Category Archives: Book Reviews

DOWN CAME THE RAIN by Brooke Shields

The beautiful, educated, sophisticated, talented actress Brooke Shields had a baby she’d longed for with the husband of her dreams who adored her. She looked at her daughter and didn’t know her, didn’t connect, didn’t love her. She began to cry. She cried for days, for weeks. She wanted to run away. She saw her baby flying through the air and hitting the wall. Over and over again.

This is post-partum depression. In Down Came the Rain (Hyperion, 2006) Ms. Shields gives it to us raw, weeping, and believable.

I didn’t need to be convinced this is a real thing. I’ve been there twice: once after an adoption, once after childbirth. I didn’t feel disconnected or unloving toward my babies, but I cried constantly. In torrents. Inconsolably. For weeks. Couldn’t function. Couldn’t see a happy future.

Post-partum depression is different from the milder “Baby Blues” and less terrifying than all-out post-partum psychosis where women kill their newborns or themselves or both.

I continually hear nonsense like “there’s no such thing as mental illness” and “this sort of thing is a sin problem” and “just get over it.”

This is not only foolish talking, but it is dangerous talking. You try having your belly sliced open to retrieve an eight-pound infant. Add a little hemorrhaging. Flood your body with hormones. Light your breasts on fire with mastitis. Toss in a couple of weeks of zero sleep. Thud around on elephant legs. Try to go to the bathroom without assistance (because being sliced open with scalpels hurts), while bleeding like a fountain (with clots, soaking an endless succession of those giant mega-maxi-post-childbirth pads/diapers). Mix in a few relatives-with-expectations who wonder why you’re not up to going out yet, and you might go a little nutso too and wonder who that thing is that’s lying there all crying and wanting to suck on you when you just want to have someone brush your hair, sing you to sleep real deep so you don’t have to wake up for a long long time.

This is an illness. It is frightening. Some people don’t survive it.

Saying this is “not real” is like slamming your arm in the car door and having someone tell you that throbbing is just your sin talking. “Take it to the Lord; trust Him.”

Sure, but take it to the doctor, and right now.

There are meds for this, and they can be helpful. One of the problems is that the suffering woman can’t think clearly enough to call the doc, and the husband is often so stunned by his wife’s lack of love for (or even aversion to) his precious baby that he doesn’t know what to do either. Here is what to do: Call the doctor. If it’s scary (she’s threatening to hurt herself or the baby), call 911.

I would recommend Down Came the Rain to anyone who is expecting. Even though you have a perfect pregnancy (Brooke did), and are looking forward to this baby with all your heart (Brooke was), you do not know how your body will respond. You cannot regulate your hormones by force of will. Your husband is not more savvy than Chris Henchy, Brooke’s husband, who is a Hollywood screenwriter and producer and who is smart enough to get Brooke Shields to marry him. He didn’t know what to do when the Bad Times hit, and your husband might not either. Fortify yourselves by reading up. Just in case. Even if you are fine and adore your baby, you will have the understanding to help a friend–to see that your friend needs help.

Happily, Brooke came through it with good medical care, a little help around the house, and a loving family. She and Chris had another daughter two years later, a situation she describes as “nothing but bliss.”

BRAVE GIRL EATING by Harriet Brown

Brave Girl Eating (William Morrow, 2010) by Harriet Brown is a mother’s memoir of her daughter Kitty’s struggle with anorexia. Having read this book, I will never again look at a very thin young woman and think, “Eat a cheeseburger, honey!” Because she can’t eat a cheeseburger. She can’t eat anything without hearing voices in her head shouting louder than anything else in her world, “Bad girl!” and “If you eat that, you’ll be even uglier than you are right now,” and “If you eat that, no one will love you.”

Sound familiar?

Of course it does. Every woman in America who has ever struggled in any way with food knows all about these voices. Frankly, I don’t think a meal goes by that I don’t think this even today, even right now when I’m drinking my first cup of coffee and know for a fact exactly how many calories were in that organic raw sugar and that almond milk I stirred in there.

In fact, I was stunned to realize as I read Brave Girl Eating that Kitty’s anorexia and my endless dieting-weight-gain are not polar opposites: they are the same thing. The same “demon” (as Brown describes it) is yelling. Kitty heard it louder is all. I hear the identical voice saying the identical thing, but I eat anyway, whereas Kitty’s internal voice was so loud and fierce, she could not overcome it to feed herself.

Irrational messages: “You’re ugly” when no young woman is ugly, “You’re fat” when pictures (of Kitty) (of me at that age) show nothing of the sort, and “No one will love you” when you’re popular, cheerleading, elected to class office, on the team, being pursued by boys, and so on. These messages have no basis in fact and can be contradicted by loving parents (if they’ll take the time and effort).

Parent effort is the gist of Brave Girl Eating. Brown discusses the treatment options she had for Kitty. Doctors recommended in-patient residential settings far away from home, but Brown had no intention of sending her emotionally and physically fragile child hours away from home to hang around with other girls who were hearing the same hateful voices. She chose Family Based Therapy, and therein lies the story. I recommend this book to anyone who has encountered anorexia.

And anyone who has encountered the eating disorder many of us have been bowing down to and worshipping for decades, for almost all our lives: Restriction. “You will be holy and virtuous if you do not eat that. Better: if you do not eat, period.” The less you eat and the longer you go without eating, the better you are. Denial as holiness. Starvation as virtue.

Restriction is what anorexics do, and restriction is what many of the rest of us do. We’re just less successful. We restrict on large scale—months’ long “diets” that are nothing but unending weeks of semi-starvation where we purposefully deny our bodies nutrients they need. We “give up” carbohydrates for weeks, months, or years, because some Doctor said bacon was the way to Health Nirvana or some book told us to stop that insanity and eat no fat at all, or whatever the next craze was.

Then we wake up one day and realize that was gross—bacon is God already, fine, Facebook, you can go there with your fun memes and your bacon maple bars—but telling young women (or older women) that the things God actually designed for you to eat (potatoes, bananas, avocados, pineapples) and packaged in “Serving Size: One” portions are evil…well, we wake up from Bacon Fest and realize we’ve depleted ourselves of critical nutrition while lining our arteries with fat (“But I’m THINNER! Holy Grail Happy Dance!”). And on we go to the next nonsense, the next diet, the next folly, and the book publishers and diet-food manufacturers smile and count their money and schedule casting auditions with underweight teenage models to make us want to look like that.

Anorexia (undereating) is the same as dieting (eventual overeating) because the identical hate-voice is speaking to you. And, I am positive that the answer is the same as well: balanced, nutritional eating. Period. For year upon year. Not another “try” at restriction: “This time I’ll do better. This time I’ll be good.” “I have to lose twenty pounds before the reunion/wedding/anniversary, so I’ll just restrict this one last time.”

You know where I am going with this. Yes. It has to happen. I have to bring it around to the real evil of the Church pushing a template of wrong-headed perfectionism down hard onto adolescent women: hear no evil, speak no evil, don’t have boobs, you slut, you might accidentally (Mrs. LaHaye said this out loud to us at CHC) allow your breast to “brush” against a young man causing him to be “snared” by lust, you evil thing, you, to have a womanly body! How dare you have hips that move! Clench that gluteus, walk straight, don’t sway! A half-inch of cleavage, oh my GOD! (Those of us with D-cups in college were probably seen as per se evil, never mind our purity, virginity, and naivete.)

The root of these illnesses/conditions/lifestyles is perfectionism. You know who you are and where yours came from. Mine arose out of innate ability. You can, so you should, dontcha know. I was told by more than one person in my teenage years: “You have the ability to get As, so Bs are sins for you.” Remember that verse, “Whatever is not of faith is sin”? How has that been twisted, abused, and used as a bludgeon? It’s a sin to get a B, to show cleavage, to have a Bible when they don’t in Cambodia (hurry, memorize it all, the Russians are coming to take it away!), to have hips when women in Africa are skin-and-bones. Let’s try to be skin-and-bones then to be more holy. Makes sense, right?

Anyway, you’re sinning if you don’t get an A on your Algebra test, never mind you don’t understand Algebra and Mr. Erickson is drawing basketball plays on the board because the student aid sitting in the back of the classroom is on the team and Erickson just got a cool idea for tonight’s game against Valley.

You’re sinning if you’re not in the dead center of God’s will or the exact middle of the “ideal weight” table. In my high school years, you were also sinning if you didn’t wear the right “season” colors. Remember that foolishness? I was an autumn (kill me), so I “had” to wear browns and olive and avocado and harvest gold, the kitchen appliance colors of the 70s.

Real avocados, however, were of the devil (so much fat!), but Atkins was God, so we ate bacon and hot dogs and hamburger patties slathered with mayo and slabs of cheese, and if we were “good” we could add a side of cottage cheese on Friday. Kid you not. I weighed 130, but there were little girls in my grade who were under 100, so I was super fat, out of God’s will, and sinful. (They probably hadn’t started to menstruate yet, weren’t yet women.)

So we learned to restrict. I fasted for the first time in eighth grade (I was 115–super fat!). Two solid days sans food. I’m not going to go into a play-by-play here of my four decades of dieting (read: the “heads” side of the restriction coin if anorexia is the “tails” side). Suffice to say that I learned oranges were of the devil in the third grade because they had carbs and carbohydrates (designed by God for the nourishment of the human body) were innately evil and to be avoided. Pictures of me at eight years old do not show an obese child.

I am fat now (by anyone’s understanding. I weigh about 70 pounds more than I did when I thought I was–but wasn’t–super ugly and fat in college), and am only now learning that restriction is disordered eating. That when Paul said, “I put my body under” he didn’t mean young women should forego feeding themselves in order to conform to an image of thinness ordinary bodies cannot maintain without starvation.

American women should not look like concentration camp victims. Christian women should not look at food God designed for the purpose of feeding them and call it evil or sinful. Calling good evil and evil good is something we need to struggle against, not something we should embrace.

I digressed a lot here from the book because of how the book spoke to me in my struggle, but I don’t want to digress so much that the message of Brave Girl Eating is lost on any readers: Anorexia is an illness, not a choice. It is not something to be envied or desired or joked about. This is not funny:

Anorexia is a cruel and brutal task-master that often leaves corpses in its wake. We need to keep our eyes open to see if the young women under our care (and, though far less often prey to this illness, young men) are restricting their eating to less than normal or less than balanced or less than regular.

I could write a book on my eating disordered (restrict-eat-restrictsomemore-eatmore-fast-eateateat-feel gross-hate self) life, but it’s embarrassing and would make me oh-so-vulnerable to people saying stupid and unhelpful things (Why don’t you just be like me? I always knew you were disordered. Who thinks like you, you freak? I always knew you were great, why did you hate yourself so much?) and more inner-voice shouting: Why are you talking about eating, fatso? Who would listen to a fat woman like you? Why don’t you Atkins it up for a few months so you can at least not look like a whale when you talk about eating? and so forth.

Maybe I’ll do it anyway. Damn the inner voice that tells me I’m ugly and unlovable and unworthy, and down with people who think it’s their business to tell me I’m fat, as if I don’t have a mirror, a scale, and size 22 jeans hanging in neat rows in my walk-in closet. You want me to tell you your failings? Why you’re sinning?

Pass the avocado. Give me some bread. I’m hungry so I’m going to eat. (A fat woman even saying she’s hungry is seen as disgusting in our culture. How dare she have a functioning digestive system?) No more I’m hungry so I’m going to not eat because when I feel that empty feeling I feel virtuous and good. Equating physical pain with spiritual virtue is (hear me) a very serious problem. We need to address that as American Christian women. We need to not put our own daughters through this hell. We need to love ourselves enough to climb out.

(Pushes “publish” with the real fear that people will say, “What are you talking about? I don’t understand you? I never felt like that ever and don’t know anyone who did.” Which is why, of course, there are ten zillion dollars a year spent in The Diet Industry–because women feel so beautiful and normal and empowered in their bodies.)

GOLDEN COMPASS and HARRY POTTER

You can say a lot of things about Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass. One thing you can’t say is that it’s subtlely evil or devilishly crafty. It isn’t. It’s unsubtle and heavy-handed. It isn’t smoothly written. The characters are ill-formed, oddly-motivated, and not realized. The geography is all higgledy-piggledy and the history jumbled.

When I went to Wikipedia to read up a bit on the author, I found that the story takes place in a parallel universe. This was news to me, and I’d just finished reading the whole book! Maybe you need the Cliff Notes to make sense of this one, but I didn’t get the parallel Earth thing at all. I thought it was a Historical What-If sort of book with exo-souls thrown in for fun.

So, here goes: in some Parallel Universe where there are cowboy blimp operators from the Country of Texas, a foundling child—Lyra—grows up at Jordan College, Oxford University. Her parents were lovers about five hundred years after Pope John Calvin’s failed reign ended in the abolition of the papacy.

This places the story about present day plus fifty years or so, but nothing is clear about the time. The Papacy is abolished, but the Church is in high gear, complete with monks, nuns, magisteria, and Bibles. Genesis is intact, though the wording in chapter 3 is fuddled. There are gas engines, telephones, and fire drills, but also abandoned children brought up by scullery maids. Witches fly around on pine boughs, but everyone is conversant in physics.

Original sin is a sort of drizzly atomic dust that coats everyone, but not kids. You have to be above the age of accountability in order for it to stick to you, odd if you understand anything about the historical teaching on Original Sin. Original kinda sorta means inborn and already attached, not something that floats around until you start your period and then sticks to you and causes you to lust.

Well, each person has a daemon, a shape-shifting shoulder-pal that acts as a personal higher-level-thinker and can’t be too far away or you start to shake and get all fearful. If you are ever cut off from your daemon, both of you will die, you first.

Lyra’s daemon is named Pantalaimon, Pan for short. Of course. Each person’s daemon is of the opposite gender from the person, so Pan is a boy daemon. Why this is important is not told, but he is always clinging to her breast. The word breast is used far too many times in this book, but it’s from England, and maybe over there authors of kiddie lit haven’t glommed onto the reality that this particular word is a no-no in books for children, and if you ask me, in hymns—can I get an amen? (Large congregation is loudly singing, “LEANING ON HIS LOVING BREAST…OH TO LIE FOREVER THERE!” and I cannot be the only person thinking, could we get an editor in here? )

Lyra, it turns out, is important. Only she can get to Lord Asriel in time, and it will only all work out in the end if she doesn’t know she’s supposed to get there in time, but does anyway. Well she does and she doesn’t know about it, but we’re not clued in on why she shouldn’t know. Witches seem to know that she must do this, but in the end, when she unwittingly brings a sacrificial boy for Lord Asriel’s dark purposes, the witches aren’t involved, benefitted, or notified. Maybe it’s clearer in the sequel, but I won’t be finding out.

Tediously, the whole book is a slow plod on a linear track. There isn’t any subplot, any internal struggle separate from the main line, any break in the point of view to help us out. There are strange “tellings,” as if “show don’t tell” isn’t taught where this author picked up writing. Things pop up out of nowhere and then disappear. I can’t describe this particular bad writing any clearer than to say (in the immortal words of Justice Stewart), “I know it when I see it.”

Of course, to be fair to Mr. Pullman, our spirits don’t mesh. I am a Christian, and he is not a Christian. The church he mocks is not my church (I am not Roman Catholic), and I abominate unregenerate hierarchical excess as much as he apparently does, but his heavy-handed hammering on religion in general is tough to swallow. He only describes, and does not show any actual religion with the horrifying exception of Mrs. Coulter’s soul-excisions, hideously accomplished by way of guillotine. Why she does this is unclear, but distinctly identified as “theological.”

Worse is the Adult Explanation at the end. Good children’s literature has the answer unfolding throughout, with the child discovering the meaning of life (or whatever) by herself at the end simply by the opening-up of the onion layer by layer until the middle is reached. (Sorry to mess up the beauty by using an onion, but I’ve been low-carbing for a while now and my food metaphors are limited.)

For example, in Little Princess, bit by bit we learn her entire history and then at the end, the whole joyful opening of the story-essence, that is, the meaning of her life, is unveiled. In Horse and His Boy, we begin in a hovel and end in a palace, but it’s bit by bit, layer by layer. King Lune’s explanation at the end is more of a tying-together of what we’ve already hoped for than it is a didactic lecture as in Golden Compass.

Compass is theological goulash mixed with poison, as if the author wanted to throw in anything he could think of before making it completely, indigestibly awful. Don’t worry—your theologically-trained young person won’t be tempted to eat it. Mine wouldn’t even try—that’s because the beginning is so slow, you have to force yourself to read on.

This is Harry Potter’s fault. Harry is so delightful from page one of Sorceror’s Stone that unless someone makes you smile in the first—or at the very latest, the second—paragraph of any fiction from now on, you’re not going to get on board for the ride. JK Rowling is a genius at mixing deft story-telling with humor, darkness, suspense, angst, pathos, and so forth, all while flinging around such deliciousness as Whomping Willows, butter beer, quidditch world cups, Olivander’s Wand Shop, flying cars, and ill-fitting hand-me-down dress robes. It’s fun. It’s captivating.

Compass, on the other hand, alerted me from fairly early on that this was going to be something I had to slog through because I’d promised a friend I would. And let me tell you, if she hadn’t been such a dear friend, I might have given up.

Yes, there are Armored Bears (the King Bear wants a daemon so he can be baptized as a Christian, and this desire for full-blown humanity causes his ruin), truth-telling sextants, and lost children, so it sounds fairly interesting. The evil woman’s name is Mrs. Coulter. She’s tall, thin, and blond. She wants your soul. (No first name given—down, boy!) Am I the only person who thinks that’s weird? Seriously, High Brazil? Maybe the hard-copy book has maps and charts: the Kindle edition doesn’t, so I was knocked for a loop every time the story ran smack into the King of Lapland (mentioned, never met, not part of the plot), anbaric this and anbaric that (I have no idea), gyptians (Gypsies, not Egyptians), various Colleges at Oxford that aren’t really there, and on and on.

Pope John Calvin as the end of the papacy is just mean. No explanation is given, not even a convenient Servetus rising up from the dead to point a ghastly ghostly accusatory finger. On the other hand, I wonder what Calvin would have done had someone said, “If you do this gig, there will never be another Pope.” Now that’s the sort of free-will/predestination conversation I want to get into!

The Texan is like a regular Texan, and the Country of Texas is no big stretch—I’m sure all Texans pretty much think that way—he’s polite to witches and wants to be paid for his work. I did have a cool connection with Mr. Texas (I forget his name). He sends his gold to Wells Fargo Bank! I send my gold there too! Of course my gold is only direct deposit, but still!

The bad guys, headed up by Mrs. Coulter (who turns out to be Lyra’s mother, but don’t worry, it doesn’t matter) wants to perform intercision on unsuspecting children who haven’t reached the age of accountability. Intercision is a separation of the child from his exo-soul, his daemon. This causes agony and death, but releases massive, shattering amounts of energy, which, if harnessed, can make a bridge from one universe to another. She doesn’t know this, but her ex-lover, Lord Asriel (Lyra’s father), does.

He knows that if you can get to the other universe, you can find the source of Original Sin Dust and obliterate it. But Lyra suddenly realizes that if the bad guys want to obliterate the Original Sin Dust, it probably isn’t bad after all—OSD must be good.

This is how the book ends, with Lyra’s suddenly-reunited parents locked in a passionate kiss (and their respective daemons going nuts together beside them) and disappearing to unknown universes for who knows why.

It’s possible that I didn’t enjoy the story because of its heavy anti-religious atmosphere, the corporate Bad Guy identified as The Church. Of course, Pullman isn’t talking about my church, the Body of Christ. He was talking about the Roman Catholic Church in its worst manifestations and then castigating it. Sort of like the Adjustment Bureau (see my movie review) where a inane mockery of God is set up as God and then ridiculed as a myth.

Pullman sets up a palpably evil Church, complete with Inquisitions. Lyra never goes to Church. No priests appear. No doctrine is explained except that children are innocent until puberty and then they’re corrupted. Again, it’s a mishmash and no one will be fooled into thinking this is a careful expose of the ways in which the Church wants to steal your soul. It’s not finessed enough, or at all, actually.

This book did, however, make me want to write some magnificent Christian fiction, but the feeling passed. “Magnificent writing” and me have never gone hand in hand. But, if I ever do write anything that’s even the tiniest bit allegorical, the motivation for it will date from today—March 10, 2011, on which I finished reading a truly bad book, Golden Compass.