I am at the point in my PhD on C.S. Lewis where everything is narrowing to a point. I have a number of canonical lists pinned up on a bulletin board next to my desk. These are lists of SF, fantasy, classical, and theological books that I think are essential to my long-term work. It also includes a list of the Discworld novels, which I’m trying to read in order. As I come to the point of spending most of my time writing, my TBR list is dominated by the works that are necessary for my project now. I’m checking off far fewer of these foundational books in these past few months.
As my reading comes to a point, I am very selective about even my bedside reading. When I am given a book by a well-meaning person, usually I put it away and it is never seen again. I appreciate the gesture, but I just don’t have the luxuries I used to have to be flirtatious with books. Besides what friends and colleagues what to hand me, I am offered a few dozen books every year by publishers. I have to be selective.
Still, because of some of the connections I have with people, or my interest in the material, I queue in some of the books that are given to me. One of those was Jessica Renshaw’s New Every Morning. Jessica is a west-coast writer whom I’ve met in the blogging world. I have been working long hours and I needed a book that I could pick up that was outside my critical field. New Every Morning is a thin volume with an inviting cover, so I picked it up the other night and finished it the next.
I hesitate to say anything critical as it is so far out of my wheelhouse. New Every Morning is well within that genre of books that Jodi Piccoult or whoever wrote Still Alice produces, though I know so little of either to make good comparisons. It is entirely realistic, rooted in a critical problem of our day. The character struggles are the ever too real struggles of daily life in a world that seems itself to be coming to a point, where there are no longer enough margins for error or enough room to catch a full breath.
This character struggle can happen in fantastic or realistic fiction, but New Every Morning is set very solidly in a California of the last decade. And while there are no impossible worlds or speculative realities, Renshaw takes urbanites to one of the most foreign and almost legendary spaces possible on American soil: a great Redwood forest where the trees grow slowly, where roots dive deep into old, rich soil, and where modern life melts back into the wild. Even without the structure of a fantastic world, Renshaw is able to use America’s under-utilized backyard to provide that escape into a secondary world that provides a recovery in our primary world.
New Every Morning, as the title might hint, is also a work of Christian fiction. I find myself reading a book of modern literary Christian fiction–and no doubt I’m one of the few males who have read it, though that sort of thing has never bothered me–as I work on speculative fiction scholarship. Fortunately, there are no Amish lovers pining in that strange evangelical dream of simpler days and simpler love stories. There are Quakers, though–but they are an entirely different thing.
Rather than alienating, I found the experience of knowing almost nothing about the literature I was reading somewhat liberating. The prose was well constructed, and without the highly sophisticated construct of a speculative universe I was able to get to the text in a much more immediate way. I was able to enjoy the textures of a world I do not know very well, and yet there were enough clues embedded in the text to draw me in, like a Narnian hint, a Japanese link, and a connection to Prince Edward Island.
I know I can’t say anything truly critical about the book, but it was for me a refreshing read. It is a very quick read, and my volume was devoured in a couple of nights. Because of the intensity of some of the matter, I think it could stand to be a bit longer, moving more slowly through the impossible situation the protagonist finds herself in. But it is hardly an insult to say that a book should be bigger.
So, my thanks to Jessica for this read. You might want to look into her writing if this is your kind of book, or if you are one of the thousands of American Christians who have that longing to write but have not yet found a voice. I haven’t reviewed a lot of contemporary Christian fiction on this blog ( see here for a good one), but there has to be something better than the wall of come-hither Amish women that meet us when we walk in a Christian bookstore.
Then again, I’ve already said I can’t afford to be flirtatious in my book choice.
Brenton, I am very touched that you would read New Every Morning, much less review it. I thought it might give you a bit of a breather between the more scholarly works you set for yourself and refreshment from the world you know and have to deal with (as our coming to Prince Edward island was for me). I appreciate what you said about “finding our voice.” There was pleasure in writing this little piece and I feel it is the “most me” of any book-length work I have done–
–although my other novel, which develops over considerably more pages, and which is coming out (again) on Amazon soon, feels like another legitimate part of me. I never liked history, never read historical fiction and yet, over the past four decades, I have written Compelling Interests, a barely fictionalized history of the abortion movement in the United States, a “novel about abortion from the hearts of women on both sides.” One reviewer calls it “the War and Peace of the Abortion Battle.”
Funny how we can each have more than one voice.
Wishing you, your family and your readers God’s richest blessings this season,
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The only criticism I had about New Ever Morning was that you left me out of it . . . but on second thought I was just as glad that you did.
It’s a fine and thoughtful book and I’m glad you wrote it.
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“…come-hither Amish women…”
Hilarious. I guess one might assume that all Amish women are beautiful and demure, while hiding raging, barely restrained passions under those calm exteriors. It’s almost enough to make a young man consider joining one of their communities to find his wife. Of course, I imagine not many young men are reading those books.
I guess so, though I’m not as schooled on the whole mating dance of the Amish young person as you might think. We have just had 16 Amish families move to PEI. They seem like pretty normal 19th century folk. They don’t get a lot of converts.
I suspect–and this is just a suspicion–that Christian writers use the Amish setting because they get to have love stories that authentically lack our cultural dating cues, which would then tip the book out of the “Christian” market. While I don’t have anything to say to individual writers, this approach is lazy writing–and a lazy readership that demands it.
But, readers can read whatever thy want!
Well, as I told you when you read the draft, Ted, I didn’t need another villain.
BTW, Brenton, you didn’t identify the “ever too real struggles” of New Every Morning. They include Alzheimer’s, divorce, alcoholism, incest–and humor, in a context more sweet than bitter. I consider it a “beyond-forgiveness” story.
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