The author of Educated grew up in a survivalist family in Idaho, toiling in the (highly dangerous) family junkyard or helping her mother concoct homeopathic compounds — but never studying, either in an organized school or through any kind of home-schooling. Still through grit, ingenuity, and some luck, she managed to matriculate at BYU and from there pursue graduate education. The book describes her often shocking upbringing and how she painfully and slowly extricated herself from it, becoming estranged from a big part of her family in the process. It’s a harrowing tale.
The book is put together with intricate flashbacks and considerable skill. But there are some strange passages, in which pivotal scenes are tagged with footnotes explaining that different family members have very different recollections of the same events. Do they betray the care of a historian or on the other hand a fanciful delusion? And the assertion that her father is simply mentally ill seems rather generous: how about simply violent, controlling, and egotistic?
It would be wonderful if many atheists read The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View, as it kindly views religion not as some kind of primitive delusion, but rather as a mix of a human need for transcendence and the equally human need to belong to a group. We are very far from the screeching Richard Dawkins (and close to The Dawkins Delusion).
My only point of disagreement with the author is when he undertakes to “prove” that no conflict is actually provoked by religion because the combatants are not, in fact, using theological arguments. Try telling that to the Serbs and Croats of his example: nothing about the religion of each side may spark the conflict, but certainly the combatants are clearly identifying the other religious group as “enemy”.
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!