Catholic book review: Something Other Than God

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Today (a day before it’s released in stores, go Ignatius Press!) I read Jennifer Fulwiler’s long-awaited (really, I’ve been clamoring to read this) memoir/conversion story, Something Other Than God. I knew that her writing style was by turns serious and laugh out loud funny, so I was expecting the same thing in the book, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The book isn’t a blow-by-blow account of Jen’s life. What it is is a story about how God worked in her life from its earliest stages, even if she didn’t realize it. Raised by non-religious parents, she considers herself an atheist for most of her life, but still can’t shake the feeling that there is more to life than just…this.

When she meets her husband, Joe, she slowly starts to consider Christianity. Joe is a Christian but he doesn’t take it seriously, but he does believe in Jesus. And through conversations and reading books like Mere Christianity and Orthodoxy, and writing out her objections to Christianity on her blog, Jen starts to think that Christianity might have something going for it. If Jesus Christ is real….then we aren’t in a lonely abyss hurtling toward annihilation. If Jesus Christ is real…..

A whole new vista opens up for Jen. Eventually, she and Joe decide they’re going to become Catholic, and start the RCIA process. But at the same time, Jen becomes pregnant with their second child–and develops a life-threatning blood condition that could be potentially fatal if she has any more babies.

I have to say, this is the part of the book that really hooked me, because I’ve been in her shoes. Even before transplant, my medication regimen was complex. A lot of the drugs I take now are absolutely verboten if you’re pregnant. Absolutely. When I was in college, and was engaged, this was a huge thing for me. Getting pregnant would be horribly not good for me and the baby. But I was–and am–Catholic. I am not going to use birth control. How in the world do we reconcile the two? I loved reading about Jen’s mental process through all of this, because I’d been there.

(She now has, by the way, six children.)

Jen’s conversion story isn’t fluffy, pretty, God-appeared-to-me-and-said-do-this! variety. It’s a real story. It has meat in it. Jen struggles and she lays those struggles out for us. She has questions, she has doubts, she prays to God in a bathroom and sneaks away to read the Bible, afraid she’ll get “outed” as the former atheist turned Jesus Freak. And this is the first Catholic book I’ve ever read where the author says she prayed for the soul of a deceased rapper–which makes Jen all the more relatable to me. While we probably haven’t met Tupac (the rapper she prays for), we all know people who live lives that may not be all good–but they believe in God.

She asks tough questions, especially about suffering. One of my favorite parts in the book is this bit:

He snapped out of his daze. ‘Oh, well, if you mean that they’ll have a bunch of tough things happen to them, sure. Do you remember what Noe said they do to Inquirers at the Rite of Acceptance?’

‘Not really.’

‘They mark them with the sign of the cross. The sponsors trace a cross over their eyes, their ears, their lips, their heart, their shoulders, and their hands and feet. It’s to prepare them that the cross will touch every part of their lives.’

‘What?’ My face contorted into a frown. ‘Well, that sounds horrible. Where do I sign up to have more misery in my life?’

‘No. I said ‘suffering’, not ‘misery.’

‘Same thing.’

‘But it’s not!’ Joe said, an urgency behind his voice. ‘That’s Christianity’s whole message: The more you love, the more you’re going to have to give up–you can’t hold anything back. And that’s going to mean suffering. But it’s also going to mean joy and peace.’

I stared at my hands. ‘I’ve been doing this Christianity thing for months now, and I think I have less joy and peace than I used to.’

‘But are you really putting God first?’

I didn’t answer.

‘We might go broke, or have to live with your mom for another decade, or whatever. It probably won’t be easy. But we’ll have peace.’

I stared at him, searching his face for the smile that would accompany the punchline to this dry joke, but it didn’t come. In his eyes was a gentleness, a bottomless vulnerability that I had never seen before.

(pg. 198)

Really, that sums up the whole book, and why I needed to read it right now.

Jennifer has done amazing work here. Read the book, and then read it again, and attempt to put God first.



Book review: “The Casual Vacancy” by J. K. Rowling

I read voraciously and I don’t do book reviews for all I read, because that would get boring for you really fast. But I think this one deserves some “notes”, meaning I’m not going to recap plot, other than the very basics, but talk about what I liked and what I didn’t, for the most part. 

PLOT CAPSULE: A Pagford Parish Councilman drops dead on his 19th wedding anniversary, leaving a “casual vacancy” on the council. (Casual vacancy—an open seat created because of death or incapacitation) The seat needs filled, and who fills it will determine the fates of a local drug addiction clinic, as well as the jurisdiction of a nearby housing project. 

LIKES: As usual, Rowling creates worlds well. Pagford is well-realized and thought out. The  problems are contemporary, and the descriptions of poverty ring authentic.  This isn’t Harry Potter, by a long shot. 

DISLIKES: This isn’t Harry Potter, by a long shot. What I mean by that is that not a single character is redeemable—and yes, that includes Krystal Wheedon, who is probably meant to be the “heroine” of the book. She’s a teenager whose mother is a drug addict (who prostitutes herself to get money for the drugs) and has four children by different fathers, two of whom have been taken away by the state. Krystal tries to save her brother, Robbie, from the neglect and squalor of the home they live in. For that, she is commendable. But when a character in the book describes her as “sweet”, and another wants to be just like her, I want to lose my lunch. She tries, yes, to live her best in the life she’s been given, but she never tries to go beyond that. 

The book is divided between teenagers and adults. The teenagers are stock types: “I-hate-small-towns” (there’s an adult like that, too); the bullied teen who cuts herself in the bathroom at night; the cynic, etc. The way they are drawn, they are flat and don’t take on a life of their own. The adults are hardly better, being consumed by their passions: food, drink, a forbidden love, or paralyzing fear. Barry, the deceased councillor, had good qualities, but, in the manner of Dickens’ Mrs. Jellyby, totally ignored his own family in order to save Krystal and others like her. 

No one has a moral compass, no one has a moral code. Everyone has deep, dark secrets that come to light as the novel moves toward a very Hardy-esque ending (Think Tess of the D’Ubervilles and Jude the Obscure). The world Rowling creates for her characters is a world where there is no way out, for anyone. The wife cannot escape her abusive husband; Krsytal cannot escape her mother; Samantha, one of the adults, cannot escape the small town of Pagford, which she despises. And since there are few, if any, characters to root for or support, the book quickly becomes quite depressing. 

Rowling has proved that she has great literary talents (we’ll let Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix slide here). They are not served well by this book. 

Bookshelf: The Cookbook Collector

I have wanted to read this book for almost a year, since it came out last summer. However, I didn’t know the author, even though she’s written other things, so I waited for the paperback. It is rare that I am this patient. But I was. :)One of the reasons I wanted to read it was the Jane Austen comparison praise it was getting, another was a main character named Emily. (Really, there aren’t that many of us in fiction.)

So when it came out in paperback this week I was really stoked! I did buy it as a book, instead of a NookBook, because the cover is 1) really pretty and 2) it seemed like a “book” buy to me. Some books are Nook Books, and some books are real books, and a book that involves a bookstore, books, and book collecting seemed like a “real” book.

Anyway, here’s the basic plot: Like Sense and Sensibility it revolves around two sisters: Emily, the level-headed, organized older sister, who is CEO of a dot-com start-up, and Jess (short for Jessamine), who is getting her doctorate in philosophy, is wildly idealistic, and can’t “settle down” in her sister’s words. The book begins in 1999—so the height of tech stock madness. It ends in 2002. So…yeah. You know what Big Things happen in between, here. So the book revolves around Jess and Emily living their lives, the mistakes they make, Jess’s job at Yorick’s a used-book store, and the romantic escapades of each.

I don’t want to give a lot away, because this is a really rich, rewarding read. These characters are very real, and very relatable. The book covers a lot of ground—dot-com start-ups; used cookbooks; Judaism; grief; philosophy. I love books like this, that cover a wide range of topics but still keep us grounded in characters and place. (The book is set in the Silicon Valley area and the Boston area.) It’s a book I can imagine reading multiple times, and thoroughly enjoying it more each time. It’s very literary fiction.