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.

Not So Good, But Necessary

CAUTION: This post may contain spoilers.

A good Christian novel is hard to find. Most of the ones I’ve read tend to be sickeningly sweet, have goody two-shoes characters, or have really unrealistic romantic subplots.

What’s even harder to find is a good Catholic novel, so when I picked up Pierced by a Sword (Bud MacFarlane Jr.), my expectations were high. The paperback was 571 pages in fairly small type, but it was written in a James Patterson–esque style with two- and three-page chapters, so it moved quickly. The author clearly had a lot of knowledge of Catholicism, history, and random trivia, which he scattered throughout the book to good effect. The result was a novel steeped in theology that made sense and coordinated with Church teaching. It was refreshing to read a novel that didn’t make fun of Catholicism or that isn’t ignorant about it.

However, as much as I appreciated the author’s bravery in writing the book and tackling some tough, controversial subjects, I didn’t like the story or the writing style as much as I thought I would. The plot was a typical save-the-world, action movie scenario, where a group of young Catholics band together against the forces of darkness in a relativistic world gone mad—a world eerily like the one in which we live today. The novel explores the historical Marian apparitions, in which Mary (the mother of Jesus) has warned the world of impending doom because people have turned from God and refuse to repent and believe in the Gospel.

I tend to dislike these “epic” novels because they are often gimmicky. Character development is shallow, plot elements are ones you’ve seen before in tons of previous action movies and thriller novels, and so on. I think Pierced by a Sword suffered from that to a great degree. I wished that it had been a bit closer to home and not on such a large scale.

The characters were simultaneously easy to relate to and difficult to like. Many of them were converts (or reverts) to the Catholic faith after living far less-than-holy lives. A drug dealer has a conversion and becomes a priest, a womanizer sees the error of his ways and becomes chaste, and a hardened Jersey girl finds her softer side. I loved that these Catholic characters were not portrayed as perfect or goody two-shoes types. But I didn’t really like or relate to any of the characters after their conversions, because it seemed like once they found the faith, they never faltered and never committed any major sins. In real life, finding faith is just the first step. You fail and fall over and over again and you’re still the same sinner you were before, just with hope that you’ll get better with God’s help and continued reconciliation and penance.

Thankfully, the author managed to avoid deus ex machina. Many Christian novels fall victim to situations where the main problems in the story are solved totally by God and not the characters. In this book, God (and Mary) was never far off, but the characters solved the problems on their own and recognized the extent that God could help them and what they had to do to help themselves.

The strangest thing about the book was that it was initially published in 1995, then was updated and revised in 2007. However, the person or people who did the updates did not do a good job, because the book was supposed to have been updated to take place in 2007, but it still felt like the events were occurring in 1995. The Internet is never mentioned, and hardly anyone uses a computer. At one point, it mentioned 9/11 and the twin towers, and in the next moment, one of the characters made some reference to being in the 90s. Even more strange, many of the characters talk as though it’s 1950. I’ll be honest; had the book not included Catholic themes and had not been written by a Catholic author, I would have given it a worse review because of those careless and easily avoided errors.

The overarching thought I came away with upon finishing the book was that it was good only because it was unique and needed to be written. It presented a view of a better, more holy world, and a much more healthy view of marriage, community, and spiritual warfare than we are accustomed to in modern America. People need to hear the messages the author proclaimed, but the messages were not presented in the wrapping of good writing, which was a shame. I learned that Pierced by a Sword is the first in a trilogy, and my first thought was that I wanted to read the second two books, just to hear the message of hope. But the sad thing is, I’m not expecting good writing.