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The Ancient Path of Dreaming: Understanding and Cultivating the Wishes of the Soul

Stephen Larsen and Tom Verner. Inner Traditions, $19.95 trade paper (360p) ISBN 978-1-62055-514-9

Diverse yet cohesive, this encyclopedic work invites readers to explore the “partnership we are in with the deeper more autonomous parts of our being” through an understanding of dreams. Larsen, professor emeritus of psychology at SUNY Ulster, and Verner—former professor of psychology at Burlington College, practicing psychotherapist, and professional magician—aim to inspire by exploring the cultural history of working with dreams: “the most eloquent and creative voices of our soul.” The traditions of ancient Greece and India are considered alongside Jung’s archetypes, Cayce’s intuition, and Kelsey’s spirituality. The authors also show how mythic visions brought to the West by the works of Hildegard, Dante, and Einstein complement insights of modern neuroscience. Dream narratives from the authors themselves, their friends and clients, and from historical notables are considered. Explicit delineation of Larsen’s psychological sections from Verner’s more spiritual and mythopoetic sections emphasizes the importance of considering dreams through multiple lenses and keeping an open mind. Discussions of methods like dream journaling and dream incubation are included to provide practical advice for “developing and nourishing a relationship with the soul.” More than a facile New Age how-to, this book provides context and history about working with dreams that will appeal to readers who want to engage the sleepy side of the mind. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth

James Bryan Smith. IVP, $22 (192p) ISBN 978-0-8308-4636-8

Theologian Smith (The Good and Beautiful God) refreshingly interprets Christian faith by refuting two other versions of Christianity he finds inadequate (he calls them “shrunken stories”): the “good works” gospel taught in liberal churches, he says, fails to inspire; the “shaming gospel” merely scares. In place of these two he offers his view that Christianity is a magnificent story that is beautiful, good, and true; meets a lot of classical theological and scriptural criteria; and answers persistent questions about sin and suffering. His ambitious rewrite is most persuasive when he relates his theology to his own experience of personal tragedy, as when he speaks about his daughter’s birth defects and tragically short life. His thinking is cogent, but his principal metaphor, that of “story,” is at times strained; it’s hard to picture a “shrunken story.” This book will make most sense to those with some background in theology, but patient seekers in quest of a powerful and loving God who stands in solidarity with suffering might also find it valuable. Agent: Kathryn Helmers, Creative Trust. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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A Sinner in Mecca: A Gay Muslim’s Hajj of Defiance

Parvez Sharma. BenBella, $16.95 trade paper (330p) ISBN 978-1-944648-37-4

Sharma, a documentary filmmaker and Indian-born gay American Muslim, recounts his experience performing the hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca incumbent on every Muslim. The book ranges widely through the little-explored world of queer Muslims, including subjects such as Sharma himself, a lesbian friend accompanying him on the Hajj, and a gay South African imam he interviews. Sharma’s writing reflects his own curiosity and desire to expand readers’ horizons, yet this expansiveness is both a strength and a weakness: he switches frequently between topics and times, and the narrative can become scattered and hard to follow as Sharma also tries to tackle the influence of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, the distinction between Shi’a and Sunni Islam, his relationship with his family (especially his mother), his experiences with anti-Muslim discrimination in post-9/11 America, and his creative biography and former films. Ultimately, the work is fascinating but flawed, with many of its important topics tackled haphazardly; more reflective insight into Sharma’s own faith journey, for example, might have tied the narrative together more closely. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Everyday Narcissism: Yours, Mine, Ours

Nancy Van Dyken. Central Recovery, $15.95 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-942094-45-6

Licensed psychologist Van Dyken argues there is a single source for a wide swath of mental hang-ups and neuroses. Using examples from her clients’ lives, she argues that messages from authority figures during childhood shape people to believe myths about their responsibility for others’ emotions and their ability to control the world. She coins “everyday narcissism” to describe the resulting passivity, inability to discuss emotion, and self-denial that these myths teach are appropriate behavior. She offers several exercises for readers to help work through childhood wounds and move towards a more balanced approach to mental health. Paradoxically, her view of a healthy psyche (always attending to your own needs first, refusing anything that you deem unpleasant, forcing others into what amounts to awkward conversations about feelings) runs closer to the colloquial usage of narcissism than her reworking of the concept. As a unifying theory of all relationship and personal problems, everyday narcissism becomes too diffuse to be particularly useful. For people overwhelmed by their desire to be liked or a belief that they can control others’ emotions, this guide provides concrete, useful guidance out of these traps. Yet, the work is not nearly as universal nor convincing as Van Dyken claims. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Follow the Cloud: Hearing God’s Voice One Next Step at a Time

John Stickl. Multnomah, $15.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-60142-925-4

Stickl, lead pastor of Valley Creek Church in Flower Mound, Tex., focuses here on leaning passionately into one’s relationship with the Lord—as opposed to working hard to earn God’s favor. According to Stickl, God wants to set people free and is continually at work within the hearts of believers to do just that. When Christians learn how to love themselves as God loves them, they become empowered to fully and selflessly serve all of God’s creatures. Stickl’s formula for becoming free is simple: receive God’s grace (identity) and experience His presence (relationship) to release His kingdom (purpose). In one of the strongest moments, he recalls childhood memories of eating out at restaurants and completing connect-the-dot puzzles as he waited for his food; in the same way, Christians want to create their own connect-the-dot plans for life rather than trust God to reveal only one step (one dot) at a time. He asserts that, if God revealed his plan to Christ followers, they wouldn’t be able to handle it. It is therefore necessary to have faith and “follow the Cloud” that originally led the Israelites out of Egypt. This book will have great appeal to millennial Christians looking for fresh takes on scriptural lessons. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Billy Joel: America’s Piano Man

Joshua S. Duchan. Rowman & Littlefield, $40 (200p) ISBN 978-1-4422-4205-0

Musicologist Duchan (Powerful Voices: The Musical and Social World of Collegiate A Capella) presents an informative and entertaining look at the work of pop superstar Billy Joel, positioning his songs in the canon of 20th-century pop music. Despite Joel’s multiplatinum album sales, countless hit songs, and a performing career as long—and a fan base as loyal—as that of Bruce Springsteen, he has never been a favorite with critics. Duchan makes a powerful argument for the complexity in Joel’s work by keeping the spotlight on the music, tracing how “Joel’s music kept alive an emphasis on well-crafted melody and harmony” rooted in Tin Pan Alley traditions while incorporating rock, jazz, and doo-wop with lyrics that addressed his listeners through contemporary themes. For example, Duchan carefully shows how an “unabashedly sentimental” song such as “New York State of Mind” shares many of the features of the Tin Pan Alley genre (the song similarly “includes four verses that roughly fit the ABAC pattern and finish with title lyrics”). Duchan argues that “Joel sings as, for, and about hard-working people whose circumstances are worsening and who have little control over the forces that affect their lives.” He successfully argues for Joel’s music relevance. (June)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile And Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe

Inara Verzemnieks. Norton, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-3932-4511-0

Upon a visit to her ancestral Latvia, Verzemnieks, who teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa, vividly imagines the dramatic youth of her grandmother Livija, a farm girl. Verzemnieks follows the desperate flight of Livija and her two small children to a refugee camp in 1944, with her husband at war on the Russian front. Upon settling later into the Latvian community of Tacoma, Wash., Verzemnieks’s grandparents reunite, have children and grandchildren, and raise the author following her parents’ divorce; their presence alone helps keep their memories of their beloved homeland alive for the curious girl. “Words can become as real as anything we see with our eyes or feel with these hands,” Verzemnieks writes. She describes how refugees ousted from their lands form the collective bond of community in their adopted countries. By combining the memories of Livija and her sister, Ausma, with her own powerful impressions of Latvia, Verzemnieks has created a stirring family saga of exiles rich with compassion, loss, perseverance, myth, superstition, and courage. (July)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Many Lives of Catwoman: The Felonious History of a Feline Fatale

Tim Hanley. Chicago Review, $18.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-61373-845-0

Hanley (Investigating Lois Lane) tackles the complicated history of one of the most famous villains in comics. In this detailed and thoroughly enjoyable work, he follows the atypical route Catwoman has taken over her almost 80 years: “Because of her felonious history, Catwoman is a perpetual outsider, and her existence on the periphery of society led her to avoid both the tropes and triumphs typically associated with the evolution of female characters.” Hanley relates her murky origin as created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in the 1940s (she was first called Cat, then Cat-Woman, with the hyphen dropping in the mid-’40s); her disappearance from comics for 12 years before being revived in the 1960s Batman television show; and her current incarnations in comics, video games, and movies. He gives special attention to Catwoman’s feminism and sexuality, and how depictions of her have often sparked controversy (illustrated by men, she had “a more than ample chest and rear, and a tiny waist”). Hanley’s writing is comprehensive and straightforward, and fans and newbies alike will take great pleasure in reading about Catwoman’s journey. Agent: Dawn Frederick, Red Sofa Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South

Michael W. Twitty. Amistad, $28.99 (464p) ISBN 978-0-06-237929-0

In this tasty but overstuffed food odyssey, Afroculinaria historian Twitty recounts his “Southern Discomfort Tour” that he documented on his blog The Cooking Gene: revisiting the varied cuisines of the antebellum Tidewater, Low Country, and Cotton Belt South, talking to chefs and farmers, giving historical cooking demonstrations, and piecing together biographical and gastronomic lore on his enslaved (and enslaving) ancestors. On the peg of the tour he hangs a surfeit of information, from history and agronomy to genealogical research, recipes, and boyhood reminiscences of his grandmother’s Sunday soul food feasts. Yet that information is not always well-digested: the author’s DNA testing results prompt lengthy disquisitions on the ethnogeography of West Africa, and some cultural-studies verbiage—“our food world is a charged scene of culinary inquiry”—could use trimming. For food lovers, his descriptions are rich: “the collard greens spiked with hot pepper, sugar and fatback, fried chicken, Virginia country ham… sweet cornbread, biscuits, string beans that swim in potlikker.” Throughout, Twitty integrates historical details into the narrative, as in accounts of the backbreaking slave labor of tobacco and rice farming or the emotional anguish of slave auctions—and the results are fascinating. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Huê´ 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam

Mark Bowden. Atlantic Monthly, $30 (608p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2700-6

Veteran journalist Bowen (The Three Battles of Wanat) illuminates the gut-wrenching monthlong slaughter of one of the Vietnam War’s bloodiest battles, in which American and North Vietnamese forces fought in the streets of the storied royal capital of Huê´. Washington claimed a tactical victory, but Hanoi gained the psychological edge; the mismatch between official American claims and the dispatches emerging from American journalists undermined the already wavering resolve back home. This is grim storytelling at its finest; Bowen digs deep into the personal recollections of scores of participants to offer evocative portraits of beleaguered Marine grunts and the hapless commanders who sent them to their doom; stoic female Viet Cong commandos; and journalists who captured the unfolding tragedy that belied the infamously inaccurate body counts. But what grips the reader most are the stories of Huê´’s trapped civilians, who, during the year’s most festive holiday—Tet, the Lunar New Year—are hurled into an explosive maelstrom of fatal score-settling and destruction delivered by their own countrymen. Bowen confronts head-on the horrific senselessness of battle and the toll it takes on people, and he grants Huê´ the regard it deserves as a defining moment in a war that continues to influence how America views its role in the world. (June)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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