Milquetoasts: Jesse Eisinger Explains Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives

If you’re like me, you wonder what happened to the supposed coming convictions of the top bankers from the top firms after the 2008 financial crisis. Not a single person went to prison. The recession was a meteor that slammed into the United States at 13 km per second, creating an upheaval of the financial system and rolling us into a dark hole that at the time felt 6 feet deep. Coming to the aid of the quivering industries, the government tossed out bailouts like a float chucking out candy at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. With the malfeasance of the financial firms well documented, and the reek of guilt emanating from every pore, you probably waited just as I did for the prosecutorial gavel to slam down. And oh, we waited—oh did we wait. We waited so long some of us sprouted grey hair and were closing in on grandkids. What was the Justice Department doing? Why the feet dragging? The papers wanted to know, the people wanted to know. When the trickle of deferred prosecution agreements came in, the rage came in too; the Charging Bull was descended upon by millions of confused, angry Americans. One of the largest movements of the current era, Occupy Wall Street, flooded big cities. To put it in everyman terms: People were hopping mad.

Then, par for the course of the modern day, the rage died. The social media feeds moved on, the executives walked scot-free; however, the landscape of America was forever changed.

So what the hell happened? “I waited for the government to charge bankers with criminal wrongdoing. And waited. The indictments never came.” writes Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jesse Eisinger.

The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives is Jesse Eisinger’s exhaustively researched gamut of just that: Why the indictments never came. Like many of us, the lack of action from the Justice Department nagged at him. Being a journalist, Eisinger began turning over stones. He came to find ( as most things are) the truth to be complex and winding. Even so, one word clearly did stand out in his mind as to why the Justice Department had failed. A fragment in a speech by James Comey, given in 2002 to the criminal division of the Southern District of Manhattan after being appointed the fifty-eighth US attorney by then-President George W. Bush, summed up Eisinger’s feelings perfectly.

The Chickenshits_Cover“Before we read off the box score, I have something to say,” Comey said. “We have a saying around here: We do the right things for the right reasons in the right ways.”

All the assembled prosecutors had heard that exhortation in some variation, from Comey in the hallways or in smaller meetings, and from other chiefs.

Then Comey asked the seated prosecutors a question: “Who here has never had an acquittal or a hung jury? Please raise your hand.”

The go-getters and résumé builders in the office were ready. This group thought themselves the best trial lawyers in the country. Hands shot up.

“Me and my friends have a name for you guys,” Comey said, looking around the room. Backs straightened in preparation for praise. Comey looked at his flock with approbation. “You are members of what we like to call the Chickenshit Club.”

Hands went down faster than they had gone up. Some emitted sheepish laughter.

The aforementioned complex and winding truth, though unable to be boiled down to one concentrated point of fault, could in fact be summarized: ‘Cowardice’, Jesse Eisinger found, plagued the Justice Department. After Comey’s compelling speech, ironically, a trend began. The well-dressed, well-educated, and well-groomed lawyers of the DOJ over and over again failed to bring any charges against executives involved in white-collar crime. As a snail confronted with salt, the department shriveled up. Deference became the norm. No one was willing to bring executives to court for fear that they might lose.

Eisinger has written a good book. The bureaucratic game boards are well laid out, the accounting jargon followable. Eisinger starts at the beginning, building a history, telling the story of when, where, how, and why through a compelling timeline starting around the Enron trials and ending near the dusk of the lackluster Yates memo. The United States government has become more and more pro-business—this is no revelation. What is impressive, however, is Eisinger’s incredibly provocative and detailed report. The pile of evidence he pushes forward is eyebrow raising. What Eisinger presents isn’t just capitalist culture bleeding into government; what Eisinger presents is a full occupation. The Fat Cats have sunk their claws in deep, and our government doesn’t appear eager to shake them off.

The events leading up to the present day milquetoast-ridden DOJ and SEC Eisinger documents in detail. Death in the body politic doesn’t happen with a single thrust; it happens through dozens and dozens of tiny stabs from legalese and lobbying, spins and promotions, bloated incentives and revolving doors. From the 1971 Powell memo, to the debacle of the Arthur Andersen trial, to the “namby-pamby” settlements of AIG and KPMG, to the reversal of the Thompson memo, to the loss of investigative ability within the DOJ and SEC, to the arrival of “the Obamanauts”, to the misguided ruling of Judge Lewis Kaplan and to the ostracism of the corporate boogiemen Stanley Sporkin, Paul Pelletier and Judge Jed Rackoff, the demise of the prosecution was made. A pipeline from big business progeny to esteemed colleges was built; the prosecutorial means in which to pursue investigations were gutted; 9/11 hit, and the resources dried up, sent to the DOD to battle terrorists, both real and imaginary. All these things, compounding through the vastly shifting world landscape, dealt a thousand small blows, and the DOJ went down like a sack of hammers. For the white-collar criminals, it is a Gilded Age. For them, never has there been a more freewheelin’ time to be alive.

To read the newspaper today is to be in a constant state of disappointment. So it is in reading The Chickenshit Club. It is evident the governmental systems that have stood strong for centuries are now becoming relics on a planet that is rapidly evolving. The people and the technologies are outpacing the laws. A surprising statistic: About 91% of all currency exists only in digital form. In Jesse Eisinger’s words, understanding tax fraud is like translating “Aramaic into Mandarin back into English.” The world of white-collar crime can feel so daunting, even to the most well-versed of veterans, but we must keep up. The boom/bust cycle roars on, and so must justice.

Jesse Eisinger has put an important book into the public sphere. Though the plops of dropped balls can still be heard on any given day, there is one good thing to take away: Somewhere there’s a journalist, picking up bread crumbs, turning over stones. Though the Rolls-Royce driving criminals and Windsor knot wearing lawyers might skirt the courts, it’s nice to think that maybe, when they’re at their dining-room tables having morning coffee, they’ll pick up the paper, and see their name printed in black ink, beneath a headline that says something like this:

“CHICKENSHITS”

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Official Seal of the Department of Justice. Image Credit: The Department of Justice 

Four out of five stars for Jesse Eisinger’s The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives.

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Letter To An Old Man: Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

From 1968 to 1989 the western world was overrun with ghouls.

Crime was rampant, and not just the petty kind. Between 1980 to 1989 alone, some 600 active serial killers roamed. It was madness. The movie theaters filled their seats with slashers and methodical, cannibalistic swoll men, wearing masks, wielding axes, stitched into black gloves. People were scared. Single women made plans so they wouldn’t have to walk home alone in the dark. Each Halloween, Jasons showed up, in gaggles on the front steps of houses holding pillowcases aloft, caroling “Trick or Treat!”

By the 90’s, a cool down occurred; the shadows began to slither back into the cracks. The masks got peeled back. The gloves put away. We caught some, and the ones we didn’t got sleepy. By the 2000’s, the Era of the Serial Killer was deemed over. Now we have the Rampage Killers, with their trench coats and guns. Columbine changed everything. The forensic scientists came, garbed in their angel white robes.

Some of us are obsessed with those times. Some of us would rather bury it in the deep dark earth. Some could care less, but we all know the stories, and some of us know the checklist: 1.) Always park your car under a streetlight. 2.) Don’t wear a ponytail if you jog in the early morning. 3.) Always keep your blinds closed at night. 4.) Don’t be sympathetic to men in the dark.

Men in the dark; that’s how they get away. Sink into the oil pits and vanish like ghosts. In such foul, pathetically twisted minds we can’t breathe, but some of us dive in anyway. Some of us wade into the slosh, and try to feel out the skeletons laid at the bottom with our toes.

I’ve been reading True Crime since I was young. My mother always had mystery books and crime novels scattered about the house like autumn leaves. Patterson, Grisham, Garwood, Sandford, Johansen, Higgins Clark. Sometime in the 90’s the general nonfiction Pulitzer Prize nominee Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt showed up. I gobbled it like chocolate. I was hooked. I read True Crime on my back porch rooftop by flashlight, in my bed with the crank of the snake light; in my closet, when the sun set I’d climb into my haven and turn the switch and illuminate the bulb with a click. I developed a studious, unabashed love. The names of vile men and women stacked high in my brain; the tools they used, the odd ticks that inhabited them, the men and women they killed, the men and women who survived—those who had outsmarted them.

Contrary to the pop culture, the lump of serial killers aren’t meticulous geniuses. In the US, their average IQ runs below the national average, at about 94.5. They get away not because of their mountainous intellects, but rather because what they do is so chaotic and beyond reason, they simply fall out of sight.

But a slim few of us have eagle eyes. Some of us are dogs that get something in their mouths and refuse to let go. Bloodhounds with noses that continue hunting over the hills long after the trail has gone cold. One of those individuals lived in Los Angeles, with a famous husband and a little girl. Her name? Michelle McNamara. And her True Crime tour de force I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is destined to be a classic, and has shaken up the investigation world.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark_jacket“Precision and self-preservation were his identifying features. When he zeroed in on a victim, he often entered the home beforehand when no one was there, studying family pictures, learning the layout. He disabled porch lights and unlocked sliding glass doors. He emptied bullets from guns. Unworried homeowners’ closed gates were left open; pictures he moved were put back, chalked up to the disorder of daily life. The victims slept untroubled until the flashlight blaze forced open their eyes. Blindness disoriented them. Sleepy minds lumbered, then raced. A figure they couldn’t see wielded the light, but who, and why? […]’

“Drapery hooks scraping against a curtain rod awakened a twenty-nine-year-old woman in her bedroom in northwest Stockton. She rose from her pillow. Outside patio lights framed a silhouette in the doorway. The image vaporized as a flashlight found her face and blinded her; a force of energy rushed toward the bed. His last attack had been Memorial Day weekend. It was 1:30 a.m. on the Tuesday after Labor Day. Summer was over. He was back.”

In the decades of the ghouls, the Golden State Killer, also known as EAR-ONS (East Area Rapist – Original Night Stalker) was one of the most infamous. In the state of California, in a span of about ten years, the diabolical GSK committed fifty sexual assaults, terrorizing Sacramento and the neighboring counties before moving down south, where he murdered ten people, targeting male/female couples in their beds. He was an absolute plague. Whole towns filled their streets with floodlights. Worried and tortured men patrolled in their cars when night fell. Women couldn’t sleep, their minds buzzing like bees. GSK played with his prey, like a cat with a spider; hog tying victims, muttering incoherent nothing’s as he ransacked their homes, placing teacups on husbands backs as he raped their wives, leaving out milk and cookies, phone calls to the police. Behind him was a littered trail of puzzle pieces that didn’t fit together. He ducked, dived, slithered, and got lucky. The Golden State Killer was never caught. His sadistic legacy oozed through the 1990’s and 2000’s like molasses. But through that time, under the radar, armed with a laptop and a fierce, determined mind was Michelle McNamara. She believed that the case was crackable. That EAR-ONS was catchable. McNamara knew he had a face, and she worked tirelessly to drag that face into the light.

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Great picture of Michelle McNamara and her husband Patton Oswalt. Image Credit/Taken from: Bustle

A book of conflicting feelings, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is both a victory and a tragedy: A victory because Michelle McNamara’s stalwart resolve and keen brain has lit a fire; a tragedy, because the brilliant McNamara died before the work was finished. Lovingly and painstakingly put together by her husband, well known comedian Patton Oswalt, McNamara’s unfinished novel hangs in nebulousness, much like the Golden State Killer himself, who she hunted obsessively. Yet the book stands strong nonetheless, which is perhaps the greatest testament to McNamara’s deft, enthralling pen. Even released too soon, the arrow still hits its mark. The writing is clean, crisp; the visuals and sensations leap off the pages, and I was turning and turning them late into the night, my heart hammering.

Many times reading True Crime one can not help but be engrossed by the wicked killers and their sadistic actions; however, what is wonderful about I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, is that the most engrossing, captivating character on this dark wending road is McNamara herself. McNamara is fascinating, brave, intelligent—she feels like a secret weapon. Through all the blood, fear, and darkness, McNamara holds out a lantern, and by her little flame we all find our way out of the rumpus night. Bringing organization to chaos, hope to despair, McNamara doesn’t give up, and through her diligent collecting of the pieces, and her preening of the muck, a picture, a truth, starts to take shape. In the epilogue – Letter To An Old Man – she writes:

“And then, after May 4, 1986, you disappear. Some think you died. Or went to prison. Not me.’

“I think you bailed when the world began to change. It’s true, age must have slowed you. The testosterone, once a gush, was now a trickle. But the truth is memories fade. Paper decays. But technology improves.’

You cut out when you looked over your shoulder and saw your opponents gaining on you.”

Michelle McNamara, from I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Although now gone, McNamara’s hunt continues. GSK  may still lurk, but now, thanks to McNamara, the world is awake, and watching.

Michelle_McNamara Portrait
Portrait of Michelle McNamara. Image Credit: Robin Von Swank

Five out of five stars.

The Old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori – Chris Hedges Deftly Defines WAR.

“The days are hot and the dead lie unburied. We cannot fetch them all in, if we did we should not know what to do with them. The shells will bury them. Many have their bellies swollen up like balloons. They hiss, belch, and make movements. The gases in them make noises.”

Erich Maria Remarque, from All Quiet on the Western Front

In my sophomore year of high school I read Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel of war, and it changed me.

All Quiet on the Western Front was a book that captivated my mind, laden in the grotesque horrors of violence and the unblinking, unflinching nature of modern warfare. Young and angry when I read it, the refracted nihilism that scorches Remarque’s words created slow burns of thought inside me, and I was so in love with it, I stole a copy from the school library one evening. It was late 2002, and 9/11 had already struck. The cogs and pistons that would turn the engine of the Iraq War were being built; my country was wounded, and vengeful. I still have that mass market paperback, its spine riddled with crags, its corners dogeared and torn. The many hours I spent with Remarque’s novel, began to shape questions I wouldn’t be able to put answers to for years. What war was or wasn’t. What violence meant or did not mean. What victory or shame lied in mass murder and death.

In Chris Hedges descriptive and moving work, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, I was hearkened back to that time; that time of upheaval and new thought, and the challenges of examination into the unmanageable, unimaginable aspects of murky human action. For me, the book is a vindication. My study and thinking has always led me to understand Violence and Power exist not in parallel to each other, but in polarity. The same deep-cut axis runs through them, but their motives and roles play in opposition to one another, with Violence as the perversion of Power. War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a book that validated and echoed these long held feelings and thoughts of mine, and Chris Hedges accurately and elegantly, with harrowing prose and lived experience, explains war by explaining the continental clashes of Violence and Power.

WAR_Hedges“We are humiliated in combat. The lofty words that inspire people to war—duty, honor, glory—swiftly become repugnant and hollow. They are replaced by the hard, specific images of war, by the prosaic names of villages and roads. The abstract rhetoric of patriotism is obliterated, exposed as the empty handmaiden of myth. Fear brings us all back down to earth.

Once in conflict, we are moved from the abstract to the real, from the mythic to the sensory. When this move takes place we have nothing to do with a world not at war. When we return home we view the society around us from the end of a very long tunnel. There they still believe. In combat such belief is shattered, replaced not with a better understanding, but with a disconcerting confusion and a taste of war’s potent and addictive narcotic. […]”

It should be understood that War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is not about combat, but is a novel about the mechanisms that drive war into being. Cultural and governmental mechanisms like propaganda and mythos, pedantry and jingoism, and the destruction and perversion of tangible and intangible heritage. Chris Hedges is a veteran war correspondent, having spent large portions of his life as an observer in warzones and combat scenarios; from the Croat-Bosniak War of the early 1990’s, to surviving imprisonment in Sudan, to escaping ambushes in Central America, Hedges has witnessed firsthand the brutality, and emptiness, that is war. Hedges openly speaks of such painful and disturbing memories, and through the keen pen of a journalist is able to bring clarity and compassion to horrid scenes often never seen by citizens back home. Bit by bit, Hedges picks apart war, eradicating the radiant myths and elaborately ornamented slogans, and so strips it raw to reveal it butt naked. What is left is a disturbing portrait of addiction and denialism, corruption and greed, and of course, violence.

Living in this time of an unprecedented refugee crisis, and the inexhaustible rise of quibbling dogmatism and hate, Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a balm of rationality, analysis, and humility. The book does more than provide a window for the reader to peer into violent conflict, but provides a mirror into our darker, deeper selves. Hedges, in his heart, is a psychologist, and through his words performs a sort of logotherapy on us; we are caught off-guard by his undeniable authenticity and intuitive mind. The bite of the statistical, and emotional truths presented through him leaves one stranded on a very small island, and we are forced into a reckoning with the cold, hard realities of war, and our own individual parts within it.

Hedges does acknowledge that sometimes war is unavoidable. With maturity, it is acknowledged that human folly and power grabs are inevitable and that diplomacy will sometimes fail; yet, through this acknowledgement Hedges takes us out of this often overused excuse, and brings us back down to earth. War in its foundations is sinister, unrepentant, and destructive. In what Hedges calls “a collapse of the moral universe”, war turns right and wrong upside down, and all things are liquidated to “the cause”. People, men and women and children, are transmogrified into objects. War diversifies nothing and coagulates everything, stuffing the veins and preventing blood flow to the heart and mind. In essence, war is a collective stroke. In what Hannah Arendt coined “nihilistic relativism”, all loathful deeds are canceled out by other loathful deeds, each horrible act justified by each other horrible act; by dispelling the existence of moral truth, the parties of war create a vacuum in which no light can get in. War sits in this void, and after it is over, this void does not evaporate but persists, and is more often buried, rather than confessed. This demolishment of truth perpetuates the myth of war, and therefore war becomes not a teacher, but an invalid, dumb and deaf. No lessons are learned, no honest accounts are passed down. The hollowness hangs in the graves.

In the first pages, Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et decorum est” is shared. Though at the front of the book, for this review, I believe the poem works best for closing. War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is required reading, not because it is heavily anti-war, but because of the unfiltered reflection of all ourselves that exists within its pages. The old Lie, is at last, swept away.

Owen I think would be proud.

If in smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro Patria mori.

Wilfred Owen Portrait
Portrait of Wilfred Owen, beloved WWI poet and soldier. Image Credit BBC – Thank You.

The featured image is a screen shot taken from the 1930 movie adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic war novel All Quiet on the Western Front directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy and Ben Alexander.

Looking At Stars With Alan Lightman

Along my youth, in the brief Wisconsin summers of my hometown, I use to creep from my bed and go sit on my family’s back porch roof and look at stars.

I could never sleep. The night was an electric zap that would shock me to life. I’d pray to the moon, who I sometimes would refer to as God, whisper my secrets in the indigo lush hours, and at moments would cry at the famous hush of greater things. This stillness and silence—the sound of divinity or mystery, was both a comfort, and disquieting, as the racket of my inner uncertainties and deepest hopes roared like a waterfall in my lit mind.

When young one can philosophize in ways that only the young can; with angst and an unbridled sense of certainty. There exists a mere two great paths of thinking: Knowing and Not Knowing. As children we rarely question whether we truly Know or Do Not Know. Complex processing, such as Might Know and Might Not Know, do not cross our paths. So writing and thought is pure freedom when we are juvenile; we do not parse our words. The universe is very reachable, and one reaches most eagerly.

Most of us will lose much of this ability as we age. We grow and our roots sink further down, and it becomes harder and harder to uproot us. We are not so easily surprised, not so easily scared, not so easily swayed, not so obsessive, not so pure. Complexity, both the grasping and performing of it, is something laboriously acquired. The ability to wonder and pick and choose shrinks inside the increasing days. We more and more so move into the arenas of Maybe, Perhaps Some, and For Now. But certain individuals have chosen professions that keep them in the Know and Do Not Know. Scientists and religious leaders often frequent this youthful way of being, remaining tucked inside wonder and concentrated thought.

In Alan Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine he states, “The most profound questions seem to have this fascinating aspect: Either they have no answer at all, or all possible answers seem impossible.” So Lightman’s questions are all our questions: Who are we; are we alone; what is truth; how should one seek truth. In these veins, all the blood flows back towards the heart. Lightman’s essays explore what combines and differentiates us, and in no less than poetic terms, waxes and wanes on humanity’s place in the cosmos and existence as a whole.

Searching_Stars_Lightman“Despite these exceptions, the Absolutes and the Relatives can be considered a large frame in which to view the dialogue between religion and science, or between spirituality and science. But I suggest that the issues go deeper, into the dualism and complexity of human existence. We are idealists and we are realists. We are dreamers and we are builders. We are experiencers and experimenters. We long for certainties, yet we ourselves are full of the ambiguities of the Mona Lisa and I Ching. We ourselves are a part of the yin-yang of the world.”

Lightman does what few writers can: He writes with the deft precision of both youth and age. Though a book that would attract more adult hands than young ones, make no mistake, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is a book for youth. Lightman is an excellent teacher. His explanations for complex systems and far away concepts are down to earth and visual. His vocabulary remains within the margins of rudimentary comprehension while simultaneously willing his readers to stretch beyond their capabilities and perceive things through a glass darkly. He uses metaphor to aid in understanding, and stops it there, not risking the fall into misinterpretation by cementing the metaphor as strictly non-literal. Lightman does what few modern day writers think to do: He does not want to confuse you. Lightman acts as a cartographer to thinking, drawing out the roads of thought: Know, Might Know, Do Not Know, Might Not Know, Perhaps Some, and For Now. He travels these roads himself throughout the pages, guided by science, religion, curiosity, and simple faith. He at times gets himself lost in his attempts to chart uncharted lands, spiraling into meta-cognitive Möbius bands leading himself and the reader in circles. But Alan Lightman hopes for what everyone else hopes for: A place among the stars. And this openness creates space for readers of all kinds. Lightman makes room, and even through sections of disagreement and dismay between writer and reader, one still feels one is in the company of a teacher who respects and understands them.

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Portrait of Alan Lightman. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Books about science often chase certain readers away. This sometimes happens before the first page of an informed book can ever be turned. Intellectual snobbery, or the mere anticipation of snobbery, is a deep wide canyon that has been carved over centuries of scientific jargon being lobbed like gunfire in the faces of those who chose differently or had limited choices to start. The fixed mindset model has flourished in the post-Human Genome Project, neurobiological age, where it seems everyday there’s a news article reporting on some obscure study claiming to have found the latest brainbox or success gene. So determinism haunts Alan Lightman as well, and he questions whether he has ever truly chosen anything or if he is but a cog in the machine. Yet, in reading Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, never once did I feel Alan Lightman was telling me, “You can’t get it.” A patient instructor, Lightman whether consciously or unconsciously, believes in the power of teaching; that the mind is plastic, that change is not only possible but unavoidable, and that the great mysteries of the universe can and might be known, and that you – person not knowing what to do with their weekday off – can participate in this grand search. Be you scientific or spiritual, be you pessimist or optimist or pragmatist, you too can ponder the fabric of space and time and the meaning and intricacies of existence. And you don’t even need a PhD in quantum physics.

I am older now than I was back in the days of gazing at celestials on my back porch roof in a small town in Wisconsin. I live in Seattle, Washington now, and the stars are faded and gulped by the light pollution and smog of my congested, wakeful city. But I still look up. I think differently now than I did back then, kinder in my thoughts and less selfish, my place in the cosmos having shrunk from a gilded throne to a seat in the nosebleeds, but I still wonder. Wonder about space, about gods, about time, about ecosystems and evolution, and my own body and its multitudes. And it is comforting, and strangely beautiful to know, that on some island shaped like a lute in Maine, Alan Lightman is doing the same thing.

Stars in Maine
Beautiful photo of the Southern Maine forest and the sky. Image Credit: USM/Southworth Planetarium – Thank you

Four out of five stars for Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine.

Little Writer With Big Kick: L. N. Holmes’s Otherworldly Collisions

Like many with and before me, one of my first compelling reads as a youth was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. In the beginning chapters, there is a most enthralling moment – illustrated by an ant and a piece of string – where Mrs. Who, Mrs Which, and Mrs Whatsit explain how a clever loophole in time and space allows them to travel the universe.

A Wrinkle in Time_ant
Illustration of ‘the wrinkle’ – Source: A Wrinkle in Time

We know it as “the tesseract”, or, “the fifth dimension”. In reality i.e. geometry, a tesseract is the four-dimensional analogue of the cube, consisting of 8 cells, 24 faces, 32 edges, and 16 vertices. It is, in short, a cubic prism. But at this explanation, the tesseract looses its mystique and magic. In the book we understand the tesseract only as this: The way to bridge the gap between worlds.

In reading L. N. Holmes’s too short but gripping chapbook Space, Collisions, I was hearkened back to this moment. The moment where somehow, incredibly, far flung worlds are brought together, and the canyon that once sat between them is closed.

Space Collisions“Across the water, I can see a mosque built from tan and green stones. Further along the shore, cruise ships and freighters have been plucked out of the water and deposited onto the sand, like beached whales. People dot the shoreline, mirroring us, waiting for us on the other side. […]

On our shore, one of the men with the guns shoots off a round toward the sky. I bolt inside my house. From the window, I see everyone scatter and disappear like crabs scuttling into their holes. I haven’t seen any crabs for days. The gunman stands alone on the beach, abandoned by friend and foe alike. Everything is afraid as we wait for the unknown.”

With publication by Ghost City Press, L. N. Holmes’s chapbook is a mere 14 pages, with only 9 pages of story material. It’s small. That being said, Space, Collisions is available for free download. And it is worth it. The book contains three stories: “When Continents Collide”, “Trace”, and “Spacefall”, and though all are good, it is really “When Continents Collide” that is the star of the show. In the story, a man living on the shores of North Carolina waits and watches the collision of the continents of North America and Africa. The tale is like origami, folding into shape; from the sands, he sees the country of Morocco steadily slouching forward from across the Atlantic, and the final moment before the tumultuous slamming of the land masses is so visually serene and moving, one almost forgets it’s a death. I found this story immensely emotive, and striking. There is not much explanation as to why this event is occurring, with the players in the tale themselves full of confusion and uncertainty; however, this is one of the great self-determinations of short story writing. The reader and writer know there is limited time, that things must proceed quickly, and this limitation allows a huge berth of creative freedom. The writer must get to the point, the message, and all other thoughts and burdens are caved into the purpose.

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Portrait of L. N. Holmes, winner of the Apparition Lit April Flash Fiction Contest. Photo provided by L. N. Holmes.

The other two pieces “Trace” and “Spacefall” take up little more than two pages. “Trace” is poetic and nebulous; “Spacefall” is equally poetic, but less nebulous, with a definite tale being told. They exist as a nightcap to the emotion and adventure. Both are finely written, and both leave a sense of more. Along that note, if anything is wrong with this chapbook it is simply that there’s not enough of it. L. N. Holmes has a talented pen and a great imagination, but this chapbook needs a little more meat on its bones.

It’s Four out of Five stars for Space, Collisions. L. N. Holmes is fresh off the boat in the writing world, but nonetheless is bending space and time. So, who knows, maybe by tomorrow she’ll be a best selling author.


Full Disclosure: I was contacted by L. N. Holmes and was asked to give an honest review. If you are a writer with a book and are seeking to get reviewed, click the Get Reviewed link, and maybe you’ll make the cut!


The featured image is a photo of the Andromedids meteor shower. In L. N. Holmes’s flash fiction “Spacefall” the Andromedids are present in two women’s sense of love and pining. Source/Photographer: from the International Meteor Organization, taken over East Point Lighthouse, NJ by Robert Lunsford – Thank You. 

“I Will Remember You”: Lessons on Suffering and Joy

I was thirteen when the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu first reached my ears.

“Nothing, no one, no situation is beyond redemption, is totally devoid of hope.”

This is not the exact quote I heard on a PBS program back in 2000, but a rendition of these words reached me, and it is a lesson Desmond Tutu has reiterated time and time again over his long life as a religious leader and advocate for peace. My adolescence was turbulent, and unhappy, and those words resonated inside me, like a bell being rung. I bought Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness that very weekend, and have been reading Desmond Tutu’s words ever since.

And so in 2017 The Book of Joy made it to my hands. A collaboration between His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, told through the genuine pen of Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy is much more than your typical self-help manual. It is a testament to Friendship, Perseverance, and perhaps most of all, to Hope.

Hope is the coalescence of our strengths and fears; it unifies all inner and outer complexities and molds them into a force for good. If we can hope, we can survive; if we can hope, we can still act; if we have hope, nothing’s lost, merely delayed. And though the book is titled The Book of Joy, I tend to think of it as ‘A Book of Hope’. It is a beacon of sure light in a dim, confusing time. The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, with knowledge and intuition, mind and heart, gracefully navigate through the labyrinthine landscape of the modern world, producing simple, practical truths. In the deft hands of these two practitioners, Buddhism and Catholicism merge happily, and we are taken on multiple journeys, exploring existence along many angles, all in the pursuit of experiencing our highest emotion: JOY.

The Book of Joy“I feel there is a big contradiction,” the Dalai Lama continued. “There are seven billion human beings and nobody wants to have problems or suffering, but there are many problems and much suffering, most of our own creation. Why?” He was speaking now directly to the Archbishop, who was nodding in agreement. “Something is lacking. As one of the seven billion human beings, I believe everyone has the responsibility to develop a happier world. We need, ultimately, to have a greater concern for others’ well-being. In other words, kindness or compassion, which is lacking now. We must pay more attention to our inner values. We must look inside.”

How do we look inside? The inception of The Book of Joy I believe comes from that question. Back in 2015, the Archbishop traveled to Dharamsala, India, to be with his dear friend the Dalai Lama on his eightieth birthday. Desmond Tutu, now 86 years of age, has been in turbulent health since a diagnosis of Prostate Cancer nearly two decades ago. Despite the warnings from his doctors, Desmond Tutu took the 20+ hour flight. His Holiness, and the Archbishop, both knew that it was possible their week together in Dharamsala might be their last, so it had to count. The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu have spent their lives in adamant purpose. Both from early life set out to carve a path for others, to create methods in which we may use to reflect on ourselves and others in ways that are emboldening to our better selves, pushing us towards a higher meaning. This book does not deviate from those paths, and in a way it is a joining of their journeys. Both religious leaders know their lives are closing, slowly, they feel it. The Book of Joy is a culmination of their large and daring existences on this planet, and the lessons they most want to impart to us before they go are inside the pages of this book.

JOY is nourished through eight roots, what in the book are called “The Eight Pillars of Joy”. These steps are punched out succinctly and quickly. They are:

Perspective

Humility

Humor

Acceptance

Forgiveness

Gratitude

Compassion

Generosity

Here, with this framework, one can begin to cultivate JOY. But it does feel a bit ‘cookbook’; it all makes it seem so easy. Is this really all it takes to be happy? To be joyful?

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Fabulous picture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (right) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (left). Image Credit: Science and Religion Today

Understanding the onslaught of skepticism coming, the two teachers are quick to admonish this ‘mix and bake’ mentality. From the words of Desmond Tutu: like any muscle, you’ve got to work it to make it stronger. From the Dalai Lama: like any skill, you’ve got to practice. Nothing will happen over night, and depending on external/internal circumstances, it might take longer then you’d like. And though very few of us are ever likely to reach the enlightened state of the Compassionate Powerhouses Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, we will, through time, begin to see results. Joy can come into our lives, it can be achieved, no matter who we are, no matter what we have done; Joy can be had, and the chief way to attain it, is by giving joy to others.

The premise of Ubuntu comes up multiple times in this reading. Ubuntu, a South African word meaning, “a person is a person through other persons”, sums up one of the overarching lessons of The Book of Joy, submitting a reality of life often neglected by the modern world: that we are interdependent. No one is an island, we all depend on each other, for food, for protection, for happiness. We need each other. The other lesson, which is of Buddhist teaching, is impermanence. Nothing lasts, everything moves on, all ends and all dies. This is how the world is.

And the world is not always pleasant. In fact it is often hard. Throughout The Book of Joy we are told stories of heartache, exhaustive struggle, awful pain. I found myself openly crying on many occasion, my chest clenched as I would have to place the book down, heat rushing to my face with tears. This would seem to be in contrast to the book. A book about joy should be full of the good times, no? As revealed, tragedy is often a necessary component to JOY. We cannot know joy without knowing sorrow, a lesson that feels as old as time. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu are no strangers to danger and heartache. They speak of their struggles openly, and their sincerity and acknowledgement of their pain nourishes their inner serenity rather than dispels it. There is a quietly spoken, resounding message in these pages: that living joyfully takes courage.

The end of this book was difficult for me. One of the greatest gifts this book brings us is the friendship between Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Their love for each other really, really shines. The affection reaches you, their connection is soulful, deep, lovely, full of fun and comfort. As someone who is lucky enough to have exceptionally close friendships, friendships I have held since the cradle and the first days of kindergarten, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama’s friendship was perhaps the most important part of this book for me, and it touched me in ways few books have. The ending is as most endings go: with a parting, uncertainty, and bittersweetness. Bittersweetness, which is by far my favorite emotion to experience, hits hard in the last pages. These two friends know that they must say goodbye, for perhaps the very last time, and their final words address the specter that everyone is thinking but none can bring themselves to say.

All things end, even great human beings. Even spiritual leaders have a number. In their final hours together, the Dalai Lama so elegantly phrases his deep and profound friendship with the Archbishop, that it is worth sharing.

“Then the Dalai Lama’s playful tone changed as he pointed at the Archbishop’s face warmly. ‘This picture, special picture.’ Then he paused for a long moment. ‘I think, at time of my death…’ The word death hung in the air like a prophecy. ‘… I will remember you.'”

DalaiLamaArchbishopTutuLVE

Five out of five stars for The Book of Joy.


The featured image of His Holiness and Desmond Tutu was taken at Dharamsala, India, during the Dalai Lama’s eightieth birthday celebration. Witness the irrepressible boogie of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Photographer/Image Credit: Tenzin Choejor – Thank you. 

EJ Koh Brings The Gentle Thunder – A Chapbook Review

What moves us is already inside us. When we feel that shifting and churning in ourA Lesser Love_EJ Koh bellies and chests, brought to life by words, we are awakened. In EJ Koh’s Pleiades Prize winning chapbook, A Lesser Love, Koh doesn’t cut corners. She goes for the heart – the center of life – and rumbles the foundations. In all of this, somehow Koh manages to soothe, to bring peace, to initiate both tranquility and uncertainty. A Lesser Love was a fabulous read.

“He pointed to himself and then to a patch of weeds / to show the difference between Man & Plant. / He gestured at the space between his index & thumb, / and said, there has to be a middle point, which would be Animal.

In order: the root & the fox & the infant. / He looked at me then and said, / I will not live to know / if there’s a room between Man & God.”

55 stirring poems broken down into three segments: “Heaven,” “War,” and “Love,” I must say, after reading poetry nearly everyday for two decades, EJ Koh surprised me. After several years of stacking the chapbooks, wondering if I’ve read it all, right on time comes Koh, with new insights, new verses, new emotive subjects. Koh tackles everything on her mind, swerving around binaries and carefully building an intricate work of questions, theologies, fears, and ideologies. She embraces the blurring of time, taking the past, present, future, and compounds them together to reveal the whole. She wields both Korean and American life with ease, yet never the sugarcoat-er, tells the truth. Her truth. And her truth has doubt with grace, power with humility; EJ Koh swept me away in an afternoon.

e-j-koh poet
Portrait of EJ Koh, Winner of the Pleiades Press Editors Prize. Image Credit: Word Mothers

As expressed in several pieces, in particular Testimony Over Tape Recorder”, “South Korean Ferry Accident”, and “Retrograde”, Koh is not one to shy away from difficult events and matters. EJ Koh knows what she is doing. Assured, but not pompous. She has a message, a reasoning for what she is saying. Though her writing could be described as ‘flowery’, never do her words seem irrational; there is a solid logical framework around many, if not most of her poems. Even if EJ Koh didn’t know where she was going when she started writing, she certainly got there. All is smooth, point by point, moment to moment, like links in a chain.

There are a few great confessional poems in A Lesser Love as well. “Blurb” stands out strongly in this arena. Throughout this chapbook, I felt for Koh. Not in anyway that could be construed as sympathetic – no. Koh avoids these routes. I felt for Koh in a way that was intimate, and reflective. So many times while turning the pages of A Lesser Love I was startled by lines that seemed as though they were me; parts of myself constantly leapt out and caught me off-guard. And this, this sensation of ‘off-guard’, is the aim of poetry. We read poems to be comforted, yes, but more so, we read poems to be enlightened.

Would I recommend this chapbook? A resounding “Yes” sounds off. EJ Koh has hit the ground running with her first chapbook. I very much look forward to reading her work for (hopefully) years to come.

EJ KOH
Another portrait of the talented EJ Koh. Image Credit: Sundress Publications – Thank you.

Five out of five stars for A Lesser Love. 


The featured image shows the famous Pleiades cluster of stars as seen through the eyes of WISE, or NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. EJ Koh won the Pleiades Press Editors Prize For Poetry for her chapbook: A Lesser Love. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA