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Book Review: Through Forests of Every Color: Awakening with Koans by Joan Sutherland

December 26, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A blue swipe of paint is topped with the outlines of pine trees. The title of the book is written in white against this background.

Learn about Zen Buddhist koans – both their history and how to use them in your practice – in this approachable introduction from a nearly lifelong Zen practitioner.

Summary:
Renowned Zen teacher Joan Sutherland reimagines the koan tradition with allegiance to the root spirit of the koans and to their profound potential for vivifying, subverting, and sanctifying our lives. Her decades of practicing with koans and of translating them from classical Chinese imbues this text with a warm familiarity, an ease still suffused with awe.

Interlinked essays on “koans as art,” “keeping company with koans,” and “walking the koan way” intersperse with beautifully translated renditions of dozens of traditional Zen koans. Sutherland also shares innovative koans culled from Western literature, as well as teachings on how to create idiosyncratic koans or turning words from the circumstances of one’s own life.

Review:
I came into this book with some trepidation. My previous experiences with koans were frustrating, and not in a way that I felt lent itself to enlightenment. I hoped this introductory guide to koans would hep me to engage with them better. This book certainly met that goal. I now have a desire to work with koans in my own practice. Although, I won’t be jumping right into The Gateless Gate. I plan to pick up another book that moves slowly and with guidance.

Indeed, learning the history of how koans have traditionally been engaged with helped me. You wouldn’t enter koan study alone but rather with a teacher who helps you learn how to engage with them. The author does not feel this can be entirely replicated with books and encourages finding a teacher. I will carry on with books for now as finding a teacher seems an insurmountable task at the moment to me. Sutherland also discusses how traditionally there was a “right” answer to koans but in modern times there’s more consideration for alternative interpretations – as long as they hold meaning to the practitioner. So you might not make a student wrestle with a koan until they come upon “the” answer but rather until they come upon an answer that leads them further down the path toward enlightenment.

Sutherland also discusses the reputation of Zen for being rude. She points out how in the culture rudeness was basically unheard of. So the point wasn’t the rudeness. The point was startling the student out of their cultural expectations. She suggests that other methods might be best depending upon the culture you’re currently working in. This was a real “aha” moment for me. Startling as the goal is something I can understand as being an impetus to break out of your current mindset.

I also appreciated coming to understand that the goal isn’t to solve a koan immediately. Rather, the goal is to live with the koan, day in and day out. In this way your own life helps you understand the koan, and the koan helps you understand your own life. This reminded me of how I was encouraged to engage with Scripture as a child. To memorize a verse and consider it for a full week or a month to see what else may be revealed.

One thing that disappointed me in this book was the discussion of writing your own koans was sparse. It was the aspect I was looking forward to the most. In all honesty, I can’t remember any part of the book directly discussing it. I don’t believe the blurb would mention it if it wasn’t there, though, so I’m assuming it’s very fleeting. I was expecting an entire chapter, perhaps with suggested exercises.

I want to leave you with my favorite koan from the book.

Someone asked Yunmen, “What is reaching the light?
Yunmen replied, “Forget the light, First give me the reaching.”

loc 185

Overall, this is a nice introduction to koans, both how to use them in practice and their history. Recommended to anyone looking to learn more about koan.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codes. Thank you for your support!

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 192 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition by Thenmozhi Soundararajan

December 19, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A purple background with green decoration. the title of the book and author's name are in yellow. It notes a foreword by Tarana Burke in white.

Indian people are born into a specific, unchangeable caste. People of the lowest caste – Dalits – suffer discrimination and injustice. Here a Dalit feminist Buddhist author explores how Dalits can survive and heal from this trauma and allies can work toward justice.

Summary:
“Dalit” is the name that we chose for ourselves when Brahminism declared us “untouchable.” Dalit means broken. Broken by suffering. Broken by caste: the world’s oldest, longest-running dominator system…yet although “Dalit” means broken, it also means resilient.

Despite its ban more than 70 years ago, caste is thriving. Every 15 minutes, a crime is perpetrated against a Dalit person. The average age of death for Dalit women is just 39. And the wreckages of caste are replicated here in the U.S., too—erupting online with rape and death threats, showing up at work, and forcing countless Dalits to live in fear of being outed.

Dalit American activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan puts forth a call to awaken and act, not just for readers in South Asia, but all around the world. She ties Dalit oppression to fights for liberation among Black, Indigenous, Latinx, femme, and Queer communities, examining caste from a feminist, abolitionist, and Dalit Buddhist perspective—and laying bare the grief, trauma, rage, and stolen futures enacted by Brahminical social structures on the caste-oppressed.

Review:
I read and enjoyed Radical Dharma. It is a Black Buddhist exploration of systemic racial injustice against Black folks. It also uses Buddhist thought to progress toward liberation. The publisher recommended this book to readers of Radical Dharma, and I could tell from the title alone the parallels. Indian society oppresses Dalit peoples in very similar ways to how US American society oppresses Black folks. For example, they were both the source of enslaved labor in the 1800s. The author, a Dalit American woman, offers a very personal exploration of what it is to be a part of the Dalit diaspora. She also explores how her Buddhist belief system helps her navigate her trauma and advocate for societal change.

The author divides the book into four sections she calls mediations – The Existence of Caste, The Source of Caste, From Wounds to Liberation, and The End of Caste. There are also two appendixes that I found so meaningful I think they’re better thought of as part of the main book. The first explores Dalit social justice activists throughout time like B.R. Ambedkar and Phoolan Devi. The second is healing meditations for those truamatized by caste.

If you have ever heard of an “untouchable” caste this book makes it clear that this is not the name that members of this caste chooses for themselves. Many choose the name “Dalit” instead. Some choose other names, but Dalit is the most common.

Dalit means broken. Broken by suffering. Broken by caste.

loc 268

Another way of referring to those traumatized by caste is casteoppressed.

There is some controversy on exactly where caste came from. The author makes it clear she believes it came from the traditional faith of Hinduism. Caste was then weaponized by British colonizers to further divide those they colonized and make it easier to maintain dominance over them. However, the author acknowledges some people believe otherwise. I myself am not a scholar in this area. But however it began, caste is intermingled with Hinduism and Indian society across the diaspora. A person born into a lower caste is told they deserve to be at the lowest level of society because of sins they committed in a past life. That all of their suffering is their own fault, and they don’t deserve to rise out of it. The message also is that those in higher castes deserve to be there. Any suffering they put on those of lower castes is simply what those of the lower caste “deserve.” If you are at all familiar with the history of racism in the US, then it is immediately quite clear how damaging these societal beliefs are. It is also clear why they need to be overcome.

The pain and suffering for Dalit peoples is not of the past – it is now. The author offers sobering statistics (with references). They include:

  • 54% of Dalit children are undernourished (loc 500)
  • 83 of every 1,000 Dalit children die before their first birthday (loc 500)
  • more than 67% of Dalit women have experienced sexual violence (loc 509)
  • the average age of death for a Dalit woman is 39 (loc 509)
  • 45% of Dalits do not know how to read and write (loc 3327)
  • 48% of villages deny Dalits access to water (loc 3330)

The author explores how we can all begin to fight for freedom, justice, and equality. She talks about how important it is for oppressed people to be able to begin to imagine being free as the first step. She also speaks to allies about being aware that a move toward equality might feel like discomfort to us. She also speaks about the importance of supporting the experiences of the oppressed. Being cautious and mindful in our words and deeds is a message we all can benefit from.

An area that could have been improved on is where the author speaks about other religions in India and Dalit participation in them. While the section on Islam is well-written, making it clear how caste is not a part of Islam but can end up being enacted upon Dalit Muslims anyway, the same clarity is not brought to the section on Christianity. It makes it sound like social justice is a focus of only specifically Dalit led Christian sects. The section ignores other sects that follow similar mores and even the Bible verse Galatians 3:28 “…ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Similarly, Judaism is skipped over, but Dalit Jewish people do exist. I wished these had been explored more. I appreciate that the author is careful to encourage and support Dalits in whatever faith they choose – including remaining Hindu. But I would have liked either a more even-handed representation of other faiths or a purely Buddhist perspective.

I empathize very much with the author’s concerns about modern-day genocides. It is absolutely correct that society at large is not taking these atrocities seriously the way we should. But the author mentions that we went to war in WWII over the Holocaust. That’s inaccurate. Nations went to war to protect their own nations. While the Holocaust was taken seriously after the fact, it’s not why nations went to war. Indeed, most nations turned away Jewish refugees at the time. What we are seeing with the general ignoring of current genocidal atrocities is sadly a repeat of how nations reacted in the past. We haven’t learned what we should have from the horrors of the Holocaust.

Overall, this is an eye-opening book about caste-based oppression throughout the South Asian diaspora. It offers healing for the casteoppressed and asks us all to become allies in the work to liberate these people. It is a meaningful introduction to this liberating labor for both casteoppressed people and allies.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

2022 Award Eligibility

November 25, 2022 Leave a comment
2022 Award Eligibility is in black against a blue background. Four digital cover images surround it. One says Decoded with a Black woman in a gold gown in front of a purple background. One says Solarpunk Magazine Lunarpunk Special over an image of a river in a spaceship. One says Vol 3 is Here! justfemmeanddandy.com with a horse, wolf, and a cat in fashionable clothes eating vegetables. One shows a dragon leaning down toward a little girl who touches its nose. Wyrms is in gold above the dragon's head.

I have four pieces eligible for awards during the 2022 award season in three categories.

All of these were first published during 2022.

For the paid stories, I am able to provide author copies for award consideration purposes only. Please email me at mcneil.author [at] gmail.com to request one.

Short Stories

The University of Late-Night Moans” in Decoded Pride: A science fiction, fantasy, and horror story-a-day anthology for Pride month
June 9, 2022, issue 3, $14.99 digital
fantasy romance (sapphic / wlw)
It’s 1998, and Leonora’s friend Virginia is helping her investigate the moans coming from the cemetery across the train tracks from her dorm.

Sister Prudence on the Beach” in Solarpunk Magazine
Issue #6, Lunarpunk Special, Nov/Dec 2022, $6 digital
hopepunk (speculative scifi)
Sister Prudence settles down for her full moon meditation on the beach. But a young one passing by interrupts not just her meditation but perhaps her retirement as well.

Drabble

Bostonians Aren’t Friends With Our Neighbors” in Wyrms: An Anthology of Dragon Drabbles
July 1, 2022, $3 digital, $6 print
fantasy
The first line is “Deadrodents.com said the box on the triple-decker’s porch next door.”

Creative Nonfiction

These Boots Were Made for Who?” in Just Femme & Dandy
July 4, 2022, issue 3, free
digital magazine version (page 105) or html/accessible version
literary fashion magazine through a queer lens
I explore how my favorite pair of thrifted boots helped me develop my queer, bisexual fashion sense and sustained me throughout the pandemic.

Book Review: Hitler’s Forgotten Children by Ingrid von Oelhafen and Tim Tate

Image of a digital book cover. A black-and-white photo shows a woman in a nurse's outfit next to two bassinets. A colorized Nazi flag flies above them.

Summary:
Created by Heinrich Himmler, the Lebensborn program abducted as many as half a million children from across Europe. Through a process called Germanization, they were to become the next generation of the Aryan master race in the second phase of the Final Solution. 

Ingrid is shocked to discover in high school that her parents are actually her foster parents and struggles, like many in post-war Germany, to get official documentation of who she is. When the Red Cross contacts her, she slowly starts to realize her connection to the Lebensborn program. Though the Nazis destroyed many Lebensborn records, Ingrid unearths rare documents, including Nuremberg trial testimony about her own abduction.

Review:
There can sometimes be this misconception that society immediately dealt with all of the fall-out of WWII. Germany does do an admirable job of directly confronting genocide and fascism. But, as this book demonstrates, not everything was in fact dealt with right away. There were intentions to, but other things like the Cold War got in the way. One of the things that got swept under the rug until the early 2000s (!!) was the Lebensborn program.

Ingrid speaks eloquently about the rumors in the 90s especially about an SS “breeding program.” I actually remember hearing these rumors. Ingrid does a good job of describing how she felt realizing she might have a connection to Lebensborn in the face of these rumors. In fact, there was no “breeding program” aspect to Lebensborn. At least, not in the way the rumor mill said it. Women were not kept in breeding houses with SS members sent to them. But women were encouraged to sleep with SS members, regardless of their own coupled or marital state, to make more Aryan babies for Hitler. Where Lebensborn came in was that if a pregnant woman and the father of the baby fit the Aryan bill sufficiently, she could come to Lebensborn to be cared for until her baby was born. Then she might keep the baby or she might give it to “suitable” foster parents, usually high-ranking officials.

But the actual war crime part of Lebensborn was the other aspect. The SS abducted children from largely Eastern European occupied territories, sending them to Lebensborn to be Germanized and given to foster parents. They literally would put out a call ordering all families to report with their children to a center, check them for “racially desirable” qualities, and then take the children that “had potential” for Germanization, returning the rest. They also used this as a punishment against resistance fighters, only they would abduct all of their children, sending the “undesirable” ones to work camps and the rest to Lebensborn. It’s this latter aspect of Lebensborn that Ingrid discovers her connection to.

The book begins with a scene of a child abduction and then switches to Ingrid’s memories of her early life immediately post-war and her discovery that she was a foster child. Then many decades are skipped because in reality Ingrid discovered nothing new about her childhood until she was an older woman starting to think about retirement. The earliest part of the book is quite engaging because her foster mother escapes from East to West Germany right before the Iron Curtain closes. The rest is engaging because, of course, we are alongside with Ingrid as she discovers the truth of her early life.

Ingrid’s early investigations in the early 2000s are hampered by intentional resistance and red tape. Even though on paper it should have been easy for her to get assistance going through the voluminous archives (the Nazis kept meticulous records of everything), she actually met foot dragging and even downright lies from those who should have been helping her. Essentially, some people didn’t want the truth of Lebensborn to get out. But Ingrid finds help along the way from those who want to see the truth come out and justice, what little is available at this point in time, done.

Ingrid is quite honest about her difficult feelings during all of this. She ultimately decides she’s not defined by her origins. While I absolutely agree that “the choices we make throughout our life” (page 267) are essential in defining us, I also think where we come from does as well. The two go hand-in-hand. It saddens me that she seems to need to distance herself from that, although I understand why it helps her to do so.

Overall, this is an engaging book that is a quick read. The pairing of the historical facts with the memoirs of an innocent person who discovers her connection to this program works well for the delivery of these facts. It helps the reader remember that these were real events impacting real people who were just starting to discover the truth of their early childhood in the early 2000s.

If you found this review helpful, please consider checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, using one of my referral/coupon codes, or tipping me on ko-fiThank you for your support!

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 276 pages – average but on the shorter side 

Source: purchased

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön

Image of a digital book cover. A pond in a forest in the winter with the name of the book.

Summary:
In this book, Pema provides the tools to deal with the problems and difficulties that life throws our way, so that we may let our circumstances soften us and make us kinder, rather than making us increasingly resentful and afraid. This wisdom is always available to us, she teaches, but we usually block it with habitual patterns rooted in fear. Beyond that fear lies a state of openheartedness and tenderness. This book teaches us how to awaken our basic goodness and connect with others, to accept ourselves and others complete with faults and imperfections, and to stay in the present moment by seeing through the strategies of ego that cause us to resist life as it is. 

Review:
The majority of this book suggests that fearlessness can be accomplished via mindfulness and various types of meditation. This may be true. I’m certainly not an expert meditator. Although it is something I have been working at for many years. But it was disappointing to me how much of this book was essentially – meditate and be mindful, and you will become fearless. It’s not that it might not work; it’s that I wanted more.

Some of the more that I was wanting did come up a couple of places in the book. The first was in a story of a couple who live in a gated community. They eventually become so afraid of what is outside the gates, that they basically stop living. They get so caught up in the what if’s that they don’t live. I liked how this showed that walls can be of our own making, and being fearless is a daily practice. You don’t just suddenly wake up one day walled in, rather you build that wall gradually day by day. The older I get, the more I appreciate the value of one small step a day.

I also appreciated the introduction to the idea of training in the three difficulties. This was a new a concept to me. I’ll just post the quote, since I doubt I could explain it any clearer than it is in the book.

[It] gives us instruction on how to practice, how to interrupt our habitual reactions. The three difficulties are (1) acknowledging our neurosis as neurosis, (2) doing something different, and (3) aspiring to continue practicing this way.

29%

This reminded me of the wisdom of early sobriety. Becoming sober is largely about changing negative habits into good ones. We acknowledge what isn’t working, commit to do it differently, and practice doing that every day. I liked the idea of applying that to anything I wanted to be braver at. I also like that it has a name. The three difficulties.

If you are new to meditation, the instruction in the book is good. It’s largely focused on metta (loving-kindness) meditation and tonglen (taking and sending). Metta is one of the first types of meditation I learned, and it definitely helps me when I’m in a bad mood. I’m not personally sure that it makes me braver, though. Although, who knows, maybe I would have been much more fearful these last years without it.

Overall, this is an interesting book and a quick read. It was not what I was expecting, but also had its moments of value. Recommended more so to those who are new to meditation and mindfulness.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 187 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

Book Review: Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

A digital book cover shows the words "Atomic Habits" built out of many tiny dots.

Summary:
James Clear, one of the world’s leading experts on habit formation, reveals practical strategies that will teach you exactly how to form good habits, break bad ones, and master the tiny behaviors that lead to remarkable results.

Review:
This book is well-loved (just look at its rating on GoodReads), and I had heard a lot of good things about it on decluttering and organizing YouTube channels. So I was surprised to find that I myself felt very meh about the book. I want you to have the context that I am an outlier opinion in this case.

This book is basically a collection of tips on how to become more consistent with your good habits and drop your bad ones. A lot of the tips aren’t off-base, it’s just that I already knew them myself. Things like make the bad habit inconvenient and the good one convenient. For example, change your commute route so it doesn’t go directly by the liquor store (bad habit becomes inconvenient) and select a gym that is on your commute (make the good habit convenient). I probably should have read the four rules he states before reading the book itself, and I would have realized I knew these things already. The four rules are:

  1. Make it obvious
  2. Make it attractive
  3. Make it easy
  4. Make it satisfying

With bad habits being the inverse of all four.

The two tips that I did get out of this that were meaningful to me were first, habit stacking. So take a habit you already do regularly well and attach another habit you want to have to it. So I have a cup of tea every night. If I was interested in a regular meditation practice, I could decide that I meditate right after I’ve had my tea. That’s habit stacking. I like that it attaches something new to something you already do well. A sound idea. The second thing I got was that being something – like being a musician – isn’t about the achievement (recording an album), it’s about what you do every day (music things like play an instrument, compose music, study music theory). This focus meant a lot to me, and made me do better about writing regularly. A writer writes! Simple but helpful.

So let’s talk about the things I didn’t like, because I haven’t seen people talk about that very much. First, a lot of the examples are about sports and fitness. Not all of them, but a lot of them. I would have liked greater variety. Especially since a lot of the examples are about sports teams, and even the author has a footnote in the first chapter that directs to his website about how the British bicycle team he spends so long talking about actually started winning because they were doping. Given the large amount of doping and cheating in professional sports, I just think more regular, everyday people examples would have been more meaningful. I would have preferred him interviewing regular people who did something simple with their habits that radically changed their lives. There’s a brief glimpse of this when he mentions having lunch with someone who successfully quit smoking and asking them how they did it, but that’s the only instance. I wish the whole book had been that.

Second, I found the advice to aim for streaks (never ever missing a day if you can avoid it) troubling. Human beings need rest days to avoid burnout. It’s not healthy to do some things every day (like his very well-loved example of working out). I recommend those who read this book read Laziness Does Not Exist, as well as the work of The Nap Ministry, to provide some balance to the “do it every day” mantra in this book. I’m not saying working hard and consistency aren’t important, but human beings need rest as well. I honestly hope the author has become less tough on himself about maintaining his streaks.

I hope this review helps you sort out if this book is right for you. But I also do hope you’ll give it some balance with the two reads recommended above.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 319 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

Book Review: Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon Price, PhD

September 14, 2021 1 comment
A digital image of a book cover. Stripes of color in this order run from the top to the bottom: yellow orange, reddish-orange, red, purple.

Summary:
Explores the psychological underpinnings of the “laziness lie,” including its origins from the Puritans and how it has continued to proliferate as digital work tools have blurred the boundaries between work and life. Using in-depth research, Price explains that people today do far more work than nearly any other humans in history yet most of us often still feel we are not doing enough. Filled with practical and accessible advice for overcoming society’s pressure to do more, and featuring interviews with researchers, consultants, and experiences from real people drowning in too much work.

Review:
I was raised with a strict, Protestant work ethic. I mean, I grew up in New England. The epicenter of Puritanism. “Lazy” was one of the worst insults to hurl at someone else or to internally scream at myself to keep myself pulling all-nighters etc… So why did I pick up a book with such a title? I follow Devon on Instagram, and I found myself helped and relating so much to what they said about dealing with burnout in academic labor that I decided to see past the title and try out the book.

Devon starts the book by sharing their own burnout/overwork story. The thing that makes this so compelling is we know that Devon still accomplished things – just look at this book! – in spit of embracing what some might call “laziness.” So how did Devon go from burnt out and overworked to fighting back and successful? Devon intertwines their story with psycho-social explorations and stories from others encountering burnout and overwork.

A few things really stuck out to me when reading this book. The first is that there’s no science behind the length of the average workday or workweek as it stands in the US (8 hours a day, 40 hours a week). What science there is indicates it’s “still probably too long and demanding for most people” (loc 15%). A statistic to back this up that really blew my mind:

Researchers consistently find that in office jobs, people are capable of being productive for only about three hours per day, on average.

loc 24%

The point being that if you’re finding it hard to concentrate or get things done it’s not that you’re lazy, it’s that you’re being asked to think and work for longer periods of time than people are actually capable of naturally. Devon then goes into how more breaks and less time working actually leads to better quality of labor and greater satisfaction in workers. They also talk about the dangers of work performed by overtired people, and these aren’t just the obvious like falling asleep at the wheel. People also, for example, get more negative and judgmental when overtired.

Devon then goes into the perils of information overload. How access to so much information so easily can and does overwhelm us. How this has changed dramatically in the last decades.

The volume of unique information the average person encounters in a day is approximately five times what the average person encountered in 1986.

loc 39%

They also speak about how it’s not always possible to just “disconnect,” giving the example of how we might need to check the news to see if there’s currently a lockdown in place.

This all leads nicely into a part of the book that talks about the importance of downtime – not just from physical labor but from brain work and accessing information. This essentially boils down to a need for quiet contemplation that is often demonized as laziness. But this is essential for us to be able to engage with our world in a meaningful way.

In the interest of not going into information overload here, I will say the final thing that stuck out to me in this book. Devon calls on us to be kinder to both ourselves and others. To not jump to the accusation of lazy but rather to ask are we in service to the system asking too much of ourselves? Of others? How can we be kinder and ask less? Keeping in mind that with less the quality often improves as well. So instead of, for example, berating yourself for feeling tired mid-afternoon and struggling to finish your to do list, look at what you have done. How many hours have you worked? Is your to do list reasonable? Can you reduce it at all? Do you still have time for downtime? Maybe your body just needs rest. Maybe your mind does too. We’re all only human, and we’re asking an inhuman amount from people.

Recommended if you’re interested in a deeper dive into these concepts with more real world examples.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

Book Review: The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South by Chip Jones

Image of a digital book cover. A graveyard is in the background. The book title is laid over it in white, with three red stars, and then the author's name.

Summary:
In 1968, Bruce Tucker, a Black man, went into Virginia’s top research hospital, the Medical College of Virginia (now Virginia Commonwealth University) with a head injury, only to have his heart taken out of his body and put into the chest of a white businessman. Covering the inequalities innate in cadaver harvesting through the mismanagement of discovered human remains on university property in the 1990s, journalist Chip Jones explores how organ transplant in the US reveals systemic inequalities and racism, not just in health care, but in other related fields as well.

Review:
Organ transplant science is something that can feel like it’s been around forever, but in fact it’s really still a fairly new form of treatment. The first transplant of any organ was in 1954, and the first heart transplant was in 1967. The Civil Rights Act was in 1964, so at the time this treatment was emerging, segregated health care was still present in the US.

This book first gives context to the inequities seen in organ donation and reception by looking at the topic of where student doctors get cadavers to practice dissection upon. Although currently there is a system in place for the ethical donation of remains for educational use, at the time there was no such system in place. Medical schools turned to grave-robbing – and they preferentially robbed from Black graveyards. Black families called these “night doctors.”

Parents even used the specter of “night doctors” to make their children stay in bed. “You’d better go to sleep,” they’d say, “or the student doctors will get you.”

(loc 3353)

This was also a time period where there was some debate about what counts as death. Legally, until 1968, death was the full cessation of the working of all organs. In 1968, with advancing science, the theory of brain death was proposed. This was partially due to new health care technology that allowed for a machine to keep the organs operating. In tandem, the science of organ transplantation was emerging. The fresher the organ, the better the chances for the transplant to succeed. With the emerging theory of brain death meaning organs were operating but the patient might be able to be considered dead, and I’m sure you can see where this was going.

Bruce Tucker was a blue collar worker. He was hanging out with friends having a few drinks of alcohol on a stone wall. He fell and suffered head trauma. He was brought to the hospital alone. In spite of having his brother’s business card in his pocket, no one called his brother. Police officers were sent to his home to try to find family, but he didn’t live with his brother. At the same time, a white businessman was waiting for a heart transplant at the same hospital.

The early conversations among the surgeons had little to do about his chances for survival but rather concerned using him for another purpose. No one was discussing whether he might recover and be rehabilitated….Men like Tucker, arriving with alcohol on their breath and seemingly no one to claim them were often written off as ‘charity patients.’ They weren’t expected to pay their bills, with the hospital absorbing any expenses.

loc 2064

Jones notes that Tucker thus suffered from what can be termed a social death. Arriving at the hospital with alcohol on his breath meant that he was looked down upon by society, on top of how he was already perceived as a Black man in a Segregated southern hospital. Add to that the fact that the hospital decided he seemed to have no loved ones, and he was viewed as disposable.

Tucker did have loved ones, though, and when his body was sent to the funeral home, the caretaker notified his family that he arrived without a heart. This is when Tucker’s brother started to pursue answers and justice.

The next part of the book deals with the lawsuit that came about and how the court case was ruled. I wasn’t surprised, but was still severely disappointed to see how the hospital and doctors got away with it, and the Tucker family was left without justice. Notably to me is the quote from the prosecuting lawyer,

It doesn’t change the fact that when they took his heart from him he was not dead according to the law. So they broke the law and never would admit it, and that’s what bothered me more than anything else.

(loc 4397)

A clarifying note that the defense team used the argument of brain death, which was not the law at the time. The defense team also organized for as many transplant experts as possible to be in town at the time of the trial. They arranged for a transplant conference that just so happened to coincide with the scheduled trial. The conference was sponsored by Pfizer. The book notes just how much sway having transplant experts on the stand had on the judgment.

What stood out to me in reading this book is how societal inequalities and judgements can and do severely impact the quality of care that a patient might receive. I also was surprised to learn how recently brain death became the standard, and to read about the arguments on both sides of that debate. Brain death is not as clear-cut as I once thought it was.

The author does a good job of making history personal by focusing on Bruce Tucker and his family but also fleshing out with enough surrounding historical details that the complex situation made sense to read about. I do think his epilogue was unnecessary, where he details trying to speak with Bruce Tucker’s son, who did not want to speak to him. I feel that truly leaving Bruce Tucker’s son alone would have entailed simply a note that he did not wish to be interviewed and leaving it at that.

Overall, this is a fascinating and sad read about the history of organ transplants and brain death in the US. Recommended if these topics interest you.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 400 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

January 19, 2021 Leave a comment

Summary:
From the Revisioning History series, this explores United States history with a focus on the Indigenous peoples. History is explored in 11 short to medium length chapters in chronological order.

Review:
I majored in US History and took a full-length course on the Indigenous peoples of the US. I also previously was interested in the American Indian Movement of the 1970s, so read a few books about and by the people of that movement. I was kind of expecting, since this is a short book targeted to a mainstream audience, that I would not encounter too much that was new, but I was pleased to discover my expectations were incorrect.

This book was published in 2014 and thus took a more modern perspective than even my course late in the first decade of the 2000s took. It ensures a perspective not of we’re studying these ancient lost peoples but rather we’re studying the history of people who exist now in modern society and how genocide was enacted against them. The exploration of colonization and how it impacted Indigenous peoples is much more nuanced than the simple guns, germs, and steel history I’d studied in college. What I learned through this book is that colonization was strategic. It wasn’t just a happenstance of how germs worked out when the nations met and greater firepower. Of course, my coursework did acknowledge colonization, but not to the extent it was delineated in this book.

Through economic penetration of Indigenous societies, the European and Euro-American colonial powers created economic dependency and imbalance of trade, then incorporated the Indigenous nations into spheres of influence and controlled them indirectly or as protectorates, with indispensable use of Christian missionaries and alcohol….a colonizing regime institutionalizes violence.

4%-5%

To me an interesting aspect of this book was its discussion of Indigenous peoples and alcohol. Growing up, I definitely heard the myth that Indigenous peoples are more genetically prone to alcoholism. In recent years, I heard the theory that rates of addiction are higher in oppressed peoples, which makes sense as alcohol and other addictive substances can provide temporary relief from trauma. This book pushed my understanding two steps further. First, alcohol being used as an intentional weapon of colonization, calling it a “weapon of war” (21%), and noting that it wasn’t just introduced, it was also promoted (13%). This book also drew my attention to the idea that, for at least some Indigenous peoples, acting the part of the “drunk Indian” can be a form of protest. I read the article the author cites as the origin of this theory, and reading fiction work by Indigenous peoples seems to support this theory as well, for at least some instances. (See the book Ceremony, I’ll be reviewing it soon).

After covering the American Indian Movement, the book wraps up with a discussion of the expanding US imperialism and modern day colonization by historic colonizers (the US and the UK are specifically discussed). Through this, I learned of a potential connection between the Monroe Doctrine and overpowered policing forces. I also learned about the modern forced removal of the Chagossian people from Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean, which is now used by the US for a military based (rented from the UK). This is just one example of many given in the chapter, but it’s the one that stuck out the most to me, partially because I didn’t know the US even had a military base in the Indian Ocean but also because the book describes the forced removal including murdering every single pet dog on the island. While of course the forced removal alone is terrible there was just something about the added insult of murdering beloved pets that ground the whole event into my brain.

I have covered just a small snippet of what I learned in this book. It is well-written. The chapters are short to medium length and filled with information. There’s nothing extraneous here. It gets right to the point, which I appreciate. The chronological order is helpful as well for leaving the book and coming back to it as you have time. Highly recommended. I’ve already added several of the other books in this series to my wishlist.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 218 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God by Kaitlin B. Curtice

January 5, 2021 4 comments

Summary:
This is simultaneously a memoir about her faith journey and an opinion piece from her perspective as both a Christian and a member of the Potawatomi nation (a nation Indigenous to both the US and Canada). Kaitlin fearlessly grapples with the historical and current weaponization of Christianity, how she interprets Christianity in her own life, and how her Potawatomi knowing comes into her faith.

Review:
This book, to me, is first and foremost beautiful. I read it on my kindle fire just so I could enjoy its beauty in full-color and larger size than my paperwhite. There are five parts, and each part begins with an illustrated poem from Potawotami tradition that ties into the designated part.

A lot about this book is difficult to categorize, and that is part of its strength and beauty. It is partially a memoir, although not necessarily told in a linear fashion. In fact, it reminded me quite a bit of Braiding Sweetgrass (review). It is both about a topic the author has a lot of knowledge on (the experience of Christianity as an Indigenous person), but also is a memoir because her knowledge and herself cannot be separated as they inform each other.

Although I am not biracial myself, I imagine this book would be meaningful to readers who are. Kaitlin, while a full member of the Potawatomi nation, is half white and half Potawatomi. In addition to this, her parents split up when she was young, so she also experienced both living on the reservation and living off the reservation in a white town in a white church with folks essentially considering her to be white and ignoring her Potawatomi self. She discusses what it means to her to be able to pass for white and why she generally as an adult chooses not to. (She even flies with her tribal membership card, which while officially accepted, is usually not recognized by the first TSA agent she sees).

Her insights into how to improve what is broken or ostracizing in the church in the US were simultaneously interesting and challenging. I can imagine a reader very deeply enveloped in the church may feel challenged by her willingness to question what is often accepted as the word of God and also by her desire to draw in aspects of Potawatomi ways. Similarly, I can imagine a reader who has already cast aside the church might wonder why she bothers staying with something that may seem to them to be so obviously broken. This is the beauty of the book. Kaitlin refuses to do what might seem to either side to be the easiest and rather forges her own way, encouraging others to do the same.

The problem isn’t that we search for truth; the problem is that we become obsessed with our belief that we hold the truth, and we destroy entire cultures in the process.

52%

I know I am not the only person who has been wondering lately about other white women who support the patriarchy, and Kaitlin directly addresses this with her insight that comes from being a white passing Indigenous woman in white conservative spaces. I found what she had to say helped me both establish some understanding for something I previously could not understand at all and consider new ways to potentially reach these women.

Unless your lived experience is very similar to the author’s, I expect this will be a book that challenges you. It certainly challenged me. But to be challenged is to grow, and I thank the author for sharing her understanding of the world and her experiences. Being challenged helped me to grow in my understanding. Recommended for all but especially for those who are seeking a greater understanding of the church in the US.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 208 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Purchased

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