Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Here I am!


today I am over at Books and Beverages answering Jamie's questions

I am also at Novel Crossing with my featured review of Miracle in a Dry Season
unrelated Benedict Cumberbatch w Penguin picture

Monday, August 25, 2014

Where is your Rachel, you might ask

Hi all!

I was at my work conference this past week and was sooo busy!!!

If you missed it, here I am at Breakpoint talking about how the CBA is "Not Your Grandmother's Christian fiction"

My most recent piece on Novel Crossing is a featured review of In the Field of Grace 

On Saturday, my friend and I went to the Shaw Festival to see Arms and the Man which was more than delightful and totally worth the trip down for.  The last time I saw Shaw Fest perform this brilliant play was in 2006. I hope they keep it in the rotation.

Here's me with George Bernard Shaw

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Pathos and Heartbreak with a Slapstick Chaser

Today I did something I have always wanted to do: watched a ton of Charlie Chaplin films.

Face it, for one to expand their social history and cultural education, then one of the most predominant figures of the 20th century is a good place to start.  Indeed, some sources cite Chaplin as "the Tramp"  as the single most recognizable figure of the 20th Century.  Chaplin certainly followed the industry through some gargantuan times. Further, he had his thumbprint on visual storytelling from its beginning and spanning his rather remarkably long career.

To add, he is the utmost professional: independently wealthy enough to garner complete control of his art, he produced, directed, acted in, wrote and even composed the music for most of his work.  When he invested in and started United Artists, it helped him pursue creative independence and carte blanche even further.

He is a man, legend, emblem and icon borne of a society that needed him to reflect the socialism construct of a rapidly changing world.  More still, a magnet for several rumours and legends: urban and otherwise that shroud his little off-kilter bowler-hatted persona.

Did Adolf Hitler steal Chaplin's toothbrush moustache to capitalize on a beloved figure?  Did Chaplin live in poverty and horde away his wealth in trunks when his Cinderella story just began to unfold?

With an almost Dickensian background  ( complete with work house flavour ), Chaplin entered the Vaudeville scene and eventually crossed over to America. There, he maneuvered his way into an industry just beginning to boom, took hold of it, tweaked it to his own making and ran with it.

Today, as it rained outside and blustered October-like even in August, I set work and life aside and visited the past.  It started last night when I finally watched City Lights. I had always wanted to see it, being told that it was one of the greatest films ever made and I was dazzled. Moreover, I was mesmerized. You see, when the Tramp---here pursuing a blind flower girl ---interrupted by the wackiest, quirkiest adventures--- is on screen, you cannot help but be pierced by those mournful bright, expressive eyes deeply set hollow in their eye-lined orbs and you cannot help but fall prey to the malleable physicality that allows him to spurt and sprint around the screen, taking everything with him.

It is in this film I was finally able to flesh out the iconic figure with cane and hat and wilted-corsage-in-button-hole so second nature to our society.   There is something clownish to him, something mime, something graceful like Astaire, something as sombre and pathetic as Garbo and something full of distilled genius.

I recognized that the pure masterpiece in Chaplin's work--yes, in this one film---is that it was happy and sad at once. It was drenched in pathos while still skipping happily along.  The end sequence, when the wordless, nameless tramp is reunited with his cured love is heart-stopping and full of the strangest, quirkiest sense of grace.

We have come full circle, both are redeemed by love even as their social statuses now sever them from each other.

And it was in this film that I recognized I was watching history unfold.  For the Tramp, nameless, and the Flower Girl, equally nameless and all surrounding characters--rich and poor-- embodied the every-people of a changing age.

So I wound my way into the juxtaposition of forged family and statement of social equality in The Kid , framed by the resonance of Chaplin's tortured childhood.  Then, I waded through the hyper-energy of the Great Dictator startled by the resounding contrast between the buffoonish oration of the Great Dictator and the end summation by the Jewish Barber, mistaken in his identity and owning the world with his cries of democracy and happiness.  If there is better American war propaganda from 1940, I would be interested to see it.  ( and yes, I've seen the 49th Parallel). 

Each title card fascinates me, indicative of the story arc but snatching at the most surprising opportunities to speak to the visual art. Each moment the Tramp ---from his earliest days in Kid Auto Races at Venice to Mabel's Strange Predicament ---twitches his nose or jerks up his elastic eyebrows held me.  This visual narrative: so foreign to our experience and relationship with films today, and yet so focused and beguiling.

I followed expression meets socialism in The Gold Rush as Modern Times swooshed broad paint strokes on the changing face of commerce ...and on film.  Not unlike the telling sequence in the Artist  when the sound of a glass hitting a table startled the audience, so hearing the Tramp sing and the hiccups of sound in Modern Times jolted me.  I had fallen into silence: the mime-like transience of a world where no one has names, and no one speaks to me--but to each other--- and I follow the muted action like someone on the sidelines peeking in.

It is something we do every day, is it not? As people watchers.  We catch small blurts of silent action and fill in the words for ourselves. We watch people in their humanity before their voices can break through. We see what we can detect and judge and feel and takeaway from their actions, their body language, the way they lean in or cross their arms straining back.

There is an acute and telling sense of humanity reverberating through all of Chaplin's films.  There are also nods to some recurring devices.  One I noted was the birdcage: seen in the Great Dictator as in City Lights and obvious and subtle oxymoron of symbol speaking to the precarious situation some of the characters find themselves in.

Not the Tramp, of course. He is of liberty. He sneaks in and out, cannot keep a job, is the apotheosis of freedom and nomadic adventure.   You cannot cage him. He is on the fringe of society, he is everyone and no one all at once. Characters cross his path and a story is born.   Strikers and revolutionaries, dictators and authorities edge near him and history is re-told.  He is part of the action, but on the outskirts of it.  He is like his strange mis-matched clothes. He never quite fits anywhere.
This sojourner, poet, romantic and jubilantly melancholy figure. So, he is for all who are just outside the lines of propriety. No wonder. No wonder he was so popular.

He takes the events of a century churning forward, plagued by war and disease and abject poverty and tweaks them into something comical.  But, the pathos is still there.

Note: you can find most of these films easily on the web in public domain and on youtube.

Friday, August 15, 2014

3 Book Reviews for the Price of 1

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman is a lyrical, if heart-breaking account of the mass suicide of over 960 jews when sieged by Roman rule.

It intertwines the lives of four very different women who work the dovecotes, tending to the best possibly opportunity for fertilization afforded them, as they shelter themselves from Romans and before their discovery comes to a head. Yael, Revka, Aziza and Shirah are at times mystical, frustrating, angry, lovely, romantic, violent and withdrawn, all well-realized within the curtained poetry of Hoffman’s lyrical narrative.

The sheer amount of research that must have gone into this novel is mind-boggling.  You escape inside the confines of this religiously and mystically shrouded world and thrive there as these survivors do, swinging up with their highs and tugged down by their lows. Sometimes their very lows: there is a lot of barbaric violence realistic to the time and the Empire.

Ruined by a Rake:  When a fatherless, friendless boy is set before the gorgeous older granddaughter of an earl, what hope does he have? None. Other than to keep the girl well enough engaged that she can’t possibly ignore him even if she wanted to.”  Ruined by a Rake is a spicy and sweet novella by talented wordsmith Erin Knightley. A friend recommended it as a free kindle download and I was besotted by the fun, spirited regency setting populated by spinster Eleanor and her dashing, rakish cousin Nick.  Like the tenuous dance of pas de deux, the book is at its height in the carefully laid-out swordfights between the two, whose growing attraction is surmounted by their rapier wit intelligence, spars and clashes of steel.  It was here the chemistry was most ripe: a careful reel of dance with perfect dialogue beats so that their story unfolded not unlike a well-played theatrical scene.

“Old and dried up at that age of four and twenty, according to the ton. Which was ridiculous. She was perfectly moisturized.”

“Rolling her eyes, she put a hand against his chest, blocking his advance. Good heavens, was he hiding a metal breastplate beneath his shirt? She gritted her teeth and blew out a breath. “

“He angled his head, his gaze far too observant for her peace of mind. “Shall we proceed directly to the joyful weeping, then? I do believe your eyes are dewy already.”

“Independence is so much worse than scandal”

“Sophisticated is just another word for old and boring.”

“Are there very many opportunities for mediocre female fencers?”

This is a surprisingly emotional ride, with layers dissonant and bleak, heartfelt and painfully resonant beyond the cupcake-coloured palette of the cover.
Cast completely with colourful eccentrics of the village fair type, Beth Moran’s Nottinghamshire and the central campground of the novel’s action –the Peace and Pigs” are prime for those who enjoy quirky portraits of British life. If this were the 19th century, think Lark Rise or Cranford. If this were a tea cozy mystery, think Midsomer.  Marion’s narrative is bleak and sonorous, but with such potential for life which she finds under the rocks and crags of Sherwood Forest.  The dialogue is pitch perfect and there are outlandish laugh-out-loud instances with bike accidents, chickens and full-frontal nudity. Splashed with themes of faith, redemption and forgiveness, Marion’s story is one of a young woman who must establish her own self worth before she is able to recognize what others—and the reader--- immediately see in her.

To add, Moran is a gorgeous writer: “On this static canvas a million tiny dramas, a billion scenes, played out unceasingly in every corner, under each rock and crevice. I have always been small, and here my smallness became a good thing.  I am just one life in a world teeming with others.  My problems,  my past, the questions about my future, seemed so inconsequential --- insignificant – among all this doing. All this being.”

“He leans back in his chair so the serving girl can set the last course in front of him, stewed late season berries bleeding into thick cream” (that’s such an amazing word choice)

“Oh honey, Scarlett put down a bowl of bread and was next to her foster daughter in three strides. She wrapped herself around the Valerie-shell and buried her face in her hair. For a long, long time they stood there, Scarlett poured out love into that girl like sunshine onto the water.”

“ The thrill of being entirely surrounded by the forest—this forest wrapped itself around me.  I could have been the only person alive. It was fabulous. The trees rustled and rasped with the wisdom of a thousand year and it seemed as if every other creature kept silence in honour of their age and beauty.  I soared through dozens of miniature spotlights, where the sun’s rays flickered through chinks in the verdant roof above my head, illuminating the insects in their dance shows, warming my skin with an ancient blessing.”

Soft, pastel-printed, quirky and wistfully funny, Making Marion is soft-brushed with the first awkward hope at attraction and the slow creaking move toward friendship by a woman unsure of how to be in her own skin.   Marion falls for a man with eyes like twilight in a forest.  You will fall for him, too. But not before you fall for her. 

I got Dovekeepers from the Library, Making Marion from Netgalley care of Lion Hudson and Ruined by a Rake I bought on amazon for kindle. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Author Interview: Dawn Crandall

Dawn Crandall is a debut author with an absolutely adorable little boy! I love her covers and her concept and I love interacting with her on facebook.

She was kind enough to answer a few questions:

1.) What is your writing process? Do you just sit down and write chronologically? Outline? Tell us a bit about the ‘behind-the-scenes’

With this first book, The Hesitant Heiress/Amaryllis Brigham, I did not have a plan except for to have fun! That’s also why it took me two years to write it. I really didn’t know what I was doing when I began, but it was just for me, so I didn’t care. I did, for the most part, write it chronologically… until I got about ¾ of the way in and didn’t know how to tie up all the loose ends. That’s when I joined ACFW because I knew I needed help! It’s all kind of a blur now… all I know is that my agent signed me right after my first ACFW conference that year… before I had the book completed. So really, the process was pretty messed up.

With book 2, The Bound Heart/Meredyth Summercourt, I had written about 50,000 words of it for Nanowrimo the year before I joined ACFW. Again, it was all done for the fun of it… but once I finished book 1 and handed it to my agent, I knew I needed to make it a “real” book. I’d actually written it to take place at the same time as book 1, but from a different character’s POV. So, again, I didn’t really write chronologically because what I had needed to be changed so much and added to. I always seem to get the gist of things down, but then I have to go back and rearrange things or add a chapter or two. I basically knew what I wanted to happen, but I didn’t know how it would all work out until each chapter came to me. It took me 10 months total to write book 2.

And book 3, The Captive Imposter/Estella Everstone… for the first time, I outlined the plot and wrote a rough draft so I could enter it into the Genesis Contest under the new rule that the manuscript needed to be finished {which I’m glad I did, since it became a Genesis Finalist!}. This, first of all, messed up any strange ADDle-brained process I might have used before… but then before I was finished revising, I FINALLY got pregnant and basically lost the function of my brain altogether to complete and utter exhaustion. I had my baby 4 months ago… and I’m still working on revising the ending of that book… which comes out in February. {Prayers please!!}

2.) I loved the unique musical influence, especially with Amaryllis’ ties to the Boston Conservatory of Music: how did this act as a muse ?
Oh, I love classical music so much! Especially classical music played as a piano solo or duet. I can’t play myself, but I wish I could! I loved finding just the right piece of music for each part of the book, for each mood Amaryllis was in as she played each piece… and then I would listen to it over and over and over while I wrote. Listening to music, in general, really helps me focus on my books. I have a playlist on my phone for each book. I still listen to the playlists for Amaryllis and Meredyth, and totally feel like I’m right back in the midst of writing their stories.

3.) Can you talk a little bit about the research that you did and how you made sure you were capturing the feel and voice of over a century ago?

Honestly, the voice that comes out when I write is just there. I don’t have to try to sound like I have an “old voice”—as my crit-partner likes to call it—I just have it. And I love history so much! I collect photographs and information about everyday ways of life, settings, maps, structures, anything, really. I use Google A LOT.

My favorite authors are Julie Lessman, Jody Hedlund, Elizabeth Camden and Lori Benton. I don’t think any of them write anywhere close to the same style that I do, but there is always something about their characters that feels deeper than characters in other books. None of them write first person like me, but I try very hard to write my characters as realistically as I possibly can, the way they do. I also like the way the plots of their stories go—I’ve never actually read a book on “How to Write a Book”, but from the very beginning, searched out books I loved and studied how they were constructed, and what it was about the characters exactly that made me love them so much.

5.) What’s next from Dawn Crandall? Can you give us a bit of a sneak peek about your next novel?

Well, my three books of my debut series, The Everstone Chronicles, are actually all coming out three months apart…. Which means The Bound Heart releases in November! Here’s what it’s about:

One accidental kiss. That was all it took to throw Meredyth Summercourt's world upside-down. Determined to marry the ever-elusive Vance Everstone, she simply doesn't have the time or the desire to fall for her friend Lawry Hampton. However, with Vance out of the country and Lawry constantly at her side, Meredyth can’t help but wonder if what’s holding her to Vance is nothing more than a desire to redeem herself from their unfortunate past.

When Vance comes home to stake his claim on Meredyth, will she be strong enough to break free from the tangled web she’s convinced she deserves? Or will she find the strength to accept that God’s plan for her life could include redemption... and quite possibly the love of her best-friend?

And then book 3, The Captive Imposter, releases in February:

Sent away for protection, hotel heiress Estella Everstone finds herself living undercover as a lady’s companion at Everston, one of her father’s opulent hotels in the mountains of Maine—the one she'd always loved best and always hoped to own one day. Within the week, Estella discovers that her ex-fiancĂ© is in the area and is set on marrying someone else. Reeling from her feelings of being unwanted and unworthy, Estella forms a friendship with the manager of Everston, Dexter Blakeley. She soon discovers that he is not simply the manager, but the new owner.

Saddened by this fact, Estella severs their friendship. She manages to avoid Dexter until she finds herself fired from her position due to a misunderstanding. Coming to her rescue, Dexter offers her a job as companion to his sister. Though she doesn’t want to be indebted to him, Estella sees no other choice. While rebuilding their friendship, Estella realizes that although she’s been lying to Dexter about her identity, she’s never been freer to be herself in her life. However, when he proposes, she has to tell him the truth—a truth he isn’t happy to find out.

You can read the first chapter of The Hesitant Heiress online



Book Review Blog: 
Twitter: @dawnwritesfirst

{About The Hesitant Heiress}
After being unjustly expelled from the Boston Conservatory of Music, Amaryllis Brigham sees her dreams of founding a music academy disappearing before her very eyes. Now the only way to achieve her goal comes with high stakes for someone set on avoiding men as much as possible: marry within the year to inherit her grandmother’s fortune. Amaryllis reluctantly takes part in her aunt’s society, intent on getting to the west coast on her own… and without a husband.
Despite her own misgivings, she soon finds herself falling in love with the most unlikely of men, Nathan Everstone, whose father not only had a part in her expulsion, but whose ominous presence has haunted her dreams for a decade since her mother’s tragic death. Nathan turns out to be much more than he seems and everything she never knew she wanted. But just as everything Amaryllis has recently hoped for comes to fruition, it all falls apart when she finds that the real culprit who has been managing her life isn't who she thought at all.

{About Dawn Crandall}

A graduate of Taylor University with a degree in Christian Education, and a former bookseller at Barnes & Noble, Dawn Crandall didn’t begin writing until 2010 when her husband found out about her long-buried dream of writing a book. Without a doubt about someday becoming traditionally published, he encouraged her to quit working in order to focus on writing The Hesitant Heiress. It didn’t take her long to realize that writing books was what she was made to do. Dawn is represented by Joyce Hart of Hartline Literary.
Apart from writing books, Dawn is also a first-time mom to a precious little boy (born March 2014) and also serves with her husband in a pre-marriage mentor program at their local church in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Voice in the Wind and An Echo in the Darkness

The truth does not go out and come back empty. You must have faith, Hadassah.

Addictive, really. I read both in the span of three days.  Honestly, work really cut into my Hadassah/Marcus time.

God will give you courage when you need it....

During the time of Christian persecution under the Roman empire, Hadassah watches her family die, is sold into slavery and is bought as the property of the wealthy Valarian family.

In a separate strand, the German Atretes is sold to the arena, encouraged to channel his bloodthirsty desire for vengeance to lead him to Victory, and eventually his freedom.  A Voice in the Wind  and An Echo in the Darkness explore the relationship between Hadassah and Marcus and centre on the lives of early persecuted Christians. The third, As Sure as the Dawn (which I have not read yet) will follow more completely Atretes' story.

God always leaves a remnant

The historical research: extensive, invasive and precise makes this series stand out from so many historicals I have read.   Every page is engorged with fact after glorious fact.  More is more in this case,  and I loved every moment of it.  Because I learned and saw in my mind's eye.  I loved the lexicon at the end of the book.  I loved the saturation of labelled priestesses, the names of the gods and the way servants were addressed, the traditions of the arena and the food and the clothes.

Why is it only in darkness that we remember what sustained us even in the light? I have not thought of the words of the prophet since childhood, and now in this darkness they come to me more clearly than they day I heard them read. .. Jonah must have felt the same dark despair inside the belly of the whale. 

There is no pit so dark as the depraved Roman empire.  No wonder God sent His son when he did.   A people so lost in violence, excess and immorality they themselves are all gods: drawn to mysticism and magic, so empty inside they cannot see that they are at the heart of their slow self-destruction.  Rivers paints this time opulently.

God is not like the idols men create and credit with their own actions and passions. God doesn't think and act as men do.... We're each single threads woven together in a tapestry God has created. Only He sees the full picture, but not even a sparrow falls without his knowing.

The motif of the temple destroyed and the Roman  triumph over Judea is a recurring theme, as is the belief that the temple is not really long gone or forgotten, instead in inhabits the souls of each believer.

He wanted to hold and protect her-- and he didn't welcome these feelings. Better the fierce passion he had felt for Arria, passion that burned hot and then went cold... better than these new and disquieting feelings he had for Hadassah.   They had come gradually, growing slowly, spreading like a vine that worked its way into the mortar of his life.  She was becoming part of him; his thoughts were consumed with her. His mind kept going back over all the things she had said about her god. He couldn't make sense of any of it. She said her God was a God of love, and yet he let his people be destroyed and watched his temple turn to rubble.  She believed the Nazarene was the son of her god, a messiah to her people and yet this same god-man, or whatever he was, had died a felon's death on a cross. He religion was full of paradoxes. Her faith defied all logic. Yet she clung to it with a quiet stubbornness that surpassed the devotion of any temple priestess.

Marcus' passion for Hadassah and his longing for her are a deft symbol of a lost soul aching for the light.  Hadassah is, to the core, the most perfect realization of a Christ figure I can think of in literature.  She is soft-spoken and completely devoted to the Father, she speaks in great wisdom using the simplest of terms, she seeks out lush Roman gardens for prayer and does so without speaking and she is the brunt of a horrific sacrifice that she accepts as will.

There is no doubt that these books are among the masterpieces of the Faith genre and have helped shaped the industry as we know it today.  But, like Afton of Margate Castle I was surprised at the edge, grit, violence and sexuality--- true to the time---but edgy for the demographic--- that are rampant throughout the series.

Atretes and Hadassah's parallel stories are ones of vengeance and quiet servitude.  The mastery of Rivers' pen is how their stories' intersect.

Unless we have something worth dying for, Atretes, we've nothing worth living for. 

Rivers often talks about why she was called to writing in the faith genre and how she uses her words and stories to pursue the tenets of faith and grace so important to her.   She has a powerful pen.  One that is evidently blessed with heaps of talent; but also with a spirit-filled purpose to inspire and encourage the strongest of faith.

I gave up what I can't keep for something I can never lose." Looking upon her, Atretest felt an aching hunger for a faith like hers, a faith that could give him peace.

As the first book prods at Marcus' faith, inspires Phoebe's,  flirts with Atretes: subtly and with random, soft collision and tests Hadassah's, so the second is the fall-out of faith. Faith to the breaking point and the ramifications of a God so big and an act so strong , those who witness are forced to try and reconcile with it.

The tentacles of story reach out further this time, as sojourner Marcus travels to Judea in search of Hadassah's god, whom he thinks must be a physical entity not unlike his roman idols,  while Julia is plagued by what she reaps in her sin, and physician Alexander is inspired by Hadassah's faith in the same way Marcus was.

Satyros felt the fear Marcus should have, "Do you challenge God without thought or consequences?" Marcus gripped the side: "I want the consequences. At least then I'd know if this god truly exists, that he isn't an illusion someone thought up to foist on gullible mankind."

Marcus is our Gideon. My perfect emblem of seeker. He rails and rants; but is hungry, a void waiting to be filled. His bravery as he confronts God, knowing he is shirking his own gods: including his noble honour, his servitude to Rome and their precious idols, are a powerful incarnation of thirsty seeker sought out, hand-picked. Marcus' journey has a holy thumbprint as much as Hadassah's does.

Oh Marcus, beloved, God cannot be contained in a temple.

God is in all of these characters: working, sifting, moving. He, too, is in the threads of story that sew up this rampaging, glorious tapestry: in its violence and depravity, in its splices of light.

None of them, not even he, seemed to realize that the weren't just physical beings,  that God had left a mark upon them by simple fact of His creation.  They preferred their idols, tangible , possessing, capricious characteristics like themselves, easily understood.  They wanted something they could manipulate. God was inconceivable, intangible, incomprehensible, unexploitable. 

I did find the pages of scripture a tad heavy handed--especially in the second book: as I thought the characters aptly embodied any of the virtues extolled from the Bible.  However, the story and its pacing and the sheer jubilant passion that Francine has for spreading this type of scary, powerful, wonderful faith is one unparalleled in other historical fiction of its ilk.

It may be that God has done this thing in order to give you a greater commission than one you might have assumed for yourself.

Perhaps the most potent aspect of the stories is how God really is in control of our destinies, yes, but als in control of how we work and move in His being, and how we can be used as vessels for the gargantuan burden of faith, but also as purveyors of even the slightest light. More still, how he pursues us as a shepherd, winnows Himself into us until we feel a vacant hunger and pit that can never be filled while he is still outside us.

And all the while he talked to her, he failed to see the irony in what he was doing.  For as he told the story of a simple Judean slave girl, Marcus Lucianus Valerian, a Roman who didn't believe in anything, proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Stories tell Christ's story again and again and again.  Often subtly. Often radically: at turns frustrating, bold and quiet.   When I mentioned that I found the scripture onslaught to be heavy-handed it is because it wasn't needed. These characters, and Rivers' spirit breathe onto the page and emblemize the scriptural counterparts acutely.

These books are a rollicking, rampaging and utterly bold incantation of faith tested to the utmost.   There is no stronger example of faith than the early Christians, so stifled under Roman rule. Nor is there a more difficult challenge to be mediated upon but a still small voice that rises to take on the bitter stoic and self-centred dogma of Ancient Rome.

The love story between God and us ( Jesus intercepting ) and Marcus and Hadassah both brought tears to my eyes.

(but, I still wanted Hadassah to end up with Alexander ;) )

Herb of Grace Blog Tour: AMISH FACTS

Today I am excited to host Adina Senft who is sharing some facts about the Amish with us to help promote her new release Herb of Grace 

AMISH FACTS by Adina Senft

1.)       In Lancaster County, where the Healing Grace books are set, an Amish woman’s prayer covering, or Kapp, is made of starched white organdy. She buys the strings separately, cuts the string in the middle, and sews them on at the corners of the Kapp brim. There are a couple of variations, though. Some women don’t cut the string, and it hangs down in a U-shape. So a person might think they were following the letter of the law, having the strings attached, but not the spirit of it, where tying the bow in the strings is a voluntary act of submission. Some women don’t sew the strings on at all, and there is a “drift” in the wearing of the Kapp by members of the congregation as a consequence. The brim gets narrower and loses its corners. The Kapp gets smaller, exposing more of the hair. And soon, many elders fear, the Kapp becomes more of a nod to tradition than a show of submission. This is why brim widths and pleats in the Kapp are regulated by the Ordnung.

2.)       In my trips to Lancaster County, I noticed that an indication of the degree of liberality in a congregation can be measured by … teenage girls’ sleeves. An Old Order sleeve on a woman’s dress has no ornamentation, not even gathering at the sleeve head. The sleeve is pleated into the arm hole, and hemmed simply. At a recent volleyball game, though, I saw a number of teen girls had dressed up their sleeves, even if the rest of the dress conformed to what their mothers might wear. There were horizontal pintucks above the hem of the sleeve … pleats in the hem to make the opening narrower … and even flowers made of the same fabric attached to the sleeve!

“There were some girls at the volleyball game on Friday who had them, too—and little fabric flowers in between the two tucks. They were so cute.”
“Now you’re just being crazy. Flowers?”
“Sure. Made from the same fabric as the dress. Some were shaped like little daisies, and one girl had snipped hers all around, like a dandelion.”
“You know what Mamm does to dandelions.”
Sadly, Priscilla did, all too well. Mamm yanked them out of the ground and fed them to the chickens, because you couldn’t compost them. They’d just grow back. —Keys of Heaven

3.)       Amish children grow up learning three languages: Deitsch, or Pennsylvania Dutch, hoch Deutsch, or High German, and English. While Deitsch is the language of family and home, and hoch Deutsch is the language of church and Bible, English is taught from first grade and is the language used outside home and church. And, since Deitsch is a spoken language, not a written one, all letters that Amish folks write are in English. There are only one or two Deitsch language dictionaries that have been developed. I use the Pennsylvania German Dictionary by Eugene S. Stine to be consistent.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Who Should Sing "Ol' Man River" by Todd Decker

From the publisher:

In Who Should Sing "Ol' Man River"? The Lives of an American Song, author Todd Decker examines how the song has shaped, and been shaped by, the African American experience. Yet "Ol' Man River" also transcends both its genre and original conception as a song written for an African American male. Beyond musical theater, this Broadway ballad has been reworked in musical genres from pop to jazz, opera to doo wop, rhythm and blues to gospel to reggae. Pop singers such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland made "Ol' Man River" one of their signature songs. Jazz artists such as Bix Biederbecke, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, and Keith Jarrett have all played "Ol' Man River," as have stars of the rock and roll era, such as Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, Cher, and Rod Stewart. Black or white, male or female-anyone who sings "Ol' Man River" must confront and consider its charged racial content and activist history."

Honestly, this is a fascinating piece of ethnomusicology penned by a passionate expert who excavates the history of a controversial song. Yes, the song’s history, form and function are extrapolated; but, more interesting still, is the song’s varied appropriation.

Rhetorically, we are asked who should sing Ol' Man River: especially as it worked its way as emblem into a wide spectrum of rebellion, anarchy and cultural consciousness. Vernacular, lyrical changes, slow denouements and show stopping octave-leaping flourished finishes --- all are at the center of one of the most interesting studies I have read in an age. Who has the right? And why is it sung again and again by singers from all walks of life, in all genres and forms, from all races?

To add, it speaks greatly to the historical context of the show and the ripples and shudders it spread through the Civil Rights movement. Decker writes: "  Every performed version of Ol Man River negotiates the color line that divided black from white and white from black in the years of legal racial segregation. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that the height of the civil rights movement—from the late 1950s  to the close of the 1960s saw the greatest proliferation of performed and recorded versions in the song’s history.”

In the context of Show Boat (1927), the stevedore Joe stands in for a greek chorus with his other pulley-levers. The song is reprised more than 4 times during the almost three hour operetta, concluding to emphasize how the world has changed --the days of the Show Boats are over, but the world continues--- as do the travails and triumphs of Americans--- as does the lives of Magnolia, Gaylord, Kim and the central cast of the show. The melody is played with and inverted to act as the musical infrastructure of the show: at times happy and sad but, like the currents of its eponymous river, strained and fluid throughout.

I couldn’t help thinking about my relationship with the song. I am, of course, an unabashed broadway fanatic and the popular 1993 revival of Show Boat with Cloris Leachman, Mark Jacoby, Rebecca Luker, et al. was one of my first stage experiences. I loved Ol Man River. I can see the stage before me now: the bails and barges in the elaborate set (see the documentary on Garth Drabinsky’s excess to learn just how elaborate that set was) and I can see Joe leaning there, his low baritone rumbling across the stage and into the seats. The auditorium vibrated. Another instance: I am sitting in Roy Thomson Hall to the thunderous applause reaching Colm Wilkinson at the end of one of his many concerts. While I secretly hope that he’ll impart This is the Moment on his set, he instead gifts us with Ol Man River.

It's a memorable song: memorable enough that each person who hears it stamps upon it their personal experience. Yet, it is not without its controversy.  Along with containing (in its original lyrical form) racial slurs, it has been shirked by artists of both colour. Speaking to one critic, Decker notes: "…Far from alone among black ( as well as white) intellectuals in thinking Ol’ Man River would be best consigned to oblivion.”
But it never was resigned or shelved and it is here, in the study, we begin an extensive look at the too-many-to-count renditions of a standard that has lived many lives, touched many and stood in for experience. It offends some, empowers others but never, like its famed river, has a completely smooth ride.

It has been sped up for doo wop, and slowed down to a ballad, labelled incorrectly as a piece of spiritual history, it has been enhanced with big bands, slurred from the distinctive voice of Louis Armstrong and crooned sadly by Judy Garland. It has undergone tempo and key changes. And SO MANY LYRIC CHANGES-- often tweaked to the agenda of the performer. Speaking to the firebrand Paul Robeson's changes, Decker explains: "“Tote dat barg!” “Lif’ dat bale!” You show a little grit and you land in jail. “Show a little grit” is a brilliant change [from get a little drunk] it fits the tune at a spot where the melody can’t overwhelm the words”

My favourite part of the history was very much the beginning in which Decker leads us through the maze of the song’s complicated history, followed by his absolute unabashed passion for Paul Robeson’s performance in particular. And once he began speaking to Robeson, then he began really exhuming the relationship between Robeson and the Jerome Kern, how he weaved it into his concerts stitched together of spirituals and songs but also how he defiantly changed words and inflections so that he always had power and control over its meaning and its interpretation.

Indeed, the relationship between the singer and the song was another fascinating tenet to Decker’s intense study. Robeson’s relationship, Sinatra’s relationship ( and the subsequent embrace of the Italian American community’s embrace of the song ), Bing Crosby’s relationship and, more recently, examples of contemporary performances and recordings and even the presentation of its timeless appeal to the raves of an America’s Got Talent audience.

You will never be able to hear the popular song again: not without thinking of its resonating implications: the fact that offensive slurs have been taken out and artists have layered it with a completely different context. But, one thing remains the same: it is eerie, haunting, tragic, beautiful and completely unforgettable.

I received this book from netgalley via Oxford University Press in exchange for an honest review.