The last word

Published 3 December 2017

The Art of Living: Peace and Freedom in the Here and Now by Thich Nhat Hanh (HarperOne, $25.99)

Happiness, according to the Vietnamese monk and best-selling author of more than 100 books, is the practice of living in the present -- and deeply so.

The Art of Living -- a compilation of two years' of Thich Nhat Hanh's lectures up until he had a stroke in November 2014 -- focuses on remaining grounded in the here and now, and addressing and countering what he calls "the three wrong views": emptiness, sinlessness and aimlessness, through practicing the Three Doors of Liberation.

The book is written not just with recommendations on how to live life more fully, but is rounded out with anecdotes from his life in Vietnam and France and examples that illustrate the principles of Buddhism Thich Nhat Hanh seeks to convey.

Additionally, the heartfelt foreword for The Art of Living was written by Buddhist Sister Chan Kong, who first heard Thich Nhat Hanh speak nearly 50 years ago and has worked alongside him as a peace activist and as a retreat leader.

Jewish Comedy: A Serious History by Jeremy Dauber (W.W. Norton, $28.95)

Dauber, a professor of Yiddish language, literature and culture at Columbia University, opens Jewish Comedy with a joke and poses a question that developed from his beginnings as a college professor posing the same question: What makes a joke Jewish?

After establishing some basic guidelines within which to begin answering that question, Dauber takes readers through examinations of comedy within the context of their times, from the Book of Esther in the Bible to the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen and Rachel Bloom; and shows such as Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Jokes appear periodically as examples to support Dauber's ideas, but the book is grounded in the analysis of recurring thematic elements found in Jewish comedy such as irony (the series of failures that add up to success portrayed in the musical The Producers, the four characters of Seinfeld winding up in prison as the result of violating a Good Samaritan law); sheer entertainment (an argument between Passover and Hanukkah over which is superior); and unearthing wit to explain the inner workings of a joke, which can be appreciated by all readers.

Seven Women and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas (Thomas Nelson, $16.99)

This book was written as a counterpart for 7 Men, which was among the books featured in last week's list.

Women, including Joan of Arc and activists Mother Teresa and Rosa Parks, are singled out for their accomplishments as people who "were great for reasons that derive precisely from their being women, not in spite of it," and for having responded to a calling higher than themselves, according to Metaxas.

Women are also upheld for their influences on the lives of others such as Susanna Wesley, mother to John and Charles Wesley (the former of whom would grow up to found Methodism); and the poet, playwright and abolitionist Hannah More, who worked closely on the cause of abolitionism with William Wilberforce, of whom Metaxas has written a biography.

Notable also is that Saint Maria of Paris, who was martyred upon her death in a Holocaust camp, appears in the book immediately before writer Corrie Ten Boom, whose 1971 book The Hiding Place recounted her experiences of hiding Jews from the Nazis during World War II.

History of the Church In 100 Objects by Mike Aquilina and Grace Aquilina (Ave Maria Press, $24.95)

As the book's title suggests, the book is a series of 100 bite-size profiles of objects important to the history of Christianity. What the title doesn't reveal is that each item is accompanied by 100 full-color photographs and that some choices (a mortuary cross, a philosophy textbook) are much more general in nature, chosen to illustrate its place in religion.

While items tend more often to have come into play during the life of the Catholic Church, other items are given their context in religious history (such as the compass used by Christopher Columbus), and whether the item is the Holy Grail or a fourth-century medicinal vessel, each item is covered with the same amount of scope and context.

Mike Aquilina has hosted 10 television series on the Eternal Word Television Network and is the author of several dozen books, but this marks the first collaboration with his daughter, Grace Aquilina.

The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad by Lesley Hazleton (Riverhead Books, $17)

Hazleton, a former journalist whose work has appeared in publications including Time magazine and The New York Times and who is the author of the blog "The Accidental Theologist," lays out the story of the prophet Muhammad's life under the three chapter headings of Orphan, Exile and Leader, and strives to bring to life the person behind the religious figure who founded Islam.

According to a biography of Muhammad written in the eighth century and a history of Islam written in the ninth century -- both from which Hazleton draws her narrative -- the prophet Muhammad is known to have been orphaned in Mecca around the age of 6 but grew up to be a wealthy man with a wife and family when he began to spend time meditating in solitude. An eventual revelation received from the angel Gabriel would lead to Muhammad's founding of Islam, a religion which would become widespread by the time of his death.

Through Muhammad, the message of God "in a clear Arabic tongue," and the story of his life post-revelation runs concurrent with the development of verses that would become the Koran and elevates the sacred text of Islam to character status in this book. Readers also will learn about Mecca before it became a holy city and its place in the Hebrew Bible.

O Sing Unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music by Andrew Gant (The University of Chicago Press, $35)

Music of the English church served as worship, speech, storytelling and other forms of communication in some of its earliest surviving forms, which trace back to the turn of the third century B.C., and this book establishes the parameters of the English church ("Which church? Who counts as English?") and traces the path of the church's evolving forms and functions of music throughout history.

English church music is determined by Gant to be in two main traditions: as performed by trained musicians, and as folk tunes that appear and reappear throughout the centuries. Most of the book is devoted to the church's music from the 15th century onward, and a running theme throughout the history, according to Gant, is the one of power and control exercised by clergy to ensure that music was not valued over words while also noting that some people in the church were valued primarily by their ability to sing.

Throughout this fact-packed book lies a healthy balance of narrative, historical perspective and music examined at a technical level, and readers new to the topic of English church music and music enthusiasts alike stand to learn something new.

Religion on 12/02/2017