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. 

Year End Favorites

Year-end lists are fashionable among my writerly friends. So, I thought in my free moments, I would add my own small voice to the fray. Here are my top five in two categories:

Music

1. Advent song: Amanda Palmer's version of The Angel Gabriel

I'm not a fan of Amanda Palmer. Don't get me wrong; it's not that I actively dislike her, I just don't know much of her music. From what I have listened to though, she's less of a singer and more of an artist. Her voice is shaky and deep, which works for a certain style but not usually for choral hymns. However, her version of The Angel Gabriel is haunting and hypnotic and reminiscent of the chanting of medieval monks.

I do find Palmer interesting. Her TEDtalk was inspiring and her art is weird and, like this hymn, fascinating. Plus, her husband, Neil Gaiman has written some of my favorite books. The pair of them are equally weird and wonderful.

2. Worship music: All the Poor and Powerless by All Sons and Daughters

I used to loathe most worship music played on the radio. And truthfully, I still find most of it too saccharin and unchallenging to be worth my time. But I discovered All Sons and Daughters while working on leading a worship service with a friend.

3. Alternative: Shovels and Rope: The Devil's All Around

I heard this unusual married duo on an NPR interview. It's just the two of them, pounding on drums and a guitar about as hard as they pound out their voices.

4. Throwback Country: Randy Travis' Deeper than the Holler

My husband and I were listening to a Pandora station recently and discovered our mutual love of 90s country music: Trisha Yearwood, Randy Travis, Martina McBride, and Deana Carter. These folks sang the soundtrack of our high school days. And how can you resist listening to this classic love song, sung loud with your husband about how our love is "longer than the song of the whippoorwill?"

5. Folk rock: The Staves' Dead & Born & Grown

I love this entire album from a trio of English sisters. Their harmonies bring me back to singing hymns with my own two sisters.

Books (in no particular order)

1. Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

3. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

4. Rae Carson's Fire and Thorns Trilogy (see Karissa Know Sorrell's reflection on this YA fantasy with a strong heroine)

5. Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys Quartet (though only three are out so far)

6. Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Armand Gamache mysteries beginning with Still Life

7. Sara Zarr's Story of a Girl

9. Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark

10. Tamora Pierce's Lioness Rampant

and one to grow on...

11. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

YA Blog series: On Rites of Passage by C.F. LAPINEL

I have known C.F. Lapinel for many years. We made it through grad school together, huddled in pubs and coffee shops during winter, hunkering down to write from our imaginations about odd children who lived in worlds of make-believe and fantasy. I've always appreciated not only his "childlike mind," his boundless imagination, and his ability to craft a complex and beautiful sentence, but also his kindness and compassion. One day, I hope to see his YA novel of three sisters sitting on a bookstore shelf. 

You can read more of his writing at bluestonescribe.com and follow him on twitter at @BluestoneScribe

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“All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it.”

― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

A distant acquaintance reminded me recently: “Some minds work overtime to make sense of their world...” He was telling me, I think, that I have something of a childlike mind, something I've always been glad to see not only in myself but in others. It’s true that some minds do work overtime. And this is just what young-adult fiction helps us do: make sense of our world. Iʼd even argue that the more skeptical the mind, the more relevant young-adult literature becomes, for we need just such tools to learn to navigate the often bewildering world in which we live.

In ancient times, people practiced rites-of-passage more commonly than we do now; at least in the formal, recognizable sense. When the village elders split these young-adults-to-be into groups and readied them, this activity engaged the whole community. Parents participated as well as non-parents, particularly if the non-parents were extended family; and most everybody in a tribal community would have been extended family.

These rites had relevance to everyone, young and old alike.

For the adults, Iʼd hazard a guess that something psychologically complex occurred. To periodically prepare (and observe) a new generation facing the same rite they too experienced in youth would be an opportunity to revisit old emotions and compare them with present thoughts and emotions. Memories of the focused fear and excitement upon entering the mysterious rite would have become diffused with age, distilled into a more settled, perhaps jaded, understanding of what life in the village truly required, in relationship with the raw, majestic power of the natural world. I would assume that the inevitable evaluation, or re-evaluation, of the village mythology would result in reaffirming or else challenging faith in the community.*

There is no great leap of logic required to see young-adult literature as the modern descendant of these ancient rites. The painful and humiliating experience of those rites endured by our once youthful ancestors is now communicated to youth in literature, tasking them to imagine themselves as archetypal protagonists. When we were young, what were our brains doing as we consumed books like The Hobbit,The Wind in the Willows,Grimm's Fairy Tales, and The Outsiders? What do our brains do now as we revisit them?

Aren't we just as much Huckleberry Finn, each of us, as a Harry Potter, or a Nancy Drew as we ever were? And weren't these characters once known as Anansi, Odysseus, or Ishtar?

Every time we reread these stories we learn something altogether new. These stories recount our ancestral fear and ignorance; remind us of our thirst for discovery, identity, and power; and describe the responsibility we must take for what Voltaire called "our little garden".

If however we don't know the old stories or even the newest ones, like Percy Jackson & the Olympians, we have a responsibility to learn them. By actively participating in and encouraging young-adult literature, we are behaving like responsible gatekeepers for our community, encountering ourselves and others in relationships. We are choosing to reaffirm faith in the community or challenge it, based on whether we wish our children to share the experience we had or not.

In so doing, we are testing the cycle of identity, the cycle of the self, of who we have become, both as individuals and as a wider community. Do we break the cycle, as it exists, or do we recommit and affirm the values of the community? Are we truly behaving in a responsible way? Are we facing our fears, surmounting our obstacles, embracing life? Or has something gone wrong?

Hal Borland, a well-known American columnist also wrote the young-adult novel When the Legends Die about a native-American hero named Tom who rediscovers his roots. I love Hal Borland. His writing is spare and ethereal. He was perhaps best known for his nature column in the The New York Times, which he maintained until his death in 1978. The dominant theme of When the Legends Die is self-discovery in the midst of social decay. Tom Blackbull is a young Ute tribesman in early 20th century America. Told with with grim grace, Borland's tale follows Tom from early childhood in the wilderness, where he loses his parents George and Bessie, into adulthood as he struggles to come to terms with modern life, a life that does not offer him a welcoming place. Tom’s conflicted attitude toward his ethnic heritage reflects in both his self-esteem and the choices he'll make throughout. Should he accept the fractured, defeated identity that awaits him on the reservation? Or should he embrace the life his mother taught him in the wilderness?

Once more he slept, and dreamed, and he was alone, walking over the earth in the night. He came to a mountain and he said, “I have forgotten who I am.” There was no answer. He said, “I was the boy who went with Blue Elk and did what he said I must do.” Again there was no answer. “I went with Red Dillon and did what he said I must do.” Still there was no answer. “I killed as they taught me to kill!” he cried.And at last the mountain's voice asked, “Why?” -Hal Borland, When the Legends Die

There is an elegiac tone to the work. This stems from the omnipresent feeling that the cultural identity that Tom must choose is ultimately futile. His is a culture in decline, rapidly decaying and taking it's few remaining people with it. Whoever he becomes cannot be passed. Who he is will end with him. In Tom’s world, when legends die so too finally dies all of his ancestors, their souls lost to oblivion. And through Tom's inimitable struggle, some alienated young-adults and a few of us old scrappers may also feel that oblivion rising over us. How did we handle the crisis? Will we be more or less successful next time? In a classic book like this one, you might 'find' yourself.

*For more on these rites and descriptions of different types practiced around the world in various ages, including our own, please read Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces or Sir James Frazier's classic The Golden Bough. These are two excellent and illuminating works in this regard.

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.