The Vegan 8

The Vegan 8With 100 delicious recipes, The Vegan 8 by Brandi Doming offers simple, healthy dishes made from eight ingredients or less (not including salt, pepper, or water).Beautiful photographs accompany the scrumptious recipes making the book a feast for the eyes, not just the palate.

Right away, the cookbook demonstrates its uniqueness. The “My Pantry” section is different than other cookbooks providing comprehensive information on spices, non-dairy milk and yogurt, liquid flavorings, flours, nut butter, and starches. Here, Doming indicates which are available commercially and recommended brands and which ones best made from scratch. Many of the descriptions included insight that was new and fascinating to me!

Every chapter is filled with enticing recipes written in a conversational style and labeled nut-free, gluten-free, or oil free as relevant along with the expected prep and cook time. The dishes utilize ingredients in interesting and unconventional ways I had never imagined before such as Pizza Quesadillas using mashed potatoes. Doming emphasizes non-commercial food for the most part but when an ingredient needs to be purchased, she recommends brands and where to purchase them.

Notes for recipes provide very clear information about what substitutions are possible or not advisable and give insight into what gives the dish its signature characteristics such as creaminess. Tips offer ways to enhance recipes, rework them based on allergies (or lack thereof), or to make them more kid-friendly.

I am a disaster in the kitchen, and some of the recipes intimidated me a little because of the preparations involved (or the need for a Vitamix), but I was still very interested in trying them. While I found dishes in every chapter that I wanted to attempt (the soups look particularly creamy and the sides delicious, particularly Almond-Coated Asparagus with Dijon-Tahini Sauce), I thought the Easy Entrees and Staples chapters were most relevant to me. The chickpea dishes–Protein-Packed Curry Chickpeas and Sweet Potato Rounds and Spicy and Smoky Chickpeas in Creamy Tomato Sauce–immediately caught my attention. The Ultimate BBQ Bean Ball Sub looks like a tasty sandwich from one of my favorite vegan restaurants. From Staples, I wanted to make the Emergency BBQ Sauce and the Sesame Teriyaki Sauce posthaste. The Desserts chapter offers options for every taste–chocolate lovers, peanut butter fanatics, fruit fans, or gingerbread enthusiasts.

This cookbook will delight vegans and non-vegans alike and provide strategies for making tastier, healthier dishes.

Thank you to Netgalley and Hachette Book Group for providing an electronic advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Restoration Heights by Wil Medearis

Restoration Heights - Cover ImageReddick worked as an art handler and spent his free time playing basketball at the Y, ignored his own painting career. On a winter’s night in his Brooklyn neighborhood Bedford-Stuyvesan, a young blond woman, drunk, followed Reddick into an alley and invited him to kiss her. He declined, offering instead to get her a ride home. Before he could call a car, she disappeared into his apartment building, apparently returning to a party that she’d momentarily escaped. The next day, he mined the story for laughs until a coworker reminded him that a woman went missing under similar circumstances in Coney Island a few years earlier and her body had been found on the beach. He began questioning his inaction, worrying about the fate of the girl.

That day he was working with a crew dismantling and installing art at the home of the Seward family, one of the wealthiest families in the country and a patron of the arts. While at their home, he learns the woman he encountered the night before was Hannah, the fiancee of Buckley Seward, the family’s only child. He was eager to share his information, but the family was hostile, demanding he refrain from contacting them about Hannah or going to the police hardly veiling that they would have him fired if he disobeyed.

Aghast at their reaction and convinced Hannah was in peril if not dead, Reddick began his own investigation. As he uncovered the layers of relationships in the Seward family and among Buckley’s friends, he confronted the scourge of gentrification in his neighborhood, the specter of a mysterious crime boss, The Genie, and his own racial identity.

Something about the book grabbed me, and I stayed up almost all night reading it. I enjoyed the writing style and was invested not just in the mystery of Hannah’s disappearance but in the question of Reddick’s investment in the case. The characters engaged in difficult and honest questions about race, class, and privilege. Fittingly, these themes were never resolved but offered continual touchpoints throughout the novel. The book also returns to the idea of biases that distort the truth, and Reddick must confront his own assumptions as he unfurls the connections between Hannah, his neighborhood, and the elite world of the Sewards.

In the vein of Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda, Restoration Heights vividly evokes a Brooklyn neighborhood and its class and racial tensions. Wrapped in the guise of a mystery, Restoration Heights delivers much more.

Thank you to Netgalley and Hanover Square Press for providing an advance electronic reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Martha and George drunkenly return from a faculty party held by Martha’s father, the college president. Martha announces they are expecting visitors, a new faculty member and his wife, Nick and Honey. Exasperated, George wonders why they had to come over at 2:00 a.m. after a party instead of another day, but Martha insisted her father told her they should take care of the new couple. George and Martha play verbal games with each other, and their guests, that involve cruel teasing and doublespeak as they each try to exert power and gain control of the gathering, Martha with an antagonistic, flamboyant style, and George in a passive-aggressive, cynical manner. Nick, handsome, fit, and nearly twenty years younger than George, an ambitious professor in the Biology Department, threatens history professor George has plateaued in his career and who describes himself as fading into the background. As they divulge their pasts and reveal their desires, the quartet face uncomfortable and shocking truths.

Reading the play was captivating, almost in the way that watching a disaster unfold is mesmerizing. The dialogue is clever and cutting, and the stage directions succinct and apt. The characters, particularly George and Martha, are so complex and multifaceted, they are fascinating. Albee uses language interestingly, for example repeating certain phrases to underline circularity or using all caps for emphasis. Although a few references, like refusing to surrender Berlin, have less impact now, the subject matter is as relevant now as it was when the play was first performed in the 1960s. What really made the play spectacular in my opinion was the layers of meaning and the artful use of symbolism.

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Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan

broken angels - richard k morgan.jpgThirty years after the events of Altered Carbon, Takeshi Kovacs has taken sides in a war on Sanction VI working as a lieutenant for the Wedge, an elite and brutal mercenary army. Yet his thin allegiance frays when pilot Jan Schneider bluffs his way onto a highly secure hospital ship and dangles an opportunity Kovacs can’t ignore. An exorbitant payday to secure a Martian ship in deep space, the gateway to which was discovered by archeologue Tanya Wardani. All they need to do is form an alliance with an untrusty corporate executive, operate in an area full of radiation, steer clear of nanotechnology with unlimited evolutionary power, and steer clear of the fighting forces that have made the location of the gateway a key strategic acquisition. With his Envoy training and a new sleeve maximized for war, Kovacs leads the expedition and tries to maintain its safety while they grapple with the ancient puzzle opening the gateway and the mysteries beyond it.

Kovacs is as sardonic as in Book 1, and despite his training often defaults to violence, so it is interesting to watch him navigate the events of the novel. He just can’t keep himself from making bad situations worse, it seems. How can he lose control so often when he is supposed to have so much self-control? More background on Martian society and what Earth colonization owes to it is included in this book, and the setting, Sanction IV, a war-ravaged planet, provides a different perspective on the corporations and the Protectorate, the ruling government.

Though I thought this would be a heist novel, it isn’t, though it does have a captivating story that kept me engaged. Some aspects of the novel were less appealing. Characters like Jan Schneider were thinly developed. Kovacs seemed at times to pine for Detective Kristin Ortega which seems unwarranted given how Altered Carbon ended their relationship. The resolution of one story line came completely out of the blue for me, and it didn’t seem to be an organic development. Finally, Morgan used a device to indicate pauses in character’s speech that was very annoying and overdone, for example, “You seem. Close to her” or “Well, he’s not a. Bad looking. Guy for a. White boy and. Wardani, well. She’d probably. Take whatever. She can get.”

It’s hard not to compare the book to Altered Carbon, though the two are so different, comparisons are almost unfair. In fact, besides the introduction to Kovacs, the Envoys, Quellism, sleeves, and needlecasting, Book 1 has little to do with Book 2. Kovacs is the only returning character. If readers approach Broken Angels expecting a second Altered Carbon, I think they will be disappointed. However, it is a solid read with an unpredictable plot and a charismatic narrator.

Vox by Christina Dalcher

VoxIn the not-too-distant future, Sam Meyers, advised by the fanatical Reverend Carl Corbin (leader of the Pure Movement), becomes President. Just a year into the Administration, they had systematically disenfranchised women. Women were no longer allowed to work, their passports were invalidated, premarital and extramarital sex were illegal, LGBT and other undesirables were put into labor camps–and women were fitted with word counters. These counters monitored women’s speech, and if a woman uttered more than 100 words in a day, she was shocked with an electric current that increased with the number of infractions.

Dr. Jean McClellan, previously a preeminent neurolinguist, was lured into the President’s service when his brother and key adviser, Bobby Meyers, suffered a skiing accident and developed aphasia. While Jean worked on a cure, she–and her daughter Sonia–were exempt from wearing the word counters. In a state-of-the-art lab, reunited with her previous team, Jean wrestles with the implications of her work and the fact that when it concludes, she’ll be subjected to the word counter again. Her estranged best friend from graduate school, Jackie Juarez, previously active politically but now assumed to be in a labor camp, became the voice of Jean’s conscious asking Jean what she would do for her freedom. Jean pushes herself to the limits of what she will do not just for her own freedom, but for that of all women in the United States.

The book has an interesting premise and draws from the likes of The Handmaid’s Tale and Future Home of a Living God. In flashbacks, Jean considers how the government laid the foundation for such widespread oppression–for one by requiring a religious class in high schools that taught the “proper” realms of men and women–and how she was complicit for failing to become involved politically. She also traces how men respond to their new power, often through reflections on her husband, Patrick, who doesn’t believe in the Pure Movement but who is willing to keep Jean’s books locked up and prevent her from using the computer, so far as telling her that things aren’t that bad. How a class of people might react to newfound power is an interesting component of the book. Jean’s son, Steven, becomes a true believer in the Pure Movement, and it is revealing how she struggles in her relationship with him.

The society under Meyers is harrowing, and, like many of these dystopian novels, not impossible to imagine. Especially in the last half of the book, I was compelled to read to find out what would happen. Diminishing my enjoyment of the novel, though, were frequent plot holes, unconvincing twists of logic, or simply confusing passages. I also didn’t like the writing style which to me was too conversational and casual. That said, I do think readers who are fans of this genre will enjoy Dalcher’s addition.

Thank you to Netgalley and Berkley Publishing for an advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

Girls Burn Brighter

Girls Burn BrighterGirls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Poornami and Savitha meet soon after Poornami’s mother dies of cancer. It seems her father views this as little more than an inconvenience. Poornami won’t be able to marry until a year after the death, and the loom Poornami’s mother operated stands empty, reducing the family income. Poornami’s father decides to hire a laborer, and Savitha, near Poornami’s age, joins the family business. While her father and Savitha weave the saris for which their region is known, Poornami spins cotton thread. As part of her wages, Savitha receives meals at the family home, but she and Poornami are only allowed to eat after the patriarch. Sometimes, he takes seconds, leaving very little for the teenage girls to share.

Immediately, the girls develop a strong bond of friendship, with Poornami in awe of Savitha’s zest for and enjoyment of life, and Savitha telling Poornami that everything is bland and colorless except her. They look forward to seeing a movie for the first time together, and Savitha starts staying at Poornami’s during the night so she can work on an indigo sari for Poornami while still completing her tasks for her father. Poornami even sabotages a meeting with a potential husband because he lived too far away for Savitha to visit. But after a harrowing ordeal, Savitha leaves the village, taking only the half-finished sari, and Poornami, alone, marries into a family that values her only for her domestic labor. So begins Savitha’s quest to find freedom and Poornami’s journey back to Savitha.

The women encounter domestic abuse, prostitution, human trafficking, poverty, and sexual violence as they struggle to maintain the internal hope–the light that burns inside–that allows them to press forward despite the numerous setbacks and overwhelming odds. Although some of the men with which they cross paths are kind, or at least helpful, the majority are predatory and treat the women as objects or investments giving them the feeling they are owned and have little agency, though both of them in turn use men, and Poornami is particularly adept at reading people and manipulating the men around her. Still, these moments are few.

About halfway through the novel, the setting moves to Seattle, and it is interesting to read how Savitha and later Poornami react to America. At one point, Poornami reflects, “What a mysterious country, she thought, how small for all its vastness.” The move also complicates Savitha’s efforts to escape her bonds since she is unable to speak English, and, even when people might be trying to help her, she can’t understand them. One moment of clarity comes when a character points a gun at her forehead. “”Now she understood. The whole night now a violence of understanding.”

Overwhelmingly, this is a novel of false starts and setbacks, and when Savathi finally realizes that “all the beacons of the world, standing all in a row, couldn’t save her,” it’s easy to understand her hopelessness. In fact, it was hard to imagine how the characters maintained a drive to press forward when they faced so many obstacles. There were times I had to put the book aside because the pain and devastation were so completely relentless. With a somewhat ambiguous ending, there’s nothing to halt the despair. So while the novel is well-written, it is difficult emotionally. I found the book valuable for the depiction of the oppression of Indian girls and women, particularly of a particular social class but I questioned if the presentation was the most effective possible.

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We Are Not Yet Equal

we are not yet equal.pngIn 2016, Carol Anderson shocked readers with her book White Rage which revealed the insidious and often hidden racism underlying laws and institutions in the United States. Here, she and Tonya Bolden have adapted the book for a young adult audience. The well-written and engaging book begins in the aftermath of the Civil War and continues through the Obama Presidency and traces the lost opportunities for providing equality to all. Over and over again, the United States reaches a fulcrum, a moment in history, where inequities could be redressed: the Civil War, Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Era, the Obama Presidency. Rather than use those watershed moments to boldly and justly address past wrongs, the government, supported by a large swath of white citizens, undermines the gains to maintain the status quo of white supremacy.

For example, instead of holding Civil War rebels to account, the federal government under Lincoln and Johnson prioritized reunification. Oppressive Black Codes went unchallenged by the federal government. Johnson in particular stymied efforts of Congress to redress the evils from centuries of slavery. Though Congress overturned his vetoes of legislation of the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Bill in 1866, Johnson’s pardon of Southern rebels meant that their elected representatives were leaders from the Confederacy. Poll taxes and unfavorable decisions by the Supreme Court undermined efforts to provide rights to blacks.

After reading this book, I feel completely and utterly gutted and outraged at the lack of justice and compassion reflected in the actions of the country’s leaders, lawmakers, and many citizens. Although there was a time that new racism was disguised by an ideology supporting color-blindness, under Trump, spewing hate based on race has become acceptable once more.

I learned so much. While I knew that Southern states were resistant to the Brown decision, I didn’t realize the lengths to which they went to prevent integration. Several students were without education for years while local and state governments delayed implementation. Though I was aware of the challenges to voting rights through voter ID laws, many of the specific examples presented here were new to me.

Sadly, I became disillusioned with Presidents Lincoln and Eisenhower, Lincoln for failing to name slavery as the cause of the Civil War and Eisenhower for failing to use the power of his office to enact the Brown decision. Nixon and Reagan’s racist policies disguised as tough-on-crime stances were not surprising. I also didn’t know the extent of the Supreme Court’s role in undermining progress. With some exceptions, like Brown, their rulings weakened protections of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, undercut the Voting Rights Act, and rang a death knell for affirmative action.

I regret not reading White Rage before We Are Not Yet Equal because I can’t compare them. I can attest that the latter is an important stepping-stone to dialogue on ways to halt this chain of oppression. Although written for a young adult audience (and seems appropriate for such an audience in terms of content and language), adults will find it enlightening as well. The material presented in the book is important and necessary.

Although I have few criticisms of the book, I did find the chapter on the Voting Rights Act more technical and less engaging than the other chapters, though the information was important. I thought the weakest chapter was on Obama’s administration. Though it related the rancor and disrespect Obama faced, it seemed to be less grounded in research than the rest of the book. Perhaps my biggest complaint though is that there is no guidance on where to go from here. The author ends with hope that knowing about white rage can lead to a challenge of its racist consequences, but offers nothing beyond that. Maybe it will be the subject of her next book–and I would definitely read it!

Thank you to Netgalley and Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc. for an advance reader’s copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Instructions for a Funeral

Instructions for a Funeral.jpg

David Mean’s short story collection, Instructions for a Funeral, contains provocative and heart-wrenching stories about fatherhood, relationships, addiction, and regret. The title story, “Instructions for a Funeral” finds William Kenner delineating his last wishes to his lawyer and in so doing relating a betrayal by a friend and an encounter with organized crime. In “Terminal Artist,” the narrator learns that a friend he thought had died from complications from surgery during cancer treatment might have instead been the victim of an “angel of mercy.” After challenging a rich town boy to a fight for saying he hated Okies, ranch hand Frankie catches the eye of Sarah Breeland who saw in him a complicated kindness.

Two sets of stories are interconnected; the rest stand alone. However, the stories share common themes, one being a sense of fate, destiny, or premonition and how memory can retroactively give certain events or moments significance. For example, one character considers the time immediately before learning his wife had an affair: “On the penultimate day, as I now think of it, the point through which the rest of my life with Sharon would seem to bow, or, rather, bend, so that everything that transpired after that afternoon seemed to lead to the day when Sharon confessed to me, admitted that, yes, she had been seeing X, but that she had broken it off with him, let go of him, was how she put it.” Forgiveness also appeared in multiple stories as did the creation of stories. Ultimately, all the stories seemed to have thematic cohesion with the exception of El Morro which didn’t fit as well in the collection.

Overall, I liked the writing style, but I did find some devices the author used to be distracting at best, at worst, irritating. In multiple stories, the phrase “I thought, I think” or a close variation is used a total of ten times. Although it points to the fallibility of memory and furthers the theme, the sheer volume of the phrase made it lose meaning. Another frequent device was a parenthetical comment followed by an exclamation point (e.g., “I still despise that phrase!” or “Yes, fucking navels!”) which I found off-putting. Finally, the sentences and the paragraphs were unduly long. I found myself frequently rereading because I’d get lost in the prose. As I progressed through the book, I got more accustomed to the style, but it did make for a challenging reading experience.

I wasn’t sure if we were to assume the same person narrated all the stories, but in any case, in many stories, the narrator was a writer and meditated on the art of writing (with two stories explicitly about writing). In “Terminal Artist,” for example, the narrator reflects, “I’d never be able to use her death in a story. I’d have to find some other way, I thought.” Several times, this idea of using the events in the narrative in a story arises. On the one hand, it is interesting to think of how stories are constructed from real-life events and then are manipulated and reformed by the author, but the idea came up so often, it felt overdone and lost effectiveness.

That said, I enjoyed the collection and came away feeling touched. Ultimately, it was through the stories and the retelling that the events gained meaning or, as Means describes it, provides a state of “deeper grace.”

Thank you to Netgalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing an advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

Grass

Grass by Sheri TepperGrass by Sheri S. Tepper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

According to the dominant, ruling religion, Sanctity, the plague doesn’t exist. Yet, people on every planet are dying from a virulent virus. Every planet, that is, except one, Grass, notoriously suspicious of anything or anyone coming from “elsewhere.” Desperate, the Hierarch sends his nephew Roderigo “Rigo” Yrarier and his family, Marjorie Westriding, Anthony, and Stella–even though they are Old Catholics–to learn what makes Grass different in the hopes of finding a vaccine or cure. As avid horse people, Sanctity believes, the Yrariers have the best chance possible of bonding with the bons, the Grass aristocracy, since the bons are obsessed with riding and hunting. They begin training with a riding master at a young age until they are ready to join the hunt.

As Rigo becomes ensnared in the local mania for the hunt, Marjorie, intuitive, wise, yet remote, seeks out answers that will save the universe. She befriends bon Sylvan bon Damfels, commoner, master carver Persun Pollut, and Sanctity penitents Brothers Mainoa and Lourai as she navigates the closed and secretive society of the bons. What she learns could save humanity–or hasten its demise.

Although the book started out slowly for me, and I worried about reading a book where a ritualized hunt was so dominant, I found that once Marjorie’s character was introduced, I became engrossed in the narrative. Underneath the compelling mystery of curing the plague lies a number of themes, many of which are echoed in Tepper’s other works. On Terra (earth), at least, governments are dominated by religious rule, certainly not to the benefit of women or lower socioeconomic classes, and the book challenges theocracy. Religion is also a means of reproducing patriarchy. As Father Sandoval councils Marjorie when she complains of Rigo’s infidelity, a wife’s obedience will solve problems in a marriage. Sanctity was completely devoid of women except as reproductive vessels. Brother Mainoa minces no words: “The shitheads are wrong…Not just a little bit wrong, but irremediably, absolutely, and endemically wrong.” While Grass is largely secular, tradition demands male dominance. In the book, men are driven to demonstrate their masculinity, as is evidenced by Rigo’s seduction to Hunt, but the costs are high. The book also criticizes those who endlessly debate ethical positions while failing to act and questions the limits of duty and mercy.

While some passages were slightly heavy-handed and the science was confusing (at least to me), I enjoyed reading the book once I got over my initial resistance. It’s definitely a must for those interested in feminist science fiction.

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The Healing Power of Mindfulness

healing power of mindfulness.pngThe Healing Power of Mindfulness was originally published as parts V and VI of Jon Kabot-Zinn’s 2005 classic book Coming to Our Senses. This volume is updated and with a new foreword by the author. In it, Kabot-Zinn relates the powerful connection between mindfulness and healing which he describes as coming to terms with things as they are, not clouded by emotions or narratives that might inhibit our awareness of the present moment. This healing through mindfulness practice promotes a number of positive physical and emotional outcomes.

Although the book was very interesting and inspiring, it wasn’t what I expected. I thought there might be practical instructions on using mindfulness to heal emotionally and physically, but this is not a how-to book. The basics of mindfulness meditation are covered in other volumes in the set as well as in print, online, and virtual resources listed at the close of the book. Instead, The Healing Power of Mindfulness discusses the ways mindfulness meditation promotes positive outcomes. It provides the answer to why one should commit to a practice of mindfulness.

My favorite chapters are those that are concrete and/or based firmly in Kabot-Zinn’s personal experience. Relating to physical healing, I enjoyed reading about Christopher Reeve’s remarkable resilience after the horse-riding accident that paralyzed him. Though his doctors believed he would show no improvement, he persisted until he felt the wiggle of a single finger. Even when he didn’t experience the outcomes he’d hoped for, he always felt that doctors could learn from the process and help others with spinal injuries. Poignantly, the author relates his experience with his father’s Alzheimer’s and how that inspired him even more to be present in the moment. One study showed that patients with psoriasis who engaged in guided meditations during phototherapy, needed much less time to remove skin eruptions than did patients in the control condition.

The book also deals with emotional or spiritual healing. One chapter, for example discusses neuroplasticity and how mindfulness can actually change the processes in our brains to promote habits of being (or non-being) associated with positive emotions. A mindfulness practice can reduce stress. It can even help prepare us for death, our ultimate and inevitable fate.

Mindfulness also applie beyond the realm of the individual. Kabot-Zinn discusses how organizations (which he calls orthogonal institutions) can promote a spirit of mindfulness. Using dialogue instead of discussion embraces the ideal of mindfulness and can heal relationships and conflicts between people, groups, and even countries. After attending a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction workshop, a judge who instructed jurors before a trial to listen with mindfulness. If only that would happen more!

Though the text was taken from a book published in 2005, it doesn’t feel dated at all. Kabot-Zinn has updated references. When discussing the Super Bowl and the Patriots, he reflected on the team’s more recent successes. The same chapter lauds Colin Kaepernick’s efforts to bring awareness and justice to black victims of police violence.

The book is very dense in some places, and I felt like I had to read some sections multiple times (and maybe need to read again). At times, Kabot-Zinn used very complex (and long) sentences that added to the feeling. Although the book stands on its own, I think it would be more comprehensible after reading the other books in the series. For example, the body scan was mentioned several times, and though I am familiar with it from other sources, the practice itself was described in an earlier volume. If you didn’t know the premise, those sections would be inexplicable.

I am not consistent meditating or practicing mindfulness, but this book certainly has inspired me to recommit to a mindfulness practice!

Thank you to Netgalley and Hatchett Books for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.