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.
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.
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?
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.
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.