Something Other Than God

If Mommy couldn't put it down, it must be good.

If Mommy couldn’t put it down, it must be good.

Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It

Finished last night after a marathon all-day read. A couldn’t-put-it-down, neglect the kids, even the sick ones, kind of day.

I’d preordered and was eagerly anticipating the arrival of my copy on Tuesday; but then Dom brought home an advance copy on Friday. (Did I mention how cool it is to have a husband who produces a Catholic radio show?) He selflessly handed it over to me, knowing I read much faster than he does and that there was no way I could wait until he’d made his way through it.

Lucia refuses to pose with the book cover.

Lucia refuses to pose with the book cover.

Short review:

Yes, I’m a fangirl. And Jen is my friend, both online and in real life. So naturally, I’m going to hype her book. But I tried really hard to read it as if it were written by a stranger and I’m pretty sure that even if I hadn’t ever heard of Jennifer Fulwiler before, I’d be getting on my blog to tell you all about this really cool conversion story I just read that I couldn’t put down.

The cover art is awesome, says Ben.

The cover art is awesome, says Ben.

Part the First, Mostly about Me

When I say I’m a fangirl, maybe it would be more accurate to say cyber-stalker. As best as I can tell I started reading Jennifer Fulwiler’s blog, “Et Tu, Jen?” sometime in 2006. I no longer remember how I stumbled across it, but I quickly became captivated and found myself surfing over to her former blog, The Reluctant Atheist, and reading my way through all her archives and all the comments. I love conversion stories and watching her process of seeking the truth and finding it unfold right there on the internet before my eyes was fascinating. It wasn’t long before “Et Tu Jen” became a household name in the Bettinelli casa. As in, Dom is sitting at his computer and I come wandering into the office with my laptop open and say, “Hey, ‘Et Tu Jen’ just wrote this really cool post, I have to read it to you.” Or we’re sitting at the dinner table and I ask, “Did you see that thing Et Tu Jen wrote today?” Yes, we really called her that.

And then one day I realized from some comment that she let drop that she lived in my very own hometown and Dom and I were going for a visit and so I daringly shot off an email to Jen and several other Catholic bloggers who lived in the area. And I invited myself and my husband and our kids to a party that the Darwins offered to host. It was awesome.

Since then I’ve virtually stalked Jen through her renaming of her blog to Conversion Diary. I watched her appearance on Journey Home. I watched her reality show. I invited myself over to her house a couple of times on subsequent visits to my parents’. And I’ve followed the long saga that has been Jen Writing ‘The Book.’ And rejoiced at every step along the way that got her closer and closer to publication.

But then the day comes that you hold the book in your hands. The moment of truth. Now it’s just me and the book. What will I think? Will it hold up to the hype? Will it live up to the anticipation of years? Will I have to lie to my friend about how good her book is that she sweated blood over for so many years?

It's a riot, says Anthony.

It’s a riot, says Anthony.

Part the Second: No Lie

The fact is that I don’t actually write rave reviews about every book I read that is written by someone I know. (Wow it seems weird that I know enough people who have written books that I can even say something like that; but I’ve been hanging out on Catholic blogs for almost ten years. I’ve gotten to know people.) There have been books that have sat on the back of the toilet for weeks and weeks glowering at me every time I go the the bathroom, silently emitting their invisible Guilt Rays. There have been books about which I’ve said, “This is a nice book, this is a good book, this is even a necessary book, but I’m just not the target audience. I hope it does much good for other people, but I can’t quite muster up the energy to write about it.” And there have been other books I quite enjoyed but life intervened and my writing mojo was off and somehow even though I wanted to recommend it, the review slipped off of my Urgent Action Items pile and into the Things I Never Completed That I Feel Totally Guilty About heap of shame along with the thank you notes for just about every gift we’ve received after the birth of our first child and the unwritten posts in my Waste Land series.

But this isn’t going to be one of those books. Oh no. I am going to finish this review tonight if it kills me, despite the fussy baby of doom who is sleeping quietly in her crib now like a ticking time bomb ready to go off.

And yet… I can’t quite yet get the words about the actual book to gel. That requires thought and thought requires alertness and alertness requires sleep and sleep required kids that are not sick who let you actually get some. (See Fussy Baby of Doom who screamed and kicked me for two hours last night.)

So what did I like? Even though I know the whole story, and even recognize Very Many of the details because I’ve read every word Jen has epublished about her life that I could find…. the way she told the story was compelling. The details, the characterizations, the rhythm of the plot. I wanted to keep reading. And it would have been very easy to write a book that left me feeling Meh, I already know this story. Maybe I’ll come back and finish it later after I go read that book about the dodo that’s sitting on the top of the pile in the bathroom. After all, it’s a library book and I own this one so I should read the one with the due date first. I don’t think I’ve ever done the ignore the kids binge reading thing on a non-fiction book before. Usually it’s only novels that get me so caught up in the plot that I have to keep reading. This was not a book I had to force myself to read out of loyalty to a friend.

Hilarious!

Hilarious!

Part the Third: I Laughed, I Cried…

It’s a compelling story to begin with. I was happy to see some of my favorite blog posts reappearing. The bit about the answered prayers for the house and the furniture. The vignettes I remembered were reframed and contextualized, fresh and engaging. In short, though the moments were there, the book is not just a recycled version of the blog. It’s not just blog posts strung together with some filler added.

I found myself laughing out loud. And crying. Ugh, yes I know those are bad book review cliches. But they are also signposts of a book that is emotionally engaging. Jen is funny and her story has plenty of drama. She comes face to face with death and life and God and the greatest truths of existence.

From the first scene where little Jenny is put on the spot at camp and asked if she’s accepted Jesus as the Lord of her life, every scene took place in a specific place and time, grounded in sensory detail. Every scene popped. No flat passages with lots of exposition. Well, ok there were a few passages of exposition about the books that Jen read that were significant to her changing thoughts. But the way she used tight quotes, pithy summaries, and conversations with Joe and other people to lead you through those books was tight. They were all about books I’d read and I thought they were all handled really well. I wasn’t tempted to skim. They were integral to the plot and they worked.

I’ve said before that I’m a conversion story junkie. Conversion stories are beautiful reminders of God’s grace working in the world today in the lives of ordinary people. If you’re a believer, they can give you a boost during a dry time. And if you’re not a believer, then they might give you a bit of an insight into what makes believers tick. Jen’s story dispels the notion that conversion to Christianity means checking your brain at the door. She’s smart and so is her husband Joe. For them conversion wasn’t a blinding light on the Road to Damascus but a process of discovery. Jen’s motto could be the motto of my favorite saint, St Teresa Benedicta (aka Edith Stein): Whoever seeks the truth seeks God, whether he is conscious of it or not.. If you are honestly searching for the truth, I believe your search can lead you to only one place: Christ who is the Truth.

And now though I should have more to say, I’m writing in sentence fragments. I need to go to bed.

And if my review makes you want to buy the book and you buy the book through my affiliate link, I’ll be able to buy more books to read and review: Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It

Also, Jen has some really awesome giveaways going on at her blog. Check out the book launch party.

7 Responses to Something Other Than God

  1. Jenny April 29, 2014 at 1:38 pm #

    I really appreciate this review, especially Part the First. I started reading her in 2006 too. I found her through The Anchoress. When I first started reading her blog, I felt like she was somehow in my head.

    I am a cradle Catholic, but grew up in the most non-Catholic Catholic family you can imagine. We went to Mass every week, but it was a strange hippy Mass in a church with no kneelers, no cross or crucifix, and looked like an old warehouse. We were not culturally Catholic at all. Confession? Like more than once in the second grade? Um, no. All that stuff that a stereotypical Catholic family does? Yeah, we didn’t do that. I live in the buckle of the Bible Belt where Catholics were mostly considered not much more than pagans. Religion was something that happened at church and church was weird.

    As soon as I was out of the house, I quit going to church. I was so wounded by my experiences, I knew I wanted far away from the Catholic church, but I also knew that the dominant surrounding denominations were quite shallow. I wanted an intellectual, logical, reasonable and beautiful religion (beauty being key for me), but my experiences told me that really didn’t exist. I never embraced the idea of being an atheist, but I definitely lived with a large presumption of mercy.

    I spent a decade mostly away from the church, even though I got married in the church in the meantime. Is my marriage valid? I have no idea. The understanding and commitment to marriage between my husband and I is not and never was a problem. The gray area around what *my* intentions toward the Church were supposed to be is what raises the question in my mind. It was also during this time that we made the unfortunate decision to have my husband stay home with any children we might have. We were only going to have one, maybe two, right? It hasn’t been all bad and I’m grateful for the lessons however painful they have been, but I’m ready for the lesson to be over. You hear that, God? I’m ready for the next lesson! An easier one this time. 🙂

    I started feeling the stirrings to re-establish myself religiously in 2004. We started attending a Methodist church which I found lacking. It looked to me like it was watered down Catholicism. When I got pregnant for the first time, we quit going because I was sick and it was too hard. During this pregnancy was when JPII died. When Benedict was elevated, I found myself laughing with joy about it. What? This was a new stirring. I decided to explore and see if Catholicism could be beautiful and not just an overheated rehash of the 70s.

    In 2005 and 2006, the whole world of the Catholic blogosphere opened up to me (even though I rarely commented) and I started considering myself Catholic again. It took me until 2009 to fully reintegrate the Church into my life. To find Jen’s blog was like a light shining in the darkness. I got her. I understood when she looked at all the stuff normal Catholics take for granted and said, “Um, what?” So I feel like I have been walking this journey with her and I’m excited for the book to finally be published.

    I’ve noticed that I have a penchant for posting novel length comments on your blog. I hope you don’t mind. 🙂

    • Melanie Bettinelli April 29, 2014 at 10:32 pm #

      Not at all. I wish more people commented and left novel length comments on my posts.

  2. Jen a April 29, 2014 at 11:55 pm #

    I read it last night, too, straight through until 4 am. Like I posted on Jen F’s blog, I was worried that if I read it, I might find her old arguments about atheism too compelling. Funny, isn’t it? Like that is the opposite of what she was going for. But, like you, I read it in a manner I usually read books with dragons or sorcerers in them.

  3. Jen A April 30, 2014 at 1:52 am #

    I read it through the night, until 4 am, something I usually only do with books that have dragons or sorcerers in them. It was better than I had hoped it would be.

    There was one line in particular that really struck me. It was when Irma told Jen “The answered prayer was that they knew God was there.” That’s really all we want isn’t it?

    • Melanie Bettinelli May 3, 2014 at 12:20 am #

      Jen, That like about knowing God was there jumped out at me too. Consolation doesn’t necessarily mean our suffering goes away. But that God is with us in it. We are not alone.

      • Melanie Bettinelli May 3, 2014 at 12:21 am #

        I posted both your comments which got stuck in moderation because I found myself wanting to respond to both.

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