Book Chat: Memoirs about conversion, crazy childhoods and OCD

October 13, 2008 | Books I Love | 33 comments

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

Y’all. Y’all. We need to talk.

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.

33 Comments

  1. Margie

    Hmm, interesting take on Girl Meets God, which I loved, too, though mostly, perhaps, because it was a story about conversion. I read it before I had children, before I became a housewife, but even so I think her life – the influences, colleges, choices – was so different from mine that I read it from a detached and interested perspective. I’ve read a couple of other books she’s written and found them too lofty and academic, so GMG remains my favorite of hers so far. I am interested in your other two recommendations; have been wondering about the Walls book for some time but have not made the effort to read it. Now I will! (With all that extra free time on my hands as a mom.)

  2. Anonymous

    I still think about Jeannette Walls when I crawl into my warm bed at night and I read her story a year ago. Stunningly written. Haunting in some ways. That Jeannette has survived ‘in tact’ is stunning. I was surprised how she could write in such a matter of fact manner about things that were so NOT matter of fact. I loved the video clip with your link. Thank you. My favorite part of the book is when her Dad ‘gives’ her Venus.
    Arlene

  3. Multiple Mom T

    For an AMAZING book, albeit fiction, about following God, I highly recommend Quaker Summer by Lisa Samson. It was truly a life-altering book.

  4. squarepegintoaroundhole

    I loved Girl Meets God, perhaps because I saw much of myself in her (Anglican, not Jewish).

    I guess I read that passage you quoted differently – I hear her saying that she knew the mother was a good cook, so she tried to connect by talking about something she thought the mother would be interested in talking about, and was hurt when she got rejected for it. Why would she bring up a topic the mother may not know as much about or be interested in? Not that a mother/housewife wouldn't or couldn't, but if she didn't, then bringing it up could & would be taken as insulting ("let me impress you with these grand things I know about"). So instead she was purposefully trying to find a topic that the mother would be interested in (and was good at) instead of just talking about herself & her own interests. And instead of appreciating her effort to be interested in what she was interested & good at, the mother took it as insulting.

    And she thinks the mother is a good cook – it sounds like she wanted the opportunity to learn from her. Why talk of anything else, Hegel or otherwise, when she wants to learn what this woman knows? And I hear the frustration: why would the mother take her interest in her cooking as insulting when she means it as a compliment?

    Perhaps I read it that way b/c I've had it happen so many times with my own mother & mother-in-law: if I talk about their interests, I'm condescending, but if I talk about my interests, they're not interested and think I'm mocking their lack of knowledge of the subject. When thru it all I'm just trying to connect and show my interest in their lives. But so many times it feels like I can't win for trying.

  5. Gwen Stewart

    Hi Jennifer,

    So glad you visited my blog, and so pleased to find yours. I read Girl Meets God and I did enjoy it all in all, though like you I found some passages off-putting. If I remember correctly, there seemed to be narrative distance at times even in a personal memoir, if that’s possible–as if at times she wrote full-throttle and at times from a removed, “academic” place. I admit that the quick switches fascinated me and kept me reading, but it’s not a book I would re-read, nor one I wanted to “curl up” with.

    You obviously know a great deal–this is a laughable understatement–more about personal memoirs than do I, however, so I’m quite sure you read more intelligently, mindfully, and accurately than I do.

    Can’t wait to pop back in. Great blog!

  6. Leslie

    I was one of those that loved Girl Meets God. I thought that it was beautifully written.

    I loved how honest she was with her struggle with sin. Most of us hide our sin struggles, so I loved that she just put it right out there.

    I was single when I read the book, so I could relate to her as a single woman. I’m an engineer that didn’t marry until I was 33, so I could relate to the whole “what do I talk to this person about” feeling when talking to a woman with a completely different type of life than me.

    I was also fascinated with her love of religious ritual. I’m Baptist, so I don’t have much experience with or knowledge about the rituals of other denominations. Honestly, I always saw those types of rituals as a barrier to a true relationship with God. But I began to think differently after reading this book. I could see the beauty in the ritual and some of the reasoning behind it. So it was a real eye-opener to me.

    And don’t get me started on her love of books! I could totally relate. I too keep a shelf of books that I have yet to read. It was just so neat to read about someone else that loves books as much as I do.

  7. Shelly W

    Oh, Jennifer, this was an interesting post for me. I have not read the third book (I’ll have to look for it) but I have read the first two.

    I read GMG a long time ago (three or four years ago, maybe?) and remember liking it. In fact, I became very interested in the person of Lauren Winner. I had heard her speak at writer’s conferences a couple of times and was intrigued by her. Finally, I attended a one-day seminar on memoir that she gave in Michigan–about a 3 1/2 hour drive from my home. I desperately wanted to glean from her experience, and I hoped to be motivated to finally write that memoir that had been bubbling up inside of me. Unfortunately, I came home discouraged that I could never do what she did as well as she did it. This was the feeling I got–whether it was from her (I never met her) or whether it was my deep-seated insecurity speaking, I’m not sure. But I came home from that day and cried. The book still sits inside my head.

    Lauren is self-assured, confident, and, (dare I say?) arrogant. She is an intellectual, that’s for sure, and she knows it. She speaks and carries herself as such. To me, it has become off-putting. I think you nailed her in your reading of the book. I’ll have to go back and read it again.

    Funny that you enjoyed Jeannette Walls book on first reading. I didn’t. I found it very depressing and almost too bad to be true. And, like you said, she never really mentioned why or how she came to grips with her childhood. I wonder how I would feel a couple of years later if I went back and read it again.

    Here’s a question for you, since you’ve read JW recently. Would you let your jr. high daughter read that book? This summer, the daughter of some friends of ours was reading “The Glass Castle,” and I was a little surprised. I kind of remember that it was a little too graphic for even me in some places. What do you think?

  8. Shannon @ Rocks In My Dryer

    It’s been awhile since I read it, but felt the same way about the Girl Meets God. The tone felt a little elitist, to me.

  9. SuburbanCorrespondent

    I loved Devil in the Details! I admired the way she described her experiences with humor and forbearance; and I couldn’t help wondering how her long-suffering parents survived it all.

    My favorite line was her mother’s: “Ready for your casserolectomy, Dr. Traig?”

  10. Jennifer F.

    Interesting comments!

    It seems like a lot of the way we see the passage I excerpted comes down to background: personally, I have been on the receiving end of frustrating comments where women who are into their careers talk down to me because I’m not working, making pains to stick to discussion of babies or housework even when I try to change the subject (this happened just a couple moths ago at my husband’s high school reunion with the wife of one of his friends — it was painfully awkward).

    Of my stay-at-home mom friends, one used to be a geneticist, two or three are nonpracticing attorneys, one was a microbiologist, another is incredibly well read in the classics, and those without formal educations or career backgrounds have all sorts of interesting stuff going on. I guess maybe I’m easily set off if I perceive (correctly or incorrectly) that someone feels like you can’t have much interesting to talk about if you’re not receiving a paycheck. I was probably biased towards the mother’s side from the beginning, assuming that she had other interests than cooking but that Winner was adopting that attitude that I’ve seen so many times and intentionally sticking to subjects she deemed more appropriate for a housewife.

    Anyhoo…

    Here’s a question for you, since you’ve read JW recently. Would you let your jr. high daughter read that book?

    Definitely not! Too many graphic / depressing stories that would be hard for a youngster to process.

  11. Sara

    I couldn’t finish Girl Meets God either. I think what drove me crazy about it was the author’s reduction of God to her experience of Him. That, in a nut shell, is what started me on the road from the Episcopal church to the Catholic Faith. (Not the book itself – the concept in general.)

  12. Shannon

    I have just two words for you: “Traveling Mercies” by Anne Lamott. Very different background, convesion story all the same. I don’t know how many copies of it I’ve given away to the guys here in prison.

    I think one of the best ways to know more about faith is to read and listen to other people’s stories. First you learn that other people have amazing stories. Then you learn that YOU have a story to tell.

    And Shelly? You have YOUR book to write, not someone else’s!

  13. Jennifer F.

    Shannon –

    I have just two words for you: “Traveling Mercies” by Anne Lamott.

    I’m actually reading it right now! Man, she is an amazing writer.

  14. Jeana

    That’s interesting. One of the things I really like about The Glass Castle was that she made her forgieness and grace toward her parents so easy to see without spelling it out. I thought it took real talent to make it that palpable without explaining it.

    Have you ever read The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp? I know that doesn’t seem to fit here because the movie is a little cheesy, but it’s one of my favorite books. I’m reading it to the kids right now. Predictable, it’s a bit different from the movie. Maria is a good writer, and I love her enthusiasm for life in general. Somehow in the book it doesn’t come across as over the top.

  15. Margie

    Shannon and Jennifer, Traveling Mercies is also one of my favorite books; I’ve read it at least twice. It seems to be the pinnacle of her faith books, though; I found the 2 that followed disappointing and somewhat unrelatable (I’m not sure if I spelled that word right). But I LOVED Operating Instructions about Sam’s first year of babyhood. Even though it was written before TM, it should be read afterward because of the bigger picture viewpoint gained through TM. It’s worth having on the bookshelf.

  16. Sandy

    I haven’t read any of the three books but will look for the last two. I did love Traveling Mercies. Although Anne Lamott’s political and cultural views are very different than mine, I appreciated her honesty about her conversion and the depth of her faith. I mention her book a lot to those struggling with faith. I also really liked the Story of the Trapp Family Singers. It remains a big influence in my journey toward Catholicism. I loved the way Maria described the feast days, festivals and liturgical calendar of pre-war Austria.

    Thanks for the book reviews!

  17. a square peg

    I have to say I agree with you about “Girl Meets God.” I read it a year or two ago, so I don’t remember much about it (unfortunately book content doesn’t stick with me long at all, which is why I suppose I read some of my favorites over and over). I will say I disliked it primarily because of the writing style, not that I was offended by her attitudes. And correct me if I’m wrong, but it came across to me as a bit surface, or a bit detached somehow. Am I remembering it wrong? The others sound interesting.

  18. Sta

    I am re-reading Girl Meets God right now, so this subject is fresh in my mind. I enjoy this book a lot, although I do agree with you when you say she seems to flaunt how intelligent she is. I also see your point about the meandering plot, but I like that style. As for her going into her conversion, I think she does go deeply into that. Beyond describing her dream encounter with Jesus — which is probably easy for me to relate to because I converted in much the same way — she goes into how she realizes that by sending his Son to die, God makes himself small enough for us to relate to. And that is so key, for her, for me, for so many Christians. It’s about taking all legalistic rituals and traditions she loved as a Jew and meshing them with a personal God who knows what it felt like to be sad and crowded and sweaty and jittery with excitement. She goes into that, enough for my taste anyhow. As she says in the book, her conversion story can not fit into a tight little package, a perfect testimonial to memorize and spout out at dinner parties. It’s messy and complicated and, to me, that’s real.

    As for Glass Castle, I too loved it. LOVED it. What a story. It’s the kind of book that makes me wish, for just a second, that my own childhood had been a little more nutty. What material to work with! I’m kidding of course. Mostly.

  19. Chloe

    I enjoyed GMG when I first read it a few years ago. It was one of the first books I read when I was exploring Christianity. While I agree that she’s not very clear about her reasons for her conversion and her tone can be truly arrogant at times, what drew me in was her appreciation of ritual. As someone who was just trying to get a feel for the religion/tradition aspect, her detailed explanations of Jewish/Christian traditions really stood out to me. But other than that, I think if I were to reread GMG now, it wouldn’t stick with me.

    I do think about her description of the Passover ritual almost every time I go to Mass though. So in that respect it was valuable.

  20. 'Becca

    a detail Dov chose to diverge to [his mother]
    Is this your error, or is it really that way in the book? I've seen such lousy editing lately that I wouldn't be at all surprised to see "diverge" where "divulge" should be; too much reliance on computer proofreading. >:-(

    Another good book by Anne Lamott is Bird By Bird about how to write and how to be a fiction writer without going crazy. I’m especially fond of her suggestion to write about school lunches; I’ve found that a great topic of conversation, too, with all kinds of people.

  21. Jennifer F.

    Becca –

    Is this your error, or is it really that way in the book?

    Though I don’t have the book handy, I’m sure it’s my error. I fixed it. Thanks for the catch!

  22. Jess

    I also read The Glass Castle and it was one of the more painful books I’ve read. The neglect the children experiences was so sad and the self absorption of the parents was borderline unbelievable. The hot dog story almost did me in and that was in the beginning of the book. My mother and I read it shortly after my niece drowned last summer and the whole situation seemed intensified by the unfairness of it all – how could my niece drown when she has great parents and how could all 5 of those kids survive when they had horrible parents? That still stings when I think about that book.

    Have you read the Rosalind Moss book about her conversion? I am interested in her story, she is also a Jewish to Protestant to Catholic convert.

  23. Jennifer F.

    Jess –

    My mother and I read it shortly after my niece drowned last summer and the whole situation seemed intensified by the unfairness of it all – how could my niece drown when she has great parents and how could all 5 of those kids survive when they had horrible parents?

    I had that exact same thought. Throughout the book I thought of the responsible families I’ve known who have lost children in freak accidents, and just felt a sense of bewilderment or injustice or something that all of these kids survived relatively unscathed. (Not that I’d want anything bad to the kids in that family, of course — I hope it’s clear what I’m saying.)

    And thank you for telling me that Rosalind Moss has a book! I’ve seen her on EWTN and was *very* impressed. I’d love to read anything she’s written.

  24. Jess

    Of course I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to any child regardless of circumstances – I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer in my first comment!

  25. miller_schloss

    I was captivated by “Glass Castle” as well. I read it last year with my book club, and I stayed up most of the night finishing it. The insight into homelessness it gave regarding her parents’ choices was fascinating.

  26. Misty

    Jess I am glad that you corrected yourself. Honestly that first comment came across very harshly.

    As a survivor of some pretty traumatic childhood experiences of myself (nowhere close to her though!), I think that the beauty of the book is that children are able to rise above and come out of situations like that. It is a beautiful picture of resilency, and even though not the theme of her book- gives new meaning of redemption for me.

    I also think that Walls did a fantastic job of showing both the good and the bad, and that is perhaps what I love most about the book. I know that if I were her, I would certainly not want pity to be the triggered reaction. It seems counteractive to what she was trying to communicate. At least to me.

    I second that Travelling Mercies is an excellent book, but I also enjoyed the books that followed. Lamott is a little hard to follow sometimes and she seems to get off track a lot, but it is so worth it because she gives you some real gems along the way.

  27. Elizabeth

    I loved The Glass Castle, too. Mostly because I had a very zany childhood and some of the Dad’s exploits where..ahem…remarkably similar to my own father’s.

    I wasn’t too pleased with the ending. But then I saw Jeannette on Oprah with her mother (who looks exactly like you might imagine) and it seems they’ve found a measure of peace…

    It also makes me realize how resilient children are. I don’t think parents realize the burden they place on their children when they subject them to a completely anti-mainstream lifestyle. It’s difficult for kids. Jeannette addresses that head-on.

    Haven’t read the other two yet. But now I think I want to! In all my spare time. HA!

  28. TRS

    I have another Lauren Winner book and I am trying to remember if I read GMG. My friend has it and the cover looks too familiar to me so I must have… but apparantly the writing was not as memorable for me.

    did read Devil in the Details… hilarious. I picked it up in the airport before a flight – I was attracted to the cover because I too am a bit OCD!!

    Great book!

  29. The Wade's

    I loved the Glass Castle. It was so well written, and that she was able to write such a haunting portrayal of love for her parents who tried, but not in the right ways.

  30. Doris

    I have not read that first one, but the last two…you nailed on the head! Great reads!

  31. Erika

    Could never make it through a Lauren Winner book–Girl Meets God, or any other I’ve picked up. They just all seem too calculated to sell. It’s like she’s her own brand. Mix tattoos, intellectualism, lurid details about one’s sex life–and evangelicalism. Edgy combination! An editor’s delight. Also, knew her personally, and didn’t find her at all genuine (again, she seemed to be carefully branding herself). If I want good conversion books, I start with The Confessions and go from there.

  32. Jen S

    I was pretty disturbed by Glass Castle…my MIL asked that I read it & her sister thinks that she feels that she was the narrator in her childhood. Do you think they didn't get assistance b/c mom had that property?

  33. Anonymous

    You know, I couldn’t stand The Glass Castle. It simply didn’t seem real to me – all throughout the book I kept wondering who had vetted the author and whether eventually it would be revealed to be another “Million Little Pieces.” For me, the writing was too detached and the situations so outlandish that I couldn’t perceive it as credible. Each episode seemed to be: this happened, that happened, then this happened, with no real insights into what this woman was really thinking and feeling.

    I’ve got to agree with Shannon who loved Annie Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies.” It’s an outstanding book, and Annie Lamott seems to be like someone you wish lived next door.

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