Can You See Anything Now? a book review

Can You See Anything Now? opens with a suicide attempt. Margie an artist living in the town of Trinity, decides to drown herself in the lake. She fails. The lake isn’t as deep as she remembers.

can-you-see-anything-now[Spoiler Alert: Though I’ll try to be opaque about details] Margie is an artist who paints nudes. She struggles with depression and is diagnosed with MS. Her therapist husband Nick, is better at diagnosing Margie than listening to her with an ear for understanding. Margie’s neighbor Etta is also an artist. She doesn’t paint nudes, she paints tomatoes. She’s an evangelical who has read the Five Love Languages and Christian sex books. Margie teaches Etta how to paint nudes.

Margie’s daughter Noel, is in an on-and-off again relationship with Owen and is college roommates with Pixie, a recovering addict and a cutter. When Pixie comes home with Noel for Thanksgiving break, she falls into Trinity’s river and loses consciousness. Her bald dad, Pete comes to town to be at her side. He stays for months. Long after almost everyone gives up hope for Pixie, he organizes a prayer vigil, declaring that “Pixie will rise on July 3.” Things don’t quite work out the way Pete expects.

James’s characters swear, cut themselves, and attempt suicide. While there is a redemptive arc to the story, the details aren’t all tied-up in a pretty bow. This is less a story about a person (i.e. Margie) but a tale of the way lives overlap, are interwoven and influence one another. The persons of Trinity co-inhere. I am not sure who the protagonist of this novel is, unless it is someone who looks like Devandra Banhart (you won’t understand this comment, until you read the book).

With the release of Katherine James’s debut novel, Paraclete Press re-inaugurates their fiction line-up. This is the first novel on their newly christened Paraclete Fiction label. My standing critique of Christian fiction is its preachiness. It tells instead of shows. Also, Christian fiction often presents a sanitized version of reality,  certain topics off limits.  If James’s new novel is any indication, Paraclete Press has bucked this trend. This is novel that is both gritty and  compelling, without being preachy and dogmatic. Faith haunts the novel without assaulting the reader with a peculiar worldview. Each of the characters, even the most overtly religious character, Etta, are on a journey.

If you are looking for straightforward tale, or some mindless fiction to pass the time, this probably isn’t the book you want. With the shifting focus on the various characters, this book is somewhat demanding, forcing readers to follow along and keep track of the various threads. But this is an excellent debut novel for James and an engaging read.  I give this book four and half stars. ★★★★½

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.


The Twisted Sisters of Christ the Redeemer: a book review.

When we meet Rebecca Holden, she is hiding out in the back cubicle of Secure Star Insurance, near the flushing toilets. She keeps the walls up between herself and her two coworkers (Sally and Gladys). Andrew, the new HR manager arrives and discovers that there is more to Rebecca than the quiet efficient assistant in the rear cubicle[Spoiler alert, next two paragraphs ].

Book+CoverFour years earlier, Rebecca Holden used to be Sr. Rebecca Marise, a member of the strict, traditional Sisters of Christ the Redeemer (SCR), a teaching order. The order clung to the strictures of pre-Vatican II Catholicism—the nuns wore habits and never styled their hair, they kept a strict community rule, regulated by the head of their order, Mother Mary Thomas. The order is growing in size and prestige with many new recruits and the support of conservative Bishops.

Sr. Rebecca is evidently happy in her vocation, living at the mother house among other young recruits. Then an older nun has a hard attack and Sr. Rebecca finds herself transferred to remote Appalachia, to a small school and convent, far away from the structure and strictures of SCR central command.  The difference between these sisters and those at the Mother house is immediately evident to her (e.g. a looseness with the hours of prayer, personal address, divine readings, educational strategies, and the dress code). Eventually these sisters are brought into conflict with the Mother house, precipitating the circumstances in which Sr. Rebecca leaves the order.

Linda Anne Smith, author of Terrifying Freedom, hails from somewhere near Calgary has woven a tale of terrifying freedom—what it means to pick up the pieces of life after the myth of certainty and control collapses. Her protagonist, Rebecca, leaves the order and the whole way of life she’s ever known only to feel isolated and suffer rejection from her mother. This is a story of what it means to pick up the pieces when the life of faith breaks open.

Generally, I am suspicious of fiction that is: (a) religious or (b) self published. Religious fiction tends to be too didactic, telling not showing, self-published works often suffer for lack of editorial review (there are some pretty great exceptions in both cases). Terrifying Freedom is well written. Smith’s use of religious themes serves the story. There is a message but Smith’s prose doesn’t preach. Smith did have an editor review her manuscript and the writing and production quality is excellent.

However, at 490 pages, I couldn’t help feel like the story was a little overlong (at that length, I feel like I expect a multigenerational family epic or the fires or Mordor). The first 157 pages tell the story of Rebecca and her coworkers at the insurance agency before we are transported back to Rebecca’s life as a nun (the meat of the novel).  I felt like this first part could have been significantly shorter. I wasn’t immediately grabbed by it (I restarted this novel several times) and I didn’t find it a compelling read until I had gotten some way in. The second part of the novel is much better and part 3 weaves the strands of Rebecca Holden’s life together as she confronts her past. If the first section was shorter, I think the whole novel would have been paced much better.

Still, a first novel, this is a pretty impressive achievement and I ended up enjoying the book a lot. I give this four stars.

Notice of material connection:  I received this book for free from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.

A Wolverton in Sheep’s Clothing: a book review

Monte Wolverton was raised by Wolvertons in the Pacific North West. He is the cartoonist son of cartoonist Basil Wolverton.  He is known for his political cartoons and his satirical contributions to Mad Magazine. Monte Wolverton is also an associate editor and board member of Plain Truth Ministries, a publishing and teaching ministry committed to proclaiming ‘Christianity without Religion.’ In The Remnant, Wolverton imagines a world where “the apocalypse came and went and Jesus didn’t return along with it”(268).  So this is Christian fiction with a healthy overlay of seventies-style-dystopia science fiction.

remnant_cover_160In 2131, the world is ruled by an atheistic, totalitarian regime based in Carthage, Tunisia.  The few Christians and people of faith in the safe zones are sent to work camps far away from the general population. Outside the safe zones, is the wilderness—vast regions more or less free from the Federation’s direct control.

Grant Cochrin is a geologist imprisoned in a work camp in North Dakota (probably working on a pipeline). He is a Christian, and has a single page from the Sermon of the Mount (Matt 5-7), a remnant page of the family Bible (the Bibles had all seized and destroyed by the government).  After Grant has a chance encounter with a wilderness dweller, he learns about Christian communities in the wilderness. He, his family and friends escape the camp, and chase after the promise of religious freedom and authentic Christian community.

However, their post-religious-context means the groups they encounter have tenuous grasps on historic Christian faith and practice. They meet profiteering prophets, legalistic faith healers, Charismatics that do drugs during communion (and then cavort), and catholic monastics who are way too into their shrines and spiritual disciplines.  And they encounter a few helpful voices as well:  kind strangers who take them in and help them on their way, fellow Christians who join their quest, friendly Muslims and Buddhists (who reunite Grant with the Bible his page remnant was from), an elderly religious scholar who tries to get Grant and his group to look at what they already have as community instead of looking elsewhere, and even helpful Raptors (Mad Max style motorcycle gangs who control everything in the wilderness). They face perilous dangers along the way, and in the end Grant is forced to make a major decision.

I don’t review a lot of (self consciously) Christian fiction because of the tendency of their authors to tell instead of show. The medium is merely a vehicle for the message and the literary craft falls flat. If I want preachy prose, I’d rather just read John Piper (or someone else more Reformed than God). Wolverton is  guilty of way too much tell, and not enough show in his writing. The whole book is designed to promote the Plain Truth’s Ministries idea of “Christianity without religion.” It has a sermonic quality (here is another group that gets it wrong, how can we be faithful to the gospel). Grant says near the end of the book, “If there is anything I’ve learned on this trip,” Said Grant,”I’d have to say that Christianity functions poorly as a religion. It is most healthy when it’s an active trust in Christ—a friendship in which he leads, obviously, since he’s our Shepherd” (240). This is the message the entire story tries to illustrate and hints at along the way.

So I can’t say this was great literature or anything. However the book held my interest. There is some playful, humorous dialog.  I kept reading to see what kind of religious nutjobs Grant and the team would encounter next. For mindless fiction, the book was alright, and well paced. I give it three stars.

Note: I received this book via Speakeasy in exchange for my honest review.


A Seedy Christian Novel: a book review

Okay, not really seedy though a ‘seed’ (and later seeds) feature prominently in the narrative. Erik Guzman‘s The Seed: a True Myth Retold recasts the story of humanity’s fall and redemption in fantasy-novel form. The story begins wih Tatus, a hunter chasing the shadow that took his wife and children’s lives. Wyrm, a serpentine dragon takes him down, but then apparently heals him by infesting him with dark-maggot-like worms.

the_seed_thumb__34943-1446564398-451-416When we next meet Tatus, his wounds heal and he is now an apparent devotee to God, unafraid of the shadow and still plotting its demise. He meets a woman and a man, which he names Madeline and Roark (they didn’t remember their names) and enlists their help in building a labyrinth which will trap the evil shadow forever. Madeline lives in the tower at the center, where she is isolated from Roark who is continually building and extending the labyrinth’s outer walls. Roark is an addict, lonely and angry. Madeline is afraid. The Wyrm in Tatus’s eyes feeds on their fear and anger.

[Spoilers, kind of] Eventually love breaks free, setting Roark and Madeline free from their isolation and re-christening them with new names. They live as tree people with roots in their feet that drink deep from Nali, the water of life.  Love imprisons Wyrm and enlists Roark and Madeline (now Ruak and Madria) to defeat the dragon. They fail and their doubt and mistrust causes them to fall back under Wyrm’s control. Love seed Ilan is given as a gift to the woman, setting her free once more and causing Ilan (Love’s Son) to take on physical form as a personified tree. This sets the stage for a final confrontation with Wyrm.

Guzman, who is co-host of Steve Brown, Etc., has spun an imaginative tale making use of the  biblical fall, and the Triune God’s plan of redemption. This is an allegory and myth, making heavy use of symbol and names. It is imaginative, though not always particularly easy to follow. Each of the human characters is given at least two names (Madeline/Raven/Madria, Roark/Ruak, Tatus/Erik) through out the narrative. I enjoyed the book but it took me a while to get into the story. The labyrinth construction of a self-imposed prison was too bald of a symbol for me, making too obvious the point that Guzman was making from the get-go. But hey, it is an allegory, so that is kind of part of the genre. Eventually the threads weave together for a compelling narrative.

What I did appreciate was the theological and psychological insights that Guzman used in crafting the narrative. So I give this book 3.5 stars and recommend it as a tale that makes vivid some biblical truths about the nature of sin, God’s love for us and our redemption.

Note: I received this book from Speak Easy in exchange for my honest review.

A Storied Easter: a book review

About a dozen years ago my wife and I read a little devotional called Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter. It was published by Plough Publishing, the publishing arm of an intentional Christian community called the Bruderhof (also called Church Communities International). It was a wonderful collection of stories, poems, memoir and theological reflection. It remains my favorite Lenten devotional.

This year Plough Publishing has published a new book for the Easter Season: Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Season. Edited by Miriam Leblanc with beautiful woodcut illustrations by Lisa Toth, this book gathers twenty-seven stories which are related, in some sense, to Easter and Passion week. A poem and a tale from Bruderhofer, Jane Tyson Clement, opens the collection, but the theological perspectives and literary styles of what follows are diverse. There are stories that follow closely the passion narratives and Easter story (see Andre Trocme’s How Donkeys Got the Spirit of Contradiction or Clarence Jordon’s Stories from the Cotton Patch Gospel). There are stories that speak evocatively about Easter and the meaning of spiritual transformation (for example, C.S. Lewis’s The Death of the Lizard’ excerpted from “The Great Divorce” or Sarah Cone Bryant’s Robert of Sicily). A few of these tales come from European folklore. Mostly these stories were penned in the Nineteenth or Twentieth Century. Vocationally the authors were novelists, dramatists, childrens’ story authors, pastors, and poets). There are Christian authors, communists and the religious unaffiliated.

As diverse at the material is, the authors and stories selected are from White Europeans (or their American descendants). There are German, Russian, English, French, Swedish, American authors. While this is a limited selection, it does reflect the context and heritage of the Bruderhof. I picture  that these are the sort of tales that they would tell their young. I had read some of the material they include here (C.S. Lewis, Tolstoy, Wangerin, etc), some authors I knew by reputation, others were unfamiliar to me.

As with all collections, I enjoyed some stories more than others. Some grabbed me, others didn’t. On the whole, however, an enjoyable collection and thought provoking. Story has a way of igniting the imagination and helping us see the meaning of things. Can’t think of a better subject matter than the Easter event. I do not think this is as strong a collection as Bread and Wine was, but it is a worthwhile and enjoyable read. Toth’s woodcuts are stunning. I give the book 3.5 stars.

Notice of Material Connection, I received this book from the publisher via Handlebar Media in exchange for my honest review.