Sunday, March 25, 2012

An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor

An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor

Rating: G; 4 stars

Summary: An Altar in the World is a book celebrating religion and spirituality for the rest of us. In short chapters, it discusses how the divine can be encountered everywhere in life, from prayer, to Sabbath, to pain, to work. Taylor makes use of both personal anecdotes and cultural expectations to get her point across. She focuses on details and paying attention to the world around us, and shows that little things can achieve big results.

Opinions: So I had to read this book for a class I took this past January, called “Spirituality for Busy People.” The goal of the class was very similar to the goal of this book: to find the spiritual in all aspects of life, and to learn to take the time to notice the divine in the world around us. I feel that this book is the perfect companion to the that class and to trying to live a more spiritual life in general.

Something that really appealed to me about this book was the intimate nature of it. An Altar in the World read like a combination between a memoir and a self-help book. It had the personal examples and anecdotes of memoir, but also still had the intimacy and personalization of a self-help book.

I'm going to come right out and say that I didn't agree with everything Taylor said in this book. Some of it just didn't seem to ring true for me. However, Taylor writes in such a way that even when I disagree, I can definitely see and appreciate where she's coming from. Spirituality is a deeply personal thing, and so it's inevitable that not everything will work for everyone. I think Taylor did an excellent job in mixing general and specific topics and examples so that so much of it can be true for different people in different ways. Based on class discussions, I'd say that the majority of the students in my class found truth within this book, but I bet that if you polled students on how it affected them, there would be an incredibly wide variety of responses.

I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in religion or spirituality, but I think it is especially suited to those who say they are “spiritual but not religious.” In my opinion, An Altar in the World bridges that gap quite nicely. This is a nice, easy read that promotes some soul-searching, but only in a good way. The book inspired me to take some action back in January, and perhaps it is time for me to re-read it, so that I can add some energy to my spiritual side.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Maid by Kimberly Cutter

The Maid by Kimberly Cutter

Rating: R; 4 1/2 stars

Summary: The Maid is the story of St. Joan of Arc, told from the time she first heard the saints talking to her until her death at the hands of the English. The book moves back in forth in time, as Joan (or Jehanne, as she's called in this book) recounts her story to a priest that visits her in her cell before her execution. The Maid makes no qualms about showing the darker side of Joan's personality and her life. It tracks her journey from discovering her duty in the small French village of Lorraine, to recruiting soldiers and nobles to her cause, through the war, and up to her death. Along the way, the book introduces questions of duty, motive, and means to an end.

Opinions: Joan of Arc is my favorite saint. She has been for as long as I can remember. As a child, I remember liking the fact that she actually went out and did something. When I made my Confirmation (the Catholic coming-of-age sacrament), I took Joan as my Confirmation name (traditionally, one chooses the name of a saint). The Wishbone episode with Joan of Arc was one of my favorites. So yeah. I may be a bit biased, because when this book came out, I saw it and thought OMG Joan of Arc novel! Yeah.

Bias aside, this novel did not disappoint. I felt that historical details were memorable and accurate, and the dialogue was both period accurate and entertaining. I felt that this novel was incredibly well-written, and in fact, I read the first 200 pages of the book without stopping, simply because I enjoyed it so much.

I felt that The Maid was incredibly well-researched. In the author's note at the back of the book, Cutter wrote about how meticulously she researched Joan of Arc. Even the most unbelievable scene in the book is entirely based in fact (that is the scene in which Joan leaps from the top of a tower. According to records, she hit the ground without so much as a sprained ankle).

I think my favorite thing about the book was how well it characterized Joan. Joan of Arc is the sort of historical figure that, in my experience, is thought of only in relation to her actions. By contrast, The Maid presented Joan as a human being, with interests and flaws and feelings. I felt that her emotions in particular were very realistic and increased both my respect for her as a Saint and my appreciation for her as a human being. Scenes that are standing out to me are those when she overhears a sexual encounter, when she realizes she might be falling in love, and when she stops hearing from the saints. Those moments in particular seemed very human to me, nothing more, nothing less.

I gave this book an R rating for violence, language, and (oddly enough) sexual content. I gave it 4 1/2 stars because it was an incredibly enjoyable book. It was compelling, well-written, and well-researched. My only complaint with it was how quickly the ending came on. I just felt like the pacing was a little off as the book ended. However, this is still a fantastic book, and I enjoyed every minute I spent reading it. In short, The Maid is an excellent read for lovers of history, France, saints, or Joan of Arc in particular.