Sunday, December 21, 2008

REVIEW - Reading Highlights

In making this selection from the twenty eight books I've read this year. I can't help but notice a trend in the type of book I appear to have found most value in. I continue to be emotionally drawn to, and moved by, biographical non-fiction, rather than by fiction. Fiction when it does appear has to be either an out and out fantasy,or satire. The novel writing of David Foster Wallace clearly has legs in both of these camps.

The main theme is revealing accounts of lives, their virtues and vices, their bliss and sufferings. All being vividly described, either by the person concerned or through an author as intermediary. On top of this is a spiritual aspect, largely to do with reflecting on the nature of religious practice, particularly through the pursuit of solitude, silence and monasticism. These appear to reflect twin traits in my current psyche - the desire to understand myself through a deeper connection with other people, and the sometimes conflicting desire to understand myself better through retreating into spiritual isolation.

Through a series of interviews with victims and perpetrators, Murakami, tries to unravel what the effects of the Sarin attacks on the Tokyo underground in the nineties tell us about the psychological health of present day Japan. Have they really learnt the lessons of them? - is what he's asking - and he remains sceptical. At times the book is very human in its capturing of the everyday details of ordinary people struggling to comprehend extraordinary circumstances. But then, how decent peoples desire to do good became used to perverted and twisted ends, would prove uncomfortable reading for any Buddhist.

NANCY KLEIN MAGUIRE - An Infinity of Little Hours
One of my favorite books of 2008. Again through interviews conducted this time over decades, she traces the spiritual paths of five men who idealistically join the Carthusian Priory at Parkminster . This is an unsparing, yet inspiring, testimony to their struggles to live out their aspiration to follow the Carthusian Rule. I have read no finer exposition on the benefits and pitfalls of religious idealism, or the effects asceticism and isolation can have on practice within a monastic framework. Maguire, in recounting other peoples experience, keeps herself, and her own views and comments on what she's hearing, discrete and out of the narrative.

W.G SEBALD - The Rings of Saturn
There is no more associative or discursive writer than W.G.Seabald. At worst his books ramble all over the place, and though the journey is often pleasant and factually enlightening, it leaves no abiding emotional memory. Perhaps it was the fact that I know the area of East Anglia he travelled over, that I found myself resonating so strongly with this book, which hadn't happened with his books previously. The mood he conveys he is of deep regret, for past choices, for present consequences, of the legacy and impermanence of our desires, the loves and hatreds. Seabald, surrounds himself here with an diverse cast of characters conjured up from the sea, sand and sky of East Anglia, past and present. Though it is an abiding mood of an overwhelming loss, of lives abandoned to circumstance, the residue of melancholy and how that relates to the landscape, that lingers on afterwards.

Interestingly, this connects with 'An Infinity of Little Hours' in that the original genesis for this book, was the TV series The Monastery, where five men spend six weeks in Worth Abbey. The programme documented the highs and lows the regime of St Benedict's Rule provoked. What stood out in that series, and in this book too, are the evident qualities of Abbot Jamison as an empathic listener, a man so deeply grounded in his chosen vocation, and eloquent in his exposition. At the same time he doesn't tub-thump for Christianity. Though he does believe, that the spirit of the Rule of St Bendict has some thing to offer the urban secular world. He draws on his own experience of humanity, rarely takes up an unrealistic position based only on idealism,and remains aware of the vices, as well as the virtues, in monastic practice. Towards both he appears compassionate and equanimous in an exemplary way.

SARA MAITLAND - A Book Of Silence
As I've only last week reviewed this book, I wont, go on at length about it. Other than to say it is an excellent read, and one I wholeheartedly recommend should you feel overwhelmed by the world of shopping, credit crunch, and recessive economic cycles. Start seeking out a simpler, more silent life now. As a first step find a way to silence the clarion call of your own desires, and then become deaf to the external bleatings of our consumerist culture. Beautifully executed and thought provoking stuff.

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