Reprinted with permission from Publishers Weekly magazine.

"Sunday Jews" | Protestants and contraception | Desert fathers | Egyptian religion | Book of Mormon | A faith odyssey | Teen girls | Finding happiness

Sunday Jews
By Hortense Calisher
Harcourt (704p)

Like Edith Wharton and Henry James, Hortense Calisher finds the drama of fiction as much in the analysis of motive as in the various excitements of action. Her newest novel might be said to have a Wharton-ish feel to it--if, that is, Wharton had written about assimilated Jews rather than status-conscious WASPS.

The Jewish family at the center is named, surprisingly, Duffy. Zipporah Zangwill's marriage to Peter Duffy is mixed not because they come from different faiths, but because they disbelieve in different deities--Zipporah in the Jewish God, Peter in the Catholic one. The first third of the book, which is marvelously felt, tracks Peter's mental degeneration. After retiring from the university where he had been a philosopher, Peter becomes absentminded, then feebleminded, and finally physically debilitated. Zipporah, a nonacademic anthropologist and mother of five, takes him to Italy to hide his condition. Zipporah is helped by a mysterious nurse, Debra Cohen, an awesomely cool Israeli sabra who disappears when Peter dies. The novel's middle section portrays Zipporah in the autumn renaissance of her widowhood. She inherits a fortune from her neighbor and friend, Norman, and takes a lover, the mythically wealthy Foxy Mendenhall.

Calisher shows Zipporah's five children creeping into a professionally respectable middle age, while their children zoom through their 20s. Zipporah is particularly close to her grandson Bertram, who is waiting for a project to happen. He has studied to be a rabbi, but avoided a post. Ten years after Debra Cohen's vanishing act, Bert finds a clue to her whereabouts and tracks her down in Europe. While Calisher's novel is much too baggy, it is also majestically persistent, with an old-fashioned faith in the novel's ability to make worlds.

Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception
By Sam Torode, Bethany Torode
Eerdmans, 144p.

For such a short book, "Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception" packs some serious punches. Authors Sam and Bethany Torode argue that all married Christians, not just Roman Catholics, need to seriously examine the widespread usage of contraception, which they feel is against God's plan for creation. (Pregnancy is not a disease, they assert. Why vaccinate against it?)

While supporting Natural Family Planning, which they define as informed abstinence, they also make a particularly uncompromising case for stay-at-home moms, which will probably irritate many readers. More controversially, they argue that a culture that worships sex without procreation will sacrifice its children through abortion, claiming that America's increasing permissiveness about legalizing contraception in the 1960s led inexorably to Roe v. Wade in the 1970s. While it's good to see some ecumenical diversity in the contraception debate, some of the basic arguments of this book are problematic.

The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditations on the Soul's Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives
By John Anthony McGuckin
Shambhala, 144p

Although Shambhala usually publishes books on Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, "The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditations on the Soul's Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives" is a rare and well-conceived foray into Christian mysticism. Drawing from 300 short meditations by Christian mystics and contemplatives from the fourth to 11th centuries, John Anthony McGuckin's collection is arranged around themes of practice, theory and gnosis. He cautions that the book is not meant for a rapid half-hour read-through from cover to cover in one sitting, but is instead designed to be digested slowly and thoughtfully.

The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion
By Donald Redford
Oxford, 336p

Derived from the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Donald Redford's "The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion" offers more than 90 articles explaining various features of ancient Egyptian beliefs, including ideas about death and the afterlife, the role of cultic animals and the pantheon of deities. The tone can be dry at times, and one wishes for more illustrations, but serious readers will learn a great deal about this ancient religion.