Category Archives: good reads

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

I finished Joan Didon’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and I LOVE HER STILL. Or more, depending on how you look at it.

The preface begins with Didion’s explanation of the title: “This book is called Slouching Towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem…have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there.”

I love the way she ties everything in, what she sees, smells, reads, talks about.

One of my favorite essays was the last, “Goodbye to All That.” Didion writes about her time in New York in the sixties, how little things like the smell of Henri Bendel jasmine soap or the perfume she wore transport her back to that place.

She talks about the changes New York wrought on her in a short time, how she wondered what happened to that old self:

I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later and no matter what he or she is doing, but one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.

When I read this, I thought, No, I’m not like that. I mean, other people are, sure, but I know there’s nothing new. I know we are all the same.

And then I look at how I actually operate, and it seems like Didion knows me without having met me. I wish I were so levelheaded, so logical and able to weigh evidences, but it seems that the feeling of uniqueness is built into us.

Ha, what a contradiction.

I think Didion’s strength (or one of her strengths) lies in her ability to be honest but not whiney. Honest but without begging for pity. She is removed enough from her subject – her self – that she can bring the reader in with nods of agreement, of recognition. I felt this even with the memoirs of her darkest times, Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking.

I like her because she gives a voice to so much of what I feel.

The Dirty Life

Okay, I admit it: I definitely judge a book by its cover.

But even more than that: I judge a book by its title.

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I saw this book in the “Self-Sufficient” section of Barnes and Noble (forgive me, small independent bookstores! you are still my number-one!), and I bought it. I love the title, and no, I do not care that it was coined to catch people just like me, those of us who are easily amused. I went home immediately and started reading, getting engrossed in Kimball’s love story (Mark was just about to make a move!) when, to my horror, I found that the book was MISSING 30 PAGES!

You cannot imagine my anger.

There was no way I was going to read ahead, so I had to wait two days til I could get a new copy.

I am about 2/3 of the way done now, and I love it. Kimball is honest and I find that pretty refreshing; she doesn’t pretend that the love she and Mark have makes farming easy.

And she’s had her own mishaps with dumb mistakes.

There are a lot of moments in the book that I appreciate, but here are a few:

One of the gorgeous and highly annoying things about Mark’s personality is that, once he bites into an idea, he’ll worry it to death, exploring every possibility, expanding it to the point of absurdity and then shrinking it back down, molding it around different premises, and bending logic, when necessary, to cram it into a given situation. No matter what he is doing or saying or thinking, the idea is perking away in the background of his formidable brain, details accruing (57).

A farm is a form of expression, a physical manifestation of the inner life of its farmers. The farm will reveal who you are, whether you like it or not. That’s art (157).

I was in love with the work, too, despite its overabundance. The world had always seemed disturbingly chaotic to me, my choices too bewildering. I was fundamentally happier, I found, with my focus on the ground. For the first time, I could clearly see the connection between my actions and their consequences. I knew why I was doing what I was doing, and I believed in it (158).

The only annoying thing, then, is the fact that I was not the person to write this book.

The Four Loves and Kindred Spirits

 I have been avoiding C.S. Lewis for awhile now, ever since I attempted Mere Christianity with little progress. He seemed dry and dull and far too intellectual – nothing like my experience with faith. But after prodding from a dear friend, “Give it a try, Cath. Trust me. It’s one of my favorites.”, I picked up the beautiful copy of Lewis’s The Four Loves that had sat on my bookshelf, unnoticed and certainly unloved.

There is nothing better than a beautiful book beside your bed, waiting for you to put the day aside and enter into someone else’s thoughts, even for a little while.

Here was a man I felt I had met before. What could a balding Anglican Brit have in common with a young American woman from the twenty-first-century? No longer did he seem like an emotionless intellectual, but he wrote like someone who had struggled with the same things I am working through. Lewis doesn’t leave his intellect behind in The Four Loves, but he uses it to delve into the human experience and show the manifestations of God’s love here on earth. He divides love into four categories – Affection, Friendship, Eros, and Charity – and shows the different aspects of God’s character in each. Of course, I enjoyed some more than others (who doesn’t like a good discussion of eros?), but the truth is, all four are interconnected. They overlap and share some of the beautiful qualities that make each one worthwhile, each one important to our fullness. “We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves,” Lewis says (215). This acknowledgment of our need, rather than making me actually feel needy, allowed me to breathe more deeply. So this desire I feel for communion, for friendship, for relationship with others, is good? It isn’t (necessarily) misplaced need? I’ve known for awhile that we were created to be in communion (who has spent any time at a Christian university WITHOUT hearing that?!), but here, now, finally, I can see why. A reflection of the Trinity, yes. But a window to the self, as well.

Pope John Paul II, in his “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women on the Occasion of the Marian Year” reminds us:

For every individual is made in the image of God, insofar as he or she is a rational and free creature capable of knowing God and loving him. Moreover, we read that man cannot exist “alone” (cf. Gen 2:18); he can exist only as a “unity of the two”, and therefore in relation to another human person…Being a person in the image and likeness of God thus also involves existing in a relationship, in relation to the other “I” (III.7).

So I’m getting it from all sides, this interconnectedness, this relationship. I watched “Anne of Green Gables” last night, and I was immediately transported to girlhood. I remember longing for Anne’s idea of a”bosom friend,” a “kindred spirit,” and even now, as I watched and nearly quoted each line as it came, I realized that that is still what I seek. The difference is, though, that there are more kindred spirits than I thought (Anne says the same later on). I’ve found some in the strangest places – growing up down the street, studying the perplexing subject of English (what in the world is its use?!), living in my surprise apartment senior year of college. I even found one working at the tea shop.

I guess all that to say, love and its many forms continue to fascinate me. Affection and Eros, Friendship and Charity, they have such possibility, such potential to bring peace and hope and comfort. Kindred spirits are hiding just down the street, just at the next table, sipping their own cups of coffee and smiling to themselves as they read. They could have written books over fifty years ago, only to be discovered and appreciated by you so much later. They could also be burning their own granola.

To always be looking for those kindred spirits. That sounds like a good champagne toast to me.

I love reading books on issues I care about. Last night I finished one that’s gonna stick with me for awhile: Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. I’d heard the author, Peggy Orenstein, on Diane Rehm a few weeks ago, and the title is what hit me first. A+ for grabbing attention! I immediately requested it through inter-library-loan, and just now got it two weeks later.

Let’s just say I whipped through this book so fast I couldn’t believe it when I came to the end. Orenstein does exactly what the title suggests: she delves into a lot of questions I have about raising (and, really, of being raised myself) in a culture that tells girls what to like, how to like it, and that anyone who does not like it is weird. This is not a new idea, of course. There have been social norms since there was such a thing as society. The difference now, according to Orenstein, is that the media and advertising play a new role in the creation and maintenance of those norms. It is a first that marketing has targeted such a young audience, but, one could argue, it still isn’t that audience that is buying merchandise. The parents continue to make choices for their children, but it is becoming increasingly hard to toe the line of “healthy consumerism” and overboard.

I have always shied away from things overtly girlie. Pink and sparkles and jewelry have never been my thing. Another aspect Orenstein touches on, though, is body image. It’s surprising how much this is linked to the early commercialism geared towards young girls and how we teach our daughters to become women. Like most women around the world, I have struggled with my body image since I was fairly young, and I am only now realizing how to handle it in a healthy way. So as I read Orentstein’s section on body image, I expected to shake my head as one who has been through it already, one who has come out on the other side.

This is the blurry line, though. I read this book with the interest of an outside observer, but instead of coming away from it seeing things more clearly, I found myself with a new (and largely subconscious) focus on my own body. Instead of seeing myself as free and learning about how I’d been enslaved in the first place, I was thinking with every bite, with every glance in the mirror, Shoot. Cut it out, Cath. Instead of freeing myself, my knowledge was starting to re-entrap me.

My first thought was that maybe I should stop reading books like this, books that make my hyper-aware of myself and things I struggle with. I know, though, that this removal of self from reality is something I am too quick to run to (i.e., my declaration of living on a farm without electricity at the age of six). The bottom line is: I still think knowledge is worth it. I can’t stop learning and changing how I think because it makes me momentarily relapse into whatever it is I’m reading about. I plan to read books on issues that are upsetting, things that I’ve struggled with and continue to struggle with, even though I know this might mean I think about it more. Even though it might mean I find myself mired (again) in my own sin. It’s a balancing act, really. How to ponder issues and learn, while remembering that we are not above falling into the same old  traps.