Bite-sized book reviews

I haven’t published a book review for a while, and the Personal Book Reviews page is very well visited. So this month sees me posting some ‘bite-sized’ reviews from my ongoing, sometimes scrappy pencil-written “Books I have read” notebook. Sometimes I only write a couple of sentences. Hopefully that should be enough to stimulate you to check out the books below which I have really enjoyed and appreciated: and maybe, even, to buy them yourself.

By the way, the writers involved don’t know about these recommendations, and do not provide me with any incentive to promote them – apart from the high quality of their work! I really appreciate positive feedback on my own writing, and it’s just nice to be in a position to be able to put out a good word for others.

Mediaeval Bookworm....
Mediaeval Bookworm....

“The Spell of the Sensuous” by David Abram

A wonderfully written, erudite exploration of our human embodiment in the natural world and our journey of alienation from it. Very stimulating and thought-provoking: full of good quotes, eg:

“ Direct sensuous reality, in all its more-than-human mystery, remains the sole solid touchstone for an experiential world now inundated with electronically-generated vistas and engineered pleasures; only in regular contact with the tangible ground and sky can we learn how to orient and to navigate in the multiple dimensions that now claim us.”

( Preface, p x )

Novels : “Judgement Day” and “Passing On” by Penelope Lively.

“Judgement Day”, set in an English village, is centered on fund-raising for the church and the dramas arising therein. “Passing On” deals with the unfolding lives of two emotionally squashed middle-aged children on their domineering mother’s demise.

Penelope Lively regards the human condition with compassion, detachment, lack of any sentimentality, dry mordant wit, and forensic observation. Brilliant writing and highly enjoyable reading.

“Science and the Akashic Field” by Ervin Laszlo

It seems that the ancient idea of Akasha, and the Akashic Record which records everything everywhere for all time, is being borne out by current understandings in physics and cosmology. This is an ‘integral theory of everything’ book, bringing insights of contemporary science and ancient wisdom together. Very clearly written and (mostly!) comprehensible by someone like me, whose lifelong fascination with matters scientific is forever hampered by a lack of formal scientific education.

“Let your life speak” by Parker J. Palmer

A jewel of a book by an American Quaker, on the subject of the vocational quest which arises from within, and from the promptings of Spirit, rather than being adopted from the thrustings of Ego allied with social ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’. I found his writing very honest, and movingly personal without being at all self-indulgent. Just the right book for those of us whose vocational path has been varied and tortuous but feels, in mid-life, as though it could not have been otherwise!

“Belief” by Joan Bakewell

A very enjoyable selection of interviews from her Radio 3 (BBC, UK ) series: religious writer Karen Armstrong; monk, writer and poet John O’Donohue; writer of sacred music John Tavener; scientist Richard Dawkins (whose shallow and limited perspective on matters spiritual was very obvious here); composer James Macmillan; and many other thoughtful and able people. I especially appreciated the depth, range and balance of scientist Paul Davies’ views. This is, mostly, a stimulating and inspiring collection.

Brief Book Review: “The Spiral Staircase” by Karen Armstrong

What a wonderfully well-written and stimulating read! “The Spiral Staircase” charts Karen Armstrong’s slow process of emerging from an alienating experience of nun-hood, with her human ability to relate damaged, and without a sense of connection with God as depicted by conventional Christianity.

Spiral Staircase
Spiral Staircase

This is a brave book: it is very honest, humorous, and inspiring. Armstrong also  provides a tough and unsparing critique of the structures of formal religion and conventional psychiatry. I particularly enjoyed her portrayal of an outsider, gradually finding her unique place in the secular world – in a career talking and writing about God….

We all struggle to a greater or lesser extent with the twin challenges of self-acceptance and finding our place. In concluding “The Spiral Staircase” , Karen Armstrong has this to say on those crucial topics:

“My life has kept changing, but at the same time I have found myself revolving round and round the same themes, the same issues, and even repeating the same mistakes. I tried to break away from the convent but I still live alone, spend my days in silence, and am almost wholly occupied in writing, thinking, and speaking about God and spirituality. I have come full circle. This reminds me of the staircase in (T.S.) Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, which I picture as a narrow spiral staircase. I tried to get off it and join others on what seemed to me to be a broad, noble flight of steps, thronged with people. But I kept falling off, and when I went back to my own twisting stairwell I found a fulfilment that I had not expected. Now I have to mount my staircase alone. And as I go up, step by step, I am turning, again, round and round, apparently covering little ground, but climbing upwards, I hope, towards the light.” (pp 341-2)

I derived great comfort, support and encouragement from this book – do read it!