Friday
Oct132017

In Dreamful Autumn: The 2017 Octoberish Lists


Photograph: John Batho, Présents et Absents

For the past few Octobers, I've posted lists of things I deem Octoberish. Sometimes they're creepy books or movies; sometimes they're melancholy songs or places. It's not always about the scary for me; sometimes I'm after the things that evoke sehnsucht; saudade; "northernness," as C.S. Lewis called it; or how I put it when I was a kid, "the Connecticut feeling." I was homesick for a place I'd never been, and I still love feeling like that now. 

Here are all the Octoberish goodies I've discovered in recent months. 

Picture Books

I've studied a lot of non-American picture books while in my MFA program, and many have a decidedly melancholy bent. Here are some of the best I've found:

Duck, Death, and the Tulip, by Wolf Erlbruch

Duck and Death become lifelong friends--until Duck dies. Though unresolved, the ending satisfies. 

Cry, Heart, But Never Break, by Glenn Ringtved

Four children decide they won't let Death take their grandmother away--but Death takes the time to explain the inevitable in a way that honors both intellect and heart. 

Jane, the Fox, and Me, by Fanny Britt

An ostracized girl finds comfort in two sources--Jane Eyre and a fox she sometimes sees in her neighborhood. As my kids would say, "Relatable." 

What Color is the Wind, by Anne Herbauts

A blind child repeatedly asks what color the wind is and gets varied and unique answers. Satisfying on both a literary and a tactile level.

The Only Child, by Guojing

A lonely little boy decides to take the bus to visit his grandmother. When he gets off at the wrong stop and finds himself lost in the woods, a mysterious stag rescues him and eventually guides him home. This gracefully illustrated, pensive wordless picture book reminds me of another favorite picture book of mine, Tim Wynne-Jones's Zoom Trilogy.

Novels

The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls, by Claire Legrand

Victoria is the only one who can save her best friend from the sinister new school in town. This was one of the books I used in my critical thesis. As well as being a delightfully creepy read, it's a primer on how to write effective horror for middle graders. Anne, while reading it the other day, marched into my room and announced, "This book is GOOD." 

A Good and Happy Child, by Justin Evans

George finds he's terrified to hold his newborn son. The reader finds out why through a series of engrossing flashbacks to George's youth. Beautifully structured and paced. For adults.

Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand

I'm telling you: Elizabeth Hand looked inside my head and then whipped up the ideal short novel for me. A folk rock band rents an old English manor in order to record an overdue album away from fans and other distractions. Trouble is, the manor is haunted. Any fan of 1970s English rock will find Easter eggs aplenty in this fascinating tale. For older teens and up.

Bird Box, by Josh Malerman

Aliens invade Earth, and just one look at them will drive you to suicidal madness. The narrator and other characters of this post-apocalyptic novel for adults are therefore blindfolded most of the time. Claustrophobic, chilling, unputdownable.

The Widow's House, by Carol Goodman

Again, another novel for adults that could have been commissioned for my birthday. Haunted house + Hudson Valley + writers + unreliable narrator = happy Luisa.

Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk

As I wrote in last year's post, a book doesn't have to be scary to be Octoberish. Set in rural Pennsylvania between the World Wars, Wolf Hollow tells the story of a girl who fights against deadly small-town prejudice. This book for middle graders and up gets compared to To Kill a Mockingbird often, and for good reason. It'll definitely be on my best books of the year list. 

House of Furies, by Madeleine Roux

A runaway finds work at a remote manor on the Yorkshire Moors. She soon learns that the rest of the household staff and her employer are not at all what they appear to be. Though it has a sequel (which I haven't yet read), this memorable YA novel stands on its own. 

Music

I worked long and hard on this playlist, mainly because I know Christian will appreciate it for years to come. Here's the thing: there's an awful lot of music out there that is scary, gross, or horrifying. But most of it just isn't very interesting or good. Here's this year's collection of dreadful, melancholy, or creepy songs that are actually worth playing.

The Dead South, "In Hell I'll Be In Good Company"

This dark bluegrass band is made up of virtuosi who don't take themselves too seriously. Great energy, evocative lyrics. 

The Civil Wars, "Barton Hollow"

My old blogging pal Heffalump introduced me to The Civil Wars, who unfortunately are no longer together. In this song, an outlaw on the lam alludes to various unforgivable crimes. Moral: there's no rest for the wicked. 

Stars, "I Died So I Could Haunt You," 

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I have a weakness for Canadian pop and folk music. Stars hasn't earned the high esteem I reserve for bands like The Wailin' Jennys and Great Big Sea, but they have put out some solid songs. This neo-80s duet is one of their best, off an album with a suitably Octoberish cover. 

The Avett Brothers, "Murder in the City"

Death by move to the city? The lyrics to this song read like a suicide note. Apparently when you leave your family and farm, goodbye IS forever. 

Rhiannon Giddens, "We Could Fly"

I have a huge crush on Rhiannon Giddens. Her 2017 album Freedom Road is mostly original, haunting songs (and a couple of brilliant covers) about her ancestors' lives as slaves. "We Could Fly" sounds like a mournful old folk tune, and coming from me, that is the highest of compliments. I love how she refuses to resolve the final melodic line; to me, it's a metaphor of how racism is far from eradicated today. Give it a listen, and you'll see what I mean.

Leon Bridges, "River"

This young gospel/soul singer will soon become a national treasure. More exquisite lamenting over injustice; he and Rhiannon Giddens should do a duet. 

Amy Winehouse, "Back to Black"

The magificent Amy Winehouse sang about despair with authenticity. I love the black and white music video of this, one of her most iconic pieces.

Louvin Brothers, "Knoxville Girl"

Nothing says "October" like a good old Appalachian murder ballad. Yes, there's a whole subgenre of them. This is one of the best. It's frequently covered, but the Louvin Brothers sing it as if they knew that golden-haired girl personally.

Evanescence, "My Immortal

If you'd told me in 1983 that goth rock would live as long as it has, I would have laughed you out of the house. And yet, here's Evanescence, with an engaging power ballad that likens breaking up to being haunted. Not an original idea, but earnestly and beautifully expressed here. Oh, to be young again and wander around Italy barefoot with a ragged tutu and ribbons....

James Blake, "Retrograde

That croony little minor arpeggio that loops througout, the gospelly clap beat, the droning keyboards, and the minimalist, evocative lyrics all combine here in a very Octoberish slow dance.  

Joan Baez, "Diamonds and Rust"

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan had to break up; that much greatness couldn't live long under one roof. And because they did, we have this exquisite piece of music. Judas Priest covered it pretty brilliantly, but I still prefer the gorgeous original. 

Jamie Samson, "Funeral for a Fallen Leaf"

October abounds here: the urban legend surrounding this song is that the teenaged singer/songwriter disappeared not long after recording it and is now presumed dead. Google as I might, I can't find any compelling evidence to the contrary. So: a mysterious Irish folk singer writes a song that's an elegy to autumn? Jamie, you win this year's Golden Pumpkin award.

Loreena McKennitt, "She Moved Through the Fair"

While we're on the Green Isle, let's sit a spell with one of Erin's finest sopranos as she sings an old Irish tune about a bride who disappears under mysterious circumstances. Despite the somewhat sinister lyrics, this song is apparently sung a lot at Irish funerals. It is undeniably lovely.

Eminem featuring Rihanna, "The Monster"

Eminem made my original Octoberish playlist, but given his Detroit roots, it's not surprising that he's got more moody goodness up his sleeve. Here, he and Rihanna sing about a monster under the bed, a metaphor for fame-induced insanity. *shiver*

Nina Simone, "I Put a Spell on You

Screamin' Jay Hawkins wrote this R&B classic, and everyone from Annie Lennox to Jeff Beck has covered it. But Queen Nina, with her biting contralto and inimitable swagger, has a corner on the most Octoberish version.

Queens of the Stone Age, "Mosquito Song

If you've read my previous Octoberish posts, you'll remember that I came to enjoy QotSA late. But I'm making up for lost time. This vampiric ditty, sung from the perspective of an insect, has undeniable creep factor.

Demons & Wizards, "Fiddler on the Green"

I have a soft spot in my heart for this band. They did a whole album based on Stephen King's Dark Tower series; that's so endearingly nerdy. (That, and their name; D&D-obsessed 15-year-old Luisa would have loved them without reserve.) This retro-English folk rock song is about a special corner of the afterlife, where the fiddling and dancing never stops, and where parted lovers beg the Grim Reaper to rejoin them. VERY Jethro Tull; well done, boys.

Shakey Graves, "Dearly Departed"

Shakey Graves is hotter than July, and this break-up song, full of spooky imagery, is one of his best. Did the narrator kill his lover, or did she depart under better conditions? Shakey is a pleasingly unreliable narrator.

Movies

The Witch

A Puritan family is exiled from its community and must attempt survival on its own--with disastrous results. I saw this movie a few months ago, and the more I think about it, the higher it's rising on my list of all-time favorite films. Every frame looks like a painting by Rembrandt or Vermeer, and writer/director Robert Eggers portrays the terrifying side of the Calvinist worldview with zero condescension. AND it's slow-burning creeptastic. Possession, or ergot-induced madness? You'll have to decide for yourself. Now I want to watch it again. R.

The Visit

A single mom send her kids to visit their grandparents so she can go on a cruise with her boyfriend. Big mistake. Nana and Pop-Pop are as crazy as foxes, and Becca and Tyler record their terrifying behavior on a camcorder. Big mistake. The peril ratchets nerves tighter and tighter until the satisfying denouement. Reviews were mixed, but I think this is M. Night Shyamalan's best movie in a long while. PG-13.

IT

Part horror story, part teen pastoral, the latest Stephen King adaptation is a huge success. Bill Skarsgård excels as Pennywise the Clown, but it's the kids who really shine in this well-paced tale of friendship overcoming fear. I was lucky enough to be at the Hollywood premiere and the cast party afterward, where kids wearing yellow slickers and holding red balloons wandered aimlessly. Loved. It. You'll float, too. R.

Session 9

Christian introduced me to this 2001 cult classic about an asbestos removal crew that wins the bid on a job at an abandoned mental asylum. Big mistake. Lots of ambiguity and well-timed flashbacks contribute to the unease created by Simon, a genius loci who lives "in the weak and the wounded." Another slow burn with a minimum of gore, and the filmmakers achieve an amazing amount with a tiny budget. R. 

My Cousin Rachel

Based on the novel by veteran Octoberist Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel is another film employing ambiguity with surgical precision. Rachel Weisz is brilliant as the mysterious cousin who enchants Philip, a naive young man with a significant inheritance. Beautifully shot in Octoberish Cornwall. PG-13.

TV

Hotel Beau Séjour

A young girl wakes up next to her own body with no memory of how she died. Only a few people can see her now, and she enlists their aid as she solves her own murder. This compelling Flemish-language Belgian Netflix original series is ideal for binge watching. TV-14 in Belgium, but be aware that the F-word is alive and well in languages other than English.

The Tunnel

We've just started watching this French-English crime drama, and we're hooked. A body is found on the line demarcating the border between the UK and France in the Eurotunnel, and police from both nations team up to solve the murder. Apparently this show is based on a Danish/Swedish series called The Bridge; we'll have to watch that next. TV-MA.

That's it for this year! Here are links to past posts:

My Top 13 Overlooked Creepy Movies

31 Octoberish Books

An Octoberish Playlist

Thirteen Octoberish Pilgrimages

All Things Dark and Beautiful

Tuesday
Aug012017

An Interview with Me at Mormon Women Project

It's long, and it's the transcript of a telephone conversation, but I think it's pretty good.

A Quest for Self-Knowledge

 

Sunday
Apr162017

This Joyful Eastertide

Eugène Bernand, Les disciples Pierre et Jean courant au sépulcre le matin de la Résurrection, 1898

"Easter Communion"
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Pure fasted faces draw unto this feast: 
God comes all sweetness to your Lenten lips.
You striped in secret with breath-taking whips, Those crooked rough-scored chequers may be pieced To crosses meant for Jesu's; you whom the East With draught of thin and pursuant cold so nips Breathe Easter now; you serged fellowships, You vigil-keepers with low flames decreased, God shall o'er-brim the measures you have spent With oil of gladness, for sackcloth and frieze And the ever-fretting shirt of punishment Give myrrhy-threaded golden folds of ease.
Your scarce-sheathed bones are weary of being bent: Lo, God shall strengthen all the feeble knees.

I wish you all peace and hope "This Joyful Eastertide."
Friday
Mar312017

Prayers in Bath

 

I'm happy to announce the publication of my newest book, Prayers in Bath. This is a project that was over three years in the making, and I couldn't be more pleased with how it's turned out. 

Here's the description:

After several attempts at in vitro fertilization, Ted and Julia Taylor are out of money and out of hope. In an attempt to shake herself out of her depression, Julia accepts an internship on an archaeological dig in Bath, England. When she finds an ancient scroll while working in the sewer connected to the Roman baths, she sneaks it back to her flat, translates it, and discovers a secret previously lost in the shadows of legend. But her new knowledge poses significant risks, and the repercussions leave her career, her faith, and her marriage hanging in the balance.

When Mormon Artists Group founder Glen Nelson approached me about writing a piece of fiction, I was over the moon. MAG's projects are always gorgeous and unique. I knew I wanted the book to be about a Mormon woman, but that was all I knew.

Going through my idea journal, I remembered that long ago, my Welsh friend Tan Morgan told me about the curse tablets that had been found in the hot springs at Bath in England. I loved the idea of people writing out their prayers on little pieces of metal, and then throwing them in the water in the hopes that Sulis Minerva, the local goddess, would answer them. What else might be waiting to be dug up in that ancient holy place, I wondered? And that's when I knew I had my story.

The amazing Jacqui Larsen created four paintings inspired by the story (one of which is in the opening spread, above). Here's what she had to say about the process: 

When I read the novella Prayers in Bath, I was intrigued by how contemporary life intersected with historical artifacts and legends. Wanting to echo those intersections in this series of paintings, I began by looking through my collage materials. As one who collects European ephemera until my pockets bulge, I had plenty to look through. In a serendipitous moment, I came across some fragments of hand-marbled paper and 19th-century landscape engravings that would dovetail nicely with Prayers in Bath. I then layered color, lyrics from a William Blake poem referenced in the novella, and a network of circles.  Circles as halos, circles as fields of vision, even circles as worlds or realms—the ones we live in and others yet to be explored.

Graphic designer Cameron King created the lovely layout, which mirrors a lot of the details found in Jacqui's paintings. For the limited edition, Glen chose a blue-green Asahi silk with which to hand bind the covers. The end result is exquisite: 

It's also available as a paperback on Amazon. It doesn't have the paintings or the design elements printed in color, but on the other hand, it's a bit more in the realm of affordability for most of us. 

In the happiest of coincidences, I just found out I was accepted to VCFA's summer residency at Bath Spa University this July. David Almond and Lucy Christopher are on faculty there, and our VCFA professors accompanying our group are the fabulous Tom Birdseye and Sharon Darrow. And I'll get to walk around all the places my characters walk (I've only been to Bath once briefly, long ago.) Much will be learned and enjoyed, all of which will be recorded right here in the months to come. 

If you read Prayers in Bath, drop me a line and let me know what you thought. I'd love to hear from you. 

Sunday
Feb122017

Svithe: #clutch

Hope blocks a shot. It looks like she's wading, but that pool is twelve feet deep.
This post is an edited version of a letter I wrote last week to our son James, who is in France serving a two-year, full-time mission for our church. Click on the link for a definition of the term "svithe."

The highlight of my week was your sister Hope's miraculous water polo victory on Wednesday. I don't use the term "miraculous" lightly. I'll write the whole saga out for you. 
Going into Pasadena High School's varsity water polo team's game with Burbank--their last league game AND their last home game--Hope's team was 0 and 7. She was so hoping for ONE win her senior year. Her team has struggled all season long. 
If the team didn't get a single league win, they would be shut out from the post-season preliminaries and finals. Hope loves water polo, and she's worked hard and consistently to learn the sport over the past four years. 
She had been praying about the Burbank game, and I had, too. Now that the all-encompassing stress of completing college applications is done with, being a senior is kind of a drag. She's gotten a little antsy. Her two best friends are busy with boyfriends, and she only gets letters from Toby [her boyfriend, who is serving his mission in Brazil] once a week, obviously. So overall, she's been down. 
Wednesday morning, she texted me from school about how much she wanted the win. I texted, "Is Burbank beatable?" She answered, "I think so." Then I texted her Philippians 4:13, and we both kept praying as we went about our day. I emailed all my church lady friends, hoping that some could show up to cheer her on with me, and a couple of them were able to make it. 
The last home game of the season is traditionally Senior Day, so after the coaches honored Hope and the other five seniors with flowers and brief spotlights, the game started. It was intense and very evenly matched from minute one; either the game was tied or one of the teams was up by one the entire time. Every girl on our team played with energy and focus. Hope had some outstanding blocks (ten saves in all), but she missed some, too. Each time, I watched her face as she mentally got herself from discouragement back to fierceness again.
At the half, when the buzzer sounded, Hope lobbed the ball from the goal box across the pool, and it almost went in. But that's happened before. Your sister has a pretty incredible arm, and it's what you should do when time is almost up, right? You see it in basketball all the time. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. 
Fast forward to the last minute of the game. Two more goals were scored, and it was tied again at 12-12 (which is high for water polo). With 11 seconds on the clock, Hope's coach called a time out. PHS had possession of the ball. If they could hang on to it and not let Burbank score again, the game would go into sudden death overtime.
But I knew Hope didn't want that. From my spot on the bleachers, I could see her face at the gathering at the edge of the pool. She was crying; she was exhausted. She mouthed to me, "I don't want to do this anymore." I held up the sign that one of my friends had made (it read "WE LOVE HOPE") and mouthed, "You can do it." 
Time out over; everybody got back into position. The ref gave Hope the ball, and she passed it to a defensive player. That girl looked around, didn't see anyone else to pass it to, so she threw it back to Hope. Your sister was out of her goal box, but she was still 3/4 of the pool away from the opposite goal. As goalie, it would have been fine for her just to hold the ball for the last five seconds, but some other parents and I jumped up and started shouting, "Take the shot!"
Everything was in slow motion. I could see the gears of Hope's mind turning. Finally, she reared back and hurled the ball the length of the pool, and as the final buzzer sounded, the ball hit the orange canvas goal backing with a slap. The crowd went mad; you would have thought there were 500 people there.
Hope faced the stands in delighted surprise, and her always wide smile was like lightning. Her teammates surrounded her (nearly drowning her in the process, no lie), and then they all finally got out of the pool and scrummed in this wet, squealy group hug for a good, long time. Hope was crying; I was crying. Tess, who was assigned to the stats table (as she has been all season long post-concussion), was jumping up and down. She got shushed pretty hard by the ref, since the stats kids aren't supposed to cheer, but she said, "That's my sister!" 
The whole thing was like the end of Hoosiers, or really any underdog sports movie I can think of. It was one of the best moments of my mothering life, and I will never forget it. 
The next morning in seminary [which I teach every schoolday morning at 6:00], I talked about the game during the 15 minutes we usually spend on Doctrinal Mastery. I told the kids about the Philippians 4:13 text conversation, and I talked about the sports definition of the word "clutch." (Actually, I want to get Hope a T-shirt that reads #CLUTCH.)
I mentioned try-fail cycles, and how the whole game had been a series of them, and how try-fail cycles in books and movies and sports make us feel like victory is earned. I had the kids read James 2:17-18, and testified that when we have both faith and works going for us (as Hope did), we can expect miracles (assuming they are God's will to grant).
I mentioned how, in my conversations with the Lord the previous day, I had acknowledged that there is much to be learned from a losing season, and that if that was His will for Hope, so be it. But I also had the thought occur to me during those same conversations: wouldn't it be fun for Hope--who, since she's been the goalie for the entire four years of her career, has never scored a goal--wouldn't it be cool if she could score one, just once? 
Next, I brought up Paul's words to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:7-8. At the end of the day, whether we win or lose, have we fought the good fight? Even if we still look like the underdog at the end of the game, have we given it our all? If we have, then we have won even if the scoreboard says otherwise. 
I finished by bearing an emotional testimony that I knew that faith carried that ball home for the last goal. Hebrews 11:1 "The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."  And I knew when the ball left Hope's hand--in that second that stretched into an hour that it was in the air--that it was going in. No question. I was jumping up and down in victory mode before the buzzer blasted, because I knew Hope had already won the game. 
When I emailed friends a quick summary of the events, one of them emailed a riff back on the famous President Kimball quote, "Faith precedes the miracle." 
Hope Precedes the Miracle. That's my message to you this week. And also a post-mission suggestion: the water polo version of Hoosiers hasn't been filmed yet, and I'd be happy to collaborate with you on the script. A good sports movie will always do well. :) 
The next day, the school made a special loudspeaker announcement about Hope (as you might remember, they don't ever do announcements on Thursdays), and her coach started calling her "Kobe." She basked in the glory all day long, and I'm so glad she had that. And now, because of Hope, the varsity team got to go to prelims and then league finals after all. They won both those games, bringing their standing up from last in the league to fifth. I believe that next year's team will be able to build on that momentum. Hope's high school water polo career is over, but how grateful I am that through the sport, she's learned powerful lessons to carry forward in life.