Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Super Hero Ethics

By Travis Smith

Templeton Press     2018
152 pages     Philosophy

The subtitle of Super Hero Ethics is: 10 comic book heroes, 10 ways to save the world. Which one do we need most now?

My husband loves superhero movies, as do two of my sons-in-law and numerous grandchildren. Until now, I have tried to stay away from the compulsive watching and the related arguing about the relative merits of one or the other superhero. When the publicist sent me Super Hero Ethics, I realized that it seemed like the next good read for my husband and me to delve into. We enjoyed reading the book very much, especially the ways in which the personalities and ethics of the ten highlighted superheroes reflect the ethical and political mores of our country—currently.

Smith, who is a political science professor at a Canadian university, seeks to look at these ten superheroes—all males, I might add—through the lens of discovering which one is most praiseworthy, whose behavior represents our highest ideals and whether they should serve as models for “admiration and emulation.” Smith says, “the book is premised on the idea that it’s not their superpowers that make superheroes so super. It is their extraordinary character, their inherent qualities that make them heroic and render them worthy of praise. . . Superheroes provide exaggerated and extraordinary representations of the qualities that human beings must cultivate in order to confront the quandaries of ordinary life.”

So, with that ethical high ground in mind, Smith compares the Hulk and Wolverine, Green Lantern and Iron Man, Batman and Spiderman, Captain America and Mister Fantastic, and Thor and Superman. Smith has an intimate relationship with the comics and movies that have fueled the history of superheroes. He looks at these superheroes through Christian eyes, although his emphasis is not overtly Christian in focus. In the last chapter, he crowns the most ethical hero.

I am a novice at this stuff, as I said. I didn’t know, for instance, that there was a rivalry between DC and Marvel, although to my credit, I had heard the name Stan Lee. I do watch the Big Bang Theory on occasion, so I am familiar with people debating superhero strengths. For a while, one of my nephews dressed only in Captain America clothing, and my little grandson is Ant Man for Halloween this year. With this book, however, I rapidly became an expert.

I had never heard of Mister Fantastic, so we watched the Fantastic Four movie the other night, and just last night we watched Thor Ragnarot so we could understand Thor a little better. Now, I am up to date and feeling really trendy since we finished the book this morning. One thing I loved about Travis Smith and Super Hero Ethics is that it was philosophical without being stuffy, and I also loved how devoted Smith is to these characters. My husband and I both agreed on Smith’s reasoning for picking the super-superhero he chose. I do wish, however, he had focused a little attention on Wonder Woman, my own personal superhero.

Super Hero Ethics is a geeky but fun read. We recommend it. One more thing—if Travis Smith uses this book in his political science or ethics classes, I’ll bet his classes fill up in a second. A lot better than the Ethics textbook I had to read.

Here is an interesting interview with Travis Smith.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Repositioning Educational Leadership: Practitioners Leading from an Inquiry Stance

James H. Lytle,

Susan L. Lytle,
Michael C. Johanek
And Kathy I. Rho, editors
Teachers College Press     2018
192 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

This posting is a brief look at a book on educational leadership sent to me by the publicist. Information on the book says, “This groundbreaking volume encourages today’s educational leaders to reposition the way they think about leadership and its challenges. Through essays, experienced school and district leaders reveal how they conceptualize their roles, how they learn by posing and solving problems of practice, and how they cope with increasing expectations and complexity of their work.”

There are eleven essays by educational practitioners on three basic elements of educational leadership: learning from and with students; collaborating with teachers and the school community; and leading system-level inquiry. “The argument is that when school, district, and other educational leaders position themselves as inquirers, their leadership can illuminate and improve many aspects of institutional life and create intellectually demanding and rich learning environments - for both adults and children"

Like everything else in the country, K-12 education is in a major transition, and these essays seek to understand the  challenge of looking at education from the standpoint of inquiry learning. Reading them should benefit educator leaders everywhere.

For more information, please visit 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Brother John: A Monk, A Pilgrim, and the Purpose of Life

By August Turak

Illustrated by Glenn Harrington
Clovercraft Publishing     2018
48 pages     Spiritual

August Turak is a very successful businessman and entrepreneur. In his book Brother John, he describes a time—a moment—when he experienced a life changing experience at the Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. It was a simple act of kindness that changed the entire focus of his life. He wrote about the experience for the Templeton Prize competition. It is an annual award granted to a living person who "has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works." He won the competition in 2004 with an essay to answer the question, “What is the purpose of life?”

The essay, telling of his ongoing relationship with the Trappist monks at Mepkin Abbey and especially his brief encounter with Brother John, has become an adult picture book with illustrations by artist Glenn Harrington. Both the writing and the illustrations are profound. It is easy to be distracted by the glorious illustrations and not focus on the power of the words. The book bears several readings, and I feel could be easily read aloud to a spiritual growth class for a meditation hour.

Those of us who have experienced spiritual awakenings can relate to Turak’s search for meaning and his subsequent change of heart and focus. The most important words in the entire growth experience were given to Turak on a piece of paper by his spiritual guide at the abbey, Father Christian. They said, “You would not seek Me if you had not already found Me. And you would not  have found Me if I had not first found you.” This prayer forms the spiritual basis for the entire book and forms the basis for the rest of Turak’s life.

Mepkin Abbey has continuing spiritual growth experiences for those who are searching for life’s meaning. Like Turak, visitors can come for the day or stay for a time at the abbey’s retreat center. The abbey, however, is suffering from the aging of its monks, as is explained in this New York Times article. Profits from this book will go to maintain the abbey.

I cannot stress enough how beautiful this book is. I am making a list of people that I want to share it with, starting with my spiritual sisters for our shared birthday. I am grateful to the publicist for sending it to me. It is a perfect blending of text and illustration. The book is released today.

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Man Who Came Uptown

By George Pelecanos

Mulholland Books     2018
262 pages     Noir

Although The Man Who Came Uptown reads more like literary fiction than it does mystery or noir, George Pelecanos is widely understood to be a writer of crime fiction. He is also a television writer and producer. I watched two of his shows and loved them—The Wire and ‘Treme. He also wrote The Deuce.

The reason why this feels more literary than crime is that Pelecanos is an incredible storyteller who has a gift for creating believable characters with a lot of depth. Basically there are four main characters: Phil Ornazian, Thaddeus Ward, Michael Hudson, and Miss Anna. Ornazian is a private investigator who is willing and able to do bad stuff, but he feels that he is more a vigilante—killing, and robbing for the good of the community. His ethics, however, are a bit blurred, but he comes across as likable, mostly because he goes home to his wife and family every day. His partner is Thaddeus Ward, an ex-cop and now bail bondsman. Together they target criminals that they know have a lot of money. They contract some of their work; the rest they take the spoils.

Michael Hudson, on the other hand, is a nice guy who is in the county jail awaiting trial. While at the jail, he discovers literature through the gentle recommendations of the young librarian, Miss Anna. Charges are dropped through the efforts of Ornazian, and Michael returns to his mother’s home, determined to make a new start on life. He is such a believable and likable character that I was anxious to complete the book because I cared so much about him.

Of course there is crime. Ornazian reminds Michael that “he owes” him, so Michael drives for him when Ornazian and Ward go on the attack. The beauty of the book lies not so much with the plot and the crime story but with the relationship Michael develops with the librarian and with the joy Miss Anna has in recommending books to the jail prisoners. She teaches Michael to love reading through the books she recommends. The first thing he does when he gets out of jail is to buy a bookcase. Michael thinks, “When he read a book, he wasn’t in his cage anymore.” As a reader and a librarian, this brought joy to my heart.

There is a redemptive aspect of this book that moves The Man Who Came Uptown out of classic crime noir to literary fiction and moves the reader to remember the books that saved her. It was, for me, a great introduction to a wonderful author.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018


By David Sedaris

Little, Brown     2018
259 pages     Humor

I have eagerly read essays by David Sedaris in his hilarious books and magazine articles over the last many years, beginning with listening to Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim on a long car trip. I saw him when he came to Kalamazoo in 2011.  So, I was overjoyed when we chose Calypso for our book club this month. The reviewer in the Guardian says that his diary-essays defy description; “he’s the lone inhabitant of a category of his own invention.” Yesterday, I finished reading Calypso, and  I’m trying to figure out how I feel about it. Yes, in many ways, it is similar to his other books, but Sedaris is showing age and maturity in this collection that we have not seen before. Still funny; still ironic; still sarcastic; but just older.

The major topics of these essays are death and family. He approaches for the first time his mother’s alcoholism. We have met his mother many times in his books but her alcoholism has never been a major topic. He also talks a great deal about his aged father—with the grudging respect for the way in which his father has mellowed over the years.

Calypso is much darker and more honest that any of his other writings. Death is ever present in this volume. In the poignant story, “Now We are Five,” he tells of the first Thanksgiving at the family cottage following the suicide of his sister Tiffany. Sedaris, his siblings and their families, as well as his partner, Hugh, are trying to come to grips with what happened. Sedaris manages to put a spin on the narrative in such a way that we acknowledge their pain but smile at the way the family is able to move on. Sedaris comments, “They’ve always done that for me, my family. It’s what keeps me coming back.”

Many of the stories in this volume concern family gatherings at Sea Section, the family cottage in North Carolina. David and Hugh bought this cottage so that the family could gather several times a year. Sometimes I wonder how the family reckons with always being in the limelight of his stories. As I was reading this week, I decided to go to Google Images and see if I could find pictures of his siblings. One thing I found was an article about his brother Paul, who is a small business owner. In the article, it mentions that Paul is always having people ask him if he is related to the famous David Sedaris. Wonder how Paul felt about David writing about his liquid diet? But then, if your brother has been writing about you your entire adult life, I guess you rather get used to it.

One of the reasons that I relate so well to Sedaris is because he loves his family so much. However, in a very well-placed essay, he described how he shut his sister Tiffany out of his life. He is as shocked by his action as we, the readers, are. We who are close to our family would say, "I could never do that!" but then we have never shared that life experience.

Well, most of you know David Sedaris and his writing. The reviewer in the New Your Times says it best. “The brilliance of David Sedaris’s writing is that his very essence, his aura, seeps through the pages of his book like an intoxicating cloud, mesmerizing us so that his logic becomes ours.”

Monday, October 15, 2018

Let Go of Emotional Overeating and Love Your Food

By Arlene B. Englander

Rowman and Littlefield     2018
167 pages     Health and Wellness
The Shortlist

The subtopic for the book, Let Go of Emotional Overeating and Love Your Food, is “A five-point plan for success.” And indeed it is exactly that. This is not a diet plan; there is no connected cookbook; and there is no daily eating guideline. Englander is a psychotherapist so she approaches the problem of overeating from the standpoint of the emotions. She helps her readers learn how to savor meals as a way to relearn how to eat to promote health and wellness. She uses the mnemonic device SELF to help develop awareness and growth. It includes stress, exercise, love your food, fluids and healthy foods.

Here is what Englander says about why she wrote this book: Let Go Of Emotional Overeating and Love Your Food: A Five Point Plan for Success is meant to help those who’d love to eat what they like yet be able to stop just at the point of satisfaction without overeating. By learning the difference between healthy eating (which is eating for pleasure and the satisfaction of hunger) and emotionally overeating (eating to distract ourselves from painful thoughts and feelings ), we can learn to eat in a healthier more satisfying way. What’s equally important is to learn to successfully cope with stress away from the table, so we can actually find more pleasure in and more control of, not only our eating experiences, but our lives, as well.

I read this book before a two week “taking care of myself” challenge to my wellness. Through my entire adult life, I have dieted, lost and gained, been alternately disgusted and proud of myself, and been emotional about it. Reading Englander’s book was a great start to a new chapter in my healthfulness. Easy to read and understand. Lots of good ideas.

Publisher’s Weekly review.
The book’s trailer.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Burn Zone: A Memoir

By Renee Linnell

She Writes Press     2018
305 pages     Memoir

Here is a quick summary of the book.

"After seven years of faithfully following her spiritual teacher, Renee Linnell finally realized she was in a cult and had been severely brainwashed. But how did that happen to someone like her? She had graduated magna cum laude with a double degree. She had traveled to nearly fifty countries alone before she turned thirty-five. She was a surf model and a professional Argentine tango dancer. She had started five different companies and had an MBA from NYU. How could someone like her end up brainwashed and in a cult?"

Many people search for spiritual belonging. And when you find a space or a group or a church/synagogue/mosque where you are comfortable, a great longing can be satisfied. Renee Linnell’s journey is no exception to this understanding. She says in the preface, “The only way to true joy, to true bliss, to true freedom, is to begin the work of uncovering our real selves—to chip away at the parts of us that are false, the fa├žade we created to please our parents, the mask we built so the world would approve of us.”  The trick, however, is to know when the group is asking too much of you, when your life has lost its sense of proportion, or when you cannot function without the group.

“All my life I had been searching.” Thus begins Renee’s journey with a meditation guru and what she came to realize was a spirituality cult. It took a great amount of determination for Renee to finally realize that she needed to be in control of her own selfhood and her own destiny.  My experience, although not broad, is expansive enough that I have known several people who have been drawn to people or groups that promise them answers for their searching and questioning. My own brother and his then-girlfriend were drawn to the Children of God, a major cult of the 1970s. While they voluntarily left after several months, my brother’s good friend and his family stayed in the group for about 10 years and had to have help getting resettled when the cult dissolved.

Not all searching results in cult-like fervor or people becoming totally wrapped up in an organization or a cult. The reader gathers, however, that Renee gives 1000% to everything she does in her life, so going headfirst into the University of Mysticism seems like something she would do.

Renee Linnell’s memoir is a cautionary tale about finding purpose in life, asking appropriate questions, finding balance, and knowing when enough is enough. Great writing, great story, great reading.

Renee Linnell’s website.