Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, Edited by Ibram X. Kendi, Keisha N. Blain

 The stories in "Four Hundred Souls" begin to unfold in the year 1619, a year before the Mayflower when the White Lion disgorges "some 20-and-odd Negroes" onto the shores of Virginia. This would be the inaugurating of the African presence to what would become the United States and it serves as the starting point to this epic project co-edited by Ibram X. Kendi, acclaimed author of "How to Be An Antiracist," and Keisha N. Blain, author of "Set the World on Fire."

What follows is truly epic, a one-volume history, abbreviated of course, celebrating the history of African Americans. 90 writers. Each writer takes on a five-year history of the four-hundred-year span. Each writer approaches their five-year-period differently ranging from poetry to historical essays to short stories to fiery polemics to social calls to action to personal testimonies and more. Each writer uses a different lens to tell stories both familiar and remarkably unfamiliar. We learn about historical icons and unsung heroes, ordinary people and collective movements. There are names you might expect to read that nary make an appearance, while other names will have you exploring and researching and digging deeper wondering how this is a person or a place or an event of which you've never heard. You will feel the passion of years of resistance and ache with the years of oppression and abuse and discrimination. You will vibrate with the hope of a community that is alive and relentless and vast in its expression of ideas and beliefs and humanity. As always seems to be true in a collective of essays, some are more likely to resonate than others yet there's truly no weak link here. There's also, I'd dare say, none that outshine the others. This is truly a collective, a collective masterpiece of historical literature. The voices who participate in this effort are known and unknown, brilliant and creative and astute and remarkable. They are the essential Black voices of now, academics and artists, historians and journalists and others. I found myself deeply moved by "Four Hundred Souls," but I also found myself called to action and called to greater understanding. I found myself informed yet called to seeking greater knowledge. I found myself convicted, convicted of ignorance and even willful blindness of truth and history and joy and sorrow. I did, indeed, find myself searching for more than what was contained within these pages, these essays often serving to challenge me to discover more truths and broader knowledge and to discover the undiscovered stories and voices of past and present. It's difficult to describe this feeling having completed "Four Hundred Souls," a literary journey that has ended yet in many ways has just begun. There are books that change your reality and change your perspective. "Four Hundred Souls" is such a book. For now, I sit with it. Not particularly restfully. I am more aware, it seems, yet also more aware of how unaware I really am. This is not the white man's history of African America nor is it a simple glossing over for Black History Month. It is a community history of African America brought to life by essential Black voices telling essential Black stories through a Black lens and perspective with a fullness and a deep, soulful appreciation of what it has meant, does mean, and will mean to be Black in America. Both epic and intimate, "Four Hundred Souls" is a remarkable achievement.

Monday, November 9, 2020

"The Leader's Guide to Unconscious Bias" - Pamela Fuller & Mark Murphy with Anne Chow

"As leaders, we have an obligation to help each of our team members develop a career as robust and rewarding as they desire it to be..." - Anne Chow, CEO of AT&T Business

From the leadership experts at FranklinCovey, "The Leader's Guide to Unconscious Bias" is an extraordinary guide to reframing bias, cultivating connection, and creating high-performing teams. Written in a remarkably accessible and practical style, "The Leader's Guide to Unconscious Bias" starts with a basic truth - unconscious bias is impacting organizational performance whether we know it or not.

From there, FranklinCovey chief thought leader on inclusion and bias Pamela Fuller joins co-writers Mark Murphy, a Franklin Covey senior consultant, and AT&T Business CEO Anne Chow in crafting a four-part framework to identify bias, cultivate connection, choose courage, and apply against the talent lifecycle.

The end result, both applicable and inspirational, is a book that equips readers with tangible tools to create the best environment for all of their team members and to mitigate possible negative impacts of workplace bias.

I wasn't much past the preface to what I'll start calling "Unconscious Bias," a preface sharing that between the time the authors sent their manuscript to the editors at Simon & Schuster on May 15th, 2020 and two weeks later when they received it back for review that the world had dramatically changed as the impact of quarantine had begun to be overshadowed in powerful ways by global protests about racial injustice.

While the connection between injustice and bias, especially within a corporate setting, may seem thin, the truth is they are interwoven. "Unconscious Bias" asserts that bias is, in fact, part of the human condition and how our brains work.

To be human is to have bias.

The power of "Unconscious Bias," a book that challenged me in ways big and small, is that it simultaneously speaks to the corporate world while tapping into the humanity that we all bring into our roles as employees, leaders, and human beings. While speaking to organizations, "Unconscious Bias" encourages each reader to explore vulnerability, develop curiosity, and build empathy - essential choices to be made in moving past our negative biases and choosing courage.

Tackling our biases does take courage.

"Unconscious Bias" explores best practices and strategies applicable to the Talent Lifecycle and speaks to building high-performing teams AND high-performing individuals and creating the high-performing cultures that will foster both of these things.

Yet, it was the final paragraph of the preface that really hooked me, a simple statement shared from FranklinCovey CEO Bob Whitman that "You must do the work your goals require," words shared at a conference yet words that ultimately guide the organizational cultures we create and our work toward a more inclusive world and organization.

Fuller, Chow, and Murphy have crafted an intelligent, insightful, and almost stunningly compassionate book that defines bias, explores the ways in which it helps and hurts performance, and explored tangible ways, many of them documented at the end of each remarkable chapter, we can course-correct when we become aware of unconscious bias influencing our work.

As a professional with a disability, it has been rare for me to see a book addressing leadership skills that gives attention to employees, job seekers, and professional leaders with disabilities.

Yet, "Unconscious Bias" does so and does so regularly throughout the book.

Truthfully? I'll even admit I cried once. Okay, actually, I think I cried and then did a fist bump in the air.

The core of "Unconscious Bias" is the Bias Progress Model, a model that takes the central concepts of identifying bias, cultivating connection, and choosing courage and applies it across the Talent Lifecycle. The power of this teaching for me is found early in the book as we learn to take that lifecycle and go beyond the usual realm of law and policy. Each central concept is associated with a principle, for example "self-awareness," and "Unconscious Bias" beautifully explores both central concept and principle and the ways they work together.

In addition to the wisdom of each chapter, each chapter ends with an extended reflection for individuals along with "Application for Leaders," both essentially practical exercises to help integrate the material more fully.

"Unconscious Bias" became a book that I started with reading.

Then, I read it again.

Then, I re-read it again AND began working through both the reflections and applications. Truthfully? I'm still not done. Each time through "Unconscious Bias" has resulted in seeing something new and having a new "Aha!" moment come to life.

The chapters make sense and flow beautifully.

The first part, Identify Bias, explores identity, an understanding of neuroscience, recognizing bias trips, and embracing mindfulness.

Ah, mindfulness.

In the second part, Cultivating Connection, "Unconscious Bias" explores belonging, curiosity, empathy, the power of networks, and the ever important navigation of difficult conversations.

Choosing Courage explores the courage to identify, cope, be an ally, and be an advocate. While, finally, the actual Talent Lifecycle explores the very real world issues of getting hired, contributing/engaging, and moving up.

All of these areas are addressed in ways that are meaningful to both individuals and organizations and in ways that are inclusive and refreshingly transparent and vulnerable.

If it's not yet readily apparent, I loved "The Leader's Guide to Unconscious Bias," a powerful and enlightening book both personally and professionally that is beautifully written in a way that makes it easy to read yet also in a way that will make you want to re-read it again and again and again.

I would easily recommend taking the time to explore the exercises at the end of each chapter, exercises that marvelously illuminate the writing and will no doubt help integrate the material so that you'll find, as I have, that the teaching will come to mind the next time you find yourself in a situation where you're experiencing unconscious bias.

In the short time since I read the book for the third time, I've seen myself applying these lessons as an employee and as a leader and there's no doubt this will continue as I work to have the courage to understand bias's role in my life and what I can do about it.

Easily one of my favorite books on business and leadership in 2020, "The Leader's Guide to Unconscious Bias" is available November 10th from Simon & Schuster.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

"The Last Windwitch" - Jennifer Adam

It's always a special thing to read an author's debut and such is the case with Jennifer Adam's middle-grade fantasy "The Last Windwitch," an April 2021 release from HarperCollins Children's Books."The Last Windwitch" introduces us to the world of Brida, a young hedgewitch apprentice living quite contentedly in the small village of Oak Hollow trying to live into the gift she is constantly told she possesses but which she has great difficulty manifesting with any consistency.

We know rather early on in "The Last Windwitch" that there is more to Brida's life than meets the eye, though my guess is that middle-grade readers will be less quick to become fully aware of Brida's journey and the rather fantastic places that it goes.

Working under the watchful eye of Mother Magdi, Brida is both a disciplined apprentice and a curious child, possessing a curiosity that we all tend to know is going to lead to more than a little bit of trouble. Eventually, she catches the eye of her kingdom's wicked queen who aspires to possess as much power as possible.

If you've seen the cover for "The Last Windwitch," it rather beautifully captures very much how I felt while reading the book. Adam beautifully develops the character of Brida as a young child growing into her skills and the responsibility for which she has been born.

It's not surprising, of course, that she is born with great purpose and that purpose will be revealed by the end of "The Last Windwitch."

Before long, Brida will be on the run from the Queen's Huntsman, an intimidating man who seemingly pops up everywhere and who is tasked with presenting the revealed to be gifted Brida to the queen. Along the way, Brida will meet friends and foes, adoring animals and dastardly beasts. She will encounter the Queen's Crow-spies and will learn the truth about her family, her magic, and the life into which she was born. She may very well learn that even as a little girl she is born with the gifts that will help defeat the wicked queen and restore the kingdom to its rightful place.

"The Last Windwitch" is a delightful tale, a patient journey at 448 pages that takes its time setting the stage for Brida's journey and for enfolding us into the fantasy world in which Brida's journey is set. Adam sets the stage slowly, perhaps a bit too slowly, but in most ways that patience is worth it as we become immersed in the lives of these characters and by tale's end we care about their resolution. While the beginning unfolds a tad slowly, the climactic conflicts seem to unfold rather abruptly and made me wish we had a little more time to really savor Brida's unfolding gifts and how they weave themselves into the conflict and the story's resolution.

However, these are minor quibbles, truly, for a story that engaged me from beginning to end and kept me thoroughly delighted with characters such as Brida, Magdi, Hush, and others whose relevance shall remain secret in this review. Even ancillary characters are developed nicely here, not always true in children's lit and yet essential to the story's success.

"The Last Windwitch" is very much an immersive story. Jennifer Adam is an engaging, visual storyteller and I found myself quite often reading more slowly and surrendering myself to the story unfolding in my heart and in my mind.

Fans of Shannon Hale and Kelly Barnhill will find much to appreciate here and there seems little doubt that HarperCollins has given to us an imaginative, gifted writer whose creatively yet intelligently constructed fantasy world is destined to delight middle-grade readers.

Friday, September 18, 2020

"Lawbreaking Ladies: 50 Remarkable Stories of Criminal Women Throughout History" - Erika Owen

As of late, I've been doing my share of rather heavy reading. So, when I got the chance to check out Erika Owen's "Lawbreaking Ladies: 50 Remarkable Stories of Criminal Women Throughout History" and it's rather light, entertaining cover, I couldn't resist the chance to do some lighter, more entertaining reading for a few days.

To be sure, "Lawbreaking Ladies" is a light read. Despite the potential heaviness of 50 stories about criminal women, Owen infuses the material with an almost tongue-in-cheek writing quality that keeps the material from ever becoming even remotely heavy.

The book is essentially divided into different categories of criminal behavior - from old school pirates to bootleggers to cold-blooded killers to gamblers, bootleggers, and fraudsters and more.

As is always true of these kinds of books, some tales are more enchanting than others. Additionally, there are times when Owen seems to be stretching the material for the sake of space rather than having an actual story to tell. However, Owen seems genuinely engaged by these stories and that keeps us, the readers, also engaged.

"Lawbreaking Ladies" does have an awful lot of writer's personality within its pages. This isn't simply a presentation of the black-and-white facts. There's no question that Owen inserts her own editorialized comments, observations, and flippant remarks throughout the book. At times, this is entertaining. Other times, you can't help but wish maybe she'd chill just a bit and let the story stand on its own.

If you're looking for hardcore tales, "Lawbreaking Ladies" isn't likely to keep you pleased. Even the chapter on rather cold-hearted killers is more entertaining than enraging. While Owen clearly understands the seriousness of these stories, quite often she's selected rather admirable women to be included here whose actions may have conflicted with the laws of the times but were also quite often more than a little admirable in the realm of badass women.

Truthfully, there's not much else to be said about "Lawbreaking Ladies." You can pretty much tell from the title alone if this book is going to resonate with you. If you're intrigued, Owen for the most part won't let you down. If you're instantly dismissive, then it's probably not for you and Owen doesn't really do anything unique enough with the material to change your mind.

If 1/2 stars were available, "Lawbreaking Ladies" would likely exist in the 3.5 realm for me. Alas, 1/2 stars are not available and I can't help but believe that Owen accomplishes with "Lawbreaking Ladies" exactly what she set out to do. For that reason, I'm inclined to boost the rating a 1/2 star and settle in at a comfy, entertaining 4-star read for this light, engaging, and informative collection from Erika Owen.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

"Welcome to the United States of Anxiety: Observations from a Reforming Neurotic" - Jen Lancaster

I started Jen Lancaster's "Welcome to the United States of Anxiety: Observations from a Reforming Neurotic" with great enthusiasm.

Having never before read Lancaster's books, I was instantly engaged by her transparent personality and witty, engaging humor that drew me in and made me eager to continue reading in hopes of discovering a new author and an indie title that I could recommend to others.

To be honest, in the opening pages of "United States of Anxiety" I was even thinking perhaps I'd discovered my next 5-star read after a far too lengthy period of 3 and 4-star reviews.

However, what was initially engaging and witty quickly became a tedious and laborious read splattered from beginning to end with personal anecdotes, episodic humor, and occasional oddball theories about anxiety based largely upon her own experiences and sourced with an obvious agenda intact.


Suddenly, my hoped for 5-star review was plummeting rapidly before, as the book wound down, settling in at a wobbly 3-star experience while dancing on the 2-star border thanks to book-ending essays on the Kardashians, overly lengthy observations about parenting (for which she has no actual experience), and relentless internet-bashing that makes me wonder if maybe she's experienced one too many critical comments on her social feeds.

While there are many who praise Lancaster's previous titles, based upon my experiences with "United States of Anxiety" the first impressions are settled and I wouldn't begin to approach anything else.

"United States of Anxiety" is an Amazon First Read during this month of September 2020 in advance of the title's planned October 1st publication date. I'd hoped it to be a sign that the book was being released on my birthday (Happy Birthday To Me!), but instead I'm just feeling grateful that I've managed to get this much older without getting this neurotic.

Truth be told, "Welcome to the United States of Anxiety" is not an awful book. Creatively, but loosely, based in the world of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Lancaster explores the world of contemporary American anxiety and does so largely through her own societal lens. There will be those who identify with her lens and there will be those who've followed her writing long enough that they'll find her weaving together of humor and social insight to be, well, insightful.

It's an intriguing idea to tie the current state of our emotional and psychological affairs into the current state of Maslow's Hierarchy in American society. The problem is that Lancaster gets in her own way here and what really is an intriguing idea never really gets fleshed out (maybe I should say "Fletched" out?) sufficiently enough. The real problem, I suppose, is that "United States of Anxiety" feels like a first-time author and, in fact, it's not.

While "United States of Anxiety" is a well sourced title, one can't help but get the idea that Lancaster cherry-picked her sources to fit her own pre-conceived observations much like the internet argument over politics or religion that never goes anywhere. The book's final forty pages are filled to the literary brim with Lancaster's actual sources, theoretically quite impressive, but in practice as tedious and meaningless as much of the book itself.

With more neuroses than humor, "Welcome to the United States of Anxiety: Observations from a Reforming Neurotic" offers more problems than solutions and never quite gels into quite the path out of the quagmire that Lancaster believes it to be.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Peaceful Heart: The Buddhist Practice of Patience" - Dzigar Kongtrul

I wrestled mightily throughout my week-long reading of Dzigar Kongtrul's "Peaceful Heart: The Buddhist Practice of Patience," one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences I've had with a Buddhist writing in quite some time.I believe, perhaps, that it is Kongtrul's long history of weaving together creativity and inner awareness that fostered my deeper connection to his writings. Kongtrul has noted that creativity is the "essence of everything," yet prior works such as "Uncommon Happiness: The Path of the Compassionate Warrior" and "It's Up to You : The Practice of Self-Reflection on the Buddhist Path" reveal a teacher willing and able to explore the inner workings of himself and humanity while doing so in a way that is honest, concise, humble, and accessible.

These qualities are very much evident in "Peaceful Heart," a work to be released by Shambhala Publications in December, 2020. "Peaceful Heart" explores, as you might guess, the Buddhist practice of patience in a way that serves as a sort of introductory guide to cultivating our lives to being patient with our difficult circumstances.

You can feel Kongtrul's own patience throughout his writings. You can simply feel that he's an impactful teacher whose actions match his writings, though he allows his writings to be transparent about his own journey.

"Peaceful Heart" begins with the premise that patience, within the Buddhist tradition, is our mind's ability to work positively with anything that bothers us. The book is centered upon Kongtrul's understanding and expansion of Shantideva's methods for preventing our minds from being consumed by what bothers us. The book especially emphasizes anger, noting how anger can so easily impact our karma and learning how not to be consumed by it is an essential Buddhist practice.

"Peaceful Heart," indeed, teaches that patience is the lifeblood of a peaceful heart, a place where we can feel at home and at peace in every situation which allows us to be available to love and care for others absent of anger and other obstacles.

Kongtrul writes from a place of compassion, a deep understanding of the frailties of the spiritual journey yet also an absolute belief in our potential. He also writes from a place of discipline, a knowledge that incremental growth is still growth yet a knowledge that also challenges and seems to believe in the accountability we must hold to and for one another. "Peaceful Heart" is both accessible in its writing and uncompromising in each teaching, a rather beautiful balance that feels less softened and less Americanized than some writings I've read from Buddhist teachers whose writings, either via intentional choice or editorial choice, seemed to turn Buddhism into a mass-consumption practice rather than a spiritual discipline.

It was interesting to me just how often in "Peaceful Heart" I would find myself resisting a word or a phrase or a teaching, but then Kongtrul would follow up this particular point with an explanation or illustration and suddenly a spark would light inside and I would understand the teaching more fully.

I struggled, and in some ways am still struggling, with Kongtrul's use of the word "merit," a word he uses often to illustrate the karmic journey and how our actions can either work for us or against us in samsara. I believe, perhaps, the way the word is used reminds me of my days in fundamentalist Christianity and it feels inherently punitive. Yet, this is not how Kongtrul is teaching it. I'm still working on integrating these particular teachings through my decades of life and old, unhealthy spiritual teachings.

Yet, so many times Kongtrul would so vividly and wonderfully bring Shantideva's words and illuminations to life and would explain them in language that deeply resonated within my spirit and I've found myself already incorporating these teachings into my daily work, my own daily writings, and my supervision of other people professionally.

I reflected, for example, on my own experiences with learning to cook. This is something I've been teaching myself during this health pandemic and time of quarantine. In November 2019, I lost my left leg to illness and spent 3+ months at home. This period was followed by one week in my office before we were sent home due to the pandemic. Thus, I've spent almost one year in my home, mostly alone, and learning how to live differently as a person with a disability. I'd never taught myself to cook - I always ate outside the home, which is no longer possible to do regularly. I embraced this learning to cook as a spiritual journey that has taught me patience with myself, partly because I'm not a very good cook, but also patience with others as when I go to restaurants now I'm patient with cooks and servers and those who are on their own life journeys.

There is much to love about "Peaceful Heart: The Buddhist Practice of Patience," a book I will no doubt refer to time and again. It is also a book that makes me eager to read Kongtrul's other writings as it is clear the way he teaches is a way that connects with me personally and spiritually.

Written with much insight and compassion, "Peaceful Heart: The Buddhist Practice of Patience" is a book I'd enthusiastically recommend to those seeking to deepen their spiritual practice and to add depth and daily discipline to living a more compassionate, loving, and serving life.

Friday, September 4, 2020

"Too Many Times: How to End Gun Violence in a Divided America" - Multiple Authors

I've wrestled over the last couple of days with how to rate and review "Too Many Times: How to End Gun Violence in a Divided America," primarily because I am the choir to which the collective of educated and well-informed authors preach yet I can't help but feel like the book falls at least a little bit short of its lofty vision.

The voices represented here are familiar ones in the discussion around violence ranging from Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts to Everytown for Gun Safety's Director of Research Sarah Burd-Sharps to National Coalition Against Domestic Violence's Public Policy Director Rachel Graber and quite a few others.

"Too Many Times" is a collection of writings, some historical and familiar and others lesser known and/or original. The collection is essentially divided into three particular talking points around the issue of gun violence - 1) How gun violence impacts us today, 2) How we have gotten to this juncture legally and socially, and 3) What we can do to reduce and end gun violence in America today.

For those already involved in the issues around gun violence, there's no question that the book's final talking point addressing what we can actually do is easily the most vital and informative.

The essays around gun violence's current impact are for the most part familiar ideas gathered together as a collective, while those essays essentially drawing from legal and social history are, indeed, familiar discussions that serve as critical knowledge for anyone approaching the issue of gun violence and, most especially, anyone daring to enter the heavily politicized and partisan political arena.

However, it's the third collective of essays that feels vital and fresh and inspiring. It was from this collection, speaking as someone who's been involved in issues around violence and children for 30 years, that left me better informed and significantly more inspired.

At times, however, "too many times" doesn't quite go far enough in addressing the "divided America" part of its title. My argument, essentially, would be that without addressing America's divisions any effort to end gun violence will be short-term in impact.

"Too Many Times" kicks off in riveting fashion, though. "96 Minutes," an article first run in Texas Monthly in 2006, recounts what many consider to be the first true awareness of gun violence as a growing concern with its story of Charles Whitman's mass shooting at the University of Texas-Austin in 1966. While far outshone by the recent documentary "Tower," this piece still vividly brings to life the events of that day and in many ways ties the books three main objectives together.

"I Dream About It Every Night" and "A Lynch Mob of One" are both important discussions, while Justice John Paul Stevens's dissenting opinion in the Heller case is a must read for those involved in the gun control issue even if it is also likely to be incredibly familiar to those same advocates. Stevens long cited the Heller case as one of the Supreme Court's worst decisions of his tenure.

Those who appreciated New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's response to the Christchurch mass shooting will even more appreciate her words recounted here, while a a 2020 NBC News Report on "How Police Justify Shootings" may very well help give tangible meaning to current affairs.

My personal favorite essay closes the book. Frank Serpico's "The Police Are Still Out of Control" is riveting reading and the kind of reading that will invest you in its subject matter while also having you look up that movie "Serpico" that you always intended to watch.

It's a terrific film, by the way.

I will confess that as I wound down my time with "Too Many Times" that I found myself just a wee bit disappointed as I had, perhaps, expected more in the way of fresh material rather than a collective that also included essays previously published. While they remain vital in the discussion around gun violence, as someone who has long been familiar with this issue they were familiar reading and a tad remedial.

However, as a collective of writings it is impossible to gather such respected voices as Shannon Watts, Ibram X. Kendi, Frank Serpico, John Paul Stevens, and others without being in awe of the wisdom and rather taken by their insights. For those early in the journey of exploring issues around gun violence, "Too Many Times" is a must read. For those wishing to gather multiple valuable resources as one, this also remains a vital resource. For experienced advocates and activists, this may not be the collection we always turn to but it may very well be the collection to which we point others as they become advocates and allies.