I wince when I find myself posting something on the Internet that equates Christmas with buying stuff.
Christmas is about being grateful for what we have received: grace, the promise of everlasting life, the realization that we have nothing at all to fear. Nothing.
And yet, since I know many of you are scrambling to pick up gifts for friends and family, I feel compelled to bring some possibilities to your attention… gifts that would enrich the lives of those who care about excellence, beauty, truth, and the arts.
Besides, there’s nothing wrong with giving, generously, in ways that deepen relationship and encourage a more abundant life. So long as giving isn’t just an obligation, or a way to score points, or accompanied by an unhealthy focus on getting, right?
Here are a few recommendations…
A subscription to Image
This arts journal has not only changed my life… it has introduced me to artists and a community of art-lovers who have come to feel like a family. The more I invest in Image and its brilliant collaborators, the more my life is infused with beauty, mystery, and hope.
The Lucy Variations
The latest book from the celebrated novelist Sara Zarr tells the compelling story of a young pianist who falls out of love with her gift when she is pushed too hard to excel, to compete, and to succeed. Just as The Hunger Games reveals the consequences of turning the world into a battleground where young people are exploited for the self-interest of others, so The Lucy Variations, in a real-world way, reminds us that life is meant for joy and discovery and play and fulfillment, not soul-killing enslavement to expectations and exploitation.
These two books are treasures of visual art and insightful writing — the first for Advent, and the second (just published!) for Lent and Easter.
Anne and I have made God With Us an annual read-aloud tradition in our home through Advent. Every year, I glean more enjoyment and understanding from its pages, which feature writing Eugene Peterson, Luci Shaw, Scott Cairns, Kathleen Norris, Emilie Griffin, and Richard John Neuhaus.
We’ll pick up our own copy of God For Us soon… if we don’t receive a copy for Christmas. (Hint, hint.)
Albums. Not MP3s.. but CDs or, better, LPs.
You could give somebody a gift card so they can download music.
Or you could give them music in a tangible form, complete with artwork and liner notes, in a format that delivers the music with fuller, richer, higher-quality sound.
My highest recommendation this year? The gatefold-vinyl double edition of Meet Me at the Edge of the World by Over the Rhine. We already have the double CD edition, and we’ll pick up the vinyl soon in order to have this in its ideal manifestation. You could get the mp3s… but the liner notes celebrate the lyrics, provide fantastic photographs of Nowhere Farm (the band’s home, which is a natural wonder), and, well… yeah, okay… there’s a little something I wrote in there as well.
If you already own Over the Rhine’s latest, here — in alphabetical order — is the list of albums from which I’ll soon be announcing my 20 favorite records of 2013. (I’ve marked some Titles* to indicate that there’s some rather, um, R-rated content. Probably some f-bombs.)
- Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer – Child Ballads
- Arcade Fire – Reflektor*
- Arctic Monkeys – AM*
- Atoms for Peace – Amok
- Ballaké Sissoko – At Peace
- Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Specter at the Feast
- Bryan Ferry – The Jazz Age
- Buke and Gase – General Dome
- Daughter – If You Leave
- David Bowie – The Next Day (+ The Next Day Extra)
- Elvis Costello and the Roots – Wake Up Ghost
- Foxygen – We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic
- Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse*
- Jim James – Regions of Light and Sound of God
- Jon Hopkins – Immunity
- Julia Holter – Loud City Song
- Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park
- Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle
- Local Natives – Hummingbird
- Mavis Staples – One True Vine
- Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You*
- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away*
- Over the Rhine – Meet Me At the Edge of the World
- Pale Green Ghosts – John Grant*
- Patti Griffin – American Kid
- Paul McCartney – New
- Phosphorescent – Muchacho
- Richard Thompson – Electric
- Sam Phillips – Push Any Button
- Sarah Masen – The Trying Mark
- Sarah Neufeld – Hero Brother
- Sigur Rós – Kveikur
- Steve Martin and Edie Brickell – Love Has Come For You
- Sting – The Last Ship
- The Haxan Cloak – Excavation
- The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow
- The Mavericks – In Time
- The Milk Carton Kids – The Ash and Clay
- The National – Trouble Will Find Me
- They Might Be Giants – Nanobots
- Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
- Various – Son of Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys
- Various – Inside Llewyn Davis
- Volcano Choir – Repave
I highly recommend you discover a beautiful new book from a poet and an artist… who happen to be brothers: Brian and John Volck. I’ve admired their work for years, and it’s an unexpected pleasure to see them collaborate on something so satisfying.
I could rave about this to you, but I’ll leave that to the experts:
Jeanne Murray Walker says:
Brian Volck first establishes the irreplaceability of the body. “What self/ remains, apart from the body(?)” he asks in an early poem. Then right before the reader’s eyes, in one beautiful and witty arc, he transforms flesh to words. There is silence here, too, pauses to listen for the sound of hunger. And there is the profound wisdom that silence and hunger can bring. Flesh Becomes Word is a splendid debut.
Scott Cairns says:
Like any poetry worth poring over, Brian Volck’s Flesh Becomes Word proceeds as inquiry accompanied by acute observation in pursuit. Like any poetry worth poring over, these poems perform what George Steiner calls a wager on the possibility of God, even in the midst of what some might consider to be evidence to the contrary. These are poems of deep humility, of wide and deep learning, of abiding and strenuous faith—and pervasive joy.
Hannah Faith Notess’s first collection of poetry is fantastic.
I love these poems. And I think even friends who aren’t into poetry will find this to be well worth reading. How often do you hear a beautiful poem about Augustine trapped in a video game? Hannah won Floating Bridge Press’s 2013 chapbook award, which was no surprise to those of us who are honored to work with her at SPU, where she is managing editor of Response magazine. She was also the editor of a book called Jesus Girls: True Stories of Growing Up Female and Evangelical; Cascade Books, 2009.
(You can listen to me reading one of the poems here.)
One of the highlights of my year was teaching an arts workshop (The Glen Workshop) in August, where I had the pleasure of meeting a poet named Tania Runyan.
Since then, it’s been a joy to get to know her, to laugh at her hilarious online sentiments, and to discover her poetry.
This new novel from Ryan Blacketter, published by Slant Books, is described by Greg Wolfe as the kind of story that we might have enjoyed if Cormac McCarthy had collaborated with Flannery O’Connor. Are you frightened? You should be. This is on my must-read list for the coming months, considering how highly it is recommended by trustworthy readers and friends. Check this out:
Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead:
[Blacketter] has a marvelous eye for the emotional textures of the most commonplace experience, the kind that familiarity makes almost subliminal.
Mitch Wieland, author of God’s Dogs:
A strange, haunting journey across the shadowy landscape of grief and longing. To our good fortune, Ryan Blacketter is a heroic guide into this exploration of the mysterious workings of the human heart. Down in the River will grip you by the collar and not let go. This is a brave first novel from a writer to be watched.
Pinckney Benedict, author of Miracle Boy and Other Stories:
I can’t remember when I’ve liked a character as much as I like young Lyle Rettew, or when I’ve cheered one on so hard, despite the fact that he’s clearly crazy and his quest is doomed. A thunderous debut, and the beginning of what will surely be a breathtaking career.
Andy Crouch’s last book, Culture Making, inspired a conversation that’s still going on in circles of my friends and colleagues. I’m hearing from readers I trust that his new one is even more essential.
How do I describe one of the very best books of the year? How do I tell about a book … that is so very rich, journeys into so many fields of study, is oh so wonderfully, wonderfully written? Words nearly fail me. [Playing God] is very, very good, and – a credit to its remarkable breadth and glorious detail - is a bit hard to adequately explain.
Mr. Crouch is a good thinker and has thought about this topic — the nature of power — long and well, so his insight is profound and well-developed. He has thought of almost everything, and looks at his topic from many facets. Like a shining jewel (if I may use an metaphor that is often used undeservedly) the book shimmers, reflecting this insight and that, from this angle and that, with beauty and texture and solidity. It is a study of power and, significantly, as the subtitle insists, how God can use His image-bearers to bring redemption to the dangers and sadnesses of power abused. I hope you will believe me when I say (and if you ponder it a moment you will see) that it is not just for CEOs or politicians or influential leaders. It is for all of .
Here’s a conversation with the author, if you need more encouragement.
Any of my favorite movies… on DVD or blu-ray.
Especially the new Criterion Collection edition of Babette’s Feast.
What are my favorite movies?
One of my all-time favorite novels, and one that had an enormous influence on Auralia’s Colors, is Michael Ende’s Momo.
A few years ago, I was asked a good interview question…
CiRCE: Are there any examples of fantasy stories or fairy tales that might not be commonly read that you would recommend to parents and teachers concerned about providing their young people with examples of the true, good, and beautiful?
Michael Ende’s Momo has been overlooked for too long. One of these days, someone will discover it and make it into a movie.
I should have added that the novel had been out of print for decades.
Well, I’m still waiting for the movie. But here, at last, is the book… in a new hardbound and illustrated edition published by McSweeneys. And it is absolutely gorgeous.
Something handmade by me or by Anne…
You can order something from Anne here. If you want a signed copy for the poetry lover in your family, just let me know.
You can order any of my books for bargain prices at Amazon. Just scroll down the right side of this page and you’ll find everything you need for the fantasy-reader in your family. I’ll even send you a signed bookplate for free, if you like.