Book Review

Guantanamo Voices By Sarah Mirk

Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Genre: Nonfiction, Journalism, Anthology, Graphic Novel
Pages: 208
Format: Hardcover
Buy Local
My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

Guantanamo Bay is often regarded as the world’s most infamous prison. Some believe it to be a place of unspeakable suffering that America continues to justify. Others hold firm to the belief that those held in this former refugee camp are criminals who deserve to remain there. But what was it like for the soldiers, prisoners, and lawyers who worked closely with this infamous prison?

Sarah Mirk, a multimedia journalist whose work focuses on sharing diverse human-focused stories, shows us what it was like by detailing nine accounts from inside Guantanamo Bay. From the conflicting emotions of those who worked at the prison, to the abuse and daily struggles of the prisoners as they fought to return home, to the lawyers and advocates who fought day and night to free them, this anthology strives to provide readers with a nuanced perspective of one of America’s most complex and controversial institutions.

Thoughts

I came into this book with my own opinions on Guantanamo Bay already formed and fully expecting this book to agree with them—as such I was pleasantly surprised when this book not only subverted my expectations, but left me questioning my views. Sarah Mirk’s diverse collection of interviews allowed this book to address all aspects of Guantanamo Bay and brought a humanizing element to a story that is often viewed in black and white terms. I firmly believe that anyone, whether in favor of Guantanamo Bay or not, could benefit from reading Guantanamo Voices. Those who believe that Guantanamo Bay is a prison for only the worst of the worst would greatly benefit from hearing the story of Moazzam Begg, a Guantanamo prisoner who was held for three years without ever being charged with a crime while his wife and children were left behind. By the same token, those who condemn those who work within Guantanamo would benefit from hearing the story of Matt Diaz, a Navy Veteran who struggled with his duty as a soldier and his personal belief that what they were doing in Guantanamo Bay was wrong. Regardless of belief, Guantanamo Voices is written so that anyone can gain perspective into the controversial history of Guantanamo Bay.

One of the more unique aspects of this book is that it is written in a graphic novel format. This uncommon format for a nonfiction book is utilized to show the different perspectives of each interview, as each section has a slightly altered art style to reflect the different perspectives. This gives each interview its own sense of storytelling, allowing for the distinctions of each person’s story to shine through. This style also allows for a visualization of the treatment of the prisoners, allowing for some truly heartbreaking scenes. The one that sticks with me the most is from Moazzam Begg, who was imprisoned while his wife was three months pregnant. He breaks down crying after a soldier informs him that his wife gave birth without him present, and the imagery in the scene is incredibly powerful.

The first and last chapters of this book detail Sarah Mink’s personal trip to Guantanamo Bay. While not as emotionally stirring as the other stories told in this book, it does provide a look into Guantanamo Bay today. The secrecy and isolation of the base helped me to understand the isolation described in the interviews, and showed just how frightening Guantanamo Bay really could be. These sections also helped establish Sarah Mink’s journey from hearing about Guantanamo Bay to interviewing those who were involved, and finally visiting Guantanamo herself. Her personal journey comes full circle within these two chapters, giving the book a sense of narrative rather than just consisting of a collection of interviews.

Guantanamo Voices fully embodies the complicated factors that lead to places like Guantanamo Bay. It tackles the fears created by 9/11, the pain of the prisoners who lost decades of their lives, and the struggles of those on the outside to spark any policy change. I rarely step outside of my personal tastes in books, but I am so glad that I did, because Guantanamo Voices‘s human perspective on an often controversial and divisive topic truly touched me, and I look forward to seeing what other topics Sarah Mirk may choose to address.


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Impact of Romance Novels on Young Readers

Twilight. Divergent. Matched. Pride and Prejudice. Romeo and Juliet. These stories are classics; known by readers everywhere for their intricate detail and swoon-worthy love interests. However, is it possible that these stories have ruined the young reader’s current perception of relationships?

I’ve thought a lot about the role of YA romance novels in the last couple years. I once praised the gooey-feel-good, yet often simplistic plot line of romantic comedies and the “bad boy/good girl” archetype I read throughout my tween and teen years. While these books are wonderful for many reasons, I couldn’t help but realize as I got older that the protagonists were much younger than myself, and yet they had their life easily figured out by the end of 300 pages. This led me waiting throughout my teen years to be older; but as I grew into my late teens, I found the end of high school didn’t mean the completion of my self development—and more importantly—no attractively mysterious love interest would randomly come into my life. 

In a blog post about why they hate YA novels, Vivian DeRosa discusses two important points surrounding the typical themes within teen-romances: first, teenagers are inherently awkward, underdeveloped, and immature people; second, YA relationships are pure fiction. I don’t think there is a single person who looks back at their early teens and thinks they were at their peak. Being a teenager, even well into someone’s twenties, is awkward both physically and mentally; developing into who we are and finding who we want to be is a lifelong process that doesn’t conclude when one problem is solved. It is difficult for young adults to read these iconic stories and not receive the impression that they are supposed to be stunningly attractive and fully mentally developed, especially when Hollywood casts older actors to play these characters. It is impossible to think that 16-year-old Tris, while just beginning to understand her “Divergence,” could possibly build an actually sustainable relationship with Four. Or that 17-year old Bella not only found true love with a 104-year-old Vampire but gets married and fights in an ancient feud between the vampires and werewolves all while still in high school.

To this point, “YA tends to treat teenage relationships like they’re going to last forever. Many epilogues show the main character and their love interest happily married. But that’s not how most teen relationships shake out…” (DeRosa, 2017). Most teenagers are focused on typical high school and young adult things, and if they are in a relationship usually it doesn’t develop into a life-altering love story that will take precedence of their life and last forever. However, these stories have young readers believing that not only are relationships purely built on “finding the one,” but that there is no effort involved in finding, cultivating, and sustaining an actual romantic relationship. This thought process is detrimental to the perception of good relationships because it doesn’t offer the difficult perspective of how much work and time relationships actually take; it gives young readers a false foundation that life is just like these stories and all two people need is an attractive counterpart and one very passionate kiss.

Additionally, the perception of love through not just YA romance novels but all romance media is dangerous for all genders and sexualities. Because while Twilight, Divergent, and Romeo and Juliet are all coming of age stories where the protagonist’s journey takes the reader on one of self discovery as well, these mediums are often excluding the storylines of non-cis gendered, racially diverse, or gay protagonists. That a male protagonist without abs might fall in love with another male, female, or nonbinary peer who might have a diverse set of beliefs or culture is almost unheard of in YA romances, while today this is the reality of relationships. These stories, while considered classics, cater to a specific female fantasy—and without the diversity of representation, there is a whole population who may either lack a well-rounded understanding of relationships and/or see love as an unreachable fantasy.

This is not to say that these stories aren’t good. They are. There is a reason why Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is continuously taught and referenced through different mediums; why John Green’s “Okay? Okay.,” line reference has taken off with readers; and why the promotion of “sparkly, chiseled-abed vampires” has become a teen cliché. These stories are beautiful, incite strong emotions, and are oftentimes powerful. Despite having contradicting emotions about the genre, I still love and appreciate these stories. Don’t stop reading them, but don’t take them as a bible to your literary world. Teach each other that these books are not a guide for how to look, act, or love—and, most importantly, expand to local and diverse authors dedicated to telling the story that is not only special but realistic. In this way, we can indulge in the beauty and power of love, but remember that love is nothing without a relationship—which is often much more complicated than 300 pages would suggest.

Aviles, G. (2019, March 10). The rise of young adult books with LGBTQ characters – and what’s next. NBCNews. https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/rise-young-adult-books-lgbtq-characters-what-s-next-n981176

DeRosa, V.P. (2017, June 21). I’m a teenager and I don’t like young adult novels. Here’s why. Huffingtonpost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/what-ya-gets-wrong-about-teenagers-from-a-teen_b_594a8e4de4b062254f3a5a94

7 Books to Teach You How to Write a Memoir

Maybe you have a story to tell. Maybe you want others to know they’re not alone. Maybe you want to write a memoir.

Writing about ourselves can be powerful, as can reading what other people write about themselves. We find universal, collective connection through sharing our personal stories together. We make sense of the past together. We own our histories together.

Memoir is a unique genre—it’s not autobiography or a chronological retelling of one’s entire life events. Rather, it’s telling a narrow and specific story around a life theme or event, and importantly, the interpretation of those events and what they mean for all of us looking forward. People write memoirs about all sorts of life events, major and small: divorcing their partner, learning to surf, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. There is always something learned, which is then shared.

If you’ve been wanting to write your own memoir, you should. Maybe you’ve been unsure where to start, how to find the right memories, how to write dialogue you don’t remember, and other questions about the genre. Below is a curated collection of books to help you learn how to write a memoir, four of which are books about memoir writing and three are examples of memoirs that you can learn from as well.


The Art of the Memoir—Mary Karr. “Everybody I know who wades deep enough into memory’s waters drowns a little.” Considered by many to be the book about memoir writing, Karr’s treatise on the subject is a perfect place to start your biblio-education of memoir. The Art of the Memoir gives the why of memoir writing. While the other books on this list will offer you the methods, tools, and the how of doing memoir, this book will provide you with the important foundation of the why of doing memoir—the methodology or theory behind the tools. It’s a theoretical overview of memoir and memoir writing, including subtopics like the catharsis of writing memoir, the ethics of writing about real people (sometimes doing so negatively), and finding the truth in memoir when people sometimes have different recollections of the same events. Start here.


Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir—Sue William Silverman. “We interpret facts about the past in order to reclaim them, make sense of them.” If the first book on this list gave you the why of memoir, these next two give you the how of memoir writing. I’ve read many books about writing memoir, and Fearless Confessions is both one of the most practical how-to guides and teaches unique concepts and techniques.

You’ve probably heard the writing advice “show, don’t tell,” and Silverman offers clear tools for doing that in a memoir, including using what she calls savory words, slant details, and revealing your theme. Silverman includes thoughtful exercises and illustrative examples throughout the book.


Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay—Adair Lara. “You need a good way to tell your story.” Lara’s book is a gift to anyone looking to learn how to write a memoir. Naked, Drunk, and Writing is a hands-on how-to guide to all the steps of memoir writing—from idea generation and planning your story to finding an agent and publishing your memoir. You will learn all the necessary stages of the journey here.

A particular favorite chapter is “How to Trick Yourself Into Writing,” which gives clever techniques and tools to try in order to developing a regular writing practice for crafting a memoir. She encourages the reader to write a lot—not only to develop usable material, but to cultivate a relationship to memoir writing and a writer’s identity.


Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir—Natalie Goldberg. “Too often we take notes on writing, we think about writing but never do it.” If you are struggling to write your memoir—feeling stuck, having no ideas or memories, feeling like you don’t have a story to tell (which you do!)—then use this book. Goldberg has written several other books on writing and this one is the most oriented toward method and to actually getting some words on the page. Old Friend from Far Away can help you get the what of your memoir.

This one may take you months to read because each page and each chapter is a writing exercise, some only a line or two long. “What was missing? Go. Ten minutes.” Others ask you to inventory every time you remember saying goodbye or to write about any memories associated with a bicycle. You will dig up memories you thought were long gone or didn’t know you still remembered at all. Goldberg says writing is an athletic activity, so get your writing muscles in shape by picking up this book and a pen and getting to it!


Memoirs are worth reading in their own right. The memoirist can teach you a new lesson about the world that you could find instructive, interesting, or comforting. Memoirs are like getting a secret peek into someone’s life—but they want you to peek. And more than that, memoirists want you to get inside, to swim around, to drink. In addition, you can learn about writing memoirs from reading them. Below are three memoirs to enjoy in their own right and to read to better understand the craft of memoir.


The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death In Order—Joan Wickersham. [content warning: suicide] “It had never occurred to me that the other shoe might turn out to be, after all, the original shoe, dropping again, years later, when I was awake and available to feel it.” One day, Wickersham’s father, leaving no note, no clues, and seemingly no reason, takes his own life. His daughter writes in the form of a highly organized and categorized index to try and understand why her father took his own life. It’s a story about how a suicide can affect the family left behind, and about the sometimes impossible and unanswerable questions it leaves forever. What you can learn from reading this memoir is how to write in a unique form and how to write a story that’s not told linearly or chronologically.


The Long Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and MourningLong Litt Woon. “If you want to hear a mushroom sing, you simply have to use your ears.” Long tells two seemingly unrelated stories about her life that end up being more connected than you’d think: grieving the death of her partner and discovering and falling in love with mushroom foraging. This memoir is incredibly informative and offers fascinating knowledge and detail about mushrooms and how to find them. It speaks to reconnecting with nature and with others, especially after a major loss. What you can learn from reading this memoir is how to intertwine your story with informational writing and how to tell two stories at once.


Strangers Assume My Girlfriend is My Nurse—Shane Burcaw. “You can’t truly know that you want to spend forever with someone until you’ve pooped in their arms.” Burcaw is a disability activist, speaker, writer, and non-profit director living with spinal muscular atrophy. His memoir will make you laugh out loud. This collection of short memoir essays will teach you about living with a disability in everyday ways that prove that the commonplace details of his life—and ours—can be endlessly interesting.

Burcaw is in an interabled relationship, and in the titular essay, he writes about how strangers continually assume that his girlfriend is his nurse. He advocates that disabled people can and do have fulfilling romantic and sexual relationships. What you can learn from reading this memoir is how to use humor in your own memoir and how to write your memoir as a collection of snapshots. If you enjoy this collection of personal essays, he wrote another one called Laughing at My Nightmare and he maintains a YouTube channel with his now wife Hannah.


Reading memoir is an exciting and engaging opportunity to create and experience connectivity in the mundane, the everyday, the quotidian and the real, the gritty, the universal. What develops between memoirist and reader is a type of friendship that lets us know that no one is ever really alone in their story.

And if you’re interested in learning how to write your own memoir, there are three ways you can teach yourself how to do it: by reading books about memoir, by reading memoirs, and by getting out there and writing your own. So, grab your pen!

Literary Event: ASU Undergraduate Writers Showcase

The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing will be hosting their fourth annual ASU Undergraduate Writers Showcase on November 19, 2020. Join fellow ASU faculty and students as they support emerging voices in the undergraduate writing community.

Six talented writers will be sharing their work at the live reading. You can view their bios and learn more about them here. This event is a great opportunity to show your support for ASU’s undergraduate writing community and discover impressive contemporary voices.

The event will take place over Zoom and is free to attend. The reading will be open to the public but “seats” are limited, so be sure to reserve a spot through the link provided below.

For more information, or to reserve your spot, click here. We look forward to seeing you there!


Location: Zoom
Date: November 19, 2020
Time: 6:30-8:00 p.m.

8 Books by Indigenous Authors to Read During Native American Heritage Month

October 12 officially became a federal holiday in the United States in 1937. It had been celebrated far before it was federally recognized as the day that Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ what would become the America we all know today. In recent years, the celebration of colonization and the subsequent mass genocide of the indigenous people that already inhabited this continent has finally come under public scrutiny. Today, many cities and states have made the progressive move forward to instead celebrate this holiday as “Indigenous People’s Day” to honor those native to this land rather than to celebrate an individual who set into motion centuries of oppression for Native Americans.

In light of this, we approach another critical holiday in American history. No doubt many of us remember the story of the Native Americans and the pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts sitting down to a grand feast of unity that gave rise to Thanksgiving Day. It’s an important and touching image of peace that serves as a starting point in grade school for teaching acceptance and thankfulness, and in no way should our idea of a moment of unity or peace be broken (rather, we need it now more than ever)—but we should never favor only the positive aspects of our history since the truth is so important in moving forward. For this reason, the month of November in which we celebrate Thanksgiving is also Native American Heritage month, in support of further education and awareness of the people who originally loved and lived off this land and who have suffered greatly throughout history. When America was colonized, there were hundreds of separate Native American tribes across the country, each practicing their own religions, governments, and culture. Much of this was eradicated over time, along with many lives, languages, and customs. Native Americans were torn away from their lands, murdered, and indoctrinated. Many still struggle today to deal with poverty, persisting class divides, racism, misogyny, and injustice. This is the reality, and something that cannot be ignored over stereotypical imagery and concepts. In the wake of the BLM movement and the resulting uprise in racial sensitivity and revolution for equal treatment, the need for further education on Native American history and their similar systemic injustice is no less important.

One way to do this is to support indigenous authors and their work, which often shines a light on Native American heritage and hardships. In the same way that literature has taken on the task in today’s political climate to enlighten people and youth about racism in Black lives, we can seek out the following authors and their work to provide them the recognition they deserve—and educate ourselves in the process.


There There—Tommy Orange. Tommy Orange is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and currently resides in Oakland, California. His breakout novel There There was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2019, and tells the story of several Native American characters dealing with personal demons and their own racial identity, converging together at a Pow Wow towards the end of the novel. This novel has made waves for its relevant themes and rich characterization, so it is definitely one to check outand keep an eye out for Orange’s future hits.


Where the Dead Sit Talking—Brandon Hobson. A member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Brandon Hobson’s latest novel follows the story of a teen boy living in rural Oklahoma. In Where the Dead Sit Talking, Sequoyah deals with his mother’s substance abuse, life in the foster system, and meeting another teen girl dealing with much of the same trauma. It is set in the 1980s and is an authentic Native American coming-of-age story detailing the struggles present in many native communities.


The Only Good Indians—Stephen Graham Jones. Stephen Graham Jones is a Blackfoot Native American who has left his mark across multiple genres of fiction over the past 20 years, all met with great success. He has definitely made an imprint in the literary world for indigenous authors and he has done so with work that not only stands on great plot, but informative work that represents his culture. The Only Good Indians is his latest work that delves into the horror genre, following four Native American men returning from a hunting trip with a vengeful entity following close behind.


The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven—Sherman Alexie. I have a personal bias for Sherman Alexie—he is intelligent, witty, and a brilliant writer able to equally cater to the YA genre as he does adult readers. I chose The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven not for the long and entertaining name, but because this novel served as the inspiration for the movie that Alexie wrote and produced, Smoke Signals. Essentially, the novel conveys a compelling and darkly humorous story of growing up on reservations and coming to terms with broken families and self. I will also recommend Alexie’s equally compelling YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.


#notyourprincess: Voices of Native American Women—Edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale. The editors of this compilation are both prominent names in indigenous publications, Lisa Charleyboy specifically serving as the editor for Urban Native Magazine. #notyourprincess is a collection of poems and prose by Native American women authors that highlight injustice and misogyny, as well and the inherent fears and defiance felt by native feminists. The works in this book confront stereotypes and celebrates heritage and strength in a modern world in which there are still additional hurdles if you are also a woman.


Winter in the Blood—James Welch. James Welch is considered by many a founding author in the Native American Renaissance, which is an uptake in indigenous authors and production of work in the 1960s. Winter in the Blood is a novel that follows a narrator haunted by the past and burdened with the weight of loss in the face of conflict between the reservation he resides on and the white settlement nearby. A slightly older novel in this lineup, the significance of James Welch and this haunting work still stands.


Savage Conversations—Leanne Howe. A member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Leanne Howe’s novel toes the line between fever dream and historical fiction. Mary Todd Lincoln is haunted by hallucinations, so much so that she is institutionalized, but could they be connected to the slaughter of Dakota Indians authorized by Abraham Lincoln himself? Strange Conversations is brilliant in its beauty and the uncomfortable re-evaluation we are forced to do over what little we may actually know of our country’s history.


How We Became Human—Joy Harjo. I’m ending this list with an individual I’ve admired all my life. Joy Harjo was born in Oklahoma and is a member of the Muscogee-Creek Nation. She is currently the Poet Laureate of the United States, the first Native American woman to hold that title in history. She is a musician, a painter, an author, and an educator in addition to being one of the greatest poets in the country. Her work represents her culture and her heritage, and tells the story of the past, present, and future of indigenous people. This anthology is a collection of her work through a large span of her career, and is a must-have to experience her talent and learn about Native Americans through the eyes of a woman who has represented her people with both grace and strength.


I was born and raised in Oklahoma, a state where Native American heritage and education is a priority in our curriculum. I started my college journey at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the Cherokee capital. I married a man who is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and our children are registered members as well. His ancestors walked the Trail of Tears to settle in Oklahoma, and he grew up hearing the stories and tales from his grandmother, which were her effort to keep their traditions alive in him. We will continue to nurture this same knowledge and heritage in our children. This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. Take notice of the plights of Native American communities across the country and get involved in spreading awareness for causes such as #MMIW or Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. This Thanksgiving, keep those ideas of unity in your mind as we continue to reevaluate privilege and racism in America and confront those issues head on. If 2020 has done anything, it has created an opportunity for us to hold the less fortunate to a greater importance, whether they are individuals that are at higher risk for COVID-19, or those that have been victims of systemic racism throughout their lifetimes. Let’s have a safe holiday and remember to love one another.

Book Review

The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices

Publisher: HarperOne
Genre: Nonfiction, Spiritual, Self-Help
Pages: 224
Format: Hardcover
Buy Local
My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Could walking your dog be a spiritual experience? Is it possible to turn your yoga or Crossfit class into a community? Can reverently reading the Harry Potter books or watching your favorite movie transform your life?

According to Casper Ter Kuile it can, and will. In The Power of Ritual, Harvard Divinity School Fellow Ter Kuile discusses why people have often flocked to religion for ritual, purpose, and community. Yet, with an increasing number of people listing themselves as “nones,” how can one find rituals and traditions to sustain, nurture, and fortify themselves? Ter Kuile explores how everyday activities such as eating, walking, showering, watching a movie, reading, and gathering are all powerful rituals that can heal and energize. From exercise and connection with nature to tech sabbaths, he provides ways to turn the ordinary into a transcendent experience.

Thoughts

There is a strong vein of religion and theology running throughout The Power of Ritual, which is understandable considering the topic of spirituality. For some, spirituality does look like what most of us visualize— going to church and participating in the corresponding rituals. This book, however, is not necessarily for those people. This instruction manual is for the “nones,” those without a dedicated denomination, who are remixing their lives by taking from the old and adding in the new.  

One of the many interesting rituals that Ter Kuile outlines within this book is the concept of a Tech Sabbath. Closely aligned with the Jewish tradition of Sabbath, his tech version involves shutting down digitally for a 24-hour period. Friday at sundown he stows away his phone and laptop, refusing to engage with them until Saturday at sundown. For a lot of us, this would require massive amounts of willpower, and even Ter Kuile admits to slip-ups now and again. Still, the clarity he receives from this practice (every week!) more than makes up for any type of FOMO, and he uses the time to journal, read, and reflect. 

If this seems too daunting a prospect, not to worry. I found his other suggestions to be far more manageable, and most of the time the activities are ones you already engaged in. All that is required to make an ordinary activity a “ritual” is to put intention behind it. This is something he discusses at length when it comes to building community, connecting to nature, and even watching a film. As one of the founders of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, Ter Kuile specializes in making a movie night a revelatory and ritualistic experience.

The Power of Ritual easily mixes in history and theology discussions with pop culture references to make the reading enjoyable without getting too mystic or preachy. It really is about turning what you are already doing into a tradition, ritual, or sacred experience. There are some action items on how to get started, and a framework for prayer (it may look a little different than you think!). Pilgrimages are discussed at length, changing my perspective on what that actually looks like. Spoiler: you don’t have to travel across the globe to complete one, just as far as your door!

I, myself, was surprised at how many rituals I am already engaged in. From my morning journaling to decompressing in the shower, Ter Kuile’s theories ring true. This book will certainly cause you to reflect on those activities, and help you reframe how you participate in them. I did balk at his suggestion to think about your own death. While I am not one to shy away from the eventuality of death, I am just a little apprehensive about telling myself “I might die today.” That statement’s purpose is to remind you (and yes, there’s an app for that) to be grateful for your life and the gifts you have. But I am still not sure I can, on a daily basis, tell myself this.

At this moment, many have found their spiritual practices being curtailed. The pandemic and all the uncertainty it brings has restricted many of the social gatherings, pilgrimages, exercise routines, and religious rituals. Yet, perhaps by utilizing some of the ideas set forth in The Power of Ritual, you may be able to bring some harmony and tradition back into your life!


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review. 

Magic and Mysticism

For everyone out there who learned to ask deep philosophical questions at the age of twelve or thirteen after reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I would like to impress upon all readers the great power of young adult fantasy novels to teach the juvenile mind about ethics and existentialism. I have not come across a history or political science textbook that has explained a tyrant’s psychology as well as Albus Dumbledore: “Voldemort himself created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!”

A frequent argument I have heard from skeptics is that fantasy books fill their readers’ heads with unrealistic nonsense (dead flies and bits of fluff), while the truth is that these stories deliver some of life’s most crucial lessons in the form of allegory.

When Dumbledore points out to Harry that not every prophecy in the Department of Mysteries has been fulfilled, he reminds us that our decisions, even at a microcosmic level, are what shape our future in the end. The entire arc of the prophecy is a caricature of how human beings have always tried to predict and control the future. But as every time travel movie has proven, attempting to change the past or the future always comes at a great price. Even though it is not realistically possible to change the past, we like to think that we can alter our future if we can predict it. But these attempts to change our fate are the very things that set us on the path that was predicted for us.

Many lessons can also be gleaned from these books that are delivered in simple, straightforward sentences. These are usually extraordinary characters talking about the ordinary aspects of their lives. “People find it far easier to forgive others for being wrong than being right,” is an example of a quote that rings with truth.

In addition to being a catalyst for philosophical discourse among youths, the fantasy genre constantly crosses paths with science. This is quite different from how science fiction presents science. While sci-fi books and movies try to depict what the advancement of technology based on current discoveries would look like, fantasy is more about staying true to the primordial laws of physics and chemistry—even in the world of magic.

As any Rick Riordan fan could tell you, The Kane Chronicles is easily the most existential of his works. Although these books echo some of the happy-go-lucky zaniness of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus series, the Egyptian pantheon comes off as more obscure than the Greek or Roman ones. For starters, the deities are not necessarily “good,” which challenges the established notion of an all-powerful entity being all-benevolent.

Riordan cloaks the duality of life in the story of the Duat—the endless river which is like a second skin beneath the world that we perceive. All mortals exist in both worlds, simultaneously. This is a graceful ode to the scientific theory that matter can exist as both particles and waves (proposed by Louis de Broglie in 1924). Furthermore, there is Ma’at and Isfet, order and chaos, two inexorable forces that perfectly balance each other, coinciding with Newton’s third law of motion.

But the finest point of this series is when Sadie learns that there are conflicting stories about how the gods came to be and did what they did. For example, in one story, Isis and Osiris are siblings, while in the other, they are husband and wife. This is actually true for mythical stories in most cultures, because they began as folklore and were created by different people whose names cannot be found anymore.

But Riordan explains it in a way that does not break the illusion of the magical world he has created. In this universe, the Egyptian gods need mortal hosts to operate on the earth. Depending on the relationship between these hosts, the gods’ relationships change. As Iskandar says, “The gods do not think of relationships the way we humans do. Their hosts are merely like changes of clothes. This is why the ancient stories seem so mixed up. Sometimes the gods are described as married, or siblings, or parent and child, depending on their hosts.” This theory gracefully maintains the illusion of fantasy while also respecting the different views held by experts in this field.

It is in stories like this that magic and science blend into what was taught ages ago by ancient philosophers and what is now called mysticism. After all, modern technology may appear to be magical to someone who is not acquainted with the engineering behind it, as shown by The Wizard of Oz. Maybe, what we think of as magic is simply advanced science in another universe.

Book Review

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Publisher: Dial Press
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 384
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

This story is about a set of fraternal twins, Noah and Jude, as they begin to navigate young adulthood. The two share a love for art—but  Noah is very open about sharing his artistic ability, while Jude tends to keep her talent to herself. Despite being extremely close as children, their relationship begins to shift as tensions rise in each of their personal lives. Further pressuring them is the impending application deadline for a prestigious art school that both twins applied to. 

As their lives progress, Noah and Jude are each faced with their own set of challenges that push them further away from one another. In addition, they begin to lose sight of their own identities. Just as it appears that things couldn’t get any worse, an unanticipated disaster strikes, changing both of their lives in the aftermath. Will something—or someone—bring them back together?

Thoughts

This novel was recommended to me by one of my close friends. I had never heard of it, and as such dove in without many preconceived expectations. To my excitement, the novel was not slow to start and it wasn’t long before I was fully immersed in the stories of each of the two protagonists. Both were very accessible characters, mostly because of the book’s multi-narrative format. Reading from each character’s point of view added a lot of relatability to the novel—I was able to empathize with both Noah and Jude and became invested in each of their stories. 

Perhaps one of my favorite components of this story was the way art was used to develop the theme of personal identity. Throughout the novel, art is something both of the twins use as a form of self-expression and communication. However, Noah and Jude are both dynamic characters—and their relationship to artwork changes as part of their development. At the beginning of the story, both use art as a way to express themselves, privately. By the end of the novel, each character has learned to use art to communicate who they are as people and as a mode to display how they want to be seen. I loved reading as each of the characters experienced this shift in perspective. It even influenced the way I viewed my own ideas concerning creative expression. 

Adding to the novel’s magic are many beautiful quotes riddled throughout. One of the most notable is “We were all heading for each other on a collision course, no matter what. Maybe some people are just meant to be in the same story.” In the context of the story, this signifies that fate may play a role in Noah and Jude’s relationship. No matter how hard they try to distance themselves from one another, they continue to be pulled back together by some unseen force. Although this may not be the case for all real-life relationships, I think it serves as an interesting examination of what causes some people to fall back into each other’s lives, no matter the circumstance.

I removed half a star from my rating of this book because it romanticizes life a little bit too much for my taste at some points. Although it was a great escape from reality, there are some parts of the story that are too overtly chauvinistic to take seriously. I do think the story offers a lot of profound insight on the meaning of life and relationships—but some are too whimsical to buy into. That being said, the moments where the book misses the mark are few and far between, and it didn’t impact the story’s readability at all. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a thought-provoking and heartwarming story. 

8 Spectacular Banned Books To Read This October

From September 27th to October 3rd, book-lovers all around the world celebrate the freedom to read by participating in Banned Books Week. The event began in the 1980s to bring attention to interest groups that were attempting to remove books they found offensive from libraries and schools. Today, it continues to address modern attempts at censorship and strives to support the sharing of ideas—even if they offend. Banned Books week has just wrapped up, so let’s keep celebrating the right to read by diving into these eight incredible and controversial tales.


The Giver—Lois Lowry. This book follows a boy named Jonas who discovers that he lives in a dystopia. His entire community strives to eliminate all suffering and pain  by removing anything that has the possibility of  introducing negativity or diversion from the norm, such as colors, love, or choice. When Jonas is assigned the feared position of “The Receiver of Memories,” he sees for the first time how far his community has fallen. Now that he knows of the world before “sameness,” he must decide to fight to return his society to the freedoms of the past, or see the wisdom in hiding from the dangers of choice.

Why this book was banned: The Giver includes references to sex, chemical castration, child murder, euthanasia, suicide, violence, and death, making it a controversial book for school libraries—especially in elementary schools. It was banned temporarily in California in 1994 due to its sexual content and in 1995 the book was challenged for its reference to euthanasia, causing schools in Montana to require parent permission for the book to be checked out. More recently, in April of 2001, a father tried to get the book removed from Colorado schools because he believed it would cause school shootings due to its violent nature.


The Golden Compass—Philip Pullman. In a world where humans are born with spirit animals, a young girl named Lyra must help stop children from being kidnapped, tortured, and killed by a powerful church that controls all aspects of her society. On her journey, she discovers a conspiracy by the church that threatens to change her world as she knows it.

Why this book was banned: The Golden Compass largely focuses on what is referred to as “dust,” which represents sin. The church in the story is fighting to stop the destruction of sin because it allows them to keep their absolute power over the entire world. This premise outraged several religious groups, specifically many Catholic groups who felt this book was a direct attack. The author has even been referred to as “the most dangerous author in Britain” and “the anti-C. S. Lewis” by Peter Hitchens, who is a journalist for The Daily Mail. Many Catholic schools have banned this book from their libraries due to this perception, such as the Halton Catholic School in 2007. 


Animal Farm—George Orwell. This allegorical tale takes place on a farm where all of the animals have become fed up with the terrible treatment from the farmer. The animals revolt and succeed in expelling the farmer, leading to them creating a farm where “all animals are created equal.” As the farm grows, so does the corruption, as the once-great ideals of animal farm fade away until they are back to the same tyrannical rule, making it a perfect allegory for the communist uprising in Russia.

Why this book was banned: Animal Farm was banned in Russia until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 due to its anti-totalitarianism. Ironically, it was also banned in America during the Cold War due to the positive references to communism at the beginning of the book, meaning that Animal Farm has been banned for being both too communist and not communist enough.


Carrie—Stephen King. All Carrie White ever wanted was to be normal, but with an abusive religious zealot for a mother, Carrie could never fit in among her classmates. Each day she is forced to put up with relentless abuse from her classmates due to her odd clothing and beliefs, and abuse from her mother who is convinced that her daughter is a sinful demon that must be cleansed. One day, Carrie discovers she has telekinesis and begins to use her powers to finally take back her life, but the bullies at school have other ideas.

Why this book was banned: With its references to violence, puberty, religion, sex, and foul language, it’s no surprise that Carrie was often challenged by school officials. It was first banned by Clark High School in Nevada in 1975, then by The West Lyon Community School Library in Iowa in 1987, and most recently by the entire library district of Almar-parish Williamstown in New York in 1991. In response to these frequent bannings, Steven King was quoted saying “get a copy of what has been banned, read it carefully and discover what it is your elders don’t want you to know.”


Drama—Raina Telgemeier. Callie, a middle school techie, befriends two twin drama nerds during their middle school production of The Moon Over The Mississippi. Together, the three of them navigate the tumultuous world of junior high romance as they learn to embrace who they are and to be unashamed to share it with the world, regardless of who supports them.

Why this book was banned: Drama deals with realizing and accepting one’s sexuality and the blowback that can come from it, which makes it a controversial read for some—especially since it was published in 2012, before gay marriage was legalized in all states. Drama has been banned in Texas several times, first in 2014 by Chapel Hill Elementary, then in 2015 by Kirbyville Middle School, and, most recently, in 2016 it was banned by the entire Franklin Independent School District. This book is an anomaly on this list as it doesn’t contain anything sexually explicit, violent, or abusive—it just has LGBTQ+ characters.


My Brother Sam is Dead—James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier. Set during the American Revolution, this book follows a boy named Tim Meeker as his family, who is on the side of the British, and his brother, who supports the revolution, struggles to survive during turmoil caused by the war. From looting, kidnapping, prison ships, hanging, mass slaughter, and much more, this book removes the veneer that often covers the Revolutionary War and shows the pain and suffering that both sides caused during America’s fight for independence.

Why this book was banned: The book often uses profane language and depicts graphic scenes of death and suffering, causing many schools to have it removed from their libraries. The American Library Association reports that My Brother Sam Is Dead is “the 12th most commonly challenged book” from 1990 to 2000 and the 27th most commonly challenged book from 2000 to 2009.


Mick Harte Was Here—Barbara Park. This book follows Phoebe Hart as she tries to make sense of the sudden tragic death of her younger brother Mick Harte and struggles to give meaning to his passing. Deceptively simple, this story shows the pain of sudden loss honestly and in a way that anyone can understand, all while imparting on the reader the importance of bike safety without coming across as preachy or distracting from the focus of the story. While this book was originally intended for younger audiences, the tact with which it deals with issues that affect everyone makes it a powerful read at any age.

Why this book was banned: This book does not pull its punches when it comes to addressing the serious pain that comes from death and loss, and, as such, it is often seen as far too intense for young readers. When the book was challenged at Centennial Elementary School in 2004, the mother leading the charge was quoted saying that she thinks “it takes the structure of an adult mind to deal with most of the themes in this book.”


The Origin of Species—Charles Darwin. Arguably the most famous and important scientific text ever written, The Origin of The Species relays the theory of evolution using evidence from Darwin’s studies on the Galapagos Islands. Using his studies on animals such as the Galapagos tortoises and mockingbirds, Darwin changed biology as we know it and allowed us to begin to answer many of life’s greatest questions.

Why was this book banned: This book was first banned by Trinity College, where Darwin attended school, when it was published due to it being declared “blasphemous” by all sects of Christianity at the time. It was also banned in Yugoslavia in 1935 and in Greece in 1937. The teaching of the theory of evolution from this book in America was also fraught with restrictions and outright banning, the most famous being the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, which surrounded a teacher who broke a Tennessee law that forbade the Teaching of Evolution.

Book Review

How to Feed Yourself: 100 Fast, Cheap, and Reliable Recipes for Cooking When You Don’t Know What You’re Doing: A Cookbook by Spoon University

Publisher: Harmony
Genre: Nonfiction, Cookbook
Pages: 224
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

It is back to school season—and whether this fact spurs feelings of fear or excitement, there is one unavoidable, and oftentimes frustrating, subject within everyone’s fall schedules: food. The COVID-19 pandemic has restructured dining halls for college students, tightened the budgets of families, and possibly even allowed time for new at-home hobbies. Spoon University’s How to Feed Yourself is a simple and comprehensive cookbook designed by college students, for college students.

It is incredibly flexible for anyone’s cooking level, desires, and situation. As we enter the fall with changing situations, How to Feed Yourself offers simple, cheap meals that don’t force the reader to buy a plethora of unknown ingredients, spices, and tools. The recipes are based on common ingredients to create plenty of simple, diverse, and healthy (but not too healthy) dishes. Spanning from “All-Day Breakfast Tacos” to a “No-Sharing-Required Mason Jar Banana Split,” Spoon University has prepared dishes for every occasion, every skill level, and every lifestyle.

Thoughts

This year I made the bold and, admittedly nerve-racking, decision to cancel my meal plan as I am sure many incoming and returning students are doing. As I ventured into my new reality of consistently cooking for myself, I wanted a cost-effective, nutritious (but not too healthy), and simple cookbook tailored to my novice skill set to help me out. I am usually apprehensive about cookbooks because they are often shrouded in mystery from complicated recipes, expensive and uncommon ingredients, and unrealistic expectations (because let’s face it—my food never turns out looking like the picture). However, I was very satisfied with this cookbook—it uses simple recipes, has consistent, colorful, and an easy-to-follow page layout, in addition to encouraging language. The ingredients needed for every recipe are basic, and the recipes are created with the expectation that the reader only has “an oven with a stovetop and broiler, a microwave, a fridge, and a sink.” The book is split up largely by chapters with recipes featuring some of the most common food items (eggs, chicken, pasta, fish, potatoes, toast, grains, veggies, and bananas). Later chapters provide recipes for occasions or habits, such as make-ahead meals, group recipes, date-night ideas, alcohol, and desserts. While this structure seems confusing, it allows you to find recipes based on what you have available. The book also outlines the most basic and important points of cooking and flavoring meats, using grains, and seasoning vegetables while offering flexible recipes which is encouraging and a helpful tool to understand the basics of food.

I’ve tried several recipes, including the “Not Your Average BEG,” the “Deconstructed Chicken Pot Pie,” and the “2-Ingredient Flourless Pancakes.” The recipes were fairly delicious and creative. The “Not Your Average BEG” used toaster waffles to create a kind of bun for the egg sandwich, and while the “Deconstructed Chicken Pot Pie” could have used additional seasoning, it was simple and a great dish to learn how to cook with chicken. My favorite recipe so far, however, are the “2-Ingredient Flourless Pancakes” because they offer different flavor suggestions and I had the freedom to get creative and substitute or add ingredients. As a beginning cook and novice cookbook reader, I am very happy to have taken a chance on this book because it is tailored to any cooking level, flavor pallet, and bank account. If you don’t eat meat or need a dairy/gluten free diet, the recipes offer substitutes and diet-specific recipes. Additionally, it has recipes for the lazy days, the single-parents, the working student, and the tired-of-ramen freshman.

We naturally come to food for community and enjoyment, and while our lives might be stressful in many ways right now—and our dinners might look different—our food shouldn’t be stressful. This book gives me hope in my ability to create a meal instead of spending that extra five dollars on the grocery store’s frozen meals section; it gives me hope that I can learn a new skill; and it gives me encouragement during this time—I hope it can for you, too.