Thanks to my local public library I recently encountered two rather enjoyable memoirs. Because of their similarities, I thought it might be best to review both books in one posting. Both memoirs, written by women, chronicle their lives as young women. Both deal with matters related to family as well as religion. Both women lived as expatriates. I’m happy to say I enjoyed both books.
Veronica Chater’s 2009 memoir Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family is yet another one of those books I saw sitting on the shelf at my public library that after closer inspection intrigued me and made me want to read it. Her memoir chronicles her childhood experiences growing up as one of nine children in a Catholic fundamentalist (or “Trad” for traditionalist) household during the 1970’s. After rejecting the spirit of inclusion and modernism associated with the Second Vatican Council, Chater’s father leads her family from one renegade Catholic community to another. After following the bad advice of one of her father’s fellow Trads, they spend a short sojourn in Portugal, only to come home broke and somewhat disillusioned. Back home in California, Chater’s family drifts from one Catholic traditionalist community to another, some merely quirky and bizarre and some dangerously cult-like with fascist and even antisemitic overtones. During all of this, Chater moves from girlhood to womanhood, all within the confines of her family’s insular and moralistic environment. Despite her parents’ best attempts to shelter her from the evils of the outside world, she still manages to experience life in a kind of compressed fast-forward kind of way. First as an expatriate in living in Europe, Chater survives two life threatening accidents and a near-fatal case of severe food poisoning. With her parents’ blessing, she drops out of high school only to be later thrown out of the house by her puritanical father. Eventually, after a few days she returns home and later enrolls in the local community college. All of this transpiring before her 19th birthday.
I liked Waiting for the Apocalypse because it gave me a glimpse into a narrow yet fascinating world of underground churches, obscure Catholic end-times eschatology and religious idealism run amok. In addition, Chater’s father, a brilliant and well-read man plagued with unyielding idealism, serves as the prime mover in all of this and provides an excellent testament to the great poet Rumi’s belief that a person who possess both good and bad qualities is not flawed but complete.
Moving from renegade Catholicism to Islam, our other featured memoir is G. Willow Wilson’s The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam. When I saw her memoir sitting on the “new books” shelf at my public library I quickly remembered reading a review of Wilson’s recent memoir in someone’s book blog. But unfortunately, I can’t remember which blog. Whatever blog it was, the review must have intrigued me enough to make me grab the book.
As the book’s title declares, Wilson describes her journey starting first as an American college student turned spiritual seeker who, towards the end of her college career embraces Islam and later moves to Cairo to teach English. There, while living in Cairo she falls in love and ultimately marries a young Egyptian man. As an ex-pat living in Cairo she takes the career path countless ex-pat before her have done by becoming a journalist. After getting her start at an English-language quasi-underground newspaper, eventually she establishes her journalistic street cred thanks to a feature article she wrote on gender segregated buses for The New York Times magazine.
There are a few things that Wilson touched on in her memoir that I found interesting, starting with her conversion to Islam, which like many religious conversations did not happen overnight but was a bit of a process. Finding herself seeking a deeper spiritual meaning to life and being put-off by, (in her mind, anyway) the hard to swallow concept of the Christian Trinity while at the same time not feeling comfortable enough to operate within the ethnic framework of Judaism to embrace it as an option, she turns to Islam after learning about the faith through her Middle East culture classes at Boston University. Looking for the meaning of life and trying to find a belief system which can explain it all, yet not knowing exactly what she might be looking for or what to call it reminded me a bit of the early spiritual seeking of C.S. Lewis as he slowly moved to embrace Christianity.
Something else that stuck with me was Wilson’s depiction of everyday life in Cairo. Egypt’s capital city comes across as crowded, dirty, chaotic and somewhat overwhelming. But, much like New York City, Cairo seems to embody the best and worst of everything with incredible history, mystery and friendly inhabitants to balance out the negative. According to Wilson, Cairo is a far cry from the sanitized, homogenized and well-functioning cities we might find in the West. While she does approach the city as an outsider, one wonders if her new-found Islamic identity somehow helps her adapt to her new surroundings. To quote the American sociologist of religion Rodney Stark, “conversion to a new religion involves being interested in new culture-indeed, in being capable of mastering a new culture.”
Fortunately, Wilson lacks much of the smug self-assuredness which has been known to plague some religious converts. But for good, bad or otherwise she is sure of her faith. How this, like other manifestations of her personality will evolve as she encounters the disappointments, challenges and other experiences that come with getting older is of course yet to be seen. After all, this is the memoir of a young woman.
While I generally liked The Butterfly Mosque, my fellow book blogger Eva HATED IT, calling it “singularly banal” and “pretentious”. Since I thought Eva’s very negative review was quite good, I highly recommend dropping by A Striped Armchair to read it. After all, just like in medicine, sometimes it’s a good idea to get a second opinion. So go ahead, read Eva’s review too.