2014 Book Reviews

The Newcastle upon Tyne Unitarian Reading Group met for the first time in July 2013. At the time we chose a “book of the month”, and our first three books were “Hector and the Search for Happiness”, “The Penitent”, and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, reviewed here.


July – “Hector and the Search for Happiness” by Francis Lelord

Hector is a French psychiatrist who becomes concerned when he realises he cannot make his patients (or his girlfriend) happy. He embarks on a quest around the world, starting in China at a Buddhist monastery, and visiting Africa and America along the way, and tries to write down his rules for happiness.

The reaction to this was generally positive, although several people found the rather simplistic style of writing to be a bit grating after a while. Others felt it suited the almost fairy-tale like story, and gave a good overview of some current thoughts and research about happiness, although perhaps at the cost of going into them in any depth. Many of us had a part of the book we felt worked well, and a part we didn’t particularly favour. Would we recommend it to others? On balance, many of us would, but perhaps with a few comments about what to expect from the writer’s style!


August – “The Penitent” by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Sickened by his daily life and the society around him, a Jewish man, Joseph Shapiro, becomes a “penitent”, a man rejecting his life. The book follows his increasing conviction that a fundamentalist approach to religion is the only way to live meaningfully and righteously.

This book provoked a lot of discussion, although as one member commented: “It’s a book to learn from, but not necessarily to love”. Whilst many of us did not agree with Shapiro’s bitter rejection of Western capitalist society, we found his arguments to be thought-provoking; “you may not agree, but you must engage” was another comment. We also thought the exploration of fundamentalism was, sadly, very appropriate at this point in history. Whilst a good book, there was general agreement that it should only be recommended if the prospective reader knows what they’re getting into!


September – “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by Jean-Dominique Bauby

“The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly” is one of the few books in existence to have been written by eyelid. Its author was the editor of French Elle magazine, and suffered a massive stroke, leaving him with “locked-in” syndrome. Fully conscious, but unable to consciously control any part of his body except his eyelid, he dictated the book by having an assistant run their finger along the alphabet, and blinking when they reached the correct letter. The book recounts his experiences in hospital, and reflections upon his life.

Many of us found this a beautifully written book, all the more remarkable given the limitations the author faced. We found it both uplifting and saddening by turns, particularly when Bauby recounts how he depends upon the kindness of his carers and nurses, some of whom are more caring than others. His determination to find meaning in the worst of circumstances was inspiring. We would recommend this to others.