Thursday, December 17, 2009

IMAGE Journal: Top Ten of 2009

Next to Pacific Theatre, IMAGE Journal is the coolest collision of art and faith on this continent. Speaking objectively. You oughta subscribe. And if you're cheap, or even if you're not, you ought to subscribe to their free bi-weekly email newsletter, ImageUpdate - which just named its Top Ten of 2009. Here's what they have to say about that. Click on the titles for more.

Domestic Vision: Twenty-five Years of the Art of Joel Sheesley, edited by Gregg Hertzlieb
The theme of domesticity is at the heart of Joel Sheesley's work. With his lucid technical mastery and wonderfully strange sense of composition, he paints canvases that draw out the profound weirdness of the everyday. His eye is generous; his portraits of suburbanites are made with a deadly-clear perception but also a full and loving sympathy. Domestic Vision--a meditation on a retrospective of Sheesley's work shown recently at the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University--probes the contours of home as a place where the mundane bumps up against sudden truths only half-seen.

Erin McGraw's recent novel, The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard, captures the rushing, bewildering newness of Los Angeles at the dawn of the last century, a city populated by people who have left the past behind and where identity is up for grabs--if a person has enough desire, ruthlessness, and grit, that is. Nell Plat of Mercer County, Kansas, is loosely based on the author's grandmother, who abandoned her young family without a word to remake herself in the West. The Kansas sod house that irascible Nell shares with her husband and tight-lipped in-laws is cramped and stifling with old grudges.

New Tracks, Night Falling by Jeanne Murray Walker
The sense of disconnection and loss in Jeanne Murray Walker's new collection of poems can barely be touched by words. And Walker admits this right away in her first poem, addressed to a dead neighbor: “You've gone AWOL and only Jesus / can bring you back. Not tears, / not rain. Not this poem.” Having thus acknowledged the limitations of her words, Walker nevertheless reaches for a language to grapple with this and other losses. She enlists unusual metaphors to do the job—the dead friend becomes “an ocean who's abandoned / its bed. The sky who folded up / its blue tent and traveled south.”

Usher by B.H. Fairchild
If you missed the chance to read B.H. Fairchild's “Trilogy” in Image #56, you're in luck, twice over. The three-poem work was just reprinted in the 2009 Pushcart Prize anthology, and it also appears as what Fairchild has called the centerpiece of his new poetry collection, Usher. The usher of the title is Nathan Gold, a theology student and movie-theater usher in 1950's New York, who tries, in a dramatic monologue, to figure out what his theology professors Tillich and Niebuhr have to do with Katherine Hepburn and Marlon Brando.

In her debut novel, The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight, Gina Ochsner tells the tangled stories of a handful of unlikely neighbors who inhabit a condemned apartment building in post-Soviet Russia, in the city of Perm, Siberia. First we meet Olga, a Jewish woman and a lover of words who works as a “translation officer” for the Red Star newspaper, where her unfortunate job is to make the news more palatable for the public: military casualties must be rounded down to “acceptable figures,” and a horrific event must never make it to the public “in its raw and undiluted version.”

Pierce Pettis: That Kind of Love
Pierce Pettis's songwriting keeps getting better—and that's saying a lot. With That Kind of Love, he has produced another collection of unskippable gems. The eagerly awaited album was four years in the making, and in the liner notes Pettis writes that the extra time allowed the songs to mature and develop. It shows. The emotional and theological richness, the playfulness and lyricism of his writing, and the power of his storytelling continue to grow. As one music critic noted, “Pierce Pettis doesn't write mere songs; he writes literature.”

Nurse Jackie on Showtime
Showtime has a new series you may have seen advertised, starring Edie Falco, formerly of The Sopranos. It's called Nurse Jackie and it is already off to a great start. Here's the set-up: there's this emergency room nurse who's tough, quietly kind, and fiercely devoted to her vocation. But she also does Percocet and OxyContin and Vicodin on the job for her bad back and stress levels, while having an affair with the hospital pharmacist. She takes a long subway ride home (after double shifts) to her hunky husband and two sweet daughters. The hospital she works at is clearly Catholic; there's a corridor leading to the chapel that has a statue of Raphael's transfigured Christ at the end of the hallway.

Dave Perkins: Pistol City Holiness
Recently nominated for two Grammy awards, Dave Perkins' Pistol City Holiness is a stirring collection of mournful Delta blues and gritty Southern rock featuring Perkins' unnerving guitar and rugged, impolite vocals that plumb the unapologetic depths of old-fashioned blues despair. Perkins, a legendary producer and session musician, covers expected thematic ground—love, fights, failures, and plain bad luck—but his lyrics are vividly inventive. On “Preacher Blues,” a tale of unrequited love and spiritual struggle, Perkins blindsides the listener with the opening line: “She's a helluva woman when she's all dressed up for church.”

The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain by Scott Cairns
Scott Cairns prefaces The End of Suffering, the nonfiction book that grew out of his 2006 keynote address at the Glen Workshop, by naming the work for what it is: an essay into the subject of suffering, of human affliction and pain. “I hope to find some sense in affliction,” Cairns writes, “hoping – just as I have come to hope about experience in general – to make something of it.” And what Cairns does, with prose that strides perfectly across the page, is precisely this; he writes to make sense of the suffering we encounter, and cause, and know in our own lives.

Memoirs that center on a conversion experience are common enough, but they can often become cerebral, focused on an inner, intellectual journey. The deepest and most memorable conversion stories embed the journey of the mind within the pilgrimage of the heart; in doing so they anchor theological matters in the small, dense worlds of work and family life. Maggie Kast, who has written on dance for Image (#19), has published just such a memoir, The Crack Between the Worlds. Kast has a harrowing story to tell—including the death of one child and the mystery of another child's disability—but threads of grace and light run parallel to the pain of loss.

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