The Butterfly Mosque is a spiritual memoir of a then twenty something American woman who falls in love with the Egyptian culture (as well as an EgyptiThe Butterfly Mosque is a spiritual memoir of a then twenty something American woman who falls in love with the Egyptian culture (as well as an Egyptian man) and becomes a Muslim. Though much of the memoir follows G. Willow Wilson’s odyssey, she devotes many of her pages to a frank discussion of women, Islam, and the relationship of Islam to the West. Part-essayist, part-poet, Wilson begins with the concept of the “clash of civilizations.” Is Islam really in conflict with Western values? She explores the many facets of this topic.
Wilson’s language is as consistently poignant as the title of her book. In one sentence she writes, “Down the center of this metropolis snaked the Nile, coffee-dark and wide.” And here is an excerpt from her memoir that is a microcosm of the book as a whole: “I didn’t know what waited for me in Egypt. I didn’t know whether the clash of civilizations was real, or whether being an American Muslim was a contradiction. But for the first time in my life, I felt unified—that had to mean something. Cultural and political differences go bone deep, but there is something even deeper. I believed that. I had to believe it.”
As a truth seeker, she is gutsy. During her sojourn abroad, she interviews spiritual leaders of Islam and even travels alone to Iran for answers. And though I wish she spent more time divulging her spiritual transformation (how she turned from an atheist to a God-believing Muslim), this is by far the best memoir about Islam that I’ve come across. In the post-9/11 era, it’s refreshing to read a book by an American woman extolling the virtues of Islam, portraying it as a religion of peace that protects women and gives them special attention. For Wilson, female empowerment is not inconsistent with Islamic values.
Wilson shows us how there are many forms of Islam, just as there are hundreds of denominations of Christianity. What we see as limiting to women in Islam is often cultural rather than religious—for instance how women are forbidden to drive in Saudi Arabia. In fact, it is the only country in the world that bans a woman from driving. In Turkey, a 99.8 percent Muslim country, a woman was prime minister just two decades ago, and women enjoy all the freedoms that men do. Turkey’s constitution actually forbids women to wear the headscarf in public places. Wilson writes, “I was surprised by how often Islam, in its purely textual form, took my side. There is no religious limit on the public spaces that women can inhabit; nothing prevents them from running businesses or driving cars, there is no reason they must walk behind men or cover their faces. A woman’s role is not defined by the kitchen and the nursery.”
Besides her timely discussion of women and Islam, Wilson also confronts the frightening environment for American Muslims during the peak Bush/Patriot Act era. She is a brave woman with a poetic voice who shows the peaceful, lyrical, nurturing side of the religion that unfortunately few in our country see. I dearly hope Wilson writes more books and continues this conversation. ...more
Dr. Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven is by far the most convincing account of heaven that I've ever read, and I've read at least five accounts, includDr. Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven is by far the most convincing account of heaven that I've ever read, and I've read at least five accounts, including the bestselling Heaven is For Real, Flight to Heaven, and 90 Minutes in Heaven. As of date, Proof of Heaven still remains #1 on the New York Times Best Sellers List.
I am fascinated by the fact that many of these accounts are strikingly similar. However, I became somewhat of a skeptic myself when I noticed that most of the books I had read on the afterlife were written by ministers, missionaries, or someone affiliated with a church. To hear an account from someone who didn’t believe in God, didn’t go to church, and who had no interest in religious matters, made that account far more believable. In fact, Dr. Alexander is a neurosurgeon who relied on scientific proof to explain the workings of the world.
Unexpectedly infected with bacterial meningitis, Dr. Alexander remained in a coma for seven days. By the end of the week, doctors were convinced that he had no chance of waking, and even if he woke, he would never recover. But one day he wakes up and eventually completely recovers to the astonishment of the medical community. During the time he is unconscious, he gives a heartfelt account of what happens to him. Though Dr. Alexander’s voice is thoroughly engaging, his time in heaven is described quite generally. There are no incredible details of heaven. The most descriptive he gets is when he talks about puffy, pink-white clouds, flocks of transparent orbs, shimmering beings racing across the sky, and people singing and dancing among trees, fields and waterfalls. God is referred to as Om, and the most vivid character is a girl on a butterfly wing who accompanies him.
However, his descriptions of hell are compelling and disturbing. Here, Dr. Alexander is almost graphic in his details and his report stays with you for some time. As a reader, you are so sold on his story that you begin to think that hell really does exist, and that maybe it's a good idea to review the Ten Commandments. He also spends many pages informing the reader on near-death experiences and where his experience fits in that research. His insights on spirituality and God are alone well worth the read. ...more
Once in a while when sifting through an apple tree of books, you pine for a ripe one that has all the elements to satisfy, and hope you find it. ThatOnce in a while when sifting through an apple tree of books, you pine for a ripe one that has all the elements to satisfy, and hope you find it. That is how I felt about Writing Down Your Soul when I was looking for a book on spiritual writing. Janet Conner makes a convincing and inspirational case that writing can be just as powerful and effective as prayer or meditation to connect to a higher consciousness. Through journal writing, she shows us the path to the all-knowing voice within us. Her method is similar to Julia Cameron’s morning pages in The Artist’s Way, but even more defined, deeper and further involved. Conner’s writing style is also engaging, tight and stimulating, a major bonus, and the book is well edited. I’m surprised it’s not a bestseller and wholly recommend it to spiritual writers or anyone seeking guidance....more
I’m afraid I’m going to get into trouble for writing this review because I believe I may be critical of one of the darlings of American Literature, esI’m afraid I’m going to get into trouble for writing this review because I believe I may be critical of one of the darlings of American Literature, especially a woman who was such a pioneer. For the most part, Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the wife of aviation legend Charles Lindbergh, is a poignant meditation of a woman’s life, her role, her place in society, her demands of motherhood, wifedom, and her needs for solitude and inward contemplation. Lindbergh writes from her own experience while spending time alone in a cottage on an island far from her mainstay life. Each chapter is the name of a shell on the shore that she collects and that inspires her musings on life. She also discusses her feelings on approaching middle age.
Though the book is well written, and well thought out, I found it at times to be bizarre and disconnected from the real world. Lindbergh spends time alone on her cottage, near the shore, away from her husband and five children. At times she actually advocates being away from one’s children for as long as a month. Now I know Thoreau did this or something similar when he lived in a tiny log cabin in the woods alone for 2 years and 2 months, but he was not married and had no children. I find this type of experiment quite detached for a mother, and I can’t say if she began this habit when her children were young, but to advise such a thing to me was strange.
Lindbergh makes many analogies between seashells and life and though at times I found it poetic and moving, all the pieces didn’t connect for me, and I felt these analogies forced. I also couldn’t help that she was writing from a place of privilege (was she really making her children’s beds when she was born into a privileged life and married to a famed aviator?). Her message is engaging—find time as a woman to cultivate your inner life in your own space, similar to what Virginia Woolf preached in her essay, A Room of One’s Own. But Woolf didn’t have any children; Lindbergh had five. You don’t go to a cabin and leave your husband when you have five children to tend to. Why would you have five children then? Could a middle class woman who has everyday childcare and household responsibilities really do this?
Another bizarre clip: she keeps mentioning love affairs, and how if we as women don’t cultivate our inner life, we may be rushing off into a love affair. She had mentioned this several times, peppered throughout her book. A woman who has normal family responsibilities does not easily rush into a love affair, as far as I know. But then again, who knows? I only have one young child myself. Gift from the Sea is a sermon that’s quite original. As a woman of privilege, Lindbergh could speak this way, but many other middle class women couldn’t live this Thoreauvian life she depicts by the sea. A cottage on the sea, by the way, is probably very expensive too.
For those readers who don’t know the Turkish writer Elif Shafak, let me preface this review by saying that she is a brave woman and thinker, first andFor those readers who don’t know the Turkish writer Elif Shafak, let me preface this review by saying that she is a brave woman and thinker, first and foremost, and a compelling novelist, the most famous in Turkey (she has quite a following in the United States as well). She writes novels in both English and Turkish, something that Orhan Pamuk should attempt, as it is hard enough to write a novel in one language, writing one in a language that is not your mother language is quite a challenge. We are not all multilinguists like Joseph Conrad.
Shafak was heavily pregnant when she faced a prison sentence for the words of one of her characters in her highly acclaimed novel The Bastard of Istanbul. Apparently, the female character made a reference to the killings of Armenians almost a hundred years ago, calling it a genocide, a taboo term in the Turkish culture. Turkey denies that there was such a systematic killing. And in a time of war, it claims that many Turks were massacred too. The issue is still a sore spot for Turks and Armenians. Luckily, the court acquitted Shafak (she was charged with “insulting Turkishness”).
When I saw her new memoir Black Milk on display at my neighborhood bookstore, I purchased it without any forethought, so entranced I was by her work. I had read another novel by Shafak, The Forty Rules of Love, exploring Sufism and the life of the mystic poet Rumi, who lived in central Anatolia in the thirteenth century. Being Turkish, of course, I am drawn to Shafak’s novels and characters. But to enjoy her new memoir, you don’t have to be Turkish, or have an interest in Turkey or Turkish politics. You don’t even have to be a writer or mother. Ultimately though, women who are writer-mothers will feel especially pulled into the memoir’s main theme: the tug of war between the all encompassing writing life and motherhood.
Shafak writes of this struggle with the mind of a literary writer but in a style all her own—an utterly refreshing down-to-earth candor. Her story begins with a life altering conversation over a cup of tea. Shafak is invited to the home of a famous Turkish novelist. The woman, who is now in her eighties, confronts her with the choice of motherhood and the writing life after revealing that she herself had forsaken children for the pursuit of writing. Shafak begins to dwell on the subject, and it is at this conjunction that her harem of finger-women make their debut. The six thumbelinas that live inside of her head: Milady Ambitious Chekhovian, Miss Highbrowed Cynic, Little Miss Practical, Dame Dervish, Blue Belle Bovary and Mama Rice Pudding. Each is a different facet of Shafak, ranging from the ambitious professional to the pure motherly figure.
For instance Little Miss Practical remarks, “Women can be good mothers and good career women. And they can be happy. It’s simple. The key is time management.” Miss Ambitious Chekhovian counters: “[The writing life] It’s a lifestyle. It’s a lifetime passion. An artist needs to be ambitious and passionate. You don’t work nine to five. You breathe your art twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.” Inevitably, the novelist is selfish (everything comes second to writing), and the mother selfless. It’s an immense conflict that Shafak shows though the confrontational conversations of her finger-women. For the most part the bickering and power struggle between them are engaging and believable. However, at times when they are driving her crazy, they are driving the reader crazy as well.
The “Sieve Woman:” that is how the traditional wife and mother is introduced by Shafak. Such a woman is consumed with household chores, cooking, ironing and tending to young childen. How could such a woman ever write? She tells the stories of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Sylvia Plath, among many others who did at great cost. And she also raises the question: How many women could have been great writers, but weren’t?
In our day and age, most women have had careers before motherhood. How are they to simply forget their own aspirations, their thinking, working being, and instead, tend to the needs of a small child? Shafak refers to the Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing, who was highly critical of the manner in which capable women changed after birth. Happy domesticated for a while, Lessing believed that sooner or later, these women became restless, demanding, and even neurotic. “There is no boredom like that of an intelligent young woman who spends all day with a very small child,” Lessing said.
Giving the book five stars, which I believe it deserves, I must make a disclaimer that there are parts that fall short: the thumbelinas sometimes drone on, the bios on female writers fail to tie in with the writer herself. I would have enjoyed Shafak sharing with the reader how these writers shaped her as a writer and thinker. Also, the narrative sometimes reads like a journal, a hodgepodge of topics mixed together, its continuity lost as we switch from artist bios to the thumbelinas, to her writing life to her personal life. And most importantly, one of the most compelling issues she faces, her postpartum depression, is only discussed at the end of the book (during this time she loses her ambition and cannot write for eight months); the trial is only mentioned in passing.
Still, Shafak has reached a breakthough in addressing a topic that hasn’t been addressed enough: the challenges of balancing the all encompassing writer’s life and the all encompassing mother’s life. How can they both co-exist? Shafak’s writing exudes her own mystical, lyrical style, lush and vivid, spiritual and otherworldly; her inspiration from Sufism is evident. She is witty and entertaining. Her ideas are bold, inspirational, brilliant, and universal. Any woman can take her golden nuggets of wisdom, but writer-mothers can especially take great comfort from her musings and conclusions. ...more
Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor is a spiritual memoir I’ve been eager to read for some time as that category of memoir is my favorite. I wantedLeaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor is a spiritual memoir I’ve been eager to read for some time as that category of memoir is my favorite. I wanted to love this book for many reasons. It’s ultimately about a woman’s relationship to God. Taylor, who was a minister for many years, leaves the church to become a professor of religion. Here, in this new vocation, she believes she is closer to God. It’s an utterly fascinating concept of a story. Unfortunately, the story itself and the way she tells it, to me, was unremarkable. There was nothing I found stirring or memorable in her story, not any revelatory passages of her passion for God, not her story of transition, not her writing style, which I found prosaic. The only aspect of the book I found poignant was her journal-style passages of the rustic-style life she adopts after moving to a new town and a new congregation. She builds her house herself on farmland, from the bottom up, no easy feat (think of plumbing, foundation, etc.) and is as familiar with the land and its animals as Annie Dillard was with Virginia’s Blue Ridge valley in her memoir Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Still, I have not given hope on this author. Maybe I simply didn’t connect to Leaving Church. Her other bestselling spiritual memoir An Altar in the World sits on my bookshelf. Soon enough, I’ll be turning its pages. ...more
Reading Jacob Needleman’s spiritual, yet philosophical memoir What Is God? is akin to watching a slow-paced movie where you know it’s worth watching bReading Jacob Needleman’s spiritual, yet philosophical memoir What Is God? is akin to watching a slow-paced movie where you know it’s worth watching because you have this inkling that something big, shocking, revelatory—a giant epiphany—will surface at the end like the lost city of Atlantis. But all along you are thinking, where is he going with this? And will he ever answer the question he posed? Three quarters of my way through the book I was still asking myself that question. Patience, I told myself. And that is the same thing I would tell the reader. The book builds up slowly, but in the end delivers the answer to its question.
My first impression upon seeing Needleman’s book in the religion section of my local bookstore was that it must be an ambitious work. Needleman, who I had never heard of, was certainly tackling a gargantuan question. When I opened the back flap, I discovered that he was a professor, and not just any professor, a professor of philosophy who had penned over fourteen books. Clearly, he was up to the task of posing and possibly answering such an age-old question. As a philosopher and former atheist-turned man of faith, Needleman’s perspective was bound to be compelling.
What Is God? is a challenging read. It requires attention, concentration, maybe even a pencil in your hand. It does not swiftly move by like, for instance, Deepak Chopra’s How to Know God. You really have to pay attention. It’s almost as if you are a student in one of Needleman’s classes, such is his pedagogical tone.
The book begins with the chapter “My Father’s God,” where Needleman writes of looking at the night sky with his father when, he says, “something deep inside me started breathing for the first time” and “the whole universe itself suddenly opened its arms to me.” Such is his earliest experience with God, though he eventually turns to atheism. A skeptic of organized religion and original sin (at one point he admits to burning The Confessions of St. Augustine), he believed that religion, in particular, the Judaism of his family, “had nothing to do with the sky full of stars, the still and silent mantis…it had nothing to do with what…I had learned to call God.” So it seems his atheism was not totally devoid of God.
What then follows is the course of his career as an undergraduate student of philosophy at Harvard and a graduate student at Yale. Needleman spends many pages sharing the writers and thinkers who marked a profound affect on his philosophical and spiritual life, namely D.T. Suzuki, P.D. Ouspensky, G.I. Gurdjieff and Jeanne de Salzmann.
Needleman charts how his faith had developed from reading the works of Immanuel Kant (he devotes an entire chapter to The Critique of Pure Reason), David Hume and others of the Age of Enlightenment, focusing on the power and importance of empirical thought. For Needleman, God can be known through an empirical process, what he calls “higher attention.” By simply focusing, giving one’s full attention, one can engage in higher attention, and thus, God. Higher attention inward may allow one to experience the Self with a capital S, the true self, that deeply quiet higher being, behind the self with a lowercase s, the egotistical me. In the end, this is his epiphany, that God can be experienced empirically, and does not have to be divorced from science or philosophy.
Though it is not an easy read, and may not work for the mainstream reader (I found the narrative disorganized at times and the chapter headings random and disconnected), What Is God? is ideal for a philosophical or spiritual reader. Needleman brought back my own memories toiling through philosophical texts in my undergraduate courses: Philosophy of Law, The Age of Enlightenment and Modernism. These were courses that changed my own thinking.
“…I learned from my own years of inner work that the great questions of life cannot be answered by the mind alone,” Needleman writes, “but only when they are asked with the whole of one’s being.” ...more
I absolutely loved this book. I felt that Anne Lamott had invited me into her home for a cup of tea and while she wrapped me around a quilt that she hI absolutely loved this book. I felt that Anne Lamott had invited me into her home for a cup of tea and while she wrapped me around a quilt that she had knit herself, shared her thoughts and stories on spirituality, life, her son, and herself. It's a warm account of her life, her faith, her friends and everything that matters to her. She did a brilliant job capturing the magic that makes her spiritual and how it is infused in her everyday life. The writing is superb, top-notch, and her book is elegantly structured with essays beautifully tied together like the quilt I had mentioned before. Once in a while, one gets quite saddened that a book is about to end, that a voice is about to close, and that is how I felt when I read the last page. I’ve been reading many spiritual memoirs lately, and this is one of the best thus far....more