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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

Book Review, Gabrielle Bernstein, Miracles Now

I haven’t yet, for the most part, mentioned any of my forays into religion, theology, or metaphysics on this blog, although this has consumed a great deal of my time within the past several years. In fact, I’m actually thinking of dedicating a second blog to the subject of the wild spiritual ride I’ve been on lately, as it deserves its own space, but that’s an entry for another time…

Focused on books and the written word as I am, I’ve done a great deal of reading in the self-help/spirituality genre, and have recently began reading authors who teach the metaphysical text A Course in Miracles. This has led me to Marianne Williamson, and, more recently, to Gabrielle Bernstein.

Having spent forty days working through her May Cause Miracles, I found Bernstein’s guidance and advice incredibly helpful in seeing the ways in which we choose fear over love and how we externalize and project our anxieties onto others. Having blasted quickly through Bernstein’s other books (Add More ∼ing to Your Life and Spirit Junkie), I was thrilled when I saw that the ARC for Miracles Now: 108 Life-Changing Tools for Less Stress, More Flow, and Finding Your True Purpose (which was published on April 8th) was available on NetGalley (and even more thrilled when Hay House approved my request, as I’m very new to the ARC world).

Miracles Now is essentially a collection of Bernstein’s greatest hits (108 of them): ways to break through emotional blocks, meditate through stress quickly, handle childhood anger, stress, money issues, clutter, and even a quick guide on how to do a round of “tapping.” I think that I made it about twenty-four pages in before I pre-ordered the book from Amazon. I’ve found Bernstein’s suggestions for handling anxiety and stress quickly to be easy to work with and highly meaningful. I’ve been working on incorporating several into my own spiritual practice. What I love about Bernstein’s work is that she doesn’t mess around—she cuts straight to the nitty gritty of how to take the experience of the Divine beyond the realm of Big Ideas and into the practical world of day-to-day existence. I recommend this book strongly to anyone who is looking not only for Something More, but how to bring that Something into their everyday lives.

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

Book Review: Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America

As a graduate student, my comprehensive exam lists were filled with books that reinterpreted the history of slavery using new documentary sources, revealing a history where slaves exercised agency and resisted the harsh conditions in which they lived. While the history of slavery during the antebellum period has been extensively analyzed and documented, the history of slavery during the colonial period has been paid far less attention by historians. As Gerald Horne points out in The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (published on April 18th), this is because paying attention would force historians (and, by extension, Americans) to acknowledge the very deep relationship between slavery and the American Revolution—a relationship that is uncomfortable to examine, because it forces a reevaluation of the very meaning of that revolution.

Horne, a prolific writer and the John and Rebecca Moores Professor of History and African-American Studies at the University of Houston, builds on Atlantic World scholarship and the history of slavery to pose a compelling thesis: because slavery was the foundation of the economy of the colonial Western Hemisphere, the history of the American Revolution is not centered on 1776, but 1688. The Glorious Revolution helped make possible the rise of a merchant class whose wealth was based in the slave trade (as traders or planters), and slavery throughout the British colonies, both in the Caribbean and North America, increased accordingly. The end result was instability, as both slavery and the resistance to slavery grew.

The ramifications of this instability, however, played out differently in the colonies and in London: London moved toward abolition and a realization that free Africans allied to Britain could be useful in playing the game of imperial politics against Spain and France, while the merchants of North America, realizing that the institution of slavery was threatened, moved toward “independency.” Meanwhile, Africans, caught in the middle, pursued alliances with indigenous peoples and with Britain’s imperial enemies, conducting slave revolts on their own—a cycle that would later prove disastrous for those Africans remaining within the territorial bounds of the newly formed United States. Independence, Horne points out, was not the story about Enlightenment ideals of liberty as espoused by the Founding Fathers, but was a conservative counter-revolution. Americans were fighting for the right to keep and increase slavery (thus making the later Confederate claim for being the true heirs of the American Revolution plausible, but that’s a story for another day).

Horne rightfully points out that the story of the American Revolution as it is so often told (as a progress narrative where freedom and democracy inevitably won out in the end) only favors the winners, and misses the larger context of the politics of the British Empire during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This empire was global, not limited to North America. And British colonies in the Western Hemisphere were built on the economic basis of slavery. Africans were major players in this world—not just “helpers” in the Patriot cause. By restoring this larger context, Horne demands that we imagine a far more complicated world than that usually given to us in our history books. This picture, however, is profoundly uncomfortable, as it should be.

I did not find this book an easy read, and not just for the subject matter. In part, I suspect it was because I was reading an ARC, and there were several places where I assumed changes would be made before final printing (hopefully including Horne’s use of state nicknames, which got old quickly). I also had some trouble with Horne’s argumentative style, which kept circling around to pick up themes and events from earlier in the book. Once this style sunk into my brain, however, I was able to appreciate the significance of what Horne was arguing. So my advice would be to stick with the book until the end, because the payoff is worth it. My hope would be that Horne’s book will have a readership beyond academic circles, although I know that there are far too many people out there who won’t even brook a discussion of the Founding Fathers having motives beyond Enlightenment-inspired altruism. But the book is out there. And the fight goes on.

Source: ARC from the publisher via NetGalley

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