I haven’t been writing full reviews of the spiritual memoirs I’ve read in the last few months, but I want to give at least a short update on each of them. Here are the last three:
A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith by Timothy Egan
A mix of personal spiritual memoir, travelogue, and religious history that brought many insights and epiphanies, although I was not always enamored of the author’s journalistic style. I confess I had not realized how much Christianity is in decline in Europe, which may seem sad in some ways, but I think the old shell of that religion has to die, so that a truer, more authentic experience can be born.
It was notable that Egan seemed to recover his faith simply by walking — a reminder that SLOW DOWN is the most central tenet of any valid religious practice.
A book that engages with Christian tradition
In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom, by Qanta Ahmed
This had some interesting information but the author’s style was frustrating (desperately in need of a good editor). Her personality was also not very sympathetic, which is fatal in a memoir. She was so obsessed with designer objects, while I did not care to hear about the Bulgari jewelry and Gucci shoes or whatever. She was also constantly describing people as “Caucasian” or light-skinned as a mark of their beauty, which was regrettable.
I was much more interested in her spiritual experiences in Mecca, but I could get no impression of her spiritual life at all. It seemed to be indescribable, but again, if you’re going to write a memoir it’s good to be able to describe things. All she could say was that she met her Maker in the presence of the Ka’aba. After her Hajj, on the eve of leaving Saudi Arabia, she was drawn to return again to the wonderful black rock. She insists Islam is not idol worship, but then she equates the rock with God. I was not sure what to make of this.
I did really appreciate some of the information about life in Saudi Arabia, especially for women, and the description of Hajj which I found fascinating. It’s important to understand the appeal of a religion so passionately followed by so many. This book gave me a hint of it, but I need to learn much more.
A book that engages with Muslim tradition
My Broken Language: A Memoir, by Quiara Alegría Hudes
This started out strong, with a powerful voice and absorbing stories of the tensions experienced in growing up pulled between languages and cultures. Love for family shines through on every page, with mourning for the tragic losses to AIDS and drugs that too often had to be silenced by shame, and rejoicing in the vivid aliveness of their best times.
Later on, I found something was less satisfying. As a precocious genius who was apparently writing music better than Scriabin without half trying, I had a hard time relating to Quiara. And something seemed to be missing, as though she were withholding important information. I found the four times she experienced possession somewhat concerning. While leaving room for cultural difference, I wonder whether the spirits that take people over in that way could really be benign. This was one of the aspects where I felt something was missing.
A book that engages with any religious or spiritual tradition (Santeria)
I also read two novels with a spiritual or religious theme: Search, by Michelle Huneven, about a search for a California Unitarian church’s new minister that goes horribly wrong, and Haven, by Emma Donoghue, which speculates about how the first religious community may have been founded on Skellig Michael, a rocky island off the coast of Ireland — this also goes horribly wrong. In fiction, at least, spirituality seems a dangerous business.
Have you read any of these? Do you have any others to recommend? I’m especially interested in recommendations for books about Islam.
4 thoughts on “Spiritual Memoir Challenge update”
I also felt sorry about the decline in attendance at church here in England, but then I thought that the high numbers used to be because you were expected to go, while now we can choose to go. So there are less church goers but probably of those that do go, there are more true believers now. 🙏
I agree, Jessica. There is not much meaning to enforced faith.
For this month I just finished a memoir by Ayser Salman, “The Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Woman Just Trying to Fit in.” She didn’t talk tons about her faith, at least not as distinguished from Muslim culture, but it was interesting nonetheless.
I haven’t decided yet what memoir I’ll read for June…
I so agree with your take here: “a reminder that SLOW DOWN is the most central tenet of any valid religious practice.”
There’s no shortage of books that explore Muslim culture, but I’ve had a hard time finding ones that go more into the faith from a personal point of view. I will keep looking.
I am reading The Diving Bell and the Butterfly right now, and if you haven’t read it, it is an absolute must. This man demonstrates the strength of the human spirit with every word. Wow.