Book Review: Look Up!

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lookup-ccIn a fast-paced world that often makes us forget our humanity, we need to be reminded that life is more than work and paying the bills. Life is about breathing and soaking in the magic that comes with being alive. Jennifer A. Payne’s book, Look Up! Musings on the Nature of Mindfulness, offers both an exploration and reminder of how nature can save us from ourselves.

A simple walk through the woods is all it takes. Payne’s meditative journey begins on a wooded path surrounded by trees and with a question, “And how have I missed this before?” The wind through the trees and the crunch of leaves beneath her feet suddenly became the missing pieces she craved.

Look Up! is unique in that it combines quotations from the likes of Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau with spiritual thinkers such as the Dalai Lama and Krishnamurti. In between lines of poetry and philosophical ponderings are Payne’s personal essays that explore her meditative journey to reconnect with nature and ultimately herself. Her candor and wit makes her personal journey relatable and universal to anyone who feels overwhelmed by the pressures of modern life.

Payne’s use of diverse perspectives serves as a reminder that meditation isn’t a one size fits all kind of thing. For some achieving total mental stillness is a possibility, but for others the mind never stops ticking. In one of her personal essays, Payne puts out the idea that a constantly ticking brain isn’t necessarily a bad thing in terms of meditation.

Meditation is all about slowing down and redirecting all of our energy towards something that isn’t a to-do list. If we take the time to slow down and simply be, we might just learn something. Dragonflies and even a mushroom can carry a valuable lesson that is worth seeking and contemplating.

In addition to carefully selected quotations and essays, Look Up! includes beautiful photographs of Payne’s interactions with wildlife. Everything from raindrops on water to slithering snakes to autumn leaves elevates this little book into something very special. It truly invites the reader to take a personal journey. Whether it’s on an actual trail or vicariously through the pages, the meditative path is one worth pursuing.

I read Look Up! in three sittings, but I highly recommend treating it as a daily, weekly, or monthly devotional. It’s divided into months and seasons reminding us all that a journey takes time and patience.

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Click on the image to purchase Look Up! Musings on the Nature of Mindfulness

Visit Jennifer A. Payne via her blog: Random Acts of Writing [+art]

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c.b.w. 2014

Book Review: How I Got Published

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How I Got Published: Famous Authors Tell You in Their Own WordsHow I Got Published: Famous Authors Tell You in Their Own Words by Ray White

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The title alone is enough to grab the attention of any writer dying to get published. Famous and not-so-famous authors share their stories of failure and eventual success in the brutal business of publishing.

Organized into short essays, a number of authors write about their experiences with query letters, rejections, agents, deals gone wrong, and the unpredictable nature of the literary scene. It’s a tough industry to break into and they are very honest about the fact that publishing is not for those with paper-thin skin or a gelatinous spine. As horrible as that sounds, each author’s story has a strong sense of optimism brought on by a taste of success. The odds of snagging an agent or a book deal may be small, but anything is possible.

Two pieces of advice dominate How I Got Published from start to finish. First, there is no perfect tried and true method of getting published. Second, persistence is a writer’s greatest weapon. The only way to find the right agent or get your work in front of an editor is to put it out there and do so relentlessly. Send query letters even when nothing but rejections follow. Keep revising and writing until no word goes untouched. What it all comes down to is hard work, a little luck, and a great story.

The only flaw with an otherwise highly motivational and encouraging read is a problem with repetition. While every author has their own unique story, they all start to blur together about halfway through the book. Furthermore, most of the writers showcased are mystery and crime fiction writers. Little attention is given to writers in other genres, thereby limiting the inside perspective on agents and publishing houses.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

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c.b.w. 2013

Have You Ever Considered the Lobster?

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David Foster Wallace looks at the world with a unique perspective that combines curiosity with sarcasm and wit. In his collection of essays entitled Consider the Lobster, he explores everything from politics, grammar, and ethics with an incredibly sharp eye and an even sharper pen. All ten essays are phenomenal, but a few stand out because they literally make the pathways in my brain change direction.

Wallace is at his most hysterical in an essay entitled, “Authority and American Usage.” In this article, he decides to explore and debate the “dictionary wars.” Did you ever stop to wonder just who is the authority of the English language? Who decides how to properly use words and punctuation? The truth is, there is no official organization that sets the ground rules; there are just a bunch of “experts” that argue relentlessly through the reference books they write and publish. This sets the stage for Wallace to air his grievances with the system (or lack thereof). He delves into the question of what truly defines langauge and the “rules” attached to it. What follows is a fascinating foray into the sub-culture of SNOOTS (Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance or Syntax Nudniks of Our Time),  the fine art of writing, how languages change over time, and why the rules exist in the first place. Even though Wallace himself is a SNOOT, he is infinitely curious on why he is such a stickler to the rules. In an effort to answer this question he investigates how language works both with and without the rules and how culture, class, and academia influence and in some cases “control” the accepted language rules. Most interestingly, he explores why most people don’t care about grammar. While the topic of grammar is usually considered quite boring, this is where Wallace is at his best. His wit and humor makes the bland study of words and punctuation entertaining, especially when his temper gets the best of him. Wallace doesn’t like to be wrong!

“The View from Mrs. Thompsons” is a tender, realistic, and touching account of 9/11. While a wholly individual memoir of the event, the emotive sense of the piece exemplifies what it was like to be an American on that day. No matter who you are where you were, Wallace has your words. At the same time, he puts out a challenge to view that day in a new light — there is more than one America out there and Wallace wonders which one we all see.

In “Up, Simba” Wallace functions as a reporter for Rolling Stone as he tags along with the John McCain campaign of 2000. The focus is on McCain’s political ideas, but Wallace also takes the time to explain the more technical aspects of campaigning. In particular, how the camera and sound guys work and how different media personnel relate (or not) to one another. Wallace is a keen observer of the mundane, everyday facets that surround him, which is part of what makes him a unique writer. Even the boring can be interesting if viewed through a certain lens. Aside from the technical crew, he also finds himself drawn to McCain’s honesty. He wonders if that honesty is real or created. Thus begins an investigation of how marketing ties into campaigns and how that might be why Young Voters avoid the polls and why people don’t trust politicians. Voters these days know the game as they are inundated with ads and manipulated every day by every industry on the planet including Capitol Hill. Even if a politician tells the truth, most people are so jaded they can’t really be sure it’s the honest truth. Is there even a such thing as the total truth these days? Now there’s something to ponder.

Lastly, in the title essay “Consider the Lobster,” Wallace visits a lobster festival in Maine. Where most people would soak in the local flavor and bask in tourist traps, Wallace walks in thinking of the lobster. Not as a meal, but as a sentient entity. As he stands in front of the largest lobster cooker in the world, his mind begins to ponder a deeply moral and ethical question: Do lobsters feel pain when they are being boiled alive? It seems like a simple question, but it leads to other issues regarding food production and consumption. He posits that there is a disconnct between people and the animals they eat. We don’t like to think about the animal where meat comes from or whether the lobster getting thrown into a boiling vat of water can consciously feel pain. Have we lost our compassion or are we simply kings of the food chain? With this unique perspective, Wallace offers a thought provoking take on the old adage “You are what you eat.”

Wallace likes to hang out in left field in everything he writes.  He often sparks debate, but he always fuels the fire of independent thought and consideration.  The lobster never had a better advocate.

c.b. 2011