Tuesday, March 31, 2020

"Stim: An Autistic Anthology" - Edited by Lizzie Huxley-Jones

To say that I was excited to stumble across London-based crowdfunding publisher Unbound would be an understatement. As an indie writer myself, I'm a huge fan of any project or publisher that gives voice to vital voices and, indeed, that is exactly what unfolds with Unbound.

"Stim: An Autistic Anthology" is the perfect example. Edited by Lizzie Huxley-Jones, an autistic writer/editor from London who can be found editing at indie micropublisher 3 of Cups Press, "Stim: An Autistic Anthology" features stories, essays, and art from autistic authors and artists.

In a world where about us is often without us, "Stim: An Autistic Anthology" expertly delves into the world of autism by giving the literary mic to the vibrant and diverse voices of autism themselves and comes up with what has to be one of the year's most refreshingly honest, enjoyable collections.

"Stim" was inspired by Huxley-Jones's late 20's autism diagnosis that was actually triggered by her own experiences supporting a recently diagnosed friend. Realizing that many of the books she was reading, especially fiction, were written by non-autistics she began to realize that those living with autism deserved, and even needed, to have their voices heard and their own views expressed.

With a title like "Stim," short for stimming, an oft-stigmatized trait of those living with autism that just as often leaves them isolated and on the outside, you can be sure that "Stim: An Autistic Anthology" is bold, opinionated, honest, and filled with hard truths and free-spirited self-expression.

There are so many truly wonderful essays in "Stim: An Autistic Anthology" that it would be nearly impossible to pick out a single favorite.

Rachael Lucas, the Carnegie Medal-nominated author of YA novel "The State of Grace," contributes the thoughtful, poignant "The Lost Mothers," while Helen Carmichael serves up a peaceful, meditative essay about walking in nature called "Bluebells." Ashleigh J. Mills hits an absolute home run with "Handling the Bones," a journey through autism-friendly kink that allows for setting parameters, communicating clear expectations, and relating with concrete boundaries.

Going even further into sexuality is Reese Piper, whose essay "Stripping While Autistic" explores, well, stripping while autistic. It does so with honesty, vulnerability, and a little humor. It's easily one of the collection's true highlights.

Megan Rhiannon's artistic contributions, "It Has Nothing to Do with How I Look," are incredibly well done and meaningful. Grace Au's enlightening "Hungry" reflects on visiting an ill grandfather in China, while c.f. prior's "Escape to the Country" looks at queer spaces and Waverly SM's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at [You]" closes out the collection with the perfect weaving together of thought-provoking words and emotionally resonant imagery.

While "Stim: An Autistic Anthology" is centered within the world of autistic writers and artists, the essays themselves are diverse, thoughtful, incredibly intelligent, and enjoyable to read as they embrace a wide array of subjects including, but certainly not limited to, autism and the autism experience themselves. The writers themselves are of diverse experience and selections by Nell Brown, Kerima Cevik, Kurdish author Agri Ismail, Laura James, actor/playwright Katherine Kingsford, writer/filmmaker Tristan Alice Nieto, Robert Sheperd, gemma williams, and Tjallien de Witte round out this remarkable anthology with expertise and insight that will help illuminate autism and challenge the far too easily embraced media stereotypes.

"Stim: An Autistic Anthology" is being released on April 2nd - World Autism Day - and supporting this remarkable project is a tremendous way to observe this annual day of awareness for those living with autism.

"Open, Honest, and Direct: A Guide to Unlocking Your Team's Potential" - Aaron Levy

I received a copy of Aaron Levy's "Open, Honest, and Direct: A Guide to Unlocking Your Team's Potential" as part of a Goodreads giveaway and am grateful for the opportunity to offer the book an honest review.

I struggled with how to rate "Open, Honest, and Direct." I vacillated between a 3 and 4-star rating several times in my mind. In reality, a 3.5-star review feels most accurate yet that's not allowed and a 4-star review simply feels a touch high for my overall feelings about the book.

"Open, Honest, and Direct" will most likely resonate with those early in their leadership experiences. Levy has incorporated a wealth of practical knowledge and exercises that can be utilized by leaders and up-and-coming leaders to evaluate one's own leadership style and practices and to ensure one's leadership is truly being as effective as possible.

If you're a more established leader, then "Open, Honest, and Direct" is less likely to be beneficial as an awful lot of this material is familiar and has been shared before. For example, while I resonated with Levy's recommendations regarding honest communication this type of recommendation is shared much more thoroughly and effectively in the book "Radical Candor."

One question I always ask myself after reading a book on leadership is "Would I let this person lead me?" Would I be part of their team? This isn't necessarily the same as saying "Is this person a good leader?" However, I'm most drawn to books that leave me feeling like "I would work for that person" or "I would be part of that team." I finished "Open, Honest, and Direct" feeling like I would never consider working for or being a part of Levy's team. Is he a solid leader? Of course. He's accomplished amazing things in business and that's respectable and admirable. However, I found myself not always resonating with his communication style and I occasionally felt like he was contradicting his own recommendations.

For example, there's a section in the book where he's talking about the importance of clear, direct communication to build up the team yet the consequence of the communication was a more passive resolution that two team members left the team. That just feels in conflict to me. I sometimes felt like Levy wasn't entirely in touch with the impact that he was having himself on the resolution of difficult situations.

While I had some issues with the book, for the most part, I appreciated its simplicity and I definitely appreciated Levy's generous insertion of practical exercises toward the end of the book. I appreciate writers who create ways for a book's impact to linger and Levy has definitely done that with "Open, Honest, and Direct."

"Adventures in the Land of Astra" - Amy Refaat, Illustrations by Nour Metwally

Amy Refaat's "Adventures in the Land of Astra" is an intelligent and inspiring story centered around Dean, a young man with a big vision for making the world a better place. It's a vision that isn't exactly embraced by his parents, his fellow students, or the world around him. However, when he gets the chance to visit another world where his vision may very well be utilized to help them avoid a potential war they've never experienced, Dean discovers that his unique vision is worth celebrating and he learns to appreciate differences in the people around him.

"Adventures in the Land of Astra" is an enjoyable read, a book likely to be most embraced by teens and even adults who will be able to appreciate its simply presented yet multi-layered concepts. A relatively short read, "Adventures in the Land of Astra" is engaging and will certainly be embraced by those who appreciate stories around peace, conflict resolution, inclusion, and responsible living.

I appreciated Refaat's ability to embrace the insecurities and fears that so many of us feel in living into our visions and strengths, while I also appreciated that she could write about healthy living without approaching it condescendingly. When she began writing about healthy eating, for example, I fully expected a condemnation of meat but instead was greeted by a story that understood the differences that exist in everyone. Bravo.

I was directed toward this book by a friend and it's always exciting to support indie authors and certainly I am glad to have discovered Amy Refaat.

"Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder" - John Waters

I'm a definite fan of John Waters and was really looking forward to reading "Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder." Through the book's first 50 pages, I had laughed and I had cried and I was completely blown away by the book. Up to that point, the book was largely Waters sharing experiences related to his filmography.

About halfway through, Waters moves away from the filmography and into what is essentially a series of essays ranging from autobiographical to those that simply lean into the idea of "tarnished wisdom."

I found the autobiographical essays for the most part enjoyable, especially those around Provincetown and his own life experiences. I wasn't as taken by some of the more random essays and found the last couple chapters, in particular, rather disappointing. It almost seemed like he was trying to stretch out the book and, much like with film, maybe some tighter editing would've been beneficial.

Through the first 50 pages or so, the book was easily a 5-star. Then, by the book's end, I found myself thinking maybe a 3-star. Truthfully, I really enjoyed and appreciated it and I admire Waters' refreshing honesty - he cites numbers, he names names, and he's absolutely not afraid to say what he thinks. I've always found him a little intimidating and this book probably affirmed that.

"Mr. Know-It-All" is often brilliant. It's occasionally derivative. It's even more frequently brilliantly derivative. It's all John Waters and if you're into John Waters then that's really all you need to know. If you're not into John Waters? This probably isn't the book that's going to change your mind.

"Disruptive Compassion: Becoming the Revolutionary You Were Born To Be" - Hal Donaldson (with Kirk Noonan, Lindsay Kay Donaldson)

Hal Donaldson's "Disruptive Compassion: Becoming the Revolutionary You Were Born to Be" is a deeply personal yet practical and relevant book centered around Donaldson's own journey with growing the non-profit organization Convoy of Hope, a faith-based non-profit providing humanitarian and disaster relief worldwide.

"Disruptive Compassion" dares to declare that you, yes you, can spark real and lasting change through acts of kindness and compassion. Yet, Donaldson does a nice job of pointing all of us in the direction of what real and lasting change means and the practical ways in which our difference-making can lean that direction rather than in the direction of short-term change that fails to really be something that lasts.

Donaldson weaves in his own life experiences from childhood forward and, rather refreshingly, avoids the usual high platitudes often found in faith-based writing. In "Disruptive Compassion," he talks frankly about his anxieties, fears, mistakes, and missteps along the way to becoming a revolutionary in his own life and in building Convoy of Hope into the major organization that it is today.

"Disruptive Compassion" does use Jesus as a model for what it means to live as a revolutionary, though the book also makes it clear we're all able to be revolutionary in our own ways. This doesn't mean that Donaldson paints it as an easy journey. He doesn't. He's not hesitant to talk about the level of sacrifice needed at times, though he also writes that the sacrifice is different for each of us according to the mission we have been given.

I will confess that I found that "Disruptive Compassion" meandered a bit in the mid-section, however, it's a book I found valuable even as I examined my own charitable work and even as I finished reading the book while in the hospital experiencing amputation of a limb.

Written in a relaxed, personal style, "Disruptive Compassion" is engaging, warm, relaxed, and seems to reflect the kind of richly human servant leadership that Donaldson himself practices. It's definitely a book I would recommend, especially for the faith-based, faith-driven community leader seeking a foundation upon which to build their ministry.

"The Apology" - Eve Ensler

As a survivor, the minute I saw Eve Ensler's "The Apology" on the shelf I knew what it was going to be about. It was this gut instinct that this book would be Ensler's autobiographical journey through an apology that never happened.

Indeed, that's exactly what "The Apology" is and that's largely why so many have responded so strongly to it.

Most know Ensler from her acclaimed "The Vagina Monologues." Named by Newsweek as one of 150 Women Who Changed the World, Ensler has long used her own life experiences to improve the world and the lives of others.

That's exactly what Ensler aims for with "The Apology," a book written by Eve from her father's point of view in the words she longed to hear. With this book, Ensler attempts to transform the horrific physical and sexual abuse endured from her father, some of which is somewhat graphically depicted here, with honesty, compassion, and vision for her future having received, as much as possible, the apology she so desperately needed.

The literary style of "The Apology" felt, at least for me, an awful lot like Ta-Nehisi Coates's "Between the World and Me," a book in which Coates wrote a book-length letter to his adolescent son with a similar vision of creating a better world for the future of his son by creating what was, in many ways, an exegesis of his own life experiences with racism.

The subjects are obviously different here, yet I felt very similarly after reading both books. This was a book I wanted and expected to fully embrace, yet this is a book I struggled with from beginning to end.

It should be noted, and I think it's important, that "The Apology" is primarily directed toward female survivors. This is evidenced most directly on a page that precedes the book where Ensler writes "For every woman still waiting for an apology." On the cover, it reads "Like millions of women, Eve Ensler has been waiting much of her lifetime for an apology."

While Ensler often writes utilizing non-gender specific language, this narrative focus is undeniable and influences both her writing and, I believe, how some male survivors will receive the book. I don't necessarily fault Ensler for this approach - if this was what brought her healing, then I'm all in favor of it. As a male survivor myself, I think male survivors need to approach the book with the full awareness that while much of what Ensler applies to the survivor journey, in general, I ultimately think the book is somewhat dismissive of male survivors.

Based upon Ensler's literary and personal history, I believe this to be an intentional and understandable choice. Do I believe Ensler had an obligation to write inclusive of male survivors, especially when the entire book's focus was on holding one man, in particular, accountable and obtaining the never received apology? Of course not. However, and I do have a disclaimer, Ensler's book is not simply marketed as a memoir - it's also marketed for the universality of its message. I'd say "The Apology" is MUCH more successful as a memoir, while I'd say the attempts to market its universality are misguided. This is not a prescriptive book, something Ensler herself has acknowledged.

For the most part, Ensler writes from her own personal experiences and in a way that is avoidant of gender-specific language outside obvious and appropriate references to herself. Ensler writes in a way that weaves together eloquent authenticity and obvious literary flourishes. How you resonate with Ensler's language may very well help determine how you resonate with her writing - will the book trigger you if you're a survivor? I think that potential is present, however, I also found that Ensler's literary style of writing created a buffer of sorts and I can't say I found the book to be a trigger. I do think that certain survivors will breeze through the 115-page book, while others will need to take the book in increments - this isn't easily done as the book's not in "chapters" or essays. The book is a letter from beginning to end.

Ultimately, where "The Apology" succeeds the most is in Ensler's realized ability to create a work that is both artistic and empathetic. She realizes, and takes us along for the journey, that the apology she has long waited to receive from a father who has been dead for 30+ years must be birthed from inside her if it is to be made fact. She imagines, more for herself, that his soul is in some state of spiritual limbo pending resolution of these matters and leaps from there into 115 pages of gut-wrenching, devastating life truths inflicted upon her with intentional brutality that sought to destroy her but failed to do so.

Assuming that Ensler truly writes the words she most needed to hear, it is difficult to fault the book at all. A 115-page book is not a long book, yet it is a long letter filled with a lifetime of experiences that go well beyond any notion of "hurt." While it seems at times that Ensler is at least modestly explaining away her father's behaviors, it's important to keep in mind that in writing from her father's point of view she's also empathetically allowing him the journey toward being able to apologize.

It takes him nearly all of the 115 pages to truly get there.

As a reader and as a survivor, I had the same issues here that I had with Coates's book in that there came a point where the unfolding letter began to feel more like a literary device than an apology. Like Ensler, I've longed my entire life for an apology from my perpetrator(s). The hard part is that such an apology looks different for all of us, or at least all who are survivors or who have been wronged. It was difficult for me to fathom a 115-page apology and an often graphic recounting of wrongs committed - is this the standard by which we should judge a sincere, repentant apology? If so, I'd say we're all destined for a lifetime of disappointment. I'm in my early 50's and nearly every apology for every wrong in my life has been the equivalent of "I'm sorry" and, when truly sincere, modeled by behavioral changes. At some point in "The Apology," the father's letter, especially with the added idea of being in limbo, begins to feel a little self-serving. Additionally, the language of the father, even given what we learn about him, often doesn't feel authentic but instead feels like Ensler's voice desperately searching for the apologetic voice she never heard.

I may ultimately grow to feel differently about "The Apology," a book I expected to fully embrace yet a book that I both embraced and became troubled by in certain ways. Despite being a survivor of both childhood sexual abuse and adult sexual assault, I'm not sure I'm intended as its target reader and that likely influenced my experience with the book. I believe most survivors will "feel" the book powerfully, though I'm not convinced it will ultimately benefit most survivors with that same power. As noted, it's not a prescriptive book. It feels like a cathartic literary work for Ensler that will likely open up new channels for her in the work that she does that is so desperately needed and that I deeply respect. All I can ultimately go with is my own experience - "The Apology" is a valuable, vital read from a woman who has spent much of her adult life healing from the childhood she was given and working incredibly hard to support others in doing that same work. I'll always applaud survivors speaking out - even when I don't completely resonate with their work.

"The Apology" may have not completely worked for me, but I applaud it all the same. If you are a survivor, either seeking that unreceived apology or simply learning how to voice your experiences, "The Apology" is challenging yet profound place to start - if you are prone to be triggered or having flashbacks, I recommend you make your primary support person, paid or natural, aware you are reading the book to ensure your emotional and physical safety.

"Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergency of Nurturance Culture" - Nora Samaran

I appreciated Nora Samaran's "The Emergence of Nurturance Culture," though I didn't necessarily resonate with everything she wrote and felt like at times she was a bit too quick to surrender to gender stereotypes. At 131 pages, this was a quick read that held my attention from beginning to end. Essentially an expansion of her essay "The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture," Samaran suggests models of care and accountability can move toward dismantling systems of dominance and oppression.

The book is more academic than you might expect from the cover - a good fact in that much of what she writes about is backed by research. I found her foundation belief that men need to work on these issues with other men dripping with gender stereotypes and lack of cultural insight, but I'll counter that by acknowledging my own history as a victim of sexual violence would make such work difficult and I do have natural built-in defenses toward such work.

Ultimately, I found the book informative and valuable and found myself moving on from it into researching some of the topics she wrote about here.

"How to Be an Antiracist" - Ibram X. Kendi

The most powerful aspect of Ibram X. Kendi's "How To Be an Antiracist" is simply the myriad of ways in which he holds himself accountable for the kind of behaviors we usually look outwardly to find.

Kendi's book is both brilliant and simple. He essentially writes that we are either racist or antiracist - there is no in-between. There is no state of simply "not being racist" as we so often like to claim. We are either actively antiracist or we are racist. He then proceeds to construct his argument by first defining, with simplicity and great clarity, the definitions to be utilized. In fact, he begins each chapter with these definitions and follows his definitions by both intellectual discourse and personal experiences that turn "How to Be an Antiracist" into a simultaneous memoir in which he acknowledges his own behaviors, thoughts, ideas, and beliefs that have been racist.

Yes, Kendi acknowledges being guilty of racism. Kendi's acknowledgement, I think, creates a safe ground for people to explore their own behaviors, thoughts, ideas, and beliefs.

I even found the book to help me broaden other views. For example, as an adult male with serious disabilities his definitions helped me discover my own internalized ableism and I found myself very convicted by his definitions.

I've got much work to do, but I think Kendi would likely say we all do.

While I found "How to Be an Antiracist" a brilliant work, I didn't necessarily find it completely flawless in terms of writing. At times, I found myself less satisfied by the memoir sections of the book and the ways in which Kendi would start off with a personal story then spend several pages exploring intellectual discourse before returning to story. While I understood the reasoning, a good number of therapists would consider it a diversion technique and that's how I occasionally perceived it. With Kendi, it was likely more an intellectual choice but it was an intellectual choice that didn't really work for me as it pulled me away from that which was more meaningful.

It's essential to realize that Kendi believes, and backs up with extensive research, that racism is not birthed out of ignorance. According to Kendi, racism is born out of its profitability and utility. It is rooted in patriarchy and capitalism. He documents support for this position, which was the foundation of his earlier writings and is consistent throughout each chapter of this book.

"How to Be an Antiracist" has a surprisingly accessible academic feel to it for a book that literally has pages and pages of sourcing. The book is listed at over 300 pages, but the actual reading stops at 265 and is followed by notes and resourcing. You may, and probably will, disagree with some of Kendi's conclusions but it's nearly impossible to argue with his research, documentation, and rather incredible sourcing. The book is written in such a way that I can easily see it being used in academic settings.

It seems almost cliche' to say, but this is, at times, an uncomfortable read but it's a necessary read.

"She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement" - Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey

There's no denying the power of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey's "She Said," an extensively detailed account of their efforts in the investigation of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and the investigation's impact on the growing #MeToo Movement. The book also delves into the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings, though it does so definitely to a lesser degree.

If I were to compare "She Said" to any other book I've read in recent years, it would likely be last year's "Parkland," a book that covered similarly challenging material that was controversial, front-page news, and very much based within the worlds of journalism and activism.

While I rated "Parkland" a 5-star book, for me "She Said" fell shy of the lofty 5-star rating mostly due to the writing of the book itself rather than any concerns about the actual material. The material itself is powerfully documented, thoroughly sourced, riveting in presentation, and absolutely impossible to ignore.

However, "Parkland" had a better sense of rhythm and made for a more engaging read from beginning to end. In "Parkland," it felt like the author understood that the information being presented was intellectually challenging and emotionally demanding and, as such, paced the book in a way that allowed the reader moments to breathe and re-engage. "Parkland" allowed for emotional connection with the story and its subjects, while "She Said" reads from beginning to end like a more detailed version of the journalistic reports that were documented. While it may be reasonable that the book is rather exhausting, it at times makes for a difficult read and, as well, creates a need to occasionally put the book down for a bit. While I understand many haven't done this - I've read multiple reviews from people who report having read it in one day - I think your average reader, especially those having experienced any form of sexual harassment, may very well become emotionally drained by the writing style and may become at more risk of experiencing some sort of trauma or trigger from the book.

"She Said," as well, is interesting in that it does detour into discussing the Kavanaugh hearings. While I understand this decision, I ultimately feel like that detour creates a tonal shift that doesn't entirely work. It's interesting material, of course, but I wish it had simply been a separate book.

However, there was never a time I considered less than 4-stars for "She Said." The documentation is horrifying. If you've found yourself at all sympathizing with Weinstein, "She Said" will destroy your sympathies simply by documenting the numerous reports that are incredibly well documented and often times confirmed. The accounts of payoffs and outward attempts, often successful, at interrupting investigations and news articles are amazing to read and disturbing beyond words. The work of these journalists is simply astounding and after reading this book it's nearly impossible to even look at Weinstein as his trial currently goes on.

I deeply appreciated and respected "She Said," though it would be ludicrous to call it an enjoyable read. It's a difficult read and it should be a difficult read. Written very much in a journalistic style and in a font that enhances its journalistic tone, "She Said" is an important book that should be read and shared and absorbed and acted upon. While I couldn't help but wish for some different literary choices that could have enhanced the reading experience, there's a strong argument that the authors chose the tone the book needed to have.

"Out of Sorts: Making Peace With an Evolving Faith" - Sarah Bessey

Truth be told, I began following Sarah Bessey on Twitter before I'd read a single one of her books. I'd heard about her from friends and thought I'd try to get a sense of who she is by following her and watching how she comments and interacts.

The Sarah that I discovered on Twitter became one of the people I've most enjoyed following. She was refreshingly, well, "normal." She radiated knowledge, honesty, authenticity and, perhaps most importantly for me, a sense of compassion and kindness.

I decided to first read "Jesus Feminist" and am now finishing up "Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith." I will, of course, read her latest book "Miracles and Other Reasonable Things."

While "Out of Sorts" is incredibly well sourced, I can't help but think that the book will most appeal to those people who are, in fact, looking to make peace with their evolving faith. This can be struggling to leave church, struggling to return to church, struggling to discover one's theology, struggling to simply come to terms with one's own church history, or any number of other things. I found "Out of Sorts" an emotional read, I openly wept on multiple occasions, and yet it's one of those rare books where I found myself noting certain sections and quotes and ideas.

Those seeking a more "intellectual" read may be disappointed (and some of the reviews indicate this fact), but when you browse the references at the end of the book you realize that she's really done a stellar job of weaving together intellectual and personal experience. I read "Jesus Feminist": not long before a hospitalization that ended up leading to amputation, while I've read "Out of Sorts" while I'm at home recovering from said amputation and exploring how all of this experience has shaped my relationship with Christ, my faith communities (I attend 2 churches), and myself. Much of what Sarah writes resonates with me deeply - at one point, I contemplated a 4-star rating as there's a mid-section that felt a bit disorganized to me but I ultimately decided to stick with 5 stars because the structure of the book ultimately feels very cohesive to me and I really love how it's organized, written, and balances emotion and intellect.

I think one of the highest compliments you can give a writer, especially a Christian writer, is that "Your book changed me" or "Your book helped me." Both are true for me with Sarah's writings and even following her on Twitter. She's simply a healing presence. She's one of those people where if she would say "I'll pray for you" you believe it to be true.

You experience different writers differently. For me, Sarah is a wonderful weaving together of a spiritually grounded presence whose presence just feels like a warm hug. Even on Twitter, she just radiates it. As someone who's not a hugger, that's pretty astounding to me that I would even perceive it. Yet, she's so much more than simply that warmth and safety because she wraps all of that in strong theological roots, a deep faith, rich biblical understanding, and knowledge she shares in a way that is accessible and devoid of the biblical conceit that can so often accompany theological writing.

She's become one of my favorite writers and I look forward to reading her latest book.

"When I Die I'm Going to Heaven 'Cause I've Spent My Time in Hell: A Memoir of My Year As An Army Nurse in Vietnam" - Barbara Kautz

This was a quick read on a quiet, chilly Saturday afternoon. Written by a graduate of the Walter Reed nursing program, this is the story of Barbara Kautz's year serving as an army nurse in Vietnam.

The book is essentially a series of stories about Kautz's time in Vietnam, starting right about the time of her nursing graduation and moving through her entire year. The reflections range from significant and memorable cases she encountered to stories about the relationships she formed there to some experiences that reflected upon the potential for sexual harassment and assault.

The book is largely written in the first-person and Kautz's detail recollection is strong. While certain stories don't particularly connect, others are incredibly riveting. The book's Kindle version, which I read, was hindered by sub-par editing (for a professionally published book) with quite a few typographical errors, missing words, and grammatical concerns that should have been caught and addressed over a year since the book's initial release.

It would be hard to quibble with the book's subject matter. It's a valuable book and resource and if you're into military history, particularly women's history, this is a tremendous book to read.

"Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint" - Nadia Bolz-Weber

It was an interesting experience to read "Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint" a few years after the book's release and after many of the reviews already sort of explained Bolz-Weber to the world.

By now, Bolz-Weber is a household name - at least in progressive Christian circles. By now, she's released a couple other books and left her role as senior pastor at the church she founded to devote herself more fully to writing, speaking, etc. With Bolz-Weber, there's an awful lot that falls within that "etc."

I love Bolz-Weber. I believe I've now read all her books. I've seen her speak. I follow her on Twitter. Heck, I think I may have even fanboy'd a bit when she responded to one of my Tweets following some recent health issues I've been experiencing.

Truthfully, I've always preferred Bolz-Weber as a speaker more than a writer. There's something about the Bolz-Weber personality that comes alive in-person or even on video that doesn't always quite connect on the printed page. I still love her books, but I'd nearly always say her public speaking is 5-star while I typically fall within the 4-star range for her books.

By now, the disclaimers are well known but I'll repeat them on the off-chance that you're checking out this review before reading the book.

If you can't handle progressive Christianity, this book is not for you.

If you can't handle graphic language, this book is not for you.

If you can't deal with the concept of a female, tattooed pastor who's prone to graphic language, then this book is definitely not for you.

A former stand-up comic, recovering alcoholic, and overall party animal, Bolz-Weber may not necessarily look the part of your usual Lutheran pastor but I, for one, couldn't really tell you what a Lutheran pastor is supposed to look like anyway.

"Pastrix" is sort of memoir meets theological reflections, a weaving together of Bolz-Weber's life journey and a journey through some of her memories in church planting. I would say that she goes through both memoir and theological reflection on a more surface level, at least for the most part with some definite exceptions, and at times I did find myself longing for something a little more in-depth as Bolz-Weber made the transition from her previous way of living into the life she lives now (or back when the book was written) as a wife and mother of two children.

However, as has always been true of Bolz-Weber's writing, I found myself writing things down and referencing back to statements made and examples given. Every chapter in the book starts with a scripture that is applicable to Bolz-Weber and to the chapter that's about to unfold.

While you might not like the way she looks and you may not like the words she uses, Bolz-Weber grounds herself in scripture and wrestles with biblical stories with honesty, intelligence, insight, and transparency.

One of the joys I experience with Bolz-Weber is that for the most part what you see is what you get. She writes things here that most of us have thought at one time or another - perhaps with different language, but with pretty similar sentiment. She wrestles with things we wrestle with. She fails in ways that we've all failed and she's had those epiphany moments like we've all had. Bolz-Weber is refreshingly honest, authentic, real, and sincere. She scares me a bit (I'll openly admit I'd probably be intimidated to meet her), but I also was incredibly touched on the day she responded to a random Tweet comment I made about my physical recovery. Her response was simple, yet I found it incredibly meaningful and it's that kind of presence and compassion that really comes alive in this book.

While I think the disclaimers are probably appropriate, this is a book I'd highly recommend and even if you're in a different theological place I think this is the kind of book where it's worth stretching your boundaries a bit.

Monday, March 30, 2020

"Subversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy, and Faithfulness in a Broken World" - Craig Greenfield

I've had some encounters with "Subversive Jesus" author Craig Greenfield on Twitter, though for quite some time I was out of the reading rhythm and had never gotten to his book.

In late 2018, I really got into reading again and have continued into 2019. Thus, I've been going after a lot of these authors whom I've encountered via social media or whose writings I've simply heard about and wanted to read.

A relatively short book, "Subversive Jesus" is an immersive experience that takes you inside Greenfield's immersive brand of Christianity that is radically relational, subversive, vulnerable, and aimed at being alongside those whom society, including churches, often forgets and/or ignores.

Greenfield acknowledges having been born into affluence and aiming for the good life as a corporate exec in a successful tech start-up. He was well on his way until an Asian experience led to his feeling called to live his life in a radically different way. He moved with his wife Nay, a former refugee from the Khmer Rouge into a Cambodian slum where the two lived alongside the vulnerable children in the slum. This experience led to the developing of Alongsiders International, an organization that has continued to spread across Cambodia along with a dozen countries across Asia and Africa. After many years in Cambodia, Craig and Nay felt God calling them into what could have been an entirely different type of setting - Vancouver. However, consistent with how they were living their lives the two ended up in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside "a 2km stretch of decaying rooming houses, seedy strip bars and shady pawnshops. In Vancouver, they started an intentional community called Servants Vancouver where they practiced the radical hospitality of Christ with people struggling with drug addiction, homelessness, and prostitution. Easily the poorest section and least safe section of Vancouver, they began encountering fellow radicals who helped them widen their reach and begin such things as the Pirates of Justice flash mobs.

Early in 2013, they returned to Cambodia.

"Subversive Jesus" is filled with Greenfield's raw, vulnerable experiences alongside those most vulnerable everywhere he went. At times, his actions are challenging and at times you're likely going to find yourself shaking your head thinking to yourself "Yep, that's how it should be." Greenfield shares successes and, with great humility, those challenging experiences where lessons are learned and faith is challenged.

While I was definitely convicted at times, I'll also admit there were fleeting moments when I felt like Greenfield was perhaps too easily dismissive of the outreach of others. While I understood his points, and often agreed with them, the tone at times, especially in a chapter on subversive charity, seemed just a tad too harsh.

However, there's simply no denying that Greenfield is convicted to live into a radically subversive faith journey and that he grounds that conviction deep within scripture and within the results he's seen as he lived over the years in these places. He grows obviously tired of charities and churches that fail to build relationships with those they "serve" and isn't hesitant to state that many times this serve is as much, and maybe more, about the church than it is about those being served.

It wold be nearly impossible to not have some convictions, some challenges, and some issues with a book so passionately and honestly written as "Subversive Jesus." However, these things have simply made me more glad to have connected with Greenfield via Twitter and to now learn more about his ministry and Alongsiders International.

While "Subversive Jesus" is a relatively short read, it's far from a breezy read. I was reading the book last night in a local restaurant and someone walking by gave me a thumbs up and said "Great book!"

I agree.

"Carry On, Warrior: Thoughts On Life Unarmed" - Glennon Doyle

By the end of "Carry on, Warrior," I kind of felt like I was Glennon Doyle Melton's long lost brother, though I was probably institutionalized and always hoped she'd visit but instead she ended up writing this book that seemed to mirror my existence.

Okay, that was really weird. I'll admit it.

But, seriously. I have to admit that while Melton has been within my frame of reference for quite some time I'd never seriously considered picking up her book until recently. After all, I sort of figured I wasn't her target audience and she was another "mom" writer. I have nothing against "mom" writers, but I'm not a mom (or a dad) and it seems like most of the time these writers tend to target their writing toward females.

So, I'll admit it. I had this preconceived notion of her writing and figured I wouldn't connect to it.

However, I've always found her sort of fascinating and I even follow her on Twitter (I suck at boundaries, in case you're wondering). Still, I wasn't particularly interested in picking up a book and I'd never even visited Momastery.com.

Then, I can't deny that as the World Cup has gone on I've kinda sorta fallen in love with her Twitter presence. It has been a mixture of really funny and incredibly sincere. So, I looked up "Carry On, Warrior" and decided to see what it was all about.

"Okay," I said to myself, "Maybe, I'm wrong. Maybe this will connect."

What can I say? I loved every page of "Carry On, Warrior." I loved the honesty. I loved the vulnerability. I loved the humor. I loved the darkness. I loved the pain (not in a weird way). I loved the insecurities. I loved the confidence. I loved the sections that read like blog posts, while I also loved the reflections and affirmations and stories and testimonies.

I loved it all.

I laughed. I cried. I identified with smelly coughy guy and, yeah, that made me a little mad at Glennon but she redeemed herself by book's end.

I identified with a significant amount of the material in "Carry On, Warrior," a fact that surprised me yet evidence for me that she is able to take material that is largely targeted toward moms and women and make it universal.

I loved the section on the weird balance between confidence and humility, while I also really loved the fact that by book's end I felt like I got clear pictures of someone other than her from the book. I honestly felt like I better understood Craig, her kids, and especially her Sister.

I can't lie. I kinda love her Sister.

In a couple major ways, I have a similar writing style to Glennon's (except she actually sells books!). If you follow the flow of the book, it's as if she absolutely refuses to leave you in a negative or traumatized space. She periodically leaves breathing space in the structure of the book and the closing chapters bring you to a place of peace.

Again, I loved that.

I liked the raw truths, at times incredibly raw, yet the refusal to be immersed within that trauma. I almost felt like she was taking out these truths and taking a bubble bath with them.

Sorry, I'm being weird again.

There were so many chapters that resonated, some that felt like a direct connection and others that just existed within the same circumstantial realm in which I've lived and loved and healed.

As a writer who often delves within my own life experiences, I've at times experienced guilt over tone and language. "Carry On, Warrior" helped me process through that and let go of that guilt and shame.

"Carry On, Warrior" tackles difficult subjects with honesty, humor, tenderness, and grace. I appreciate acknowledgements of healing and of failure.

As someone who'd been somewhat offended by certain harsh, mean-spirited reviews of her writing (honest critiques don't bother me, even if negative), I loved that she addresses this openly and honestly and as lovingly as possible.

By the end of "Carry On, Warrior," I kind of felt like Melton was this kindred spirit in terms of truth-telling and literary style yet I felt inspired by her truths and even more motivated to continue telling my own. I guess I felt less alone as a weirdly honest, raw writer who still tries to be loving and kind.

It was like "Oh, cool. There must be others!"

In short, I loved "Carry On, Warrior: Thoughts on Life Unarmed." While the tonal shift in the section on marital struggles was a tad abrupt, I'm not sure it could have been handled any other way. You could feel Melton's grief in her words and you almost felt like she was processing even as she was writing. It felt very real.

"Carry On, Warrior," for me, feels like the "messy, beautiful" thing that Melton writes about so beautifully yet I felt like it was truly a journey of embracing it all while also completely owning it all.

Before I'd even finished "Carry On, Warrior," I knew that "Love Warrior" was on my agenda and, indeed, I picked it up at the bookstore so that there wouldn't be a delay.

Now, though, I can't wait for tomorrow night's World Cup championship. Glennon's going to be a blast. Then, on to "Love Warrior."

"Love Warrior" - Glennon Doyle

It's no secret that I've read both of Glennon Doyle Melton's book back-to-back. While I've long been aware of her, it's been more of a distant awareness. I'm a 50-year-old disabled male, not a parent, and probably not what I would consider anything close to her target market.

Prior to this past week, I followed her on Twitter and that was it. I'd never read her books. I'd never looked at Momastery. I'd never heard her speak.

However, I must confess that I found her World Cup tweets an absolute delight and I was aware enough of her life journey that I was interested if not particularly motivated to actually track down her books.

But, there was something in those World Cup tweets that made me think "I need to read her."

So, I started with "Carry On, Warrior" and instantly fell in love with her raw, honest, vulnerable, confident, blog meets testimonial meets motivational style of writing. It's not far removed from how I write, though she actually makes her living as a writer while mine is a part-time income.

But, I was hooked.

I wasn't so sure about "Love Warrior." It's weird, in some ways, reading a book such as "Love Warrior" when you kind of know the ending that's not the ending of the book.

While "Carry On, Warrior" was a clear 5-star read for me, I struggled a little more here between 4-5 stars. Truthfully, 4.5 is probably more accurate for me but I'm curving upward for reasons I'll explain.

First off, while I was willing to defend my "Carry On, Warrior" rating this is a book where I understand why it won't resonate with some readers - even those who loved her first book. While "Carry On, Warrior" could certainly get intense, it was varied and paced differently and also quite a bit lighter and more humorous than this book. While Melton was still painfully revealing at times, she was also glib and sarcastic and funny.

"Love Warrior," on the other hand, is often just a downright painful read. It's beautiful and difficult and messy and Melton doesn't let up in quite the same ways. While I hate to use this term considering her challenges, the truth is that much of this book feels like a soul-level purging of personal demons and immense pain. At times, that purging reads like a sort of staccato styled narrative that feels breathy and exhausting and weird.

Yet, what I marveled with was how genuine it all felt.

The second half of the book became an easier read for me. The first half found me stopping and starting and resting from the emotion of it all, but by the second half I was able to really immerse myself in it.

Without giving away spoilers, I will say that there was one section that made me absolutely fall in love with Melton and this book. It's a short section where she's dealing with the pending birth of her first child (Chase) and is informed by the doctor that he will probably have a disability. She and her husband become defensive at the doctor's tragic sounding town - they leave the doctor's office and spend much time preparing for this truth via study, learning, etc. In one line, she had me in absolute tears when she talks about when she finally gave birth and, in fact, Chase did not have the expected disability. She basically states that she had to grieve the loss of the child she expected to have, while celebrating the child she did have (she says it differently and much better).

As an adult with a lifelong disability, I've gotten so used to hearing parents say "the only thing I want is a healthy child" that to see in writing a mother so ready to be a mother to a child with a disability and in a sense having to adjust to that not occurring was simply profound and deeply moving to me. It blew me away.

I also decided to rate the book a 5-star rating because it truly feels like this is the book that she needed to write and it's the book it needed to be. The fact that it was a difficult book to read is irrelevant to me. She beautifully wrote the story that needed to be told, even though I wasn't always comfortable with it and couldn't always identify with it.

In fact, she so vulnerably wrote some things that she convinced me to add back to a book I'm writing a section I'd left out because it felt too obscene. As I was reading a section of this book, I just thought to myself "Nope, it needs to be in there. It's part of my truth."

In some ways, I think observations that "Love Warrior" is more self-involved are incredibly accurate. Yet, I also think that's the point. "Carry On, Warrior" was Melton discovering she had a gift and intentionally sharing that gift openly with her readers; "Love Warrior" feels more like it was actually written for her yet also in such a way that she knows she's not alone in this type of journey. It's for her, yet she shares it with everyone. It's a thin line between the two, yet it's an important line.

I won't quite say I "loved" "Love Warrior," but I will say I found it immensely satisfying and emotionally resonant. I'm changed because I wrote it and I'm grateful for her wonderful World Cup tweets that made me finally sit down and read her books.

Now, I need to find something light to read!

"Surviving Christmas: Advent Devotions for the Hard & Holy Holidays" - Anne Marie Miller

Have you ever read a book from a new author, or at least "new to you," and found yourself finishing the experience by instantly looking them up on Amazon to see what else they've written?

I picked up Anne Marie Miller's "Lean on Me," a book that delves into the building of intentional, vulnerable, and consistent community and I instantly felt as if I'd found a literary kindred spirit.

Then, as I began to read more about her background I began to feel like even though I'm older that she would have even more to teach me along my journey.

"Surviving Christmas: Advent Devotions for the Hard & Holy Holidays" may seem like an odd book to read at the end of June, but the truth is that by the time I typically get to December I'm even more of a loner than my introverted self is on a daily basis. By the time I hit the "funk," it's basically too late to use common sense.

So, packing the toolbox early is a good choice for me.

"Surviving Christmas" has become part of my toolbox, a gently written series of devotions for the person who resonates more with the concept of "blue Christmas" than traditional Christmas. It's a short, right about 32 pages, e-book offering gentle, nurturing devotions for the person who struggles through the holiday season for any number of reasons.

I was raised a Jehovah's Witness. Thus, I never grew any sort of attachment, healthy or otherwise, to the holiday season. By the time I'd been booted from the JW's, one of two churches to kick me out, I was just starting to experience the holiday season when tragedy struck in the form of the suicide of my wife and death of my newborn daughter. Since then, I spend 11 months of the year as this incredibly inspired, socially aware activist and wildly insane paraplegic/double amputee who far exceeds what most consider my limits.

December hits? I basically go into a fetal position and wait for it to be over. In the old days, having a therapist who would call me on Christmas Eve helped. As my social circle developed, that certainly also helped. Over the past few years, while I unquestionably slow down over the holidays it's become more of a muted experience than an actual bad one. Until this past Christmas, when I inexplicably bottomed out in a pretty severe way and found myself the recipient of some unexpected compassion from a minister at a church I'd merely visited.

I was floored by her kindness. Truly. I still am.

While our reasons for struggle are different, Miller writes "Surviving Christmas" in such a way that it can apply to a variety of circumstances and situations. I appreciated that it's non-shaming - seriously. It's also not complex, because when you're in the muck the mind just can't do complex. I need simple. Heck, she even uses one devotion to serve up a healthy recipe. I'll never make it, of course, but I love that it's there.

The book, I believe, is self-published, which adds in the glory of a couple typos. I say this for no reason other than to bless it - it adds a layer of humanity to a warm, naturally written book. We all make mistakes and that just made me love the book more.

"Surviving Christmas" is one more tool in the toolbox. It's not a cure-all. It's not the remedy. If anything, it's a reminder that you need God and people and community and whatever you find to be your healthy coping skill. I have a feeling that for Miller, writing is one amazing coping skill. I'm the same way, so I get that.

As I was wrapping up reading "Surviving Christmas," I looked up to realize that she had actually responded to my review of "Lean on Me." Timing is everything and that finally let the tears fall a bit as I finished up this book and contemplated the steps to be taking in my life to avoid a repeat of last year's holiday season.

If you're like me and struggle through the holidays, "Surviving Christmas" is a simple, warm, and understanding devotional that will certainly help.

"Speak" - Laurie Halse Anderson

After having read Laurie Halse Anderson's latest book "Shout," I decided to go back to her beginning as an author and read this book that started it all for her.

I knew simply by reading the subject matter that "Speak" would be a challenging read for me and, indeed, it was a challenging read for me. As a disabled male survivor of sexual assault, I resonated with a lot of what Anderson wrote here. While the book, and much of Anderson's writing, is targeted at young females, the themes she tackles are universal and there's no question that these themes can and should register with males.

As someone who experienced sexual assault in middle school, watching the ways in which Melinda's life is impacted by her experience was difficult, familiar, incredibly honest, and heartbreaking. It's even more heartbreaking to me to think that this book has been banned in schools that are apparently simply unable or unwilling to deal with the harsh truths faced by teens, especially girls, today. There's so many little details that Anderson nails beautifully here, from strained familial relationships to grade slippage that goes dismissed or is blamed on other factors to teachers who are both insightful and oblivious.

Without spoiling the book, which I would never do, little lines in the book resonated greatly and I really resonated, in fact absolutely loved, how Anderson ends the book. I also really love how Anderson avoids exploiting her characters - while the book eventually deals with Melinda's experience, it does so in a way that is respectful to the character.

The structure of "Speak" is unique, almost episodic really, yet it works perfectly within the context of the subject matter and within the way that Melinda's mind worked.

Overall, I'm truly amazed this book has never been on my radar. As someone who has written about my own experiences with sexual assault, I found myself kind of in awe of Anderson's ability to create a novel around this experience and yet to give this central character a full, engaging personality even at her most challenged.

This wasn't an easy read, but it was a valuable read. Anderson has become an author whose works I'm quickly absorbing because I find them so engaging. While not everything she writes centers around this topic, this book really cements that she's become one of my favorites and most admired writers and literary voices.

"SHOUT" - Laurie Halse Anderson

It's embarrassing to me that "Shout" is the first I've heard of Laurie Halse Anderson, though I can assure you it won't be the last of her writing that I seek out.

As a longtime activist in the area of sexual violence and domestic abuse, I've spent much of my adult life traveling the roads in my wheelchair raising awareness and funds for a variety of organizations. So many aspects of this book felt familiar to me, especially once we reached the second section of the book and started looking at her efforts to speak out, to reach out to youths, and the censorship she encountered again and again.

I've shared my story for years, at times through writing and poetry, though seldom (if ever) as successfully and with such remarkable imagery as is created in "Shout." While some have felt the first section to be the weaker section, I simply can't imagine "Shout" without it as it sets the stage for the rest of the book and, I think quite importantly, provides a foundation for the words, experiences, and images that will follow.

As someone who has likely caved in too easily to the user of graphic language in my writing, I marveled at Halse Anderson's ability to write honestly and with tremendous rawness without ever crossing that line into offensive. There are parts of "Shout" difficult to read, but she has earned the write to create this work in just the way it's created.

"Shout" vividly creates the transitions Halse Anderson has experienced in her own healing, her growing sense of empowerment, and the honest, warranted cynicism that trauma often creates.

I loved everything about "Shout," though that feels a little weird to say given the subject matter and the reality that you're being invited into reading someone's most traumatic life experiences. The language is beautifully constructed, the entire framework of the book powerfully built. "Shout" deals with challenging subjects, yet it does so in a way that is accessible and largely avoids traumatizing the reader.

Easily one of my favorite books of 2019, "Shout" makes me want to instantly pick up other books by Laurie Halse Anderson and also led to my following her here - and I tend to not follow a lot of writers.

While survivors of trauma should note that the book does at times contain graphic language and imagery, I'm truly amazed at how Halse Anderson can speak her truth and yet hold a safe space for her readers as well.

As the entire book is, indeed, in poetry be aware that if you're looking for strict narrative structure that "Shout" doesn't have it. Personally, I think the book is that much better for it.

"Satellite" - Lauren Emily Whalen

The messiness of love is at the core of Lauren Emily Whalen's first novel, "Satellite," a YA story about coming of age, coming into love, and both letting go of and discovering one's own identity.

The first thing you'll likely notice within "Satellite" is Whalen's gift for natural dialogue, a gift that will deepen your immersion into the story and into the lives of longtime best friends Levon and Harmony whose dads have been in love for years and whose uncommonly rich relationship weaves together elements of sibling closeness, flirtatious intimacy, and awesome best friends.

For those familiar with the Chicago area, you'll appreciate the ways in which Whalen brings Chicago to life through a relaxed familiarity with everything that makes Chicago actually Chicago. As someone who has never been particularly fond of the city thanks to a painful relationship that went awry, "Satellite" made me remember everything I loved about the area.

"Satellite" enters a world that I'm guessing is going to feel familiar for young adults - one filled with the messiness of family relationships, the uncertainty around dating and sexuality, and the struggle with not allowing our past to determine our future.

Sometimes, when I'm reading I find myself practically reading through a book. Other times, I find myself taking a more gentle pace and really enjoying the characters. With "Satellite," I really enjoyed spending time with these characters and all their glorious flaws, insecurities, and little victories.

"Satellite" is probably best suited to a more progressive young adult reader. While it's far from graphic, Whalen has a wonderful way of depicting sexuality and intimacy and openly features LGBTQ characters within "Satellite." The LGBTQ community is tremendously underserved in the YA literary world and Whalen's book is a wonderful reading choice for those young people exploring who they are and what it all means.

"Satellite" is written from the perspectives of both of its main characters, while the occasional flashback is used to flesh out the entire story. It's an approach that doesn't always work, but the gifted Whalen makes it work beautifully.

With strong characterizations and an engaging, meaningful story, "Satellite" is a novel I'd wholeheartedly recommend.

"We Will Rise: A True Story of Tragedy and Resurrection in the American Heartland" - Steve Beaven

I eagerly anticipated reading Steve Beaven's "We Will Rise: A True Story of Tragedy and Resurrection in the American Heartland," a book that remembers the December 13, 1977 plane crash that took the lives of the entire University of Evansville basketball team along with coaches, boosters, and everyone else on the plane. In fact, the lone player to not be on that plane would actually die a mere two weeks later in a car crash.

It was and remains a tragedy that has a permanent place in the Indiana consciousness, especially for those of us, myself included, who had any connection at all to that particular basketball team.

While I did not have a direct connection to the tragedy, my indirect connection was strong as I was in the same class as UE basketball player Mark Siegel. Additionally, Siegel's father, Ed Siegel, was a beloved Pike High School teacher and basketball coach. I would graduate from Pike in 1983. As was true for most Pike students, we felt this tragedy in our bones.

Beaven's book is a competent, though often quite scattered, account of the tragedy though the book devotes surprisingly little time to the tragedy itself. A good amount of the early part of the book is devoted to the years leading up to the tragedy, while Beaven does serve up quite a bit of information about the Dick Walters years that followed and began, I believe, in late 1978.

In terms of the tragedy itself, it seems like Beaven did what most sports books do - he devoted most of the material to the team's stars while offering very little information about the bit players. There's a sliver of a chapter about Mark Siegel, mostly an accurate accounting of the impact on Mark's death on his father. However, it's a surprisingly abrupt chapter lacking anything resembling nuance.

I also found Beaven's back-and-forth approach to the stories distracting. "We Will Rise" often lacks a cohesiveness that allows you to emotionally invest in a story that absolutely should lead to your emotional investment. While the direct chapters around the plane crash are involving, most of the closing chapters aren't much more than your usual sports reporting. At times, it actually feels rather disrespectful.

I wanted to truly love "We Will Rise," but I simply had trouble engaging with the book and can't help but feel like it's a missed opportunity to create a truly gripping tale of a tremendous tragedy that many people don't even know about or know very little about. Beaven has crafted a competent account, but it's a disappointingly uneven one that never quite connects as much as it should.

"Girl Meets God: A Memoir" - Lauren F. Winner

It's difficult for me to describe just how much I didn't enjoy reading Lauren F. Winner's "Girl Meets God: A Memoir."

"Girl Meets God" is precisely the type of book I do enjoy. I enjoy reading stories about someone's journey of faith, spirituality or whatever word you wish to use. I enjoy stories of the search and the discovery and the curiosity and the doubt and so much more.

However, for me, "Girl Meets God" comes off as a whiny, entitled young adult with more intellect than common sense and little understanding of the spiritual path that she actually chose. At times, "Girl Meets God" feels more like someone's rebellion against childhood beliefs rather than someone who actually chose a journey of faith and understands what that means.

There's lots of interesting, intelligent material in "Girl Meets God." If you don't understand Judaism, for example, there's a bunch here that you're going to learn. On some level, that could be true for Christianity. However, Christianity here is more paint-by-numbers.

If you're going to call your book a "memoir," then it needs to be a memoir. Winner paints her life story in broad strokes. She speaks in generalizations about the family that has seemingly abandoned her because of her conversion, yet she never really gives us much information about them. Who is Winner? How does she travel all across Europe and the U.S? She does so seemingly at will but never explains her journeys or her Ivy League experiences. She speaks about it all so matter-of-factly and that's where her writing comes off with a sense of entitlement.

At times, I wish someone who works at your local convenience store and who's been robbed three times would write a book about their spiritual journey. That would have substance to it. Winner comes off as a spoiled child who barely gives us a life experience worth mentioning other than one broken relationship and a friend who had an affair.

Who cares?

Ultimately, I didn't care about Winner and I didn't find anything remotely authentic about her journey here. Ego-fueled theological babble does not a memoir make.

I'll take a hard pass on this one.

"Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others" - Barbara Brown Taylor

“The only clear line I draw these days is this: when my religion tries to come between me and my neighbor, I will choose my neighbor… Jesus never commanded me to love my religion.”
                                                                                                           —Barbara Brown Taylor

How have I missed Barbara Brown Taylor?

I honestly can't think of a better way to wind down one of my most active reading years in quite a few years than with Taylor's Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others." This is a book that informed me, educated me, entertained me, and genuinely moved me on a level that was wholly unexpected and deeply appreciated.

With a title borrowed from Krister Stendahl, Taylor has crafted a book that explores her experiences teaching a Religions of the World class at a small Georgia college - the religions included, essentially the biggies, are Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. In the class, she devotes four weeks to each religion, hardly enough time to truly even skim the surface, yet she does note giving Islam six weeks given the current climate toward Islam in the world and in the U.S.

I loved every moment of reading "Holy Envy." I appreciated the exploration of what "holy envy" actually means and how it's relevant within the framework provided by Taylor. Mostly, I appreciated Taylor's rich authenticity and willingness to be confident and vulnerable simultaneously in writing from a place where she can acknowledge her own assumptions. She can explore her own world self-critically, opening herself to new truths and willingly placing herself in a space of unknowing. Ultimately, she's even comfortable writing from that place of unknowing.

I've now read 101 books in 2019 - it's the most I've read in quite some time. To be honest, it all largely began when my church began a Harry Potter series and I found myself finally reading through the entire collection. Once I started reading, I realized how much I'd missed it. Now, I'm reading whenever the time allows and bringing myself back into literary circles.

I'm grateful to have discovered Barbara Brown Taylor and I look forward to moving backward and reading her other titles.

"Learning to Walk in the Dark" - Barbara Brown Taylor

Given my love of Barbara Brown Taylor's "Holy Envy," the first book of hers I've read, I had high hopes that this first book of my 2020 Reader's Challenge would be a 5-star winner.

Sadly, I was disappointed by "Learning to Walk in the Dark," an interesting read that never really had me fully engaged and only once felt truly enlightening as it explored the notion of learning how, as believers, to embrace walking in the dark.

The issues I had with the book ranged from technical concerns to an overall perception that the author was simply ill-equipped to handle the subject matter.

I'll explain.

First off, for a more serious subject matter, the design of the Kindle version of this book was simply abysmal. The spacing is dreadful and dense, the font doing it no favors. Reading the Kindle version was absolute labor - this issue did not exist with Holy Envy.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, this book was, almost per the author's own words, nothing more than an academic pursuit. In the closing chapter, she actually refers to her study of darkness. This book feels like a "study." It doesn't feel like it's guided by anything resembling Spirit. It doesn't feel like it's designed to help or support or inform. It feels truly academic. While this may be what was intended, this is not how the book is advertised. While she acknowledges in the last chapter that this was not intended as an instruction manual, she also acknowledges that she has a tendency to write books before knowing what they're about. This approach can definitely work - many famous authors do it and she's clearly done it. It simply didn't work here for me. The book felt unfocused and meandering at times.

Third, early in the book, she writes that she's not really experienced "darkness" in the human sense. The "darkness" she largely writes about is more of spiritual darkness, though she does dabble, mostly poorly, in the area of physical darkness via blindness. It's in this section that the book is at its ableist worst. At times, the book feels like one of those conversations you have with your bestie at Denny's after they've read the latest self-help book and they've now determined themselves to be an expert on the subject matter.

Truly, I found it troubling. I found the chapter referencing blindness somewhat offensive, though obviously unintentionally so.

Overall, I simply found "Learning to Walk in the Dark" a disappointing read. While I can appreciate that some will benefit from the book's journey through spiritual darkness, the book overall feels like a missed opportunity to explore an important and meaningful subject.

"The Likely Resolutions of Oliver Clock" - Jane Riley

I kept hoping that "The Likely Resolutions of Oliver Clock" would completely grab me, but it just never did. It was good enough that I hung in there until the end, but it's one of those rare books where the 3-star rating was evident from beginning to end.

"The Likely Resolutions of Oliver Clock" was a pleasant enough read, but tonal inconsistencies bothered me - Was it about self-improvement? Was it a romance? Was it a PG-rated "40-Year-Old Virgin?" It never really completely nailed a tone and I never really cared much for Oliver Clock.

In fact, the only character who completely grabbed me was Edie.

I also found at least a half dozen weird wording and/or grammatical choices in the Kindle version - they were significant enough that they actually pulled me out of the story. While I can deal with that from an indie author, from a book having an actual publisher I expect greater attention to editing.

Riley's writing seemed stronger with female voices. Oliver, especially in the first half of the book, just never felt authentic to me and was left with dialogue that didn't feel natural. It improved in the second half, considerably, but I still had an easier time buying into the book's female characters.

The entire first half, really, felt awkward to me and the resolution with Marie a bit too abrupt. That issue with abruptness also plagued the end of the book.

Overall, I don't regret having read "The Likely Resolutions of Oliver Clock" but I can't deny being somewhat disappointed with it.

"Oddity" - Sarah Cannon

As I wrapped up the closing words of Sarah Cannon's "Oddity," I breathed a sigh of satisfaction and relief completing a story I'd thoroughly enjoyed while also not being burdened with figuring out how to create one of my kinder and gentler criticism pieces so as not to offend someone who is, in fact, a semi-regular part of my life.

While many people enjoy reviewing a friend's book, truth be told I dread it. As someone who writes film criticism professionally, I have a complete inability to write a false word in a review. I can be kinder. I can be gentler. I just have to be honest.

That doesn't always work out well.

While I understand some of the criticisms that I've seen lobbed at "Oddity," Cannon's first book that is aimed at the 4th-6th grade crowd, for the most part, I disagree with them wholeheartedly.

This doesn't mean I didn't contemplate a 4-star review, though I can say I never contemplated lower than a 4-star review. I've ultimately decided upon a 5-star for reasons that I'll explain throughout the course of my review.

First off, this is one book where I'll openly acknowledge that knowing the author had a certain unexpected benefit. As I began reading, I began hearing Sarah's voice as a sort of hallucinatory audiobook version that was completely in my mind. It added a personality to the book that I found completely delightful.

The world of Oddity, New Mexico is so vividly realized that I'll also admit that I looked it up to see if there is, in fact, a real such town. I want there to be a real such town.

I also want there to be zombie rabbits.

Cannon's story largely centers around 11-year-old Ada Roundtree, who probably could have qualified as a Nancy Drew type if the story took place in another time and another place. She's innately curious and impossibly mischievious. She's a vividly realized character and the anchor upon what most of the early pages of "Oddity" depends as we get to know her family, her friends, and the unpredictable world of Oddity.

Ada's world includes her best friend Raymond and the town's new kid, Cayden, in all the way from the relatively normal life of Chicago. Ada lives with her parents and her Aunt Bets, the latter easily being my favorite character in the entire book as a fellow double-amputee. The family's in a state of flux, Ada's sister Pearl having won the town's annual Sweepstakes before subsequently disappearing.

The already adventurous Ada becomes even more adventurous after Pearl's disappearance, embarking on risky explorations and quests to uncover Oddity's truths and underlying secrets. When one such mission goes awry, Ada and her friends discover hidden aspects to the town's beloved Sweepstakes. Suddenly, seemingly innocent quests have life-changing implications for Oddity, Ada, the townsfolk and, perhaps most importantly, for Pearl and other sweepstakes winners.

There are those who think Cannon spends an extraordinary amount of time developing the world of Oddity before delving into the meat of the story. While I understand this quibble, structurally it feels a lot like the Harry Potter series. Whereas Rowling would occasionally throw you brief expository reminders and hints to keep you on track, Cannon tends to be more trusting of her reader's ability to maintain a connection to the story. It seems like a good majority of those who've had issues with the book have either - 1) Not completed the book past this point or 2) Had difficulty following this type of narrative structure.

I've always struggled with the idea of reviewing a book that I didn't finish - something I simply don't believe in doing. I take the same approach to film. If I don't finish the film, which never happens, I refuse to review the film. I think "Oddity" is a great example of why this is necessary. "Oddity" is an entire experience. While the early part of the book is somewhat confusing, it sets the stage rather nicely for where the story is going. So, you may be confused early on but by the book's end, you're definitely not going to be confused. You may not be entirely satisfied, but you won't be confused.

In terms of narrative structure, I do get the concerns. Cannon packs a lot into the 300+ pages of "Oddity" and I won't say I felt completely satisfied with each character's development. Raymond, for example, left me unsatisfied with his story arc. However, the few quibbles that I had with the story and the structure were ultimately surpassed by my enjoyment of the story, the world that Cannon created, and the characters that I really enjoyed including my favorite, Aunt Bets, whom I noted in a social media message to the author I wanted to play in the stage version.

I mean, seriously. I'm a double-amputee. I'm practically tailor-made for Aunt Bets. Okay, the end might be a bit of a trick but I have faith I could pull it off.

I am not a regular reader of middle-school lit or YA lit. I've always wanted to try my hand at writing for children/youth, but my mind ultimately just doesn't go there. I admire greatly those who can create such vivid worlds and stories and make them age-appropriate. Cannon has certainly accomplished that task here.

While I had minor issues with character development and a couple of issues with the abrupt resolution of stories and conflicts, these were minor issues that never distracted from my enjoyment of the story that unfolded. It felt, at least to me, like the tone and pacing shifted a bit toward the end of the book and it didn't feel completely natural to me. It felt more like a literary device rather than a natural shift inspired by the story.

I ultimately wrestled with the 4-5 star review debate. So, why a 5-star review?

The importance of "Oddity" lies in the world it creates. Amidst the zaniness an unpredictability of this world, Cannon creates a world where children can make a difference and have the power to survive and thrive in the world around them even when the world around them is immensely flawed and even corrupt. Cannon creates a world where diverse populations have to figure out how to live together and it's those diverse populations that ultimately resolve the conflicts within the book. Cannon creates a world where being female is portrayed as a strength, yet she also doesn't feel the need to abuse the males in the story. Cannon creates a world with positive disability portrayal, both when Aunt Bets is in the wheelchair and when she is not. Cannon creates a world where love wins - but it's not the Hallmark Channel type of love, but it's the kind of love where people show up and fight like hell for one another and refuse to give up even when not giving up comes at great personal risk.

In other words, I don't give a crap about a minor structural issue or a minor character development concern or a tonal shift or the one painful and lonely typo that actually made me laugh. I ultimately care that Cannon has crafted a book that is fun to read and teaches children lessons that I want children to learn about living in this world with themselves and with one another.

The end result is that I loved "Oddity" and I look forward to Cannon's next book coming out in February 2020.

"Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions" - Rachel Held Evans

It's an interesting experience to read "Faith Unraveled" after Rachel's passing. It added a layer of emotion to the entire experience. While I'd long heard of her writing, it was really only in the year or two before her passing that I began absorbing her writing and following her on social media.

For those influenced by Rachel Held Evans, and that's many, the wound from her passing is still fresh. When I posted one of my updates for reading this book, for example, a friend on Twitter tweeted me a "I miss Rachel" message. Indeed, I think many still do and likely will for some time to come.

It was also interesting every time Dan's name was mentioned. I think of him often as he journeys through his grief with their children. It made me sad to think about him as I read about their relationship in this book.

As a book, I won't quite say I think this was near her best. She was still early in her career and she was finding her literary voice. She wrote with a refreshing authenticity about her questions and doubts and how this influenced her faith journey. While that's a journey I did long ago, I think it's a journey that comes up from time-to-time and I appreciated her reflections and I appreciated the great amount of scriptural reference she provided within the book.

Among faith-based writers, Rachel Held Evans was special and this book will remind you how special she was and is likely to remain in the lives of those who appreciated her writing and her ministry. She had a needed voice and she shared it openly and honestly and transparently.

I agree with my friend. I miss Rachel.

"The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever" - Jamie Wright

I got pretty close to exactly what I expected from Jamie Wright's "The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever," a mostly autobiographical collection written by the popular writer of "The Very Worst Missionary" blog.

Wright warns you upfront that she's not the best writer and seems to, in her self-deprecating way, warn you that she thinks it's weird that you would give a negative review to a book she told you would suck. But, yeah.

A good majority of the book is firmly grounded in Wright's life including brief reflections on her younger years, reflections on her early married years, quite a few reflections on her family's five years as missionaries in Costa Rica, and essentially the journey back home where she became a voice for missions reform and more effective humanitarian aid efforts.

In case you have any doubt, she's absolutely right about the fact that most short-term missions do more damage than good and a good amount of both missionary work and humanitarian aid is nothing more than a short-term band-aid that doesn't begin to address root causes and oftentimes serves to perpetuate the need for humanitarian aid.

Wright's book is definitely not for the more conservative Christian crowd. While the book is not filled with obscenities, she doesn't hesitate to use them when she deems appropriate and there's an f-bomb not too far into the book. While I'm absolutely convinced that Jesus dropped more than a few of the f-bombs of His day, I technically have no proof (I wasn't there) and it's not an argument I'm willing to have.

That said, suffice it to say I'm not opposed to the use of obscenities. That said, I will say that even I at times felt like it was done more for effect than actually being naturally manifested. It didn't so much bother me as it simply felt unnecessarily intentional.

I also felt this way about the self-deprecating language. It got old. It's like a comedian who tells a joke, then tells it again and again.

However, for the most part I found myself really appreciating Wright's openness, transparency, and willingness to go into the not so pretty parts of her faith journey.

Okay, actually they were downright ugly at times.

In some ways, I'd compare it to when Glennon Doyle Melton was writing about the issues within her first marriage. There was a rawness and honesty to it that was simply refreshing. The same is true here.

If you're familiar with Wright and appreciate her, then you'll appreciate this book. If your theology is on the progressive end, you'll likely be able to embrace her rawness and language. If you're more conservative, evangelical or fundamentalist, then this book is definitely not one you're likely to embrace.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

"Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved" - Kate Bowler

I was almost relieved when, a mere three months ago, I was hospitalized after 30 years of relative health stability with a rip-roaring case of dehydration, severe infections, and a leg that had ballooned to such a large size that I was wearing pants over six sizes larger than my actual waist so that I could have pants that would fit over the leg.

You see, I've technically been considered "terminal" since birth. After being born with spina bifida in 1965, a time when around 95% of babies born with spina bifida died, I was given 3 days to live. Then, I was given weeks. Then, I was given months. Then, a few years with severe physical and cognitive disabilities. Then, until my teens. No one ever helped me prepare for my adult years because no one expected me to reach my adult years.

I reached my adult years. No one expected me to go to college because, well, cognitively it just wasn't within the realm of possibility. I went to college and graduated with a 4.0 GPA. I've been to seminary. I work. I drive. I own my home.

Oh yeah, and at the age of 54 I'm still around. Oh sure, I'm now a paraplegic/double amputee with spina bifida. Three months ago, I went from being a double below-knee amputee to having the remainder of my left leg amputated. While I'd had a few health issues along the way, I hadn't been hospitalized inpatient for 30 years when I suddenly found myself passing out in my home, inexplicably falling out of my wheelchair, and otherwise just plain struggling.

I'm on the rebound now and hoping to return in a couple of weeks. I'm still considered "terminal," by the way. With every new challenge, I'm reminded that I should slow down, remember my limitations, and maybe make different choices.

At the age of 54, that's probably not happening.

I can look back at my life, though, and I can see the ways that being "terminal" impacted my daily existence. Other than a brief and incredibly misguided marriage in my early 20's, I've largely avoided anything resembling long-term relationships. I've avoided parenting. I've avoided too much commitment in a career I never believed would happen. I've avoided retirement planning. I've avoided the "future," because all I had was the present.

I try not to just write "reviews" of a book. I try to write about my experience with a book.

"Everything Happens for a Reason" is definitely a book I experienced - I didn't just read it. I absorbed the chaos of the world in which Bowler found herself as a happily married woman, an associate professor at Duke Divinity School, an author, and a new mother who also had added to the mix the diagnosis of colon cancer which, next to rectal cancer, is one of those cancers that you simply don't want to get.

An acclaimed author on the subject of prosperity theology, Bowler weaves her knowledge of and experiences with prosperity theology throughout the otherwise autobiographical story that unfolds in "Everything Happens for a Reason." In essence, she views her experiences with colon cancer through both her personal lens and through a theological lens. I have a feeling this is why some readers have struggled with the dual nature of the book, both memoir and theological reflection. While I found it tremendously engaging and thought-provoking, those seeking nothing more than a memoir will likely find it more disengaging and even a little jarring.

It's obvious throughout "Everything Happens for a Reason" that Bowler is struggling not just with her colon cancer but with a theology that teaches that all tragedies result from some test of character or some flaw or weakness in belief or practice. She beautifully brings this struggle to life in the pages of "Everything Happens for a Reason" and yet also paints a powerful, painful portrait of a woman who, at the age of 35, is forced to face life through a "there is only now" lens.

If there's a challenge with "Everything Happens for a Reason," it's likely that Bowler's balancing of both personal and theological lenses doesn't always gel into a cohesive whole. My sense is that this is partially happening because Bowler herself was continuing to struggle with the issues in the book and, as such, couldn't make sense out of something that didn't actually make sense. If you've studied theology or history, then you'll likely be able to fill in some of the gaps but for most readers it's probably not realistic to expect them to be able to fill in the gaps.

I found the lack of concreteness refreshing, however, as so much of living with a terminal or chronic illness is filled with that lack of concreteness. I still spend almost every day of my life asking "Am I dying or not?" Trust me, that's a weird way to live.

The theological circle is a tight circle. I saw this myself during my most recent amputation, a hospitalization during which I saw zero family members but saw multiple members of my theological circle including pastors, peers, people I went to seminary with, and former mentors. Bowler captures how this circle supported her and even helped her access treatment options that would ordinarily not have been available to her as a Canadian working in the U.S. (though I do wish Bowler had delved a little more into the idea of privilege - that she did, in fact, have access to treatment options not available to the wider public. I don't begrudge her these options, but theologically it's a valuable area to explore).

While some have observed that Bowler seemed negative toward healthcare professionals, I found her honesty and observations spot-on and wonderful. In my most recent hospitalization, I had one consulting physician come in on his iPhone talking, end the call, take another call, look at my leg and pronounce abruptly the need for amputation before quickly leaving the room. On the other side of the coin, Bowler is profusely appreciative of those who cared for her and cared for her well but she's also intrigued by those who care for people with relentless commitment with no clear sign that their work will prove successful or even beneficial. She seemed endlessly intrigued by a doctor who committed himself to her journey while simultaneously recognizing the possible futility of it all.

Bowler's book is, in the end, a book of radical honesty and insight. Near the end, for example, she cites those things one should never say or do with a person in circumstances such as hers. However, she also shares openly those things that do help and that helped her. I found both lists rather spot-on and simple yet powerful.

"Everything Happens for a Reason" won't connect with everyone. It's a weaving together of the intellectual and emotional experiences of living with cancer and a good majority of similar memoirs focus largely on the emotional experience. It's a less dramatic and traumatic read, though it does contain drama and humor and insight and the trauma of knowing that when you're gone the life you're living right now will go on without you.

While Bowler's survival is well known since her latest book was released in October 2019, I appreciated the open-ended nature of "Everything Happens for a Reason." It's as if she's learned that valuable lesson about not skipping to the end and chooses to end her writing in the current moment. It's a weird way to end, but it actually made me smile and stop to wish her well and wish her success and wish that she gets to watch her son grow up and her husband grow old.

When I started writing this review and realized that I would be inevitably writing about some of my own personal experiences, I realized I'd also be violating one of mine and Bowler's own rules for support - it's not particularly helpful to share your own experiences when trying to support someone. While there may be applicability, more often than not it's a space filler and a faux common bridge that contributes little to nothing. Yet, I couldn't really write my review of this book without reflecting upon my own experiences with illness and with this book. I couldn't really say "I found this to be true and this to be true and this to be true" without explaining why I deeply resonated with "Everything Happens for a Reason" and the dueling that goes on between heart, mind, and body when one experiences an illness the world calls terminal. I couldn't explain why I practically jumped for joy when she wrote about "skipping to the end" without explaining why I've been doing that my whole life because I've always had more faith in the end than in the now.

Heck, I'm not even sure why this book happened. Oh sure, I know it really got its birth in a New York Times article and in one theology professor's life experiences but it takes a certain chutzpah and vulnerability to decide "I'm going to write about this entire experience and how it really messed with my faith and my academics and my theology."

I'm just glad this book did happen because I look forward to revisiting it again and again.