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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A poem in which the more you read, the more you are given., 14 Mar 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: Lying Awake (Hardcover)
This is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. The story concerns a Carmelite nun in present-day Los Angeles, where Sister John, who writes poetry inspired by visions, has to face the possibility that her visions are in fact caused not by God, but by temporal lobe epilepsy. At one level, the book is an exploration of the questions this raises - for example, is the epilepsy God's way of inspiring her? will the operation to cure her blinding headaches take away her visions? But we are shown so much else: the love the sisters have for one another, the humour they find in their simple lives, their clarity and simplicity. The author's style is limpid, translucent, never using two words when one will do. Each sentence invites you to meditate on it. It is not in any sense a religious tract; more like a long poem in which, the more you read, the more you are given. Please read it.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Crisis of Faith, 4 Sep 2006
By 
Elaine Simpson-long (Colchester, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Lying Awake (Paperback)
Sister John is a member of an enclosed order. She has visions. These have come to her after years of struggling with her vocation within this order and she feels she has finally found God. She is taken ill and has to go to hospital for tests and is found to suffer a form of epilepsy, the symptoms of which are heightened awareness and visions. So, she finds that her closeness to God was a physical, not a spiritual, manifestation and finds her faith once more is tested to the limit. Having the minor surgery which will cure her of her illness also takes away these visions, these moments of spiritual awareness and she has to find a way back.

Sometimes reading can be an uncomfortable experience and certain books are not easy, with prose which is difficult to grasp. Presumably it is meant to do so. Lying Awake is the polar opposite. Without wishing to sound too fanciful, I found when reading this book that a sense of peacefulness settled upon me, I wanted to be left alone and not be disturbed and reading this at 7 am in the morning meant that I had that blessing. It is a quiet book.

It is also short, under 200 pages, but every page counts. It would not have gained anything by being longer, it is perfect as it is. I read it straight through in one sitting and I would recommend anybody who reads this to do the same, not that I can imaging that anyone starting this book could bear to put it down.

Please read.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As I was lying awake..., 19 Dec 2005
By 
Kurt Messick "FrKurt Messick" (London, SW1) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Lying Awake (Paperback)
Rare is the novel that enthralls me sufficiently to warrant reading in a single sitting. Being dyslexic, I am one of the world's slower readers. Being stubborn, I have read more than most. However, this comes because of a large investment of time. I expected 'Lying Awake' to be a four-night, going-to-sleep kind of book. Instead, it kept me in a state indicated by the title -- lying awake. I could not put the book down.
Author Mark Salzman has made a name for himself with books such as 'Iron and Silk' and 'The Soloist'. According to the critical blurbs on the jacket, this book is
'...written with exquisite grace and hailed by critics. This elegant novel plumbs the depths of one woman's soul, and in so doing raises salient questions about the power--and price--of true faith.'
I had an instant rapport with Sister John - the nun had taken the spiritual name from John of the Cross, best known for his reflections on the dark night of the soul, which factors into the situation for Sister John. She had spent many years hoping for insight, hoping for a feeling, hoping for a sign, hoping for something to let her know with certainty that there is meaning to her life, her call, her sacrifices, and her future.
In the course of regular monastic routines, elaborated in the narrative with skill and subtle insight by Salzman, Sister John begins to sense, to feel, to be aware of the presence of the divine in the ordinary and swiftly-becoming-not-so-ordinary day to day tasks and schedules. Salzman takes us gently back through past experiences of Sister John while slowly teasing out the real causes of Sister John's feelings of the divine presence.
Sister John then has to make a choice. The religious ecstatic experience is in fact a dangerous one. Monasteries throughout the ages have asked prospective members of the community if they are prone to such ecstasies, or if they are looking for them in the confines of the monastic enclosure. Quite frequently, if the answer is yes, the person is not admitted to join the community.
Salzman dispels some myths about monastic life (for example, that joining a monastery is an opportunity to get away from people) while presenting the personalities that populate this Carmelite community. The characters are not saints, as most monastic people are basic human beings. They have interesting quirks, and have a care for each other and the whole. They all have faith, but not a superhuman faith.
The choice (which I shall not reveal, lest the primary plot twist be revealed to the detriment of any reader) is a tough one. The recognition of the danger in the religious ecstasy is faced head-on; Sister John is given the option of stopping the experiences. This poses a threat to her continuing in the community with either choice.
Salzman weaves elements of the liturgical year, the monastic rituals and liturgies, and the hierarchies and hopes of everyday life in a monastery through the plot development. We the readers get to experience something of the cycle of life as well as the break in the routine religious ecstasy can cause (which is yet another aspect of it's problematic nature -- monasteries don't like to have the routine cycles broken).
Given my own tendencies toward monastic life, this book was an instant success in capturing my attention. However, I don't believe that one must have catholic or monastic sensibilities to be able to relate to the characters or situations presented here. Salzman's character development has compassion and depth -- the time Sister John's estranged mother comes to visit, for example, is a masterpiece of description both of the mother's exterior performance and Sister John's interior struggles.
The book is brief (no matter how enthralling, I cannot finish long books in one sitting), but not so brief as to be incomplete or leave matters unaddressed. Salzman has a remarkable concentration and economy with language. The sections are pregnant with meaning that unfolds gradually and methodically, rather like a well-done liturgical dance.
In the end, Sister John does have an answer to her call and prayer. The community continues on its majestic way. With many good and great books, I find myself wishing there was more. Here, however, there is enough. It is complete.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, but not quite true to life., 8 Mar 2002
By A Customer
This review is from: Lying Awake (Hardcover)
This is a very interesting (albeit very short) novel that explores the nature of religious experience: a Carmelite nun who believes she has been having revelations from God discovers that her experiences have been caused by a form of epilepsy, which makes her question the reality of her faith.
Although the author has obviously done his homework on religious orders, and the Carmelites in particular, he is a little out of date: many of the customs he describes have long since disappeared (the Chapter of Faults, for example). Because of this it falls short on accurately portraying how a modern monastery works, and what it is actually like to live in one.
Nevertheless, the book is beautifully written and a fascinating, thought-provoking read. Recommended.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Faith from a different perspective., 21 Jun 2014
This review is from: Lying Awake (Paperback)
A thought- provoking book that gives insight and clarity on a world not really understood in a modern world.Challenges both the believer and the post-modern generation to think about faith.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A spiritual faith and a human frailty, 30 Nov 2012
By 
Keen Reader "lhendry4" (Auckland, New Zealand) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Lying Awake (Hardcover)
I came across this book quite by chance and was intrigued by its premise.

A novel small in pages, but big in soul. The story of Sister John of the Cross, a Carmelite nun, who faces a crisis in her spiritual faith when she must face the possibility that her nearness to God has been the result of a medical condition. What should she do, and how should she reconcile her faith to her condition? We read also of Sister John's earlier life as Helen, an insecure child and young woman, who seeks her redemption in her faith and her perceived union with God.

A lovely book, of poetry and beauty, with snippets of prayer interspersed with the spiritual life and the all too real human frailties felt by us all. A book that you feel refreshed by reading, and which leaves you thinking of the greater things in life than those in front of us. An experience, and one to be enjoyed.
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Lying Awake
Lying Awake by Mark Salzman (Paperback - 6 Jan 2003)
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