Saturday, July 26, 2014

Great German Mystics Rhineland mystics were a trio of Dominican friars who emerged in the fourteenth century in what is now western Germany, with Tauler and Suso being students of the master, "Meister" Eckhart.  Primarily writing in the vernacular (in part because of their focus on preaching), they helped usher in a renewed emphasis on personal piety which, in turn, influenced the Devotio Moderna of figures like Gerard Groote and Thomas a Kempis.
Clark spends far more time discussing the reception and subsequent interpretations of their teachings than describing the teachings themselves.  This is an almost inevitable approach, since most of the work of the Rhineland mystics is devotional rather than doctrinal in nature.  His primary goals are establishing the personal identities of the mystics, apart from later legends and apocryphal biographies, and placing them in their contemporary, scholastic context.  Unfortunately, this is not likely to be interesting to anyone not already familiar with these authors, nor is it comprehensive enough to interest those who know them well.  In effect, this reads like long introduction to a set of collected works, without the actual works attached.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Journal of Best Practices

The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage and Asperger Syndrome and One Man's Quest to Be a Better Husband by David Finch, 224 pages

At the age of 30, David Finch was five years and two small children into a rapidly deteriorating marriage when he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism. Given that diagnosis, Finch realized that he needed to actively work at overcoming the obsessive-compulsive tendencies and inability to empathize that came with Asperger's so that he could become a better husband and dad. The Journal of Best Practices is a collection of some of the things he learned and has to constantly remind himself of every day, accompanied by the story of how he tackled each one and grew to understand himself, his wife, and their kids a little better.

The Best Practices range from "be present when spending time with the kids" to "fold the laundry, don't just leave it in the dryer" to "allow Kristen the time to take a shower in peace." While these may seem simple to most people, for someone with Asperger's, they aren't, and Finch gives his reader's a lot of insight into how his mind works. And while, yes, this book is written from the point of view of someone with Asperger's, it's filled with information that all of us could probably benefit from in our relationships. Who doesn't need a gentle reminder to think about something from the other person's point of view from time to time? A good, illuminating read. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Eat People

Eat People: And Other Unapologetic Rules for Game-Changing Entrepreneurs by Andy Kessler, 253 pages


For once, this is a business book that lives up to its title. In Eat People, Kessler leaves any notion of political correctness at the door and offers up some suggestions on how entrepreneurs can launch themselves into the stratosphere of big business, such as creating a business that cuts out people, carving out a horizontal slice of the market instead of going vertical (for example, creating a better widget that makes the big machine run more efficiently rather than just building a whole new machine), and figuring out a way to make something cost less to make more money. Along the way, he gives lots of great real-life examples, some dating back 150 years, some dating from last year.

There were a lot of things I agreed with in this book, but when I disagreed with the author, wow, I REALLY disagreed with him (he seemed to throw around stereotypes WAY too much). I appreciated Kessler's candor, snark, and laid-back writing style, though at times I wanted him to throw some research at me; too often, he would give a number (say, "eight out of ten" or something like that) and would give no indication of where he came up with it. I also didn't really like the way he kept name-dropping. Yes, every business book will have some quotes or information from moguls/superstar innovators, but Kessler made a point to refer to them as his friends. Not necessary.

I honestly don't know if I'll recommend this one to anyone, though that's as much because of the people at who it's aimed as anything else. Most of the people who come to me looking for business books are looking to start a business, not take it global, and it's the latter to whom this seemed written. Should make for an interesting discussion at the Business Reads book club tomorrow though!

Liturgy and Contemplation

Liturgy and Contemplation by Jacques and Raissa Maritain, translated by Joseph W Evans, 96 pages,204,203,200_.jpgThis short book forms a defense of the practice of contemplation, not only as something belonging to a few chosen ascetics pursuing perfection, but as a necessity for every Christian.  Specifically, the Maritains are determined to counter the notion that solitary contemplation has a peculiarly subjective nature which places it in opposition to the public work of the liturgy.  To the contrary, the authors assert, the nature of true contemplation involves self-denial rather than self-assertion, and without interior participation the liturgy lapses into exterior formality.  The liturgy is rather itself an aid to contemplation, when celebrated fervently and not as a matter of routine.  Contemplation, in the sense that the term is used here, and in which it is used by the great mystic saints, a contemplation of the heart, is the path of all virtue, the goal of the spiritual life.
A brief but compelling treatment of the subject, this is less difficult than Jacques Maritain's typical neo-Scholastic works, but it is also the product of ecclesiastical controversies of the mid-twentieth century and therefore somewhat antiquated.  At least until those issues resurface, as they have a habit of doing.

Life of the Virgin Mary

The Life of the Virgin Mary by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by CF MacIntyre, 31 pages in German Das Marien-Leben, this is a short collection of thirteen poems, each relating to an event in the life of the Virgin Mary, some from the Gospels, others from other sources such as the Proto-Evangelium of James.  Initially, Rilke was inspired by a series of sketches by Jugendstil artist Heinrich Vogeler, and later a plan developed to produce an illustrated volume of poetry on the subject, but the author eventually grew dissatisfied with the artist.  In the end, the poems were published without the artwork, and the art is not included here, either (the illustration to the right notwithstanding).  Essentially, Rilke supplies brief poetic descripions of events, providing his own commentary and perspective, and fully justifying Edmund Burke's elevation of poetry over painting as descriptive art.  Rilke gives the reader access to interior worlds that can scarcely be hinted at in visual representation.
MacIntyre translated a selection of Verlaine's works that I did not care for, and I wondered then if the translator might be part of the problem.  I am relieved to report, on the strength of this work, that he was not.  Like his Verlaine collection, this has the translation and original on facing pages, with excellent notes.  Das Marien-Leben has also been memorably set to music by Paul Hindemith.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
by Cheryl Strayed, 311 pages

Another female author with a memoir-ish book about a journey they have embarked upon. Is is just me, or do all these women have the same whiny voice? Would I sound the same if I wrote one of these books? I hope not.
Cheryl loses her mom, gets divorced as a result of her own infidelity, and decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail for 3 months, totalling about 1100 miles. She's not really a hiker or a camper, so she mostly relies on the kind staff at REI to advise her on this trip. She meets all sorts of interesting people, encounters many rattlesnakes, a few bears, and even a pretty little red fox. She makes a lot of bad decisions.
I don't know how legit I can even consider her trip, since she mailed herself things at various stops along her route, such as money and food. I guess I'm okay with it since her trip WAS 3 months long and it would be hard to carry 3 months worth of food on your back (her backpack was ridiculous as it was).
Reading about the nature and wilderness she got to experience was the only really good part of this book. It did make me start thinking about a trip such as this myself. Well, actually nothing like this. But I do enjoy nature.


Nana by Zola, Emile, 485 pages

I started reading Nana after I saw it in a list of banned books. The book had been banned in Yugoslavia and Ireland and the writings of Zola were banned in England and was listed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which was the list of books prohibited by the Vatican until the list was abolished in 1966.

As I read it I could not understand why this book was banned. I know it came from an earlier time but asides from prostitution, lack or morals and some vulgarity there is not anything overly bad about it. After some looking it seems that the reason people objected to it was the heroine of the story being a prostitute and for exposing the desires of men in the era in a bad light.

This is actually the ninth part of a twenty volume set by Zola. I did not find that out till afterwards, but apparently reading them in order gives you the proper introduction of the characters versus the casual ones provided in Nana. The book can be read on its own though, if you are patient.

The book overall is only fair and despite all of the characters falling in love with Nana by the end I was hoping she would meet some horrible fate.

If the novel would come out now it would not even receive a passing glance. If I am to continue this reading of banned books I might have to focus on the newer ones, as most of these seem to be banned just for being progressive for their time.

Skin Game

Cover image for Skin game / Jim Butcher.
Skin Game by Jim Butcher, 454 pages 

For everyone that doesn't read them the Dresden Files are about a wizard named Harry Dresden. It follows him as he defends his beloved city of Chicago against crime and the supernatural realm. The series started with Storm Front in 2000 and with Skin Game has reached 15 novels.

In this latest adventure Harry is forced to team up with an old adversary by Mab. It also brings back some characters that we haven't seen in awhile. This book, and most of the series cannot be read as a stand alone, so if you want to read it pick up Strom Front and start reading. You won't regret it.

The Place of the Lion

The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams, 236 pages a small town in England lives Damaris, a graduate student who dissects philosophers instead of understanding them.  She has a suitor, Anthony, who shares her antiquarian interests but whom she views as an instrument rather than a love interest.  Her father, who has few interests beyond catching butterflies, she sees as a bore.  Their comfortable world shatters when the numinous begins to intrude upon the mundane, at first subtly and then more and more forcefully.  Dangerous beasts, the avatars of abstract concepts like strength (a lion), subtlety (a snake), and beauty (a butterfly), are appearing - at least to those with eyes to see - and affecting the people of the town, transforming them, accentuating those aspects of their personalities that share an affinity with the concepts.
Charles Williams is the least well-known of the Inkling trinity.  This novel shows why.  Although set on Earth in the present (or, at least, the 1930s), unlike Tolkien's legendarium or any of Lewis' fiction with the sole exception of That Hideous Strength (and assorted framing stories), it is nonetheless stranger than their writing.  That is not, however, necessarily a bad thing, nor are the alien elements the center of the novel.  Indeed, behind the intimations of a Platonic world that underlies the world of appearances, the real subject is the relationship between Damaris, Anthony, and Anthony's best friend Quentin, the theme that of love and salvation.
A fascinating novel, with genuine insight into the nature of things, especially human things.