I Hear Your Voice, by Young-Ha Kim

Jae has a poor start in life in Young-Ha Kim’s 2012 I Hear Your Voice.  He was born in a Seoul bus station toilet to a teenage mother, saved by a crowd from what may have been an act of infanticide, then scooped up in the confusion by a woman who runs a snack shop nearby and brought up by her.  He becomes friends with Donggyu, a boy with elective mutism (it is referred to as aphonia in the book but that would involve a physical impairment, and Dongyu eventually starts talking when he wants to), and acts as his voice.

Some years later, Jae’s adoptive mother succumbs to drink and drugs addictions and abandons him.  After a period living by himself in the old neighbourhood which is being torn down for expensive developments, Jae is captured by social services and ends up in an orphanage.  On the streets at 15, he becomes a tramp, eating what he can scavenge and learning randomly from books he finds in recycling bins.  His education may be patchy, but he feels a sense of purpose, however grim and marginal his life is and how odd he is perceived to be by others.

Jae comes to believe he has paranormal abilities linking him intimately to the world around him, knowing what people, animals, even inanimate objects, are thinking and feeling.  In this he is either extremely gifted or utterly deluded (during Donggyu’s mute phase, when Jae speaks for him, Donggyu realises that Jae does not always divine his wishes accurately).  He feels the suffering around him and wants to improve the world; while at the orphanage he releases a large number of dogs from a burning farm where they are being kept for meat, one of many implied criticisms of South Korean culture in the novel.

He and Donggyu, now speaking, meet again, just as Jae’s charisma is beginning to attract a following of disenfranchised youths.  Donggyu, a student, has left home after his father’s remarriage made him feel an outsider in his step-family.  Jae has also met Mokran, daughter of a wealthy father, who is attracted to him.  Donggyu and Mokran become acolytes, with an uneasy relationship between themselves and a shifting relationship to Jae as the numbers of the marginalised gathering around him increase.  Eventually Jae finds himself the leader of a biker gang, a concern for the authorities when he becomes the focus of mass illegal rallies attracting the exploited young in society and threatening public order.

At this point the focus shifts to Seungtae, a police officer who likes biking and has become an expert on the gangs, building a relationship of sorts with them.  He was abused as a teenager and is conflicted about his sexuality, which he hides with macho leathers.  He realises Jae is dangerous and needs to be arrested, while having some sympathy for the circumstances that cause young people to fall on the wrong side of the law.  During the bikers’ final Liberation Day rally (the name’s irony is obvious), as the police struggle to regain control of the streets and resort to stingers to stop the riders on a bridge, Jae crashes and he seems to ascend into the sky – or does he merely fall into the river?  His body is never found, and his legend grows among the bikers.  Yet the rally itself is soon forgotten more widely.  Even a miracle has to compete with everyday news.

The religious undertones, culminating in this possible ascendance, are not easy to miss.  Jae becomes a messiah figure, the bikers a congregation of sorts, and unusual bone structures in his shoulders suggest the beginnings of wings.  Donggyu, the flawed disciple, eventually becomes a Judas figure, betraying Jae at a key moment.  Jae is an earthy kind of cult leader, though, with a healthy appetite for sex, and willing female followers ready to satisfy it.  There is no otherworldly spiritual dimension to him, nor is he willing to turn the other cheek in the face of police repression.

The final section of the book involves a further shift to a meta-level in which an authorial stand-in discusses the book we are reading.  He recounts his search for information about Jae as he interviews those with whom Jae had been involved, as if to blur the line between fiction and reportage.  Noting the struggle he had organising the material, he acknowledges having had to whittle the strands to a manageable length.  We cannot trust what we are told simply because we are led to believe it is an expression of the novel’s author, but it has the ring of plausibility given the narrative’s uneven structure.

Through Jae’s story the novel shines a light on the country’s failings: its greed, empty consumerism, selfishness, callousness towards minors and animals, and a lack of consideration for those living on borderline-starvation wages.  The middle class are unaware of the deprivation, and wouldn’t care, as long as their lives run smoothly and comfortably, while kids drop out of school with no prospects, become homeless, turn to casual sex with each other and the pimping of the girls to older punters, and engage in anti-social behaviour which the police are expected to contain.  In a fairer society, Kim implies, young people would be able to channel their energies into worthwhile pursuits, but nobody is listening to their voices – apart from him, perhaps.  Outwardly, South Korea seems successful, stable and confident, but Kim probes its underbelly and finds a country bearing the scars of its troubled history.

1917: Russia’s Red Year, by John Newsinger and Tim Sanders

The story of the Revolution, as it unfolded in Petrograd, is told through the eyes of two fictional characters, Natalia, a factory worker, and Peter, a soldier.  Their revolutionary fervour shines as they throw themselves heart and soul into the struggle, symbolising the heroic efforts made by the Russian masses in feeling their way from autocracy to a one-party state.  The role of women is foregrounded, as they form a significant portion of the workers’ vanguard.

We see the unjust Tsarist regime, completely out of touch with the popular mood, swept away in the first revolution, and the Provisional Government increasingly isolated as it attempts to pursue the war in the face of an increasingly defiant (and hungry) population.  The authors stress the war was a capitalist conflict in which the combatants had far more in common with the workers and soldiers in hostile countries than they did the rulers of their own.

There are side-trips to England, the British government exhibiting increasing alarm at what is happening, and fears at the Palace that revolutionary fervour will spread beyond Russia, with King George suffering a similar fate to cousin Nicky’s.  Despite which, the King can still moan that the introduction of the crowd-pleasing OBE entails a loss of his royal dignity.

The narrative culminates on a high in October with the storming of the Winter Palace, the fall of Kerensky’s government, and the seizure of control by the Bolsheviks.  Naturally, Newsinger and Sanders show the skill of the communist leadership and the Petrograd Soviet in outflanking Kerensky’s administration, capitalising on the people’s anti-war sentiment.  However, while we see Lenin and Trotsky formulating strategy (Stalin unsurprisingly is nowhere to be seen), the emphasis is firmly on mass action and the way the workers and soldiers attempted to work out their own destiny.

The cartoon format, with its romanticised depiction of the revolutionaries and caricatured aristocratic and bourgeois characters, does not allow for deep analysis, and with the limitation on the amount of text there is little room to provide context.  The focus on the key actions in Petrograd is understandable in such a limited compass, but does not give a sense of what was happening elsewhere in the country.  The illustrations are attractively coloured, though the compositions, perhaps intending to convey the chaos, look cluttered and hastily executed.

It is difficult to work out precisely who this book is aimed at: anyone already interested enough in the events of the Russian Revolution to pick it up will probably not find much new.  It is, though, an enjoyable if superficial look at a pivotal moment in history, and the title does indicate that not only was the Revolution a victory for the communists, but 1917 was a bloody year in Russia, as it was elsewhere in Europe.

Call Mr. Fortune, by H C Bailey

Reginald Fortune, M.A., M.B., B.Ch., F.R.C.S., is a doctor in his mid-30s, and when his parents go on a month’s holiday he is left in charge of his father’s practice in the leafy suburbs to the west of London.  His father complains he has no application, though in this it transpires he is wrong because Reggie does, but his enthusiasm lies more in the detection of crime than in medicine.  His amiably bland appearance, fuelled by a fondness for muffins, belies a sharp intelligence merely needing a suitable object on which to exercise.

His career as a detective begins when he learns that an archduke living in England has been found unconscious on the public highway, and he has been summoned to the bedside in his father’s absence.  On the way Reggie and his driver find a body by the road, exhibiting an insouciant disregard for the integrity of the crime scene by popping the corpse in the car.  The plot thickens when Reggie discovers a steel hatpin lodged in the archduke, the result of a further attempt on his life.  He becomes ever more deeply involved in unravelling the murky Mitteleuropean business.

This is the first of six short stories in Call Mr. Fortune (1920) during the course of which Reggie moves from being a doctor who happens to be involved in solving a crime to an indispensable arm of the CID, a freelance consultant valued as highly by the professionals for his formidable intuition and knowledge of human nature as for his forensic skills in the dissecting room (they don’t actually seem to possess a police surgeon).  However, he is nobody’s poodle, displaying an independence of action which often exasperates his generally admiring colleagues Lomas and Bell at the Yard, and occasionally takes him across the line of legality (switching a poisoned cup of tea with the poisoner, possibly pitching a murderer out of a window during a struggle).

Not all of the stories are successful.  ‘The Hottentot Venus’ is the convoluted and unlikely tale of the Prince of Ragusa kidnapping his daughter (who had never met him) on his luxury yacht by hiring an actress to pretend to be a fellow student in order to lure the girl away from her boarding school.  Reggie is able to get on board and bamboozle the prince into returning to England on a flimsy pretext.  ‘The Business Minister’ features a case of pathological possessiveness of a sister by her brother that would be thoroughly unpleasant if it had any plausibility.

This is a world in which there is no hint Britain has just emerged from a devastating war; in fact, the archduke in the first story is the heir apparent to the Emperor of Bohemia, suggesting either that Bailey produced the stories before 1914, or chose to pretend the conflict had not happened.  One sign of the times they were written in is the occasional racism, particularly repeated reference to ‘the little Jew’ in one story, shorthand for a bundle of assumed characteristics.

Call Mr. Fortune is a mixed bag, mostly enjoyable yarns but with thin characters often verging on caricature, unenterprising policemen who allow Reggie to shine, and some creaky plotting saved by pacy dialogue and a witty style.  Reggie often relies on intuition rather than rigorous deduction, leaving the reader hoping for cunningly-laid clues to fall into place retrospectively feeling short-changed.  While Bailey was popular in his day, there is a good reason for his relative obscurity now.

The Transformative Power of Near-Death Experiences, by Penny Sartori and Kelly Walsh

Penny Sartori is a well-known authority on near-death experiences, with a PhD in the subject.  Kelly Walsh, who died in February 2021, had an NDE following a suicide attempt in 2009 and found it life-changing, leading her to start the Positivity Power Movement.  She was the driver behind this 2017 collaboration with Sartori, The Transformative Power of Near-Death Experiences: How the Messages of NDEs Positively Impact the World.

The heart of the book is a series of NDE accounts – the first Walsh’s own – with the emphasis on showing how they affected the lives of those who had them, and each concluding with a brief commentary by Sartori.  The volume is topped and tailed by the unwieldy additions of preface, foreword, prologue, introduction, postscript, conclusion, epilogue and afterword, which are unnecessarily protracted: the first-hand reports are capable of standing on their own.

Common elements of the NDE drawn out here include a feeling of peace, with pain and worry left behind, and loss of the fear of death, seeing it as merely a transition rather than a termination.  Experiencers frequently develop an awareness of connectivity, linking everybody to each other, to the environment, and ultimately to the universe, and gain a sense of purpose they did not have before (Walsh being an obvious case in point).  The NDE may contain a life review, but the resulting self-reflection continues afterwards, often involving significant life changes, so an NDE can be seen as a process rather than a single event.

The book treats those who have NDEs as pathfinders, because ultimately we do not need to have had one in order to learn their lessons on how to live a good life and how to treat others, if we listen to what those who have had them tell us.  There is much talk of God, which those who have had an NDE may feel is proved by what they underwent and can be used to validate religious beliefs.  However, the invocation of God is a non sequitur, as neither the NDE nor the afterlife necessitates the existence of a deity, and the experience can be seen in secular terms, whatever its cause.

As the title indicates, the book’s emphasis is on the spiritually transformative aspect, rather than finding evidence for any kind of objective correlate.  The compilers’ intent is firmly inspirational, and anyone hoping for analysis and discussion of possible physiological mechanisms will be disappointed.  Some of the accounts are extremely detailed, and one has to wonder how much they may have been elaborated in their reconstruction after recovery.  The book is a useful compendium of first-hand narratives, but anyone wishing to delve more deeply into the phenomenon will need to look further afield in the extensive literature devoted to the subject.

How to Stop Time, by Matt Haig

Tom Hazard is not what he seems.  Though he looks it, he isn’t really in his early 40s because he was born in 1581, yet is less than halfway through his expected lifespan.  He has a rare physical condition, anageria, which kicks in in the mid-teens and it makes him age slowly, roughly a fifteenth of the normal rate.  A Huguenot who fled France as a child after the death of his father, his mother was drowned on a ducking stool in Suffolk because he did not appear to age and the witchfinder was convinced there was some dark art involved.  Moving to London he found rumours and whispers dogged him.  His true love died in the seventeenth century, and he has drifted ever since, searching for his lost daughter Marion, who has the same affliction.  The centuries have not been kind to Tom.

Matt Haig’s 2017 novel weaves its narrative from Tom’s early days in France through to the present, darting backwards and forwards as it shows him at different periods and with a variety of identities.  He has had a busy life, meeting Shakespeare and others of the late Elizabethan acting fraternity, plus Captain Cook, the Polynesian islander Omai, Samuel Johnson, Josephine Baker, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald briefly while in Paris as a pianist (a talented musician, he has a portable skill).  Now he is back in London, choosing to work as a history teacher in an East End comprehensive, one of those schools where a teacher only seems to have one class and randomly-compiled lesson plans.

Here he finds himself in a situation he has not had to confront in centuries: he meets someone with whom he feels a connection, Camille, a French teacher.   But Tom has a problem.  He is a member of the Albatross Society, an organisation which looks out for those who are in his situation.  Unfortunately, it also controls them, and will kill any ‘mayfly’, as those who age normally are called, who stumbles on the secret.  Hendrich, the self-appointed head of the Society, nearly a thousand years old, is becoming increasingly paranoid, convinced there are institutions intent on capturing albas to study their secrets, and he is ruthless and manipulative.  He controls Tom by constantly promising to use the Society’s resources to find Marion while sending him on assignments, recruiting albas to the Society and eliminating anyone who is a threat to its existence.

A key rule is that albas must change identities and locate to a new location every eight years, the length of time before the lack of aging becomes obvious.  They definitely should not fall in love.  Camille may not be safe if Tom tells her his secret; he had told a doctor back in the 1890s who had been murdered because of it.  Even without that danger, how normal can life be with a mayfly?  Omoi, another alba, fell in love, and while he is still in his prime his wife is long gone and his daughter is a decrepit old lady.  All an alba holds dear will vanish into memory, so longevity does not seem such a blessing.  While the answer to whether Tom and Camille can be happy together is never really in doubt, it is clear he knows better than most that the course of true love never did run smooth.

The jacket declares the novel to be a Sunday Times bestseller, a surprise as the prose style is flat and lacking atmosphere.  Shakespearian London, a significant element of the novel, fails to come alive, and there is no real sense that Tom’s character develops over the centuries.  The resolution to his difficulty with Hendrich is convenient, but preposterous, suggesting Haig was unsure how to wrap up the pilot.  Remove the bad language and How to Stop Time could easily be categorised as a young adult novel.  Its obvious lesson is that while we may yearn for immortality, the result would likely be ennui, a deadening of the emotions, and a rather dull personality.   The problem of how to manage an extremely long life in a hostile environment which holds no further surprises is one familiar to readers of vampire literature.  At least Tom doesn’t change sex, like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, though that might have made for a more interesting read in this trans age.

Demons in Disguise, by Steve Wohlberg

If you go to a medium and make contact with someone on the other side, you aren’t talking to your deceased relatives but actually to demons, says Steve Wohlberg, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, in his 2007 Demons in Disguise: The Dangers of Talking to the Dead.  Satan’s minions are out to trick you to snare your soul, so while the communication you receive may seem authentic, the dead are being impersonated.  Be warned, for you may be entertaining demons unawares.

It may seem like Uncle Bill coming through, possessing all the attributes you recognise from when he was alive, but as Wohlberg says, demons are definitely smart, just not honest.  This was always the case, but the situation is getting worse thanks to the proliferation of media devoted to assuring us we can speak to the deceased, celebrity mediums ready to pass messages on in front of big audiences, and all the methods available to the seeker (the Ouija board has long had a reputation as a device allowing bad actors to manifest, but as far as Wohlberg is concerned all varieties of necromancy should be avoided).

An increase in the degree to which the paranormal has become popular is to be expected, because the Bible states there will be a significant burst of demonic activity immediately prior to the Apocalypse breaking out, and this is happening.  We are being fooled by those dark forces which are so convincing in persuading us they are who we think they are.  Surprisingly, there are not even instances of mediumship in the Bible.  Saul asking the Witch of Endor to call up the spirit of Samuel? They got a demon pretending to be Samuel, and it did not end well for Saul.

Wohlberg is a biblical literalist, convinced the battle of Armageddon is going to unfold soon.  He is very keen on Revelation and the ‘last days’, after which ‘the dead in Christ’ will rise.  But have no fear, when Jesus returns in glory all those who believe will be saved.  There is a lot here that seems off the point as Wohlberg’s enthusiasm for Biblical exegesis distracts him from the key argument that it is impossible to speak to the dead because they are not in the Spiritualist Summerland nor ascended to Heaven, rather, until they rise up at the Second Coming, they lie mute, without consciousness.

Demons in Disguise reveals the repulsive underbelly a literal reading of the Bible, plus some logic-chopping and a lot of assumptions, throws up, especially undue reliance on the Old Testament, not exactly a liberal set of guidelines for living.  So Wohlberg assures us both of God’s infinite love yet the fiery fate that awaits those who do not heed His word.  Wohlberg rather likes the passage in Leviticus about stoning mediums to death, even if they have been duped by the demons.  Reading Wohlberg’s description of God’s behaviour towards Eve and Adam after they ate the apple shows Him to be thoroughly unpleasant.

Anyway, Satan wants to establish his kingdom, yet must know he is not going to win the battle, so why does he bother?  Then, trying to trick the bereaved into thinking they are talking to loved ones when they are actually conversing with demons is a lot of effort to go to when the main result very often is that the belief communication has been made brings solace, and the conviction life continues after death.  Such a strategy is not going to turn anyone away from religion, or towards sympathy for dark forces, so one must be left wondering what Satan hopes to get out of it.  If one wants to trap unwary souls, this is surely an inefficient way to proceed.

For anyone subscribing to Wohlberg’s belief that individuals’ consciousnesses are put into cold storage until God has defeated the forces of evil, there is nothing more to be said: any attempt to contact the dead is pointless.  However, if one does not consider the Bible to be a completely accurate historical record, nor share Wohlberg’s theological perspective, the claim that demons are engaged in a large-scale identity theft scam will seem implausible at best, stupid at worst.  While Steve and his congregation wait for the Rapture, the rest of us who are not swayed by his arguments, and are sceptical of his faith in Biblical inerrancy, can carry on exploring the evidence for the survival of bodily death.

The Hypno-Ripper, by Donald K. Hartman (ed.)

In the late nineteenth century there was a vigorous debate over the mechanism of hypnotism, and whether an individual could employ it to control another’s actions.  Used for therapeutic purposes and for public entertainment, public anxiety was generated by the prospect of surrendering one’s will and the risk that an innocent person under the influence of the hypnotist could be directed to undertake activities for nefarious purposes, including murder, without conscious awareness.  Jules Liégeois of the Nancy school in France – primarily a lawyer rather than a clinician – promoted the idea that it was possible, though the hypnotised person would be an automaton, and therefore not culpable for the act; responsibility would lie entirely with the hypnotist.

Against this background, the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders which took place between August and November 1888 captured the public imagination.  It only remained for an enterprising writer to put the murders and hypnotism together in a fictional treatment.  The Hypno-Ripper: or Jack the Hypnotically Controlled Ripper, Containing Two Victorian Era Tales Dealing with Jack the Ripper and Hypnotism (2021) is volume two in Donald K Hartman’s Hypnotism in Victorian and Edwardian Era Fiction series, published by his Themes & Settings in Fiction Press.  It follows his anthology of 22 stories collected in Death by Suggestion: An Anthology of 19th and Early 20th-Century Tales of Hypnotically Induced Murder, Suicide, and Accidental Death (2018).

In this second volume, Hartman continues his quest to recover stories which shine a light on fears of a dark side to hypnotism.  He reprints two stories, published shortly after the murders, which hinge on the Ripper being an American, and hypnotism as an essential element of the crimes.  Both these stories appeared while the cycle of murders was still fresh in the public imagination, erecting a fictional superstructure on the facts as they had been reported.  The brief introduction is by Rebecca Frost, who has written books about Jack the Ripper and H H Holmes, an American who has been nominated as one of the many candidates for Jack the Ripper.

The first story, The Whitechapel Mystery; A Psychological Problem (‘Jack the Ripper’), is a novella by N T Oliver (Edward Oliver Tilburn) published in 1889.  Following the clues of a bank robbery with no obvious signs of a break-in which had taken place in New York City, detective John Dewey travels to London on the trail of a mysterious hypnotist, Dr Westinghouse, who had used his skills to commit the theft.  Unfortunately for Dewey, Westinghouse possesses extensive clairvoyant and mesmeric powers.  He quickly identifies Dewey’s purpose and is able to control his will in order to assist him in murdering prostitutes as part of a revenge scheme.  Dewey’s sad tale is told through the device of a journal written while he is dying, Westinghouse having predicted the time of Dewey’s death to the minute.  The story includes the brutal torture and murder of an adventuress which would have been extremely strong for the time.

The accompanying piece, The Whitechapel Horrors: A Conjectural Story Relating the Facts Concerning Four of the Murders, is a short story which appeared anonymously in two American newspapers in November 1888.  It deals with auto-hypnotism as the mechanism for the murders rather than a Caligari-style manipulation of another.  Charles Kowlder is an American in London in August 1888.  Enjoying a rest after completing some business, he is told by a doctor that his exuberant behaviour is a sign of potential general paresis caused by over-taxation of the brain.  The doctor warns him to eschew all business affairs for three months and keep his mind completely relaxed.  Kowlder decides to follow coverage of the murder of Polly Nichols in the press as a distraction, but finds to his cost that he has become too absorbed when he begins to have what seem to be clairvoyant visions of the murders taking place, providing him with information later verified by newspaper accounts.  The solution to the mystery of these acts of apparent paranormal cognition will not come as a surprise to the attentive reader, as Kowlder finally realises the perpetrator’s identity.

Finding Tilburn a fascinating character, Hartman has included a lengthy biographical sketch of this dubious character using primary sources.  Tilburn was a man of many parts and names (including the memorable Nevada Ned) who put more effort into shady activities than would have enabled him to become successful in legitimate ones.  Writing about the Ripper murders was not his only foray into knocking out a potboiler based on recent real-life events; however, he abandoned writing early in his career, perhaps because the effort involved was not commensurate with the rewards.  He certainly did not rate his output highly and took little pleasure in its production, saying of his stories ‘I did not feel honored by their authorship.’  This is an entertaining profile of a very colourful character.

Hartman proposes that Tilburn wrote both stories, and is probably correct.   He notes similarities in them, and invites readers to find others.  One item common to both he does not mention is the reference to a murder at Gateshead.  This was the killing of Jane Beadmore at Birtley, near Gateshead, on the night of 22/23 September 1888, although in the event she was the victim of a domestic crime committed by a local man who was executed for it.  The major difference between the two stories is that when Dewey is under Westinghouse’s control he exhibits the ‘higher phenomena’ of mesmerism (for example, being ‘in London in body, in Gateshead in spirit. Two places at the same time!’ [italics in original]), while Kowlder’s dissociative state disguises his direct experience of events he believes are visions, an ignorance necessary for the final twist.

While the two stories are not of great literary merit, they are of considerable historical interest as being early treatments of the 1888 murders, albeit viewed through a melodramatic lens.  The strength of Westinghouse’s powers is far in advance of any documented in the scientific literature.  He has more in common with the genius mastermind Dr Mabuse than with the hypnotists using hypnotism as part of a therapeutic regime, at Nancy and elsewhere; as a method for the investigation of telepathy, as was being conducted by the Society for Psychical Research in London; or the many stage performers using it for entertainment purposes during that period.  Similarly, Kowlder’s unwitting self-hypnotism, putting him into a dissociative state during which he perpetrates a series of gruesome murders on the pattern of one he had become obsessed by, is not an effect, fortunately, known in the research literature.

Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles

Ikigai is a Japanese word combining iki (alive, life) and gai (benefit, value, worth).  It is something which benefits life and gives a person a sense of worth, a feeling of happiness through self-fulfilment.  Ikigai is how one motivates oneself in life, by finding purpose in pursuing worthwhile activities.  Garcia and Miralles in their 2016 overview use a different but complementary definition, ‘the happiness of always being busy,’ though it omits the necessary element of value.

They examine what ikigai means in the Japanese context, and how its ideas can be applied more widely.  As the epigraph, a Japanese proverb, notes: ‘Only staying active will make you want to live a hundred years’, to which one might want to add, ‘as long as it includes sound physical and mental health’.  Ikigai, the book assures the reader,will help to achieve a longevity worth having.

The book covers the precepts which characterise the lifestyles of the long-lived individuals on Okinawa, a place with a high proportion of centenarians, some of whom the authors interviewed.  They found ikigai to be central to the inhabitants’ well-being (along probably with a world-class healthcare system).  What came out time and again in the interviews were the following ten self-explanatory guidelines:

1. Stay active; don’t retire.
2. Take it slow.
3. Don’t fill your stomach.
4. Surround yourself with good friends.
5. Get in shape for your next birthday.
6. Smile.
7. Reconnect with nature.
8. Give thanks.
9. Live in the moment.
10. Follow your ikigai.

Their effects are not restricted to Japan, but are typical of communities generally where the inhabitants have a long life expectancy.  By following them, and addressing the obstacles to their adherence, a good life can be constructed; one of value to oneself and others, that is both independent and connected, open to experience and open to others.  

It’s not just for pensioners either.  With a sound foundation, in your career you will be able to pursue your personal ikigai, which lies at the intersection of what you love, what the world needs, what you are good at, and what you can be paid for.  We all have to find our ‘flow’, what enables us to become totally immersed in something, and this will be different for each individual.

Ikigai’s emphasis is on movement.  None of the elderly Okinawans sit around, and gardening was seen as especially beneficial, physically and mentally.  Ikigai is more than a system for keeping fit and healthy, however: there is a spiritual dimension: it is fundamentally a balanced holistic mind/body/spirit approach.  Unsurprisingly, in Japan the emphasis is on community and service to others, which may limit its transferability to some societies which place more weight on individualism.

The authors provide a few tips on the Okinawan diet (which could work out expensive for those who do not grow their own or cannot find equivalents in their local produce) and low-impact exercise, but there is little detail.  The main concern is to provide a template with the principles, and it is for the reader to adapt them to personal circumstances.  Really, it’s all common sense, but in an eastern wrapper it feels more profound, and western readers might take more notice.

Attempting to emulate this approach is not always easy, but any activity can be used as a learning opportunity if undertaken in the right way.  Resilience in the face of adversity and learning to deal with setbacks is crucial, while acknowledging that a limited amount of stress is normal and can help to motivate us.

The result of developing ‘anti-fragility’ in tackling difficulties and fostering an appreciation of life’s positives is an attitude that keeps one fresh, giving meaning to existence and bringing satisfaction.  Old age, remaining outward-looking and engaged, becomes a blessing rather than the curse it is for many.  And however many grey hairs you have, if you have not yet found your ikigai it is never too late to start searching for it.

There is a rather idealistic gloss in the way ikigai is presented, and it seems an odd fit with the Japanese office culture in which salarymen have been known to work themselves to death.  One wonders how many of those below retirement age are able to follow it.  Few, surely, find their ikigai driving themselves to a state of exhaustion.  Perhaps those who practise it are the lucky ones who are left after their less fortunate peers have worked themselves into an early grave.  It is entirely possible García and Miralles are not telling the whole story.

Is There an Afterlife?, by David Fontana

David Fontana’s 2005 500-page book surveys the evidence for the continuation of life after death based on extensive, albeit narrowly focused, reading, and practical engagement with the subject.  Fontana (1934-2010) was a president of the Society for Psychical Research, chaired its Survival Research Committee (Archie Roy, who contributed the foreword, was another SPR president), and was one of the Society’s major investigators of the Scole physical mediumship circle, which he discusses: the book is dedicated to fellow Scole investigators Arthur Ellison and Montague Keen, along with SPR stalwart Ralph Noyes.

Fontana clearly considered mediumship to be the most important source of evidence, and a large part of the book is devoted to its various aspects, including looking at a number of mediums in detail.  In addition to untangling the complexities of mediumship and the weight that can be placed on it, Fontana covers, to a lesser extent, apparitions, hauntings, poltergeists, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, reincarnation and instrumental transcommunication.

He summarises historical attitudes towards the immortality of at least some part of the personality over the millennia, and draws on what religions have had to say as well as work done by psychical researchers, demonstrating how psychical research was instrumental in putting what had been matters of faith onto an empirical footing.  He claims not to be interested in theory-building as he finds that the efforts often fail to fit the phenomena they are intended to explain.  Instead, he is more interested in the data, even if no theory is available to account for them.

Some alternative explanations to survival are covered, notably super-psi (also known as the ‘living-agent psi’ hypothesis), which claims that what looks like spirit communication can be explained by psi information exchange between the living and/or drawn from the environment, either contemporaneously or precognitively.  Fontana comes down on the side of discarnate communication, arguing super-psi presupposes a degree of ability and complexity never demonstrated in the laboratory.  He concludes by looking at views of precisely what might survive, and what the afterlife could be like, though acknowledging such speculations are possibly erroneous.

Fontana is keen to show the absurdities that can result when sceptics strain to find an alternative to a paranormal explanation, yet Roy in his foreword notes that despite the accumulation of evidence suggesting survival is a reality, psychical research has failed to make a dent on mainstream science, indicating the magnitude of the task facing those attempting to build a convincing case.  Fontana’s book has not changed that situation and is not likely to in the future, because critics will discount his efforts on the grounds of credulity.

He does cover the issue of fraud, but would have achieved a better balance if he had devoted more time to an assessment of alternative to survival; for a psychologist he is light on perceptual issues that can lead witnesses astray, and, for example, nowhere does the word pareidolia appear in the text.  Asked why the Scole Group did not agree to stringent controls, he responds by saying the Group’s primary purpose was the collaboration with their claimed spirit contacts, not accommodating the investigators’ requirements: failure to insist was a flaw which has cast doubt on the entire enterprise.  The writing is occasionally careless as well: for someone who had been the SPR’s president it is astonishing to see him consistently misspell founder Frederic Myers’ first name as Frederick, and he spells the surnames of fellow SPR Council members Alan Gauld and Maurice Grosse incorrectly on several occasions.

Roy, who shared many of Fontana’s views, was sure Is There an Afterlife? would become a ‘modern classic’.  That has not happened, and it is not much cited, perhaps because it is not a dispassionate examination of the evidence.  Fontana was convinced of an afterlife, and the question mark in the title suggesting a neutral stance is misleading.  However, while he makes no attempt to hide his biases, anyone who wants an overview of the various aspects of survival research, laid out in an approachable manner, will find Fontana’s book a valuable introduction and a foundation for further investigations of the many and various approaches that have been developed in its pursuit.

The Hot Kid, by Elmore Leonard

The hot kid in Elmore Leonard’s 2005 novel is Carlos (Carl) Webster, a young deputy United States marshal out to make a name for himself in an America moving from the era of Prohibition and into the Great Depression.  He is highly intelligent, resourceful, principled, courageous and an excellent shot.  Growing up in Oklahoma, at the age of 15 he kills his first man who is trying to steal his cows – though he claims it wasn’t intentional.

Even before that, though, he had seen a man killed by bandit Emmet Long during a drugstore robbery, a criminal whom Carl is later to kill in the line of duty.  It is a society steeped in violence, quick to resort to guns to resolve issues.  A racial aspect to the novel is signalled by Long calling Carlos a greaser, as he is Cuban on his mother’s side, partially Native American on his father’s, an act which gives the young Carlos a chip on his shoulder.  He resolves it by shortening, and thereby anglicising, his first name.

After meeting members of the Marshals Service who come to interview him after the death of the cattle thief, his career choice is made.  It is one he finds fulfilling: he doesn’t need the modest money the job pays as his father is an oil millionaire, though with more interest in his far less lucrative pecan trees.  But these are self-reliant people; we hear repeatedly that Carl’s father fought in the Spanish-American War and was on the USS Maine when it sank (Virgil is a minor character in Leonard’s Cuba Libre).

As there was in the old Wild West, there is a symbiotic relationship between celebrity and the media.  Journalist Tony Antonelli, with a predilection for purple prose and a fascination with the world of crime and society’s seedy underbelly, writes up Carl’s exploits for True Detective to satisfy the hunger of a mass readership, in the process making him a national figure.  Carl even has a catchphrase tailor-made to raise his profile: ‘If I have to pull my weapon, I’ll shoot to kill’, which helps to build his reputation, along with his body count.  Carl eventually buys into his own hype, becoming what the public wants, enjoying the trappings of the job while losing some of the freshness of approach he had as a boy.

But for drama, Carl needs a foil, and the major one is Jack Belmont.  He is a millionaire’s son turned bad who begins a life of crime on a modest scale by attempting to blackmail his father, threatening to tell his mother about his father’s mistress.  What primarily distinguishes the characters of Carl and Jack, both offspring of wealthy men, is Carl’s work ethic, which has taught him a sense of responsibility, contrasted with Jack’s tendency to pursue lazy short-cuts.

The abject failure of Jack’s blackmail plot sets the pattern for his later endeavours (kidnapping said mistress is just as unsuccessful).  Jack wants to make a name for himself as a major criminal, aspiring to be Public Enemy Number 1, but lacking the character and intelligence, though not the ruthlessness, such a distinction requires.  He and Carl play a cat-and-mouse game, though the outcome is in little doubt despite a tense climax with Carl’s family in jeopardy.

In this macho world the men are more strongly drawn than the women, who tend to be mistresses, whores or gun molls.  Carl is attractive to the women he comes into contact with but finds his ideal match in Louly Brown, whose cousin was married to Charley ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd.  She leaves an unsatisfactory home with a minor criminal, but her life on the wrong side of the law is brief as she shoots him to get out of trouble.  She parlays her experience into a media story, before throwing her lot in with Carl and proving her worth.

The novel weaves multiple strands, mixing fictional with real characters (Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde).  Leonard’s relaxed pace captures the ambience of the period and builds a portrait of a society in which civilising influences are slow to permeate the more remote parts of a country still developing its identify, political structures are frequently inadequate for the task of governance, and where collectivism and individualism are in tension.  It is perfect territory for a hot kid.

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