Thursday, August 25, 2016

This Literary Thriller Needs to be Read More Than Once

Today I recommend The Lake House by Kate Morton, which fits into the category of Literary Thriller. This is the genre I’m personally drawn to time and time again. It’s where I always look, if I'm casting about for something “good” to read.

There was a time in my life when I thought “real” readers didn’t read mystery, and I was somewhat embarrassed about my mystery proclivity. That was before I was introduced to the late Ruth Rendell, and also long before I wrote mysteries of my own.

I’ve since gone on to read everything Rendell has ever written, and my one disappointment is that I never got to meet her.

Rendell proved to me that mysteries could be well-written. They didn’t have to be pulpish and predictable. Another author that I read early on was PD James

Both of these authors are gone now, but newer younger authors are taking their place; Kate Atkinson, Gillian Flynn (who I have reviewed for this blog), SJ Watson (who I have also reviewed for this blog), Kate Morton and others.

Morton’s The Lake House, the feature of today's blog, had me glued to the my Kobo eReader screen long into the night.

If you’ve followed this blog, you will know I have written here about the history of the mystery novel, beginning with 
pulp fiction. Now, I don’t want to cast aspersions and say that all pulp fiction is bad writing. It certainly is not. Yet most of it doesn’t have that literary bent that I personally enjoy in a book - musical sentences, compelling plots, and multi-dimensional and flawed characters. 

I have read two Kate Morton books so far, and both kept me riveted. My book club read The House at Riverton  which whetted my appetite. When a friend suggested that I might enjoy The Lake House, I bought it and downloaded it immediately.

The book, almost gothic in its scope, is in essence two stories, no I will amend that—it is multiple stories which span decades and generations. Every “story” is complete with flawed characters and its own plot.

The introductory character, the one that begins The Lake House is Alice, and we see her in 1933  burying a box of “evidence”:

The rain was heavy now and the hem of her dress was splattered with mud. She’d have to hide it afterward; no one could know that she’d been out.

The 2003 story begins with the character of disgraced police officer Sadie:

Sun cut between the leaves, and Sadie ran so that her lungs begged her to stop. She didn’t though; she ran harder, savoring the reassurance of her footfalls.

And of course, the stories, the many of them, intertwine like tangled vines, leaving the reader reading breathlessly until they all weave together satisfactorily at the end.

At first I thought I was going to get confused. I generally like one plot-one character stories, but I did not. I loved this, and will read more of her work.

This leads me to my subject premise— a book like this, a Gothic mystery which spans the years and involves clues, red herrings, blind alleys, and everyone’s own compelling story, needs to be read more than once. Read it only once, and you go from the beginning to the end. You find out “who dunnit.”

Read it again, and the writing springs alive, you can appreciate the placement of clues, why “that” bit of conversation was so important at that place, why “this” clue was placed here and not there. Give it a second reading and there is no feeling of being let down because you “already know” the outcome. No, a second reading will lead you to appreciate how the author did it, and why this falls into the category of Literary Thriller, and not Ordinary Pulp fiction.

Here is a list of Literary Thrillers according to Goodreads. Here is another.

In two weeks: Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King's short story collection.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

How To Start Something New, Part 2

When I wrote Part 1 - How to Start Something New, a Kayak Lesson, I had no idea that there would even be a Part 2 in this discussion. But, that was before I read Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, my recommendation for this week.

As you know, I’m a first line stickler, here’s how she begins:

Q: What is creativity
A. The relationship between a human being and the mysteries of inspiration.

She then goes on to describe this mystery in the most curious way. She likens creative “ideas” to intangible things, such as things in the wind that can be caught. (I picture a huge butterfly net and someone running through a field of ideas). 

She encourages her readers to be aware and willing and waiting and listening for that next big creative “idea.” Although somewhat, at first, woo woo, I think she’s got something there, because it is, as she says, a mystery. I was intrigued. I continued reading.

And as I read, I found myself highlighting passage after passage and typing notes into my Kobo. This is good! Wow! Gotta remember this! With multiple exclamation points!!

She mainly calls upon her own experience as a writer, but she also mentions visual artists, gardeners, figure skaters, musicians and more. And I will add; cake decorators, interior designers, investment bankers, chefs, magicians and Olympic athletes (since we’re in that season). All would benefit by reading this book.

Here are some of my personal gleanings from Big Magic.

Gleaning #1: You’re never too old to begin something new. This was my premise in Kayak Lessons, Part 1. I wrote, that in my dotage I have discovered the joys of kayaking. She tells the story of a friend who began a new creative love and study when she was 84.

Gleaning #2: It all doesn’t have to be about money. In fact, creativity shouldn’t be about money at all. It should be about joy. Yet our society has made everything about money. Sad.

Gleaning #3: It involves some risk.

Gleaning #4: If you are a human, you have a creative gift to offer the world.

She writes a lot about joy, and doing things for pleasure, and it made me ask myself, what do I do for the sheer wonder of it?

1. Kayak - see my original post on the subject. I believe that as we get older, maybe especially as we get older, we need some activity which takes us out into nature - walking, hiking, cycling, skiing, golfing.

2. Colored pencil art - It has not even been a year since I started drawing. Odd for me because I was the first to tell people that “I can’t even draw a straight line”. Well, I’ve since learned that artists don’t need to draw straight lines. Thats what rulers are for.

As mentioned in my first blog on the subject, this has given me such joy. In case you want to look at the colored pencil art of a rank beginner, here’s my Pinterest link.

3. Guitar and singing - Music is such a great love of mine. I call myself an old folksinger, and every other week I sing at a local nursing home. I get to sing all my old favorite Joni Mitchell, Emmy Lou Harris and Carrie Newcomer songs to my heart’s content. I have a wonderful Martin D45 that I got new in my early 20s. (So, I guess it’s an antique noq, because I’m one.)

4. This blog - Ah, yes, this blog. I had long wanted to do a blog in which I recommend books and other things that I like. Note, I use the word “recommend” not “review.” This is not a book review blog where I dole out one and two star reviews and tell the world what’s wrong with Book A and Book B. No, we get too much negativity as it is. There are already too many people giving us one star reviews for everything we do in life. This is a personal blog. I wanted to ask the questions - this book that I loved reading so much,  how does this book affect me personally? I wanted to see if I could come up with something that was half review and half memoir. I don't know if I'm succeeding, but so far, I’m having fun.

5. My own writing - I began writing mystery novels in the early 1990s. Such a long time ago now. In some ways a lifetime ago. It used to be a joy, but somehow over the past few years it has become a job, a drudge, (sort of). Let me explain, Most writers, those of us who are not in the 1%, need to do all of our own marketing. We are called upon more and more to bear the brunt of everything. We get one star Amazon reviews, and we have to simply suck it up and move on. Somehow, over the past few years so much of the joy has been taken out of it for me that Gilbert’s book was like a breath of fresh air. I need to work to get back the joy of my first love. I’m working on it. Not there yet.

Now it’s my turn - What do you do for the sheer joy of it? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

I will end with what Gilbert calls the creative paradox: 

My creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to me if I am to live artistically, and it also must not matter at all, if I am to live sanely.

I admit that I don’t often find that balance.

In the researching of this blog I learned that Elizabeth Gilbert also has a podcast. It’s entitled Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert. Look that one up on iTunes. I've added it to my iPhone list of podcasts. I'll let you know what I think.

In two weeks: The Lake House by Kate Morton. Loved, loved, loved this gothic thriller.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Mystery Novels in the Era of Fear

This week I’m endorsing and recommending The Cutting, the first in a new mystery/detective series by James Hayman. In a previous blog where I reviewed the Gillian Flynn novel, Sharp Objects, I linked to this very informative 1944 New Yorker article entitled, Why Do People Read Detective Stories?

If you can make it through the quaint verbiage and exceedingly long sentences, it is quite interesting, despite the underlying fact that the author does not have a host of enthusiastic and supportive things to say about the esteemed genre. There, that sentence should get you in the mood for the article. Still, if you are interested in the history of genre, this is an article well-worth reading. Since 1944, when the article was written, the genre has grown by leaps and higher leaps.

I have this theory, and if I were doing some sort of academic paper I’d research the whole thing into existence, but for now, it simply remains a theory of mine—I believe that the worse the world around us gets, the more we escape to the inside of a mystery novel, where at the end of the day, the bad guys are caught. 

Pulp fiction saw its birth in 1939 and a meteoric rise between the two Wars. It was a terrifying time. People were confused and scared. People were dying and being bombed. Whole cities were being decimated. People didn’t know who to trust or where to turn. At a time when rationing was the norm and people were learning to do without for the “war effort”, they needed some reassurance that things would turn out right in the end. Enter the detective novel. Enter authors such as Mickey Spillaine.

Eschewing the leather bound tomes of library quality, these were printed on cheap “pulp” paper, and for mere pennies you could immerse yourself in a place where justice prevailed and things came out right in the end.

Today, and I mean today—as in July 28, 2016—rather than "today" in some generic sense, our world is kind of a mess. Bad people are popping out of nowhere and killing innocents all over the world. People are confused and scared. People are dying and being bombed. Whole cities are being bombed out. 
People didn't know who to trust or where to turn. Again, we see a grand proliferation of crime novels in which good triumphs over evil and good is rewarded. 

Here’s another New Yorker article which sort of backs up my point.

I hope I’m not boring you too much. I find this stuff fascinating. This brings me finally to today’s endorsement, a mystery in the classic sense, with clues you’d better pay attention to (no matter how minute), a serial killer, and someone kidnapped with only days to live. Enter two new crime solvers, Detectives Mike McCabe and Maggie Savage.

All of these elements, plus the author’s deft way of getting it all down on paper, make The Cutting by James Hayman a really good read.

Detective McCabe is called to a horrific crime, where a young woman’s heart has been surgically removed from her chest, and her body left outside of a disused warehouse. This crime bears similarities to other crimes, non-local crimes, crimes from all over, and McCabe and his partner Maggie Savage are on the search of a serial killer, a smart, slick serial killer who outwits them almost at every turn.

Add to this, another young woman is missing from her morning run, and McCabe soon determines that the killer has her, but that she yet might not yet be dead. In mystery phraseology–"Time is running out."

This is a serial killer story with threads and strands which reach way back into the killer's history, back when he was almost normal. That’s the story, and I could not put it down.  

I'm always thrilled to begin with book #1 in a new mystery series with new characters that I can come to know through the series. McCabe himself is a likeable, interesting character, a single dad of a teen girl. There is the angst of trying to raise a daughter. There is the ongoing problem of an ex-wife who barely knows her daughter, and wants little to do with her. Plus, there is the new girlfriend, who may or may not end up with McCabe in future novels. I suppose I will find out. 

What drew me into this book, however, was the first line of chapter one:

Fog can be a sudden thing on the Maine coast.

I love Maine. My husband and I have spent fifteen summers sailing down on our 34' sailboat from our Canadian New Brunswick home and along the coast of Maine. Because we out on the water, we know about Maine fogs.
 Anyone writing about fog on the Maine coast will immediately get my attention. And this book did. 

I also wonder, what is it about Maine which births so many crime and horror novelists - Tess Gerritson and Stephen King only to name a few. 

If you like Gerritsen, you will love The Cutting. It will keep you guessing. It will keep you reading, and turning pages (or pressing the side of your Kobo) late into the night.

Next time: Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert’s (Of Eat, Pray, Love fame) book on creativity and fear.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Small Slices of (sometimes very odd) Life

I’m back to recommending short stories today. A few months ago I endorsed Wet Thaw, my friend’s little eBook of two stories, as well as Susan Berliner’s book, The Sea Crystal and Other Weird Tales.

In that blog, I mentioned in passing The Man Who Built Boxes and other stories by Frank Tavares.

Today I want to specifically focus in on that book and urge you, if you are a fan of the genre, to read it. (And if you are not a fan of the genre, you should be.)

I love the fact that these days short stories are easier to find and enjoy. Before the advent of Kindles, Kobos and digital material, readers were hard-pressed to find many short story collections for sale anywhere. Oh, I suppose you could meander into a dusty library and thumb your way through some literary journals, but beyond that, they were mostly out of reach. Not anymore. Now they are as close as your Amazon bookstore (which is where I purchased The Man Who Built Boxes.)

A short story is a slice of life—one day, one afternoon, one emotion, a couple of characters at most. Sometimes—not all the time, but sometimes—you are left hanging at the end. You often have to come up with your own ending to the story. I like that.

I first read this collection of a dozen stories about a year ago. I’m not even exactly sure how I found it or when and why I purchased it, but when I was casting about for something quick and easy to read, I found it on my iPhone’s Kindle app. I read the first story in the collection, My First Ex-wife’s Third Wedding, and to put it bluntly, I was blown away.

I have since discovered that the author, Frank Tavares is known as the “voice of NPR” radio. I did not know this. His name was unfamiliar to me. Being Canadian, the only NPR I know are the podcasts that I listen to (and totally enjoy, by the way). I also learned that he teaches communications and writing and that his many short stories have “appeared in a variety of literary journals…” You see, that’s my point. That’s what I’m talking about. Normal people don’t have access to literary journals. We don’t even know where to look. And that’s what makes our online world of “any kind of books you might want to possibly read” so really great.

I usually look for two things in the books and media I endorse here. Good writing and good story. These stories had both of these in abundance. Whether it’s the utterly convoluted relationships in the first story, My Ex-Wife’s Third Wedding; the very bizarre tale of Girl in a Box, or the heartbreaking character in Accident With a View, these are little slices of life you won’t soon forget.

I always include first lines in my blog, and so to whet your appetite, to draw you in, here are a few first lines.

Doin’ the Laundry -
Ron-Allen Tucker knew his wife had decided to kill him.

The Man Who built Boxes -
This time it hit John Dodge on the morning of this forty-third birthday.

Antonio’s Yard -
Antonio Enzo Marino was aware of the shift when he woke up a half hour early.

Secondly, there are his imaginative ideas themselves. Why Jimmy Mendoza Hated the Late Tamale Jones features a living man's conversation with his dead friend, who, while they are chatting at the funeral, picks up a cigarette. The story describes how the smoke "seeps from the autopsy sutures in his chest." I loved that very Stephen King-ish visual image. 

Here’s yet another sentence I loved (Loved it because I've done it myself.) -
She bought a paperback and hid herself in it.

In Antonio’s Yard, the earth itself is falling away, even as Antonio’s life and aspirations and hopes are also.

And then there is the story of a dying young woman who carries the tattoos of the faces of every person she has had a relationship with.

The title story is about a man who builds hundreds and hundreds of exquisite boxes, and whose entire house is filled with them.

Even now, I can hear my mother saying, “Who comes up with this stuff?”

The beauty of Tavares writing is that the stories seem like they could be real. His characters talk like us, behave like us. We can almost see ourselves in them. Back when I studied writing I remember one of the cardinal rules in dialogue is to write it the way people think they talk, not the way that they actually do talk.

Tavares has presented characters to us that feel so intrinsically real that we can almost identify with them, despite the very odd circumstances they they find themselves in.

At the end of this collection of a stories is a sample chapter of an upcoming book - Digging up Mr. Bradley. Well, I’m waiting for that book, Mr. Frank Tavares!

Next time - It’s back to mystery fiction with The Cutting by James Hayman.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Mystery/Horror of Sharp Objects

I admit to being a fan of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, both the book and the movie. There were reasons why this book garnered so much praise, a movie deal and more than 43,000 Amazon reviews. The writing itself is superb (The way she can turn a sentence is amazing!), but the plot was what “got” most people. And that ending! That ending had book clubs arguing and pounding fists and and pondering and discussing for weeks, some loving it, some hating it, but no one in between.  

I’m not here to write about Gone Girl, though. Today I am endorsing Sharp Objects, a much earlier book of Flynn’s, but just as much a psychological thriller as Gone Girl. Maybe even more so. If you are a Gone Girl fan, keep reading. If you like the psychological thrillers of Ruth Rendell, keep reading. If you relish a Stephen King novel, keep reading. If not, go get yourself a coffee and I’ll see you back here in two weeks.

Sharp Objects tells the story of Camille Preaker, a very flawed, very fragile young woman who works as a journalist for a two-bit newspaper. When two children are killed in the hometown she fled (never to return, she vowed),
 she is sent back there by her editor to get the full story. Are the police looking for a serial killer of children? Is that how horrific this thing is? Her editor wants the upfront story, and who better to get it than someone who grew up there? Because the newspaper is so low-budget, they can't even afford a hotel for her. She has to stay in her family home with a whole boat load of dysfunctional family members.

Trouble is, she left the huge mansion of a home and the town for a reason, but being who she is, she can’t share that with her editor. She can’t bow gracefully out of this assignment and hope to keep her job. And she desperately needs her job.

She goes.

So far so good. Camille Preaker seems like a normal young woman in a bit of a bind, and I’m in for a nice cozy mystery, looks like.

Not exactly.

Mid-way through the book I stop and re-read the past few paragraphs. What am I reading? Is this a mystery or a horror novel? Who IS Camille Preaker?

We soon learn that Camille has serious problems which are far greater than the family she left—and that’s enough of a spoiler for one day.

Once inside, I got hooked on the story, and finally, it was the unexpectedness of the plot elements which kept me coming back for more.

Flynn is an amazing writer. As is my wont, here is the first sentence of the book:

My sweater was new, stinging red and ugly. It was May 12 but the temperature had dipped to the forties, and after four days shivering in my shirtsleeves, I graved cover at a tag sale rather than dig through my boxed up winter clothes. Spring in Chicago.

It was the words which first drew me in, and then it was the story of the horribly dysfunctional family which made me read more. First there is the doting, controlling, hypochondriac mother, Adora. Allen, the silent father is next. And then there are the children—Camille, the main character and through whose eyes the story unfolds, the dead sister Marian, and then Amma, the new young sister who took her place.

Even though I wanted to put my hand over my eyes and turn away from the book at times, something always made me go back for more, until I finally reached the stunning conclusion.

Why are we attracted to evil in our fiction? Why do horror movies captivate us? Sometimes I like watching those Youtube videos with names like, World’s Scariest Walking Bridge or World’s Most Dangerous Road. Here you get to watch people racing down mountain tops on with a steepness going into oblivion on one side. Guard rails? In your dreams.

In real life you wouldn’t catch me mountain biking on the side of a cliff for any amount of money, but I can sit back and watch it on Youtube, because I realize that if they’re posted online like that, it means that everyone got down safely and everything turned out out alright in the end. I can breathe a sigh of relief.

And as horrible as the evil in Sharp Objects is, it is brought to full light in the end. And that satisfies something inside of us. We want to know that evil will be found out and punished.

That is what’s promised in horror, that ultimately, no matter how horrific the situation our characters find themselves in, evil will be discovered and punished and justice and goodness will win.

As for the mystery part, the reason mystery novels are so popular is because there is something in us that wants to figure out “who dunnit.”

Here’s an interesting New Yorker  article from 1944 on why we read detective stories.

One of the reason we are drawn to story in the first place is that it’s fun to “try on” other people’s lives, and “see what it’s like” to live in such a dyfunctional family (And I don’t care how dysfunctional you think your family is - the Preakers have got you beat by a mile!)

Back when I was a young mother I faithfully watched one daytime soap, Another World. A lot of my friends also did and we would get together for coffee and talk about the characters and plot, always reflecting that “those people” had it way worse than us! Our lives were normal by comparison. (When that finally went off the air for good in 1999, I said goodbye to daytime soaps for good. (Now, I only watch nighttime soaps like Nashville, The Good Wife and Longmire.)

I have been drawn to stores forever, and can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have a novel “on the go.” Back before online, I would feel bereft when I finished a book and there wasn’t another one waiting on the pile. I’d often have to wait before I could take a trip to the library or bookstore. Now, I can simply go online to a favorite online bookstore and download another onto my trusty Kobo.

So, if you like psychological thrillers, do pick up Sharp Objects and tell me what you think.

In Two Weeks: It’s back to short stories with The Man Who Built Boxes

by Frank Tavares

Thursday, June 16, 2016

From Love to Acceptance

I began this blog six months ago with the idea that I would recommend a book (or other form of media) every other Thursday. I have done so without fail. I keep a very organized “calendar” of future reviews and know far in advance what will be reviewed and when. I hadn’t expected to review Risking Grace: Loving Our Gay Family and Friends Like Jesus by Dave Jackson for several months. I wanted to give the book a good and well thought out re-read before I tackled it here.

This week I was all set to look at family dysfunction, mystery, horror and mental illness in Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, but as I began putting the finishing touches on why we’re drawn to it in our fiction and movies, it simply didn’t feel right. I knew I had to change my cast-in-stone schedule. I would not be able to write about fictional horror when I couldn’t see the computer screen for my tears at the real horror
 we had just experienced in Orlando.

So, I rearranged my schedule. Today I am endorsing Risking Grace. Author, Dave Jackson also happens to be a friend of mine. This past Monday morning I bought the book. A number of months ago Dave had kindly sent me an early free copy to read, but for my blog here I have made it a habit to legitimately purchase every piece of media that I review. As an author it’s something I feel strongly about. Read the sidebar to the right for my full “review policy.”

So, I began going through the book again. And again, it gripped me to the core. Again, I could not put it down. Risking Grace is a Christian father’s journey as he and his wife moved from shock to confusion to love and finally to full acceptance of their gay daughter. Part memoir and part biblical study, Risking Grace is an important book and should be on the shelves of every church library.

If you are a reader of this blog, you know the importance I put on the first sentences in a book. The first page in this book begins with Dave and his wife 
getting a phone call from their 25 year old daughter where she read to them over the phone a carefully worded letter explaining that she was gay. 

He writes:

Time froze. At that moment, we would have given anything to turn back the clock, to un-hear what she’d just said. But the word rang in our ears like a gunshot.

It was like a gunshot, especially to someone like Dave and his wife Neta who in the 1980s co-authored a book about “overcoming homosexuality” for a major Christian publisher. At that time gayness was thought to be something you could change with enough prayer and something called “reparative therapy.” (Hint: it’s not.) But Jackson believed in then, and wrote about in hearty full sentences.

Risking Grace is their personal journey, but it also takes a careful look at the six scriptures in the Bible that are sometimes used to “prove” that homosexuality is a “sin.” Jackson efficiently walks through every one of these references, beginning with the extremely offensive, “Love the sinner, hate the sin” meme.  If you learn one thing from that book, it would be to vow to never say that out loud again. Once you quit saying it out loud, you might quit thinking it.

I won’t go into every scriptural argument here. My advice? Buy the book. Read it. In fact, go read it now. I'll wait.

He effectively interweaves apologetic passages with personal stories of gay Christians. Some are happy and triumphant and some are so awfully tragic. Saddest are the stories of children who are “disowned” by those parents who are in "Christian ministry.” Some are big names you would know. And yes, it happens. It’s not something that happened fifty years ago but now that we’ve learned better, we don’t do it any more. It happens today.

If you follow my blog, you also know that this is not simply a review blog. This is also my own personal journey with the books and media I write about. Scroll down through this blog to Breaking Pieces off Westboro Baptist Church where I recommend that you read Unfollow, the New Yorker article about how the sign-carrying, homo-phobic granddaughter of the late Fred Phelps completely changed her way of thinking.

My church had always taught that homosexuality was a “sin.” Unlike some of the more radical groups (I won’t call them churches), who say to shun and “cast out” the homosexual—some, believe it or not, say to kill them—my church was way more loving than that. We would love them, but not quite accept them. They could come and we would smile at them and serve them coffee after the service to make them feel welcome as we asked about their families and talked about the weather, but they would not be allowed to be a part of any church ministry until they changed. No singing in the choir, nope, not even helping in the nursery. They couldn't be members. It was our view that if they accepted Jesus, they could change. Either that or leave. Most left. That was my church.

But, what if we’re wrong about this? 

That’s what I wanted to ask the church elders. What if we have interpreted the Scripture all wrong? We’re certainly not immune to it. We’ve done so before, most notably with slavery. Prior to that there was the whole - earth being the center of the universe thing. For surely, that was proved in the Bible, right? The sun comes up and goes around the earth - that's a verse, right?

Could we be wrong about this, too?

This was the basic question Dave had when he decided to critically look at each passage. After ardent study, he came away fully accepting his gay daughter and her partner. In fact, the book is lovingly dedicated to his daughter and daughter-in-law.

I recommend Risking Grace to every parent of a gay child. I recommend Risking Grace to everyone with gay friends or acquaintances. Anyone, really  who desires to learn with an open heart about this issue, needs to read Dave's story. If you are in a church, go out and buy it for your church library.

As I think of the horror of last weekend, my thoughts, prayers and sympathies are with the victims and the families of the Orlando massacre.

In two weeks: It’s back to my schedule where I will be reviewing Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. We'll take a look at horror and family dysfunction and mental illness in fiction. If that name sounds familiar, she was the one who wrote Gone Girl.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Permeable Life

I have loved the music of Carrie Newcomer for a long time. The song of hers that first drew me in, made me stop, made me go right into iTunes and immediately purchase it was The Gathering of Spirits.

How could such a joyous song bring tears to my eyes? I grew up singing This World is Not My Home. There was nothing good about this life. No, we were waiting for something better in Heaven. That is not the message of this song, however. What if this life is a “fine thing” as this song says? What if instead of "waiting" to go to Heaven, we work to make this "fine thing" of a life even better? What if this world is my home? Those are the questions I am increasingly asking as I journey in this life, and even at my age, coming to new understandings.

That song always puts me in mind of kitchen parties. They could be called something else in other locales, but here in the maritime provinces, a kitchen party is when people bring all manner of guitars and other instruments and everyone sits around - usually in a kitchen - (always the homiest room in the old farm house) to play and sing and share songs. I love parties like that, and I’m first in line to bring my old Martin when invited to one! Maybe, maybe, maybe The Gathering of Sprits is talking about one big, long and happy kitchen party, If so, I’m there. Count me in!

I began looking up, listening and purchasing more of her music. I could recommend some of her other songs, Holy as the Day is Spent, Betty’s Diner, The Fisher King. There are so many others I could link to here.

But I’m not going to. Today for this I Like It blog, I will be endorsing her latest album, A Permeable Life, which I’m thinking might be one of her best collections to date. 

The first  thing which 
immediately draws the listener in is the soothing sound of her music. She has the kind of voice you can listen to forever. Her songs tell stories, and the stories are about me and you and all the ordinary people just living life the best they can. Yes, the songs are real. Real people with real struggles, real loves, real hurts, real lives.

A Permeable Life comes with a companion volume of Newcomer’s poetry and essays. I was fascinated to read these writings and learn many of the stories behind the songs that have become my favorites.

If you are a faithful reader of this blog, you know I like first lines, it’s the first sentences of a novel that draw the reader in. The first lines of the first song, Every Little Bit of It, of this album seem to set the stage for the whole thing:

Just beyond my sight,
Something that I cannot see,
I've been circling around a thought,
That’s been circling round me

The rest of the album is about that - what she is thinking about, what we cannot see, but what is there. A light. Home. Hope. Hope as fragile as a feather, but solid as a wall. 

Whether it’s the drum beat's driving rhythm of Writing You a Letter or the sweet story behind  The Work of Our Hands, there is the thought of “home”.

The Work of Our Hands is a summery song of family and kitchens. You can almost hear the screen door slam behind you and the sound of mosquitos beyond.

I think one of the most beautiful instruments is the cello, and it is in abundance in the beautiful 
song Abide, which she wrote with Parker Palmer (who I have mentioned in a previous blog posting).

Here are some of the lyrics - 

There is a living water, a spirit cutting through. 
Always changing, always making, 
All things new.

If you've followed me this far today, and if you haven't clicked on any of the music links, don’t miss the dancing feet in this one - Room at the Table. If you only have time in your day to listen to one of her songs, make this be the one.

In this era where there is talk of building walls, of making them higher and ever more secure, when there is the talk of keeping people out, Room at the Table is a joyous and positive response.

I’m leaving two of my favorite songs until the end, Forever Ray and Light in the Window.

The actual story of Ella and Ray in Forever Ray is written in the companion volume of poems and essays. It's about Ella's husband Ray who begins filling their garden with statuary. I know. Simple, and maybe even a little weird, but yet you will not come away from the song without falling in love with the two of them.

I used to think hope was a solid thing, something we could absolutely count on. But what I'm coming to believe that hope is as fragile as the gossamer in your hand, something not to be held too tightly for fear of crushing it. And that is what I love about her lyrics, She presumes nothing.

Here are some lyrics from The Light in the Window.

We pass from mystery to mystery
So I won't lie
I don't know what happens
When people die.
But I hope I see you walking slow,
Smiling wide as sunrise grows,
I drop my map with a
thousand folds,
In the distance I see it glow
I can see a light.
There’s a light in the window.

If you wish to know more about her, there is a great interview with Krista Tippet’s wonderful On Being program, where she is called a “prairie mystic.”

I have given you the Youtube links for many of her songs. But, if you enjoy her music, I encourage you to purchase it for yourself.

NEXT TIME - back to books with an examination of horror in Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. If that name sounds familiar, it's because she’s the one who wrote Gone Girl.