I should probably go back to monthly Julia Reads since I had to split this one in two, but I’d hate to be overly optimistic. 🙂
Here’s the rest of my May and June reads. If you’ve read The Benedict Option or Hillbilly Elegy, I’m especially interested in your thoughts on those!
The Ocean At the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
As a generalization, magical realism is not my jam, but so many people raved about this book that I decided to give it a whirl. I actually did enjoy it and I think the writing is masterful. I was terrified at points, and may or may not have made my husband come to bed because I was afraid to be alone. The characters are well written, it’s suspenseful, and if I had time, I could have read it in one sitting. It raised a lot of really thoughtful philosophical questions about the nature of evil, and about how trying to indiscriminately give people what (they think) they want can lead to misery and suffering. Though I enjoyed this one, I still struggle with the way that this genre leaves you with a million unanswered questions. (Who are the Hempstocks really? What *is* the ocean? Will Lettie ever return?)
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
This is a gem. Vance’s treatment of everyone he writes about- the white working class, the upper middle class, the wealthy, Barack Obama, the Marines- is eminently fair. He is realistic and acknowledges freely that everyone has both strengths and failures, and that some things we are responsible for and some we are not. As he says, “No person’s childhood gives him or her a perpetual moral get-out-of-jail-free card.” Particularly in our current political climate, the lack of vitriol and mudslinging was refreshing.
As a former teacher, I loved his discussion of the reasons low-income schools are often “failing.” He says,
“[I]t was striking that in an entire discussion about why poor kids struggled in school, the emphasis rested entirely on public institutions. As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, ‘They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.’”
So, so much this. A institutional setting, for all it’s importance and value, cannot replace the family or erase the family’s mistakes. Children are meant to be raised by families. When the initial foundation-laying work of the family hasn’t been done, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the things which come later don’t come after all.
Vance describes his experience in college, where he was 4 or 5 years older than his classmates, having served in the Marines after high school.
“I listened as a…classmate…spouted off about the Iraq war. He explained that those fighting the war were typically less intelligent than those (like him) who immediately went to college.It showed, he argued, in the wanton way soldiers butchered and disrespected Iraqi civilians. It was an objectively terrible opinion…”
Vance goes on to discuss the politically varied loyalties within the Marines, the exhaustive training in cultural sensitivity provided by the Marine Corps, and the kindness many of his fellow Marines had shown to Iraqi children. Not surprisingly, he was enraged and disgusted by the self-righteous hipster in a lecture hall, holding forth about what the men and women in the armed forces are like.
Vance doesn’t give anyone- including himself- a free pass. He acknowledges the long lasting wounds that result from traumatic childhood events, including poverty. But he also calls people on to do better for themselves and their children.
“I don’t know what the answer is…but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”
There’s some good advice for everyone.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
Captain Kidd is charged with bringing “home” Johanna, a 10 year-old girl who was kidnapped by the Kiowa from Reconstruction-era Texas. Johanna has lived among the Kiowa for 4 years and is thoroughly Kiowa in language, culture, etc. Their long and dangerous journey together through Texas is the setting.
This was a slow start for me, but as I got further in, I enjoyed this novel and the way it explored culture, family, history, and loyalty. The setting, Texas during the Reconstruction years, illustrates beautifully what is meant by the phrase, “The Wild West.” No one is in charge and everything is up for the taking.
The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher
There are about 5 million reviews of this one all over the internet, and I don’t know that I have ay brilliant insight to add to them. Here are what I think are the main strengths and weaknesses of The Benedict Option, as well as what I believe was Dreher’s most important insight.
The introductory crash course in the philosophical and historical roots of the crisis Western Civilization finds itself in.
Dreher’s critique of “values voters” and those who view the church as “the Republican party at prayer.”
The analysis of the role technology plays in changing our worldview.
The discussion on the fragility of culture and how quickly it disintegrates.
Dreher’s frequent yet undefined references to “orthodox Christians.” Dreher clearly wants to keep his audience open to Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestants readers and so avoids nailing down exactly what constitutes orthodox Christianity, yet uses the term throughout. This is probably more of a marketing and editorial issue than one with Dreher’s understanding of the issues, but nonetheless it was annoying.
His gross oversimplification of the educational issue. Classical academies aren’t a panacea, and neither is homeschooling, and public schools aren’t the cause of our cultural collapse.
The Aha Moment:
“[I]n an era in which logical reason is doubted and even dismissed, and the heart’s desire is glorified by popular culture, the most effective way to evangelize is by helping people experience beauty and goodness.” (pg. 119)
Put bluntly, you can no longer reason with people, no longer win them with logic and arguments of fact and evidence. Truth may be inaccessible to the mainstream, but beauty and goodness still speak to them. This, I think, is a one of the true nuggets of wisdom Dreher offers.
What are your thoughts on The Benedict Option? It seems to be a really polarizing book, even among people with a shared worldview.
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