Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A wide variety of book reviews

Book reviews for you today, starting with the serious and working down from there...

Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis is by David C. Downing, who has a more recent work of fantasy that I'd like to read but our library doesn't carry yet, so I read this instead.  It is an approachable treatment of the concept of Christian mysticism, specifically as seen in the works of C.S. Lewis.  Lewis wasn't a mystic first and foremost, and some might think it's a bit of a stretch to classify him as a mystic at all -- how does one classify a mystic, anyway?  Where does mysticism fall in systematic theology?  Lewis certainly did not write extensively about mysticism as such.  The author makes a case for Lewis' elusive "Joy" experiences being mystical, and traces elements of mysticism from a Christian perspective in his works of fiction.  He is careful to distinguish Christian mysticism from generic, mystical spirituality which embraces a pantheistic approach to enlightenment.  The most helpful part of the book for me was the historical survey of Christian mysticism, listing figures such as St. Francis de Sales and Julian of Norwich.  I'm not sure if it's what the author intended, but my reaction by the end of the book was, "Of course Lewis was a bit of a mystic.  Isn't that true of most Christians?"  I wonder a bit if there was a bit of publish-or-perish about this book, and mysticism was chosen because it was the one aspect of Lewis that hadn't been explored yet.  Still, an interesting read.

The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith -- have I mentioned that I love these books about the #1 Ladies' Detective agency?  In this one we get to go on safari (actually, a business trip) with Mma Ramotswe.  Questions of mistaken identity are resolved in a uniquely African way, and Grace Makutsi shows grace and dignity in distressing circumstances.

Death of a Valentine by M.C. Beaton is the 25th in the series of Hamish Macbeth mysteries.  The author also writes the Agatha Raisin mysteries and got her start writing Regency romances.  I like her wry characterization and her comic style, but this isn't one of the best.  Only Hamish (an unlucky-in-love policeman in the highland village of Lochdubh) and a few recurring characters are fully complex; most characters are exaggerated and their motivation is one-dimensional.  We do get a glimpse into life in the Scottish highlands and the U.K. in general, and some of the social ills that go along with it... particularly alcoholism in this book.

Here's one I only skimmed: The Overton Window by Glenn Beck.  Yes, the Glenn Beck of right-wing radio fame wrote a thriller; I saw it in the fiction section of the library and was curious.  Now, I think it would be fascinating to have Glenn Beck as a dinner guest.  He's wildly hyperactive of mind and his heart's mostly in the right place, but his conspiracy theories are best treated as light entertainment only.  His prose style isn't terrible and he's doing his best to channel Robert Ludlum, but that's as far as it goes.  Maybe it's the fact that our government really is on the brink of financial collapse and sinister forces really are at work to paint patriotic Americans as evil terrorists, that makes Beck's fictional conspiracy tale seem to take on just the wrong tone for me.  I do owe him a debt of thanks; a centerpiece of his book is the wonderful poem by Rudyard Kipling, "The Gods of the Copybook Headings."  I had never encountered it before and it's a good reminder for an age that would like to take a holiday from history that we may be doomed to repeat that history we're forgetting.  An embittered Kipling wrote it after his son died in WWI.  From the Wikipedia entry I learned of the drama when the liberal blog Huffington Post attacked Beck for his "insane" "Seussian" poem, not knowing or not bothering to find out that it was actually Kipling's.  An amusing illustration of the very point of the poem.  If only I could set the Huffpo to copying "I will do my own research" 100,000 times.

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