Saturday, December 27, 2008

TRAVEL REVIEW: Sainte-Chappelle--Jewel Hidden in the Heart of Paris

The Sainte-Chappelle ("Holy Chapel") was built by the devout Louis IX (later canonized as Saint Louis) to house his collection of holy relics, including a shard of the True Cross. Consecrated in 1248, the gothic chapel stands in the Île de la Cité; originally it occupied the courtyard of the Royal Palace. Now, this relatively small chapel is nearly hidden by the surrounding structures of the Palais de Justice. Sainte-Chappelle houses stunningly beautiful stained glass. Experiencing this building seemed to me like opening a shoe box hidden in the back of a closet--and finding an emerald inside.

Sainte-Chappelle has two levels: the lower level, which served as the parish church for the inhabitants of the palace, and the upper level, which contained the reliquaries and works of art intended to grace the worship of royalty and other dignitaries. But even the "common" lower level is decorated like a casket for precious stones: The pillars and vaulted ceiling are covered with fleurs-de-lis in gilded paint, set against rich, dark blues and russets. The intricate webwork of the gothic construction invites long moments of contemplative admiration.

But the upper level, with its breathtaking stained glass and soaring architecture, is where true inspiration awaits. The impression is of being surrounded by pure light and color--almost as if the delicate supporting stonework might disappear at any moment. Almost two-thirds of the glass is original. During the depredations of the French Revolution, Sainte-Chappelle was used as administrative offices, and huge filing cabinets covered most of the windows, saving them from the fate of the reliquaries, which were melted down after the holy relics were dispersed.

The chapel stands today as a prime example of French High Gothic architecture. It can be reached by Metro (disembark at the Cité station), bus, or taxi. Sainte-Chappelle has been a national historic site since 1862.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Not a Book Review: TEXAS BLUES, by Alan Govenar

Full Disclosure Statement: I edited this book and coordinated its publication by my employer, Texas A&M University Press. I have about as much objectivity about it as a proud uncle has at the birth of a nephew or niece.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let me tell you some of the reasons you should run, not walk, to your nearest bookstore and buy TEXAS BLUES. First of all, it is a truly gorgeous package. Printed on high-quality, glossy paper and chock full of amazing and rare photographs of Texas blues artists from the 1920s to the present, this is a book that will improve the resale value of your house just by sitting on your coffee table. Not only that, but for a book this size (600+ pages) with this many color and black-and-white photographs (400+), the price ($40.00 suggested retail) is very reasonable.

Alan Govenar, noted folklorist, author, and documentary filmmaker, has captured, in the artists' own words, the story of blues in the Lone Star State, from its beginnings as the music of slaves and sharecroppers, to its migration across lines of race and culture, to become one of the most influential genres in the popular music of the world. TEXAS BLUES is principally composed of oral interviews conducted by Govenar and others, and includes the first-hand accounts of artists like Gatemouth Brown, Clifton Chenier, Alex Moore, Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin' Hopkins, B.B. King, Illinois Jacquet, Sippie Wallace, Osceola Mays, Sonny Boy Terry, Delbert McClinton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and dozens more.

Most of the photographs are from Govenar's own collection and have never been seen before. The pictures and the text, taken together, make up a truly masterful panorama of the blues in Texas and its continuing importance around the world.

TEXAS BLUES: THE RISE OF A CONTEMPORARY SOUND is available now. If you're into blues, rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues, or you just want a beautiful book that will impress your friends, go get a copy today!

Friday, October 03, 2008

Travel Review: La Pievuccia--A Gem in the Tuscan Countryside

Imagine waking to the soft tolling of a church bell, the tuneful prattle of blackbirds, and the fluted chuckling of turtle doves. Imagine stepping out on your shaded front porch and gazing across a vineyard and up olive-clad slopes to a hilltop surmounted by a medieval castle. Imagine dining on specially prepared local recipes made with fresh ingredients and accompanied by glasses of award-winning sangiovese and trebbiano blends: grown, barreled, and bottled on the premises. Imagine sitting on the patio and sipping a heady, after-dinner vinsanto as the day eases gracefully into the cool of evening.

These were just a few of the experiences I enjoyed with my family last summer at La Pievuccia, an agriturismo (“farmhouse resort”) located in the heart of Tuscany’s Val de Chiana. Ricardo Papini, the third-generation proprietor, and Ulrika, his wife and able business partner, made us feel like la famiglia during our stay at this peaceful resort.

La Pievuccia is a certified organic agricultural operation: they guarantee no additives, preservatives, pesticides, or other icky substitutes for reality. In addition to growing its own grapes, La Pievuccia also cultivates and presses its own award-winning extra-virgin olive oil and produces four different types of honey from the hives scattered about the twenty-acre property. Ricardo and his staff provide vineyard and winemaking tours and lectures, cooking classes, and sometimes, rides into the nearest town. About two miles away, Castiglion Fiorentino is a charming medieval hilltop town (with Etruscan origins), conveniently located on the Rome-to-Florence rail line (trains depart from the station for Rome and Florence about every two hours). From Castiglion Fiorentino, you can almost see the hill of Cortona, about five miles away. In fact, the charms of places like Arezzo, Assisi, Montepulciano, Siena, and other unforgettable sites are easily within reach, either by bus or by train.

If you’re contemplating a trip to Italy, or even if you just want to take a five-minute vacation from the privacy of your own computer screen, visit the website: You can also drop Ricardo and Ulrika an email at If you do, please tell them I said, “buon giorno.”

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


Practicing the Presence of People: How We Learn to Love
Mike Mason (WaterBrook, 1999)

I recently read this interesting little book because a guy asked me to. I’m glad he did.

Mike Mason evidences familiarity not only with the devotional classics (the similarity of his title to Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God is no coincidence, as Mason makes clear) but also with popular culture at its best—and worst. In this discerning, wise book, he chronicles his own journey from the tyranny of self-imposed spiritual isolation to the joy of authentic presence with the people he meets in everyday life. Along the way, he suggests some interesting and challenging notions that could revolutionize the way we think of the church and, indeed, the Christian faith.

Mason thinks that by learning to love people, we are learning to love God. To me, that sounds a lot like 1 John 4:20: “…anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” Reminds me of a quote I once heard: “I love humanity—it’s people I can’t stand.”

But Mason will have none of that. Even the wicked are not exempt from his loving gaze, though he recognizes that “being present” with someone who is, say, a racist, will look quite different from “being present” with a child, a family member, or a close spiritual friend.

Practicing the Presence of People is divided into short chapters (over 50 of them) that lend themselves, by the author’s design, to quick reading, then prolonged contemplation. Not a bad way to spend a rainy afternoon. In fact, the only thing better, Mason would probably advise, is going somewhere to be around people… so you can practice.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Book Review: MARK TWAIN: A LIFE, by Ron Powers

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to say at the outset that I'm a lifelong admirer of the subject of this lively, witty biography. Born and raised in Missouri, Clemens' home state, I, like many country boys of my generation, dreamed of floating down the Mississippi on a raft. I even tried to build one; it sank, which was likely for the best. But I digress.

Ron Powers evidences great sympathy for his subject without coddling or sugar-coating the crusty curmudgeon with the wild white mane. His prose is appropriately tongue-in-cheek at times--as Twain would have wished, I think--and his research is scrupulously thorough without adopting the plodding pace that plagues so many scholarly biographies. He allows the reader to marvel at the Sage of Hannibal as he glitters in all his brilliance... and as he curdles in his own self-centered blindness.

Best of all, Powers illuminates to great advantage Mark Twain's pointed social satire and political commentary, uncovering what was, for me at least, the important and previously unknown record of Twain's scathing critiques of U.S. expansionism and colonialist exploitation in places like the Philippines during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Steaming upriver against the popular currents of the day, Twain anticipates by decades--and, in some ways, lays the groundwork for--the rhetoric of dissent that would become prominent in the 1960s.
For Twain junkies like me, or for anyone interested in the rise of the uniquely American literary voice before and during the Gilded Age, MARK TWAIN: A LIFE is a better find than the loot stashed in Injun Joe's cave.

Watch This Space...

Well, it has finally happened: I'm really going to try to join the blogosphere. I'll be posting book reviews, travel reports, and other miscellany that strikes my fancy. I might even put up some useful financial tips, vacation ideas, parenting thoughts, what have you. And, of course, the occasional creative piece that doesn't seem to fit anywhere else. If you've got a taste for the unusual, the random--the slightly tilted view of life, faith, and the pursuit of genuine joy... bookmark this page. It should be an interesting journey for all of us.