Thursday, January 7, 2016
Book Review: Adventures in Soulmaking (Part 2)
I've had a terrible time getting through this book. I'm only halfway through, not even finished with Part I. A large part of my difficulty is the overtly Evangelical nature and tone of so much of the book, which I've already discussed in Part 1 of this review. It pokes too many of my sore spots and makes me twitchy.
But another aspect of the book that is an obstacle for me is something I find in so many self-published books: the inadequacy of the book design and the want of a dispassionate editor. At first I thought I was struggling to read because I was furnished with a .pdf version of the book that didn't play nicely with my Kindle iPhone app. Having to resize and scroll through each and every page was hugely distracting. Some hundred pages into it, I found that I could read the published ebook version through Kindle Unlimited and promptly downloaded that to my phone. Quite a bit easier to handle and a whole lot less strain on a nervous system always overwrought by hysterical illness.
The book still felt difficult to read. I even started from the beginning again once I got the Kindle version and this time I started realizing that it wasn't all me; the book itself is just kinda clumsy. The story illustrations are too long and too fully formed as stories to be effective illustrations. Caldwell states that his first desire in this book is to be a teller of stories. If that were his only intention, he could have made a stronger book, something more along the lines of Women Who Run with the Wolves or Kitchen Table Wisdom. Caldwell clearly sees the value in good storytelling in its own right, he is married to a storyteller, but not being a storyteller himself, he confuses a good story with a good illustration.
Then there are the memoir and personal stories. We follow not only Caldwell's trip around the spiral path but also Debbie, a spiritual direction client, who appears in each chapter in long passages of her own words that sound more like extended answers to an essay question than good narrative. Debbie's story would be more effective if Caldwell has recapped her relevant experiences in his own voice and kept them much shorter. Not only do we hear Caldwell and Debbie, though, there's also Duane and Donna, and several others I can't even remember who are brought in to tell us about specific points Caldwell wants to make. In one complicated section we are treated to Caldwell, Debbie, Duane (or maybe someone else, I forget) and Tom, a patient of Caldwell's residency years, whose story we must enter both through Caldwell's own perspective and, awkwardly, from the perspective of his mother we are instructed to imagine we are, despite his mother have zero relevance to the point. Each of these people's stories are told in stop-action and abrupt shifting from story to story. Added to the multiplicity of stories and the profusion of characters within each story, the lack of decent formatting (no bold or underlining or other kind of visual marker to denote headlines or section titles) and sometimes no titles at all, I was constantly confused as to who was where, when, and why I should care.
I think Caldwell tried to include too much when he took on this project. All within the same book, he attempts to describe and promote spiritual direction to both those who are completely unfamiliar with the concept and those who already have some knowledge or experience, introduce Christian mysticism (without ever using that word) to readers who would probably be terrified to think they were being encouraged to mystical experience since Evangelicals are kinda neurotic about that sort of thing, describe the Jungian system of the person and make parallels to the Christian theology of the soul, and as if that weren't already more than enough, throws in Greek and German vocabulary with explanations and definitions. Is this a textbook for spiritual directors? a workbook for directees or solitary spiritual seekers? a collection of wisdom tales? a memoir? or three memoirs?
Keep in mind, I'm only not quite finished with Part I, the map of the soul or personality and description of the spiral path of mystics. Part II is a whole nother beast altogether! Caldwell could have written three or four books instead of one and all of them would be stronger for their simplicity than this one with its excess.
Most of what Caldwell is trying to convey is fairly straightforward and could be conveyed easily and intelligently in a traditional linear outline. And Caldwell himself seems like a mostly left-brained sort of intellect for whom linear thinking is preferential. Yet he writes in this circling around from story to exposition, from the diagram of the soul to the description of mystical life, from too long quotes by too many other writers to several pages of a meditation that not quite successfully analogizes the design of the Jewish SecondTemple with the architecture of the Christian soul. Whether consciously or unconsciously, it seems as if he wants to present his material in a right-brained, metaphorical and symbolic outline, spiraling around from topic to topic and back, as if illustrating the spiral path of mysticism itself. This approach might work well in small groups or one-on-one in mentorship, perhaps even in a classroom over a period of weeks, but it is less successful in book form.
A good editor and book designer could have taken all the separate pieces and given them a better home--perhaps in sidebars, chapter epilogues, and appendices--where they could shine more brightly on their own merit and not clutter up the linear outline that describes the anatomy of the soul and the roadmap of mysticism. Caldwell has some really strong pieces, though many of them are too long and extraneously detailed, but they don't work as strongly together. The whole here is not greater than the sum of its parts.
All of those complaints aside, I intend to keep reading. Despite the weaknesses of the book, Caldwell does indeed know what he's talking about and knows it very well. He has walked and is walking the walk and writes from his experiential knowledge as much as his intellectual and theoretical knowledge. Most books I've read of this nature are from only one side of that equation--theory or experience--and are lesser for it. Caldwell has deep wells of training in both theology and psychology and experience as both a contemplative and a counselor of spiritual adventurers from which to draw and I want to know what he can teach me.