Book Review: The View from Flyover Country-Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kedzior

When not being ignored by the two coasts, flyover country is being celebrated as where the “real Americans” live, usually by conservative pundits. And to these pundits, real Americans are defined as white and for the most part living in the suburbs or rural areas who define themselves as conservative Christians.

But not so fast, living in flyover country, I know we are a much more diverse bunch and so does Sarah Kedzior, which she sums up in her collection of essays The View from Flyover Country-Dispatches from the Forgotten America.

A reporter for Al Jazeera America and residing in St. Louis, Missouri, Kedzior’s essays focus on such thorny topics as race, income inequality, the friction among generations, education, foreign policy, the media, women’s issues and so much more.

Kedzior starts off The View from Flyover Country with an introduction rolling out what her collection of essays is all about, giving the reader a clear idea on what to expect among its six parts.

In Part One, Flyover Country, Kedzior defines flyover country and topics such as how expensive cities are killing creatives and hipster economics.

Part Two, Post-Employments, explains issues of survival, how workers are paying a steep price, zilch opportunities and how sometimes these issues make people do extreme things like lighting themselves on fire.

Race and religion define Part Three, where Kedzior writes about the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s murder, Black Lives Matter, and what happened in Ferguson in the wake of Mike Brown being gunned down by police.

In Part Four Kedzior examines the broken promise of a higher education, and how school debt has crippled countless smart, hard-working and talented graduates. She also decries the deplorable pay of adjunct professors who work tirelessly to educate our students.

Part Five is a careful examination of our media and how gaining access seems to be only available to the well-connected elite (don’t I know it!) and the problem of fringe media in the Internet age.

Foreign policy makes up Part Six when it comes to gender, Edward Snowden, the situation in Iraq and basic human rights.

Finally, Kedzior sums things up with a standout essay on the importance of complaining. If people didn’t complain, women wouldn’t have the right to vote, black people would still be at the back of the bus, and gay people wouldn’t be able to marry those they love.

While reading The View Flyover Country, I marked several pages with post-it notes and wrote down some key quotes and passages in my well-worn notebook. Kedzior writes in a down-to-earth way with smarts and clarity. She truly cares about these issues and implores us to also care about them.

The View from Flyover Country is a treasure of a book and is ideal for both the college classroom and book discussion groups everywhere.

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Book Review: Braving the Wilderness-The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brené Brown PhD, LMSW

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I first head of Dr. Brené Brown when she was mentioned during a sermon at my church, First Union Society of Milwaukee several years ago. Intrigued, I decided to read Brown’s books and check out her now classic TED talk on “The Power of Vulnerability.” I’m now a huge fan of Brown’s work so I was only too happy to read and review Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. *

Braving the Wilderness is about being courageous enough to strip us off all pretenses and face an often critical world being our true, authentic selves. It’s also a reminder that by doing this we might find ourselves standing alone is ways that may make us uncomfortable. To do this Brown gives us four practices to guide us, which include.

  1. People are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In.
  2. Speak Truth to BS. Be Civil.
  3. Hold Hands. With Strangers.
  4. Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart.

After several chapters summing of the context of Braving the Wilderness, which includes stories about Brown’s personal stories of a rough childhood and several notable luminaries, we get into the crux of the book.

The practices Brown advises are clear as can be. We often hate what we don’t know, especially people we deem as “others” so it’s important to move in and get to know then as living human beings. However, sometimes we must speak out when other tell lies, just don’t be a jerk about it. Don’t be afraid to extend a hand to someone you don’t know, and finally have a back bone, a compassionate soul and a heart that is brave enough to survive the rough and wild world out there.

In print, this seems easy, but in actual practice they might be quite difficult. So thank goodness for Brown’s wisdom in imparting her advice throughout Braving the Wilderness using her gifts as a storyteller and academic. She touches on the issues that divide us, but also reflects on issues that unite us.

While reading Braving the Wilderness I often found myself nodding my head, saying to myself, “Yes, I get this. This is my truth!” And at times I was faced with passages that challenged me in ways where I had to put down the book a take several moments to reflect on Brown’s words. I also read passages I wanted to revisit once I finished reading Braving the Wilderness long after I finished it, which is obvious from all the post-it notes I placed in my copy.

I must admit I was a bit hesitant in writing my review of Braving the Wilderness. I was afraid I’d come across an over-enthusiastic fan girl of Brown’s or this review might be more of a marketing piece than a legitimate review. I also didn’t want to give away too much of the book’s content either. It is a book that should be read and savored as personal experience.

Most of all Braving the Wilderness is a very important book in our modern age of “MAGA cap wearing deplorables” and “pussy hat wearing snowflakes.” We are so polarized. Is there a way we can become less “Us vs. Them” and more “We the People?” A very timely book, Braving the Wilderness is just one soothing and wise elixir that might make that possible.

*Braving the Wilderness is currently being sold at the Book Tower in the Common Room at First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee.

Book Review: Voices From the Rust Belt – Edited by Anne Trubek

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Just what is the Rust Belt? In simple terms it stretches from Milwaukee to Buffalo with cities like Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh inbetween, cities that were once known as vibrant communities of manufacturing that have fallen on hard times but are trying to recapture their former glory. The Rust Belt is also a place I call home.

Sometimes romanticized,sometimes looked down upon, and often ignored, the Rust Belt is a place rich in history and tales so I was only to happy to find Voices from the Rust Belt, a collection of essays by people of all kinds who deftly write about what it is like to live in the Rust Belt.

After a brief introduction, which describes what is the Rust Belt and why it matters, Voices from the Rust Belt is divided into four parts.

1. Growing Up
2. Day to Day in the Rust Belt
3. Geography of the Heartland
4. Leaving and Staying

I pretty much loved all the essays written by talented women and men of all kinds. Some stories I could relate and others opened my eyes to experiences completely foreign to me. These stories are written by journalists, immigrants, students, artists, business owners, activists and working stiffs of all kinds who call the Rust Belt home. Nearly every one of theses writers impressed me and I was thrilled to find brief bios of the writers, which gave me further insight to these people beyond their written words. I also pondered what it would be like to see a well-made documentary on the Rust Belt – Ken Burns, I’m looking in your direction.

If I have any quibbles with Voices from the Rust Belt it is there is no voice from Milwaukee. Hmm, maybe in the sequel.

Book Review: The Common Good by Robert B. Reich

Considering I gave Robert B. Reich’s Saving Capitalism a rave review, it’s no secret I’m a huge fan of the former secretary of Labor under President Clinton. So I am thrilled to give Reich’s latest book, The Common Good, another rave review.

The Common Good is a call to arms to anyone who cares about the state of our country and all of its citizens.

And when I mention a call to arms I don’t mean guns and ammunition. This book is a call for us to bring a sense of empathy, sensibility and basic human decency when it comes to politics, business, religion, education, media, activism, and our communities as a whole. And The Common Good is written in an enthusiastic and perceptive manner that will connect with a wide audience.

The Common Good is divided into three distinct parts:

1. What Is the Common Good?

2. What Happened to the Common Good?

3. Can the Common Good By Restored?

Part one is a primer on the common good. It starts out using the sheer awfulness of Martin Shrekeli and how he fully encompasses what is not the common good.

As part one moves on Reich explains both the common good most of us share and origins of the common good.

In part two Reich examines what exactly happened to our nation’s common good through a 3-prong dismantling of the common good’s structure. Believe me, it’s not pretty.

But before readers gnash their teeth in despair, Reich wraps things up with a manifesto on how we can restore the common good, which includes leadership we can trust, the use of honor and shame, resurrecting truth and finally but most importantly reviving civic education for all citizens starting in grade school and high school.

Some of ideas may be a bit difficult to implement and others will be quite simple. But all are vital.

The Common Good is written in an audience-friendly style that instructs and inspires and will hold your interest long after you are done reading it.  I can’t recommend it enough. The Common Good is both timely and timeless.

Book Review: Book Review: First Hired, Last Fired- How to Become Irreplaceable in Any Job Market by Anita Agers-Brooks

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In this age of unemployment and underemployment, employees fully engaged in the work place and those seeing new career opportunities are facing countless challenges. They fear losing their jobs or that big promotion. They are dealing with stagnant wages and raises that don’t come through. Sometimes they deal with less than ideal managers, co-workers, subordinates and clients. And we can’t forget dealing the global market.

And then there are the insurmountable odds of finding new employment with obstacles that didn’t seem to exist just a decade ago.

So it is no wonder, people are turning to books to develop the skills to make them stand out and shine as a true asset in the workplace. One book is Anita Agers-Brooks book First Hired, Last Fired- How to Become Irreplaceable in Any Job Market.

In First Hired, Last Fired Agers-Brooks, uses passages from the Bible inspire and help employees of all kinds to make them completely invaluable in the workplace and thrive and grow whether they are the boss or a subordinate.

Now, a lot of advice in this book is just plain common sense (or at least should be) to a majority of people no matter their religious leanings. Agers-Brooks is a conservative Christian and I’m a liberal who was raised Roman Catholic but now a church-going Unitarian Universalist. But I definitely agree with the author we should have such characteristics like a strong work ethic, integrity, a mostly positive attitude and sense of reliability and responsibility. I also appreciate what I call the 4 Cs-Compassion, Creativity, Curiosity, and Common Sense.

First Hired, Last Fired is laid out in several chapters with characters as both employees and managers dealing with not only work challenges but also facing challenges at home. In one part, Agers-Brooks shows these characters in less than ideal lot. In the second part, Agers-Brooks shows these characters in more positive way using passages from the Bible on how to make their work and personal lives better, therefore, making them also irreplaceable in the workplace of their choice.

As I read this book I found the stories rather fantastical and Agers-Brooks writing style verges a bit over the top. She really loads on the purple prose. She tries a bit too hard to fit various people from the Bible to fit her characters’ situations. For the most part, it’s all about God being the sole way of making things work out to sheer perfection in any and all workplace situations. It was as if God (especially from the conservative Christian viewpoint) is a fairy Godfather who will grant everyone’s wish, not bringing in the challenges we face in that have nothing to do with the real world of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and all kinds of bigotry, not to mention a corporate culture where selfishness and greed are considered virtues, not vices.

I hate to come across like a hater. I truly believe Agers-Brooks means well. Furthermore, she’s been an employee and as someone who has her own business, she’s spent time dealing with challenges as a boss and leader. She does know her stuff. I’ve been an employee, but I’ve also acted as a manager and a leader, and at times I’ve often looked to my faith to guide me in certain work situations. But I also know some things can’t worked out using religious teachings whether one is using the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, or other faith-based ideas.

Now, without a doubt, I’m probably not the ideal audience for First Hired, Last Hired considering my more liberal and progressive leanings. But to those who share Agers-Brooks more religious and right winged POV, First Hired, Last Fired might make for ideal reading.

Book Review: Summoning Grace by Samsara Saj

Late last year, thanks to my presence on the website BookBloggerList, several authors have reached out to me to read and review their books. Many of these authors are fledgling writers and these books (some of them self-published) are their “babies” and as with any baby, I want to handle them with thoughtfulness and care. So I have to keep this in mind in my review of Samasara Saj’s novel Summoning Grace.

The back jacket of Summoning Grace is as follows:

“Bridget McKenna, a lawyer practicing for more than twenty-five years, has disturbing recollections from her childhood after a family birthday party. As she tries to handle the impact of these revelations, she turns to Jack Cassidy, the only man she ever loved, with whom she has not been in touch for three years. Being with Jack helps her connect the dots regarding the work she does as an attorney, where the corruption of politics and the ugliness of domestic violence reveal to Bridget the sexual shoals a woman must navigate. By contacting Jack, she starts the process of reaching into her soul for the reckoning that awaits her.

Once she reconciles herself to the darkness of her painful past, through the grace of God, she finds the strength to summon all the faith, courage, and grace that she can, to deal with professional obstacles, family loss, and her greatest challenge, rescuing her only brother, Joe.

Told in eighteen chapters, Summoning Grace explores the deepest self-examination a woman can undertake, providing her the wisdom and understanding to help those she loves with kindness and dignity.”

This summary is a bit of a bait and switch. Little of this book focuses on Cassidy and domestic violence. Nor does Summoning Grace focus on Bridget’s past. Also the book jacket classifies this novel as a romance, but it is more of a family story. Therefore the second and third paragraphs are a better description of this novel over-all.

Bridget’s family, the McKennas, are a loving and close-knit family who join forces when only son Joe gets seriously ill. The McKennas decide to work together to help Joe and his family in a very trying time. I liked the idea of a family being functional and totally messed up. It comforted me like a bowl of chicken soup.

However, when dealing with Joe’s illness Bridget is convinced she is the only one who can handle his care, even more so than the hospital staff. Not only did I find this to be a slap in the face to the people who work in the medical field, I also thought it gave short shrift to Joe’s wife, children and the other McKenna siblings.

Bridget is also a rather off-putting in her law career. Only she can handle the profession and everyone from her colleagues to her clients are incompetent losers.

To add to Bridget’s “Mary Sue” perfection, she is a diva in the kitchen, a true Julia Child reincarnated. And when it comes to family get togethers and holidays, she always brings masterful dishes. Considering she’s busy with Joe and her career, I found this element a bit implausible.

Ultimately by making Bridget an ideal person—loving sister, top notch attorney and fabulous chef—Saj has given us a character who is really insufferable and without complex layers. I like characters who have their share of flaws and who are multi-dimensional. These characters are more relatable and interesting to read.

Still I must commend Saj for at least writing a book. She’s technically proficient and I respect her deep faith. I believe she has the ability to write a better book and I believe she wants to express herself with love and hope in her heart. These are noble ideas and much needed in our challenging world.

So though I can’t recommend Summoning Grace, I can encourage Samsara Saj to keep on writing. Don’t let my review deter you.

Book Reviews: One Step Closer-Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God by Christian Scharen

There’s cathedrals and the alleyways in our music. I think the alleyway is usually on the way to the cathedral, where you can hear your own footsteps and you’re slightly nervous and looking over your shoulder and wondering if there’s somebody following you. And then you get there and you realize there was somebody following you: it’s God.”— Bono

Rock ‘n’ roll has long been called the “devil’s music.” But for many U2 fans, it’s also been known to uplift and awaken our spirituality. Christian Scharen, currently Vice President of Applied Research and the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn (he also taught at Yale), examines how U2′s music not only makes our feet move, but also moves our hearts, minds and souls in his thought-provoking book “One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God.”

Scharen is a long-time U2 fan who knows both the band’s music and how the teachings of Biblical scripture is infused into nearly every one of U2′s songs, not only in the obvious like “40” from 1983′s War album, a song taken from Psalm 40 and refrain from Psalm 6, but less apparent songs like “Discotheque” from 1997′s Pop.

One Step Closer is divided into three parts, which Scharen calls steps. The first part is called “Singing Scripture,” in which Scharen points to the ways scripture speaks of God’s work, using various voices of scripture like psalms, prophecies, parables and the apocalypse. Scharen takes these aspects of the scriptures and shows how these elements are evident in U2′s music.

In the second part of the book, “Singing the Cross,” Scharen uses such themes as faith, hope and love and explains how these themes are evident within U2′s music. He also discusses how these themes have tension with less lofty themes that we found ourselves struggling with like despair and selfishness.

In the final section, Scharen introduces the idea “Singing the Truth,” a way to live the cross. This section takes in account on how U2 lives out their faith. Most of us aren’t unfamiliar on how the members of U2 live out their faith beyond the boundaries of their music, especially regarding Bono’s tireless work on behalf of the African continent.

Throughout the book, Scharen gives examples of U2 songs and how they relate to different scriptures and themes found in the Bible. For songs embodying themes of faith and doubt, Scharen offers songs like “I Will Follow” from U2′s 1980 debut Boy and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” from 1987′s The Joshua Tree. In songs with themes of the saint and the sinner, Scharen mentions songs like “Bad” from 1984′s The Unforgettable Fire and “Acrobat” from 1991′s Achtung Baby. Scharen quotes lyrics from these songs to make the reader understand the themes and also asks the reader to think of other U2 songs that follow various Biblical ideas. I can imagine this inspiring U2 fans everywhere to run to their CD collections or grab their digital devices to find U2 songs that follow these themes. I also wonder if Christian U2 fans will open up their Bibles to find different scriptures that relate to U2′s music.

Though a Lutheran pastor and a professor of divinity, Scharen takes a critical look at the modern church and asks it to take a good, hard look at itself. Religious institutions have to ask themselves why so many U2 fans feel no connection to the church or religion as a whole, but find God’s word or a “higher power” in U2′s music. Scharen isn’t afraid to tell the modern church to get over “religion” to get over its obsession of piety and judgment of everyone and everything. The goal of the modern church, instead, should be to inspire, forgive, uplift and do good work in the world around us. I know as a lapsed Roman Catholic turned Unitarian Universalist full committed to my faith, I have more often felt the spirit of something greater than I at a U2 concert than I ever did in all my years of going to Mass (but service at my UU church comes pretty close.

I don’t think you have to be particularly religious or even a Christian to gain something from this book. Religion is a fascinating topic, especially in how it can relate to modern music. Furthermore, Scharen gives thorough explanations of different aspects of scripture for readers not quite up on their Bible studies. Fortunately, Scharen is respectful to those of all religious backgrounds. And though “One Step Closer” is a scholarly book, it isn’t dry and acts as a reference to both U2 fans and those looking to know the Bible more fully.

In a world where religion is often quite polarizing in these troubling times, Scharen offers U2′s music and its messages as a unifying force. In “One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God,” the secular and the sacred aren’t mutually exclusive.