2017-07-12
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.

American Apocrypha: More Essays on the Book of Mormon
Edited by Brent Lee Metcalfe and Dan Vogel
Signature, 384p


This collection of nine critical essays on the Book of Mormon generally evinces strong scholarship and compelling argumentation, though some of the articles are clearly superior to others. The anthology begins notably well, with Edwin Firmage Jr.'s autobiographical essay on historical criticism and the Book of Mormon. George Smith's article on early 20th-century LDS leader Brigham H. Roberts is also outstanding, documenting how Roberts publicly championed the Book of Mormon but privately experienced misgivings about its authenticity as an ancient text. Susan Staker's "Secret Things, Hidden Things" is the most innovative and fresh essay in the bunch, delving into the role of seership in the book and in Joseph Smith's life. Finally, David Wright's investigation into the Book of Mormon's many Isaiah passages an important, if highly technical, study.

Other pieces are not as strong. Vogel's study of the conflicting accounts of the 19th-century witnesses who claimed to have seen or touched the original plates of the Book of Mormon begins promisingly enough, but ends with the disappointing and reductive assertion that these individuals were probably victims of hypnosis and group hallucination. Scott Dunn's essay, Automaticity and the Dictation of the Book of Mormon, is also a weak link, applying 1970s-era research on automatic writing (a phenomenon that many scholars and psychologists have dismissed) to Joseph Smith's purported translation of the Book of Mormon. On the whole, however, this anthology enlivens the debate about the origin and importance of the Book of Mormon.

To Play With Fire: One Woman's Remarkable Odyssey
By Tova Mordechai
Urim Publications, 447p


This story of one woman's journey from evangelical Christianity to Orthodox Judaism is intriguing and loving. She's now Tova Mordechai, but she began as Tonica Marlow, the British daughter of a Pentecostal preacher father and an Egyptian Jewish mother (who herself had become a Christian).

Raised in a strict Christian household and sent as a teenager to a theological college, Tonica wanted desperately to serve Jesus, but, even as she faithfully went to church and studied Scripture, she was dogged by questions about Judaism. As a young adult, she began to periodically attend synagogue and correspond with an Orthodox rabbi. She eventually ran away from the theological college and immersed herself in the worldwide Hasidic community, living with a Jewish family in London and studying at a Hasidic institute in Minnesota before settling down in Israel.

Two features distinguish this memoir. First is Mordechai's evenhanded treatment of her Christian roots; for the most part, she paints a sympathetic picture of her childhood, neither vilifying nor caricaturing her parents' faith. Second, she does not romanticize the process of embracing a new religion, but honestly recounts the bumps on her road to Orthodoxy (such as challenging the narrow-mindedness of a rabbi who likened Jesus to Superman and other childish fantasy heroes). Readers' only complaint may be that the book could easily be 75 pages shorter. Still, Jews will enjoy following Mordechai on her journey, and seekers of other faiths will recognize in Mordechai's particularities the universal pieces of a spiritual quest.

The Inside Story on Teen Girls
By Karen Zager and Alice Rubenstein
American Psychological Association Life Tools, 464 p.

Psychologists Zager and Rubenstein forged a literary partnership after participating in an APA task force on adolescent girls. They surveyed 1,100 parents, educators and teens, asking their concerns about adolescent girls. The result is a book that speaks to both teens and parents. Designed so that one cover opens to a section for parents and, flipped over, the other cover opens to a section for teens, the book treats the most common questions surrounding parenting and adolescent development.

Each of the major sections begins with a letter written by a member of the target group (a parent or a teen), and each chapter ends with hot tips. This approach makes for a comprehensive guide to building healthy parent-teen relations and handling the tough times that accompany adolescent years. Among the parenting topics: disciplining with dignity, managing rebellion and parenting through divorce. The teen topics include romantic relationships, low self-esteem and handling schoolwork. Zager and Rubenstein also provide guidelines for what behaviors should be expected when. With advice gathered from observation, the authors caution parents about the pitfalls of raising girls without solid paternal contact. They also admonish parents against laissez-faire parenting, reminding them that children need boundaries and even crave them.

The teen advice on dealing with weight and body image, exploring sexuality and accepting or rejecting gender roles is especially strong. Zager and Rubenstein adroitly delve into the minds of parents and teens, and their book will surely inspire harmonious relationships within families.

Crappy to Happy: Small Steps to Big Happiness Now
By Randy Peyser
Red Wheel/Weiser, 224p

Taking a spunky approach to self-help, Randy Peyser, the former editor-in-chief of the New Age magazine Catalyst, has written Crappy to Happy: Small Steps to Big Happiness Now. Using humor, parables and personal anecdotes, Peyser explains how readers can learn to be true to themselves, develop spirituality in their lives and cultivate personal integrity. Her advice is straightforward and jargon-free, and her emphasis is on the present. Asking for support doesn't mean you're a wimp, she says. Get all the support you need. Those with a sense of humor or those in need of one will relish Peyser's quirky book.

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