Monthly Archives: March 2018

The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik, by David Arnold

Noah HypnotikNoah and the Rosa-Haas twins have been best friends forever. It got a little complicated when Alan told Noah that he was gay, and then Noah fell in love with Valeria, but now all that is behind them, and they all work to maintain what Alan calls “the delicate triangle.” It’s the summer before their senior year, and the three plan to go on to local colleges in Illinois so that they can stay close.

Noah is conflicted. He may not even want to go to college. Lately, all he’s been doing is writing his summer assignment, “A Concise History of Me,” which is becoming less concise by the day, and obsessing over his Strange Fascinations. His fascinations include an abandoned photograph dropped by a local rock star, an old man in the neighborhood with a goiter, a novel by his favorite author, and an online video called the Fading Girl. In the video, a woman took a photo of herself in the same place every day for forty years. She fades. We fade.

Since he would never do so on his own, Val convinces him to go to a party in a huge home, where he makes the mistake of tasting a cherry Hurricane and deciding that it is really quite nice, which leads to another and another. This is how he finds himself explaining to a lovely girl that yes, he wears the exact same pants and David Bowie t-shirt every day because it is much more efficient to do so— plus, Bowie. When she backs away, he exclaims that no, no, he has ten sets of the same pants and t-shirts, so he does wash them in between. When this does not convince her of his sanity, he wanders off and ends up in the library, where he meets Circuit Lovelock.

Circuit and Noah have a deep and meaningful conversation in which they deplore the shallow and meaningless conversations one normally has at parties. In the end, Circuit convinces Noah that he needs a change in direction, which he can give him at his house. Despite his misgivings, and under the influence of cherry Hurricanes, Noah walks through the neighborhood with him, passing the old man with his collie, Abraham, on his front porch. At Circuit’s house, things get weird, and Noah gets up abruptly and leaves, passing the old man with his Labrador, Abraham. Wait….

Suddenly, the world has changed. Not a lot, but subtly. His mother has a scar on her cheek he doesn’t remember. Val and Alan are going out of state to college. His parents watch Seinfeld instead of Friends every night. What is going on? The only one who hasn’t changed is his little sister, Penny. She is still obsessed with Breakfast at Tiffany’s and walks around quoting Audrey Hepburn.

While the reader is working hard to untangle the clues and help Noah back to his former life, Arnold treats us to continual streams of what he calls “the minutiae”: loads of delicious details, some true, some imagined, that create Noah’s world and consciousness. He weaves it all together so convincingly that he had me looking up Mila Henry, Noah’s favorite author, so that I could read some of her books. No go; she’s a fictitious character. As in every David Arnold title, it’s not just the plot that pulls the reader along. It’s the quirky but lovable characters and his distinctive writing style that make his novels such immersive and unforgettable experiences. The language is frequently foul in the style of an uncensored sixteen-year-old boy.

Just as I swore that I would not read another young adult novel anytime soon, Penguin Random House sent out an email about this third novel by one of my favorite YA authors. I had to get my hands on it, and I was not disappointed. Noah’s library chat with Circuit was so delightful that I wish I could quote parts of it, but since I read an advance reader copy, that is verboten. So, I will paraphrase one part where Noah relates a conversation between Alan and another boy about a band. One loved it and one hated it. When Circuit asked Noah what he thought, he said that he thought it was just okay, which is apparently no longer acceptable. Not having a strong opinion about something is now “a lost art.” One must either love or hate everything, and he just doesn’t. Exactly. And that was the moment that I decided to have a strong opinion about this book. I loved it.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which I begged from my book distributor. It will be published in May, 2018. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Blood Water Paint, by Joy McCullough

Blood Water PaintOnce her father had despaired of finding any talent in his sons, he put Artemisia to work in his studio, grinding pigments and preparing canvases. He soon realized that she could paint, so he allowed her to fill in the backgrounds on some of his paintings. Artemisia began encroaching further and further into her father’s figures, and then she struck out on her own. Her father’s signature was always in the corner, but his patrons knew that an old man would not suddenly become gifted. No, it was the silent girl in the shadows who brought life to the old, traditional pictures.

Judith and her servant with Holofernes

Artemisia reveled in painting the great heroines of the Bible. Although she could not read, her mother had made sure that her only daughter knew these stories before she died in childbirth with her second girl child, who also perished. All of the artists before her had portrayed Judith and Susanna as mild and pleasant, but Artemisia knew their fear and anger, and she painted their true emotions onto her canvases. Eventually, her father decided to nurture her gift, so he hired another artist to teach her perspective. Artemisia fell in love, and she thought that he was proposing marriage to her, but he was proposing something else entirely.

McCullough relates this true story in verse, with dialogue noted in italics. The reader sees through Artemisia’s eyes, with other characters’ dialogue appearing in a separate column. Artemisia Gentileschi was a Renaissance artist in a time when women were not encouraged to express themselves publicly. A quick Google search will display her prolific work in the familiar Renaissance style, with shimmering figures glowing out of the darkness. Although paintings of these Biblical—often apocryphal— stories were common, Artemisia’s women are different. Her madonnas love the baby Jesus, they are not ethereal and passive. In McCullough’s story, the artist identifies closely with Judith, so it is not strange that we see strength and vengeance in her eye as Judith cuts off Holofernes’ head. And here is Jael, enthusiastically driving a stake through Sisera’s head. There seems to be a theme here. Jael and SiseraFortunately for posterity, when she was not painting women murdering men, she turned to self-portraits. In this picture, she presents herself as the personification of Painting.

Artemisia self-portrait

Artemisia Gentileschi as the Personification of Painting

Released at the height of the #MeToo movement, Blood Water Paint is an important and brutal work. Young women, especially, can take heart that Artemisia Gentileschi survived rape and went on to become a great artist, against all odds. This story will provide an opportunity not only to learn about Renaissance art, but also about Biblical women who are characters in the part of the Bible that is called the Apocrypha in Protestant churches. Because of the mature subject matter, this book is best for older teens and adults.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Serena, by Ron Rash

Serena“Just remember you were warned,” said his Boston hostess before she introduced Pemberton to Serena. Despite her words, he was instantly smitten. Serena was the strongest woman he had ever known, and she was eager to join him in western North Carolina, leaving the sophistication of Boston society for the rugged life of a mountain logging operation.

Her father had been a lumber baron in Colorado, so Serena had grown up on horseback and could handle everything to do with the business as well as any grizzled old hand in the camp. She trained an eagle to take care of the snake problem, and the men grew accustomed to seeing her upright form riding the mountainside with the huge bird perched on her arm. When Pemberton was confronted by the father of a young woman who was carrying his child, he dispatched him neatly with a knife blade quite openly on the train platform. Serena approved, and from that point, the pair of them continued to remove any obstacles that got in the way of their plan to denude the entire mountainside, then the entire state, and eventually, the entire country of Brazil.

I recently decided to get better acquainted with contemporary Southern—and especially North Carolina—authors, since William, Flannery, Eudora, Walker and I are old friends. Ron Rash is new to me, even though he is a well-known resident of our state. The first two pages of this novel are brutal, and both Pemberton and Serena are repugnant. Since I am a character-driven reader, it was tough to get past this shocking opening scene. Also, as a rural resident, I am happily surrounded by green woodlands, so when the protagonists view a beautiful poplar as just so many board feet, it is nauseating, just as the author intended. However, there are some heroes to be found, and the pace of the plot and the reader’s increasing desperation to find someone to stop this woman keep the pages turning. There is certainly not a moment of boredom, and last third of the book runs at breakneck speed. Even the secondary characters are often compelling and sometimes reminded me of the cast of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Rash’s use of one logging crew as a sort of Appalachian Greek chorus provided a bit of comic relief.

As a North Carolinian, it was mind-bending to read about the Biltmore House as an actual residence, not the museum that we know today. I had no idea that logging companies were racing to clear-cut our beautiful Smoky Mountains before the federal government could establish national forests. Conservation and unchecked greed are the larger themes here, but readers will never forget Serena, one of the most evil women ever to dwell on the printed page. A contemporary classic.

Disclaimer: I read a colleague’s (signed!) copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Ragamuffin Gospel, by Brennan Manning

Ragamuffin GospelFormer Catholic priest, husband, father, alcoholic, divorcé, and writer, Brennan Manning led a full life. Despite the suffering he endured, most of his books focus on the overwhelming love of God and his grace toward us sinners. Those of us who, like Manning, were raised Catholic need regular reminders of God’s love, since this is not the message we were fed as children. Guilt for our sins and a strong sense of unworthiness are much more likely to keep the kids in line. I cannot count the number of times that something happened to me and my mother said, “God is punishing you.” And she truly believed it.

The Ragamuffin Gospel is considered to be Manning’s magnum opus, although I loved Abba’s Child more. I reviewed it here. However, many famous people identified strongly as ragamuffins. Rich Mullins, in particular, named his musical group The Ragamuffin Band. The front cover of the latest edition of the book is one of Mullins’ album covers. Michael W. Smith wrote the foreword. So, in the almost thirty years since its publication, this small volume has worked itself into the music and conversation of the Christian community, even in ways we do not see.

A few years ago, David and I were talking about current issues and whether or not we considered them sinful. We were in the car on a long trip, so we had hours of uninterrupted time, and at the end of it, we came to the uncomfortable conclusion that we were quite willing to consider our own sins as no big deal, maybe not even sins, whereas those activities toward which we were not even tempted were obviously heinous sins. Since then, I have come to believe that most of us—believers and unbelievers alike— think that way. Or, to go even further, once we’ve forgiven ourselves for all of our own sins, we hasten to erase guilt for everything everywhere, just in case someone turns the spotlight on us.

Manning does not take that approach. Rather, he identifies with other sinners because he is aware of his own sin. For example, “You steal cupcakes? Yes, that is a sin. Me, I stole cookies. But take heart! Jesus forgives both cupcake and cookie thieves.” We are ragamuffins, with nothing to offer God, and yet he loves us as we are. His favorite verse in the Bible is Luke 15:20, in which the prodigal son’s father runs down the road to meet him, arms outstretched, before the son has bathed or even had time to apologize. Beautiful.

My favorite chapter in this book was “The Second Call.” He says that every spiritual person, somewhere between the ages of thirty and sixty, will go through a crisis of faith that will crash them back almost to nothing, only to begin “the second journey,” learning about Jesus all over again. For me, I was right smack in the middle of that age range, and I found this chapter to be a startling revelation that this was a common experience. Manning writes that we move through years of suffering and searching this second time and emerge wiser, though more wrinkled. We finally accept that no one will ever truly understand us, and we are far less likely to care about what other people think.

That’s a useful result for Brennan, since he was constantly barraged with accusations of universalism and cheap grace. Not that his critics are completely wrong, since his theology can be a bit loose at times, but dry tracts of systematic theology never made the wounded whole. For those of us who need reminding that God loved us before we ever did anything good or bad, The Ragamuffin Gospel can help to heal the sin-sick soul.

You may find some comfort here.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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