Books 2016 Q1

As usual in Lent, I give up reading detective stories in order to wider my horizons.  This year, to concentrate on the Far East in preparation for my trip.

Janwillem van de Wetering, A Glimpse of Nothingness: Experiences in an American Zen Community

Sequel to The Empty Mirror, which I must have given away.  In the first book, the author comes to a Japanese Zen monastery and asks to be admitted.  He is assigned to an American Zen student, Peter, who becomes his host and mentor.  In the second book, the Old Master has died, and Peter has his own monastery in the wilds of North America.  Janwillem (at least I assume this is autobiographical), now working and married, visits, not as a raw novice but as someone ready to begin solving the koans which are a key part of the training in that branch of Zen.  “Glimpse” is right; he observes and notes without looking for explanation.  The author also wrote a series of Dutch detective stories, where the main police characters show traits of his interest in Zen.

Jennifer Barclay, Meeting Mr Kim: Or How I Went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi

A wonderful travel memoir.  When her boyfriend is offered a contract as drummer in a rock band for a season at the Hyatt Hotel in Seoul, she goes with him, but, finding the city cold, stiff and unfriendly, ventures out into the countryside and is welcomed into Buddhist monasteries and people’s homes.  I don’t think I have the physical or social courage, but wouldn’t it be splendid if …  An appendix helpfully lists some Korean restaurants in London.

Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality: A Guide for the Perplexed

Philip Sheldrake distinguishes four types of spirituality : ascetical, mystical, practical and prophetic.

In Psalm 95 at Morning Prayer, modern liturgies sometimes stop at the words “O, that today you would listen to his
voice!”  In the ascetic tradition, this is a matter of discipline, focussing on God through religious practice.  In the mystical tradition, listening becomes hearing, and (whether or not through the practice), a new relation with God is possible.  The practical tradition affirms that this takes place here, now, and everywhere, in daily life, not (or not only) in silent or desert places.  And in the prophetic tradition, the listening/hearing becomes a reception and proclamation of the word.

Isaiah was in the temple, and saw a visionand felt a live coal touch his lips, while living “in the midst of a people of unclean lips”, and responded “Here am I; send me.”

Thus all four types are possible emphases in these familiar texts.  (My commentary, not Sheldrake’s.)

He has written many books on spirituality.   This one tries to assess the role of spirituality in the major world religions and in secular environments, which means he has to spend a lot of time describing the religions rather than on the range of spiritual insights.

Anne Tyler: Digging to America

Two families in Baltimore, one American, one Indian, adopt Korean babies who arrive by the same train.  This is the story of the interactions of the extended families over the next five or six years.

Simon Winchester: Korea

A walk northward through the peninsula, fully aware of the historical background and the legacy of past conflicts.

Craig McLachlan: Four Pairs of Boots: A 3,200 Kilometre Hike the Length of Japan

The first account I read of such a walk was probably the one by Alan Booth, in whose memory the author took this one.  I have read two other books of his: Wandering with Basho (a friend, not the Zen poet) and Tales of a Summer Henro, which were more interesting because of the temple and pilgrim associations.  This seems just a walk.

Monisha Rajesh: Around India in 80 Trains

A journalist in search of her roots, and her amazing journey, with the help of Anusha at the International UK bookings desk and the volatile relationship with “Passepartout”.  A good read, especially for railway buffs.

Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred

I returned to this book because it begins and ends at Angkor Wat, and may thus be responsible for my decision to visit Cambodia on my world journey in the autumn. Lots of little snippets, from his own experience and other people’s, interspersed with exercises for the reader, encourage me to believe that my journey matters, however mixed the motivation.

Cynthia Bourgeault, Centring Prayer and Inner Awakening

This was lent to me by my spiritual director after a conversation about meditation in different faith traditions.  I found it hard going.  I had just about got as far as using a mantra, and this tradition discards it as too cataphatic (“prayer that … engages our reason, memory, imadinatin, feelings, and will”).  What cheered me up, towards the end, was a statement from a gathering of contemplatives from different schools:

“The Gospel is the core of Christian living.  It has within in a contemplative dimension.  This dimension is God’s invitation to every human being, through Jesus Christ, to share God’s very nature.  It begins as a way of listening with ears, eyes and heart.  It grows as a desire to know God and to enter into God’s love.  This is made possible by a dying to self or emptying to self that becomes a radical emptying to God and experience of God’s love.  Through a pattern of abiding in God that we call contemplative prayer, a change of consciousness takes place.  This dynamic sharing of God’s nature forms each person and opens them to the mind and very life of Christ, challenging them to be instruments of God’s love and energy in the world.  This contemplative consciousness bonds each person in a union with God and with all other persons.  It enables them to find God present in all things.”

And then she writes on the distinctive contribution of the Centring Prayer tradition as developed by Thomas Keating: “Most traditional methods of meditation aim for clarity of mind.  Centring prayer aims for purity (in other words, ‘singleness’) of heart.”

Simon Garfield, On the Map: Why the world looks the way it does

A light-hearted history of map-making, from cave drawings to fantasy maps and GPS.  Less academic than I was expecting.  He almost persuaded me to hop on the next train to Hereford to see Mappa Mundi.

J M Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus

When I took this out of the library, I already knew that the title is misleading, but I was expecting, from the blurb on thre back cover, that it would be more about the experience of refugees.  A middleaged man and an unrelated small boy, having crossed the Mediterranean by boat and learned Spanish in a refugee camp, arrive in a town to begin the next stage of their lives.  After a problem in finding the key to the room they have been allocated, they are actually treated amazingly well – he finds a job at the first attempt, and they are rehoused in a flat where they make friends with a neighbouring mother and son.  After that it turns into a sort of Brave New World, with the son emerging as the noble savage, teaching himself to read with a borrowed children’s edition of Don Quixote, and insisting that they drive away to a new life.  The most obvious Christian references are to resurrection of the third day, but there are many moments when some insight into the human condition seems to be just round the corner.

Joanne Harris, Peaches for Monsieur le Curé

A Sequel to Chocolat.  Vianne returns to Lansquenet with her two daughters, and discovers that a Muslim community has moved in and her old shop first taken over for an Islamic girls’ school and then damaged by arson.  The curé is suspected, and suspended from his duties.  Vianne seeks reconciliation between old and new enemies, with an outcome in some ways as sugary-sweet as her own confections.  The priest is attacked, captured, and finally reinstated, and (apart from the two people at the centre of the trouble) everyone happily troops off to an Eid party.

Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Fantasy novel in which very little is explained at great length.  What happens to a young man after he gives up his job, his wife leaves him, and even the cat disappears? Encounters, in real life, dream, and cyberspace, with several incredible women and a few rather more realistic men.  I had read his Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which has a simpler and more depressing plot about a man who is suddenly ostracized by his friends and, years later, tries to discover why.  Not inclined to read any more.

Tracy Chevalier, The Lady and the Unicorn

I was lent this by someone who saw my cross-stitch version of the Taste tapestry.  Hard to believe I had not read it before – I think I knew about it – but if I had, surely some detail would have rung a bell.  Fascinating details of the weaver’s workshop in Brussels, with the whole family helping in various ways – including the wife who does some of the weaving in contravention to the guild rules, and the blind daughter who sews up the gaps.  The Paris side of the story is less appealing.

Matthew Amster-Burton, Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo

An enthusiast for Japanese food and lifestyle, with like-minded 8-year-old daughter and more doubtful wife, on the delights of Tokyo.  A good read.  He has done Hong Kong as well.

Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language

Tough going philosophy of language.  I leaved through it, a chapter a day, and occasionally found something I partly understood.  (I bought this, along with The Other Mountain, at his poetry reading at the London Buddhist Centre.)

John Mabry, A Christian Walks in the Footsteps of the Buddha

Much more openminded than I expected from the title.  A pastor spends his sabbatical in India, Thailand and Taiwan exploring Buddhist traditions, just as I shall, and finds his faith challenged not by the encounter with other faiths but by a sense of God’s absence.  I’d like to meet him.