Monday, July 20, 2009

summer is short, read a story

I was pleased with Harper Collins' new initiative to promote short stories as the perfect cure for "What to read this summer."

I must admit that while I respect the craft of short story writing, it is not my favourite genre of fiction. While authors like Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod and Arthur Conan Doyle have often kept my heart pacing with their excellent short works, I sometimes feel that I can leave bereft of characterization by terse and sparse prose.

I knew that Frances Itani would be an exception. How could she not? She is a gorgeous writer and penned one of my favourite contemporary novels, Deafening.

I enjoyed this collection focused on the lives of a family living in rural Quebec in the post-war period. Like some of Munro's work, the stories threaded together as a novel broken into several, poignant fragments.

Perhaps my favourite story---for its simple, emotional resonance-- was A Long Narrow Bungalow.

As in Deafening, Itani paints a community and life that---although I never lived in--- I am left nostalgiac for.

Itani knows when to insert poetry, when to flower her prose with description, when to leave the reader hanging like a musical chord without resolution.

While the stories can range from light family matters ( such as preparing for a day at church) they can realistically dip into sombre territory. Perhaps Itani's work is best encapsulated in the gripping sentence which closes the work:

"There are shadows[...] Sometimes we see our reflection, sometimes we don't. It depends on how dark the sky." (p.206).

Like the book itself which, so compelling in its exposition, caused me to relate to moments in each character's life( happiness, isolation, the yearning for solitude and grief )it could simultaneously invite me in and keep me at a distance.

This was a pleasant and thougthful read to take on vacation. On a bus across Cape Breton under very lugubrious and mournful clouds, my appetite was sated.... proving short stories invaluable as summer traveling companions.

To learn more about the Harper Collins Summer is Short, Read a story challenge see here

To learn more of Frances Itani and purchase Leaning, Leaning Over Water, see here

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Confidential Life of Eugenia Cooper by Kathleen Y'Barbo

publisher: WaterBrook
rating: ***

Eugenia "Gennie" Cooper loves the dime novel rollicks and rampages of Wild West adventurer, Mae Winslow. Long into the night, Gennie forgets she is urban high society and steals between the pages to spirit away with her heroine.

After all, Mae doesn't face prospective marriage to a posh banker and a future of status and a quietly domestic life. In fact, Mae doesn't need men at all.

When an opportunity arises to secretly stow away to the barren west and pose as a governess, Gennie grabs it .... But working for Daniel Beck and his precocious daughter, Charlotte, is a lot more than this adventurer-in-training bargained for.

The Confidential Life of Eugenia Cooper
has a great premise and Y'Barbo structures it with class. The events unfolding in each chapter are ushered in with a preambulatory snippet from a Mae Winslow book. Y'Barbo does an exceptional job of re-creating the popular fiction of yesteryear---down to dialogue and loopy plot.

Y'Barbo also provides some sizzle that gives Julie Lessman's overt passion some stark competition. Hilarity and more than a little spark ensue when Daniel and Gennie first meet
( one of my favourite meetings in recent Christian fiction) giving way to a palpable chemistry that had this reader giggling and turning the page for more.

You have oft heard me rant about italicized prayer. Unfortunately, one of the weaknesses of Y'Barbo's book is a heavy reliance on it. Lynn Austin seems to be able to infuse her work with a reverence and a nod to Christian thought and devotion without this cliche technique--- I wish her contemporaries would follow her lead! It has become somewhat synonymous with Christian fiction in the secular marketplace( as denoted by my secular friends, it is one point they mock in a genre that ---albeit they know little about ---they stay away from and one such reason why).

The other weakness of the book is a long, drawn-out and stale sequence involving a bedroom scene, Daniel in a sheet-toga and a misinterpreted motive. This lost me, unfortunately, and the pace with which I had happily galloped through the first pages slowed.

The book picked up, to its merit, with an implausible ( but wholly suited to a Mae Winslow book or one of its ilk) climax and end.

A few endorsements spout off the similarities between Y'Barbo and Cathy Marie Hake. Sure, there are similar settings and plots but Hake has made me cringe before with poor writing, incest and abuse subplots ( note to authors: if you want to be labeled as having a genre-identity crisis be sure to add abuse and incest to otherwise light and fluffy romantic comedies) and bad modern dialogue in historical settings. Y'Barbo seems to do the opposite---to do right where Hake can go so dismally wrong.

Y'Barbo is a confident, strong and original author whose voice is well-needed to spice up the popularity of this type of story in today's marketplace. The characters leapt off the page at me and, more importantly I will remember them as I seek out more of Y'Barbo's work. While previous publications stray a little too far into romantic territory for me, I guarantee I will read her future offerings for WaterBrook.

Happy Reading

My thanks to the kind folks at WaterBrook for tossing this bookish Canadian some reading material!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Splitting Harriet by Tamera Leigh


Thanks to a very nice person at WaterBrook who read a rant that I needed some light summer reading to counter my re-read of the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian, I recently received a well-timed collection of Tamera Leigh.

I had always wanted to read Splitting Harriet and I was glad I did.

Harriet is the reason people coined cliche phrases such as "Preacher's kids---they're always the worst." Harriet has undergone a cookie-cutter phase of rebellion which included drinking;smoking;motorcycles and tattoos.

Very repentant, Harriet now works as the head of Women's Ministry at her beloved First Grace Church while saving to buy the cafe she works at part-time.

Feeling herself doomed to repeat past mistakes and on a strict diet of penitence, Harriet removed any temptation of her old life. Her addictions are now Jelly Bellys and weekly indulgences of her favourite tv show; her companions are eons older than she; and she is safely housed in a trailer park boasting elder members of the church her father pastored at and a sprinkling of pink flamingos.

Harriet is the last of her family to attend First Grace. Her father has retired, her brother moved on and Harriet tries to maintain the legacy she had once scoffed at by keeping tradition in the church. The plot and the "split" the title imposes reflect the rift dividing the old congregation that Harriet and her father knew and the new, modernism seeping in under new leadership.

Here, Harriet meets church consultant, Maddox McCray and the reformed bad girl's goodie-two-shoes lifestyle threatens to allow some passion and rebellion.

As a minister's kid, I identified with the fish bowl life that led Harri from the church. Though I never rebelled, the same hurt and betrayal she experiences are the same that led me to so fervently cling to Martin Luther's idea that a church is an extension and not the heart of faith.

I also really enjoyed Maddox; the Jelly Belly obsession; and some tamely funny moments ( most revolving around Harri's confusing crush over fellow parishoner Stephano).

Leigh's weakest link is the cookie-cutter rebellion I mentioned earlier. It seems as if Harri just happens to have all the usual symptoms suffered under the Christian umbrella of "sin and no good": tattoos, smoking, drinking, motorcycles. This rebellion seemed more than dated and more than a little cliche.

Leigh also lost me in her attempt to capture not only Harri's rebellious moments but those of the teenage PK Harri tries to help and a few rowdy teenagers who threaten a church picnic.

Here, Leigh inserts vernacular containing: "yeah, man" and "cool!" and I felt that we had stepped into "Cross and the Switchblade" territory --if not two decades ago.

Leigh dates herself very easily and it detaches the reader from the intense experience Harri seems to be struggling with and overcoming.

As Leigh is not the first Christian author to be out of tune with the secular world ( it makes sense, does it not, for Christ followers who live purely to be distanced from the less-holy sects of society?), I chalked it up as typical for Christian fiction.

I enjoyed Splitting Harriet and it is definitely one of the best Christian chicklit novels I have read.

Happy Reading

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Christy Awards: Lynn Austin.... again !

Congrats to one of my favourite novelists, Lynn Austin, for winning yet another Christy award!

Read more about last night's winners here.

Read Until We Reach Home

and visit the Christy awards website

and follow them on twitter!

Though not my favourite Austin novel, Until We Reach Home definitely had that "a-ha! well-played, Lynn Austin" literary moment that I always so enjoy in her novels.

I love Austin! I love the Christys!

[and....on an unrelated note.... I loved the production of Cyrano de Bergerac I saw at the Stratford Festival this past weekend. All Canadian readers should get tickets. 'Tis an exceptional production.]

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Thinking Girl's Guide to ....HYMNS!

In response to a youtube posting of a rendition of Isaac Watt's unbelievable poem, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (1707 ) [later put to various music by Isaac Woodbury (1825 and the most commonly sung); Edward Miller (the oldest rendition at 1790) and the 1600s Irish folk song Waly, Waly ( better known as the Water is Wide)] a commenter wrote:

"This is awesome. Not the bad Christian music churches are singing today. This is true theology! Not the watered down Jesus-is-my-boyfriend type stuff."

Somehow I relate to the aforementioned. So many of today's choruses seem to be wholly secular love songs where a quick replacement of "God" or "Jesus" for "boyfriend" ( for lack of a better word) is not unlikely.

To the commenter's point of "true theology" and recognizing that we cannot question the pure motive of some modern chorus writers, we must keep in mind that 18th and 19th Century hymns were crafted in such a way as to relay the Gospel message profusely----so that any one wandering off of the street and into the service would get the crux of salvation in one song.

Thus, many were divided into a thematic trinity. A perfect example of this is "It is Well with my Soul" (Horatio Spafford) which outlines the make-up of this tiered structure:

a.)I am a sinner
b.)Christ is a great saviour--alluding to sacrifice and the Cross
c.) some day I shall see him in Glory.

If you sift through most of the classic hymns of the church, these three potent themes will jump out at you.

Whereas Bach would explore this trinity in cadence and chord throughout the layers of his music; the inclusion (or not) of soloists and chorus in his vespers, mostly this theme was explored in words.

Indeed many famous hymnists including William Cowper, Charles Wesley and, yes, Isaac Watt, were renowned Renaissance poets foremost ---their words set to music afterward.

What they scribed has lasted three hundred years.

Other hymnists poured their own conviction and stark truth into their works in the same way the most riveting novels and autobiographies do. The famous former slave-trader John Newton's "Amazing Grace" is an exercise in self-conviction and a slow, faltering, fallible and undeserved reconciliation( and recognition) with God's redemption.

Robert Robinson penned one of my favourite hymns, Come Thou Fount of Ev'ry Blessing, including a subtle reference to his own vocation in the first stanza:

"Come thou Fount of Ev'ry Blessing
Tune my Heart to sing thy Grace" a piano tuner, Robinson infused his song of praise with a personal note.

I cannot doubt the sincerity of the music played in churches today; nor its good intentions. But I think the biggest mistake a person of any faith can make is to avoid their history.

Many denominations are relatively new ---many generic, universal and determined to bring seekers to the fold.

I do not contest any of this.

However, Christianity is ---at its core---- a religion steeped in history. How often do we root for excavated proof that David and Moses lived ----a rock here; a scrap of parchment there?

Thousands will flock to see the Dead Sea Scrolls at the ROM this summer---another testament to faith.

Should we not, then, embrace unabashedly a rich cultural history?

Having studied music history from its earliest beginnings and through Gregorian chant, I was thrilled to better understand its creation as a means of worship. Having been pleasantly surprised to see my favourite hymnists pop up in my U of T poetry seminars, I recognized that these writers have had a very stern and lasting influence on our world.

The other day, I saw the following: " Amazing Grace---words and music by Chris Tomlin." Obviously referring to his new arrangement of the song with the addition of "My Chains are Gone", I was distressed that this type-o would occur.

As long as we embrace our long standing history, we need to recognize our great and glorious past.

The best way to set aside any rage at the current perception ( often well-founded ) in Christianity in the world is to revere our wonderful cultural background.

How better to do so than to listen to ethereal music and taste even more ethereally inspired words?

Save the Hymns! two hundred years from now people will still remember John Newton and his Amazing song. That "Jesus is my Boyfriend" ditty? .....maybe not so much.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Solitary Envoy by T.Davis and Isabella Bunn

publisher: Bethany House

rating: **1/2

Director Peter Weir ( Master and Commander, Gallipoli, Dead Poet’s Society ) once said in an interview that true booklovers guage travel time by a question of a: “how many book trip is this?”

I tried to take that into consideration when packing for my recent vacation in beautiful, breathtaking Nova Scotia: a part of Canada I love to return to again and again.

Unfortunately, I did not bring enough: what with plane trips and reading before bed or in those nice ,wily hours by the ocean with a glass of something frosty, I ran out in the last half of my trip.

I found an excellent used bookstore on Cape Breton Island and purchased The Solitary Envoy. Knowing that it was ( aptly) a follow up from the Song of Acadia series: the former Acadia being very near the region I was in.

I really enjoyed the book. I liked that our heroine, Erica Langston, knew all about calculating and figures. Here was a woman with math skills and a sound mind who could use her God-given gift to aid her family after a bad investment went awry in revolutionary war-time America .

Erica travels to Britain to reclaim lost funds and falls into the company of the Dissenters: a moralistic group impassioned by change---especially on the slave trade front.

Here, she develops a growing attraction to Gareth Powers: a former redcoat who now uses his pen to write incendiary missives of injustice in his beloved country.

Erica is no simpering woman: she can handle the truth as well as the next and one specifically potent moment as her witnessing a violent riot in Manchester . Erica is able to relay the events in the same calculating way she employs when jotting down account books.

Bunn’s inclusion of the heroic figure of William Wilberforce: the short and somewhat awkward looking man called the nightingale of Parliament for his ethereal oratory skills is a welcome one.

This was a great book to read on vacation. It was an unplanned and unexpected read and sometimes those are the nicest and most surprising.