Novelist Seeking Enlightenment

This is a book review that I wrote for the Blogcritics site. The book is “Seeking Enlightenment, Hat by Hat, A Skeptic’s Path to Religion” by Nevada Barr. The Blogcritics version of the review is nearly identical to this. The ISBN for this book is 0425196038.


Nevada Barr has built a writing career with her Anna Pigeon series of mystery novels. Her biographical notes sometimes mention her careers as an actress and park ranger. This book, published in 2003, turns to spiritual meditations. There are fragments of autobiography, without a clear narrative. She writes of her father who disliked frilly girly things and rewarded his daughters for tomboy behavior, and her mother, a pilot and female pioneer in aviation. There is a vague history of promiscuity as a woman coming of age in the ’60’s. There is marriage, adultery, separation, divorce, depression, therapy. There is a story of living in the South among people who discuss religious things fairly openly. There is a story of wandering into an Episcopal Church and then attending services and joining the Church.
The structure of the book, short essays with one word titles that usually evoking religious values, seems to imitate Kathleen Norris’s “Amazing Grace” but her voice and insights are different. One essay is entitled “Darlin” and examines her intense reaction to a stranger who called her that a book signing. Another is called “Taking Shit” and looks at the mainstream American value about (not) taking shit with some common sense about taking shit in order to maintain your own composure and self-respect in the face of abuse, and in the name of civility and grace.
There is no blinding conversion. Her meditations are full of doubt, almost apologetic. Her spirituality seems almost incidental to a psychological approach to life. Many of her essays are about emotions and memories rather than about religion. She does not promote the values of her particular church or denomination but she promotes the values of involvement with a church and commitment to observance and involvement. She explores and defends values that she rejected as liberal atheist when she was younger.
Her perspective and writing voice are similar to the voice of her serial mystery character, literate but plain spoken, almost afraid of sounding too intellectual or reflective. Her perspective is not particularly religious. Some of her meditations on sex and gender values carry the familiar tones of Sisterhood feminism as interpreted by Oprah and other pop culture interpreters of meaning and value. This might make her sound shallow, but that’s not what I mean. She is accessible, and she writes in very plain language, but her insights are subtle.
In one essay she defends feminine values and female bonding against her father’s fear of the feminine. In another she reflects on a mature woman’s attitude to sex and power. She says that women feel power over controlling access to sex and manipulating men, fear of the constant risk of rape, and a sense of being hounded. She reflect on how these nearly innate values collided with the message of the 60’s – sexual equality equals availability and promiscuity. She reflects on why women of her age almost felt guilty about saying no to casual sex, and how the Playboy/Hefner ethic has reinforced men’s sense of entitlement and women’s sense of being hounded to have sex.
Her more religious essays reflect modern Anglican theology on compassion and non-violence, for instance in her essay on “Taking Shit”. Several of her essays offer practical advice on depression and happiness – exercise, be active, be connected, enjoy your friends, make time for personal and religious rituals.

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