Monday, September 28, 2015
The music I've gotten the most excited about this year has been inherently and unashamedly unoriginal. Two albums were released that featured great singers covering songs by great songwriters. The songwriters are almost exclusively men; the singers are both women. I find it impossible to not compare the singers to each other, which I suppose is one of the many burdens of womanhood. The singers are both blasts from the past: Natalie Imbruglia, who came rushing out of Australian television in the mid 1990s with her devastating single "Torn," released her collection of interpretations of songs by male songwriters (Male) mid summer. It was followed in late September by Uncovered, the second collection of cover songs (third if you include her Christmas album) released by Shawn Colvin, best known for her mid-90s single "Sunny Came Home." I used to have a thing for both of them, if I'm being honest. These two singers could hardly be more different. Imbruglia had all the marks of a pop sensation when she broke. She had cut her teeth as a soap opera actress, and she looked the part. There was great drama in "Torn"; you could imagine her feeling "all out of faith ... lying broken on the floor." She sold the story of the song with her voice, and the video only drove it home for her. Meanwhile, Shawn Colvin had come from the ground; paying her dues in the heartland before taking a risk on New York, "walking these streets forlorn" (maybe the least impressive phrase in her brilliant song "Polaroids") until she won a Grammy for her first record and again years later for "Sunny." Imbruglia was a pop princess; Colvin was a folk goddess. I used to have a thing for both of them, if I'm being honest. The heyday for both singers was a millennium ago, of course. But they have not gone away, and this year they both had great ideas for albums. Imbruglia's Male was a kind of thought experiment: These guys wrote these great songs; how would their meaning, their resonance, change if the voice behind them were a woman's rather than a man's? What emerges from the songs when their arrangements come from the heart of a woman? "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley.) I only recognized half of the songs on Colvin's "Uncovered," and most of those songs are either deep tracks or decades removed from cultural memory. Here the song itself is the point, not the space between interpretations or the role of gender in making meaning. If Imbruglia is a singer interpreting other singers; Colvin is a songwriter paying tribute to fellow songwriters.
Monday, September 21, 2015
For the past several years I've been part of an association of book editors who are Christian, known as the Association of Christian Editors (ACE). You would think, being part of such an organization, that I could write a better opening sentence than that. But I can't. Deal with it. Every year ACE puts on a retreat, rotating from Chicago to Colorado Springs to Nashville to Chicago again, based on where our membership tends to live, along with proximity to airports. This year's retreat was put on in Colorado Springs, where I live, which made it easy to attend. The retreat is always good and particularly so this year, with an emphasis on soul care and wellness, along with the typical commiseration and idea sharing about industry-specific concerns. A highlight of every retreat is Friday evening, when we circle up and share with one another our favorite book of the past year. There are few rules regarding this time of sharing. The book may or may not be new. You may, although most don't, share a book you edited. You may, although most don't, share a book that someone else has already shared. You may not, although most do, exceed the allotted time for sharing, nor may you (though you likely will) mention more than one book. This year's list follows. I've removed editor's names to protect their privacy, but I'm thankful to the member who took the following (lightly revised) notes, and I'm thankful to each member for taking the time to share. (I believe the notes are themselves adapted from sales copy on the website of some online bookseller.) So many books are written haphazardly or edited sloppily, and these unfortunate variables don't necessarily factor in to a book's success. Editors' work is in this way thankless - a book succeeds or fails largely irrespective of the quality of editing - but as we slouch our way to Bulwer-Litton, help save Western civilization by adding these books to your wish-list. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller (and Pulitzer Prize winner) about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein Oct. 11th, 1943. A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it's barely begun. A Michael L. Printz Award Honor book that was called "a fiendishly-plotted mind game of a novel" in The New York Times. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman In this bestselling and “charming debut” (People) from one of Sweden’s most successful authors, a grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door. (Honorable mention: Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County by Kristen Green.) The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown The #1 New York Times bestselling story about American Olympic triumph in Nazi Germany. Small Victories by Anne Lamott Anne Lamott writes about faith, family, and community in essays that are both wise and irreverent. It’s an approach that has become her trademark. Now in Small Victories, Lamott offers a new message of hope that celebrates the triumph of light over the darkness in our lives. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd Writing at the height of her narrative and imaginative gifts, Sue Monk Kidd presents a masterpiece of hope, daring, the quest for freedom, and the desire to have a voice in the world. This exquisitely written novel is a triumph of storytelling that looks with unswerving eyes at a devastating wound in American history, through women whose struggles for liberation, empowerment, and expression will leave no reader unmoved. Vango: Between Earth and Sky by Timothee de Fombelle In a world between wars, a young man on the cusp of taking priestly vows is suddenly made a fugitive. Fleeing the accusations of police who blame him for a murder, as well as more sinister forces with darker intentions, Vango attempts to trace the secrets of his shrouded past and prove his innocence before all is lost. (Also check out book two: A Prince Without a Kingdom.) Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end. Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. Benediction by Kent Haruf From the beloved and best-selling author of Plainsong and Eventide comes a story of life and death, and the ties that bind, once again set out on the High Plains in Holt, Colorado. Bracing, sad and deeply illuminating, Benediction captures the fullness of life by representing every stage of it, including its extinction, as well as the hopes and dreams that sustain us along the way. (Honorable mention: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver.) Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie An enthralling literary debut that evokes one of the most momentous events in history, the birth of printing in medieval Germany. Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar When the San José mine collapsed outside of Copiapó, Chile, in August 2010, it trapped thirty-three miners beneath thousands of feet of rock for a record-breaking sixty-nine days. After the disaster, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Héctor Tobar received exclusive access to the miners and their tales. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough Two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize David McCullough tells the dramatic story-behind-the-story about the courageous brothers who taught the world how to fly. Out of My Life by V. Raymond Edman Vignettes and spiritual takeaway by the fourth president of Wheaton College, published by Zondervan in 1960/61. (Honorable mention: Lila by Marilynne Robinson.) The Road to Character by David Brooks With the wisdom, humor, curiosity, and sharp insights that have brought millions of readers to his New York Times column and his previous bestsellers, David Brooks has consistently illuminated our daily lives in surprising and original ways. Now, in The Road to Character, he focuses on the deeper values that should inform our lives. Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey and Rajendra Sisodia Whole Foods Market cofounder John Mackey and professor and Conscious Capitalism, Inc. cofounder Raj Sisodia argue that both business and capitalism are inherently good, and they use some of today’s best-known and most successful companies to illustrate their point. The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson From London’s inimitable mayor, Boris Johnson, the story of how Churchill’s eccentric genius shaped not only his world but our own. On the fiftieth anniversary of Churchill’s death, Boris Johnson celebrates the singular brilliance of one of the most important leaders of the twentieth century. The South and the Southerner by Ralph McGill A wide-ranging blend of autobiography and history, The South and the Southerner is one prominent newspaperman's statement on his region, its heritage, its future, and his own place within it. In other media, one editor couldn't recall a book that rose to the top this year. Instead she recommended the British spy series MI5 (ten seasons, all on Hulu and Netflix).
Monday, September 14, 2015
I recently attended a celebration, hosted by one of my authors, on the eve of the release of his book. Alan Briggs is a pastor in Colorado Springs; his book Staying Is the New Going is a rallying cry to reject the wanderlust that fuels so much of our consumer-tourism (even missions and charity tourism), and instead to commit ourselves to the places we live. It's a good, brisk, energizing book, and I hope a lot of people pick it up and reimagine how they relate to their communities. TWEET THIS: Missionary isn’t something you do. It’s something you are, irrespective of where you find yourself. I once heard Andy Crouch talk about institutions, and I was pretty conflicted by his presentation. On the one hand, it seemed like I was being chided for being too self-centered, for failing to appreciate the institutions I had been born into and grafted into — this despite all the clear failings of any number of institutions, from the church to the government to corporations to employers. Why should I just shut up and take what these big behemoths dished out? As I thought about it, however, I thought about our mortality, and our simultaneous impulse for eternity. How does that play out on this temporal plane, in this physical space? I may want to live forever — in Christ, I may in fact live forever — but what meaning does that have for where I work or where I live? These things predated me, and they will, in all likelihood, outlive me. If I’m to have meaning in the material world — if I’m to find meaning in the material world — I have to look to these institutions that I find myself in symbiotic relationship with. The secret value of Alan's book, I think — the value that only emerges as someone puts the book down and picks the vision up — is the rediscovery that place doesn’t matter as merely a place but as a partner in our work in the world. Where we are informs what we do, and by extension, who we become. And who we become shapes where we are. And so on and so forth. TWEET THIS: Where we are informs what we do and who we become. And who we become shapes where we are. And so on and so forth. I think this book will have a slow burn, both as a seller and as a conversation generator. I think that’s a good thing; the kinds of conversations it will generate should take time, because participants move slower than consumers, and institutions such as neighborhoods and cities are not going anywhere. The space this dinner party created — for people to celebrate the culmination of a year of hard work while simultaneously reflecting on their own life decisions, life patterns and missionary postures — is a great example of the power of a slow burn, and the change it can ultimately ignite.
Monday, September 07, 2015
I've been slowly but surely (but mostly slowly) building what I'm calling a people's commentary on the New Testament. So far only one other person, to my knowledge, has joined me in this task. The gist of it? The Scriptures are, by and large, set in a context of oppression and marginalization. Sometimes the audience is the oppressed; sometimes it's the oppressors. Sometimes both audiences are, for all intents and purposes, one and the same. We overlook stuff when we forget that those of us who are comfortable are not necessarily the ones to whom God is speaking words of comfort. In this project I attempt to notice in the Scriptures a running theme of "striving" (in the words of people's historian Howard Zinn) "against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make ideals [professed in public] a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that." Here's how it works:
- Pick a chapter of the New Testament and interpret it online.
- As you write, think about people you know (or see, or imagine) who are not sitting in the halls of power.
- Think of the author of your particular scripture text not as someone with an advance on royalties in the bank and a Macbook Pro on their lap but as someone with no place to lay their head.
- Use the hashtag #PeoplesCommentary so the rest of us can find it, and so eventually we can sync the whole thing together.