Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a popular Turkish author, and a Rumi scholar, raised by her mother and grandmother, experiencing a childhood and influences that fed a fertile imagination. Now based in London, this is her tenth novel. Since reading The Forty Rules of Love, the first of her novels to actively reference her Rumi knowledge and learnings, I’ve read the excellent The Bastard of Istanbul, Honour and her nonfiction essay The Happiness of Blond People. She is an interesting and unique author because of her ability to straddle the thinking of both East and West, captured through engaging characters and storytelling; she demonstrated that for all our supposed differences, we are grappling with similar issues.

Three Daughters of Eve is an interesting, quietly provocative, philosophical novel. Shafak brilliantly sets up a character study of Peri, our Turkish protagonist, who on her way to a dinner party to meet her husband, decides to abandon her car in the middle of a traffic jam, in pursuit of an opportunistic handbag thief.

“Like a magic wand in the wrong hands, the traffic turned minutes into hours, humans into brutes and any trace of sanity into sheer lunacy.”

There is a violent, unsettling altercation after which she will continue on her way, shaken, but in one piece and determined not to change her plans. However this episode and the memories it awakens, will over the course of the evening, reveal her conflicted self and cause her to consider her life and address a significant event of the past, as the present madness moves forward towards astonishing heights.

“Though easy to forget at times, the city was a stormy sea swollen with drifting icebergs of masculinity, and it was better to manoeuvre away from them, gingerly and smartly, for one never knew how much danger lay beneath the surface.”

The three daughters are the three girls who appear in the photo that falls out of her handbag, referred to as the sinner, the believer and the confused. They are three young Muslim students at Oxford university, including Peri (the confused), who will all take the same class with Professor Azur and for a time they will live together. The girls all have different views, as do their fellow classmates, in the class about ‘understanding God’, a guided philosophical think-tank, where the handpicked students are forbidden to discuss religion, and must instead learn to express their opinions without the framework of doctrine.

Thus the novel is narrated across two timelines, the present day Istanbul (2016) en route to and at a bourgeoise dinner party and a period of time at the university in Oxford (2000).

Shirin is the liberal-minded sinner with no excuses or apologies for who she is, she loves to provoke reaction and is a willing accomplice come recruiter to the Professor’s circle, it is she who brings the conservative believer Mona and Peri together.

Shafak’s account of Peri’s parents and family is brilliantly characterised and aptly portrays why she is given the label of ‘confused’, they are complete opposites and over time become even more so, her two brothers are also polar opposite while Peri, loaded with empathy, understands all their positions, but can not stand in either of their shoes. Her plan to study in England, supported by her father and a cause of concern for her mother, was more of an escape for her than the brilliant opportunity her father imagined.

“They were as incompatible as tavern and mosque. The frowns that descended on their brows, the stiffness that infused their voices, identified them not as a couple in love, but as opponents in a game of chess…

Religion had plummeted into their lives as unexpectedly as a meteor, and created a chasm, separating the family into two clashing camps.”

Despite education, philosophical questions and new friends, Peri is a young, Turkish woman coming to live in a foreign country; as I was reading, I couldn’t help but notice the synchronicity between this combination of time, space and circumstance that made Peri vulnerable to manipulative intent and the protagonist of Claire Fuller’s excellent novel Swimming Lessons, a novel that chose not to explore the family background and cultural references of its young, female Norwegian university student, and rather focuses on the life that followed an equally significant turning point.

Here in Elif Shafak’s novel is an attempt to provide an experience with its cultural context. They are both young impressionable women having life-changing experiences in a foreign culture, with little support or guidance, they are lost in an age-appropriate confusion of emotions, one that is not on the same wavelength as the object of their desire.

Elif Shafak speaking in Bulgaria
Photo courtesy of Tayna Tzvetkova

While I enjoyed the novel and love Elif Shafak’s writing and philosophical questioning, there was a point very near the end, where events became too surreal for me to stay captured in the literary bubble of considering that evening dinner party in 2016 legitimate. It may be a satire of the Turkish elite, some of the things that happen and that are said are a mix of humorous and dramatic, however that’s not the tone of the novel as a whole.

I don’t know why the author chose to brings things together in the manner she did, for me personally it distracted from the thought process I’d spent the entire novel developing, and resulted in a suspension of belief, a kind of clocking out. I was waiting for the resolution, that’s where it was heading, and it does attempt to do that, however, as she not so convincingly demonstrates, humans can be unpredictable, and their actions often make no sense at all.

An excellent and thought-provoking novel that I recommend, despite a somewhat less well executed ending.

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Note: This book was an ARC(Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

To purchase a copy via Book Depository, click here

Happiness is an Inside Job by Sylvia Boorstein and the joy of reading books by The 14th Dalai Lama

Sylvia Boorstein’s Happiness is an Inside Job is an easy-reading distillation of the key components of Buddhist thought and practise shared through a lifetime of experiences.

The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama

“We’ll start as the Buddha did in his declaration of what is fundamentally true about life, with the premise that challenges in life are inevitable and that suffering, the mind in contentious mode with its experience, is the instinctive response of the untrained mind.

These premises are the first two of the famous Four Noble Truths regarded as the summation of the Buddha’s teaching.

The third truth is the definite promise that a peaceful mind, one not in contention with anything, is a possibility for human beings.

The fourth truth is the Buddha’s training program for developing that kind of mind.”

That training is basically about how to cultivate what we call ‘equanimity’, that ability to be in a situation and at the same time, be outside the situation observing it happening and our response to it, learning to use that ability to shape how we respond, from one of the great Buddhist intellects living today.

Boorstein’s book (reviewed below) talks us through the various components of developing and nurturing that wisdom, using examples from her and her friend’s lives. Before reviewing that text, and to give it context from my own personal reading, I share below a few enlightened books I’ve read over the years that penetrate this wisdom with clarity, insight and offer helpful and realistic suggestions for their practical application.

The 14th Dalai Lama

Some of my favourite books are those written by the 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet, holder of the Nobel Peace prize, philosopher, intellectual, a genuinely altruistic man of great wisdom and compassion.

Many of them I pass on to others as they are too full of penetrating insights and ideas for changing our thinking in a positive way, to let waste away on a dusty shelf.  I thought I’d share three that come immediately to mind, because they each had a significant impact when I read them:

Transforming the MindTransforming the Mind: Teachings on generating compassion – this one is based on an edited series of lectures and is full of excellent practical advice and mind training on how to modify our perceptions to create a more compassionate view. This is his most important work in my opinion, it has some philosophical sections that are a little harder to grasp, but it is so worth persevering to get to the real wisdom within.

I remember when I read it, how well it resonated and how much I learned and was able to apply, it was quite a revelation the first time I read it. Such a gift.

Ancient WisdomAncient Wisdom, Modern World Ethics for the New Millennium was published just before the millennium, a beautiful, small hard-cover book that reached out to all beings, not just those interested in Buddhism, addressing the spiritual void in a non-religious way and bringing attention to ethics and to finding new ways of living that avoid destroying nature and the environment, protecting our shared inheritance.

I remember that this was the first book of his, that I felt completely comfortable handing on to almost anyone, it surpassed belief and spoke to us all, no matter what our faith or spiritual inclination, this is an important and accessible message for humanity.

How to See YourselfHow to See Yourself As You Really Are – this book is a lighter, practical guide to understand the nature of self, examining how many of the things we currently believe to be solid are an illusion and that by appreciating this, we can learn how to minimise suffering.

His older books tend to be more philosophical and can at times be a challenge to understand the way of thinking, all of which is encouraged in Buddhist thought – that we should question in order to understand – however this book is more of a modern interpretation, written not for the scholar or practitioner but for anyone with an interest in self-improvement and understanding the mind.

By the time I read this one, I recognised much of the message, it wasn’t so new to me, I was already living it, but we always need reminding and encouraging, as the path is littered with obstacles!

Review: Happiness is an Inside Job

HappinessThis book was a delightful Christmas gift I was promised I would enjoy, described by Publishers Weekly as:

‘a small, polished gem of a book’

I had not heard of Sylvia Boorstein, one of the co-founding teachers at Spirit Rock Meditation Centre in California. She has written a number of books on Buddhist thinking, meditation, mindfulness and kindness.

In Happiness is an Inside Job, she shows how mindfulness, concentration, and effort–three elements of the Buddhist path to wisdom–can lead us away from anger, anxiety, and confusion, and into calmness, clarity, and the joy of living in the present.

Split into sections on equanimity, wise effort (and speech), mindfulness, and concentration it uses anecdotes and examples in everyday life to illustrate how to put this philosophy of compassion into practice.

It sounds like common sense and indeed it is, however the mind often loses track and imagines, worries, obsesses and does everything but choose the path of common sense and we often need to be reminded of the most simple observations to declutter it.

She reminds us that much that happens in our lives is external to us and beyond our control, but that our response to it is within our ability to manage and there is much we can do to help ourselves by learning how to respond in a way that will calm and nurture us, that we can choose to respond in a way that veers more toward the path of happiness.

‘Speech that compliments is, by definition, free from derision, which clouds the mind with enemies and makes it tense. Kind speech makes the mind feel safe and also glad.’

It’s a book to read a chapter at a time, not all at once, an alternative to the demands of fiction, more nourishing than television, food for the soul. Recommended as an introduction to Buddhist thought and the benefits of practising compassion.

“My practise is remembering that although whatever is happening, including my emotional response to it, is the lawful consequence of myriad causes that are beyond my control, the relationship I hold toward it all is within my control. I can choose on behalf of happiness.”

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer tr. Shaun Whiteside

The WallHaushofer’s novel begins on the 5th of November, the day the protagonist, a middle-aged woman, begins to write a report of what has occurred over the last two years, since she became isolated in a hunting lodge in the Austrian Alps, where she had been visiting her cousin Luise and Luise’s husband Hugo.

Some kind of unwitnessed catastrophic event occurs, creating an invisible wall between that which lives and that which doesn’t.

As I started reading and then discovered what The WallWake Elizabeth Knox was, I recalled Elizabeth Knox’s Wake, where a similar event occurs, though rather than one woman as we observe in Marlen Haushofer’s modern classic The Wall, with Knox we followed what happened to a group of survivors adding elements of fantasy and horror that suspend belief  allowing the reader to interpret it more as the form of entertainment it was written to be.

In The Wall, Luise and Hugo walk to the nearby Alpine village one evening, putting them on the deathly side of the catastrophic event. Sending their dog Lynx home before them, he becomes one of the important and constant companions of this lone woman, who will learn what it takes to survive.

Eventually she realises she is living in the forest completely alone, she is joined by a cow she names Bella whom she hopes is pregnant, an old cat who will also give birth, and she finds a sack of potatoes she can plant and some beans which she will also use to create a crop. She is grateful to Hugo for his forethought.

“At the time everyone was talking about nuclear wars and their consequences, and this led Hugo to keep a little store of food and other important things in his hunting-lodge.”

The book recalls the days, the months, the seasons, the work she creates for herself, the relationship between her and the animals, her nurturing of them and attempt to protect them from the harsh elements of the environment and their interactions with her, that remind her of her duty to survive.

Lynx prodded me with his muzzle and pushed me sideways. Maybe he didn’t like the flood, maybe he also felt that I was miles away and wanted to attract some attention. As always on such occasions I followed him in the end. He knew much better than I did what was good for me.

It is written in a stream of conscious style that never becomes monotonous, despite the monotony of her days, she must live in the present to survive and that depends very much on caring for the needs of the animal life that support her. She must deal with her own mental turbulence and anguish, discovering that her manual labours and constant activity, though tiring, keep her from the dangers of over thinking and decline.

By cutting timber, in fact, I missed a very fine Indian summer. I didn’t see the landscape at all, obsessed as I was by the thought of stacking up a big enough supply of wood.  Once the last log had been stored under the verandah I had a stretch and decided to treat myself a little. It’s strange, in fact, how slight my pleasure is every time I complete a task. Once it’s out of the way I forget it,  and think about new things to do. Even at that time I didn’t allow myself much time to recover. That’s how it always was: while I was slaving away I dreamt about how I would quietly and peacefully rest on the bench, but as soon as I finally sat down on the bench I grew restless, and started looking out for new work to do. I don’t think this was due to any particular industriousness, since by nature I’m rather lethargic,  but was probably through self-protection, for what would I have done otherwise but remember and brood? That was exactly what I mustn’t do, so what was there to do but more work? I didn’t even have to look for work, it turned up insistently of its own accord.

EndlessI was also reminded of Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days, another book of survival in the European forest lands, a novel that contains distractions other than just survival, it being about a daughter whose father has taken her off to survive in the forest.

Marlen Haushofer’s protagonist has no zombies or deranged father’s to contend with, purely one woman’s survival and existence alongside a select few animals.

I found it utterly compelling and could not put it down. It is a brilliant novel that strips away the noise and manic obsessions of society placing one woman in a basic situation that will exhibit humanity’s natural feminine instinct to nurture, to protect, to achieve and survive while intermittently falling prey to the melancholic tendencies of mind that threaten to derail us. It does this without the use of fantastical elements apart from the existence of the wall itself, making it feel realistic and believable.

Marlen Haushofer wrote the book in the early 1960’s and it wasn’t published until 1968, two years before her premature death at the age of 49. The book was resurrected 15 years later when discovered by the feminist and anti-nuclear movements and has since been translated into 18 languages and made into a major motion picture by the Director Julian Pölsler. Deserving of being categorised as a modern classic.

The Wall is a muted critique of consumerism and a delicate poem in praise of nature, a challenge to violence and patriarchy, an encomium to peace and life-giving femininity, a meditation on time, an observation on the differences and similarities between animals and humans, and a timeless minor masterpiece. Jerry Whyte , Film critic on Julian Pölsler’s film adaptation

Wall Movie

Highly recommended and thank you to Vishy (click here for his review) for recommending it to me.

The Hidden Lamp

Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women

The Hidden LampThe Hidden Lamp is a rich source of feminine wisdom, a compilation of one hundred stories, some a mere paragraph long, each one chosen by one woman and commented on, sharing a contemporary perception of how that text speaks to her.

We as readers have the opportunity to receive the wisdom of the original text, reflect on it ourselves, observe the comments of the woman who has chosen to share it with us, often with a personal anecdote in this unique collection of twenty-five centuries of awakened women – those who in Buddhist terms have gained enlightenment.

Most well-known Zen stories or koans (according to American Zen Master, poet and author Zoketsu Norman Fischer) come from three collections Blue Cliff Record (12th C), The Book of Serenity (12th C), and The Gateless Barrier (13th C) and are an almost exclusively male domain.

In this collection, we find the long missing stories of women, shared in a unique collaborative style between its editors and commentators. Many of those interpreting the texts are Zen teachers and many others come from a wide range of Buddhist traditions and lineages, lending the collection an open-minded virtue, accessible to all, whether male or female, and regardless of knowledge of Buddhism philosophy and practice.

“Koans are powerful and succinct stories, most often about encounters between Zen teachers and students. They can be playful and humorous, mysterious, opaque or even combative.”

It is an invitation to consider what has been said, to ponder it and respond ourselves.

Reading the stories make fables seem like children’s stories. These excerpts often require an extraordinary stretch of the imagination to understand and there will be some we are simply not ready to interpret.  For those who have studied them, their revelations have often taken months or even years to realise.  Thanks to the commentaries, we can at least read of another’s insight although this does not in all cases necessarily bring clarity. We must accept that we are not yet ready for their learning.

Joko Beck

Charlotte Joko Beck

One of the first stories came from Peg Syverson’s reflection after listening to Joko Beck* give a talk. A young man raised his hand and bluntly asked “Are you enlightened?” to which she replied “I hope I should never have such a thought!”

Peg Syverson shared that she had thought of this exchange many times since she first heard it, that many of the things this teacher of hers said, surprised her. She likened it to another story of a Japanese master Nan-in, serving tea to a professor, pouring the tea until the cup filled and then overflowed, and still he continued to pour until the professor said, “It is overfull! No more will go in!”

“Like this cup”, said Nan-in, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The responses are often unexpected and penetrating. Their meaning isn’t obvious on first reading, they require us to look at the question, and at what those who ask are bringing along with the question. Syverson recounts her own audience with Joko, the question she was required to ponder and respond to, then despite several weeks of contemplating an answer, when she gave it, would receive another insightful, thought-provoking response, which upon reflection, changed the nature of her relationship with her son, the subject of her initial question. The clarity of the teacher’s mind in responding so succinctly is astonishing.

The answers seem nearly always to require that you go away and reconsider the exchange, eventually revealing the answer that perhaps was always within you. It is a kind of active learning, rather than the passive receipt of an interpretation and response, which can easily be set aside or forgotten.

The Hidden Lamp is not a book to read in one sitting, it is a reference to draw on now and then and a rich source of ancient feminine wisdom and modern thought, whose content is valid for one and all. Some of the names of the women in the book will be well-known and others less so, however their contributions might as well be nameless, as it is the story that brings the richness to the reader, the reputation of all the contributions having already been established.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

Personally I always have at least one text of Buddhist thought/philosophy on the bedside table, I find them a quiet source of intellectual wisdom that easily resonates with my own world view.

Whether it’s a collection like this or one of the many excellent works of the Dalai Lama, or the pocket books of Pema Chodron, they all share a wisdom that comes from the practice of kindness, empathy and altruism while providing a prism of compassion through which to observe our everyday thoughts and encounters. A kind of preventative medicine for the mind, these awakened beings have spent years pondering the nature of suffering and both their practices and their words are a thoughtful guide and nurturing remedy to all negative emotion or thought.

* Joko Beck (American, 1917 – 2011) was a pianist and mother of four, who began Zen practice in her 40’s, founded two schools and wrote two books Everyday Zen: Love and Work and Nothing Special: Living Zen.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy(ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Examined Life

Examined LifeRecently I listened to a podcast entitled Literature on the Couch featuring Andrew Solomon, Greg Bellow and Stephen Grosz.

It was the book written by the latter that provoked my interest, Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life, How We Lose and Find Ourselves. While there are many books one can pick up, which write with a voice of authority and experience on the subject of Freudian psychoanalysis, there are few if any, which have been penned as a practical legacy to the children an author will one day leave behind.

I like the idea of leaving lessons of our life’s learning to one’s children, they are the few people on earth we are able to genuinely love unconditionally and it intrigued me to seek out this book, to see if writing for one’s children on a subject one is something of a professional expert in and having already been reasonably widely published can remove the influence of ego or meeting the expectations of one’s academic peers and make a subject or in this instance many case studies, accessible to the lay person and true to that spirit of sharing wisdom with one’s progeny.

The book is divided conveniently into five sections, beginnings, telling lies, loving, changing and leaving.

CIMG0990

My Other Passion, Distilling Essence

The chapters are like perfume samples, distilled to their quintessential essence yet encapsulating the base notes that make a scent whole or a lesson in life complete. Incredible given that many of the cases he mentions are the product of a year or two of conversation, meeting with a person for fifty minutes, four or five times a week, over a number of years. A life work of more than 50,000 hours listening, learning, resolving, and understanding (or at least trying to).

In Beginnings, the first case that made me go back and reread a few pages was How Praise can cause a loss of confidence and once you’ve read it, you’ll understand the subtle difference between giving praise and giving something else more likely to boost esteem and confidence in children, so subtle and yet so potentially powerful. And what a great gift to pass on to those children, who may one day become parents themselves.

Admiring our children may temporarily lift our self-esteem by signalling to those around us what fantastic parents we are and what terrific kids we have – but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self. In trying so hard to be different from our parents, we’re actually doing much the same thing – doling out empty praise the way an earlier generation doled out thoughtless criticism.

In Loving, the chapter Paranoia can relieve suffering and prevent catastrophe is insightful and may make us more sympathetic to those who suffer from it, particularly the elderly.

With old age, the likelihood of developing a serious psychological disorder decreases, and yet the chance of developing paranoia increases. In hospital I have heard elderly men and women complain: “The nurses here are trying to poison me.” “I didn’t misplace my glasses, my daughter has obviously stolen them.” “You don’t believe me but I can assure you: my room is bugged, they are reading my post.” “Please take me home, I am not safe here.”

Grosz suggests that paranoid fantasies, such as a feeling of being betrayed, mocked, exploited or harmed are a defensive response to the feeling that we are being treated with indifference. They protect us from the more disturbing emotional state, from a feeling that no one cares about us or is thinking about us, that we have been forgotten.

changeIn Changing, we learn how our very survival can be put at risk by our fear of change in How a Fear of Loss Can cause us to lose Everything. How some of us will escape at the very first sign of danger, even if it means doing something we are not used to doing and how others may perish, because of the fear of acting without sufficient information.

“We are vehemently faithful to our own view of the world, our story. We want to know what new story we’re stepping into before we exit the old one. We don’t want an exit if we don’t know exactly where it is going to take us, even – or perhaps especially – in an emergency.”

Overall, an intriguing, easy read including stories which might easily be those we encounter or recognise in ourselves or others close to us and with a clear explanation of the hidden meaning and lessons that can be found within them. Not surprising to see it listed yesterday in the Guardian’s recommended Holiday Reads, literature for the couch, the beach, the balcony or wherever it is you’ll be putting your feet up this summer (or winter if you’re down-under!)