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Showing 1-10 of 14 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 16 reviews
VINE VOICEon February 18, 2014
I was disturbed and disappointed in Mr. Wagner's recent major novel, Dead Stars. Not a fan of shorter fiction, but this is a warm-hearted story about two very different people whose autobiographical statements recorded by "Bruce Wagner" come together at the end in a O'Henry twist. You will learn about Eastern religions, the guru business and "Bruce Wagner's" dead pan take on the way we live now. (His name is in quotes because it is clear the person recording the two stories is more than, or other than the reclusive author who so long ago, offended the Scientologists. I believe he is a major writer and have read his novels with deep appreciation, with the sole exception of Dead Stars. This shorter work of two connected novelas is an excellent starting point, if you aren't familiar with Mr. Wagner. For extra points, you could track down his unsuccessful movie with the performance of her career by Rosanna Arquette, based on one of his trilogies, I'm Losing You.
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on January 15, 2014
These two novellas purport to be true stories selected by the author from many interviews he conducted and recorded. The sense that these are, indeed, real people is very strong in the first novella, but early in the second one I began to be aware of a stylistic similarity in the telling, and concluded that they are both fictional characters. For me, this detracted from the strength of the book. I persisted to the end for the sake of finishing, more out of discipline than pleasure.

In my opinion, the first novella is by far the better story, one that should be read as a cautionary tale for parents who attempt to transmit their religious passions to children. The book's mostly silent, listening author (Bruce Wagner) is the perfect medium to elicit our patience and trust as the tale unfolds; we feel we are being let in on something important. But in the second novella, the storyteller is not the main character but only a witness to the events she talks about. Behind a second layer of narrative the story became too distant for me. I got impatient in spite of Bruce's listening ear and wished he'd done a lot more editing. The stories link up at the end in a way that justifies their pairing, but the conclusion is empty, if not downright bleak.

Full disclosure: I have been fascinated by Buddhism for a long time, but lately my interest has started to fade. I thought this book would help me recover some of my former sense of purpose in the quest for enlightenment, but instead it has confirmed my disillusionment.
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on January 8, 2014
I'd rate this 2.5 stars.

"If it were possible to hold all of the people's stories all of the time in one's head, heart and hands, there is no doubt that in the end, each would be unvanquishably linked by a single, religious detail."

In The Empty Chair, Bruce Wagner tells of the Buddhist spiritual journeys taken by two utterly disparate people. Both stories, which happens years apart from each other, are linked in a tenuous way which might strain your memory a little bit, and are told to a fictional Bruce Wagner.

The first novella is the story of an aging gay Buddhist in Big Sur, California. He has led a difficult life, having been repeatedly molested by a priest in his local church, which led him to experience panic attacks as an adult. But he pursued a somewhat romantic relationship with a woman who was enchanted by Buddhism, and had a son, who was the center of their universe. As his wife taught a basic form of Buddhism in prisons (including San Quentin) and then in schools, he raised their son as a stay-at-home father. But their lives were rocked when their 12-year-old son committed suicide, and he has been unable to settle down since that tragedy, traveling in a Volkswagen bus.

The second novella follows Queenie, a larger-than-life woman who was a wild child, sleeping around with dangerous men and taking drugs. She met Kura, a criminal who longs to become a saint, when he saved her life after she was attacked by a boyfriend outside of a nightclub. Kura rescued her, took care of her, and brought her to India on his search for his spiritual guru. Although she ultimately left Kura to follow his own spiritual journey, she always thought of him, and when he calls her 27 years later to ask her to join him in finding the guru again (who has disappeared), she doesn't blink an eye.

I just didn't get this book. Admittedly, I don't know much about Buddhism, but while the book is upfront about its subject matter, I expected the religion to be touched on in a more superficial way, more an Eat, Pray, Love-type of journey than one that delves so deeply in its details. Buddhist terms and figures are used repeatedly without any real background—I honestly felt like the book should have come with a prerequisite that you know a certain amount first.

Wagner's literary device of a narrator recounting the stories he is told as if they're being told to him at that moment didn't work for me either. The narratives were tremendously stream-of-consciousness, which made them difficult to follow. In the first novella, for example, the main character went on extended riffs about the Beat poets and his relationship with the widow of Beat figure Neal Cassady, which detracted from the meat of the plot. And while his son's suicide was tragic, the way it was told, and the details he used, made me uncomfortable at times.

I've never read any of Wagner's books before, but I recognize his ability to give his characters strong voices, so I may try a different one. All of the reviews I've seen of this book have been tremendously positive, so it may be my lack of spiritual awareness buffered me from the book's appeal.
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on December 19, 2013
The book consists of two stories of a spiritual journey each being a story that is compelling in its own right.

The stories are so well written that I often found myself entering the 'stream of consciousness' of the narrators, an effect that the beat writers so aspired to, when you forget everything around you and you are fully immersed in the flow of the story.

I was also delighted and intrigued how the 2 stories, their themes and imagery started to syncopate, bouncing off each other, creating a wonderful dual story universe that is inexplicably intertwined.

Hidden in the stories is something else, a message or feeling that is woven through it all. It is what stays with me, long after the end. I can only recommend to read it, notice how it stirs and re-awakens something inside.
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on January 14, 2014
Both stories were like a stream of consciousness. You were not sure where they were connected or were heading until the end of the second-story. It took a lot of stick to it of notes to finish. However, in the end it was worth it.
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on January 25, 2014
Moving accounts of suffering and letting go. Buddhist in tone. Knowledable in ways of Eastern spirituality as well as Western approaches to Buddhism. Good for the heart.
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on January 16, 2014
Amazing scope of knowledge about religious seekers, with insightful commentary about the futility & dangers when belief outweighs common sense. Writing often approaches stream of consciousness but masterful storytelling.
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on July 8, 2014
Stick with it. Very powerful. Might be partially about people with deep spiritual compasses who can and can not survive the blows of life.
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on February 10, 2014
this book has two slightly interconnected novellas... each novella draws you in ... I was inspired by book to buy a book of Buddhist writing, "I am that"
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on January 22, 2014
I mostly enjoyed the first, and was puzzled by the second novella. A good deal of information about buddhist principals, which was helpful.
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