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What Freedom Smells Like: A Memoir

Amy Lewis. Anomaly, $13.95 trade paper (262p) ISBN 978-0-615-93441-9

Lewis’s attempt to tell her life story is shallow, alarming, and only passingly spiritual. She sweeps through her teen years in New Orleans, her institutionalization for borderline personality disorder, and her undergraduate life as a pretty white redhead waitressing in 1990s Berkeley, before focusing on her tumultuous relationship with black maybe-assassin Truth, whose presence in her life opened her eyes to issues of race in America. A torrid romance and marriage became a financially successful partnership in the budding field of Internet pornography, but Truth began to abuse Amy, driven by jealousy, work stress, and a need for control. Lewis’s textbook apologetic approach to Truth’s behavior is disturbing, especially in light of the next phase of her story. Although she feels freed by Truth’s untimely death, her primary comfort comes in the form of afterlife communication with him in which she sees him as her protector, nearly deifying her abuser. The final piece of the memoir, detailing her search to find herself as an actress in L.A., feels merely vain and self indulgent. Lewis may feel she’s achieved mystical awareness, but she seems not to have achieved self-awareness, and without that, this memoir has little to teach. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Unexpected Grace: A Discovery of Healing Through Surrender

June Hyjek. Meridian Media, $16.95 ISBN 978-0-9896427-0-5

Hyjek’s memoir is an intimate but bland look at her struggles with scoliosis, “a walking medical nightmare, and a deformed one.” Her story, often told through emails and responses from friends, is reminiscent of a holiday letter received from an old aunt who includes way too much information about very personal struggles with health. “Help! My center is crooked!” Hyjek wrote early on as she struggled to accept her situation. Without knowing the author or her encouraging friends, it’s hard to get connected to or invested in her journey through a series of surgeries and eventual psychological “acceptance.” The most interesting question posed in the book comes from the author’s son, who asks his mother whether the person she was 15 years ago would recognize the woman she is today. That theme might have been a more useful foundation for Hyjek’s year-long transition from feeling defeated to “feeling peaceful.” While her closing advice is reassuring—ask for help, she suggests, because “we are all ready and willing to help”—it’s not enough to save this lackluster book. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America

Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith. Oxford Univ., $27.95 (216p) ISBN 978-0-19-998632-3

Books on atheism often emphasize the individuality of the atheist, a person who has broken away from religious dogmatism to personally determine a worldview and morality. By welcome contrast, Cimino and Smith study the social aspects of atheist culture. At the core of atheist identity, they argue, resides an inherent tension between the needs for inclusion and autonomy. Their work historically situates the atheist movement, unearthing ways in which atheists have adapted social group behaviors and strategies from using evangelical Christian-style conversion to mobilizing via identity politics. The authors also consider the signal role of social media in the formation of atheist communities, suggesting that technology has shifted the ways in which people conceive of relationships and interact within them. This is a meticulous study that embeds atheist community in a larger context of subcultures, showing identity formation, the assertion of that identity, and the need to be included. The authors excel in demonstrating the inevitably social dimensions of human identity. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation

Grant Wacker. Belknap, $27.95 (408p) ISBN 978-0-674-05218-5

For more than 50 years, evangelist Billy Graham filled stadiums and arenas with his evangelistic speeches, transforming the lives of the millions who attended. In this elegantly written and compulsively readable account, Wacker (Heaven Below), professor of Christian history at Duke Divinity School and an eminent historian of American religion, probes the ways that Graham touched so many so deeply while aiming to provide the moral voice for a nation. Interweaving biography with social and intellectual history, Wacker suggests that Graham’s brilliance shone brightly from his many facets—preacher, pastor, Southerner, and entrepreneur, among others—and so his hearers had many ways to see themselves reflected in him. In the end, Wacker points out that Graham’s pragmatic vision of an America that’s true to its ideals enabled him to adapt trends in the wider culture for his own evangelistic and moral-reform purposes. Graham challenged Americans to “live up to their self-professed values of biblical equality, moral integrity, and social compassion… (he) touched their memories and called them to be the people they knew they ought to be.” (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice

Charles Johnson. Shambhala, $17.95 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-61180-183-5

In much of popular Buddhist literature, contentious topics such as political activism and race are absent or quickly glossed over. This collection of essays, prefaces, and short stories on the intersection of politics, race, and Buddhist practice aims to remedy that lack. Johnson, an African-American author who won the National Book Award for his novel Middle Passage, offers a fresh viewpoint on a religious culture dominated by white and Asian voices. His essays are the strongest portion of the collection, often focusing on the leadership and life of Martin Luther King Jr. to emphasize the necessity of being politically active in order to reduce suffering and bring about beneficial social changes. Though some essays are dated, such as a piece on Obama’s presidential campaign, they provide a time capsule of Johnson’s hopes and dreams. Unfortunately, the prefaces and philosophical short stories, while well-written, come across as filler between the essays; more concentration on Johnson’s essays would have improve the collection. This is a welcome compendium of short works showcasing the interweaving of black American history and culture with Buddhist practice. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Science and Practice of Humility: The Path to Ultimate Freedom

Jason Gregory. Inner Traditions, $16.95 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-62055-363-3

Asserting that sages, both ancient and modern, share the quality of humility, Gregory says this virtue is the key to ultimate liberation. The teacher, speaker, and documentary filmmaker draws from Asian philosophies, Hermeticism, and a variety of other spiritual sources to “show a clear understanding of what spiritual evolution and illumined consciousness really mean.” Distinguishing between warriors who arrogantly try to impose their views on others and humble sages who pursue inner transformation, Gregory emphasizes that the latter is the effective way to change the world. Buddhism-derived teachings on the suffering caused by the ego’s illusions are mixed with a wide range of metaphysical concepts such as the growth of consciousness, galactic harmonics, mental transmutation, involution, and triune vibration. Gregory’s source materials reveal broad knowledge, but his vague, abstract writing and sweeping generalizations, including dismissive comments about the “masses,” don’t help him build a persuasive case. He never convincingly explains why humility in itself is the key to inner freedom, or whether humility is the cause or effect of enlightenment. Despite the book’s title, the author de-emphasizes practice in the commonly understood sense. His audience may be limited to those already attracted to esoteric spiritualities. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Relationship Handbook: A Path to Consciousness, Healing, and Growth

Shakti Gawain and Gina Vucci. New World Library (PGW, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (168p) ISBN 978-1-57731-473-8

Self-help workshop leader Gawain (Creative Visualization) and her writing partner, Vucci, distill years of experienceinto an accessible reference book containing tools that students can turn to again and again. The title might suggest a narrow focus on romance, but Gawain covers many types of relationships, including the interactions among a person’s different emotional selves. Personal stories address issues that couples may face, such as when an extroverted woman is married to an introverted man. Accompanying exercises—visualizations and writing prompts—suggest ways to explore similar issues in one’s own relationships. Dialogues demonstrate the power of relationships as a mirror, a source of feedback that helps growth. These conversations are intended to replicate the workshop experience, though the transcripts lack the immediacy of watching a facilitator work with a person at a live event. Gawain’s most powerful techniques, like physically repositioning the speaker depending on the inner voice being expressed, lose some impact in print. Though Gawain wrote this book with the intention of retiring from leading workshops, it acts as more of an adjunct to her other teachings than a true replacement. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope

Austen Ivereigh. Holt, $30 (464p) ISBN 978-1-62779-157-1

Pope Francis is a complex human being, as Catholics are discovering. Ivereigh, a journalist, Catholic commentator, and former advisor to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, is the ideal papal biographer. He provides a detailed and well-written examination of Pope Francis, starting with his youth in Argentina. Young Jorge, the child of Italian immigrants, was strongly influenced by his grandmother Rosa. She provided him with an ideal example of an intelligent, prayerful woman, and she believed it important to live one’s faith by working for social justice. This relationship, as well as several others, helped the future pontiff open his heart to the poor in his country and, eventually, world-wide. Bergoglio has developed into a pope who shakes things up, does not put up with complacency, and truly believes that faith, lived authentically, can change the world. With its wealth of biographical information that offers an in-depth look at formative influences, this is the best examination of the current pope to date. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Future of God: A Practical Approach to Spirituality for Our Times

Deepak Chopra. Harmony, $25 (272p) ISBN 978-0-307-88497-8

“Faith is in trouble,” bestselling spirituality author Chopra writes to open his newest, and one source of that trouble is “bullying behavior that seeks to crush the early shoots of personal spirituality” from prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins. Chopra therefore writes “to make spirituality credible for modern people.” He says that atheists and religious fundamentalists have monopolized public discussion of spirituality and religion, but that they argue from a flawed understanding of God. For example, Dawkins’s atheism “positions itself as rational but cannot explain the source of rationality,” he writes. Chopra asserts that scientists, like believers, take truths on faith, but scientists are in thrall to scientific materialism and fail to see this. He recommends a shift in both scientific and human awareness that allows for materialism as well as invisible worlds, and will allow people to reach God. Chopra’s first-person viewpoint and clear, colloquial language help persuade readers to entertain the possibilities he raises. He won’t reach atheists, but spiritually inclined agnostics will find the ideas provocative. Agent: Robert Gottlieb, Trident Media Group. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage

Rob and Kristen Bell. HarperOne, $24.99 (160p) ISBN 978-0-06-219424-4

Rob Bell (Love Wins) and his wife, Kristen, have a way with words in their first marriage book. The Bells use Hebrew terms like echad and zimzum, relational terms like “responsive,” “dynamic,” “exclusive,” and “sacred,” and their own intimate back-and-forth dialogue to reveal the mysteries of marriage, love, and divine connection. They also use simple sketches—stick figures, circles, and arrows—to diagram the entanglement that exists between partners, one that reflects “the divine love that flows throughout all creation.” More than anything else, the Bells wield their heartfelt words and honest voices to cheer on couples of all kinds who want to build devotion and intimacy. This is a “feel good” book, but not because it skirts the issues, but precisely because it delves so deeply into them, illuminating a path to wholeness and warmth for the sake of the world. It invites readers to love their partners and the bedazzling existence they share and create together. Married or not, read this book. Agent: Christopher Ferebee, Christopher Ferebee Literary Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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