Book Chat: Memoirs about conversion, crazy childhoods and OCD
I hit my writing deadline this morning, so I thought I’d use the kids’ nap/quiet time to treat myself to a gratuitous post about books. Here’s some of what I’ve been reading lately (not surprisingly, a lot of it is memoir):
Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner
Never have I had such a big disconnect with, well, everyone about a book. This memoir about Winner’s conversion from Orthodox Judaism to Christianity came highly recommended by many people with whom I generally have the same taste in books. Almost everyone I know who read it liked it; most people loved it. So I realize that the problem is probably with me when I say: I couldn’t even finish it.
Part of it might be the flowery style of writing that wanders back and forth from subject to subject, although she definitely has a talent for it and I’ve noticed that that’s par for the course with memoirs. It’s not my thing, but I could have probably gotten past that. A bigger issue was that it wasn’t clear why she converted. There was a lot of talk about what she liked and what felt good, along with notes that conversion is complicated, but I felt like overall the substance-to-style ratio on that matter was disappointingly low. (Though, again, I didn’t get to the end so she might have clarified a lot in the final chapters.)
But here’s the real reason I couldn’t finish it: the author’s tone was really off-putting. Here’s an example from a visit to her boyfriend’s parents’ house, where she notes that her boyfriend’s mother didn’t seem to like her:
I was some outlander from a state far away in the South…and, worse of all, I was not a virgin, a detail Dov chose to divulge to [his mother] in what I…later understood was an intentional barb, a strangely passive way to rebel against his mother, whom he adored but who, I’m sure, suffocated him with her hugs and hamentashen. When I visited, I often talked to her about recipes, and Dov eventually said she felt I was talking down to her and it was one of the few times I exploded at him. “What does she want?” I snapped. “She’s a housewife and a superb cook. Am I supposed to talk to her about Hegel’s theory of civil society?”
(Ironically, just two pages before this egregious insult to housewives she referred to herself as a feminist and talked about how some Orthodox Jewish attitudes about women being less mentally capable made her feel bad when they were directed at her.) Anyway, this excerpt is a good example of why I was uncomfortable with the book: there were a lot of uncharitable takes towards other people combined with a cumbersome awareness of her own intelligence that permeated every chapter. On the plus side, it was well written and I enjoyed the insights into Jewish holidays and customs.
If you read this book and liked it, I’d be interested to hear why you did. Maybe I was looking at it from the wrong perspective? Do I need to give it another shot?
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
All I can say is: wow. Wow. What a story. In this memoir Walls chronicles her wild childhood with loving but pathologically neglectful parents, sharing stories that make you think with every page, “I can’t believe that I believe this is true…but I do.” She writes vividly and with an amazing detachment, describing her parents in all their complexity rather than portraying them as cardboard caricatures of unfit parents.
Each chapter is short and packs a punch, sharing tales of everything from regular middle-of-the-night moves when they ran out of money to her parents’ surprising erudition given their borderline-homeless lifestyle to their utter lack of concern for following the rules of society (like when her dad snuck her out of the hospital where she was being treated for severe burns). Some of the stories are hard to read, but all are gripping and poignant.
The only thing I didn’t like was that I wished the author had spent more time in the end talking about how she’s made peace with her childhood (if at all), or discussed its larger meaning…or something. Maybe that’s not even possible, but after going on such a wild and often traumatic ride with the author, I was hoping that she would help me as the reader make sense of it all or somehow get some closure along with her. Other than that, though, it was a really powerful page-turner of a book.
Devil in the Details by Jennifer Traig
My poor husband. I woke him up more than once from shaking the bed with laugher as I read this book, a humor memoir about Traig’s childhood with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Not only is she a gifted writer with a talent for comedic timing (think: female David Sedaris), but her tales of how her OCD verged into religious fanaticism when she began to explore Orthodox Judaism were both interesting and hilarious. In the part where she talks about her compulsion toward following traditional Jewish prayer practices, she writes:
On Saturday the prayers were doubled and tripled. Because there wasn’t a synagogue service within walking distance, I conducted my own. Because I did not know what a service consisted of, I made one up. From nine o’clock until half past noon I sat primly in my room, reading my Bible and my Junior Jewish Encyclopedia, line by line, not moving to a new line until I was sure I’d understood the last one completely. When that portion of the service concluded, I read the “Torah Thoughts” feature in the Jewish newspaper, followed by the wedding announcements. Then I got on my knees and did back exercises. I was fairly certain this wasn’t part of the traditional Shabbat service, but I thought it was a nice closer. [...]
“Let me get this straight,” my father puzzled. “You’re telling me you’re acting this way because the Torah commands you to? That’s the reason? Are you sure you’re not sniffing paint? You sure you’re not just drunk?” My parents knew what to do with grain alcohol. But what were they to do with grain offerings?
The book is chock-full of little vignettes like this one, and I thought it was a great read. There were a couple chapters toward the end that lagged a bit, but overall I would put this high on the list of memoirs I’ve read in terms of entertainment value. Also, I should add a caveat that this is a humor book and not a spiritual memoir, so get it as a fun weekend read, not to gain deep insights Jewish spirituality.
So that’s what I’ve been reading lately. If you have any thoughts on any of these books, I’d love to hear from you! I could talk about books all day.
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