Stephanie Saldana’s Memoir Bread of Angels

It is understandable to want to run screaming from a “spiritual memoir”—especially when you discover it’s been written by a 27-year-old. Memoirs are bad enough, with their cringe-making confessions, their sordid tale-telling, and their self-important self-examination. Why, the reader too often wonders, should we care about you?

Spiritual memoirs frequently inhabit the lowest tier of this navel-gazing. In a regular memoir, at least, stuff happens: families move because someone’s on the lam. Drunken parents behave horribly. Depressed parents behave worse. There are bad guys and good guys, victims and victimizers. There’s a plot, in other words, and, in the best versions, redemption or resolution. In a spiritual memoir, all the action occurs in an internal landscape; often, the narrator has retreated, literally, to a place without people, discourse, or activity. A transformation reshapes the heart and soul of the narrator through—there’s no other word for this—revelation. Only the very best writers and thinkers can pull this off. Annie Dillard is one; Karen Armstrong, another. There are dozens, if not hundreds, who cannot: middle-aged women who leave civilization to go digging in the dirt, teenagers who rebel against their strict religious upbringing, and born-again Christians who write rapturously of their conversion.