Ghosts, Mediums, and Scientists: A Review of Spook by Mary Roach

Reading Spook was one of the most enjoyable pieces of research I’ve done. My fiction often involves ghosts and other forms of contact with the dead, as well as psychic phenomena. I’ve found numerous studies of mind-to-mind communication, remote viewing, precognition, etc., but this is the first time I’ve read about scientific attempts to study the afterlife. I read a couple of books on ghost-hunting and paranormal investigation; however, the author of those books is more a professional skeptic than a solid scientist.

Mary Roach explores current science on reincarnation, soul weighing, out of body experiences, and also the history of mediums and other interactions with the spirits of the dead. She’s one of the funniest writers I’ve come across. She manages to find the strangest items in the historical record—her chapter on ectoplasm, for example. The fact that it was regarded so seriously at the time it was a popular mediumistic trick is as fascinating as the methods used to produce it.

Roach participates in a training for becoming a medium; takes part in a study on creating the perception of a ghost through infrasound; goes along on reincarnation research trips in India; visits a small North Carolina town where a ghost helped a man win a lawsuit; and more. Her inquiries are serious, but she never takes herself seriously. Much of the humor comes from her ability to laugh at herself, and to notice the workings of her own mind.

Whether or not you believe in ghosts or life after death, you can enjoy and learn from the author’s journey.

Quick and Quirky Free Fiction

I’ve only read one of these, but I plan to download a few I’ve never heard of and have some reading adventures.

The one I’ve read, Virginia King’s Laying Ghosts, is a page-turning spooky mystery that introduces Selkie Moon, the protagonist of her series. If you like my books, I think you’ll enjoy hers. They’re also unconventional mysteries with a touch of the mystical.

Ready to read something quick and quirky? Click here.

Have fun!

Flawed

At first, she didn’t show them to anyone. But she admitted to fellow artists and creative people who would understand, “I’ve been making devils.” An art therapist, she trusted her muse and followed it. The devils finally came out on gallery walls months later, small blue or red ceramic masks with a wild variety of expressions. I especially like a red one with curved horns and a crooked grin full of sharp teeth that remind me of red chiles. It’s so gleefully wicked. The little devils sell, and I can see why. We all have our shadow side, our mischievous side, our tired-of-being-perfect side. Even the weather gets devilish. I’m not talking about the New Mexico’s summer heat and monsoons—we love the storms. I’m talking about the wind. It’s already started, a couple of weeks too early, and it’s going to be blowing for months. To live with it, you learn to wear goggle-type sunglasses, even on a cloudy day, to keep the grit out of your eyes, and the constant blowing sound either gets as normal as an air conditioner in the summer—or drives you crazy. E. Christina Herr, a gifted New Mexico songwriter, sums it up in her song “Devil Wind.”  If you love New Mexico, though, you take it as it is, wind and all. It’s not perfect. Tourist images of our state don’t show visitors chasing their fly-away hats or sneezing with a face full of dust and juniper pollen, but the cowboy’s bandana was, among many other things, a dust mask. Imperfection has its charms.

In my work in progress, I’m developing an antagonist character who’s obsessed with being smarter and more capable than anyone else, which of course, makes her anything but perfect; and the antagonist character in Shaman’s Blues likes to give bizarre advice, with the assurance, “ I’m always right.” My favorite fortune cookie message: The greatest of all faults is to be conscious of none.”

I’ve been pleasantly surprised how many readers love Jamie Ellerbee, the flawed and troubled character I first introduced in Shaman’s Blues four years ago. When I wrote the book, I was experimenting with turning as many conventions of romance around as I could, while still writing about love. He’s a mess, though he struggles not to be. Not exactly a conventional romantic lead. The book’s original title as a work on progress was Samskaras, the Sanskrit word for the residue of our actions and emotions that creates new cycles of karma. One of my spiritual teachers said a good English translation for it was “Some scars.” Jamie has a lot, and he’s not skilled at hiding them. But then, hiding doesn’t bring people closer to each other. Kindness does.

Happy Valentine’s day.

*****

 

Shaman’s Blues is on sale for 99 cents .

New Release: Death Omen

Death Omen

The sixth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery

Trouble at a psychic healing seminar proves knowing real from fraud can mean the difference between life and death.

At an energy healing workshop in Santa Fe, Mae Martin encounters Sierra, a woman who claims she can see past lives—and warns Mae’s boyfriend he could die if he doesn’t face his karma and join her self-healing circle. Concerned for the man she loves, Mae digs into the mystery behind Sierra’s strange beliefs. Will she uncover proof of a miracle worker, or of a trickster who destroys her followers’ lives?

The Mae Martin Series

No murder, just mystery. Every life hides a secret, and love is the deepest mystery of all.

*****

To welcome new readers to the Mae Martin series, the first book, The Calling, is free through the end of November, and so is the series prequel, The Outlaw Women.  My horror short story Bearing, based on Apache myths,  is also free this month.

 

Disappearing Words

When I was a teenager, I read a newspaper column about a myth related to the autumn equinox. After all these years, I can still see the kitchen table where I was sitting, and see which side of which page the column was on. I remember that it was about a Germanic pagan goddess of second chances who opened a path that was only visible on the night of the autumn equinox, a path seekers could take to redo a mistake or regret in their pasts. I made an effort remember her name and wrote it down, although I was confused as to whether it was Llobrodga or Llobrogda. Having had a short story published in a teen magazine, I already thought of myself as a writer, and I knew I would have to create a story about this myth someday. An image of the goddess’s twilight path of golden leaves stayed with me. When I finally wrote the story decades later, she didn’t exist. I looked up everything I could think of about goddesses of second chances and pagan mythology and the autumn equinox and found nothing. I can’t explain this. But I hope you enjoyed A Night in Betsy Gap.

The title came about a few years ago during a training session for professors who were teaching a first-year seminar class. One of the presenters was named Betsy, and she didn’t use all her allotted time, so someone referred to the open space in our schedule as the Betsy Gap. I said it sounded like some place out near Naked Creek (a real town in that part of Virginia) and we all started joking about the way things are done in Betsy Gap. The name stuck with me as perfect for an obscure place where a traveler could get stuck. Then I saw a prompt for a short fiction contest in which the theme was crossing a line, and it had to include the word six-pack and another which I’ve forgotten. The idea for a short story about Edie had been brewing in the back of my mind for a while, since she’ll never be onstage in the Mae Martin series. Her only role is in Hubert’s past. I was surprised when Will Baca showed up in the story, but this other-world experience prepares him for the big changes he goes through about ten months later in Ghost Sickness. (Not that he remembers.)

If you read the short story before it disappeared,  you know something Mae and Hubert don’t know, since Edie cut off contact with everyone she knew in Cauwetska, intentionally making herself hard to find. Her fate won’t show up in the series for a while. But in the September before the events in Ghost Sickness, she spent a night in Betsy Gap.

*****

A Night in Betsy Gap will return eventually, either in a short story collection or here next fall, after dark on the equinox.

Review: Supernormal by Dean Radin

Some people approach the topic of psychic phenomena from a standpoint of immoveable conviction. There are those who believe psi events happen, and no science or statistics would convince them otherwise. On the other side are those who believe such things do not happen, and no evidence from even the best quality research could convince them otherwise. It’s like politics. Minds seldom change. But that doesn’t mean they never do. Science progresses through study and replication and further studies, and the word “proof” is seldom used outside of mathematics. This book should interest readers who would like to assess the evidence with an open mind.

Having said that, I think it may be useful to preface this review with the author’s credentials, taken from http://www.deanradin.com/NewWeb/bio.html:

“Dean Radin, PhD, is Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS). Before joining the research staff at IONS in 2001, he held appointments at AT&T Bell Labs, Princeton University, University of Edinburgh, and SRI International. He is author or coauthor of over 250 technical and popular articles, three dozen book chapters, and three books including the award-winning The Conscious Universe (HarperOne, 1997), Entangled Minds (Simon & Schuster, 2006), and the 2014 Silver Nautilus Book Award winner, Supernormal (Random House).”

The author works hard to make statistical analysis and research methodology accessible to a reader without a background in those fields. Having spent the last ten years of my academic career helping first-year college students learn to comprehend the language of scholarly journals, I have mixed feelings about this “translation.” Would it have been better to teach his readers the terminology, or was paraphrasing it the right choice? I don’t know. Sometimes he tries too hard to funny, like a professor who attempts to lighten up his lectures with strained jokes, but that’s a minor issue. Overall, I found the book well-structured and thoroughly researched. (384 sources are listed in the back, exceeding the number of pages in the book.)

Supernormal is primarily about how scientists study psychic abilities, not about spectacular events, so anyone wanting to read amazing, colorful anecdotes won’t find them here. It’s not essentially about yoga, either, though it will have more meaning to a reader who has studied yoga philosophy, and Radin has some good quotations on that subject. In yoga, the siddhis are not, as I understand it, as important as simply achieving awareness and quieting the cravings and cluttered noise of the mind. The siddhis can happen, but they are not the purpose or goal of practicing yoga. Nonetheless, in Radin’s research and in studies by other scientists, subjects with a regular meditation practice performed significantly better in experiments testing clairvoyance, precognition, and other psi abilities, so there appears to be a correlation between meditation and being psychic. An impressive number of well-designed studies support this. (My own experience fits the pattern. When I began yoga and meditation at age twelve, I began to have precognitive intuitions and dreams.)

I’d recommend this book to a reader who wants to get “down in the weeds” in the labs where these studies are done and examine the designs, the methods, and the analyses without going to the original scholarly journals. It’s a solid summary of what’s been found so far. The questions raised about the nature of reality and the nature of mind and consciousness are intriguing. How did the future find a crack into my dream and appear in perfect detail? Some of Radin’s studies address the emotional aspect of psychic material. He set up one study using long-term couples with one partner who was ill as subjects, and included the emotional bond and loving intentions as part of the design. Why does this matter? As with any other sense, we may be constantly filtering out irrelevant information and focusing on what is salient. It’s only when we dream that a friend is about to die or hear a voice warning us of something dire for a loved one that we let the psi phenomena take central focus. Otherwise, our psychic sense’s input can be ignored as background noise, the way unimportant input from our hearing often is. Perhaps if we learned to tune into this sense and trusted that it was real, we might act with more awareness and wisdom.

Much of what happens in psi is small—a sense that something is about to happen, or that one is being stared at—so we pay no attention. Radin studies all of these phenomena in minute detail, even documenting patterns of brain activity. I could go on, but that would be a spoiler, if there can be such a thing in science.

Radin almost pulls the rug out from under himself when he drifts off into a page or two of speculation on unrelated phenomena such as UFOs and crop circles that the skeptics and debunkers (some who rail against his studies) have actually already done good job explaining. Even though he doesn’t say he believes in these things, and uses them as a take-off point for ruminations about reality, they have no natural connection with psi ability and probably don’t belong in in a book on that subject. (I suspect that editors sometimes don’t tell famous authors—whether they are novelists or established scientists—to “kill your darlings.”) Nonetheless, as a yoga teacher, a long-time consumer of the scholarly literature on psi research, an individual who has occasional psychic experiences, and of course as the author of a mystery series featuring a psychic, I found this to be a worthwhile read.

 

“Book Prison”

Greetings from my cell. No worries, I like it here, and I do get out for exercise, social contact, and to teach yoga. The view of Turtleback Mountain from my back window is beautiful, and the cell is quiet. It’s my apartment. “Book prison” is a phrase I’ve heard other authors use, but I’ve never experienced it this way before. I have to get final revisions done before the next Mae Martin mystery goes to my editor in mid-September, and I keep finding more things I want to fix. Though I’ve done all the major revisions based on my critique partners’ input, I’m discovering things they missed, especially those pesky over-used words. I’m also making a few cuts and obsessing on getting the chapter-ending and chapter-opening lines just right. After that, I’ll need to read the whole thing again to make sure I didn’t change anything that affects the clarity and continuity of the plot. I have sketches of many unfinished blog posts in my “yet-to-post” file, but no time to polish them until I let myself out. Au revoir. My inner warden is telling me to get back to work.

Signing Books at Book and Table, Valdosta GA

Should any readers happen to be in this area, I would love to meet you in person. I’ll be signing books and doing a short reading at Book  and Table, 120 North Patterson St. in Valdosta, GA on Friday the 14th of April at 7:00 and at noon Sat. the 15th. The bookstore/restaurant is run by one of my favorite authors, J. Michael Orenduff, author of the Pot Thief Mysteries. If you’re an East Coast fan of New Mexico mysteries, come meet both of us.

Falling Awake: Review of Full Catastrophe Living

The net impact of this book, no matter how many encounters I have with it, is awakening. I’m not claiming it makes me “enlightened,” only that it accomplishes its purpose of teaching—or reminding—the reader how to be more fully alive and aware, moment by moment.

Kabat-Zinn is a gentle teacher, a master of the non-judgmental suggestion and the empathic anecdote. His writing style is accessible to his entire target audience—everyone who experiences stress. It’s a friendly, natural style, with some idiosyncrasies. He’s fond of exclamation points and often says things like “our body” and “our mind,” addressing his readers as a group and as individuals at the same time, while including himself in that group. Grammatically, this plural-singular is strange, but that’s his voice, his way of bringing readers into a conversation with him. Though the book is long, it’s low-stress. The themes are expanded gradually, each chapter building on the next, with steady reminders about the practices he’s teaching. I recommend reading it slowly, a little at a time, and letting it soak in. This turns the process of reading into a kind of meditation.

This was my first exploration of the revised edition. It grew by around 200 pages from the original. The updates were needed for two reasons. One is that the author and many other scholars in health psychology and the study of emotions and stress have accumulated decades of well-designed research on the effects of mindfulness. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is no longer an innovation at one Massachusetts hospital but an established, thoroughly studied program taught all over the world. The results of studies are integrated into the rest of the text. At first I wondered why he didn’t make those a separate chapter, a massive appendix, but a lot of readers might skip or skim this information if it was presented that way. When it flows as part of the story of coping with various stressors, it gets read, and adds substance and science where it’s needed. The other reason the book needed an update was the change in the nature of stress and distraction since its first publication. When it first came out, there was no such thing as texting while driving or feeling the need to sleep with a cell phone turned on and lurking under one’s pillow, no such thing as constantly sharing on social media. The stress-creating tendency he described in the first edition—to be in touch with everything except ourselves—has only grown over the past thirty years.

The chapters on coping with physical pain and emotional pain are especially profound. At one point in my progress through this book, I ended up reading it in the emergency room in the middle of the night. It helped me cope mindfully with a bizarre, ambiguous symptom and the decision to get it checked out, to sit with the not-knowing while I waited to be seen, to accept that I might have something serious that could require eye surgery, and to accept that if I didn’t need it, this was how I’d chosen to respond. I was even able to get a couple of hours’ sleep before seeing a specialist in the morning. (In case you wonder, no surgery was needed. I can now cope mindfully with a mere risk factor—and my insurance company.)

This recent experience with sleep deprivation made me relate strongly to the chapter on sleep stress. This chapter doesn’t seem to have been updated with research the way the others have. I agree with Kabat-Zinn that getting upset about being unable to sleep only compounds the problem. Making peace with the necessity of being awake reduces the suffering. It does not, however, reduce the need for sleep. Adapting to the stress of being tired is not the same thing as being able to maintain normal reflexes, attention or memory. I’ve found shortcomings with this chapter, but that doesn’t invalidate the whole book. In fact, the chapter stands out because the rest of it is so soundly supported.

I have one more critique: The material on the benefits of yoga is valuable but the drawings don’t provide good instruction. The little man in the pictures uses his back incorrectly in several forward bending poses, and uses no props. Using a strap to reach one’s foot in many poses makes a big difference in both benefit and safety. The selection of poses isn’t as balanced as it could be and there is one that I think should have been eliminated, a curled-up inversion that could stress the back and neck. Kabat-Zinn does mention approaching it with caution, but there are safer ways to relax and put your feet up in yoga, such as lying on the floor and putting your legs up the wall. My suggestion would be to read the chapter but to study yoga with a qualified teacher who pays attention to each student and who understands anatomy and injury prevention. Don’t use the pictures as instruction.

There’s an option with this book to buy CDs or download guided meditations. I’ve never done that, having studied yoga and meditation with live teachers and developed a daily practice, but as one of my yoga students was saying after class the other evening, it reduces her stress to have someone else guide her. There are beautifully written instructions for meditation in this book, and some wonderful short experiments a reader can do to begin exploring the practice. I think other readers could do as I’ve done and not buy the CDs. It should work well either way. With or without guidance, it’s challenging to commit to daily practice at first. The book suggests forty minutes. (I prefer not timing it, just doing it.) Daily practice is one of the foundations of the stress reduction program in this book, whether one does the body scan (similar to Yoga Nidra), sitting meditation, walking mediation, or yoga, or alternates among these. Daily, one commits to taking time to be present in oneself. It is, as the author once said, both the simplest and the hardest thing you’ll ever do. And it can, through awakening, change your life.