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.

 

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.

Fiction Review: The Lesser Bohemians

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Title: The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
Genre: Adult Fiction
Rating: DNF

Oof. This wasn’t a pleasant ride, friends, and I DNF’d at page 80, something I am really loathe to do unless a book is not enriching my life whatsoever. That said, there’s some strong points to this sensuous, experimental novel, and I want to give them their due.

The Lesser Bohemians is told from the point of view (deep point of view, you might say) of an eighteen-year-old Irish girl who moves to London to study acting in the 90′s. There she meets an established actor in his late thirties, and the two fall into bed together and being a tortuously on-again, off-again affair of sex, frustration and reconciliation, healing, and harm.

The steam-of-consciousness style narration is much more accessible than other times I’ve seen it used, although it took me until about page fifty to really settle into the dreamy, internalizing rhythm. McBride’s done something really wonderful here with dialogue and action all running together, and the narrator’s personal thoughts slipped furtively in between in smaller print. It’s a feat, and she ought to be given credit for it.

That said, the narrative style keeps the reader suspended between raw euphoria and drunken disorientation, which made the constant barrage of blackout nights, substance overindulgence, repressed vulnerability, and screamed betrayals incredibly unpleasant for me. At almost 100 pages into the narrative there seemed no light at the end of the tunnel of alienation, compulsive behavior, and budding addiction. I would hype myself up to finish the book and then only get ten or fifteen pages in before getting so upset that I had to put it down because the secondhand sexual shame and impostor syndrome were too strong. However, that sort of visceral reaction is a testament to the book’s main strength: entirely immersive storytelling. You’re as close to this narrator as fiction is liable to allow you to get, and you experience all her anxieties and hopes in your own body, adrenaline and all.

This DNF isn’t a mark against the strength of McBride’s writing. The beautiful prose just wasn’t enough payoff for the subject matter for me, but that’s not to say that will be true for every reader. Maybe McBride’s next novel will pair her astonishing talent for voice with a story I find more worth telling, and I can give her another shot then.

Disclosure: I was given a copy of The Lesser Bohemians by Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. 

Ten Top Titles in Progressive Christian Nonfiction

A few days ago, an anoymous reader asked me over at Millennial Gospel if I knew of any books in a similar vein of progressive, experimental, grassroots theology. While I’m not as well-versed in Christian nonfiction as I would like to be, I do read an awful lot of it, and thought I would point you all towards the best of what I’ve read in the genre.

I read heaps of spiritual memoir, which is where I find the most authentic, gritty accounts of faith in a postmodern world.

  •  Rachel Held Evan’s Searching for Sunday accounts her journey out of evangelicalism and her wrestling with faith in the Episcopal church
  •  Nadia Bolz Weber’s Pastrix is the story of a rough, addicted, tattooed woman finding God and becoming one of the most unorthodox and celebrated pastors on the Lutheran scene right now
  •  Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz is a classic work of “emergent” Christianity, and shares the story of his chaotic, beautiful re-discovery of a God who had disappointed him in childhood
  •  Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss is a prose-poetry story of struggling towards the ineffable Divine in a life of academia, love, and illness.

For those interested in progressive, Biblical perspectives on gender and sexuality

  • Mark Labberton’s Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture covers the science of gender dysphoria, different theologies of difference and inclusion, and treatment options for trans youth all from a moderate, Christ-centered perspective.
  • Sarah Bessey’s Jesus Feminist is an affirmation of the God-given dignity and power of women told in a bounteously grace-filled, warm tone that invites both men and women into God’s vision for equality
  •  Mark Gushee’s Changing Our Minds and Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian for those seeking a Biblical, ethical, and sociological defense of the inclusion of partnered LGBTQ folks in the kingdom of God

Budding theologians will enjoy

  • Richard Rohr and Mike Morrel’s  invitational exploration of the mystical, relational Trinity in The Divine Dance
  • The more ambitious should pick up Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, after which you may never need another defense of the feminine face of God.

I read a lot of  political theology and liberation theology for graduate school, but I would not wish 45 page academic articles on you guys! That said, I do really like

  • Lammin Saneh’s Whose Religion is Christianity: The Gospel Beyond the West, which explores the theological and cultural shift of Christianity to the global East and South, and unpack colonialism, western guilt, and new trends in Christianity in a conversational, question and answer format.

But I’ll keep my eyes peeled for any accessible introductions and point them your way.

What other titles in progressive Christianity do you consider essential? Comment with your favorites and I’ll add them to my TBR!

 

Spirituality Review: The Divine Dance

Title: The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation by Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell

Genre: Spirituality/Christianity

Rating:  ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Disclaimer: I received a copy of The Divine Dance in exchange for writing an unbiased, honest review of its contents.

I don’t often re-read nonfiction books, but I’m confident I will return to The Divine Dance in the future, simply because the wisdom it has to offer is so rich and multilayered. Finishing this book marked one of those sought-after seconds of clarity in life when you really seem to “get it”, or at least glimpse with clear eyes some party of the Cosmic Design. No, seriously.

Richard Rohr is Franciscan priest, mystic, and spiritual director who has authored over thirty books on contemplation, Catholicism, and the Christian life. Mike Morrell, a talented author in his own right, is the publicity mastermind behind the The Wild Goose Festival, the Buzz Seminar, and the commercial success of such literary game-changers as The Shack. Together they make an sharp team particularly well suited to delivering one simple truth about the Godhead: the Trinity is eternally creative, eternally vulnerable, and eternally loving, no caveats needed.

Rohr and Morrell spend 200-odd pages unpacking the implications of this statement with the reader, walking alongside you in love as you wrestle with what the nature of the Trinity might mean for your life. Here’s a taste of some of these stunning potentialities: God loves you entirely because you are in and cosmically indistinguishable from the life force that binds the members of the Trinity, religious pluralism is both ethical and holy and can exist without sacrificing Christian identity, and “the foundation of authentic Christian spirituality is not fear, but joy” (123).

Let me assure you, this breaking open of culturally accepted ways of doing Christianity are not a modernist innovation. Its deeply rooted in orthodoxy and sound spiritual practice, and there are seven contemplative practices offered in the last chapter in order to give readers tangible ways of participating in the life of Trinity. The style is simple, almost conversational, and makes good use of anecdote and theory in equal measure. Furthermore, the authors dont shy away from critiquing the failings of the church, the damage done by a divided political system, and the emptiness of modern hyper-individualism without giving into the temptation to point fingers. The result is incredibly life-giving.

In summary, The Divine Dance proposes a new way of doing life, of viewing God, and of inhabiting one’s own body in light of truths that have been in front of our eyes for a very long time, but perhaps hidden from true sight. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in spirituality, meditation, or 21st century religion despite their religious background.