I’m continuing with the Nonfiction November focus by catching up on six nonfiction review books I’ve been sent over the last half a year. We’ve got a record of elderly parents’ decline, letters and poems written about the climate crisis, a family memoir set between Taiwan and Canada, a widow’s mushroom-hunting quest, a work of ecotheology that reflects on travels in the Galápagos Islands, and a defense of an entirely secular basis for morality. You can’t say I don’t read a variety, even within nonfiction! See if one or more of these tempts you.
All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir by Elizabeth Hay
Gordon and Jean Hay stumbled into their early nineties in an Ottawa retirement home starting in 2009. Elizabeth Hay is one of four children, but caregiving fell to her for one reason and another, and it was a fraught task because of her parents’ prickly personalities: Jean was critical and thrifty to the point of absurdity, spooning thick mold off apple sauce before serving it and needling Elizabeth for dumping perfectly good chicken juice a year before; Gordon had a terrible temper and a history of corporal punishment of his children and of his students when he was a school principal. Jean’s knee surgery and subsequent infection finally put paid to their independence; her mind was never the same and she could no longer paint.
There are many harsh moments in this memoir, but almost as many wry ones, with Hay picking just the right anecdotes to illustrate her parents’ behavior and the shifting family dynamic. She never looks away, no matter how hard it all gets. Her father’s rage against the dying of the light contrasts with her mother’s fade into confusion – lightened by the surprisingly poetic turns of phrase she came out with despite her dementia and aphasia. The title phrase, for instance, was her attempt at “all things considered.” I would wholeheartedly recommend this to readers of Hay’s novels, but anyone can appreciate the picture of complicated love and grief. (See also Susan’s review.)
With thanks to MacLehose Press for the free copy for review.
Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis, edited by Anna Hope et al.
Culture Declares Emergency launched in April to bring the arts into the conversation about the climate emergency. Letters to the Earth compiles 100 short pieces by known and unknown names alike. Alongside published authors, songwriters, professors and politicians are lots of ordinary folk, including children as young as seven. The brief was broad: to write a letter in response to environmental crisis, whether to or from the Earth, to future generations (there are wrenching pieces written to children: “What can I say, now that it’s too late? … that I’m sorry, that I tried,” writes Stuart Capstick), to the government or to other species.
There are certainly relatable emotions here, especially the feeling of helplessness. “We take the train, go vegan, refuse plastic, buy less and less. But that is tiny. We are tiny,” novelist Jo Baker writes. I loved retired bishop Richard Holloway’s wry letter calling the author of Genesis to account for unhelpful language of dominion, Rob Cowen’s poem to a starling, and Anna Hope’s essay about parenting in a time of uncertainty. Unfortunately, much of the rest is twee or haranguing, e.g. “Forest fires are scorching INNOCENT wildlife. Plastic is strangling INNOCENT turtles and dolphins,” a 12-year-old writes. This was put together in a matter of months, and it shows. There is not enough tonal variety, a lot of overwriting has crept through, and errors, especially in the kids’ work, remain uncorrected. Perhaps six to 10 pieces stood out to me overall. I’d recommend the Extinction Rebellion handbook instead.
With thanks to Alison Menzies / William Collins for the free copy for review.
Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan by Jessica J. Lee
I loved Turning, Lee’s 2017 memoir about swimming in one of Berlin’s lakes per week for a year, so I jumped at the chance to read her follow-up, which delves into her maternal line’s history in Taiwan. She travels to Taipei for three months to brush up on her Chinese, write and hike. Interspersed with the lush descriptions of her walks are reflections on Taiwan’s history and on the hidden aspects of her grandfather Gong’s past that only came to light after Lee’s grandmother, Po, died and she and her mother discovered an autobiographical letter he’d written before he drifted into dementia. Nature, language, history and memory flow together in a delicate blend of genres – “I moved from the human timescale of my family’s story through green and unfurling dendrological time,” she writes.
This has got to be one of the most striking title and cover combinations of the year. Along with Chinese characters, the book includes some looping text and Nico Taylor’s maps and illustrations of Taiwanese flora and fauna. While you will likely get more out of this if you have a particular interest in Asian history, languages and culture, it’s impressive how Lee brings the different strands of her story together to form a hybrid nature memoir that I hope will be recognized by next year’s Wainwright Prize and Young Writer of the Year Award shortlists. She’d also be a perfect New Networks for Nature speaker.
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
The Way through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning by Long Lit Woon
[Trans. from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland]
I couldn’t resist the sound of a bereavement memoir crossed with a mushroom hunting guide. When Long met her husband, Eiolf Olsen, she was an 18-year-old Malaysian exchange student in Stavanger, Norway. Meeting Eiolf changed the whole course of her life, keeping her in Europe for good; decades later, her life changed forever once again when Eiolf dropped dead at work one morning. “If anyone had told me that mushrooms would be my lifeline, the thing that would help me back onto my feet and quite literally back onto life’s track, I would have rolled my eyes. What had mushrooms to do with mourning?” she writes.
The answer to that rhetorical question is nothing much, at least not inherently, so this ends up becoming a book of two parts, with the bereavement strand (printed in green and in a different font – green is for grief? I suppose) engaging me much more than the mushroom-hunting one, which takes her to Central Park and the annual Telluride, Colorado mushroom festival as well as to Norway’s woods again and again – “In Norway, outdoor life is tantamount to a religion.” But the quest for wonder and for meaning is a universal one. In addition, if you’re a mushroom fan you’ll find gathering advice, tasting notes, and even recipes. I fancy trying the “mushroom bacon” made out of oven-dried shiitakes.
With thanks to Scribe for the free copy for review.
God Unbound: Theology in the Wild by Brian McLaren
McLaren was commissioned to launch a series that was part travel guide, part spiritual memoir and part theological reflection. Specifically, he was asked to write about the Galápagos Islands because he’d been before and they were important to him. He joins a six-day eco-cruise that tours around the island chain off Ecuador, with little to do except observe the birds, tortoises and iguanas, and swim with fish and sea turtles. For him this is a peaceful, even sacred place that reminds him of the beauty that still exists in the world despite so much human desecration. Although he avoids using his phone except to quickly check in with his wife, modernity encroaches unhelpfully through a potential disaster with his laptop.
I was surprised to see that McLaren leaves the Galápagos at the midpoint – whatever could fill the rest of the book, I wondered? He starts by reassessing Darwin, so often painted as a villain by Evangelical Christianity but actually a model of close, loving attention to nature. He also recalls how some of his most intense spiritual experiences have arisen from time in nature. McLaren’s books have been pivotal to my spiritual journey as we’ve both gradually become more liberal and environmentalist. His definition of God might horrify traditionalists, but holds appeal for me: “a centering singularity whose gravity holds me in insistent orbit, pulling me deeper into mystery, pondering who I am and what my life means.” This is an unusual but gently entrancing book full of photos and quotes from other thinkers including John Muir, Pope Francis and Richard Rohr. It’s an ideal introduction to ecotheology.
With thanks to Canterbury Press for the free copy for review.
What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life by Phil Zuckerman
From one end of the spectrum (progressive Christianity) to the other (atheism). Here’s a different perspective from a sociology professor at California’s Pitzer College. Zuckerman’s central argument is that humanism and free choice can fuel ethical behavior; since there’s no proof of God’s existence and theists have such a wide range of beliefs, it’s absurd to slap a “because God says so” label on our subjective judgments. Morals maintain the small communities our primate ancestors evolved into, with specific views (such as on homosexuality) a result of our socialization. Alas, the in-group/out-group thinking from our evolutionary heritage is what can lead to genocide. Instead of thinking in terms of ‘evil’, though, Zuckerman prefers Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen’s term, “empathy erosion.”
To tackle violent crime, Zuckerman contends, we need a more equal society, with the Scandinavian countries a model of how to achieve that through higher taxes, social services and the rehabilitation of prisoners. He uses a lot of relatable examples from history and from his own experience, as well as theoretical situations, to think through practical morality. I found his indictment of American Christianity accurate – how does it make sense for people who say they follow the way of Jesus to fight against equality, tolerance and scientific advances and instead advocate guns, the death penalty and Trump? Well, indeed.
It might seem odd for me to recommend this alongside the McLaren, but there is much to be gained from both viewpoints. Zuckerman’s work overlaps a fair bit with another I’ve read on the topic, Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality – even a bishop agrees we needn’t take our societal ethics straight from the Bible! I can’t go along fully with Zuckerman because I think progressive religion has been and can continue to be a force for good, but I would agree that atheists can be just as moral as people of faith – and often more so.
With thanks to Counterpoint Press for sending a proof copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
I’m continuing a Nonfiction November focus with reviews of two recently (re-)released memoirs about women spending time in the Arctic north of Norway. I enjoy reading about survival in extreme situations – it’s the best kind of armchair traveling because you don’t have to experience the cold and privation for yourself.
A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter (1938; English text, 1954)
[Translated by Jane Degras]
In 1934, Ritter, an Austrian painter, joined her husband Hermann for a year in Spitsbergen. He’d participated in a scientific expedition and caught the Arctic bug, it seems, for he stayed on to fish and hunt. They shared a small, remote hut with a Norwegian trapper, Karl. Ritter was utterly unprepared for the daily struggle, having expected a year’s cozy retreat: “I could stay by the warm stove in the hut, knit socks, paint from the window, read thick books in the remote quiet and, not least, sleep to my heart’s content.” Before long she was disabused of her rosy vision. “It’s a ghastly country, I think to myself. Nothing but water, fog, and rain.” The stove failed. Dry goods ran out; they relied on fresh seal meat. Would they get enough vitamins? she worried. Every time Hermann and Karl set off hunting, leaving her alone in the hut, she feared they wouldn’t return. And soon the 132 straight days of darkness set in.
I was fascinated by the details of Ritter’s daily tasks, but also by how her perspective on the landscape changed. No longer a bleak wilderness, it became a tableau of grandeur. “A deep blue-green, the mountains rear up into a turquoise-coloured sky. From the mountaintops broad glaciers glittering in the sun flow down into the fjord.” She thought of the Arctic almost as a site of spiritual pilgrimage, where all that isn’t elemental falls away. “Forgotten are all externals; here everything is concerned with simple being.” The year is as if outside of time: she never reminisces about her life back home, and barely mentions their daughter. By the end you see that the experience has changed her: she’ll never fret over trivial things again. She lived to age 103 (only dying in 2000), so clearly the time in the Arctic did her no harm.
Ritter wrote only this one book. A travel classic, it has never been out of print in German but has been for 50 years in the UK. Pushkin Press is reissuing the English text on the 21st with a foreword by Sara Wheeler, a few period photographs and a hand-drawn map by Neil Gower.
With thanks to Pushkin Press for the free copy for review.
Notes: Michelle Paver drew heavily on this book when creating the setting for Dark Matter. (There’s even a bear post outside the Ritters’ hut.)
I found some photos of the Ritters’ hut here.
(Although I did not plan it this way, this book also ties in with German Literature Month!)
An Ode to Darkness by Sigri Sandberg (2019)
[Translated by Siân Mackie]
Ritter’s book is a jumping-off point for Norwegian journalist Sandberg’s investigation of darkness as both a physical fact and a cultural construct. She travels alone from her home in Oslo to her cabin in the mountains at Finse, 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Ninety percent of Norway’s wildlife sleeps through the winter, and she often wishes she could hibernate as well. Although she only commits to five days in the far north compared to Ritter’s year, she experiences the same range of emotions, starting with a primitive fear of nature and the dark.
It is a fundamental truth that darkness does not exist from an astronomical standpoint. Happy fact. I’m willing to accept this. I try to find it comforting, helpful. But I still struggle to completely believe that darkness does not actually exist. Because what does it matter to a small, poorly designed human whether darkness is real or perceived? And what about the black holes in the universe, what about dark matter, what about the night sky and the threats against it, and … and now I’m exhausted. I’m done for the day. I feel so small, and I’m tired of being afraid.
Over the course of the book she talks to scientists about the human need for sleep and sunshine, discusses solitude and dark sky initiatives, and quotes from a number of poets, especially Jon Fosse, “Norway’s greatest writer,” who often employs metaphors of light and dark: “Deep inside me / … it was like the empty darkness was shining”.
In occasional passages labeled “Christiane” Sandberg also recounts fragments of Ritter’s experiences. I read Sandberg’s book first, so these served as a tantalizing introduction to A Woman in the Polar Night. “Is there anywhere as silent as a white winter plateau on a windless day? And how long can anyone spend alone before they start to feel, like Christiane did, as if their very being is disintegrating?”
This is just the sort of wide-ranging nonfiction I love; it intersperses biographical and autobiographical information with scientific and cultural observations.
[Another recent book tries to do a similar thing but is less successful – partially due to the author’s youthful optimism, but also due to the rambly, shallow nature of the writing. (My review will be in the November 29th issue of the Times Literary Supplement.)]
With thanks to Sphere for the free copy for review.
Related reading: This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich
Do you like reading about polar exploration, or life’s extremes in general?
I’ve fallen behind on the weekly prompts for Nonfiction November, but wanted to post a follow-up to my 2018 list of a baker’s dozen of memoirs I’ve read that explore women’s religious experiences. I’ve read a couple more this year that are worth adding to the list; in addition to their themes of doubt and making a new life outside the church, they also share an interesting detail: it’s an online friend that goads each author into questioning her beliefs. Even if you aren’t typically interested in this subgenre, you’ve likely heard of Unfollow because of the high-profile story behind it. (This week is hosted by Katie of Doing Dewey.)
Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper
“God hates f*gs.” If you know one thing about Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, it’s that this slogan plastered their signs and was part of their armory of in-your-face chants at nationwide protests.
Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Church, which was founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps, and made up mostly of her extended family: Phelps had 13 children, and Phelps-Roper is one of 11. In 1989 Phelps learned that nearby Gage Park was a gay cruising spot and wrote in disgust to the mayor and other city officials. In a sense, he never got over it. The anti-homosexuality message would become Westboro’s trademark, at least until the church started its picketing of military funerals after the Iraq War – which, like 9/11, was interpreted as being God’s just punishment of American immorality.
By portraying it from the inside and recreating her shifting perspective from early childhood onwards, Phelps-Roper initially makes her extreme upbringing seem normal. After all, it’s the only thing she knew, and it never would have occurred to her that her family could be wrong. The Phelpses were fiercely intelligent and also ran a law firm, so it’s impossible to just dismiss them as redneck idiots. Frequent passages from the King James Bible appear in italics to echo the justifications the Church cited for its beliefs and actions.
Only gradually did doubts start to creep in for the author as various uncles and brothers left the church. Phelps-Roper was even the voice of Westboro on Twitter, but defending funeral protests became increasingly difficult for her. Two things brought her to a breaking point. First, in something of a coup, the Church appointed a new body of elders – all male, of course – who instituted ever more draconian rules, such as a dress code for women, and effectively removed her mother from leadership. (Ultimately, they would kick the dying Fred Phelps himself out of the church.) Secondly, the Church started to spread fake news via doctored photos. For example, they claimed to be protesting a royal wedding in London, when in fact Westboro members never go anywhere the First Amendment can’t protect them.
All along, Phelps-Roper had been corresponding with “C.G.,” an online acquaintance with whom she played Words with Friends. Chad gently encouraged her to ask why Westboro believed as it did, and to unpick rather than ignore any doctrines that didn’t make sense. “What if we’re wrong? What if this isn’t The Place led by God Himself? What if we’re just people?” she wondered. In November 2012, she and her sister Grace left the Church and the family home, where she’d lived until age 26, and retreated to a Deadwood, South Dakota Airbnb to hike, read and think about what they’d left behind and what came next. I’d had just about enough of Westboro and its infighting by that point in the book – the chapter about her leaving gets a little melodramatic – so, like the author, I was glad to move on to another setting, and this interlude ended up being my favorite section.There’s much more I could say about this memoir, as the path out of fundamentalism is one I’ve taken, too, and the process of rebuilding a life outside it is ongoing for me, as it is for Phelps-Roper, who now lobbies for empathy across religious and political lines. The sense of a family divided is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s Educated, whose readership Unfollow is keen to secure. At points the book feels overlong (the chapters certainly are), but the good news for anyone who might feel reluctant to tackle it is that a film version is in the works, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby and Reese Witherspoon producing.
Note: Westboro was the subject of a Louis Theroux documentary in 2006, and in a nice full-circle moment, he’s now interviewing Phelps-Roper on some of her UK book tour spots. And, in another lovely aside, she married C.G.
With thanks to riverrun for the free copy for review.
Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life by Amber Scorah
Like In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, this is the story of growing up in a cult and what happens when, as an adult, a woman has to build a new life free from the constraints – but also unmoored from the comforting framework – of a previously unquestioned belief system. Scorah grew up in Vancouver’s community of Jehovah’s Witnesses and, although she was temporarily disfellowshipped as a teenager for having premarital sex, the faith was her home and gave her a sense of purpose. Witnesses are discouraged from attending university or pursuing careers; without exception, they’re expected to preach and win converts – the only task worth engaging in given that the world is headed towards Armageddon.
Scorah and her husband went to China as clandestine JW missionaries. Her Mandarin skills were good enough that she could become friends with her English-language pupils and then start to talk to them about religion. In the meantime, she became an early podcast host with the program “Dear Amber,” which offered advice on the Chinese language and culture. She embarked on a flirtatious correspondence with one of her regular listeners, Jonathan from Los Angeles, who goaded her into rethinking everything she’d been taught to believe. “I was questioning with a mind that had been trained not to. It was highly uncomfortable.”
As her marriage and faith simultaneously crumbled, Scorah had to decide what was left to form the foundation of a new life on her own in New York City. “My eye-glazing peace, unquestioning contentment, and eternal life were gone, and the time ahead of me was filled with people I didn’t yet know, uncertainty about the future, and, one day, death.” I was absorbed in the bittersweet outworkings of this before and after: a process of losing faith and deciding what’s next.
The final chapter is a whirlwind tour through her first years in NYC, including the tragic death of her infant son, Karl. This makes for something of an abrupt end to the book; I might have liked to get as much detail on all this as we got about the time in China. But it was clearly a deliberate decision to present such life and death matters from a hard-won secular perspective, without the false balm of a religion that promises she’ll see her son again. There’s a lot of secrecy about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, so this is a rare insider’s view as well as a wrenching account of loss and starting over.
Full disclosure: Amber Scorah offered me a copy through a Facebook group we are both a part of.
Thanks to her and Viking for sending a free copy for review.
Can you see yourself reading either of these books?
This is my fourth year joining Laura Frey and others in reading mostly novellas in November. Last year Laura put together a history of the challenge (here); it has had various incarnations but has no particular host or rules. Join us if you like! (#NovNov and #NovellasinNovember) The definition of a novella is loose – it’s based more on the word count than the number of pages – so it’s up to you what you’d like to classify as one. I generally limit myself to books of 150 pages or fewer, though I might go as high as 180-some if there aren’t that many words on a page. Some, including Laura and Susan, would be as generous as 200.
I’ve trawled my shelves for fiction and nonfiction stacks to select from, as well as a few volumes that include several novellas (I’d plan on reading at least the first one) and some slightly longer novels (150–190 pages) for backups. [From the N. West volume, I just have the 52-page novella The Dream Life of Balso Snell, his debut, to read. The Tangye book with the faded cover is Lama.] Also available on my Kindle are The Therapist by Nial Giacomelli*, Record of a Night too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami, Childhood: Two Novellas by Gerard Reve, and Milton in Purgatory by Edward Vass* (both *Fairlight Moderns Novellas, as is Atlantic Winds by William Prendiville).
Other November reading plans…
Margaret Atwood Reading Month
This is the second year of #MARM, hosted by Canadian bloggers extraordinaires Marcie of Buried in Print and Naomi of Consumed by Ink. This year they’re having a special The Handmaid’s Tale/The Testaments theme, but even if you’re avoiding the sequel, join us in reading one or more Atwood works of your choice. She has so much to choose from! Last year I read The Edible Woman and Surfacing. This year I’ve earmarked copies of the novel The Robber Bride (1993) and Moral Disorder (2006), a linked short story collection, both of which I got for free – the former from the free bookshop where I volunteer, and the latter from a neighbor who was giving it away.
I don’t usually participate in this challenge because nonfiction makes up at least 40% of my reading anyway, but last year I enjoyed putting together some fiction and nonfiction pairings and ‘being the expert’ on women’s religious memoirs, a subgenre I have a couple of books to add to this year. So I will probably end up doing at least one post. The full schedule is here.
Young Writer of the Year Award
Being on the shadow panel for the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award was a highlight of 2017 for me. I was sad to not be able to attend any of the events last year. I’m excited for this year’s shadow panelists, a couple of whom are blogging friends (one I’ve met IRL), and I look forward to following along with the nominated books and attending the prize ceremony at the London Library on December 5th.
With any luck I will already have read at least one or two books from the shortlist, which is to be announced on November 3rd. I have my fingers crossed for Yara Rodrigues Fowler, Daisy Johnson, Elizabeth Macneal, Stephen Rutt and Lara Williams; I expect we may also see repeat appearances from one of the poets recognized by the Forward Prizes and Guy Gunaratne, the winner of the 2019 Dylan Thomas Prize.
Any reading plans for November? Will you be joining in with novellas, Margaret Atwood’s books or Nonfiction November?
This week of the month-long challenge is hosted by JulzReads. I’m a total memoir junkie and gravitate towards ones written by women: sometimes those whose lives are completely different to mine (medical crises, parenting, etc.) and sometimes those who’ve had experiences similar to mine (moving to a new country, illness and dysfunction in the family, etc.).
In my late teens I fell into a crisis of faith that lasted for many years – or maybe is still ongoing – and planted the seed for my Master’s thesis on women’s faith and doubt narratives in Victorian fiction. I’m always looking out for memoirs that discuss religious conversion, doubt, or loss of faith.
I know we don’t all share the same obsessions. (The bookish world would be boring if we did!) It’s possible this topic doesn’t interest you at all. But if it does, or if you’d like to test the waters, here are 15 or so relevant reads that have stood out for me; I think I’ve only written about a few of them on here in the past.
[Note: I highly recommend any autobiographical writing by Anne Lamott, Madeleine L’Engle, and Kathleen Norris; although all three write/wrote about faith, their engagement with doubt doesn’t quite feel specific enough to get them a spot on this list.]
Recommended from This Year’s Reading
Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler: An assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, Bowler was fascinated by prosperity theology: the idea that God’s blessings reward righteous living and generous giving to the church. If she’d been tempted to set store by this notion, that certainty was permanently fractured when she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in her mid-thirties. Bowler writes tenderly about suffering and surrender, and about living in the moment with her husband and son while being uncertain of the future, in a style reminiscent of Anne Lamott and Nina Riggs.
The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen: Opening Your Eyes to Wonder by Lisa Gungor: Like many Gungor listeners, Lisa grew up in, and soon outgrew, a fundamentalist Christian setting. She married Michael Gungor at the absurdly young age of 19 and they struggled with infertility and world events. When their second daughter was born with Down syndrome and required urgent heart surgery, it sparked further soul searching and a return to God, but this time within a much more open spirituality that encircles and values everyone – her gay neighbors, her disabled daughter; the ones society overlooks.
In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult by Rebecca Stott: This is several things: a bereavement memoir that opens with Stott’s father succumbing to cancer and eliciting her promise to finish his languishing memoirs; a family memoir tracking generations in England, Scotland and Australia; and a story of faith and doubt, of the absolute certainty experienced inside the Exclusive Brethren (a sect that numbers 45,000 worldwide) and how that cracked until there was no choice but to leave. Stott grew up with an apocalyptic mindset. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she learned to trust her intellect and admit doubts.
Educated by Tara Westover: You might be tired of hearing about this book, but it really does deserve the hype. Westover’s is an incredible story of testing the limits of perseverance and sanity. After an off-grid, extremist Mormon upbringing in Idaho, hard work took her from almost complete ignorance to a Cambridge PhD. She writes with calm authority, channeling the style of the scriptures and history books that were formative in her upbringing and education. This is one of the most powerful and well-written memoirs I’ve ever read.
Recent Releases (all came out on Nov. 13th)
A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel: From rural Indiana and an apocalyptic Christian cult to New York City and Orthodox Judaism by way of studies in Jerusalem: Himsel has made quite the religious leap. She was one of 11 children and grew up in the Worldwide Church of God (reminiscent of the Exclusive Brethren from Stott’s book). Although leaving a cult is easy to understand, what happens next feels more like a random sequence of events than a conscious choice; maybe I needed some more climactic scenes.
Why Religion? A Personal Story by Elaine Pagels: Pagels is a religion scholar known for her work on the Gnostic Gospels. As a teen she joined a friend’s youth group and answered the altar call at a Billy Graham rally. Although she didn’t stick with Evangelicalism, spirituality provided some comfort when her son died of pulmonary hypertension at age six and her physicist husband Heinz fell to his death on a hike in Colorado little more than a year later. She sees religion’s endurance as proof that it plays a necessary role in human life.
When I Spoke in Tongues: A Story of Faith and Its Loss by Jessica Wilbanks: Like me, Wilbanks grew up attending a Pentecostal-style church in southern Maryland. I recognized the emotional tumult of her trajectory – the lure of power and certainty; the threat of punishment and ostracism – as well as some of the specifics of her experience. Captivated by the story of Enoch Adeboye and his millions-strong Redemption Camps, she traveled to Nigeria to research the possible Yoruba roots of Pentecostalism in the summer of 2010.
Read Some Time Ago
Not That Kind of Girl by Carlene Bauer: A bookish, introspective adolescent, Bauer was troubled by how fundamentalism denied the validity of secular art. All the same, Christian notions of purity and purpose stuck with her throughout her college days in Baltimore and then when she was trying to make it in publishing in New York City. Along the way she flirted with converting to Catholicism. What Bauer does best is to capture a fleeting mindset and its evolution into a broader way of thinking.
The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis: In a graceful and painfully honest memoir, Mirvis goes back and forth in time to contrast the simplicity – but discontentment – of her early years of marriage with the disorientation she felt after divorcing her husband and leaving Orthodox Judaism. Anyone who has wrestled with faith or other people’s expectations will appreciate this story of finding the courage to be true to yourself.
Between Gods by Alison Pick: At a time of transition – preparing for her wedding and finishing her first novel, set during her Holocaust – the author decided to convert to Judaism, the faith of her father’s Czech family. Ritual was her way into Judaism: she fasted for Yom Kippur and took her father to synagogue on the anniversary of her grandfather’s death, but also had the fun of getting ready for a Purim costume party.
Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing by Reba Riley: Riley was a Pentecostal-leaning fundamentalist through high school, but turned her back on it in college. Yet she retained a strong spiritual compass that helped her tap into the energy of the “Godiverse.” She concocted the idea of experiencing 30 different religious traditions before she turned 30, and spent 2011–12 visiting a Hindu temple, a Buddhist meditation center, a mosque, a synagogue, a gathering of witches, and a range of Christian churches.
Girl Meets God: A Memoir by Lauren F. Winner: Some people just seem to have the religion gene. That’s definitely true of Winner, who was as enthusiastic an Orthodox Jew as she later was a Christian after the conversion that began in her college years. Like Anne Lamott, Winner draws on anecdotes from everyday life and very much portrays herself as a “bad Christian,” one who struggles with the basics like praying and finding a church community and is endlessly grateful for the grace that covers her shortcomings.
When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman: Zierman was a poster girl for Evangelicalism in her high school years. After attending Christian college, she and her husband spent a lonely year teaching English in Pinghu, China. Things got worse before they got better, but eventually she made her way out of depression through therapy, antidepressants and EMDR treatments, marriage counselling, a dog, a home of their own, and – despite the many ways she’d been hurt and let down by “Church People” over the years – a good-enough church.
Read but Not Reviewed
Fleeing Fundamentalism by Carlene Cross
Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor
On my TBR Stack
Not pictured: (on Nook) Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther; (on Kindle) Shunned by Linda A. Curtis and Cut Me Loose by Leah Vincent. Also, I got a copy of Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood for my birthday, but I’m not clear to what extent it’s actually about her religious experiences.
Could you see yourself reading any of these books?
I’d never participated in Nonfiction November before because I tend to read at least 40% nonfiction anyway, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to put together some fiction and nonfiction pairings based on books I’ve read this year and last. (This week of the month-long challenge is posted by Sarah’s Book Shelves, a blog I love for its no-nonsense recommendations of what to read – and what not to read – from the recent U.S. releases.)
My primary example is two books that reveal what it’s really like to have Alzheimer’s disease. Mitchell’s, in particular, is a book that deserves more attention. When it came out earlier this year, it was billed as the first-ever “dementia memoir” (is that an oxymoron?) – except, actually, there had been one the previous year (whoops!): Memory’s Last Breath by Gerda Saunders, which I have on my Kindle and still intend to read. [See also Kate W.’s picks, which include a pair of books with a dementia theme.]
Still Alice by Lisa Genova (2007)
Genova’s writing, Jodi Picoult-like, keeps you turning the pages; I read 225+ pages in an afternoon. There’s true plotting skill to how Genova uses a close third-person perspective to track the mental decline of Harvard psychology professor Alice Howland, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. “Everything she did and loved, everything she was, required language,” yet her grasp of language becomes ever more slippery even as her thought life remains largely intact. I also particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Cambridge and its weather, and family meals and rituals. There’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief required – Would the disease really progress this quickly? Would Alice really be able to miss certain abilities and experiences once they were gone? – and ultimately I preferred the 2014 movie version, but this would be a great book to thrust at any caregiver or family member who’s had to cope with dementia in someone close to them.
Other fictional takes on dementia that I can recommend: Unforgettable: Short Stories by Paulette Bates Alden, The Only Story by Julian Barnes, Everything Under by Daisy Johnson and Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante.
Somebody I Used to Know by Wendy Mitchell with Anna Wharton (2018)
A remarkable insider’s look at the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Mitchell took several falls while running near her Yorkshire home, but it wasn’t until she had a minor stroke in 2012 that she and her doctors started taking her health problems seriously. In July 2014 she got the dementia diagnosis that finally explained her recurring brain fog. She was 58 years old, a single mother with two grown daughters and a 20-year career in NHS administration. Having prided herself on her good memory and her efficiency at everything from work scheduling to DIY, she was distressed that she couldn’t cope with a new computer system and was unlikely to recognize the faces or voices of colleagues she’d worked with for years. Less than a year after her diagnosis, she took early retirement – a decision that she feels was forced on her by a system that wasn’t willing to make accommodations for her.
The book, put together with the help of ghostwriter Anna Wharton, gives a clear sense of progression, of past versus present, and of the workarounds Mitchell uses to outwit her disease. The details and incidents are well chosen to present the everyday challenges of dementia. For instance, baking used to be one of Mitchell’s favorite hobbies, but in an early scene she’s making a cake for a homeless shelter and forgets she’s already added sugar; she weighs in the sugar twice, and the result is inedible. By the time the book ends, not only can she not prepare herself a meal; she can’t remember to eat unless she sets an alarm and barricades herself into the room so she won’t wander off partway through.
In occasional italicized passages Mitchell addresses her past self, running through bittersweet memories of all that she used to be able to do: “It amazes me now how you did it, because you didn’t have anyone to help you. You were Mum, Dad, taxi, chef, counsellor, gardener and housekeeper, all rolled into one.” Yet it’s also amazing how much she still manages to do as an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society and Dementia Friends. She crisscrosses the country to give speeches, attend conferences, and advise universities; she writes a blog and has appeared on radio to promote this book. Like many retired people, she’s found she’s busier than ever, and her engagements help her to feel purposeful and like she’s giving a positive impression of early-stage dementia. No matter that she has to rely on dozens of reminders to self in the form of Post-It notes, iPad alarms and a wall of photographs.
The story lines of this and Still Alice are very similar in places – the incidents while running, the inability to keep baking, and so on. And in fact, Mitchell reviewed the film and attended its London premiere, where she met Julianne Moore. Her book is a quick and enjoyable read, and will be so valuable to people looking to understand the experience of dementia. She is such an inspiring woman. I thank her for her efforts, and wish her well. This is one of my personal favorites for the shortlist of next year’s Wellcome Book Prize for medical reads.
Additional pairings I would commend to you (all are books I have read and rated or above):
Talk before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell and Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
- Celebrating the strength of female friendship, even in the face of life-threatening illness.
Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn
Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg
- Vivid portrayals of drug addiction.
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg
This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich
- Armchair traveling in Greenland.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker
- Glimpses into the high-class world of fine dining – and fine wine.
Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence is chock-full of recommendations and reading pairs. The Novel Cure is also good for this sort of thing, though it is (no surprise) overwhelmingly composed of fiction suggestions.