Adele Gallogly

REFLECTIONS & REVIEWS


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The Gorgeous Curiosity of Mary Oliver

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Eighty-one-year-old Mary Oliver is widely acclaimed for her wise, lyrical poetry that presents life as a spiritual pilgrimage. Her latest book, a collection of essays, celebrates nature and literature as sources of hope, and points to the power of quiet acts such as taking a slow walk in the woods or spending hours with a book. As fans of Oliver’s work already know, however, she sees such acts as far more than movements of serenity or escape. The very title of her new book, Upstream, alludes to resistance—and the purposeful boldness of her vision should not be missed.

Upstream is, at its core, an audacious inquisition into the puzzling “otherness” of the world—the sights, situations, and sensations that stir the soul. Rather than step away from that which mystifies, Oliver finds deep virtue in “standing within this otherness.” Her poetry is keenly inquisitive in a similar manner, but the longer form’s structure gives her more space to ponder the particular autobiographical experiences and literary heroes that have shaped her personal journey and creative work.

Whether Oliver is paying tribute to classic authors—such as Whitman, Emerson, Wordsworth, and Poe—or detailing the behaviors of creatures big and small, she is dedicated to truthfully unearthing both the goodness and cruelty at play. In the “metaphysical gloom” of Poe’s stories, for example, she does not merely see pure despair, but a man grappling with two gifts every person has been given: “the ability to love and the ability to ask questions.” In the playful resilience of a dying gull under her care, she sees a “gorgeous curiosity,” and it’s a description that fits well with Oliver’s own worldview. Upstream is a gorgeously written, tenderly curious collection that captures a seasoned poet’s devotion to “the beauty and the mystery of the world” and its remarkable ability to “redignify the worst stung heart.” (Banner review)


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An Imaginative Story of Family Survival

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Brent Van Staalduinen’s expertly crafted debut novel begins with a thief robbing a thrift store at gunpoint and then pocketing a little silver box from an allegedly magic cubbyhole. This tense, yet unconventional scene is an excellent setup for an imaginative story of family survival.

Saints, Unexpected follows 15-year-old Mutton and her family over the course of a hot, trying summer of living and working in the urban core of Hamilton, Ont. Their storefront is located in a busy area where many people are struggling with homelessness, addiction, and other afflictions—yet it is also a setting with signs of economic renewal.

Mutton is a bright young girl with aspirations to be a writer. As she navigates the often awkward trials of adolescence, she is also dealing with burdens specific to her family’s situation. The questions she faces seem endless. What does it mean, at age 15, to fall in love? Can her mother’s thrift store make it? Will the frail health of her youngest brother continue to decline? Are her parents really going to be able to rebuild their marriage after a chapter of deep betrayal? And how is she supposed to find the words to write about all of this?

Saints, Unexpected is an imaginative urban journey that dares to dig beneath the world’s often simplistic definitions of success, worth, and belonging. Van Staalduinen has crafted a warm-hearted novel that succeeds both as an empathetic portrait of a fictional family and as a stirring tribute to the real-life city in which their story is set. (Banner review)


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A Novel about Where Love Comes From

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Gina Ochsner’s second novel, The Hidden Letters of Velta B., is a captivating, tragicomic story about family and community relationships in a contemporary Latvian town. A dying mother, Inara, recalls her life and family history to her enormous-eared son, whose heightened sense of hearing allows him to hear both the living and the dead.

The lyrical, non-chronological “ruminations of [Inara’s] internal landscape” include fragments of secret letters by her grandmother, who lived through World War II. She longs to equip Maris, her beloved son, to bear witness to both sorrow and joy. As she shares her reflections, she realizes that the work of witnessing cannot be done alone or ever truly finished on this earth. “This is a story about where love comes from, and that is a story that has no beginning and no end. It is a story that has a thousand versions, all of them true,” she says.

Ochsner has a gift for making the practical mythical, so that the simplest scenes of everyday tasks and quiet moments surge forward  with fable-like energy. She skillfully balances the particulars of Inara’s family history with that of the broader community. These colorful characters—gravediggers, fishermen, nomads, musicians, fortunetellers, and mushroom hunters—argue bitterly about politics, religion, and economic change. They also share jokes, riddles, songs, and dances as they cling to the richly artistic traditions passed down through generations. Together, these men, women, and children must reckon with collective memories and conflicting dreams for the future.

Every chapter of this uniquely magical small town tale is animated by Ochsner’s poetic feel for reverence and wonder. The Hidden Letters of Velta B. will surely enchant and surprise readers who believe, or long to believe, in storytelling as a communal act of faith, love, preservation, and even resurrection. (Banner review)

PS:  In Aaron Guest’s excellent  Relief Journal essay about the power of reading books aloud,  he says that “Ochsner’s brilliant writing [in this novel] absorbs the euphony of oral story-telling.” I wholeheartedly agree. I ended up alternating between the print book and the audiobook, which was a very enjoyable way to savour its prose.


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Through Ambition’s Tunnel

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Photo by Derek KeatsCC BY 2.0 – via Wikimedia Commons

AMBITION: Essays by Members of The Chrysostom Society
edited by Luci Shaw and Jeanne Murray Walker (Cascade Books, 2016).
Review originally published in Christian Courier in July 2016.

I happened to revisit Doris Lessing’s ambition-themed short story “Through the Tunnel” around the time I read Ambition, so it hovered over my experience of the book. Lessing’s story is the tale of a young British boy named Jerry who trains himself to swim through a dangerously narrow passageway. He sees others boy do it first, and does it to be like them – to prove himself worthy of friendship and respect. His eyes and nose bleed and his lungs nearly burst during his triumphant dive. The scene is thrilling, but also frightening. Should Jerry be admired for his riskunnamedy, pride-led act, or chastised for it?

Ambition’s personal, often lyrical essays also acknowledge that ambition can be viewed as both a virtue and a vice. Its authors belong to The Chrysostom Society, a community named for Early Church Father John Chrysostom.

Some of these essays point to the acts and passions of biblical figures – such as Adam and Eve’s shame-laden grasp for power in the garden and Apostle Paul’s admirable evangelical zeal. Most of them include a lively variety of references to the worldly famous – literary greats, actors, explorers, spiritual leaders and other celebrities.

It is the personal anecdotes, however, that give this collection confessional heft and bold humour. For these writers, the allure of public glory is linked to the drive for publication. They caution the reader to be careful – to check oneself against Christ’s example. “Celebrity and fame, the bastard offsprings of unfettered ambition, often come at a cost to soul and spiritual health,” warns Luci Shaw. Continue reading


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Songs of Ease and Conversation

sambeamjescahoop-llff-2400-72dpi A review of Love Letter for Fire by Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop (originally published in Christian Courier)

Albums that attract dramatic critical attention tend to be those that set themselves apart from the music of the day. Listeners are often caught by a newcomer’s brilliant debut or seasoned artist’s bold departure of form. Love Letter for Fire – an indie-folk collection of duets by Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop – doesn’t fit any of these descriptions. But I don’t think these musicians were aiming for a shocker or chart topper. I say Fire is worth a listen – repeated listens, even – precisely because it has such classic warmth and familiar ease of style. Continue reading


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On Austen’s Novel of Re(dis)covery

Jane Austen’s Persuasion is a subtle, small-scale novel compared to her other five classic works. The cast of characters is slimmer and there are fewer humorous moments. The heroine, 27-year-old Anne Elliot, is mostly serious and introspective; she doesn’t even speak a word of dialogue until Chapter 5. Even so, Persuasion captivated me upon my first reading. Every few years, I return to Austen’s insightful rendering of a nuanced love story that begins on a note of regret – a story that expertly reveals the values of 18th century English society.
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Anne Eliot may not display the buoyant wit of Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet or even the amusing foolishness of Emma’s heroine, but she is quietly wise and has an intriguing past. Persuasion begins seven years after her great error of judgement: ending her engagement to Captain Frederick Wentworth, a man she deeply loved. She was convinced (persuaded) by her dear family friend, Lady Russell, that his seafarer position and modest financial means made him an unsuitable match. Years later, Anne still sees the social logic of this choice, but she is remorseful. The descriptions of her faded youth and lost bloom are about more than her age – they point to the pained, retreated state of her heart.

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Tragedy and Levity in a Time of War

51jZGbaKlpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_British novelist Chris Cleave has proven his ability to write sprawling, thoroughly researched stories about people struggling to build a stable life in an often violent world—his international #1 bestseller about a Nigerian refugee, Little Bee is a prime example. His latest novel, the wartime epic Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, perhaps his most personal book, is rooted in his own family history. As Cleave explains in the preface, the story is partially inspired by the life and letters of his grandfather, a WW II artillery captain.

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