Big Questions reading list

This short list recommends a few books that may be of value to those interested in religion (particularly Buddhism) and philosophy. It’s just a personal list, not a systematic set of references, so use it for what it’s worth.

1. Nonfiction

Books which are primarily about people and society but throw light on Buddhism as practised in Tibet and China.

Bones of the Master by George Crane (1996)
George Crane, American poet, meets Tsung Tsai, a Chinese Ch’an (Zen) monk who escaped from the disastrous Great Leap Forward in 1959-60. The two of them travel to Inner Mongolia to re-establish the monastery.

Continue reading “Big Questions reading list”

Pataki vs Religion

Against Religion

Tamas Pataki

Scribe (2007)

Tamas Pataki could be accused of misleading advertising. His title should have been Against Christianity or Against Monotheism. And his cover image, with its implicit hard-science associations, is misleading too, because he argues against religion primarily on the basis of Freudian theory.

To be fair, Pataki does warn the reader in his introduction that he is going to focus on the monotheistic religions. Christianity (the religion of about 33% of the world’s population) is his main target, while Islam (20%) and Judaism (a mere 0.2%) are often caught in his field of fire but less often singled out. He barely mentions Hinduism (13%) or Buddhism (6%), and in fact his prime argument applies to them poorly or not at all. Continue reading “Pataki vs Religion”

Terry Lane: God – the interview

Godd Interview coverGod: the interview

Terry Lane

ABC Books, second edition, 2004

Terry Lane prefaces his book with a warning and a plea, and it is only fair to repeat them here: the contents of his book, and therefore of my review, may disturb those who are content with their deeply held Christianity. That was not his wish, nor is it mine, and we would ask such people not to continue.

Lane is widely known in Australia as a radio interviewer for the ABC. When asked casually whom he would most like to interview, he said, ‘God.’ The idea took root and this book grew from it.

Continue reading “Terry Lane: God – the interview”

Sara Gruen: Water for Elephants

Sara Gruen Water for ElephantsIf you ever wanted to run away with the circus, if you have ever been passionately in love with the wrong person, if you are scared by the idea of a lonely old age in a nursing home, if you know some animals are cleverer and nicer than most people, if you love larger-than-life characters, lost worlds, high adventure and fairytale endings, then this book is for you.

Set in the USA in 1931, a period defined by Prohibition and the Depression, Water for Elephants follows Jacob Jankowski as he drops out of veterinary school and accidentally joins Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show On Earth, travelling by train across the country.

Continue reading “Sara Gruen: Water for Elephants”

Venero Armanno: Candle Life

candle life coverA young Australian writer in Paris, drowning in grief for the death of his girlfriend, is drawn into a surreal series of events by an enigmatic expatriate American. Sonny Lee, first encountered as a vagrant on the streets, may or may not have been the important literary figure he claims to have been, but he does eventually set the novel’s unnamed narrator on a path that spirals down into the darkness of the Parisian catacombs. His disturbing influence is counterbalanced by a sweet, mute Russian prostitute and an uncomplicatedly affectionate young Frenchwoman.

Candle Life has many parallels with John Fowles’ The Magus, likewise centred on a young writer isolated in a foreign community and manipulated into strange and frightening experiences which ultimately bring him self-knowledge; both even have sub-plots revisiting the Second World War, but The Magus is fifty years old, and shows it, while Candle Life is absolutely contemporary. For its major characters, all living on the fringes of society, stability is inconceivable while identity is fluid and drugs, casual sex and gratuitous violence are commonplace. Fowles would have been appalled by the collapse of social institutions, but he would have recognised that his questions about identity and the relationship between truth, fantasy and fiction, had been tackled anew with vigour and integrity.

Brisbane-born Venero Armanno teaches creative writing at the University of Queensland. The mode of his seventh novel matches its content, dreamlike in its swirl of action and illusion and its sudden changes of perspective. Candle Life is a wild, brilliant book.

Vintage, $32.95

Review originally published July 2006,
added to this site October 2020.