Some January writing and a few favorite things

Here in the Midwest, we are cheering on the end of January as it edges us closer to spring every blessed moment.

We all have our winter coping skills. This year, mine has centered around our new wood stove, which I wrote about for Good Letters last week. Other coping skills include spending time with a friend from church who invites me and my two littles to her house to lavish us with coffee and delicious breakfast treats, YA novels, singing songs with my family in the evening, and solitary walks around the local cemetery.

Cemetery, snow, solitude.

Cemetery, snow, solitude.

What are your winter coping skills?

Another piece of mine was published this month. I wrote a review for Christian Century about a book called Living Sustainably. Check out my review here.

As we close out the month, I thought I'd share a few books and some music that have soothed my winter blues.

Books

No heavy reading this month (there is enough in the daily newspaper). I find Jane Austen to be very comforting. But instead of revisiting my favorite Austen titles, I read a few Austen inspired books this month. 

1. Unequal Affections by Lara S. Ormiston is a slant retelling of Pride and Prejudice: what would've happened between Darcy and Elizabeth (and therefore the rest of the Bennets) if Lizzy had accepted Darcy's first proposal? A light and fun read. 

2. Dear Mr. Knightly by Katherine Reay is a story told largely in letter form. A young woman, who survived a troubled childhood by immersing herself in Austen novels, writes letters to the benefactor who is paying for her education. I wasn't completely sold on the ending but I enjoyed the reading of it.

3. Longbourn by Jo Baker. Though I actually read this in September, it is in the same Austen category. Although this is set in the Bennet house, this is not the story of our beloved Lizzy and Jane. Instead, this novel follows the servants of the Bennet house, their love stories, their painful secrets, their fears, and their joys. It is a grittier view of the Bennet household, and from the view downstairs, the sisters don't always look quite as lovely. I really enjoyed it!

4. I've just started this one: Lizzy and Jane, another Austen retelling by Katherine Reay, follows Lizzy, a high-powered chef. When her career hits a wall, Lizzy returns to the home she hasn't visited in the 15 years since her mother died. 

And any fiction list of mine wouldn't be complete without a YA novel. This month I read The Speaker, the second book in a fantasy series by Traci Chee. Set in a world where all books and words have been hidden or destroyed, this second book continues to follow Sefia and Archer, a pair of young people on the run from the Guard who hunt them for their power and the secrets they could reveal.

Music:

The Porter's Gate Worship Project, Vol 1, Work Songs

This album is a creative project that grew out of a community of artists, part of a "sacred arts collective" combining the talents of artists like Liz Vice, Audrey Assad, David Gungor, and Josh Garrels to bring a dynamic collection of songs. My favorites: We Labor Unto Glory, Father Let Your Kingdom Come, and In the Fields of the Lord.

Sergio Mendes

I've been dancing around the house to Mendes' Brasiliero for decades. But I've introduced my kids to it and we get a kick out of twisting our heels to make dinnertime and cleanup a little more interesting. 

Favorite Acts of Beauty: Volume 2

I'm linking up today with Leigh Kramer's "What I'm Into." Visit her page and read some of the other link ups. Heck, do your own if you're so inclined.

What I'm Into

Books

For some reason, I had trouble finishing a single book in November. Well, there actually is a reason: I've been reading bits of so many books that I haven't finished any of them. I nearly finished one but it was on December 1st. I'm going to count it anyway.

The one book I finished:

Between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

As Toni Morrison says, "this is required reading." Winner of the 2015 National Book Award, this is a letter to Coates' teenage son. But really, it's a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, eye-opening (can I say any more cliche book review words?) look at Coates life growing up in Baltimore, and what his experience, parentage, history, and education have shown him about "a systemized, ubiquitous threat to 'black bodies' in the form of slavery, police brutality, and mass incarceration." (Jon Foro) Those who have wondered why so many are so heartbroken about the many recent killings of African Americans by the police should read this. I don't have anything clever to say about it because I think I just need to listen instead.

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Other books

I'm usually a fiction kind of a girl. But I've been on a Saint kick lately. Can you be on a Saint kick? I think so. It's a bit like a food craze except it's a lot healthier for you.

What led me to the saints? Well, really, it was the coloring pages my daughter brought home from school and possibly a garden statue.

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I'll explain.

My 1st grader goes to a Catholic School. We are not Catholic. We didn't grow up Catholic. But I love the Catholics. And I'm growing to love their saints. When my daughter brought home a coloring page for the celebration of Therese de Lisieux, the "little saint," I was hooked. What a lovely celebration of the minutea, of the small life, of the little flowers that are at the back of garden. After that, I found an old wooden statue of St Francis in my grandmother's garden (we were cleaning out her home) and I adopted him, both as a garden ornament and as my patron saint.

In that vein, I wrote a piece at Good Letters, an Image Journal blog about trying to be a mystic and a mom. Spoiler alert: it's not going well.

But still, I press on. Here are the saints and mystics I am reading about. I'm not promising to finish all of them: sometimes they can be a bit tedious. After all, they didn't have anything else to do right?*

Francis of Assisi: the Essential Writings by Jon M. Sweeney

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Waiting for God by Simone Weil

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The Interior Castle by St Theresa of Avila

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*Just kidding. I know the saints did a lot of stuff like nursing lepers, pilgrimages, preaching naked (St. Francis at least). And depriving yourself of food takes away a lot of your energy too.

TV

We don't watch much around here. Not from any moral stance but really, the only free moments for TV are at bedtime. And then, we just fall asleep. Having said that, my husband and I can usually sneak in one or two episodes of our recent favorite British import:

Doc Martin

I've read the terms "socially awkward," "socially inept," and "rude" to describe the brilliant surgeon who's sudden fear of blood leads him to a small coastal town where he becomes the GP (General Practitioner) and encounters all manner of quirky but well-meaning locals. But really, my favorite term is "dyspeptic." Not sure what it means but the word sounds like a belch. Doc Martin would be disgusted.

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Music

Sara Groves' album "Floodplain": can't say enough about this album which covers depression, anxiety, children growing up, marriage, doubts, second guessing, and more.

The Liturgists' "Oh Light": The Liturgists are a collection of many artists but this particular song is sung by the members of the band Gungor. A welcome addition to the small selection of albums just for Advent.

Judy Collins' (feat Willie Nelson) "When I go": seriously, listen to it. It's beautiful.

YA blog series: Amy Peterson's take on Eleanor & Park

I'm honored to share Amy Peterson's contribution to this series about a YA book that she isn't embarrassed to read. I'm honored because, among other things, Amy is incredibly well-read, a killer writer, a great editor, and a gracious friend. Her writing is distinguished by clarity of thought, beautiful metaphors, and sharp wit.  Amy Peterson teaches ESL and works with the Honors Guild at Taylor University. Follow her on twitter and read more at her blog.

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My favorite scene in Eleanor & Park takes place in the title characters’ English class.  Eleanor is explaining to her teacher why she doesn’t care that Romeo and Juliet die.

“I just don’t think it’s a tragedy.”

“It’s the tragedy,” Mr. Stessman said.

She rolled her eyes.  She was wearing two or three necklaces, old fake pearls, like Park’s grandmother wore to church, and she twisted them while she talked. “But he’s so obviously making fun of them,” she said.

“Who is?”

“Shakespeare.”

“Do tell…”

She rolled her eyes again.  She knew Mr. Stessman’s game by now.  “Romeo and Juliet are just two rich kids who’ve always gotten every little thing they want. And now, they think they want each other.”

“They’re in love,” Mr. Stessman said, clutching his heart.

“They don’t even know each other,” she said.

“It was love at first sight.”

“It was ‘Oh my God, he’s so cute’ at first sight.  If Shakespeare wanted you to believe they were in love, he wouldn’t tell you in almost the very first scene that Romeo was hung up on Rosaline… It’s Shakespeare making fun of love,” she said.

“Then why has it survived?”

“I don’t know, because Shakespeare is a really good writer?”

“No!” Mr. Stessman said. “Someone else, someone with a heart. Mr. Sheridan, what beats in your chest? Tell us, why has Romeo and Juliet survived four hundred years?”

Park hated talking in class.  Eleanor frowned at him, then looked away.  He felt himself blush.

“Because…” he said quietly, looking at his desk, “because people want to remember what it’s like to be young? And in love?”

 

This scene delighted me because I felt the author, Rainbow Rowell, winking at me in it.  See, she said, I know I’m writing a book about teenagers in love.  I know there is something eye-rolling about teenagers in love. But there is also something essential about what it means to be human in it. This is the kind of story that helps us understand what it means to be human.

I was reading the book over the summer, pleasure reading in a well-balanced diet of summer pleasure reading which included Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer; Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo; The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon; More Than Conquerors by Megan Hustad; and Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen. In other words, along with YA, I was reading literary novels, middle grade fiction, literary nonfiction, and memoir.

Around the same time, Slate published Ruth Graham’s article “Against YA” (yeah, I’m not going to link to this nonsense).  I rolled my eyes as I read it - and, according to the article, if something makes you roll your eyes and say “Oh brother,” it’s a sign that it’s not worth reading.  So I rolled my eyes and thought, “Ok, so the movie version of TFiOS is coming out, and Graham was trying to think of an article to pitch about that, and she thought, “I know what would get a lot of page-views: criticizing YA!” I rolled my eyes, but apparently it lit a fire.

The article’s argument is kind of all over the place, first claiming that “adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children,” then following that with caveats and disclaimers and whining. It’s not really worth going into, except for this - Graham mentions Romeo and Juliet, too.  It’s ok for teenagers to be the subjects of our stories, she says, like they are in R&J -- the problem with YA is two fold: 1) “it presents the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way” and 2) “these books indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple.  YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future.”

Taking these two criteria into consideration, it’s Eleanor & Park that emerges as the more serious work of literature, not Romeo & Juliet.  E&P has just as self-aware of a perspective on what it means to be a teenager in love as R&J does, but  -- spoiler -- a more complex ending!  It’s R&J that has a neatly wrapped-up conclusion, the heroes dead.  E&P’s ending is ambiguous - the very thing Ruth Graham praises about adult literature!

Ruth Graham concludes “Against YA” talking about all that she learned “about love, relationships, sex, trauma, happiness, and all the rest—you know, life”  from the literary fiction she’s read.  But of all the books I read this summer, Eleanor and Park is probably the one that has made me think most about my life: about classism, racism, the way that art builds bridges between disparate people, how strong teenagers have to be to survive sometimes, the way a community should care for children when parents can’t or won’t, and the kinds of relationships that bring healing even when they don’t last forever.

Six months later, I’m still thinking about this book, remembering its smart writing (when Eleanor describes a tall, popular bully as a probably a “descendant of the Nephilim,” I snorted my coffee and texted my T.A. about it) and evocative descriptions. I’m still talking with my adult friends about it, talking about how, reading it, I realized that the girl I idolized for her free-spirited style in highschool was probably, like Eleanor, actually just poor -- “That was me in highschool, too,” my friend says, “wearing eccentric vintage clothes because I got them free, not because I was a free spirit.”

Being embarrassed of reading Twilight is one thing.  But if you’re don’t pick up Eleanor and Park because you’re too embarrassed to be reading YA, then you’re missing a story as classic and moving as - and perhaps even more complex, gritty and realistic than - Romeo and Juliet. You’re missing out.

YA fiction blog series: narrative, imagination, and Many Waters

Today, I'm starting a new blog series about YA fiction. I am asking my guest bloggers to write about one book that serves as an example of YA literature that they aren’t embarrassed to read. What makes a good YA book more than just “maudlin teen drama.” What draws us to YA as adults and what can the YA genre offer as a narrative structure that other genres cannot? I will kick off the series today with a rumination on narrative, imagination, and Madeleine L'Engle's Many Waters. ManyWaters1

Story is essential to the human experience. We cannot help but write the stories of our lives, and we do this to make sense out of who we are, where we came from, and who we will be.

But story has become less important in our culture. Postmodern art is often about the lack of grand narrative and lack of universal truth. And while this isn’t all bad, sometimes after I read certain types of adult fiction, I am left with a sense of the unending hopelessness of our cultural belief in fractured narratives.

The YA fiction I enjoy reading gives me a different sense: a sense of the redemption, hopefulness, and meaning in the stories our imaginations can create. YA fiction is often the last connection we have to fairy tales. Where some adult fiction can leave fantasy and fairy tale behind in favor of more “serious topics,” YA still allows itself the indulgence. For me, this indulgence in fantasy, imagination, and stories that are akin to fairy tales of old, is actually in line with more "serious topics" than many adult novels.

Though our culture shies away from platitudes and we grow into understandings that bring needed nuance, we still have a deep need for the moral order that existed for us when we were children. Fairy tales and fantasy stories are important for our children and for us, not to give a place to escape, but to give meaning to the reality we are living, to help express the chaos and confusion of life in ordered narrative forms, forms where there is always hope for the good, even when it doesn’t always seem to be the case in real life.

Around the time that C.S. Lewis was becoming more convinced of the truth of God, Lewis and Tolkien were discussing myths. At the time, Lewis believed that myths were beautiful and powerful, but ultimately, “lies and therefore worthless.”[i] Tolkien protested. Far from being lies, myths and fairy tales express truth in ways that would otherwise be extremely difficult to articulate. Because we were all created by God, our myths and fairy tales “reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.”[ii] Those ancient debunked myths and legends are actually “God expressing Himself through the mind of poets, using the images of their ‘mythopoeia’ to reveal fragments of his His eternal truth.”[iii] This relationship with Tolkien and their conversations about myth and fairy tales led C.S. Lewis to belief not only in God but in Christ Himself.

Madeleine L’Engle, who was deeply influenced by the stories and philosophies of Tolkien, Lewis, and George MacDonald, wrote so many good books. But one of my favorites of L’Engle’s YA fiction is Many Waters.

Although this book is one in the Time Quartet/Quintet that begins with her more popular A Wrinkle in Time, it is also a departure from the other members of the series: it’s a retelling of the Biblical story of the Flood.

I was drawn into Many Waters when I encountered Yalith, the daughter of Noah. Though Yalith is still a child in many ways, she is not naïve. She has clear eyes as she watches her family and friends sinking deeper into the darkness that the sons of God, the Nephilim, have brought into creation. She refuses the advances of that darkness and in return, she’s given a place with the angels.

L’Engle’s retelling of the Biblical story is full of magical creatures and the presence of angels, something that’s heretical to many Christians. As indicated by the reaction of some to the recent movie, Noah, Christians are often afraid and angry when their beloved stories are retold. But I think that’s one beautiful part of Biblical stories. The narratives are so rich that they invite (as with midrash) interpretation and re-imagining.

For me, Many Waters encompasses many of the things I love about YA: it has a strong and imaginative narrative and it adds nuance and magic to a story so it can be approached with new eyes. L'Engle's novel opened up my eyes to the very imaginative possibilities inherent in Biblical stories that I've read so often. In Many Waters, L’Engle was taking on what Tolkien would call the “one true myth:” the stories of God’s work in our world.

Please return next week when another writer will take on YA fiction. 

[i] Joseph Pearce. Tolkien: Man and Myth (p 57) [ii] Pearce, p 58. [iii] Pearce, p 59.

What the Dickens?

I used to hate Charles Dickens.  And that's coming from an English major.

I thought he was depressing and if I had to read about another sad boy living in the dank alleyways of London, I might scream.

Perhaps it has a lot to do with how my heart has changed that I have returned to Charles Dickens for the very reason I left him: for his willingness to write about the dark and ugly parts of life, for the human quirks of his characters, for his brilliant wit that skewers the timeless absurdities of human vanity and pride.

His details show a loving attention to the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.  In this day, Dickens might be the one demanding justice on twitter and blogs for the millions of homeless children, trafficked girls and political prisoners. (Or maybe I'm taking the twitter thing too far. Frankly, he might have strong words for the isolation of our social networking).

Now, don't get me wrong.  Just because you don't like Dickens doesn't mean you're against social justice.  I mean, the guy seriously needed an editor.

But if you're looking for a new read, give Little Dorrit a try.  A novel about a young woman who is born and raised in a debtor's prison and continues to care for her imprisoned father even though she's free...it's a story of deep love and sacrifice worth reading.

My own review: M. Gungor's The Crowd, the Critic, and the Muse

In his book The Crowd, the Critic and the Muse: A book for creators, Michael Gungor (of the self-described "liturgical post-rock" band Gungor) had me at snark.  In the first chapter, he describes the way many artists connect their work to whatever they call their muse.  He recalls how some singers in Christian circles attribute a particular performance to their muse saying, "Thanks, but it wasn't me, it was God." Gungor's snark replies, "Oh in that case, God was a little flat on that second verse."

Now, the book isn't all snark, but I do appreciate Gungor's irreverence and his critique of the limitations of fundamentalist Christianity (and fundamentalist thought of any kind) on the artist. Fundamentalism restricts artistic expression while faith coupled with doubt can actually give wings to the imagination. Without doubt he says, belief calcifies into rigid fundamentalism.  Without doubt, there are no questions; and without questions, there is no imagination.

The basic premise of the book is that an artist must decide which voice he/she will listen to: the crowd, the critic or the muse.  For Gungor, all of us have creative and artistic power because creativity is the ordering of the potential already found within creation whether that be the making of a computer or the composing of a symphony.

Some of the passages that resonated with me most were the ones about the dangers of creating exclusively for the critic. Sometimes the loudest voice is the critic.  And often this is an imagined critic whose voice is so powerful because it resonates with the voices of our deepest fears, those voices speaking from inside of us, telling us that we are not good enough...it is untrustworthy...but the critic doesn't care about your work in the same way you do.

This quote echoes something my mom has often said, "Christiana, no one cares as much about that as you do (except for me, because I'm your mother). So get over it."

While Gungor's book can be a bit meandering at times, I thoroughly enjoyed the way he combines engaging personal stories with musings and philosophising about the value of art and creativity, the importance of what Madeleine L'Engle would call 'obedience' to the work and most beautifully his own struggles with doubt.*

A great read for the creator in all of us.

PS If you haven't heard Gungor's album Ghosts upon the earth, it is well worth a listen.

*Gungor doesn't actually quote L'Engle...but I will take any opportunity to do so...I love her.