INDIE RADAR: Queering Lent

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After seeing a number of my friends toting around Queering Lent, I decided to pick up the slim volume of devotional poems penned by a nonbinary pansexual Presbyterian pastor. Written as a spiritual practice over the course of last year’s Lent, the highly personal poems touch on interwoven themes of suffering, identity, and empathy burnout, all while employing classical mystical language of God as Lover.

Independent publishing can be a toss-up, so when I find something that shines in the lackluster mire of self-published titles, I’m quick to promote it. Queering Lent gleams despite its unpretentious packaging, and while some of the poems are unremarkable, many have a sort of understated profundity to them that’s hard to forget. In particular, I found the poetic sermon on binaries, the expansiveness of God, and the upside-down kingdom of Heaven in the back of the book to be particularly stirring, and I’ll be returning to it again and again in this Lenten season and beyond.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Slats a number of times, and they’re a truly unique artist and ardent lover of God who has a way of infecting atmospheres with joy. If you’re  interested in learning more about the creative process behind Queering Lent, you can check out this feature on Slats over at Sanctified Art. You can buy a copy of Queering Lent on Amazon, and 100% of the proceeds go to organizations committed to supporting queer and trans people in the church.

POETRY REVIEW: Ask Baba Yaga

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Title: Ask Baba Yaga by Taisia Kitaiskaia
Genre:  Poetry/Self Help
Rating:  ★★★ (3/5)

Ask Baba Yaga imagines what it may be like if Baba Yaga, a fearsome and ancient witch from Slavic folklore, got hold of a typewriter and started cryptically answering the pleas for advice piling up on her doorstep. Existential crises, career crossroads, and love woes alike are stabbed at with incisive prose-poem responses juxtaposed with illustrations in stark colors. Sometimes the responses as earthy and pragmatic, other times they are macabre parables; oftentimes they are inscrutable recipes the reader is not yet wise enough to understand.

As an ambitious young woman navigating the briers of a mid-life crises and the tangled road of true love, I’m pretty sure I am Ask Baba Yaga’s target audience. I often felt like I had survived a number of strange woodland trials and had been granted a single boon by Kitaiskaia’s prickly personae, who hacks away at the weeds of mundane life with strange misspellings and turns of phrase. Some of the questions and metaphors felt repetitive by the end of the book, which ran a little long for my tastes in poetry. It’s also possible that older readers might find Baba Yaga’s advice more suitable for a younger set who are still being battered about by self-doubt and new love, but I think that people from all walks of life can glean a little wisdom, and maybe a few spells, from between the pages of Kitaiskaia’s book.

 

Spirituality Review: A Bigger Table

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Title: A Bigger Table by John Pavlovitz
Genre: Christian Nonfiction/Memroir
Rating:  ★★★ (3/5)

John Pavlovitz is a widely-read Christian blogger known for the generous hospitality of his theology and his commitment to championing honesty within the church. However, this wasn’t always the case. Pavolovitz was raised in a culturally homogeneous, shame-based Christian culture, and it wasn’t until he moved to Philadelphia in college that he began to experience humanity in all its colorful, dynamic diversity. As Pavolovitz came to love his black and latinx and queer and poor and atheist neighbors, all while discerning a call to ministry, he also began to form a vision of the table of God to which everyone was truly welcome and truly accepted.

Like many works of Christian nonfiction, A Bigger Table juxtaposes anecdotes from the author’s life and ministry with more theoretical theology. This, for the most part, works, and I enjoyed the stories about Pavolovitz’s Catholic Italian family and the troubled pastors and gay youth he has counseled throughout his career. Overall, the message of “radical hospitality, true diversity, real authenticity, and agenda-free community” comes across loud and clear, and is well supported by examples from the life of Christ. The chapter on the lies pastors are forced to tell in order to be accepted by their boards and congregations was particularly strong, and I appreciated the way Pavlovitz – though openly left of center – critiques and encourages both sides of the isle in an effort to build true Christian community.

However, the book ultimately suffers from a meandering structure and lack of concrete ways readers can help build the “bigger table”. Very little practical advice was given amidst all the excitement about doing church in a more authentic, healing way. The full inclusion of LBGTQ Christians into the church is a central theme of the book, but the chapters regarding it were separated in a way that felt random, and it seemed as though the author couldn’t decide how much time he wanted to spend on the issue. In addition, despite drawing from the life of Christ to support his model of radical hospitality, Pavlovitz effectively ignores most of the Bible, and I think he could have enriched his position by bringing in Second Testament writings and stories from the First Testament.

Despite its weaknesses, The Bigger Table will be soul-soothing to anyone beaten down by the partisanship and fake warmth of so many Christian congregations. I would recommend it to anyone looking for straight-talk from a pastor who wants to see the lavish love of Jesus spread more liberally through the world.

Note: I received a copy of A Bigger Table in exchange for an honest review.

Back from a Long Winter’s Rest

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Hello everyone! I just wanted to drop in to say thank you for being so patient while I took a month off to rest and travel (see me in Denver, above). I’m back in the blogging business now and have a new book review coming to you all this afternoon. I’ve got a stack of arcs and review copies on my desk patiently waiting to be devoured, so hopefully they’ll be more activity here in the coming weeks.

I hope everyone had a lovely winter holiday! Did any of you go anywhere fun? Share in the comments!

Fiction Review: Gods of Howl Mountain

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Title: Gods of Howl Mountain by Taylor Brown
Genre: Action/Historical Fiction
Rating:  ★★★★★ (5/5)

After losing his leg in the Korean War, Rory Docherty returns home to the wilds of 1950s North Carolina to run whiskey for the most feared bootlegger on the mountain. Here, family ties are everything, moonshine is more valuable than gold, and secrets are hard to keep buried. Rory is haunted by what he’s seen in the war and what happened to his mother, struck dumb and left unhinged after witnessing an act of horrible violence. In order to find the men responsible, he’ll have to face down federal agents, duplicitous women, snake-handling preachers, and feuding boys out to prove themselves on the racetrack in souped-up coupes. That is, if he manages to stay alive long enough.

Gods of Howl Mountain is equal parts heart-pounding action and memorable characters you can’t help but love, flaws and all. Granny Mae is the crowning achievement of the story. A (mostly) retired lady of the night whose taken up witching and remedies to help pay the bills, she’s tough, sharp as a tack, and marvelously fearless. Even though Rory is our POV character, she’s the heart of the story, and all the characters have a way of turning up at her door to seek her services or advice. She’s the best of all the world-weary, wisecracking women I knew growing up in Appalachia, and I never got tired of her.

Brown’s prose is lush as the wet, green-black forests of Western North Carolina, and he has a great talent for ratcheting the tension up to ten while taking his time with the descriptive passages. The dialogue is a wonder; so steeped in the backwoods you can practically taste the corn whiskey, and it serves to show just how clever all these characters are. There are double-crosses aplenty here, and wrenching moments of tenderness that batter your heart. I was totally gripped by this book, and Gods of Howl Mountain earned my highest rating fair and square, with no complaints on any account.

Note: I received a copy of Gods of Howl Mountain in exchange for an honest review. 

FICTION REVIEW: Binti

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Title: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Genre: Science Fiction/Afrofuturism
Rating:  ★★★★ (4/5)

Binti is the first member of her small African tribe to be accepted into the universe of the galaxy. She’s a harmonizer, a mathematics genius with a near-spiritual connection to the complex technologies and equations that under-gird the universe, and even though she’s terrified of leaving the red deserts in which she was raised, there’s nothing she wants more than to nurture her skills at the prestigious planet-sized Oomza university. But when her classmates are massacred by an alien species aboard the ship ferrying Binti to her new home, it will take every ounce of courage she has to survive.

This book drew me in right from the start and held my attention the entire time. The space travel elements felt fresh and organic, and the novel by and large avoided the old-school sci-fi tropes that give books that sterile, metallic tang. I’m not sure what else science fiction is better for than exploring what it means to be human in a galactic context, and Binti lovingly leans into themes of adolescent anticipation, cultural alienation, and trans-cultural identity.

I really liked Binti as a protagonist; she’s brave, willing to fight tooth and nail for what she loves, but ultimately, her strength is her compassion and level head for diplomacy. Her Himba heritage plays a huge role in both the plot and her character development. I love a book that teaches me something new about another culture, and one of the most touching moments in the book was Binti wondering if she was going to be able to find the right ingredients on her new planet to make the paste of oil and clay the Himba cover their skin and hair with.

At only 90 pages, Binti clips along at a short-story pace that kept me from ever feeling bored. However, because of novella length, I felt like I was robbed of the sort of worldbuilding and setting details that would have really made me feel enveloped in the narrative. The descriptions I was given were sufficient, but sparse, and character development jerked along at times, prey to the pace. However, Binti is the first in a well-received trilogy that’s setting the standard for the new wave of afro-futurism, and I’m excited to pick up books two and three.

Seven Ways to Break Into the Publishing Industry

Today someone on Tumblr asked me how I had gotten my position as an associate editor of the Princeton Theological Review, and if I had any advice for those seeking a career in publishing. Well, I’m in the trenches right now seeking a career in publishing or book publicity, and I’m happy to share job-hunting tips I’ve collected along the way!

  1. Apply to work for your campus literary magazine or academic journal.  Campus mags are a great first step towards your goals; they tend to be eager to bring on new associates and to teach them the ropes. My first editorial job was as a submissions reader for my campus magazine; it was by no means high-profile, but I learned a lot about working as part of an editorial team. Once you’re brought onto the magazine, ask if you can help with or observe all the different stages of production. Be a sponge. Absorb everything.
  2. Gain editing, marketing, and writing skills at other jobs. While in college I worked as a web content editor for the provost, a writing tutor in academic advancement, and a scientific writer and editor at a national environmental agency.  None of these jobs related directly to publishing, and they required me to learn new skills, like basic graphic design and navigating the back end of drupal, but the experiences I gained are very translatable to a publishing context. Landing a job is all about showing employers that the skills you already have are the ones they need, whether or not you initially seem to check their “requirements” boxes.
  3. Sniff out internships at publishing houses, newspapers, or literary magazines. I worked as a summer intern for a local paper, but I so wish I had taken the time to be mentored by a literary agent or fiction editor!  If there are no job postings that interest you, don’t be afraid to send a company you love a brief, polite email asking if they would like an intern, and be sure to attach your resume. Sometimes you can find paid gigs, other times you have to do due diligence in an unpaid position for a semester.
  4. Know your industry. This is crucial. I’ve heard of interviewees at Penguin or Tor being thrown for a loop by the most important question an interviewer is likely to ask: “‘what have you been reading lately?”. If you’re looking for work in academic publishing, be up on current research; subscribe to journals in your field or read the current editions in your library for free.  If you love fiction, be able to rattle off authors you’re into and cite a couple of game-changers published in the last year. Extra points if they’re associated with the company you’re in talks with.
  5. Publish. There’s no better way to get a sense for the shape of peer review and the academic publishing process than to go through it yourself. So revise and polish some of your best academic work and start sending it out to journals.  If you’re a fiction enthusiast who also pens short stories and poems, it can never hurt to have your name in a couple of magazines where you would like to work. Those with journalistic aspirations might submit their bookish articles to place like BookRiot.
  6. Consider conferences and conventions. Cons are pricey and might not be a reasonable investment for you right now, but the kind of connections you can make there are invaluable. Big publishing events like BookExpo in New York, The Miami Book Fair, and the LA Times Festival of Books can be fertile territory for meeting authors, connecting with publishers, and passing out business cards. If you’re an academic, look into conferences where you can present your research, but also consider going even if you aren’t presenting to learn and connect.
  7. Slay social media. Make your accounts clean and professional, but also be attentive to ways to brand yourself with a unified tone and clear statement of what it is you’re good at. Connect with journals, contributors, and editors on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, and showcase your projects, articles, and work experiences on those platforms. Networking is absolutely essential in this game.

I hope these tips help you guys get connected to some great opportunities! What advice do you have for someone looking to establish themselves in the publishing world?