Book Review-The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness

by Joel ben Izzy. Reviewed by Lani Peterson.

Sought out by banks, law firms and organizations to teach storytelling technique, Joel ben Izzy is quickly becoming one of the most visible players in the storytelling field. Not bad for a storyteller who only six years ago had no voice. Literally. His story is thoughtfully unraveled in the 2003 release of his new book, The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness (Algonquin Books). It is a storyteller’s journey like no other.

This autobiographical journey of curses turned to blessings and blessings turned to curses is a beautiful interweaving of traditional tales with a personal story of family, relationship, illness and self-discovery. Ultimately it is a story of healing and growth, both physical and spiritual. The physical journeysurgery for thyroid cancer which results in loss of voice – is just background to the larger spiritual odyssey through loss of meaning, struggle with identity and search to regain direction and purpose. “A lucky man!” ben Izzy’s mentor, Lenny, tells him as he points out the gifts of the journey. And the readers are the beneficiaries of ben Izzy’s “good” luck.

Ben Izzy’s story is one of personal evolution. Beginning as a performer banking on clever wisdom tales to capture his audience, he painfully develops into the wizened storyteller who continues to struggle with the meaning and depth of his stories even as he continues to tell them. It is the progression of one who thinks he has found all the answers to one forced to immerse himself in the unwanted exploration of painful questions. “What I’ve learned is that the answers come when they’re ready.” The harder the question, the simpler the answer, but “…first you must learn to love the question.” Small answers lead to larger questions as the reluctant hero’s quest for understanding unfolds with the spell of a truly good story.

Ben Izzy’s insights and answers are hard won and thoughtful. The stories that have been his standbys come to have new depth and meaning as he holds them now in the frame of a seeker rather than wise man. “Eventually riddles solve themselves. And when they do, we must find new ones. Because if we don’t, we are in danger of becoming wise, wise like the fools of Chelm…their foolishness lies not in what they do, but in believing that they are wise.”

It is ben Izzy’s vulnerability, his uncompromising exploration of his own truth and confrontation with his demons that leads to his own salvation, both within the book and within his own life. His transformation from performer to listener to thoughtful speaker holds lessons not just for storytellers, but for anyone invested in deepening relationships, self-understanding or leading a life well lived.

“Life is a tough teacher. First she gives the test. Then she gives the lesson.” ben Izzy conveys his lessons learned with gentle subtlety through his masterfully told tale. The result is a story both personal and universal, embedded in a storied journey worth taking.

Originally appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of the HSA Newsletter.

LANI PETERSON is a psychologist, storyteller, public speaker and coach. She leads individuals on a journey of self-discovery that inspires personal growth, healing and understanding. Lani’s award winning CD of original stories is entitled “Stories from Within.”

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