her young husband.

And ladies and gentlemen, that’s just the beginning, starting with a pig stolen and butchered in the night so that a proper breakfast of pinto beans, hambone, creamed onions and buttered boiled potatoes could be had along with slaw and cornbread.  Each of the cooking lessons and 74 recipes in this book comes with a telling as tasty as the meals they offer to provide.

The recipes are organized to make up complete meals and they come with people who will stay with you as friends, making your life just that much more flavorful than it would have been otherwise. This book is a keeper!  Find out more at Rick Bragg

Alone Time, Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude

Alone Time by Stephanie Rosenbloom

Alone Time, Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude by Stephanie Rosenbloom, Viking, New York 2018

Here is a unique opportunity to travel along with someone who is exploring being alone in four of the world’s most interesting cities, Paris, Istanbul, Florence and New York, as paradoxical as that may sound.  There is a discrete intimacy that develops as we, her unknown readers, stow away in her mind as she takes in the scenes around her to a degree not sustainable when company is shared. It is indulgent, full attention to her own interaction with what is both stable and mobile that is delicious in its focus on personal sensation. Sample chapters bring us along on a picnic for one in the Luxembourg Gardens, to the Rainbow Stairs in Istanbul, standing alone with Venus in Florence, and wandering the West Village in New York.

A celebration of the value of solitude and the fantasy of “the flaneur: the solitary stroller, following his curiosity with no particular destination in mind, nowhere to be but in the here and now”, (page 10), we learn about ‘savoring’ as a practice to enhance well-being. As we ensconce ourselves in a quiet corner with this book we can truly experience the relaxation that comes with giving ourselves over to it.

The author includes useful and important tips at the end for traveling in places with unfamiliar customs but before that she has the chapter that could most easily inspire us to new adventures.  That is traveling in our own home town as if it were a foreign city and to bring a reporter’s (or tourist’s) eye and habits, and care, to our daily life and to do it alone.  Find out more at