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Jewish Stories of Love and Marriage: Folk Tales, Legends, & Letters

Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and Peninnah Schram. Rowman and Littlefield, $36 (262p) ISBN 978-1-4422-3898-5

Rabbi Sasso and storyteller Schram, in a synergistic collaboration, have created an engaging compilation of Jewish love letters and love stories. Beginning with tales about the love relationships of biblical couplings (many interwoven with rabbinic midrash), the book also includes Jewish folktales about courtship, fascinating love letters by Jewish historical figures, and a diverse collection of contemporary stories of meeting, loving, and joining in marriage. The collection highlights both the differences and the commonalities between present-day and past experiences of love and marriage. In part a celebration of modern, romantic love, this book is also about the covenantal relationship between members of a couple (with same-sex couples explicitly included), as well as love's subtleties, conflicts, and hardships. The book concludes with a chapter designed to help a couple to write their own love story. Likely to appeal to a broad range of readers, the book is of particular value to those celebrating a wedding or anniversary. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Spiritual Regression for Peace and Healing

Ursula Demarmels. Llewellyn, $15.99 paper (288p) ISBN 978-0-7387-3994-6

Swiss regression hypnotherapist Demarmels explains the process and philosophy behind her practice of Michael Newton's Life Between Lives methodology, which focuses on both returning to past lives for insight and inspiration and revisiting past deaths and the time in the spirit world immediately afterward, during which the soul reconnects with its spirit guide and evaluates the lessons of the life just completed. Her perspective is that the "basic mission for every incarnation" is to "bring the qualities of the soul down to the terrestrial level" and that the soul intends even the difficult situations we experience. For example, a soul that perpetrated harm may choose to experience the other side of a challenging relationship bybecoming a victim. Narrative examples throughout the book plus 20 case studies give snippets of human insight, and show readers the potential positive results of perusing this work with a professional. Despite some bland examples and overly descriptive writing, Demarmels's quiet, life-affirming joyfulness comes through, along with her confidence in her ability to help people improve their understanding of life's path through regression hypnotherapy. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Dear Mary: Lessons from the Mother of Jesus for the Modern Mom

Sarah Jakes. Bethany, $19.99 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-0-7642-1212-3

In this epistolary devotional, Jakes (Lost and Found) writes earnestly and charminglyto the mother of Jesus about current mothering issues. Jakes became a mother in her teens and dealt with the stigmas of single motherhood that Jesus' mother Mary faced in biblical days. She writes about the shame she felt following her unwed pregnancy, the unsavory work she did to provide food and shelter for her son, and her second pregnancy with her daughter some years later. Readers will appreciate Jakes's candid admission that she sometimes struggles to get along with her father, well-known megachurch minister T.D. Jakes. This winsome and upbeat letter is a novel way to explore today's mothering challenges, and readers who identify with Mary's or Jakes's struggles will find it reassuring. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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St. Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate

Karen Armstrong. Amazon/New Harvest, $20 (200p) ISBN 978-0-544-61739-1

Bestselling author Armstrong (A History of God), a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, constructs a solid overview of the life of St. Paul, arguably the first Christian writer. Armstrong's view of Paul elevates him above the status of traveling Jewish malcontent; she observes that he founded multiple communities of Jesus' followers throughout Asia and Europe. While not all of these communities lasted, some went on to become the initial Christian churches. Armstrong bases her study on the seven letters that most scholars agree were actually written by Paul, and she does these justice in her analysis. This book is a part of the Icons series; it is short and focused, and only has space to consider some of the details of Paul's life. Armstrong does an excellent job of highlighting the pivotal role Paul played in the development of the movement that would later become the Christian church, while also showing how his writings have been both ignored and co-opted by Christians. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Mind Connection: How the Thoughts You Choose Affect Your Mood, Behavior and Decisions

Joyce Meyer. Faith Words, $24 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4555-3619-1

Meyer (Battlefield of the Mind), a speaker and television personality, empowers the reader to take charge of life and live it in an active and full way. Drawing from personal experiences—including being horribly abused as a child—Meyer shows how positive thinking can make a pathway to new and assured ways of living. She believes that life changes truly begin to happen when aconfident perspective is coupled with thoughts on consciousness, awareness, and teachings from the Bible. "God has given us the fruit of self-control that we might be able to allow or disallow behaviors in our own lives," she writes. Many references to scripture and Christian spiritual practice provide the reader with a map of proactive steps toward feeling better about each day. Meyer often discusses physical ailments that tax her day-to-day life, yet is able to look beyond the pain. This is balm for the Christian soul and will appeal to the believer looking for concentrated practice on the spiritual side of life. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

Michael N. McGregor. Oxford, $34.95 (472p) ISBN 978-0-8232-6801-6

Drawing on his friendship with poet Robert Lax (1915–2000) and his close readings of Lax's writings, McGregor eloquently offers the definitive biography of a too often forgotten figure who influenced a number of writers and crafted spirituality out of his deep commitment to love, poverty, and justice. McGregor deftly and briefly chronicles Lax's childhood in Olean, Penn. His family eventually moved to New York City, but not before the circus came to Olean and mesmerized the young Lax—with its performers who are "portals to the land of dusk"—so deeply that he traveled with a circus through western Canada in 1949 and wrote a cycle of poems that grew out of his experience and love. By the fall of 1943, Lax had converted from Judaism to Catholicism, inspired by his readings of Thomas Aquinas's writings and by his ongoing discussions with Thomas Merton, whom Lax had met at Columbia University. Following his conversion, Lax embraced a life of poverty, combining his lack of desire for things with a passion for nurturing a love for those on the fringes of society. This detailed biography from a friend of subject is best for those already interested in Lax's mission. The book effectively brings to life Lax's "pure act"—naturally living out his God-given abilities without becoming mired in judging others. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Mindfulness A to Z: 108 Insights for Awakening Now

Arnie Kozak. Wisdom, $16.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-61429-057-5

These brief explorations are "intended to inspire the integration of mindfulness into the fabric of daily life," writes Kozak (The Awakened Introvert), a psychotherapist and meditation teacher. While grounding his reflections in classic Buddhist concepts, he emphasizes the secular aspects of using mindfulness to reduce suffering, improve well-being, and foster a more "awakened life." Kozak uses personal examples to demonstrate how these techniques can help with everyday problems and encourages the practice of insight meditation (vipassana). "Developing mindfulness helps us to clearly see that we construct much of our experience of the world and ourselves," he writes. Topics range from the expected (aversion, compassion, fear, nirvana, sangha) to the more offbeat (smiles, landscapes, the grasping mind, fear of missing out, Xanax). Kozak is particularly interested in the storytelling capacity of mind, the nonexistence of the self, and biological reasons for the ways the mind can cause suffering. Many easy practices are included. Kozak's somewhat pedestrian writing and examples position the book in the middle tier of offerings on this popular topic. However, this earnest "field manual" of mindfulness provides sound, often astute guidance for those seeking an entrée to the subject. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Pope Francis and the New Vatican

Robert Drape, photos by David Yoder. National Geographic, $40 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4262-1582-7

This beautiful book of photographs and essays highlights Pope Francis and his mission. The opening pages show the new Pope, ebullient, embracing a young man, touching the fingertips of a small girl, and addressing the crowds in St. Peter's Square. Four essays on the Vatican, tradition, change, and Pope Francis's own life are accompanied by stunning photos of the Vatican and the Pope interacting with religious orders and the throngs that come to see him, hear him, and touch him. There are chubby babies, teary eyes, processions of brides, and colorful pomp, all of which combine with the text to make a wonderful and satisfying tribute to the first Latin-American Pope, who has reached out to the entire world with his message: "Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow." 140 color photos. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Nine Essential Things I've Learned About Life

Harold S. Kushner. Knopf, $23.95 (192p) ISBN 978-0-385-35409-7

As he enters his eighth decade, Kushner (When Bad Things Happen to Good People) offers a capstone volume to his decades as a congregational rabbi and popular writer. In sharply intelligent yet friendly prose, Kushner provides a thoughtful living guide for doubters and the faithful alike. There are pointed but gracious admonitions for those claiming that a self-developed religion is all they need. Your daily paper, spring flowers, and gratitude are not enough, Kushner says: when facing serious illness or other disasters, you need the support of a faith tradition and a community that has "learned to find God in the shadows as readily as in the sunshine." Kushner braids together stories from his professional and personal life—longtime readers will remember that his son died at age 14 of a rare rapid-aging disease—alongside wisdom from biblical and theological texts and commentary on events related to science, culture, and literature. This book is a provocation and a balm for the skeptical and the religious, offering persuasive evidence that belief, forgiveness, hope, altruism, and joy are all possible, even in the face of death. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/28/2015 | Details & Permalink

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