Haroon Moghul’s autobiography, How to Be a Muslim: An American Story, is at its best when it keeps to the personal story, how the author describes being thrust into the role of professional Muslim as an undergraduate (because of 9/11) — even as he struggled with his faith, his relationship with his family, and his American-ness, not to mention his mental illness.
The more sweeping historical and political descriptions I could have done without, but the personal struggle is engaging and a reminder that a carefully composed public identity can hide much suffering.
I’m not sure many readers of The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America have managed to read all 650 pages of it carefully. I certainly did not, and I found the detailed stories of the various political machinations and scandals very tedious.
That said, I found it most interesting to see the how some of the themes of the early start of the movement, during the Great Awakening, sound quite modern. The author also does a great job of showing how the thirst for political influence shapes the values that are put forth — abortion restrictions rather than anti-poverty campaigns, for instance. We are quite far from religious values and
So this is the good book of the week: Priestdaddy, the unlikely memoir of the daughter of a Catholic priest (yes, it is possible to be a Catholic priest and be married and have children; read the book to discover the loophole). Be warned that it starts a little slowly, with the author and her husband reluctantly but gratefully moving back into the rectory where her parents live, after a ruinous health scare. And because it’s the rectory, there’s also an awkward seminarian living there, whom she likes to terrorize (it does not take much!) The story picks up speed — and old memories — and pretty soon we find ourselves swimming in stilted dinners with the bishop (helped along with some Mountain Vodka Dew), picketing abortion clinics as a young child, and perusing liturgical-supplies catalogs. It’s David Sedaris meets Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, sweet and hilarious and complicated like large families can be.
It seems pretty obvious that Christianity has left a deep mark in Western societies, so it’s not exactly clear why we would need a book to discuss this, but the author argues, rather strenuously, against atheists’ claims to the contrary . In any case, I did not really understand The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped our Values. It is certainly written by someone with impressive knowledge of history but I could not grasp its arc.
Emma Donoghue wrote the stunning Room (and other novels I did not like so much) and with The Wonder, she returns with a claustrophobic story of a “starving girl” in 19th century Ireland, whose food-free existence brings her family fame. A nurse is brought in to investigate this miracle and she will eventually untangle the mystery and save the girl in violent fashion.
The author captures the circumscribed existence in the small Irish village, the all-powerful role of the church, and never tries to simplify characters to fit the story. Bravo!
Much better know for his Sherlock Holmes series, Arthur Conan Doyle also wrote historical novels, of which he was apparently very proud. The Refugees is one of them, and it ambitiously traces the picaresque adventures of a young American who travels to France, helps his Protestant friend survive many perils in procuring a priest for the secret marriage of Louis XV and Madame de Maintenon, and swiftly retreats to North America with friend, friend’s wife, and friend’s father upon the banishing of Huguenots from France. The French adventures are far-fetched — but what happens on the way back (iceberg, Indian attacks) seems utterly unbelievable. Add to that the totally helpless wife who cannot even see the fauna and flora of Canada without them being pointed out to her by her menfolk, and it becomes clear why Sherlock Holmes remains Conan Doyle’s legacy.
I was disappointed by Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence because I felt misled by its subtitle: it is not a book about the entangled roots of violence and religion, although the author does discuss them, quickly, in the beginning of the book. It also focuses mostly on violence done to Jews, which is a vast and interesting topic, but it would have been interesting to cover in more detail violence done to and by other religious groups. And finally the bulk of the book is an erudite discussion and analysis of Genesis that points out all kinds of details about the violence that is so prevalent in that famous book — fascinating for some I’m sure but not quite my cup of tea, and in any case I do not think that the average religious person who wants to commit violence first stops to carefully consider what the book says…