You know your life is boring when every other blog post is a book review. Fortunately, my literary life is wildly interesting, and I’m happy to share it with you. I usually reserve five-star ratings for practically perfect books, but sometimes I give them out to books I love, in spite of their flaws. Your mileage may vary, but if you feel the same, we might be long-lost kindred spirits.
The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life by Terryl L. Givens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The God Who Weeps tops the list of my favorite books about my faith. I found this both a thought-provoking and a faith-provoking book. Terryl and Fiona Givens have distilled some of the most powerful core doctrines of the Mormon faith into a slim volume brimming with hope, philosophy, and divine compassion.
Basing their premise on Enoch’s moving description of his encounter with a weeping God, they describe the ultimate power in the universe in startlingly personal terms, as a being who not only loves us, but knows us intimately and weeps for us and with us.
One of the things I loved best was the broad range of sources from literature, poetry, philosophy, and Christian history that the Givens invoked as powerful and moving illustrations. I would have liked to hear more discussion of the male/female duality of God, although they at least brought it up in their chapter on the Hymn of the Pearl.
This is the first book I would recommend for non-Mormons curious about the Mormon conception of God and the meaning of life. I would also recommend it for those like me, who grew up Mormon and are working to re-engage their childhood faith in a way that feels authentic.
River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
After reading and loving Under Heaven, I was a little afraid to read this one, for fear that it would not be as good. And it’s true, it took me a little longer to get into it, if for no other reason than that the fifteen-year-old bandit was not as likeable of a protagonist to me as the cultured and courageous (if eccentric) Shen Tai of the earlier novel.
However, after a few chapters I was pulled into the story and soon utterly enamored. It is rare for a book to move me to tears, and yet both of these novels have done so. I love the broad historical sweep, the sense of the interplay between fate and chance and individual decisions. Kay writes as a bemused historian, a philosopher, and an intimate biographer. His version of fantasy is simply to plunge us into a world where the invisible forces of the spirit world in which his historically inspired characters believe are as real to us as they are to them. The effect is subtle, but powerful. One of his great strengths is the ability to paint even a minor character in a few vivid strokes that bring him or her completely to life.
There were a few moments in which Kay seemed overly self-conscious as author and omniscient commentator, momentarily pulling the reader out of the story in disorientation. Still, this is a wonderful, memorable book, and a worthy successor to Under Heaven.
Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran by Jason Elliot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Travel writing is an interesting genre, which apart from acquainting the reader with a place, gives him or her a rather intimate introduction to the author in a variety of unusual and highly challenging settings. Jason Elliot is a well-read, cultured traveler with an adventurous spirit and an affinity for meaningful cultural exchange. In short, I think he would make an absolutely delightful traveling companion. Not to mention the fact that his prose is so flawlessly elegant that I think I’m developing a serious literary crush.
Mirrors of the Unseen chronicles many months of Eliot’s solo travels through Iran. He is well-versed in Persian art, and his effusive descriptions of architectural wonders can be a bit bewildering without a picture in front of you. He has included some photos, but it’s a little confusing to navigate through all the different places and match them up. However, I enjoyed his liberal quoting of other travelers to the region, especially the colorful observations of Byron.
What I really loved were the accounts of his many encounters with Iranians, from the devious haggling taxi drivers to the many warm-hearted strangers who took him into their homes and made him welcome. Reading this book made Iran and its people real for me, and I’d love to visit Iran myself now. Especially with Jason Eliot (or at least with his book in hand).
If you would like to learn more about Iran than you hear on the nightly news, I highly recommend this fascinating book.
Project Conversion: One Man, 12 Faiths, One Year by Andrew Bowen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
First of all, I hate to rain on the feel-good parade, but this guy is in serious need of a copy editor. As in, besides the obvious typos, he’s never even heard of the past perfect tense. Also, I wonder when the year-long personal quest/book deal fad will finally run its course.
That said, this book did have some redeeming qualities. So even though it’s really only a two or 2.5 star book, I’m going to go ahead and cut Andrew Bowen some slack and give him three stars, just for the significant personal achievement of going from closed-minded bigot to advocate for everyone he used to hate in one short year.
This book chronicles how Bowen, a self-described bitter atheist (and former intolerant Christian), lived a different faith every month for a year. In many ways, it’s similar to Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor, except that Bowen goes well beyond Christianity, devoting months to faiths as diverse as Buddhism, Wicca, and Zoroastrianism. He even spends a memorable month meeting with the Mormon missionaries.
I enjoyed reading about his plunge into each faith and don’t doubt his sincerity, but I remain skeptical that a month inside a faith with no plans for long-term commitment is long enough to really understand it. There’s always some hubris involved in these sorts of projects, and Bowen is no exception. He even considers going off and starting his own religion.
Still, if the goal was getting to know some members of each faith and trying to listen and learn respect for other religions, then Bowen has ably accomplished it. There are better introductions to each particular faith than this book, but for an interesting and sincerely-written testimonial of the virtues and unexpected joys of religious toleration, it does quite well.
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