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1 Hawthorne Literature- A to Z

This title in other editions

Lying Awake (Vintage Contemporaries)


Lying Awake (Vintage Contemporaries) Cover

ISBN13: 9780375706066
ISBN10: 0375706062
Condition: Standard
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Reading Group Guide

1. How appropriate is the choice of locale of the monastery of Sisters of the Carmel of Saint Joseph in the very heart of Los Angeles rather than in a more pastoral setting?

2. The nuns follow a way of life established for centuries. In what ways, if any, are they allowed to express their individuality?

3. Salzman writes, "The real penance in cloistered life, most Sisters agreed, was not isolation; it was the impossibility of getting away from people one would not normally have chosen as friends" [p. 21]. What incidents in the book support this statement? How does Salzman "humanize" Sister John and the other nunsfor instance, Sister Bernadette, Sister Anne, and Mother Emmanuelwithout undermining his portrait of lives dedicated to serving God?

4. What specific roles do these women play in creating the reality of the religious life: the novice Sister Miriam, Mother Mary Joseph, the former prioress, and Sister Teresa, Sister John's novice mistress? What qualities does Sister John share with each of them? What do each of their lives teach her about herself?

5. The story of Sister John's past unfolds gradually throughout the novel. Why are some of her memories [for example, pp. 42–43, pp. 61–62 and pp. 86–90] set in italic type, while other aspects of her background are integrated within the narrative? In what ways did her family situation and her attachment to her teacher, Sister Priscilla, influence her decision to become a nun? Is she drawn to the religious life for spiritual reasons alone, or do other aspects of her life play an equally important part?

6. "For seven years she watched as the cloister got smaller and the silence got bigger . . . and the farther she traveled inward without finding Him, the more aware she became of His absence" [p. 97–98]. How does Sister John's period of spiritual aridity affect the decision she must later make about her medical condition?

7. Is Sister John's interpretation of her mother's visit as "an opportunity to end the relationship once and for all, and to get away with the lie" [p. 105] fair? Is her reaction to the way her mother looks and acts surprising? What does her curiosity about her half siblings tell you about her feelings about her mother's choices and her own? Why does she pull off her wimple and veil after the visit [p. 107]?

8. After years of feeling lost, Sister John finally feels God's presence while making preparations for the Easter service [p. 115–6]. Why are both the setting and the time of year significant? In what way are the circumstances particularly relevant to the teachings of St. Teresa of Avila?

9. Sister John wonders, "How . . . do you talk about infused contemplation with a neurologist?"[p. 47] In reacting to her account of her symptoms, as well as when he recommends surgery

[p. 68], Dr. Sheppard treats her like any other patient. Why doesn't he respond more directly when she says of her pain, "Its a wonderful experience, but its spiritual, not physical" [p. 47]? Later in the book, Sister John compares the hospital to her monastery and imagines how a doctor might characterize the cloistered life [p. 153]. Is her description an accurate reflection of how most people would regard a celibate life devoted to prayer and contemplation? How does Lying Awake inspire or reinforce ideas about a religious vocation?

10. Sister John wonders whether Dostoevsky would have been treated for his epilepsy if he had had the option. In view of his description of his rapture [p. 120], how would you answer this question? Can artistic inspiration be related to mental imbalances, either physical or psychological? For example, how did the mental instability of artists and writers such as Vincent Van Gogh, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath influence their work?

11. St. Teresa, who suffered epileptic seizures, agonized over how to tell the difference between genuine spiritual experiences and false ones and feared for her own sanity. Is her warning against "seeking illness as a means of cultivating holiness" [p. 121] still relevant today? Why is Sister Johns struggle harder in some ways than the difficulties faced by St. Teresa and other Christian mystics of the past?

12. Why does the priest say, "Were all better off having doubts about the state of our souls than presuming ourselves to be holy" [p. 125]? How does this compare to the teachings of most religion and most people's beliefs? To what extent do our behavior and the decisions we make entail making "presumptions" about ourselves and our place in the world?

13. "I made a commitment to live by faith, not by reason,"writes Sister John [p. 119]. In making her decision about surgery, does she rely entirely on faith, or does reason play a role as well?

14. 4. How does the language and style of Lying Awake differ from most contemporary writing? In what ways do the words of the nuns' prayers and Sister John's own poetry enhance the narrative? What details of daily life in the monastery help to establish the themes Salzman is exploring?

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Average customer rating based on 2 comments:

jaccschn, June 11, 2013 (view all comments by jaccschn)
This is a great read. One can really sense the anguish over the decision to have the surgery which will change the preceptions of self or to not have the surgery and endanger herself.
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Ben from Texas, June 8, 2013 (view all comments by Ben from Texas)
I found this book to be every bit as gorgeous and controlled as people say it is. The writing is nearly flawless, and the story requires little effort to finish in a single sitting. I did however find the premise somewhat more compelling than the execution. While Salzman does complexify what we understand about Sister John of the Cross as she experiences a truly compelling conflict, the conflict itself remains static and unchanged until its resolution. Essentially, the sister's choice remains straightforward, and the novel itself becomes a brief study on the nature of this binary. I found myself wondering, if from among the hundreds of books written about Joan of Arc, whether Salzman was perhaps too aware of other writers who had explored a similar question as what is addressed in Lying Awake, and in trying to avoid replication, erred, if only slightly, toward something less generic, but also less complex.

This book has me interested in Salzman, and I'm curious to read his other titles.
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Product Details

Salzman, Mark
Vintage Books USA
New York
Psychological fiction
Religious fiction
Los angeles
Los angeles (calif.)
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Vintage Contemporaries (Paperback)
Series Volume:
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8.15x5.16x.52 in. .45 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
History and Social Science » American Studies » Popular Culture

Lying Awake (Vintage Contemporaries) Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$3.95 In Stock
Product details 192 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9780375706066 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Sister John of the Cross is a nun with special gifts; she is filled with poetry, with love for God and the Innocent Spouse, and with pain (real pain in the form of blinding headaches that give her no rest, but during which she has visions). Something like a hammer in her skull reveals to her that humans are "God dreaming" and other flights of breathless grace, but when the Sister discovers that there may be a more earthly component to all of this, she is forced to make a choice that is nothing less than a test of her faith. In Lying Awake, Mark Salzman has written a book so lovely that it seems like something that is itself on the verge of escape.

"Review" by , "Lying Awake showcases an almost ethereal talent, one that can handle complex ideas with a touch lighter than air."
"Review" by , "Elegant....Salzman's depiction of Sister John's conflict, convent life, and this society of devoted women is a marvelous accomplishment."
"Review" by , "A gentle story....Graceful, lucid, and enjoyable."
"Review" by , "Mark Salzman is...a poet, capturing in the pages of Lying Awake, his shining novel about devotion and doubt, a mysticism that reaches back in time to an older tradition, yet dwells easily in the present."
"Review" by , "A satisfying and evocative questioning of faith and art."
"Review" by , "A deliberate and somewhat plodding account of life inside a Carmelite convent, told with a surfeit of awe by Salzman, who seems to have read too much Rumer Godden for his own good."
"Review" by , "Written with simple elegance, alternating narrative and prayer, the tale is engaging yet maintains a curious emotional elusiveness. A drama centering on the realm of mysticism is bound to be difficult to describe and, like Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy, this story doesn't aim to render the nun's spiritual life and psyche in accessible terms for lay readers. 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. Salzman's talent for calling forth the details and essence of unfamiliar realms is well known....With this third novel (after The Soloist), the author continues to surprise with his unorthodox choices and consistently challenging themes, story lines, and characters."
"Review" by , "In an era of trendy spirituality, Salzman has rendered the real thing. His book should be short-listed for all the literary prizes, but it has the kind of grace that doesn't demand them."
"Review" by , "Readers interested in lyricism, the bone-beautiful kind that arises from a small thing intensely considered, would do well to pick up Mark Salzman's Lying Awake....[T]he concreteness and economy of Salzman's writing, his eye and ear for tiny, resonant details, eventually yield their riches in a clear-eyed vision — not, perhaps, of what God means, but certainly of what it means to be a human being."
"Review" by , "A lean, seemingly effortless tour de force...a perfect little novel."
"Synopsis" by , US
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