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Book Review: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller

Yellow and black art on a book cover.Summary:
In this memoir Donald Miller recalls how turning his previous memoir into a movie impacted his life.  When working on the script, Donald learned what makes a good story and started applying it to his current life.  He went from sitting on the couch all day watching tv to biking across the country to raise money for clean water in Africa.

Review:
This book could have been brilliant.  It contains various clear information on what makes a good story that is quite useful to writers.  It also is inspirational in asking us to stop watching characters live stories and live our own.  Unfortuantely, Miller persists in plopping in his spiritual ideas, which tend toward the mainstream Christian variety.  I don’t mind skimming over a few praise God’s.  I do, however, get profoundly irritated when a writer goes from saying something meaningful like life is about what we learn and not about achieving something in particular to saying that the people with the worst lives have it the best because they’ll appreciate heaven more. Um, excuse me, what the hell?!  It’s such an odd mental position to take.  Can you imagine saying that to someone with AIDs or a starving child or someone who’s being abused?  Then, to take the mental oddness further, he goes on to seek to help people better their lives.  That’s great that he does that, but it seems that based on his theory that a rough life leads to a better after-life that he’s just stealing a good after-life from these people.  My brain hurts just thinking about that mind-fuck.

I guess what made the book such a frustrating read for me is that I can see Miller being so close to a humanist view but then ruining his current life by pining for the after-life.  He talks a lot about what makes a good story but I bet even he could see that a movie wouldn’t be any fun if a character spends the whole film pining for something that he isn’t sure is actually going to happen to the extent that he misses things happening right now.

That said, the book is well-written and does contain some memorable scenes and people.  Actually, I wish the book had been about some of the people featured in it in lieu of Miller, such as the family that went around interviewing world leaders with their children or the man who went from a childhood in the ghetto to running a law firm to running a mentoring program.  At least we get to hear a bit about them though.

On the other hand, Miller’s view of the world tends to rip you from the story and make you want to smack him upside the head.  Like when he tells the story of how a man stole his ex-girlfriend’s cat and then told her on the phone he was going to hurt it if she didn’t come back to him then proceeded to squeeze the cat until it cried.  Miller called this “depravingly charming” (219).  Um, no, it’s awful!  And Miller finds this story inspiring because the man “found Jesus” and “changed.”

It basically reads almost as if two different people wrote the memoir.  One who recognizes we have one life to live and it’s better to live it doing things than sitting on the couch.  The other spends his time with his head in the clouds hoping for the after-life and believing in the power of a dead man.  If you can handle the cognitive dissonance in those two stances, you’ll enjoy the book as it is written well.  If you find it as troubling as I do, though, you should skip it.

2.5. out of 5 stars

Source: Won from Minski of okay, peanut

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On Perfectionism

November 9, 2009 4 comments

Human beings are naturally fallible.  It’s one of the things that makes us humans and not a weird race of perfect angels running around the planet.  I accept this in others.  I expect them to make mistakes, and as long as they aren’t evil or huge, it’s no big deal.  But me?  Well, I expect myself to be perfect and when I inevitably fail, I beat myself up over it for hours. (This is a huge improvement over the old time-period of days).  I’m not talking huge mistakes that I should rightfully feel guilty about.  I’m talking about “oh I misunderstood what you were trying to say” or “oh this applesauce doesn’t quite taste perfect.”

Why do I do this unhealthy thing to myself?  With the insane amount of psychology/psychiatry reading I do in the course of my job, I have a theory.  Basically psychiatry believes people are born with a certain personality and every personality has weaknesses.  It’s the parents’ job to adpat their parenting technique to suit the child.  To uphold the strong parts of the personality and improve the weak parts.  This means there’s no one parenting technique that fits all.  Ok, I’m digressing a bit.

Essentially, I think that I was born with a natural tendency to be Type A.  You all know what that means.  Over-achieving. OCD. Etc…  Instead of telling me that I’m only human and can’t possibly be perfect though, I wound up with parents who were following one of the many versions of the Evangelical Christian faith.  I was told that since I was saved and had the Holy Spirit within me, not only should I naturally make fewer mistakes than those god-foresaken heathens out there, but also that I should strive every day to not sin.  Yes, mistakes were termed “sin.”

Sin just drips with this extra layer of connotation that’s not on a mistake.  A mistake is innocent.  Regrettable, but innocent.  Sin is letting demons into your life.  Sin is dripping with darkness and evil and everything that isn’t good in the world.  Sin is Satan breathing down your neck.  Sin makes God cry.

Ok, so a good little Christian girl isn’t supposed to sin as much as the heathens, and she should progressively sin less, but she *sigh* inevitably will.  So she should keep track of all her sins throughout the day and confess them individually in her evening prayers and beg for forgiveness.  But it’s not a real apology if you plan to ever do those things again, so if you ever commit that sin again, well that wasn’t a real apology was it?

Take one naturally Type A little girl, add these tenets, stir, and you get an adult Amanda who must constantly fight anxiety over not being perfect.

Yes, I know I left the religion that added to the Type A tendencies, so I should be doing much better than I am at not being so anxious about being perfect, but even when I let go of the Christian mores I was taught, my mistakes still carry that extra connotation.  My mistakes might not make god cry, but they could hurt people I care about.  My mistakes might not be dripping with demons and darkness, but they could put a damper on the evening.  And what if my mistakes build up so that they do cause problems in my life for me?  (Can you hear the panic attack starting in my head?)

Yes, I know it’s unrealistic and unhealthy to expect myself to be perfect.  And I know that I love the people in my life not only in spite of their faults, but because of them.  It just isn’t always easy to break the thought processes not only born into you but instilled in you.

So why am I blogging about this?  Because I doubt I’m the only person out there who holds herself to too high expectations, and I want those other perfectionists out there who might be reading this to know:  It’s not your fault you are a perfectionist.  Probably a lot of things had to combine to make you that way.  You don’t have to stay a perfectionist, and you also don’t have to be perfect.  People will love you just the way you are, so you should too.

Book Review: I’m Perfect; You’re Doomed By Kyria Abrahams

coveri'mperfectyou'redoomedSummary:
Kyria Abrahams is rising in visibility in comic circles.  She originally wanted to tell her memoir as a one-woman show, but instead ended up writing it down as a book.  Kyria’s memoir takes the reader from an inside look at what it was like to be raised a Jehovah’s Witness in Rhode Island in the late 1980s and early 1990s to her marriage at 16 to her eventual disfellowship.  Not your typical serious-toned memoir, Kyria approaches her heavy material with a comic’s graceful tongue-in-cheek snark.

Review:
Anyone who had a fundamentalist upbringing will find the first half of Kyria’s book incredibly relatable and will be relieved at being granted permission to laugh at the absurd concerns fundie kids get saddled with.  Kyria was encompassed in a conservative world continually seeing demons lurking around every corner, or even in that plate you stupidly bought at a yardsale from that old woman who is probably a witch.  A typical example of her writing style can be found in the first chapter, “The succession of power was this: Jesus was the head over man; man was the head over woman; and woman was the head over cooking peach cobbler and shutting up.”  It’s rare to find a laugh out loud memoir dealing with something as intense as being raised in a cult, and Kyria handles it well.

This style holds out through Kyria’s early teen years and her rebellion of marrying a Witness eight years older than her.  It starts to fall apart after the wedding though.  The writing becomes fuzzy.  It’s unclear exactly how much time has passed or why she suddenly stopped going to the Meetings (the Witness version of church services).  This, to me, should have been one of the most compelling parts of the book.  Why did she leave?  Why was she so incredibly desperate to be disfellowshipped that she actually asked for it at the meeting about her adultery?  Although earlier in the book, Kyria demonstrates remarkable acumen at analyzing herself and her behavior, at the end of the book she loses this.  I am certain, as an ex-fundie myself, that Kyria spent a lot of time analyzing why she left, yet none of this introspection is written into the book.

Similarly, the reader is left really wondering about Kyria’s OCD.  While it was excruciatingly debilitating in her mid to late teens, it seems to suddenly mostly disappear, or at least disappear enough so that she can live in a crappy apartment in a bad neighborhood by herself.  I’m not discrediting Kyria, but what happened in that interim?

The seemingly sudden decision to get disfellowshipped and the lack of information on her OCD are the two most glaring examples of the disjointedness of the second half of the book.  Of greater concern to me, though, is the fact that Kyria really does seem worse off at the end of the memoir than at the beginning.  She ends up in a crappy apartment, drinking and doing drugs fairly consistently, screwing random poets, having given herself permission to “fuck up.”  This is a stereotype of the ex-fundie woman, and I have to say it’s a fairly accurate one.  Normally though, this is a phase the person goes through before finding her own new footing using morals she has chosen for herself.  I’m a bit concerned that ending on the rebelling and going crazy note rather than the finding the new footing note will make fundamentalists feelvindicated.  They will point to this as evidence that they are correct that apostates really are worse off.  What concerns me more though is the general population reading this book, the ones raised normally who are not apostates, were given no guides by Kyria to understand why she behaved the way she behaved.  There are very good reasons why ex-fundies go crazy for a little bit.  They weren’t given the tools to deal with the world.  The lack of introspection in the second half of the book will leave people who haven’t experienced it thinking the problem is Kyria’s inherent nature and not the way she was nurtured.

The book still does provide good insight into the world of those people who knock on your door in pairs.  Additionally, it is refreshing to read a funny memoir about a serious topic.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Carousel Painter By Judith Miller (ARC)

July 29, 2009 2 comments

coverthecarouselpainterI was quite excited to be the recipient of my first ARC (Advanced Reading Copy).  I hadn’t realized when I put myself on the list that The Carousel Painter was published by Bethany House, a Christian publishing group.  I actually read a lot of Bethany House books when I was growing up, so I am quite familiar with the genre, but since deconverting from Christianity at 20, let’s just say, Christian fiction isn’t my first reading choice.  However, I’d made a promise to the publisher, so I decided to give it a fair shot.  Not to mention, this would be a great exercise in being a fair critic.

Summary:
After her father dies, leaving her without family, Carrington Brouwer moves from France to Ohio to stay with her friend Augusta Galloway while looking for work in the late 1800s.  Augusta’s father owns a carousel factory, and Carrie sees an opportunity to put her painting skills to good use.  At the pressure of the women of the family, Mr. Galloway hires her, even though she will be the only woman working in the factory.  Carrie must deal with the prejudices and fears of the men and their wives, as well as of the community, while addressing her own problems with pride and God.  She also must deal with Augusta’s suitor, Tyson, who makes inappropriate moves on her and attempts to pin the theft of Mrs. Galloway’s jewels on her.

Review:
Miller possesses writing talent on the sentence level, for sure.  The sentences flow well, and the dialogue is relatively believable.  She shows forward-thinking for her genre by giving Carrie an independent spirit and not condemning it.  At first I was excited that she seemed to be offering a relatively unique storyline to her genre.

However, the addition about half-way through of the plot-line of Carrie being a suspect in the theft of Mrs. Galloway’s jewels is a widely used one.  The good Christian must suffer and have faith her innocence will be proven in the end.  It was incredibly predictable.  Plus it simply felt out of place and jarring given the beginning of the story.

I was also bothered by Carrie’s quirk of giggling when she’s nervous or upset.  It’s such a misogynistic stereotype–the giggling female, and it simply did not fit with the rest of Carrie’s character.

I did appreciate, and I think fans of the genre will too, that Carrie’s faith and God were not the focus of nearly every single the page.  Carrie growing in faith is part of her life and is addressed as such, but it is not the focus of the story.  It’s simply a fact about her that comes up periodically.  I know when I was into Christian lit as a teen, I would often wish they’d just tell me the story for once instead of preaching all the time.  Yet I also know that fans of Christian lit will expect at least a little bit about God in the story.  I think Miller struck this balance well.

Overall, it’s a step in the right direction for the genre, but Miller could have done a much better job writing a believable, unpredictable storyline while pushing the envelope against misogyny.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Source: ARC from publisher via LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewers program.

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Book Review: The Unlikely Disciple By Kevin Roose

covertheunlikelydiscipleSummary:
The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University
chronicles Kevin Roose’s “take it to the streets” approach to the conservative/liberal culture divide in America.  At the time a student at Brown, Roose decided to spend his semester abroad at infamous Liberty University, one of the best-known Christian fundamentalist colleges in the United States.  He wanted an insider’s view, so for that semester he presented himself as a recent Sinner’s Prayer convert, and sought to blend in with Liberty students, doing what they would do.

Review:
You would expect a book like this to come from an Anthropology major, but Roose is actually a Journalism major, and it quite honestly shows.  Roose seeks to honestly present his experiences, peppered with periodic facts about the Bible, Christianity, and the history of Liberty.  While I didn’t need these explanations, I’m sure many readers would, so they are useful.  However, Roose repeatedly fails to truly analyze in any sort of a detached manner the fundamentalist community.  This causes the book to fall short of being academic and reading much more like a short memoir.

While Roose’s writing is surprisingly quite good, his experiment has a few fundamental flaws.  I get it that Roose had to seek to blend in in order to get an insider’s view of the fundamentalist community.  However, he repeatedly fails to encounter the very real experience of not fitting in among fundamentalists.  Kids who are raised in the community didn’t choose to embrace this way of living the way Roose did.  They are born into it; it’s drilled into their heads their whole lifetime; and they often must face the very real possibility that if they leave it they lose their families.  Roose wasn’t raised believing in hell as a a real place.  He never spent nights up worrying and crying over good family members who just aren’t “saved.”  It truly frustrated me when I saw three possibilities in the book for him to have investigated what it’s like for people raised in the faith.

First, he goes to a meeting of a support group for men struggling with homosexual tendencies, but he went once and he didn’t then seek out anybody from this group to talk to him about what it’s like to be gay and a fundamentalist.  What was he thinking?  This was the perfect opportunity!

Second, Roose dates a girl, Anna, who states to him that she’s a more liberal Christian than Liberty would want.  He never extensively talks with her what it’s like for women in fundamentalism.  In fact, he never really seeks out the women at Liberty much at all.  He goes on a few dates to help maintain his facade, but he doesn’t seem to have truly sought to befriend the women at all.

Third, he overhears some of his friends discussing how much it pains them to think of good unsaved people going to hell and worse saved people going to heaven.  This is a classic issue for people raised in fundamentalist Christianity, and Roose simply comments on it in about one paragraph.  You would think he would have sought to address the very real psychological pain contained in that conversation he overheard, yet he didn’t.

What bothered me most about Roose’s experience is he comes away saying that fundamentalist Christianity isn’t all that bad.  The people in it are by-and-large nice folk, and we shouldn’t let a little political disagreement interfere with more cross-cultural understanding.  Well, that’s easy enough for a straight, white male to say.  Of course he found it mostly tolerable!  His two greatest struggles were no sex for a semester and trying not to swear.  He isn’t a person who believes hell is a real place struggling to combat his homosexuality.  He isn’t a woman being repeatedly told she must submit to her husband and that it is unbiblical for her to teach men.  I know that Roose can’t help it that he isn’t any of those people, yet he could have sought to tell their stories too.  The fundamentalist kids at Liberty were nice to him because they thought he belonged, and after that because they knew about the book and wanted to look good.

In the end, The Unlikely Disciple grants the reader a view of what it’s like to be fundamentalist if you fit right in and believe it.  It fails to bring up the very real dangers for people raised in the faith who don’t just naturally fit right in.

I’m concerned that it will make fundamentalist Christianity look far too safe to those who don’t encounter it much in their day to day life.  Although the writing is good, this concern leads me to give it:

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Encountering Columbine

April 8, 2009 3 comments

A new book is coming out this week in the true crime genre: Columbine by Dave Cullen.  This, of course, is leading people to talk about the first big American school shooting, with even an article in Newsweek about it.

I’m part of the generation that was heavily impacted by Columbine.  I was a freshman in highschool when it happened.  I’ve read some articles written by members of my generation about it.  They all say similar things.

We were shocked into realizing we weren’t safe.
We instantly became more likely to talk to the loners.
Suddenly schools were having practice lock-downs, just in case.

Of course I experienced all of these things, but Columbine was twisted and used by my religious fundamentalist community to such an extent that even with all of the news coverage, I had some of the details of the shooting completely wrong for years.

You see, my fundamentalist protestant school (that I thankfully got out of my sophomore year) told us that the shooters were targeting the Christian students.

That’s right.  It wasn’t random.  It wasn’t the jocks or the popular kids.  It was the Christian kids.

I remember having an assembly at my school where the principal told us that the shooters asked the kids if they believed in God/Jesus.  If they said no, then the shooters would let them live.  If they said yes, then the shooters killed them.  There was even a book called She Said Yes, which was essentially required reading in my community for all highschoolers.  There is a huge amount of controversy surrounding this book now, with the people who were actually present at Columbine stating that no such exchange ever occurred.

Well, I know this now, but I didn’t know it then.  At the assembly regarding Columbine, my principal hailed the teenager who died saying yes as a martyr.  He grilled us asking us if push came to shove if we would denounce Jesus.  He showed us Bible verses showing that denouncing our Savior would permanently ban us from Heaven.  So fourteen year old me was given the choice of denouncing my Savior and living longer but going to Hell or affirming my belief and dying immediately but going to Heaven.  This, then, became my primary focus that bothered me for years until I left the faith.

While my public schoolmates simply wondered how they would survive a school shooting, I agonized wondering if when push came to shove I would denounce Jesus.  What a choice for a fourteen year old to be weighed down with.  I wasn’t told the logical thing my secular schoolmates were told repeatedly by their parents and teachers:  if a shooting is occurring, do what you need to do to stay alive.  No, no, I was told that my everlasting soul was the far more important thing.  If I was a “TRUE CHRISTIAN,” I would be willing to die.  I shouldn’t be afraid of dying, if I truly believed that I knew where I was going when I died.  This choice haunted me for years.

I quickly became accustomed to the idea that someone could come to school with a gun or a bomb and try to kill us all.  I think pretty much everyone in my generation has simply acclamated to that.  In fact, my highschool had an actual lock-down when one of our students’ parents woke up to find his son and his gun missing.  Luckily for us, he went to his ex-girlfriend’s highschool instead of mine, but we were still on lock-down for hours while the cops tried to figure out where he was.  Frankly I’m not at all surprised I have a story like that, and most people my age who I know have a similar, or worse, one.

What did haunt me for years though was this idea that everyone outside of our community hated us and wanted us dead.  The idea that we were persecuted, even to the point of being a martyr for our faith.  Was I strong enough for such a thing?  The vary thought ate at my soul.

Maybe if the story they told us about Columbine was true, I’d be less upset about it in retrospect.  I’m sure that gay teens are haunted by Matthew Shephard’s murder, and understandably so.  The thing is though, Columbine wasn’t about persecuting Christian teens at all.  It was about a couple of very angry, mentally disturbed teens taking it out on those closest to them.  The story my Christian school told me never actually happened, and that is what makes me angry.  It’s blatant mind-control techniques.  They made me terrified of going to public school, of encountering the secular world.  Frankly, the amount of balls it took me to beg to go to public school and to walk into that building when I had been told repeatedly that it was exactly like walking into a war zone was enormous.  I’m not at all surprised, given scare tactics like this, at the number of fundy-raised kids who remain fundy.

Fundy kids are being raised in fear, and fear breeds hate.  If you think that how fundies raise their kids is their business and doesn’t affect you, you are dead wrong.  For fundy groups, it’s all about an us versus them mentality, and really, that mentality is what the Columbine shooters had too.