The following is a selection of “staff picks” I have contributed to ImageUpdate in my capacity of Director of Marketing. The e-newsletter is distributed to over 7,000 subscribers, and boasts an open rate of 25% per email.
September 28, 2018
I’ve never been one for motivational speakers—growing up as a fiction reader meant that I preferred my life lessons through stories rather than speeches. Even the sermons I grew up with were rooted in story rather than dogma. However, in the words of my mother, every young woman needs a heroine, and mine is Glennon Doyle, a writer, activist, and public speaker. I first found Glennon by reading her memoir Love Warrior, which follows the author’s journey of recovering from addiction, finding strength in her faith, and reckoning with her husband’s betrayal. Since then, she founded Together Rising, a non-profit that raises funds for vulnerable women and children around the country, and most recently has worked to reunite immigrant families separated at the border. Two weeks ago, a local church brought Glennon to Seattle for a visit and a conversation, in which she and the pastor discussed everything from writing to womanhood to the evangelical church in America. My husband sat next to me and nodded along as Glennon told truths about being a woman in the twenty-first century that I’ve never been able to articulate. Seeing her at church served as a reminder to me of what I want church to be: a place where we tell truths. Glennon will be touring the country this fall.
September 7, 2018
Early September is the season of sunflowers, and no sunflower-related image could be any more iconic than Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” The 1889 work currently hangs in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam where it is visited by almost a million people a year. The painting has recently resurged into pop culture via an unlikely source: a Netflix comedy special from Australian comic Hannah Gadsby, entitled Nanette. About a third of the way into her routine, Hannah recalls a post-show conversation with a man who tells her she should stop taking anti-depressants, because her job as an artist is to feel things. After all, if Van Gogh had been on medication, he tells her, we wouldn’t have “Sunflowers.” Gadsby, armed with a degree in Art History, is quick to tell him that not only was the painter on medication, but it’s likely that “Sunflowers” was directly inspired by that medication. From this point on, Nanette transforms into a monologue about the nature of art, the pitfalls of comedy, and a more personal narrative of identity. As a fan of fairly traditional comedy (John Mulaney, Michelle Wolf, and Ali Wong are among my favorites), I was pleasantly surprised by Gadsby’s self-aware, earnest rendition of the one-hour special. It’s not going to leave you in stitches with bits to repeat to all your friends like Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous, but you may still find yourself watching it over and over again, anticipating the feeling of simultaneous relief and fear as Nanette shows you yourself through the eyes of one remarkable woman.
August 9, 2018
As part of my search for mindless entertainment the week of my wedding last month, I happened upon a book about a very different kind of wedding: Meghan Maclean Weir’s debut novel The Book of Essie. The synopsis makes the novel sound more like a plot-driven narrative rather than the thoughtful commentary on megachurches, motherhood, and the Me Too movement that it is, but I’ll share it with you anyway. Esther “Essie” Hicks, the youngest daughter of a televangelist and popular Christian reality TV family à la Duck Dynasty or 19 Kids and Counting, discovers she is pregnant on her seventeenth birthday. The identity of the father is concealed, but Essie makes it clear that he has more to lose than she does from her pregnancy. Her mother, Celia, a coldly pragmatic matriarch, sets about finding an equally young husband for Essie to cover the scandal, but Essie, for the first time in her life, has a plan for herself and her unborn child. I found myself touched by Weir’s nuanced portrayal of a young woman who has to reconcile her faith with what is purely performative and what is real. Weir draws attention through Essie and auxiliary characters to how often young women are made to feel like they must protect their abusers, especially in the church, and she makes this the central question of her novel: When is it morally right to tell the truth? The daughter of a pastor, Weir handles this question with care, but not without the raw honesty she demands of her characters.
July 12, 2018
A few pages into Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You, I was reminded of the famous opening line to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Ng, meanwhile, opens her novel with three words: “Lydia is dead.” Set in the 1970s in an Ohio college town, Everything follows the Lees, an interracial American family, in the throes of loss. As the narrative unravels, we learn that Lydia was not only the golden child of her parents, but a deeply conflicted young adult who recognized that both of her parents relied on her successes in order to feel fulfilled. Ng walks the reader through the family’s entire history, from the meeting of James and Marilyn at Harvard University, to Marilyn’s decision to give up her dream of being a doctor to raise her family, to the prejudice and stress both face as an interracial couple in predominantly white spaces. I couldn’t help but see my grandmother in James, an all-American man who happens to be Asian and married to a white woman, or to see my father in Nath, the only son of an interracial couple who is an outsider in his own hometown because of his skin color. Everything I Never Told You portrays an America that is not as distant as we would like to believe, while offering glimpses at a future that could be a whole lot brighter if we would just tell each other how we feel.
July 6, 2018
When I first read Maria Semple’s novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette, I was nineteen years old and on vacation in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. I couldn’t have felt further away from the Seattle that Semple described, or related less to her middle-aged titular character. Fast forward five years, and I’m a Seattleite who felt surprisingly receptive to Bernadette’s struggle with isolation. Halfway through the narrative, Semple delivers a gut punch in the form of a fourteen-page letter written by Bernadette, a former MacArthur grant-winning architect, to her old mentor, in which she mostly complains about Seattle, using several of the common annoyances I bring up in conversations with my friends and family on the east coast. In response, her mentor writes only four sentences, concluding: “If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.” Semple presents her protagonist’s mid-life crisis as one born of complete disconnection: disconnection from her art, from her husband, and from her city. I love this novel for many reasons, including its wit and the many playful jabs at Seattle culture. Moreover, it has become one of my favorites for its portrayal of the disconnection I have experienced in all areas of my life, including my faith. I find a special kind of peace in Semple’s eventual conclusion that there will always be opportunities to reconnect. I hope that remains true, no matter one's age.
May 10, 2018
Growing up in the Anglican Church, I always felt torn between two worlds: the high church of Catholicism and the low church of Protestantism. Aside from a similar liturgy, the content of our services are decidedly not Catholic, but our churches and cathedrals bear the remnants of our roots in the form of ornate decorations, icons, and vestments. When I discovered that the rich imagery of my faith had inspired this year’s Met Gala in New York City, I was both excited and surprised. As a friend of mine pointed out this week on Facebook, it’s easy to internalize the idea that art inspired by faith is forgotten and pushed aside in secular culture, but this event proves it is anything but irrelevant. Monday night’s gala, which received a stamp of approval from the Vatican, presented cultural icons styled by the world’s top fashion designers in garb created specifically to reflect the theme “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” My personal favorite is Zendaya dressed as Joan of Arc (pictured to the left in a photo by the New York Times). The young actress wore a dress inspired by the martyr’s armor, a wig the same color and cut as Joan’s hair, and a stoic, unflinching expression. Other fan favorites that surprised and delighted onlookers included Rihanna as a glitzy pope, Chadwick Boseman in a white suit inspired by a priest’s vestments, and Greta Gerwig in what appears to be a nun’s habit. For more photos from the event, I recommend Vogue’s feature, and for information regarding the “Catholic imagination” behind the gala, you can read America’s interview with the gala’s curator here.
March 1, 2018
My fiancé and I recently started attending St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle, which is especially nourishing for my liturgy-loving, Anglican soul during the Lenten season. As we entered the nave on Ash Wednesday, we were greeted by a gorgeous series of cast sculptural reliefs. The bulletin informed us that these works were created by Philadelphia artist Virginia Maksymowicz, and represent the Stations of the Cross. Commissioned and constructed in 2005, each panel measures 24” square and depicts parts of Jesus’s and Mary’s bodies throughout the crucifixion. On her website, Maksymowicz emphasizes the intended tension between the “specific” and the “universal” that she depicts in her reliefs, and as a viewer I can affirm that this is how I experienced them. I’m not a visual artist or critic by any means, but Maksymowicz’s portrayal of anatomy, especially human hands, evoked the melancholy I often experience during Lent. If you’re in the Seattle area at all during Lent or Holy Week, I highly recommend visiting the cathedral, and experiencing the work yourself.
February 14, 2018
If you told me during my first year of university-level philosophy that my favorite network sitcom in 2018 would regularly reference Kant, Kierkegaard, and Scanlon, I would have been skeptical. But it’s 2018, and NBC’s The Good Place does just that. Every episode, the show confronts ethical quandaries, and successfully pulls material from the greatest philosophers of all time to ask what makes a person good, and, more importantly, whether bad (or even average) people can become good. Set in the afterlife, the show follows four deceased humans, a Siri-like helper who lives in a void, and one middle management deity as they navigate the two places people go when they die, the “Good” Place and the “Bad” Place. With two thirteen-episode seasons, the show constantly subverts and reinvents itself, but consistently pursues the same question I was made to ask throughout my education in the humanities: what makes a good life? The answer is never straightforward, and this ambiguity separates the show from many of its contemporaries. I’ve seen so many comedies that suffer from prolonged existential crises and base their jokes on the notion that nothing really matters, but The Good Place does the opposite. Its humor counts on the characters learning that their actions have consequences, and developing a sense of, as Scanlon writes, “what we owe to each other.”
January 25, 2018
I’ve found that the central challenge of my early twenties is finding joy in the midst of adult life’s uncertainties. That’s why I’ve had Sorrow Estate’s newest album, The Happy EP, on repeat since it came out last week. Sorrow Estate, the independent folk project of 23-year-old singer-songwriter Laura Beth Johnson, first came to my attention when she released her debut album in the basement of my college campus center, and subsequently gained recognition throughout western New York. That self-titled album The Sorrow Estate (also worth streaming) focused more on “sorrow,” while Johnson’s new endeavor uses her poetic lyrics and haunting melodies to express the joyful aspect of entering one’s adulthood. Many of the songs focus on possibilities, from the “Blood Red Sunsets” of the first track, to Johnson’s confession to a love interest that she is “imagining you imagining me with you.” Johnson is a self-aware idealist, admitting in “Happy Campers” that she and her friends “see nothing wrong,” despite the pain we know she has experienced. She closes with a silly song about her cat, Loki: she adopted a cat to help with her anxiety, but Loki is more anxious than she is. There is sorrow sprinkled throughout the album, but Johnson does not dwell there—a remarkable feat for anyone facing the future.
January 11, 2018
If you watched the 2018 Golden Globes this past Sunday, or read about them the next day like I did, you know that Amazon Prime’s newest comedy, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, made a name for itself, winning Best Series, Comedy, and Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical. As a fan of the show’s co-creators, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino, I was pre-conditioned to love Mrs. Maisel, which takes the Palladinos’ trademark witty characters a step further. The series takes place in New York City in 1958 and follows Miriam Maisel, a 26-year-old housewife whose husband leaves her with little warning. Miriam takes her anger to the stage of a small underground bar, where she finds a new calling: stand-up comedian. All eight episodes of the show are beautifully filmed and genuinely funny, but what stood out to me most is the role that the family’s Judaism plays in the show. I’ve seen Christianity play an important part in several popular period pieces, so I found it refreshing to see Miriam’s family fret over what the rabbi will think about the divorce, compare trips to Israel, and loudly air their grievances with each other in the middle of synagogue (all with the Palladinos’ comedic flair, of course). It's worth renewing your Prime account to watch a strong, hilarious woman and her culture in the spotlight of this new series.
December 13, 2017
Growing up in Ontario, Canada, I associated December with all things quiet and calm. The noises of my city were softened by fresh snow, and Christmas lights diffused the early nights of winter. Enter Hey Rosetta’s only Christmas album, “A Cup of Kindness Yet,” featuring the soft, somewhat melancholy songs I crave, mixing traditional music with their own original work. They open with the EP’s most cheerful song, a spirited appeal to saints and angels to “carry [them] home” for the holidays, despite inclement weather and a lack of finances. From there, the band transitions to a more somber tone, with a take on “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” that rivals my Anglican church’s intense choral version of the hymn. Their last two songs, both originals, use echoing piano and guitars to evoke the simultaneous gloom and hopeful pensiveness that Canadian winters inspire. They conclude their “New Year Song” with many voices singing the chorus of “Auld Lang Syne,” harkening to friends gathered at a snowed-in pub at midnight, and partaking of the season’s potential to bring us together, whether or not we are carried home for Christmas.
November 15, 2018
There are a plethora of reasons why I don’t miss being a seventeen-year-old girl. Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, addresses the central struggles of a teenage girl coming of age: first attempts at a mature relationship with one’s parents, trying on identities, and grappling with the feeling that no one takes you seriously. It may seem like a concept rife with stereotypes, but Gerwig runs with all of these ideas and produces an honest story that takes its titular character seriously, while also allowing her eccentricities to ring true in their ridiculousness. The film follows Christine, who has given herself the name “Lady Bird,” as she clashes with her family, friends, and Catholic school teachers, some of whom see her as a young adult capable of making decisions, but most of whom do not. Her mother, who wants the best for her daughter and works double shifts to keep her family afloat, still underestimates and discourages Lady Bird, as do her friends, and her boyfriends (one of whom takes himself so seriously he becomes a farcical character, despite the fact I’ve met several teenage boys just like him). Watching Lady Bird apply for elite colleges despite her mediocre grades, make several poor decisions in relationships, and desperately attempt to communicate with her family, gives new substance to a familiar narrative. Gerwig’s exquisite mastery of the form ensures that the film resonates deeply with the viewer, whether you came of age last year, or decades ago.
November 8, 2017
Celeste Ng’s latest novel Little Fires Everywhere opens with the titular fires, which are all set purposely in the many rooms of the Richardson family home. But it is not the suspense of learning who set those fires that drives this novel, rather, it is the little fires that were already present in the Richardsons’s life that move the story forward. Set in the mid-1990s in the bedroom community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, this novel could easily exist as a simple critique of suburban living, but it instead becomes a wider examination of the innocence of sheltered families in a pre-internet age who believe they live in a post-racial, post-feminist America. Ng’s subtle yet elegant observations through her omniscient narrator make for an entertaining and thoughtful read. Don’t come to this novel expecting a “whodunnit.” Expect a “whydunnit,” and then expect to keep thinking about it long after you read the last page.
October 25, 2017
Since the advent of the Emmy-winning Hulu series based Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, I’ve seen countless articles pop up informing me that the series and book are “especially relevant” in today’s political climate. I’d only ever read Atwood’s poetry, so I decided to read Handmaid as my first foray into her fiction. I was not disappointed. However, I would argue that this exquisite novel is not “relevant now more than ever,” but that it’s been disturbingly relevant since its publication, and will likely be relevant throughout my lifetime. The dystopia of Gilead in the novel is Christian fundamentalist in nature, resulting in its leaders quoting Old Testament scripture to support the enslavement of women. While I could see how this premise would disgruntle Christians, especially conservatives, I think Atwood is more critical of secular culture’s dismissal of women, and how that treatment leads to Gilead normalizing sexist policies in government. Every passage about the protagonist Offred’s world prior to the rise of Gilead emphasizes the banality of abusive sexism already present in the United States. These passages distressed me more than anything else about Gilead, because unlike the fantastical dystopia, this is my own reality as a woman. Atwood’s core message is exceedingly similar to the thousands of women posting “me too” on social media last week. “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum,” she adds, offsetting the bleakness of the dystopia she has constructed from her own life. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
October 12, 2017
I was not intrigued when Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things was recommended to me as “a science fiction novel about a Christian missionary spreading the Gospel on another planet." However, after the fourth recommendation came from a trusted mentor, I gave in to the hype. Faber’s first person narrator, Peter Leigh, an idealistic minister converted to Christianity in his young adulthood, leaves his wife, Bea, and their cat, Joshua, for a planet in the early stages of colonization by a SpaceX-like corporation. The planet’s inhabitants are unrecognizable as human, but they hunger to learn about Christ. Peter finds himself easily integrating into their community, while his wife’s letters document the disintegration of civil society back on earth. Faber—who grew up Dutch Baptist, but does not disclose if he identifies as religious—gives a refreshingly balanced portrayal of Christianity and the church. He contrasts Peter’s child-like faith with Bea’s struggle to see God in a dying world, and gives accounts of churches that actively do good in their communities, as well as people who are destroyed by organized religion. Peter’s difficulty in sorting through how to live out his vocation while investing in his marriage rings true for anyone who has felt divided between their work and their relationships. This book is more than just another missionary story. It asks how the church fits into a brave new world, whether that world is on this planet, or out of our solar system. More urgently, Faber asks how we fit with our loved ones when we are a world apart.