Thursday, April 30, 2020

"The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and Power" - D.L. Mayfield

It is a weird experience to read D.L. Mayfield's "The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and Power" while hunkered down alone in my three-bedroom home located in one of the rougher areas of Indianapolis's Eastside.

Not quite in my mid-50's, I'm a paraplegic/double amputee who has far outlived my life expectancy with spina bifida and who only recently spent 3+ months off work due to amputation of my left leg above the knee.

I work full-time. I own my home. I drive. I'm an activist here in Indianapolis in the area of violence prevention and have helped raise upwards of a million bucks for charities worldwide.

Yet, the lesson I learn time and time again in life is that I'm disposable.

A Catholic priest told my mother shortly after my birth that it was "God's will" that I die. No kidding.

Time after time after time in my life, my greatest efforts have still often led to exclusion and separation and segregation and somehow always being "less than" others.

I have had relationships end because I could not be the man they wanted me to be. I've, quite literally, lost body parts because mine were deemed of lesser value.

I have, I am embarrassed to admit, spent most of my life pushing myself to the point of self-harm simply trying to be "enough."

Yet, I am never enough. I am told this time and time and time again.

I sought the American Dream, or at least some version of it, but consistently found myself sitting in my wheelchair outside what felt like an impenetrable chain-link fence with the American Dream somewhere out of reach up some inaccessible stairway.

With "The Myth of the American Dream," Mayfield explores what she perceives to be the central values of the American Dream - Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and Power. Writing essays wrapped around each of these values, Mayfield delves into an examination of whether or not these values, or better spoken "The American Dream," is truly compatible with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

It should be no secret the conclusion that she reaches.

"The Myth of the American Dream" is a critique of what has become known as the American Dream and of what has become, far too often, recognized as the contemporary Christian journey. It is also, however, a critique that Mayfield turns within as she's never hesitant to turn that societal microscope on herself and to point out her own mistakes, flaws, weaknesses, and inconsistencies.

"The Myth of the American Dream" will most resonate with those who appreciate a more progressive Christian theology, though "red letter" Christians will also find much to embrace here. Those who follow a prosperity theology, think Joel Osteen, will likely reject the thoughts put forth here while others will find both food for thought and bristling conflicts.

"The Myth of the American Dream" is a weaving together of biblical teaching, personal testimony, and a probing, not particularly gently, of the systemic ways in which living the Christian life can and should conflict with attaining of affluence, autonomy, safety, and power.

Mayfield, a pastor's daughter and acclaimed author of "Assimilate or Go Home," has spent much of her adult life living within Muslim communities abroad and, more recently, working with Muslim refugees here in the U.S. Along the way, she has observed the myriad of ways in which the American dream is rigged and exclusive of those who don't fit within the majority culture. As a middle class white woman, Mayfield is acutely aware that she is both part of the problem and part of the solution.

It is a powerful experience to read "The Myth of the American Dream" in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that has, indeed, derailed the American dream for thousands of citizens. We are learning first-hand about the inequities of the system, some of which we knew and some which are far greater than we'd ever imagined. While I've long experienced that sense of being disposable, we're caught up now very much in this conflict between those who want to tread lightly as we learn about the virus and deal with its impact and those for whom the risk is lower and the desire to "open America" is greater.

Almost without exception, or so it seems, those supporting "opening up" are those for whom the socioeconomic system is naturally biased toward quite intentionally. Refugees are not being welcomed in order to "protect America" while those already at great risk in the U.S. are having their concerns disregarded or are simply being regarded as disposable.

"They're going to die soon anyway," we so frequently hear.

At times, I longed for Mayfield to delve deeper into the issues being presented. While she writes about those refugees seeking safety and fleeing violence or corruption or poverty, there's little time given to those who come simply seeking their own piece of what they perceive to be the "American Dream." At times, it seems like Mayfield practically idolizes the cultures of others yet fails to recognize their own flaws, weaknesses, and even those things that contributed to people fleeing their birth homes. Every culture, I would counter, struggles with the balance of some sort of "dream" and every culture struggles with affluence, autonomy, safety, and power yet Mayfield spends most of her time writing about why the American dream has become misdirected yet, somehow, the cultures from which people come are somehow preferable.

There are, of course, legitimate observations to be made. In fact, for the most part I agree with a good majority of Mayfield's conclusions. I simply wish she'd spent more time in exploring why people leave a culture that would seem to be much more theologically sound for a society that she is claiming is not. What's the difference? Even for those forced to leave due to war or violence, why do they choose the U.S.?

At times, as well, I thought the debate became somewhat muddled between whether the true concern is the American dream itself or the lack of equity to pursue it. Mayfield makes it clear that Jesus himself benefited from those who had wealth and certainly was known to party, yet there are times when "The Myth of the American Dream" seems to admonish the actual dream while later arguing that the real problem is equity in moving toward it. She confesses that the perfect community is one where everyone has the opportunity to pursue the American dream, essentially the opportunity to have enough, yet she often responds guiltily when she realizes that she has wanted or attained something more individualistic in nature as if somehow "want" is inherently bad.

I wrestled with "The Myth of the American Dream." I wrestled with it mightily and that's a terrific thing. I agreed with it. I disagreed with it. I laughed. I cried. I exclaimed. I researched. I learned. I felt admonished. I felt convicted. I looked inward. I did pretty much all the things one should do after reading a book like "The Myth of the American Dream" and I wrestle with these words still. Truthfully, I've changed my rating for the book several times even while writing this review, always vacillating between 4 and 5-stars and desperately wanting a 4.5 rating to be available because I can't help but think this is a book everyone should read precisely because it will lead to self-examination, open discussions, and lots of necessary learning.

Ultimately, "The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and Power" is a book I loved, though it's also a book that I wished had gone deeper and a book that, at times, revealed an unacknowledged privilege from which the writer writes and shares perspectives. Nevertheless, this is a beautifully written book that I will undoubtedly read again and will undoubtedly encourage others to read. It's likely a book that will continue to inform my theological life and my own personal beliefs and practices as a "disposable" adult with a disability who both understands the oppressive nature of the socioeconomic system here in the U.S. and the ways that even within my own challenges I remain privileged by it.

"The Myth of the American Dream" will be released by InterVarsity Press on May 5th.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

"Make Russia Great Again" - Christopher Buckley

Christopher Buckley is the award-winning writer of "Thank You for Smoking" and one of the nation's most acclaimed political satirists. A former writer for National Review, a publication founded by his father, Buckley shocked everyone by supporting former President Barack Obama in 2008 and is noted for his willingness to approach his satire from the full spectrum of political truths including from his own experiences as chief speechwriter for then Vice President George H.W. Bush in the book "The White House Mess."

"Make Russia Great Again," due to be released in July 2020 by Simon & Schuster, finds Buckley at it again and dealing with the political universe of current President Donald J. Trump and one Herb Nutterman, a longtime loyal employee of the Trump Organization who gets pulled out of retirement by Trump to serve as his seventh chief of staff.

Nutterman, who served Trump in a variety of roles including food and beverage manager at the Trump Magnifica and as the first general manager of the Trump Bloody Run Golf Course, soon finds that being chief of staff is an entirely different beast no matter his familiarity with Trump's often eccentric, volatile, and unpredictable ways. From deflecting rumors about the Vice President's high school involvement in a Satanic cult to full-on immersion in Russian political controversies, Nutterman's world may never be the same.

As one might expect, Nutterman's experiences range from incredibly bizarre to completely unbelievable and everything in-between. In other words, everything here that reads as completely impossible seems more than a little likely given the political world of 2020. Buckley takes jabs with a Trump-like subtlety at a host of political figures, most of whom you'll immediately recognize and many of whom Buckley doesn't even try to disguise.

"Make Russia Great Again" is jarring, disturbing, often laugh out loud funny, incredibly insightful, and filled to the brim with Buckley's trademark intelligence and understanding of what lies on the surface and beneath the surface of the political scene.

If there's a downside to "Make Russia Great Again," it's simply that it's a little hard to enjoy what is essentially a parody when you're still living in that parody. There's an uncomfortable timeliness to everything that unfolds here and you bet your sweet bumpkiss that Buckley knows it.

If you're hoping for a light read that just pokes fun at Trump, it's worth noting that Buckley's far too intelligent for that and "Make Russia Great Again" is far too pointed a satire to aim that low. Buckley aims his satirical arrows at the entire political scene, perhaps mostly focusing on the Trump administration but far from letting everyone else off the hook.

I mean, seriously. Think about it. Our two most likely major candidates for President of the United States both have credible sexual assault allegations against them.

Maybe, just maybe, there's a systemic issue going on. Ya' know?

The character of Nutterman is vividly realized, so incredibly well developed that you can practically visualize him alongside Trump or any of the other key players here. You'll laugh. You'll cringe. You'll curl up in a fetal position.

You'll vote. You'll wonder if your vote matters.

"Make Russia Great Again" may not land all its barbs at quite the same level as some of Buckley's masterworks but, once again, there's a timeliness here that makes this book that much more jarring, devastating, and maybe a little bit more difficult to laugh at along the way.

A political satire for the true connoisseur of American politics, "Make Russia Great Again" proves once again that Buckley is one of America's finest political satirists and he's still got a lot to say.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

"Grand: A Memoir" - Sara Schaefer

Sara Schaefer looks anxious.

If you've ever seen stand-up comedian and writer Sara Schaefer, it's hard to deny that she carries the aura of someone who has lived a little, laughed a little, loved a little, and worries about it all.

Schaefer is also funny - really, really funny.

"Grand: A Memoir," scheduled for release by Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster on August 11th, captures both sides of Schaefer and much more in a self-penned journey through the Emmy Award-winning writer's past and present beginning with a childhood that included a scandal that changed the family forever and ultimately culminating in Schaefer's 40th birthday celebration whitewater rafting trip down the Colorado River with her younger sister, Ross.

"Grand" is at its best when Schaefer is exploring the rawness of her life's extremes, whether that be the often poignant yet hilarious challenges of camping with a group of wildly different strangers or the complicated grief over her mother's death that seems to finally bubble up to the surface during Schaefer's way out of her comfort zone trip with her sister. Schaefer isn't hesitant to delve into the darkness of her father's financial scandal, a scandal that cost him a career, the family a grander life, and seemed to detour the entire family's life away from their previous secularism into a committed religious life. She's also not hesitant to talk about her rise to fame as a popular writer/comedian/podcaster and how that fame fueled the flames of an already disintegrating marriage and her own choices that turned an inevitable but likely amicable divorce into a more complicated, highly conflicted one.

Schaefer shares it all. She shares it with heart and humor and honesty and even a few tears. She shares what it's like to experience sexism in the workplace, sexual harassment pretty much everywhere, and rough sex that probably crossed the line.

It was in first grade that Sara told what she believed to be an innocent lie. Of course, the lie was discovered and led to the first of many "dad-isms" over the years, advice that one lie leads to another and soon you find yourself in a hole from which you can't escape. First grade Sara didn't realize how true her father's words were until years later when his own lie, an at first seemingly innocent effort to maintain the family's rather grand Midlothian, Virginia lifestyle, would come crashing down.

Yet, in many ways the truth did set Sara's family free and this is a lesson that has seemingly never been lost on Sara. For the remainder of Sara's childhood, a former upper-middle class lifestyle became more of a working class one with father Billy, mother Billie, and siblings Sara, Ross, Jay, and Cristy immersing themselves in their faith and in serving others. While "Grand" laughs at many of those dad-isms, it's equally true that Sara has come to embrace them over the years even as her family's abrupt transformation seemed to trigger her own obsessive, anxious personality.

By the time Sara reaches 40, she's won two Emmy Awards for her work as Head Blogger for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and acquired a variety of accolades from being named one of USA Today's "100 People of the Year in Pop Culture" to being cited by New York Magazine as "One of the Ten New Comedians that Funny People Find Funny."

Yet, it's obvious from the pages of "Grand: A Memoir" that Schaefer, whom I can't seem to decide if I want to call Sara or Schaefer, remained unresolved about her life, her loves, her family, and the anxiety/depression that seems to have been a consistent if not entirely constant companion that grew in intensity following the death of her mother.

So, it's that 40th year that is at the heart and soul of "Grand," a 40th year that finds Schaefer taking a 1:1 trip with each of her family members up to and culminating in this wildly adventurous trip through the Grand Canyon with her sister, her guides, several other interesting characters, and more than a few animals along the way.

The stories that unfold are filled with Schaefer's brand of enthusiastic and honest humor grounded in real life, though she infuses that humor with vulnerability and honesty and a rawness that comes alive because she paints the truthfulness of her relationships and her own human foibles so completely.

At times, you can't help but laugh with her. You also, at times, can't help but laugh at her. You'll cry a little bit, want to protect her more than a little bit, but mostly you'll find that "Grand" simply showcases the humanity and life experiences that helped turn her into one of America's brightest and most gifted stand-up comics and comedy writers.

Sara's relationship with her mother is, perhaps, one of the most amazing parts of "Grand" because it captures so beautifully the weird and wonderful relationship between mother and daughter. Billie, who loved the middle-upper class existence she enjoyed with her family in Midlothian, embraced her working class existence and, in fact, would eventually start the non-profit Pennies From Heaven, Inc., a non-profit devoted to serving those even less fortunate. There are moments in "Grand" when you can't help but mumble to yourself "I want that mom!" and, indeed, Sara seems wonderfully in touch with the good, the bad, the challenging, and the pretty amazing parts of growing up with her quirky yet lovable tribe.

"Grand" is at its best when it feels spontaneous and alive in the moment. There are other moments in "Grand" that feel overly processed, as if Schaefer perhaps spent just a little too much time finding the perfect wording or searching for the punchline in a story that didn't necessarily need one. In these moments, "Grand" feels just a bit flat and lacks the spark that much of the book, and easily the majority of the book, carries. These are minor concerns, really, for what is, without a grand memoir centered on a grand journey that brought Schaefer closer to her sister and seems to have opened up parts of her that continue to fuel her continued growth in the comedy world.

Humorous and heartfelt, honest and often emotionally exhilarating, "Grand: A Memoir" is a wonderful story about self-talk and self-identity, the stories that made us and the stories that we grow into in our lives. It's a memoir you will most assuredly remember.

Friday, April 17, 2020

"Quintessence" - Jess Redman

"Find the Elements. Grow the Light. Save the Starling."

With these words, middle-grade author Jess Redman begins to take us on our journey with 12-year-old Alma, who is more of a hero than she can possibly realize and who instantly becomes a young girl whom you want to follow for the rest of her life.

When her parents bought a small law practice in the town of Four Points, Alma's stable and joy-filled life was upended and the instability she felt emotionally as she struggled to adapt physically and emotionally became expressed as "episodes" of panic, dread, negative self-talk, and increased isolation. After a few weeks, she convinces herself, and mostly her parents, that these episodes are gone.

She knows the truth. Alma is losing her Alma-ness and doesn't know how to get it back.

The fact that I sit here having written that last sentence with a tear in my eye likely gives you some indication of just how emotionally honest I found "Quintessence" to be, a sublimely written emotional and physical adventure that elicits laughter and tears, memories and reflection.

One day, a still struggling Alma ventures into the mysterious shop at the end of Four Points called The Fifth Point, a rambly and shambly junk shop of sorts where the Shop Keeper loans her a kinda sorta telescope, okay it's a quintescope, and through that quintescope she spies late one night a falling star that, upon landing, presents itself as a rather magical looking child who appears lost and searching for home.

Alma understands that feeling.

Man, I'm crying again.

Determined to somehow help this lost Starling, Alma fearfully steps into her school's Astronomy Club where she meets those who will become essential to her journey - a delightful and seemingly always happy Shirin and a smart and seemingly always smart Hugo.

Originally scheduled for a May release, "Quintessence" has been pushed back to July 28, 2020 in a move that, at least hopefully, frees it from the the challenge of being released amidst the anxiety-inducing pandemic currently impacting daily life. It's a move that one hopes will bring the attention deserved to this delightful, intelligent, and incredibly entertaining novel from Jess Redman.

A therapist who returned to her childhood love of writing with her first middle-grade novel "The Miraculous," Redman writes with a perfect weaving together of clinical insight and a child's eye view of the world that surrounds them.

Redman doesn't show her cards early in "Quintessence," instead allowing us to experience the journey of a 12-year-old who has experiences for which she has no words. By not frivolously tossing in clinical language, Redman also allows us to experience the wonderfulness of Alma and the building of the adventure about to unfold. "Quintessence" may tackle a serious subject, but it does so in a way that is childlike and filled with a sense of wonder and awe at the humanity of all of us and the ways in which we are inherently and irrevocably connected.

Alma is a joy, though for much of "Quintessence" she feels more like an "other." She doesn't feel like Alma and Redman wonderfully captures how that feels for a child. She also wonderfully captures Alma's parents, well-meaning but occasionally misguided in their parenting. With tremendous wisdom, Redman doesn't paint a story of a young child who suddenly becomes everything she needs but instead paints a story of a child who suddenly becomes aware that we all need each other.

The same is true for Hugo and Shirin, delightful children with human foibles and little imperfections in their own lives. "Quintessence" captures the brilliance of their strengths and weaknesses and how they become healthier and happier human beings when they work together.

Dustin, as well, is a bit of a mystery in the book. A bully of sorts with conflicted relationships with all three of our main characters, there's little doubt early on where his story arc will go but it's still a joy watching it unfold naturally and honestly.

And so it is.

"Quintessence" is a magical reading experience that possesses the vulnerable humanity of a child and the magic of the world in which these children live. It tackles serious subject matter, but it does so in a way that is developmentally appropriate, accessible, incredibly entertaining, and destined to create opportunities for conversation and reflection. Redman has constructed a world of creativity and vivid imagination, a celebration of humanity, friendship, the universe, and the myriad of ways in which our lives are better when we are together.

Scheduled for a July 28th release, "Quintessence" will be a valuable read for every middle-grade reader and it would be beneficial for adults to read so that they can answer questions and initiate valuable opportunities for honest conversations. Beyond the obvious value of its subject matter, "Quintessence" is simply a truly enjoyable book with characters you will love and appreciate, a story with which it's easy to relate, and an adventure that will inspire.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Devon Street Review Interviews Sarah Cannon, Author of "Twist" and "Oddity"

Sarah Cannon, Author of "Twist" and "Oddity"
I was sitting inside Indianapolis's Kids Ink Bookstore watching Indy-based author Sarah Cannon read from her latest middle-grade novel "Twist" when it occurred to me that an interview with Cannon would be the perfect way to kick off the interview section of Devon Street Review. I would love to tell you that I struggled to track down Cannon, but the truth is that we share a faith community, a deep love for writing, and a deep love for kids. So, in all honesty, all I had to do during this time of social distancing and a certain COVID-19 pandemic was e-mail her. The resulting interview is everything I'd hoped it would be - intelligent, passionate, revealing, and filled with more than a little bit of wonder. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

I'll start from the most obvious place. Your latest book "Twist" is a middle grade novel that takes place in 1983 Oklahoma. It was a very transitional time for culture and in my own life as it was the year I graduated from high school. Can you talk about why you set the story in 1983 and specifically in Oklahoma?

Most of us have specific years that are simply more vivid in our memories, and 1983 is definitely one of those for me. Interestingly, when I started researching to be sure I was correctly remembering when specific events took place, it hit me that 1983 was also when most Americans got cable. Not long before that, Ronald Reagan had deregulated children’s television, and as a result a lot of TV shows had popped up that were based on toys. Which might not seem like a big deal, when the top ten kids’ shows in the country are all basically thirty-minute commercials, it changes how kids pretend. So 1983 is a kind of liminal space, which is interesting territory for a kids’ fantasy author.

This is your second novel, the first being "Oddity." From what I've read in previous interviews, you've long had an interest in writing. What took you from "I want to be a writer" to "I'm a writer?" So many people say "I want to write," but it's pretty magnificent to actually sit down and write, finish a manuscript, find an agent, and snag a publisher. Can you share about your journey?

I definitely always enjoyed writing, and have rejection letters dating back to high school, but my creative work more or less came to a standstill in college— I worked a lot of crummy jobs to stay in school, often several concurrently. And then life got away from me for a while. I started teaching, moved several times for my husband’s job, had three kids…and it just hit home one day that this was something really important to me, and it was getting lost in the shuffle. I found out about National Novel Writing Month at about the same time, and it provided structure, community, and a specific goal. NaNoWriMo gave me the focus I needed to finish a manuscript...a terrible manuscript, but still. When I reread it, I didn’t love it enough to revise, so I trunked it, but I also kept writing, and my second manuscript was worth revising and querying. After that, I moved through a process that will be familiar to most authors: I queried multiple manuscripts over several years, progressing from form rejections, to rejections with feedback, to “definitely send me your next one” rejections, and finally to agent offers. I was lucky; submitting to editors went much faster, and I landed at Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan with a cosplaying editor who is here for all my weird worldbuilding.
Why did you decide, at least at this point, to target writing for middle grade readers?

Teachers read a TON of childrens and YA literature, and I’m no exception. Movers hate me because of all the books. But I find middle grade in particular to be a very optimistic space. There’s a sense of wholeness and community that’s often viewed by adults as naivete, not in a literal, developmental sense, but in a pejorative one. And yet we also hunger for connection and hope, for new leaders and activists and community partners who will bring us all these things. So I see middle grade literature as both meeting kids where they are, and inoculating them against future despair and cynicism. I will also say that fantasy is my happy place. Fantasy and science fiction step outside “the world as we know it.” They sneak past a reader’s lowered guard to ask big questions. I think a healthy diet of fantasy, like a healthy diet of poetry, can elevate everything we’re doing and learning by asking us why it all matters.

Were there any valuable lessons you learned after writing "Oddity" that you applied to "Twist?"
I would say more that the process of writing a book under contract is very different. You’re doing periodic rounds of revision on the first book while trying to stay in a creative headspace with the second one, and it’s a big change if you’re someone (like me) who usually works on one project at a time. I’m still figuring out how to not get derailed by having to stop one project to work on another.

There are many things that have made both of your books special, but a couple strong things I've noticed that I'd love you to comment on - 1) You've included diverse characters in both books and 2) You celebrate children with a variety of gifts AND you avoid caricatures of characters. I grew up in 70's, early 80's Indy and high schools were desegregated school system wasn't required because it was already diverse. So, I'm always drawn to writing that reflects diversity.

One of the things I ask myself when I’m writing is whether I can see the community I love reflected in my characters. Because I’ve moved so much, I sometimes complain that I just want everyone I love all in one place. So when I’m writing, I’m not thinking about any single community I’ve lived in, but all of them lumped together. I’m also thinking about my readers and how inadvertent omissions on my part will impact them. So I research demographics, both locally and nationally, and I keep them in mind when casting. For example, between 30-40% of Americans are people of color. In kids under 15, that number jumps to more like 50%. That needs to be an important consideration in my casting decisions, as do disability and LGBTQIA+ statistics. Of course, that’s only the beginning when it comes to character research, but I think every writer should look these things up early on in the process. I remember a conversation I had on social media when I was just beginning Twist. A writer said that she would cast diversely, but she only wrote about her hometown and there just wasn’t any diversity there. You and I both know there’s no way she lives in an entirely straight, disability-free town even if she’s on the moon, and also that what she really meant was “there are no people of color here.” So that’s a problematic statement in more than one way, and even her intended meaning was easily debunked with a quick Google search, which established that she had something like 1200 Bhutanese refugees in her town. She just had the privilege of overlooking them. I’m glad you’ve had a positive experience with my portrayals, but I welcome your feedback if you ever feel I’ve missed the mark. I say the same thing to young readers, and I think that level of accountability is also important.
One of the things I've appreciated about you in following you on social media is that you're someone who encourages other writers and you support the #OwnVoices movement. I may be wrong, but amidst the rather fantastic worlds you create there's a definite sense that you write also from your own reality and experiences. Why is #OwnVoices so important and how do you weave that into your own literary tapestry?

The #ownvoices movement is a complex topic, and in some cases the term has been co-opted in ways that are either a stretch or downright silly (think: “#ownvoices equestrian”). The hashtag was originally meant to address whether books with diverse main characters were being written by authors who shared that identity. And then there are conversations branching off from that topic— like the way the industry tends to expect marginalized authors to write identity-focused realistic fiction, when maybe they’d rather pen a space opera. Children’s fantasy is historically extremely white. If you wanted a book about non-European myths and magic, you needed to head over to folklore in non-fiction...I spent a lot of time there as a kid. So to turn around now and have fantasy like Christina Soontornvat’s Thai-inspired A Wish In the Dark, which I know we both love, or Rajani LaRocca’s Midsummer’s Mayhem, which repositions the kidnapped Indian child at the heart of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the margins to the center of the’s just amazing. I feel like a kid in a candy store. So yes, I promote #ownvoices books all the time, because I’m reading and loving them.

As far as how this applies to me personally, I am #ownvoices LGBT, and I think that’s visible in Oddity in particular, but also I try to use that experience to put myself in other people’s shoes and to remember to listen as often as possible, both as a human being and as an author. The representation in my books encompasses a lot of identities I don’t personally share, so there’s a pile of research involved. I work with sensitivity readers, and I ask myself a lot of hard questions. For example, there are very real concerns about when and how a less-marginalized writer should be writing more marginalized characters, and these are tied to underrepresentation among staff at publishing houses. Authors of color cite examples in which a book by a white author is acquired and an author of color is told, “We already have a black main character on our list this year.” This reality can be difficult to navigate; I wasn’t comfortable casting three white children as the main characters in Twist when that didn’t reflect the community that inspired the book, and I worried about the message I’d be sending to readers about who I see, who I value, and what I think they’re capable of. At the same time, I worry about the roadblocks my peers are facing in the industry. Sorting out the right way to represent beloved community in my books is a complex and evolving challenge, and I don’t think it’s possible to compartmentalize that work from the work of supporting diverse authors. So I give away other authors’ #ownvoices titles at my book events, boost the books I love on social media, and support We Need Diverse Books financially as often as I can.
I mentioned this briefly, but your writing speaks up to children and your stories speak up to their characters. Does this type of writing come naturally for you? In "Oddity," for example, you have a character who could be defined as having a disability but the way you create her story arc she's got her physical reality but is far from disabled. You do this across your character spectrum.

I chuckle at this, because I don’t think of myself as speaking “up” to anyone in particular. I’m curious to know more about what this means to you. But since you mentioned Aunt Bets specifically, let’s talk about her. I love Bets. She’s scary in the best way. Kids need adults they can count on, and there’s no question Ada can count on Bets. But as you know, in Oddity being an initiative-taker comes with a lot of additional risk even if you’re doing something mundane, and Bets had a life-changing incident involving a ladder and a carnivorous dumpster. And yet, she’s also the anchor that holds her extended family together throughout the story, not because her sister, brother-in-law, and nieces aren’t strong people in their own right, but because she’s emerged from the initial crisis of her accident, and now they’ve been plunged into one of their own. So she’s on point, and luckily for everyone she’s smart and stubborn and, as Churchill once said when twitted about his use of prepositions, there are some things “up with which she will not put.” When I was writing about her, I was thinking about how amputation shifted a power she’d previously been able to take for granted: mobility. That didn’t change the fact that she’s a powerful person, but it forced her to shift the ways she puts that power into practice. I knew she still had to do all the things, so I focused on how she would have to adapt in order to do them. And I sought out beta readers who had the life experience to critique my work— I can’t stress enough how important that is. Mistakes on the author’s part can do lasting harm to readers, especially young readers.

"Twist" was released not long ago and you had a book release celebration here in Indy at Kids Ink bookstore. Then, all of our lives got interrupted by the spread of COVID-19. I'm wondering as a writer how you're handling this time and how you've had to adapt book promotion?

Oh, I love Kids Ink. I fangirl when I get to do an event there. I was one of the lucky ones...I got to have my launch, do school visits, and so on. I know authors who’ve had dozens of events cancelled. Some have creatively moved their launches online, and I’ve been trying to attend those and boost them whenever possible. As you may have seen, many authors are offering online content for kids who are stuck at home right now. Susan Tan started the Authors Everywhere YouTube channel, and I’ve contributed a read-aloud of the first chapter of Twist, and a discussion of how setting fuels plot— with a bonus 80s trivia page! I’m still mailing swag to kids, and will definitely run some summer reading giveaways! So I’m doing alright, but I will also say that many writers, myself included, find it tough to write during a crisis like this, because our imaginations are so often with distant loved ones, or even people we don’t know who may be afraid or suffering.

Simple question to close out our time - What do you really love about being a writer?

I love when I feel a new idea start to “grow legs.” I love re-reading a scene I’ve written and being truly happy with it. I love getting good feedback from a tough critic. I love getting to read friends’ manuscripts long before they are books. And I love connecting with readers, authors, teachers, booksellers, and librarians!
Sarah Cannon currently calls Indiana home. It's a place she lives with her husband, three kids, and what she describes as a misguided dog. She holds a B.S. in Education and describes herself as a nerdy knitting gardener who drinks too much coffee and eats a lot of raspberries. Both "Twist" and "Oddity" were published by Feiwel and Friends, a MacMillan imprint.

You can pick up a copy of Cannon's most recent novel "Twist" at Amazon or your local indie bookstore; "Oddity" is also available on Amazon, at indie bookstores, and at many libraries including my hometown Indianapolis Public Library system. You can visit Sarah Cannon's website for even more information.

"One Last Lunch: A Final Meal With Those Who Meant So Much To Us" - Edited by Erica Heller

"This isn't what I expected," I found myself mumbling to myself early into Erica Heller's intriguingly titled "One Last Lunch: A Final Meal With Those Who Meant So Much To Us."

A few pages later, I found myself mumbling "I'm just not connecting with this at all," a fact that I found exasperating as the material itself is just SO me.

Several hours later, I was done with Heller's "One Last Lunch," my initial misgivings having given way to a sort of free-for-all surrender to Heller's incredibly literary collection of essays centered around one central concept - the universal longing for one more moment with a lost loved one.

Heller invited dozens of people to imagine one last lunch with someone they cherished; these invitations were extended to friends and families of authors, artists, musicians, comedians, actors, and others.

Heller herself contributes, of course. The daughter of writer Joseph Heller, Heller offers up essays that bookend "One Last Lunch," the first grounded in more than a little fantasy while the last more intimate and raw as if Heller's heart and mind could not escape seemingly inescapable truths.

Between those two essays, Heller has allowed to grow a world of unasked questions, unresolved grief, complicated relationships, unspoken truths, and incredibly deep longing.

As is always true of a collection of essays, some will resonate more than others. There will be some essays where you will finish them and declare to yourself "This doesn't belong here!," a declaration that will likely prove incorrect by book's end as it becomes abundantly clear why each and every essay deserves its place in this world that Heller has planted.

Yet, it is also understandably true that much of your experience with "One Last Lunch" may very well depend upon your own experiences with loss and grief, unanswered questions and deep longings.

If you're expecting "One Last Lunch" to be a sort of "Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul," then you may find yourself more than a little disappointed. "One Last Lunch" is, in fact, far more literary than you might expect and it's filled to the brim with stories from celebrities, both known and relatively unknown, whose life experiences may not be always be identifiable but whose lives still reflect Heller's essential truth that when it comes down to the desire for one last moment we are in many ways exactly the same.

The stories, and I suppose they are stories more than essays, contained within "One Last Lunch" are glimpses into people that we've known and loved who were loved and yet who also had quirks, foibles, flaws, and even darker sides. The stories reveal the truths about relationships, yet they're equally as revealing about the impact of time on grief, the power of gratitude, the weight of regret, and just how much love endures even when our hearts and minds are left to make sense of the senseless.

The stories range from nostalgic to humorous, eloquently written to incredibly raw. The stories reveal themselves in a variety of creative ways that are best left unrevealed here. Suffice it to say that each writer created their lunch in a way that complemented their abilities as a writer and their relationship with the person to be remembered. At times, I would laugh out loud as I turned a page and realized what was to come next.

Other times, I would be rather overwhelmed with the poignancy of it all.

The stories that connect with the reader will be individually determined. In "One Last Lunch," there are no "best" and "worst" stories only stories that resonate most deeply within. In my own experiences with grief and loss and longing, grief that includes the loss of a wife and child at far too young an age, I found myself most connecting with stories that made me laugh a little or cry a little or that seemed almost impossibly vulnerable in their presence.

There are other stories that wax so nostalgically that I practically envisioned them as Wes Anderson movies fully realized. I rather loved them.

I resonated less, I suppose, with stories unfolding almost theatrically. They felt overly staged to me, but there's little doubt they will resonate deeply with others. I also resonated less with those stories based upon more casual relationships or those relationships that feel less "lived in."

Clarence Majors reflecting upon lunch with longtime friend James Baldwin took me into a world I've never experienced myself yet could instantly visualize, while Daniel Bellow's remarkable story about lunch with father Saul Bellow lingers in my psyche still. David Bowie's friend Carinthia West reflects with clear affection about a side of Bowie so seldom revealed to the wider public, while Kirk Douglas's simple yet powerful story about lunch with his father, Herschel "Harry" Danielovitch, is particularly meaningful given Douglas's own not so distant passing.

There are others. There are many others. Jesse Kornbluth's story is unexpectedly satisfying, a reflection about lunch with Nora Ephron about a situational "friendship" that imploded yet was largely unresolved. Phyllis Raphael's warm and affectionate tale of lunch with her young grandson Max Glezos-Chartoff left me, quite simply, in tears. RF Jurjevics's story is among my favorites in the collection, a reflection on lunch with parent Juris Jurjevics that is deep and meaningful and wondrously transparent.

Oh, how hard it is to stop sharing favorites because there's simply so many stories here from which to choose.

I embraced the near playfulness of boss Nancy Evans's story about one last lunch with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, while becoming completely immersed in Dahlia Lithwick's reflection about Paul Newman and Kate O'Toole's delightful story about lunch with father Peter O'Toole. I laughed, truly laughed, at comedian Richard Lewis's reflection on one more lunch, for which he would inevitably pick up the check, with comedy legend Jonathan Winters. Rain Pryor writing about her father Richard Pryor, Taja Sevelle on Prince, and daughter Anne Serling's inspired reflection on father Rod Serling are also highlights, while I'd be incredibly remiss to not mention Cameron West's emotionally raw reflection on comedian Robin Williams and Mark Vonnegut's story around my hometown favorite of Kurt Vonnegut.

There's more. I know. I know. I keep saying that. There's more, but these are truly stories and reflections and memories better to read about oneself rather than in some book review from someone you've likely never met.

"One Last Lunch: A Final Meal With Those Who Meant So Much To Us" is simultaneously emotionally satisfying and intellectually stimulating. Heller has crafted a collection of stories that could have so easily felt pretentious, yet instead feels universal and connecting. Filled with stories by writers and non-writers alike, the stories that unfold in "One Last Lunch" are filled with words longing to be expressed, emotions desperate to be understood, and years of "what ifs" floating in the air.

Erica Heller is the author of the memoir "Yossarian Slept Here," the novel "Splinters," and "300 Ways to Say No to a Man," a humor book illustrated by Seymour Chwast. She has contributed to the New York Observer, Huffington Post, and other publications. "One Last Lunch: A Final Meal With Those Who Meant So Much To Us" will be released in May 2020 by Abrams Press.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

"A Wish in the Dark" - Christina Soontornvat

I discovered Christina Soontornvat's "A Wish in the Dark" thanks to friend and middle-grade author Sarah Cannon, whose own middle-grade title "Twist" was recently released and continues to be one of my favorite middle-grade titles of early 2020.

The Indianapolis-based Cannon offered what can only be described as a rave for "A Wish in the Dark," an incredibly engaging tale set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world vividly brought to life by Soontornvat's imaginative yet natural language and imagery.

The world that Soontornvat creates is known as Chattana, a land once destroyed by a "Great Fire" that now prospers under the mystical leadership of a man known only as Governor. The city is one known for its seemingly magical lights, lights that are indescribably beautiful yet seen only from a distance by a 9-year-old boy known as Pong. Pong's life is anything but magical, a childhood spent inside the walls of Namwon Prison due to his having been born the child of a prisoner. For Pong, these faraway lights represent a freedom he has never known.

When the opportunity avails itself and Pong escapes from the darkened environs of the only world he's ever known, he quickly learns that even where there is light there is darkness and the mystical world he enters is no more fair than the one he left behind.

Along with leaving behind his best friend Somkit, Pong leaves behind a disgraced prison warden and his already vulnerable family including Nok, his perfect daughter whose days become consumed by tracking Pong down and restoring her family's good name. Yet, even for Nok there are lessons to be learned as she hunts Pong down the alleys and through the canals of Chattana and soon discovers herself that the only life she's ever known is not what she's always believed it to be.

"A Wish in the Dark" is an intelligent and inspired retelling of Victor Hugo's esteemed "Les Misérables," and while such an objective is perhaps lofty there's little doubt that Soontornvat makes that novel's incredible story more accessible than it's ever been while still telling a story all her own.

As I hunkered down last evening under my blankets on a chilly Indianapolis night determined to complete my literary journey with "A Wish in the Dark," I simultaneously lamented that such an accomplishment would also end my days inside this remarkable world created by Soontornvat.

"A Wish in the Dark" is a book that teaches without ever preaching. It's a book that looks at issues of privilege, protest, and justice without ever losing the simplicity and wonder of its story. "A Wish in the Dark" casts its fast-paced adventure tale without speeding through the character development we need to embrace such lovely and intriguing souls as Pong, Nok, Somkit, Father Cham, Ampai, and even the Governor among others. It's a story that embraces the dark parts of life without ever, as one character does, exploiting it.

In short, "A Wish in the Dark" is both a meaningful story for readers of all ages, but especially middle-graders, and an incredibly entertaining and involving reading experience.

There were moments, and I do mean more than one moment, during "A Wish in the Dark" when I shed a tear, not just out of sadness but out of the joy of fully realized characters living fully realized lives filled with joys and sorrows, lessons and self-discovery. I nearly wept at the honest, natural of the friendship between two boys, Pong and Somkit, that is captured in a way that's so rarely done even in children's literature.

Yet, there were also moments when I laughed aloud as characters, especially Pong and Nok, stumbled upon their "Aha!" moments with spontaneity and innocence and grace.

As a longtime activist myself, it would be easy for me to write an entire essay on the social justice lessons alone in this insightful, intuitive work of fiction alone. As an adult reader, I embraced, perhaps with more clarity than ever before, the ways in which poverty and oppression are institutionalized and not simply cyclical in nature.

I also embraced something that I've spent most of my life teaching as my mantra - one person can make a difference in the world.

Yet, for all its valuable lessons and deeply ingrained values what I don't want to get lost with "A Wish in the Dark" is the beautiful and wonder-filled story being told by Soontornvat. "A Wish in the Dark" is truly inspired by its Thai roots and nearly perfect in the way it weaves together its characters and its culture. It's both fast-paced and incredibly patient, adventure-filled and remarkably intimate.

In "A Wish in the Dark," we are told “You can’t run away from darkness. It’s everywhere. The only way to see through it is to shine a light.” Indeed, in a world that can feel so incredibly dark "A Wish in the Dark" is pure light.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

"The Tango Effect: Parkinson's and the Healing Power of Dance" - Kate Swindlehurst

Kate Swindlehurst's "The Tango Effect: Parkinson's and the Healing Power of Dance" is so much about that healing power of dance, specifically the Argentine Tango, that there are times you forget about the ever present Parkinson's Disease.

Swindlehurst's story is her own, the Parkinson's Disease a diagnosis she acquired a little over ten years ago which ended her teaching career yet also caused a life detour into the world of writing and, yes, back into the world of Argentine Tango.

The studies around the healing power of dance are well documented; "The Tango Effect" often refers to them, an approach to her journey that is refreshing as "The Tango Effect" spends as much time stimulating the mind as it does the emotions. Yet, a good majority of "The Tango Effect" is about Swindlehurst herself and the dance that has positively impacted her life over the past 10+ years.

Recently released by crowdfunding publisher Unbound, "The Tango Effect" explores the world of Argentine tango in such a way that for more than a few pages you may find yourself asking "What have I stumbled into?"

Have patience. There's a method to Swindlehurst's writing and it's remarkably effective by book's end. By understanding the history and techniques behind the Argentine Tango, you gain a better understanding of why Argentine tango can have such a remarkably healing impact on those with Parkinson's Disease. Argentine tango is not, of course, a "cure" for Parkinson's Disease but instead a way that individuals such as Swindlehurst can help manage the ways in which the disease impacts the body and the mind.

Originally given birth as an article, "The Tango Effect" follows Swindlehurst over the course of a year as she incorporates, or rather re-incorporates given she'd had previous experience with the dance, Argentine tango into her life. It was an experiment, really. She had willing participants from a dance studio that believed in inclusivity and who were intrigued by the possibilities and, over the course of that year, the Argentine tango seemingly found its way into her psychological and physical healing regimens.

"The Tango Effect" is an unapologetically literary effort, a work of creative nonfiction that worries less about tugging one's heartstrings and more about accurately and effectively documenting Swindlehurst's journey. This doesn't mean that "The Tango Effect" has no emotional resonance. In fact, quite the opposite is true. As an American reader, however, I must confess I initially struggled with the fact that Swindlehurst, a writer from the U.K., largely avoided the American tendency to write for the emotional experience and to turn the entire affair into the next Lifetime Channel movie of the week. Instead, Swindlehurst's writing is as intelligent as it is emotionally resonant and it's clear from page one that Swindlehurst fully well intends us to understand the world into which she immersed herself including its history and the finer musical points of Argentine tango.

Once I adapted to Swindlehurst's distinct literary rhythms, I found them refreshing.

At a little over 200 pages including references and resources, "The Tango Effect" is a quick read filled with moments of genuine revelation, quiet humor, stark vulnerability, a wonderful exploration of intimacy amidst dance, and so much valuable information about Argentine tango that even this dance shy paraplegic/double amputee wheelchair user found myself intrigued by the idea of exploring the ways dance could impact my own healing and self-perception.

"The Tango Effect" is described by the author herself as "quirky" and "intimate" and, indeed, it is very much so. It's a joy watching Swindlehurst, an accomplished writer before penning this self-published title, journey toward a greater degree of self-acceptance and an absolute refusal to be defined by Parkinson's. For her, the Argentine tango becomes both companion and liberator and it's exhilarating to watch unfold over the course of Swindlehurst's year. The book beautifully explores the dance - it's history and music and its relational aspects. "The Tango Effect" explores Swindlehurst's friendships that were formed through remarkable, and very mutual, vulnerabilities and yet it does so with as much examination as emotion. "The Tango Effect" is a reminder that while disability, or at least the physical reality of our body, is very real so is our ability to live exhilarating and fulfilling lives regardless of that physical reality. It doesn't promise a "miracle cure," but instead offers light where there sometimes feels like there's only darkness.

"The Tango Effect: Parkinson's and the Healing Power of Dance" will most resonate with those with professional interests in dance, Parkinson's, and the healing power of the arts in general. Those looking for more of a touchy-feely "rah rah" story may be less engaged, but there's much hope and inspiration to be found in this engaging, satisfying title now available from Unbound.

Monday, April 6, 2020

"These Women" - Ivy Pochoda

It's an especially odd experience to read Ivy Pochoda's latest mystery/thriller "These Women" as I'm hunkered down alone in my urban Indianapolis home during 2020's introduction to pandemic horror called the pandemic crisis. Thousands of Americans have already lost their loves and it's said that we've not yet reached our peak. As a nation, we're faced with deciding if "these people" matter...these people, in the case of COVID-19, being mostly the nation's elderly and medically vulnerable who are most at risk of significant health issues from COVID-19.

If we were to listen to some news channels, rescuing the nation's economy is a higher priority or, at the very least, an equal priority. For others, however, a few weeks of hunkering down and simplifying life is worth it to lessen the risk for our nation's most vulnerable citizens and the others who are most at risk of COVID-19.

"These Women" is not about COVID-19. "These Women" is not about any sort of illness or pandemic or national crisis. It's about everyday life in West Adams, a rapidly changing part of South Los Angeles where "these women" are being murdered and no one, not even the police, seems to care.

For some, these are women who got what they deserved. For others, they're simply women who don't matter. They're disposable.

Ivy Pochoda, award-winning author of "Visitation Street" and "Wonder Valley," cares about these women and their voices and their life experiences.

Pochoda cares about their deaths.

There's Dorian, a rough and grizzled woman who drowns her days in a low-rent fish shack doing what she can to care about "these women" as some sort of complicated grief over her own daughter, Lecia, who was murdered 15 years ago.

There's Julianna, also known as Jujubee, a hard-living dancer with a street swagger that would seem to imply she owns these streets.

There's Essie, a former homicide detective turned vice whose investigative instincts tell her there's a pattern that no one else sees or wants to see.

Marella? She's a girl from the 'hood who lives on its fringes. A daring performance artist with provocative words and images, her latest exhibit takes her a little too close to the danger that surrounds her.

Finally, there's Anneke, a compassionate nurse with secrets inside her immersed in a world of order and structure that she fights fiercely to protect.

"These Women" begins in the past, 1999 to be exact, when the murders began but no one was really paying attention. The neighborhood was rougher then, the murders the price to be paid for living in a rougher neighborhood. No one called it "serial" because serial meant more paperwork and more attention and a whole lot more that "these women" didn't deserve.

The murders stopped after Lecia, who seemed to have nothing in common with the others other than someone left behind to grieve and a handful of loose ends no one cared to take time to notice.

Then, we move forward to 2014. The murders have started again. Once again, no one dares utter the word "serial" except for Essie, a barely 5' tall cop who looks more like a kid on a bike but who notices and listens and sees and cares.

"These Women" is crafted with a kind of beauty that has likely never been witnessed in these women's lives. Pochoda doesn't so much sympathize with them as she lives with them peacefully and gracefully. She takes these women at face value, neither softening their edges nor masking over their hard-earned character flaws or street-roughened defenses.

At nearly 500 pages, Pochoda makes sure that we spend time with these women too. She makes sure we understand their lives and sink into their life rhythms. She doesn't so much care if we "like" these women. She cares if they matter to us.

There's a difference.

These women have names and Ivy Pochoda wants to make sure we remember them. By the end of "These Women," you will remember them.

"These Women" is really a feminist mystery/thriller, a novel that insists that these women's lives mattered and that they deserved better than to have their murders tossed aside because of the life choices they made and the careers they chose or that were chosen for them by life circumstances and luck of the draw.

Dorian largely narrates the story, her long ago tragedy now relegated to history and her current mystery of dead birds showing up on her doorstep tossed aside as easily as was her daughter. She's dismissed as more than a little bit crazy, a grieving middle-aged woman who for some reason stays in the neighborhood that destroyed her life.

Pochoda also vividly gives us Essie's voice, seemingly different yet often more of the same. There's Feelia, someone we haven't even mentioned yet, who survived a similar attack but whose current life often plays out in such a way that you can't help but wonder if she really survived.

"These Women" is not a serial killer novel, though it certainly falls well within the genre of mystery/thriller. The mystery isn't just "Who killed these women?," but also "Why don't these women matter?" Pochoda wants to know and demands to know.

Truthfully, Pochoda knows and in her own special way she shames us for it as she should.

Pochoda reminds us that there's a ripple effect when one woman doesn't matter. She reminds us that each of these women's lives mattered and all of these women's lives mattered including the ones that were lost and the ones left to pick up the pieces and assemble some sort of life after all is said and done.

"These Women" is a slow-building and simmering mystery/thriller, perhaps too slow for some as Pochoda immerses us in these women's lives and in their neighborhood. She gives us enough to actually care about these women, but she also wisely gives us enough to understand why they've been tossed away. Your world lens will likely determine how you view these women - Pochoda knows that and she doesn't shy away from it.

"These Women" benefits from Pochoda's voice and I'd dare say it's a novel that needed to be written by a gifted, observational female writer such as Pochoda. Like many of the other detectives in "These Women," male writers would have focused the material differently and would have been at exploiting the very women they were attempting to write about. Pochoda's approach to these women is intimate yet universal, insightful yet emotionally honest and genuinely manifested.

The revelation in "These Women" unfolds surprisingly quickly, perhaps a bit too quickly for this writer, with a tonal shift and an abrupt pacing twist that feels honest in terms of storytelling yet arrives with less suspense than one expects from a mystery/thriller. This feels like less underwriting and more, perhaps, over-editing as it feels like there's a sliver of life missing from the words that would connect us, the readers, to these women and the truths that are unfolding.

However, this is a minor concern for a novel that is bold in its storytelling and fiercely devoted to the women who fill its pages and the importance of their stories and their lives. "These Women" is gritty and graceful storytelling. It offers the kind of storytelling you hope to find in your movie theaters one day, though you hope the movie is directed by a woman because the female voice is so central to this novel's success along with Pochoda's stunning, fluid writing and tension-filled dialogue.

Scheduled for a May 2020 release with HarperLuxe, an imprint of HarperCollins, "These Women" beautifully weaves together crime thriller and female empowerment into a novel that you won't want to put down from beginning to end.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

"It's Like Heaven: Stories from Camp Sunshine" - Edited by Dorothy H. Jordan

With an expected June 2020 release date from University of Georgia Press, Dorothy H. Jordan's "It's Like Heaven: Stories from Camp Sunshine" arrives in the public eye on the heels of the award-winning Netflix documentary "Crip Camp," an often sentimental and frequently political look at New York's groundbreaking Camp Jened and the disability rights activists it produced.

While you might expect "It's Like Heaven" to have a similar tone given its based upon a camp started in 1982 by for children with cancer started by Ms. Jordan, wife of the late President Jimmy Carter Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan, nearly the exact opposite is true.

If there were a genre called "feel good" books, "It's Like Heaven: Stories from Camp Sunshine" would fit comfortably within it.

Founded in 1982 as a place for children with cancer to experience the normalcy of childhood in a safe place, the camp's first official season was in 1983 when approximately 40 campers between the ages of 7-18 attended the camp held in the north Georgia mountains. 35 years later, more than 400 campers attended the 2018 camp and several hundred more campers and family members participated in more than 150 additional recreational, educational, and supportive Camp Sunshine programs held throughout the year in Metro Atlanta, Savannah, and other areas of Georgia.

Camp Sunshine, unlike Camp Jened, continues to be vibrant in its existence and is a non-profit organization with hundreds of volunteers who provide support to the camp's ongoing leadership staff along with pediatric oncology nurses and doctors who support the campers.

"It's Like Heaven: Stories from Camp Sunshine" is a "feel good" book, though not always necessarily a happy one as not all of the children whose stories are told within the book's pages have survived with their stories being told by family members, friends, or counselors. Yet, rather remarkably, "It's Like Heaven" maintains its upbeat tone throughout and it's clear that even when a life has ended tragically that Camp Sunshine provided each of these children a place where they could be themselves "as is."

Each chapter in "It's Like Heaven" is a former camper's personal story about their childhood cancer journey and their years at Camp Sunshine. After each testimony, the book rather uniquely includes another story by the camper's nurse or another member of the Camp Sunshine community. It's a rather poignant approach to telling the stories of struggle and the stories of healing for each camper and, in fact, many of Camp Sunshine's staffers. Every story also include beautifully vibrant photos of the campers, their mentors, and the overall vibe of the Camp Sunshine experience.

It's difficult to express just how much the photographs add to the overall impact of "It's Like Heaven."

As a writer of both book and film reviews, I'm often quite honestly about my own life experiences growing up with spina bifida and subsequently living far longer than anyone ever expected. As a child and teenager, my own disability experiences were given a safe place to express themselves within Martinsville, Indiana's Bradford Woods and the Riley Hospital sponsored "Camp Riley," a place where I could annually be myself and become comfortable with the things that physically made me different from my peers. I grew as a human being at Camp Riley, more comfortable with myself and more comfortable with the world around me.

From reading the stories within "It's Like Heaven," it's obvious that Camp Sunshine has had a similar impact on generations of children and teens who've often survived and thrived through their childhood cancer experiences and, at least it would appear, have often found themselves later working in the helping professions such as nursing or medicine or other areas of healthcare. For many of them and for many of the camp volunteers, Camp Sunshine becomes not just an annual experience but a lifetime commitment and a lifetime community.

The casual tone in "It's Like Heaven" often makes it read like you're sitting down and having conversations with these people. The stories are told in first-person and there's far more of an emphasis on maintaining the writer's distinct voice than there is a pre-occupation with writing expertise or any sense of formal structure.

For the most part, this works wonders as "It's Like Heaven" often feels spontaneous and natural and honest. There are times when the testimonies border on repetitive and, yes, the word "camp" is used an awful lot in the book and it's almost to the point of distraction. However, these are really minor concerns for a book with such a good heart and such a genuine, compassionate spirit.

For those who appreciate motivational and inspirational stories, especially those centered around children, "It's Like Heaven: Stories from Camp Sunshine" is sure to be an enjoyable reading experience. It's also likely to resonate with anyone who's ever experienced childhood cancer or other chronic health conditions that have impacted daily life or led to your own life-changing camp experiences.

For children who endured so much, it's crystal clear that 35 years later Camp Sunshine is still just like heaven.