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.

WTF?

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.



Saturday, August 29, 2020

"A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son - Michael Ian Black




If you're familiar with the work of comedian/actor/writer Michael Ian Black, "A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son" may very well come as a bit of a surprise.It shouldn't, really.

While the longtime member of the comedy group The State is well known for his dry sarcasm and irreverent wit, Black has also been known, if you're paying attention, for socially insightful commentary and his increasingly popular role as a successful author of children's books.

Still, "A Better Man" is a Michael Ian Black that for the most part we haven't seen. For the most part devoid of Black's usual sarcasm and cynical nature, "A Better Man" seems determined to break the rules, personally and professionally, that Black has long set for himself.

In case you can't quite figure it out, "A Better Man" is essentially a letter from Black written to his college-bound son Elijah, whom Black most obviously worries about and even more obviously completely adores.

"A Better Man" is, indeed, a mostly serious endeavor though there are certainly moments when Black allows his humor to shine through and lighten, in mostly all the right moments, his most serious and potentially dark thoughts. Black gives us the richness of his humanity here, simultaneously far more vulnerable than we've ever seen him yet also occasionally defensive and fearful and guarded and, well, quite aware that he's intentionally showing the world the Michael Ian Black that they've never fully seen but he's always wanted to show to his fans and, perhaps even moreso, to Elijah.

Black began his journey inward with his last effort, "You're Not Doing It Right." It's a journey that continues here and both deepens and broadens. The earliest pages of "A Better Man" are profound and deeply moving, Black reflecting on the Sandy Hook massacre that occurred only blocks from his own son's school and subsequently weaving together memoir, personal and parenting reflections, and occasional social commentary as he seemingly points his son toward a healthier masculinity and toward the lessons that he hopes his parenting has brought forth in their mutual journeys.

Black knows that he's not a perfect man. He also knows that he wasn't a perfect parent. He occasionally seems to serve up a literary wince, reflecting upon those times when he's allowed his own past traumas and life baggage to get in the way of his being the father he wanted to be. It's not so much an end result that Black shares here as it is his hopes and fears, failures and belief in something other than himself that he doesn't quite call God but acknowledges has helped to illuminate his path.

Black explores the complicated relationship he had with his own father, a man who passed away traumatically at the age of 39 leaving unanswered questions and unresolved issues. "A Better Man," which feels essentially like a call to himself and a calling up of Elijah, immerses itself in light melancholy as Black writes to his son about everything from violence to sexuality to relationships to gender roles and, without question, most of all love.

Simply love.

Black explores toxic masculinity, but "A Better Man" is most certainly not about toxic masculinity. It is, instead, about reclaiming masculinity as something worth celebrating because it loves and protects and guards and is tender and is most certainly non-violent. The social commentary is undeniable here, though for the most part "A Better Man" stays fairly light within the political realm. Black most certainly discusses gun violence and those who work in the area of sexual violence will rejoice at the simple, straightforward way that Black instructs his son to always except "no" for an answer even if it's at the last minute and even if it's right in the middle.

Black makes sure his son understands that the same standard should always work both ways. It's a beautiful lesson, a desperately needed lesson, in a book that is filled with simple, straightforward yet deeply meaningful lessons from father to son as the son prepares to leave home and begin their tiptoe into adulthood.

There are moments, rather brief ones, when "A Better Man" flounders a bit as Black infuses his material with facts and resources that feel more like essays and less like a personal letter. However, these moments are truly relatively brief and also give Black's teachings a layer of substance and depth.

The truth is that "A Better Man" begins and ends sublimely. In between those literary bookends, "A Better Man" is filled with the heartfelt insights and vulnerable imperfections of a comedian and actor and writer doesn't so much want his son to "man up" as he wants his son to be "a better man."

An ideal book for those on the parenting journey and for longtime Michael Ian Black fans, "A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son" may be parenting advice but it's also stellar life advice as Black teaches us that there's a better way for boys and men to live and that better way is love and compassion.

Friday, August 21, 2020

"After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity" - David P. Gushee

 

I'm embarrassed to admit that David Gushee, Distinguished University Professor Christian Ethics at Mercer University and the current president of the American Academy of Religion, wasn't on my radar despite what I would like to consider to be a rather pronounced effort to recognize and become familiar with contemporary Christianity's more progressive voices.However, I saw Gushee's name cross my Twitter feed when someone talked about this book, "After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity," and after a quick browsing of its subject matter decided to check out the book for myself.

If you've followed my writing for any length of time at all, you know that I've had a rather chaotic and not particularly positive journey with the world of organized religion. From a childhood spent as a Jehovah's Witness, the first of two paths to kick me out, into John Wimber's Vineyard movement, second of two paths to kick me out, I then moved toward an extended period in a New Thought church, where I was ordained, and, with a couple diversions, a seminary journey of licensed ministry with Church of the Brethren before my current tiptoeing between the Unitarian-Universalists and the Presbyterians (USA).

It wasn't really until reading Kate Bowler's "Blessed" that I could solidly identify some of the patterns, mostly dysfunctional, that led me to repeatedly head down theological roads that I inevitably found disappointing and from which I seemed to inevitably get hurt.

"After Evangelical" does, indeed, serve up Gushee's proposal for a path to a new Christianity, a way to set aside our disillusionment with an increasingly ego-driven and decidedly non-Jesus centered evangelical path and move toward a living relationship with Christ that is intellectually consistent and morally robust.

Quite simply, "After Evangelicalism" enthusiastically proposes that it is not just possible to follow Jesus out of evangelicalism but it is necessary to do so.

Thus, how you feel about evangelicalism may very well help determine how you receive "After Evangelicalism." If you're offended by anything I've already written, then it's unlikely you'll find Gushee's proposal satisfying. After all, you'll be unlikely to believe there needs to be life after evangelicalism.

In fact, you're probably thinking evangelicalism is just fine...maybe even better than ever.

On the other hand, if you're troubled by the evangelical embrace of President Trump and if you have more than a few concerns about the evangelical rejection of climate change and the seemingly inconsistent messages about what seems to qualify as "pro-life," then "After Evangelicalism" may very well help you put words to those feelings you've been having about faith, church, your own journey, and how to make sense of it all.

Truthfully, Gushee spends very little time talking about President Trump, though it's pretty clear that, as the old saying goes, that's likely the straw that broke the camel's back. Gushee, who spent a good majority of his life in the evangelical world via his Southern Baptist tradition, began veering away from identifying as evangelical the more progressive his writings and his theological voice became including his call for full acceptance and inclusion of the LGBTQ community that pretty much rendered him an untouchable in the evangelical world.

"After Evangelicalism" is a fairly weird mishmash of a book. It's simultaneously an academic endeavor and a surprisingly casual one. In fact, in terms of style Bowler and Gushee could easily be literary cousins given their abilities to write with both remarkable intellectual depth and emotional honesty.

Gushee spends a good amount of "After Evangelicalism" exploring precisely what went wrong with U.S. white evangelicalism by exploring such relevant areas as evangelical identity, biblical interpretation, church life, sexuality, politics, and race. Gushee packs an awful lot of information into "After Evangelicalism," thus at times the collection is both more of a primer to subjects that inevitably require more depth and also a bit of an overview of Gushee's previous writings. Once he's explored these subjects, Gushee begins vividly and passionately proposing new ways of living, belonging, and believing. Each chapter ends rather nicely with a sort of summarized collection of "takeaways," offering a solid framework for the material at hand.

Many who write from a more progressive theological space tend to shy aware from more "churchy" language, but Gushee embraces it. Now attending a more progressive Baptist church along with his wife's Catholic Mass, Gushee clearly still embraces the beliefs and practices of his organized faith while also accepting that the word evangelical no longer applies and, in fact, he defines and embraces the path of a Christian humanist.

"After Evangelicalism" is not likely to be a book with which you'll always agree. Gushee's relentlessly pushing forward here and boldly embracing subjects that most churches don't even talk about let alone actually take a position on. Indeed, I didn't always find myself in agreement with Gushee - I was particularly troubled, for example, by his open embrace of LGBTQ and transgender Christians but then somehow finding space to remove polyamorists from the circle with tremendous intention. To be honest, it just felt unnecessarily mean-spirited to be so specific about it.

There were other times I found myself mumbling "Yes!" or "I don't agree," but that's really part of the joy of a book like "After Evangelicalism." It's a joy hearing and exploring new ideas and following that up with thought, prayer, research, and discussion.

Indeed, "After Evangelicalism" is a book that practically begs to be studied and discussed.

To use Gushee's own language, if there's one thing I take away from "After Evangelicalism," and it's a huge takeaway, it's this central idea of Christian humanism. Gushee explains it beautifully and it explains so much so perfectly about my own journey, beliefs, practices, and why despite multiple challenging experiences I continue to believe, explore, follow, and worship. It feels, on a certain level, like I have words to describe my faith journey.

While at times I wished "After Evangelicalism" would dig even deeper within its subjects and there were times I wished for a lengthier book that would have allowed for a more relaxed presentation, "After Evangelicalism" is undoubtedly a book I will refer to again and again and a book that has already left me in deep contemplation and feeling more peaceful than ever with my chaotic spiritual past and a present that feels like it was worth all that chaos.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

"The Buddha and the Bee: Biking Through America's Forgotten Roadways on a Journey of Discovery" - Cory Mortensen



It's difficult to describe the experience of reading Cory Mortensen's "The Buddha and the Bee: Biking Through America's Forgotten Roadways on a Journey of Discovery," a never less than engaging collection of roadside musings and nostalgic factoids that meanders nearly as much as did Mortensen himself during his 2001 solo bicycle trip from Chaska, Minnesota to Truckee, California.

The truth is that "The Buddha and the Bee" is more an entertaining read than an inspiring one, Mortensen's charismatic personality shining through his written pages as we join him on a journey that would have likely been ill-advised by just about anyone with a lick of common sense.

Aren't those the best kind?

I couldn't help but reflect upon my own life while reading "The Buddha and the Bee," a life that has been certainly less far-reaching but a life that has included my own weird journey when in 1989 I embarked on a 41-day, 1086-mile wheelchair ride around the border of Indiana with a handful of zigzags included just for fun. It was the first of what would become a 30-year journey in social justice for me, while Mortensen's journey led to a detoured life and a semi-impulsive but lifelong commitment to living life on his own terms.

At times, "The Buddha and the Bee" feels like what would happen if Jeff Spicoli, Sean Penn's iconic anti-hero from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," had taken up biking and set his sights on San Francisco.

Dude.

"The Buddha and the Bee" sort of turns the idea of the inspirational memoir upside down, a few obscenities here and there joined at the hip by an occasional joint and near daily rural roadside Chinese dinners and overnight stays in forgotten America's roadside motels.

It is true that the journey that unfolds here was incredibly impulsive and lacking in what most people would consider common sense or adequate preparation, though it's worth noting that Mortensen was no stranger to bicycling and he had adequate personal funding to allow for overnight motel stays when available and ample restaurant meals and bicycle repairs for which he'd been woefully unprepared. Granted an extended leave of absence from his employer with certainty of employment if he so chooses, it's zero surprise when the experience of riding across a good majority of America changes the directionless young man and sends him off toward a more meaningful life.

The truth is that you root for Mortensen throughout "The Buddha and the Bee," though you really don't get to know him all that well. In a certain way, this is actually rather refreshing as "The Buddha and the Bee" is devoid of the usual self-congratulatory narcissism that often accompanies this type of book. Mortensen has an almost dry humor throughout "The Buddha and the Bee," from snarky memories of personal encounters to not always so gentle opinions about these roadside destinations where sometimes the stranger isn't exactly always welcome.

For the most part, "The Buddha and the Bee" is quietly endearing. Mortensen is that rare soul who embarks on a weird journey and learns from it in tangible ways that impact his life. While the book itself doesn't expand upon Mortensen's life beyond this journey, a quick web browse reveals that Mortensen has ridden his bicycle over a million miles throughout his lifetime while traveling to over 55 countries and completing marathons on five continents. With an entrepreneurial spirit and a thirst for adventure, it's clear that Mortensen has lived a life far beyond that for which he was destined prior to this 2001 trip including being in rural America when the 9/11 attacks occurred.

"The Buddha and the Bee," which was released just this week and is Amazon's #1 new release in Sports Travel," is more likely to appeal to the adventurous spirit than those seeking another pure-hearted inspirational tale. It's an honest sports travel memoir, Mortensen unreservedly sharing his impulsive behaviors, equipment breakdowns, unusual encounters, body odor, and aliens.

Of course, there are aliens.

You might be inspired anyway, but for the most part "The Buddha and the Bee" will engage you and entertain you and cause you to reflect on your own life journey and, just perhaps, your bucket list of life experiences and personal/professional goals. You can't help but appreciate Mortensen's sharing of a wide variety of small-town factoids and historical reflections even when they occasionally seem to replace what would have been greater character depth and a greater connection with the man who serves as our guide in a weird and wonderful way.

With ordinary insights and a strong sense of gratitude, Mortensen has created a not so inspirational memoir filled with humor, insight, honest reflections, and the knowledge that sometimes it's those unplanned moments of uncommon courage that define us for the rest of our lives.

"The Buddha and the Bee: Biking Through America's Forgotten Roadways on a Journey of Discovery" is available now and most certainly worth your time.


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

"Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home" - Barbara Brown Taylor



In a landmark survey of clergy by Baylor University, Barbara Brown Taylor was named one of the twelve most effective preachers.I'm not sure you would realize such a lofty recognition while immersing yourself in Taylor's "Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home," not because it's not written with Taylor's usual ample doses of wisdom and spiritual insight but because Taylor manages to come off as both incredibly intelligent and, quite simply, one of us.

I am not as intelligent as Barbara Brown Taylor, of this I have no doubt despite my having attended seminary and despite my having spoken from my share of pulpits.

The simple truth is that Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest who left parish ministry years ago, weaves together biblical exegesis and application expertly while making spiritual truths accessible to both lifelong students of the Gospel and those getting their feet wet, or perhaps washed, for the very first time.

"Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home" is a collection of 31 messages, presented here as chapters, delivered by Taylor in her now present role as a frequent guest preacher along with her ongoing roles as professor, author, and theologian. While she is Episcopalian by background, the messages here represent Taylor's presence across a wide array of denominations and spiritual paths including churches, conferences, and seminaries. In fact, it would seem those wonderful Presbyterians are particularly fond of Taylor, while Taylor time and again presents with a wonderful ability to, well, tailor her messages to her particular audience.

"Always a Guest," while not a lengthy book, is not a quick read. "Always a Guest" is a collection that practically demands patience and the moving of Spirit amidst the words. You can practically feel Taylor's presence and you can practically hear Taylor's words as you read, her language undeniably that of a seminary-trained pastor yet her presence undeniably that of someone whose life has been irrevocably changed by that seminary training and a life lived in service to God and to God's people.

I found myself reading "Always a Guest" most nights before drifting off to sleep, 30-60 minutes of Barbara Brown Taylor feeling like the kind of church experience to which we all should aspire. Each night, I would slowly immerse myself in 2-3 messages, a surprisingly slow pace for an unusually fast reader but a pace that felt necessary and which seemed to honor the intent of this life-giving and faith-celebrating collection.

As is true of nearly every sermon ever delivered, some will resonate more deeply than others There will be times you'll be be-bopping along with Taylor's distinct preaching rhythms, while there may be other times you'll find yourself thoughtful, maybe even resistant, as her words can challenge and charge and command with spiritual authority. There may be times you disagree, I certainly did, but her words will still leave you informed, inspired, and motivated to keep learning and keep seeking understanding.

While inspiration is present throughout "Always a Guest," Taylor's messages are quite often real world messages with applicability to daily life, social justice, global issues, and even politics. Episcopalians aren't Episcopalians if they're timid and, trust me, Barbara Brown Taylor is far from timid. These are the words and the messages of a pastor and theologian lived and learned and who continues to do the hard work of trying to love the world as God so loved the world.

"Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home" is a "must have" collection for fans of Barbara Brown Taylor and for preachers, seminarians, professors, everyday theologians, and for those who simply seek to find church between the pages of her written words.

"Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home" will be released by Westminster John Knox Press on October 20, 2020.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

"Find Layla" - Meg Elison

There were a million ways that Meg Elison's upcoming YA novel "Find Layla" could have gone horribly wrong, yet somehow this never happens in what is, I'll confess with some surprise, a most rewarding and incredibly moving literary experience wrapped around the coming-of-age story of fourteen-year-old Layla.

Layla isn't the kind of young girl who usually gets her own YA novel. Yet, within a few pages of "Find Layla" you'll find yourself drawn to this remarkable young girl who's never really been given the chance to be remarkable growing up with a mostly absent mother in a chaotic, unpredictable environment while trying to provide for some normalcy with her younger brother, Andy.

There are many things that are admirable about "Find Layla." There are many things that are stunning about "Find Layla." Yet, what I am most drawn to with this somewhat short yet substantial story is just how much empathy Elison offers to Layla and how much she manages to ensure the young girl's dignity even in those difficult to read moments that are traumatic, humiliating, and far too often the stuff of very real childhoods.

Fourteen-year-old Layla is a SoCal teen living a life that is hidden but actually isn't. She's incredibly self-aware, yet underprivileged and the subject of nearly constant bullying at the junior high school where it seems like everyone else is privileged. The only real attention she gets is from the school's "mean girls" who tweet about her ragged appearance, greasy hair, dirty clothes and, well, smell.

Somehow, amidst it all, she carries a deep love for science and a 4.0 GPA.

When a school competition calls for a biome, an increasingly vulnerable Layla decides to peel off the layers of masks she's been wearing over every aspect of her life.

Boy, does she get attention.

When Child Protective Services inevitably responds, Layla loses the only world she's known. I mean, sure that world sucked. But, she knew it.

Visible for the first time in her life, Layla has to learn how to face her truths and maintain her wholeness in a world that is suddenly watching her every move.

"Find Layla" could have gone wrong. It probably should have gone wrong. "Find Layla" never goes wrong, because Elison infuses the story with honest characters, a realistic story, just the right amounts of hope, empathy without pity, and a resolute determination that Layla deserves the dignity that life hasn't given her.

This is an immersive, difficult to put down book and yet an emotionally resonant book that will move some to tears and perhaps be a tad too difficult for some others. An Amazon First Reads offering during the month of August, "Find Layla" is due for release by Skyscape on September 1st and it's a definitely winning novel for the award-winning Elison.

At its literary core, "Find Layla" paints a realistic world for Layla that is undeniably tragic in that truth. Yet, Elison is also writing about growing from the lives we're given and breaking free from the cycles that continue to bind us. Refusing to offer Layla anything resembling an articial, paint-by-numbers resolution, Elison instead offers her something even greater - empowerment and a sliver of light with which to grow.

The dialogue in "Find Layla" feels honest and truthful, Layla's occasional advanced language an obvious result of her strong academics and fiercely disciplined studying even against amazing obstacles. There could have been so many cliche's that came out of "Find Layla," but Elison for the most part avoids them in favor of multi-shaded social workers, foster parents, well-meaning do-gooders, and those godawful bullies who sometimes truly never change.

Refreshingly, even the supporting characters are drawn with complexity. Layla's brother Andy is so clearly developed that you can easily visualize him, while her mother waxes such a tragic figure that you practically expect her to spew forth Shakespeare. Layla's friend Kristi feels just like the kind of friend that Layla would have, while other characters like Bette, Dr. Jones, Erica, and others come alive in really special ways.

To offer too much in the way of narrative would spoil the emotional rollercoaster that is "Find Layla," a book that I can't quite call entertaining yet a book that is so substantial that it feels as if it shifted around my reader's DNA. As my first title from Elison, "Find Layla" is a book that will inevitably lead me to explore more of her previous works.

Filled with insightful exploration about poverty, neglect, and the worlds in which many of our children are raised in, "Find Layla" finds strength and resilience in vulnerability and courage and creates one of the year's most memorable YA characters whom you'll find yourself wanting to hug and you'll find yourself wanting to check in with every once in a while.

Primarily known as a science fiction author, Elison has masterfully woven science into life's human tapestry and created an honest and true masterwork of survival of the teenage spirit.

Friday, July 17, 2020

"Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide" - John Cleese

Short and cheerful is, indeed, at the heart of John Cleese's delightful and incredibly practical guide to creativity.

"Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide," scheduled for a September 8th release by Crown Publishing, celebrates creativity as a skill that anyone can acquire and rejects any notion that creativity is some elusive gift possessed by only a few. With brevity, wisdom, and more than a little humor, Cleese draws upon his lifelong experience as a writer and offers simple and understandable advice for getting the creative juices flowing and how to handle such familiar obstacles as the proverbial brick wall and learning how to discern roadblocks from detours.

You can practically hear Cleese's voice reading "Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide" and it's Cleese's ability to write in his familiar voice that really helps to make this short, breezy read such an absolute delight from beginning to end.

An academic before he entered the world of entertainment, Cleese explains how our minds work as we search for inspiration before offering up how we can approach the task before us creatively and come up with a better idea, refine that idea, and then present it to the world. While most often utilizing writing as an example, Cleese makes it clear that creativity has its place in our everyday world.

With simple and almost whimsical graphics and Cleese's always intact wit, "Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide" is a "must have" for Cleese's fans and a delightful addition to your self-help at a fingertip library.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

"Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man: 15 Years at Studio Ghibli" - Steve Alpert

Released just this past month by Stone Bridge Press, "Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man: 15 Years at Studio Ghibli" recounts the interesting adventures of former Studio Ghibli senior executive Steve Alpert, the only Gaijin (foreigner) within the company's ranks and the man largely tasked with presenting Studio Ghibli forward into a world ready to receive its brilliance.

Less an autobiography than a detailed, precise collection of anecdotes chronicling Alpert's 15 years with Studio Ghibli and its former parent company Tokuma Shoten, "Sharing a House" is simultaneously an immersive and frustrating beast of a book as Alpert's recollection is strong and he literally fills each page to the brim with the most minute details of experiences ranging from everyday business dealings to Japanese culture to Harvey Weinstein to the remarkable awards frenzy experienced by the groundbreaking "Spirited Away" that largely turned Studio Ghibli into an international household name.

Frequently, however, that same strong recall works to Alpert's disadvantage as "Sharing a House" can become bogged down in mundane factoids that likely seemed interesting but will mean little except to those who are equally immersed in Japanese culture or even those who were actually there at the time. Furthermore, observations that there's a hint of unhealthy, if not downright toxic, masculinity are evident throughout "Sharing a House" appear to be credible as Alpert is prone to describe women in ways that at least hint of a subtle sexism. There are other stereotypes evident to a lesser degree, as well, and a tendency to generalize experiences that one might expect to be written in more depth given Alpert's 15 years with the company and extensive background working in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Taipei.

"Sharing a House" has a very structured sensibility within its writing. There's a literary reverence to the key figures, most notably Hayao Miyazaki himself who is never referred in any other way than "Hayao Miyazaki" even when within the same sentence more than once. It's unusual and, to be honest, more than a little exhausting to read. Alpert did the same with Harvey Weinstein, who seems to be re-introduced on more than one occasion and is treated with what feels like a reverence that feels more than a little undeserved given the extensive allegations and facts already presented. Alpert himself acknowledges that his relationship with Weinstein was pre-"Me Too," a reference that casts a shadow on much of the Weinstein material.

As one might expect, a good deal of "Sharing a House" deals with Miyazaki himself, though the book never really moves beyond a few character quirks and delves into the creative aura of an animation genius respected worldwide. I'm not sure we actually get to know Miyazaki that much better in "Sharing a House," though there's definite charm to be found in experiencing how Alpert himself experienced Miyazaki.

Alpert was a former Disney employee hired by Tokuma Shoten to handle Studio Ghibli's international marketing and, much more specifically, their relationship with Disney. This is, perhaps, where the book is most successful as it captures Disney's rather notorious hands-on approach to its properties and Studio Ghibli's fierce resistance to anything resembling editing or cutting or Americanizing of their films. Alpert's often humorous memories are a delight here and anyone who appreciates cinema history will find much to celebrate throughout these vividly brought to life tales.

Informative and engaging, "Sharing a House" is also surprisingly impersonal in tone and devoid of the kind of personal flavor that would allow one to easily feel connected to its material. Alpert barely hints at his past or anything outside of work while generally coming off as a quirky, befuddled chap who is also fluent in Japanese and Chinese and has used it to build a rather impressive career. While Miyazaki's quirks and those of Tokuma Shoten's upper leadership are interesting, those craving a deeper immersion inside Studio Ghibli and the actual creative process will likely find "Sharing a House" at least modestly disappointing as Alpert largely sticks to the business side of things and proves to be a rather observational narrator.

While "Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man" may not be quite the awe-inspiring glimpse inside one of the world's most awe-inspiring animation houses that one might hope, it's still an impressively detailed and enjoyable insider's look at how business and creativity often collide and how those collisions are even more complicated by cultural conflicts and artistic integrity. For fans of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki, "Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man" offers enough depth and detail to make it a worthwhile read.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

"Fear Gone Wild: A Story of Mental Illness, Suicide, and Hope Through Loss" - Kayla Stoecklein

I've struggled for three days with how to write a review for Kayla Stoecklein's upcoming release "Fear Gone Wild: A Story of Mental Illness, Suicide, and Hope Through Loss."

As a survivor of suicide myself, someone who's worked in the field of crisis intervention, and even as someone who was once kicked out of a church in my early 20's following a suicide attempt, I found myself eagerly anticipating the arrival of "Fear Gone Wild," Stoecklein's deeply personal account of her husband's journey with depression and anxiety that ended with his death by suicide on August 25th, 2018 and her own subsequent realization that she hadn't understood the depths of his struggles nor the stigma often attached to mental illness by many churches.

Stoecklein's late husband, Andrew Stoecklein, was lead pastor for Inland Hills Church, a mega-church in Chino, California founded by Andrew's father and the church where Stoecklein would be found on August 24th by church members following his suicide attempt.

At the time of Stoecklein's death by suicide, it seemingly sent shock waves through the Christian community. While it was modestly known that Stoecklein had dealt with depression and anxiety, what had seemed like an idyllic life ended tragically.

Kayla Stoecklein takes us through the weeks, months, and years that led up to Andrew's death including their college courtship, their post-graduation marriage, Andrew's brief flirtation with life outside ministry followed by his inevitable call back into it, and the pastoral journey that led Andrew to first serve alongside his father as the Inland Hills Creative Arts Pastor before being called as lead pastor following his father's death.

At less than 30-years-old, it would seem that the Stoeckleins were living the perfect life as parents of three young children and leaders of a vibrant faith community.

Of course, one can tell from the title of "Fear Gone Wild" alone that all was not idyllic. Andrew began exhibiting signs of depression and anxiety early in his marriage, incidents captured vividly throughout "Fear Gone Wild."

"Fear Gone Wild" is most effective as an exploration of Stoecklein's complicated grief following Andrew's death. She acknowledges that she failed to understand the seriousness of Andrew's depression and anxiety and it's a failure she seems determined to not continue as she and her sons live their lives forward faithfully and with a determination to remove the stigma around mental illness and suicide. To her credit, she's not afraid to show the ugly and difficult parts of dealing with a partner's mental health struggles. There are times in "Fear Gone Wild" when you begin to wonder how their marriage even survived as her impatience is obvious and her frustration grows with having a husband who was increasingly unavailable and impaired by his depression and anxiety. These are difficult parts of "Fear Gone Wild" to read as they had to have been difficult parts to write.

While "Fear Gone Wild" occasionally works as an exploration of Stoecklein's own grief, it's considerably less successful as a story of mental illness, suicide, or the stigma that often surrounds mental illness among Christians.

Stoecklein often, and I mean very often, uses stigmatizing language throughout "Fear Gone Wild," a tendency that begins early in the book when she describes Andrew's father as becoming "bound" to a wheelchair.

In case you're unaware, that's just about one of the most derogatory statements you can make about a wheelchair user. "Wheelchair bound" or "bound to a wheelchair" is a tremendous insult and considered derogatory ableist language.

It certainly doesn't end there.

Stoecklein struggles to utilize language that is de-stigmatizing, though certainly her efforts to view the experience through a spiritual lens by using "wilderness" are understandable and give perspective on her own experience of having gone through this journey and experienced this devastating loss. While Stoecklein occasionally comes right out and says "mental illness" or "depression" or "anxiety," more often than not she defers to "darkness" or "wilderness" and more often than not she turns the story's viewpoint not on her husband but on herself.

It is practically an undeniable truth that the Church, not just Inland Hills but many Christian churches, have long been woefully inadequate in addressing mental health issues and in removing the stigma of mental health amongst congregants and pastors alike. Faith is supposed to be "enough" to help us transcend life's woes, an unrealistic pressure magnified for those in pastoral leadership roles tasked with providing spiritual direction while too often being expected to deny their humanity. It's an unrealistic expectation, of course, but it's one that continues to challenge churches as we tend to want our pastors to be strong, wise, pure, personable, and without any obvious failings.

The pressure to perform is real and it's obvious in the pages of "Fear Gone Wild" that Andrew struggled with that pressure up to the day he died. As is nearly always true when someone dies by suicide, we seldom know the exact reasons or causes or thoughts unless they choose to find a way to share them. Much of "Fear Gone Wild" seems to be written from that lack of knowing, but also from a place of faith.

"Fear Gone Wild," while ultimately too unsure and too disjointed to effectively explore mental illness, suicide, or stigma, will likely be a more meaningful read for those who can appreciate Stoecklein's vulnerable exploration of her grief and her pointed theological exploration of those times when God's followers have gone through wilderness. Additionally, Stoecklein explores the issue of whether suicide is an unforgivable sin (HINT: It's not) and does offer some valuable resources at the end of her book for those who might be in need of support.

I've struggled for three days with how to review "Fear Gone Wild," a book I ultimately found disappointing yet a book that tells a story needing to be told and that deals with a stigma around mental illness that the church has long needed to deal with. While I found much of Stoecklein's language troubling, too much of the focus on her own experiences, and the book itself tonally uneven, there's still a place for "Fear Gone Wild" in the discussion around mental health and faith and it's hard, actually impossible, to not respect Stoecklein's willingness to share her experiences and her healing journey through all its joys and sorrows.

"Fear Gone Wild" will be released on September 1st by Nelson Books.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

"Tomboyland: Essays" - Melissa Faliveno

I picture Melissa Faliveno, author of this Amazon First Read title "Tomboyland," one day sitting in front of her computer reading these words.

I picture her laughing, perhaps wondering aloud "Who is this lunatic?"

It's a fair question.

It's a question I ask myself often and it's a question I asked myself often while reading this unexpectedly immersive, engaging collection of intimate yet universal essays exploring the mysteries of gender and desire, identity and class, and what it means when we call someplace, or someone, home.

The truth is that "Tomboyland" isn't what I expected, though I must plead guilty when I acknowledge that my expectations were influenced by my own preconceived notions of what it means to explore the intersection of identity and place and to confront achingly vulnerable questions about gender identity, queerness, sexuality, and commitment.

I expected something. I expected something else. My expectations weren't better or worse. They were simply different than what unfolds within these pages.

The truth is that the reason I picture Faliveno laughing as she reads these words is that, above all else, "Tomboyland" is a love story to me.

I'm not talking about a Hallmark Channel kind of love story. I'm not talking about a white picket fence or even a family, though perhaps I am talking about a family of choice. I'm not talking about marriage or parenting or postcard perfect journeys or even necessarily happy endings.

I'm talking about a different kind of love. It's a kind of love that fills the pages of "Tomboyland," a tender beast of a book about the kind of love that is hard-earned and hard-fought and maybe even hard to believe in. It's a kind of love that finds connection in strange places, says "I love you" in strange ways, and learns that sometimes the unpredictable imperfect is more than sublime.

"Tomboyland" kicks off with Faliveno's childhood in rural Wisconsin, a place of rolling prairies and towering pines where girls are girls, boys are boys, women become mothers and wives, and where life fits nicely and neatly between established boundaries and expectations.

It's just the way it is. Unless it isn't.

It would be reasonable for you to expect Faliveno to disparage this almost paint-by-numbers childhood, yet it's an expectation that would never be met.

Instead, she does the unthinkable. She loves it. She loves it in the way that she knows it's helped to make her who she is and she's learning how to love that person day by day. Sometimes, minute by minute. She loves it because of the imperfect family and the imperfect friends and the imperfect relationships she's had along the way. She's left it, sure, but she still love it.

She loves Madison, Wisconsin, where she went to college and discovered more questions than answers and explored what it means to be Melissa Faliveno. She explored her relationship with her name and her gender and her sexuality and her feminist views and her submissive body.

She explored what it means to love, at times painfully and at times imperfectly. She did the best she could until she knew better. Then, she did better.

Yeah, I kind of quoted Maya Angelou. Deal with it.

"Tomboyland" is filled with essays you don't quite expect, from essays about Wisconsin to essays about kink and guns and gender and queerness and college and home and love and parenting and, well, about life and all the questions we ask as we're growing up and growing into who we believe ourselves to be and who we want ourselves to be.

At times, "Tomboyland" is brutal. At times, "Tomboyland" is almost stunning in its tenderness.

"Tomboyland" is both culturally aware and intimately insightful, an exploration of Midwestern values, traditions, mythologies, landscapes, and unspoken truths that all somehow mold those of us who've ever called the Midwest home. Despite being a lifelong urban dweller in Indiana, Faliveno's truths still feel true and they feel honest and, perhaps most importantly, they feel true to who she was and who she's become.

There's an essay on tornadoes, particularly a June 1984 F5 tornado that leveled her nearby village of Barneveld, that is simply riveting and easily one of my favorite essays from anything I've read yet this year.

Faliveno beautifully weaves together a human tapestry, occasionally light humor creeps its way through discussions of kink party potlucks and gun ownership and what it means to not want children of her own. Faliveno seems almost bewildered by her current relationship status, while she writes so warmly and affectionately about playing softball that you'll practically want to join her out on the diamond.

"Tomboyland" seems an almost odd choice for an Amazon First Read, yet it's easily the favorite amongst those I've experienced thus far. It's not quite a "love it" or "hate it" title, though Faliveno's ability to blend together both difficult to discuss subjects with stark beauty and remarkable beauty may very well leave even a good number of experimental readers feeling a bit askew.

So be it. "Tomboyland" is, most likely, not a book for everyone but for those who embrace it there will be a strong emotional connection and what can only be described as a kinship with Faliveno's literary voice. As someone whose body was disabled at birth by spina bifida and paraplegic and eventually by double amputation and more, I resonated deeply with Faliveno's exploration of body image and self-identity and what it all means.

As someone who was further physically damaged by sexual assault, Faliveno's writing on gender identity and sexuality exploration feels like a green light to put words to experiences and beliefs and ideas that have mostly existed in the foggy corners of my mind.

Yet, I also connected with her sense of connection and the fluid way it plays out in her daily life. I connected with the tenderness, there's that word again, that somehow finds its way into nearly every chapter as if it's something that manages to find Faliveno even when she tries to hide from it or leave it behind.

This debut collection of essays is a work of emotional, physical, and universal wonder. Unapologetically honest and uncommonly wise, "Tomboyland" marks the debut title from an author whose work I look forward to reading again and again and again.

"Tomboyland" arrives on August 1st from TOPPLE Books & Little A.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

"Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19" - Edited by Jennifer Haupt

I still remember the nervousness I felt as I approached Harriet Clare, the co-owner of Indy's feminist bookstore Dreams & Swords. It was a Broad Ripple area icon, a 2-story bookstore in a trendy, progressive area of Indianapolis where I'd first purchased books like Laura Davis and Ellen Bass's "Courage to Heal" that would become essential in my own recovery from childhood sexual abuse and adult sexual assault.

I handed over my first self-published effort, a GBC-bound collection of poetry I called "Imaginary Crimes" that detailed my life experiences that helped me express truths that writers like Etheridge Knight, Charles Bukowski, and Audre Lord had convinced me I was allowed to put out to the world.

I expected Harriet to say "I'm sorry, we can't carry that."

She didn't. She gingerly accepted the book. Over the next few days, she read the book. I'm sure she realized these words weren't written perfectly, whatever perfect means, but she treated these words like the sacred truths they were and she placed my book on a shelf where the world could see it.

I don't know that that's the point where I became a "writer," but I do know that's the point where I began to realize my voice matters and I need to use it every single chance I get.

The book sold. A lot. It sold so much that I ended up having to buy a second GBC Binder to keep up with the demand from survivors who felt empowered by my vulnerable truths and from therapists and professional conferences who sought me out to lead workshops on speaking truth.

I thought about this period of my life a lot while reading Jennifer Haupt's equally sacred collection "Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19," an exhilarating and deeply moving collection of essays, poetry, interviews, and words giving voice to what it means to live in this time of isolation and uncertainty.

The central theme of "Alone Together" is how this age, and it indeed feels like an age, of isolation and uncertainty is changing us as individuals and a society. The book is divided into five sections - What Now?, Grieve, Comfort, Connect, and Don’t Stop!.

In response to the pandemic, Haupt has rallied almost one hundred authors and business partners to contribute their work, free of charge, to support independent booksellers forced to close their doors. All proceeds are being donated to The Book Industry Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit organization that coordinates charitable programs to strengthen the bookselling community. The print book contains 69 essays, interviews, and poems. The audio and e-book editions have 22 bonus pieces.

Haupt's roster of voices is diverse, some household names easily recognized while others may seem more obscure but have long committed themselves to the journey of writing. I picture them contributing to the book for many of the same reasons I will support the endeavor - a deep appreciation for indie booksellers and memories of those who've supported the world in which they now live.

Faith Adiele, Kwame Alexander, Jenna Blum, Andre Dubus III, Jamie Ford, Nikki Giovanni, Luis Alberto Urrea, Pam Houston, Jean Kwok, Major Jackson, Caroline Leavitt, Devi S. Laskar, Ada Limón, Dani Shapiro, David Sheff, Garth Stein, Steve Yarbrough, and Lidia Yuknavitch are only some of the names represented here and who give voice to what it means to seek connection amidst forced isolation and how to survive and thrive and make sense of the almost nonsensical. While specific to the COVID-19 pandemic, "Alone Together will unquestionably endure as these voices all seemingly understand that what we endure now is an experience that will change our lives and our systems for years to come.

From Garth Stein's eloquent and matter-of-fact foreword that proclaims, among many things, that "art is the crucial element of humanity," "Alone Together" through experiences that are at times incredibly profound and at other times achingly vulnerable. At times, "Alone Together" is almost jarringly mundane while other times, practically without notice, the tears flow and and my own memories formed throughout the period come flashing back.

It seems weird, almost cruel, to pick favorites amongst such a meaningful collection but I suppose that's an obligation for reviewing a collection that seems to defy review.

Faith Adiele's pointed, structured "The New Vocabulary" adds clarity to unfolding events as if an Outlook Calendar has gone universal and somehow tied us all together. Martha Anne Toll's "Dayenu: Dispatches from the COVID-19 Sick Ward" brought my first tears, a gratitude unfolding within a journey filled to the brim with humanity gut-level truths.

Gail Brandeis's "Shedding" is the first, but certainly not last, poem that sings out my own truths while Scott James's "Ghost Town" celebrates the deep meaning of an ever elusive smile.

Robin Black's "Needlecast" simply took my breath away. There is never a time when Nikki Giovanni's words don't sing to my soul and the same is true here. It is immediately followed by Devi S. Laskar's remarkable "State of the Art, State of the Union," an essay that speaks to chaos and accountability and meaning and ends with what may very well be my favorite sentence in the entire collection.

No, I'm not placing it here. You need to read it for yourself.

As someone who has spent 30 years of my life on an event called the Tenderness Tour, I seemingly always get chills with writers who can meaningfully explore the world of touch and tenderness as unfolds in Paulette Perhach's "Skin" and Michelle Goodman's extraordinary "Touch," the latter being an essay where I outright sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.

Having lost my own younger brother during this pandemic, I resonated deeply with Caroline Leavitt's "Sibling Estrangement and Social Distancing" and with Susan Henderson's "Quarantine" nearly as much.

I still have images in my mind from Laura Stanfill's "Breathing Lilacs."

I feel every word in Julie Gardner's "The Last T-shirt."

Andrea King Collier's words acknowledge survival and privilege; Jane Hirshfield's "Today, When I could Do Nothing" danced around my heart with the tininess of its wonder and beauty.

Abigail Carter's "The House with the Mossy Roof" feels familiar as I reflect on my own experiences being a 50+ disabled adult living alone in a house without family around. Porch drops have become a form of human connection, while any semblance of "checking in" has become desperately sought intimacy.

In a collection so immersed in grief and isolation, Jean Kwok's aptly titled "Searching for Grace during Lockdown" felt like grace during lockdown. I would have been happy with the title put forth by Kelli Russell Agodon and Melissa Studdard - "I Kind of Want to Love the World, But I Have No Idea How to Hold It."

Indeed.

Lidia Yuknavitch, an author I didn't know for far too long, feels like a long lost sibling with "Ecstatic States," while Sonora Jha's "Alone and Awash in Desire" splashes like waves over my wounded psyche.

I know. I know. It's weird to keep mentioning individual essays. I simply can't help myself and, indeed, I simply won't help myself. There are others. Admittedly, some resonated more than others as is nearly always true in a collection of essays.

Sommer Browning and David Shields's "Pandemic Date Night" made me laugh with a hint of melancholy. A conversation with Luis Alberto Urrea is easily among my favorites of the book's interviews with its call to life and fierce optimism.

I can't even explain why I loved Pam Houston's "Stamina (Memorial Day Weekend, 2020), but I feel it still holding a special place within my heart. The same is true for Shana Mahaffey's "Don't Stop Believin'.

Near the end of "Alone Together," Haupt herself reflects on "Why Get Out of Bed?," a meaningful and insightful question at a time when for many of us there is no place to go and when even working means only moving to a different room in the house.

In mid-November, I was hospitalized at St. Francis Hospital here in Indianapolis. Dehydration had overwhelmed my system and infection had practically taken over a body that has lived far longer than anyone expected. I'm a 54-year-old paraplegic/double amputee with spina bifida, a birth defect that killed 95% of those born with it in 1965 and a birth defect that largely means I will be at the back of the line for critical care should COVID-19 come my way.

That scares me.

I survived yet another amputation in late November, my left leg going from below-knee amputation to above-knee amputation. I subsequently spent over 3+ months off work recovering and learning how to transfer to a toilet, a bed, how to dress, and eventually how to get back in my car. I was alone for much of this time, though certainly grateful for one month of home health and the occasional visit to my urban home where I live a quiet, introverted life. I had returned to work for one week, quite literally one week, when COVID-19 sent us all to work from home and where I remain having spent the better part of the last seven months alone with very occasional visits, now non-existent with the virus, and occasional visits to the local Target or Meijer to replenish supplies while masked up and befuddled by those who choose rights over the survival of those around them.

I laughed during "Alone Together." I cried during "Alone Together." I reflected and meditated and prayed and remembered and hoped and grieved and connected during "Alone Together."

"Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19" is scheduled for release by Central Avenue Publishing on September 1, 2020 with all proceeds to benefit the Book Industry Charitable Foundation.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

"Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town" - Barbara Demick


“I have everything I might possibly want in life, but my freedom.”        
                                                                                   

If you're like most Americans, you've likely spent your life romanticizing the mysterious land of Tibet, a nation long vulnerable to invasion from its neighboring China yet a nation often known more for "Free Tibet" campaigns, passionate Buddhism and disciplined monks, and an idyllic setting that Hollywood seldom represents accurately.

Demick, however, is NOT Hollywood. Currently the Los Angeles Times' bureau chief for Beijing, Demick tells the story of Tibet largely through the lens of Ngaba, a Tibetan town perched 11,000 feet above sea level that sits along a border to China and yet has become one of Tibet's most elusive and difficult to visit locales.

Starting, at least briefly, in the 1930's when Mao Zedong's Red Army fled into the Tibetan plateau to escape adversaries in the Chinese Civil War, "Eat the Buddha" takes its name from the Red Army's fight for survival in Ngaba's rugged, elevated terrain by consuming religious statues made of flour and butter. This would become the early days of China's increasingly intrusive and dominating behavior toward its more spiritual and peaceful neighbor, a "relationship" that Demick largely picks up in the 1950's and explores through her three trips to the isolated town from 2013 while interviewing Tibetans in Ngaba along with others living abroad including the Dalai Lama, an exiled princess, and a host of others.

Demick's history of Tibet is an often heartbreaking one chronicling decades of Chinese incursions that have resulted in cultural upheaval, economic hardship, and the deaths of an estimated 300,000 Tibetans. Determined to sweep out religion, China destroyed monasteries and often punished those who even dared to mention the Dalai Lama's name.

Spanning decades of Tibetan and modern history, "Eat the Buddha" captures its heart-center through the stories Demick brings to life throughout her journey including a princess whose family was wiped out in the Cultural Revolution, a young Tibetan nomad who becomes radicalized in Kirti Monastery, an upwardly mobile entrepreneur who falls in love with a Chinese woman, a poet and intellectual who risks everything for his voice to be heard, and a young Tibetan schoolgirl who is forced at a young age to choose between family and the prosperity offered by Chinese money.

Demick weaves engaging tales here, an abundance of history woven into the tapestry of the lives that history impacted and a never-ending commitment to removing the veil of mystery from Tibet in favor of a more honest, reasoned understanding of the land and its people and the devastating impact of China's often brutal domination of the region.

There's no question that "Eat the Buddha" offers a largely one-sided perspective, Tibet's voice given tremendous clarity while nary a Chinese voice to be found here. That said, Demick also captures vividly a conflicted Tibet that is far removed from the romanticized Tibet portrayed by Hollywood or even the Tibet so often captured by those who would advocate for its freedom. There's an understanding in Tibet that China brings financial prosperity, technological advancement, and greater opportunities, but there's also an undeniable sense of grief and loss as Tibetans increasingly experience the loss of their spirituality, culture, and way of life.

"Eat the Buddha" is often brutal in its portrayal, Ngaba itself having at one point become the center point for a wave of self-immolations that swept through Tibet's Buddhist monks and nuns as perhaps the most extreme form of protest possible.

Do they resist the Chinese? Do they join them? Do they adhere to the Dalai Lama's teachings of non-violence and his support of a "middle way?" These issues are thoroughly explored in "Eat the Buddha" and in most ways Demick refuses to offer up anything resembling an easy answer.

There are no easy answers here.

"Eat the Buddha" is an immersive and atmospheric read, its interior design fosters a sense of antiquated historicity and a feeling, even within the font, that you've gone back into time and into another space. Intellectually satisfying and emotionally resonant, "Eat the Buddha" is a slow read that demands attention to detail and a willingness to embrace both history and humanity.

At times, that balance is difficult to achieve as deeply moving stories can be temporarily interrupted by paragraphs or pages of historical background. The closing chapter of "Eat the Buddha," as well, follows a chapter of character closure with what amounts to being historical summary and a methodological overview that feels anti-climactic and simply less satisfying than if Demick had allowed us to reflect upon the characters whose lives have been so deeply impacted by contemporary Tibetan and Chinese history and relations. It feels much like a movie where you believe you're in the closing scene only to have the director keep going toward a less satisfying conclusion.

However, these are minor quibbles for a book that is engaging, immersive, and incredibly important. Demick, whose last book "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea" was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, has crafted an occasionally shocking, deeply revealing, and immensely touching account of a Tibetan town shatters the facade while reminding the world why we fight to free a Tibet we don't really understand.

"Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town" is scheduled for release on July 28th from Random House.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

"Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage" - Tori Amos

There are certain life experiences that change you.

They penetrate their way into your bones and they seem to have a way of guiding your existence, quite often for the rest of your life.

In Tori Amos's own language, they become your muse.

I'm not sure that every human being has such a life experience, though I believe that's more because not every human being opens themselves up to such a life experience.

They're out there. Waiting.

I will always remember sitting front row inside the Vogue Nightclub in Indianapolis, an early-career Tori Amos sitting alone at her piano. "Little Earthquakes" had just come out.

I was early in my healing journey from sexual abuse as a child and a sexual assault as an adult, a young disabled adult male who had already outlived my life expectancy with spina bifida yet who was fumbling my way unsure and unclear and unable to communicate the immense darkness I felt inside. Tori Amos's "Silent All These Years" was already moving toward the charts, but I knew that the stark, remarkable "Me and a Gun" was a voice of defiance and resilience and I prayed to the God that I believed in that she would have the courage to sing this song so that I could see how she had the courage to share an experience I was struggling to share.

It was one of the few times in my life I've ever sat in the front row of a show. Being in a wheelchair, front rows are seldom an option but for whatever reason it became an option for this one night.

I'm 54-years-old now. I practically grew up with Tori Amos's artistry and activism and mind and heart by my side. If I were to make a short list of my top five concerts of all this time, this relatively small nightclub show would easily be on that list and Tori Amos's face when she sang the opening note of the A capella "Me and a Gun" would become a concert moment that would guide my own healing journey and my own ability to give voice to what I perceived to be the dark little voices inside my head that were desperately seeking permission to live and breathe and weep and laugh and become part of my existence.

I thought about that night at the Vogue quite often while reading "Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage," Amos's courageous and extraordinary literary journey that will unquestionably please most Amos fans and especially those Amos fans who tap into the intimate corners of Amos's musical journey and who click with her rhythmic vulnerabilities.

The truth is that I've never always quite "gotten" Amos. My slightly autistic mind tends to lean toward the concrete, my ability to receive abstract and mystical messages limited by a cognitive filter that gets clogged up by societal pollution.

But, I always get Amos's rhythm. I always get her presence. I remember sitting front row at the Vogue and being fully aware that even then Amos had a remarkable ability to read her audience, intuitively and courageously responding to their needs while also protectively honoring her own.

I don't know if Amos saw me that evening, though I instinctively believe she saw everyone. I didn't meet her. I didn't stay after the show. While she must've had a supporting band, truthfully I don't remember them at all.

I remember Tori Amos.

I remember the world that she created with her words and her music and her presence. I remember buying "Little Earthquakes" and every release to follow, something I've only ever done with one other artist (John Hiatt).

That world. Those worlds. They come to life in "Resistance." This book, which is structured in such a way that it feels like Tori Amos, simultaneously vulnerable and mystical and musical and poetic, is indeed a story of hope, change, and courage from Amos's early days of setting aside her first and only dismaying album "Y Kant Tori Read" to the courage of releasing music recounting life's most aching and vulnerable experiences to the strengthening of a woman who would become one of music's most passionate purveyors of politically intuitive yet socially insightful music.

If you don't "get" Tori Amos, "Resistance" is probably not the book that will make that happen. If you've never felt that rhythm and lost yourself in the world she creates then "Resistance" may likely feel like more Amos mumble jumble with mystical language that never creeps into your brain.

However, there's an exception.

If you're an artist who has struggled with finding your true voice artistically then "Resistance" may very well be a book that helps you get there. Amos practically puts a picture frame around each chapter with one of her lyrics, from the remarkable "Scarlet's Walk" to "Silent All These Years" to a host of others and then proceeds to weave those lyrics into her personal and professional journey.

At times, the lyrics seem obviously woven into the tapestry of her life. Other times, the muses have spoken and Amos's life has created this music that is needed by her, by her fans, and by the universe.

Amos paints beautifully the journey of becoming an artist of change and an artist of courage. She paints beautifully what it was like to be a teenager playing piano in a gay bar, watched over by the older gay men who would help shape her young musical voice. She paints beautifully the ways in which she listened and learned while playing in Washington D.C. for the early career power brokers who are now breaking the system and using it to their own advantage. She paints beautifully what it was like to be on the verge of an album release when 9/11 happened and shut everything down, yet she and her band opted to bring a musical voice to it all. She paints beautifully the way music and creativity can help heal loss and grief and can help bring us back to love.

Despite my connection to Tori Amos's music, the truth is it's always been more of an empowering connection than an emotionally resonant one. As intimately as "Little Earthquakes" worked its way into my life, it was never an album that brought me to tears and even as I sat in the Vogue Nightclub watching Amos perform it was more about my voice finding a path than it was any sort of cathartic experience.

I didn't expect to emotionally connect with "Resistance," but that's exactly what happened. It felt intimate and the tears flowed, surprisingly often, and I felt Amos's lyrics and her journey with remarkable clarity.

The truth is that while I've loved each of Amos's album in its own special way, I've never again connected with an Amos release like I did with "Little Earthquakes." It was the perfect album at the perfect time in my life. It became my musical Bukowski or my musical John Callahan, a unique voice that helped me give myself permission to my own life experiences from growing up with disability to sexual assault to my wife's death by suicide and my newborn daughter's death by my wife. It helped me make sense of life traumas and, perhaps more importantly, to use my creativity to take back my voice and to give myself love over and over and over again.

"Resistance" brings these things to life. "Resistance" gives voice to Amos's lyrics and to Amos's own artistic journey and her soulful and spirit-filled personal journey that was influenced in undeniable ways by her childhood yet became something even grander and more extraordinary.

If you require a cohesive narrative, "Resistance" doesn't necessarily offer it. If you're looking for a detailed, point-by-point explanation of her music "Resistance" doesn't offer it. In many ways, "Resistance" feels like what I've always imagined a coffeehouse conversation with Amos to be like - filled with fact and wonder, vulnerability and challenge.

It's weird, really.

It's been right about 30 years ago that Amos's "Little Earthquakes" helped me strip away the facade and get to the core of my artistry as a writer, a poet, an occasional actor, a passionate activist, and someone who believed that creativity could change the world. Since then, I've loved and lost and somehow still survived spina bifida. I've written one book with another on the way. I've produced books and CD's and DVD's and comedy and even two short films. I've traveled over 6,000 miles by wheelchair telling stories about hope, change, and courage.

Now, here we are again. My life has been changing as of late. I recently lost the rest of my left leg and declared the end to a 30-year journey with an event I started bringing voice to victims of violence because my body simply can't handle the demand anymore.

I just spent three months of my life healing from limb loss and searching for my artistic and activist voice once again.

"Resistance" comes into my life and with clarity and purpose and vulnerability and strength, Amos once again creates a work of wonder that influences me on a profound level and helps me once again remove the mask of inability and fear and to trust my own muses and the voice inside me that has never, not once, ever let me down.

"Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage" is currently available from Atria Books.