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Salzman, Mark Lying Awake ISBN 13: 9780375406324

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9780375406324: Lying Awake
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In a Carmelite monastery outside present-day Los Angeles, life goes on in a manner virtually un-changed for centuries. Sister John of the Cross has spent years there in the service of God. And there, she alone experiences visions of such dazzling power and insight that she is looked upon as a spiritual master.

But Sister John's visions are accompanied by powerful headaches, and when a doctor reveals that they may be dangerous, she faces a devastating choice. For if her spiritual gifts are symptoms of illness rather than grace, will a "cure" mean the end of her visions and a soul once again dry and searching?

This is the dilemma at the heart of Mark Salzman's spare, astonishing new novel. With extraordinary dexterity, the author of the best-selling Iron & Silk and The Soloist brings to life the mysterious world of the cloister, giving us a brilliantly realized portrait of women today drawn to the rigors of an ancient religious life, and of one woman's trial at the perilous intersection of faith and reason.

Lying Awake is a novel of remarkable empathy and imagination, and Mark Salzman's most provocative work to date.

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Review:
In his third novel, Lying Awake, Mark Salzman breaks the primary rule of fiction by creating a protagonist who has virtually no external life. Sister John of the Cross, a middle-aged nun cloistered in a Carmelite monastery in contemporary Los Angeles, languished for years in a spiritual drought--"her prayers empty and her soul dry"--until she suddenly received God's grace in the form of intense mystical visions. So vivid have her visions become that they burn a kind of afterglow into her mind that she transcribes into crystalline (and highly popular) verse. The only downside is that they are accompanied by excruciating headaches that cause her to black out.

The story hinges on Sister John's discovery that her visions are in fact the result of mild epileptic seizures. As she learns from her neurologist, temporal-lobe epilepsy commonly brings about "hypergraphia (voluminous writing), an intensification but also a narrowing of emotional response, and an obsessive interest in religion and philosophy." Dostoyevsky, the classic victim of this condition, wrote of his raptures: "There are moments, and it is only a matter of five or six seconds, when you feel the presence of eternal harmony.... If this state were to last more than five seconds, the soul could not endure it and would have to disappear." An exact description of Sister John's visions. The question she now faces is whether to go ahead with surgery--and risk obliterating both her spiritual life and her art--or cling to a state of grace that may actually be a delusion ignited by an electrochemical imbalance.

Using a very limited palette, Mark Salzman creates an austere masterpiece. The real miracle of Lying Awake is that it works perfectly on every level: on the realistic surface, it captures the petty squabbles and tiny bursts of radiance of life in a Los Angeles monastery; deeper down it probes the nature of spiritual illumination and the meaning and purpose of prayer in everyday life; and, at bottom, there lurks a profound meditation on the mystery of artistic inspiration. Salzman made a highly auspicious debut in 1986 with Iron and Silk, a memoir of his years in China, and since then he has dramatically changed key in every book--most recently from the absurdist American suburban chronicle of Lost in Place to the artistic-crisis-cum-courtroom-drama novel The Soloist. Lying Awake is quieter and more sober than Salzman's previous narratives, but it is also more accomplished, more thought-provoking, and more highly crafted. --David Laskin

From the Publisher:
"I read this book straight through without stopping, and then when I was done, I read it all over again. It is one of the most beautiful novels about faith I've ever read. I wish the word luminous were not so overused, because it is in fact luminous; and it is profound. How did Mr. Salzman convey so much life and humanity and insight in such a brief work of fiction? I don't know, but it's a small miracle."
-- Anne Lamott, author of Traveling Mercies

"A remarkable novel: Salzman explores neurological illness and monastic life -- both of which are frequently misunderstood -- with insight, sympathetic accuracy and respect, and in doing so he reaches beyond experience to the heart of the religious requirement."
-- Karen Armstrong, author of The History of God

"Mark Salzman conveys the nature of convent life without romanticizing it. His respect for the interior life of the nun is impressive -- no mystic 'mumbo-jumbo,' no trying to explain away religious wisdom by pompous use of medical diagnoses -- but simply a touching portrait of a woman trying to strike a balance between science and soul."
-- Kathleen Norris, author of The Cloister Walk

"Salzman's talent for calling forth the details and essence of unfamiliar realms is well known... What Salzman conveys with perfect clarity is that momentary, extraordinary mental state in which physical pain becomes pure, lucid grace poised between corporeal reality and eternity, a state that Sister John desires to prolong for a lifetime.... Written with simple elegance."
-- Publishers Weekly

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  • PublisherAlfred A. Knopf
  • Publication date2000
  • ISBN 10 0375406328
  • ISBN 13 9780375406324
  • BindingHardcover
  • Edition number1
  • Number of pages181
  • Rating

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