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.

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.

Not So Perfect

CAUTION: This post may contain spoilers!

I recently finished Julie Metz’s Perfection, which is a memoir about the author’s husband’s untimely death and its aftermath. While Metz was in the process of dealing with her husband’s death and parenting her little girl by herself, she learned the devastating fact that he had multiple affairs during their marriage.

At first, I liked and sympathized with the author; she reminded me of myself: an introverted writer whose roots are in both upstate New York and Manhattan. I loved how she tore into one of the women her husband had an affair with—a woman who had previously been one of her best friends. That must have taken some guts.

Metz has a wonderful writing style. She crafted the memoir so it read like a novel; the tiny details she chose to highlight added to the bigger picture of the book’s symbolism. Life really can be cinematic sometimes.

However, I was a little bothered by how blind Metz was to her husband’s infidelity and lack of confidence. How could she really believe that all of his flirtations with women were innocent? I also found it hard to believe because she herself had an affair with a married man before she married her husband. Perhaps that was sort of like a “karma” thing, but I don’t believe anyone deserves to be cheated on.

Much of the book chronicled Metz’s search for love after her husband’s death, and this mostly seemed to lead to a bunch of guys she slept with but to whom she had no commitment. I suppose that’s how one searches for the right person in the modern age, but I don’t see how sleeping with someone without having any intention of commitment is a good dating strategy, and I think Metz admitted as such in the book. Perhaps it was just an odd way of grieving.

By the end of the book, she did end up with another man who loved and respected her and, more importantly, was interested in and good at helping her raise her young daughter.

I found Perfection to be an entertaining read, but I didn’t particularly have admiration for the author or her choices by the end of it. She seemed to have learned and grown a lot from her experience, so maybe she published her memoir to warn other women about the ways of men. On the other hand, I imagine it would be difficult to advise another person not to date someone who will cheat on you, as you never know if or when that might happen, and there is little one can do to prevent it.

Metz’s husband was in fact diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, which essentially means his self-esteem was so low that he had constructed a falsely confident image of himself. He never liked to be left alone and always surrounded himself with people who would flatter him—notably women. Knowing that he had a bonafide disorder made me feel sorry for the guy but also made me wonder if Metz would have stayed with him and had sympathy for him had he still been alive when she found out about his affairs. She had said multiple times throughout the book that she wouldn’t have, but it still raised an interesting question for me: Can infidelity really be attributed to a personality disorder? Can it then be cured or possibly rehabilitated with cognitive behavioral therapy?

Even the woman Metz’s husband cheated on her with supposedly had borderline personality disorder, which caused her to be extremely clingy, emotionally volatile, and attention-seeking. By the end of the book, Metz hadn’t forgiven her and definitely hadn’t extended the hand of friendship again. I suppose it would be easier to forgive someone your husband slept with if you knew they had a legitimate problem, rather than if they cheated simply out of spite or because they just wanted to get in your husband’s pants because they were having a midlife crisis.

I’d read Perfection if you wanted a real-life soap opera to get involved in and wanted to ponder the intricacies of human relationships. But if you were looking for advice on relationships, I’d look elsewhere.