April has turned out to be my least successful month so far in the Reading Challenge. I’m not surprised or the least bit discouraged, though. Writing some of the last papers of my undergraduate career, compiling two portfolios, and dissecting the data that comprises my capstone research project must be worthy reasons to slack off in the pleasure reading department. Graduation is looming large and I have a pile of books just waiting for that time when I’m my own person once again. I’m anticipating that I’ll make up lost ground pretty quickly in the next few months.
As April draws to a close, I’m only working on one very interesting and very short paper for an on-line Culture and the Arts class, and the completion of a very long and very involved research study requiring a twenty page paper (which is almost written) and a thirty minute presentation. The light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to blind me. I couldn’t be happier! I also couldn’t be happier with the two books I did manage to finish in the midst of all that other madness this month.
- Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. At its core, Shadow if the Wind is an atmospheric coming of age tale about a motherless boy set in Barcelona, Spain after WWII. When Daniel is eleven years old, his father, a bookshop owner, takes him to a secret library containing rooms full of old and forgotten books. He is allowed to choose one book to keep and care for. The book he chooses, or rather the book that chooses him, is called Shadow of the Wind. The author, Julian Carax, is shrouded in a mystery that consumes Daniel and propels him on a life and death adventure. The story of Daniel, and consequently of Julian, is wrapped in an excellent depiction of Spain struggling to recover after WWII. Rich and detailed character development made the reading intriguing and pleasurable. Just one warning: Shadow of the Wind is rather dark and spooky, addressing heavy subjects like evil, regret, cowardice, and the consequences of beliefs and actions (well-intended or otherwise). It is an excellent and very satisfying read, but don’t expect too many warm fuzzies. (4.5/5 stars)
- An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. A quote from the prologue:
“What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.”
From this staring point, Miss Taylor proposes that the whole of the natural world is The House of God, or Bethel (from the Hebrew). Altars exist anywhere in this world where we human beings have met or meet up with God. To the author, a Yale-trained Episcopal pastor turned world religions professor, God is “the Really Real” or “the More” that we humans are always searching for. In essence, the altars are places of relationship: with our own bodies and selves, with the natural world, with other human beings, and with God. These relationships and experiences draw us close to “the Really Real” God of the universe.
Each chapter of the book is dedicated to a single practice that helps us to recognize God in our everyday lives. Some of the most significant practices to me are Paying Attention (Reverence), Saying No (Sabbath), Being Present To God (Prayer), and Pronouncing Blessings (Benediction), but I could easily devote entire posts to many of the practices in the book. No practice takes special knowledge, skills or tools. They just require a focused awareness and a desire to recognize and experience God for who he is.
For anyone the least bit curious about a meaningful spiritual life beyond the four walls of the church, this is a fabulous book with real life applications. Very wise and sincere counsel is packaged in Ms. Taylor’s engaging and accessible writing style. I think An Altar in the World might be one of the best books I’ve read this year… (5/5 stars)