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>A Merry Heart

September 28, 2009

>It was February, a very low time of the year for me. I was in the library grabbing some audiobooks and picked up one entitled A Merry Heart, thinking that at least it wouldn’t plunge me further into seasonal depression. But it did depress me, even though it’s not a sad story. It’s told badly enough to make you sad, but not so badly that it gets amusing.

I listened to it all the way through for two reasons. One is that I like to finish books; if I don’t, I keep imagining different possible endings, so if I do not like a book, it’s best for me to go ahead and see how the author imagined the ending. The other reason I finished it is because after a while, I developed the kind of morbid fascination that I sometimes get this time of year looking at a particularly big and ugly spider (orb spiders inspire this reaction).

A Merry Heart is so badly written that it wasn’t able to articulate some of its main points about life and stuff:
“Anna felt something soft and furry rub against her leg, and she opened her eyes. One of the calico barn cats sat at her feet, staring up at her with eyes half closed, peacefully purring. She leaned over and stroked the animal behind its ears. ‘I think Miriam could learn a lesson from you, Callie. She needs to take the time to relax more, enjoy each precious moment, and carefully search for the right man to love.’
The cat meowed as if in agreement and promptly fell asleep.”
Probably because Anna had already bored it with her “tell and don’t show” philosophy.

Anna is the Amish mother of the main character, Miriam. They live near Lancaster, PA, where Miriam’s mood changes are signaled by descriptions of nature, as here:
As Miriam approached the stream, she noticed a change in leaves on the trees and realized that they were on the verge of being kissed by crimson colors as fall crept in. Something about the peacefulness of the water gurgling over the rocks and the gentle wind caressing her face caused Miriam to think about Nick McCormick. Perhaps it was only the fact that the two of them had visited in this same spot several months before that brought his name to mind.”
A man and woman of marriageable age meet in an isolated rural spot and the word for what they did is “visited”?

Nick “visits” with Miriam again, speaking to her as if he were a first-year college student assigned to write a paper about her: “I find you to be quite fascinating, Miriam, yet your ways are a bit strange to me and hard to understand. I’d like to find out more about you and your Amish traditions….I know you’re expected to remain separate from the rest of the world, but I don’t grasp the reasons behind such a lifestyle.” After Miriam delivers a little infomercial about the Amish way of life, Nick tells readers how we’re supposed to be reacting: “It sounds pretty hard to live like that, but I supposed if you’re content and feel that your way of life makes you happy, then who am I to say it’s wrong?” The infomercials continue throughout the second half of the book, including this scintillating bit of dialogue spoken to Miriam by one of her closest friends: “As you know, divorce isn’t an acceptable option among the Old Order Amish.”

Miriam habitually speaks in cliches, especially when anyone questions whether she’s doing the right thing: “Life is full of hardships and pain, but each of us has the power within to rise above our troubles and take control.” At the end of her story she tells her mother that she was right all along, that all Miriam needed was to find the right man: “You’ve been right all along, and I just couldn’t see it. God wants His children to have merry hearts. It’s my hope that anyone in our future generations who see this sampler will know that the only way to be truly healthy spiritually is to have a merry heart.” (Notice the subject-verb agreement error?)

You can find “inspirational” books like this one in racks by the checkout at Wal-Mart. Here in the heart of Amish country the rack is sometimes labeled “devotional.” It’s not a kind of book I would have picked up had I seen it in that context. But since I picked it up unknowing at the library, it has now become my second entry in the Critical Monkey contest. Seriously, if you want to get all inspired about religion, read something else. (Something by C.S. Lewis, perhaps.)

19 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2009 2:09 pm

    >HA! A few years ago, I happened upon a display of Amish romance novels in our neigborhood Target and spent a jolly few minutes laughing at the covers and blurbs. I'm glad to know that the actual contents of these books lives up to what I expected was contained within the amusing covers – badly-written Harlequin-esque prose.

  2. September 28, 2009 2:34 pm

    >Lass, I don't really understand the attraction of the Amish romance novel. Jodi Picoult even threw her hat into this ring once, although she upped the ante by having her lovely Amish lass deliver and abandon a baby without anyone ever knowing she'd been pregnant. Maybe it was the success of the movie Witness?

  3. September 28, 2009 3:03 pm

    >It does seem to be an odd niche. Perhaps some publisher did a market research study that showed women in a certain age demographic are yearning for the simple life. Or maybe people are just stupid. 🙂

  4. September 28, 2009 3:13 pm

    >Apparently this is a niche which is growing rapidly. The NYT had an article about it a few days after Labor Day. The Amish community have mixed feelings about them, but they're quiet popular.

  5. September 28, 2009 3:33 pm

    >I wonder whether the stilted prose and lackluster romance might stem from the Amish not reading our more lurid "romances." They appear to lack the vocabulary, not the experiences.

  6. September 28, 2009 3:34 pm

    >Lemming, "quiet popular" how appropriate! Seriously, I imagine the Amish feel about them a little like they do about tours of Amish country. And I feel about those tours kind of like I did as a child about going to the zoo… Who says it's okay to stare at someone's daily life? I think at least some of the romance would be gone if tourists (both literary and actual) could sit in a waiting room with the Amish in winter, or drive around them in their buggies on the way to run errands or find soccer fields.

  7. September 28, 2009 3:35 pm

    >Witchcat, Brunstetter isn't actually Amish. So she can't use that as an excuse.

  8. September 28, 2009 3:41 pm

    >But I totally want to read a book about Callie, the cat who knows how to "carefully search for the right man to love." I mean – that is what the sentence says, right?

  9. September 28, 2009 4:12 pm

    >Joe, yes, I'd have to say that's what the sentence says. I believe that you'd be making a mistake, though, if you assume that it's what the sentence is supposed to mean.On the other hand, I do criticize my students sometimes for believing they know "what the author means" without doing any research to find the range of possibilities.Let me put it another way. Sadly, Callie is not a focus of the novel.

  10. September 28, 2009 4:35 pm

    >I recently stumbled upon this odd genre – maybe through scrolling thru books on Paperback Swap, I dunno – but nothing would make me pick one up and read it.I rarely give up on a book but recently I've given up on a couple. They simply didn't give me enough to care about how it ended. If it doesn't hold my attention, if I can't remember what I read before when I pick it up, when I have no idea what I'm even reading, I close it and move on. I used to hate to give up on books but now I've decided life is too short to give a bad book my attention. I find something more interesting to read.

  11. September 28, 2009 4:42 pm

    >Freshhell, I do give up on a book if it doesn't hold my attention the way you describe. Sometimes I try again later if I think it's a good book (I finally read Woolf's To the Lighthouse at the pool one day, and intend to go back to Chabon's Kavalier and Clay sometime). Usually I give a book about a hundred pages.

  12. September 28, 2009 7:31 pm

    >What a wonderful choice for a Critical Monkey book! Several years ago at an education conference I was giving a couple presentations at I stumbled into a conversation with a couple of women who were going to do a whole unit study on the Amish way of life based on books like the one you reviewed. They had already done one on pioneers on the plains based on another similar series of fiction books. Neither series were based on hard, factual information or research. It was a pretty surreal moment since as a speaker that day I didn't want to be contrary or combative.

  13. September 28, 2009 8:22 pm

    >Oh, this sounds amazingly dreadful!Also, everywhere here is full of those spiders, too. I try to like them, I do, but I think I have walked into a few too many of their webs to really like them. Some people think they are pretty . . .

  14. September 28, 2009 8:41 pm

    >I don't even give them 100 pages – 35-50 max. Since I don't *have* to read a book for class anymore, I don't feel compelled to read something that just isn't doing it for me. Even if it's a classic. Though, most of the ones I've given up on lately don't fall into that category.

  15. September 29, 2009 3:13 pm

    >I hope you enjoyed a few laughs at its absurdity, even if it was unintentional absurdity. I certainly enjoyed reading your commentary!

  16. September 30, 2009 3:54 pm

    >Thank you thank you thank you for sharing this sentence: "The cat meowed as if in agreement and promptly fell asleep." I'm going to try to work that one into some of my own work.

  17. September 30, 2009 4:03 pm

    >Lori, !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Readersguide, I can only like orb spiders from afar. I hate it when they turn the part of my deck I need to walk through to get to the rabbit hutch into a tunnel of horror.Freshhell, I need to adopt more of your attitude; I could do less and be fine.Karen and Andrew, glad you enjoyed it. It's my own personal "good parts version"!

  18. October 2, 2009 2:16 am

    >Seventeen comments??!

  19. October 2, 2009 2:32 pm

    >The only real solid points of understanding I have about the Amish is that they are very attractive to hotties like Harrison Ford and also they have an aversion to buttons.I don't think I need to know more, so I shant be getting the infomercial-in-book-form.Great review! I pity you the read, however.

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