Hadestown, by Anais Mitchell

The musical Hadestown first came on my radar early in 2019, a few months into my middle schooler’s Hamilton obsession. I was duly impressed with the latter’s theatrical and historical merits. But after a steady diet of the Schuyler Sisters, I was ready to see what else was on the contemporary Broadway scene.

But it wasn’t until about six months ago that I actually cued up a Hadestown playlist on YouTube. I was immediately swept away by the haunting melodies and intricate harmonies, but most of all, by the sense of yearning. I told my daughter, “You’ve got to listen to this.”

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Some Form of Grace, by Dee Dee Chumley

It seems natural to follow the foregoing review of Grace, by Natashia Deon, with a review of Some Form of Grace, by Dee Dee Chumley. The settings and stories differ widely, but, as the titles indicate, similar themes run through both books.

At the outset of Some Form of Grace, Gracene is about to be released from a minimum security prison in Oklahoma City. Her mother, she tells us, used to say that upon first laying eyes on her baby she knew the child’s name must be “some form of grace.”

“[The name] ‘suited’ me like a tutu suits a giraffe or like ballet slippers suit size ten clodhoppers,” Gracene contends.

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Grace, Part II, or the Workings of Grace

In part I of this review, I offered my caveats and disclaimers about Grace, by Natashia Deón. If, like me, you find the triumvirate of sex, swearing, and violence unsettling, you might think twice before picking up this realistic novel set in the Civil War-era South.

But Japanese filmmaker Akiro Kurasawa said, “To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.” Deón’s resolute realism is a brutal kind of artistry. It requires us to face the moral and physical carnage committed in the name of slavery. But the persistent presence of the titular quality–grace–even in seemingly irredeemable circumstances underscores its invincibility.

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Grace, by Natashia Deón, Part I

I met Natashia Deón at the 2018 Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spoke to a standing-room-only conference room on how to deal authentically with faith issues in a post-modern, pluralistic society.

Deón said much that was both practical and inspiring. But the overwhelming impression left by her presentation and my brief personal interaction with her is respect. It was the value with which Deón, a devout Christian, advised writers to handle all faiths. It was the ethic with which she invariably treated her listeners and fellow speakers. And it was the sentiment inspired by her humility, integrity, and clear thinking.

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Once Upon a River, Part II: Reading in the Dark Season

You will never read a book about perfect people in a perfect world. If you happen to stumble upon and launch into such a book, I predict you will put it down by chapter 2, if not before.

But why, exactly, is that? If we long for world peace, why don’t we enjoy reading about it?

A thorough investigation of that question could fill volumes and venture into the realms of psychology, philosophy, and myth, among others. But one accessible explanation is that we need characters we can relate to. And none of us is perfect.

Certain masterpieces shock us with unapologetic images of human nature at its worst. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment , William Golding’s Pincher Martin, and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor come to mind. The latter wrote that to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

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Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield, Part I

Fiction is my first love. Duty, however, seems to dictate my reading more often than preference. So when the opportunity to curl up with a work of fiction arises, the question of what to read is critical.

Not short story; I want the immersive experience of a novel. Not escapism; it’s like being given a satin sheet when I need a down blanket. But neither do I crave a burlap bag of rocks—nor even marble busts. One year I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in mid-winter. It’s a masterpiece. But I didn’t read the sequel, and since then I have carefully culled my cold-season reading to exclude war, politics, family drama, and apocalypse. Admittedly, that narrows the options considerably. But with millions of books in print, one must narrow the options or drown in the literary flood.

I began Once Upon a River, on the recommendation of my author aunt, in late August. The first chapters unsettled me. Not because the content was disturbing. But because the prose was too transporting, the river too alluring, and, above all, the characters too captivating.

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19th-century Travel in Russian Turkestan

This post returns to the subject of some my Central Asia resource reviews from 2014 (Ole Olufsen, Bukhara and Khiva photographic archivesThrough Khiva to Golden Samarkand, and In Russian Turkestan). A desire to redeem the inordinate amount of time I spent chasing down fascinating facts last Friday is partial motivation. But I also hope what I discovered will interest and assist others as well. Continue reading

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True Grit, by Charles Portis

Watching True Grit with my parents just before being quarantined inspired my husband, thirteen-year-old daughter, and me to borrow the book from my sister (this was really a family affair) and read it together. I have to confess that the three of us gave it rather lukewarm reviews. However, as my sister referred to it as one of her favorite books (a far more important recommendation than its literary accolades), I thought I should investigate further before posting a two-and-a-half star review.

As it turns out, listening to the Close Reads podcast discussion of True Grit boosted my regard not only for Charles Portis but a for whole genre of American writing that is little on my radar. The commentators, Tim McIntosh, Angelina Stanford, and David Kern, alerted me to a rich subtext that I was largely unconscious of. Well, to be perfectly accurate, I was fairly certain the content of Rooster’s stories (among other things) carried significance but had difficulty identifying it. Continue reading

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Fairy stories of George MacDonald

The intuitive outcome of my February 2020 reading was a resolution to make George MacDonald a literary staple of future winters. A logical accounting of what makes his fairy stories particularly suitable for the season, however, has proved more elusive.

MacDonald’s fairy tales are by no means escapist. Some, like “The Wise Woman,” are unscrupulously didactic. Nor does it do them justice merely to call them “hopeful,” in contrast to much contemporary literature I have run across of late. Continue reading

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The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance, by Erik Varden

I read this short volume a month or so ago, but Holy Week strikes me as an appropriate time to review it. The title is a trifle misleading, in that Varden (b. 1974), a Benedictine monk from Norway, writes not so much about loneliness as about the whole of the Christian life. Loneliness, nevertheless, provides an apt starting point from which to approach theology; the basis of Christianity is God’s drawing near to us and, thus, drawing believers into fellowship with one another.

Loneliness is also uniquely relevant during these weeks and months in which people all over the world have intentionally, and largely voluntarily, isolated themselves as a precaution against COVID 19. Nevertheless, viewed from another perspective, not since WWII have people around the globe been united in their vulnerability and response to a single crisis.  Continue reading

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