Patty Kirk’s first book is my latest discovery in another of my favourite genres: memoirs by women about their spiritual journeys. My best-loved authors in this genre are Anne Lamott (of course), Nora Gallagher, and Lauren Winner. Patty Kirk’s voice didn’t leap off the page and grab me as quickly and securely as any of those authors’ voices did, but as I got into this collection of essays, I felt like I was getting to know the author and enjoying her unrelentingly honest portrayal of her journey through faith.
I think I know why I like books like these. Like many people growing up in evangelical churches, I had a lot of exposure when I was young to conversion stories, both written and preached, in which a person’s life before they come to faith is a terrible mess and then they accept Jesus. And like “they married and lived happily ever after” at the end of a fairy tale, “I accepted Jesus and lived happily ever after” is the end of a testimony.
Except that in real life, it’s not: it’s the beginning of a journey. I love books that explore the ups and downs of the journey that begins after you kneel at the foot of the cross (I also love memoirs like this from faiths other than Christianity, although I haven’t found as many as I’d like). Patty Kirk does have a conversion story — she grew up in a Catholic family, left God and church behind and lived much of her adult life as an atheist, then converted to her Baptist husband’s evangelical Christianity. But that story is told in the margins of the central theme of this book: what it’s like to live day by day as a struggling, doubting, hoping Christian wife, mother, teacher and writer. Kirk’s essays are thought-provoking, insightful, sometimes funny, and above all, honest.
Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution, an impulse buy I picked up at Chapters without knowing anything about it, is the first book in my Lenten reading series (every year I give up fiction for Lent and read a random assortment of spiritual, devotional or theological non-fiction — basically whatever I stumble upon that looks interesting).
Shane is a 30-ish Christian social activist who has worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta and gone to Iraq with Christian Peacemakers and lives in a community called The Simple Way among the poor and homeless in inner-city Philadelphia and really believes Jesus meant it when he said to sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and come follow Him.
In other words, Shane is just the kind of guy to make a comfortable middle-class guilt-prone Christian like me double over with guilt pangs because of my comfortable middle-class lifestyle.
Fortunately, Shane discourages guilt, which makes the book fun to read, although still challenging. It has a light, breezy, po-mo tone. Shane is absolutely the most idealistic person I’ve ever met — not that I’ve met him, but after reading the book I feel like I have — but his earnest idealism is saved from pomposity by his gentle self-mocking humour. It’s a good book, in every possible sense of the word.
I am happy to announce (and I’m sure my parents will be relieved to hear this) that after reading this book Jason and I are not planning to sell our home and move the kids into a cardboard box downtown. I am, however, challenged to re-examine a lot of my own choices and priorities — without allowing myself to become guilt-ridden.
For example: I work with the poor. Sure, some of my students are nice middle-class kids who just had difficulty in school, but others are truly poor and some are almost literally homeless. And the job I do is directly related to helping them improve their situation. I love my work, and I love my students. But it’s not sacrificial — I don’t give up anything to do this job; I get paid a nice generous middle-class wage to do it. So I feel like my involvement with the poor doesn’t really cut it by Shane Claiborne’s standard of Christian living.
Rather than beating myself up over that, I’m trying to think of ways to do the things I now do — plus just a little bit more — so that I give more of myself, so that I’m less attached to the nice middle-class stuff that surrounds me. Today, for example, Jason and I decided to buy a water buffalo instead of a dishwasher, and I hold Shane Claiborne directly responsible for that. It’s a long way from a truly Simple Way, but it’s starting where I am now. This book is challenging and inspiring, especially for anyone who calls themselves a Christian.
I like Sena Jeter Naslund. Every novel I’ve read of hers has been slow to get into, never a fast or page-turning read, but always, ultimately, beautiful and rewarding. Abundance fits the bill on most of these counts: like Ahab’s Wife and Four Spirits it was by no means a quick read for me, but it did pull me in more as I went along. The writing is beautiful (when it escapes being self-consciously literary). The one thing I’d have to question is whether it was, in the end, a rewarding read.
Abundance is a novel in my favourite genre — a fictional portrayal of a real-life historical woman, in this case Marie Antoinette. Naslund’s prologue makes it clear that she sympathizes with Antoinette and sets out to write a sympathetic portrayal of her. While Antoinette comes alive as a character, and the setting is vividly realized, in the end I found the author’s view of the character too uncritical to believe. Marie Antoinette is not, as Naslund is at pains to point out, the heartless bitch who allegedly said, “Let them eat cake!” when told the peasants had no bread. She was, however, as Naslund portrays her, almost unbelievably self-centred and naive to the point of stupidity — yet these qualities are never examined; we are expected to go on sympathizing with her even as she makes decisions that are clearly ridiculous and help to make the monarchy look frivolous and irresponsible in the eyes of the French people. She emerges from this novel as a pathetic, rather than a tragic figure. Maybe that was what Naslund wanted to portray.
The Sisterhood of the Queen Mamas is the latest of my forays into “Christian women’s fiction,” In the case of this novel, the cover art, breezy tone, and Steeple Hill Cafe imprint all suggest it’s best categorized as “Christian chicklit” — light, humourous, but with a spiritual undertone.
Seldom have I wanted to like a book as much as The Sisterhood…, without actually liking it. I love the fact that the main characters are not twenty-something girls looking for romance, but retired ministers’ wives who for the first time in their busy lives have the freedom to explore who they are outside of the spotlight of their husbands’ ministry. Odessa and Maxine’s interracial sister-like friendship plays out against the backdrop of a Texas flea market and a group of younger women in whose lives the Queen Mama’s meddle and matchmake, with grace-filled results.
Doesn’t that sound like a winner of a book? It’s a great premise, and the narrative voice — Odessa’s stream-of-consciousness rambling punctuated by some practically postmodern interruptions from Maxine — should be a winner. Sadly, it was in the voice that the book fell down for me. I found the narrator(s) too self-consciously cutesy, to the point that in places they began to grate on my nerves. Also, I found the plot hung together poorly — all too often I was caught up in an incident, anxious to see how it turned out as a chapter ended on a cliffhanger — only to discover that the next chapter moved onto a different scene and a different day, without ever resolving the situation or leaving the resolution offstage, only briefly alluded to. This frustrated me — everytime I was getting invested emotionally, I felt cheated.
Still, the premise of the book is engaging and there’s a lot of fun as well as a lot of faith here. Since the things that bothered me were mainly stylistic, it’s entirely possible that another reader could pick up the same book and fall completely in love with it. If you like Christian fiction, you could do worse than to give this book a try — but it’s possible that, like me, you’ll find that it doesn’t live up to its title, its cover, or its potential.