Saturday, June 27, 2020

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

There are certain life experiences that change you.

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

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

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

They're out there. Waiting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I remember Tori Amos.

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

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

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

However, there's an exception.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's weird, really.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

"Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now" - Walter Brueggemann

I sit here in my home on a Wednesday evening. It's my third month of working from home during the current COVID-19 pandemic, a pandemic that immediately followed my over three-month stint at home following limb amputation in late November 2019.

I worked two hours over this evening, a frequent occurrence as I work from home and have easy access to my work computer and the network that used to be unavailable anywhere but my office.

Now, I wake up and work. I eat lunch and work. I eat dinner and work. Since much of society is shut down, I finish work and I work some more. I can't sleep? I work.

On one hand, it feels like I rest but I can't help but wonder "Do I really rest?"

Or do I just work in different ways?

Walter Brueggemann has long been considered one of contemporary theology's most trusted voices on Old Testament.

At a mere 90 pages, "Sabbath as Resistance, New Edition with Study Guide: Saying No to the Culture of Now" is a breezy, informative, and well researched read and easily one of Brueggemann's more accessible works to the wider Christian audience. A Columbia Theological Seminary professor, Brueggemann is an intellectual and would likely be unable to shut off that part of his identity even if he were to try. "Sabbath as Resistance" began as a Bible Study series, a fact that adds depth to this new edition that includes a six-week study guide that tackles each of the six primary chapters contained within the book.

"Sabbath as Resistance" kicks off with a relatively brief preface by Brueggemann that is followed by six chapters exploring Sabbath through the lenses of the first commandment, anxiety, coercion, exclusivism, multi-tasking, and the tenth commandment.

Each chapter is relatively brief yet packed to the brim with Brueggemann's exegesis, initially bouncing off the work of Michael Fishbane and establishing early on that Sabbath is “resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.” This is a point he revisits often throughout "Sabbath as Resistance," though I suppose that makes sense given it's the actual title of the book.

While Brueggemann certainly explores his subject well, there's an undercurrent of anti-market economics that permeates the book's literary tapestry. Some will undoubtedly embrace this, essentially an argument that, at least for me, felt only partially true as it seemed to negate the very individual faith that it purported to call into responsibility.

I'm also writing this review during a time in our society when "Black Lives Matter" is at the forefront and social justice issues are being passionately discussed. Institutional racism is being challenged and systemic concerns being protested. Brueggemann is undoubtedly correct, one could easily say, that the "system" itself is what is to be resisted and that Jesus himself represented and lived into a different way of doing life.

Yet, where "Sabbath as Resistance" falls short is in calling us all into a more disciplined accountability ourselves as individuals and as Christians. While systemic reform is called for, so too is our own individual responsibility to practice Sabbath even if the system itself does not encourage us to do so.

Jesus didn't actually change the system, but set himself apart from it. While this makes its way into Brueggemann's writing at times, more often than not he rails against the system rather than our adhering to it.

Brueggemann's ability to tie Sabbath into the ten commandments is engaging and essential. The chapter on the fourth commandment, in particular, is quite strong and immersive while the section on anxiety that follows is equally powerful. There's little denying, at least for those familiar with scripture, that Brueggemann's argument that Sabbath is an essential spiritual discipline is valid and supported theologically. However, "Sabbath as Resistance" spends too much time in its systemic passions and not enough time applying the discussion to contemporary Christian living and exactly how one can lean into Sabbath in a system that seemingly discourages it at every turn of our lives.

While "Sabbath as Resistance" is at least partially a theological mixed bag, rest assured that in such a short book that Brueggemann hits hard and fast in celebrating the rich tradition and history of Sabbath.

It is a mark of a valuable resource on the Christian life that by the end of "Sabbath as Resistance" that I had prayerfully acknowledged those areas where I violated and continue to violate Sabbath and that I could, perhaps more importantly, recognize how these ways were negatively impacting my faith journey. While I may have wished for a tad more out of "Sabbath as Resistance," it's rather refreshing that Brueggemann avoided legalistic arguments and focused on the broader issues.

Brueggemann, rather succinctly, lays out very clear ways that we can more greatly honor Sabbath and free ourselves from our own individualized and corporate worlds of production, consumption, performance, and distraction:

• You do not have to do more.
• You do not have to sell more.
• You do not have to control more.
• You do not have to know more.
• You do not have to have your kids in ballet or soccer.
• You do not have to be younger or more beautiful.
• You do not have to score more.

While "Sabbath as Resistance" may still be a challenging read for those unfamiliar with theological terminology, the book is easily one of Brueggemann's more accessible works and while I may have found myself in disagreement with certain aspects of Brueggemann's argument that felt overly generalized and based upon assumptions, "Sabbath as Resistance" sent me into prayer, contemplation, reflection, learning, and, yes, Sabbath.

"Sabbath as Resistance" is available now in both print and Kindle versions.

"Speed Bump: A 25th Anniversary Collection" - Dave Coverly

You don't quite realize just how long cartoonist Dave Coverly has been at it until you start reading through "Speed Bump: A 25th Anniversary Collection" and begin to realize how many of the single-panel comics hit you with a wave of both hilarity and nostalgia.

First appearing as an unnamed panel in 1994, "Speed Bump" was officially christened in 1995 and before long it was appearing in 90 newspapers. By the end of 1995, Coverly left his full-time gig as an editorial cartoonist at Bloomington, Indiana's Herald-Times and devoted himself to "Speed Bump."

Coverly was recipient of the National Cartoonists Society's Greeting Card Award in 1997 and picked up their Newspaper Cartoon Panel Award in both 1994 and 2002. "Speed Bump" received their Reuben Award in 2008.

"Speed Bump: A 25th Anniversary Collection" is a collection of 300 of the best "Speed Bump" cartoons in a full-color hardcover book being released on June 30th by IDW Publishing. For 25 years now, "Speed Bump" has appeared in over 400 publications including the Detroit Free Press, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Parade Magazine, and in a host of other settings including textbooks, greeting cards, web-based outlets and others.

One of the joys of "Speed Bump: A 25th Anniversary Collection" is the dry, laid-back humor that comes to life via Coverly's brief yet often hysterical comments that accompany many of his panels and, of course, the panels themselves that range from awesomely weird to surprisingly poignant to absurdist to silly to ever so slightly naughty. Coverly seldom goes political, but when he does go political it's typically in kinder and gentler ways that will resonate with a universal audience.

This 25th anniversary collection is laugh-out loud funny, a vividly realized collection of cartoons with typically simple phrases that will make you laugh, snort, guffaw, and possibly fart.

I mean, seriously. You know a book is funny when it's fart-out-loud funny.

If you know Coverly's work, "Speed Bump: A 25th Anniversary Collection" is practically a must-have collection. If you don't know Coverly's work, then this is a sublime entry point that will make you want to revisit past collections while watching for his latest work in a newspaper near you. If he's not in a newspaper near you? You'll probably want to move.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

"Born Again and Again: Jesus' Call to Radical Transformation" - Megan K. Westra

There's little denying that I follow what would be considered a more progressive theology, a fact that likely explains why I didn't necessarily find first-time author Megan K. Westra's "Born Again and Again: Jesus' Call to Radical Transformation" to be that particularly radical.

There will be those who disagree.

There will be those, gratefully, who will read the words of "Born Again and Again" and a light bulb will go off inside and an "Aha!" moment will follow that leads to, one can hope, changes in both beliefs and practices along the faith journey.

For most who've lived into a more progressive theology, however, "Born Again and Again" will likely read like more of the same with one huge and incredibly important exception - Westra takes the time to deeply explore the scriptural basis for this "radical transformation" and puts a good majority of it into historical context.

Bravo for that.

Westra is on the pastoral staff team at Milwaukee's Transformation City Church, a multi-ethnic non-denominational church that began in the fall of 2007 with a basic question - "What can the church be?"

Indeed, that question seems to be at the core of "Born Again and Again," a book that calls us into connection over consumption and challenges Christians to turn off all the things we expect being "saved" to get us - a good job, a spouse, happiness, a life of comfort, some sense of authority - and settle into the idea that all we're supposed to truly "get" is Jesus.

What if Christianity isn't about possessing but about renouncing, Westra asks? What if we are called not to treat salvation as one more thing to acquire but to conform to Christ?

Where "Born Again and Again" excels is in Westra's scriptural and historical explorations of how a religion birthed on the margins of the Roman Empire became functionally the "official" religion of contemporary society's largest military superpower. Christianity has, in essence, gone from the fringes of society to a dominating presence and "Born Again and Again," at its core, questions whether that domination is really what Christ intended for our lives.

Hint. He didn't, at least not if you believe those red letters.

The doctrine that has resulted all too often has led to planet-killing lifestyles, civil religion, domination over the very types of people Jesus spent most of his time with, and the doctrine of discovery.

Jesus gave up everything to come to humanity; humanity, all too often, seeks to acquire everything when coming to Jesus.

Westra's basic argument in this 226-page manifesto of transformation is that conforming to Christ radically reorients our lives, priorities, and faith away from this dominating mode of acquisition and into a pattern of discipleship that sets us free from fear-based consumption of people, places, and things and releases us into radically transforming possibilities for connection and true belonging within a community of God's people.

"Born Again and Again" explores salvation, Westra's own and the cultural understanding of what salvation has been and what it has become over the years. Westra challenges us to expand our view of salvation before transitioning into what is really a series of essays illustrating the ways that Christianity has spiraled into a consumption-oriented faith rather than the connecting, transforming faith it is intended to be. Exploring such topics as politics, finances, abuse/violence, the roles of women, racial justice, and ending toward the sacredness of Communion, "Born Again and Again" is a consistent and structured exploration of each topic along with a brief but pointed exegesis of scripture and exploration of applicability personally and universally.

Westra's work here is most transforming when exploring how salvation has in some ways been hijacked over the years into its acquisition mode that often contradicts its intent. For much of her book, Westra weaves this transforming tapestry into her words and beautifully balances theology and practicality of daily Christian living. At times, however, "Born Again and Again" settles into a talking point comfort zone, most obviously when discussing both financial concerns and social justice concerns, and "Born Again and Again" dances a little close to conflict with its own central tenet.

In other words, on fortunately rare occasions it feels like "radical transformation" becomes yet another theological "thing" to acquire rather than a fluid and natural result of salvation allowing us to deepen our relationship with Christ and with each other.

It should be stressed, however, that this is a minor concern in a book that is both inspiring and educational as Westra, perhaps more than a good majority of Christian authors, doesn't simply call readers into a transforming faith but reinforces through analysis of scripture and historical research why this is what has been intended all along.

An exciting and inspirational author who is already popular as a speaker, Megan K. Westra makes her literary debut with a book that arrives at an opportunity time in America as COVID-19 has transformed the way we do church and passionate cries for social justice are echoing at decibels heard before but not being ignored for the first time in years.

"Born Again and Again: Jesus' Call to Radical Transformation" is scheduled for release on August 11, 2020 by Herald Press.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

"But What I Really Want to Do Is Direct: Lessons From a Life Behind the Camera" - Ken Kwapis

If you're like most Americans, you find yourself plopping yourself in your local cinema without much thought about "who" actually made the film you're about to see.

You simply want to be entertained.

Or, perhaps, you sit down with your family to watch a beloved sitcom or hour-long drama that will make you laugh or cry or change your life. The odds are fairly strong you don't find yourself wondering "Who directed that?"

The truth is, and I believe that Ken Kwapis would begrudgingly accept this notion, that if you're like most Americans you've likely never heard the name Ken Kwapis and if you have it's more likely a passing reference or, just maybe, it's because one of those films that entertained you became one of your favorites and you definitely know that Kwapis directed it.

Despite having a directorial career that has spanned nearly 40 years, Ken Kwapis is not quite a household name. Despite the fact that Kwapis won an Emmy Award for directing the American version of "The Office" and has been nominated for two other Emmy Awards for directing both "The Office" and "Malcolm in the Middle," Ken Kwapis is still the kind of director who has to interview for every project he works on and whose name often triggers a response of "Do I know anything he's done?"

Well, as a matter of fact you do.

While he mildly pokes fun of himself for his early career helming of Sesame Street's "Follow That Bird," a film that is much better than you might ever expect, Kwapis has directed a slew of memorable film and television projects ranging from the cult favorite "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" to the family film "Dunston Checks In," again a film much better than you might remember, to "He's Just Not That Into You" and others like Robin Williams's "License to Wed," the wonderful "Big Miracle," the under-appreciated "A Walk in the Woods," and the vastly underrated late 80's film "Vibes" among others.

Kwapis's record on television is even more astounding. Kwapis directed the pilot for "The Office," the pilot for "The Larry Sanders Show," and the pilot for "The Bernie Mac Show." He's worked on "Malcolm in the Middle," "Freaks and Geeks," "Bakersfield, P.D.," "Happyish," "Santa Clarita Diet," and #BlackAF" among quite a few others.

You may not know the Illinois native's name, but you know Ken Kwapis's work.

"But What I Really Want to Do Is Direct: Lessons From a Life Behind the Camera" is a sublime reading experience, a warm and witty and well-informed and genuinely immersive and entertaining experience that is partly autobiographical and partly a behind-the-scenes instructional journey through Hollywood, filmmaking, creative expression, and even life itself.

"But What I Really Want to Do Is Direct" is one of the best filmmaking-centered literary efforts I've had the pleasure of reading in quite some time, an unabashedly joy-filled trip through Kwapis's simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary cinematic life with triumphs, faceplants, not quite literal brawls with Hollywood brass, bouts with oversized egos, budget constraints and, through it all, the unabashed joy you can tell he experiences every time the phone rings and another directorial opportunity presents itself.

Kwapis loves directing. You can feel that love in every single word of this book, from his amazing and precise reflections from throughout film history on the various aspects of filmmaking to the generous, giving spirit that infuses his little tidbits of instruction about everything from lensing to music to intention and so much more.

Have I mentioned that I loved this book?

Larry Wilmore observed about Kwapis that “'Action!' is what most directors bark out to begin a scene. But Ken Kwapis starts by gently intoning the words 'Go ahead…' That simple suggestion assures everyone they’re in smart, capable, humble hands." Indeed, it's that sense of "Go ahead..." that weaves itself into the tapestry of "But What I Really Want to Do Is Direct." Almost universally beloved by those who work with him because of the safe and affirming sets he fosters, Kwapis has written an effort here that has inspired me as a film journalist (Really!) and inspired me as a human being as he shares his ideas about empowering both cast and crew and offering feedback that is more collaborative in spirit.

At times, you will marvel at Kwapis's ability to precisely communicate the most specific details about films past and present to illustrate points about cinematography or being proactive on set or giving playable notes or designing a fluid master.

Don't know what I'm talking about? You will by the end of "But What I Really Want to Do Is Direct" and you'll enjoy the journey of learning.

This is a book that's often hilarious, occasionally poignant, frequently inspiring, and then there's that joy again. It's filled with such a joy that even when you're reading about movie history you'll have a smile on your face the entire time.

"Playable Notes" is, most likely, my favorite chapter as it's so incredibly applicable to life itself. It made me think about how I write my own reviews, both book and film, and kind of made me fall in love with Kwapis as a human being.

That may be one more of the most amazing things about "But What I Really Want to Do Is Direct"...Kwapis writes so naturally and with such personal transparency that you feel like you're getting the genuine Ken Kwapis and you feel like this is someone you'd really enjoying hanging out with sometime. As someone who has interviewed quite a few film-connected human beings, sometimes that's an amazing experience and sometimes, well, it's not. Kwapis waltzed his way onto my desired interview list precisely because this is a book that lets you know he's intelligent, kind, funny, open, and generous in spirit.

While those with limited film/television world may at times get a bit lost inside the terminology contained within "But What I Really Want to Do Is Direct," Kwapis keeps it all so relatable and entertaining that he makes the material accessible and for the most part understandable even if you've never said anything else about a film but "Hey, I really like that movie."

There's a place for you here.

Scheduled for an October 6th release from St. Martin's Press, "But What I Really Want to Do Is Direct: Lessons from a Life Behind the Camera" is an engaging and entertaining journey through the directorial life of Ken Kwapis and the lessons he's learned along the way. For anyone who celebrates the creative spirit and yearns to bring it to life, Kwapis has crafted one of the year's most passionate and joy-filled calls to creative action.

Monday, June 15, 2020

"Glorious Weakness: Discovering God in All We Lack" - Alia Joy

I'm about seven months away from having had my latest limb amputation.

I know that's a weird thing to say, but it's true. I'm a paraplegic, double-amputee (left leg, above knee; right leg, below knee) with spina bifida. I've had well over 50 surgeries, though until my most recent amputation I'd been relatively stable for most of the past 30 years.

I'm a sexual abuse survivor, both as a child and an adult, and have had a few other significant life traumas along the way including the death by suicide of my wife and subsequent death of our newborn daughter.

The truth is that I've felt called into ministry for years, but it seems like my body has never really cooperated with the journey. Sometimes, I just plain struggle with performance expectations including mine and everyone else's. Other times, it's a matter of having a body that sometimes just can't keep up.

Sometimes, I think it's the fact that I have a body that really does require the presence of others and this seems so different from everyone else who ministers. They're strong. I'm weak.

Sometimes, it's just the fact that my traumatic background gets in the way. I've had ministry positions, but it just feels different.

All this to really say that I loved "Glorious Weakness: Discovering God in All We Lack," an exploration what it truly means to show up for God "as is" and to give what we are to God rather than what we tend to think God wants from us.

Alia Joy is an Asian-American blogger/writer who lives into her honesty with a refreshing, almost unfathomable transparency and vulnerability. Raised on a mission field in Nepal, she was diagnosed with childhood leukemia and quickly transferred to Holland for treatment. With her family returning home to Hawaii, they lived in poverty and without needed supports from their church.

In "Glorious Weakness," she talks about growing up believing she'd destroyed her family's ministry. She talks about sexual abuse and bipolar disorder and chronic illness and body image and marriage and parenting and suicidal ideation.

She talks about it all. Yet, "Glorious Weakness" is, indeed, a rather glorious book and most certainly not a downer of one. In "Glorious Weakness," Joy talks about the God who wants the broken and the grieving and the uncertain and the wounded. "Glorious Weakness" explores lament in such a raw, honest way that it's remarkable and truly rare among Christian writers. It explores loss and grief and vulnerability and truth and intimacy with boldness that is simply astounding.

Oh sure, I definitely cried during "Glorious Weakness." Heck, that happened within the book's first three pages or so. But mostly, I felt like I'd found a kindred spirit who realized that she had a place with God and it didn't involve the images of ministry that we all too often see in the world but the miracle of showing up, living, making space, and opening oneself up in such a way that others feel free to do the very same.

In some ways, "Glorious Weakness" feels like one gigantic essay because it feels like Joy simply poured out her heart and mind and soul.

If so, it's amazing.

The truth is that I've been sitting around grieving a body that has needed more help and a lack of clarity regarding ministry, but "Glorious Weakness" opened up something inside me and I find myself moving ever so gently toward this idea that perhaps, just perhaps, I can be both "significantly disabled" and still serve God gloriously. While my mind had already been entertaining such a thought, "Glorious Weakness" lives into it so beautifully and gives such an idea space to grow and permission to blossom.

Both theologically based and biographical, "Glorious Weakness" is inspirational and perspirational. It's a book that will give you space to bring forth your hurts, uncertainties, scars, wounds, vulnerabilities, and so much more.

An ideal book for a Christian on a healing journey, living with chronic illness, or dealing with trauma issues, "Glorious Weakness" will soothe, challenge, inspire, and affirm.

Friday, June 12, 2020

"The Bone Jar" - S.W. Kane

London-based author S.W. Kane makes her literary debut with the crime thriller "The Bone Jar," a Thomas & Mercer release due for publication on July 1st, 2020 that is listed as one of Amazon's June "First Read" titles offering Prime members a first glimpse at up-and-coming titles.

The story centers around Blackwater Asylum, a former mental health asylum still sitting on prized property on the banks of the Thames River. High-powered developer Patrick Calder wants the Battersea stain to go and has largely acquired the property with plans for a luxury development. The only thing, or only one, in his way is the mysterious Raymond, a former patient whose release from the facility upon its closure sent him out into a world he wasn't equipped to deal with and back into the safety of one of the facility's now abandoned shelters where he squatted long enough to be named the small shelter's owner.

With Patrick Calder closing in and Raymond hunkering down, things begin to come to a head when the body of an elderly woman is found in Keats Ward, an isolated unit of the former asylum that had been a bit of a mystery even to those familiar with the place. When another body is soon discovered in the river nearby, the secrets of Blackwater Asylum begin to reveal themselves compounded by the relentless searching of urban explorer Connie Darke, whose sister had died in a mysterious accident in the asylum, and Detective Lew Kirby, whose job it is to figure out this entirely too complicated mess of a mystery.

There's a phrase used in construction called "good bones." "The Bone Jar" has good bones, an intriguing concept of a story set in a compelling setting and with characters who seem worthy of further exploration. Unfortunately, "The Bone Jar" never really fleshes out its story, visualizes the potential of its setting, or gives us characters with whom we become invested.

As "The Bone Jar" appears to be the first in an intended series of books centered around Detective Lew Kirby, the series itself has potential to develop into an intriguing mix of crime thrillers and police procedurals complete with Kirby, a bit of a flawed character with his own bit of baggage to deal with in life and a predictably stale love life.

Again, "good bones."

While "The Bone Jar" is set in the London area, the story itself feels universal despite references to familiar landmarks that clearly set its locale.

"The Bone Jar" is most effective as a police procedural, the jigsaw puzzle of a mystery engagingly put together by Detective Kirby and a partner who is criminally under-utilized. While the mystery itself is rather light, as in I had the story pegged less than a quarter of the way through the novel, the journey to get there is involving and nicely constructed.

"The Bone Jar" is less effective as an actual crime thriller. While asylum-set mysteries and horrors are a dime a dozen these days, "The Bone Jar" never really immerses the reader inside the world of Blackwater Asylum and in the tensions lying underneath the seemingly above-water deals and beneath the surface secrets and deceptions. Multiple characters have their own secrets, a fact we know because the characters usually say it as an aside. It's a weird approach that lessens the mystery and seems to not trust the reader to actually get it.

Feeling like the introduction to a world that it actually is, "The Bone Jar" is a decent enough read even if it falls short of being the incredibly engaging, dark, and mysterious crime thriller that you want it to be. Yet, there's something promising here and given the marketing push the book is receiving it's likely that enough readers will become introduced to the world that many will go along for the ride and eagerly anticipate Kane's next Detective Kirby adventure. Here's hoping that the next adventure further immerses us in its world and into the lives of characters who feel paper-thin here and lacking in the valued relationships that would give them more substantial meaning.

As noted, "The Bone Jar" is a Thomas & Mercer release scheduled to arrive on July 1st.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

"Resistencia: Poems of Protest and Revolution" - Edited by Mark Eisner and Tina Escaja

As I arrived at the end of the opening poem in "Resistencia: Poems of Protest and Revolution," Gabriela Mistral's riveting "Tiny Feet," I knew that I was in for an unforgettable journey with this remarkably vibrant and fiercely inspired collection representing poets from every Latin American country grappling with identity, place, and belonging in ways that ask difficult questions and offer no easy answers.

After a powerful introduction by Julia Alvarez, "Resistencia" fearlessly brings to life poetry from past literary icons and exciting new voices exploring feminist, queer, ecological, indigenous, and urban themes alongside the expected rages against imperialism, dictatorships, and economic inequality. As I arrived at the end of the collection, Javier Zamora's "To President-Elect," I lamented the end of a collection that felt so immersive yet seemed to end so quickly.

"Resistencia" includes each poem in its original language along with an English translation, the translations themselves an epic work of art adding depth of meaning and feeling to this remarkable collection. The translators include US Poet Laureate emeritus Juan Felipe Herrera among many others, their efforts bringing many of these poems to English-speaking readers for the very first time.

"Resistencia" is a particularly riveting read at a time when nearly the entire United States is forced to confront institutionalized racism and racial injustice. These issues, even those written years ago, are still ever-present and the words here, though representing life in other lands, ring as true to this day.

"Resistencia" brings us contemporary voices such as Colombian poet Carlos Aguasaco and the remarkable Gioconda Belli, a Nicaraguan poet whose poetry is both politically inspired yet immersed in both feminism and the erotic, while also bringing us the stunning and still resonant work of Gabriela Mistral and the familiar name of Pablo Neruda among many others.

There are others, so many others, that it would be nearly impossible to name them all or to even choose a handful of favorite pieces among this stunning collection.

I ached with Mistral's "Tiny Feet,' here called "Little Feet," while being deeply moved by Cesar Vallejo's "Mass," Alfonsina Storni's "You Want Me White," MIguel Otero Silva's mesmerizing "Sowing," Raquel Verdesoto De Romo Davila's "The Rebel Word," and Mario Benedetti's "The South Also Exists."

I felt lament alongside Rosario Castellanos' "Silence Near an Ancient Stone," wept with Raquel Jodorowsky's "Here We Are," and shuddered with a faint familiarity with Roberto Sosa's "The Poor."

Ana Maria Rodas's "I Know" is gut-level poetry, her "I'll never be more than a warrior for love" lingering in my heart and in my mind even now.

There's more. There's so many more. The poetry in "Resistencia" longs to be read and longs to be spoken aloud. These are words of vibrance and importance and liberation demanding not just coffee nook consumption but a rebellious coming to life.

Edited by Mark Eisner and Tina Escaja, "Resistencia: Poems of Protest and Revolution" is a must-read for those who embrace the power of poetry and the written word to change the world because, indeed, many of the poets in this collection changed their worlds and, in some cases, even gave their lives to speak difficult truths and to empower their people.

Slated for a September 15, 2020 release by Tin House, "Resistencia: Poems of Protest and Revolution" is a timely and vital collection of poetry honoring the history of Latin American poetry and the written word as resistance, protest, revolution, and hope.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

"American Utopia" - David Byrne, Maira Kalman

Former Talking Heads frontman and visionary artist David Byrne weaves together experimental magic with bestselling author, illustrator, and artist Maira Kalman in the unique and inspired "American Utopia," a celebratory collaboration of words and art slated for a September 8, 2020 release from Bloomsbury Publishing.

"American Utopia" embraces the truth of human connection in a richly human way drawing its text from Byrne's hit Broadway show of the same name that is currently scheduled to return to Broadway on September 18th with a Spike Lee documentary also in the works. Kalman's four-color artwork was originally created for the Broadway show's curtain, but here is present in the form of over 150 of Kalman's works.

I'm sitting here in my home on an early June Saturday evening. The eighth day of downtown protests is going on a few miles from my home and at times one can't help but wonder if we'll ever truly get along with one another and build a system that is fair, equitable, safe, and embracing of all.

In a sense, "American Utopia" answers that challenging question with a resounding "Yes!" Kalman's imagery captures a portrait of daily life and the human experience that is both intimate and universal. Byrne's language, simple yet precise, is hope-filled in an honest and meaningful way. "American Utopia" is a call toward connection, a call toward kindness, a call toward the community of our greatest imaginations. It's a reminder that we can create the world that we wish to live in and we simply must do so whether that be as artists or musicians or writers or dancers or however it is to manifest in our lives.

We can do it. And we must.

"American Utopia" is a relatively quick read, though it's a book that will be revisited again and again for those who embrace it. It's a dose of optimism in a cynical world, a beautifully designed immersive experience that will linger in your heart and mind long the book has left your hands.

"The Phantom Tollbooth" - Norton Juster

In this age of COVID-19 and civil unrest, I found myself recently having a video chat with a friend and discussing the latest and greatest books. Much to her surprise, I confessed that I'd never read Norton Juster's "The Phantom Tollbooth," a children's fantasy semi-classic first published in 1961 by Random House.

"The Phantom Tollbooth" tells the story of Milo, a bored young boy who one day receives the gift of a magical tollbooth. Having nothing else to do, he drives through it in his toy car and is transported to the Kingdom of Wisdom, a land that once prospered but is now troubled following the exiling of Princesses Rhyme and Reason. Acquiring two loyal companions, an oversized "watchdog" named Tock and the blustering Humbug, Milo sets off on an adventure to restore the Kingdom of Wisdom to its state of glory by releasing the Princesses Rhyme and Reason from the Castle in the Air. Along the way, Milo learns valuable life lessons and discovers a love of learning that will help him see himself and the world around him anew.

Borne out of a grant that Just received from the Ford Foundation to write a children's book about cities, "The Phantom Tollbooth" came to Juster after increasing frustration with the original concept and also following ideas put forth by his housemate at the time, illustrator Jules Feiffer, whose work would eventually companion Juster's words.

Often compared to the likes of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," "The Phantom Tollbooth" is most certainly a different sort of literary beast though the comparison itself is certainly understandable. The book starts off rather magically, a Jules Feiffer map creatively manifesting the Kingdom of Wisdom with all its boroughs and municipalities from Dictionopolis to Digitopolis to the Doldrums to the Mountains of Ignorance and many more delightful locales.

As Milo begins his adventure by speeding through "The Land of Expectations," he lands in Dictionopolis where King Azaz, ruler of the world of letters and words, sets the stage for the adventure that is to unfold. There's never any doubt that Milo, despite not feeling quite up to the task, will rise to the occasion and set off to rescue the Princesses. Along the way, he will encounter such imaginatively realized beasts as the Terrible Trivium (the demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs) and the Demon of Insincerity. Initially overwhelmed by all these things he doesn't understand, over time he immerses himself in the words and numbers and knowledge and begins to embrace this new way of living that he is learning. Even as Milo's journey winds down, he laments not having arrived sooner, a deficit he attributes to his own lack of knowledge and mistakes made along the way to which Princess Rhyme responds in what I believe to be the essence of the book itself - "It’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.”

While it may seem that "The Phantom Tollbooth" could be difficult for those children (or adults) with language comprehension or reading challenges, instead it's a book that embraces the ability of each child to learn differently and celebrates that journey of learning. Upon his return home, Milo looks forward to future journeys with the tollbooth but, alas, the tollbooth disappears replaced by a note addressed to "Milo, Who Now Knows The Way." Milo is empowered to journey through lands yet undiscovered and to reach them himself. It's a wonderful message, a reminder of each child's potential for learning and understanding in ways that can be communicated and in ways that cannot be communicated.

For some, "The Phantom Tollbooth" will be a quick, immersive read and for others, myself included, it will be a book that is either read a chapter at a time or simply enjoyed at a leisurely place. The word play is whimsical yet pointed; the puns endlessly entertaining. Milo himself transforms from a boy who is constantly bored to a boy who can't look around without seeing all there is to see and do.

In 1970, an animated musical version was created of "The Phantom Tollbooth" while even as I write this a live-action version of "The Phantom Tollbooth" is in its early stages. If you've never read, "The Phantom Tollbooth" it's a wonderful bedtime story type of book that will be enjoyed by both children and adults.

Monday, June 1, 2020

"Resistance and Hope: Essays by Disabled People" - Edited by Alice Wong

Having recently had the opportunity to preview Alice Wong's upcoming "Disability Visibility," I enthusiastically claimed the opportunity to go back a couple years and check out a similar 2018 effort by Wong that also pushed disabled voices to the forefront. "Resistance and Hope: Essays by Disabled People" is really an expansion of Wong's acclaimed Disability Visibility Project, an anthology of essays written by some of the country's most celebrated and recognized activists, leaders, and social justice pioneers for disability justice.

In most ways, "Resistance and Hope" feels like an introduction to "Disability Visibility," though at least part of that is that it's obvious Wong has learned much since compiling this anthology and has applied that knowledge to her upcoming release. While "Resistance and Hope" is, indeed, just as filled with resistance and hope, it's a shorter effort with 17 essays and its inconsistent tone sometimes mutes its overall impact intellectually and emotionally.

The authors here explore resistance, hope, self-care, disability justice, and the current state of political affairs in America under an administration that has reversed or just plain eliminated many disability rights measures.

The book challenges, though perhaps a tad less than it intends and this is a key lesson Wong seems to have learned and applied in her upcoming "Disability Visibility." These essays are shorter and for the most part rather fundamental, while the post-essays bios are frequently far too lengthy. Additionally, Wong utilizes content advisories a bit excessively - this is also an area that is vastly improved in her upcoming project.

All 17 of the essays will be appreciated, though is as nearly always true with anthologies certain ones are likely to resonate more than others. Favorites of mine included Cyree Jarelle Johnson's "Barron Trump's (Alleged) Autistic Childhood," Mari Kurisato's "They Had Names," and Stacey Milbern's "Reflections as Congress Debates Our Futures," and Naomi Ortiz's "Self-Care When Things Shatter." Lydia X.Z. Brown always impresses and the same is true for "Rebel - Don't Be Palatable: Resisting Co-optation and Fighting for the World We Want," while Mia Mingus, Maysoon Zayid, and Talila A. Lewis all shine.

Truthfully, though, there's not a weak effort here other than noting that some could have benefited from lengthier presentation.

Alice Wong has established herself not only as a premiere activist in America for disability justice, but also as one who enthusiastically shines the light on others. It's refreshing in a world often filled with "me first" to see someone so enthusiastically devoted to sharing the spotlight and empowering others.

Published directly by the Disability Visibility Project, "Resistance and Hope" is available in a Kindle edition as the e-book format was chosen primarily for its flexibility and accessibility.