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The Spoons in the Grass Are There to Dig a Moat

Amelia Martens. Sarabande (Consortium, dist.), $14.95 trade paper (64p) ISBN 978-1-941411-23-0

Martens centers her debut collection of quietly poignant prose poems on family, religion, and myth as she seeks a fragile safety in an uncertain, violent world. She grapples with atrocities through nebulous hints of strife and mayhem or with direct allusions to such events as the Boston Marathon bombing, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. Flirting with political assertions, Martens references a "first world" where "the people eat endless appetizers and die from sadness," immigrants are exploited, and football fans tailgate as people starve in Africa. Several poems depict Jesus in a variety of wearying occupations such as fast food drive-through attendant, TSA agent, and factory foreman; these largely feel half-hearted and underwhelming. Martens's stripped-down language is her greatest asset, finding expression in "an ache shaped like a sunflower." Her relayed conversations with her daughters are charming and often profound: "She wants to take my heart out and sweep every room." In "Almost Biblical," the poet stirringly imagines her daughters as a pair of monkey pajama–clad Pandoras opening a box to create the world. Martens's well-worn and occasionally overwrought politics may fall flat, but the personal touches soar, evidence of a solid poet finding her voice. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Everybody's Automat

Mark Gurarie. The Operating System (SPD, dist.), $16 trade paper (98p) ISBN 978-0-9860505-4-1

In his debut collection, Gurarie experiments with absurdity, dissonance, and a patchwork of influences to consider the language of society in decline. Across four distinct sections, he explores the cultural influence of various musical forms (including pop, punk, and atonal composition), the synthesis of nature and machine, and linguistic alienation. The latter is represented by an invading alien dubbed "Resistant is Futile" whose muddled grasp of English is cobbled from advertisements and "foam operas," resulting in comically forlorn thoughts on, among other topics, breakfast ("these embryos are overcooked/ and missing the shells") and missing pets ("oh Lost Kitty of 718 228-5613./ On the fence post, this time"). Extinction and evolution—of humans and other animals, language, technology, and cultural fads—are recurring themes. Sense can be abandoned in favor of captivating imagery ("freedom is a twenty-two// year old bear princess/ with a wolf mask/ where a t-shirt ought to be") and clever turns of phrase: "to choke/ this impenetrable frog/ eyes. I stare back, I rib it// vicariously." Repetitive phrases act as a chorus, enhancing the poems' musicality and anchoring the reader to the text. With his jarring riffs, Gurarie eschews logic for a rewarding immersion in discord: "Everything/ is Empire in the Empire, but the Machine/ loves you all the same." (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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What the Lyric Is

Sara Nicholson. The Song Cave (SPD, dist.), $17.95 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-0-9967786-1-9

"No one will read this. Not even you," writes Nicholson (The Living Method) in a mischievously witty second collection that reveals her to be thoroughly educated in the subtle details of her craft. She addresses existential tedium, media, and her bottom ("I can't fit in this room I'm building./ My ass can barely fit/ Without assistance/ Through the door of this stanza/ Which is why I invented/ The pronoun ‘you' "). But this collection is primarily a work of metafiction. Nicholson explores, for instance, what it means to be a writer, to translate an idea, or to form a conceit. She pokes fun at the lives of poets: "I'm the creature that dwells/ A hundred feet below your computer// In a cave that looks to you like a prison." Nicholson also frequently snickers at the tiresome rigmarole she puts herself through while writing. "I began the day/ By overthinking the relation/ Of seagulls to the morning sky./ Birds eating peaches/ Or seafoam./ Birds eating colors/ In a nautical landscape," she writes, "I'm telling you this, reader,/ Because I like you/ And want to help you." Some readers may tire of the metaphysical spirals, but Nicholson proves herself to be a charming, talented poet and this collection contains some phenomenal work. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters

Cheena Marie Lo. Commune Editions (AK Press, dist.), $16 trade paper (76p) ISBN 978-1-934639-19-1

Lo contributes a forceful voice to the niche field of post-catastrophe narrative in their highly charged debut collection. Though Lo's considered tragedy is Hurricane Katrina, the poems evade specificity, insistently linking—and raging against—disaster preparedness and socioeconomic inequalities. Lines waft between accusation and empathy: "Poor planning on the part of our government/ poor people were not able to evacuate/ poor black residents." Enigmatic lists of numbers are interspersed among the poems—a postscript identifies the data as borrowed from post-Katrina publications and surveys. The facts without reference remind readers of the vast divide between destruction and humans' attempt to enumerate loss. As Lo writes, "Can a disaster be qualified by the number of lives lost?/ /how to quantify absence?" Lo's verse also relies on repetition that is reminiscent of such classic forms as the villanelle and sestina. The structure suggests their attempt to assert control over misfortune—making form of formlessness. The collection, in its deeply moving entirety, seems motivated by this need: asserting questions ("q: Should we move to higher ground?/ q: What does disaster look like?") and answers ("because the sun was shining outside, but they were not allowed to go home") but also emphasizing that the scope of catastrophes, human-caused or not, eludes our grasp. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Unexpected Journeys: My Search for Adventure, Love & Redemption on the Other Side of the World

Paul Perkins. Whitaker House, $15.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-62911-699-0

Perkins, a former White House staffer for President George W. Bush, gives a messy, jumbled account of his emotions while traveling to Indonesia, Thailand, and India in an attempt to reconcile his evangelical past with his spiritual present. He frames the journey within the context of his own beliefs, but many of his observations and takeaways come off as degrading and ad hominem despite his "to each their own" rationalizations. Perkins feels "dirty, soiled" for looking at a sex worker's naked body, but tries to assuage his guilt by claiming, "If anything, she took advantage of me." After being propositioned by a different sex worker, Perkins feels sympathy for her but narrates turning her down as a heroic act of chastity and adulthood. At time he attempts humility, but his sense of heroism punctuates the story as he quotes a driver who calls him "adventurous," "amazing," and "brave," and, without a trace of irony, likens himself to a "ruthless hunter" and a "hawk" as he kills mosquitos in a beach hut. Perkins attempts a typical evangelical redemption narrative, but as he wanders Southeast Asia reflecting on God, forgiveness, sex, his family, and life's meaning, among other things, his self-serious attitude can be off-putting, and the overly brief hints he drops about turmoil in his past are more frustrating than intriguing. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Overload

Joyce Meyer. FaithWords, $22 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4555-5983-1

Bible teacher, speaker, and bestselling author Meyer (The Mind Connection) uses personal anecdotes, observations, research, and scripture to guide readers through deconstructing the causes of stress and learning how to release oneself from external and internal stressors. The book's 15 chapters cover such topics as "Choice Overload," "Laugh, Laugh, and Laugh Some More," "The Stress of Comparison," and "All Is Well with My Soul." Each chapter includes bullet points and checklists with helpful tips on dealing with various types of stress. Meyer also ends each chapter with an interesting factoid about stress and a summary of major points from the chapter. She approaches dealing with stress in an understanding, empathetic manner, sharing her experiences and encouraging readers to give themselves some grace when life becomes too overwhelming. Written in a calming, sympathetic tone, the book will help readers who feel overburdened, overwhelmed, or overloaded and will undoubtedly resonate with a broad demographic. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Make a Break for It: Unleashing the Power of Personal and Spiritual Growth

Bill Purvis. Zondervan, $21.99 (208p) ISBN 978-0-310-34353-0

Purvis, who started his international television ministry as the pastor of Cascade Hills Church in Columbus, Ga., has grown a 32-person congregation to more than 8,000 regular members. In this inspiring text, Purvis begins by recounting being stabbed several times during an altercation when he was only 17, leaving him so badly injured that doctors didn't expect him to survive. Lying in agony on the verge of death, Purvis cried out to Jesus to save him and in that moment found a transcendence that set his life on a new course. Purvis shares numerous real-life accounts of individuals who have endured desperate times and found that God became their personal redeemer as well as the redeemer of their past mistakes. He shares inspirational stories organized by topic, including breaking free from a deadly past, learning to envision a powerful future, finding strength from within, carefully choosing the right mentors, and effectively handling critics. Purvis's story is amazing not simply because of what he has endured but how he has chosen to overcome obstacles with faith, courage, and a sense of purpose that drives him even through the darkest hours. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting

Danya Ruttenberg. Flatiron, $24.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-06494-3

Ruttenberg (Surprised by God) takes up the ancient quandary of how to situate spiritual practice alongside effective parenting and considers the question: "What if parenting were considered a spiritual practice in its own right?" The book searches the depths of Judaism and other religious traditions for what each can teach parents, but also reverses the question to ask what parents can bring to religious and spiritual traditions. Eschewing easy answers and prescriptive diagnosis, Ruttenberg encourages homing in on the wonder of the universe, the creator, and the "wow" that parents and children can engage in together. A standout chapter exploring the depths of parental fears and issues of control will have readers contemplating ways to embrace the unknown in their spiritual and personal lives: "As much power as we have over our children's lives, as much as we are able to control who they are and how they will be in the world in some respects, there are certain important things that we can't control. Ever." Ruttenberg's personal struggle makes the book relatable to practitioners of all faiths. This is great gift for parents-to-be or new parents who are wrestling with how to stay grounded and maintain their spirituality in the hectic early years of raising a family. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit

James K.A. Smith. Brazos, $19.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-58743-380-1

Smith (Desiring the Kingdom), philosophy professor at Calvin College, offers a thought-provoking analysis of present-day American culture's secular liturgies, which he defines as "rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we're for," and argues persuasively for the need "to intentionally recalibrate the unconscious" in order to worship faithfully. Making an intriguing exploration of the shopping mall as a modern-day temple with a "consumer gospel," Smith invites readers to take a "liturgical audit" of other secular temples that provide formative, not innocuous, experiences. Unpacking the dramatic narrative of worship, including confession, sacraments, and weddings, Smith lifts up the power of story and "the historic practices of the faith," maintaining that faithful worship is "embodied, tangible, and visceral." He asserts that repetitive spiritual practices, at home and in church, have the power to shape moral character: "We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love." Examples from Smith's personal life as well as references to literature, philosophy, film, and art make this compelling and inspiring contribution to the study of spiritual disciplines both accessible and engaging. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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200 Best Smoothie Bowl Recipes

Alison Lewis. Robert Rose (Firefly, dist.), $24.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-7788-0533-5

Lewis's third cookbook (after 400 Best Sandwich Recipes) is dedicated entirely to the trendy smoothie bowl—thick smoothies that can be eaten with a spoon and topped with various solid foods. Lewis explains that they provide "the convenience, flavor and texture of a smoothie, but even more nutrition… thanks to the addition of toppings such as fresh and dried fruits, seeds and nuts." Her helpful introduction also includes information on types of blenders, steps for building the perfect smoothie bowl, the health benefits of various ingredients, suitable ingredient substitutions, and how to troubleshoot a few common smoothie bowl issues. The recipes range from undeniably healthy detox creations to unabashedly sumptuous dessert bowls. All are easy to throw together in relatively little time. Lewis also includes a number of recipes for toppings to make in advance and a few nut butter recipes for inclusion in the blended portion. While readers might wish for a little more variety in terms of flavors (a few savory recipes, perhaps), Lewis's book delivers what it promises and will surely inspire those interested in upping their smoothie game. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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