Saturday, May 30, 2020

"The Book of Altars and Sacred Spaces" - Anjou Kiernan

Anjou Kiernan's "The Book of Altars and Sacred Spaces: How to Create Magical Spaces in Your Home for Ritual and Intention" is a valuable introduction to and reference for those individuals who embrace the "magickal" path of spirituality including Wicca, Paganism, and other earth-centered spiritual paths.

I must confess that I didn't quite realize when I first opted to request an Advanced Reader's Copy, though looking back the introduction and marketing material certainly suffices and I was simply caught up in the idea of a book related to home-based altars/sacred spaces.

My bad.

While I wouldn't describe myself as the target population for "The Book of Altars and Sacred Spaces," I'm familiar enough with the topic to appreciate the author's knowledge of the subject, splendid photographs, and journey through the seasonal Sabbats and holidays.

The mission of the book is to teach how to create altars and sacred spaces based upon the Wheel of the Year. Kiernan takes us through the main dates and seasons of the year and offers concrete ideas for building of such altars and sacred spaces utilizing a variety of elements, spices, herbs, plants, foods, items, and many other things. She's precise, yet many of her ideas are fluid and easy to individualize.

Even as someone outside the realm of the target market for this book, I found much of the information shared to be familiar knowledge yet it's nicely organized and thorough in presentation. This is a beautifully produced, simply written book that could easily be a table book and would look beautiful within one's home.

Kiernan is creator of the Light of Anjou online witchery shop and apothecary and was named “One of the Magical Women on Instagram You Should Be Following” by Refinery 29. You can simply feel from each page in the book that Kiernan lives these teachings and that gives "The Book of Altars and Spaces" a warmth and intimacy to be valued.

Cover over 50 different magical spaces, "The Book of Altars and Sacred Spaces: How to Create Magical Spaces in Your Home for Ritual & Intention" is due for release on June 16th by Fair Winds Press.

Friday, May 29, 2020

"Fortunately" - Nava EtShalom

Nava EtShalom notes on her website that she "learned to talk in Jerusalem and to read in Brooklyn." A doctoral candidate in English at the University of Pennsylvania, EtShalom is an educator who has taught literature and writing classes for undergraduates and political workshops in radical movement spaces.

She has taught poetry to kindergarteners.

She is now in Philly, describing herself at the end of her chapbook "Fortunately" as a "newly disabled poet" for which she offers no explanation other than the 23 poems upon these pages laid bare that reveal her spirit and the broken spaces within life for which there are no easy questions or answers.

EtShalom utilizes religious imagery that is immersive and intimate and universal, a spiritual tapestry of life's deepest moments stitched together by her "God of Suicides" and by the cultural waves that reverberate more deeply within us than we are often able to realize.

She feels these waves. These waves crash throughout "Fortunately."

Nava's poetry has won 92Y's Discovery Award, a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, and prizes from the Academy of American Poets. As an editor, she's worked on stories for "This American Life," the New York Times, and other outlets.

Familiarity with the meaning that grounds her imagery is helpful to fully appreciate the wonder that is "Fortunately," but it is by no means a requirements. "Fortunately" will breathe this understanding into you, perhaps not with words but with a soul that seems to understand.

"Fortunately" is worship and healing, gratitude and grace, grief and trauma. Celebration.

There is a sense of mosaic wholeness, a spirituality borne of love and innocence somehow existing, not quite peacefully but existing, amidst the violence that surrounds us and festers within us.

Due for release by Button Poetry on July 21st, "Fortunately" will engage, inform, challenge, and flicker like a solitary candle on a lonely rainy night.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

"The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World" - Patrik Svensson

"The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World" shouldn't work. It just shouldn't.

Be honest. The title makes you laugh. The concept seems downright weird.

Truthfully? I can't imagine there will be a book that will surprise me more than did Swedish journalist Patrik Svensson's debut that he himself has called "strange and nerdy."

"The Book of Eels" is, indeed, strange and nerdy.

It's also sublime. It's also lyrical. It's also mesmerizing. "The Book of Eels" is hypnotic and immersive, informative and engaging. It's one of 2020's most pleasant surprises, an almost unimaginable weaving together of natural history meets memoir.

"The Book of Eels" is about eels, that's definitely true, but it's also about life and love and how our existence defines us and how our existence can never define us. It has faith in science, yet offers glimpses of being tempted like a mysterious lover by the mystique of faith and the soothing security many find in trusting the unknowing.

Already winner of Sweden's top literary prize, the August Prize, "The Book of Eels" entered my life almost as a dare. A friend who fears eels became aware of the book and expressed a temptation to read it. My curiosity got the best of me and on the eve of its U.S. release by Ecco, a HarperCollins Publishers imprint, I almost timidly requested the opportunity to review it.

Within hours, my request was granted.

"What have I gotten myself into?," I asked myself.

"Why am I reviewing a book about eels?" "Am I insane?"

"No. No, I'm not insane. I'm strange. I'm strange and nerdy," I chuckled to myself.

I started reading, Svensson's poetic lyricism quickly immersing in alternating chapters serving up natural history and Svensson's own childhood memories of nighttime eel fishing with his father under a thin moonlight and amidst the shallow waters not far from their nearby home.

Svensson wrote "The Book of Eels," or gave himself permission to write "The Book of Eels," after his father's death by cancer. It was a death that added mystery to a man who'd always been a bit of a mystery, a mystery not far removed from that of Anguilla anguilla, the European Eel. They are notoriously elusive creatures that have refused to reveal their secrets over the years. It is believed that they are all, quite literally all, born in the sea without borders, Sargasso Sea. They will eventually return - to mate and to die, though to date years upon years of research has been unable to determine why.

They simply do. They all do.

Svensson could never quite figure out why his father so completely loved eel fishing. As near as Svensson could tell, he never learned it from his father or the man he would come to know as father. He simply did and he surrendered himself to it.

Aristotle researched the eel, developing both well-founded and remarkably outrageous theories. A younger Sigmund Freud spent an entire postgraduate research project searching for, quite seriously, the eel's testes. He failed to find them.

Yet, they reproduce.

Danish marine biologist Johannes Schmidt spent 20 years exploring the eels' connection to the Sargasso Sea, while Rachel Carson spent her entire professional life obsessed with the eel.

The eel's truths have remained elusive; it's secrets remain well hidden.

As I began reading "The Book of Eels," it became a mesmerizing story I dared not put down. It's not that so much happens. It doesn't. It's that I became enchanted by Svensson's worlds, both that of the eels and that of a father and a life whose secrets remain ever elusive.

Svensson, who describes himself as not believing in God, is clearly intrigued by the metaphysical world that he brings so vividly to life here. He believes in science, yet he cannot deny that science has been unable to answer the mystery of the eel.

Likewise, despite all that he knows about his life and his father there remains ancestral secrets and unanswered questions that will likely never be answered.

Svensson rather magnificently brings science to life here, yet he does so embracing the cosmic hilarity of eels that can even seemingly transcend their own realities at times. At times, you can practically hear Svensson's chuckling amidst his words. The long history of eel fishing is waning, the number of eels inexplicably waning and their numbers now protected as they are identified as endangered. He embraces this, never having loved eel fishing quite as much as his father did yet writing about it with such warmth and reverence that you simply know it somehow altered his DNA.

There is little denying that "The Book of Eels" will not resonate with everyone, perhaps its cinematic equivalent being a European-tinged Malick effort that patiently, intimately reflects upon life, faith, science, death, and what this all actually means. While not all will engage with its unique, almost fairytale like rhythm, for those who surrender "The Book of Eels" has much to offer and will prove to be one of 2020's most unique, engaging, and inspired literary experiences.

"The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World" was released on May 26th by Ecco.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

"Made Possible" - Edited by Saba Salman

Edited by social affairs journalist Saba Salman, "Made Possible" is the latest release to come from the groundbreaking U.K. crowdfunding publisher Unbound.

The book features eight stories, testimonies really, of individuals living life with learning disabilities while having extraordinary success. It's worth noting that this U.K.-based title defines learning disability somewhat more differently than how it's defined in the U.S. as within this book learning disability includes such diagnoses as Down Syndrome and Hydrocephalus (among others) and generally indicates a major impairment in intellectual disability (an IQ of 69 or less), major impairment in adaptive functioning areas such as self-care, safety or relationships, and is generally regarded as having had a childhood onset. While at one point in the book it seemed the U.S. definition of "intellectual disability" would match, this was obviously not always the case. Thus, being aware of some differences in definition and perception is important.

"Made Possible" illuminates the possibilities for those whom society often uses the word "impossible," shattering preconceptions while also offering a glimpse inside British culture, the NHS, and how essential it is for everyone to be afforded an equitable opportunity at a quality life beginning at an early age.

The stories that unfold in "Made Possible" include:

Gavin Harding - the first learning-disabled person to be elected a mayor in the U.K and the first person with a learning disability to be employed by NHS England (where he works as a learning disability supervisor). He is a passionate opponent of institutional care, himself having experienced several years in a series of secure hospital units after having mental health difficulties in his early twenties. He was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for services to people with learning disabilities in 2014.

Matthew Hellett is an award-winning filmmaker, performer, and a drag artist from Brighton. He is the head programmer of the Oska Bright Film Festival and in 2017 introduced a groundbreaking queer strand to the festival. He is one of the first two people with a learning disability to have been accepted on to the UK film industry mentoring program called Guiding Lights. Thus far, he has made five films having been shown at festivals nationally and internationally.

Laura Broughton became the first woman with a learning disability to win a place at the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition in 2016 and is an artist-in-residence at South Bank University and has a BA in Fine Art Painting and a postgraduate diploma from the Royal Drawing School. She also has a career in social care as a consultant and trainer.

Dan Pepper is a former Paralympian and multi-award-winning elite swimmer who was appointed as a high-performance athlete ambassador for the national campaign "My Sport, My Voice!" run by the UK Sports Association for People with Learning Disability. He runs his own personal training business and still regularly takes part in outdoor endurance events around the UK.

Lizzie Emeh made history in 2009 as the first solo artist with a learning disability to release an album of her own songs to the public, "Loud and Proud." She performed at the London Paralympic Games and continues releasing new music.

Gary Bourlet is a veteran civil rights campaigner who founded Learning Disability England in 2016. Back in 1984, he launched the international disability civil rights movement People First in the U.K and over the last 30 years has set up campaign groups all over the country training people with learning disabilities in leadership roles and encouraging them to speak up for themselves. In 2018, he was awarded a lifetime fellowship at the City Literary Institute in London.

Sarah Gordy became the first woman with Down Syndrome to be awarded an MBE for services to the arts and people with disabilities. She is known for her work in BBC dramas "Upstairs, Downstairs," "Call the Midwife," and "The Silkworm." She has made appearances in ITV's "Peak Practice" and BBC's "Holby City" and "Doctors." She played the lead role in Ben Weatherill's critically acclaimed play "Jellyfish" and starred as a character without a disability in Lee Mattinson's play "Crocodiles."

Shaun Webster is a father, grandfather, and human rights campaigner who was awarded an MBE in 2015 for services to people with learning disabilities and their families. He works all over the UK and overseas as a speaker/trainer for the human rights charity CHANGE. He is the co-author of "Leaving Institutions, Voices for Change." He is also a trustee of the housing support charity KeyRing.

These people are remarkable. These people have remarkable stories that are told in first-person, their stories brought vividly to life through their own language and through Saba Salman's collaborative spirit and editorial expertise. At times, the testimonies focus almost exclusively on the fields in which they have found success. Other times, the testimonies have a greater focus on their learning disability and its impact on their lives and their paths.

The beauty of "Made Possible" is that the people themselves tell their own stories and they do so with refreshing honesty. There are frequent references to school segregation or, for those who didn't experience segregation, instances of everything from mild discrimination to outright bullying.

The NHS, or National Health Service, is referenced often in both tremendously favorably and downright awful ways. If you've ever lived with a disability, or loved someone who does, you know that budget cuts can cause havoc on needed supports and services, though nearly every person in this collection is quick to be grateful, stunningly grateful, for those who've made a difference in their life and for those organizations and institutions that have treated them well. Institutional abuses are called out unflinchingly, while recent progresses are noted with more diverse services and, of course, the NHS also hiring those with learning disabilities.

"Made Possible" is filled with inspiration and it's filled with the perspiration of those with disabilities who've fought for change and for those who've allied with them. It's an informative book, quite entertaining and alive with the power of the human spirit.

It's obvious that Salman has made an effort to showcase diverse life experiences to keep "Made Possible" feeling fresh, though certain common ground is inevitable and the overwhelming sense that many of these individuals have endured varying degrees of discrimination and even abuse is undeniable.

The film's opening essay, "Untold Success," is by Salman herself. Setting the tone for what is to come by introducing Salman's inspiration for the project, her sister Ranaa, and laying the groundwork for learning disability in the UK, this essay is informative yet one can't help but wish it had woven into its tapestry more of Ranaa's voice to remain consistent with the rest of the book. This section explains that the essays in the book focus mainly on career-related accomplishments "because professional recognition is, in general, society's most common way of measuring people's achievements." As is true for at least a couple of the other essays, the book laments recent austerity efforts negatively impacting services on the local level including those for her sister.

While the groundwork laid is quite beneficial and informative, the essay itself is simply too long and waxes too eloquently and, at times, too broadly and lacks the first-person narrative that makes the rest of the book such a work of wonder. It's a minor concern, really, but I experienced notable surprise as I headed into the essays that followed and felt an entirely different feeling and relaxed into the remainder of the book's warm, deeply personal literary vibe.

Due to be released by Unbound on May 28th, "Made Possible" will be treasured by individuals with and advocates for people with disabilities and for anyone concerned about ensuring a more equitable society where individual gifts are celebrated and empowered.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

"Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist" - Judith Heumann with Kristen Joiner

“I never wished I didn’t have a disability.” - Judith Heumann

In "Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist," a book Judith Heumann writes with Kristen Joiner, she begins her memoir with the above words and then spends the remainder of the book's 200+ pages living into them.

If you've never heard of Heumann, which sadly and entirely possible, Judith Heumann is an American disability rights activist recognized internationally for her groundbreaking and life-changing work. Featured most recently in the documentary "Crip Camp," Heumann's work began in the 1970's and has included serving governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), non-profit organizations, and a number of disability rights organizations.

Having had polio at the age of 18 months, Heumann, who is Jewish, was raised by parents with an acute awareness of the Holocaust. There was simply no way they would have ever considered following the doctor's recommendation that they institutionalize their daughter, instead providing her opportunities to grow, socialize, and learn. It would be the learning that would prove most difficult early on for Judith, whose early childhood came in the years before IDEA and well before ADA was even a thought. The local public school called her a fire hazard and refused her entry to the school, instead she spent three years receiving a mere one hour of home instruction twice a week. By the fourth grade, her mother's voice had grown louder and would demand more for Judith - eventually, she was granted entry into a special school for disabled children where, somewhat ironically, she would end up teaching for a time years later.

The school system also tried to keep her out of high school. That failed. Her childhood years at Camp Jened, the camp featured in "Crip Camp," were among her most treasured childhood memories and it would be her friends at camp who would join her in fueling the burgeoning disability rights movement.

By the time Judith Heumann entered Long Island University to study speech therapy, a choice made because Vocational Rehab wouldn't have funded her to study education since there were no disabled teachers at the time, her activist voice was growing and she began uniting both disabled and non-disabled students to demand ramps, access to dorms, and other accessibility options on campus.

Initially denied a teaching license by the Board of Education in New York City because it was believed she couldn't get her students out in case of a fire (along with other lame excuses), Heumann would end up suing for discrimination. The case just so happened to end up in the hands of the city's first black female judge and, well, you can probably figure out what happened. Judith Heumann became the first wheelchair using teacher in New York City and her work was only getting started.

From co-founding the group Disabled in Action with some of her Camp Jened friends to serving as Deputy Director for Center for Independent Living in California to having central involvement in developing the legislation that would become IDEA, Heumann was rapidly becoming a familiar face and a strong voice in the disability rights movement. However, it would be her leadership within the famous 504 Sit-In, a 28-day peaceful but passionate sit-in at the San Francisco Office of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare that would turn her into a disability rights icon. Designed to push HEW Secretary Joseph Califano to sign meaningful regulations Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the event was one of several sit-ins nationwide but by far the largest and most enduring of all of them.

It was also successful.

Judith Heumann has continued to live a life of disability advocacy in roles with World Bank, Department on Disability Services, and she co-founded the World Institute on Disability. She served as Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services in the Clinton Administration and Special Advisor on Disability Rights for the US State Department under President Barack Obama. Following President Trump's election, which she laments greatly in the closing pages of the book because of the rollbacks that have occurred in disability rights, she began serving in a role with the Ford Foundation.

As magnificent a life as Heumann has lived, "Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist" is remarkable in its humanity. While she is, in fact, incredibly special as a human being and as an activist, Heumann possesses a perfect weaving together of confidence and humility and often prefaces her greatest achievements with the comment that in the moment she's tremendously confident but often feels anxiety and doubt both before and after such events. It helps us realize that even though our voices may quiver it is most important that we show up and use them anyway.

The early part of "Being Heumann" is fascinating in exploring Heumann's childhood and its impact on the woman that she would become. As an adult with a disability myself, I found myself drawn most to these early sections as she dealt with early discrimination, learned how to live with her disability, learned to adapt, learned how to use her voice, built a community, and became comfortable with her emotional and physical needs. As someone who still gets embarrassed to ever ask for help, I practically wept (Okay, I actually did weep) during the sections where she would work through the embarrassment of her body's more intimate needs and learn how to meet those needs and build a tribe of people who simply cared for one another in a variety of ways.

Nearly 1/3 of "Being Heumann" takes place at the 504 Sit-In. While I've long been familiar with this sit-in, Heumann adds splendid detail to it all including other groups involved, key players, and vivid memories both wonderful and definitely not so wonderful. For example, did you know that at a point went Califano had arranged for the building to be locked so that food could not be brought in that the local Black Panthers forced themselves in and would end up providing food at the sit-in every single day for the rest of the sit-in?

I honestly had no idea.

There are other little tidbits that were surprises to me, but they remain best discovered yourself by reading the book.

It's hard to read a book like "Being Heumann" without becoming more aware of the ways in which I internalize my own ableism. The ways in which I shy away from my own needs, my own voice, my own body, and the ways in which I shame myself or treat myself as an "other." Heumann seemingly understands these feelings, but she pushes through them and it's marvelous.

There were times in "Being Heumann" where I couldn't help but wish she'd expanded the breadth of her stories. For example, her marriage to Jorge at the age of 42 is given relatively little time yet for so many disabled adults the idea of dating or sex or marriage is a foreign concept. I'd have loved to have read more about this relationship.

Additionally, there are times when "Being Heumann" gets a little too bogged down in "this happened...then this happened," rather than truly exploring the actual happenings that unfolded. Having worked in two presidential administrations, both experiences are given very little attention here and that would be fascinating. Likewise, as a woman who acknowledges throughout the book the need for assistance with going to the bathroom and other personal details it would be inspiring to learn more about how that impacted her global journeys.

Details. I wanted more details. The basics, at least for this person who has spina bifida and is a double amputee/paraplegic, are far too surface to ultimately satisfy.

However, these are relatively minor quibbles for a quickly paced, fascinating book written by one of the disability rights movements most fascinating and accomplished individuals. At just over 200 pages, Heumann, along with Kristen Joiner, packs the book with a lot of information both personally and professionally and the book is as much a primer on the disability rights movement as it is a memoir. Powerfully written and, indeed, unrepentant, "Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist" is a must-read for everyone.

Friday, May 22, 2020

"The Authenticity Project" - Clare Pooley

"Everybody lies about their lives. What would happen if you shared the truth?"

79-year-old Julian Jessop is an eccentric artist, once quite popular but now mostly relegated to the art history books and the sofa that sits inside the home he is being pressured to sell by others in his building who wish to profit from an extraordinary.

Julian, on the other hand, seems to have an itch for nostalgia and a yearning for connection that is somehow met by this mildewy home that he once shared with his beloved Mary.

Desperate to share something resembling the truth of himself, Julian grabs a solitary green notebook and writes within its pages the truth of his existence. It's an experiment, really, and he calls it The Authenticity Project. He leaves it in a public setting and challenges others to share their stories, as well.

Penned by literary newcomer Clare Pooley and at least loosely based upon her own life experiences resembling those of the much older Julian, "The Authenticity Project" is a light and for the most part cheery read centered around a core cast of six decidedly quirky, funny, and occasionally sad characters who take up the challenge of The Authenticity Project and over the course of Pooley's tale find themselves confronting their demons, failing, confronting again, making friends, paying it forward, finding more friends, and occasionally finding love.

Comparisons to "Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine" and "Love, Actually" are incredibly realistic and it's not surprising that "The Authenticity Project" has been embraced for its honest yet ultimately optimistic approach to its story. While I'll confess to having been a tad less enthused than some have been with the book, it's still one of those books that it's hard to feel even remotely negative about having read.

Much of the action in "The Authenticity Project" takes place inside Monica's Cafe, a coffeehouse sort of place where Monica becomes the second person to receive and participate in "The Authenticity Project" and where many of the subsequent characters meet and stories unfold. As the story goes, each person who comes into contact with "The Authenticity Project" resonates with its, well, authenticity and vulnerably exposes themselves while becoming determined to help at least one person within the project.

Julian, for example, is aging and rather lonely and seems to be living a life without the meaning it once had.

Monica left a job as a city lawyer for an idyllic cafe, yet she now worries about its profitability while also experiencing a deep desire for love and a family.

Hazard has an initial encounter with Monica that is far from pleasant, his struggles with sobriety impairing even his most fundamental social skills. Perhaps, however, there's more underneath.

There's Riley, whose story will unfold as a mystery. Then, there's also Alice, a former high-powered exec who's marriage and parenthood led her to becoming a social media influencer along the lines of a mom-blogger.

There are others. In fact, there are too many others. "The Authenticity Project" starts to suffer in the authenticity department precisely because we begin to encounter too many characters and too many stories and not enough time with some of them.

That said, "The Authenticity Project" also feels unnecessarily stretched out with a mid-section that threatens to derail its impact and lead us down a road of not particularly caring about the resolution for some particular characters. For the most part, Pooley recovers and "The Authenticity Project" ends on both cheery yet honest notes leading to friendship for some, love for one or two, and room for growth with another one or two.

While "The Authenticity Project" is quite cheery, please note that this doesn't mean it's entirely innocent. Beyond one character dealing openly with addiction, "The Authenticity Project" non-graphically also deals with sexuality and features at least one scene involving both public drunkenness and cocaine use. These things fit somewhat awkwardly within the tapestry of the book, yet despite reservations with how they're written it's refreshing to have them presented honestly among people who are also portrayed as essentially good.

Each chapter in the book evolves around one particular character, though by the time all the characters are introduced they, of course, frequently interact with each other throughout the book. There are important subjects that are given rather short attention - for example, one chapter dealing with a character's accidental outing as gay to his family and the fallout from that happening. While it's wonderful to have the book tackle difficult subjects, "The Authenticity Project" tries a bit too hard to cover a bit too much.

Overall, however, "The Authenticity Project" is an enjoyable, light read for those who will appreciate unique, eccentric characters and who are enchanted by this very basic concept of learning how to show up "as is" in our daily lives. "The Authenticity Project" lives into this concept incredibly well and teaches a lesson in an entertaining way.

"The Authenticity Project" is available in both print and e-book formats.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

"Untamed" - Glennon Doyle

In Glennon Doyle's own words "I'm often asked why I don't publish books more often. My answer is this: I never write a new book until I've become a new woman. Over the past few years, I became a new woman. "Untamed" tells that story."

"Untamed" tells the story of that day when Doyle, preparing to speak at a conference, looked across the room and first spied the woman who would become her eventual wife - Abby Wambach. In this moment, the words "There she is!" flooded her mind and Doyle returned to her life and eventually, painfully dismantled the straw house of existence in which she had been living.

It was real. It was raw. It was painful for everyone involved. Doyle would come to realize that this attraction to Abby wasn't some divinely inspired spark but a sense of "knowing," a word she uses often throughout "Untamed," that she had, for the first time in her life, fallen truly in love. She claims it as a "knowing" that had become buried beneath her decades of numbing addictions, cultural conditioning, and even her institutional allegiances including an evangelical Christian world that would, at least for the most part, abandon her when she finally announced her relationship to the world.

The truth is, according to Glennon, that she'd been abandoning herself for years and for the first time she stopped. In May 2017, she married Abby and the two now share parenting responsibilities for her three children with ex-husband Craig Melton, whose grace in forgiving Glennon and moving forward constructively is acknowledged throughout the book and with whom Glennon continues to share an uncommonly amicable co-parenting, extraordinarily friendly relationship.

There were moments in "Untamed" when I surrendered myself to the world that Glennon was creating and is creating and I laughed, I cried, I was inspired, and I believed in her journey.

There were also moments in "Untamed," however, when it felt like she was controlling the narrative and the book's occasional raging inconsistencies came storming to the forefront in a way that made it seem like a "Do what I say, not what I do" kind of literary experience.

In the early pages of "Untamed," Doyle essentially acknowledges that a healthy portion of her best-selling "Love Warrior" was a false narrative. You can't be a warrior for a love that doesn't exist. While Doyle may have been fighting to save her marriage and family, she was abandoning herself and living into what she perceived as the world's expectations of her as a female and for her family. "Love Warrior," which I'd uneasily rated a 5-star read despite having issues with its central messaging, was released amidst Doyle's own tremendous reservations and her ever-increasing awareness that while she was going through the motions of marriage she was, in some way, in love with someone else. She acknowledges questioning whether she could actually go forward with promoting a book that was, for her, already no longer a true reflection of herself.

"We can do hard things." At least for this writer, it also feels like "We can do false things." Fortunately, and much to Doyle's credit, she eventually reverses this false narrative and takes almost unfathomable ownership of her life. She basically blows up the false narrative, subsequently risking losing favor with many of her readers and, more importantly, risking the welfare of children whom we've learned from our earliest days with Glennon Doyle are central to her existence.

She does it.

I can't help but think that "Untamed" needed to start from the beginning of Doyle's changing narrative, though some would say her beautifully written cheetah story accomplishes many of the same goals.

Doyle spent much of "Love Warrior" talking about Craig's cheating. She spends much of "Untamed" either talking about or referencing that same cheating and its influence on her, her family, and those expectations that she still somehow be the "good" woman.

Yet, Doyle never references her own variation on the "cheating" story arc. While Doyle may not have consummated her physical relationship, she clearly identifies an emotional affair and subsequent conversation with Craig in which she announces her intent to leave the marriage and specifically names Abby.

Doyle also never references her own "cheating" on her readers and fans, those people who embraced "Love Warrior" as truth yet, in reality, would eventually learn that Doyle's life had changed dramatically and the Glennon Doyle in "Love Warrior" had been replaced by the Glennon Doyle soon to be manifested in "Untamed."

Why were Craig's actions "cheating" yet Glennon's actions "abandoning the world's expectations?"

This is not meant to judge either one, but instead to propose that one of the areas where "Untamed" falls short is in examining the more complex narratives at work here. What if both Craig and Glennon were in a marriage that never should have been and sought answers and relief and satisfaction in different ways? What if they both made really poor choices for noble yet misguided reasons? What if both actually abandoned themselves trying to portray false narratives? Doyle hints at this late in "Untamed," but never delves deeper and really explores it. 

What if they were both wrong yet also both right? This is not an endorsement of cheating, but an acknowledgement that "cheating" in many relationships is symbolic of bigger issues going on.

While Doyle likes to broad stroke the use of "we" throughout "Untamed" in proclaiming what is true for women, the truth is that women can't be simplified into a collective "we." There are women who will identify with "Untamed" and there are women also reading it shaking their heads screaming out "You idiot! Why would you even think about staying?" Cheating is cyclical as are many of the vices that Doyle writes about in "Untamed" and that have followed her throughout her life. At times, "Untamed" doesn't so much read like a woman who's suddenly living "wild" as it reads like a wounded soul realizing that old coping skills and old cycles and old voices are no longer serving her well. I would even argue that "Untamed" finds Doyle fumbling her way toward an honest life where she can show up "as is" and can love whomever the hell she wants.

Maya Angelou once said "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." Glennon Doyle knows herself better now. It's that thing she calls "The Knowing" and she's learned that she can trust her "knowing" and she's leaning into that trust more frequently and more passionately. When "Untamed" captures this journey, a vulnerable journey toward trusting that knowing, it's nearly a masterpiece of self-help literature.

But, "Untamed" also struggles with that voice and occasionally fumbles that inner narrative. It occasionally feels like the first half of the final film in the Harry Potter series - an entertaining but not entirely satisfying effort that doesn't tell us much we didn't already know and leaves gaping holes of unanswered questions.

The truth is I cried within the first four pages of "Untamed." It's also true that within the first 25 pages, I rolled my eyes at Doyle's waxing eloquently using dialogue I'm sure plays well in her memory but has only ever been muttered in BBC television.

Both can exist. Life is imperfect and that's part of the groovy glory.

At times, Doyle comes off as absurdly unhealthy. As portrayed in "Untamed," her friendship with Liz Gilbert feels incredibly one-sided while even her relationship with Abby is often portrayed as Abby having the patience and wisdom despite the declaration that it's Doyle herself who is "untamed."

Yet, again, there are moments when a different Doyle rises to the surface and you feel her passion and commitment and clarity and her simply being the Glennon Doyle that her fans and readers fell in love with years ago. It's here. It's definitely here, but it's kind of like a baby giraffe learning how to stand up and walk and doing so with a hilarious wobble and a lack of certainty.

You can feel Doyle wrestling with her narrative throughout "Untamed." In describing what feels like a resistance to one fan's mistakenly lamenting she couldn't be accepted the way she's always been, Doyle seems to do a literary recoil and wonders aloud why she simply can't choose who she loves without having a label attached to it? Rather than wearing the label of LGBTQ, she identifies her relationship with Abby as a same-gender relationship and wants to own it as her choice to love who she loves. Yet, again, this feels conflicted with someone who will loudly proclaim the cultural factors and institutional biases that created "expectations of her."

These factors, while important and difficult to address depending upon one's life, still involve "choices." At times, Doyle is quick to judge those who succumb to societal expectations but fails to acknowledge that people can, in fact, choose to live however they want to live.

Women and men every single day choose to marry or stay single or be gay or straight or bi or non-labeled or whatever. Women, and to a certain degree men, every day choose to have children or not or to adopt or to foster or whatever. Women and men every day choose to emphasize families over careers, careers over families, to try to delicately both, to be the breadwinner or the stay-at-home parent. Women and men choose different paths of faith or none at all. Women and men can make choices and, yes, those choices can be made more difficult because of societal expectations or expected roles or family pressures or momentary bad choices or staying in bad marriages.

Sometimes, it's a choice. Sometimes, it's not a choice or at least doesn't feel like one. Sometimes, we have to chant to ourselves "We can do hard things" and we can also say "I don't want to do hard things right now."

It's all sacred.

"Untamed" can be wildly uneven with short, blog-like essays that don't go anywhere yet also remarkable essays that feel like a gut-punch. The book's final 50 pages or so feel as if Doyle herself was processing throughout the book and finally started putting those puzzle pieces together. They're completely riveting.

My opinions could easily be dismissed as "Untamed" is clearly, moreso than her first two books, written for women. As a disabled adult male, there is much in the book with which to identify as I've most certainly lived a life influenced by institutional limitations, cultural biases, often legal limitations (there are still states in the U.S. where I can be prevented from marrying or even having sex), and a variety of other factors that threaten to reduce my potential and define my existence.

I chose differently, yet much like Doyle did so slowly and later in life and fumbling around like that wobbly giraffe - a particularly funny point when you also realize I don't even have feet.

There's a point in "Untamed" when Doyle acknowledges that Liz Gilbert had read an early draft and proclaimed that there was something wild trying to get out and it wasn't there yet.

I would argue it's still not there. "Untamed" isn't so much about Doyle being untamed as it is about Doyle learning how to become untamed. It's the inconsistent, uneven, and occasionally unsatisfying initial steps in her journey toward self-realization and self-nurture. It's bold and brave precisely because it's imperfect and because it takes a willingness to be transparent and vulnerable to keep showing up in the richness of one's humanity.

Intimate and fierce, "Untamed" is currently available from Dial Press.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Brother Cobweb - Alfred Eaker (Illustrations by Todd M. Coe)

It would be easy to identify Alfred Eaker's "Brother Cobweb" as a relentlessly brutal takedown of life inside and outside a right-wing evangelical sect in Ohio known, almost laughably, as The Lighthouse.

It would be easy. Too easy.

Instead, I call "Brother Cobweb" a revolutionary love story that smothers the hypocrisy of this Midwestern Pentecostal church and rips the masks off its devastatingly familiar brand of cultish self-promotion and masturbatory spirituality disguised as something resembling a faith journey.

There will be those who are offended by Eaker's words here along with the illustration work of Todd M. Coe. You probably know who you are just by reading the book's descriptions, a description that pales in comparison to the uncompromising truths and darkly satirical spirit slinging that unfolds here with savage love and literary prowess.

"Brother Cobweb" is a fictional tale, but if you're even remotely familiar with Eaker's artistic background as a painter, filmmaker, and writer, then you won't be surprised that the novel feels like the result of a 25+ year journey for Eaker that it really is and really needs to be.

The story begins in the 1970's and centers around Calvin, who lives in the home of Nancy, the mother who pretends to love him long enough to try to save his soul, and Dale, his washabout father who pays the bills in the household but doesn't do much else to redeem his presence. Frank, his little brother, is there but somehow doesn't suffer quite as much the wrath of Nancy's distorted brand of divinity or her wicked temper.

Calvin's childhood salvation, if you will, is the presence of his great-grandfather, an atheistic Jew who doesn't have much time for Nancy's blink and you'll miss it faith journey but has all the time in the world for his beloved Calvin. Thanks to his great-grandfather, Calvin discovers art and music and a way to survive his mother's almost comically brutal blows and the increasingly demented ways of The Lighthouse. With a gift for drawing firmly in place, Calvin recognizes the caricature life in which he lives and creates what he calls "The Brother Cobweb Chronicles," a cartoonish comic of such hardcore truths that those around him can't even recognize it.

It's not surprising that even as Calvin's life unfolds, his childhood experiences won't leave him. They get worn like a second skin, a Leatherface-styled mask of familial scars and stories and self-fulfilling prophecies that keep unfolding even as he somehow survives high school, makes his way to art school, has a near-death experience, and struggles well into adulthood to squelch the impact of the warped and violent reality of his life and its perpetuating cycles.

If "Brother Cobweb" were to be nothing but Calvin's somehow surviving his childhood, it would be yet still an exhausting but exhilarating experience with uncommon insights and difficult to embrace but impossible to ignore exegesis of theology gone wildly awry.

"Brother Cobweb" is much, much more.

"Brother Cobweb" is a love story. I tell you it is. It's the love story of a God who refuses to die no matter how often those who proclaim His/Her name hold Him/Her under the baptismal waters to the point of drowning. It's the love story of a God who comes alive in the person of a battered and bruised spiritual misfit who refuses to identify as an atheist no matter how often he's betrayed by the people and the institutions and the structures who teach hate instead of love. It's the fumbling love story of this young man, Calvin, as he survives and fights to thrive and struggles to discover some semblance of what it means to give and receive love without really knowing what that means but being precisely sure what it doesn't mean.

"Brother Cobweb" isn't about the patriarchal love that is so often worshipped by the contemporary evangelical church. You could possibly say it's about the "red letter" love, though even that feels sort of incomplete in a world that so loves to piecemeal the teachings of Christ into something comfortable and familiar and safe and risk-free.

There's risk galore to be found in "Brother Cobweb" and that's a huge part of what makes the book such a wondrous read.

"Brother Cobweb" doesn't flinch in portraying the brutal realities of Calvin's life, but it also doesn't flinch in celebrating his magnificence amidst it all. The cycle of abuse and violence in which Calvin lives bruises him and batters him and scars him and tells his soul stories, but somehow he starts to figure out what love is anyway and his glorious imperfections inch toward breaking the cyclical nature of his life and chopping down that family tree.

It's nothing short of a miracle that Eaker never exploits Calvin, instead holding him up as a sacred truth that there's nothing in this imperfect life can truly define us and that if we choose wrong we can always choose again.

And again.

Those who find themselves in The Lighthouse have perpetuated their cycles, so often choosing hate instead of love and dogma over spiritual truths and anything resembling a true faith journey. Calvin, far from alone but clearly in the driver's seat, chooses love and chooses spiritual truth and chooses the vulnerable unpredictability of a faith journey and becomes more of a believer than everyone in The Lighthouse combined.

"Brother Cobweb" calls out hypocrisy and lies and bad theology and the damage that we do to one another, yet it does so with humor intact and a surprising amount of tenderness toward everyone including those who have failed and failed and failed.

If you are familiar with Eaker's works, you'll recognize pieces of his history here from BlueMahler to PinkFreud to explorations of his spirituality that can so often be found in his painting and in his remarkable cinematic work.

I've long felt a connection to Eaker's world, both as a film journalist who has reviewed his directorial efforts and as the recipient of his own review of my book "The Hallelujah Life." While our paths haven't crossed, our life experiences and spiritual journeys seem irrevocably intertwined and and almost familial in their expressions. Eaker had offered me the chance to read an advance copy of "Brother Cobweb" not long ago, yet I was busy taking yet another detour in my life as my spina bifida kicked my a** one more time and I lost another limb.

It was a brutal experience and an opportunity to learn how to give and receive love one more time.

So, instead, I picked up a copy of "Brother Cobweb" myself, drawn to the Eaker I've come to respect and admire and adore who possesses an aesthetic spirituality, an artistic curiosity, and both heart and mind that demand truth in all its brilliance and brutality.

For some, "Brother Cobweb" will be a difficult, emotionally demanding read but it is an absolute must read for those who have been wounded by faith organizations, Pentecostal and otherwise, and the flawed yet fascinating characters who fill their sanctuaries.

Published by Open Books Press, "Brother Cobweb" is available in both print and Kindle versions and is illustrated with sublime insight and wonder by Todd M. Coe.

Monday, May 11, 2020

"Hush, #1" - Dylan Farrow

With her debut novel "Hush," Dylan Farrow becomes the latest Farrow to enter the literary world with this YA fantasy novel that is already set to be the first in a series with the second title due for release later in 2021.

"Hush" introduces us to 17-year-old Shae, an impulsive yet obviously passionate young lady from the land of Montane and, in particular, the impoverished village of Aster where she lives alongside her mother on the outskirts of the village due to an incident years earlier in which her brother, Kieran, was lost to a controversial infection known as the Blot.

When tragedy strikes again and Shae's mother is found to have been murdered with a golden dagger as the weapon, Shae's thirst for justice leads her to travel to High House, where Montane's mysterious ruler Lord Cathal resides surrounded by an equally mysterious and absolutely powerful group known as the Bards, a nearly all male group with a highly evolved gift for the sacred act of "Telling," a way of controlling both the people and the world around them with intention of language and presence.

Shae gets more than she bargained for once she arrives at High House and discovers that sometimes when we seek out the truth it reveals more than we'd ever imagined.

A longtime activist, Farrow returns to her creative roots without setting her activism aside with this fictional yet timely and relevant tale that possesses both cultural insights and serves as a powerful feminist fantasy centered around the 17-year-old Shae, who believes herself to be plagued but who is, in fact, much more gaslighted by the world that surrounds her and is, also in fact, far more gifted than many of those who are regarded as the most gifted in the land.

As the first in an intended series, "Hush" is filled to the brim with the setting of atmosphere, place, time, and circumstance. At times, there's no question this comes to the detriment of story though seldom to the detriment of character development. Told largely from the first-person perspective of Shae, "Hush" is at times overwhelmed by descriptive language that distracts from the story's overall tone and one can only hope that having set the stage for this world with "Hush" that future novels will relax more into the story itself.

It is important to remember that "Hush" is intended as a YA fantasy, a novel and series along the lines of the "Hunger Games" novels or "Divergent" series or, to a much lesser degree, even the "Harry Potter" books though the Potter books definitely skew younger. While only the ages of Shae and a secondary character, 13-year-old Imogen, are specifically noted, "Hush" is set in a medieval-tinged land with a central character who radiates youthful impulsiveness and immaturity along with a more than healthy curiosity and sarcastic wit that serves her well. "Hush" occasionally dips its literary toes into light sensuality, mostly unsuccessfully, as Shae seems to resort to physical descriptors of nearly every male that surrounds her in a way that feels unnatural and untrue to the tone of the rest of the book.

While "Hush" is occasionally hindered by tonal inconsistencies, in a very tangible way Shae's journey finding her strength and gifts seem to mirror those of Farrow finding her own literary voice and watching that come to life on the page. While "Hush" is not without its challenges, rest assured that Farrow is a gifted writer and "Hush" shows tremendous promise as a YA fantasy series.

The world that Farrow creates is incredibly visual, a cinematic optioning of the material seems inevitable if it hasn't already occurred. Farrow writes in such a way that Aster, Montane, and High House all come vividly to life and that vivid picture helps us to buy into the suspense and mystery surrounding Shae. Farrow also keeps everything age-appropriate, Shae a believable 17-year-old on the cusp of womanhood yet still seeking affirmation from those who will affirm and also from those who will exploit her. As an activist in the area of sexual violence, Farrow clearly understands boundaries and never exploits the character herself.

The characters here for the most part fit the worlds into which they are created. Young Imogen, a servant girl, is perhaps the most beautifully drawn and it's hard to imagine you will not picture her yourself. I certainly did.

Fiona, Shae's friend, is in some ways paper thin yet also easy to imagine and easy to embrace within her place in the story. Mads, the only young man in Aster seemingly interested in Shae, is like many other men we've met before in YA fantasy novels yet Farrow nicely makes him more complex and compelling.

Lord Cathal's complexity is never in doubt, the kind fatherly aura we're first introduced to an obvious mask for the story to unfold. The same is true for most of the Bards including Kennan, Ravod, Niall, and others. They are both familiar characters in a familiar fantasy yet also given their own specific distinctions.

To tell anything more would be a disservice to Farrow's work here and to the joy of the written word itself. It is difficult to rate a book such as "Hush," both a first novel yet also already known to be the first in a literary series. As a stand-alone, it would likely exist in the 3-star range yet one can easily see characters developing and worlds growing and the universe opening up to Shae and in this unfolding feminist fantasy where the written word is sacred, misusing it potentially fatal, and repressing it perhaps the gravest mistake of all.

"Hush" comes to life on October 6th from Wednesday Books, a St. Martin's Press Imprint.

Friday, May 8, 2020

"Unfollow: A Journey From Hatred to Hope" - Megan Phelps-Roper

I'm not sure I was prepared for the waves of melancholy that consumed me as I read Megan Phelps-Roper's simultaneously involving, engaging, harrowing, and triggering memoir "Unfollow: A Journey From Hatred to Hope."

To be sure, my own church experiences, while dramatic, don't begin to compare to Phelps-Roper's and yet they similarly guide the life I live now and that I have lived for years.

At the age of 5, Megan began protesting homosexuality and other perceived sins and wrongs as part of a church that would, in the years to come, become known as one of America's most misunderstood and often most hated churches.

They would protest, at least it would seem, at nearly anything that would bring them attention - however, their motivations were always explained away as glorifying God. While they would certainly protest at LGBT-specific causes, they would also become known for such actions as celebrating 9/11, protesting at military funerals, protesting various celebrity events, and protesting events for which a theological connection was thin at best.

As she grew up, her beliefs firmly took hold and she was baptized into the church at age 15; her role in the church's missions would grow and her social media presence made it clear that she was a key spokesperson for Westboro.

Along the way, she would seem to identify later, she would have little doubts and questions and moral dilemmas enter her mind. She believed what she was taught by her grandfather, Westboro's pastor Fred Phelps, that the church's beliefs were absolutely right and any questioning of that was a failure on the part of the person. She believed that their actions were actions of love.

For years, hate almost seemed to be synonymous with Westboro. However, in the ways of our current culture it almost seems as if we don't even hear from them anymore. It's actually a point that Phelps-Roper makes in her book - that while Westboro may have been one of the most visible symbols of extremism in the country, they always were and still are far from the only one.

There are many, many more and we're seeing more examples of that every single day.

If you don't recognize Westboro Baptist Church, which is hard to imagine, it's the Topeka, Kansas based church that has become most associated with the phrases "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for 9/11," both phrases you could often find on their protest signage and phrases that cause me to immediately think of Westboro anytime I hear them.

With "Unfollow," Phelps-Roper has crafted an exemplary examination of her childhood in Westboro and what it was like to grow up in a church that was populated primarily by her family and extended family that includes a large number of lawyers and she is not, in fact, the only one to have left the church. However, Phelps-Roper has also crafted a marvelous, and that's probably not the best word, exploration of what it's like for an individual to leave such a church and to give up, in essence, their entire way of life and their entire family.

Shunning doesn't really begin to describe it, though it's a good start.

Some would be surprised to realize that Fred Phelps was, at one time, quite the civil rights lawyer and very involved in the Brown v. Board of Education battle. Believing that all men were created equal, he plopped himself smack dab down into the battle against segregation.

Yet, in 1953, Phelps took over Westboro and it seemed as if everything grew into this church that would become associated with extremism. It's hard to imagine, but really necessary, that when little Megan was protesting she was doing so alongside her parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and so on.

I must confess that as I began reading of Megan's slow shifting that became a rather abrupt shift, I became somewhat suspicious. After all, it seems as if the primary impetus was a shift in church authority away from her family and toward a group of elders who sought to de-centralize power. They made up new rules, often inconsistent, and would then make up even newer rules to justify different actions along the way. This jarring change, which impacted her family directly and eventually Fred Phelps himself, unsettled Phelps-Roper so dramatically that she began searching for stability and for beliefs she could understand and believe in and she no longer found them in this church to which she had devoted her life.

Something had changed. As a result, she was changing.

It is not a spoiler, of course, to note that Phelps-Roper would end up leaving Westboro. That's in the title of the book and it's widely known. She would become an activist, would marry the man with whom she'd had a long, chaste, yet intentionally discreet correspondence. She is now a mother. While her sister Grace left the church with her, she's seen at least one other brother leave the church since her departure and her grandfather, Fred, was removed from the church not long before his passing and not long after he began having doubts about this beast that he openly acknowledged he had created.

The word "cult" is not really uttered in the book, though anyone with any experience with cults will undoubtedly have it cross their mind. While it's always to acknowledge that "Unfollow" is Megan Phelps-Roper's perception of the experience, it's impossible to deny that she sources her experiences extensively and provides so much exegesis of the church's scriptural interpretations and their absolute refusal to accept any questioning of it that they may even perceive "cult" as a compliment.

With so much hatred spewed back and forth on social media these days, its easy to retort "Nobody gets their mind changed on social media!." While it might be a stretch to say that Phelps-Roper changed her mind because of social media, there's little denying that the people she encountered on social media did, in fact, influence her theological explorations, doubts, searching, and her eventual decision to leave Westboro.

In some ways, "Unfollow" feels like a spiritual and psychological exorcism for Phelps-Roper, a book that at times seems bogged down by the mundane aspects of Westboro daily life and scriptural interpretation yet it feels, especially by book's end, as if this was part of how Phelps-Roper affirmed her journey as not just fleeing from a different authority or some sense of escapism but her actual discovery of a new personal theology that is now guiding her life.

"Unfollow" is intellectually stimulating and emotionally raw, a book that will trigger, most likely, those like myself who grew up in abusive church settings and who've struggled throughout life to reconcile an existing faith in God with the inexplicable actions of faith communities that hurt, abuse, separate, and divide. I couldn't help but reflect on my own childhood as a Jehovah's Witness, a path I would eventually be forced out of during the period when they covered up sexual abuse by proclaiming members as "homosexual." I also couldn't help but reflect on other experiences, including my time as a member of a local Vineyard Christian Fellowship where a suicide attempt in my early 20's led to my removal, once again, from the church that had become a home.

"Unfollow" is revelatory in the way that it shares Phelps-Roper's post-Westboro journey from time spent with a South Dakota couple, themselves Jehovah's Witnesses at the time, to eventual encounters with many of the people and groups she had protested against. You can feel in the words that she writes her sense of awe at their love and forgiveness and humility - all traits seemingly absent from the church she once loved and once called home.

At times, "Unfollow" is a cumbersome read as Phelps-Roper's cathartic exploration of life in Westboro becomes unnecessarily bogged down in details that dilute the book's emotional impact and stretch sections too thin. Toward the end, "Unfollow" vacillates somewhere between awe-inspiring and over-intellectualizing but, again, it feels constantly like Phelps-Roper needs both of these to help her make sense of her own journey. It feels like "Unfollow" is truly Phelps-Roper's journey toward remembering the love yet also truly learning how to leave the Westboro Baptist Church.

"Unfollow: A Journey From Hatred to Hope" humanizes those within the church, not to excuse or even justify their behaviors, but simply to remind us that they are, in fact, human beings. Human beings are extremists and there's something sacred and holy and necessary about realizing this over and over and over again.

"Unfollow" will also provide hope that there's a way out of this seemingly hate-filled cycle in which our society seems to find itself, a time when different theologies and political ideologies can't seem to get along and in which the desire for power often is disguised as a desire for love. With stark vulnerability and transparency, Megan Phelps-Roper has written a memorable, loving memoir that opens the door to understanding her past while illuminating her present and shining a light on her path toward an even more loving, sacred future.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

"The Refuge" - Written by Sandra le Guen, Illustrated by Stéphane Nicolet

There's a beautiful simplicity to "The Refuge," a June 1st children's release from French author Sandra le Guen and illustrator Stéphane Nicolet translated into English by award-winning translator Daniel Hahn.

Rather masterfully, this picture book for young children tackles the difficult subject of refugees in a way that is clear, accessible, and filled with heart and humanity.

In the book, a young Jeanette tells her mom about a new girl in school with an enthusiastic child-like wonder that explains "“There’s a new girl at school. She never stops looking up at the sky! She likes the stars and comets.” Jeanette immediately identifies common ground - the two love astronomy, though is quick to note to her mother that this new girl looks sad.

Explaining that it is difficult to move to a new place, Jeanette's mother encourages her to reach out to this new girl and offer to play.

A friendship is born.

At 36 pages in length, "The Refuge" is a quick but incredibly enjoyable read with lyrical linguistics and deep, meaningful language that is accessible yet invites opportunities to learn just as Jeanette learns from her new friend, Iliana. At first having to use their hands and drawings to understand one another as Iliana learns French, le Guen beautifully portrays Iliana's journey toward adjusting to her new home and the journey of two young girls discovering new friendship.

As Jeanette learns Iliana's story, a beautiful story of cultural understanding and empathy unfolds that is accompanied by Stéphane Nicolet's magical illustrations that weave together a sense of whimsy and universality.

Originally published in France, "The Refuge" arrives in the U.S. on June 1st with Amazon Crossing Kids and will enchant children and adults alike. It's easy to see this lovely story being a bedside addition that will be read again and again.

"Wall of Silence" - Tracy Buchanan

Tracy Buchanan's "Wall of Silence" centers around Melissa Byatt, a seemingly idyllic wife living in the seemingly idyllic town of Forest Grove with her husband, Patrick, along with her 15-year-old Twins Lewis and Lilly and their 10-year-old sister Grace.

Of course, it seems like the first rule of a mystery/thriller is that if something seems idyllic it usually isn't idyllic and such seems to be the case with life in Forest Grove and life within the Byatt family. We're only a few pages into "Wall of Silence" when any sense of utopia implodes as Melissa returns home from a bike ride to find her seriously wounded husband having been stabbed while all three children stand around him with an unusually calm demeanor.

It's obvious, and also strongly implied in the book's opening pages, that one of the children has committed the crime. It's also obvious that they're determined to cover for one another, however, what's not so obvious is what motive any of the three would have and, in turn, how Melissa will end up responding to her sneaking suspicions.

"Wall of Silence" is an unusual beast of a film, a book that starts off rather slowly as the mystery gets set and characters get introduced before detouring into the slow peeling away of long-held small-town secrets and toxic family dynamics and finally settling in for what is ultimately an incredibly rapid-fire, satisfying conclusion that largely redeems some of the novel's early missteps and awkward storytelling elements.

The end result is an occasionally maddening, occasionally compelling story that leans more into mystery than thriller and requires a certain suspension of belief in order to become fully immersed in the story.

Melissa is an intriguing character. Having risen, at least somewhat, out of a traumatic childhood, she's built a good life with a man considered to be one of the town's true catches. He's attractive, successful, and set to run for what is called the "parish councillor," a quick reminder that the book is set in the U.K. and some of the terminology may throw off American readers. However, because Buchanan serves up a fairly significant reveal early on, some of the intrigue and some of the involvement of the secondary characters seems questionable beyond proving the excessive toxicity of the small town.

I mean, seriously, it gets pretty weird.

Melissa makes a choice very early on that won't be revealed here - in some ways, it's a reasonable choice and it's affirmed on multiple occasions in the book. However, it's also accompanied by so much of her inner dialogue that it becomes increasingly difficult to accept.

The three children seem tailor-made for an indie horror film, though by book's end you'll understand their behaviors and their unity. Additionally, while Melissa may drive you nuts throughout most of the book you'll ultimately understand her behaviors to a certain degree by the end of the book.

While certainly narrative choices get redeemed, other choices are hit-and-miss. An ongoing attempt to feature the townsfolk chatting away in a private Facebook group, think something like the NextDoor app here in the U.S., feels contrived and has a weird design in the Kindle version that makes it less effective. Additionally, exposition at times gets so detailed that simple points go on much longer than ever needed. This is a 338-page book that would have been just as meaningful and more suspenseful with tighter editing and a 250-page length.

As secrets become revealed, there's an almost absurd darkness to the entire story. Again, there's a very cinematic quality to it all but it becomes increasingly difficult to accept that Melissa would not only make her early choices but then would be so incredibly ignorant of the world around here. While it's partly revealed as a response to complicated grief, it's still a difficult, difficult swallow.

However, something almost magical happens in the book's final 20%. Story lines start to intersect, character motivations crossover, and the mystery starts to be revealed. While the basis fact, whodunnit, isn't a particular surprise, the motivation for doing so is a bit of a surprise unless you're paying attention. Ultimately, the final 20% of the book is fast-paced, engaging, and incredibly satisfying except for one final Facebook conversation that practically kills that momentum but is mercifully short.

"Wall of Silence" is an intriguing concept for a story that wrestles with small town toxicity, toxic masculinity, the cyclical nature of trauma, disability, and how the stories that we tell ourselves can perpetuate themselves. American readers should be aware that the U.K. setting does factor into cultural references, terminology, and linguistics, while the book's structure strengthens as the story unfolds and is at its best in the book's final quarter.

"Wall of Silence" is currently available in both print and Kindle versions.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

"The Little Love That Could: Stories of Tenacious Love, Underdogs, and Ragamuffins" - Pamela Capone

Given that "The Little Love That Could: Stories of Tenacious Love, Underdogs, and Ragamuffins" isn't Pamela Capone's first book, it's perfectly understandable that Capone, with the exception of the very first story in the book, barely references the childhood experiences that led to her own self-perception as a "rescue" and eventually toward a life of inspirational writing and speaking.

The youngest of nine children orphaned by their biological parents, Pamela was taken in by her foster parents at age 18 months and raised in a setting that was vastly different from that which her young self had ever known. She wrote about her experiences in "The Little Girl Within: Overcoming Memories of Childhood Abuse," a book she followed up with "I Punched Myself in the Eye."

Having not read Capone's first two books but being incredibly intrigued by the description offered for "The Little Love That Could," I forked over the dough for the Kindle version, something of a rarity these days as I've been reviewing more and more books, and sat down on a quarantine Saturday in Indianapolis for an afternoon of reading.

Inspired by the children's book "The Little Engine That Could," Capone has wrapped this collection of stories around the central theme of a "little love that could" show up in her life and turn a child that had experienced early life rejection into a loving, faithful adult.

"The Little Love That Could" contains 65 stories of varying lengths, though the vast majority are in the relatively short 2-3 page range. Similar in tone to an upcoming book I'd just completed from evangelical writer Sophie Hudson, "The Little Love That Could" is a little humorous, incredibly spirited, often quite heartfelt, and filled with spiritual stories and insights.

The stories are loosely organized, somewhat cohesive thematically yet widely varying in terms of subject matter and personal impact. At times, they are firmly wrapped around a scriptural foundation and other times simply in Capone's own life experiences. Sometimes, the personal connection seems vague at best while there are other times, typically in the book's weakest stories, references to pop culture or simply personal observations.

Capone writes from a place of modest privilege having built a happy, successful life with her husband of 30+ years, though at times it adds an inconsistent tone to stories. At least every several stories, Capone seems to share about a European trip, exotic locale, or experiencing the thrills of an airline's elite status. While there's certainly nothing wrong with any of this, it just adds a weird feeling to stories that are supposed to be focused on love and "underdogs."

I also found, at times, that Capone's writing would conflict with her own stated values. For example, at one point she questions a particular public figure for exploiting a situation/person yet, only a couple essays later does that very thing in telling the story of an unrelated child with whom her daughter worked.

How was that not exploitation?

Capone also, at times, tend to defer to vague descriptions of placed and things that makes it hard to relate to her stories. For example, she shares about a trip to Italy, one of her favorite places, and a particularly difficult phone call received during one day. However, she declines to give any indication at all about the call and it ends up feeling like the literary equivalent of vague-booking.

Occasional tonal and thematic concerns aside, "The Little Love That Could" will most likely appeal to those who appreciate faith-based inspirational writing. Sometimes, you simply don't connect with a book and, quite simply, I found myself for the most part not connecting with "The Little Love That Could" in the way that I expected. With the exception of a small handful of stories, "The Little Love That Could" is a light, breezy read that I easily finished in one day and did, at times, quite enjoy including Capone's experiences with 96-year-old friend Inez and often poignant reflections on her marriage and family.

While far from a book that I disliked, "The Little Love That Could" never quite clicked for me and ultimately lacked anything compelling enough to make me want to explore Capone's earlier works. While some will certainly feel inspired by her rise from a difficult early childhood, as a literary work "The Little Love That Could" didn't help me get to know Pamela Capone and didn't inspire me enough to want to.

"Stand All the Way Up: Stories of Staying In It When You Want to Burn It All Down" - Sophie Hudson

Sophie Hudson understands.

She understands what its like to sit at the hospital for days on end as a loved one prayerfully breathes into their final moments of life.

She understands what it's like to live in a body that can act more than a little unpredictably and the awkward combination of shame and determination that one feels when this occurs.

She understands shame. She understands what it's like to live in a body that embarrasses you and that causes you to isolate from others including those you love the most.

She understands the difficulty in finding friends and building community and being vulnerable because vulnerability has come with a price in the past.

Sophie gets it. Sophie gets it and she stands up in it and she stays in even when she wants to burn it all down.

Creator of the "BooMama.net" blog in 2005, Sophie Hudson has subsequently written such books as "A Little Salty to Cut the Sweet," "Giddy Up, Eunice," "Home is Where My People Are," and others. She's a lifelong educator and co-host of The Big Boo Cast and someone whose laugh you can practically hear even as you're reading her writing.

"Stand All the Way Up: Stories of Staying In It When You Want to Burn It All Down" is Hudson's latest book and it finds the author once again in good heart and good humor. Due for release on June 16th from B&H Books, a LifeWay imprint, "Stand All the Way Up" is written with Hudson's trademark southern sass meets down home goodness. Hudson loves the Lord and isn't afraid to say it and writes with a wonderful weaving together of humor, heart, aching vulnerability, spiritual insight, and a humility that is sometimes woefully absent from many of today's faith-based writers.

"Stand All the Way Up" is an engaging and entertaining collection of stories revealing a God who teaches you to stand up for yourself, stand up for the people you love, stand up for the people who can't and, perhaps most of all, stand up for the Kingdom of God. As someone who doesn't have feet, all that standing up wore me out.

As is nearly always true for collections of stories, some stories will resonate more than others and some will feel nearly irrelevant alongside some of Hudson's more substantial and even more humorous stories of life past and present. There is one moment, in particular, of confusion as Sophie poignantly shares the journey of losing someone she loves, yet in almost the immediately following stories seems to reference the person as if they're still alive.

Help. Confusion.

However, these are minor quibbles.

No, really. "Stand All the Way Up" is an engaging, insightful, and incredibly real collection of stories targeted primarily at women and girls yet easily accessible to anyone who appreciates sassy, spiritually grounded writing and a willingness to stand up and hold in during the darkest and most mundane days of the faith journey.

I read a quote recently by Christian author Lysa TerKeurst that said "We can be divided by issues and opinions… or we can be united by our tears and our love for Jesus." Hudson lives into this belief in "Stand All the Way Up" and she does so deliberately and with tremendous compassion. She gracefully declines the rabbit holes of conflict in favor of seeking common ground and kinship with one another. She recognizes that social media has become a cesspool of conflict and division and, humor and heart firmly intact, gently yet undeniably admonishes those who contribute to those unnecessary divisions and avoidable conflicts.

In other words, with "Stand All the Way Up" Sophie Hudson stands up and keeps loving, loving, loving to the best of her ability.

A resident of Birmingham, Alabama where she lives with her husband and teenage son, Sophie Hudson shares her life and her faith journey in "Stand All the Way Up: Stories of Staying In It When You Want to Burn It All Down" with openness, honesty, an abundance of humor, and a a desire to give all of it to God.