Kate Hennessy's Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty.

A week or so before Ash Wednesday I brought home the book Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty. I thought I would go all out this year for Lent and read this book during the weeks before Easter.*

Turns out that I started it on Fat Tuesday and finished it on Ash Wednesday.

Dorothy dayIt's a fascinating book, written by the youngest grandchild of Catholic activist Dorothy Day. It is a mix of biography (about Day, and also about Day's only daughter, Tamar), history (of Depression-era America and the Catholic Worker), and memoir (the author seeking to understand her relationship with her own mother, but even more importantly, the relationship between Dorothy and her daughter Tamar).

And really, could she have had a richer subject to explore than Dorothy Day, activist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper and movement? The stories of Dorothy's early life alone were worth the read:

"Dorothy was not a timid person. One night while working on the Call, she had forgotten her house key, and unwilling to wake the family, she visited police stations trying to find a women's lockup where she could spend the night. Failing that, she took a taxi to find friends and ended up being attacked by the taxi driver in a Jewish cemetery in Yonkers. She fought back, biting him until he bled, and then she demanded he drive her to the train station, which he did while cursing her until she got him to shut up by lecturing him all the way there. But the Night of Terror crushed Dorothy...

Eight of the women who were most brutally treated, including Dorothy, sued the superintendent of prisons for eight hundred thousand dollars in damages. They withdrew the suit in 1920 when wardens of both the DC jail and Occoquan were fired, and when women finally succeeded in getting the vote, a law that Dorothy, in her disinterest in politics and belief that change was more effectively brought about in other ways, would never take advantage of." (pp. 12-13.)

Those paragraphs were about Dorothy's experience picketing in support of the right to vote for women. She went because a friend asked her and because she was kind of a born protestor, even though Hennessy points out at the end that voting wasn't really a hot-button issue for her. I chose those paragraphs because there's so much there I can't believe: She fought off her attacker? And then MADE HIM DRIVE HER BACK TO THE TRAIN STATION? And she was involved in a protest and arrest that was noted for its barbarity? And still went on to live a life where she kept putting herself in dangerous neighborhoods? What a woman.

This book was a very personal story. I thought it was really beautiful, although much of it was very sad (Dorothy's relationship with Forster Batterham, Tamar's father, was a difficult one, and Tamar's relationship with her husband, David Hennessy, and the hardships of raising nine children "on the land" are also tough subjects to see described in clear-eyed prose). But still, very beautiful:

"And isn't this my history also? One of the elements of what makes a person extraordinary, I have come to believe, is when their inner and outer lives are in accord. When what they do in the world is what their innermost being leads them to do. This is why the history of the Catholic Worker is the history of my mother, the history of the relationship between my mother and grandmother, and the history of my family." (p. x.)

I am not doing this book justice. To read about this variety of people (some of the people who came to the Catholic Worker and just stayed and lived and worked there the rest of their lives--those are fascinating stories too) and the lives of work and service and intellectualism and challenging personal relationships they all lived--it was really something. Give it a read, even if you won't have time during Lent.

*As a kid I gave up chocolate. For the whole 40 days. I could never do it now. I'm pathetic.

A pair of graphic novels I either could have done without, or really needed.

Mary weptLast spring (or thereabouts) I noticed that a graphic novel titled Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus: Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible was getting a lot of press attention. As it was a historical/religion graphic novel, and therefore nonfiction, I thought I would try it. I had read another graphic novel memoir by the same author, Chester Brown, about a million years ago. I couldn't remember it at all, other than its title: I Never Liked You. But I thought, let's try it.

And then I waited for it on hold from the library for so long that I forgot all about what it even was. I kept seeing the title "Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus" on my hold list, and I thought, I wonder what that book's about? And then it came.

How could I forget this one? It's a graphic novel, illustrating the stories of numerous women in the Bible, as well as other well known books/stories. Included here are illustrations of the Cain and Abel story, Ruth's marrying Boaz, the Annunciation of Mary, Bathsheba and David, Tamar, and Rahab (the latter two whose stories I don't know very well, but involved prostitution or sex as an exchange in some way). And what is the theme? Well, I'm vastly simplifying it here, but Brown speculates that the way the stories of these women were told, particularly in the Gospel according to Matthew, means there is some evidence that not only were there many prostitutes in the Bible, but that Mary the mother of God was one of them. Here's Matthew talking to himself while writing his Gospel account:

"All the evidence indicates that Jesus's mother was a whore. Jesus himself said so. But many Christians are against prostitution, and they don't want to hear the truth. Even if I wrote it, it would just be censored when the scribes copy out the book. But I want to acknowledge the truth in some manner. Is there a way of hinting at it without it being censored?" p. 146.

So I finish this thing, copious afterword and notes included, and my one thought, is, Wow, for some reason this guy really needs prostitution to be okay.

So I looked up his earlier books, and find his title Paying for It: A Comic-Strip Memoir about Being a John. And of course, everything makes more sense now. Of course he needs prostitution to be okay, because he goes to prostitutes.

Which is all, at this point, bothering me much less than you would think (or my mother would expect of me). For one thing, as a Catholic of a certain age, I was raised in a religious education environment that didn't really pay a whole lot of attention to the Bible. Sure, we had scripture every week in church, but Catholics doing "Bible study" when I was growing up was pretty much unheard of. In my family we seemed to depend a lot more on certain prayers, saint stories (although yes, I had books of Bible stories too), Catholic catechism (as laid down in the conservative Baltimore catechism series), and a special fondness for Mary.* So you know what? I don't care if Mary was a prostitute. I don't really care if she was a virgin, although that's what I learned and frankly it's just as easy for me to believe she was a virgin as anything else (see earlier: I just don't particularly care). The important thing is Mary IS my mother. I love her as my mother and I ask for her help and her intercession like a mother. She has been my only friend at many dark 3 a.m. hours in my life. The Catholic Church has done many things appallingly wrong in its history. But I am so grateful to Catholicism for giving me Mary as an individual in her own right, and my mother.**

So if Chester Brown wants to think she was a prostitute, and has done a lot of reading and research to back that up, well, okay.*** Evidently a lot of his ideas are based in part on Jane Schaberg's scholarly book The Illegitimacy of Jesus. At this point I wasn't particularly bothered.

But then I had to go and read his memoir Paying for It as well.

And now, friends? Now I'm a bit disturbed.

It's not a complicated book. Brown decided, after his girlfriend (with whom he lived) asked if he minded if she pursued a relationship with another man (while they still lived together), that he really didn't mind, and that in fact he was glad to be rid of the jealous feelings of a monogamous relationship. Things progress until he decides to pursue his two competing desires: "the desire to have sex, versus the desire to NOT have a girlfriend," (p. 16) and soon he responds to an escort ad and begins a series of encounters with paid sex workers. Most of the book thereafter details those encounters, set off by interludes of him and his friends engaging in discussions about whether his behavior is wrong or not.

Well, okay. I read the whole book--once again with copious appendices and notes wherein Brown lays out most of his arguments that prostitution should be decriminalized--and while I was reading it I didn't really have much of a reaction. But then I found I would think about different parts of the book, and Brown's arguments, at random points later in the day. And the more I recounted his experiences and his arguments, the more I reacted.

I'm not going to take each chapter or experience in turn. Instead, I'd like to give you a broad overview of what disturbed me about some of Brown's encounters with sex workers: 1. he often pays for half-hour sessions rather than full-hour sessions, and then depicts himself variously trying to get the prostitutes to move on from oral to full sex, or he shows himself periodically stopping the action to slow down his, ahem, "completion." At least one of the women asks him why he keeps stopping and starting again, informing him, "it's starting to hurt, y'know!" (p. 63.) 2. Periodically he has to question whether the women even understand English, or whether they are really the age they claim to be. 3. At least once he wants to walk away because the prostitute is unattractive, or (gasp) appears to be as old as "in her thirties." 4. After several visits to the same prostitute, he notes afterward that the "dates" are starting to make him feel empty inside. 5. Several prostitutes indicate (to me) they might not be enjoying the work--one says "ow" throughout the entire encounter, another answers Brown's questions about her previous work in a massage parlor and admits that she would rather be back at the massage parlor rather than working as an escort.

So, looking at the above as a whole, the picture I'm drawing of the author is that he's a cheap bastard who so badly wants what he's doing to be okay that he never questions whether women are foreign-born or actually eighteen; who's in his late thirties himself but of course is completely uninterested sexually in women of a comparable age; and although he seems desperate to reassure his friends that he treats these workers kindly (he tips them, lets them use his phone, etc.) he clearly is not put off his stroke when a woman shows clear signs of being in discomfort or pain.

I'm sorry, but there you have it. With that picture in my mind, I simply cannot take most of his arguments for the decriminalization of prostitution seriously. Like the one he relies on a lot: "I believe that, if prostitution is decriminalized, its normalization will happen relatively quickly--within a few generations. When I was born, in 1960, homosexuality was widely seen as 'sick' and disgusting. It was illegal to engage in homosexual activity in this country (and probably all of the other 'western' countries). In 1967, Pierre Trudeau decriminalized homosexuality in Canada...The result, forty-something years later, is that homosexuality has become normalized for most people 'in the west.' It's no longer widely seen as sick or disgusting." (p. 231.) Does anyone else find this argument weak? Are paying for sex with professionals and homosexuality really analogous situations? Also, if activities like pedophilia or necrophilia were "normalized," does that mean they would be okay?

Brown also likes to make the point that prostitutes should have their choice to make their living in the way they choose. Another weak argument, I think. How much money can a woman really make in this line of work if men stop choosing them (as Brown does) the minute they look like they are past their twenties? What is the percentage of women who are really CHOOSING this work? I would suggest you read Robert Kolker's Lost Girls for a look at how someone gets into this work and what happens after they do. It doesn't seem to me that choice often has a lot to do with it.

Anyway. Blah blah blah. I had a lot more thoughts about these two books, but this post is already ridiculously long. I didn't particularly enjoy the experience of interacting with these books, but I do have to admit that I have now given them a lot of thought and even argued with their author in my head. So, paradoxically: A good reading experience. I think the Paying for It book might actually be a good book for all women to read, for its scary insights into one male mind (particularly what Brown describes as the "burden" of his life--"Every time I saw an attractive woman, I wanted to walk up to her and try to initiate some sort of interaction. I usually lacked the confidence to do so...I wasn't even aware that all of that felt like a burden until I walked out of that brothel and saw an attractive woman on the street and realized I felt no inner tension about whether or not I should talk to her. Of course I shouldn't--she was a stranger. Why would I worry that I was missing an opportunity to potentially have sex? Suddenly, sex with beautiful women was easy to get." (p. 263.) I'll tell you this: it obviously takes all kinds.

*Family legend has it that Dad appealed to Mary to intercede and help him find a good wife, and he found our mother. My mother is spectacular, so thanks, Mary!

**And the subject of one of my favorite prayers, a poem by Anne Porter: "Mary, in you/We see the flowering/Of our human beauty/And hear/The songs of God. And in your heart the lost/Rejected and abandoned ones/Are held in honor. Stay with us now/And always."

***This is way off topic, and I never reviewed it here, but this summer I also read a lot of Tom Bissell's really interesting book Apostle: Travels among the Tombs of the Twelve, also about Bible history, and how very little anyone knows about even the Apostles (arguably well-known and often-cited figures that they are). In that book Bissell noted that when he noticed all the inconsistencies and historical fuzziness in the Bible, he lost his verve for his Catholic religion. This does not happen to me. The more I learn about how complex the Bible is, how historically difficult it is to pin anything in it down with certainty, it doesn't make me take my religion less seriously. It makes me take the Bible less seriously. If that makes any sense.

March Memoir Madness: More Than Conquerors

I really, REALLY enjoyed Megan Hustad's slim memoir More Than Conquerors: A Memoir of Lost Arguments. My enjoyment was made all the more sweet because I did not expect to like it much at all.

I do not read a lot of books on religion, and I do not typically enjoy religious or evangelical memoirs (although, yes, I continue to be charmed by Anne Lamott). But in this book about Hustad's childhood spent traveling with her parents, who worked as religious missionaries (and the book itself is filled with Bible quotes and religious references), the religion itself seems almost beside the point. I didn't expect that, and because of that I found my enjoyment of this title sort of snuck up on me.

As noted, Hustad went with her parents at a very young age to live on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, where her father worked for the Christian evangelical Trans World Radio organization. Later on, the family transferred to Amsterdam, where again, her father tried to find his place in the world as a religious missionary. Eventually her parents left missionary work and they returned to Minnesota, and when she left home, Hustad ended up in New York City, working in the publishing field. It's quite the journey(s), to say the least, and because the memoir is only about 225 pages long, it moves along pretty quickly.

I think I enjoyed this one because Hustad's descriptions of her parents make them sound almost entirely unlike Christian evangelical missionaries. On Bonaire, her parents threw "fellowship" parties, where the kids shared how they named the geckos that got into the house: "Not everyone felt that naming geckos after godly women and men was appropriate or a good example to set for your children. Ankles crossed. My father chuckled. Anyone who laughed sincerely was invited back once a week." (p. 47.) In Amsterdam their mother took them on a drive through the red-light district. Back in Minneapolis, her father "resolved not to put a Jesus fish on the back of the Subaru. If anyone asked why not, he said, he would simply say that sadly, our car had not accepted Jesus Christ as its savior." (p. 132.)

Come on. That last one's funny. In all, I wouldn't have minded learning even more about Hustad's family dynamics, and her parents' religious convictions (I might have found that more interesting than her continuing coming-of-age in New York City, but I get how that was important to her personal narrative). But in all? An unexpected read, with some good food for thought. Not something I often find in "religious" memoirs.

The undeniable charms of Anne Lamott.

I think Anne Lamott is an interesting writer.

I say this in part because even when I don't think I'm going to read a book of hers, I often end up reading it anyway. I forget why I brought her book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair home, but I know it wasn't for this jacket copy: "We begin, Lamott says, by collectig the ripped shreds of our emotional and spiritual fabric and sewing them back together, one stitch at a time." (I hate sewing, and I hate sewing metaphors.)

I only looked at the book when it was time to take it back to the library, and then I got started reading it. In it, Lamott attempts to answer these questions: "Where is meaning in the pits? In the suffering?"

And I must say, although I think there are no answers (no satisfactory answers, anyway) to those questions, I can't help but be charmed by Lamott's writing. This is how she describes the process by which people start wondering, a little more deeply, about the meaning of their lives:

"You're thinking about this for the first time when maybe it's a little late. Your life is two-thirds over, or you're still relatively young, but your girl went from being two years old to being eleven in what felt like eighteen months, and then in what felt like eight weeks to fifteen, where she has been now, sharply dressed as a bitter young stripper, for as long as you can fricking remember.

Oh, honey, buckle up. It gets worse." (p. 5.)

I was also charmed by her chapter on "the overly sensitive child," and how she was considered one, and how people were always telling her to get a thicker skin:

""As far as I can recall, none of the adults in my life ever once remembered to say, 'Some people have a thick skin and you don't. Your heart is really open and that is going to cause pain, but that is an appropriate response to this world. The cost is high, but the blessing of being compassionate is beyond your wildest dreams. However, you're not going to feel that a lot in seventh grade. Just hang on." (p. 28.)

I'll say this for Lamott: she does not give me the heebie jeebies, the way most spirituality/religious writers do. I think it's because she has a sense of humor. At any rate, this book's only about 100 pages long. I'm doing a horrible job of describing it but it wouldn't take you a lot of time to investigate this title for yourself.

Downer Book Week: Astonished

I thought I'd end this very special Downer Book Week with a book that, in a surprise twist, really wasn't all that much of a downer. It certainly seemed like it was going to be, though, in the beginning:

"Even though I do know the important question is not why this happened to me but what I'm going to do now; and even though I was fifty-five and the attacker was a serial rapist in a small town, raping gringo women between fifty and sixty; and even though I, along with the entire town, felt like evil had come for a visit and it was not personal; and even though this little round-faced pervert with a big-billed baseball cap woke me in the middle of the night in the middle of a deep sleep in my own bed with a knife inches from my face, I was absolutely shocked that he chose me. This was not supposed to happen; I was supposed to have escaped: I had hot flashes and liver spots and was finally in the final stretch. I'd survived all these decades without experiencing this thing I dreaded as much as death--and had just been looking for a monastery to join, for Christ's sake."

I have always been weirdly fond of Beverly Donofrio. It has been so long since I read Riding in Cars with Boys that it's probably just time for me to read it again, but I do remember enjoying Looking for Mary: Or, the Blessed Mother and Me. The thing about Ms. Donofrio is, I would bet that she and I are just opposite personalities. This woman doesn't seem afraid of anything, and I'm afraid of a ton. Likewise, she has made some other personal choices (as described in her memoirs, of course, I don't really know her) that I most likely wouldn't have made. And yet I really enjoy her, and her writing voice.

In this book, Astonished: A Story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace, she makes pilgrimages of sorts to various monasteries and religious/spiritual communities, looking for a plan for spending the rest of her life, and of course, trying to come to terms with, or simply move on from, the rape, thoughts and mention of which are never far from the story. So it can certainly be a downer book in that sense. And it's a bit meandering--there is not so much a narrative here as a stream-of-consciousness report; reading it is like hearing someone talking to themselves and trying to work something out (and in between that Donofrio intersperses quotes from other spiritual writers and books).

I'm describing it poorly*, but I would like to say that by the end of it I was really quite touched. That sounds twee, which I did not feel at all. Rather I felt even more affection for Donofrio (who seems spiritual, and thoughtful, but not really sentimental), and wonder at the human race in general. It was not a downer feeling at all.

*Read this review for a better synopsis.

Why does the world exist?

It's depressing, but today all I have to offer is yet another post about a nonfiction book I couldn't finish (and barely got started). Sometimes it seems like I'm not finishing a lot more nonfiction books than I'm finishing, but that does happen quite a bit. The book I couldn't get into last week was Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?

It's supposed to be a really good book, and it's gotten a lot of great reviews*, but frankly, like most big philosophical questions, Why Does the World Exist? is not something I care all that much about. And to me, that makes this book somewhat of a tough slog. This is the prologue, in its entirety:

"Prologue: A quick proof that there must be something rather than nothing, for modern people who lead busy lives.

Suppose there were nothing. Then there would be no laws; for laws, after all, are something. If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted. If everything were permitted, then nothing would be forbidden. So if there were nothing, nothing would be forbidden. Thus nothing is self-forbidding.

Therefore, there must be something. QED." p. 1.

Christ, who actually has the time for stuff like that? If there's nothing, would there be words to be all cutesy with, like in that paragraph? I think not. So, although I'm sure it will show up on many "Best of..." book lists for 2012, I'm probably not ever going to read it. QED that.

*Even this review in the Christian Science Monitor is mostly over my head, but I still enjoyed it, particularly where its author discusses how one of the ideas that seems to bother Holt (the universe existing simply as a "brute fact") doesn't really bother the reviewer all that much.

A different type of "inspirational" book.

I have been thinking about my anti-The Shack rant on Wednesday, and, particularly after a kind reader suggested to me that yes, there were problems with the book, but there was still stuff there, particularly about the human need for independence (and how it sometimes gets us in trouble), that they could "take away" from the book and from which they could learn.

So I have been thinking that writing the rants is fun, but perhaps it would be more helpful to consider what type of book The Shack is, and if there are any comparable books that would be, you know, slightly better (and perhaps even free from dialect and obvious conclusions painted up as revelations).

So: Has anyone out there read any "Inspirational" books that were helpful to you, or books that you found inspirational, even if they were not marketed as such? What were they, and how did you find them helpful? Let's start a list so I am better prepared to offer alternatives to The Shack, rather than just ripping it up and down.

I'll start us off:

I found Norman Maclean's novel/memoir A River Runs Through It and Other Stories inspirational for its theme that you can love completely without complete understanding. I always remember that with people I like, but sometimes I forget it with people whom I don't like and with whom I don't agree on many issues. And yes, I know some people find this book boring because it is about fishing. But I really don't know how you could fault Maclean's writing skills.

I read it so long ago I forgot what I liked about it, but I remember thinking that C.S. Lewis's slim nonfiction volume A Grief Observed, about the dark period he went through after his wife, Joy Gresham, died from cancer, was very thoughtful.

So? What've you got for me?

The Shack, oh my God, The Shack.

There are certain books that I avoid reading simply because everyone is reading them, and sometimes I want to be a book snob. One of those books was William P. Young's Christian fiction mega-bestseller The Shack.*

When I worked at the public library, this title was huge. And then my dad read it, and loved it, and for years now I have had to listen to him ask, "Hey, have you read The Shack yet?" This year I found out my sister had started it, so because I could care less if I'm left out of something that the rest of the world is talking about, I don't like being left out of something that's being read and discussed in my family. So I requested and got it from the public library.

At the risk of sounding blasphemous, oh my God. What a piece of crap. I'm sorry, really sorry, if you read it and liked it and are offended by me saying that. Most of the American book-buying public obviously really liked it, and so did my dad (who is usually a pretty discerning customer when it comes to books--he's the one who first turned me on to Richard Adams's novel Watership Down, after all), so clearly I'm the outlier here.

The book starts with a page-turning feel. The protagonist, Mack, is caught in an ice storm at his house, and when he goes to check his mail, he finds a note in the mailbox that reads "It's been a while. I've missed you. I'll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together. -Papa." Mack's wife and family are out of town, and Mack doesn't know what to think of the note. It's painful on several levels--he thinks "the shack" being referenced must be the one where, years earlier, a family tragedy had played out: the abduction and murder of his youngest daughter, Missy. He also knows that his wife refers to God as "papa." Could God be so cruel as to be inviting him back to the shack where he found evidence of all that is evil in the world?

So he goes to the shack, where of course he finds God is waiting for him, in the form of three persons, ready to talk to him about what happened to Missy and Mack's own relationship with God. And heaven help us, once it hits the chapters and chapters of God (in various forms) talking at Mack, does it get boring. Whoever has referred to this book as a story-driven narrative is way off. It is basically a Christian fable attempting to answer the age-old question "why do bad things happen to good people?"**

All of that said, I DID get a lot of laughs out of this book, which I don't think was the point, but what the hell, I'll take laughs wherever I can get them. Most of these laughs started when Mack first meets Papa-as-Three-Entities. The first is described as a "large beaming African American woman," and when Mack meets all three of them at once he asks if there are more of them, and this is what happens:

"The three looked at one another and laughed. Mack couldn't help but smile. 'No, Mackenzie,' chuckled the black woman. 'We is all that you get, and believe me, we're more than enough." (p. 85.)

Really? "We is all that you get"? Dialect from God? Can authors really get away with that sort of thing and still become mega-huge bestsellers? Evidently yes.

But I got an even bigger chuckle out of Mack meeting Jesus:

'"I guess I expected you to be more,' be careful here, Mack, 'uh...well, humanly striking.'

Jesus chuckled. 'Humanly striking? You mean handsome.' Now he was laughing.

'Well, I was trying to avoid that, but yes. Somehow I thought you'd be the ideal man, you know, athletic and overwhelmingly good looking.'***

'It's my nose, isn't it?'

Mack didn't know what to say.

Jesus laughed. 'I am Jewish, you know. My grandfather on my mother's side had a big nose; in fact, most of the men on my mom's side had big noses.'" (p. 111.)

Really? A big Jewish nose joke? Can authors really get away with that sort of thing and still become mega-huge bestsellers? Evidently yes.

WOW. And the laughs kept coming, all the way to the end. And here's where I have to give you the big *****SPOILER ALERT*****--just in case you're still planning to read this one. In the beginning of the story, we learn that Missy is abducted on a family camping trip with Mack and two of his other kids. He and Missy are at the campsite while the other two are canoeing on the lake, and when Mack looks at them, his daughter Kate raises her oar to wave hello, which makes their canoe capsize, so Mack has to rush down to the lake and save them, leaving Missy alone at the campsite. When they return she is gone. Fast forward to the present, where Mack's wife Nan and he are struggling to understand why Kate is showing signs of emotional distress and acting out. At the very end of the book we learn, as God tells Mack, that Kate--get this--feels guilty for tipping the canoe, which makes her responsible, she feels, for Missy's abduction and death. Mack is shocked to learn this. THAT is the big reveal? You're telling me this idiot needs God to help him get to that conclusion? Heaven help us all.****

*No affiliate links to this book; I really, really don't want you to buy it. Check it out from the library if you have to.

**Is there really any satisfactory answer to this question in our mortal sphere? Even if you accept that God didn't cause the bad thing, does that make it any more understandable? Even if you forgive the bad things, does that make them understandable? I guess I personally feel that's one of those questions no one's ever going to answer for me satisfactorily, particularly Mr. William P. Young.

***Why on earth would anyone think this? Was Jesus described in the Bible somewhere as a smoking hottie, and I missed it? The fact that this Mack person obviously associates holiness with hotness really makes me dislike him.

****I kept telling all these stories to Mr. CR, whose only reaction has been to say "Is that book still in our house? Can you get it out of here please?"

Basement Reading: Letters to Malcolm

I must say, one good thing came out of last week's basement cleaning extravaganza/existential book crisis. I realized there's a lot of books in my basement I haven't read yet. So periodically for the rest of this year I think I'd like to delve into some basement books and see what I find.

As last week was the last week of Lent, a.k.a. Holy Week, I thought I would start with a C.S. Lewis selection titled Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. Good Catholics actually give something up for Lent, but I was too weak (although I tried to go easier on the butter--we're starting to go through it at a scary pace around here, and Mr. CR doesn't really use a lot of butter, so we know who the culprit is there), so I thought maybe spending a little more time on religious reading might be a good plan.

It's a short book, in the form of letters Lewis wrote to a friend, Malcolm, and covering their discussions on prayer. Nothing too deep--they discuss using pre-written prayers vs. more free-form ones, etc.--but still a very thoughtful little book. And each letter, or chapter, is only a few pages long, so it makes for good bedtime reading. I'd read it before, but I find with Lewis you can read all his stuff again and again and always find something new.

But this time what I found was something I'd remembered from my first reading of this book: "The Jones boy's name is Cyril--though why you find it so important to pray for people by their Christian names I can't imagine. I always assume God knows their surnames as well. I am afraid many people appear in my prayers only as 'that old man at Crewe' or 'the waitress' or even 'that man.' One may have lost, or may never have known, their names and yet remember how badly they need to be prayed for." (p. 18.)

I always got a kick out of that, as I am a former waitress, and believe me, we'll take all the prayers we can get. Although, if the choice is between a prayer and a big fat tip, go with the big fat tip.

Quick reviews of books I haven't read.

Now that's the kind of expertise you visit Citizen Reader for, isn't it?

Hay Through no fault of my own, I'm coming up against all sorts of library due dates for books that I really wanted to read, but which I have to return before I get the chance. The first such book is Angela Miller's Hay Fever: How Chasing a Dream on a Vermont Farm Changed My Life. I did read the first few chapters of this one, which seems to be a completely typical "driven city person tackles life on farm" narrative. Miller is a literary agent who still works several days a week in New York City, but who has also been moonlighting as a farmer and goat cheese maker on her Vermont farm for the last several years. The writing was okay but nothing special (it's actually co-written with another author, Ralph Gardner Jr., which isn't often a very good sign) and I must admit that I'm getting a little weary of the "back to the land" genre. I was particularly annoyed by this title because I don't understand how a woman past the age of sixty could have the energy to commute four hours back and forth to NYC once a week, be a high-powered literary agent, and also farm on the side. Where do these people get all the drive?

I was also annoyed by this, on the jacket's front flap copy: "Angela Miller and her husband set their sites on a charming nineteenth-century farm in Vermont." I know that's not the author's fault, but still...hacky. I will not be getting this one back.

God The second book in question is Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter. I only read the Introduction of this one, but I totally want to get it back and read it someday. I think Prothero's a good writer about religion; knowledgeable and open and not necessarily connected to any one dogma; I particularly enjoyed his earlier title Religious Literacy. And I like no-nonsense paragraphs like this one:

"Yet we know in our bones that the world's religions are different from one another. As my colleague Adam Seligman has argued, the notion of religious tolerance assumes differences, since there is no need to tolerate a religion that is essentially the same as your own. We pretend these differences are trivial because it makes us feel safer, or more moral. But pretending that the world's religions are the same does not make our world safer. Like all forms of ignorance, it makes our world more dangerous." (p. 4.) Awesome.

The last book that has to go back is a novel, David Nicholls's One Day, a new novel by the British author of the novel A Question of Attraction (which I really enjoyed, and which was made into an equally enjoyable movie, titled Starter for Ten, starring James McAvoy). I really wanted to read this one, and now I'm just not in the mood for its love story, told over the course of twenty years. Perhaps some other time.

Worth the whole month.

While I took my fiction reading vacation over the past month, I couldn't entirely neglect nonfiction (of course). Earlier I alluded to a nonfiction book that took me a month to read; the book in question was Suzanne Strempek Shea's Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip In Search of Christian Faith.

Sundays It didn't take me a month to read because I didn't like it, or because it was hard to read. It took a month to read because for once I gave myself the luxury of simply slowly chipping away at a book--I read it three or five pages at a time, and yes, although this may be too much information, I read much of it in the bathroom.

It was perfect for that kind of reading. Shea did exactly what her subtitle promises; she spent a year going to different Christian religious services, and then wrote about each week in short chapters about five to ten pages long. She roamed all over the country to do so, although many of her experiences were based in her native New England. The result is a thoughtful, fascinating book, not only about religion, but also about a personal search for meaning (told from the perspective of someone who is primarily observing others' searches for meaning). As a Catholic who "had experienced a spiritual disconnect," she relates her memory of watching the outpouring of grief over the death of John Paul II, and wishes she could feel such passion about her religion and spirituality again. Hence, her quest to "to on a pilgrimage of sorts, tour a few other houses of worship, finally find out just what goes on in those churches I grew up forbidden to enter, and understand what makes for devotion to a religious community." (p. xi.)

She only chose various Christian denominations (she was particularly interested, as a Catholic, in those "banned" Protestant churches she'd heard more about during her childhood) to visit, and each of the chapters describing her experiences in Baptist, Quaker, Greek Orthodox, Episcopalian, Pentecostal (and many other faiths) is a fascinating window into new worlds. As is my habit, I stuck bookmarks in wherever I really enjoyed something or thought I might want to quote it; rather than trying to put any such quotes in context, I'll simply say that this book collected no fewer than seven bookmarks, which is pretty impressive.* My favorite chapters were the ones where she really felt at home, and I also enjoyed her chapters about several "megachurches" she attended, as she managed to be much less judgmental about Rick Warren and Joel Osteen than I would have been.

I wouldn't have minded a little longer conclusion, discussing a bit more how she felt after her year and what services particularly stayed with her, but that's a small quibble. If this isn't the subject matter for you, I can also recommend her earlier memoir, Shelf Life: Romance, Mystery, Drama, and Other Page-Turning Adventures from a Year in a Bookstore.

*It's always very satisfying to me to finish a book and see it still stuffed with bookmarks. I feel like I really got something accomplished.

Evidently you can go home again.

Because I was staring down a library due date, last night I started Rhoda Janzen's memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home,* and this morning I finished it. Although it did not set me on fire, and I do not feel the need to tell everyone I meet to read it, I did get a lot of good, solid enjoyment and thought out of it. And I appreciate that too.

Mennonite Janzen grew up in a Mennonite family (she also provides a handy appendix explaining some things about Mennonite faith and history: please note, they're not Amish), but when she left home to pursue her education and career, she largely left the Mennonite community and ways behind, without much in the way of regret. However, after her husband of fifteen years left her for another man (and after she had largely supported him financially and lived through his problems with depression and bipolarity), and after she was involved in a car accident that broke many of her bones and caused other health problems (all in the same month!) she decided to spend some time living with her parents, recuperating and hoping perhaps to understand more about her youth and her reaction to her upbringing.

The book is not so much a memoir as it is a series of interconnected essays, and in each essay she relates a different piece of her childhood, marriage, and Mennonite culture memories. For being a pretty short book, it's also profound in the best possible way: without belaboring its point, without endless pages of poetics and/or unnecessarily drawn-out stories, and with a great deal of humor. Consider this exchange she had with one of her friends, when she is reading to start dating again:

"One of my friends, Carla, who said I could use her real name in this memoir as long as I described her as a svelte redhead, offered to run my love life for five bucks. 'What are you looking for in a guy?' she asked, whipping out a little notepad.

'Hmm,' I said thoughtfully. 'He has to be kind. And culturally literate. And on the path to consciousness...reflective, open. No cynics or angry atheists. He has to have a sense of humor. That's important. And he should be tall. And employed at work he loves. And--'

'Whoa there, Nellie,' Carla interrupted. 'I'm gonna give you some free advice. You ready for this? How about we lower the bar? How about we look for someone who's straight, for starters?'" (p. 21.)

I found that really depressing, but also really hilarious, and it seemed to sum up everything I love about women: you can hope for the best, but most of the time you've just got to get down to the nitty-gritty and do the best with you can find. In all, I liked this book much more for Janzen's overall positivity, which was not of the cloying type, but of the accepting type, and for her female perspective. The Mennonite stuff was interesting to me too but not as fascinating as it might be to some others--although my childhood surroundings weren't as austere as hers (quite), my mother was the type who made arrangements for someone at Girl Scout camp (which I went to maybe twice or three times in my life) to drive me to a mass anywhere nearby if the trip went over a Sunday morning. (So I was not entirely unfamiliar with the theme of religion playing a big part in one's upbringing.) My point is: it's a great little memoir, and there's more than one reason to like it.

*A big shout-out to one of my favorite book recommenders, Katharine. If she hadn't championed this book I probably would have just returned it without trying to get it read first.

When subject trumps style.

I tend to be somewhat of a generalist nonfiction reader; I am not so much interested in specific subjects* as I am in well-written and interesting nonfiction titles. This is why I am such a huge fan of William Langewiesche; he writes about a ton of disparate subjects in his magazine articles and books, and no matter what he's writing about, it's always a pleasure to read.

Welch But sometimes even I get suckered in by subjects I find fascinating. This week's case in point is Gina Welch's immersion journalism title In the Land of Believers: An Outsider's Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church. I really didn't enjoy it (although parts were very interesting, and I don't think Welch is an unskilled writer), but I'll be damned if I didn't end up reading the whole thing anyway, for one reason and one reason alone:

I am fascinated by Evangelicals, and Evangelical churches. I mean, really, I can't look away.

I don't really know why this is, although I have always tended to find all things religious, even books about atheism, vaguely interesting. And I don't even mean it in a bad way. I have known and loved many people who are members of more evangelical churches. And, as I am Catholic and very well aware of the disorder and problems in my church's house, I want to emphatically state that I don't really care much one way or the other what religion people choose to practice. But there is something I so deeply don't understand about the Evangelical experience that I just had to finish this book.

Welch, a young writer and atheist who grew up in Berkeley, also seems fascinated by Evangelicals, and she doesn't fool around in her choice of churches to infiltrate: she goes right for Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist congregation in Lynchburg, Virginia. For two years she attended the church, joined some of its classes and ministries, befriended many of its members, and even joined a mission trip to Alaska to "save souls."

As previously noted, the writing here is just fine. It was just more that I couldn't figure out Welch's tone--she seemed committed to staying an atheist, yet she also enjoyed the feeling of warmth and community and the stirring nature of the church music. She was conflicted about lying to people she was befriending, but still became quite close to some of them. She seemed genuinely very sad when Falwell died, but throughout, it quite simply seemed like she was focusing more on the church practices and trappings than on the religion behind it. I'm explaining it badly. But when I read a work of immersion journalism, I just like to have a little better idea of where the author is coming from; in Barbara Ehrenreich's classic in the genre, Nickel and Dimed, the reader is never left in any doubt that she thinks paying people non-living wages to work as maids, waitresses, and at Wal-Mart is complete bullshit. But I could never get a read on this author.

She still provided some interesting information, which showed she really did start to understand the mindset. I liked this paragraph: "Considering the Evangelicals' inclination to trust and support their Christian brethren, it makes sense that there's a strong desire to work primarily with Christian businesses...One directory, Ohio's Blue Pages, polled its users and found that the top two reasons people used it were a 'higher trust level' in Christian businesses and a desire to 'be good stewards of their finances'; payments to Christian businesses, the users assumed, circulated back to the church through tithes and offerings, keeping the money within the fold." (p. 104.)

I just chuckled at that. I typically throw away any business ads with prominent Christian symbols on them, even though I am a Christian, because I always figure if you're low enough to try and exploit God for business, where else will you be cutting corners? But, obviously, the thought process can go a different way. I was also shocked at Welch's many stories of how welcoming and accepting many strangers were of her church groups' proselytizing. Again, something I'll never understand, as my first reaction when anyone knocks on my door or talks to me about being saved is, "I'm Catholic and I LOVE being Catholic," at which point they usually can't get far enough away from me.

So, yeah. I think I'm still waiting for a slightly better or less uneven book on this subject, but if learning more about the Evangelical Christian lifestyle holds any interest for you, I'd still consider picking this one up. And I did like one of Welch's stated reasons for undertaking this project: she considers it more important to understand this lifestyle than to dismiss it. I can't really argue with that--it's as good a reason as any to write, not to mention read, nonfiction in general.

*British history, and, well, all things Brit notwithstanding.

Ah, relics, they always make for good reading.

You know you have slightly strange tastes in nonfiction when you see a book about saints' relics and you think, "Ooh, goody!" And you further know you've probably read too much nonfiction when you think, "I wonder if it will be as good as the other relic book I read?"*

Rag I was very, very excited to find Peter Manseau's book Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead in my library catalog. Not only because I find the idea of saints' relics (purported remnants of saints' bodies and other holy items--like pieces of the cross Jesus was crucified on--that are honored and venerated within various religions, including Catholicism and Buddhism) fascinating, but also because I love, love, LOVE Peter Manseau. (His memoir Vows, about his parents, a former nun and priest, and his childhood spent trying to understand their and his relationship with the Catholic Church, was hands-down one of the best memoirs I've ever read.)

This book finds Manseau traveling around to various holy sites, including Jerusalem and Goa, a city in India where the remains of Saint Francis Xavier are kept, and investigating such relics as the foreskin of Jesus (you heard me) and the burnt bones of Saint Joan. He strikes just exactly the right tone throughout; he is respectful without being obsequious, skeptical without being rude. He is, above all, fascinated by and thoughtful about his topic. This is what he has to say about Francis Xavier, who was an unenthusiastic missionary (at best) to India, although that is where his remains are today: "In death Francis Xavier had joined the lives of a people and a place where he had never wanted to remain. These children, born in the country he scorned, educated in a school that bears his name, have lived their lives in his shadow, but now they run in front of his church, casting their own." (p. 52.)

When I really love nonfiction I fall into very distinct feelings when reading it. Some nonfiction is exciting; some is inspiring, some makes me very angry; but my very favorite titles make me feel settled and thoughtful and peaceful. You know what I mean, about different feelings that books give you? This book makes me feel settled and peaceful, and it's wonderful. Right on, Peter Manseau.

*The other relic book was Anneli Rufus's Magnificent Corpses: Searching through Europe for St. Peter's Head, St. Claire's Heart, St. Stephen's Hand, and Other Relics from the Saints, which was also excellent. More personal in some ways, sharper in some ways, less historical and even-toned in others, but still brilliant.

Double Catholicism whammy: Part 2.

Part two of this week's Double Catholicism Whammy was Veronica Chater's memoir Waiting for the Apocalypse. The author's parents, who were disgusted with Vatican II Catholic reforms, eventually moved from California to Portugal to experience a more pure faith, and then, when Portugal wasn't Catholic enough, moved back to California to start the counter-revolution.

Chater The memoir's an odd mix of the quietly horrifying and the bleakly funny. Although Chater's father is the real mover in the family, dictating their circumstances, the person I couldn't get over was her mother. Who good-naturedly goes along with moving their family to Portugal, then back, all while bearing (eventually) eleven children? Unbelievable. Her mother plays a prime role in my favorite exchange in the memoir, when the family arrives in England en route to Portugal:

"'Look around, kids,' Dad said from ahead. 'England used to be a great nation. Thanks to St. Augustine of Canterbury, who converted the Anglo-Saxon pagans to Catholicism in the sixth century, and then the Normans, who invaded the country in 1066 and reestablished Catholic rule. England has a fine, noble history...[but] She murdered her heroes and crowned her heretics. She embraced the ideals of the Renaissance: humanism, pride, and narcissism. Her gooal was 'The devil's work, done by the devil's ministers.' Yep. England became what she deserved: the whore of Babylon.'

'For goodness' sakes, Lyle. Don't spoil England for the kids," Mom said." (p. 102-103.)

I didn't think I was going to be able to read the whole thing--it's so sad, in parts--but I surprised myself and read to the end. What I found most interesting was how, after a number of cruelties and misunderstandings (at one point when she's a teenager she gets kicked out of the house; for a while her parents make her wear dresses rather than jeans for the sake of modesty--this latter doesn't sound as bad as the kicking out but I agree with the author--it would have infuriated me) she still comes back to loving her family, and particularly thanking her mother for doing her best to keep the family all together.

Chater also notes in an epilogue that almost none of her siblings (herself included) are still practicing Catholics, which, conversely, makes her father happy, as he continues to believe that the Vatican II church is not the real Catholic Church.

All told, it's an intense and sobering story. And it made me really glad that, although my parents sometimes grumbled about Vatican II, they grudgingly went along with the peace handshake in church, didn't move us to Portugal, and let me wear jeans. Sure, we said the odd rosary in public (I did recognize Chater's desire that her family not be so obviously Catholic, breaking out rosaries and scapulars at the slightest provocation), but that was a lot better than being forced to wear dresses.

Double Catholicism whammy: Part 1.

My suggestion, if you are a Catholic and have some doubts about the faith, would be to not read the books The Secret Scripture (a novel), by Sebastian Barry, and Waiting for the Apocalypse (a memoir), by Veronica Chater, simultaneously. It's not that they're bad books. One at a time would be fine. They're both quite interesting, actually. But the Catholic Church doesn't really appear to its best advantage in either.

Scripture In the former, Irish author Barry tells the story of Roseanne McNulty, a woman over one hundred years of age, who is living in a psychiatric hospital that is about to be closed down. It's a twice-told story; Roseanne is writing down her version of events, while the doctor evaluating her is writing down what he knows of her from medical records, past reports, and her conversation. Roseanne, who lived in Ireland during the time of "the Troubles," has not had an easy life, and suffered from living during a time when being seen alone with a man who was not her husband got her branded a nymphomaniac (and committed) by the local priest.

It was an interesting book, and it's got a nice little twist at the end. But a real "upper" it was not. Come back tomorrow for part 2 of the double whammy: Chater's memoir. Oh. And happy St. Patrick's Day!

Nothing to get all that excited about, either.

I don't know why I picked up Julian Barnes's Nothing to Be Frightened Of. Oh, wait, yes I do: it's been getting great reviews, has just been named a New York Times Notable book for 2008, and is by an author with whose name I'm vaguely familiar but whose novels I could never find the energy to read. Whenever I see nonfiction by a novelist I feel like I should read but never have, I'll invariably pick it up.

After reading the first line I had high hopes for this book:

Barnes "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him. That's what I say when the question is put. I asked my brother, who has taught philosophy at Oxford, Geneva, and the Sorbonne, what he thought of such a statement, without revealing that it was my own. He replied with a single word: 'Soppy.'"

That, as one of J.D. Salinger's characters once said, had the possibility of being an interesting answer, so I read on. Seventy pages later I was annoyed, bored, and I hadn't found another sentence that lived up to that first one, so I stopped. The book jacket here promises that Barnes, "an atheist at twenty, an agnostic at sixty, Barnes looks into the various arguments for and against and with God," but I didn't find much of that. In one other aspect the jacket is entirely correct: he also writes about "the writers--'most of them dead, and quite a few of them French'--who are his daily companions, supplemented by composers and theologians and scientists whose similar explorations are woven into this account." He also offers an account of his own family and their relationship with religion and believing, which I also couldn't get interested in...

...and I just realized I am doing a terrible job of describing this book and why I didn't like it. Although I find religion very interesting, I can't say I've ever been all that fascinated by any atheists' manifestos. The way I see it: Believe what you're going to believe (or not), and that goes for God, the afterlife, and everything. The atheists aren't going to convince me to give up a belief in God, and I know I couldn't convince them. And, frankly, I TOTALLY don't understand being afraid of death if you are a true atheist. I may just be a total downer, but "nothingness" actually sounds kind of relaxing, so why fear it? But most of all, I am tired of old men telling me about their religion or their lack thereof. Why do these guys (Richard Dawkins, Barnes, Christopher Hitchens, etc.) think their personal lack of belief is so fascinating? Does anyone know of any female atheists writing these types of books? It'd be nice to read one of these by a woman, just for a change of pace, if nothing else.

Damn it, he got me!

I am so tired of politics, political ads, and political books, that the thought of reading yet another political book, this time Matt Taibbi's The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, & Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire, made me very sad.

But, Taibbi gave a great interview on the Jon Stewart show, so I determined to give it a try. And, damn him, I couldn't stop until I read the whole thing.

Derangement It's deeply disturbing, I'm not going to lie to you. Tired of political reporting himself, Taibbi heads off to Texas to join Pastor Hagee's infamous (and huge) Cornerstone Church to see what the whole Religious Right has going on. As an atheist, he finds that it's quite the scene, but also a lot easier to fit in than the originally thought it might be (you can never throw too many "Gods" in your sentences, he finds, even though it might feel like you are). After a weekend church retreat, where he and the others spend at least part of the time vomiting their demons into paper bags, this is what Taibbi concludes:

"By the end of the weekend I realized how quaint was the mere suggestion that Christians of this type should learn to 'be rational' or 'set aside your religion' about such things as the Iraq war or other policy matters. Once you've made a journey like this--once you've gone this far--you are beyond suggestible. It's not merely the informational indoctrination, the constant belittling of homosexuals and atheists and Muslims and pacifists, etc., that's the issue. It's that once you've gotten to this place, you've left behind the mental process that a person would need to form an independent opinion about such things. You make this journey precisely to experience the ecstasy of beating to the same big gristly heart with a roomful of like-minded folks. Once you reach that place with them, you're thinking with muscles, not neurons." (p. 87.)

Wow. That's quite a statement. And it's not the only one. Taibbi's got lots of scary stories about government, the press, the 9/11 Truth Movement, and much more.

So no, I didn't enjoy it. But I enjoyed Taibbi's voice. I don't think the guy's got a dissembling bone in his body. I haven't read something I simultaneously didn't enjoy but loved all the same since John Bowe's Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy.