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.


October 2013 – “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” by Rhoda Janzen
“Mennonite”, as we nicknamed it, is an interesting tale of one woman’s return to her roots. Following the end of her marriage, Rhoda Janzen returned home to her conservative Mennonite family and community. (There are many different branches of the Mennonite church; Rhoda Janzen’s family are a traditional branch.) Throughout the book, Janzen both explores her church’s teachings, and charts her own recovery and her move to the next stage of her life.
As ever, we had many different views on the book, but the reaction was largely quite positive. Views included admiration for Janzen’s determination to survive a serious personal crisis, and the good humour and honesty with which she explores her family’s beliefs. We mostly agreed that she was quite even-handed in how she presented the Mennonite church; both the strengths of their commitment to pacifism and family, and the difficulties of holding strongly conservative and unchanging views in the modern world. Would we recommend it? Most of us would.


November 2013 – “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho
As one of the most famous “spiritual” books of our time, “The Alchemist” arrived in a blaze of publicity, much of it put there by the quotes on the book’s cover; it holds the Guinness World Record for the most translated book. Perhaps, therefore, it was destined to disappoint at least some people who read it. “The Alchemist” tells the magic realist tale of the young Andalusian shepherd, Santiago, and his quest for the treasure he has dreamed of, lying in the Pyramids of Egypt. Along the way, Santiago meets a huge host of characters, including the Alchemist of the title, and learns many lessons.

Reactions to this book were mixed. Some, at least, were along the lines of “is this it?” Many people felt that it was an entertaining and interesting read, and had some valuable insights, but not quite the world-changing story we had perhaps hoped to encounter. Santiago’s fantastical adventures are certainly gripping, but some readers felt there was a little too much of a “happy ever after” ending for it to really be a classic story.

Others had difficulty with perhaps the most famous line of the book, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it”. At least one reader had the instant reaction “No it doesn’t”. We debated this for some time. Many of us felt this was only true of people who were in a position to take advantage of life’s opportunities; what about those afflicted by war or natural disasters – did they fail to want something badly enough? Perhaps the closest we came to consensus was that if by that, we understand that Coelho means that thinking positively and with determination about achieving one’s goals can help one reach them, we would agree.