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August 2013

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Three beautiful songs to start off a beautiful summer week, all recorded for the The Mahogony Sessions here in the UK:

First (above), "Facing West," by The Staves, three sisters from Watford, Hertfordshire -- all of them songwriters and incredible musicians. This was recorded just ten days ago at the Secret Garden Party, a music and arts festival in Cambridgeshire.

Second (below), "Rooftops" by Liz Lawrence, a talented young singer/songwriter from London, recorded on the Secret Garden Party site earlier in the summer. This is one of those songs I can't get out of my head -- perhaps because I spent so much time on rooftops in my New York and Boston days -- but it's so lovely that I really don't mind. (This one goes out to Tom Canty, Rick & Sheila Berry, Richard Salvucci, and Phil Hale, with whom I spent so many Newbury Street nights, back in my Twenties, "drinking in the sky and eating the stars.")

Third (below), "Dandelion" by Ruby and the Rib Cage, a four-piece London band backing the amazing young singer known only as Ruby, who has been getting a lot of attention at the summer festivals this year (And is it just me, or does she look like she stepped out of a Rossitti painting?) This particular performance was recorded back in March 2012, I'm not sure where. 

And oh heck, here's one more for you today:

Liz Lawrence again -- this time with the new video for "Sons and Daughters," her gorgeous, gorgeous song with Allman Brown.

Beyond the fields we know

Beyond the Fields We Know

Beyond the Fields We Know was the title of a story collection by the Irish fantasy master Lord Dunsany, and it's become a well-known phrase in the mythic arts field ever since, used to describe those times when we move past the comfortably familiar to venture into the great unknown. For all too many readers, set in their reading habits, simply trying out fiction by a brand new author is uncomfortably risky; they prefer to stay within their literary comfort zones. Thus a handful of familiar authors sell over and over, dominating the bookstore shelves and bestsellers' lists, while new writers find it harder and harder to get published at all these days.

If we don't -- each of us -- make a concerted, regular effort to travel "beyond the fields we know"  by trying the work of first-time authors, publishers will simply not publish them; and self-publication isn't the answer to the problem if such books simply don't get read. Without the support of risk-taking readers, too many of the most interesting new writers (the quirky writers, the ground-breaking writers, the uncategorizable writers) will be stocking the shelves at Walmart and serving coffee at Starbucks, not writing, (the bills have to be paid, after all), and risk-taking, boundary-busting first novels will disappear ... instead of leading on to the second, third, fourth, and fifth novels that might become the bestsellers and prize-winners of the future.

Copyofnew2Okay, I'll get off my soapbox now. All this is a long-winded way to say I want to recommend a first novel to you: A Certain Prophesy by Chagford author/artist Damien Hackney.

A Certain Prophesy is a highly unusual, compelling read by an author who falls in the interstices between all the usual literary genres: the book is part bildungsroman, part supernatural thriller, part psychological exploration of grief and its aftermath, and part philophical inquiry into some of the thornier aspects of ethics, art, science and religion. By this description alone, you can see why the novel doesn't fit squarely into any one section of the bookstore, and that's precisely what makes A Certain Prophesy unique, challenging, and fascinating.

Set in modern-day England (in the city of Exeter, just up the road from here), A Certain Prophesy is, primarily, the psychological coming-of-age story of Immanuel ("Mani") Dunn -- a young artist whose success in the professional world has not been matched by the maturation of his spirit and soul, both of which were badly scarred by the trauma of his mother's early death. Damien's particular skill as a writer is in exploring the inner workings of the young man's mind as he tries to find his way not only through a plot delicately laced with supernatural elements, but also through the dark places of Mani's life as he seeks to find himself as a man, and as a hero, in the moral muddle of the modern world.  Along the way, he's surrounded by a wide and vivid cast of characters, whose own journeys (and distinct world views) intersect with Mani's for good and for ill.

Does that sound challenging? It is, but the novel is also a page turner, particularly for those readers of a philosophical bent of mind. (I know that "suspenseful" and "philosophical" sound like contradictory modes, but somehow they aren't here.) I don't know any other book quite like A Certain Prophesy. Nor do I know many novelists so willing to tackle what it means to be a "good man" in the Western world in quite so straight-forward a way. Cool detachment and distancing irony being almost de riguer among many of our younger writers today, this is a brave book for looking asking hard questions...and doing so with an entirely open heart.

Please do give it a try. And this is the time to do it, because for this weekend only, through Monday August 19th, it available entirely for free to Kindle readers. Go here if you're in Europe; and here for American readers.

And to read about Damien's next writing project (involving fairies!) go here.

The Soul's Code


''Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.'' ― Lewis Hyde (The Gift)

"Every artist joins a conversation that's been going on for generations, even millennia, before he or she joins the scene." - John Barth


''What needs to be counted on to have a voice? Courage. Anger. Love. Something to say; someone to speak to; someone to listen.'' - Terry Tempest Williams (When Women Were Birds)

When you engage in a work that taps your talent and fuels your passion -- that rises out of a great need in the world that you feel drawn by conscience to meet -- therein lies your voice, your calling, your soul's code." - Stephen Covey


Tough Magic

A walk through the fields

Today's quotes come from Jane Yolen, in honor of her visit to Chagford this week. They are taken primarily from Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood and Take Joy: A Writer's Guide to Loving the Craft, both of which I highly recommend.

Victorian era decorated letterhe great archetypal stories," writes Jane, "provide a framework or model for an individual's belief system. They are, in Isak Dinesen's marvelous expression, 'a serious statement of our existence.' The stories and tales handed down to us from the cultures that proceded us were the most serious, succinct expressions of the accumulated wisdom of those cultures. They were created in a symbolic, metaphoric story language and then hones by centuries of tongue-polishing to a crystalline perfection....

"And if we deny our children their cultural, historic heritage, their birthright to these stories, what then? Instead of creating men and women who have a grasp of literary allusion and symbolic language, and a metaphorical tool for dealing with the problems of life, we will be forming stunted boys and girls who speak only a barren language, a language that accurately reflects their equally barren minds. Language helps develop life as surely as it reflects life. It is the most important part of the human condition."

Honor Appleton

Thistle in bloom

Eleanor Vere Boyle

"In fantasy stories we learn to understand the differences of others, we learn compassion for those things we cannot fathom, we learn the importance of keeping our sense of wonder. The strange worlds that exist in the pages of fantastic literature teach us a tolerance of other people and places and engender an openness toward new experience. Fantasy puts the world into perspective in a way that 'realistic' literature rarely does. It is not so much an escape from the here-and-now as an expansion of each reader's horizons."

"A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child who has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged?"

Queen Ann's Lace

"Just as a child is born with a literal hole in his head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in his heart. What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow. Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart."

Charles Robinson

Children’s books change lives. Stories pour into the hearts of children and help make them what they become.

A queenly dog

"We have spent a good portion of our last decades erasing the past. The episode of the gas ovens is closed, wrapped in the mist of history. It is as if it never happened. At the very least, which always suprises me, it is considered a kind of historical novel, abstract and not particularly terrifying.

John D. Batten"It is important for children to have books that confront the evils and do not back away from them. Such books can provide a sense of good and evil, a moral reference point. If our fantasy books are not strong enough -- and many modern fantasies shy away from asking for sacrifice, preferring to profer rewards first as if testing the faerie waters -- then real stories, like those of Adolf Hitler's evil deeds, will seem so much slanted news, not to be believed.

"Why do so many fantasies shy away from Tough Magic? Why do they offer sweet fairy dances in the moonlight without the fear of the cold dawn that comes after? Because writing about Tough Magic takes courage on the author's part as well. To bring up all the dark, unknown, frightening images that live within each of us and try to make some sense of them on the page is a task that takes courage indeed. It is not an impersonal courage. Only by taking great risks can the tale succeed. Ursula Le Guin has written: 'The artist who goes into himself most deeply -- and it is a painful journey -- is the artist who touches us most closely, speaks to us most clearly.' "

Take a step...

" 'Stories,' he'd said, his voice low and almost husky, 'we are made up of stories. And even the ones that seem the most like lies can be our deepest hidden truths.' "  (from Briar Rose)

Emilie Benson Knipe

The  illustrations above are by Honor Charlotte Appleton (1879-1951), Eleanor Vere Boyle (1825-1916),  Charles Robinson (1870-1937), John Dickson Batten (1860-1932) and Emilie Benson Knipe (author, artist, and student of Howard Pyle, 1870-1958).