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Book Review, Robert Holden, Holy Shift! 365 Daily Meditations from A Course in Miracles

Robert Holden’s Holy Shift! 365 Daily Meditations from A Course in Miracles is designed to serve as a daybook, with a set of daily meditations featuring excerpts from the metaphysical text A Course in Miracles. The book reflects Holden’s ongoing focus on the Course (the title is itself a play on the Course’s teaching regarding shifts in perception). Holy Shift! presents an excerpt from the Course for each day, and reflects both the Course’s self-study structure and its adaptability to individual spiritual journeys. Holden also provides an introduction explaining the background and operation of the Course, and the book can serve as both a helpful introduction to the text to those who are not familiar, or as supplemental material for those already working with the Course.

I received the book as an ARC from Hay House via NetGalley, but found it very difficult to read (due to formatting) on my Kindle Fire. Consequently, I waited until the book was available from my public library before rendering a review. I am glad that I waited, as the final product was nicely done indeed, and I’m tempted to add this book to my personal devotional collection.

Source: ARC from the publisher via NetGalley, copy from my local library

On Not Losing Hope

Like so many others, I’ve been thinking about Robin Williams today. I was up past midnight last night watching YouTube videos of his past work, and watching my Twitter feed to feel like I wasn’t reflecting alone.

There are no easy answers here, obviously.

I have struggled for years with my own creativity and writing, and then I look at Robin’s life—how he let his art out, full throttle and unafraid—and I wonder. Even with this fearlessness, he still struggled with the darkness.

Yet I refuse to believe that the darkness won this one. Somehow, I believe that Robin is still out there in the universe, and that today he’s fine. He’s at peace.

I don’t write much about my personal life on here. Somehow, because it’s the Internet, I’m afraid to. I don’t want to tell you about how hard it is to write, how frustrating it is to constantly put my art aside for my family, how unappreciated I feel on a regular basis. I don’t tell you about my spiritual journey, which occupies much of my time. I don’t write about how I find great meaning out of things like Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra’s 21-Day Meditation Experience—I’m in academia, where I feel like admitting to any sort of spirituality automatically makes me suspect or “stupid.” I don’t tell you about my doubts, because this is supposed to be my “professional” website, where people might look at my CV and offer to hire me for jobs I suspect I don’t actually want.

I have no idea who I am these days, but admitting to that feels like a sort of failure.

So I look at Robin’s life—oh, Captain, my Captain—he who was so funny and bright and charismatic and kind—and I look at how he spent his life fighting his demons…and it is so easy to fall into despair in this moment and lose hope.

But we can’t lose hope.

I won’t lose hope.

I won’t stop writing. I won’t look at all of my failures and how “bad” my life looks today and how little I feel I have done with my life…I won’t give up.

I believe the future is going to be better. I believe I will find my way.

I want to be open to the world, instead of continually closing in on myself and hiding everything I don’t want to show the world. Hiding my writing, hiding my dissertation, hiding my personal life, hiding my spiritual journey.

I want to be inspired and be open to a new life—the rest of my life.

I am tired of looping around my own thoughts.

If anything, I hope that Robin’s legacy won’t be just about the laughter, but about reminding us not to close ourselves in. To remember that we are not isolated selves in a hostile universe. The universe is not our enemy. We choose hope instead.

Book Review, Nanette Littlestone, ed. F.A.I.T.H. – Finding Answers in the Heart

The essays in F.A.I.T.H. – Finding Answers in the Heart (published on June 16, 2014), are a reminder that there is great power not only in believing in oneself, but in a Higher Power. The fourteen essays, written primarily by women practitioners in the self-help/life coaching/holistic healing community, describe the impact of finding the faith within themselves to overcome difficult circumstances and to move on, despite often crippling self-doubt.

The stories here are personal and powerful, and apparently this book found me at the right time, as I found myself crying while reading more than once. Especially poignant were Mindy Strich’s “Good Grief,” where she discusses the aftermath of her mother’s death and how she learned to let go and surrender to a new path, and Laina Orlando’s “Third Time’s A Charm,” which is an important reminder about co-dependency and the need to receive as well as give. I also found great comfort in Nanette Littlestone’s “Trust Me!” where she describes her struggles with listening to that still, small voice within that often tells us to attempt uncomfortable things…to put ourselves out into the world even when we can’t guarantee the outcome.

My only quibble with the book, and it is a minor one, is that I wish the essays could have been longer. So many of the stories were so compelling that I wanted to know more!

The takeaway from this collection is that it is possible to start one’s life over again (and again) even when it feels impossible or “too late.” It also is a significant reminder that we aren’t alone in these journeys that we take—there are thousands upon thousands there right along with us. And that, at least to me, may be the most comforting thought of all.

Source: Review copy from the publisher

Book Review, Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg, The Chase

Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg’s Nick Fox and Kate O’Hare series, consisting thus far of an e-book novella and two books, is a highly entertaining romp through the world of the F.B.I. and con artists. I tend to think of this series as a mash-up in the style of television shows like “White Collar” and “Burn Notice,” only in this case, the F.B.I. agent is a woman (the con artist is still a good looking charmer and the explosions are, well, still explosions). In other words, these aren’t deep books, but holy hell, are they fun to read.

In this installment, The Chase (published on February 25, 2014), Fox and O’Hare are going after a villain who is a thinly-veiled former member of a certain presidential administration, as they need to recover a stolen piece of art. Complicating matters is the fact that officially, Fox and O’Hare’s “missions” are off the record, and O’Hare is still supposed to be chasing the “escaped” Fox (a fact that they play to fairly humorous effect throughout the story). The romantic tension is high, the witty banter is well done, and O’Hare’s father, Jake, continues to be awesome and needs his own series. While I found the ending of the book to be a little too quickly resolved, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book, and I look forward to future books in this series.

Source: ARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review, Joan Barthel, American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton

Having been to Elizabeth Ann Seton’s shrine at Emmitsburg, Maryland, several times, I was very happy to review Joan Barthel’s recent biography (published March 4, 2014) of Seton, the first canonized American saint. Barthel handles Seton’s writings well, and gives a nice overview of Seton’s life and her founding of the (American) Sisters of Charity.

I did have several issues with the book, however, the first of which was its lack of depth. While Barthel does cover Seton’s major life events, she seems hesitant to tackle the more problematic facets of her life—her relationships with men, her often dramatic personality and mood changes, and her (in my opinion, as a fellow convert) very quick conversion to Catholicism. Barthel’s narrative also tends to weave back and forth through time at several points, where I would have preferred a more straightforward approach. Barthel also tends to “pad out” sections of the story that she doesn’t have as much Seton-specific information for with segues into, for example, the history of revolutionary New York City or biographical information on John Carroll. Admittedly, this may be my own personal bias as a historian, since I recognized much of Barthel’s source material, but I feel some of the secondary material could have been tied in more seamlessly.

My final quibble of the book is Barthel’s attempt to shoehorn Seton’s story into a presentist narrative regarding the Vatican’s present-day treatment of American nuns, treating Seton’s experiences as merely the first in a long line of clerical abuses toward American female religious orders. While as a feminist and a Catholic, I am highly sympathetic to this issue in the Church, as a historian, I found something wanting in her characterization of Seton as a proto-feminist (reading Wollstonecraft does necessarily a feminist make).

I would recommend American Saint to anyone who is looking for a general presentation of Seton’s life and work. I am looking forward, however, to one day seeing a future book that takes a more critical and analytical stance toward Seton as a religious thinker and teacher.

Source: ARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review, Lama Marut, Be Nobody

Be Nobody, published on June 3rd, was written by spiritual teacher and former Buddhist monk Lama Marut (Brian K. Smith), who provides down-to-earth and, for Americans who are more familiar with Western spiritual thought, an accessible way to understand Eastern philosophies regarding the ego. Lama Marut focuses on ways to get past the constant search for self-promotion, and offers advice on how to drop the ego and seek peace. The book analyzes the various ways that we either see ourselves as “special” or continually look for new things to fill our empty hearts. He also provides various strategies to help overcome our own ego-driven craziness, and notes, in a section that I found especially helpful, that we are not locked into the karmic cycle by karma, but by what we think about karma).

I loved many things about this book, but in particular, Lama Marut’s no-nonsense and no-bullshit style of teaching, and his advice regarding how to abandon the American “cult of busyness.” Ultimately, while Be Nobody isn’t saying anything new, this book is significant because of how clearly Lama Marut presents his teaching on the need to change yourself in order to change the world. I was convinced, anyway—I preordered this book from Amazon when I wasn’t even halfway through the ARC.

Source: ARC from the publisher via NetGalley, and my personal copy of the book

Book Review, Andreas Bernard, Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator

Andreas Bernard’s Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator (published February 14, 2014) is a fascinating look at the history of the elevator and how it transformed how Westerners conceived of vertical space, much like the railroad transformed horizontal space during the nineteenth century. The book begins with a discussion of how the story of Elisha Graves Otis’ demonstration of the safety catch on an elevator in 1854 became the starting point for the architectural history of the device, although Bernard points out that not only had freight elevators been around for years, it was the Otis Company’s domination of the elevator market that allowed them to write their own history, so to speak.

For the most part, because this book was originally written in German for a German audience, the history focuses primarily on the elevator in that country, but draws several interesting comparisons with other European nations and the United States. The Americans were, for the most part, early adopters of elevator technology and innovations. Bernard notes that this innovation came in the form of electric-powered elevators, steel frame construction that allowed for taller buildings, and safety features. Building design itself changed, moving the elevator to the very center of buildings, and leading to the construction of standardized floor design with clean and open corridors (Bernard finds that this “alignment” paralleled similar developments with street layouts during the mid-to-late nineteenth century). The elevator also performed an important cultural function, changing the value assigned to floors in a building (the upper floors used to be far less desirable, or were for staff).

And while I felt Bernard perhaps spent too much time on segues into the cultural history of spaces like “the garret” and on the elevator-as-confessional, Lifted is a readable and interesting account of how technology can alter both space and culture. (Also, I have one very minor quibble which is probably the result of a translation error: Parker Posey played Tom Hanks’ girlfriend, not his wife, in the movie “You’ve Got Mail.”)

Source: ARC from the publisher via NetGalley

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