Not even 20 pages into Krista Bremer's new book, My Accidental Jihad (Algonquin Books, $24.95), she falls in love with a Libyan immigrant named Ismail. It's a new kind of love for Bremer, the kind that results, apparently, in the slow torture and murder of metaphors: "He was like a deep pool into which I dove without a second thought, not realizing how thirsty I had been," Bremer writes, apparently unsure if she's in the pool to drink or swim or drown.
This is an inauspicious beginning to a memoir about a relationship, and the writing doesn't improve. Bremer loves to accentuate differences, pointing out that Ismail's "foreignness clung to him as persistently as the pungent spices that lingered in his clothes." She notes that the writing in his Arabic books "looked so much to me like a child's pretend game of writing." Even giving her the benefit of the doubt, these observations are painfully obvious and condescending.
At its best, Jihad is a straightforward account of a white American woman's culture clashes with a Muslim man from Libya. Bremer relates some heartbreaking stories, as with Ismail's mother's refrain, "If only I had the tiniest bit of education... I would have been unstoppable." The many observations that aren't overwritten are raw and real. But Bremer falls down when writing about spirituality in the latter half of the book. "My god was a flamboyant and fickle friend with a biting wit who liked a good party," she writes. Maybe she's an adherent of Truman Capoteism? It doesn't get much deeper than that, and finally her struggle is summed up as a bad patch of gardening:
Hacking away at the faded aftermath of a bygone season, I thought, This is my life, a tangle of half-dead relationships and routines, diminishing pleasures, faded habits, and brittle assumptions. I felt myself fading, felt the enervation of sustaining half-dead branches of myself. And yet I'd been afraid to cut it away, to confront the emptiness...
That emptiness largely remains unchallenged.
Bremer could learn a thing or two on the topic of spiritual writing from Barbara Ehrenreich, whose new Living with a Wild God (Twelve, $26) is partly a memoir and partly a meditation on spirituality. Ehrenreich, who was until recently a proud, public atheist, relates a supernatural experience that happened to her as a teenager and her subsequent attempts to tamp down the memory of it. Much of Wild God is about Ehrenreich reading through her journals from those teenage and college years, and reflecting on who she was and what she saw.
Whether you agree with her about her experience or not—I was an atheist before I read the book, and I remain an atheist as I write this—you'll find a lot of high-quality thinking about the nature of belief here. And the writing is melancholy and gorgeous. Here Ehrenreich reflects on life in Montana and what Big Sky Country can do to a person:
You could be standing firmly on the ground, trusting in gravity to keep you earthbound, and then—poof—some part of you gets sucked up into the sky, leaving just a crisp of a person behind. This is what I always imagined happened to a cousin of my mother's, who lived on a farm in eastern Montana and out of the blue shot himself dead with a rifle when he was only nineteen. It was the blue, I guess, that got to him.
Ehrenreich considers the heady mix of scientific understanding and oblivious solipsism that allows most atheists to go about their daily business without crumpling into a defeated little ball. "A solipsist can never be reduced to 'nothing but'—'nothing but' atoms or electrons or synaptic firings—because she knows that all these are flickerings of the mind and that she alone is mind." Even with no God, there is a faith there that most atheists take for granted.
I don't want to ruin the story of Ehrenreich's spiritual experience by roughly recapping it here—it took her decades to get up the strength to share the story to more than a person or two—but in Wild God, too, the spiritual experience is kind of not even the point. Ehrenreich's curious mind wanders from hungry viruses—"just a strand or two of nucleic acid coated with the protein it codes for"—all the way out to the eternally exploding furnace of the sun in a matter of paragraphs, and she relates the sad story of her upbringing along the way, too. Raised by distant and often clueless parents, Ehrenreich thought she had it all figured out as a confident young woman. It took a very long time to admit that she didn't know everything, and that's the exact spot where most spiritual journeys begin.