Friday, 22 October 2010

The Tao of Pooh

I like the idea of Taoism. It seems like the kind of way I'd like to live my life. Reading the Tao Te Ching tends to frustrate me. This, however, is a beautifully simple explanation of what exactly Taoism is all about. I'd like to be able to talk on and on about how inspiring it is and so on, but really the simplest way to do that is this: read the book.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Essence of Buddha: the Path to Enlightenment

A nice counter balance to all the Christianity I've been imbibing. Christianity fascinates me because I live in a Judeo-Christian culture. Of course, other religions and other ways of seeing the world interest me too, but they often seem comparably unintelligible because I simply don't have the cultural background that enables proper understanding.

Will one book make the difference? No. But it will help. This book is a succinct, clear account of what it means to be Buddhist. Most importantly (from my perspective anyway) it includes practical ways to go about putting Buddhism into practice in your own life.

This book seems very simplistic to me. Perhaps that's because my knowledge of Buddhism is limited. I have the idea that Buddhism is complex and cannot (and shouldn't) be explained so easily. This may just be a result of the Judeo-Christian culture in which I live, which has extraordinarily complicated relationships between the various 'churches', all of whom interpret the underlying message in a slightly different way. On the other hand, I heartily approve simplifying both message and language. We seem to have a desire for complicated things and making things more complicated than they need to be. This is anything but.

On the strength of this, I think it's safe to say that Buddhism as a religion is not for me. Buddhism as a philosophy maybe. And what's the difference between the two? Religion is about faith, belief and worship. Philosophy is a way of living. The Buddhist ideal of a daily meditation practice and self-reflection appeals to my contemplative nature. The rest of it not so much.

Monday, 18 October 2010

The Problem of Pain

This was not quite what I was expecting. Lewis made that clear in his introduction, so I was aware once I started to read that I was getting something else. I was expecting a treatise on methods of coping with pain - emotional, physical, acute, chronic - with some reference to Christianity as Lewis was a Christian and wrote from that standpoint.

This is a book that seeks to answer the question as to why pain exists, given the Christian notion of an all-powerful god that is goodness personified. As I'm not Christian (though if anyone were to persuade me, it would be Lewis) I had to suspend disbelief while reading this book. It is not possible to simply wiggle a little and make what Lewis says fit your worldview. One has to suspend disbelief, read the totality of what he says and then see if what he says makes sense with whatever it is that you believe.

His argument is interesting and it's certainly one that I've never before considered. I'm not even going to try to summarise what he says. Mostly because he says it so much better and more clearly than I ever could and partly because I'm still letting it settle into my mind and find its place there.

I can only recommend this to Christians, or people who wonder what a Christian argument explaining pain and suffering is. If you're not interested in that, this isn't the book for you.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Mary Tudor: England's First Queen

History has vilified her as Bloody Mary. Why? Because she burnt over 300 heretics in her reign. She tried to stem the tide of Protestantism in England, to return the country to the Catholicism that reigned at her birth and until her father's lust (for both power and women) got the better of him. Unable to produce an heir, the crown returned to a Protestant (Queen Elizabeth I) and Mary was consequently vilified on religious grounds.

I had always thought that Elizabeth was the first queen of England and that her sister Mary was Mary Queen of Scots. How little I knew! Mary Tudor was a phenomenal woman. She lived in interesting times. To have your entire family turned against you for your beliefs - beliefs that they shared until very recently - must be extremely disorienting for anyone. She handled herself extremely well. I am impressed by her complete belief and the way that she was willing to stand by her belief and not simply renounce it for another, milder version of the same faith as so many others did. Unlike Elizabeth, she was not willing to pretend to comply with the religious dictates of her family and the law. She was prepared to die for what she believed. History would have been far kinder to her if she had.

This is a story of a remarkable woman. I admire her greatly for her unwavering determination to do what she believed was right. I may not agree with what she believed, or what she did, but I admire the courage that she showed at a time when she was abandoned by all who should have supported her. This is a woman who did much for the equality of women and the rights of women at a time when the notion was never even considered. This is a highly recommended biography.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Pascal's Wager: the Man Who Played Dice with God

This is not really a book about Pascal's Wager, so much as it's a book about Blaise Pascal. It was particularly interesting to read this while The Three Musketeers was fresh in my mind, as the two overlap in time, with Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII (who was apparently homosexual) and Anne of Austria being prominent figures in both.

Anyway, this book considers Pascal's life from birth to death. It considers his rational and scientific research, and the varying success thereof, both as it relates to contemporary times and as it related to the time in which he lived. It also considers the religious atmosphere of seventeenth century France. I found Jansenism, and consequently Augustinism, as rather frightening extremes of Catholic belief. I was highly amused at the way the Catholic Church wiggled around the question of heresy, as declaring Jansenism heretical really is the same as declaring Augustinism heretical. But questions of Catholic belief are not relevant here.

What is relevant is that Pascal subscribed to Jansenism. Somehow, from that religious standpoint he formulated his well-known wager. Connor makes the point that the wager is only really useful in the context of the 'rules' of the 'game' in which it was made, which I found very interesting. What I particularly found interesting is that considering Augustinist, and consequently Jansenist, belief in efficacious grace, the wager should never have been made. Which brings up the question of what Pascal actually believed, as opposed to what he thought he believed.

This is a fascinating biography of a remarkable man - both in terms of science and theology and in terms of the relationship between them in the seventeenth century. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in these subjects.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Passion of Therese of Lisieux

This is the story of the final part of Therese of Lisieux's life. I don't pretend to understand the Christian term 'passion', which seems to mean 'suffering leading up to death'. That's certainly what this book is about. I have an autobiography of Saint Therese on my list of books to read, but this deals purely with the onset of symptoms of the tuberculosis that led to her death.

This is an interesting read, particularly because I had no idea who Saint Therese was or why she was important (or even that she was actually a canonised saint). I was also rather ignorant as to the progression and final stages of pulmonary tuberculosis, that it can spread to the intestines (which apparently causes gangrene and is most unpleasant) or even that there were multiple varieties of tuberculosis (I shall have to google phthisical tuberculosis - apparently phthisis is a medical term for 'wasting away' and so it has the same meaning as 'consumption' and other terms no longer used for tuberculosis, one definition has it as meaning 'pulmonary tuberculosis'!).

I personally found Saint Therese rather irritating in her desire to die, to be a martyr. Isn't she supposed to wish to live so as to work for her god? Apparently, that only applies if you consider the Christian heaven to be a place of rest. Saint Therese considered that she would be able to do her work far better in heaven and so was anxious to be there. I'm not sure how I feel about her, but I consider her 'little way' to be something of great interest. As far as I can tell, it entails being completely dependent on and trusting in god, such that you give yourself up into god. As you might imagine I see quite a few parallels to what she says with what Bernadette Roberts said in her book. It's likely I'm seeing things that aren't there, but there are certain phrases that Saint Therese uses in describing her experiences that struck me all the more forcefully for the previous reading.

As someone interested in what makes people themselves, this is an interesting book. I don't know that I'd recommend it to anyone that wasn't interested in Saints, Religion or the Way Religion Effects People.

The Experience of No-Self

Oh. Well. This is one of those books. I shall have to read it again, later, to glean more from it. I'm left with a profound sense of something that I can't explain. A peace and certainty that I rarely experience (though it's frequent at the end of a yoga class).

I don't agree with everything that Roberts says, mostly because she's a Christian (presumably Catholic, since Wikipedia tells me she used to be a Carmelite nun) and I am (mostly) atheist. She does not appear to be one of those rabid Christians that believe theirs is the only way, in fact she says a number of things that I imagine orthodox Christians (probably particularly if they're Catholic) would consider heresy. I do, however, consider myself contemplative, as she does, though not in the strict Christian tradition of contemplation. This book talks about (what appears to be) the final journey of the contemplative, using her Christian belief as an explanatory framework. Had I had her experience (and I'm, presumably, working on that as a contemplative) and written on it, I would have written the same basic things, but from an atheistic viewpoint.

Of course, I do wonder if I can be truly contemplative and an atheist at the same time. The fact is, I have no choice. I am an atheist. I've never come across a single religious thing that I can actually believe. I can pretend to believe, but only for a short time. The pretence consumes to much energy for me to keep it going. At the same time, I do yoga, I meditate I read all these religious texts. I'm searching for something to believe. I don't think I'll find it, but I will find myself (or my no-self) and the truth while I'm looking.

The reading of this book is an experience in and of itself. This is a book that should be read time and time again as one progresses through the various stages of life. I do not recommend it for anyone that isn't contemplative.

The Three Musketeers

My first encounter with The Three Musketeers was the 1993 Disney movie, which I adored and can still mostly recite, I watched it so many times. I was thrilled to finally have my own copy of the book and devoured it. I was sorely disappointed with what I found, for the movie drastically simplified the plot and made virtually all the characters (Milady particularly) more sympathetic.

King Louis is jealous of the Duke of Buckingham because he believes that Queen Anne is endeavouring to conduct an affair with him. Cardinal Richelieu is jealous of Buckingham because he is in love with the Queen. d'Artagnan's father was not a musketeer. Rochefort is not completely evil and, actually, turns out to be fairly decent despite being one of the Cardinal's men. The Cardinal himself is not evil. The musketeers are not disbanded. Milady is evil, extremely evil. Athos tried to hang her and the two believe each other to be dead. Lord de Winter prevents Milady from reaching Buckingham. Buckingham is assassinated (part of the Cardinal's plan that Milady undertook in case she could not convince him to end the war, which she had no chance to perform because of her brother-in-law). Constance is married and not a lady-in-waiting. She is murdered by Milady. Milady's history is far more heinous than the movie would lead you to believe. The Cardinal is not trying to depose the King. Aramis wishes to enter the (Catholic) Church, Porthos is a buffoon. Buckingham is not planning to invade La Rochelle, he's planning to relieve the Protestants that are under siege from the French Catholics. There are a lot of other characters, and a lot more complications.

On this second reading, I enjoyed the book more. I do not particularly like the style of writing, but I suspect that's an artefact of the translation rather than Dumas, as I have not had the same problem with other books of his. It's an intriguing story, exceedingly complex, with rich characters. How faithfully the book captures the personalities of the people that actually existed (Cardinal Richelieu, Anne of Austria, King Louis XIII, the Duke of Buckingham) I do not know, but it makes them interesting characters that take part believably. None of the main characters (with the possible exception of Milady) is purely good or evil. All are flawed in some way. All are complex and believable, even the curious character that is Milady.

This is a book that's worth reading, though it may need to be read multiple times to appreciate all the detail.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Just One Click

I've added a bunch of little boxes down the side of the blog. All these link to a network of sites where you can donate a book, donate food, donate a mammogram, donate pet food/care, donate child health care, protect rainforest habitat. All worthy causes, though of course my main interest is in the donating of books (why then, is the animal one at the top? Because it has a picture of a kitten). I come here everyday, but most of you get this in your feed reader. Please take the time to donate a book (and whatever else is closest to your heart) at least once.

A Novena for Murder

My favourite kind of murder mystery, one that involves nuns. This is a rather pedestrian mystery, but it's fun nonetheless. The characters are believable, even the ones that one doesn't particularly like. The police are believable and, most importantly, not complete idiots. There's nothing worse than a murder mystery where one has to 'take over' the investigation because the police are twits. It's not often that that happens in real life, I don't know why it's so ubiquitous in murder mysteries.

While I did say that the mystery itself is rather pedestrian, it also manages to be complex and unpleasant, as all good mysteries that result in murder should be. Perhaps it's only pedestrian because I read far too many books of this sort.

Anyway, it's a fun read and I'll be keeping an eye out for others in the Sister Mary Helen series and by this author (a nun herself) in general.

No Women in Holy Orders? The Women Deacons of the Early Church

This is a fascinating book. I had no idea that the whole thing about allowing women to be ordained had its basis in something historical. Now I do. Wijngaards makes it very clear that the early church ordained women as deacons. He deals clearly and succinctly with the arguments of those scholars that believe that these women were merely blessed. Personally, I would go a step further and show how ridiculous these arguments are by replacing the word 'women' with 'men'.

Having read this book, I simply cannot understand how anyone can object to the ordination of women on anything other than sexist grounds. A sexism that has no place in the world in which we live and in which the (Catholic) church is trying to survive. Wijngaards makes the point wonderfully when he says that there will come a time when people are no longer willing to support an institution that excludes them in a prejudiced manner (read the book for the actual quote, the way he puts it is far better).

Which brings me to a point that I feel should not be ignored. There is clear and damning evidence that the Catholic church has, among other heinous acts, condoned and covered up the sexual abuse of minors by priests (and presumably others, but 'priests' is a useful catch-all term) for the better part of the last thousand years. The current Pope - the infallible representative of the Catholic god on earth - is personally responsible for this. How can anyone remain Catholic in the face of this? Denial and ignorance play a role, I'm sure. As far as I can tell, the only way to remain Catholic in the face of this is to accept that what the church has done is perfectly acceptable in god's eyes. If you don't, you deny the infallibility of the Pope and, presumably, violate a bunch of other stuff that is required of you to be Catholic. I can't help feeling that in the face of the greater question (why on earth are there still Catholics?), the question of the ordination of women is largely irrelevant.

Saturday, 09 October 2010

Hidden Children of the Holocaust

This book is about the lower echelons of the Catholic clergy during the Nazi occupation of Belgium in World War II. While the higher levels kept quiet, the parish priests and nuns hid thousands of Jewish children and saved their lives.

Vromen undertook this research as a sociological study and the book reads somewhat like a thesis. She has interviewed one priest, a number of nuns, a number of hidden children and a couple of members of the secular resistance movement responsible for getting the children from their families to the institutions that hid them.

I am left feeling depressed and uplifted at the same time. Nazis and nuns are two of my greatest fascinations, so it's no surprise that I enjoyed this study. What I'm left with is a sense that armed resistance receives too much acclaim in comparison with other forms. The people who just did a few tiny things - carrying messages or providing food - were just as courageous as those who chose a more militant form of resistance. But what about all those others who chose not to resist, neither actively nor passively. Did they collaborate or embrace Nazi ideology? Did they merely think of themselves as neutral? Which begs the question, how can you remain neutral in the face of such inhuman behaviour? More interestingly, how would I have behaved? There's no way to know without finding myself in a position that I hope the world never sees again. I suspect, though, that as survivors die memory will fade and such horrors may again be committed. The extreme religious right of the United States and their vilification of Muslims give me cause for concern. The eternal conflict in the Middle East gives me cause for concern. Every continent shows some form of intolerance and oppression of humanity. I can only do what little I can to ensure that we do not forget.

Howards End

This is one of those classic books that people talk about vaguely as being significant for some or other reason and something that, really, everyone should have read, presumably while at school. Considering the vast amount of classic literature one is expected to absorb while at school it's a miracle one finds the time for anything else. While searching for images of the book cover (which is not this one, but this one is pretty and I couldn't find mine) I discovered that the movie stars Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson (who I loved together in Remains of the Day) and Helena Bonham-Carter. I shall have to see it now.

Anyway, this book is about class struggle and other social things in turn of the century England. It's exceptionally well written and I'll be on the lookout for other works by Forster in my charity-shop scouring. His writing is evocative and there's an underlying sense of camaraderie that's difficult to explain.

As far as I can tell the class struggle is between rich and poor and where one's social responsibility lies. You have the vulgar, wealthy Wilcox family, concerned only with themselves and their accumulation of wealth and power. There are the Schlegel sisters, academic, concerned and determined to help anyone they deem worthy. Then there are the Basts, proud, downtrodden and victims of prevailing social norms. Mix them altogether and one gets a book reminiscent of Austen at her best.

This is a quiet story. The thing that remains strongest with me is the Tolkienesque (is that really fair, considering Forster predates Tolkien?) description of Howards End and surroundings, the sturdiness of the land and the depressing, ever present removal of humanity from any consciousness of it. At the same time, this is one of those books that provokes subtle shifts in your subconscious without your permission or your notice. Read it, it's worth it.

Thursday, 07 October 2010


I first read this book in high school. I've had vague memories of it and a desire to reread it ever since. I am aware that there are arguments against its being factual. I'm also aware that there are arguments against the study that found it to be largely fictional. As far as I'm concerned, the only way to solve the problem is for the files to be unsealed and for the case to be studied by multiple experts. I know that there are many experts who do not consider dissociative identity disorder (DID - formerly multiple personality disorder, MPD) to be real. I understand that the majority of cases are found in the US. Either way, this book was written as a true account and that's how I'm going to treat it (mostly).

Sybil is the story of a woman with DID. She has sixteen separate personalities. Quite frankly I don't consider all sixteen to be either complete personalities or completely separate, but that may be simply due to the constraints of the book. Perhaps if I had met them myself, I would have found them to be separate personalities. The reason for Sybil's personalities appears to be the abuse she suffered at the hands of a diagnosed but untreated schizophrenic mother. At one point in the book the abuse suffered by Sybil, and other children, at the hands of the mother is recounted. The abuse, however, is not dwelt on, which I feel is a good thing. It's important to understand the causes, but there's no need to portray it graphically. There are, however, places where I feel that either the causes were not explained well enough, or the cause is simply unbelievable. Two personalities appear simply because a doctor walked away from a two- or three-year old and sent her back to her abusive home? There's either something I don't understand, or there's something missing from this explanation.

The focus of the book is Sybil's psychoanalysis with Dr Wilbur. I have to say that, on many levels, I object to Dr Wilbur. She does not maintain any objective distance from her patient, in fact she befriends a number of the personalities. Possibly this was necessary as the case was exceedingly complex and groundbreaking. I do feel though, that her professional integrity is damaged by this. There is some suggestion that Dr Wilbur manipulated Sybil into believing she had DID when she didn't and I can only feel that it's strengthened by Dr Wilbur's inability to maintain professional distance. Also, she's a Freudian psychoanalyst and I deeply distrust Freudian anything.

At the end of the book, Sybil is reintegrated. She's a whole, single person, though the personalities do in some measure still exist within the confines of her mind. I feel that this whole process is treated far too superficially. Either that, or the entire was superficial because the disorder didn't exist to begin with. I can't decide. Either way, I felt the end of the book was lacking because of this and there is a sense that the happy ending is contrived.

This is a deeply moving story, regardless of whether or not it's true. It gives one the ability to imagine the fear that someone suffering from DID must feel when they come back to themselves and find that they've lost time. It's well written and easy to read, despite a proliferation of technical terms. This is a book that I recommend regardless of the veracity of the account.

Tuesday, 05 October 2010

The Wild Gourmets

When the apocalypse comes, this is the book I'll grab and take with me into the wasteland that was the world. Unsurprisingly I picked this up at an Exclusive Books sale. It's a fantastic book, though I've not made a single recipe from it or, in fact, used it at all.

Ever wanted to know how to make a tent or catch a rabbit (sorry Phillygirl) or generally do those things that there's no real need for in this day and age? This book will tell you how. It includes a variety of recipes to cook with your foraged and hunted food. If I ever do serious camping, this is the book that I'll take with me.

My one objection to it as a survival guide is that it relies on nearby farmers for dairy products and suchlike, which you won't be able to get when the zombies come. Also, it's a British book and, unsurprisingly, is geared towards foraging your way around England. Not much use when you're on the other end of Africa, but it's still a fantastic book.

The Year of Magical Thinking

I read this book a few years ago and found it interesting. In the wake of actually experiencing grief myself I thought it might be worth rereading.

It's a good book, well written. I think, however, that while her experiences may be analogous to mine (the cognitive deficits, the denial, the avoiding of reminders, etc.) the simple fact that she had so much else to deal with, with her daughter's illness, makes the story somewhat inaccessible.

It's a fascinating insight into the way her mind dealt with the sudden loss of her husband. Some of her experiences are similar to mine and, no doubt, every other grieving person on the planet. But the simple fact that her situation is not mine - I do not have an ill daughter, I can not rely on a life's worth of work to buoy me up while I grieve, I need to work - means that what she went through is not particularly comforting to me.

This is a good book and you should probably read it. Just don't read it while you're grieving, because it's not the comfort they suggest it is.

Monday, 04 October 2010

Little Town on the Prairie

This is the seventh book in this series and so far, though I've not read all the previous six, it's my favourite. Laura, author and main character ages from 14 at the beginning of the book to very nearly 16 at the end. Calm, sedate Mary goes off to the school for the blind in Iowa and while her family might miss her, it doesn't really affect the rest of the book.

This is the book that takes a step away from the intense focus on the immediate Ingalls family and starts to really interact with others. Laura and younger sister Carrie attend the local school and form friendships with other children there. The family again spends the winter in town, though this is a far milder winter than the previous one they experienced (see The Long Winter), and as a result they are far more social. At least part of this may be due to the fact that there are far more families in the area than there were the previous year.

Anyway, it's a classic series that you really should read. It's also worth reading from an adult perspective, in my opinion, if you enjoy historical stories.

Coming Out Asperger: Diagnosis, Disclosure and Self-Confidence

This is one of those academic style books, that has a variety of papers/articles, though it doesn't seem to be aimed at an academic audience. Being fairly academic myself, I appreciate the format because it enables me to get a variety of opinions and perspectives on this issue.

Of course, the majority of viewpoints seem to be starting from the worst-possible outcome as a result of disclosure and there doesn't seem to be terribly much attention paid to the middle-ground. I think that the ones who say that it's best to deal with disclosure on a one-on-one basis are probably right. The difference between 'hard' and 'soft' disclosure doesn't really make much sense to me, but I do agree that different degrees of disclosure are appropriate in differing settings and cases.

On the whole, this is a useful book, though it does tend to focus more on disclosure in situations where it becomes a necessity rather than a choice.

Sunday, 03 October 2010

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

I love books about language. This is a particularly good one. The focus of this book is punctuation. There are examples of rules (though this is not a rule-book or style-guide) and errors, as well as a variety of rants on an apparent inability to use punctuation properly and the apathy with which most people seem to view this inability.

I think it might be time to free my inner punctuation-Nazi. This book is a call-to-arms for all language-lovers. The way in which we communicate is being degraded daily. As Confucius said, "If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant."

Good Tempered Food

I picked this up (at an Exclusive Books sale, what a surprise!) because I have this image of myself in my head. It's an image of a highly domesticated woman who spends hours in her kitchen and garden, being domestic. It's not who I usually am, but every now and then I manage it. This book helps.

There are a multitude of recipes in here that I'd love to try, but just haven't gotten around to. There are others that I'm waiting to make until I've got my first million (ten clementines to make jelly? Really?). And there are others that I've made many times already. Poor Man's Potatoes. Greek Potatoes. Caraway Rolls. That chocolate dessert, the name of which escapes me right now.

If you love to cook and (even only occasionally) have the time to spend over it, then this is a book for you.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter

I watched the first episode of the tv show based on this novel. At least, I watched part of the first episode, I don't remember if I saw it end. I must admit that from what I remember of the tv show as compared to this book, I definitely prefer the book. Goodness, what a surprise! There are very few cases where I actually prefer a movie or television adaptation to the book.

Having the protagonist be a serial killer is not usual in crime novels. Particularly ones that focus on the investigation and the team of police involved. It makes a nice change to see things through a double lens. It also allows one to experience murder through the eyes of a killer without it being the murder perpetrated by the guy that the police are trying to catch. I like to get both perspectives, but don't particularly like having knowledge about the 'bad guy' that the police/investigators don't have. It just frustrates me. Having one of the cops be a serial killer vigilante seems to solve that problem nicely.

I can't say that I didn't see the twist at the end coming, but it was enjoyably done and well-written. I don't know what the rest of the series is like, but I'll be keeping an eye out for them. This is definitely one that I'd recommend, though I imagine that it would be a different read if I'd watched enough of the tv show to know exactly what was going to happen all the way through.