Friday, July 17, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 16, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 12, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It certainly doesn't end there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

"Tomboyland: Essays" - Melissa Faliveno

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

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

It's a fair question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 4, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That scares me.

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

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

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

Thursday, July 2, 2020

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are no easy answers here.

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

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

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

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