Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction by Caleb Kaltenbach

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Caleb Kaltenbach’s Messy Grace is an argument based on life experience and the Bible, emphasizing conviction over love.

Pastor Kaltenbach grew up between two gay households.  During school, he lived with his closeted father, a university professor.  Holidays, weekends and summers he spent with his professor mother and her female partner.  As a teen, in an attempt to understand and combat Christians’ hate for his parents and their friends, he began to attend a church.  His infiltration of the enemy backfired when he converted instead, ironically “coming out” to his parents as a Christian. Now, as a pastor and DMin candidate, he evangelizes gay people.

The book argues clearly and succinctly, in twelve short chapters, each concluding with discussion questions.  The message is simple: “Love is the tension of grace and truth.” Grace is God’s unfailing forgiveness and mercy.  Truth is Biblical teaching on how to manifest God’s plan in the world. Love is the mess that occurs as people accept God’s grace by living in truth, that is, reconciling sinful acts with discipleship.   

This theology is too tidy for a book about messy grace.  The title hides a divisive agenda.

The book’s use of “us” and “them” obscures love.  “We” engage not only the GLBT community, but any group of non-believers, to direct “them” to God’s side.  The “mission” is to “pursue” and not “lose” people. In other words, the book’s argument rests on the premise of a battle its team (the Christians) means to win.  Does that sound like love?

Love is further sullied by the way “messy” is used.  The messy gospel “isn’t messy actually, but looks messy when it goes to work in messy lives.”  A mess that only looks messy but is really a tool to use on people, as though we’re machines, is not convincing.  Did Jesus actually offer his body and his blood (his mess) as salvation, or did he just appear to in order to get us on his “winning” side?  Real mess matters.  At his mother’s partner’s funeral, the author complains that the stories people told about her “were just that: stories.  What counted was who she knew on the other side of eternity.” Stories, as this book attests, change people’s lives. Why belittle them?  People’s messy stories – our lives – deserve real attention, not God’s work masquerading as a mess in order to appeal to the masses.  

The book’s polemical language (“us” and “them,” as well as what’s actual versus “just” a story) undercuts its goal to reach out in love to people outside the church.     

                     

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Cool That Volcano: How to Help Children Stay Calm, Manage Anger and Master Emotions by Peter Black

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Using a simple analogy, Cool That Volcano is a no-nonsense approach to helping children with their emotions.

The book’s aim is clearly laid out: to systematically and effectively guide moments of emotional outburst.  The first section introduces the analogy and method. Emotions are like internal volcanoes that can erupt when triggered.  Icebergs are strategies that help cool volatility. The second section is most helpful, including “cooling” tools and volcano “maintenance” tips and motivation.  The third section describes how parents can create a healthy environment that fosters emotional intelligence, by observing patterns, engaging with kids about their feelings and managing their own emotions.  The book promises positive outcomes if implemented.

         The outline is simple, if not repetitive.  Chapters begin and end with unnecessary recaps.  Its repeated, “don’t panic,” has the opposite effect, drawing attention to the gravity of parental responsibility.  Injunctives to “take control” and “don’t delay,” undercut the otherwise trial and error spirit, emphasizing results over experimentation and light-heartedness.  The book struggles to strike the tricky balance between the imperative to deal with difficult situations and parenting in a relaxed and playful manner.

    A brief overview of psychological concepts for quick application in tantrum-like situations, best for parents of 5-10 year olds.

His Sweet by Hildur Sif Thorarensen

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From the Icelandic author of Nordic noir series, Loner, comes His Sweet.  Set in Alabama, this chilling detective story is warmed by tender friendships.  

After a miscarriage and subsequent separation from her boyfriend, Sheriff Yolanda is all the more determined to save an abducted girl.  The girl’s journals found in an old barn reveal years of brutal captivity soon to end, either in death or release, depending on the efforts of Yolanda and her crime-fighting team.

The short book toggles between journal entries and a blow-by-blow account of the unfolding case.  With each excerpt from the innocent writings of a magic-loving girl who comes to appreciate her father’s strictness while she’s holed up in a madman’s basement, a hunger for justice grows.  The alternating chapters are full of suspense, as the investigation takes one step forward and two steps back. Tension really builds in the second part of the book when the journal entries disappear, making the girl’s endangerment all the more pronounced.  The showdown at the end packs a punch, both in violence and relief.

That the outcome is predictable is not a criticism; rather, the novel is short and satisfying, with a dynamic combination of lurid crime met with loving concern and professionalism.  Yolanda and other female characters stand out as model citizens. The Scandinavian author’s descriptions of the American South, in its accents, tastes, humor and biases, are an accurate and witty outsider’s perspective.  A hopeful end to a hopeless situation equals a successful second novel by Hildur Sif Thorarensen.

The Summer Abroad by Ivan Brave

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Iván Brave’s The Summer Abroad is a sonic speed dating session through Europe.  A whirlwind of encounters with cities large and small yields an artful appreciation of Home.

In 2013, Mikaíl, Rick and Alex celebrate graduating (or, almost) from the University of Texas at Austin, with travel.  The itinerary begins in Amsterdam. A few stops later, Rick and Mikaíl meet up with Alex. After several weeks of non-stop drinking, drugs, meeting and hooking up with several girls at hostels in spontaneously chosen destinations, the three friends drift in different directions.  Solo in Barcelona, Mikaíl, the narrator, faces the questions about the future he’s been avoiding during the trip. Solitude and the Virgin Mary on Montserrat say it’s time to go home. The plot completes a satisfying arc from carefree wandering, to angst, to a thoughtful conclusion.  

Although no character is as well developed as Mikaíl, none is a foil, either.  Rick and Alex hold their own as independent hombres. As many attractive women as the boys lust after, each is strong and distinct.  A favorite is The Queen, a theatrical Brit. “‘I would love it if you bought me a drink!’ The Queen lowered a faced up palm behind her back, to the hunter character, and received a hidden high-five to celebrate another lured unsuspecting character” (166).  The characters make lasting impressions, even if fleeting.

The novel plays with language.  Many sentences are strings of words, like a rap or skat or a poem, more musical than grammatical.  Spanish is sprinkled throughout the text (Mikaíl is half Argentinian). A few sentences here and there, becomes longer passages in Barcelona, not only because of Spain, but because Spanish is Mikaíl’s mother’s tongue, and he’s thinking more about home and family.  He says about language, “American [as opposed to English] was developed at the signing of the Declaration of Independence by men who spoke French, Spanish, Dutch, and read Latin…. [L]et’s learn another language” (278). What’s native to Mikaíl is a mix of languages and cultures all influencing him.  

The book also toys with point of view.   Mikaíl addresses places as “she,” showing his intimate relationship with settings.  When he first addresses “you,” it seems to mean the audience, but it later becomes clear that “you” points back to himself.  The novel cleverly makes its main point through cutting edge language use: becoming a subject, an adult, is being both “I” as well as “you,” an actor and acted upon, giver and taker, sharer and listener, tourist and settled, in short, “multiconfundido.”

Reminiscent of Ben Lerner’s innovative novel, Leaving Atocha Station, The Summer Abroad is an artistic coming of age story, a global evolution painted in vibrant hues and daring strokes.

Astrid Lindgren: The Woman Behind Pippi Longstocking, by Jens Andersen

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In his biography of Astrid Lindgren, Jens Andersen gets to the heart of famous Swedish author’s vision.

Astrid Ericsson is born, 1907, to farmers on a parsonage just outside Vimmerby in Southern Sweden.  She bases much of her whimsical writing on her own childhood experiences playing freely in nature. Before finishing her schooling, she interns at the local newspaper where she has a secret affair with the boss and owner.  He impregnates her. She has the child in Denmark, without having to list the father on the birth certificate. Her son Lasse (short for Lars) spends his first years in Denmark with a loving foster family while Astrid makes a living in Stockholm.  When he’s five, she brings him to live with her and her new husband, Sture Lindgren, (ex-)boss at the Royal Automobile Club. Working from home, her writing contributes to household funds. Pippi Longstocking grows out of tales she tells her daughter Karin.  After WWII, Sweden is ripe for the light-hearted entertainment of Pippi, detective Bill Bergson, and the Children of Noisy Village. They are instant successes for their publishing house, which later employs Lindgren. After her husband, brother and son die in the 1970s, her stories become darker, more serious.  She becomes politically active in children’s, environmental and animal rights campaigns. She dies in 2002.

Andersen’s portrait stands out from previous biographies in its focus on Lindgren’s philosophy over the facts of her timeline.  He begins at the end, with correspondence between Lindgren and Sara, the girl playing Pippi for a new production. Indeed, letters and interviews are the intimate bread and butter of the memoir, emphasizing her relationality, the stock she puts into making an impact in people’s lives.  Though they never meet, Grandma Lindgren and the teenage actress engage for several years over issues Lindgren deals with since her own rebellious teen years: loneliness, acceptance, and despair. She tells Sara, “Life is no so rotten as it seems” (9). Following her own adage, she faces her biggest life’s challenge, Lasse’s birth and early childhood.  Trying to right the wrongs she did him, understanding things from the child’s perspective, shapes the rest of her days. She does not shy away from abandonment, sadness nor death in her children’s stories. Rather, she presents characters who face life’s inevitable darkness with imagination. In the end, Lindgren’s stories speak back to her; she inhabits her characters’ perpetual courage and freedom to sculpt society into what it can and should be.  The book ends with her favorite quote from poet Thomas Thorild, “This day, one life.”

Jens Andersen’s paints not only the portrait of the woman behind Pippi Longstocking, but the woman who develops from her own compositions: a happy, carpe diem, un-label-able example for generations to come.    

One-Eyed Man and other stories by Geoffrey Craig

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From immigration in the Trump era, to the War on Drugs, to the Depression and industrialization, with a hint of Morocco thrown in at the end, One-Eyed Man paints American masterpieces with pithy prose.

A Harvard grad turned banker then writer, the author, Geoffrey Craig, takes on several voices nothing like his own.  The stories in Part I feature ambitious Mexican immigrants in the Hudson River Valley, an old lady activist their staunchest supporter.  Part II tells the tale of Brandon Forsythe, who commits his only felonies (drug dealing and related crimes) after serving his prison sentence.  He turns his trade into a successful, and honorable, business.  Part III takes place around the small town of Carmichael outside New York city, from which some characters escape and to which others retreat.  Part IV builds on the lynching of a black soldier returning from war. The final story follows two independent female friends bonding in adversity during travel.  Craig reveals a common humanity writing as an “other” unlike his characters.

Notions of justice, home, forgiveness get turned on their heads as thoughtful characters grapple with these themes.  Once mayor of a Hudson River Valley town, a Mexican immigrant loses popularity fighting to give other immigrants the chance no one gave him.  A black drug dealer is more at home around rich white folks than his hooker sister – until she proves herself above her line of work. Can a black farmer forgive a hospital for failing to treat his snake-bit son because of his skin color?  These stories ask more questions than they answer. The entertainment is in the probing unexpected twists and turns.

Although all but one of the stories is set in America, the perspectives of each is as exotic and eye-opening as a foreign country.  The characters offer hope in their capacity to change their minds. A winning combination of condensed writing and big impact.

Bigger Than All the Night Sky by Rose Rosetree

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More than a memoir, this healer’s personal history encourages self-inquiry.

Rose Rosetree, born Laura Sue Rosenbaum in 1948, grows up in New York to intellectual parents.  Shy, studious and curious, she, too, loves learning. The classroom to her is an opening to new worlds.  A surgery at age 5 also opens her to a new, beyond time, world she calls “That,” to which she returns throughout her life.  At an international high school, she gravitates toward literature and philosophy – and love. In college she discovers Transcendental Meditation (TM), which does more for her academic success than studying, as well as a hip boyfriend.  A genuine tale of sixties culture, her story is a chain of experiences linked by a desire to go deeper, know more, and enjoy life.

This book follows its own dictum: “Stories that are supposed to ‘explain everything’… don’t” (89).  Addressing her audience as Questing Reader, she goes beyond explanatory narrative to human connection.  She reaches people through anecdotes that engage physically, socially, and spiritually.  Senses, particularly smell, play an active role in the story, recalling the distant past and the fragrance of God.  The tone is conversational, full of colloquialisms and asides, like being let in on secrets. Carved into bite-sized chunks of chronological sequences, fantastical happenings, lists of insights, and poems, mostly written about her experiences in TM, the varied prose make it easy to stop and reflect without losing the thread of the story.  Intended for adult learners, the book achieves its purpose to entertain and educate.  The end is just the beginning: an invitation to read more of the author’s books and to check out the Rosetree Energy Spirituality website about workshops, sessions and trainings.

A personal history, aimed to ignite one’s own spiritual search, hits the mark dead on.