Brief Book Reviews

Sadly, I haven’t written in a long time. That includes this blog, my stories, and even my poor neglected paper journal. The only things I’ve written of any substance in the past few months have been grocery lists and emails related to work. However, I did read a bunch of books:

  1. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. A sci-fi/dystopian/literary novel that I got from a book sale because I had heard good things about it. The entire time I was reading, the images in my head were in black and white or in muted shades of gray. The book was adapted into a movie, too, but I’m not sure I want to see the movie if it’s as depressing as the book. It almost reminded me of The Giver but without the sense of hope conveyed at the end of that book. I would call Never Let Me Go a warning to society: let’s not let technology get so far that it calls into question the intrinsic worth of human beings. (Oh, wait! We’re already there!)
  2. Confessions of a Mega Church Pastor by Allen Hunt. Super short, super easy-to-read memoir about a man’s journey to the Catholic Church. I like these stories because they remind me of how grateful I should be to have my faith, and how much I take it for granted because I grew up with it and didn’t discover it later in life, as the author did.
  3. A People Adrift by Peter Steinfels. A Catholic journalist’s sociological commentary on the state of the Church circa 2003 (i.e., right after the sexual abuse scandal came to light). Unfortunately, the same negative trends in the Church as a whole seem to be persisting with no real end in sight. I liked reading the book because it wasn’t nonstop statistics, and the author did propose some solutions that seemed viable. However, he did have a slightly more liberal take on the faith that I didn’t always agree with.
  4.  Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres. A memoir by a woman who grew up in a tough Christian household and was sent to a hellish Christian military-style “school” for discipline after she was found “fornicating” with her boyfriend (among other infractions). Honestly, I think the problem with the author’s upbringing was not fundamentalist Christianity itself but the fact that her parents, especially her mother, were totally uninvolved (and even neglectful) and seemed to care only about putting on the faces of good, charitable Christian neighbors. The book was also a commentary on race relations, as the author’s adopted brother was black and she was white.
  5. The Outsider by Stephen King. Ah, Stephen King. I love your books, but your politics and your Twitter page sicken me. Anyway, feelings about the author aside, The Outsider is probably one of the better books King has published recently. It’s not a sequel to Mr. Mercedes et al., but one of the characters does make a cameo appearance, and it is always a pleasure to read about her. The book will scare the crap out of you and leave you questioning the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural.
  6. How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran. I checked this book out of the library only because it takes place in the early 1990s and it mentions the Smashing Pumpkins. Normally, it’s not the kind of thing I would read because (1) every other word is the f-word (with the c-word thrown in every now and then), (2) way too many graphic descriptions of sex, and (3) I got the feeling the author was trying to push an agenda. Aside from that, this is a hilarious coming-of-age story, and the author writes very well. Her descriptions of what it’s like to be a teenage girl are spot on.

My favorite out of these? Probably Jesus Land because it was one of those books that has you marveling at the fact that truth really is stranger than fiction.

Stressed Out?

Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our mama sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out

Millennial neuroticism and nostalgia are perfectly captured in “Stressed Out” by Twenty One Pilots. I realize that it’s an older song (came out in 2015), but lately, it’s been played on the radio every five minutes on every station, and there’s probably a reason for that: we can relate.

As millennials, we’re always getting teased for being that lazy, entitled generation, so why should we whine about being stressed out? All we do is couch-surf and binge-watch the old Nicktoons in our pajamas as we’re munching on avocado toast, right?

In the song, the sources of stress seem to be needing to “wake up and make money” and caring about what others think (also, a lack of mothers to sing us to sleep—instead, we have the Twenty One Pilots). Sounds kind of strange for a famous band that probably makes millions of dollars a year to be whining about having to make money, but at least they’re keeping it real.

As for caring about what others think, these lyrics bother me:

I was told when I get older all my fears would shrink
But now I’m insecure and I care what people think

Indeed, your childish fears do shrink, but they are replaced by different kinds of fears. It’s no longer the monster under your bed: it’s the IRS. It’s no longer being bullied at school: it’s being laid off from work. However, when you’re a child, you are less able to do something about your fears. As an adult, you have a little more control over your own destiny than you once did. (But make no mistake: no one is ever completely in control of anything.)

Feeling “secure” in oneself is supposed to come with age and time, so I’m wondering why the main character in the song is still worried about what others think, more so than when he was younger. Perhaps it’s because of that major stressor affecting millennials: social media and the resulting comparison of oneself to others based on very limited and biased evidence.

My advice to the people my age: Keep doing what you love. Don’t use social media to excess. Find some way to express yourself in a constructive way. Come back to church. Do some soul-searching. We do have a mama to sing us to sleep.

 

Little Ways and Simple Lives

CAUTION: Spoiler alert!

I am a huge fan of Rod Dreher’s column on The American Conservative, and I’ve read a couple of his other books, so when I saw The Little Way of Ruthie Leming at a used book sale, I grabbed it with glee. The book didn’t disappoint. In short, it’s a memoir about Rod’s younger sister Ruthie, who passed away at age 40 from an aggressive form of cancer. Ruthie wasn’t wealthy or famous or “worthy” to be the subject of a memoir in the way that celebrities are, but she indeed seemed to live a saintly life, and the definition of sainthood was what Rod came to grips with throughout the book.

Rod lived a vastly different life from that of his sister; he escaped the small Louisiana town of their childhood in favor of a journalist’s worldly life in the big city. Ruthie, on the other hand, was content to remain in the little town, marry her high school sweetheart, and become a teacher. In a sense, it was like the city mouse/country mouse story from childhood and made readers ponder the question: Is it better to have a “big life” or a “small life”? The answer is honestly either one, just as long as you live according to moral standards.*

As I read the book, I found myself relating to both Rod and Ruthie. On his blog, Rod echoes a lot of my own views on various subjects, but he often comes across as pretentious and privileged. Ruthie enjoyed the simple things in life, as I do, but she didn’t seem to value learning and books in the same way Rod does. The difference between the two siblings reminded me a lot of the division where I live. On one hand, you have the simple Southern people who have lived in North Carolina their entire lives. They tend to enjoy the typical Southern life, which is slow-paced and involves close ties between family and friends. North Carolina natives tend to be good, honest, “salt-of-the-earth” people, but they also can be ignorant or intolerant of anything that goes against their way of life or beliefs. This was how Rod described Ruthie and other Louisiana natives in the memoir—as quite close-minded—but of course, that’s not their fault. That’s how they have been raised and they’re satisfied that way. They are content with what they have and don’t see any reason to broaden their horizons.

The other part of North Carolina is taken over by “Yankees” who recently moved from New York and other Northern states. If you ask the native North Carolinians, the Yankees have totally destroyed North Carolina’s culture with their high-class, fast-paced ways. They’re forcing new roads and highways and homes to be built, which is ruining the environment, and they’re in favor of upscale stores like Whole Foods and niche boutiques that are causing the prices of everything else to go up. Houses are going for outrageously high prices, and who can afford them but the Yankees? Many of the Yankees work in the Research Triangle Park area and tend to be highly educated and current on the latest technologies. Because they’re not native, many of their family members live elsewhere. Thus, family may not seem like it’s as much of a priority to them as it is for the native North Carolinians (but I’m sure it probably is).

I did come from New York, but that was in the mid-1990s when I was a little kid, so I find it hard to relate to the newest wave of “Yankees” who have arrived in my state. I love the native North Carolinians I know, and they do tend to have a better and more fulfilling lifestyle in that they value what is truly important: family and friends. But I, like Rod, tend to get impatient with them because they don’t seem to value education and “book smarts” in the same way that I do. They are very set in their ways. However, I’m constantly aware that my impatience with them may make me come off as pretentious and high-falutin.

Ruthie Leming’s “little way” (i.e., doing small things with great love, also espoused by St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Teresa of Calcutta) is a simple faith that anyone can live by. From what I gathered from reading the memoir, Rod is still coming to terms with this “little way” and how to reconcile it with a world that seems focused on the things that don’t ultimately matter. Like Rod, I have issues with trying to follow the “little way” and reconciling it with what I know (from education and being a native New Yorker) and what I value (from my parents, my religion, and the aspects of the Southern life I admire).

The book can be read for the enjoyable and inspiring (although obviously very sad) story, or for a more in-depth study of culture and faith if you’re the kind of person who, like the author (and me), tends to overanalyze everything.

*What is “morally acceptable” and what is a “good person” are extremely subjective these days. I personally believe in objective morality, but many do not, and that’s a topic for another post.