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Inspirational / Spiritual

  • Idea/Concept: The idea of restoring one's faith by becoming immersed in the words and life of " a titan of spirituality" makes great sense. The precise reason Koskela’s congregation splintered and broke, however, a pivotal puzzle piece in this book, remains rather unclear.

    Prose: The prose is spirited and somewhat conversational, a positive aspect for a spiritual book, with several well-chosen segments of Hildegard of Bingen's writings/songs throughout.

    Originality: This text is highly original and offers a deeply compelling premise. The focus on a little-known spiritual figure from the past, provides an unexpected dimension to this work.

    Execution: The author is a pastor, father, husband, friend, and spiritual person. Although the narrative seems somewhat incomplete as the reader never fully discovers the reason for this pastor's quest, the author's faith feels renewed by book's end. The additional reading section, primarily biographies of Bingen, is most useful.

  • Due North

    by Lola Akinmade Akerstrom

    Rating: 8.50

    Idea: This arresting volume pairs the author's vibrant photography with her brief essays about her journeys across the world. The photos and essays complement each other well, each adding resonance to the other. The resulting book is a portrait of not just its author's travels but of her way of seeing, and it's a pleasure to experience the world with her. That said, the book's wanderings might gain some power from the addition of a narrative throughline or more sense of how travel has affected the writer/photographer's life.

    Prose: While often elegant and touched with poetry, Åkerström's prose descriptions of the locales she visits aren't quite as vivid as her photographs, which are extraordinary. Instead, the essays tend to center on characters that she has met or her experience of traveling itself, while letting the photos summon the essence of the places she visits. The writing is polished and engaging, especially when Åkerström captures some narrative momentum, as in the poignant scenes she captures talking to local characters she encounters, or her mother's tracking down of a loved one.

    Originality: Occasionally, when she documents her excursion to a well-documented place like Machu Pichu, Åkerström doesn't offer much new insight, though the images she captures are fabulous. The essays are strongest when she finds the unexpected, tracking fishmongers or  photographers, or reporting from a U.S. naturalization ceremony or how politics have affected the markets of Lagos.

    Execution: Åkerström presents her essays as snapshots, and the effect of reading the book is similar to that of paging through a photo album. Still, those "snapshots" often touch upon fascinating issues, opinions, and experiences that readers will certainly want to know more about--the snapshots tease a bigger, more personal picture than what "Due North" ultimately offers. Finally, without a narrative throughline, those snapshots/essays never quite accumulate into a larger view of the world or of travel itself.

  • The Monk Within

    by Beverly Lanzetta

    Rating: 8.50

    Idea/Concept: The Monk Within is the first volume in a projected trilogy that explores and advocates for the new monasticism. Lanzetta dedicates much of the book to demonstrating that individuals each possess an innate "monastic instinct" that yearns for connection to the divine, through daily commitment to interior solitude. With this book, Lanzetta connects contemporary existence to ancient monastic tradition, surveying centuries of the history and practice of monasticism, while also considering -- and adapting -- concepts like celibacy and solitude, and even laying out her own "via feminina," a path that seeks the wisdom of women's monastic orders. The book is written with the presumption that the reader already is interested in working elements of monasticism into their own life, which might limit its reach.

    Prose: Lanzetta's prose is scrupulous and inviting. She writes with great clarity and is rigorous about stripping her language of the dogmatic and hierarchical. She does not presume her readers come from any particular religious background and takes great care not to elevate one idea of the Divine over any other; shrewdly, she entertains opposing viewpoints and always defines her terms with crisp clarity.

    Originality: Lanzetta steeps readers in the history of monastic thinking, drawing upon deep learning and research and even devoting some 50 pages to the "Wisdom of the Elders," a series of illuminating disquisitions on Augustine, St. Teresa, Gandhi, and others. Her research is her own, and her "via feminina" is wholly unique.

    Execution: While it's rich with challenging, inviting thought and judicious excerpts from the work of other monastic thinkers, The Monk Within is light on instruction or practical guidance. Lanzetta writes marvelously well, and her material is engaging, but as she considers the power of contemplation and "the deep self," readers might desire additional coaching into the "disciplined practice" that the book suggests such explorations demand.

  • Idea: This is a straightforward, chronological narrative of a woman navigating the stresses of modern life and working to achieve what she believes to be the American Dream. The author's ultimate realizations about the importance of maintaining perspective, preserving one's health, and being mindful, are meaningfully conveyed. 

    Prose: The prose is strong, sometimes funny, often poignant. The author has a clear handle on storytelling. 

    Originality: Although the recounting of the working life of a single mother is not fully original, Freedle offers a unique perspective on the topic of achieving professional success, by advocating for balance and self-care. Through the author's candid reflections, she appeals to readers' own vulnerabilities and hard truths. Maintaining a positive outlook after her stroke, the author provides an inspirational reading experience.

    Execution: The author tells her story honestly, recounting her conflicted decision making, regrets, and realizations with ease. Readers are likely to find her struggles to balance work and family with mental and physical health, immensely relatable.

  • Idea/Concept: This work offers an ambitious and intellectually stimulating concept, although the audience for the work may be somewhat limited.

    Prose: The author writes smoothly and effectively, relaying his own experiences of grappling with the nature of his religious faith, while integrating biblical passages throughout.

    Originality: This book is highly unusual in its concept and execution. The author approaches the work with the belief that the Pharisees, of old and today, "worshipped God's law instead of worshipping God." The author explores pertinent topics relating to faith, including clearly defined varieties of suffering, and encourages the faithful to continually pursue God and to reevaluate their faith.

    Execution: The book is quite convincing, aiming to persuade readers to change their relationship to God and Jesus and to change their lives and their prayers accordingly. While not all readers will be in the position to emulate the author – or will prioritize their faith as strongly -- Hover's examples from his own life are moving and meaningful.

  • Idea/Concept: Tom and Wilma English's Spiritual Boot Camp is a biblical self-help books geared toward creative, imaginative, and thoughtful readers. The authors provide a motivational guidebook for receptive individuals. 

    Prose: The Englishes write with style, clarity, and gracefulness. They contextualize their advice with real-world examples, while they develop most of their arguments thoroughly, persuasively, and with scriptural back-up. They aspire to be life coaches in prose, with just a touch of the drill sergeant for good measure, and they mostly achieve this. The frequent capitalized words are not as inviting as italics.

    Originality: Ultimately, while it may look superficially similar to other books in its genre, Spiritual Boot Camp for Creators & Dreamers is uniquely thorough, well-written, persuasive, and inspiring.

    Execution: The book's premise and precepts are mostly familiar from other secular and biblical advice books. Here are chapters about visualizing goals, managing time, finding and maintaining motivation, learning to pray, and other well-covered advice areas. Fortunately, their treatment of these common topics is fresh, with engaging, often surprising examples, such as the 15-page exploration of the story of Captain America. Further, some of the Englishes’ advice is original to the authors, such as the chapters suggesting that readers find "a Barnabas." Also unique: the Englishes' jokes and their welcome approach to reconciling faith and science.

  • Painting the Psalms

    by Cherie Burbach

    Rating: 7.50

    Idea/Concept: This is a charming, gift-style book that integrates artwork in a manner that further illuminates its interpretation of various Psalms. Burbach's key readership will be the like-minded faithful, though the whimsical, bright collages Burbach presents, offer potentially broader appeal.

    Prose: While the visual art in this title are likely to impact the reader more powerfully than the Psalms alone, Burbach effectively marries the elements, with gentle accompanying prose that offers personal insights into the meanings behind the Psalms and the imagery in Burbach's art.

    Originality: Burbach's whimsical, bright collages provide an original interpretation of the biblical quotations, while also quietly encouraging readers to explore their love for the verses on their terms and through their own creative approaches. Burbach's passion for her art, and the Psalms that inspire it, is apparent. 

    Execution: The book's layout at times suffers from being overly cluttered, which may impact readers' ability to appreciate each Psalm and painting individually. 

     

  • Idea: The author behind this memoir relays her journeys through alternative health options and across various countries. Gallagher may not arrive at discernible, long-ranging tranquility or excellent health, but she finds workable remedies. Most significantly, she realistically conveys how taking time to notice and observe one's surroundings, is healing in itself.

    Prose: Gallagher's prose is straightforward and the story unfolds smoothly and chronologically. The author carefully details the holistic treatments and world destinations she encounters on her path to healing and wellness. 

    Originality: This memoir explores a woman's self-healing journey into emotional and geographic areas. Gallagher offers kernels of wisdom and insight throughout, but the memoir is ultimately highly personal in nature. Though many contemporary memoirs are written on related topics, Gallagher’s work is somewhat refreshing; her spiritual healing process is subtle and slow to unfold, rather than abruptly cathartic.

    Execution: The author's descriptions of physical aches and pains are vividly conveyed and relatable, but her emotional interiority--particularly in response to life-changing circumstances such as divorce--is somewhat underdeveloped.

  • Idea: Burke displays extensive knowledge of Taoist scripture, while tying key ideas into a modern context. For those who seek spiritual guidance and insight into Lao Tzu's wisdom, this work offers a clear pathway.

    Prose: Burke's writing is polished and rich with literary, cultural, and historical references. The narrative tone can at times come across as stern, which may strike readers as incongruous with Taoist teachings.

    Originality: While surely not the only work on Taoist wisdom, Burke's evident expertise concerning both Western and Eastern spirituality, provides readers with a wide-ranging and intriguing study of the topic. 

    Execution: While the presentation is more scholarly than entertaining, the author provides readers with actionable steps for applying Taoist principles into their lives. Serious readers will find the insights to be edifying.

     

  • Idea: Like Rich Dad, Poor Dad and some other popular works of personal and financial inspiration, Denis Hachey's Mind to Mind Conversation presents a fictionalized memoir of acquiring the knowledge to succeed and find happiness from a dedicated teacher. Here, that teacher is "Aunt Sally," who shares advice both practical (visualize goals, plan for retirement) and philosophical aspirations. Such a familiar premise can be wildly effective, of course, and Mind to Mind Conversation offers some fresh quirks, such as its narrator's conversations with his literal subconscious.

    Prose: Hachey's sentences are smooth and polished, and his dialogue -- especially between the narrator and his subconscious -- can be funny or poignant when appropriate. Like other books in this subgenre, the tone of Mind to Mind Conversation touches upon a fabulist simplicity. Hachey handles this well, line to line, though the narrative passages -- where the narrator is doing something or observing life -- tend to be more compelling than the ones where he's discussing life advice with Aunt Sally.

    Originality: Many of the guidelines for living in this work echo those in comparable books. This book's most original and provocative idea, the conversations with the subconscious, gets dropped early in the text, when Aunt Sally takes the narrator under her wing. Nothing about her is especially distinctive, and she seems less a character than a conduit for working lots of advice (and book recommendations) into a fictionalized narrative. Inspirational quotations from familiar sources open most chapters, and at times Aunt Sally's advice seems to rewrite some of these. If Aunt Sally's dialogue and advice sounded like it came from the mind of a singular, fascinating woman with a unique perspective, Mind to Mind Conversation would likely feel much more original.

    Execution: Mind to Mind Conversation offers familiar advice in a narrative format that only is compelling as storytelling in the earliest and final chapters, when the author's framing device (involving the narrator telling his story to a protege's son) imposes a structure upon it. The figure of Aunt Sally never becomes fascinating or unique, and most of the book is spent with her sharing reasonable but familiar advice.

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