Reading through a biased lens.

It occurs to me, although I certainly intuitively knew it before today, that when we approach any piece of literature, our experience and interpretation of that literary work is highly influenced by our pasts, politics, and personal psychology.

However, when someone else’s experience of a piece of literature is so far removed from mine that I am incredulous that we even read the same piece, it gets my attention. This happened to me quite recently and although my initial conclusions about the story in question didn’t change, I appreciated the opportunity to hear another point of view.

Fortunately, the story I am referring to can be read in as little as 20 minutes, so if any one reading here is interested in the context for what follows, you can click over and read Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace.

As I read this story, what happens in my mind is what often happens. In response to the obvious vain ingratitude by the female protagonist, various proverbs sprang to mind: “Pride goeth before a fall”. “A wise woman builds her house but a foolish one tears it down with her hands”. From the story’s opening line, I saw a protagonist who set herself and her husband up for misery of some sort or other down the road.

In contrast, I listened to a discussion where other well-read, educated readers found the protagonist extremely sympathetic, and her husband overly indulgent. To be fair, the discussion certainly included discussion of the importance of contentment, but overall my interpretation of this story was distinctly in the minority.

Rather than rage on with my particular views which were irrelevant to the story, I took a moment to examine which of my inherent biases made it hard for me to see this character in a sympathetic light. One such bias is based on the fact that I spent my formative years being raised by one parent, my father. Because of that, I am instinctively more sympathetic to the sacrifices and hard work of men who provide for their families. It has helped me tremendously in my “career” as a wife, but all biases have a potential to wall us off from other perspectives that are worthy of consideration.

I am happy to stand back enough to acknowledge this about myself, although I wonder how many of us are aware that our understanding of the world, history, and literature is largely hindered by the fact that our educational institutions treat all topics as if the world sprang into existence in 1920.


Created to Be His Helpmeet, pt. 2

created to be

In the first part of this review I indicated that I would review this in two parts because it was structured as 2 books. I wish it were 2 books, or better, that Mrs. Pearl would have ended at the close of part one. While I gave part one a ‘B-‘, part two deserves a solid ‘D’.

As I finished part one, I was satisfied because American women, including the Christians, have mostly discarded Biblical marriage by reinterpreting  commands that are clearly and repeatedly indicated in Scripture. That increasingly bothers me and was the reason I was willing to overlook some of the problems in part one. It tilted much more in favor of Biblical marriage than most Christian women would admit.

One thing I hate even more than the state of American womanhood however, is the misandry that is now common in our culture, the media, and many churches. Underneath all of Mrs. Pearl’s wisdom concerning loving our husbands was a strong undercurrent of misandry; painting of men as one-dimensional beings, only interested in sex or unable to handle being challenged.

My antennae first went up during part one when she described the angel Lucifer as a “male being” in an attempt to explain some facets of masculine behavior. I’m not sure why in retrospect, but I let that gross error go, giving her the benefit of the doubt. I can see now that it was a taste of things to come. Is she comparing men to devils? Since we know unequivocally that God our Father, and Jesus, His Son, our Messiah, are masculine, where then does that leave us?

I can think of literally one thing in part two I agreed with. On page 217 was the story of a Vicky, whose husband didn’t lift a finger to fix anything around the house. While his own home fell apart, he was quick to rise and ride to the rescue of elderly women in the neighborhood who needed things around their homes fixed.  Mrs. Pearl is right that a woman are perfectly capable of taking care of yard work, painting a room, or fixing a leaky faucet.

I hate the trend becoming prevalent Christians as we attempt to distance ourselves from an androgynous culture: that jobs around the house  requiring any sweat or strength are inherently “men’s work” or that the sphere of the wife is limited to the work that requires little sweat equity: cooking, sewing, cleaning, and caring for the children. A good wife does what needs to be done if she can do it. There is no logical reason why the grass in our yard should remain overgrown until my husband is available on the weekends to cut it when I am at home everyday, presumably to manage the home. Unfortunately,  there wasn’t anything more to embrace in part 2.

Mrs. Pearl’s asserted repeatedly that mothers could, by virtue of perfectly watchful eyes, keep all harm from befalling their children. She offered a scenario in which a young child might be molested if his or her mother turned her back for even a couple of minutes. And yes, she said a couple of minutes. I understand the point she was attempting to make, but I thought that her line of reasoning went too far, and furthermore, was wrought with inconsistency. No one can keep their eyes on their children every minute of every day. Are mothers allowed to sleep?

That inconsistency showed again when she advised, rightly, that women whose husbands insist that they get a job do so. Does the wife in this position still bear guilt if harm befalls her child while in submission to her husband?

Another blatant inconsistency was the beginning of the chapter titled, “‘To Obey or Not To Obey?”  The chapter began with the story of a woman who went to “extreme” measures to get the attention of her husband, who was addicted to pornography. Given the rest of the exceptions to unquestioned obedience outlined throughout the rest of the section, the reader is left to assume that the Pearls agree with the actions of this wronged wife. However earlier in the book, there is the story of a woman whose husband frequented strip clubs and visited prostitutes. That wife is hailed as a hero for honoring her husband with love and sex even as he committed acts that were as bad, worse in fact, than the husband who was addicted to pornography.

Of all the objections I had to part two, however, none was so striking as Mrs. Pearl’s exploration of the Titus 2 command for wives “to love their husbands.” It was the only time throughout the book where I felt the need to double-check my understanding of a word by grabbing our great big Strong’s concordance. She limited her very long explanation of the command to love our men strictly to the bedroom, going so far as calling lovemaking a husband’s “most consuming passion”, putting it on the level of food as a desperate biological.

Whenever I hear sex held on par with food, it makes me shudder. This is the reasoning used by those forces who would encourage sexual activity by children at younger and younger ages. I certainly appreciate the importance of the physical relationship between a husband and wife in a marriage, and I’m no prude who believes in rationing intimacy based on my moods or whims.

Still, the word Paul used to describe what it means to love our husbands meant ‘to show affection, to be fond of, to admire’. It is the Greek word philos, often used to describe loving friendships. Mrs. Pearl implied that the only thing that matters is the sex. This is diminishing of men, implying that they don’t care whether or not their wives like them, so long as they get sex.

I was disappointed with part two of this book because part one held such promise. I cannot recommend this book in good conscience.

Part 2 Grade: D


Created to Be His Helpmeet, pt. 1

created to be

Created to Be His Helpmeet, by Debi Pearl. Originally published in 2004.

Since the book is divided into  two parts, almost like 2 books in 1, I’ll do its review in two parts. Part 1 is titled The Help Meet.

Part 1 is pretty good. There were a few things I disagreed with, and in fact, I offer my review with this very strong caveat: I do not recommend this to anyone in an extremely troubled marriage. It could be damaging to the heart of a woman who is doing all she can with no positive response from her man. In fact, I would suggest those in such marriages refrain from reading random books for pat answers.

If there was one thing that bothered me most about this book, it was the testimonials implying that any woman can single handedly save the man, the marriage, the family, and her sanity all by following the advice within its pages. It seemed to imply that a wife could, by prayerfully striking all the right notes, render a husband’s free will  irrelevant as he succumbed to the power of her perfectness as a help meet. That’s a dangerous seed to plant into the mind of a desperate wife.

To her credit, she pointed out that husbands who engage in sinful behavior were responsible for their own actions. I’d read reviews where women accused her of blaming wives for everything wrong in their marriages. I didn’t get that. It’s a book written by a woman, to women, about the responsibilities of women in marriage. That necessarily demands focused discussion rather than extensive caveats and attempts to balance.

Additionally, I was put off by the idea of wives ceasing to be individuals upon marriage.  I believe in loving, radical submission and making every effort to please your husband, but the implication that one’s total being is to be immersed in him is not a Christian teaching. My husband wants me to think, not parrot his thoughts.

With those stipulations, part one was still very good. For wives in reasonably good marriages, or who just need a glimpse of what a submissive wife looks like (far too many have never seen it) this is instructive. There were things I wasn’t fully conscious of in my attitude until I saw it while reading this book. It was good mirror for me. Now to some of the specifics.

I laughed out loud when I read the letter and the author’s response to the woman whose husband was getting a little too chummy with the office secretary. In part because this was, if memory serves, one of the points of controversy in the book. That this wife was advised to make her self more attractive than “the office wench” made many women howl in objection. The second reason I found it funny was because the advice sounds very close to what my godly grandmother-in-law, now 93, would say if I came to her with this type of dilemma.

This is only controversial because of our cultural sensibilities. For the sake of brevity, I will not reprint 1 Corinthians 7 here, but click on the link to read it. If a woman wishes to keep her man’s attentions, of course she needs to do what needed to be done to make herself attractive to him.  It doesn’t guarantee he won’t stray, but life doesn’t come with guarantees.

The reason I gave part 1 of this book fairly high marks was the extensive amount of ink -3 chapters- dedicated to the importance of being joyful, content, and thankful. These are invaluable to the health of any relationship and the fact that Mrs. Pearl understood this and called out women on their tendency to be ungrateful, even when they have pretty good husbands, was in my opinion, almost totally worth overlooking the parts I didn’t care for.

Specifically, I noted the women who complained because their husbands watched television, or “weren’t spiritual enough”, or any other number of minor things that were being blown up into major things.Women do fall into that trap. I’ve seen it more times than I can count and I appreciated Mrs. Pearl’s wisdom in pointing out that the notion that women are more spiritual than men is damaging to marriages.

Such wives inwardly exalt themselves over their husbands while pretending to be the dutiful, submissive wife. Looking for the good in our men, being thankful for the fact that we have good men, and refusing to try and make them be more like what we want than who God made them to be, is always good advice.

In a section titled, “Wisdom to Know Your Man”, Mrs. Pearl and her daughter lay out three different categories they claimed most men fall into: Mr. Command Man, Mr. Visionary, and Mr. Steady. I think that the idea that most men fit neatly into one of these three boxes was an oversimplification. If I had to categorize my husband, it would unquestionably be in the first category, Mr. Command, but there are nuances which her book failed to acknowledge.

I agree with her that certain types of men are more reserved and deliberate, and a strong woman can get frustrated with that type of man and dominate rather than appreciate him. I also remember when I was very displeased with my husband’s refusal -inability?- to capitulate to me. In time I learned that God knew I needed a strong man. We fit well together.

This book covers so much ground that it would be impossible for me to cover it all. I realize that my favorable review is not shared by many. In fact, the things that give me pause are what caused me to issue the word of caution above. This book isn’t for everyone.

Because I have always been a “big picture” type of person, it was easy for me to appreciate the good in this book despite its limitations. And I liked part 1.

Part 1 Grade: B-

Next time, I’ll take a look at part two.

The Selfishness of Others

fear of narcisissm

The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, by Kristin Dombek. Published in 2016. 160 pages.

I found this bizarre little book at the library and read it in an evening. I didn’t know what to expect when I started it, and am still slightly unsure what the overarching message of this “Essay on the Fear of Narcissism” was supposed to be. There were a lot of interesting insights, and the author’s concern that the Internet has turned far too many people into armchair psychiatrists diagnosing everyone who ever hurt them with a personality disorder rings very true.

Dombek convincingly makes the case that far too often,  people are able to transform their pain, a universal human condition, into blame with the right keywords and a few choice clicks. Suddenly their all too normal friends, lovers and parents are possessed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and they don’t have to own any of their own stuff.

She rightly ponders whether this desire to search out the evil in others (and the technological wherewithal to do it easily) is a problematic development. After all we can find others to empathize with us in an instant:

If you’re a herd animal, and prey, you need to be able to understand in a split second what to do: you mirror the other alpacas, not the wolves, and you run. P. 103

She also note show often the herd encourages other members, virtual strangers, to leave relationships despite not having any way of judging the accuracy of the information the “alpaca” is expressing concerns about. The craving for empathy is great:

At this point, the Internet bubbles creepily up at the edge of our view, above and below and all around us just beyond perception, glimpsed only briefly through the peephole of our devices, not some “superspreader” of individual narcissism, but a laboratory testing for empathy, even basic intraspecies recognition, at a scale and speed beyond which we have ever been capable. p.103

Smack in the middle of her treatise is the contrast of what women stumble upon when they begin these searches versus what men stumble upon. Women enter things such as “boyfriend turned cold” or “boyfriend rejected me” and are treated to comfort from fellow victims at sites such as the Narcissist Abuse Blog or How We Got Here. The number of websites and forums dedicated to comforting those whose lives have been shattered by this new “epidemic” of narcissism is massive.

In contrast and very tellingly, she asserts that men who enter the same keywords using “girlfriend” or “wife” instead of “boyfriend” or “husband” find themselves in the midst of the red pill sphere reading sites such as The Rational Male, Chateau Heartiste, or Alpha Game Plan. Sites, Dombek asserts, which teach men that in order to be the kind of men women want, they need to behave more like narcissists. While she has very little good to say about these sites or the men who frequent them, she does drop in a bit of reality; namely, that women do seem inexplicably drawn to the very men who send them clicking around online trying to find a reason why their suffering isn’t at all their fault.

She rounds out this little book with an in-depth look at both the original story of Narcissus, as well as an exploration of Freud’s studies which put NPD into the psychological forefront in the first place.

As I said at the start of this post, this book was strange, and it was pretty hard to get a firm read on what ultimate conclusions she had drawn.. To her credit however, she was clear on the fact that all this mass diagnosing of clinical personality dysfunction in response to things that are often the normal way of humans and how they behave in relationships is not a good development.

Grade: C (The writing was difficult to read at times).

Content advisory: Smatterings of profanity and very frank sex talk.

The Cooking Gene

cooking gene

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, by Michael Twitty. Published in August 2017. 464 pages.

I picked up this book having never heard of it before seeing it on the shelf of my local lbrary. It is not my custom to look to the NYT lists or book review pages to decide what I am going to read. Apparently this book was on it, but I didn’t know that. If I see something and it looks interesting, I pick it up.This one looked interesting.

I am the black daughter born of a Cajun father who married a Georigia peach. Does it get any more Southern than that? As a woman of deep Southern roots who loves to cook and has raised young women who also -uncharacteristically for Millenials- love to cook, this book called out to me.

Because I also love Southern cooking and cooking Southern food, it did not disappoint. The wealth of culinary history about Southern food, the people, and the regions was amazing. Even when there were snippets and sections of the book that I found a little too politial for my conservative leaning apolitical tastes, they were far outshined and overshadowed by the beauty that encompassed the overall treasure that I found this book to be.

The American South is a complex place with a fascinating and convoluted history that reveals itself in its food as much as anything else. Twitty does a masterful job of articulating that in this quote from his book:

“The Old South is a place where people use food to tell themselves who they are, to tell others who they are, and to tell stories about where they’ve been. The Old South is a place of groaning tables across the tracks from want. It’s a place where arguments over how barbecue is prepared or chicken is served or whether sugar is used to sweeten cornbread can function as culinary shibboleths. It is a place in the mind where we dare not talk about which came first, the African cook or the European mistress, the Native American woman or the white woodsman. We just know that somehow the table aches from the weight of so much . . . that we prop it up with our knees and excuses to keep it from falling.”

He speaks truth, as I know I have been asked on numerous occasions by women of Southern heritage but different ethnic makeup, how I cook my grits, my fried chicken, etc. Southern food is a thing all its own while also being several different things as well, depending on whence you hail. I have always known this from childhood eating my dad’s gumbo, and crawfish etoufee, which almost no other Southern region has perfected. And neither have I.

The ways that first generation slaves -whether house servants or field slaves- learned to make familiar dishes out of new and often unfamiliar ingredients was a particularly interesting read, and  Twitty’s travels to the regions where the “cargo” for the Transatlantic slave trade was gathered offered wonderful insights into the ancestral diets of the people who came from those parts of Africa.

Some of the most fascinating excursions to take with the author were his journeys embarked on as a result of the genetic and documented research he compiled from his own family tree. His was a family, unlike so many black families in the South, that kept good written histories and passed them down. I married into a family that has a much better documented history than my family of origin, so I am well acquainted with the differences and how they express themselves in our knowledge of who we are and what we tell our children.

Overall, this was a very good book. My Christian sensibilities were not offended by the author’s occasional trips down memory lane where he discussed his coming out to his family or his other thoughts on being a black, gay, Jewish man. In a lesser book, more sloppily executed or overtly politically motivated, I would have been annoyed.

This author, however, has a clear and unmistakable love for food, its origins, its intersections with the way we view life and family, and how it shapes the places we have been and the places we go. In short, he was able to communicate his passion and vision in a way that was admirable and transcended all the rest of it. The American South was what it was, and it is impossible to study the roots of Southern culinary richness while avoiding the circumstances that brought together the people who shaped it.

Grade: A


Hillbilly Elegy

hillbilly elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A memoir of a family and culture in crisis. By J.D. Vance. Published in 2016. 272 pages.

I read this book last summer, have rolled it over in my head plenty since then, and just haven’t taken the time to review it; for a host of reasons I cannot well articulate. There was one thing I found quite telling. In the aftermath of our country’s most recent electoral circus, plenty of left leaning media pundits have called this book an insightful look into the mind of the Trump voter.  It is not a compliment, I disagree, and I never got the feeling that Mr. Vance told his story for his people to be mocked.

A dear friend, of Scotch-Irish descent born and raised in Appalachia who has long since forged a new life and path with her (non-Appalachian) husband and children, invited me to read her copy of this book on the heels of one of our discussions of race and culture.

Despite it being a best seller, I’d never heard of it. It’s a fascinating book and my friend, I suspect, presumed it would get me to *get* the universality of certain experiences in a way that I didn’t, in her opinion.

There were numerous accounts and recollections offered from J.D. Vance’s upbringing that I related to quite strongly.  He offered examples and experiences that I could have written almost verbatim, but for the cast of characters and regional backdrop. This, even though I am as far removed from Appalachian culture as anyone I know.

However what he thought was a revelation of a culture in crisis was. To me, it was more of a family memoir with traces of what can happen to a people whose history and culture are incrasingly alienated from the progressive march of the larger society. How to hold fast to the good about your history and culture while simultaneously equipping yourselves to move forward. whther or not everyong is able to do that is debatable.

J.D Vance offers a lot of useful insights, realism, and counter cultural ideas for a guy who graduated from Yale Law and lives in one of the most liberal states in the country. Unfortunately he “lost his religion” as he navigated through all the twists and turns of his tumultuous family life. Nevertheless, he wrote a very good book, albeit one not without its critics.

Grade: B