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


Self-Help

Romancing the Ordinary: A Year of Simple Splendor
By Sarah Ban Breathnach
Scribner

"Women were created to experience, interpret, revel in, and unravel the mysteries of Life through their senses," declares Breathnach ("Simple Abundance"), insisting that women have two extra senses: those of "knowing" and "wonder." Breathnach then works her way through the calendar year, offering tips to women to free their "essensual" selves. Much of the advice (e.g., make your own scented sachets and foot lotions) is rote. At times, Breathnach herself criticizes the commercialization of the sensual. For example, the bath is a "waterfall of delight" that's being "snuffed out by the banality of the self-enhancement poseurs." Homemade is the best way to go, says Breathnach, and even the hours spent preparing various potions are a gift in themselves. On the other hand, she heartily endorses purchasing gourmet fruits, "essensual sets of underwear," silk sheets and other luxuries, since these items also pleasure the senses. Fortunately, the object of all this pampering isn't just to attract a mate. Breathnach urges women to stop focusing on finding a partner and to "learn the sacred soulcraft of self-nurture." While exhortations to "become your own courtesan" may seem narcissistic, the message will strike a welcome chord among women who've learned that sacrificing for others isn't always worth it. At times Breathnach is unintentionally funny she recommends taking Beckett plays to the laundromat to "try on for size being an intellectual." But her occasionally pretentious use of quotations and capitalized references to the Spirit and the Divinity shouldn't stop her fans from pampering their Inner Goddess.

Everyday Karma: A Renowned Psychic Shows You How to Change Your Life by Changing Your Karma
By Carmen Harra
Ballantine

Telling readers to "forget everything you think you know about psychics," self-described "metaphysical intuitive" Harra combines her gift to communicate with the "Invisible World" (honed after nearly drowning in a Romanian river at age five) with lessons she's gleaned as a licensed hypnotherapist, astrologist, numerologist and Kabbalah expert. Juxtaposing her casual, friendly writing style and positive tone against a highly structured framework, Harra, who's consulted with presidents, Hollywood celebrities and European royalty, provides thorough explanations on the levels of karma (past, present and accumulated), types of karma (individual, family and group) and a 10-step Karmic Resolution Method meant to develop the self-awareness needed to "project your own happy future." The tips on communicating with one's spirit guide, rules for a happy marriage and exercises meant to clarify one's true purpose, attract a soul mate and eliminate addictive patterns from one's life do lend an interactive feeling. However, Harra's heavy reliance on anecdotal evidence and her predictions section (where she shows that, for example, she knew "Clinton would almost be ousted from office" and later "disappear into civilian life") come off as self-congratulatory and may leave skeptics wondering if she's only the latest to capitalize on the ever-growing American appetite for occultism.

Walking in this World: The Practical Art of Creativity
By Julia Cameron
Putnam/Tarcher

Touted as the long-awaited sequel to "The Artist's Way," Cameron's latest is so similar in look and format to the original that they could be sold in a boxed set. Previous follow-ups, including "The Vein of Gold" and "The Right to Write" and a slew of little spin-offs, here give way to a 12-week course of encouragement and exercises promoted as an intermediate level of "The Artist's Way" (inviting us to anticipate an advanced volume). At first and for a long way into the book, we encounter the wheel-greasing exercises that worked magic for millions, helping people discover their innate creativity by devising gentle ways around the myriad obstacles that block us (e.g., listing things we would secretly love to do.) Cameron re-introduces the basic tools the daily morning exercise of hand-writing three free-flowing pages and the weekly solitary "artist's date," designed to help us romance our inner artists and she adds the ancient practice of walking as a means of getting in touch with our deeper feelings and truer thoughts (hence the title). "When I can, I walk with friends, noting how companionable our silences become, how effortlessly deep our conversations," Cameron writes. Cameron does indeed capture the feeling of strolling and talking with an old and trusted guide. Her core insights are the same as in earlier volumes, yet her words seem to have grown wiser. She writes about the distractions of success, and about the long solitary stretches "climbing the glass mountain" it takes to bring a large-scale creative project to completion. Her latest book reveals how reaching higher also means going deeper.


Spirituality

The New Revelations: A Conversation with God
By Neal Donald Walsch
Atria

Like Walsch's earlier bestsellers, this New Age volume purports to be a record of a conversation with, and revelation from, God. The overarching argument is simple, indeed a bit tautological: humanity has reached a turning point. As evidenced by September 11, something about our world isn't working. We do not, however, need to tinker with our economics or politics; rather, we need to retool our beliefs about those systems that govern society. This is key, Walsch insists, because "beliefs create behaviors." Fond of numbered lists, Walsch gives us "Five Steps to Peace," which include our admitting that there is something we don't understand about "God and... Life, the understanding of which could change everything." Walsch also offers Nine New Revelations, some of which don't seem all that new, including the idea that God has always communicated directly with people, or that God would never punish us with eternal damnation. The Steps to Peace and the New Revelations all point toward the peaceful, humane spirituality that Walsch wants readers to cultivate, a spirituality that focuses not on morals but on "functionality." Because Walsch is ecumenical, drawing on Robert Schuller, Harold Kushner, the Bhagavad Gita and Shakespeare, seekers from many spiritual backgrounds will find his book inviting, and the dialogue format makes for easy reading. For those who are interested in a spiritual approach to global upheaval, these "New Revelations" will prove inspiring and companionable.

The Spiritual Chicks Question Everything: Learn to Risk, Release, and Soar
By Tami Coyne and Karen Weissman
Red Wheel

Were this book a parody of chicken-soupish inspirational titles, it would be a scream. Unfortunately, it's not a parody. This self-styled girls' guide to spirituality is stuffed with familiar self-help pabulum. We determine our own happiness. "We're all spiritual beings, because we're all Spirit." Spirituality isn't limited to prayer and meditation; even flossing one's teeth can be spiritual. Coyne and Weissman structure the book around 60 questions, such as whether God loves fat people (a reassuring yes); how busy people can make time for being spiritual (since everything is spiritual, one doesn't need to set aside time for spirituality); and whether one need be a vegetarian or keep kosher. (Feel free to, but it won't help you reach nirvana since "we're already there.") Concerning the intriguing possibility of sex after death, the authors teach that since there is no death, the question is moot. Scattered among the 60 questions are first-person musings by Coyne and Weissman. We learn, for example, that anger is Coyne's "portal to enlightenment." It's hard to take these authors seriously on the first page, they explain that a Mallomar brought them together, and it's downhill from there. The tone is glib and irksome rather than friendly and hip. The best parts of the book are the insightful aphorisms sprinkled throughout, including provocative quotations from Pindar, Swedenborg, C. S. Lewis and Gloria Steinem. On the whole, however, this attempt at Ya-Ya-meets-Deepak falls flat.


Buddhism

The Buddhism of Tibet
By His Holiness the Dalai Lama Trans. and edited by Jeffry Hopkins
Snow Lion

As Tibetan Buddhism matures in the West, the release of more substantive and esoteric literature becomes timely. With this intermediate audience in mind, and with the hope that "even a few people for a short period could have some internal peace," the Dalai Lama here offers two of his original writings alongside two ancient texts. His works "The Buddhism of Tibet" and "The Key to the Middle Way" comprise roughly half of the book. They reveal some of the secondary and more cerebral layers of Tibetan Buddhist study, going well beyond the primary embrace of the Four Noble Truths. Emptiness, "the final mode of being of all phenomena," is a recurring motif throughout the volume. The second half includes "Precious Garland of Advice for the King," 500 quatrains written by Nagarjuna, who lived 400 years after the Buddha. Written to advise the Indian king Satavahana, it has specific counsel on ruling, plus more general material on emptiness and compassion. Although theoretically softened by a caveat of application to both sexes, the prohibition against desiring women, who are partially described as "a source of excrement, urine and vomit," among other similar vitriolic phrases, will be hard to stomach for many. The book concludes with an exposition of a relatively short poem, "Song of the Four Mindfulnesses" by Kaysang Gyatso, the Seventh Dalai Lama. No doubt a book of merit, this volume is most appropriate for serious students who are ready to wade through fairly heavy intellectual currents.


Christian Life and Worship

On Forgiveness: How Can We Forgive the Unforgivable?
By Richard Holloway
Canongate

Former Bishop of Edinburgh and a divinity professor in the City of London, Holloway offers deceptively simple reflections on the always compelling, ever-relevant subject of forgiveness. Refreshingly free from the extremes of rant and piety, the cosmopolitan cleric instead summons an eclectic and humanistic range of provocative thinkers, from Derrida to Nietzsche, and a generous sampling of contemporary British poetry. The prolific author of "Godless Morality" and 23 other books is fond of attention-grabbing Derridan paradox: Unforgivability is necessary in order to make forgiveness possible. We can practice religion what it signifies without the form of religion, yielding "religion without religion," which can also be seen in the phenomenon of people who are "spiritual but not religious." Although the book originated as lectures at Glasgow University, Holloway's point is hardly academic. He always applies his reasoning to real and historical examples: the Middle East, Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Holloway offers subtle guidance, the kind that is easiest to accept and therefore most effective. He is not imperative: forgiveness is a choice so hard that there is room for the unforgiving, and magnanimity and generosity may work as substitutes for forgiveness in the political arena. This slender book is a reminder that if enormous error is all too human, so too must be the capacity to forgive it and thereby transcend it and, as the author puts it, "reclaim the future." This is an estimable contribution to the growing current literature on forgiveness.

Sacred Doorways: A Beginner's Guide to Icons
By Linette Martin
Paraclete

For most Christians in the West, icons are intriguing but opaque, enigmatic and perhaps a little frightening. In an accessible and loving introduction to the ancient devotional art form, the late Martin, who studied art history at Oxford University, manages to make icons intelligible without denuding their mystery. Part reference work and part inspirational meditation, the book opens by sharing little-known characteristics of icons. Next she offers a helpful chronology, usefully chronicling the various periods of Byzantine art, and limning the history of Russian icons. One very concrete chapter catalogues the materials and techniques of icon-making, explaining the role of egg tempera and gesso in producing the often dark, matte pictures. The most eloquent and capacious chapter is that on prayer. Icons, Martin tells us, are not merely inspiring works of art, but are "made for the distinct purpose of prayer." Indeed, this chapter goes beyond instructions about icons to a moving meditation on prayer itself. The small but densely packed volume is rounded out by an appendix of international icon collections, and a helpful bibliography. Only occasionally does the book turn didactic and over-encyclopedic; chapters five and six, which define basics like "iconostasis" and "diptych," feel plodding. Martin's work, which nicely complements Henri Nouwen's classic reflection on icons, ought to become an indispensable part of any Christian library.

Canticle of the Sun: (The Calligraher's Notebook)
by St. Francis of Assisi
Shambhala

Shambhala, which has been broadening its line to include classics of Western as well as Eastern spirituality, offers a beautiful new series merging spiritual poetry and the art of calligraphy. In Canticle of the Sun: The Spirit of Francis of Assisi, the saint's prayers and excerpts from writings about him are complemented by facing-page calligraphy in bold colors. Alongside Francis's prayers of gratitude for Sister Moon, Brother Wind and Sister Water, for example, are the corresponding Latin praises, beautifully rendered by calligrapher Frank Missant.

Among the other three volumes in Shambhala's series is "Perfect Harmony: Sufi Poetry of Ibn `Arabi," which pairs the poetry of the 13th-century Sufi mystic with contemporary calligraphy by Hassan Massoudy. In a moving afterword, Massoudy explains how he became involved in calligraphy as a child, and how his work is inspired by poetry.


Islam

Chasing Rumi
By Roger Housden
HarperCollins

Housden ("Ten Poems to Change Your Life") adds a mystical twist to a young man's search for love in this spare, allegorical tale of a Greek icon painter living in 1950s Italy who makes a pilgrimage to the tomb of 13th-century Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi. Aesthete Georgiou loves art and beauty, but is frustrated by his inability to find a worthy love in his native Florence. Dazzled by a book of Rumi's poems, Georgiou hopes that a journey to the poet's tomb at Konya, Turkey, will teach him something about love. His meandering trip takes him to a monastery in Meteora, Greece; to the shrine of Delphi, where he has a vision of the Virgin Mary, who poses a riddle that holds the key to his quest; and to other sites in Greece and Turkey, where he meets Orthodox priests, mystics, sheikhs and dervishes who teach him that romance between a man and a woman is not the only kind of love there is, and that accumulating knowledge doesn't necessarily help one to experience or understand love. Housden is a graceful storyteller and he offers an offbeat look at the relationship between divine love and earthly romantic love. Unfortunately, he tends to slip into treacly, bland affirmations ("All is already well. Listen to what your heart tells you, and you cannot stray far"), and the tidy, happily-ever-after ending belies some of the complicated questions about spirituality and self-knowledge that are raised through Georgiou's quest.

Behind the Burqa: Our Life in Afghanistan and How We Escaped to Freedom
By "Sulima" and "Hala," as told to Batya Swift Yasgur
Wiley

This memoir from two sisters who fled Afghanistan 20 years apart distinguishes itself from the spate of books about women in similar circumstances by the sheer breadth of its coverage. Through these first-hand accounts of oppression, abuse and downright misery, readers come to understand that the much-maligned Taliban only picked up where the Mujihaddin left off in curtailing women's rights. In fact, as "Sulima" and "Hala"'s mother points out, "[The Taliban] is better than the Mujihaddin. The laws are strict and harsh, but at least we know what to expect. They're not just randomly breaking into houses and killing people.... If we keep all the rules, then we will be safe." The sisters' tales of domestic abuse and other now-familiar yet hair-raising injustices may crystallize the turbulent historical timeline, but it seems that their individual voices have been muted in translation. Unfortunately, it's so difficult to distinguish one from the other that much of the impact of this well-intentioned book is lost.


Judaism

The Secret: Unlocking the Source of Joy and Fulfillment
By Michael Berg
Kabbalah Publishing

Popular kabbalist and author of "The Way," Berg is back with another spiritual how-to, a guidebook for applying the principles of Jewish mysticism to everyday life. The book opens with a powerful tale: Josef and Rebecca, a poor couple, sell their only cow to provide a feast for a famous rabbi, and they are eventually rewarded with unfathomable riches. The cow, says Berg, symbolizes the unfulfilled life many people are willing to accept, and the riches symbolize the joy we can find if we shape our lives around the titular "Secret." What is this secret? It is a saying that Berg's teacher, the late Rav Ashlag, learned from his own teacher, years ago in Jerusalem: "The only way to achieve true joy and fulfillment is by becoming a being of sharing." That idea is hardly innovative, of course, but Berg's meditations on the life of generosity are stirring, and the kabbalistic and midrashic tales he employs movingly illustrate the fruits of sharing. The book is a bit skimpy, though, and padded with self-help standards. There's a list of six tips to aid those trying to live out The Secret, including the unabashed suggestion to "Read this book often" and, since The Secret is about sharing, share the book with others. Most readers will breeze through the text in an hour. One wishes that Berg had followed his own advice and shared even more with his audience.

Kabbalah Month by Month: A Year of Spiritual Practice and Personal Transformation
By Mindy Ribner
Jossey-Bass

It was inevitable that amid the explosion of Kabbalah-related books in the last five years, some would be done devotional-style, aimed to bring the puzzles of Judaism's most mystical text to readers in digestible, bite-sized daily doses. But in "Kabbalah Month by Month: A Year of Spiritual Practice and Personal Transformation," Mindy Ribner gives readers a fairly thoughtful and perceptive interpretation. What sets this book apart from most others that explore Kabbalah for the hoi polloi is that it is firmly and stubbornly rooted in Jewish tradition. Some may not agree with Ribner's explanations of some Jewish traditions, or her investigations of astrology, but they will appreciate the fact that she has not sought to divorce Kabbalah from its religious roots. The book is beautifully designed in a square paperback format.


Wicca

The Witches' Craft: The Roots of Witchcraft & Magical Transformation
By Raven Grimassi
Llewellyn

Grimassi ("Wiccan Mysteries"; "Encyclopedia of Wicca and Witchcraft"), a practicing Wiccan for nearly three decades, has trained in at least four schools of The Craft. Here he makes a powerful case for returning to the ancient traditions that he believes have fallen by the wayside in the last 20 years. He complains that "many modern books on Witchcraft will describe a technique or method of performing a spell or ritual, and then go on to inform the reader that almost everything described is optional, and that the prescribed items can easily be substituted with other things." His approach is different than those "modern" books he chastises more traditional, more rooted. His substantive research in the first third of the book traces the written history of witches over the past 2,500 years. Having thus established his traditional credentials, Grimassi then turns to the tools, techniques and tried-and-true methods such as instruments, states of consciousness, implements, and the like. Much more than the standard gallop through the sabbats (seasonal observations), Grimassi delves deftly into more cerebral issues such as "right and left brain consciousness" and "myth and metaphor." He also manages to put into perspective more provocative avenues such as "sex magic" and "ritual flagellation." Grimassi offers a well-researched history of ancient magickal techniques, including some that have been preserved orally and are here in print for the first time. Everyone who cares deeply about the witchcraft tradition will want this impressive work.


Occult

Ghostly Encounters: True Stories of America's Haunted Inns and Hotels
By Frances Kermeen

Readers intrigued by the supernatural and eager to spend some quality time with ghosts may be tempted to pick up Frances Kermeen's Ghostly Encounters: True Stories of America's Haunted Inns and Hotels, but this "guide" offers little that hasn't been covered more eloquently elsewhere. From floating, disembodied torsos to menacing, Chucky-like dolls, Kermeen, the former owner of a haunted antebellum mansion, has ostensibly seen and heard it all either firsthand or secondhand through other innkeepers and their guests. However, her clunky, clich,-ridden writing often mars the narration of these "sightings." When relaying one of her earliest encounters, for example, Kermeen writes: "In an instant, the room turned icy cold, and I felt terror in the air." Though this book's timely release and amusing premise will help it appeal to the Halloween crowd, readers would do better to pick up Dennis Hauck's Haunted Places: The National Directory.


Fiction

Writer Ferrets: Chasing the Muse
By Richard Bach
Scribner

Bach stumbled in the first two volumes of his new series of fables ("Air Ferrets Aloft" and "Rescue Ferrets at Sea"), but this effort recaptures some of the sense of wonder that made Jonathan Livingston Seagull a runaway bestseller. The protagonists are a pair of aspiring writers, Budgeron Ferret and his mate, Danielle, who are keen to climb the literary ladder. Budgeron, despite bouts of writer's block, has high hopes after selling a few short stories to some low-level magazines, and he hits it big when he publishes a series of novels for young ferrets (called kits). Meanwhile, Danielle pens a controversial romance "for the fun of it," which quickly becomes a bestseller. Much of the second half of the novel deals with the book tour that Danielle and Budgeron undertake together after becoming a successful literary couple. As hackneyed as the plot sounds, Bach's love of animals and reverence for the creative process keep the novel from becoming overly mawkish and sentimental; the icing on the cake is some tongue-in-cheek insight into the publishing process. The book also features crisp plotting, which was missing from the first two volumes of "The Ferret Chronicles," and Bach's decision to avoid dwelling on the differences between the human world and his imagined ferret equivalent helps keep the prose economical. This is a lovable, entertaining story, which will tug at the heartstrings of even the most jaded.

Women's Intuition
By Lisa Samson
WaterBrook

Samson, author of "The Church Ladies," stakes out her claim as a novelist of distinction for readers who enjoy evangelical Christian fiction but often choke on the pabulum that passes for it. Larkspur Summerville is a 41-year-old paranoid virtual recluse who for 20 years has kept a secret from her family-a secret that now threatens to become her undoing. Raised Methodist, her sanity is partially tethered to playing the organ for St. Dominic's Catholic Church and experiencing the loving friendship of its priests, although Lark admits, "The whole Mary thing unsettles me." Lark spends most of her free time running a toll-free prayer line, 1-777-IPRAY4U. When Lark's house burns to the ground, she is forced to seek refuge with her estranged mother, Leslie, and Leslie's live-in housekeeper and Internet guru, Prisma Percy. Rounding out the household is Lark's hip, artsy daughter, Flannery, a barista at Starbucks, whose sanity is the glue that holds her strange family together. The finely crafted, first-person narratives alternate among the four women, with a short ending chapter from Lark's brother, Newly. Samson occasionally overwrites and is a little heavy on the dialogue, but her prose is mostly excellent, and the characters appealing and compelling. The centerpiece of the novel is its beautiful depiction of faith and fear that avoids canned Christian gospel presentation scenes but is clear in its message.

The Festering Season: A Tale of Urban Vodou
By Kevin Tinsley

Tinsley and Smith 3's new work concerns a Vodoun priestess in training who finds herself battling an evil sorcerer in downtown Manhattan. Sci-fi, horror and Caribbean-African spirituality are woven into real-life acts of police brutality. Rene DuBoise returns to New York from Haiti after her mother has been killed, much like Amadou Diallo, by two NYPD cops. The city is already on edge with the ongoing trial of several police officers charged with the murder of a drug dealer whose brother, Gangleos, is part of a Cuban Santeria-related cult that worships the dead. Gangleos is also a suspect in Rene's mother's murder. Filled with zombies, spells and supernatural explanations for real events in New York, the book will make readers think twice the next time the city sprays to kill West Nile virus. Tinsley offers a polemical perspective on Gotham life under former Mayor Giuliani, and Smith 3's cartoonish, manga-influenced drawings bring out the grit of lower Manhattan. While the duotone color is impressive throughout, the panels that integrate the drawings with photographic backgrounds really pop. Ambitious, political, pointedly critical of the NYPD and very New York-centric, this is an engaging, fast-paced action-drama that places legitimate religious movements like Vodoun and Santeria in a realistic urban context despite the supernatural plot. Tinsley's script has an urgent subtext commenting on the illegal police brutality endured by many black and Latino New Yorkers.

The Divine Economy of Salvation
By Priscila Uppal
Algonquin

A nun is haunted by the lurid death of a former classmate in this overwrought debut novel that's equal parts mystery and coming-of-age story. When Sister Angela receives a seemingly innocuous package containing a silver candlestick, it jolts her into a series of guilty flashbacks to her teenage days at St. X. School for Girls, a fancy Catholic boarding school in Ottawa, where she insinuated herself into a powerful clique of sex-obsessed girls called the Sisterhood. Events spun out of control when they invited a diligent classmate, Bella, to join their group on the condition that she lose her virginity. Bella's attempts to do so led to her grisly death. Angela has been haunted by the tragedy ever since, and she takes the arrival of the candlestick as a sign that she must finally reckon with her role in Bella's death. The crucible of the Catholic girls' school is always rich material, but Angela's schoolmates (who include a pretty, rich popular girl, a mousy hanger-on and other familiar characters) are underdeveloped, which is especially disappointing given the amount of space Uppal devotes to Angela's school days. Indeed, the mystery of who sent the candlestick loses its urgency amid all of the detailed flashbacks, and Uppal's resolution is simply absurd (even Angela herself seems not to want to dwell on it). Those who can't get enough of back-stabbing schoolgirl yarns might make it to the end, but, with the exception of the gruesome scene on which it hinges, the novel is unmemorable.

In the River Sweet
By Patricia Henley
Pantheon

Henley returns with a worthy successor to her first novel, "Hummingbird House." The heroine, Ruth Anne Bond, is a woman of 50, living in Indiana; Johnny, her husband of nearly 30 years, is the proprietor of an upscale restaurant. Everything seems picture perfect until devoutly Catholic Ruth Anne learns that their only daughter, Laurel, is a lesbian. While she adjusts to this revelation (she is more upset by the Church's intolerance than by the fact itself), her own secret past catches up with her: she is contacted by Tin, the illegitimate son she conceived with a blind Vietnamese boy when she was a teenager working in a convent in Saigon. The moral dilemmas attendant upon living with such a secret are sensitively treated and readers' sympathies for each of the troubled characters will be fully engaged. Written from the point of view of Ruth Anne, the tale unfolds in her memories as she relives the events resulting from her stay in Vietnam. But she must also focus on her current problems, including marital discord and a violent attack on Laurel and her lover, Oceana. Though the plot moves back and forth in time a great deal, it is enhanced rather than weakened by this strategy. Henley, who is also a poet, balances long, stream-of-consciousness passages with short, potent sentences to wonderful effect, tilling the familiar ground of sexuality and spirituality with originality and grace.



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