Monthly Archives: September 2010

Found Art, by Leeana Tankersley

I discovered Leeana Tankersley when she wrote a lovely post for the “Voice of Doubt” series on Jason Boyett’s O Me of Little Faith blog.  Her memoir, Found Art, is about the spiritual lessons learned during her first year of marriage, which was spent in Bahrain while her Navy SEAL husband was deployed there in the early stages of the Iraq war.

Tankersley writes beautifully about how a girl from a conservative Christian background in the US finds her faith deepened as she is immersed in a foreign culture. She is inspired by the Muslim call to prayer and by the faith of Muslims she meets, and hours of unaccustomed solitude without recourse to her usual busyness and productivity force her to explore the contemplative side of her own spirituality — which also means confronting her own unhappiest memories and deepest pain.

I really enjoyed this book, and if I have a quibble with it, it’s that I wanted more. Not that I wanted the story to go on longer, necessarily, but that there were places where I thought subjects were lightly touched on that could have been explored in more depth.  Tankersley has a real gift for writing about specific sensory details, yet there are places in the book (her description of her first quarrel with her husband comes to mind as an example) where she resorts to generalities instead of painting the scene vividly with detail.  In this age of tell-all confessional memoirs, I understand a writer’s desire to keep certain aspects of her life private, but there were places in this where as a reader I felt a door had been closed, leaving me on the other side when I wanted to get closer to the experience.

Despite this (which may not even be a flaw, simply a matter of personal taste) I definitely recommend Found Art to any reader who enjoys memoirs with a spiritual flavour that also provide a glimpse into life in another culture.

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Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters

After the surprising success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which I read last year and enjoyed quite a bit) there have been several more of these unlikely marriages of literary classics with zombies, vampires, etc inserted into the original text (the latest I’ve seen, but not read, is a vampire version of Wuthering Heights, which probably explains a lot about Heathcliff).  Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters had some amusing moments, but I didn’t find it as genuinely fresh and fun as PP&Z.

The title really tells you everything you need to know, and the picture of Austen’s England ravaged by every imaginable kind of sea-monster and vicious ocean creature (with pirates thrown in for good measure) does provide a few chuckles. But overall, my main feeling during this book was the desire to go back and reread Sense and Sensibility without all the interpolations. Maybe the classic/monster mash-up is the kind of idea that really only works well once.

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Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah’s Key is a Holocaust novel with a powerful premise: during a round-up of Jewish families in Paris, a little girl locks her younger brother in a closet in their home to protect him, assuring him she will be back soon to let him out. Of course, she is unable to keep this promise, as her family is taken to a local detention area before parents and children are separated and shipped off to concentration camps. Despite her increasingly terrifying circumstances, Sarah remains determined to get back to Paris and free her brother, though it’s obvious to the reader that her quest can only end tragically.

Interspersed with Sarah’s story is the modern-day story of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in France. She is assigned to write about the 60th anniversary of the roundup in which Sarah and her family were taken from their home — an anniversary that she finds many of the French people she interviews, including her husband and his family, are reluctant to talk about.

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Love Mercy, by Lisa and Ty Samson

I may have mentioned before that Lisa Samson is sort of a heroine of mine, not just because she’s one of the few writers of “Christian fiction” whose work I genuinely admire and enjoy, but also because, in novels like Quaker Summer and nonfiction like Justice in the Burbs (co-authored with her husband Will), she confronts the issues of social justice that get far too little attention in many corners of North American Christianity.

And she confronts those issues with a refreshing honesty.  Samson and her family have made radical lifestyle changes in response to the call to serve the poor; they moved from a comfortable surbaban life into an inner-city circle of Christians living together in intentional community and service.  Lisa Samson is always upfront about how challenging this move was for her, and the struggles she’s had with her middle-class Christian guilt when confronted with the overwhelming needs of the world and their challenges to her comfortable lifestyle.

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The Summer We Fell Apart, by Robin Antalek

Like the last novel I reviewed, A Soft Place to Land, Robin Antalek’s The Summer We Fell Apart is a novel about siblings in crisis, spanning the years from adolescence to adulthood as the characters come to terms with the traumas of their past.

Amy, George, Kate and Finn are children of a theatre couple who are far more absorbed in themselves and their struggling careers than in the four children they have produced. Their father experienced some success as a playwright early in his career and spends the rest of his life alternately mourning the loss of that success and trying to recapture it.  Their mother Marilyn constantly reinvents herself as an actress but achieves cult-status fame only accidentally, later in life, with roles in a series of slasher horror flicks and their associated video-game spinoffs.

During the years their four children are growing up, the Haas parents are far more interested in their own problems and their disintegrating marriage than in parenting, so Amy, George, Finn and Kate are more or less left to raise themselves – with varying degrees of success.  Continue reading

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A Soft Place to Land, by Susan Rebecca White

In Susan Rebecca White’s A Soft Place to Land, two sisters growing up in an upper-middle-class Atlanta family are shattered when their parents die in a plane crash.  But the death is only the first loss. Since Ruthie and Julia are, in fact, half sisters, Julia being the child of their mother’s brief first marriage, the custody arrangement in their parents’ wills forces them to be separated. Julia goes to her birth father and his wife in a small southeastern town, while Ruthie ends up in San Francisco with an aunt and uncle.

 

The sisters, though four years apart in age, are very close, and not having each other to help them through the trauma of their parents’ deaths is devastating.  Ruthie, who is about twelve when her mother and father die, seems to fare better; she comes to love her aunt and uncle and their lives in San Francisco, to the extent that years later, when she ends up back in Atlanta, she feels like an outsider.

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The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff

The 19th wife is two stories in one – or perhaps more. It’s a novel about polygamy, encompassing a historical fiction about Ann Eliza Young, one of the many wives of LDS church founder Brigham Young, as well as a contemporary story about a woman in a modern-day polygamous community who is accused of killing her husband.

The Ann Eliza Young story is true, though author Ebershoff has embellished her story (as told in her own memoir), fleshing it out with details and bringing in not just Ann Eliza’s voice but that of her father, her brother, Brigham Young, and a modern-day Mormon scholar studying Ann Eliza’s story in an attempt to grapple with the role of polygamy in early LDS history.

 

The contemporary story is narrated by a young man named Jordan who was kicked out of a polygamous sect as a teenager, and who is now trying to clear his mother of the charge of murdering his father. Jordan is an engaging narrator the reader can’t help sympathizing with: his mother is a bit more complicated, as a woman who is clearly victimized by yet also completely supportive of the polygamous sect in which she lives.  While this part of the story is fiction, the world in which Jordan grew up does exist in many polygamous communities in the US today, and the depiction of that world in the pages of this novel is nothing short of chilling.

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The Shaping of a Life, by Phyllis Tickle

Phyllis Tickle is a writer whom I’ve never read, but have often seen quoted and referred to by others.  Picking up her memoir as the first thing I read by her may have been an odd way to go about it, since this memoir of her early years assumes that the reader is familiar with Tickle’s career as a writer about religion, one whose books have done much to introduce American Protestant readers to the ancient Christian contemplative traditions and spiritual practices.  The memoir has the feel of someone trying to explain “This is how I got from where I started to where I am today,” which is why it might hold most interest for those already familiar with the author’s work.

 As a stand-alone memoir, it was interesting to read, though the formality of Tickle’s language made it feel somewhat distant compared the very intimate, confessional memoirs I’m used to reading by women of my own generation (I believe Tickle is now in her 70s). It’s a spiritual memoir, but a very unemotional one, lacking much in the way of sin, repentance, or epiphanies. Rather, it’s a memoir of small moments in a young woman’s life (it covers the years from childhood through college, marriage and young motherhood) that nudged her towards an appreciation of prayer, meditation, and liturgy. 

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The Red Queen, by Philippa Gregory

There’s just nothing I love better than when  historical novelist can pull out a character you didn’t know much about from history, especially a character who’s not really all that sympathetic and likeable, and bring that person vividly to life on the page. That’s what Philippa Gregory does brilliantly in The Red Queen, the second of her new series about the Wars of the Roses (the first was The White Queen, about Elizabeth Woodville).

While The White Queen was about a commoner who unexpectedly becomes a queen, The Red Queen is the story of Margaret Beaufort, a noblewoman who clings fiercely to the belief that her destiny is to be queen — or, at least, Queen Mother.  Margaret, a passionately devout and completely self-centred little girl, is raised to believe that the future of the House of Lancaster just might be in her womb, and even when her son, Henry Tudor, seems a long, long way from ever sitting on England’s throne, she continues to believe in her destiny and shapes her whole life around making it come true.

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The Captive Queen, by Alison Weir

Having  just finished reading a chunk of Serious Nonfiction History by Alison Weir, I wanted to relax with some fun “we can’t really know exactly what happened so let’s just take our best guess and make a good story out of it,” historical fiction. Which also, not coincidentally, happened to be by Alison Weir. Maybe she thinks writing historical fiction is a nice break too.

The Captive Queen tells the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine, from her first meeting with the future Henry II of England, through the golden years of their marriage, her long captivity after she participates in her sons’ rebellion against Henry, and ends with a glimpse of her life after Henry’s death. This same territory has been travelled by my favourite historical novelist, Sharon Kay Penman, in her latest trilogy, and I think Penman does it better, coming a little closer to capturing the emotional pathos of  a marriage that started with such passion and promise, and ended so very, very badly.

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