Sunday, April 17, 2016

In which I review "The Novel Habits of Happiness"

image credit: amazon

The title first caught my eye: The Novel Habits of Happiness. What are the new habits of happiness? I'd come to the conclusion that, for the most part, what makes us truly happy has stayed virtually the same: social connection, a feeling of being needed or of worth, being able to love and be loved in return. Sure and there are novel ways of achieving those things, I suppose. Also, I smiled, thinking that it could be a pun, and that the person's novel habits of happiness are indeed derived from novels, books. AND the book is by Alexander McCall Smith, whose modern adaptation of Emma I liked and reviewed here.

It was only 257 pages, it was shelved under "mystery," and it promised a series of reads if I enjoyed this book. So, thinking I had nothing to lose, I took the plunge. Yes, you might be saying, but what did you think of it??? This is, after all, a review. Well, touche, yes this is a review. And now that you know the why and wherefore, here are some thoughts I had on The Novel Habits of Happiness.

The book is set in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the heroine is an early 30s philosopher named Isabel Dalhousie. Throughout the novel, Isabel references philosophers and goes off onto philosophical questions and ideas throughout her day. I found this interesting, as sometimes I find myself thinking of the deeper morals and implications of things, and these thoughts could be set off by any number of things. If you're looking for a real mystery novel, this book is not for you. While shelved as mystery and called an amateur sleuth on the inside cover, Isabel is commissioned by a worried single mother to investigate her son's persistent claims that he had a past life. Delving into the paranormal, though she does not really believe it herself, Isabel investigates around the area of Scotland the young boy seemed to be referencing. I will not say what she found, or to what conclusions she came to with the mother.

I'll only say that I enjoyed visiting with Isabel, her husband Jamie, their little boy Charlie, and the numerous quirky characters that make up Isabel's life in Edinburgh. The pages given to Isabel's work on her philosophical magazine, The Review of Applied Ethics, were interesting and I did not mind that most of the story was about her life and characters, as opposed to more plot-driven drama and suspense.

If you're looking for a cozy read, with some interesting characters, and just a hint of mystery, give this book a try. By my reasoning, if you enjoy it, there's more in the series to check out (and I have and so far I am enjoying them as well.)

The only qualm I had, which not everyone will have, is that though Isabel was so generous and open-minded about so many things, and prided herself upon these facts, I found her to be close-minded and dismissive on the subject of religion. When God or Protestantism or anything hinting at a deity appears, Isabel seems to have the view that many have been "Enlightened" past that stage, where ethics and morals are the foundation themselves, and not a belief in a higher power being the cornerstone which leads to such morals and convictions. Now, I'm fine with a character being atheist, really, but it bothers me when they believe themselves to be "above religion" and to almost scoff or pity the folks who hold on to a sense of belief, likening it to the tooth fairy (I can't remember which of the Isabel novels I saw that idea in, but it was there!) On all other points though I found Isabel to be kind and intelligent, dealing in mysteries only to help others caught in them.

So while this isn't a fully comprehensive review, it has bobs of this and that and gives the feel and idea of the book and series, I hope. Those are my thoughts, and I'd love to hear yours. Have you read any Isabel Dalhousie novels? Does anyone else find philosophy and morals as interesting as I do? (I'm sure some do!) What mysteries do you love to read?

Monday, January 18, 2016

In which I reflect on Gilead

I was gifted Gilead by Marilynne Robinson for Christmas this year. I had asked for it because a beloved blogger, Sarah Bessey, refers to and seems to love her novels, especially Gilead. I had read Lila in the fall, and after I got used to Robinson's unusual writing style, I really enjoyed the read. These books can't be read quickly- or shouldn't be, at least. Robinson is more thought based, inward seeking, than is normal for books.

Event and action driven plot really isn't the idea here. Here are characters to learn about, thoughts to ponder, the grace of everyday things to wonder at.

To state the bare bones of the novel, Gilead is about "a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage in America's heart. In the luminous and unforgettable voice of Congregationalist minister John Ames, Gilead reveals the human condition and 'manages to convey the miracle of existence itself.'"

All that is true... but I found more. And less. All at the same time.Yes there is "spiritual battles" and "human condition" and fancy words and thoughts like that. But there is simple life in Iowa. There are jumbled, seemingly insignificant, but ordinary and therefore beautiful memories of the inward and quiet life of a person.

There is this wonder that was never lost, this unimaginable but perfectly human love and wonder of the world. There is doubt, and despair; that I found in the novel. And that I appreciated. It did not take away from the sincerity of Ames' beliefs. It did not make him seem hypocritical as a minister with doubts and uncertainty. It made him seem more real, more sincere. Because there were doubts and questions. We all have them, though we may be afraid to voice them, whether because that makes them real, gives them form and a voice or because of fear of what others would think of us when we admitted to them-what we would think of ourselves should such things be spoken aloud.

But Ames leans into the pain. He recognizes his doubts and despair and instead of defending them or arguing them away, he looks at them, he sees them, and he sits with them. He goes into the Wilderness and there he finds a feast, a table, laid for him, for the Lord is there in the doubts and wonderings and wanderings of His people.

And he is not all doubtful. This is not the "look, I was religious but now I have risen above that with my doubts and intellect. I am spiritual or atheist." And these stories have their place, of course, of course. Because that is a human experience. But there is another human experience and I don't believe that one has been "fleshed out" as much.

Ames has his doubts, fears, and despair. He has loneliness and aches, both physical and emotional. But. He has beliefs. He has a faith that is not blind, but that is strong. He has a foundation. He knows that God is beyond his or anyone else's full  capacity to know in this life, and maybe in the next, but he believes certain statutes that carry him through his life and ministry: He believes in one God, he believes in Jesus as his son and the resurrection. He thinks there is an inherent "being-ness" and fractured beauty in people. He believes in grace. So much grace. Beautiful, mysterious, common-place everyday grace. 

And this beautiful grace and peace is woven throughout the story. This accepting-ness and wonder at people, the world, and faith lies behind and between every sentence in this book.

...So I loved it, if you could not tell at this point. I thought it was funny, I thought it was ordinary, and in the "common uncommonness" of it all, I found a grace and beauty in myself and my own life. And for that I believe this will be a comfort book for me, not that every idea is comforting, but because I believe it has Truth and it has Beauty. And who does not wish for more of that in their life?


"I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation, that Horeb, that Kansas, and I've scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life.... Though I must say all this has given me a new glimpse of the ongoingness of the world We fly forgotten as a dream, certainly, leaving the forgetful world behind us to trample and mar and misplace everything we have ever cared for. That is just the way of it, and it is remarkable" (191)

"I have thought about that very often- how the times change, and the same words that carry a good many people into the howling wilderness in one generation are irksome or meaningless in the next" (176).

"In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. We participate in Being without reminder" (178).

"My point here is that you never do know the actual nature of even your own experience. or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature" (95).

"'Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.' And really, it was that night as if the earth were smoldering. Sell, it was, and it is. An old fire will make a dark husk for itself and settle in on its core, as in the case of this planet. I believe the same metaphor may describe the human individual, as well. Perhaps Gilead. Perhaps civilization. Prod a little and the sparks will ply. I don't know whether the verse put a blessing on the fireflies or the fireflies put a blessing on the verse, or if both of them together pit a blessing on trouble, but I have loved them both a good deal over since" (72).

"This morning I have been trying to think about heaven, but without much success. I don't know why I should expect to have any idea of heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn't spent almost eight decades walking around in it" (66).

Finally, and this would be much to long a quote, but the whole passage on the baptism of cats and the sacredness and mystery of baptism and blessings was an interesting read.