2017-07-12
Reprinted with permission from Publishers Weekly magazine.

Fiction | Non-fiction | Self-help/Inspiration | Theology and Prayer

Fiction

In This Mountain
By Jan Karon
Viking


Fans of Mitford, N.C., will rejoice over this anticipated full-length seventh installment in the bestselling series, especially those disappointed with its shorter, rather lightweight predecessor, "A Common Life."

Although this offering is permeated with Karon's trademark charm, the plot isn't all sweetness and light. Three years have passed since Father Tim Kavanagh and his wife, Cynthia, returned to Mitford from Whitecap Island, and depression and discontent are gnawing away at the good cleric as he faces the big "7-0." As Cynthia's career reaches new heights, Father Tim makes some personal decisions that lead to tragedy. But never fear - although Karon strikes some somber notes, she avoids becoming heavy-handed.

Devoted readers will find the same appealing characters and enchanting writing that originally won them to the series. Edith Mallory is up to her old tricks, plotting her seduction of Father Tim, and haircut wars are fought between barber Joe Ivey and stylist Fancy Skinner. Convicted jewel thief George Gaynor returns to the series after his release from jail; something new is cooking down at the Main Street Grill; and Dooley Barlowe learns the ropes of romance even as he agonizes over a search that may turn up his lost father and brothers. Karon more fully fleshes out two of the series' minor characters, Helene Pringle and Hope Winchester, and introduces newcomer Millie Tipton, a wise-cracking Methodist preacher who fits comfortably into town life.

Homespun dialogue, fresh and lively descriptions, laugh-out-loud moments and poignant scenes mark the heartfelt book, which is a happy reunion for Mitford devotees.

Ecstasy
By Sudhir Kakar

Overlook

Set in 20th-century India, yet based on the historical narratives of 19th-century mystics, this intriguing bildungsroman is a free-floating excursion into the psychological paradoxes of the pursuit of nirvana. As Gopal, a young Brahmin and aspiring sadhu (monk), grows up in a 1930s village, his feminine appearance and strong attachment to his mother indicate his ambiguous sexuality. Signs of his saintliness are evident from the beginning as well, and his ascension to the position of Paramahamsa Ram Das Baba is heavily foreshadowed.

Jumping ahead several decades, we meet Vivek, a worldly, well-educated student wrestler who visits Ram Das Baba on a whim and is shocked by the warmth and intensity of his welcome. After making it clear that Vivek, too, shows signs of a spiritual calling--including a keen disinterest in women--the narrative returns to Gopal's youth and recalls his captivating ascent to sainthood.

Central to this transformation are talking bronze idols, tantalizing visions of the sex act, possession by female goddesses and six-week meditation fasts. As in "The Ascetic of Desire," Kakar's fascinating novel that doubled as an essay on sex, the author's greatest strengths lie in his ability to portray the emotional conflicts resulting from physical experiences. Simple daily events and godly revelations are narrated in the same gentle, vivid prose.

Although Kakar's sympathies and well-honed talent are generously devoted to the exploration of his characters' mystic experiences, his clear awareness of their interpretation in Western culture can border on irony. At times, his half-grounded, half-fantastic narration causes his characters to seem naive and misguided. Whether this is part of the tangled web Kakar weaves or simply an unfortunate consequence of his attempt to combine story and philosophy remains open to interpretation, like much of this lusciously imagined novel.

They Shall See God
By Athol Dickson
Tyndale


The Christian market sorely needs more quality suspense novels, and Dickson's excellent offering makes a solid contribution to the genre.

Rabbi Ruth Gold and lapsed Protestant Kate Flint share a hideous legacy from their childhood: together they stumbled upon a murder scene, then helped incarcerate the man they saw holding a knife by the victim. Now he's been released after 25 years in prison, and a bizarre string of events mimicking stories from the biblical book of Genesis unfolds in present-day New Orleans. Gold's boyfriend is poisoned with cyanide after eating an apple in her living room, a brother is tricked into killing his brother and wild animals are released from the zoo to roam the city. Meanwhile, tension escalates between Gold's Jewish congregation and a group of Christian fanatics who picket the temple and badger the Jewish people to turn to Jesus.

The multiple points of view give the novel a disjointed feel, and the book's intended CBA audience might have benefited from a glossary of the Jewish terms sprinkled showily throughout (Instead of rounding up a minyan to say kaddish, I was wondering if you'd come to Mama's grave and light a yahrzeit candle with me and say shehecheyanu?). However, the writing is original, with unexpected touches of humor, and contains enough plot twists to keep the reader guessing until the final pages. Although this is a highly entertaining nail-biter, one of the novel's significant accomplishments is its potential to promote greater understanding between people of both faiths.

Fiction | Non-fiction | Self-help/Inspiration | Theology and Prayer

Non-Fiction

Three Strides Before the Wire: The Dark and Beautiful World of Horse Racing
By Elizabeth Mitchell
Hyperion, 320p.


A contributing editor at Newsweek and author of W: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty, Mitchell was drawn into the sport of horse racing by chance. In 1999, Mitchell and her boyfriend, Chuck, then undergoing treatment for leukemia, made a spontaneous trip to the Kentucky Derby. Basing her wager on a portentous dream, Mitchell picked the winning horse, Charismatic, a 20-1 long shot, and thus began her research into Charismatic's story.

Almost given up on by his owners and trainers, Charismatic wasn't the only surprise victor that year; his jockey and trainer were also amazing comeback stories. A shy and quiet kid who set several racing records while still a teenager, jockey Chris Antley didn't handle success well. Drugs and depression seemed to have taken their final toll when Antley, who had grown over an inch in a bizarre, late growth spurt, was saddled with an extra 15 pounds (jockeys must maintain strict, low weight to ride). Charismatic's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, was a champion trainer whose reputation was losing ground to younger trainers.

Mitchell weaves these struggles (as well as that of her stricken boyfriend) into a story that raises the question of the importance of luck, fate, work and genetics in the lives of man and beast. Mitchell's easy tone is backed by meticulous research, including original author interviews. Though the stories are often exceedingly poignant, Mitchell is never cloying; this beautiful book makes a distinct contribution to a singularly American sport and culture.

My Jihad: An American Mujahid's Amazing Experiences in the World of Jihad, Bin Laden's Training Camps,and the Central Intelligence Agency
By Aukai Collins
Lyons Press


Collins, a former mujahid and Phoenix-based FBI informant, has recently been in the news for allegedly having warned the FBI to no avail about one of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Here he focuses mostly on his experiences fighting along with an associate of Bin Laden's in Chechnya, as well as his bitter misadventures with the FBI. (Subtitle notwithstanding, he worked primarily for the FBI but did some joint missions with the CIA.)

Collins, 28, converted to Islam while serving time as a teenager in a California prison for attempted robbery. After his release, he decided to make jihad in Bosnia in the early 1990s, and thus began an odyssey with the mujahideen that took him to training camps in Kashmir and Afghanistan and to the front lines in Chechnya. He became disillusioned, however, when some extremist factions began terrorizing civilians, and decided he could best preserve the sanctity of jihad by helping Americans rout the true terrorists.

But his FBI gig wasn't much more fulfilling; Collins scathingly critiques what he casts as the Bureau's willful ignorance (they didn't understand, for instance, that mosques were the wrong places to look for extremists), their self-defeating rules (he was not allowed to go undercover to a camp actually run by Bin Laden himself) and their general bureaucratic bumbling. The book doesn't offer much historical or political background, but Collins is a vivid raconteur and his accounts of illegal border-crossings in lawless Afghanistan and Dagestan are as gripping as the descriptions of actual battles. His firsthand view of the FBI, though clearly one-sided, should interest readers as well.

God: A Brief History
By John Bowker
DK Publishing


Having already written a lushly illustrated overview of the beliefs and practices of the world's religions (World Religions, also from DK), Bowker turns his attention to God and produces a book chock-full of facts, stories, legends and illustrations about the ways that religious traditions have developed their beliefs in God. Bowker first examines the ideas of Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Freud and others to demonstrate that all individuals and societies grapple with the meaning of God.

In roughly chronological order, Bowker surveys the history of belief in God in animistic religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He explores various aspects of this belief, such as the meaning of dharma, the concept of wisdom and the nature of pilgrimage. Yet Bowker's book contains numerous problems. First, he never explains what he means by God. Is God the same as the Sacred or the Divine? Without a clearer explanation, many of the religions that he examines Buddhism, for example cannot be said to have a God. Second, does God indeed have a history? That implies that God would have had a beginning and will have an end, which runs counter to the notion that God is eternal and ahistorical.

Third, because he does not provide a clear definition of God, Bowker levels the differences among the world's religions so that it appears that the God of Judaism is the same as the God of Hinduism. At best, Bowker provides a superficial overview of the history of belief in God for the "religion lite" crowd.

Fiction | Non-fiction | Self-help/Inspiration | Theology and Prayer

Self-Help/Inspiration

Reach! Finding Strength, Spirit and Personal Power
By Laila Ali with David Ritz
Hyperion 288p


Twenty-three-year-old professional boxer Laila Ali, daughter of Muhammad Ali and Veronica Porche, notes, "I've always been a little suspicious of people who write books the minute they get famous... if I write a book... it's going to have to help people and tell the truth."

Ali attempts to do that, but falls slightly short, offering instead a chronicle of her childhood and career thus far. In a direct, no-nonsense narrative, she discusses her feelings of isolation as her parents focused more on their public face than on family. She endured physical abuse, arrests, stints in jail and stays at a group home. Ali admits she was a difficult child, uninterested in school and sometimes mingling with the wrong crowd, but given the lack of supervision, this isn't surprising.

Ali's honesty is appealing and readers will be sympathetic to her adolescent difficulties. However, her book lacks a strong motivational element. While Ali discusses her own development, she fails to generalize for readers. The chapter headings (referred to as "rounds") suggest a self-help message (e.g., "Developing Independence"; "Coping with Confusion"), yet Ali merely shares her experiences and doesn't offer advice. Some readers will be inspired by the author's words, e.g., "Everyone's story is special" and "Success is built on a foundation of hard work," but had Ali explained more of her decisions rather than simply recording the events of her life, her book would have been a more valuable inspirational tome.

If the Spirit Moves You: Life and Love After Death
By Justine Picardie.
Riverhead, 272 pp.


As an editor at London's Observer, Picardie hired her younger sister, Ruth, to write a series of columns chronicling her personal experiences with breast cancer. After submitting only a few essays, Ruth, the mother of two-year-old twins, died at age 33. Justine and Ruth had been exceptionally close, and here the surviving sibling offers diary entries from her own year of mourning between Good Friday 2000 and Easter Sunday 2001.

Picardie is no stranger to death, undergoing an unusual number of losses through illness, accident and suicide, and this excess along with her deep grief over her sister's death leads her on a quest for answers to one of life's most basic mysteries: "Where do the dead go?" Missing Ruth terribly, Picardie realizes, "I didn't expect silence," and begins watching for signs and messages. Urgently seeking communication with "the other side," Picardie visits "spiritualists," scientific researchers and inventors of electronic machines that claim to record the voices of the dead. With obsessive hope and healthy skepticism, Picardie haunts the Internet, flies halfway around the world to a conference of psychic mediums and studies Freud and Jung's unpublished correspondences. She describes her dreams of Ruth and arguments with her rational "imaginary therapist."

Frustrated with Ruth's silence, the author reveals the mourner's secret fear that "she doesn't love me anymore; she doesn't want to talk to me." Originally published by Macmillan in Great Britain, this well-told tale is a deeply touching, intellectually captivating investigation into the elusive nature of love and death.

Ten Secrets for Success and Inner Peace
By Wayne Dyer
Hay House


Popular motivational lecturer and bestselling author Wayne Dyer's latest book is a small volume that reveals some basic principles for changing one's outlook on life. "Ten Secrets for Success and Inner Peace" is a simple, honest guide to living happily. Among his recommendations: have a mind that is open to everything and attached to nothing, treat yourself as if you already are what you'd like to be and wisdom is avoiding all thoughts that weaken you. Dyer's words are complemented by pastel-colored watercolors; the plush cover and small size make this a good gift.

God's Leading Lady: Out of the Shadows and into the Light
By T.D. Jakes
Putnam


In the tradition of "Woman, Thou Art Loosed!" and "The Lady, Her Lover, and Her Lord," Bishop Jakes continues to uplift Christian women with this charge for them to step out of the shadows and take their positions onstage as God's leading ladies. The stage metaphor is carried throughout; Jakes encourages women to master the art of improvisation (to put aside pre-arranged scripts... and go with what works in the moment) and to transcend life's outtakes (embarrassing failures).

The writing style is vintage Jakes: he poses rhetorical but energetic questions to the reader, shares personal examples from his own life and draws upon the models other women have provided for success. He profiles several biblical women who knew how to step into the limelight: Deborah, Jael, Mary the mother of Jesus, Ruth, Sarah, Tamar and Eve all get juicy roles in Jakes's production. He deals with some sticky biblical passages, arguing, for example, that the let-wives-be-subject-to-their-husbands verse in Ephesians has too often been taken out of context and used to suppress women and rob them of their voices.

Jakes also points to modern-day leading ladies, such as radio magnate Cathy Hughes, television icon Oprah Winfrey and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt as role models. Some of his self-help advice is clicheed; readers are asked to decide, for example, whether their trials will make them bitter or better. Overall, however, Jakes offers a fresh and compassionate summons for women to recognize their divine worth.

The Soul Garden: Creating Green Spaces for Inner Growth & Spiritual Renewal
By Donald Norfolk
Overlook


Norfolk, former president of the Osteopathic Association of Great Britain and Fellow of the Royal Society of Health, observed a clear trend during 40 years of London health-care practice. Although his patients came from all walks of life, those who were gardeners enjoyed an above-average degree of physical and mental well-being. In 12 compelling and gentle how-to chapters, Norfolk essentially makes the same argument that Joni Mitchell did: We've got to get ourselves back to the garden.

The soul garden, an envisioned place, has special attributes that make that spot, no matter how big or small, a destination of rejuvenation, wildness, serenity, variety, imperfection, play, spiritual and physical stimulation and mental rest. A fine armchair read, Norfolk's prose itself is an interesting tramp across a varied landscape, embracing many cultures, eras and beliefs, plus topographies of the body and soul. This heterogeneity of examples ultimately makes the most compelling case for his argument. He also suggests methods for anyone of any age, even the city dweller, to seek out and share the Divine in a garden.

Confirmed gardeners and spiritual seekers will enjoy this volume, as will those who are uncertain about getting their hands dirty. Norfolk writes for all our sakes, and his potent summons rings true: Our crusade must be to create a better world today. We must form a bouquet with the flowers within our grasp.

A Monk in the World: Cultivating a Spiritual Life
By Wayne Teasdale
New World Library


With his new book, Teasdale ("The Mystic Heart"), a Catholic lay monk, answers that most pressing of questions for all who look to live in spiritually disciplined ways in the real world: How then shall we live?

Teasdale himself was set to live as a sannyasi--a renunciate in a Christian ashram in India--until his teacher Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine, gently kicked him out, challenging him to be a monk in the world. And so it has been for Teasdale, who teaches and writes in the thick of urban life in Chicago. The author tells of his practical teachers: the homeless of the city, a recent bout with cancer, the need to make a living, the constraints of working within a church he loves but with which he has publicly disagreed.

As his examples from life demonstrate, he practices what he preaches about living simply, with compassion and deep respect for the world's religious traditions. The book is on firmest ground when the author recounts his experiences and affectionately describes the persons who have greatly shaped him, from Bede Griffiths to his Uncle John to the Dalai Lama. Concluding chapters are more conceptual than concrete, and suffer from some woolliness. But what Teasdale lacks in precision he makes up for with evident passion and persistence in championing the universal spiritual truths of compassion for sentient beings and mystical higher awareness.

Powerful Inspirations: Eight Lessons That Will Change Your Life
By Kathy Ireland
Doubleday


Model, actress and entrepreneur Kathy Ireland proves that she's not just another pretty face in "Powerful Inspirations: Eight Lessons That Will Change Your Life." The self-help lessons presented here--cultivate strong families, understand your own worth, save part of your income, etc.--may be prosaic, but Ireland salvages the book with down-to-earth personal anecdotes.

This book will be most appreciated by conservative Christian women, since Ireland often speaks to women directly and peppers the chapters with discussions of her faith in God and the rationale underlying her pro-life activism.

Fiction | Non-fiction | Self-help/Inspiration | Theology and Prayer

Theology and Prayer

Knowing Christ
By Alister McGrath
Doubleday


Oxford theologian McGrath, whose recent "In the Beginning" chronicled the history of the King James Bible, offers here a personal look at his own spiritual journey. He admits that his own early attempts to know Christ were marked by rational investigations of Jesus' life and times, as well as intellectual struggles with church doctrine. McGrath's turning point came about a year and a half after he became a Christian, when he read Philippians 3:8 ("I regard everything as a loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord").

As a result of this personal epiphany, McGrath immersed himself in the classical writings of Christian spirituality, ranging from Bernard of Clairvaux and Francis de Sales to Teresa of Avila. He concludes from his search that Christ must be known not only with the mind but also with the heart, imagination and memory. He asserts that Christ can be discovered in the experiences of loneliness, anxiety, doubt and suffering, and he uses biblical descriptions of encounters with Christ to demonstrate the many ways that Christ can be known.

McGrath counsels Christians against falling in love with the world, and cites an unwillingness to grow spiritually as a barrier to knowing Christ fully. But his memoir-cum-devotional is little more than a series of religious tracts stretched into a full-length book. Unreflective, repetitious and didactic in tone, McGrath's book provides few new insights into the spiritual journey.

Emanuel Swedenborg: Visionary Savant in the Age of Reason
By Ernst Benz, trans. by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke
Swedenborg Foundation


Japanese philosopher D.T. Suzuki once called Swedenborg the Buddha of the North. The 18th-century Swedish mystic's visionary writings also deeply influenced Emerson, Blake, Strindberg and Helen Keller. First published over 50 years ago and now available in English for the first time, Benz's superb biography brings to life this scientific and religious genius.

Born in the late 17th century as the third child of a Swedish Lutheran bishop, the young Emanuel absorbed the humanistic currents of the time, reveling in the mechanistic theories of Isaac Newton. When he went to England to study, Swedenborg met Newton and was conducted into his circles. By 1740, however, he had turned from the principles of mechanistic science to organic science, thus arguing for the unity of all things. Early in the 1740s he began to experience dreams and visions that informed his own scientific work. In 1744, Swedenborg's life was changed forever when God appeared to him and told him his mission was to explain... the spiritual meaning of Scripture. From then on, Swedenborg wrote of angels, paradise, the last judgment and the New Jerusalem, explaining them all in terms of the inner sense of Scripture.

While many regarded Swedenborg as an eccentric, Benz shows that he was really no different from the medieval mystics or the Hebrew prophets in his ability to transmit God's revelation to his community. Although the prose is workmanlike, Benz's first-rate biography offers a compelling portrait of this extraordinary religious leader.

A Book of Pagan Prayer
Red Wheel/Weiser


Billing itself as the one and only collection of prayers for Pagans of any tradition, Ceisiwr Serith's "A Book of Pagan Prayer" includes prayers to Celtic, Egyptian, Zoroastrian and other deities. It is organized thematically, making it convenient to use if one is seeking prayers for specific occasions, seasons, times of day, meals or milestones.

Elijah Among Us: Understanding and Responding to God's Prophets Today
By John Loren Sandford
Baker/Chosen


While the word prophet may summon images of bearded folk proclaiming the end of the world, Sandford, a Congregational pastor, sees prophets as intermediaries, people who help others hear God and who offer blessings, healing, judgment, warning, intercessory prayer and reconciliation for both individuals and institutions. This book is about the history of prophecy and prophets as well as practical ways to understand and apply prophecy today, based on Sandford's own experience as a modern prophet.

Sandford relies heavily on the Bible to describe the prophetic office, asserting, for example, that prophets are not, contrary to popular Christian tradition, infallible.

Instead, he says, prophecy is a gift honed over time; those who hear prophetic words should subject them to tests of judgment by praying, waiting and asking others for advice. Sandford also acknowledges that sometimes God works in completely unfathomable ways, as when people die despite intercessory prayer, or when tragedy occurs to someone walking closely with God. Prophets must learn to live with unanswered questions, he explains. There comes a time when God does not answer, when we just have to let go and trust and honor His arcane wisdom.

This frustrated yet faith-filled acknowledgment of mystery, as well as Sandford's frequent admissions of his own mistakes over the years, contributes to a humble tone throughout the book. Combined with Sandford's anecdotes and sensible advice, this is an appealing introduction for even non-charismatics interested in learning more about this particular area of Christianity.

Fiction | Non-fiction | Self-help/Inspiration | Theology and Prayer

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