Thursday, December 12, 2013

Ganesh and the Great Books

The image is from a site in Roundwood, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. The caption to it says: “When Hindu Lord Ganesh came to Ireland he decided to go native.He is accompanied by his servant, the rat, the latter playing the bodran and enjoying a pint of Guinness. The sculpture is 6′4″ high and weighs approx. 4 tonnes.

Since I work a full-time and a part-time job, the sad fact is that I write astrology whenever the full-time job isn’t going well.  Chiron is transiting in a square to my MC over the next 18 months, and this is one transit I won’t care to repeat again.  That said, the Lilith series that I have been writing over the past year would not have been possible without periods of unemployment.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to pull together the upcoming 2nd House Lilith article, and then James Kelleher’s newsletter arrived in my email box this morning.  In it, he mentions that Venus will be in Uttara Ashada from Dec 5, 2013 through Jan 6, 2014.  It so happens that I have a natal stellium in Uttara Ashada, but I had never heard about the writer’s connection associated with this asterism until now.
My delight was palpable.  The Jupiter-Saturn trine is perfecting today for the second time.  This trine last occurred on July 17, 2013, when I was also doing a lot of writing on the series.  But this time, I wasn’t feeling it.  For one thing, none of the western planets are in air right now except Mars, which is in the sign of its detriment, Libra.  Without air, words never take flight, and writer’s block is the devil!!

So, James Kelleher gifted me some inspiration from the Vedic sages when I totally needed it.  An excerpt from his newsletter is noted below:

Venus Arrives in Uttara Ashada (From the Dec 12, 2013 James Kelleher newsletter)

MY NOTE:  James Kelleher's free newsletter is easy to sign up for on the title page of his website,

Uttara Ashadha is symbolized by the tusk of an elephant. It's Shakti is the power to create an unstoppable victory.  This nakshatra brings success and allows one to overcome obstacles…Of course you have to have an obstacle to remove an obstacle, so it is also possible for some obstacles to arise during this period.

The tusk of the elephant that symbolizes Uttara Ashadha is related to Ganesh, the Hindu god that removes obstacles.  Once Ganesh and Veda Vyasa (the sage who wrote the Mahabharata) were sitting together.  Vyasa became inspired and said, "Ganesh, I would like to write the Mahabharata, but I need someone to write it down for me.  Could you be the scribe?"  Ganesh looked at Veda Vyasa and said, "OK, but I have a condition.  You have to keep talking in one continuous stream.  If you pause even for a moment I will stop writing."

Amused at Ganesha's condition, Vyasa replied.  "Well OK then, I will meet your condition, but I have a condition of my own.  You must keep concentrating in one continuous stream.  If you lapse in your concentration even for a micro second, I will stop talking." Don't ask me why, but for some unknown reason, they were both pleased with the agreement.  Ganesha promptly broke off his tusk and used it as a pen to write the Mahabharata.  The symbolism of this story suggests that this is a good nakshatra for writing.  

This got me thinking, not only about writing, but about great books in general.  While few people in the Pluto in Virgo generation actually have time to read over the holidays, this is the season for giving the gift of great books, especially to younger people in our lives who still have a school holiday break when they can curl up with a book that takes them away to a different world. With that in mind, I decided to pull out some treasures from my own stash of favorite books, and share them with readers as a holiday offering
Below are a few of the books that changed my life when I was a child, a college student, and a young adult working in Peace Corps, an incredible time period when I was learning about many world cultures, and not just about the population I was serving in Africa. 
Originally, I published this as a note on my private Facebook page titled, “Eight Great Books That Changed Me”.

1.        Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigen

Because my father is Jewish, I had a fascination with literature about the Nazi era as a child.  That said, most of it is devastating and graphic, and I am reluctant to place Holocaust literature at the top of my list for the same reason that most Black American kids will not place a story about slavery at the top of their lists.

This book about Norwegian children who risked their lives to fight back against the Nazis who invaded their land is an exception.  These children did not meet a certain death – there was a happy ending for most of them.  Nazis were shooting Norwegian adults in the head who defied curfew, but they ignored the children, for the most part.  So the adults had their children smuggle all the gold out of Norway.

How did they do it?  They sledded at night, all night, in bitter temperatures, each with a brick of gold under his or her belly.  When they reached a location at daybreak, they stopped and built a snowman (with the gold brick concealed at the bottom),often right under the noses of the Nazis. They were instructed to laugh and make it look fun, despite their fear and hunger and the bitter cold.  Then they went to a safe-house, and headed back up the mountains, where they would do it all over again (schools were suspended by the Nazis).  Amazing story of courage!

2.       Mischling 2nd Degree: My Childhood in Nazi Germany by Ilse Koehn

This was a personal one for me.  As a kid, I had always tried to imagine where I might have “fit” had I lived in Nazi times, but there were no books for Jewish children like me.  I think I might have told my favorite community librarian something, and she might have found this on the shelf

A Mischling was a cross-breed or a half-breed.  A 1st Degree had two Jewish grandparents – this was me.  A2nd Degree had only 1 Jewish grandparent – and many of these children survived by “passing” as German, frequently through their involvement as Hitler youth.  Most of these kids carried incredible guilt, and few of them wanted to write a memoir as adults.  This exceptional German woman made it possible me for to understand what happened to a whole hidden group of kids who never got on the cattle cars.

As I got into my teenage years, I became more conservative.  I was far from ready to switch political affiliation at that point – my whole family was historically Democrat.  But I was starting to grasp literature at a more nuanced level than some of my teachers, in some cases.

3.       The Dead by James Joyce 

This is the short story that netted me a “5”on my English AP exam, because it was not assigned for high school AP English, and therefore no one else chose it as an essay topic.  Books by Joyce were above my head in 12th grade, but this story was accessible, and I kicked it on the essay.  The writing style is quiet and simple – it disarms you, once you figure out what the story means.

The other short story that stunned me because it eviscerated a social class of people – trailer dwellers – was “The Wamsutter Wolf” by Annie Proulx.  I don’t think anyone has ever used stereotype so effectively, and although it may not be fair, and it certainly isn’t politically correct, it is extremely difficult to turn stereotype into cutting-edge literature.  This may be one of her very best stories.  I read it well after college.

4.       Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I wrote a paper on this for a University of Maryland honors seminar, and the teacher panned it because it didn’t agree with her liberal ideology.  I went after her, demanded an outside evaluator, and got my “A”.

Tolstoy does a profound expose of feminism in this book, and showed why it was doomed to fail in Russia.  More clearly than any other author in literature, he showed how every time a woman “won”, a man had to “lose”.  He had tremendous sympathy for Anna, and he admitted feminism was right on an intellectual level, but he hated it viscerally, and despised feminists.  This is also the core of the Islamic hatred of feminism, and it always struck me how close to Islam Tolstoy was at heart. Today, it is possible for both sexes to “win” – feminism is no longer a zero sum game.  But it wasn’t in his time, and no author condemned it with more subtlety than Tolstoy.

5.       Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov 

I was disgusted and totally fascinated by this book when I first read it at age 18. I couldn’t put it down, and yet I still thought Nabakov was a sick pervert.  It took me a while to realize how truly creative this story was, and what a risk he took in telling it.  Nobody gets inside the mind of a predator the way Nabakov does in this book, and no one engaged the reader’s fascination and revulsion, or does such a good job of “mind-fucking” the reader so that he or she is unsure how to assess the book once it is finished, which is exactly something a predator would do.

In my twenties, the books that really shaped my developing view of the world were all non-fiction. There was also a distinctly “alternative” bent – these books won’t make Oprah’s Book List.

6.       Black Elk Speaks with John Niehardt

This book was published in 1932, the year my father was born.  Niehardt sat down with the Oglala Sioux leader and medicine man when he was old and blind, and wrote Black Elk’s memoir.  Black Elk had a gift of access to the “Other world”, and he set down his story with multiple objectives in mind – he wanted his story recorded as a great man of his people,he wanted to bridge a chasm between his people and white Americans, and he wanted to help guide future shamans who would be born in the Americas but not to Native Americans.

He succeeded on all levels.  The lesson that stuck with me most was the necessity of trusting one’s initial vision, and not second-guessing it later in life.  There is no substitution for the first vision that guides one’s life – and wishing for a different vision will only get you a false one that is doomed to fail.

7.       The World We Used To Live In by Vine DeLoria Jr.

No one brings magic alive more than DeLoria does with this anthology.  Don’t read this book if you have a contempt for “woo-woo” things, but do read it if you want your concepts of what constitutes science and objective reality challenged in a non-stupid, non-New Agey way.

DeLoria curates accounts from hundreds of people from all walks of life who witnessed the powers of traditional medicine men – trappers, businessmen, priests, pioneers, and many of the Indians themselves.  The stories are fascinating, and really bring the non-western world of the Americas alive, but his main thesis is what blows preconceptions to pieces – there is no way all of these independent accounts could be bullshit, and extremely unlikely that every single one of the observers could have made up these stories as lies.

8.        Muhammad:  His Life Based on the Earliest Sources by Martin Lings

This book is huge, and it took me forever to read, but no book made me understand the Muslim population I worked with as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea better than this one.  Martin Lings (1909-2005) studied under C.S.Lewis at Oxford, and later became his close friend.  He went to Cairo, married a Muslim woman, and spent the rest of his life becoming an expert in Islam.

This book got a rare seal of approval from scholars at the University of Cairo – very few books not published in Arabic will meet their standards, because of the Muslim belief that the Koran can only be understood in its original Arabic.

The stories around Muhammad’s life, visions, and early battles are fascinating. As is the fact that the Koran was written down by his literate wife, Hafsah, and the most reliable hadith about women were preserved by his other literate wife, Aisha.  Somehow, Lings gets the whole thing in a chronological narrative that is stunning.

After I read this book, I realized that I knew educated Muslims in my Peace Corps country who could and did recount to me stories from the life of Jesus, but that I didn’t know one educated Christian or non-Christian back home who could tell me a story from the life of Muhammad.  Talk about one book changing your view of reality as you know it.

9.        The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

This book is a great read because of all the controversy it generated, although I agree with Amazon reviewer Peggy Vincent, who writes, “It’s not great literature; it’s great reportage.”

Asne Seierstad went to Kabul during the early years of the American war in Afghanistan, and embedded as a journalist inside the home and family of one very prominent bookseller, a man whose real name was Shah Muhammed Rais.  In the book, he is known as Sultan Khan.

What emerged was an in-depth view of the family of one liberal, well-educated Afghani man, perhaps one of the most progressive men working in Kabul at the time.  Despite his liberal professional persona, Seierstad showed how he was a patriarch and a tyrant at home, exploiting his wives, his sister, and his sons, who he insisted withdraw from school to work in his book-selling business instead.  Seierstad used an anthropological approach to the culture, and she also captured the striking beauty of the country – one of my favorite chapters was her description of a road trip to the tomb of a Muslim saint.

Seierstad let her colors fly as a feminist – the main women in the story are portrayed as hopeless victims of the culture, which they undoubtedly are.  Rais himself is portrayed as being among the most progressive men in his society, and yet he still privately ruled his family with an iron fist.

The book became the most widely read contemporary novel by a Norwegian author, but her subject, Muhammed Rais, sued her for slander in a Norwegian court.  He won his case in 2010, but lost on appeal in 2012.  In retrospect, Seierstad should not have been surprised.  Devout Muslims may not earn income that involves usuary, which attracts many of them to the large potential payouts of a successful lawsuit.  Nonetheless, it will be virtually impossible for a western author to write another book like this at any time in the near future, so the book’s one-of-a-kind appeal undoubtedly draws readers as well.

Two differing views on “The Bookseller of Kabul” are noted below:  

"It's Not Possible To Write A Neutral Story"

"The Big Brother of Books"

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