Friday, September 30, 2016

Book Notes: "Mysterion"

It’s always at least a little hard to review an anthology, because it’s the work of so many different people, and you can love some of the stories and really hate others. But despite that, every anthology has its own flavor, thanks to the hand of the editor(s), and Mysterion, edited by Donald S. Crankshaw and Kristin Janz, is no different.

So, I’m going to start this review with my impressions of Mysterion as a whole, and then go on to talk a bit about the stories I really disliked, the ones that intrigued me but maybe didn’t quite work for me, and then the ones I really enjoyed (happily, the last two categories are MUCH larger than the first).

General Impressions
Like many anthologies, Mysterion is centered around a theme. Like very few other anthologies, Mysterion’s theme is “speculative fiction that interacts somehow with Christianity”. What makes Mysterion even more unique is that the authors of its stories were not forced to make any concession to the usual CBA content guidelines that limit profanity, sexual content, theological orthodoxy, etc.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I just love that this anthology exists. I’m not a reader who goes for extreme content for the sake of extreme content (as you'll see in my review), but I do think that when you’re a Christian author writing about a fallen world, artificial limitations about content can really  make your story ring false. And so I deeply appreciate the editors’ aims here.

But did it work for me? The answer is…mostly. It was more heterodox than I would have liked, and there was at least one story I regret reading because of the extreme ugliness of its images. But I also found, in this anthology's pages, Christian science fiction that actually felt like legitimate science fiction—there were worlds in this book that were as fascinating and enthralling as the worlds I’ve found in books edited by the best secular presses. I loved that.

The Stories That Didn’t Work for Me
While there were several stories that just weren’t my thing, or that I had trifling disagreements with, there were only two I heartily disliked.

Let me stop here and say: I know that sounds harsh. But two important points:

1. That’s a MUCH smaller percentage than I usually find in sci-fi anthologies.

2. I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review, and so honest is what I’m going to be!

Well, and—okay, I guess I have one more point:

3. Since I’m a writer myself, I always want to cringe away from negative reviews. In fact, I rarely post them—I don’t lie, but I just avoid reviewing the book if I didn’t like it. But since I can’t do that in this case, I do want to say that my criticism is criticism of the stories, and not of the authors as people. Also, I want to say: I could be wrong. I could be totally missing the value of these stories. So please, dear authors of the stories I didn’t like, feel free to ignore my review. Don’t hate me. Thanks.

Right, the two stories I really disliked were “A Lack of Charity” and “Golgotha”. The first was simply ugly. It was horror that was very, very horrific. It gave me images in my head that I sincerely don’t want there. However, if the author wanted to give a great picture of total depravity, I congratulate him, because it worked as that.

“Golgotha”, on the other hand, was horrific in a much less visceral way (though it had a bit of that, too). Instead, what I disliked here was…well, the conclusion felt like blasphemy, to be frank. HOWEVER (see, I’m really terrible at negative reviews), that conclusion came in the mouth of a character who you might have reason to disbelieve. So…again, this might be one that was just not for me. If it meant what I think it did, I hate it. If I missed the point completely…well, I still don’t like it, but it might be a much better story than I realized.

The Stories that Really Worked for Me
Yes, I’m skipping all the stories that were somewhere in the middle. There were many (the majority!) that I enjoyed while I was reading them, but that weren’t (for me!) those unique jewels that you read anthologies to find. But there were a few that were just joys.

Here are the ones that really stuck with me:

-"The Monastic”, by Daniel Southwell. This one had something to its atmosphere that reminded me, in a good way, of Lars Walker’s writing. And this exchange, where our priest protagonist is trying much too hard to be culturally sensitive to the Ojibwe man who is helping him, made me laugh out loud:

Father Kyle looked the little stone hermitage up and down, looked the ragged hillside up and down, and suddenly decided that he was happy. He liked this silent, ludicrous little church house. 
“It’s beautiful,” he said. But he didn’t want to offend his only human contact, so he added, “I’m sure your places of worship are beautiful, too.” 
John shrugged. “I’m a Methodist.”

Gotta watch those assumptions!

-"A Good Hoard”, by Pauline J. Alama. Very much a fairy-tale sort of a story. Predictable, yes, but that’s fine, because it was told well and that’s really the important part. It did strike me as more of a children’s story than anything else, but it seemed like a children’s story I’d enjoy reading to my own kids, and so that’s a plus in my book.

-"Cutio”, by F. R. Michaels. This was another predictable one, but again, it was well-told. It was a creepy story, but creepy in a really fun way, if that makes sense. A professor discovers an ancient automaton, but doesn’t pay enough attention to the signs that it might be a bad idea to make it functional again…this one was also told entirely through emails and text messages, and that structure really worked well with this particular plot.

-"This Far Gethsemane”, by G. Scott Huggins. This story was the one in the anthology that most made me think, This is just good sci-fi, period. I’ll be honest: I’m still not sure you can extrapolate Christianity out onto alien worlds and alien races with any kind of theological integrity. But if you can, then it’s going to look like this. Also? Just a good setting, a compelling narrative driven by interpersonal conflict, and aliens that felt really, truly alien. I liked it.

-"Ascension”, by Laurel Amberdine. This one had just a slim, slightly-supernatural thread (both literally and figuratively, actually). I really liked Amberdine’s light touch in this story. She doesn’t have her main character go overboard on speculation, but instead keeps the whole miraculous element subtle and unexplained…and interesting. A lovely little story.

In all, I recommend picking up a copy of Mysterion (but, honestly, skipping “A Lack of Charity”, because you truly don’t want those pictures in your head).  Some of the stories have questionable theology, some are better than others, but the mix on the whole is quite good, and it has that sharp, strange, interesting energy that, real life has, and I really appreciate finding Christian fiction where that is true. It's good stuff.

And that’s my review! I want to thank the publisher of Mysterion for providing me with a review copy. All opinions here are my own. And I’ll be watching with interest to see what Enigmatic Mirror Press does next!

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

This post contains Amazon affiliate links; if you purchase a book from this link, I receive a small percentage of the purchase price.  (See full disclosure on sidebar of my blog.)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Psalm 4: A Meditation for These Times

photo credit: Betsy Barber

It is not a restful time in our country, or in history.

And, perhaps, if the truth were fully known, fully acknowledged, there has never really been a restful time in any country or at any point in history. As I read Psalm 4, the psalmist’s rhetorical demand sounds painfully familiar:

“O men…how long will you love vain words and seek after lies?”

Vain words and lies…sounds like what I read every time I turn to the internet.

I’m so grateful for this psalm, though, because it models what a godly heart does after beholding shame, injustice, and wrong in the world:

“Be angry, and do not sin;
Ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent
…and put your trust in the Lord.”

This is where good is to be found: in silence, in the quiet peace of the evening, when you close your eyes and your mouth, and you commune with your own heart, in the presence of the Lord. And though, as the psalmist points out,

“Many are saying, ‘Who will show us any good?’"

There is only one demand that will actually bring the good before our eyes:

"Lift up the light of thy countenance upon us, oh God.”

Yes! This! Of COURSE no one else is going to show us any good! Why are we looking to the world and its troubles anyway? Look to the Lord...

This is the psalmist, talking to his own soul, and reminding himself to take the time to just shut up and meditate on the Lord's goodness.

And after that communing with his own soul, in his own heart, reminding himself of the Lord’s great works, here is the conclusion he comes to:

“You have put more joy in my heart
Than they have when their grain and wine abound.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
For you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”

I love that God gave us this picture in the scriptures: this intimate picture of both of what godly agitation looks like (”Help, Lord! Look at what’s happening!”) and also what godly meditation and self-calming and recollection looks like (”ponder in your own hearts on your own beds, and be silent”).

It’s a pattern that shows up over and over again in the Psalms (see Psalm 11, for another good example), and it’s such a gift.

“Be angry…but sin not.”

It’s good just to know that that’s possible…and also good to know that we can turn from anger, and over to peace and to praise.

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

sketching just for the fun of it

This summer, while I was on vacation, I started sketching again.

Sketching is one of those things that I'm not terribly good at, but that I very much enjoy. But in the busyness of life, it had kind of fallen by the wayside--and it was such a pleasure to take it up again! Here are a few of my efforts:

a practical sort of a heroine

I like the wistful feel of this profile

I think I need to do more of this. It feels good to do something artistic that I have no intention of ever making any money at--that is, there's something refreshing and renewing about doing something artistic for no other reason than that I really, really enjoy it.

(Yeah, I knit and crochet for the fun of it, too, but there I'm still getting a tangible, very usable object--socks, sweater, etc.--out of the process. So it doesn't seem quite the same. Maybe I need to knit more impractical things...)

Do you have hobby that's just a hobby? what is it? why do you love it?

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Weekly Links - a little lopsided

SOME INTERESTING LINKS FOR YOUR SUNDAY AFTERNOON, not set out in quite my usual categories, because apparently almost all the links I saved this week were about faith (and not family or fiction....).


-"Stop the Revolution. Join the Plodders."

-"Natural Complementarians: Men, Women, and the Way Things Are" (Note, this is one entry in what's been a really interesting, ongoing conversation between a couple of really good writers. It's worth following the links to see the rest of the discussion.)

From the Archives:

-"Book Review: A Mother's Rule of Life": I've been revisiting the idea of having a personal rule-of-life, and so it was interesting to revisit this my impressions of Holly Pierlot's book on the subject.

And, finally, this doesn't fit into any of my normal categories, but the photographer who took my profile picture, the talented Daniel Peckham, was recently the subject of a cool article about his amazing work in drone photography. Unsurprisingly, there are some gorgeous pictures in this article!

"Behind the Controls: Daniel Peckham"

Have a great Sunday afternoon, folks!
Jessica Snell

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Movie Notes: "Macbeth", with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard

So, I recently watched "Macbeth", with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. The DVD was still sitting on our sideboard when a friend stopped by, and he asked how we liked it.

That gave me the chance to talk this review before I wrote it--a rare treat!

And the review I have is mostly positive. This version of "Macbeth" was, quite properly, disturbing and bloody and beautiful. It starts with burial rituals for a dead baby, and never gets more cheerful.

But then, that's this play, isn't it? "Macbeth" is the story of what happens when your protagonist says yes to temptation, rather than resisting.

Yet the fall from grace that the play depicts wouldn't be so fascinating if there weren't some real grace there to begin with. And in this movie, it's clear that the goodness that allows Macbeth's fall to be so heartbreakingly grandiose is twofold: the marriage of his physical courage and the strong relationship he has with his wife.

Even at the very beginning, at the burial of the baby, Macbeth and his wife turn towards each other in their grief, and not away (it's hinted that the baby is their own).

We go straight from that to Macbeth's encounter with the witches and, of course, things begin to get weird.

Any production of "Macbeth" has to deal with the supernatural elements, and this production doesn't shy away from them.

Moreover, any production of one of Shakespeare's plays is often most interesting in how it interprets the bare bones of the script--in the little grace notes each good production sprinkles around its particular version.

When you have such well-known stories, it's irresistibly fun to play with the interpretation.

But, at the same time, if you get too carried away with the creativity of your interpretation, you run the risk of losing what makes the story a classic in the first place: the strong plot, beautiful words, compelling characters, unforgettable themes, etc.

I'm happy to say that this production got the heart of the play and had fun adding their own little grace notes around the edges. Here were a few of the unique things I noticed about this version (spoilers, y'know):

-When Banquo's son is fleeing from Macbeth's assassins, one of the witches quietly appears and just as quietly hides the desperate child.
-Lady Macbeth's most horrifying speeches--where she begs the evil spirits to make her capable of doing the terrible deeds she wants to do--take place in a Christian chapel. It's a very awful contrast.
-She also is there in that chapel, presumably praying to the same demons, while her husband is off murdering Duncan. We flash back and forth between the two, and it's very effective.
-The "bloody child" Macbeth sees is a boy who dies in the first battle we see--and he appears as a vision later, holding the "dagger which I see before me" just before Macbeth performs his first crime.
-And, finally, they change the way the wood "comes to Dunsinane". Despite the spoiler warning above, I'm not going to spoil that part except to say: it would not work in a stage play, but it's really visually stunning, and it worked REALLY WELL in the movie.

I think this play works best when you, the viewer, spend most of it at the edge of your seat, begging the characters to STOP NOW, DON'T DO IT, NOOOOO..... and I really did in this case. When Banquo points out that Macbeth shouldn't listen to the witches, that the devils often tell you something true only to tempt you to something evil...augh! He was so convincing, and I was sitting there, thinking, LISTEN TO YOUR FRIEND, MACBETH, DON'T DO IT, NOOOO....

Last few smaller notes:
-I wish they'd kept more of the original script. True, I almost always wish this (NOT LOOKING AT YOU, KEN BRANAGH AND YOUR CRAZY-LONG HAMLET PRODUCTION), but there really were parts I missed, like Lady Macbeth's wistful observation that she couldn't quite kill Duncan herself, because he reminded her too much of her father...
-Macbeth goes very nicely crazy when he sees Banquo's ghost. It's great.
-The witches are evil. I appreciate this. So is Macbeth by the end. I appreciate this, too. Nice that they didn't try to wiggle out of that.
-Lady Macbeth is clearly terrified by the end. She called on demons, and the demons came. (Shades of "The Last Battle" and Tash!)
-Macduff's reaction to hearing the terrible news about his family actually made me tear up. It was well-done and (I keep saying this) pretty horrible.
-Content warnings: This is violent. The battles reminded me of "Braveheart", for a point of comparison. Also, child characters are menaced and harmed, which is very disturbing. (Though they do mostly cut away from showing actual violence to the children, which I appreciated.) There isn't any nudity that I can recall, but there's definite sexual behavior between Macbeth and his wife and it's (shockingly) kinda disturbing. So: not for kids, but a really worthwhile production of the Scottish play. Recommended.

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

This post contains Amazon affiliate links; if you purchase a book from this link, I receive a small percentage of the purchase price.  (See full disclosure on sidebar of my blog.)

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Weekly Links: some good reading from around the Web



-"Bible Basics: A Baby Believer Counting Primer": cool-looking Kickstarter from an fellow alum of THI.

-"One, Holy and Broken: Conflict in Christ's Church":
A church I attended suffered the pangs of conflict, and unfortunately, this was nothing new in my experience. As my wife and I moved around the country for graduate studies and then different teaching positions, four of the six churches we attended suffered deeply from conflict during the handful of years we were there (the other two were riddled by conflict before and after our time there). Based on our limited experience, to attend and participate in the life of a congregation, to be a member of a church is to participate in conflict.


-"It's 'digital heroin': how screens turn kids into psychotic junkies": Important stuff. Particularly this bit:  

Once a kid has crossed the line into true tech addiction, treatment can be very difficult. Indeed, I have found it easier to treat heroin and crystal meth addicts than lost-in-the-matrix video gamers or Facebook-dependent social media addicts.
-And, to add to the category of What-I-Am-Going-To-Do-If-I-Ever-Get-Stupid-Rich: "Data Scientist Creates Fully Optimized Road Trip Map to Every National Park".

Maybe we can do a tenth of it every summer for the next decade ...?


-First thing to mention under the "fiction" category is a fun Twitter even I'm participating in this month: #WIPjoy! Founder Bethany A. Jennings calls it a month of "celebrating our works-in-progress and encouraging one another in our writing" and you can read more about it here

I'm having so much fun participating in it this month! And it's early in the month, so if you want in, there's still time. Just head on over to Twitter...

-"Mike Birbiglia's 6 Tips for Making It Small in Hollywood. Or Anywhere": Good stuff for any of my fellow creatives.

Have a lovely weekend!
-Jessica Snell